Pakistan story 12: What's the right design for a relief camp?

Every flood relief camp we've visited has been set up differently, and it's intriguing to speculate how much the design impacts the camp's effectiveness.  Two we visited today appeared to have a dramatically better atmosphere than either the tented villages we saw in Punjab or the school-based camps in Shikarpur and Sukkur.

Was it caused by:
- different tent design?
- different tent layout (circular instead of row after row)?
- existence of a large communal area?
- provision of rations to be cooked, vs cooked food?
- easy access to clean water on demand?
- good latrines at decent distance from the camp?
- toys or other activities for the children?

Or perhaps it was more down to other causes like whether the residents shared common language and tribal loyalties, and whether they had been able to bring with them belongings like mattresses. cooking utensils, spare clothes and their animals.  

I suspect there is no shortage of knowledge on most of these issues, it's just not as widely circulated as it might be, and much of it has to be rediscovered by a new set of local NGOs every time there's a new disaster.  

Here are some rough and ready impressions on two of the camps we visited today.  The first was striking for its design of two groupings of about 50 tents each situated around a large open communal space. It seemed to really work, and even though the residents had arrived just four days earlier, they seemed incredibly well settled in.  One key difference. They had been able to bring their livestock with them, so during the day, the men were fully occupied, taking them to graze. At other camps, with all their livestock gone along with everything else, there was an air of utter despondency.

Rashid Bhajwa, whose remarkable non-profit, the National Rural Support Organization, was running this camp - and dozens of others, told me they'd found that 100 families was a magic number for relief camps, keeping them at human scale. They had happened on the circular design, saw its effectiveness, and had tried to incorporate it whenever space allowed.  Across Pakistan his organization had created camps and food provisions for more than 140,000 displaced people.

Traveling with us was a dynamic Pakistani entrepreneur Adnan Asdar who has built a series of logistics companies, but in times of disaster drops everything to work on relief. In conjunction with another nonprofit the Karachi Relief Trust,  he has been setting up a dozens of camps, bringing in clean water via a series of Life Straw gravity powered filters and creating facilities to provided cooked food for all residents. Here they are in action:

There we also met a dozen student volunteers from Karachi University, assisting in putting up tents and digging latrines.  Small touches like the provision of cricket and soccer equipment add to the sense of an organization going above and beyond.  After the terror of the march away from the inrushing water, these places seemed like extraordinary safe-havens. And although some tents and equipment had been donated from overseas, all the internal logistics were Pakistani-managed. Daunting, but hugely impressive.

Chris Anderson  •  TED Curator  •  •  "Ideas Worth Spreading"
4 responses
I will repeat myself, but thank you for doing this!! It is important for us to see what is really going on there. I smiled when I read that you and your wife couldn't help but going to see everything yourselves.

I think that it is a blessing to be in a position to help !! Keep up the good work.

Great videos Chris- I haven't been to a relief camp myself so these provide a useful insight, different to what I'd seen on the news, etc.

Regarding the best design, it seems odd that there isn't some sort of wiki for relief camp designs? There must be a lot of latent knowledge on what the best design is for certain situations/terrains/variables, etc. and it's absurd that that knowledge might have to be rediscovered each time for something so critical.

I'm sure there must be a good place for this information -I'm going to have a better look around the web to try and find it, in which case I'll post the link if I do. If not, it may be a matter of starting the ball rolling?

After a while of Googling and not really getting anywhere, I tried Wikipedia and discovered as an external link to the surprisingly short "Emergency Shelter" article.

The best PDFs (I think) were here:

and here:

There's a huge amount of information at - too much really I think. It's so text heavy and unwieldy (in downloadable PDFs), it's a struggle to find the really practical stuff- which I suppose relates to a wider problem on the internet about the filtration of information.

Perhaps I'm being woefully naive to the complexity of the problem but I assumed there'd be a much simpler multi-lingual resource available which the average layperson could understand and use- something far more diagrammatic showing how to layout an effective camp in certain conditions, which everyone can look at and work to.

The closest thing to what I imagined can be found on page 226 of 595(!) in this PDF:
-but it's not quite as in-depth as I'd hoped and it's rather tucked away!

I'm really struggling to understand the problem comletely and how it manifests itself in real world terms (as I've never been in a situation where I'd have the necessary perspective):

Perhaps these kind of camps are only built by expert aid workers who already have the necessary resources and information available, so wouldn't benefit from such a guide; and obviously an online guide would be of no use to a group of people (/victims) without access to the net...

...But I do feel it should be easier for the average person who has no prior knowledge of emergency campsite building, but does have access to the net, to be able to quickly access and help disseminate the necessary information to build the most effective emergency relief camp for a given set of conditions.

I can't even work out if what I've written makes sense- but hopefully someone can make something of it and post a useful response? Or point me to a site with such a guide?



I'm currently researching the design of relief camps, from an architectural/urban design perspective. I will definitely keep you updated about what I come across. Thank you for sharing the websites, they are helpful.