Kaat Boon, an architectural engineer and involved with Belgium-based humanitarian action team Build-UP, is currently working as the shelter research consultant with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Boon talks to Sadiqur Rahman about the necessity of improved shelter methods
You have visited a number of disaster prone districts of Bangladesh. Do you think the traditional style and techniques of building construction in those areas are strong enough to cope with natural disasters?
I think traditional construction has a lot of inherent wisdom in it because it has been created on trial and error basis over the decades and people have learnt the best solution for particular locations. However, improvement is still possible. This is one point.
The second point is that conditions are changing. There are people who are used to living in flood lands and sometimes move to the hilly areas. You have mud houses very close to rivers and river erosion is increasing. So mud houses are not the perfect technology. So in some cases traditional housing practices need to change. For example, if you look at the area around Barisal, the traditional homes have good protection mechanism against cyclone and storms. But many people do not have the resources and finance to develop their homes. They make poor quality houses.
Then there are technical problems. Panel housing procedures in and around Barisal is a formidable traditional technique. Traditional houses in proper size can be good. But when the budget is low, most house-owners opt to spend little and thus decrease the overall size of the house which is of poorer quality.
So the problem is not with traditional housing, but more with the fact that context of housing is changing. People are not being able to build traditional houses.
Do you think that Bangladeshi people are more experienced in tackling disasters than other people of the world?
Personally, one of the things I find amazing about Bangladesh is how resilient the community and households of Bangladesh are, despite not having enough resources. They use the limited resources that they have. It is fantastic how they can utilise the resources in the household and also in the community level.
There are some other Asian countries where they have similar kind of community and capacity to be in disaster. But Bangladesh, for sure, is one of the prime examples to me and of course the right example in Asia in tackling disasters effectively.
Government and NGOs are working on preparing a national level housing guideline, particularly by targeting disaster prone areas. Why is a guideline required for the people here?
After previous disasters, it has often happened that some households received houses worth Tk 60,000 when other households received houses worth Tk 3,000. There were difference in quality and cost of these houses. Sometimes it happened in the same village. This is not fair.
Everyone has the right to receive a house which meets a certain standard. This needs to be conducted in such a way that no single household receives everything and another household receives a house that will collapse after six months. This is not good service delivery to the people.
And I think this can be coordinated better as there are many people with the resources, dedication and motivation in constructing houses before and after the disasters. If we can combine these factors and coordinate them better, we can learn so much and during any other disaster, we can move faster and ensure better quality in a more coordinated manner.
Another aspect is training. Households and communities should contribute more to recovery. If there is more awareness about safe housing then we can also reduce the impact of future disasters. So I think, a community guideline is important.
Housing and Building Research Institute of Bangladesh has been developing different alternative building materials. Are these materials adequate in Bangladesh’s context?
I still have to see all the materials. But we should understand that there is also a problem with innovation. Innovators have to try many things because you do not know when you will end and when you will start. It is always best to start in a number of directions. Some materials will be successful and others will not be feasible or durable. But this is the issue with innovation and research.
There are other areas to research. Like corrugated tin sheets as building materials is a problem in not just Bangladesh but in Asia. Tin sheet is not such a good roofing solution. But there is no alternative. I know HBRI is working on this field and I am really look forward to see the outcomes. This is a really important subject for study. The HBRI director explained to me that HBRI uses sedimentation from the river to make mud-blocks rather than digging pond. I feel that this will be good alternative for brick kiln. HBRI is also developing other alternatives currently. I hope they will manage to find the best combination of sands, mud, cement required to develop the blocks.