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In Pakistan, flood-proof houses give hope against climate change

September 13, 2023 at 5:18 pm

Two men stand in the doorway of a newly built, flood-resistant house in Pakistan’s Sindh province [wikimedia]

Prem Kumar was one of the countless Pakistanis whose homes were washed away by unprecedented floods that left behind a trail of death and destruction in a third of the country last year.

Swirling floodwaters destroyed houses and farmlands in his Ram Nagar village, nestled in the suburbs of Tando Allahyar, a district in the southern Sindh province, forcing hundreds to flee and spend weeks in makeshift tents.

But only a few kilometres away, people in the village of Pomo were largely unaffected by the catastrophe that claimed over 1,700 lives and inflicted an estimated loss of $32 billion on Pakistan’s already faltering economy.

Located some 200 kilometres (124 miles) from the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, Pomo was picked for the construction of 70 pilot settlements in 2018, under a pioneering project that aims to construct 1 million flood-proof bamboo houses in lower Sindh, a term used to designate districts located along the southern bank of the mighty Indus River.

The flagship project, turbo-charged by the year’s unprecedented floods, is the brainchild of Yasmeen Lari, the country’s first certified female architect.

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Nearly 4,000 rain and flood-resistant bamboo houses have, so far, been constructed after the 2022 floods, primarily in the districts of Mirpur Khas, Tando Allahyar and Matyari.

These elevated houses are safe from the rushing water, while their bamboo structures – pierced deep into the ground – help them bear the force of wind and water.

“This is indeed a huge task. Making a million houses (for a non-governmental organisation) is not like a walk in the park,” Lari, 82, told Anadolu.

“The idea is not only to provide the families with zero-carbon houses, but also to make them self-dependent.”

The beneficiaries are also learning to grow vegetables and trees, rear chickens and breed fish in water tanks to earn livelihoods.

To further fortify these rural communities against the ravages of climate change, various “flood mitigation measures” are also being carried out simultaneously, including laying down barriers of forests, bamboo rows, aquifer wells and porous pavements.

Spurred by the massive 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the heavy floods of 2010 and 2011, Lari has long been campaigning for a “carbon and waste free” Pakistan.

Her Heritage Foundation of Pakistan has already built thousands of houses from carbon-free materials since 2005.

Pakistan, although it emits less than 1 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gasses, is among the top 10 countries most threatened by climate change.

Over the past two decades, the country has witnessed regular rain-triggered floods and heat waves that are stronger, hotter and more unpredictable.

Joint venture

The Foundation has built over 200 flood-protected houses in Kumar’s village, a huge relief to weary residents grappling with the physical and economic misery regularly inflicted by catastrophic rains and floods.

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“Rebuilding houses after every two to three years has become a new normal here, which not only causes losses in terms of lives and economy, but also forces us to (temporarily) migrate,” Kumar, who works at a local gas station, told Anadolu.

“Rebuilding devours all our savings, apart from the physical and mental pain. We have to take loans for that. But, thank God, this will not be the case now. We will not have to migrate and live in shelters.”

A single flood-proof house – a one-room, elevated unit – costs 42,800 Pakistani rupees (approximately $140). The costs are borne by the Foundation and the families, who are able to pay in different ways.

The bamboo huts are improved versions of the one-room mud houses, locally known as “chaunra” that line the sprawling landscape of Sindh and the adjoining Indian state of Rajasthan.

“We do not buy anything from the market. We simply use materials that are available locally, such as lime, clay, bamboo and thatching,” Naheem Hussain Shah, who oversees the project, told Anadolu.

“It’s a joint venture. We bear the cost of bamboos, thatching and lime, whereas the family works as labourers and gets the clay,” he added.

The cost also includes a water hand pump, which serves eight families in a village, a solar power unit for 12 families, and a toilet that is used by two families.

‘Zero-donor model’

The Foundation has recently launched another model with no external investment for each family to become self-reliant in six months.

Under the project, billed as a “zero-donor model,” the Foundation trains selected community members in various steps to work toward self-reliance.

Known as “barefoot entrepreneurs”, these trainers then go out to teach flood-hit communities, in return for a small fee – 40 rupees per household – earning a monthly income of around 50,000 rupees ($160).

They basically teach local communities how to utilise “untapped resources, whether human resources, natural resources, waste and debris,” said Lari.

They also emphasize “the strength of the community to work together to achieve a better quality of life through their own efforts,” she added.

According to the Foundation, at least 173,000 families benefited from this model from April to August: 120,000 have become food secure, 15,000 have built their own toilets and 10,000 have made their one-room houses.

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