Every year, natural hazards such as floods destroy thousands of houses and rob people of their homes. Humanitarian NGOs have been distributing shelter kits for decades in response aiming help, but meanwhile risk to create dependence for crisis affected people. As South Sudan remains a place of chronic emergencies, new approaches of preparing local communities are needed to break the cycle of repeating disasters.
In 2021, in collaboration with EPFL Structural Xploration Lab and the Department of Engineering and Architecture at the University of Juba, Medair started a research project about flood-resilient shelter solutions, funded by Tech4Dev. Withs a Disaster Risk Reduction approach in mind, the idea was to design a shelter option to respond to emergencies in a more sustainable and resilient way.
This design is based on the traditional Tukul houses which can be found across South Sudan. One shelter kit offers two types of configurations, which can be implemented at different stages of the recovery process.
The first configuration, designed for the emergency response phase, is a provisional A-frame shelter which looks similar to a tent and can be set up almost anywhere. It provides basic protection from the wind, rain, and sun.
The second configuration, suited for the recovery phase, uses the same materials in the shelter kit to create a roof. The roof construction is a medium to long-term solution, which requires a simple wall structure or poles as a foundation. The hipped roof with four equal sides fits the most common household structures in South Sudan and can help people to rebuild their houses or settle in somewhere new.
The project went through multiple research and testing phases to ensure it answers to the key needs. The initial phase involved researching existing traditional flood resilient construction solutions and materials in South Sudan.
Thin yet strong rubber strands made from old car tires are widely used across South Sudan. to the team was able to enhance the material by twisting and braiding several strands to one rope. Markus, the in-country project lead, says: “The braided rubber rope is a small innovation in itself. Braiding the strands significantly increases the performance of the material, which makes rubber rope an excellent material for affordable and quick construction. In addition, its potential seems promising, and the manufacturing process provides jobs, especially for women.”
Following this, a market survey was conducted by architecture students from the University of Juba with support from Medair staff, to examine different locally available materials and production methods. The iterative design process that followed aimed at exploring sustainable solutions, contributing to the resilience of people affected by periodic floods.
A first prototype was built at EPFL Structural Xploration Lab in Fribourg, Switzerland. The design was adjusted based on those learnings. For the second prototype, which was tested in Juba, Medair collaborated with the University of Juba once again, including students and teachers from the department of architecture. A two-day workshop with local NGOs and the South Sudan Shelter Cluster started the training of trainers in South Sudan. Throughout the design process didactic material was created and improved according to feedback from workshop and training participants.
The team then looked to test its solution with a flood-affected-community, and after identifying a few locations through desk research and knowledge from local staff, they ventured out to find a suitable place. As a first step, they engaged the community leaders, discussing the process to ensure mutual expectations are well understood and agreed upon. Then a few weeks later, they started training within the community. Architecture students from the University of Juba supported with technical expertise and valuable language skills.
Throughout the process, they made sure to build on existing local construction skills to co-create knowledge and inform the future development of the project. Community engagement was a key ingredient for a successful and sustainable project implementation. They trained community members on how to build and maintain the shelters, giving them the necessary skills to be more self-reliant in the future.
Throughout the entire process they stayed in close contact with the people from the community, which helped them understand different aspects around the applicability and perception of the shelter kit. They received a lot of constructive feedback, which they continue to use to inform a potential continuation of working towards flood resilient shelter solutions.
This project pushed the boundaries of humanitarian shelter responses – but true community engagement and real co-learning takes time and effort from everyone involved. Much work is yet to be done, but the team remains hopeful in their vision for a sustainable, bright future for communities at large.
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organization.