A hearteningly successful long-term rebuilding program in Pakistan – and its humbling implications

If it seems like an impossible endeavor to flip a global substandard housing crisis, you haven’t been keeping up with the Karachi Chapter of Architecture for Humanity.

The Chapter rocketed into action in 2010, responding to the Indus River floods that inundated 1/5 of the country and displaced 20 million Pakistanis – 11% of the country’s population. A reconstruction grant enabled the chapter to lead the development of dozens of community-built low-cost housing units, with new infrastructure, and the reconstruction of two entire villages in Sindh Province.

Compared to the disaster, the work of any single program would be modest. Yet this initial intervention was only the beginning of a larger-scale reconstruction movement that perpetuates today with continued and additional support, and is causing cultural and gender reforms. And all evidence suggests this reconstruction “movement” is building one more unspecified thing: momentum.

Voluntary response

An outfit of three members and 96 volunteers, the Karachi Chapter has been collaborating with Karachi-based architecture and planning office Arcop Associates to continue its reconstruction work of villages, houses, schools and clinics in Sindh and Punjab Provinces.

The Chapter recently posted follow up report with some heartening news: design and reconstruction work is ONGOING, and that the original housing and village work has expanded with further funding and replicating successes – resembling an ideal for how long-term reconstruction efforts should actually perform!

The report notes that approximately having completed 930 housing units as of June 2013, with 350 additional units in three Sindh villages underway, alongside work on external development (courtyards, drainage and sanitation, livestock and tree planting), and so on. Additionally, in case this sounds like the work of a strictly prescriptive affair, surveys regarding social mobilization are being conducted, focusing on potential development of education and health facilities.

Village children in Nodo Baran, testing out new walls
Village children in Nodo Baran, evaluating a rebuilt public square

Map of Pakistan, its drainage and flood zones
Pakistan breaks down into a handful of provinces (and disputed zones) that roughly align with ethnic groups. Karachi, a city of 10 million people, lies near the mouth of the Indus. Sindh and Punjab, became focus areas for flood reconstruction – in part due to proximity (manageability). The recent earthquake occurred in Baluchistan, a province with a strong separatist contingent. Much of the Fluvial Floods area shown were stricken in 2010.

‘Social mobilization,’ according to AFH Karachi, provides tools for villages to take charge – “to create their own groups or community organizations, empowering them to manage [on] their own” and lead community development. Designers can only guide a village in rebuilding – otherwise, the social fabric is not strong and self-dependent.

“Our current focus is on community rebuilding, with emphasis on education and health initiatives in the post flood rural areas, while simultaneously mobilizing the communities socially,” Mahboob Khan explains. “AFH Karachi Chapter is collaborating with organizations such as The Citizens Foundation, Imran Khan Foundation and Indus Hospital, that support and initiate health and educational programs across Pakistan.”

“All Karachi Chapter projects are supported by Arcop, which provides the role of Architect on Record.” Khan, along with Hina Siddiqui are the two (female, I should acknowledge) chapter organizers – both employed at Arcop. You could say they liaise between the for-profit world (and its resources), and their compassionate non-required nonprofit work.

“The work is conducted during and outside office hours, depending on the development stage of the AfH projects.” Concept design is developed by the principal architects at Arcop, followed by development and management by in-house architects – approximately 12 of them, each one volunteering to help the chapter.

“In addition the support of engineers has been invaluable. M&B, a well-reputed structural engineering firm in Pakistan, has volunteered their expertise to design the homes, schools, tanks, etc., to withstand flood waters.” Similarly, the water supply, soak pits and electrical designs have all been provided gratis by a team of dedicated engineers.

Additional support in Karachi comes from Arcop’s 3D visualization team, draftspeople and student interns.

Work on the ground is mostly carried out by program partners and local groups. “The projects are constructed by locally recruited contractors and laborers, or recruited from the closest city. Depending on the construction material, the local villagers are trained to assist in the construction process. Local village women have also been actively involved in the overall internal and external finishes of the housing units. All project management and daily supervision is carried [out] by volunteers and paid staff of Karachi Relief Trust (KRT). AFH volunteers continue to support this effort on a weekly basis.”

