Pakistani Architect Pioneers Fresh Approach To Disaster Relief

By Zofeen T Ebrahim
Eco-Business, September 2, 2014

Yasmeen Lari has built over 40,000 low-cost shelters using just mud, lime and bamboo. “You don’t need wood, cement and steel to build strong homes,” she says.

Lari was the first woman to qualify as an architect in Pakistan and now directs local humanitarian NGO the Heritage Foundation. Her team of architects and engineers started experimenting with new materials in disaster relief after the great flood of 2010 submerged a fifth of Pakistan, left 2,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Their shelters in Sindh Province, says Lari, have since withstood year after year of flooding.

Last year she visited Darya Khan Sheikh, a village on the banks of the Indus River, which the Heritage Foundation helped to rebuild after the 2010 devastation. “The village was flooded with up to four feet of water but the houses were intact, their grain and water was safe,” Lari told “Only a little plaster had come off the walls.”

Established by Lari in 1980, the Heritage Foundation’s original mandate was conservation of cultural sites. But it turned to post-disaster reconstruction after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the adjoining North West Frontier Province in 2005.

The materials used by Lari’s team are local, cheap and have a low-carbon footprint. “Mud is recyclable and it’s everywhere; bamboo is very strong and environmentally sustainable and you can get a new bamboo crop every two years,” she explains. “Lime is the only material that requires small amount of fuel to heat it, but twigs are enough and so there is no need to chop mature trees or burn any fossil fuel.”

Lari has designed some of Karachi’s biggest buildings – her signature glass and granite edifices have a distinctive mark, though she says she wouldn’t build much of it again.  After more than 30 years as a commercial architect Lari gave it up in 2000 to devote her time to writing. “I am no longer tied to what the client wants; it has freed me,” she says.

“Mud is recyclable and it’s everywhere; bamboo is very strong and environmentally sustainable and you can get a new bamboo crop every two years,” says Yasmeen Lari, head of Heritage Foundation Pakistan.

Her new clients are the poor and disenfranchised. “I have always maintained that they need to be given the same degree of importance as is given to corporate clients,” she says.  Her aim is to teach villagers how to “make their buildings long-lasting”.

Unsustainable disaster relief

With increasingly erratic weather patterns the world is growing more vulnerable to extreme weather events and Pakistan is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries. Paradoxically, those coming forward to provide humanitarian aid after extreme events promote construction with steel and cement thereby increasing carbon emissions and contributing to the climate change that triggers these events.

Lari argues the current model of disaster relief work will have to change: “There are scores of NGOs and international organizations that come with good intentions to rebuild but in the process leave a huge carbon imprint.” Read more…

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