Flooding and drought in Bangladesh are being tackled with a policy of adaptation rather than resistance
Bangladesh is known across the world for its extreme climate and annual flooding, and but less well known is how it is confronting climate change by incrementally adapting and improving its buildings. The country is leading a dialogue on climate change by exerting pressure to halt global warming.
The remote delta village of Rajapur in the south of Bangladesh is one community leading change. It has been cited for demonstrating the different approaches to climate change needed for rural and urban locations.
Stories from the Rajapur village, where the Mannan Foundation recently completed a women’s literacy and healthcare centre, revealed that members of the community collectively take on the role of architect, and design and build support systems to adapt to the changing monsoon. The need to survive drives the communities to tackle environmental challenges in the village.
Local participation in the building of the Rajapur Centre enabled community ownership – and the use of their expertise and skills plus local materials such as home-grown bamboo and rammed earth. These respond well to the changing monsoon conditions.
During times of severe weather, which are worse every year, stories emerge of families forced to migrate to urban slums, having lost their fish farming ponds and therefore their livelihoods. Fish farming is diminishing gradually but steadily. The Rajapur village ecology can be read through the community’s engagement with their fish ponds – a ditch typically rectangular in shape, known as ‘pukur’ in Bengali.
Pukurs are usually sited within the village and shared by a number of households. Each has access to one pukur. In the past, all pukurs were deep enough to collect the monsoon rain in the wet season and survive the drought; the loss of water was not so significant as to damage the ecology of the pukur and harm the fish. However, the recent extreme climate has upset this equilibrium, where the severity of cyclone, flooding and storm surges caused some pukur to overflow, disrupting fish production and the ponds’ eco-systems. In the summer, droughts dried out the pukur, further harming the fish farming and the eco-system.
Historically, the rural communities used earth excavated by digging a pukur to create earth mounds on which to build. This mitigated extreme destructive flooding due to climate change and overcame flooding of the flat, low-lying land. A recent adaptation to resist cyclones has been to build with bricks and concrete on plinths. But these materials are too expensive for most rural communities. An alternative is to build the plinth of bricks and concrete above the flood level, and use traditional bamboo, mud bricks and thatch or metal roof construction above. The Centre sits on concrete stilts above a pukur, so benefits from evaporative cooling through its special perforated bamboo and earth walls, which helps combat the extreme heat.
This concept of embracing water, and adaptation rather than resistance (for example flood gates), has echoes in my architectural research project, Greenwich Fish Market at the Cutty Sark in London. The project explores the extreme tidal differences in the River Thames, and extracts river water to be purified and used in the proposed Greenwich Fish Market. Several concepts concern the metamorphosis of water in creating a fluid landscape by removing the boundaries between land, river and air. The project proposes that the movement of water at the site is used to create a special architectural experience for visitors to the fluid landscape, which adapts to the dynamic nature of the river by the Cutty Sark. A floating city beach is proposed, realised through community participation, where people congregate to celebrate such festivals as New Year’s Eve, Bonfire Night, etc.
European communities that face annual flooding adapt by living on the water or building floating foundations. The book ‘Float!’ by Koen Olthuis and David Keuning highlights an example in Ijburg in Amsterdam of mass housing on water, adaptable dwellings for flood conditions. Other interesting examples of habitable rivers are cited, including ‘floating infrastructure projects’, ‘floating road’, ‘floating production platforms’ to ‘existing building blocks for floating cities’.
The Rajapur village communities embrace water and the rainy season in agriculture with irrigation of rice fields, while seeking protection from extreme flooding. There are many examples of rural communities working collectively to build support systems and protection from climate change calamities, using design through practice and co-design by community participation.
Analysis of the key difference in Bangladesh between rural and urban reaction to climate change (by those who are affected the most), shows that rural populations work collectively to create support systems and face climate change head-on. This puts the rural communities ahead of urban slum dwellers, who do not have the community support in place when they migrate to cities and face a vastly unequal power relationship between rich and poor in Bangladesh’s cities.
Jeremy Till’s paper ‘The Negotiation of Hope’, echoes the idea of co-design and participation as ‘an opportunity not a threat… to reconsider what is often taken for granted in architectural practice’. He argues that user participation and designing ‘individually and collectively suggest a positive transformation of architectural production that benefits architects and users alike’.
Collectiveness, co-design and architecture through participation to tackle climate change could open the door to possibilities that often remain unrecognised in architectural practice. User participation in design and construction, individually and collectively, could transform architecture and benefit both the designer and the user.
Tumpa Husna Yasmin Fellows, founding director of ‘Our Building Design’ and co-founder of Mannan Foundation Trust. She is a member of RIBAJ’s Rising Stars cohort 2017
RIBAJ Rising Stars is a scheme to recognise and reward up and coming construction professionals. It is open for entries now
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