Erika Trabucco is one of Handicap International’s reconstruction and building accessibility specialists. An architect by training, she worked from March 2015 to April 2016 in the Gaza Strip to to improve the accessibility of public buildings and to rebuild a hospital that specializes in the care and treatment of people with disabilities.
What did the Gaza Strip look like when you arrived?
Gaza hadn’t been totally destroyed, but some districts in the south and east of Gaza had been extensively damaged in the conflict of July 2014. A lot of buildings were badly damaged, which had a big impact on people’s living conditions. 180,000 people left their homes to flee the conflict; many families still haven’t been able to return.
What was your role under these circumstances?
I arrived in March 2015 and our priority was to rehabilitate and to improve the accessibility of buildings that serve people with disabilities living in the Gaza Strip. A complex that included a school and a hospital in Gaza City, for example, had been destroyed in the conflict of August 2014. The hospital provided services to nearly 14,000 people with disabilities. We decided to fully rehabilitate it. It is now operational again.
The other aspect of my mission, and perhaps the most important, was to improve the accessibility of public buildings and private homes for people with disabilities living in the Gaza Strip by training engineers and construction companies.
One of the biggest problems we faced was sourcing supplies of construction materials, such as cement. Construction companies are highly dependent on imports, which are extremely expensive, and you have to complete a lot of formalities before you can get authorization to enter the Gaza Strip. To rebuild the clinic, we decided to get our supplies solely from the local market. We also wanted to explore, on a small scale, the possibility of reusing recycled or recovered materials to construct small buildings.
What resources were available on-site?
Obviously we reused existing materials, like earth walls and sandbags. I also wanted to see if I could reuse resources from buildings destroyed in the conflict.
You can rebuild walls by “recycling” rubble, for example. We also used old tires, empty plastic bottles, etc. This area is often highly polluted, and reusing waste as a building material could also encourage people to recycle more.
Was it hard to convince builders of the importance of accessibility and use of recycled materials?
We provided construction companies with information on building and accessibility standards, which are set out in the Palestinian Disability Law of 1999. This law is rarely applied in practice, but the technicians we trained were really interested in the issue and I’m optimistic that they’re going to make a bigger effort in the future to take into account the needs of people with disabilities.
We also tried to involve the engineers of tomorrow. Handicap International organized a workshop for 70 civil engineering students from the University of Palestine, with an equal number of women and men. We trained them in accessibility standards and asked them to use rubble and recycled products. They built a show pavilion, which demonstrates how different technologies can be used in Gaza too, and how accessibility can be achieved on a small budget and with limited means.
What were the positive impacts of this initiative?
Accessibility clearly isn’t a priority for construction companies in the Gaza Strip. But, by raising the awareness of current and future engineers, I think we can improve on that. The workshop had a really positive impact, if only on the students.
From the point of view of working methods, the recycling of waste and rubble in construction will mean people can build for less. It’s one of the best solutions I know for small buildings. For example, as part of this project, Handicap International built a recreation area in a specialized school for children with disabilities in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip.
Given the situation in Gaza, it could help people, especially the most deprived, access construction materials more easily, and faster too. This will increase their response capacities, since it would allow them to build or rebuild small buildings by themselves, without having to buy too many materials and without necessarily having to use the services of a company.
Lastly, on a professional level, I learned a lot from this experience in the Gaza Strip. We should be able to replicate these construction methods in other areas, such as countries affected by natural disasters, for example.