YEAR-END FEATURE: Grenada finds silver lining in hurricane stormclouds

by Peter Richards

ST GEORGE’S, Grenada, December 29, 2006 – When two hurricanes churned their way across Grenada within a 10-month period, razing almost everything in sight, the Keith Mitchell government chose to regard the destruction as a blessing in disguise, convinced that addressing the multiple rebuilding challenges offered an opportunity for a whole new approach to providing housing for its citizens.

Grenadian authorities had long acknowledged the chronic lack of adherence to building code regulations, outstanding land tenure issues and the need for a long-term, organised approach to land use and development.

Social Development Minister Yolande Bain Horsford conceded that Hurricane Ivan, which hit the island in September 2004, revealed multiple weaknesses and shortcomings in the way houses and other buildings were constructed in Grenada.

As often happens in natural disasters, the impact was most severe in poorer areas because the houses were shoddily built and unable to withstand the high winds.

Hurricane Emily, which followed in July 2005, “further demonstrated that the cost of repairs will always be higher than the cost of doing it right in the first place”, Horsford said.

“Houses that were repaired or reconstructed post-Ivan in adherence to the building code remained intact, while those that were quickly repaired using pre-Ivan methods suffered more extensive damages,” she noted.

The reconstruction exercise also exposed the fact that in Grenada, undocumented land ownership is a common practice, as family plots are inherited, transferred, and shared by informal intra-family agreements rather than through legal procedures.

In many cases, rural families are illiterate and depend heavily on their children, who often attend schools and universities in the cities, to come back and deal with land ownership issues.

“Accordingly it became impossible for many families to demonstrate ownership of land. This rendered many Grenadians ineligible for housing assistance,” noted the Agency for Reconstruction and Development (ARD), established by the Grenadian government after Hurricane Ivan to coordinate the rebuilding process.

“Access to credit from financial institutions was denied to many who had been living on family lands for years, yet could not provide proof of ownership,” the ARD said in its 2005 annual report.

Now, in a bid to ensure that all new houses meet a stringent building code, the government through the ARD has embarked on a human settlement programme “to facilitate an all-embracing strategy for sustainable development”.

The human settlement concept was the focus of a 1976 United Nations conference that endorsed bringing together the elements of housing, building, planning and land use and other activities such as environmental safety and social development.

Francis McBarnette, the Organisation of American States (OAS) representative speaking at the launch of the Residential Construction Quality Assurance Mechanism for Grenada in August, noted of the initiative that “if supported, it could in time change the many practices that are barriers to quality construction”.

The OAS, in collaboration with the ARD and others, will conduct training, recommend improvements in policy and procedures, and facilitate greater awareness. However, the most important part, changing the culture of the way things work in the building sector, is the greatest challenge for the stakeholders. “We are confident that together we will find the resolve to make that change,” he added.

The ARD said it has “embraced human settlement as being critical to the redevelopment of a country ravaged by two hurricanes in the course of 10 months”.

“Indeed, Grenada, has added a new dimension in applying the human settlement concept,” said the ARD report.

Authorities have identified two sites for establishing human settlements. They will be funded by a 1.9-million-dollar loan from the Inter American Development Bank through the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank.

They regard the pilot projects as important in the context of applying the human settlements concept in the provision of shelter.

“Both sites are approximately seven acres and the ARD architects are endeavouring to create design layouts that will reflect the preferences of Grenadians. In this regard, the ARD has researched the traditional style of housing that has evolved in Grenada,” said Bain-Horsford.

“As minister responsible for housing, I see enormous potential in the application of the human settlement concept in Grenada, as we seek to utilise the limited space that we have in the most efficient manner,” she added.

Fourteen designs have been prepared by the ARD architects, incorporating single units, townhouses and apartments in a bid to utilise the limited space and natural contours of the land.

“This means lots of greenery and park areas so that the children can play close to home,” Bain Horsford said.

Earlier this month, the ARD signed contracts with a Chinese company to begin work at two sites, one on the east coast village of Soubise and the other at Mt. Gay near St. George’s, the capital. Both developments will provide for 84 housing units each.

A seven-member Chinese government team is now in Grenada discussing several aspects relating to the two sites, with the ARD providing a 42-page document on housing development in the country.

China has promised to fund the construction of 2,000 houses and it is expected that some of these will be built on the two sites where the Grenadian authorities have laid emphasis on the human settlements concept.

“The team was apprised of plans for human settlements in Soubise and Mt. Gay and the challenges of building houses on steep slopes and hilly terrain. Poor access for vehicles and equipment to individual houses was also identified as a constraint to reconstruction,” said an official statement, noting “the ARD produced several alternative house designs for consideration”.

The government says that families of the fishermen in those areas will be given priority. According to journalist Michael Bascombe, many of the residents are welcoming the relocation — people like Michael Smith, 45, whose small dwelling came crashing down during the first storm. “Over the last five years, storm surges and other weather patterns have made the area very vulnerable,” Bascombe noted.

In September, John Spears of the U.S.-based Sustainable Design Group conducted a workshop in Grenada outlining a variety of alternative construction methods and materials, including wastewater recycling, solar energy and other environmentally friendly practices.

His presentation featured a “complete earth home” using compressed earth brick walls, complete with solar oven and electricity, rainwater collection, composting and other natural systems that have been successfully applied in places like China, Mexico and Africa.

“I can see these methods happening in Grenada,” said David Sinclair, a member of the board of directors of the Contractors Association of Grenada.

Sinclair said there is plenty of local clay to make compressed bricks, and Grenada is also well-suited to the use of waterless toilets, recycling toilet waste into fertiliser and other “green” sanitation systems. (IPS)