An international UN summit on Wednesday saw 10 billion dollars raised for the reconstruction of earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Meanwhile in northern Pakistan, which was devastated by a quake in 2005, a group of labourers is building houses made of straw - which they say is the safest building to be in when an earthquake hits.

Five years after Pakistan's worst ever earthquake, and there are still hundreds of thousands of people living in temporary lodgings in Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province. The 2005 earthquake claimed 73,000 lives, injured 128,000 people and destroyed 600,000 rural homes. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake was considered the world's 13th most destructive on record, according to the US Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Programme. While around three quarters of those who lost their homes have rebuilt, they have once again constructed non earthquake-stable homes because they believe them to be cheaper.

But, a small non-profit construction project is proving that a cheap, permanent and earthquake-safe solution is available. The Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building (PAKSBAB) NGO was set up by Darcey Donovan, a civil engineer from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her team constructs walls using building blocks made of compressed straw and bound by fishing nets. The number of people to benefit from the scheme however is tiny. The team consists of only ten people, and each home takes around a month to build.

“The people here are still building the same kinds of houses that killed their neighbours”

Surkhab Khan is from the village of Kakul, north of Islamabad and south of the earthquake disaster zone. He worked with affected communities in the aftermath of the 2005 quake, where he helped to launch the Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building project. He is director of the project.

The main reason that we're using straw is because many of these affected people are surrounded by it. The straw is free; they just need some extra labour (easy to find), some wood for the structure and some corrugated iron for the roof. Each house costs about 180,000 Pakistani rupees [€1,600] in building materials, whereas a brick and metal house costs about 290,000 [€2,600].

Collecting straw to be compressed into building blocks. Photo: PAKSBAB.

Across the region 40-50 percent of homes were lost. That's mainly because almost nobody was following quake-safe regulations. Today, 25 percent of the people who were made homeless are still in temporary arrangements; some of them even in tents. Most of them are tenants; they are given food, a place to sleep and minimal allowance in return for labour. They have no place to build however and while they are just about able to feed their families, they aren't able to leave their landlord/employer because they don't earn enough to be able to move away and build a home. They're being exploited.

Tent residents in the North West Frontier Province. Photo: PAKSBAB.

People have heard about our project. They come rushing up to us, showing their tents and saying ‘we want a house!' Choosing who will have a house built for them is very complicated. We have a thorough assessment system which relies on the information of the local community services in each village. We have to find the people who are the most desperate; who have no income and a large family to look after. The villagers are very helpful in doing this. In one village there was a widow whose husband had died of cancer; she was living from handouts and supporting six kids. The whole village supported her application and even helped to build the house.

Manufacturing straw bales from manually-operated farm jacks. Photo: PAKSBAB.

Photo: PAKSBAB. Posted on "All Things Pakistan".

Most of our labourers were affected by the earthquake. We employed them when we started the first house. We were looking for labour and there were these unemployed people all around us, living in tents. So we selected the best labourers and they're still with us today.



The sad thing is that while it's cheaper and safer to build this kind of house, the people here simply do not know how to. They're still building the same kinds of houses that killed their neighbours - with bricks and metal. They tell me they don't have the resources for a straw bale house and that god will decide whether they die in an earthquake anyway.


It takes time to convince people; this is a new technology. We went to the government with our project but they didn't want to get involved. They said they had already spent their budget on standard housing."

A typical house is 24 x 24 feet (7.30 x 7.30 metres) and includes two rooms and a veranda, with an optional kitchen. The houses are energy efficient, use natural non-toxic materials, and are fire and pest-resistant. Image posted on Flickr by Caroline White 13 Nov. 2009.

A straw bale house in an earthquake

In November 2009, a PAKSCAB house was put to the test at the University of Nevada, Reno. The house survived a higher acceleration than the 2005 quake.