Do you recall the good old days –just a few months ago, actually – when Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani received his vote of confidence from the National Assembly? I say good old days because the post-election euphoria had driven everyone to the belief that democratic forces had seized the spectre of power. Just the week before, the prime minister had announced that the chief justice and other incarcerated judges would be freed, and without formal orders the guards outside the CJ House in Islamabad melted away. How silly of us to have kept such high hopes.
The restoration of the judiciary isn’t the only issue that faces an improbable future. On the date of his vote of confidence, the prime minister also committed to the construction of a million houses each year for low-income housing groups. A very timely announcement. The housing shortage is a crisis on par with the judicial crises, and in many ways exacerbated by it. Consider: within 10 years, half of Pakistan will live in urban areas. As of today, however, more than half of the Pakistanis who live in cities already live in slums. You can guess where the next decade’s urban immigrants will live. We have a housing stock estimated at 19.3 million units (this according to the hopelessly out-dated 1998 census quoted in the National Housing Policy 2001). The housing back-log at the time was 4.3 million units with an annual demand approaching 570,000 units per year. According to the projections from the census, the current housing shortage is over seven million units and counting. Using the official average of 6.6 persons per household, we’re talking of over 45 million people without housing. And with the paradigm-shifting change in urban/rural demographics expected in the next few years, this figure of every fourth Pakistani without a roof over his head is merely a best-case scenario. The fact that there’s no institution in this Islamic Republic that can adjudicate a dispute means that any roti, kapra and makaan sloganeering is eye-wash. The future of housing is bleak indeed.
Then Kaleem Omar came along and tried to dash whatever hopes that may have existed that the prime minister’s commitment would be honoured. Writing in this paper, Mr Omar correctly pointed out that the government of Pakistan simply doesn’t have the money to pay for one million houses for low-income families. He estimated that the construction costs themselves could easily exceed Rs250 billion per annum. Then he pointed out that our building materials industry may not have the capacity required to meet the huge quantities of cement, bricks, steel cables, sanitary wares, tiles, pipes and related building materials needed to meet the challenge. And then he pointed out the electricity, or lack thereof. You get the idea.
Mr Omar is not a spoil sport. He merely reminds us of the reality the Powers That Be conveniently avoid. “Tokenism,” he says, “no matter how well-intentioned it may be, simply will not work.” I agree. But thankfully, some of Mr Omar’s arguments are specious (I mean that in the nicest way); there may be hope yet for housing in our blighted land.
There’s a house in Gurgaun, just outside New Delhi, that was designed by Gernot Minke, the German architect and “pope” of earth architecture. It stands in a similar climate to, say, Lahore but is made almost entirely of unbaked mud and locally quarried stone (there is some steel and cement for the earthquake band, though). Natural light is used to illuminate the building in the day, and conical rooftops ensure that positive air pressure is maintained inside the house, keeping the bugs, insects and dust out. It also boasts a remarkable earth tunnel air conditioning system that keeps the ambient temperature close to 26C but on one-tenth of the electricity needed by conventional air conditioners.
I’m not suggesting that low-income groups be forced to copy Minke’s plan. I am, however, pointing out that viable alternatives exist to the expensive and scarce building materials that are currently used in house construction. Rammed earth, a construction material as old as time itself, is an environmentally friendly, sustainable, durable, load bearing, heat resistant, cheap, energy and cost efficient alternative to bricks, steel and cement. It’s also fast to produce, and prefabricated rammed earth walls can be churned out to meet the demands of the low-income housing commitment made by the prime minister without the costs and energy inefficiencies that would arise if the same buildings were made, as they are in current practice, of bricks and cement. And if anyone is concerned about how the walls and floors would look, don’t worry. New technology means that rammed earth construction materials can be polished and painted to resemble stone and marble, for instance. So the “the-common-man-won’t-agree-because-he-wants-a-traditional-pucca-house” argument doesn’t hold its ground either. In fact, rammed earth should be a prescribed building material in our building regulations.
Other sustainable and environmentally friendly practices are available which can be used to provide cheap, energy efficient and abundantly available. Passive cooling and heating techniques, like the one used in Minke’s Gurgaon house, can be used to reduce domestic electricity needs. Rooftop foliage can provide additional insulation and is also a means to harvest rain-water. Gray water collection and treatment, coupled with solar water heaters (now available in the market and getting cheaper and cheaper) can reduce demands for water and gas utilities. Rammed earth buildings can be built as high as three to four stories, so a high-density, low-rise and mixed land-use area can be conceived that will lessen even the need for automobile transport. Available land remains a concern. But this is merely a problem to be overcome, not something that puts a stop to creative thinking.
These houses would not only be cheaper to build, they would consume a fraction of the energy and resources required in current building construction practices. One million low-income houses may be impossible. One million environmentally friendly houses a year, on the other hand, is possible. It would a challenge. But it is possible.
I may sound as if I’m speaking of dream world. I may as well be. Pakistan’s energy, water, population, housing and population problems are now so acute that our options are running out. As this happens, sustainable development practices appear to be more and more attractive. I’m surprised, in fact, given the current and forecast loadshedding, that our cities haven’t turned to environmentally-friendly building techniques. Across the world, cities and countries are embracing the possibilities of eco-friendliness. Some weeks ago, I wrote about the Masdar Initiative, Abu Dhabi’s announcement that it intends to construct the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Last week, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (sort of like the KDA or CDA) announced the launch of a estidama (sustainability) program to introduce green building laws and regulations in the emirate. Examples abound. Why must we remain atrophied?
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@ nexlinx.net.pk
Source: The News, 2/6/2008