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Updated: Dec 3, 2005

The Relief International Emergency Shelter Program

Mansehra, Pakistan

(Rough draft; prepared for RI)
It's hard to describe the totality of destruction that the Kashmir earthquake wrought on the villages it chose to visit. Pictures can be deceiving: villages that appear to be half-standing and relatively normal usually conceal horrific stories of loss. A closer look reveals shifted beams, cracked walls and foundations, and a populace completely dislocated from their lives.

Located at the northern reach of the Mansehra district in northern Pakistan, just a few valleys over from Balakot, the communities of Hilkot and Malkan lie in one of the heavily earthquake-affected areas, about 30 minutes from the main road and another hour or two from the district hub of Mansehra. The now-ravaged villages grace the side a picturesque valley; terraced fields fed by local springs fueled the local economy of corn, potatos, and livestock until the morning of October 8th, when the Kashmir earthquake altered the landscape and the lives of the inhabitants forever. Hilkot and Malkan aren't the most damaged villages in the entire area, but their tale is an unfortunately common one of devastating loss.


It's probably impossible to imagine how such an event could shatter a community: In just seconds, 63 lives, almost all of the houses, all the stores, all of the 3 schools, the 3 mosques, and the health clinic were gone. Only two or three buildings remain habitable in the village. The spring-fed water system was damaged and awaits reconstruction. The entire economic base, the food sources, the education system, the religious establishment, the health infrastructure, all sense of physical, economic, and social security, and many precious family members, were all lost or irrevocably changed. The physical terrain was altered, the crucial bridges linking them to the nearby Karakorum Highway were badly damaged and may not last the winter. Parts of the center of town look quite like a bomb laid waste to the buildings.

Walking among the villages now, greeting the smiling survivors and resisting the numerous invitations to a simple tea, one must be careful not to forget neither the psychological fractures that the earthquake has caused nor the tremendous difficulties that lie ahead for them. Somehow, after all they've been through, they keep on, and the pain visible in only some of their faces is matched by their intrepid spirit.

In the early stages after the earthquake, several NGO's came to the village and provided emergency relief (the lower, more accessible villages were better served by NGO's, but they were also harder hit by the earthquake.) As the general focus of relief efforts shifts towards rehabilitation, villagers now see some NGO's coming to their village to provide for longer-term needs. An emergency remains, however: winter has begun, and the estimated 1,200 adults and children without winter-ready shelter are scrambling to cobble together some kind of protection from the harsh climate.

The dust has settled, and the bodies that could be recovered have been buried (many laid out on the ground, covered first with dirt and then a sheet of plastic weighted with rocks to prevent the bodies from washing away). Emergency food and temporary shelter has carried them this far. The children are attending a one-tent school 35 at a time, villagers are scavenging what materials they can from the rubble, and everyone is facing the challenge of dropping temperatures and increasing precipitation. Already two of the ubiquitous non-winterized tents have collapsed from just 2 or 3 inches of wet snowfall, and another two tents went up in flames, ignited by a child playing with an unattended stove.

Some family members (especially children) have been sent to live with relatives in other cities for the winter -- if the family has the option. Those remaining are constructing frames in expectation of corrugated galvanized iron sheeting (CGI) from various organizations. Some are building mud and stone walls, some are reinforcing their tents for the weather, and some are waiting without any materials or tools for whatever the season will bring.


The nearby village of Malkan suffered a virtually identical fate, with 36 of the estimated 2,500 people killed. The mosque, all four of the schools, and both of the village's vehicles were destroyed. The water system was similarly damaged, and out of about 160 buildings only three are habitable. An average of seven people are living in each six by twelve foot simple canvas tent.


Currently several groups are active in the two villages: Save the Children Sweden, Mercy Corps, Sarhad Rural Suburban Program (a local NGO), the Pakistan Army, and Relief International. Needs such as food, education, child protection, sanitation, non-winterized shelter, basic health, and water supply improvement are being handled by other groups. RI's main role at this point is in the provision of emergency shelter (a niche not adequately filled by the other NGO's, though some of them have some programs underway.) Additionally, the longer-term work needed in the village must be considered, and RI is well-positioned to provide that assistance should the other NGO's finish their relief work after the winter.

