Creating Resilient and Sustainable Communities in Pakistan after Climate Devastation

Creating Resilient and Sustainable Communities in Pakistan after Climate Devastation

In the face of imminent climate change, how can we rebuild in a more sustainable and resilient way?

In Pakistan, the climate crisis has already led to new heights of destruction, with more than 33 million people  affected by intense flooding since July 2022 and approximately two million houses damaged. This poses an opportunity to reconsider conventional building practices. Rihab Khalid (University of Cambridge) highlights three critical areas for future resilient and sustainable building design in Pakistan.

Looking back to build forward

For climate resilience, buildings need to be designed for a given climate, rather than in spite of it. In Pakistan, the last 50 years have embraced modern construction practices. A proliferation of concrete, glass, steel and brick masonry structures in Pakistan reveal a climatic and cultural disconnect (Khalid and Sunikka-Blank, 2018). In contrast, vernacular buildings often show greater evidence of climate resilience than modernist practices and can provide useful learning for disaster-proofing buildings (Cruz-Ramírez, 2022). Contemporary climate-responsive design requires moving beyond a dichotomy of modernity and tradition towards integrated resilience.

In case of flood-prone areas in Pakistan, indigenous and traditional knowledge sources can prove beneficial as they are often based on long-term observations and experiences of local environments (ISDR, 2008). Examples include raised or buoyant structures made from locally sourced materials e.g. bamboo, earth and mud bricks (ARUP and IOM, 2017). The use of sustainable local materials like lime provide weather resistance while also prolonging the life of structures (Lari, 2015). The use of compact forms, appropriate orientation and axial placement of door and window openings to the flow of water can minimise flood damage (Dilhani and Jayaweera, 2016). Drawing on traditional passive design strategies like heavyweight construction, small window openings at elevated heights, and raised, pitched roofs can improve flood resilience. In terms of planning, strategies can include reducing flood water run-off through water catchments, flood walls and improved land infiltration- evident in indigenous land-use practices (ISDR, 2008).

Coupling traditional knowledge with technological innovation can provide promising strategies for adaptation and capacity building. For example, climate simulations and remote sensing for flood risk mapping can be used for disaster-proofing future buildings and identifying hazard-prone sites for proper planning and relocation (Rizwan et al., 2022). The use of innovative materials and prefabrication techniques can increase building resilience and speed up the recovery process. Similarly, a shift towards decentralised and distributed energy systems using renewable technologies can help meet basic electricity needs and ensure access to communication technologies for early warnings.

A socio-technical approach to building resilience

Socio-technical approaches to resilience are critical for a community’s capability to flourish in a complex, unpredictable and rapidly changing system. This enables  a community to ‘bounce forward’ after an extreme event (Manyena et al., 2011, p. 417) instead of simply bouncing back. Attention must be given to social cohesion, capacity building, channels of information and communication, and the empowerment of individuals and communities (Rajkovich and Okour, 2019),  e.g. co-production and participatory approaches in design and planning.

A participatory approach builds on the adaptive capacity of a wide range of stakeholders (Bahadur and Tanner, 2014), including the most vulnerable. Examples of community-led and participatory building and planning initiatives already exist in Pakistan and have seen successful operation for years. One of the largest and most successful informal-settlement upgrading programs was initiated by the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute in the 1980s (Hasan, 2006). Since then, through community-government partnerships, the project has successfully carried out informal settlement upgrading and sewerage system development at approximately 250 locations in Pakistan. Similarly, co-production and community empowerment has been at the heart of architect Yasmeen Lari’s Heritage Foundation, which has been working with displaced communities since the 2005 earthquakes. The Foundation has supported the building of thousands of low-cost, zero-waste, zero-carbon shelters, and other basic amenities, including developing means for livelihood. By building community self-reliance through training, mentoring and skills development, it has helped lift communities out of poverty along with building climate-responsive infrastructure (Lari, 2015).

Underlying socio-economic and techno-material inequities result in some populations facing greater climate vulnerability. Therefore, emerging adaptation initiatives will need to focus on issues of equity and justice (Kaswan, 2013), including gender justice (Buckingham and Kulcur, 2009). Climate adaptation and infrastructure rebuilding strategies should particularly address challenges for women and other marginalised and disadvantaged populations in terms of displacement, resettlement, loss of livelihoods, job creation, and land titling, etc (Orlando et al., 2018).

From prescriptive to performance-based regulations

Current building and planning codes need rethinking in light of the changing climate and future predictions of global warming (UNEP, 2021). Climate-responsive design requires multi-scalar and context-specific adaptation that integrates bottom-up community participation with top-down institutional governance and policymaking. Climate-responsive policies should allow for innovation and adaptation, while ensuring that building and planning regulations meet environmental standards for sustainability and resilience. This requires a shift away from prescriptive byelaws towards performance-based building regulations.

Prescriptive regulations, as seen in conventional building and planning codes, pose two critical challenges: 1) they inhibit development and change through innovation (Foliente, 2000); and 2) they invalidate and marginalise vernacular techniques and forms of construction that are often based on sensibilities of simplicity, functionality and passive means of comfort (Mumtaz, 1999).

Performance-based building regulations focus on outlining the desired outcomes (performance) without ‘prescribing’ the specific means to achieve them. This allows for greater adaptability and flexibility in design, construction and use (Becker, 2008), particularly for mainstreaming climate resilience. For example, multiple housing solutions can be proposed with comparable safety performance standards, but different resistance to water penetration, expected damage to building structures and maintenance cycles, depending on the specific context and occupant means (Watermeyer et al., 2003). Further, performance-based building and planning could accommodate diverse and indigenous forms of construction and infrastructure development which are proven to perform better in terms of sustainability and flood resilience. Thus, local low-cost informal housing could become ‘formalised’ and regulated by (appropriate) building codes. This would allow at-risk, vulnerable, and low-income communities to benefit from appropriate infrastructure and services relevant to resilience (Satterthwaite et al., 2020). This also provides greater potential for participatory planning, whereby local authorities can engage communities in envisioning their future habitats, integrating insights from multiple stakeholders.

For the scope and scale of adaptation required, climate and disaster risk reduction need to be fully encoded into all levels of decision-making. This requires new forms of climate-informed governance that integrate modern technologies with vernacular practices built on adaptive strategies and inclusive participatory design approaches that account for socio-technical resilience. This can only be achieved through strong coordination between multiple stakeholders.  Policy bodies, local authorities, practitioners (engineers, architects, builders, planners, specialist contractors and emergency/risk managers etc), and professional institutes that operate at the top should work in collaboration with NGOs, social enterprises and local communities directly connected to the grassroots. This will ensure that housing is designed to meet community needs while being supported by appropriate standards, policies, and institutional capacity building for a climate-responsive future built environment in Pakistan.


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Bahadur, A. & Tanner, T. (2014). Transformational resilience thinking: putting people, power and politics at the heart of urban climate resilience. Environment and Urbanization, 26, 200–214.

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Dilhani, K.A.C. & Jayaweera, N. (2016). A study of flood risk mitigation strategies in vernacular dwellings of Rathnapura, Sri Lanka. Built-Environment: Sri Lanka, 12(1).

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