Tapping local knowledge to build back greener: Insights from Pakistan

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Home being rebuilt using a Dhaji timber structure in Pakistan Home being rebuilt using a Dhaji timber structure in Pakistan

Underlying the discussions on climate pledges and climate finance at COP26 was the fundamental need to change unsustainable patterns of development. While governments set targets for 2050 and 2070, natural hazards like flooding, landslides, rockslides, or storm events are already increasing in frequency and severity – costing lives and around US$3 trillion in the past 20 years globally

In the wake of these disasters is an opportunity to channel reconstruction financing towards more resilient and less energy-intensive development. Unfortunately, it’s an opportunity that often goes wasted: In the vacuum of advanced long-term planning, profiteering can occur and incentives to ‘build back better’ can be outweighed by those to build back quickly or build back the same.  Meanwhile, more sustainable solutions are often overlooked. 

But sometimes a sustainable solution is found and implemented – as in the reconstruction of homes destroyed in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit northern Pakistan and Kashmir, claiming 87,000 lives, including those of 19,000 children, many of which died in the widespread collapse of school buildings. In response, the World Bank’s fund for the poorest, IDA, provided $238 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction through the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund Project. The project established two field offices in the earthquake-affected area and empowered local teams, with engineering and social mobilization experience,  to report on challenges as well as solutions.  

"Sometimes a sustainable solution is found and implemented – as in the reconstruction of homes destroyed in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake."


Weekly reports from the project’s field teams highlighted challenges to adhering to government guidelines for housing reconstruction. These guidelines called for the use of cement sand mortar building materials; however, importing these materials across the mountainous terrain of northern Pakistan and using cement in the water-scarce region proved difficult. Meanwhile, amid the collapsed infrastructure and rubble, the project’s field teams found a solution: the houses which had only suffered minimal damage from the earthquake were built based on a centuries-old technique known as the “Dhaji” timber structure. This traditional building technique – a patchwork-like timber-baton masonry system filled in with mud, stone, and other local materials  –  has been used since ancient times by cultures worldwide

This observation, backed up by data from the field, resulted in changes to the reconstruction guidelines. As a result, nearly 40% of homes rebuilt under the project used these techniques for timber structures and stone masonry. “Inhabitants of these mountainous areas have learned over centuries what suits their respective contexts,” says World Bank Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist Kamran Akbar, who led efforts to establish local field units, build partnerships with community-based non-governmental organizations, and respond adaptively to reports from the ground. 

Dry Stone under construction in Pakistan
Dry Stone under construction. Photo: Kamran Akbar/World Bank

Wood: A resilient and low-carbon building material

While concrete is the dominant building material world-wide, it is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if the concrete industry were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter after China and the U.S.. Timber structures have been more resilient in certain types of disasters, such as earthquakes, as well as more sustainable. Timber homes can be constructed using locally available materials of mud, stone, and timber – often the cheaper alternative. They also enable local employment, as opposed to the level of expertise for the safe construction of a multi-story reinforced concrete frame which often needs to be outsourced. Trees naturally capture and store carbon over their lifetime, and if harvested sustainably, timber has the potential to be one of the greenest building materials available while also supporting rural livelihoods.  These timber structures also serve as an opportunity for cultural connection, a way to build upon the structures of the past for a more resilient future. 

With the frequency and intensity of natural hazards likely increasing in the future, there will be more opportunities to rebuild in the years to come – hopefully, more safely and sustainably.  Lessons learned from disasters have shown that is it not actually the natural event itself that is responsible for the scale of the destruction, but man-made development. “It’s not earthquakes which kill,” quotes Akbar, “it’s concrete.” 

However, if the destruction from natural disasters is often man made, it’s also something within our capacity to change. COP26 threw a spotlight on the gap in climate financing and the need to ensure that financing gets to those that need it most.  While timber cannot replace concrete, it can be incorporated in creative solutions to rethink development based on what best suits the local context. Money to rebuild after a disaster, combined with intentional local engagement and inclusion of voices from those most affected, can contribute to this. 


Michelle Winglee

Consultant, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, South Asia

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