Kerala gears up to combat calamities with new tech

By K Rajendran

In the run-up to the observance of the first anniversary of the torrential floods that wreaked havoc in Kerala claiming 483 lives and causing a loss of Rs 310 billion (Rs 31,000 crore), many Keralites are now graciously remembering architect Laurie Baker, who had relentlessly campaigned for building eco-friendly, low-cost houses that could withstand natural disasters in this ecologically fragile state. For a common Keralite who is still passionate about building pompous bungalows, this has been the lesson from the 2018 floods. “Till last August, I was dreaming of a superb 3,000 sqft multi-storeyed mansion. But today, I prefer a simple and pretty ‘green’ building which can withstand all kinds of natural calamities,” said Mukundan Menon, who lives in Thiruvananthapuram city. His change of heart was despite the fact that last year’s floods had not affected him in any way. According to the government of Kerala, 2,51,227 houses were damaged in the aftermath of the flood. Of them, 14,886 had collapsed irretrievably. Most of those houses that had collapsed have now been rebuilt or repaired. But, can they withstand yet another calamity? “We cannot ensure safety unless and until all the future constructions in the state strictly adhere to environmental norms,” warned PH Kurian, former convener, Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. Eco houses thrive in sinking delta island Villages and urban centres in Kerala were both badly affected by the 2018 flood. Many cities and towns have already recovered. But in the villages situated in the ESAs (environmentally sensitive areas), spread over 9,993 sq km of fragile region, anxiety still persists. Mundrothuruthu, the ‘sinking delta island’ in Kollam district, which is situated at the confluence of Kallada river and Ashtamudi lake, has been routinely facing climate change-related issues. Houses, offices and roads have been getting flooded during high tides. In the last floods, at least 200 houses in this village collapsed. P Rajendran, a resident of the island, was one of the victims of the floods. His well-furnished concrete house was completely destroyed. In fact, 10 months after the calamity when Mongabay-India met with Rajendran he sounded unperturbed and optimistic. His new house, a 550-sqft ‘pre-stressed house’ consisting of two bedrooms, a hall, a kitchen and a toilet, was built by the teachers and students of TKM Engineering College, Kollam, funded by the college alumni. Since his childhood, floods and climate change-related calamities have been a regular occurrence. In fact, Rajendran sounded confident: “My pre-stressed house can withstand any disaster. Look how strong its foundation is.” The Rs 600,000 house was built within a short span of 30 days. “We used pre-fabricated, pre-stressed technology for concrete panels which are 30 times stronger than traditional construction materials. They can hold out against any kind of natural calamities,” said S Ayoob, Principal, TKM Engineering College. Apart from two more houses that are being built in Mundrothuruthu island, a set of ‘infill houses’, low-cost eco-friendly houses, the brainchild of TKM Engineering College, will be erected in the worst affected Pandanoor and Buthanoor villages in Alapuzha district. Despite its environmental volatility, tourists continue to visit Mundrothuruthu. The scenario in its low-lying areas, however, does not present a pretty picture. The walls of the traditional houses here, most of them owned by fishermen, look socked, the persistent rattling of saline wind being the villain. In fact, in the middle of the remnants, on the shore of a rivulet, stands the tiny but striking house owned by 67-year-old Gopinathan. “Sleepless nights are over, today I am perfectly safe,” asserted Gopinathan. His home, that dovetailed many aspects of the amphibious building style, was donated by a political party. These days the island is a beehive of researchers, environmentalists and philanthropists with innovations for safe houses. Nanma Girish, a civil engineer and co-founder of Nestabide, has been trying to experiment with the Maasbommel (situated in the Netherlands) model of amphibious buildings in Mundrothuruthu. “Related to my research I have recently visited amphibious buildings in Maasbommel. These kinds of buildings can withstand most of the challenges faced by the people of Munronthuruthu,” said Girish. During normal days, the Netherlands model amphibious house, like ordinary houses, rests on the ground, but when floodwaters come, its buoyant foundation lifts it up. “At least 200 houses have to be immediately reconstructed. All models are being meticulously scrutinised. We have to make sure we can afford them,” said Binu Karunakaran, president of Mundrothuruthu Grama Panchayat. Prefab houses boom in Kuttanad Like with Mundrothuruthu , flooding was not a new phenomenon in Kuttanad, a region in central Kerala that lies around 1.2 to 3.0 metres below sea level and is famous for its bio-saline farming and houseboat tourism. However, the floods last August were the worst ever here in modern times, with thousands of houses being flooded. About 270,000 people had to be evacuated and 8500 hectares of paddy fields were destroyed. Here, some elevated houses being constructed in ‘prefab style’ are ushering in fresh hope. “More than my safety, I want to allay the fear of tourists who come here. That’s why I am erecting a prefab house at a cost of Rs. one million,” said K. Unnikrishanan, who runs a homestay in Kuttanad. Another new prefab house situated in Kavalam is owned by Ramani Maniyan whose house had collapsed in the deluge. This house is unique as it has been erected over 1.2-metre high pillars and is made with sun steel, concrete panel and non-asbestos roofing sheets, etc. “It can resist a deluge of last year’s force and an earthquake of the magnitude of 7 on Ritcher scale,” assured George Mathew, a construction expert who revealed that Ramani’s house was built through the support of the Kerala Mariners Forum. ‘Not just for the poor’ In urban centres, too many people are now preferring eco-friendly independent houses. Taking a cue from this trend, construction companies are redrawing their plans. The most popular houses in this segment are the ‘Habitat houses’ constructed by noted architect G. Shankar, who was a disciple of Laurie Baker. The house was built in a one-cent plot at a cost of Rs. 500,000. It can resist floods and such other natural calamities, according to G. Shankar who heads the Habitat Technology Group at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city. For spearheading the awareness campaign, a model house has been showcased at the Police Guest House in Thiruvananthapuram. It is a 495-sqft, three-storied house. Its architecture, pillaring, plastering, etc have been meticulously done to withstand natural disasters. Pillars have been constructed with treated bamboo, mud and concrete. Plastering has been done by using mud tiles, coconut shells and treated bamboo. This small but pretty house has two bedrooms, living area, kitchen and a bathroom. “This house can sustain itself as any other concrete structure. In case of calamities like floods, the inhabitants can rush to the third storey and stay there until the time they are evacuated,” Shankar explained to Mongabay-India. In association with the government and various organisations, Habitat has constructed at least 250 such houses in flood-affected regions. The ‘call to action’ message that has been in circulation in Kerala in the last 10 months, has had its effect. Many construction groups have come up with flood-resistant designs, and some have constructed different kinds of eco-friendly homes across Kerala. No one wants to take chances. Everyone wants to avoid another disaster at any cost. “Housing literacy” has been a term lingering in all deliberations on rebuilding Kerala. Indeed, Kerala needs a housing policy with the backing of strong but implementable laws. “We have been focusing on creating awareness. Everyone in Kerala must be made aware of how to protect themselves,” said Sekar Kuriakose, Member Secretary, Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. A handbook on flood and landslide resilient housing in Kerala, published by the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority is being distributed in schools, libraries, etc. No other time is more pertinent than now to remember the vision of the great architect Laurie Baker who had said: “Cost-effective houses are not just for the poor, they are for everyone.” (Mongabay/IBNS-TWF)

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