14 Aug 2017
Western Sahara, Algeria
Sustainable Construction

At the Sahrawi refugee camps in the deep, dry south of the Algerian desert, temperatures can reach up to 50° celsius. Finding shelter in that pervasive heat is a challenging task, and you cannot expect to find cool refuge in a traditional mud house.Not only are mud houses ineffective at guarding against scorching temperatures, but they are often destroyed by heavy rain and storms, leaving their occupants out in the open.  

For four decades, the refugee camps in the Western Sahara have been a place of exile for thousands of people displaced from their homes. This was where Tateh Lehbib, a young engineer born and raised in the camp, came up with the idea of building cheaper, stronger, and more environmentally friendly homes. To create his structures, he recycles materials readily available in the camp: plastic bottles, which he then fills with sand. He called his initiative Ecosahara.

“Life in the camp can be extremely tough, but I was determined to learn,” says Lehbib. “I was granted a scholarship to study sustainable development engineering at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. My research project focused on finding a convenient way to shelter the refugees I left back home.”

Lehbib has proven that necessity is the mother of all invention. His idea was born in 2015 when his grandmother lost her home in a flood. That same torrential downpour wiped out the homes and food supplies of an estimated 25,000 people at the camp. “I didn’t want my grandma to suffer from the heat anymore,” Lehbib says. “I wanted to offer a solid shelter for her in a region where the temperature can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius.”

Taking matters into his own hands:

Initially, Lehbib had no idea if his unconventional plastic housing solution would work. Back at the camp, the diligent engineer walks two kilometers to collect the wasted plastic bottles that he turns into bricks. Those sand-filled bottles are then stacked on top of one another to construct strong walls for a home. Unlike mud houses, the resulting plastic structure is resistant to even the most extreme weather conditions. Soon, he was transforming the endless sand of the desert into the first sustainable homes the camp had seen.

The materials used in Lehbib’s homes are inexpensive and easily available in the refugee camp. It costs approximately € 1,000 to build a house, he says.

Lehbib admits that building houses made entirely of water bottles is indeed an ambitious idea — but he thinks it can work. “Plastic is almost four times as strong as mud and insulates the house twice as well, and being made of plastic means the house is naturally waterproof,” Lehbib explained. Once the basic structure is in place, it’s covered with cement and painted in white to lower the ambient air temperature. Its round shape allows it to better avoid the sun rays and prevent the accumulation of sand during storms.

New housing for all camp residents:

Lehbib’s solution has the potential to impact more than just his grandma, and there is a need for an alternative housing solution across the camp. “During the wind season, we flee {the mud] houses in fear that the zinc sheets we use as ceilings may collapse,” says Fatima mant Albahlul, another refugee at the camp. When it rains, water gets accumulated around the houses, which eventually leads to their demolition.”

It is fellow refugees like Albahlul whom Lehbib also wants to help. He envisions a mass construction program in the camp and aspires to create an entire village of plastic-bottle homes. So unconventional was this idea that people in the village started to call him “the crazy plastic bottles guy.”

Names aside, Lehbib is slowly making a change. Thanks to the support he received from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he has already built 25 homes for other refugees. In the future, he wants to continue repurposing plastic waste to construct homes for as many of the other 165,000 refugees as possible.

With a lot of ambition and optimism, many Sahrawi refugees were able to have access to an adequate standard of living. Tateh is slowly working to persuade his fellow refugees that together, they can bring positive change in tandem, for themselves and for the environment.


Personal Facebook: https://web.facebook.com/lehbib.tatah

Photos: Courtesy of Ecosahara

Oumeima is a writer and a translator by day, a blogger by night. Right now, she is helping green and social entrepreneurs find their voices and tell their stories.Oumeima Boughanmi
The story of a young refugee who builds houses from plastic bottles | The Switchers
Ecosahara Sustianable Housing & Construction