Pais Hexayurt
Spanish translation by
a hexayurt relief shelter in Haiti


We can finance stable housing for Haiti for the same money that would otherwise be wasted on disposable relief tents. Here's how.
22 Jan 2010


Every year 60 million human beings die. That's all of us - all causes, all classes, all ages, all nations - the slow march of time carrying us over the river, all together, and all alone.

About a third of those deaths can be prevented by the Big Five.

1. stop smoking
2. filtered drinking water
3. cooking stoves
4. toilets
5. agricultural training

That, right there, by my best estimate, is 20 million lives a year or so. Read the WHO numbers. The capital cost per household is less than $100, probably closer to $50 if we did two hundred million households. That would cost ten billion dollars.

In comparison, the Iraq war cost three trillion dollars, including opportunity costs. That's 300 times as much. The bank bailout at twelve trillion (that's 12,000,000,000,000 if you're wondering) is 1,200 times as much, although governments hope to claw most of it back. You know, if the banks don't need it or anything.

So let's stop saying we can't afford to fix poverty. Rather, it is not a priority. And doing all this? Doing all this doesn't push up birth rates resulting in population explosions. Rather, more kids survive, and then people have less kids.


I'm the guy who figures out how to rehouse people after a nuclear bomb goes off, or how to represent what people are really dying of in an easy-to-read diagram.

That's what I do. Hexayurt Country, that's my domain: 1% of the population have died or are dying, and now it's time to consider doing whatever it takes to keep people alive.

Hexayurt Country. It's not a state of mind, it's a death rate: over 1%.


10 million people, 200k dead so far. 2% of the population. Hexayurt Country.

You know what's hard? The dying may not even have started yet. We have three horsemen to go: pestilence, war and famine.

Pestilence is water borne disease. Other stuff too, but it's the shit and cholera in your drinking water that will kill you. People estimated that the water pandemic after the tsunami could kill as many people as the tsunami itself did, and Haiti is probably not all that different. If anything, it's worse.

War is... well, the shooting's already started. Gangs, warlords, tribalism, old political feuds, my god this is Haiti we are talking about. Even in the best of times, it has often been the worst of times. And now? I seriously worry about genocide, Rwanda-style, in the wake of this - the entire world standing with its hands in its pockets while Haiti tears itself to pieces, or peacekeepers wind up fighting a war against the population. No? Really? No?

Famine. They were eating cakes made of mud to stave off hunger pain before this started. They've lost their capital city, home to about a tenth of the population or more, completely. How is this going to go, given the shaky condition of the global economy?

Now, ask yourself something. Have I said anything which is not completely obvious? It's normally obscure because it is so deeply unpleasant, but have I said anything which is not completely obvious?

So what are we going to do?


Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps is built around a simple thing called Six Ways To Die: too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, illness and injury.

Six Ways To Die is pretty simple, and we spice it up by drawing some maps which show how various systems - personal, household, neighborhood, municipality and so on - work together to keep us safe from those various risks. Clean water, warm homes, and all those good things. Or the absence of them, clearly indicated, drawn on maps which make it clear where the failure is, and who is accountable. To make this really work, you need to count the dead. I wrote a rather optimistic piece called The Future of Poverty which discussed using cell phones and computers to combat poverty under normal situations. There's a Hexayurt Country analog of that system, and it's called count the dead, take pictures so you know who they were, and try to get a cause of death indicator in the picture. From that data, draw accurate mortality maps, and use those maps to prioritize getting people what they need.

Works for poverty, works for disasters. Disasters are really just a special case of poverty anyway.


The Hexayurt is a tent for the real world. Relief tents are a lie: they last for a year. By the time the tent has rotted and the people are homeless again, the eyes of the media have moved on to some other disaster, and everybody says the situation is fine. "Transitional sheltering" is supposed to take over from the tents, but it's always, always, always too little too late. Nobody can afford a thousand bucks a family anyway. Not for all of them. NGOs, being fairly small compared to the size of the problem, generally count the successes rather than the failures anyway.

In Hexayurt Country, we count the dead, and we ask their names, even if all we have left at the end is a picture.

If you put half a million to a million Haitians in tents, a year from now, when all the tents have rotted, how many do you think will have permanent homes again?

A million homeless people. Five people a house. Two hundred thousand homes. Let's say $1000 each for a transitional shelter. That's two hundred million dollars - the lion's share of the pledged support - and that's on top of $400 per family for the initial tent - another eighty million dollars per million people.

Do we have two hundred and eighty million dollars for rehousing in Haiti before we start taking infrastructure (water, sanitiation etc.) costs into account?

There is not enough money on the table to take care of Haiti. And everybody in the industry knows this.

Nobody will tell Joe Donor that they're sticking a bandaid on a gunshot wound, because then he stops sending money and things get even worse. Lose-lose.

A hexayurt is a hundred bucks of plywood and some screws. Even really poor people can afford that, and you can buy four of them - 12 years of decent shelter, maybe - for the price of a sodding relief tent.


I want you to understand that we can, should and must do better for Haiti than the same old disaster relief approach, which squanders the money for little or no long term change in the living conditions of the disaster area. We need to think about whole populations here, and that means getting real about what people need: not expensive tents, but simple tools for control of their own destinies.

First up, these people are not going home any time soon, and Haiti is going to go from being a very, very hard place to live to being a very, very, very hard place to live. It's going to suck.

We have a million people or more who have lost everything. And probably, if violence really kicks in, that number could triple. Who, in the international community, is going to really step in to keep order in Haiti if they really go for it? I don't know. I would not want that job, under any circumstances, and neither does anybody else.

