International standards for bunkhouses

International standards for bunkhouses

January 14, 2014 at 10:11pm

It’s been more than two months since super typhoon Yolanda hit the Leyte and Samar provinces with catastrophic consequences, and while the attention has now rightfully shifted to recovery and rehabilitation, it would appear that there are still some lessons in disaster management that are lost amidst old ways and habits.

One of the foremost goals of any post-disaster management efforts is the normalization of the lives of the affected population. Normalization, or going back to how things were, necessitates a range of provisions and infrastructures that admittedly takes time to provide. In a short span of time, however, temporary housing units that are far more durable than tents and makeshift shelters may already be constructed en masse as what the government promised to undertook in December last year, when the DPWH announced that 222 bunkhouses (each consisting of 24 units) would be built in the affected provinces.

With 126 of these bunkhouses already standing and with the planned construction of about a hundred more, an inspection report by the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) Group that the completed bunkhouses are not up to the internationally-relevant standards is however a big blow to post-disaster normalization efforts. The CCCM, which is a cluster of international organizations co-led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), provides assistance to countries in natural disaster situations or states plunged in conflicts resulting in internally-displaced persons. It has assisted the Philippines in previous disasters. 

The Report cited a score of serious deficiencies of the completed bunkhouses as against a set of universal minimum standards aimed at improving the quality of humanitarian response in situations of disaster and armed conflict. This set of universal minimum standards is contained in what is referred to as the Sphere Handbook which was developed by the International Red Cross/Red Crescent and other international aid organizations. The minimum standards stated in the Sphere Handbook in core areas of humanitarian response, such as shelter and settlement, have long been equated into the international standard in humanitarian or disaster response. It is thus expected that responsible members of the international community will abide by such international standards.

Looking at the international standards stated in the Sphere Handbook, specifically on the section in housing, settlement and non-food items, it is apparent that the bunkhouses built in Leyte and Eastern Samar are indeed non-compliant in terms of size. The Sphere Handbook requires that each and every disaster survivor should be provided with shelter space of at least 3.5 square meters, and since the average household size in the Yolanda-hit areas is 4.7 persons, the temporary houses therefore for every family or household should be at least 16.45 square meters in size.

Unfortunately, the government built bunkhouses for every family has only a size of 8.64 square meters or roughly 1.72 square meters of space per person for a family with five members, clearly below the Sphere Handbook standard. In spatial terms, 8.64 square meters can just fit it in 4 single beds, which outright begs the question—where will the fifth member of the family sleep? What about the things and other possessions, no matter how meager, of the family? Imagine further that the families who will be occupying these bunkhouses will be staying there for a not-so-temporary period of two years, since as per government estimates it will take about two more years to build or rebuild the permanent houses.

What is most appalling about this whole bunkhouse issue, the potential graft angle aside, are the statements made by national government officials that no matter how cramped the bunkhouses, at least the typhoon survivors will no longer be living in tents and under tarpaulins so they should just be thankful. This kind of response from the government betrays the very fabric of humanitarian response that disaster survivors are individuals with dignity, and not individuals scrapping for mercy.

It also shows how, since we have adopted the DRRM or Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Law in 2010, the frame of mind of our policymakers have not changed at all. The DRRM Law provides a shift in focus from disaster response to disaster reduction, yet this thinking—that disaster survivors living in cramped bunkhouses are still better off than they would be living in tents— reveals that the government mindset is still merely on response or responding to the immediate effects of disaster. If the policymakers are truly cognizant of disaster reduction, as mandated by the DRRM Law, their consideration would have been on the fact that the bunkhouses also lack ventilation and put the occupants at risk of fires (therefore inducing, rather than reducing, risk of any further disasters) as well as have other safety issues, as pointed out in the same Report of CCCM.

To be fair, the national government, the DPWH Secretary especially (whose integrity and competence is well-known and appreciated including by this columnist), has ordered remedial measures to increase the size of the competed bunkhouse in order to comply with the international standards.

I agree with my colleague, lawyer Arvin Jo, who heads the disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation team at the Ateneo School of Government and who helped draft this column, that even if it is not strictly legally binding, the Sphere Handbook should be complied with. It is founded on the principle that every human being has an innate right to dignity, as expressed in the international law instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which the Philippines has long been legally bounded.

Finally, this is an opportunity for the Philippines to prove that as we have graciously receive millions in dollars of aid money from the international community after Yolanda devastated our shores, we are equally responsible in the utilization of such funds by adhering to the rules or minimum standards that the international community has set in providing housing to disaster survivors.