Architects contributing to postdisaster recovery and prevention

by Architectes de l’Urgence

With increasingly frequent and violent natural disasters there is growing realisation that architects too can contribute to post-disaster recovery and preventing recurrent damage. Architectes de l’Urgence (AU) was formed after fl ooding of the Somme basin of France in 2001. Oddly architects are all too often notably absent in humanitarian emergency teams, despite the fact that their structural, planning and environmental knowhow is generally essential. In some cases they are the only technicians capable of striking a balance between technical and natural factors. AU has also observed that very little funding is allocated to reconstruction. Some $250 was allocated for rebuilding each dwelling in Afghanistan in 2002, with only $234 earmarked for equivalent work in Bangladesh in 2004.

AU has worked in various countries hit by natural or technology disasters reaching from the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco), France and Eastern Europe, to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and, most recently, Bangladesh. The scope of its work ranges from fl oods and earthquake to technology disasters.

Following the earthquake in Afghanistan in March 2002, centring on the Nahrin district – 90% of the town itself was destroyed – several AU specialists joined a team organising reconstruction of 5,000 dwellings for victims. It became clear during their stay that there was an urgent need to train people to work in the building trade. With the chronic instability that has dogged the country since the Soviet invasion in 1979 many architects, for instance, have moved abroad or changed jobs

In early 2003 AU received a French government grant for a mission to remedy this situation. It opened its fi rst workshop in July 2004 at the Architecture Department of Kabul University. The current priority is to prepare local architects for cooperation with NGOs and for work on the major development projects the government is about to launch.

Following the disastrous fl ooding in Bangladesh and part of India in July 2004 an AU team took part in a UNDP mission to Dhaka to assess damage and propose counter-measures. This led to a project to design and build, in partnership with local people and contractors, a series of prototypes, capable of withstanding subsequent disasters.

Designs must take account of practical, technical, cultural and religious factors to ensure structures are acceptable. Preparatory work includes studies of traditional structures, techniques and materials. Apart from being understood and accepted by the community, the buildings must also integrate well with the environment.

We have selected several technical solutions. The fi rst is mounted on piles and represents a traditional response to wetland occupation, with living quarters located above the high water mark. Although there is disagreement about the widespread feasibility of this solution in Bangladesh, it is well suited to certain situations and technically quite straightforward. However cultural factors, notably people’s relationship with the ground, may hinder acceptance.

Another solution is to build a raised platform of packed earth covering about 150 sq m. This is likely to be better accepted by Bangladeshis, who are used to living close to the ground. Given the availability of water, even in the dry season, and the small amount of land not used for urban development, this solution offers a common sense answer to environmental constraints. Unfortunately it cannot be used on all types of terrain. The height of the platform required in some places may also make it too costly. Moreover it is hard to predict how building such platforms would affect the surroundings.

A third possibility is to build fl oating houses, as is common practice in Vietnam. As the structures are moored this technique can only be used in areas where the water level rises, or falls, gradually. Another approach would be to design homes that only fl oat during fl ooding.

As well as designing new buildings to cope with changing climatic conditions, there are several more conservative solutions which only involve adapting existing structures. An extra fl oor may for instance be added to dwellings to act as a refuge. Flooding in many villages rises to as much as two metres, making the ground fl oor quite unusable. A refuge on the spot would limit the number of displaced persons. The extra fl oor could also be used to store everyday necessities, personal effects and reserves of food and drinking water. A simpler variation on this idea would be to adapt roofs, already a frequent refuge during fl oods, the better to accommodate temporary use.

Another addition, familiar to European families living near hazardous facilities, might be a safe room. In its most limited form it could simply be a box containing essentials such as drinking water, food, personal effects and cooking implements. It would have to be made with locally produced materials, but perhaps involving composite construction techniques.

The last point is perhaps the most important and is not even directly related to building. Odd as it may seem in a frequently fl ooded country the most acute problem is securing drinking water. And it is too late to distribute water purifying systems once fl ooding occurs. Thought needs to be given to designing a simple way of collecting rainwater falling on dwellings, for use during crises and perhaps all year round too. It would solve at least one major health problem that arises after each fl ood.

None of these suggestions claims to be a ready-made solution. In the spirit of sustainable development we are sure that a satisfactory solution will consist of many small responses that have been properly understood and accepted at a local level. As fl oods will unfortunately reoccur only the people on the ground can fi nd the key to the problem. We must contribute to raising awareness and understanding of risks.

Architectes de l’Urgence is a French NGO founded in 2001.

Translated by Harry Forster.

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