This is harsh, but this is real. It is very fragile, and if they start killing each other, it's not us that started it. Nobody is making that happen but the Haitians. Do not expect swift, effective action if this really goes pear shaped. But this is an aside.

The bottom line is that we are here to save lives. There are Six Ways To Die: too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, illness and injury.

Injury, a week after the earthquake, is mostly death by violence. So far... well, let's just hope it stays this quiet.

Illness is mainly water borne disease. The short-term solution is chlorine. I'd send it out in the form of 55lb bags of pool cleaner, three measures to a 55 gallon barrel of water. Too much and the water is undrinkable: not perfectly safe, but a start. Overdosing is not likely. Send some civil engineers, lightly chlorinate the swimming pools, ponds, canals, whatever it takes for phase one water. For phase two, chlorine purification but with regularized delivery channels - water trucks, say. Nothing fancy, this is Hexayurt Country mate. Phase three is either the Potters for Peace Filtron or a biosand filter.

But here's the thing. Both of those are locally manufacturable items. In the three months that it takes to get things sorted out, you train people to make the hundreds of thousands of these filters which are necessary, then you do it. Aid provides the skills and maybe raw materials, they provide labor. And in the mean time, the water tastes of chlorine (unless you put vitamin C in it, that is.)

Cost per household, maybe $10.

There's similar stories for stoves (rocket stoves, wood gasification), power (microsolar, AA battery lights from communal solar fast chargers), the works. Toilets is a specialized area, very safety critical, but there's a cheap, low-impact toilet that would work for Haiti, probably a Sulabh toilet or a composting latrine.

That's most of illness taken care of.

Thirst itself, in Haiti, is about illness - they have water, they just can't drink it safely. If this was the sahara, that would be a very different story.

Hunger. God help us. Short term, that's the standard aid program on food. Long term, we might want to talk about land reform to put poor people on agricultural land so at least they can grow their own food until there's an economy to provide them work again. Either that or it'll be 5% of the Haitian population on food trucks, forever, vs. say 10% of the US population on food stamps.

Too cold and too hot, that's the hexayurt. Cover the outside with tinfoil - just stick it on with wallpaper paste - to keep the sun off. Roofing paint if you are feeling wealthy. How long will a plywood shack last in Haiti's climate? I don't know - two years, maybe three? Depends on the wood and the paint and a number of other factors, but people in Haiti, and in universities with a building department, they know these things.

So now we have a million people outfitted with basic shelter and basic infrastructure. All, or nearly all of that infrastructure is built at the household level, using local building materials like plywood, concrete, clay, straw and so on. Simple basic stuff available in massive quantities for millions of people, nothing esoteric or rare or hard to find. Building materials.


Let's cost this plan:

200,000 hexayurts, and let's build the biggest one we recon will survive a tornado (8' + 8' stretch, 276 square feet) because we want people to have some space: this is for years we're talking here. That's 3.6 million sheets of plywood, OSB or whatever the building engineers say is best.

Let's say $5 a sheet delivered to the docks in Haiti: $18,000,000.

$100 per building for on-island logistics and construction work, plus additional architectural features. This budget covers screws, glue, windows, door fittings, stove fittings and all other adjustments for climate, culture and taste. In total, another $20,000,000. But most of that goes into the pockets of a Haitian construction crew, remember.

Water filter $20 if you buy them from Tata in India, or a bit less locally, but with setup costs. Let's say $20 per household. $4,000,000

Stove is about $20 a household. $4,000,000.

A bit of solar for phones and light, about the same $20 / house minimally. Let's be cheap here. $4,000,000.

Toilets, let's go whole hog because they're so critical: $40 / house: $8,000,000.

This is all ultra-basic appropriate technology. This is vast local work-crews. This is a million people's lives we're talking about.

The total is about sixty million dollars, roughly. $60 per head for shelter and basic utilities for a million people, which will last several years, all of which (except the solar panels) will become skills in the local economy which people can maintain after the public eye is long gone.

This, this is a plan we can afford. In fact, you can finance the entire thing with the money you would otherwise waste on relief tents.

Yes, you need immediate emergency shelter for the first few weeks while the hexayurts are being put in place. UN standard plastic sheeting, which later serves for a temporary floor for the hexayurts, perhaps?

Disaster is poverty, and poverty is disaster.

Hexayurt Country is a place. In Hexayurt Country it is customary to count the dead, name them, and enquire what they died of. When excess mortality falls below one percent, it is no longer Hexayurt Country, and such radical steps may return to being dreams.

But when you get right down to it, having run the numbers, I believe in this plan.


My name is Vinay Gupta. I'm 38 years old, I figured out this basic plan for disasters around 2002, and I've been talking to charities, governments and militaries at every chance I get ever since.

Sometimes they listen.

The underlying model for STAR-TIDES and its whole-systems approach to infrastructure solutions is based on the Hexayurt Project's "Six Ways People Die" model.

Defense Horizons #70
STAR-TIDES and Starfish Networks
Supporting Stressed Populations with Distributed Talent

(of which I am a co-author)

Read more about STAR-TIDES
a US DOD humanitarian initiative
In May or June, through the rest of the summer, we may get tropical storms or hurricanes. If they hit the areas where people are living in tents, the tents will be destroyed, and already traumatized people will lose everything once again.

It's time to fix this.
Vinay Gupta
Hexayurt Project

1. Nothing in this document is remotely official in any way, shape or form. I'm sure much of it would be disagreed with, in detail. I'm just linking the official stuff I have done so you know that I'm vaguely competent and not some complete crank off the internet. I get to have an opinion, and this is it.

2. Thanks to Jason Louv for editing and wise council.

3. If you are wondering where you saw the Hexayurt before, it was Burning Man or the Pentagon.