The world faces an acute housing crisis with millions of poor families forced to live in inadequate homes across the Global South. The UN’s Human Settlement Programme (UN Habitat) estimates that some three billion people – or 40 per cent of the world’s population – will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure and services by 2030.
This means the completion of over 96,000 housing units per day. And to make matters worse, many of those who need homes will be on the front line in the fight against climate change, exposed to extreme weather events and facing the risk of further insecurity.
It is no surprise, then, that one of the SDGs recently finalised and approved by the United Nations – SDG 11 – targets the provision of adequate and affordable housing.
The Goal, which aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, requires enormous investments to upgrade slums and construct homes capable of withstanding disasters like flooding and landslides.
Communities require a strong, practical, and cost-effective building material that can help deliver secure and affordable housing. Our experience demonstrates that bamboo can meet these criteria. This largely untapped resource offers a climate-smart alternative to other building materials that is cheap, has minimal environmental impact, and is readily available in many low and mid-income countries throughout the tropics and sub-tropics, where it grows naturally.
Our studies with UN Habitat along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, for instance, have shown that bamboo homes combine strength, convenience, and affordability.
They are strong enough to withstand climate shocks, such as flooding, and drastically reduce the vulnerability of low-income households to earthquakes; a 35m2 home costs as little as USD4-5000 to build and can last for up to 30 years; they help achieve savings on the costs of construction – up to 30 per cent over the long-term; and by using prefabricated bamboo panels, can be constructed in only two weeks – potentially providing a rapid solution to the 2.5 million housing shortage that exists across both countries.
In a region that is extremely susceptible to climate change – in Ecuador alone flooding and landslides destroyed 40,000 houses and accounted for a 0.01 per cent loss of GDP between 1997 and 2006 – bamboo housing could offer a lifeline to vulnerable communities, particularly at a time when ‘El Nino’ is poised to bring more rain and flooding later this year.
Aside from standing up the effects of climate change, the bamboo designs being promoted by INBAR and UN Habitat are suited to the weather conditions that prevail across this stretch of Latin America’s coastline – combining high ceilings and wide eaves that keep out windblown rain while allowing better ventilation and natural light penetration than typically achieved in concrete or steel-made buildings.
The bamboo used to construct homes has further environmental benefits: it helps to reduce pressures on existing forests, acting as a substitute for wood timber, and provides an effective ‘carbon sink’ since bamboo has excellent sequestration properties.
Efforts to promote climate-smart bamboo housing are gathering pace: civil society partners and the private sector are now adapting INBAR models in their own projects, with over 2000 people in coastal communities now trained in bamboo construction. We are also partnering with practitioners, academics and organizations – including UN Habitat – in an international partnership to deliver environmentally, economically and socially sustainable housing, the Global Network for Sustainable Housing.
But, more needs to be done. The Sustainable Development Goals offer a framework to guide development efforts in the post-2015 era, but bamboo needs more recognition and a place at the table, acknowledged as a material to help deliver the future housing needs of the world’s growing population.