A roof still standing: Building Disaster Resilience in Odisha

Photo Essay

Cyclone Phailin which hit India’s coastal state of Odisha was the strongest storm to hit the country in more than a decade, destroying millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, crops, buildings and homes. Wind speeds of over 200 km/hour destroyed an estimated 250,000 homes, many of which were built using mud and bamboo.

Yet some districts in Odisha reported a different story, one that spoke that of homes, community centres and government buildings that withstood nature’s fury, providing shelter to hundreds of families, and serving as hubs for the distribution of emergency relief, once the storm cleared.

Between 2000 and 2007, UNDP partnered with the Government of Odisha to promote housing technologies that could enable people to build safer and more resilient homes in highly vulnerable areas of the state’s coast. The project which was supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and Care Today, constructed more than 60 buildings that served as technology demonstration units TDUs).

These TDUs such as pictured in the background, built in four districts, demonstrated to local government agencies, businesses and communities, that a combination of low-cost disaster resilient building technologies and indigenous building materials could help people build structures to withstand natural disasters. This demonstration contributed to the building of over 4,000 houses, government buildings, schools, multistoried residences, shopping complexes and district administration offices across the state.

It was a hugely important demonstration in these vulnerable areas where poverty remains high and many were devastated by the catastrophic 1999 super cyclone which killed approximately 10,000 people and caused over 2 billion dollars in damages.

Inspired by TDU nearby, the village community centre in Gopinathpur was built using the same construction technology. Seven years on, it continues to remain the hub of all local activities.

Its 9:00 AM in the morning and Sailabala Sahoo is opening up the village community centre. Women come to the centre every day to discuss local issues. The Centre was built using rat trap bond construction where bricks are laid out with air gaps within the wall. It offers better insulation from weather extremes.

Few disaster resilient building techniques have become as popular in the area as the rat trap bond. It uses 19 percent fewer bricks and 54 percent less cement, making it much more economical for people in this region.

Alyali Mahanti and her husband were among millions who lost their homes in 1999. Inspired by the sturdiness of the nearby TDU, they re-built their house using disaster resilient construction techniques. “We saved 30% on building costs and feel safe.”

Sushma Kandi is a Dalit woman who is physically challenged. She always dreamt of having a safe roof over her head. Technical assistance extended by the project in 2002 made this possible. 12 years later, Sushma and her three children continue to live in the house which is her source of pride.

The popularity of the housing technologies promoted by the project would not have been possible without creating a strong cadre of masons at the grassroots that could drive construction in a way that was cost efficient and ensured strong structures capable of withstanding floods and cyclones, an all too common feature of Odisha life.

Karunakar Swain was one such mason trained over a decade ago. Today he’s a building contractor. Disaster resilient construction techniques are a non-negotiable feature of the houses he builds across Puri district. “I was trained on housing technologies that ensured I can build sturdier homes at lower cost because I can use locally available building material,” says Karunakar. “I am building my own home this way”, he adds.

Three kilometres away, in Gadanipania village, children say their morning prayers at a TDU which today serves as an anganwadi Centre and Community Centre. Sushreeya Ray has been a teacher here since 2010. “When cyclone Phaillin hit, many of us came to the Centre and slept here for the night, because it’s the sturdiest building in the village.”

Over a decade since the partnership between UNDP and the Government of Odisha on shelter reconstruction began, its impact on the landscape of villages in Odisha is evident. Many of the houses here are safer, more economically built and importantly, can rely on local expertise that ensures sustainability of the technologies promoted. The partnership offers important lessons for a country where over 400 million people live on the coastline and remain highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions.