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Earthly matters: Pakistan`s very own pyramids

May 16, 2010

With their unique pyramid shaped roofs and breezy verandahs, they certainly don't look like your typical homes for low income families. What is even more special about these one-room structures is that they have been adapted to climate change and are both earthquake and cyclone resistant. “I can't wait to move into my house”, a resident of Jaffar Jamari village, located just off the Indus Highway in District Thatta informed me as she pointed to her newly constructed house, a few meters away from the rickety wooden shack in which she currently resides with six other members of her family. “Last month there was a big storm and our roof got blown away. At least we won't have to worry about that anymore!” Increased intensity of storms and flooding is what climate change has in store for the residents of coastal areas, so these solid houses made of compressed earth blocks and disaster resistant column and beam bearing construction can offer them some refuge.

These low cost homes for the poor are being built in Karachi, Thatta and Badin by the UNDP's Global Environment Facility's Small Grants Programme whose office is located in nearby Hyderabad city. They are the brain child of the Small Grants Programme's National Coordinator, Masood Lohar, who explains “we were doing research on low cost, energy efficient housing for the past eight years and our Benazir model constructed in Badin turned out to be the best product of our research”. The Government of Sindh was so impressed by their energy efficient design (and low cost) that they selected the model for their People's Housing Cell. In November 2008, the Government of Sindh signed a co-financing agreement with the UNDP to replicate 500 houses in the coastal belt of Sindh (200 houses each in Badin and Thatta and 100 in Karachi). These 500 houses of the initial pilot project have already been completed and President Zardari has come to one of the inauguration ceremonies. The project is still ongoing.

The moving spirit behind this technology that uses compressed earth blocks instead of bricks and a steel pyramid roof is Professor Javed Shah of NED University in Karachi. Further adaptations were incorporated as the UNDP team experimented on the house, known as the 'Benazir Model'. The innovative design has been appreciated not just by the poor who can live comfortably in these cool, cheerful homes (the fibre glass pyramid roofs allow for the flow of air and let in the light), but has also been recognized at a global level. In 2009, Masood Lohar travelled to Washington DC to attend the Global South-South Expo where he gave a presentation on these special houses. They were soon singled out as “a global solution for energy efficient, earthquake resistant, low cost housing for the poor” by delegates from all over the world. There was even a proposal to title them “Pyramids of Pakistan”!

The American civil society organisations working in New Orleans proposed to merge their 'Katrina Model' (which was built after the hurricane which struck New Orleans) with Pakistan's 'Benazir Model' to come up with a third perfect model for housing for the poor. Upon his return to Pakistan, Masood says he was flooded with inquiries from various ambassadors, civil society organisations and multilateral funding agencies asking whether they could replicate this technology in other parts of the world.

Back in Jaffar Jamari village, where 25 new homes have been built for this otherwise ramshackle settlement, the people are thrilled. It is at least 10 degrees cooler inside the homes than outside so that means that even if there is constant load-shedding, the villagers don't have to suffer as much and on windy days no electricity is required for fans. The arch foundation also keeps out dampness and salinity (a big problem in coastal areas) while there is minimal use of wood in the construction so trees are being saved. There are communal latrines and bathrooms and the kitchen area is outside the houses in the courtyard area.

A newly married bride has recently shifted into the family's new house and she is clearly happy to find herself living in such a clean, cool home. “Yes, I like it a lot,” she says shyly. “I wish everyone could have their own home like this”. The only problem is that even though they are houses for the poor, a large family will have to share the small interior, since the government is only giving out one house per family. The hope is there, of course, that others will be inspired by the design and low cost and they might just start constructing these houses on their own. One day, one might actually see these pyramids dotting the country's rural and urban landscapes!

Written under the aegis of the CSE Media Fellowships