The Shelter Program

Initially, tents were distributed in Kashmir by NGO's in an effort to provide immediate shelter from the autumn weather with the understanding that winter shelter would later be required. As that time has come, groups have changed their focus to the main priorities of winter ration distribution and thermal protection: essentially, they seek to protect vulnerable propulations in the villages and higher-elevation tent camps from the winter.

Besides extensive medical and food programs underway in various affected areas, Relief International has begun an emergency shelter program. RI has already begun construction in Malkan and Hilkot.


Greg Zallar was inspired to martial his carpentry and design skills to do what he could to help the people of Kashmir. Instead of watching the disaster unfold on television, he quickly designed a workable structure, raised the funding, and flew himself to Pakistan to coordinate the delivery of his small shelter homes to needy families.

After Zallar and RI met with the villagers to assess the situation, the locals determined to whom the first 12 structures should go. RI volunteers Steven Waddington, Panama Bartholomy, and Casey Connor proceeded to mobilize the community for the process. They met with locals several times and spent a day personally visiting virtually every household in the village to assess their individual situations and to confirm that the 12 selected families were appropriate. Without the funding for local (Pakistani) staff to handle this process, the logistics were complicated and, at times, frustrating, but the job got done, the materials ordered, and construction of the first shelter began on November 30th.

Zallar's 12 by 12 foot one-room structure consists of a simple wood frame and gabled roof. The siding and roofing are all CGI. By including materials that are locally available (much wood has been scavenged from the rubble in Hilkot, and CGI is the cheap sheeting material of choice in the area) the structure is practical and cheap: one house comes in just under US$300. THe structure is light and not attached to a foundation, which makes it relatively portable and quick to build, although it is quite safe for the winter and will do a much better job of protecting its residents than many of the locally-improvised structures. Importantly, it will not kill any of those inside if another earthquake should strike. The materials are reusable once the spring thaw comes, and villagers are already accustomed to their applications.

One challenge with this design is insulation. Almost all the improvised structures RI has seen in the area are far less insulated than Zallar's design, and this problem is being addressed by some NGO's; with the current budget, however, it is left to the homeowner to insulate the RI structure as they see fit. RI is investigating the addition of interior masonite sheets to provide a wallspace that can be filled with any number of insulative materials. Another technical requirement that has proven to be a challenge is the lack of milled wood. The common heavy wooden beams, now notoriously deadly, are frowned upon for structural use (especially in roofs) despite their strength. RI has partnered with a local villager to assist in the milling of wood in nearby Battal, and a portable mill will soon be delivered to eliminate altogether the need for transportation of salvaged wood.

The gleaming CGI-covered structures have started going up. At the time of this writing, 5 were standing and 27 were planned. All of the funding has come from Zallar's efforts and a private donor. Plans for a mosque are also underway: currently, villagers pray, when they can spare the time, at an improvised roadside mosque -- little more than a tiled flat next to the stream that runs through the center of town.

Local businesses have benefited from the sales of CGI (to RI and other NGO's). Although the project got off the ground through the efforts of RI volunteers, RI has now hired local carpenters and engineers to help in the constrution, training, and procurement aspects of the program. The families have been helping with the building of their own structures with the assistance of local expertise, Zallar, and RI staff, and local interest is growing quickly. As the program grows, it is gaining its own sustaining momentum. According to Zallar, he is now "useful, but not needed."

The 32 planned structures will house something like 150 to 175 people within the next couple weeks. With a rapid influx of funding, the program could easily be scaled up to accomodate many more in a short time, thus protecting many families from the winter hardships.


Troy Heath came to RI from Green Sandwich (http://www.greensandwichtech.com), a California-based company that specializes in cheap, strong, ultra-insulated, easily-built structures. With the funding of private US donors and Swiss Save the Children, Heath landed in Islamabad with an ambitious plan: to build something on the order of 120 structures using the simple yet sophisticated technology. With a specialized press brought from the U.S., Heath and those trained by him will encase inexpensive foam blocks within wire mesh cages. These panels, made from Pakistan-sourced materials, are then knit into walls, erected on an 8 by 12 foot concrete footing, and encased in concrete. The process is fast, easy to learn, and results in exceedingly appropriate shelters for the local climate. Despite the unusual core, the surfaces are conventional in appearance, and the overall safety and strength of the buildings will surely be appreciated by a community understandably wary of their conventional techniques.

