Against the Forces of Nature: Tackling Floods with Resilient Vernacular Architecture in Chikwawa

What would life be like if you had a home today and not tomorrow? What if you are enjoying a great meal today and the next day, left hungry and need to go beg for food? What if the clothes you are wearing today are the only ones that will be left tomorrow? What if the money you have is taken away tomorrow? This is the aftermath of a disaster such as earthquakes, floods, cyclones, tsunamis, etc. During the floods in December 2015 in Chennai, India, I faced this situation of almost going homeless after being rescued from the flooded areas. I quickly realized that it was a moment to act and not to recede into a shell. I joined the volunteers from a nonprofit helping them in rescue missions and in supplying basic amenities at flood relief camps. At this moment, I realized the power of water. We cannot live without it and at the same time, the destruction it brings is something which we cannot be controlled.

Floods are common across countries; Problems such as disasters are beyond human control and learning to face them form prior experience helps. In this preparation, social and cultural implications of disaster response and recovery can be distinctly see on the vernacular architecture. This is the specialty of intangible built heritage that passes on the culture and individuality across time. One can understand the practices and cultures through this medium. The vernacular constructions also incorporate the economic measures with proper use of local materials and cultural reflections in housing units. Global paradigms have shown significant performance during earlier disaster events, so replication of such technology with due incorporation of strengthening measures may be pivotal for countries, be it India or Malawi.

So for the task 3 of the GoUNESCO Internship Program my partner Abel Kenneth Mkulama, from Lilongwe, Malawi and me, from India easily zeroed in to describe the end results of floods, frequent yet dreaded disasters in our regions and their sociocultural implications on the vernacular architecture of our regions. Taking it a step further, we decided to visit the sites in our countries and update each other so as to experience one another’s culture through sharing photographs and personal stories. This task helped us understand how economically, culturally and geographically different and diverse cities, had common grounds in approaching problems that endanger life and how communities overcome them through architecture. In our articles, we describe how extremely contrasted and divergent regions seek similar measures in tackling life-threatening situations.

Chikwawa is a town with a population of approximately 12,000 located in the Southern Region of Malawi on the west bank of the Shire River. Chikwawa lies almost 30 miles south of Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi. It sits in southern Malawi, in floodplains of the Shire River, and is among Malawi’s poorest and most food insecure districts. Chikwawa was declared to be a disaster zone after heavy rains in January.




North, Central and Southern regions of Malawi, with important cities marked (left to right respectively)


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Impact of floods in Chikwawa

Adapted from Wikipedia: Chennai is the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal, it is the biggest cultural, economic and educational center in South India. Chennai is known as the “Detroit of South Asia” for its automobile industry. It is the third largest city and fourth most populous metropolitan area in India and 36th largest urban area in the world. Chennai is one of the Indian cities most visited by foreign tourists, and is the 47th most visited city in the world. The Quality of Living Survey rated Chennai as the safest city in India. Chennai attracts 45 percent of health tourists visiting India, and 30 to 40 percent of domestic health tourists. As such, it is termed “India’s health capital”. This article aims to point out the resilience that vernacular architecture has in its origins due to its continuous evolution over time, and its ability to adapt to the new established ecosystems aftershocks and disasters. Furthermore, this article investigates the influences of the local building cultures on reducing the susceptibility of the present urban and rural communities. Indigenous knowledge can enhance resilience of socio-ecological systems as this knowledge, accrued through experiences, has demonstrated the ability to deal with complexity and transformation of environmental factors. Inopportunely, indigenous knowledge is not still adequately recognized as an instrument into the realm of science.

The vernacular architecture of Malawi is similar to neighboring African countries in that the buildings are made with materials that are locally available. Mud is the material used to construct the walls and is utilized in a myriad way. The most basic method is to stack clumps of mud on top of one other forming a wall, which can live up to fifteen years. Mud also is applied to a frame, whether constructed of wood, reeds or bamboo.


Vernacular architecture of Northern districts of Malawi.


Vernacular architecture of Central districts of Malawi.


