Challenges and risks in post-tsunami housing reconstruction in Tamil Nadu
by Jennifer Duyne Barenstein, University of Zurich and University of Applied Science, Lugano April 2006

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 was one of the most powerful in recorded history. With an official human toll of 10,881 and material losses of over $1bn, India was one of the most severely affected countries. Over three-quarters of India’s disaster-affected people belong to Tamil Nadu’s coastal fishing communities. Of the 154,000 houses damaged or destroyed by the tsunami, 80% belonged to fishers.

Whether these disaster-affected communities will be able to restore their livelihoods and recover materially and psychologically from their traumatic experience depends, among other factors, on whether external aid is culturally sensitive, and can build on local capacities and skills. This requires a better understanding of housing culture and practices within tsunami-affected communities. This article presents the preliminary findings of an ongoing research project looking at vernacular housing and building practices in ten villages in coastal Tamil Nadu. The research has found a rich housing culture and strong local building capacity, suggesting that a cash approach could be a viable and effective strategy for housing reconstruction. At this stage, however, it appears that the majority of actors involved in post-tsunami housing reconstruction in Tamil Nadu have opted to employ contractors, despite a growing international awareness among experts and humanitarian agencies about the drawbacks of this approach.

Housing culture in Tamil Nadu

House-building in India is a culturally sensitive and highly ritualised process. It is a social event that involves many specialised castes, and which consolidates the ties among neighbouring villages. Tamil Nadu’s fishing families generally construct new houses on the marriage of a son. They first consult an astrologer, who decides in whose name the house should be built. The astrologer also draws the plans, which show the orientation of the main entrance, the length of each wall and the number of doors and windows; establishes an auspicious date and time to begin the construction, and performs a ritual on the construction site to protect people from accidents during building. Further rituals are carried out at different stages of construction, and before the new house is occupied.

Women have a central role in the construction process. As their husbands spend most of their time at sea, women are often responsible for mobilising labourers, buying materials and supervising the works. It is common for women to remember even several years later the exact cost and number of bricks and cement bags, wooden pillars and palm leaves that went into their house. Although the main construction work is done by specialised castes from neighbouring villages, adult family members contribute with their labour.

The size of the house and the construction materials used depend on the owners’ socio-economic status, age and personal preferences. A newly married couple’s first house may be small and fully thatched on the walls and roof. With growing age, family size and financial resources, a new house may be built with brick walls and a thatched roof. Better-off households may replace the thatched roof with tiles. Many fishers’ houses consist of only two or three rooms, with a large semi-open veranda at the front. The veranda is the most important room in the house: it is where people spend their leisure time and entertain guests during the day, and where they sleep at night. Inner rooms are used mainly for storage. In most cases the kitchen is separate from the main house, and is invariably located in the south-east corner of the homestead plot. Fishers’ houses are typically painted with beautiful geometric patterns, or images of flowers or animals. Homes are surrounded by thick vegetation, which provides shade.

Post-tsunami housing reconstruction in Tamil Nadu

Soon after the tsunami, the government of Tamil Nadu, with assistance from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), developed a comprehensive Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project (ETRP). Under the ETRP, the government planned to provide assistance to repair, rebuild or construct 140,000 damaged houses in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. NGOs, voluntary organisations and public and private sector enterprises were invited to ‘adopt’ villages for reconstruction, and were granted the freedom to choose their own architects and reconstruction approaches. The response was unprecedented: according to the District Collector of Nagapattinam, every coastal village in Tamil Nadu has been adopted for reconstruction by NGOs.

The majority of NGOs opted for full reconstruction by means of construction companies. The aim has been to replace all self-built traditional houses with ‘modern’ settlements of flat-roofed reinforced concrete buildings. The number of houses to be built is defined by the number of married couples, regardless of whether they live in a joint family or constitute an independent household. The promise that each couple would be entitled to a new house has led over the last year to a dramatic increase in marriages. The assumption that fishers live in independent nuclear families is also reflected in the design of the proposed houses, which have a standard size of about 32–34m2, divided into three or four rooms. None of the spaces is sufficiently large to allow an average family to stay together in one room. In general, houses have no veranda, or only a very small one. The new houses are constructed in rows on plots that are too small to allow for future additions. Considering the small size of the houses, this would be an important requirement.

Where land can be found at an acceptable price, new villages are built on sites adjacent to the existing settlement. In most cases, however, no additional land can be found, and the new village is built on the same site as the old one. Villagers are often forced to demolish their old houses and to surrender their land to make space for the construction of the new village. The social tensions emerging out of these processes are already tangible, as families whose houses were not damaged by the tsunami try to resist demolition. Many companies require completely clear ground before starting construction, necessitating removing all trees. In a climate where temperatures typically reach 40 degrees centigrade, it is hard to imagine how people will manage to live in their tiny flat-roofed cement houses without any shade.


There is a growing awareness among experts and humanitarian agencies that the employment of construction companies in post-disaster housing reconstruction is not necessarily the most effective and sustainable option. Where people have the capacity to build their own houses, it may be better to limit the role of external agencies to the provision of financial and technical assistance. This was the approach adopted by the government of Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake. There, only 28% of villages were reconstructed by NGOs, and the government’s cash-based housing reconstruction assistance proved to be financially, technically and socially viable.

Construction companies tend to build standard houses that do not meet the specific requirements of the families for whom they are intended. When construction materials and expertise are imported from outside, communities may find it difficult to repair or maintain their new homes. Villages reconstructed by professional companies generally consist of grid-patterned row houses that pay little attention to communities’ social organisation and settlement patterns. Many studies have shown that post-disaster housing and resettlement schemes often lead to social dislocation and a breakdown of informal social security systems. Occupancy rates for houses constructed by external agencies often remain low, as people refuse to move in. Whenever possible, people may in fact prefer to repair their old and damaged houses at their own expense, leading to impoverishment and wasted resources.

Post-tsunami housing reconstruction in Tamil Nadu is in its early stages, and it is too early to judge its ecological and socio-cultural consequences. It appears, however, that most NGOs involved in housing reconstruction have insufficient knowledge and experience in this field, and do not appear to be aware of the social risks associated with their reconstruction approach. There is an urgent need for NGOs to reconsider what they are doing, and to realise that there is more to post-disaster housing reconstruction than building disaster-resistant homes. Construction companies may not be best placed to come forward with ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and culturally sensitive solutions.

References and further reading

Asian Development Bank, UNDP and the World Bank, India Post-Tsunami Recovery Program: Preliminary Damage and Need Assessment, New Dehli, 2005.

Sultan Barakat, Housing Reconstruction after Conflict and Disaster, HPN Network Paper 43, 2003.

T. Boen and R. Jigyasu, Cultural Considerations for Post-disaster Reconstruction: Post-Tsunami Challenges, 2005.

M. M. Cernea, ‘Understanding and Preventing Impoverishment from Displacement: Reflections on the State of Knowledge’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 8(3), 1995, pp. 245–64.

J. Duyne Barenstein, A Comparative Study of Six Housing Reconstruction Approaches in Post-earthquake Gujarat, HPN Network Paper 54, march 2006.

A. Oliver-Smith, ‘Successes and Failures in Post-Disaster Resettlement’, Disasters, 15(1), 1991, pp. 12–23.


Jennifer Duyne Barensteinis a lecturer and senior researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Zurich and at the Department of Environment, Construction and Design of the University of Applied Science in Lugano. She directs an interdisciplinary research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation on sustainable post-disaster housing reconstruction in India and Nicaragua, and a research project on traditional housing and building practices in South India funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Her email address is: