Floods in Pakistan: How bamboo shelters are empowering displaced communities

Written by the author Stephy Chung, CNN

Pakistan’s “unprecedented” floods have affected 33 million people, many of whom are still seeking safe shelter after monsoon rains damaged or destroyed more than a million homes. Catastrophic summer flooding, fueled by melting glaciers, has submerged a third of the country, and officials say it could take six months for the waters to recede.
To address the need for emergency housing, architect Yasmeen Lari and the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan have been working around the clock to equip people in the affected province of Sindh with the skills and materials to build prefabricated bamboo shelters.
The shelters, called Lari OctaGreen (LOG), can be built by six or seven people in a matter of hours. They were initially designed to respond to a 7.5-magnitude earthquake that hit northeastern Afghanistan in 2015, with a pilot program. temporary housing To hundreds of families around Pakistan, where most of the deaths occurred. As of 2018, more than 1,200 bamboo versions have been built in disaster-prone areas. (Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable nation to the climate crisis according to the Global Climate Risk Index, although European Union data shows it is responsible for less than 1%. planet-warming gases).

The project aims to give people in disaster-stricken areas a sense of agency by teaching them how to build their own houses, and helping to generate income in the process, as many have lost their livelihoods. Communities are also taught ways to cope with future disasters, such as building aquifer trenches and wells to absorb rainwater.

“The affected people want to make the biggest contribution,” Lari said in a telephone interview, explaining that many of the project’s artisans are from villages that are flooded. They have also helped to identify those who need help and how to deliver the prefabricated parts.

“People are sitting under the sky with nothing. They are thinking: how can we work? They have no security, no privacy, no dignity,” said Lari, adding that people “don’t need handouts” but should. empowered

The villagers use materials such as mud to strengthen the walls of the bamboo shelter. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

‘Treat people as partners’

Shelters are designed to be low cost, low technology and low environmental impact. “I want it to be zero carbon,” explains Lari, whose foundation has subsidized emergency housing. About 25,000 Pakistani rupees ($108). “I don’t want to create another problem in climate change by building with concrete or steel.”

Bamboo was chosen for its strength and resilience. And, because it’s usually grown all over the country, it’s easier to source. Two workshops have been set up to cut bamboo rods to specific dimensions and then assemble them into kits. The shelters are assembled on site into eight strong panels and a cover, then tied together with rope and covered with mats.

Crossed bamboo walls are based on the traditional "dhijji" Structures in northern Pakistan that have experienced earthquakes in the past.

The criss-crossed bamboo walls are reminiscent of the traditional “dhijji” structures of northern Pakistan, which have suffered earthquakes in the past. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

As much as possible, “everything should be local”, said Lari. “It’s a way to connect housing production with a way for people to earn immediately.”

Marium, who does not have a surname, now lives in one of the new units with her six children and husband in Pono village in Sindh’s Mirpur Khas district. Speaking through a translator in Sindhi, he said the shelters in the area — built before the summer floods — had survived the disaster. He and other townspeople began to wonder how to get one. About 25 of them have now been built.

His family is grateful for the shelter, but they say they are concerned about issues such as food supplies and unemployment. They want to know how to make a permanent structure, because they feel safer than the previous house.

The sight of shelters that survived the summer's record monsoons prompted local villagers to wonder where to get them.

The sight of shelters that survived the summer’s record monsoons prompted local villagers to wonder where to get them. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

According to Lari, enough parts 750 have been manufactured, with the aim of reaching 1,200 by the beginning of October. About 350 houses have been built so far.

The figure is “a drop in the ocean,” he said, but production is increasing rapidly.

In the coming weeks, for example, his foundation in Karachi plans to remotely train 30 artisans from 10 villages in South Punjab, which will result in an additional 1,500 units per month. The Bank of Punjab supports these efforts by helping to organize a facility equipped with the necessary materials for the training. He has also pledged to pay the wages of the artisans and to supply bamboo and other supplies to the artisans’ factories.

Hundreds of bamboo shelters have been installed so far.  There can be up to eight people each.

Hundreds of bamboo shelters have been installed so far. There can be up to eight people each. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

An even simpler version of the bamboo shelter – with an umbrella-like roof without walls that people can cover with mats – is spreading as an even faster, albeit temporary, solution.

“I want to create a whole new way of giving,” Lari said, adding that disaster relief efforts are focused on building capacity, sharing knowledge and accommodating displaced people. load up

In addition to providing shelters, the Heritage Foundation has also been teaching how to make emergency toilets, mosquito nets, solar water stands and fish farms, safer drinking water and improved food security, as well as income-generating products. Almost 10 villages surrounding one of the main pre-fabrication sites are now being trained to make essential products such as mats used to cover shelters and mosquito nets for mutual use and sale.

“We need to change the way we work… and treat affected people as partners, not as victims or those willing to become beggars.

Fish farms are created using bamboo dividers.

Fish farms are created using bamboo dividers. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

Barefoot social architecture

In the long run, bamboo shelters can become permanent structures. After the floodwaters recede, they can be moved from the higher ground back to the villages, where they can be built on foundations made of lime bricks (the Heritage Foundation also teaches brick making as a way for people to earn money).

The villagers have been decorating the shelters with colorful fabrics and paints which, Lari says, can help give a sense of ownership and pride. "People should not feel helpless," said the architect.

The villagers have been decorating the shelters with colorful fabrics and paints which, according to Lari, can help give a sense of ownership and pride. “People should not feel helpless,” said the architect. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

Lari, who is recognized as Pakistan’s first female architect, says her profession can play an important role in the climate crisis. But, he added, schools have traditionally focused on developing what he called “prima donna” architects. He hopes to one day create an incubator that teaches young designers how to get involved in humanitarian work.

A “starchitect” in the 1980s, Lari designed some of Karachi’s most glittering buildings. But he developed a growing sense of guilt over the amount of concrete and steel used, and has been “repentant” ever since. His response to the summer floods is based on nearly two decades of what he described as “barefoot social architecture”—environmentally friendly designs that help poor and needy communities become self-sufficient.

Women making stele for bamboo shelters.

Women making stele for bamboo shelters. Credit: Pakistan Heritage Foundation

It has also focused on giving women agency and raising their status in a male-dominated society. Its “chulah” cooking stove program, for example, was developed to provide women with safer alternatives to the dangerous open-fire cooking used in rural communities. Participants are trained to build kitchens from layered mud and lime plaster, often customizing them with paint and their own designs. Today, more than 80,000 chulahs have been built in Lari, thanks to around 600,000 people.

“Architecture is not just bricks and mortar,” he said. It’s about seeing how you can help build communities.”