Vernacular architecture of Southern districts of Malawi.

vines tire-strips straps bark

Vernacular construction techniques of Malawi


Built vernacular heritage in disaster prone areas

Vernacular architecture in flood/earthquake prone areas tend to be built to minimize damage and withstand such calamities to a reliable extent. Resilience becomes a strategic essential for the human communities (urban and rural) as global change, climate, social and cultural change, natural and industrial disasters and economic shocks affect local communities. In this context vernacular architecture heritage, tangible and more intangible, constitutes an important field as it demonstrates a great capacity to evolve and adapt itself to the changing external conditions, as it is a result of several cycles of global changes. Urban resilience is the capacity of the cities to absorb shocks and perturbations without undergoing major alterations in its functional organization and economic, social and physical practices. Resilient cities are not only surviving potential risks and threats but also rather catching the positive consequences that the transformations might lead to. Resilience, for these reasons, is indispensable in order to lessen the negative influences of the aforementioned changes and increase the safety of the cities. Resilient settlements require a dynamic architecture by considering all the surrounding conditions in a constant process of transformation; so adaptability becomes an important principle of resilient architecture. In this case, vernacular design strategies can be approved as “resilient” as their formation is influenced by dynamic factors such as “locally available materials”, “macroclimate” and “living cultures”.

Resilient design principles in Malawi

As socioecological systems, resilient cities are characterized by high encouragement of self-reliance and capacity to recover back from stress or disastrous events. Simple, flexible and modular systems are more resilient, than complex systems, which can break down and require maintenance. Modular and flexible solutions have higher capacity to adapt themselves to the changing conditions.

Locally available, renewable resources are more resilient: Dependence on abundant local resources such as groundwater and local building materials provides more resilience than the dependence on nonrenewable resources or the resources that require great effort of access.

Divergent and inessential systems are inherently more resilient: More diverse communities have a higher capacity to respond to after-shocks and become more capable to adapt itself to the changing environments and needs of its habitants.

Resilience anticipates interruptions and a constantly changing future: The natural environment where we build our cities must be considered as a dynamic formation as it undergoes constant changes such as climatic changes with rising temperatures, increasing sea levels, natural disasters, floods and socio-cultural transformations. Resilient cities require an ability to predict the natural upheavals and interruptions and respond to the continuous changes with dynamic architecture.

Proficiency contributes to resilience: Resilience also means mitigation of the damages that cause natural disasters on the cities. Transmission of cultures between generations and growing acknowledgement of execution of basic needs such as agriculture, construction cultures, so called proficiency, makes the communities acquire resilience capacity. Proficiency of living cultures increases the ability of “recoverability” in case of perturbations. If the building techniques are simple and known by the inhabitants of the city, rapid reconstruction of the damaged buildings become easier. In the same way, if the cultivation culture is diffused and well known by the population of the city, it will become easier to recover agriculture and food production facilities post disasters. Hence, a community that has the acknowledge of the processes to meet their basic needs will devote less time to recuperate and return back to the daily life routines quicker than the communities inactive in the process of the production of their common needs.

Durability increases resilience: The term of durability involves not only construction practices, but also building design, infrastructure and ecosystems. Utilization of durable building materials and construction techniques reduce up keeping needs and increases the life cycle of buildings. All variations of vernacular architecture are built to meet fixed needs, based on the values, economies and lifestyle of the cultures that produce them.” It is a notable feature that vernacular architecture culture is developed and utilized through centuries by many civilizations across the world through experience; vernacular architecture shows different features and forms which depend on local climate conditions, local materials and living cultures. Generations after generations, vernacular architecture, especially the residences, adapted themselves to the environment and changing needs of communities. In a given community, the existence of a local culture suggests a successful evolution for the process of settling in that arises from dispersed cultures. Native knowledge plays an important role in the way where communities deal with crisis, disasters or a profound change. In such cases, “resilience” essentially means a series of tools by which inhabitants use available resources to deal with adverse conditions occurring due to the disasters. Resilience is a function of the ability of an ecosystem to mend damages after a disaster, the impact absorbing and emergency management, adaptation and novel socio-territorial organization. Strengthening the resilience allows to develop a higher resistance to the effects of disasters. The knowledge and traditional wisdom, which are critical to the local administration, are the resilience of rural communities. These procedures are deeply affixed to the system of relationships that come within the traditional community. The associations between the community and its members are not based on the contracts, but suggested rules handed down through generations. It indicates the presence of an inbred consciousness of the prerogatives and responsibilities of those who engage in the community. Indigenous knowledge can enhance resilience of socio-ecological systems because this knowledge, accrued through experience, learning, and intergenerational exchange, has demonstrated the ability to handle complexity and uncertainty. Therefore it is inherent to assume that indigenous knowledge is a source of resilience. The diversity of knowledge systems can enhance resilience because the management of socio-ecological systems develops when it can draw from a combination of various knowledge systems. Correspondingly this can be seen to mean that better cognition, which may include indigenous knowledge, contributes to resilience. However, there is a disaccord among researchers on whether indigenous knowledge can be brought into the spheres of science.

