External Affairs

Petro-ghar, an Oil-House for India that Withstood Superstorm Sandy

As Hurricane Sandy ploughed through south-east Cuba on October 25, 2012, destroying or damaging some 130,000 houses in Santiago de Cuba, a cluster of single storey red-roofed buildings stood its ground. These were the “petrocasas” (oil houses) the Venezuelans had built five years ago to replace the ageing housing stock of the island’s second largest city.

With wind speeds of up to 177 km/h, Hurricane (‘Superstorm’) Sandy was second only to the infamous Katrina of 2005 in the scale of destruction and loss of lives that torments the United States and the Caribbean during the Atlantic storm season. The petrocasas shook and swayed violently, its residents said later, but they held.

The petrocasas are built with PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a by-product of the oil and gas industry that can also be produced from hydrocarbons such as coal or as derivates from sugarcane. PVC is a plastic polymer, white and brittle in its rigid form (to which colour can be added), as in bank cards, and can be made more flexible by using chemical plasticisers as a substitute for rubber in plumbing and insulation pipes.

With their abundant oil and gas fields and domestic refineries, Venezuelans are not short of PVC. The original know-how is not theirs either and has been used for years in construction, as in the 2012 London Olympics, but they have tweaked German, Austrian, Italian and Brazilian technology for tropical conditions.

The components of the petrocasas like walls, doors and windows, floors and roof are manufactured as separate modules and the houses can be assembled within days on site. The ceiling and the walls are anchored to the foundation. The space between the wall panels is filled with concrete to give them the strength to resist storms and earthquakes. The roofing material, made from vinyl but resembling wood, can be covered with tiles or other local material. The lightweight PVC homes stand up better against fires and earthquakes than traditional buildings that make them suitable for disaster zones and their durability is said to be a hundred years.

The petrocasas — or, ‘petroghars‘ — could be part of the housing solution for the cyclone-prone coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. They can be manufactured, stored and transported easily as panels to the affected areas and assembled on site within days.

Houses are the first to crumble in earthquakes, cyclones and floods and often the last to be rebuilt. Each natural disaster pushes its victims to temporary shelters that often end up as permanent shantytowns. Even when they rebuild their homes, the people are forced to fall back on cheap, adulterated and unreliable ingredients.  The petrocasas could serve as a safety net against disaster profiteering.

Venezuela has constructed thousands of petrocasas as part of its ambitious programme of building three million housing units for its poorest citizens by the end of the decade. These houses have been sent as part of relief aid to other Latin American countries like Peru and the Dominican Republic and President Evo Morales wants them manufactured in Bolivia. A team from Caracas is in Nepal at the moment and petrocasas are bound to figure in its reconstruction aid offer.

Environmental arguments have been used in Venezuela to campaign against the housing programme. Its critics cite the use of the toxic chlorine gas in vinyl and the use of metal stabilisers in PVC which would otherwise catalyse its own decomposition. Many European countries are phasing out PVC in the construction industry. The Venezuelan state company that builds the petrocasas admits that there is 124 gm lead compound per house but claims that it is contained inside the plastic resin and cannot be released into the environment. Nevertheless, it has promised to replace the lead with calcium or zinc.

The environmental baggage is more acute with the plasticisers used to produce flexible PVC. Unlike bottles and cards, which end up in garbage dumps, infiltrate the subsoil and poison the water sources, the modular houses can be disposed of far more safely after their lifespan of 140 years.

Rejecting petrocasas for environmental concerns does not do away with a grubby moral choice: would it be better not to build them, even for post-disaster scenarios, for the undoubted pollution in the construction of its raw material and thus leave the poor to die from “organic” causes outdoors such as the cold, the heat or the rains? There are other rapid housing solutions but they would be far more expensive and less likely to be considered.

Each petrocasa of 70 m2 costs a little more than $20,000 to build in Venezuela, which seems to rule it out as an immediate low-cost solution for India. However, Caracas has a two-tier foreign exchange rate. One is pegged at 6.30 bolivars (the local currency) to the dollar which the state uses to import food, medicine and housing material to keep costs down for the people. The open market rate is currently just shy of 200 bolivars a dollar. India can use this dual conversion rate to negotiate import costs. More importantly, it has the raw material and installed capacity to build them locally and push down costs.

While the Venezuelans, with a decade’s experience in large-scale petrocasa projects, have developed technology and expertise that could be appropriate for Indian conditions, they do not have the capital or enough engineers, technical hands and managers to significantly increase production. They are, however, desperate to cut their dependence on oil exports and could be induced to transfer their knowledge and experience in a joint venture. India, with its refineries, coalfields and sugarcane fields, should be as desperate in reserving a part of its PVC production for urgent rehousing programmes.

Petrocasas could be incorporated into the national disaster management plan and be another item to Make in India. Perhaps the Prime Minister might wish to explore the subject when he visits Venezuela in September for the Nonaligned summit.