With the gap exacerbated by COVID-19, no single organisation, or even government, can tackle the housing deficit problem alone.
The world gained a new word—COVID-19—in 2020 and lost precious lives over the two-year pandemic. When Omicron was declared a variant of concern in late November 2021, the media had referred to it as the dress rehearsal for the next big pandemic or the sucker punch to the world. Pre-pandemic developing Asia1 had seen a steady reduction in poverty rates. In 2017, just two years from the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the number of people living in extreme poverty, or on less than USD1.90 a day, had fallen to 203 million. As of 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic was estimated to have pushed up to 80 million more people in developing Asia into extreme poverty (ADB, 2021)2.
In 2022, we do not know whether the pandemic-induced rollercoaster ride of the past two years will end any time soon. But people who have a stake in a sustainable future are not keeping still. Ana Malia Falemaka, an 18-year-old activist from Tonga, admitted that while her government does not give a lot of attention to the housing situation, the issue still exists. Annual cyclones have never failed to prove how unsafe and weak their homes are in withstanding these storms. People in Tonga build with whatever they could find or afford, she said. “As long as there is a roof over our heads to keep out the rain, all is good.”
But she feels differently. “For me, home is an essential space for children to grow; our homes must first of all be safe and healthy for them to live in.”
While some people may be content to let construction workers or their fathers take charge of housing, she thinks the youth must participate in the process. “It is our future that we are talking about.” She was among the speakers at the Youth Congress, a side event of the eighth Asia-Pacific Housing Forum4 from December 7–9, 2021, co-organised by Habitat for Humanity and the European Union-funded SWITCH-Asia SCP Facility.
Like Ana Malia, I am compelled to take an active role. I share her responsibility of ensuring a sustainable future, along with governments, corporations and civil society. In almost three decades of being involved in international development work, I have not yet seen anybody claim to have the solution to pressing issues such as adequate housing. Even before the pandemic, the United Nations estimated at least 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing worldwide. UN-Habitat sees the adequate housing deficit growing to 3 billion by 2030. With the gap exacerbated by COVID-19, no single organisation, or even government, can tackle this problem alone.
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Partnership is such a buzzword that it may roll off our tongues before we consider what is required. For partnerships to be practical and fruitful, we need to engage partners from different sectors and disciplines with a shared vision and clearly defined roles for all involved. Governments, at central or local levels, do not bear the sole responsibility of providing for affordable housing. But they play an important role by formulating and implementing policies and regulations pertaining to land and housing markets. In Thailand, the government has said it will build 1.2 million houses over the next 10 years for those who are relocated from alongside rivers and canals, based on a Thomson Reuters report5.
All over the world, access to adequate housing remains a challenge. A key factor has been the increasing dominance of market economics that promote housing as an economic asset and not a place in which to live and grow as part of a community, according to a 2021 report by UN-Habitat6.
For the middle income and wealthier segments of society who can and will pay, it is easier to design Green and beautiful homes that can be seen as economic assets. The challenge is to provide such designs to low-income families. They should not be excluded from the benefit of Greener, aesthetically pleasing, functional and affordable housing solutions. To Chariya, who lives in Cambodia’s Battambang province, her new home may look similar to others in the area but the difference lies in the details: Adapted window design that increases ventilation; polycarbonate walls that let in more light, with other materials that reduce interior heat by 80 per cent; and larger water tanks in a rainwater catchment system for home gardening.
“There is more space for my children, and my family sleeps well every night,” said Chariya. “When we were living in the old house, I needed to get plastic sheets to cover things whenever it rained. Now there is no need to because the new house protects us well.”
RELATED PROJECT: Homes built by homeowners in Sri Lanka
For every Chariya who is able to live in a climate-sensitive house, there are millions of others who have to hunker down in windowless, overcrowded, unhealthy spaces amid an ongoing pandemic. The growing housing deficit is a humanitarian crisis in many countries. The solution has to be human-rights-based with people participating actively in the design and implementation of housing solutions. Moreover, the problem will not be solved by merely building more housing units. For one, we simply cannot build at a speed or of a quantity that can close the gap for one third of the Asia-Pacific population living in informal settlements. Let us look into leveraging current resources such as retrofitting and renting at affordable prices.
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Luis Noda, Habitat for Humanity’s Vice President for Asia-Pacific, has almost 30 years of international relief and development experience that started in his country of birth, Bolivia. Over the course of his career, he was the country director, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Chief International Operations Officer, Vice President and part of the C-suite of Food for the Hungry. Noda has managed large multidisciplinary community development projects related to food security, livelihoods and economic development, public health and education, as well as responses to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2013 humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. As a senior executive, he contributed to the development of global strategic plans, managed a multi-ethnic and multicultural team of leaders reporting from myriad locations and stewarded relationships with bilateral government donors such as USAID and multilateral donors such as the Inter-American Development Bank. Noda has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from University Mayor San Simon in Bolivia; a Master of Science in agricultural development from the University of Ghent in Belgium; a Master of Arts in development evaluation and management from the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and an NGO management executive certificate from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
1 The estimate refers to 35 developing members of ADB with available data for Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2021.
2 Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2021. Part 1 – Sustainable Development Goals: Trends and Tables, Asian Development Bank, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/720461/part1-sdgs.pdf