The AFH volunteers have been involved since initial surveys documenting the villages. Additionally, KRT Project Supervisors update AFH Karachi on progress through photographs and tabulated data sheets.

Funding comes from Karachi Relief Trust, a Pakistan based disaster management voluntary organization, and international sources such as Google Earth. The educational projects (discussed below) receive funding from The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which focuses on providing education for urban and rural areas across Pakistan.

The survey, two pages of questions

Community member taking a survey on preferred further design interventions
AFH Karachi surveyed five villages around Sujawal (Sindh Province) to determine the needs for health and educational facilities. Currently, extensive surveys are being carried out to collect data for education and health intervention in the villages, Khan notes. Teams of doctors continue to voluntarily provide health camps in the AFH project villages of Rajanpur Bastis and Sujawal, until permanent health units are set up.

Rajanpur district in Punjab was subject to study and intervention by the program partners earlier this year. In addition to the infrastructure improvements, new housing and schools, the designers sought to keep an emphasis on community participation.

Village Level Operation and Maintenance (VLOM) training will be provided to a nascent corps of Young Village Volunteers selected from within the community. This program seeks to instill ownership and build capacity of locals to be stewards of the rebuilt villages – a model the Chapter hopes can be replicated in rebuilding projects throughout the developing world.

Housing begets empowerment

I asked Ms. Khan to catch us up on how the original project villages, rebuilt in 2011, were faring. Twenty-nine housing units were rebuilt in Goth Angario, while Nodo Baran saw twelve new structures go up, in addition to a slew of infrastructure projects – common courts, livestock leveling floors, village periphery walls, elevated water tanks, septic tanks, seepage pits, surface tanks, sanitation and water supplies, and the planting of indigenous trees.

Both villages had been severely damaged by the floods. The initial analysis by AFH Karachi reported that “[the] population lives in deplorable conditions, with minimum or no infrastructure, water or sanitation facilities. Nodo Baran is a community of small-scale fishermen, residing on government owned land. The average income of the villagers is $46 per month. Goth Angario is a village of field workers, with an average monthly income of $69. The village land is owned by the local families and has existed for the last 45 years.”

“The villagers are well settled in their new homes,” she replied. “There has been a drastic difference in the built environment of the villages.”

Where previously only mud huts existed, the villagers now own permanent houses in brick, stone or block, and defined spaces allocated for their livestock, sanitation and drainage facilities, running water, solar pumps, paved, pathways…. Basically, all the infrastructure needs that were assessed have now been met.

And the effects have been monumental – especially for women.

Finishing touches on new, permanent housing-a local smooths a concrete window sill
Finishing touches on new, permanent housing

Aerial view of Goth Angario Jati village, including over a dozen structures completely rebuilt in stone
Aerial view of Goth Angario Jati village

New two-bedroom stone housing unit, shared courtyard and overhead water tank in Nodo Baran village
New two-bedroom stone housing unit, shared courtyard and overhead water tank in Nodo Baran village

Nodo Baran villagers enjoying shared outdoor spaces on a regionally-typical nomadic bedframe
Nodo Baran villagers enjoying shared outdoor spaces

“On one of my visits,” relates Khan, “a village resident took me aside and thanked me for changing her lifestyle. I was surprised and elated by her response.”

In Sindh, many women and children suffer from renal disease – kidney failure. AFH Karachi’s specifications for running water and private washrooms and soak pits for each home had revolutionized day-to-day life patterns.

The villager related to Khan that prior to the provision of these facilities she would walk at least half a kilometer away from her village after dawn each morning to relieve herself.

“And during the day, because she felt embarrassed, she would refrain from drinking any water (in the heat), to avoid further trips. After dark, when it was quiet in the village, she would go out a second time.”

Small changes like this quickly lead to shifts in gender roles.

