Refugee Uses Recycling to Save Lives in Harsh Conditions

Tateh Lehbib Breica, an energy engineer who grew up in a refugee camp, uses plastic bottles to build houses that can withstand the extreme landscape. Breica's craftsmanship and clever thinking could save lives during harsh rains or the fierce weather changes.
Jessica Miley
A house made from sand filled plastic bottles is built in Tindouf, Algeria.UNHCR

Pablo Mediavilla Costa/El PaisMore than 90,000 people are living in makeshift refugee camps in the remote desert of southwest Algeria after being displaced by the conflict of the Western Sahara War. The camps are made up tents and mud brick houses in an absolutely unforgiving climate. In summer, temperatures can reach over 50 degrees celsius (122 Fahrenheit), while in winter it is common for the temperatures to drop below freezing. Devastating sandstorms and heavy rains storms can destroy the fragile accommodation of the refugees and cause sickness and injury. In 2015, extreme flooding destroyed more than 17,000 houses and 60 percent of community infrastructure, as well as destroying 85,000 food rations.

One refugee is trying to fix the living situation for himself and his neighbors using an innovative solution. Tateh Lehbib Breica, an engineer who grew up in the Awserd camp, uses plastic bottles to build houses that can withstand the extreme landscape. Breica’s first project was an energy-efficient house for his grandmother. He discovered that by filling the bottles with sand and then laying them on their sides, he could build a circular shaped building that was fast to build, cheap and suitable for the environment. The bottles provide good insulation against the extreme heat and the round shape allows the driving winds to pass around the structure rather than against it. The form allows rain to run off quickly. The completed structure is covered in cement and limestone and painted white that reflects the bright sunlight, keeping the interior cool.

Breica’s architectural oddities earned him the local nickname of “Majnoun al qarurat” – “Crazy with bottles.” Breica describes his design journey saying, “I was born in a sun-dried brick house. 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.”

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International Recognition for Innovative Compassion

But it hasn’t been only Breica's grandmother and neighbors who have taken notice of his designs. Staff from the UN refugee agency UNHCR visited the dwellings and his design was selected as a funded pilot project. The agency gave a grant of roughly €55,000 that has allowed another 25 more houses built in the five Sahrawi refugee camps in the Algerian province of Tindouf.

Refugee Uses Recycling to Save Lives in Harsh Conditions
Source: Pablo Mediavilla Costa/El Pais

Juliette Murekeyisoni, Senior Field Coordinator for UNHCR in Tindouf talked about the project saying, “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. We have been supporting the use of bricks fortified by cement, and now we are supporting the use of plastic bottles.”

Breica is happy the collaboration has allowed his buildings to be built. 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.”