Ecological care

Published September 17, 2022

“We have planned to build a village comprised of 50 to 100 families. A prefab village is built in a few days. We are determining a location for it.” — Gen Qamar Bajwa

SINCE the last four years, I have been advocating against unethical coastal development schemes and urban infrastructure on reclaimed land. Most of these projects have been top-down decisions by the state, often proceeding without environmental impact assessments or community engagement. This unethical practice has now extended from urban to rural zones, converting agricultural lands, natural causeways or areas immediately adjacent, to grid-based sectors for housing projects or for commercial purposes, including tourism.

Global warming has led to coastal lands and villages along riverbanks in Pakistan becoming submerged, Sindh being the worst hit. In the aftermath of the devastating floods, it is all the more urgent to consider ecology in the rehabilitation phase. There is a wide range of geographies and terrains along the Indus, and external/ internal funding agencies, architects and developers must work with local community knowledge so that environmental justice and social regional context is reflected in the outcome.

In conversations with architects and NGOs after the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, what emerged most strongly was the fractured disaster rehabilitation management, whereby alien/ unfamiliar construction material was distributed in remote villages of Pakistan. For example, steel girders and galvanised iron sheets were distributed as ‘rehabilitation construction packages’ with Ikea-style instructions on how to put the materials together.

How do we build back better?

What was missing in these industrial-level giveaways was ‘how to build back safely in the specific region, ethically and ecologically’. Prefabricated village models are not the way forward; in fact, introducing industrialised systems into remote regions is not sustainable.

Public environmental pedagogy involves research-based, sustainable rehabilitation infrastructure for specific regions/ terrain, eg, in flood zones, the plinth and roof are considered critical design elements that can safeguard families from rising water levels. On the other hand, in earthquake-prone areas, seismic architecture is implemented.

In both kinds of natural disasters, the rehabilitation phase is heavily dependent on local material. Thus, alongside disaster risk management, material management and understanding are very important. The question is: what do we build with and how do we build back?

The government, with the help of ethical architects and planners, can develop skill-based opportunities through workshops for flood-affected people to learn ‘build back safer’ methodology. They can be introduced through an understanding of local construction material, like earthen bricks and lime plaster, as well as learnings from site-specific construction methodologies, such as Yasmeen Lari’s zero-carbon footprint design, or those applied by the Indus Earth Trust whose founder, Shahid Khan, is also an architect.

Neighbouring countries that deal with flooding on a yearly basis also have lessons to offer. In Bangladesh, there is Anna Heringer’s HOMEmade Project, which is sustainable for two main reasons: first, it uses mud and bamboo — readily available, local, renewable resources. Second, it saves land for agriculture by building two-storey buildings instead of single-storey structures.

These ‘handmade’ methods involving local people work on a model of sustainable and modern architecture in a dynamic process which has been successful on a lab experimental level. But now, it is critical to adopt these design philosophies in our everyday construction for rehabilitating rural flood-affected areas. Continuing with the practice of using concrete and other alien material will again lead to the creation of heat islands and infrastructural rupture as witnessed recently on a devastating scale.

The concept of ‘architecture and ecological care’ has hardly been applied in our context, especially in academic institutes where design practices are geared towards preparing star architects for selling competitive skyline structures.

Now is the time to practise otherwise, where the goal for architecture projects is to improve the living conditions of the local population and strengthen regional identity through sustainable practices in home construction. Young architects must depart from established concepts and develop intelligent methods using material easily accessible to the rural population, like mud brick as an alternative to concrete.

The floods in Pakistan are a time of reckoning. From my practice and spatial thinking, we have to think now about how each year, more and more agricultural land is lost to residential development. I believe that if we use it wisely, architecture has the potential to contribute significantly to the restoration of ecological balance in this country.

The writer is an architect.
Twitter: @marvimazhar

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2022

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