Affordability, tradition dampen Bangladeshi demand for storm-proof homes

A man carries his son as he makes his way through a flooded area in Bogra, Bangladesh August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

"The aim was to design resilient floating homes that enable families to stay and survive the aftermath of extreme flooding"

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK - Floating homes in Bangladesh's coastal areas can protect millions of people from storms and the worsening effects of climate change while also boosting livelihoods, the creator of a revolutionary prototype said on Thursday.

The 196 square metre (21,100 square feet) home - which has a chicken coop, fish tank, vegetable garden and solar panels - is built on a floating platform of recycled plastic that enables it to rise above floodwaters by sliding on two guideposts.

The structure can withstand cyclones, earthquakes and riverbank erosion, said Nandan Mukherjee, a researcher at the University of Dundee in Scotland, who made the prototype with assistance from the BRAC University in Dhaka.

"People are not willing to abandon their homes and move because they risk losing their livelihood," he said.

"So the aim was to design resilient floating homes that enable families to stay and survive the aftermath of extreme flooding while producing food, water and energy, and ways to make a living," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Each home can be built for about $12,000, said Mukherjee, who made three prototypes on Dularchar, a remote island on the Ganges river, south of Dhaka.

Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to climate change. About a third of the low-lying country - home to 45 million people - is exposed to sea level rise, storm surges, tidal flooding, and coastal erosion, according to the United Nations.

About 10 million people - mostly poor farmers and fishermen - live on sand and silt islands known as chars, which change shape constantly as they erode and reform.

Mukherjee used local materials like bamboo and a traditional building design. He also involved local communities.

"Their input not only improved the structural design, but ensured a sense of ownership," said Mukherjee, who said he was spurred into action after meeting a woman who had lost a child in a flood.

The prototype last month won the Risk Award supported by the U.N. disaster prevention agency.

Current approaches for coastal disasters often focused on large-scale engineered constructions such as flood walls and embankments, which saved lives but rarely addressed "underlying causes of vulnerability", the award citation said.

Mukherjee's model incorporates a rainwater harvesting unit, and a sanitation system that converts waste from the kitchen, toilet and chicken coop to generate methane gas that can be used as cooking fuel.

The 100,000-euro ($112,330) prize money will be used to fine tune the design to lower costs, so the homes can be more accessible to rural communities around the world, he said.

A bigger challenge is fighting deep-rooted social norms and traditions that hold these communities back, Mukherjee said.

"The local elites were not keen on empowerment of poorer members. They were also of the view that poor families couldn't maintain such houses, that they didn't even deserve to stay in such structures," he said.

"But sustainable living is one of the crucial paths to combat current and projected climate change and environmental degradation."

($1 = 0.8902 euros)

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