How to quake-proof homes: Try mulberry

Men attach a net of mulberry branches to a timber frame to reinforce an existing mud brick wall in Tajikistan. Mulberry is ideal for making structures resilient to temblors. Photo by: Habitat for Humanity

It’s a source of nutritious food and medicinal tea. But perhaps unknown to many, the mulberry plant boasts another powerful quality: Its branches have tensile strength enough to withstand earthquakes.

That makes mulberry ideal for making structures resilient to temblors. In Tajikistan — a country that endures more than 5,000 tremors a year, with many reaching magnitudes over 7  a technology using harvested mulberry branches and twigs, along with a timber framework covered and finished with a plaster of mud, straw and wool, has become a standard in rural house reconstruction.

The mulberry-based solution for retrofitting mud brick walls is the brainchild of Habitat for Humanity, the Tajikistan Institute of Seismology and other local partners. It was conceptualized following a series of earthquakes that hit the Kumsangir district a few years ago.

The partners initially tested the innovation on a few hundreds of houses in eight local communities. And compared to unreinforced houses, those covered by the project had little or no damage from subsequent earthquakes.

“It is entirely possible to find appropriate technological solution to reduce the vulnerability of people living in rural disaster-prone areas, and that investment in mitigation pays off with a significant return of investment,” Mario Flores, director of field operations in disaster risk reduction and response at Habitat for Humanity International, told Devex.

The solution won Habitat for Humanity the 2013 FedEx Award for Innovations in Disaster Preparedness. The award comes with a cash prize that the nonprofit says it will use to expand its efforts in Tajikistan, bringing the technology to more local communities.  

Part of the plan is to help families gain access to financing. Reinforcing rural homes valued at $4,000-$10,000 with mulberry branches and timber framing requires an investment of $300-$750 in a country where about 95 percent of the Tajik rural population lives on $2 per day.

“Challenges for the application of the technology are in the field of economic realities in Tajikistan,” noted Flores. “Many families do not consider the reinforcement of their homes to be the most pressing priority in front of them.”

Exportable model

To help change perspectives, Habitat for Humanity provides beneficiaries and members of the community with disaster preparedness training. This covers hazards identification and awareness, an analysis of community assets, community surveys and mapping, the development of a disaster preparedness action plan for the community and identification or linkage of the community plan to wider government plans and agencies.

Evidence of the innovation’s effectiveness, said Flores, also has helped make a case with locals.

With the success of the technology, Habitat for Humanity hopes its peers in the aid community will take it up and spread its use to other developing countries, and think seriously about providing more funding for mitigation and preparedness programs, which would “achieve a better balance to the amounts of funding they provide for response after a disaster strikes.”

“The success of this type of interventions is measured by the houses that didn’t collapse, or the lives that were spared, or the livelihoods that were not affected by disaster,” Flores said.

Habitat for Humanity, according to Flores, is also exploring other materials for similar applications. In Nepal, the nonprofit is testing and developing bamboo as an alternative, with the advantage of being able to integrate the material into a full housing solution.

Read our previous #innov8aid and let us know what you think about this innovation by leaving a comment below.

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    Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.

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