Post-disaster Housing

The UN high commission for refugees and the Swedish firm Ikea have joined forces to come up with something better than a tent for those who, following some disaster or other, have to leave their homes. According to the UNHCR – the United Nations Refugee Agency – about ten percent of the world's three and a half million refugees are housed in tents of one sort or another, and end up living in them for an average twelve years after whatever disastrous event it was that caused them to flee their prior lives in the first place. “Our tents have not evolved very much over the years” says Olivier Pierre Delarue, of the UNHCR. “They still rely on canvas, ropes and poles – and they usually only last for around six months.” They are also freezing in the winter, sweltering in summer, could be considered a fire hazard and usually have no internal illumination. Field tents are, in other words, very poor long-term accommodation, a perfectly horrible residential environment in which to live and to raise children - in which, that is, to try and rebuild an acceptable existence. A great deal of research is currently underway on temporary shelters, structures where refugees and victims of natural disasters can find shelter and at times even (relative) stability, while they are waiting to be relocated in permanent housing. Most often tents or, depending on your luck, prefabricated constructions, these structures are initially the most sought after havens where a family can stay together under the same roof. These lodging quarters must meet numerous mandatory design prerequisites: they must be quick and easy to assemble; as lightweight as possible to facilitate transportation and compact when packaged to ensure easy storage; they must be modular in design and highly accessible in case big numbers of units are needed at short notice. Specifically, the very concept of temporary housing implies constructions that even in desolate or destroyed areas can guarantee basic amenities and sometimes even a level of comfort, and by and large they should provide occupants with all they need to try and recreate a normal living routine. However, the use of this kind of structure does still pose problems that have yet to be solved: they require a wasteful excess of material and manual labour, take too long to produce and the final cost is much too high. To give an idea of just how high, on 14 March 2011, three days after the devastating tsunami hit Japan’s north-eastern coast, local authorities ordered 30,000 prefab units, followed by another such order in April. These are startling numbers given that the price of each module, with its associated construction and infrastructure costs, was as high as five million yen, or nearly 40,000 of today’s euros. Obviously, each individual country’s climate, standard of living and local currency drastically influence costs. Just as obvious is the fact that there is a genuine – and large – market for these structures, which has generated increasing interest in their original physical and conceptual redesign and ultimately in the commercial opportunity they offer. In recent months, a particularly noteworthy prototype has been produced thanks to a collaboration between the IKEA Foundation and the United Nations High Commission for refugees, as the UNHCR’s Delarue explains: "We realised that the plastic sheeting we were using to build temporary refugee shelters was almost exactly the same material that Ikea uses for its shopping bags plus they had expertise in very specific areas – such as logistics and flatpacking – that we could certainly learn from and use to our advantage." The structure, which only takes four hours to assemble, resembles a prefabricated garden shed and is made out of lightweight laminated panels attached to a simple tubular frame, providing both protection from the sun and thermal insulation. Like the company's other products, the polymer panels come packed in a flat box, along with a bag of pipes, connectors and wires and - very likely, but Ikea has not yet published the exact details - a cartoon guide to assembly and a tiny hex wrench... The shelters are designed, like one of Ikea’s bookshelves, to be easy to transport and easy to set up wherever they are needed, according to the company's Refugee Housing Unit. The plastic panels used in these constructions can last up to three years and the kit also includes a roofing assembly with a metallic layer that reflects the sun during the day and helps keep the heat in at night, as well as a solar panel to provide the shelter with light and electricity. A further advantage of the design is that the square floorplan with vertical walls and a pitched roof also allows the structure to be upgraded over time. Mud walls and corrugated iron roofing - materials commonly available to refugees - can easily be added to make the structure much longer-lasting. The project is still at the prototype stage. Ikea shelters, each able to accommodate five people, are being tested by Somali refugees in the UN refugee camps at Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, as well as by refugees in Iraq and, most recently, in Syria. 

