CNN  — 

Pakistan’s “never-before-seen” floods have affected 33 million people, many of whom are still seeking safe refuge after record monsoon rains damaged or destroyed more than a million homes. The summer’s catastrophic flooding, which was exacerbated by melting glaciers, has submerged one-third of the country, with authorities saying it could take up to six months for the water to recede.

To address the need for emergency housing, architect Yasmeen Lari and the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan have been working around the clock to equip people in hard-hit Sindh province with the skills and materials to construct prefabricated bamboo shelters.

The shelters, called Lari OctaGreen (LOG), can be built by six or seven people within a few hours. They were initially designed in response to a 7.5-magnitude earthquake that hit northeastern Afghanistan in 2015, with a pilot program providing temporary homes to several hundred families in neighboring Pakistan, where the majority of deaths occurred. Since 2018, more than 1,200 bamboo versions have been built in disaster-prone areas. (Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable nation to the climate crisis according to the Global Climate Risk Index, despite European Union data showing that it is responsible for less than 1% of planet-warming gases).

The project aims to give people in disaster-stricken areas a sense of agency by teaching them how to build their own homes — and helping them generate income in the process, as many have lost their livelihoods. Communities are also taught ways to deal with future disasters, such as making aquifer trenches and wells to absorb rainwater.

“The people who are impacted want to contribute the most,” Lari said in a phone interview, explaining that many of the project’s artisans are from the flooded villages. They have also been helping identify who needs help and how to deliver the prefabricated parts.

“People are sitting under the sky with nothing. They are thinking: How can we work? They have no security, no privacy, no dignity,” Lari said, adding that people “don’t need handouts” but should, instead, be empowered.

Villagers use materials like mud to fortify the walls of the bamboo shelter.

‘Treat people as partners’

The shelters are designed to be low cost, low tech and low in environmental impact. “I want it to be zero carbon,” explained Lari, whose foundation has been entirely subsidizing the emergency homes at a cost of about 25,000 Pakistani rupees ($108) each. “I don’t want to create another problem in climate change by building in concrete or steel.”

Bamboo was chosen for its strength and resilience. And, because it’s commonly grown throughout the country, it’s easier to source. Two workshops have been established to cut the bamboo rods to specific sizes and then bundle them into kits. The shelters are assembled, on site, into eight sturdy panels and a roof that are then bound together by rope and covered with matting.

Where possible, “everything should be locally-sourced” Lari said. “This is a way to link up the production of housing with how people can earn immediately.”

The cross-braced bamboo walls are informed by traditional "dhijji" structures in northern Pakistan, which have withstood earthquakes in the past.

Marium, who does not have a surname, is currently living in one of the new units with her six children and husband in the village of Pono, in Sindh’s Mirpur Khas district. Speaking in Sindhi via a translator, she said word had spread about nearby shelters — built before this summer’s floods — surviving the disaster. She and other villagers began asking how to access one. Twenty-five of them have now been built in the vicinity.

Her family are grateful for the refuge but say they are worried about issues like food supplies and unemployment. They want to know how to make the structure permanent because they feel it’s safer than their previous home.

Seeing shelters that survived the summer's record monsoons prompted nearby villagers to ask about where to get one of their own.

According to Lari, enough parts for 750 have been fabricated, with a goal to reach 1,200 by early October. Around 350 of the homes have been erected so far.

The figure is “a drop in the ocean,” she said, but production is quickly being scaled up.

In the coming weeks, for example, her Karachi-based foundation plans to remotely train 30 artisans from 10 villages in Southern Punjab, which will result in a further 1,500 units per month. The Bank of Punjab is sponsoring those efforts by helping to arrange a venue equipped with the materials needed to carry out the training. It has also committed to paying the artisans’ wages and delivering bamboo and other supplies to artisans’ workshops.

Several hundred bamboo shelters have been erected so far. They can house up to eight people each.

An even simpler version of the bamboo shelter — comprising an umbrella-like roof without walls that people can cover with matting — is also being rolled out as an even faster, albeit temporary, solution.

“I want to create a completely new way of giving,” said Lari, whose disaster relief efforts are focused on capacity-building, sharing knowledge and putting those displaced in charge.

Beyond providing shelters, the Heritage Foundation has also been teaching people how to make emergency toilets, solar water stands and fish farms to ensure safer drinking water and improved food security, as well as income-generating products. Nearly 10 villages surrounding one of the main prefabrication sites are now being trained in making essential products such as the matting used to cover the shelters and mosquito nets to use and sell to each other.

“We have to change the way we work … and treat people who have been affected as partners, not as victims or (those) ready to be made into beggars.

Fish farms are created using bamboo dividers.

Barefoot social architecture

In the long-run, the bamboo shelters can be turned into permanent structures. Once the flood waters recede, they can be moved from high ground back into villages, where they are built into foundations made of lime bricks (the Heritage Foundation also teaches brickmaking as a way for people to earn money).

Villagers have been decorating the shelters with colorful textiles and paint which, according to Lari, can help impart a sense of ownership and pride. "People shouldn't feel helpless," the architect said.

Lari, who is widely recognized as Pakistan’s first ever female architect, says her profession can play a very important role in the climate crisis. But, she added, schools have traditionally been focused on turning out what she called “prima donna” architects. She hopes to someday create an incubator that teaches young designers how to engage in humanitarian work.

A “starchitect” in the 1980s, Lari designed some of Karachi’s glitziest buildings. But she developed a deepening sense of guilt over the amount of concrete and steel used, and has been “atoning” ever since. Her response to this summer’s floods is built upon nearly two decades of what she described as “barefoot social architecture” — environmentally-friendly designs that help poor and disadvantaged communities become self-sufficient.

Women making matting for the bamboo shelters.

She has also focused on giving women agency and raising their status in a male-dominated society. Her “chulah” cooking stove program, for example, was developed to offer women safer alternatives to the dangerous open-fire cooking used in rural communities. Participants are trained to build the stoves from layered mud and lime plaster, and often personalize them with paint and their own designs. Today more than 80,000 of Lari’s chulahs have been built, benefiting an estimated 600,000 people.

“Architecture isn’t just about the brick and mortar,” she said. It’s about seeing how you can help build communities.”