Layout plan of Village Sujawal Ward 1
Revised landscape plan of Ket Jhakera. New trees, complementing ones now growing post-flood can be harvested for fruit or medicine. Existing trees include Keekar (Arabic gum), Peepal (Sacred Fig), Badaam (nuts), and Safeeda (Eucalyptus). Coconut Palm and Ficus trees are further proposed, along with bougainvillea, to be planted on low height boundary walls that enclose masjids, fruit orchards and housing clusters. 

New permanent (stone) housing in Sindh
New permanent (stone) housing in Sindh

“Similarly, in Punjab, when we started out, there was an absence of participation in community work by the local women, where they are segregated and hidden in the patriarchal community,” Khan continues.

Thanks to the a KRT Project Manager, these barriers were broken. With his dedication towards rebuilding their lives, he became a father figure, and developed a trust with the women of the area.

“They became actively involved in building and upkeep of their homes. Now they are proud house occupants.” The Punjab villages received similar attention regarding running water and washrooms.

“The women no longer cover long distances for daily provision of water. They are now able to utilize the time to keep their homes clean, and attend to their children.”

“Furthermore KRT and AFH volunteers were able to impress upon the Sardar (local landlord), to give the women land rights to their homes. Previously this was unheard of!”

With this change, the local women have become secure and independent. Social awareness has drastically increased, and the women are now requesting assistance with education and health facilities. “Consequently our primary schools are under way along with small health units in the villages.”

This is how a project builds a chain reaction. Who’s to say when the reaction will end?

Plan and Front Elevations, Jangesar Secondary TCF School
Plan and Front Elevations, Jangesar Secondary School supported by The Citizens Foundation. The segregation of genders in schools on the secondary level is preferred in Pakistani society – rural or urban – but not necessary. TCF employs school and courtyard gender separation in all its schools – a peculiar but successful means of advocating coeducation.

Pakistan Floods year 3: Excavation work at Rajanpur TCF Primary School site
Pakistan Floods year 3: Excavation work at Rajanpur TCF Primary School site

Inaugural ceremony in Jangesar
Inaugural ceremony in Jangesar. Since the land on which our reconstruction work is undertaken is owned by local landowners (‘Sardar’ or chieftain), community based projects, particularly schools and masjids [mosques] have inauguration ceremonies. Inaugural ceremonies are attended by the Sardar, villagers, the donors and design team members. A speech is given by he Sardar, together with other project members, encouraging the villagers to actively utilize such spaces, and participate in the community building effort.

Development Drawings for Bamboo Screens
Development Drawings for Bamboo Screens

Completed bamboo screens in Nodo Baran
Completed bamboo screens in Nodo Baran

Completed porch & lighting
Completed porch & lighting


Pride would (and should) naturally accompany such accomplishment – and the steadfastness to continue good work for thousands in need is, to say the least, admirable. However a larger issue remains: flood affected villages in Sindh and Punjab are but a tiny fraction of the global need for quality (read: human rights-satisfying) shelter.

Slums are an issue on one hand (see Ananya Roy’s latest #GlobalPOV video yet?), and rural housing, the focus in this AFH Karachi program, lie on the other end of the spectrum of vulnerable communities. The recent earthquake in Baluchistan Province reminds us of the fragility of living conditions, and the political environment that can stymie relief.

The incomparable resource of willing, able and indeed, stubborn, professionals, like those joining Architecture for Humanity’s robust and growing Chapter Network, cannot address the human right to good shelter without 1) a disaster drawing attention to it; 2) mountains of immediate support from generous and compassionate funding partners; and 3) perpetuated visibility of a years-long rebuilding program.

Earlier this month Gizmodo posted an uncharacteristically non-tech list of 9 Massive Refugee Camps That Are Home to 1.5 Million. The blog’s author admits he intentionally ran it during “our annual iPhone circle jerk week,” and it’s garnered reception reflecting the thoughts of one commentator: “Most (not all) people on [Gizmodo] that love technology don’t even realize some of the hardships going on in the world.”

Evidently a lot of our best outside-the-box thinkers have trouble thinking outside the bubble.


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