Image Gallery of Majete game park, Chikwawa, (Source:!chikwawa/cqwt) :-      15722804692_fbca3eb517_o 15722802672_5d260faf9f_o 15722799712_f88c200720_o 15722792162_9d34aa361c_o 15722777972_dc88fd6105_o 15722773962_0b25206249_o 15722770042_10fdb88249_o 15722768252_62a20d7287_o 15722761312_99a0afe579_o 15721203625_ebdda50fe4_o 15721248125_bbe8b99a1b_o 15721256025_2a95b40b4d_o 15721265535_456b341941_o 15719330101_2a2e2905e6_o 15719325051_fe09211602_o 15719296381_9197e15014_o 15719293351_9259922ce5_o 15719291601_a91cb15337_o 15719287661_feb5648cf6_o 15719287661_feb5648cf6_o-1 15697533556_5d0751795b_o-1 15536375820_af5e54c6a5_o 15536086607_d007d57b30_o 15536058167_72f0821838_o 15536048257_c2d5370743_o 15536031077_2cc892c8aa_o 15535416629_c7d86cdf3b_o-1 15535785358_8b1ca0fcd7_o 15535790978_e93b3983c7_o 15535797228_2f77acc282_o 15535821578_20d56cd743_o 15536029967_eb21eb01be_o 15535385919_71c060b892_o 15535383099_bc88d93887_o 15535363389_170003ed0a_o 15535340029_f51e1aca51_o 15535334629_bef49e6c50_o 15535317529_b4cac225d7_o 15101850953_b7bdc7ce88_o 15101286704_5a2af13c74_o 15101820123_07249fd471_o

Image Gallery of Majete game park, Chikwawa, (Source:!chikwawa/cqwt ) 

Resilience lessons from vernacular cultures

For a better understanding of the resilience potential of vernacular architecture in order to identify and examine how local traditions, spatial arrangement, land use and building cultures have a higher capacity of resilience, this extensive article has been done according to five different categories, as follows:

Resilience through design

The design principles of vernacular architecture derive from “climate adapted” design therefore, vernacular settlements show different features in the terms of the building envelope. The outcome of the climate conditions can be explicitly seen in the design decisions of vernacular buildings. The energy efficiency is also achieved by favorable spatial configurations and architectural design such as “courtyard houses” which are predominantly found in the hot climate regions. The introverted features of courtyard buildings ensure thermal control and natural ventilation. A particular classification of courtyard houses is seen in the region of Malawi. The courtyards have a protective role from the sun, but also from the heavy rains. They are characterized by very narrow openings in order to act like a filtering element during the rains. Whereas, in the cold climates vernacular buildings are designed more compactly in order to lessen the vents to outside to avoid the heat loss. These settlements integrate themselves to their natural contexts by creating minimal consequences through a good grasp of their climatic conditions. While doing this they consider to have a right orientation in order to optimize solar gain and daylighting or, in the opposite way, protect themselves from excessive sunlight. As it can be seen in the city of Chikwawa district that is located in the southeast region of Malawi. The strong climatic conditions played key roles in the way the architecture was developed. The hot and dry climate takes priority among these climatic conditions. Therefore, the pattern of the city evolved to survive with the hot climate. The built community is oriented to the south in order to use the solar power for natural heating. While the narrow streets which are passing under the dwellings, act like ventilation tunnels that create a passive cooling system. The streets also provide protection to inhabitants from sun and rain. Vernacular buildings achieve energy efficiency through certain construction elements to create passive systems such as perforated brick walls for air circulation or sun shading panels. The use of brick for building perforated walls is a common approach for gaining natural ventilation of the houses and sheds in Chikwawa region. As a result, it is seen that many features that contribute to increase the resilience capacity of vernacular architecture are achieved by appropriate design strategies.

Resilience through mixed-use spaces and collectiveness

Definitely one of the most relevant requirements of resilience is redundancy and adaptable use of the spaces. Capitalizing the active use of space and land contributes reducing the carbon footprint of an urban system. A single use, nonflexible spaces are underutilized during long periods. A densely populated, mixed use urban places promote effective functioning of all types of social, cultural and commercial activities with low energy inputs in comparison with single-use spaces. Vernacular communities imply collective living and shared facilities. Collectiveness also has a critical responsibility in effective use of infrastructures public places. Vernacular neighborhoods are characterized by the spaces for conviviality and social exchange. Variations of use of the common spaces are inherently more resilient.

