Due to Bangladesh’s low-lying land, it is susceptible to flooding, cyclones and tidal surges. Battered by torrential rain and strong winds during the monsoon season, it is frequently hit by flash floods and landslides.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, earthquakes add to the country’s mix of natural disasters.

Exposed to the elements

It’s people living in poverty – millions of whom have homes in danger-zones along riverbanks and the coast – who are most exposed. Their houses are ill-equipped to withstand the conditions they face.

Most are built by hand from split bamboo or jute (a hessian-like fibre), and covered with earthen plaster. Additives such as cement, bitumen or lime can strengthen this plaster, but are prohibitively expensive and energy-intensive to produce.

Engineers Without Borders UK teamed up with Simple Action for the Environment (SAFE), a local NGO, to develop a plaster composite that can more effectively endure Bangladesh’s formidable climate.

A group of people talking in a circle, one of them taking notes.

Durable building materials

Together, we looked at many natural and sustainable options: cactus juice, coal and eucalyptus tree tannins. Eventually we struck on an particularly effective additive: the mulch of the local Bijla tree. It is cheap, locally available and can produce a much more durable plaster.

SAFE is training local builders, craftspeople and house owners to use this new reinforced plaster to build safer, longer-lasting and more resilient homes.

This new type of plaster is better for the environment, too. The concrete industry generates a staggering 5% of all global carbon dioxide emissions, mostly from the process of making cement, something the production of Bijla-mulch-reinforced plaster avoids.