Oct 4, 2010

Home is where...

The government can help create options for people to build their own houses

By Dr Noman Ahmed

According to UN calendar, the World Habitat Day is commemorated on the first Monday of every October. One of the usual objectives of this day is to review the various problems faced by the population regarding shelter and associated amenities. During and after floods, Pakistan is confronted with serious challenges related to housing in the wake of disastrous damages caused to human settlements.

As waters are receding, people have begun returning to their older locations of residence in almost all the affected territories. The respective provincial governments, in association with other stakeholders, have started to formulate strategies to resettle the displaced population. It is, however, found that most of the attempts in this regard have not incorporated the lessons learned from the housing provision experiences of the past.

Sadly, some of the failed approaches are being applied which are likely to miss the target groups and their requirements. It will be appropriate if the wisdom gained from the vast housing and settlement development exercises may be considered for application.

Housing is a process, not a product. It comprises tangible and intangible attributes, such as access to livelihoods, safety, and security from natural hazards, social and physical infrastructure and more. By merely constructing a few rooms here and there and doling out to a minuscule of target population does not serve the purpose.

At present, flood affected areas and population face the grave challenge of destruction of assets, damage to the sites of their habitation and cultivation, destruction of infrastructure, monetary losses and social trauma of an extraordinary nature.

According to the rapid field assessment carried out by various international agencies, the scale of damage has been very severe which has rendered majority of building stock dysfunctional. Given the resource constraints, it will not be possible for the government to rebuild such a vast number of houses which runs into hundreds of thousands.

The government and its affiliate bodies can make a difference by adopting a catalytical approach. Means of housing provision need to be resuscitated. The foremost ingredient is land. Physical damage due to inundation, high water table, impacts due to changed topography, rise in vulnerability and ownership/occupancy disputes are some of the common problems indentified in this reference.

Whether the sailaba lands of Punjab or the cliffs of Swat same menu of problems have been faced in different intensity levels. This scenario demands a policy and programme response from provincial administrations on an urgent basis. A land use policy and plan at the district level is the first pre-requisite.

This task shall be only meaningful when inputs from revenue, forest, planning and development departments are incorporated. Meteorological information and broad climatic details shall also constitute baseline for this work.

The scale and magnitude of housing requirement is another major factor. No housing census has been done since 1998 which causes a serious problem in proper planning. It is also evident that government cannot become house builder for this vast number of affected people.

In any case, housing cannot be directly subsidised due to the enormity of the cost overlay and resource intensiveness. The government can help create enabling options for people to build their own houses and other facilities through various ways. The technical upgradation of brick kilns, mud block manufacturing facilities and building materials shops is one intervention that will have far-reaching effects.

Common people have social and economic linkages with such commercial enterprises that generate their improvised mechanisms of technical advice and material credit to their clientele. The skill development upgradation of artisans such as masons, carpenters and earth workers can be facilitated by relevant government departments.

The Sindh Technical and Vocational Authority, which has spread out training centres all across the province, has already begun addressing skill development needs of displaced population. Un Habitat and other organisations are preparing to extend appropriate technical advice to governmental and non-governmental stakeholders.

University departments are extending expert assistance to come up with solutions and support in the improvisation of available options. Local and national NGOs have geared up social mobilisation, though it needs to be scaled up to make communities capable to receiving various inputs. Other bodies can also contribute after examining the niche areas and sectors.

The scenario of present disaster and its impact can turn into an opportunity if the government and other stakeholders come up with a timely response. It shall help minimise the predicament of peopled and utilize the scanty resources of the state.

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