Resilience by using appropriate materials

The role of building materials has a specific role for resilient architecture. Locally found materials offer high accessibility with low costs and provide simplicity. The architecture of Chikwawa region is an appropriate example to see the essentiality and creativity through the use of vernacular materials. They are mainly built using dry stone masonry sans mortar or cement. The other characteristic of vernacular building techniques is utilizing less transformed materials and minimal use of machinery in the manufacturing process. This feature contributes to the resilience by reducing environmental pollution due to the carbon emission. Locally used materials facilitate also the maintenance of the vernacular buildings. In the context of resilience, local materials provide buildings the capacity of adaptation to the changing climate conditions as they keep evolving in the terms of time according to the changing environment.

Resilience through building systems

Vernacular construction systems are technically characterized by “simplicity” and promote local labor. Artisan made materials such as wooden floors, timber windows, clay plastering allow to be easily restored. Locally known and produced building techniques facilitate the maintenance of the buildings as well. It also promotes local economy by encouraging local labor and artisanship. Furthermore, in vernacular systems traditional building cultures, which are transmitted through generations, contribute to the sociocultural resilience and they create a cultural heritage and increase the knowledge of local cultures.

Resilience by promoting local production

Deriving from the basic human needs, vernacular settlements encourage autonomy and self-sufficiency by multiple design approaches among which integration of houses with production areas such as self-cultivation gardens, domestic livestock’s, ovens and spaces for conservation. The proximity of working areas, which is one of the design principles of vernacular houses, favors an easy access to the food. As in Nsanje, in the southern region of Malawi, closer to Chikwawa district and similar in climate and geography, the dwellings are situated in their territory surrounding them. In this context, vernacular architecture ensures resilience in the terms of food security. Meanwhile, promoting locally processed productions also helps to protect cultural landscape.


There is a growing recognition that the combined negative outcomes of climate change, food insecurity and rapid urbanization weakens the resilience capacity of the cities. As illustrated before, the solutions are present in the vernacular building strategies. Moreover, these strategies have a high reliability, as they are the results of a long termed experiment process through continuous evolutions. It is always beneficial to possess a better understanding of indigenous knowledge and its resilience principles in varied dimensions such as environmental, socio-economical and sociocultural issues. Though indigenous knowledge is not sufficiently recognized as an instrument into the realm of science, but should be considered as a source of solutions to the resilience problems of today’s cities. Furthermore, this article investigates the influences of the local building cultures on reducing the vulnerabilities of the present day urban and rural settlements. With this present article we aim to increase the awareness of urban planners and policy makers about the importance of vernacular architectural culture for the foundation of the new urban strategies for the future of our cities. The intent to modernize has been the inception of a situation in which traditional customs and practices are being disowned. This is true even in the most distant of villages. Vernacular materials and techniques are often seen as inferior, temporary or for the low income groups. Western ones are perceived as being unerring, civilized and a reflection of affluence. As a result, these vernacular techniques are not being communicated or followed on to future generations. Architecture is as main part of a countries culture as is language, music, literature or art. Due to the rapid abandonment and because there is very little information available online, these vernacular techniques need to be documented. I believe, nature is unbeatable but we can prepare ourselves to fight against it in various ways to lessen the damage. We cannot stop natural disasters but we can learn to decrease the impact and save people from such unforgettable wounds.


I would like to specially mention and appreciate Jon (Twingi) Sojkowski for his extensive research work carried out on Malawi vernacular architecture. His data forms the backbone of this article and is the platform on which my ideas, content and hard work rest on, that has led to the successful completion of this work. In his work, he not only gives an unique viewpoint to vernacular architecture of Malawi but has also taken pains to sincerely learn and document it in detail, reflect the current state of vernacular architecture in Malawi and to express his culture and built heritage to the world, which is exactly what I have been doing for India and Indian culture as an intern in the GoUNESCO Internship program and also, is in line with the motives of GoUNESCO worldwide, on a global level and extent.

Image Gallery of Kabudula, Chikwawa, (Source:!chikwawa/cqwt)  :-

15722844112_293c6ca378_o 15722826822_5bc9b2020a_o 15719377831_828a911587_o 15697561446_5752969349_o 15697544696_74fb4879ac_o 15536105317_7a9cf6de6e_o

Image Gallery of Kabudula, Chikwawa, (Source:!chikwawa/cqwt)


  • Abhilaash

    Abhi is pursuing his graduate studies in Architecture–Engineering–Construction Management at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA. He graduated from National Institute of Technology Raipur, India with a Bachelor’s in Architecture with honours, finishing top of his class for 4 (out of 5) years of study and earned the Gold Medal, awarded to the best overall graduating student in the Department of Architecture. He has practised as an Architect in Chennai and actively volunteers with NGOs working on educating and empowering underprivileged children. In any spare time, Abhi enjoys travel, sketching, photography, reading, and chess.

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