By Najma Sadeque
Published: September 7, 2011
The government knew the floods would be back. It had at least eight months to prepare for it. But its focus lay elsewhere — cutting deals, juggling power, privatising public assets. No greater callousness could have been exhibited than that towards the fate of the abandoned four million flood victims who never received aid or rehabilitation. This year, many of last year’s victims endure repetition of the same ordeal.
And yet, coping with flood victims is not an impossible task. People have been dealing with floods successfully for millennia. They simply took a cue from one of nature’s greatest endowments: the ability to float on water.
Global warming or not, in many low-lying parts of the world where flooding is routine, people literally rise above the waters, building their homes on stilts, living on houseboats, or in homes built on large rafts moored securely to the shore. Although manoeuvrable when necessary, they mostly stay stationery. As the water rises, they rise with them; when it recedes, they are back on the ground — there is no need for families to leave home.
Increased flooding caused by climate change is leading more people towards floating homes, including in Bangladesh, as well as in the West, such as the Netherlands and in New Orleans, US. It is, therefore, surprising that donors and concerned UN agencies didn’t initiate a similar solution in Pakistan.
Nor are local solutions prohibitively expensive as the western high-tech ones are. The most practical lessons come from an ancient culture in the Middle East and from Bangladesh: building floating homes with local, low-cost or free-from-nature materials. In Pakistan, Sindh’s Manchar Lake fisherfolk have been living in houseboats for ages — until the poisoning of the waters by toxic industrial wastewater forced large numbers to abandon the area. In Peru, the Uru people living on Lake Titicaca build their boats and houses of reeds on floating rafts, also made of reeds.
Reed plants proliferated in the wetlands and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq made floating islands of tightly-woven reed packed with soil, atop which they built sturdy, reed homes and barns 100 to 200 square feet in area, with gabled roofs eight to 10 feet high. They fished, farmed and fashioned baskets, mats and other reed goods; and, most remarkably, maintained cows and buffaloes on their artificial islands, creating a thriving, largely self-reliant economy that provided the rest of the country with two-thirds of its fish supply as well as milk and cheese.
Their reasons for choosing to live on 20,000 square kilometres of marshland are lost in time, but their traditional ways endured for 8,000 years until dredging of the wetlands by French and then British engineers, since the early 1950s, over the next three decades — first for irrigation works and later in pursuit of oil. That was followed by the devastation of the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war and then the Iraq-US war, by which time most of the quarter-million Marsh Arabs had fled and the wetlands shrank to less than a third of their original area. Early this year, a BBC film covered the current attempt to regenerate both the marshes and the floating lifestyle.
In low-lying Bangladesh, historically a victim of unrelenting and devastating floods, NGOs and individuals, along with the Asian Urban Disaster Mitigation Program (AUDMP) of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Bangkok — a ten-year programme (1995-2005) — came to the rescue, in collaboration with a number of other agencies including the Department for International Development, UNDP, CARE International, the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Center and the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme under the Bangladesh ministry of food and disaster management.
The AUDMP’s practical 90-page handbook on floating homes, complete with fully-illustrated plans, is available on its website. Its hallmarks are the use of local, cheap materials and indigenous or replicable know-how. Similar AUDMP projects have been implemented in nine other countries — Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. All that interested Pakistani parties have to do is to download and adapt the guidelines from the handbook to local circumstances, perhaps even come up with innovations of their own, such as toilets and sanitary disposal.
Detailed, illustrated plans show how wind and water-resistant houses are made of straw, reeds, rushes, bamboos or jute-stalks. For example, constantly splashing waters rot the lower parts of floating houses, so they are designed as replaceable lower panels that are locally damp-proofed with bitumen. Being light and hollow, platforms of reed or layers of bamboo float well and are sturdy. Roofs of corrugated iron (CI) sheets are gabled so that rainwater runs off without collecting. Added gutters enable rainwater collection for drinking. The lower roof-ends are extended so that rain cannot fall on the walls. Conventional mat walls last only four to five years, but with simple chemical treatment involving soaking for 12 hours, they last 15 to 20 years, making the additional 20 to 25 per cent in cost well worth it.
Being ‘low-tech’, the solution doesn’t require huge, crippling interest-bearing foreign loans, although initially, to assist millions of people left with nothing, a catalyst in kind would be needed in the form of bamboo, much of which may have to be imported, along with CI sheets and binding and sealing materials. Growing more reeds could also become a thriving local business.
It would be unrealistic to expect responsibility and results from an inept government given the track record, even if it volunteered. Instead, local philanthropists, donors and private establishments, through reliable NGOs (including microcredit), could start making on-the-spot prototypes suited to respective areas and provide hands-on guidance. It may take years before all flood-fleeing people on the plains can have floating homes; but if efforts begin now, most families could soon have rafts, the foundation to keep them afloat. Most villagers have always been building their homes with their own hands anyway and they would follow affordable and doable examples.
The important point is these are not just temporary flood-time shelters; they are dry, snug permanent homes that can keep being improved upon, including with solar panels, as in Bangladesh. And when the floods come, the people don’t have to leave home.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2011.