6 April 2020

The perils of rapid off-site resettlement of people affected by disasters

Posted by Dave Petley

The perils of rapid off-site resettlement of people affected by disasters

A very frequent frustration in the aftermath of large disasters is the slow rate of reconstruction.  There is lots of evidence that camps for displaced people are dangerous places, especially for women and children, and can result in long-term negative consequences for their populations.  Thus, there is often substantial pressure to rebuild quickly.

For landslides, rebuilding in situ is often problematic. Unfortunately locations that have been affected by very large slope failures can be vulnerable to repeat events, meaning that relocation of the population is often necessary.

The most extreme version of that in my experience was the relocation of the town of Beichuan in the aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquakeBeichuan was destroyed, primarily by two giant landslides, rendering the town uninhabitable:-

The effects of resettlement after disasters

The aftermath of one of the landslides in Beichuan. The population was resettled to New Beichuan, about 23 km away.


Within three years of the earthquake the population of Beichuan was relocated to New Beichuan, a completely new town built on the plains some 23 km from the original site.  The new town is, on the face of it, remarkable:-

The location of the resettlement - New Beichuan

The location of the resettlement of the population- New Beichuan. I took this picture in 2010, before the residents had moved in.


A paper recently published in Natural Hazards (Zhang et al. 2019), and available open access, examines the impacts of this relocation on the population.  Through surveys it looks at two different groups.  First, there is the population of Beichuan itself, but second there is the population of the villages located at the site of new Beichuan, who were forcibly relocated to make way for the new town.

The results are not positive. The authors recognise that the remarkably fast build and resettlement of the population did solve the practical problems of the displacement from the town, and that in doing so it provided for the essential needs of the population – shelter, education, medical services, food, etc.  But in doing so it created a series of really significant problems.  These can be summarised as follows:

  1. Problems with the quality of the housing;
  2. Management and security concerns;
  3. A disconnect between the ways that the houses, and the town, had been laid out and the ways that the population live their lives;
  4. A failure to understand that the two groups subject to resettlement had different needs;
  5. A failure to provide employment and other opportunities for the relocated populations.

Zhang et al. (2019) look in some detail as to the reasons for these problems.  The conclude that the major problems were:

  1. Site selection. Choosing a new site distant from Beichuan and in a very different landscape caused numerous problems for the population subjected to resettlement;
  2. Inadequate thought went into the spatial layout of the New Beichuan, and into the design and construction of the houses;
  3. There was too little provision for the economic development of the two (primarily focused on jobs for the people);
  4. And perhaps most importantly of all, participation of the population subject to resettlement was very inadequate.

The construction of New Beichuan is, on the face of it, the exemplar for the support of a population ravaged by a disaster.  But if reconstruction is undertaken too fast without consulting with, and involving, those who have been affected then the outcome may not be all that was intended.


Zhang, Y., Yu, Y., Xu, W. et al. 2019. Differentiation and integration: off-site resettlement planning practice in New Beichuan after 5.12 Wenchuan Earthquake. Natural Hazards. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-019-03649-6