Nature and Biodiversity

Meet the refugee building homes out of discarded plastic bottles

An indigenous Sahrawi woman walks at a refugee camp of Boudjdour in Tindouf, southern Algeria March 3, 2016. In refugee camps near the town of Tindouf in arid southern Algeria, conditions are hard for indigenous Sahrawi residents. Residents use car batteries for electricity at night and depend on humanitarian aid to get by. The five camps near Tindouf are home to an estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees from the disputed region of Western Sahara, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES   Matching text ALGERIA-SAHARA/ - RTS9CDG

An indigenous Sahrawi woman at a refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria Image: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Alex Gray
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For more than four decades, camps in the remote desert of southwest Algeria have been home to refugees who fled fighting in the Western Sahara War.

Around 90,000 Sahrawi refugees live in five camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf in tents and mud-brick houses, which offer scant protection against the harsh Saharan climate.

Temperatures can soar to 50C in summer, and drop below freezing on winter nights, while sandstorms and periodical heavy rains wreak havoc on the refugees’ homes and lives.

In October 2015, torrential rain caused flooding that ruined 17,000 houses and 60% of community infrastructure, as well as destroying 85,000 food rations.

Image: UN

One Sahrawi refugee is working on a solution. Tateh Lehbib Breica, an engineer who grew up in Awserd camp, has been using plastic bottles to build houses for Sahrawi refugees that are designed to withstand the elements, and the UNHCR is investing in his project.

Image: UNHCR/Russell Fraser

Breica, who has a Master’s degree in energy efficiency, built the first house for his grandmother using 6000 plastic bottles filled with sand and straw.

He found that by laying the sand-filled bottles side by side like bricks he could build a house that wouldn't fall down. The circular shape protects against driving winds, and the bottle walls provide a thick, sturdy structure that withstands lashing rain.

Once the main structure is built, the walls are covered with cement and limestone and then painted white to reflect the sun's rays and keep indoor temperatures cool.

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Image: Tateh Lehbib Breica

The houses can be built in as little as one week at a cost of around US$270, a quarter of the cost of a mud-brick house.

So far, Breica has built 25 houses in the five camps, with backing from the UNHCR Innovation Fund. The first residents are those considered most vulnerable, including his grandmother, who has difficulty walking.

The Sahrawi refugee situation

The Sahrawi situation is one of the most protracted refugee crises in the world. The refugees fled fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front following the end of Spain's colonial administration of Western Sahara in 1976.

Whilst a ceasefire was reached with the help of the UN in 1991, the long-running territorial dispute still continues today. With no political solution in sight, Breica’s plastic bottle homes are helping to improve the day-to-day living conditions of the refugees in the camps.

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