Using traditional water cisterns to fight fire: A pilot project in two historical cities

The historical architecture of houses in the World Heritage sites of Berat and Gjirokastra, Albania is presenting a unique resource for fighting the threat of fire in these important sites. This pilot project explored the viability of using the houses’ traditional large cisterns as a dispersed source of water for firefighters and residents to respond quickly in case of fire.

Gjirokastra and Berat’s historic zones are vulnerable to a range of human and natural disasters. Of these, fire is one of the most common and most destructive. Devastating fires have destroyed entire houses and neighborhoods at multiple points in the histories of both cities.

To make matters worse, a number of factors limits the effectiveness of firefighting in Gjirokastra and Berat. Both cities suffer at times from a limited supply of water, particularly during the hot, dry summer months. Fire detection devices are almost unknown. And the cobblestone streets of the historic quarters are often too narrow for fire engines, while the close proximity of houses raises the risk of fire spreading rapidly from one building to the next.

One potential solution to these issues are the historic water cisterns found in many houses, which were used by families before the advent of the centralized town water system. These cisterns can hold an enormous amount of collected rainwater: from 50m³ to 120m³ of water, 15 times more than the capacity of a single fire truck.

Cistern-firetruck illustration

The aim of this project, therefore, was to revitalize the usage of historical water cisterns, as a means of addressing the threats and hazards facing Gjirokastra and Berat’s built heritage. In order to do so, the project also needed to revitalize intangible heritage, such as the ritual of collecting rainwater and the knowledge of traditional materials and practices.

In brief, the objectives of this project were to:

    • Develop an integrated strategy for disaster preparedness and response in case of fire;
    • Train local institutions and inhabitants to be prepared in case of emergency;
    • Raise awareness within the local community on how to behave in case of fire;
    • Engage a large array of social groups actively in the process of heritage protection and disaster response;
    • Conserve and restore the traditional water cisterns within the monuments and also revitalize the traditional ritual of collecting rainwater.

In Gjirokastra, CHwB-Albania staff identified several possible monuments for this last intervention, taking into consideration different aspects:

    • Coverage of all neighborhoods within the historical center;
    • The importance and values of the monuments;
    • The presence of functional water cisterns in the monuments;
    • The possible number of surrounding monuments to be covered by the fire extinguisher system in case of fire;
    • Accessibility of monuments by car;
    • Water supply in the neighborhood.

Based on these potential intervention sites, three different scales of proposals were developed, starting from solutions covering one monument to solutions covering a whole neighborhood. Throughout this process, meetings were organized between the CHwB team, the owners of the selected monuments, the fire department of the city, the directorate responsible for the maintenance of the monuments and a mechanical engineer so as to decide on the best possible solution for the system to be installed.

Based on the funds available for the project, it was decided to implement two pilot projects, one in each city, Berat and Gjirokastra. This was done in order to increase the impact of the project by extending this new approach to another important site, which faces many of the same problems as Gjirokastra, in terms of the threats to cultural heritage.

Installed system3The installation includes a pumping system within the cistern, which is connected to a hydrant on the street outside the house. This hydrant can be used by the owner of the house, as well as by the neighbors and also the fire department. In case of fire, the owners can immediately react in the first crucial minutes of the fire and localize it while the fire department can connect their pipes and use the water of the cistern to completely extinguish the fire. The whole system is automatic and completely independent of electricity.

As of now, the system is successfully installed and fully functional in Gjirokastra, while in Berat the works are still in progress.

Training of the local community on how to react in case of fire and how to use the system installed in the monuments will be organized by the fire departments in both cities.

This project was financed by the Prince Claus Fund and the Government of Sweden.

Note: A more in-depth version of this article by CHwB Deputy Executive Director Elena Mamani was included in the annual training publication of the Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage (DMUCH) program at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan.

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