The house that Tateh built … out of sand-filled plastic bottles
Pablo Mediavilla Costa in Tindouf, Algeria
In the Sahrawi refugee camps in the Algerian desert, Tateh Lehbib Braica – aka ‘the crazy bottle guy’ – has built circular houses from waste plastic that protect from wind and sun.
A group of women drink tea under the shade of a tent and cast an eye over the construction of an odd, circular house. The half-built dwelling is the brainchild of Tateh Lehbib Braica, 27, an engineer who wanders among the workers.
On the ground lie hundreds of sand-filled, 1.5 litre plastic bottles that serve as bricks. With them, Tateh has found a way to fight back against the harshness of the Algerian desert that is home to 90,000 long-term refugees from western Sahara. It’s not yet that hot, but in summer, when the temperature rises above 50C, it will be impossible to venture out of doors.
“I was born in a sun-dried brick house,” he says. “The roof was made of sheets of zinc – one of the best heat conductors. Me and my family had to endure high temperatures, rain and sandstorms that would sometimes take the roof off.
“When I came back to the camps, I decided to build a place for my grandmother to live that was more comfortable and more worthy of her.”
Some people call Tateh the “crazy bottle guy”. To begin with, his idea failed to convince many of his neighbours. But recognition arrived once he had finished his grandmother’s house: “They came to see it and they really liked it.”
The houses possess several qualities that equip them for the brutal ecosystem of the Algerian hamada, the so-called desert of all deserts. The walls are made of sand-filled plastic bottles, cement and a mixture of earth and straw that acts as thermal insulation. Compared with the traditional sun-dried bricks, which fall apart in the rains that batter the region from time to time, they are very tough.
The project is beneficial not only for those who live in the houses, but also for providing work and for the environment
Their circular shape serves a dual purpose: not only does it stop dunes forming during sandstorms as happens with square houses, it also – along with the white-painted exterior – reduces the impact of solar rays by up to 90%.
A double roof with a ventilation space and two windows set at different heights to encourage air flow mean that temperatures are 5C lower than in the other houses in the camps.
The floods of 2015 and 2016 destroyed 9,000 homes and 60% of the camps’ already scant infrastructure, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
Tateh’s idea reached the UNHCR’s Geneva HQ and it was selected as a pilot project. The agency’s grant of about €55,000 (£43,000) has seen 25 more houses built in the five Sahrawi refugee camps in the Algerian province of Tindouf.
Tateh’s circular homes have sprung from the ground in the camps of El Aaiún, Auserd, Smara, Bojador and Dajla, all of which are named after the western Saharan cities from which thousands of people fled in 1975 after the so-called Green March and Moroccan occupation.
Much of the scheme’s success lies in its low-cost and ecological benefits. Each house needs about 6,000 bottles and takes a team of four people a week to build.
“We don’t have modern recycling like they do in other countries, but we can make use of all the tonnes of plastic,” says Tateh, who studied renewable energy at Algiers University followed by a masters in energy efficiency at the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria thanks to an Erasmus Mundus grant from the EU.
“The idea came to me in 2016 after the big flood,” he says. “I was using plastic bottles to make a mock-up of some roofs and it just hit me.”
According to Hamdi Bukhari, the UNHCR’s representative in Algeria, “the project is really innovative and beneficial, not just for the people who live in the houses but also when it comes to providing work and for the environment.”
Bukhari points out how tough the selection process in Geneva was, pitting ideas from all over the world against each other. Using bottles, says Bukhari, hasn’t just helped “volunteers earn a little money; it has also fostered an awareness of keeping communities clean and doing positive things in them”.
The 25 houses will be given to people with physical disabilities, mental illnesses, and families in particularly vulnerable circumstances. A UNHCR technical committee will visit the camps to attend the inauguration ceremony and to study how the construction techniques can be used elsewhere.
The Sahrawi are among the populations who have spent longest living as refugees, according to the UNHCR. Spain’s handover of western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975 led to the outbreak of a war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation movement, and forced thousands of civilians into exile in the Algerian desert. Some of the refugees still have their Spanish identity papers.
The war ended in 1991 with a deal that a referendum on self-determination would be held the following January. But despite the initial optimism, the vote has yet to be staged. Meanwhile, tensions have repeatedly flared between Morocco and Polisario, most recently in the southern Guerguerat region.
What should have been a temporary stay in the refugee camps has become a long-term exile and new Sahrawi generations are condemned to rely on humanitarian aid – the budget stands at €68m for 2017 – in the absence of economic opportunities.
The voices of those advocating a return to war at the first opportunity are growing louder. The power lines and phone masts go some way to relieving the tedium. The increasing ubiquity of mobile phones with internet gives people access to information that was previously the domain of the Polisario Front and the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
“Before the internet, we had very little knowledge of what was going on outside,” says Mohamed Lamin, who runs a mobile phone shop in the Smara camp. “Now we use Facebook, WhatsApp and we see pages from other countries. If people aren’t using the internet, it’s because they don’t want to.”
He boasts that all his phones are original, brought over from Algeria and Barcelona.
Bottle collection points now dot Smara, and the Iveco truck that Tateh and his team use to pick them up is a common sight. The project is widely celebrated and is seen as a source of pride in a place cursed by politics and its climate.
Tateh, too, is proud and is thinking of extending the method to bigger buildings. “My grandmother is very happy,” he says. “My dream is to build a house for every family in the camps – even though I don’t think it’s the final answer.
“I don’t want to live my whole life as a refugee; I want to go back to our lands with my head held high. But, in the meantime, I have the right live with dignity.”
Pablo Mediavilla Costa wrote this article for El Pais. It was shared with the Guardian as part of the New Arrivals project.