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Safehouse design in Vanuatu Blends Western and Indigenous engineering against natural disasters

Joseph Guenzler -

In the face of Vanuatu's natural challenges, a new idea has unfolded - the disaster safehouse.

In an archipelago grappling with 20 to 30 cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, and eruptions from nine active volcanoes per decade, the demand for robust structures is more pressing than ever.

The genesis of this innovative concept traces back to the devastating Cyclone Pam in 2015, which laid waste to homes, including sturdy concrete structures with iron roofing, resulting in tragic consequences.

Responding to this urgent need, David Nalo proposed a groundbreaking solution – a disaster safehouse seamlessly merging Western engineering with traditional indigenous wisdom.

Mr Nalo's visionary approach found resonance at the Bandalang Studio, an Indigenous engineering hub at The Australian National University (ANU).

This collaborative initiative strives to forge a refuge that integrates modern techniques with the inherent resilience of traditional structures, providing a crucial lifeline for vulnerable communities in the face of nature's relentless forces.

Experts from The Australian National University (ANU) will bring their proficiency in satellite communications and renewable energy to enrich the project.

Mr Nalo, a Bandalang resident notes their current techniques are effective against rain, though can be weakened in strong winds.

"Before, during and after natural disasters, communications can save lives," he said.

"Our people have developed building techniques that have helped them stay safe in times of disaster.

"The thatching of Natangura Sago palm fronds and wild cane is impermeable to water, but can open up to let the wind through."

The safehouse will combine Indigenous and Western design principles. (Image: Eric Byler/ANU)

Bamboo provides strong yet lightweight roofs and walls, while specific palm posts secure structures. Water-treated vine cordage, instead of nails, ensures both solidity and flexibility in high winds, as explained by Nalo.

Traditional buildings fared better than Western designed structures during Cyclone Pam, according to David Nalo. (Image: Eric Byler/ANU)

Structures use water-treated vine cordage, not nails. This lashing technique, as Nalo explains, ensures solidity with retained flexibility, especially beneficial in high winds.

Flexibility also makes the structures more resistant to earthquakes, while steeply slanted roofs prevent the accumulation of volcanic ash.

Mr Nalo points out that none of these innovations were taken into account as Western-style buildings popped up, without proper building codes, throughout Vanuatu.

"We need to look back on what we can do for ourselves, using our own knowledge, recognising the good and the bad in external knowledge, and being able to make our own decisions," he said.

David Nalo. (Image: Eric Byler/ANU)

The traditional safehouse, located on Gaua, aims to address communication challenges faced by less populated islands during disasters.

Mr Nalo's plan includes a satellite dish for consistent communication, but electricity poses an issue, with over 70 per cent living beyond grids.

Solar energy with battery storage is considered, and wind resources are abundant, though gusts may damage turbines.

The design team is exploring hydro-electricity to leverage Vanuatu's largest waterfall just three kilometers away.

Mr Nalo hopes this project will become a model that spreads throughout Vanuatu.

His goal is to help his community restore self-reliance and provide a space to share cultural practices.

"Prior to colonisation, if a cyclone hit one island, that island already had in place trade routes and systems of barter," he said.

"So if one island was badly hit, it could use those networks to get what it needed from other islands that weren't hit. It was very effective."

Mr Nalo highlights a growing reliance on other nations for food supply, a crucial aspect of relief efforts.

"The tendency nowadays in Vanuatu, as in a lot of Pacific Island countries, is to look toward canned, processed food, whereas we have organic foods with complex carbohydrates right there growing out of the ground," he says.

The gradual shift to imported, processed foods has led to climbing rates of diabetes, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease in Vanuatu.

"In normal times, when we are not facing a disaster, we will be using the safehouse to work on food preservation," Mr Nalo said.

"We have different methods of food preservation that we have used in the past such as drying, smoking, fermenting, using fire, also burying under the ground."

"We will research these methods and encourage their revival for both public health and disaster resilience."

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