As with any operation in this context, flexibility is crucial. Heath traveled extensively in Pakistan, seeking cheap bids for materials andpreparatory work (cutting foam, building trusses, etc.), and navigating the red tape to get the "pipeline" flowing to the city of Mansehra where most of the necessary materials are now housed in the RI warehouse. His design has undergone some changes, and logistic plans change from minute to minute, but the first structure has been erected and four more are being prepared.

Green Sandwich's technology also allows for tremendous flexibility on the ground: villagers can customize their house to meet their needs on the spot, without the need for alternate milling, a difficult redesign process, or additional cost.

As with Hilkot, the intention is to get the program moving on its own with minimal inputs from RI. The same local organizational and technical staff will assist in this process and will be trained in the construction process so that the logistical needs can be met when Heath departs Pakistan.

Clearly, Heath's model involves the construction of longer-term structures. These will not likely be torn down in the spring, though their use is expected to change (e.g. from dwelling to storage.) Despite their more substantial cost (about $800 each) they can be built very quickly. It is thus hoped that they can simultaneously fill an emergency shelter role as well as provide a longer term structure.

At this point, the funding gathered can accomodate the first five structures. Additional financing must be found to build the 115 remaining planned homes over the next month or so.


Many logistic challenges have hindered the RI team in their work. The road between Malkan and Hilkot is plagued with a particularly difficult, muddy stretch, and the road into Hilkot prevents even tractors from ferrying supplies to the town center after a rain. Roadwork can't be done off-hand by RI or villagers as it is the purview of local authority (already strained from the disaster efforts.) The bridges on the way to Malkan have gaping holes in the foundations and parts of the pavement above them have washed away into the rivers below; what the winter rains and freezing/thawing cycles will do to these already-imperiled spans remains to be seen.

Culturally, Hilkot and Malkan seem to be in-line with most villages RI has learned of: despite limited reports of some looting and ugly tribal politics, villagers seem to be extending themselves to help their neighbors. They provide land for people to build upon, wood for them to build with, and doubtless many other intangibles. Once they are provided with the materials, tools, and some expertise, they work quickly and harmoniously to secure the future of their families and their community.

The RI shelter program is currently on the cusp of change. The volunteer team and the two program creators Heath and Zallar, under the direction of Country Director Flouran Wali, have succeeded in starting the construction at the two villages. The limited time available due to the changing weather, and the lack of a budgeted staff (until recently the team was all-volunteer) incurred inevitable limitations in scope and speed. More funding would allow local staff to be hired, more efficient procurement of more materials delivered more quickly and sensibly, and, finally, dramatically more needed structures to be built. More funding would also allow a more in-depth asessment of Malkan, which has so far received less attention from RI community organizers. Signifcantly more funding would allow the inclusion of many other villages and/or tent camps in need of emergency winter shelter, numerous other relief services, and longer-term aid.

Villagers don't need much to make it through the winter, especially in comparison to the safety and comfort enjoyed by much of the rest of the world, but what little they do need will remain elusive unless donated time and money can bring it to them.

The Long Term

The Emergency Shelter Program itself is, by definition, insufficient to guarantee the citizens of Malkan and Hilkot a sustainable future. Although villagers may gain some skills in the process, the local economy will not automatically regenerate to a life-supporting state without fundamental assistance over the next year or more. Although villagers benefit from the many services provided by the NGO's currently present, in the future they will not know adequate health, sanitation, nutrition, education, or security unless intelligent long-range planning and assistance enable them to rebuild their lives. As with tragically-many settlements throughout Kashmir, the villagers of Malkan an Hilkot need new tools and resources. The Emergency Shelter Program aims only to get them through the winter with some kind of firm foundation from which to start in the spring.