A Sahrawi man by the name of Tateh Lehbib Breica has been a refugee for his entire life; at the age of 28, Breica is a victim of the Western Saharan War that began in 1975 and displaced about 165,000 Sahrawi people. Today, the majority of Sahrawis live in five encampments in southern Algeria, where the weather reaches over 110 degrees and is prone to heavy raining and impromptu sandstorms.
With a master’s degree in energy efficiency, Breica originally planned on building an energy-efficient home with a roof garden, but when the circular design proved tricky he knew he had to scrap the idea. He had tons of empty plastic bottles in his possession, which were supposed to grow plant seedlings
“I asked myself ‘What can I do with these?’” said Breica. “Then I remembered a documentary I had seen, during my university studies, on building using plastic bottles, and thought, ‘Why not try that?’”
Thanks to Breica’s education, which he was able to acquire through hefty scholarships, dedication, and a motivation to help his people in the Auserd refugee camp he was born and raised in, he has an in-depth understanding of how building works. Like most inventions, Breica’s idea sprouted from one of necessity. He said that he wanted to build a house for his grandmother out of cheap materials that would insulate the interior and protect her from the harsh climate.
“I have always dreamt of building a shelter for my grandma, where she can escape the burning heat, and resist the harsh seasonal floods,” he said. “There were some people who could not believe this could ever work.”
To say that the plastic bottles, which Breica fills with sand and covers with cement mix after laying them, work well to build the structure is an understatement. Breica said that the plastic bottles are 20 times more resistant than traditional adobe brick used to construct homes in the camps and that it only costs one-quarter of the price. With just 6,000 plastic bottles and the other materials, he was able to build a house for his grandmother, and garnered an interest for using his idea to help others.
Thanks to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Breica and his idea were chosen as one of the innovation projects around the world to provide funding for sustainable, cost-effective solutions to the problems that humans face around the world everyday. The funding covers 25 houses, which will take about 150,000 plastic bottles and help the environment by lessening plastic pollution as well.
“After the October 2015 heavy rains that damaged and destroyed tens of thousands of adobe houses, UNHCR has been working with the Sahrawis on improving construction techniques, to better withstand the severe weather of this region,” says Juliette Murekeyisoni, Senior Field Coordinator for UNHCR in Tindouf. “We have been supporting the use of bricks fortified by cement, and now we are supporting the use of plastic bottles.”
Breica’s initiative has helped others see the value in this solution and has even produced jobs for some locals, including friends of his, and allowed him to educate the youth in the refugee camps about sustainability and the usefulness of reusing plastic bottles. His houses have so far benefited a mother and her blind and autistic son, whose mud brick house was destroyed in the floods. The pair have been living in a tent ever since, which doesn’t protect from the rain or sand storms. The 25 houses will be built in all 5 encampments in southern Algeria.
“The objective is to alleviate the suffering of the Sahrawi, letting them live with more dignity, and to build ecological and sustainable homes,” explained Breica.