Aid worker stories

Building disaster-resilient homes in cyclone-prone Madagascar

On Madagascar’s East Coast, where frequent cyclones regularly Malagasy home-owner and the construction crew that built her housedestroy tens of thousands of homes, poverty and deforestation make timber hard to come by and prevent people from rebuilding. RedR Trustee Rumana Kabir arrived in Madagascar in mid-2012, in the wake of devastating Cyclones Irina and Giovanna, to help rebuild and strengthen people’s houses against the inevitable. Using Needs Assessment and training techniques, Rumana worked with local NGOs to build disaster-resilient housing using limited available resources.

Madagascar was hit by five cyclones over three months in the 2011-2012 cyclone season, a huge increase on the usual two or three per year. More than 45,000 houses were destroyed on the East Coast, which is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. This is where I worked with NGOs as a Shelter and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Consultant to design and build cyclone-resilient houses.

Learning from past mistakes

I looked at how the government, UN, and other NGOs responded in the past when thousands had been made homeless. I found that most past efforts to rebuild homes in Madagascar had rarely involved the community or used the expertise of Malagasy carpenters.

Previous shelter designs had also failed to consider the availability of materials, focusing on building completely cyclone-proof homes that were too difficult and expensive to build. For example, bricks, blocks, and concrete make cyclone-resistant buildings, but they are not practical since they aren’t available on the East Coast of Madagascar and there are few roads to transport materials from seaports to the remote villages. Houses made of concrete tend to collect salt and moisture and suffer bad rust problems when not maintained.

Rumana Kabir training local NGO staff on Shelter Essentials
Passing on skills

Part of my job was to train NGOs to make sure that future homes are built with an awareness of the specific local environment and community. I trained NGO staff on how to assess the local needs and availability of materials before starting any project.
RedR’s Training of Trainers course was particularly useful for me while I was training in the field, with no access to electricity.  Instead, I used participatory needs assessment techniques and other training skills I learned on my RedR course to transfer my skills effectively.

For example, the majority of the participants had worked in disaster-affected areas before, but didn’t have any construction skills or understanding of what makes a good shelter. I involved local carpenters to share their expertise with the group through hands-on activities.

Designing a solution

Using the expertise of local carpenters and the lessons of past shelter projects, my trainees and I developed two cyclone-resilient house prototypes which focussed on three features of strong houses: good quality materials, strong foundations and corners, and strong connections between each part.

We aimed to design houses that are disaster resilient and re-buildable using what is available: local builders and materials people could reuse or find nearby. Our design recycled available materials to ensure cyclone-resilient homes can be built for everyone, regardless of their status.  For example, we used metal straps, widely available on the island, to strengthen corners and connections between components, like roof and floor beams and walls.

In addition, one of the course participants knew from their past work after disasters that painting wooden foundation posts with used Rumana Kabir poses for a picture with one of her traineesmotor oil before they are put in the ground helps prevent the timbers from rotting in the wet Malagasy climate. Keeping foundation posts in good condition and rot-free strengthens the whole structure and helps it to withstand cyclones and floods. 

Houses strengthened in this way don’t need to be rebuilt or repaired as often, reducing the need to replace wood. For those times when timber is needed, people are now encouraged to use round logs rather than cut boards, which are more expensive and not always available. I also advised local NGOs, community leaders, and government officials to negotiate with the local forestry department to supply affordable timber for building houses for some of the poorest families. They are also aware that they need to improve access to bamboo for building material in the longer term, as wood is increasingly unavailable due to its overuse

Involving the community

This project is unique because it places a special emphasis on involving the community in Disaster Risk Reduction. Community leaders from local government and NGOs lead the construction and monitoring processes. To help them apply their knowledge about disaster-resilient construction, I produced guidelines and a checklist for them to use if they need to repair or reconstruct their homes.

The guidelines point out areas of weakness to watch out for in a house to make sure it remains strong. It directs them to look for certain features, such as reinforcements in the floor, wall, and roof, and the best way to attach a roof.

Today, people here are using the construction techniques and checklists that my group and I promoted. Their homes are more resilient and will require fewer repairs.   Because of the work that we’ve done to make homes safer for the most vulnerable people of Madagascar, the next time the cyclone hits, which could be any day, they now have a much better chance of survival.


Rumana Kabir is a member and trustee of RedR.  She has completed RedR courses in Training of Trainers (2010), Public Health in Emergencies (2004), and Gender in Humanitarian Response (2004).  Rumana has also given trainings on Shelter Essentials (2010). She delivered training to staff of CSR and their partner NGOs on Shelter Programme Design and Planning in Malagasy, French, and English, simultaneously.


Rumana Kabir trains a room of aid workers. (© Jeanne Ella Andrianambinina)

A ten-person construction crew stands in front of a completed house, with its new owner on the far right. (© Roland Ramanampihery)

Rumana Kabir poses with one of the trainees on her Shelter Essentials course.

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