ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) –In the hope that better buildings will lessen the devastation caused by earthquakes, Pakistan has started construction on 16,000 disaster-resistant homes in the southwestern Baluchistan province – and is equipping them with solar power.
The new houses are being built in Awaran, an off-grid district that was struck by two major earthquakes only four days apart in September 2013. More than 500 people were killed and around 20,000 houses destroyed.
According to the plan, 80 percent of the 4 billion-rupee ($40.6 million) budget will be spent on rebuilding collapsed housing units and the rest on providing solar energy to all of the new homes.
“It is an owner-driven programme and we hope to complete all the reconstruction work and installation of solar-energy panels in two and half years,” said Aziz Jamali, director of the project being run by the Baluchistan government.
The owner of every house set to be reconstructed will get 250,000 rupees ($2,500) in four instalments, Jamali explained, adding that funding would be stopped to any beneficiary who fails to observe the safety standards issued by the provincial government in the rebuilding process. The first instalment of 88,000 rupees ($900) was released on May 21.
Jamali said the design of the new disaster-resilient homes was decided after detailed discussions with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority, the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority and engineers at NED University in Karachi.
The houses will have 18-inch-thick walls and galvanized-iron sheet roofing, to help them stand up to earthquake shock waves. Each will also include evacuation routes, as many of the victims of the 2013 earthquakes died trapped under debris when they couldn't escape their homes.
To help reduce the building costs “indigenous materials (such mud, wood, stone and straw) will be used instead of concrete, cement and steel bars,” Jamali said, noting that mud houses do less damage than concrete structures when they collapse.
According to Jamali, new homes should “be able to bear an earthquake up to 8 magnitude."
According to the 1998 census, there are around 20 million homes in Pakistan. Brig Syed Wajid Raza, chief of staff of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, said that 75 percent of those homes are located on seismic fault lines.
THIRD IN EARTHQUAKE RISK
“We need structural mitigation and engineering solutions to combat earthquakes and other natural disasters,” he said, adding that with an average of 114 earthquakes hitting Pakistan each year, the country is behind only Japan and Turkey as one of the countries most vulnerable to tremors.
Other countries will be watching to see if Pakistan's reconstruction project proves effective.
According to a 2011 World Bank report on climate change, disaster risk and the urban poor, close to 1.2 billion people – 20 percent of the world’s population – live in highly earthquake-prone areas.
Half of the world’s cities are located on seismic fault lines, the report said, and the population in areas with a significant probability of experiencing major earthquakes is projected to increase from 370 million in 2000 to 870 million in 2050.
If the new homes in Awaran save lives, other nations could follow Pakistan's example, experts said. But the real challenge, said Pervaiz Amir, an environmental expert and former member of the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change, is ensuring that homeowners build to the approved design, which will require careful monitoring and evaluation of each house in the district.
RISKS OF CUTTING CORNERS
Disaster-resistant methods and materials drive up the cost of construction by up to 30 percent, he said, leading many people to settle for cheaper, and less safe, options.
As well as insisting the new homes are up to code, Amir suggested the government ban the construction of high-rise buildings in disaster-prone areas and introduce insurance schemes to compensate people in the wake of a natural calamity.
The project in Awaran focuses mainly on private homes, but the push for better buildings goes further.
Idrees Mahsud, director of Disaster Risk Reduction at the National Disaster Management Authority, said his organisation is doing hazard and risk assessments in urban and rural areas across Pakistan, paying special attention to disaster-resistant construction for schools and hospitals. That includes things such as ensuring new public buildings use steel and cement pillars to increase their structural strength, he said.
To anyone concerned about the higher cost of building to safer standards, Mahsud notes that Pakistan has suffered a cumulative loss of over $20 billion in the last 10 years due to the destruction of infrastructure by floods and earthquakes.
“It is an investment to build disaster-resilient structures," he said. "And we should not compromise on human safety just to save a few hundred pennies."
Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at email@example.com