Resettling The Indus – An Introduction
The most major impact on any affected of any kind of a natural disaster is psychological displacement. This is equally true for the victims of the Pakistan Floods of 2010. Their houses have been washed away or damaged beyond repair; their sources of incomes have been destroyed (in the form of crop or livestock); their lives have been put on a sudden hold. Any kind of rehabilitative work that is carried out for them needs to address the psychological impacts on their lives. Displacement, in physical form or even culturally, may not affect them in the short term; as a matter of fact, they might welcome any kind of rehabilitative work that is ‘offered’ to them as a privilege. In the long run, however, it will cause an unforeseen shift in their lifestyles to which they may or may not be able to cope with.
Architecturally speaking, people who have lived in mud houses for generations will be satisfied to be living in a brick or concrete house, but in the long run, will they have the resources to maintain these houses? Who will pay for the maintenance of these houses? ‘Aid’ will be not always be flowing in for them. They need to be given solutions that they can sustain, long after the aid is gone. Mud (or any other local material) is readily available in these areas, and will always be. Why give them an infrastructure, which they will not be able to afford? Why give them an infrastructure that they are not used to culturally, socially and financially?
It is utterly impractical, and insensitive, for any organization to pick up a project that promises more and delivers less. The approach to this disaster should be delivering more by promising them less – in a way that requires the participation of the local population in the reconstruction process.
This might seem like an unsympathetic approach to their vows, but one that understands the overall implications. It is imperative, in our view, that the people affected by this natural disaster are involved in the process of rehabilitation, so that they are a vital part of putting their own lives and their communities back together again. This will not only instill a sense of ownership in them, it will give them a chance to be a part of rebuilding their own lives. Maybe the only opportunity in this disaster is to help these people rise beyond their current states of mind about not being ‘able’ enough and actually be able to be agents of change in their own lives.
The flood affected should not be treated like victims; they need to be told what needs to get done in order to put their lives back on track. Put them responsible for reconstructing their own lives. Educate them in ways of building, community management, their basic rights, the benefits of being able to restart earning their own livelihood as soon as possible. Give them technical education; give them the basic resources to construct houses that are financially affordable and maintained. Give them opportunities of earning during the rehabilitative phase through cash-for-work programs. This is the only way we will not make chronic beggars out of them, to put it in harsh words.
Help the flood-affected people rebuild their own houses in a way that is culturally, socially and financially relevant.
1. Involve them in the cleaning up process.
While it seems obvious that they will have already initiated the clean up process, but if they are guided into systematically doing this, we are already halfway through in organizing them as a community that will later help in the reconstruction phase.
2. Give them resources and technical guidance to help them build themselves.
Nearly all of the affected areas of the 2010 Floods in Pakistan are rural in nature. Their solutions cannot, and should not, be extracted from urban case-studies. The relationship of a rural inhabitant to his/her built environment is far more natural than that of an urban inhabitant. A rural inhabitant builds his life around the infrastructure of his village and home. He is a part of the process of building a home. Any proposal for rehabilitation should keep these factors in mind.
- Let them ‘design’ their villages and homes. The most we can do, as ‘advisors’, is to assist them in finding a better way of building; rather than present them with a prototype to be repeated on and on. In our view, pre-fabricated and assembly line production shelters may be a viable solution for temporary shelters, but not for long term. Studies show that all similar experiments, in which the inhabitants of the community are left to design the places for themselves or are involved extensively in the designing process, have performed better than those that have been presented with a model plan – examples being the New Gourna Village by Hassan Fathy and the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi. Traditional ways of building are the result of a long chain of trial and error sequences that were applied from generation to generation. While they can be assisted in solving technical issues beyond their scope, the spatial planning should be mostly left to them.
- Give them better alternatives to the ‘method’ of construction. Promulgate lightweight roofing solutions, such as bamboo or mud brick vaulting, rather than commonly employed (and usually expensive) materials like timber or steel. Educate them in ways of constructing stronger structures.
3. Building Back Better only needs common sense.
For any system of construction to become much more resilient than it currently is, not many radical steps need to be taken. It is usually very simple to reinforce a system of construction for it to be able to respond better to any natural disaster, such as floods or earthquakes. The reason it became a generally applied way of constructing is because it works under ‘usual’ circumstances. But what to do in a world that is becoming increasingly prone to unusual circumstances, such as natural disasters?
Taking the example of most rural cases in Punjab, the reasons of failure in most structures can easily be established. Walls have collapsed where there has been much greater load than a mud wall can hold – the culprit usually being heavy wooden beam or steel I-sections. In other cases, a water channel has cut through the lower portions of the walls, which then resulted in complete collapse of the structure.
So what does this imply? This implies that while the mud structures have been sustainable for living for centuries, there are some alterations that can be made without radically modifying the elements of local architecture, and without making it financially and culturally impractical for them to live in.
These modifications can be achieved through common sense:
- For the issue of stronger structures, a column-supported structure can be introduced, in which the load is held by, say four columns, if it’s a single room structure. These columns can be constructed out of the strongest materials available, so that the structural strength of the house is not compromised.
- A similar modification can be made in terms of foundations of the structure. By using a stronger material, such as concrete, stone or burnt brick, the foundations of the structure can be made much more resilient to any kind of force acting upon it. The effectiveness of the foundations can be further expanded by raising these ‘foundation’ walls upto 3’ above ground level.
- In order to solve the problem of roofing, alternative materials can be employed. Bamboo has been successfully used all over the world as a roofing material. In the subcontinent, bamboo is the mostly commonly used material to set up scaffoldings during construction. If bamboo has been so successful in being the backbone of construction for so long, there is no reason it cannot be employed as a roofing alternative.
A similar alternative, in areas where bamboo will be impossible to get, is using mud bricks as the roofing material too, through the construction of vaults. Not only does this drastically cut costs when compared to timber, steel or even bamboo, it is perhaps structurally a more feasible solution too.
- In terms of cost cutting while improving efficiency of locally available materials, alternatives to simple mud adobe bricks can be used, for example, Interlocking Stabilised Soil Bricks, which have been extensively applied in numerous projects by UN-Habitat and other similar organizations. Not only to do they possess much greater strength than normal mud bricks, they also reduce the cost of construction through eliminating the need of mortar.
Our aim is to build back better, but not at the cost of uprooting rural lifestyles. It is extremely important to continue with the reconstruction process as a ‘community initiative’, so that the transition back to their normal lives is as smooth as possible. Working without involvement of the community, will not construct a community, nor will it be easy to ‘hand over’ a village to the locals after it’s ‘completed’. The only way to rehabilitation of these communities is to let them take over the responsibility, while providing them with assistance in whichever way is required by them – and our assistance should keeping in mind that all our solutions be culturally and socially relevant; rely on available resources and systems; enhance, not negate, traditional knowledge of locals and finally, be cost-effective.
(Note: This introductory article was written for the purpose of presenting the idea behind Resettling The Indus to UN-Habitat and UN-OCHA, by ADRA in October 2010.)