Cyclone Nargis has just ripped through Myanmar, formerly Burma. While only 5% of the country was hit, it is where 25% of the population lives. Even where people survived with minor damage to their houses, they now face water shortages, food prices have quadrupled and the rice crop has been wiped out. Trees are down everywhere. In the middle of this we got a call from Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity.
TH: Where are you right now?
CS: I’m in Seoul, Korea speaking tomorrow, ironically, about affordable sustainable development and reconstruction. On Thursday I fly to Tamil Nadu in India to formally wrap up our post-tsunami reconstruction work.
Ed Burtynsky and Cameron Sinclair; photo by Hugo Arriojas
TH: What do you hear about how bad it is in Myanmar?
CS: Here in Asia reports are running almost around the clock. Originally reports suggested three to five hundred killed but as the day went on the numbers have escalated to 22,000 and will probably rise further. We’ve been in contact with some of our partners who are focused on immediate aid however we are yet to hear from the shelter community. Eyewitness reports suggest widespread destruction on the coastal villages and Laputta, a major town, is around 70% destroyed.
TH: What do you do in these cases, what is AFH's first step?
CS:We are not rushing in. The worst thing is for non-essential teams to get in the way of the relief effort. As we’ve done previously we are already communicating organizations with shelter divisions to offer technical support. Ideally in a few weeks we would send an assessment team into the region, possibly with one of these agencies, and they would establish ties with local organizations. They would stay in country for a few months to assess where to make the biggest impact. At that point we need to make a decision over the physical involvement of the organization.
TH: What do you need to take those first steps?
CS: Human capital and funding.
TH: Who do you send in?
CS: We’ve found that it is best to connect an architect/designer and an engineer to do an assessment plan and to offer on the ground support as communities transition to permanent rebuilding. After the Kashmir earthquake we relied on help from Arup and the local government however we could not raise the funds to ramp up there. As a result we did not get involved beyond initial support.
TH: After that, what does AFH do? how long were you involved in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami?
CS: Once a team is in they work with local communities to develop a strategy for rebuilding. This might include thinking about longer term development while equally trying to get people in homes as quickly as possible. The team may well be involved in some intermediary structures, such as transitional schools. In Sri Lanka we built half a dozen transitional schools, for 1800 kids, while developing a longer-term strategy.
TH:The Junta rejected aid after the 2004 tsunami, will it be different this time?
CS: Myanmar was hit by the Tsunami but no way as bad as this cyclone. This is their ‘tsumani’ and the government has opened all doors for help.
TH: Longer term, what will AFH try to do?
CS:This is where we really can make an impact. By focusing localized rebuilding we can help stabilize the community through economic empowerment and construct civic and institutional spaces. In Sri Lanka and India we found that people knew how to build homes but they needed schools, clinics, community centres – physical anchors in which to build around. Our strength lies here. By building structures with appropriate materials and off-the-grid energy sources we can create a test building in which the community looks to.
TH: What can our readers do to help?
CS: If we don’t have funds, we are not going in. plain and simple. We’ve done an initial assessment and found that we can make an impact, the issue is having the capacity to respond adequately. Contribute via PayPal here
TH: If they don't have any money to donate right now, what else can they do to help?
They can also offer their services. While we have designers on our books located around the world one of your readers may have a closer connection on the ground.
More on Cameron Sinclair and Architecture for Humanity:
TreeHugger Radio: An Interview with Cameron Sinclair
Cameron Sinclair Wows HOK Canada
Cameron Sinclair Interview on DesignBoom
A Full House For Cameron Sinclair at Idea Festival
Cameron Sinclair on Wired
Architecture for Humanity: Kate Stohr Speaks :
Architecture For Humanity and the California Fires
Architecture For Humanity UK + Crisis Helping The Homeless
Own the Day at Architecture for Humanity