Weaning a legend

The global athlete of the future comes from a small Punjabi farming village in India. A teenager with the body of a giant, he’s now in training at an expensive Florida basketball academy, where sport goes hand in hand with marketing and geopolitics. India’s great hope is named Satnam Singh Bhamara and, in the near future, he may change the course and face of basketball. At least that’s what they’re hoping in New York, at the headquarters of the NBA, the Goliath of American basketball. They’ve already circled a date on a calendar for him: June 2017. That’s the summer that the first Indian NBA player is most likely to make his debut among the pros. The champ is meant to help the most global league on the planet make inroads into the only remaining, ‘virgin’ market yet to be penetrated by the game invented by a Canadian doctor in the late 1800s. With its population of 1.2 billion, India is an immense pool of potential fans, players and clients, and approximately only five million even know what a basketball is. The experiment was successful before, ten years ago, when another unknown giant, Yao Ming, opened the borders of Communist China to the NBA and large American multinationals. Ming was the son of a couple of ball players, both over 6’5”, who were brought together by the Party to bring a champion into the world. Bhamara’s father, on the other hand, is a stately man with a purple turban and white beard who, who from the height of his seven feet and two inches also dreamt of playing basketball, once upon a time. But the Bhamara family had other projects at the time: a farm in Ballo Ke, an isolated community of 800 in northern India. There was wheat to harvest, flour to grind, and cows to be milked. Balbir obeyed and ultimately became head of the village. One of three children, Bhamara’s official year of birth is registered as 1996, but his father claims he’s actually a year older. What is certain is that by the age of nine, he was already taller than his mother. So Balbir built him a makeshift basket and nailed it to the side of the house. Bhamara dangled from it jumping over cows. He had good aim and enormous hands that hid the ball. The villagers came to see him for fun, and the elders nicknamed him Chhotu, Punjabi for “the little one”. In 2006, the boy made his debut in Punjab’s youth league and was immediately offered a scholarship to a sports academy in Ludhiana, 80 km from Ballo Ke. Bhamara grew quickly and when he was 13 he made the cut for the national junior team; he was their youngest and tallest player ever. There were no scouts seeking him out yet, but other things had already begun moving. In 2009, the NBA elected Heidi Ueberroth, who ten years earlier launched NBA China, as its first president of NBA International. She immediately nominated a director of basketball operations in India, Troy Justice. Then she struck partnership deals with Nike, Adidas and Coca Cola, all of whom shared her same goal: to snag the young Indian demographic. Ueberroth called India “a top priority”. But it wasn’t just the NBA that geared up. Others sniffed out business deals and decided to invest as well. Such as Ted J. Forstmann – playboy, ex-boyfriend of Princess Diana (and Elizabeth Hurley) and CEO of IMG, the American giant in sports marketing and management. And Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India (worth €20 billion) and owner of Reliance Industries, the country’s largest corporation. In 2010, IMG Reliance, a joint venture between IMG and Reliance, signed a 30- year deal with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and announced a new league would be created, in 2015, modelled after the cricket league that IMG had helped establish in 2007. Courts started shooting up in the slums, American coaches arrived, and a scholarship to the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Florida was offered. The man to first notice Bhamara was Troy Justice, the former coach appointed by Ueberroth to drum up interest in the game from the grassroots level in India. He met Bhamara in 2010 at a try-out and was instantly bowled over. Satnam was 14, his shoes were tattered and too tight but he had a body and talent for the game that immediately struck Justice. He started working with the boy and a few days later called New York, telling them: “I have found the ‘Chosen One’”. The IMG Reliance Scholarship came shortly thereafter, prompting the president of the BFI to say, “Come see our Yao Ming”. IMG Reliance gave Bhamara the first of its scholarships ($70,000 per year) for the champions of tomorrow and, with his father’s consent, India’s little big hope moved to America. He’s been living there for three years now: he’s learned how to run, attack the basket, and speak English; he’s discovered Wal-Mart and pizza. In a year he’ll head off to college, perhaps Stanford in California, to learn how to stay hungry and ball-crazy his whole life. “Right now I have to focus on improving and on my studies”, he said in one of the few interviews he’s given in his brief career so far. “I’m 7-foot-2, I’m still in school and I don’t know what life will bring. Even after I retire, I want to make sure there’s a young generation that continues the popularity of basketball in India”.