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PAKISTAN: Beyond the Storm, Eco-Friendly Dream Homes

Zofeen Ebrahim* - IPS/IFEJ

KARACHI, Oct 19 2009 (IPS) - "I don’t think I will ever miss the old home; it never protected us from floods and storms!" said Dadi Ibrahim, a widow. Her only association, she said, with her dilapidated hut is the "fond memories" of living there with her late husband.

The 65-year-old resident of Village Haji Jaffar Jamari, in Thatta district in Sindh province, is now the proud owner of a brand new two-room energy-efficient house, which will soon be awarded to her as one of the beneficiaries of a government housing project.

Ibrahim’s thatched house has been her home for as long as she can remember. Hers was one of 25 poorest households in her village chosen as beneficiaries for the People’s Housing Programme, dubbed ‘Benazir Model’, named after the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It was launched on May 1, 2009 to provide energy-efficient, low-cost and disaster-proof housing for the poor in Sindh province.

Like Ibrahim, Kazbano Fateh, also from Thatta, feels only a sense of relief now that she and her family will soon be abandoning their old house.

"There is nothing to reminisce or miss (about it)," said the 45-year-old mother of five. Certainly not the constant plastering of mud on the walls to close the fissures and cracks; getting soaked when rains pour or drying out the entire house after a storm. "We lived in much hardship," she said. Now her children finally have a place they can truly call home, she enthused.

Ibrahim, Fateh and all other poor beneficiaries of the project were identified based on two main criteria — they belonged to the poorest of the poor and were most prone to disaster.


Based on the 2004 ‘State of the Environment and Development’ report of the non-government International Union for Conservation of Nature, over two-thirds of the households in rural Sindh are extremely "vulnerable" to natural disasters despite the province having the highest per capita income in Pakistan. Ibrahim remembers Thatta as a once prosperous district in the Indus Delta, located 98 kilometres from the southern port city of Karachi. But being prone to storms and cyclones and at constant risk of the worst form of sea intrusion, it has been plunged deeper into poverty.

Gone are the days when the historic Thatta — famous for its necropolis — enjoyed the bounties of farming, which many of the residents have been forced to abandon, having either migrated to urban centres, where they live in abject poverty, or turned to hard labour by working as daily wage earners.

According to the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, an NGO working for the rights of small-scale indigenous fisher communities in this country of about 180 million population, some 2.2 million acres of fertile land of the delta, of which Thatta is a part, have been submerged in sea water in the last two decades.

The housing programme that will see the construction of 500 units for the poor is being jointly undertaken by the provincial government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which was the first to use the innovative technology inherent to the project when it embarked on a similar undertaking, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Badin and Thatta between 2003 and 2004.

The project boasts the use of indigenous and eco-friendly technology and materials that can withstand the ravages of nature, the frequency and intensity of which is widely believed to be the results of climate change, the bane of modern society. The choice of both technology and building materials is also intended to provide sustainable energy solutions.

"The material used for the houses is indigenous and locally available, and the technology is also developed locally," said Jawed Shah, chief technical advisor to the project. He added that this is the first time that ‘compressed earth blocks’ (CEB) are being used to build houses in Pakistan.

Shah explained that CEBs are made from the dust that comes from crushed stone. These are essentially abandoned materials consisting of 6 percent cement and 94 percent stone, he added. "The CEB is a natural insulator and helps to control the inner temperature," he said.

"Replacing baked bricks with the CEB is great for the environment as brick kilns are major sources of carbon emission," said Shah. Besides, wood used to fire these kilns causes deforestation, he said.

Brick kilns are known for their adverse environmental and health impacts, because they cause air pollution and release fine particulate matter that affects the respiratory lungs.

The adoption of CEBs was "a great climate change adaptation activity," said Masood Mahesar, executive director of Research and Development Foundation, which supports local indigenous institutions and one of two NGOs that the UNDP has tapped to undertake the project.

All homes are also provided with solar lanterns, deemed safer and cheaper than kerosene lamps, alongside electrical installations.

Construction of the housing units was undertaken with the participation of the beneficiaries themselves. More than 700 local people were trained in the use of the environment-friendly technology used in the project. "In most cases, the beneficiaries built the houses," said Mahesar.

The programme covers three coastal districts in the province, which, aside from Thatta, include Badin and Karachi, all of which face a constant onslaught of disasters that exacerbate the already impoverished conditions of the communities. Built on the beneficiaries’ plots, the houses are identical in design and measure a total of 640 square feet each.

In January 2009 the government signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the U.N. agency, which is supporting the project under the Small Grants Programme (SGP).

The SGP was set up in 1992 — as part of the Global Environment Facility, a funding scheme involving the UNDP, the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Bank — to support activities intended to conserve and restore the environment while enhancing the people’s well-being.

The UNDP has committed to provide 200,000 U.S. dollars for the construction of the houses while the government has already pumped in 50 percent of the total project cost of 2.3 million U.S. dollars.

The project’s other cost-effective innovations, said Shah, include arched foundation to address the seepage, dampness and salinity — made worse by rising sea levels. "The pyramidal roof is thermally efficient, leakage-proof, lightweight and economical, compared to conventional roofing. The wire-reinforced hollow block masonry is not only a simple construction technique but provides safety against earthquake, high wind and lateral pressure," he added.

These and other innovative features have given 37-year-old Mir Muhammad the confidence that "this home of mine won’t collapse the way our old hutment did in every storm." He added, "we were at the mercy of the rains and the winds." Pointing to the new conical roof, he said the interior is much cooler than their huts when it would be "stifling in the summer."

For Sat Bai, 43, moving to her new abode "will be like living in a mansion with a kitchen, verandah, bedrooms and even a latrine!" Used to defecating and bathing in the open, Bai said she found the idea of having a personal latrine the height of luxury.

She is equally excited about the fact that "when you go inside the house, the green light coming from the conical roof makes me feel at peace. In the evening even the moonlight comes shining through the room."

Like Bai and all other beneficiaries of the People’s Housing Programme, Ibrahim is eagerly awaiting the formal turnover of the key to her new house by the end of the month, when 100 of the 500 houses covered by the project shall have been completed. Already, it has inspired her to dream of a brighter future for her family, which certainly goes beyond having only a truly livable dwelling.

"Our life has already changed," Ibrahim said ecstatically.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).

 
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