Amid Pakistan’s extreme flooding, these low-cost bamboo shelters could

In Pakistan, floods and landslides from torrential rains since June have destroyed houses, sometimes sweeping away large buildings in raging water. In one of the hardest-hit districts, Sindh, officials are now asking for 1 million tents for displaced people. But there aren’t enough tents available, and tents also aren’t durable. One nonprofit is helping residents build low-cost emergency shelters out of local bamboo instead.

“The beauty of it is that it’s low-tech,” says architect Yasmeen Lari, cofounder of the nonprofit the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan. The shelters are simple to build, low cost, and zero carbon. They also can be disassembled and moved, and the same basic materials can be used to make more permanent structures.

Lari, who is now in her 80s, was the first female architect in Pakistan, and spent most of her career working on sleek glass-and-steel buildings like the headquarters for the government-owned oil company. She retired in 2000. But after a catastrophic earthquake in 2005, she started to help with rebuilding, turning to local materials and techniques that people could use themselves rather than waiting for aid.

While working at a camp for displaced people, she began experimenting with bamboo. “You could not find other materials,” she says. “Everything was taking too much time [to source], like bricks. . . . You could find bamboo. And I said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try.’” Bamboo was cheap, easily accessible in the area, and very strong. She started building some sample structures, and after another major flood in 2010, began working with residents to build thousands of bamboo shelters; some larger community buildings were raised on stilts to be more resilient in flooding. It’s not clear yet whether they’ve survived the current floods, which the country’s climate minister described as unprecedented. But they withstood previous floods in 2012 and 2013.

At a site that Lari calls the Zero-Carbon Campus, she trains female artisans to build bamboo shelters. A prefab version includes bamboo panels that can quickly be connected with ropes. Earlier this summer, a group of six artisans started building a small village that will include 100 bamboo homes. (All of these survived the current flooding.) Now, Lari wants the artisans to train others. “My artisans, who are my best entrepreneurs, will now teach other artisans from surrounding villages to be able to go back and build your own unit,” she says. “If I can disperse it all over the country, we can make hundreds of these a day.” At the Zero-Carbon Campus workshop, a team of five artisans currently makes eight shelters a day.

inline bamboo shalter

The one-room, 12×12-foot structures, have enough room for five people to sleep. The walls are made from eight bamboo panels—Lari calls the design the “OctaGreen”—that can be connected together with ropes. A pole in the middle holds up a bamboo-framed roof. Everything is covered with handwoven reed mats. YouTube videos share the simple instructions for construction. Right now, they can be installed temporarily on high ground; they can later be disassembled and rebuilt on permanent foundations elsewhere.

It’s important, she says, that the families that use the shelters are involved in building them. “It’s a participatory process,” she says. “It’s not done for them. I think the Western model of charity is terrible. . . . These are not victims, they have to be a part of it.” Still, she acknowledges that the scale of the current disaster necessitates more aid. INTBAU Pakistan, an architectural nonprofit, is raising money to buy bamboo and other basic supplies for the artisans currently working on new shelters. The organization may also help some families take out loans for the building supplies, which cost a little more than $100 per home.

Lari argues that we need to rethink how modern cities and towns are built, both in terms of the carbon footprint of architecture and the way that infrastructure interacts with water in heavy rain. At her Zero-Carbon Campus, artisans also make terracotta tiles that can replace pavement and help water get absorbed into aquifers underground. She’s also experimenting with rock-filled ditches that can help keep water off streets.

Governments have to better prepare for future disasters, she says. “All countries have got to now really just prepare for disaster,” she says. “Everywhere it’s happening. It’s not only Pakistan. Climate change is a reality.”

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