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When threats loom, portable houses you can break down quickly, carry away and reassemble later offer a way to cut losses
In Bangladesh, where worsening river erosion and other disasters destroy huge numbers of homes each year, one innovation could cut losses and build resilience: “mobile” houses that can be dismantled, moved and reassembled in a matter of hours.
The light-weight homes, developed by a flood-prone Bangladeshi community with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Australian Aid, use low-cost, locally available materials and can be quickly carried away without the need for trucks or other equipment.
In Sariakandi, an area in northern Bangladesh, floods regularly inundate homes, most recently during the 2014 monsoon.
The floods heavily damage houses, which are the key assets of rural poor people. The loss of houses and belongings can push families into extreme poverty, and repeated losses can keep them there permanently, experts say.
To cope with the problem, the Sariakandi community, with international help, developed the new homes, which families can quickly dismantle by unscrewing the components, stacking the pieces and carrying them to higher ground.
Once flooding subsides, the owners can take the homes back and reassemble them in their original location in a couple of hours, which helps people recover quickly after a flood. So far, about 200 of the most at-risk household in Sariakandi have the new homes.
“The 2014 flood washed away my home and all my assets, and I was living by the river bank in a shack, with no hope for improvement of my situation,” said Mohammad Aurangzeb Shuruj, whose family is one of those living in the new homes.
“But after I got the (portable) house, things turned around,” he said. “Since then there hasn’t been any major flood. But if there is one, I feel more secure as I won’t lose my house and become destitute like I did before.”
The innovation is particularly crucial for Bangladesh, where half of all disaster-related losses come from damage to homes, and families – particularly in areas without strong early warning systems – have little time to try to save their homes or belongings during a flood or if riverbank erosion threatens the family.
The country, often counted among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change, is facing worsening flooding, erosion, storms and other weather-related problems as global warming speeds up water cycles, bringing more erratic and concentrated rain, scientists say.
The portable housing project is part of efforts by the United Nations Development Programme, through its Early Recovery Facility, to close the gap between disaster relief and long-term recovery efforts.
Khurshid Alam, the assistant country director for UNDP Bangladesh, said getting communities involved in identifying their key problems and finding solutions to them is crucial, and the resulting solutions work better than those imposed from outside agencies.
In Sariakandi, local carpenters and house builders were called in to help come up with the new home design, which is not only resistant to floods but can also be dismantled with river erosion is imminent, he said.
The homes panels are made of wood and corrugated iron sheets, cheap materials that are locally available. Floors are either of concrete or mud, depending on the family’s economic status.
“Climate change and the changed development landscape have brought in many challenges that can’t be solved by traditional development approaches. We need to bring in new approaches, and that can only be done by a shift in paradigm from control to support,” Alam said.
Protecting Bangladesh’s rural settlements from extreme weather and other climate change impacts will be vital to efforts to end poverty, and that innovations such as the new “mobile” homes need to be adopted as part of government development efforts to ensure their widespread use.
Sohara Mehroze Shachi , a graduate of Yale University, works at UNDP Bangladesh. She leads the South Asia hub of Climate Tracker and writes on a freelance basis on climate change and resilience issues.