Pakistan is building 16,000 disaster-resilient solar homes in an effort to reduce the impact of earthquakes, while at the same time bringing off-grid districts up to standard in an environmentally responsible way.

The housing designs are the output of collaborative discussions between the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority and engineers at NED University in Karachi.

The initiative was instigated after two devastating earthquakes hit Awaran – the site for the new project in the south-west of the country – in September of last year, killing more than 500 people and destroying around 20,000 homes.

A whopping 75 percent of Pakistan’s estimated 20 million homes are said to lie on seismic fault lines. An average of 114 earthquakes hit the country each year, with only Japan and Turkey ahead in the vulnerability stakes.

Engineers have proposed a solution that should be able to withstand an earthquake of up to magnitude 8 on the Richter scale through the specification of 18-inch thick walls and galvanized-iron sheet roofing.

Local materials such as mud, wood, stone and straw will be used instead of concrete and steel to both reduce building costs and lessen the impact of any damage if the structures were to collapse.

Integral to the design are the inclusion of clear evacuation routes. Many of the victims of the 2013 earthquakes died trapped under debris when they were unable to escape from the rubble of their own homes.

The project comes with a 4 billion-rupee budget, 20 per cent of which will be spent on providing solar energy to all of the new homes.

“It is an owner-driven programme and we hope to complete all the reconstruction work and installation of solar-energy panels in two and half years,” said Aziz Jamali, director of the project being run by the local government.

The owner of every house set to be rebuilt will receive 250,000 rupees in four instalments. Funding will be refused to anyone failing to observe the safety standards issued by the provincial government in the rebuilding process.

Indeed, this is the real challenge, according to Pervaiz Amir, an environmental expert and former member of the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change. Amir said ensuring homeowners build to the approved design will require careful monitoring and evaluation of each house in the district.

Disaster-resistant methods and materials, including the solar panels, drive up the cost of the rebuild by up to 30 per cent. Amir’s concern is that many people could settle for cheaper, less safe options despite the threat of funding withdrawal.

It is all a question of balance, however. According to Idrees Mahsud, director of Disaster Risk Reduction at the National Disaster Management Authority, Pakistan has suffered a cumulative loss of over $20 billion in the last 10 years due to the destruction of infrastructure by floods and earthquakes.

Greater investment in disaster-resilient structures, in addition to improved human safety, would also provide more holistic, long-term financial benefits.

Although the project in Awaran focuses mainly on private homes, the National Disaster Management Authority is also carrying out hazard and risk assessments in urban and rural areas across Pakistan, paying special attention to disaster-resistant construction for schools and hospitals and solutions to improve their structural strength.