BANGKOK, Nov 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Typhoon Nari hit Vietnam's central coast in October 2013, it damaged hundreds of houses in Danang city but left 245 specially constructed homes unscathed, prompting hopes that a project to storm-proof houses could be expanded.
Up to 122,000 people had to evacuate to higher ground before the typhoon hit the coast with wind speeds of up to 102 km per hour (63 mph), and soldiers were sent to help residents of Danang, a booming tourist destination, to reinforce their homes.
But no evacuations were needed from these 245 homes that were part of a project involving the Danang Women's Union to develop storm-resistant shelters and protect vulnerable households, many of which are run by women.
The project, which dates back to 2011, hoped to find a way to typhoon-proof homes - and avert resulting income and livelihood loss - and show investment in preparation is more effective in hazard-prone areas than spending on post-disaster recovery.
The difference was these homes were built with simple additions - thicker walls of 16 cm rather than 11 cm and attics - designed to enable them to withstand storms and floods better than other low-budget homes, according to the building plans.
"Normally poor families use plastic or bamboo frames that cannot withstand the winds," said Phong Tran, technical lead for the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) in Vietnam that was part of the project.
"We made sure houses in flood-risk areas have attics which families can escape to, and those in coastal areas have secure doors and windows," Phong told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Danang, famed for its beaches, has become a case study in Vietnam, which has more than 3,200 km (2,000 miles) of coastline and is seen by scientists as one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change, rising sea levels and more intense storms.
As Vietnam's third largest city, with close to a million people, Danang is growing fast with new golf courses, five-star resorts and condominiums competing for space with ordinary homes beside the South China Sea.
Phong said urban development on what used to be flood plains had increased the risk of homes flooding. Yet most houses, particularly those built by poor and middle-income households, were poorly built and unable to withstand tropical storms.
Poor households also find it hard to recover from storm damage because of limited compensation and high repair costs.
Aware of the heightened risks, the Danang Women's Union, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, joined forces with ISET to develop storm resistant shelters in vulnerable districts of Danang where many homes are led by single mothers and widows.
The U.S.-based non-government organisation has worked with the Danang Women's Union, which has 15 years of experience managing loans, to provide microcredit and technical support to vulnerable families.
In the past three years, ISET has trained dozens of staff and members of the Danang Women's Union on how to respond to climate change, manage disasters at a community level, and manage credit as part of a storm and flood-resistant credit and housing scheme.
This scheme lets vulnerable households borrow up to 30 million Vietnamese dong ($1,390) to modernise their homes or rebuild, union vice-president Le Thi My Hanh wrote in an email.
Loans totalling around $340,000 have been given out so far, and households repay this over three to four years, charged interest at a low rate of 0.65 percent.
Phong said an engineer checks the condition of the borrower's house and assesses the owner's needs and finances before working out what needs to be done, with a typhoon-proof house costing 20 to 25 percent more than an ordinary house.
Typhoon Nari was the first major test of the project homes - and they stood up to the challenge.
The project has been so successful that representatives of the Danang Women's Union are attending the United Nations-led climate negotiations in December in Lima, Phong said.
To date, 320 typhoon-proof homes have been built with the loans, and there are plans to build about 100 more in the next three years, Hanh said.
Phong hopes the project can be replicated in other parts of Danang and is working with the local government on a possible expansion of the scheme, as well as developing guidelines for building low-income housing.
"We have to be careful that we do not just add more procedures because poor people would be afraid and then it might be counter-productive," he said.
(Reporting by Thin Lei Win, editing by Belinda Goldsmith.)
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