In return to the earth’s wares, villages shore up against vagaries of Mother Nature

International Organisation for Migration funds 20,000 houses for flood-hit survivors.

Z Ali July 28, 2012


The green credentials of mud houses may not traditionally impressed villagers in Sindh for whom building with bricks, mortar and girder have grown to symbolise a step up in life. The floods of 2010 and 2011 changed all that. But now, as they rebuild with disaster-resistant technology, they are realising that they can return to nature in order to withstand Mother Nature.

According to the provincial disaster management authority, 698,451 houses, mostly katcha or mud houses, were destroyed in last year’s flooding.

Given the magnitude of the disaster, the government and private groups could only do so much to get them back up on their feet, leaving a majority of the homeless to fend for themselves. The dwellings built for these people mainly featured concrete structures which are too expensive for the poor and alien to the rural set-up.

Villagers have historically been living in houses made of sand, mud, straw, bamboo, sun-dried brick, grass, reed, thatch, cow dung. These structures are classified as Chapper, Kothi, Waung and Chaunro houses in Sindh. But they are prone to risks posed by rains, floods, storms and earthquakes.

Poverty is not the only reason why families have built mud houses. “The peasants always live in fear of being evicted from their dwellings as the land where they live on is owned by their landlord,” explains Taj Mari, a peasant rights activist. Therefore, spending their hard-earned money to build a concrete structure is never an option for them, he believes.

As the menace of recurrent floods and torrential rains looms large, rebuilding is a dilemma for peasants as they know that these mud houses are not disaster resistant.

But now, architect and the chairperson of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan Yasmeen Lari is offering a solution that uses pretty much the same material they’ve used for centuries with a small difference – they’re building smarter.

Her katcha house model chiefly uses locally available material to build rain- and flood-resistant units. “We do not need concrete and steel in the rural areas. The people here have their own crafts [in making houses with local material] which should be efficiently used to build hazard-resistant houses,” she told The Express Tribune this week. She discourages the use of material like cement, steel and burnt bricks whose production contributes to global warming.

The HF has supported the construction of about 180 houses in Mohak Sharif and neighbouring villages in Tando Allahyar district. These units also offer protection for rations, water, livestock and fodder. They come with improvised sanitation methods, called aquatic toilets.

Lari’s model uses material that makes the foundation, walls and roof stronger. “Actually the problem is not with the mud walls [in katcha houses],” she says, “but with the roofs made of steel girders, which damage the supporting walls.”

Lari uses sand, mud, straw, wheat stalk, reed, bamboo, lime, cow dung and nuts and bolts. Except for the lime, bamboo, nuts and bolts, all the other materials are locally available.

According to Naeem Khan, a field coordinator with the HF in Mohak Sharif, they use a mixture of lime, sand and crush to make the base strong. The walls, made of straw mats, are plastered with a mixture of sand, mud, lime, straw and cow dung and the bamboos are used as pillars. The primary feature in the roof is a bamboo purlin. This ‘Karavan roof’ is made of plastic sheets, straw mats, mixture of lime and sand that make it impervious, weatherized and sturdy enough to bear heavy weight. “The construction of a room costs around Rs30,000 with the labour and most of the material available for free,” Khan says.

After reconstruction, the village experienced the recent pre-monsoon rains. Resident Muhammad Umar Wassan was able to see the roofs in action much to his delight. But fear remains. “I hope that my house will not collapse if the floods strike again,” he says. His family has been living in the village for over five decades.

The UN’s International Organisation for Migration has also adopted Lari’s model. According to IOM’s Manuel Marques Pereira, it is funding construction for more than 20,000 units in Mirpurkhas, Tharparkar, Umerkot and Tando Allahyar. Lari now wants to see NGOs, the corporate sector, landlords, civil society and even student volunteers help out.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2012.


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