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The real issue in the case of the controversial temporary bunkhouses being built as transitional shelter for survivors of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in several towns in Leyte and Eastern Samar is their alleged substandard quality.


Internationally famous Filipino architect Felino Palafox Jr. described the bunkhouses under construction that he had inspected on Dec. 13 as “a fire hazard. There’s no privacy. The materials are so flimsy.” More to the point, each bunkhouse was designed to fit 24 rooms in all, each 8.64 square meters in size.

He added an unfortunate, melodramatic touch: “Would you want your family to live here?” Of course, the answer is No. But the point was unfortunate, because in fact the real question facing those Yolanda survivors whose houses were completely destroyed, or who have no means to repair houses that were partially damaged, is: Would you want your family to live here, or in the tents hurriedly set up in the wake of the storm?

The bunkhouses are temporary housing, and by necessity’s cruel logic must follow “lower” standards. But even by those standards, the bunkhouses seem to have come up short.

Arjun Jain of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told the Inquirer on Tuesday that “as far as the bunkhouses are concerned, we have received all assurances from the government that international specifications will be met, especially through the redesign of some of the bunkhouses.”


That last clause signifies, not only that an agreement has been reached to redesign some of the bunkhouses, but also that a redesign was necessary. But what are the international standards that must be met, when it comes to temporary or transitional shelter? The answer is: It depends on which set of standards a humanitarian organization subscribes to.

The closest to a benchmark we have is the set of specifications, now twice revised, outlined in the so-called Sphere Humanitarian Project. Sphere is a coalition of diverse humanitarian organizations and networks (which includes the biggest of them all, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) which codified guidelines for effective and accountable humanitarian assistance into the Sphere Handbook, “Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.” This handbook, in the words of the Sphere website, “is one of the most widely known and internationally recognized sets of common principles and universal minimum standards in life-saving areas of humanitarian response.”

One of the four life-saving areas is “shelter, settlement and nonfood items.” Under Minimum Standard No. 3, in Guidance Note No. 2, we read:

“In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, particularly in extreme climatic conditions where shelter materials are not readily available, a covered area of less than 3.5m2 per person may be appropriate to save life and to provide adequate short-term shelter. In such instances, the covered area should reach 3.5m2 per person as soon as possible to minimise adverse impact on the health and well-being of the people accommodated. If 3.5m2 per person cannot be achieved, or is in excess of the typical space used by the affected or neighbouring population, the impact on dignity, health and privacy of a reduced covered area should be considered. Any decision to provide less than 3.5m2 per person should be highlighted, along with actions to mitigate adverse effects on the affected population. Temporary or transitional shelter solutions may be required to provide adequate shelter for an extended duration, through different seasonal climates and potentially for several years. Response plans agreed with local authorities or others should ensure that temporary or transitional shelters are not allowed to become default permanent housing.”

This Note tells us several things: The minimum covered area is 3.5 square meters per person, or 17.5 sq m for the typical Filipino family of five. Adjustments can be made, but emphasis must be given to dignity, health and privacy. Temporary shelter may be needed “potentially for several years.” Adverse decisions must be “highlighted.” By these and other such minimum requirements, the bunkhouses as inspected last December must be considered substandard.


On Tuesday, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson said the 90-plus bunkhouses still under construction would be redesigned, to provide only 12 rooms. That’s a good start; it would double the size of each room to almost the minimum that the Sphere Project recommends.