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  • Water, water, underground, but not a drop to drink

    Grace Mukasa
    March 19th, 2014

    You may not have heard yet, but our field staff in the remote Turkana region of Northern Kenya are reporting a growing humanitarian crisis.

    Normally, the long rainy season would have been in full swing by now. But so far, not a drop of rain has fallen. Should the rains fail over the next three weeks, many thousands of people could face a slow and lingering death, unless there is action now.

    A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family's weak animals

    A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family’s weak animals

    For almost 12 months now, the region has had no rain. Rivers are dry, water tables have fallen so dramatically that some boreholes can no longer reach it. Pastureland has dried up and the grass has disappeared. Pastoralists have been forced to migrate with their livestock into neighbouring Uganda.

    The Turkana region is home to about a million people, many of whom are nomadic pastoralists, raising cattle and goats. Of these over 300,000 are in dire need of food and water and the number keep swelling by the day.

    The great irony is that there are huge water supplies deep beneath the surface in Turkana. If this wasn’t enough last year oil was also discovered.

    But the situation is expected to worsen and terrifyingly, there is a forecast of poor long rains. Malnutrition levels are high among women and children and many people will die unless action is taken. Goats are already dying and livestock is growing ever weaker.

    Already, the situation in some parts of Turkana has now become so severe that I have heard reports that out of desperation people are eating tree roots and dogs.

    Practical Action has installed solar-powered water pumps to access the huge underground reservoirs in Turkana, and where we have been working the situation is not so desperate, but we cannot reach everywhere.  In addition, we have been working with the Ugandan Government since 2009 to negotiate safe passage for pastoralists desperate to access good pasture land in times of crisis and I am pleased to say our efforts are now proving vital. Already, 30,000 pastoralists have migrated with their herds over the border, saving lives and livestock worth millions of pounds in the process. Practical Action staff are continuing to work in Uganda to facilitate this process.

    This, of course, means that men of working age have been forced to leave their families and smaller livestock such as goats. In many communities in which we work only women and children remain, using the solar-powered water pumps we have installed as they battle desperately to survive as their goats die from starvation.

    The Kenyan Government is providing affected populations with some food relief and humanitarian organisations are starting to mobilise, but aside from one short online report, there has been no international reporting of the situation outside the Kenyan media.

    There shouldn’t be another famine in Turkana. The fact that one is looming should shame us all. We all need to take practical action there now.

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  • Inspiring Change: The role of Women in Disaster Risk Reduction

    Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is “Inspiring Change.” This makes for a particularly uplifting end to the week. Stories about powerful and influential women are filling up social media and it’s great. It’s also quite unusual.

    Whilst the need to recognise gender in international development processes is now broadly accepted, when we talk about the needs and experiences of women, more often than not we are talking about victims. This dialogue is important because women are disproportionately burdened by poverty and the associated injustices that come with it. But what is often missing is a focus on agency and the contribution that women can make to bring about meaningful change in their own lives.

    This is certainly what seems to have happened in international efforts to prepare for and manage disasters. The first phase of the Hyogo Framework of Action is one example. A primary criticism of the framework so far is that despite its stated intentions to be gender sensitive, “Inclusion of a gender perspective and effective community participation are the areas where the least progress seems to have been made.”[1]

    This is perhaps not surprising – including women in formal planning processes is often difficult in settings which have strong pre-existing patriarchal structures. However, the framework as it stands appears to view women first and foremost as a “vulnerable group” rendering the vital contribution that they make to protect their families and livelihoods insignificant or invisible. This attitude also undermines efforts to involve them in decision making and according to the HFA2 paper ‘Women as a Force in Resilience Building and Gender Equality in DRR‘, when efforts are made to increase the capacity of women, the focus is usually on women as carers or service providers.

    With phase two of this framework (the HFA+ or HFA2) on the horizon, along with the setting of post-2015 Sustainable Development goals, we have a unique opportunity to change the narrative around women and disaster risk reduction.

    Vishaka in the foreground  contributing to a Practical Action Disaster Risk Reduction workshop with colleagues: Dinanath (Nepal), Dalia (Peru), Orlando (Peru).

    Vishaka in the foreground contributing to a Practical Action Disaster Risk Reduction workshop with colleagues: Dinanath (Nepal), Dalia (Peru), Orlando (Peru).

    Practical Action’s Vishaka Hidellage is a good example of how women’s agency can make a difference at local and global levels.  Not only was Vishaka instrumental in establishing Duryog Nivaran as a DRR network for the South Asian region, she has led by example ensuring that the network connects with communities – especially those that usually have little or no voice. Duryog Nivaran has been particularly successful at engaging women, especially the poorest and most vulnerable in a region dominated by entrenched views and limited opportunity. In recognition of this work, Vishaka now acts as a leader for women’s engagement in the global UNISDR process and is currently heavily contributing to the UNISDR programme of work on gender for the new global agreement.

    Vishaka shows us the potential and the need for more women to step forward as leaders and catalysts for change. Duryong Nivaran continues to focus on the needs of the marginalised in the south Asian region and Vishaka’s presence on the global stage ensures that these voices are harder to ignore.



    [1] The UN Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 : Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters Mid Term Review <http://www.unisdr.org/files/18197_midterm.pdf> p.44

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  • On making the SDGs meaningful: Practical Action’s views on the state of play of the post-2015 development agenda

    Aaron Leopold
    March 4th, 2014

    United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Photo courtesy of IISD.UN negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda represent the follow-up process of two globally significant policy regimes: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Rio+20 conference of 2012. No small shoes to fill. On 21 February 2014, the co-Chairs of one of the key bodies in this process, the Open Working Group (OWG), released a preliminary sketch of the status of discussions on a variety of topics in their “Focus Areas Document.” Practical Action welcomes the strong and clear messages it contains. But while the document does encapsulate dozens of aspects crucial to the post-2015 development agenda, many areas key to its long terms success  are incomplete or altogether lacking.

    Focus area 7 on ENERGY, and particularly points on alleviating energy poverty, are at the core of progress in all other focal areas. We stress that the evidence on energy poverty is clear: neither energy poverty nor the litany of energy nexus issues (food security, education, health, water, gender equality, etc.) can be meaningfully addressed without emphasising deployment of decentralized (off-grid) provision of modern energy services, combined with robust indicators and monitoring systems. We strongly urge inclusion of these issues in discussions of any energy-related SDG goals to prevent energy, seen by many as the “missing MDG” from becoming a “meaningless SDG.”

    VIP-in-KenyaOn focus area 6 on WATER AND SANITATION, we welcome recognition of the need for safe drinking water and sanitation for all households, and urge that this ambition eventually be reflected in the indicators. However, we note that the bulk of issues raised in this focal area concern water and deeply lament that there is no mention of hygiene here or in focus area 3 on HEALTH.

    Considering focal area 13 on SUSTAINABLE CITIES AND HUMAN SETTLEMENTS, we note that this area must have a strong emphasis not only on poverty eradication, but critically, on promoting equality. If we cannot find a way of disaggregating indicators on the rich and poor of urban areas, the urban poor will remain among the un-counted and unreached.

    CLIMATE CHANGE is recognised throughout the document (including in the focal areas on energy, food security, infrastructure, sustainable cities) and with its own focal area 15, but it is conspicuously absent from focus area 9 on INDUSTRIALIZATION, a major contributor of continuing greenhouse gas emissions. Also absent from the document is mention of reducing risk from human-induced and natural hazards. We must ask whether the provision of social protection alone is able to reduce vulnerability and enable those currently living in poverty to fully participate in sustainable development.

    The mention of ‘inclusive’ growth in a number of focus areas is excellent but we feel strong and explicit linkages must be made between Focus Areas 8, 11, and 12 on ECONOMIC GROWTH, EMPLOYMENT AND DECENT WORK FOR ALL, and PROMOTING EQUALITY. In addition, care must be given when referring to ‘sustained’ growth as in focus area 8 and 12, which in a closed physical system such as our planet, is not a realistic or sustainable aim.

    The focus area 18 on MEANS OF IMPLEMENTATION is particularly welcome. Prioritising what will be measured in this enormous list of important issues will be hugely challenging. To transform systems most important to those living in poverty, such as agriculture, energy, water and sanitation, and the science, technology and innovation systems that support them, the ‘broad stakeholder engagement’ noted must promote the active, meaningful involvement of small and marginalised players.

    Although technology and access to technology is well represented throughout the document, globally we must look beyond transfer of technology from North to South, and recognise the potential of indigenous knowledge and local innovation to ensure a form of sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Missing from the document is reference to the desperate need to shift technology development towards those who need it rather than those who can afford it. This will require concerted investments in fostering grassroots and frugal innovation (i.e. innovation focusing on reducing the cost and complexity of goods and services), and the use and regulation of technologies that aim to deliver on sustainable development goals.

    Practical Action very much looks forward to continuing to engage with the post-2015 development process, and welcomes feedback on these issues.

     

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  • Watson to save Africa or is small still beautiful?

    Margaret Gardner
    February 28th, 2014

    Have you heard about IBMs super computer Watson? It was made to compete on the US TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ which it won! It has 200 million pages of content, can answer questions in natural languages and is said to be artificially intelligent.

    It’s now being deployed in Africa to solve the pressing problems of agriculture, health and education.  Such are the transformative powers of Watson the IBM project has been called Lucy after humankind’s first ancestor.

    On March 3rd 2014 The Tyranny of the Experts written by the economist Professor William Easterly is published.  He argues in it that there is an obsession with fixing the symptoms of poverty without addressing the systemic causes. Moreover that freedom and assuring people’s rights and thus choice are key to building sustainable development.

    Maybe unfairly (and I have only read the preview of Easterly’s book available on Amazon) I would characterise there two approaches as ‘science will find a way though’ versus ‘democracy is the answer’.  There are lots that I love and think true in what Easterly says but ultimately my concern is that we are seeking a one size fits all model.

    We have to start with people and they are complicated – individually and even more so when we come together as societies. Data can help but ultimately you/we have to listen. Democracy is the best system we have, but asserting people’s rights is not enough.  Rights without options or access can lead to massive frustration.

    22626So in terms of approaches to development – and although I’m seeped in Practical Action I must caveat with these are personal views

    • We have to change our course – consumerism leading to our current 3 planet living, testing the finite nature of our planet is leading to ecological disaster. The impacts of climate change are being felt first and hardest by poor people living on marginalised land. Taking action on climate change has proven a struggle in a democracy where significant changes are needed now but the full impact won’t be felt for decades.
    • Development should be at a human scale, we should start with people their choices and needs, looking at measures of wellbeing not just economic growth. People should have a voice and be listened to in development that impacts them.
    • We have to share and set up rules that promote sharing not greed and gargantuan acquisition – a world where the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion is a world where something is very wrong.
    • Technology has a huge role to play – but technology needs to know its place as a servant not the prescriber of solutions. Big isn’t always better.
    • Above all warm words need to be matched by action. The world needs to prioritise sustainable development but also to fund it. That means taking tough choices when it comes to government spending – huge bonuses for bankers or bailing out people?

    Reading the article in The Guardian about IBM’s Watson I was reminded of a passage in Small is Beautiful written in 1973

    ‘In the urgent attempt to obtain reliable knowledge about his essentially indeterminate future, the modern man of action may surround himself with ever growing armies of forecasters, by ever growing mountains of factual data to be digested by ever more wonderful mechanical contrivances. I fear the result is little more than a huge game of make-believe and an ever more marvellous vindication of Parkinson’s Law. …Stop, look and listen is a better motto than ‘look it up in the forecasts’ ‘

    40 years on there is still huge wisdom – encouragements to pause and think – to be taken from Small is Beautiful.

    But to go back to Watson – I love the Benedict Cumberbatch  version of Sherlock Holmes – so what could be better than a Sherlock quote on Climate change (I may be stretching its meaning)

    ‘I think you know me well enough Watson to know that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognise danger when it is close upon you’

    The Final Problem

     

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  • Why the Daily Mail’s petition is wrong and we are all in this together

    Margaret Gardner
    February 12th, 2014

    Wherever you live in the world, having your home or land flooded can be utterly devastating. The victims of the floods in the UK deserve our help but the Daily Mail is wrong to target the UK’s international aid budget to provide it.

    Their petition calling on the Prime Minister to divert some of the aid budget to help victims here is in danger of robbing poor Peter to pay Paul. Climate change makes no distinction between extreme weather here and other countries around the world. We are all in this together.

    Floods currently threaten thousands of people in Zimbabwe, Burundi and Bolivia. When communities there are flooded they not only lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods but they are also at risk from cholera and other water borne diseases.

    Given the Daily Mail’s rhetoric and petition it is easy to forget that international aid accounts for just 0.7% of our GDP.

    I am proud that the UK’s three main political parties support the 0.7% target and want to help the poorest people in the world.  Their leadership is needed now more than ever.

    Last year our supporters met the Prime Minister and praised him for meeting the 0.7% target, a process which took over 20 years to achieve. In a letter he sent to us the Prime Minister said “Thank you very much for your kind words on 0.7%. It is something I am proud of. We need groups like Practical Action – and you personally – to be out there making the case for it”.

    David Cameron meeting Practical Action supporters 20 September (1)

    That is why we have decided to speak out now.

    Last year we received £2.83 million from the international aid budget and used it to help nearly one million poor and vulnerable people.

    In the UK the cost of the clean-up and compensating people for the loss and damage will run into many millions of pounds. But as a relatively rich country, it is a bill we can afford to pay without the need to take money away from some of the poorest people in the world.

    Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh were highlighted in the Daily Mail’s article. People there do not have insurance policies and unlike people here there is no government support available to help them. But they, like the victims in Somerset and along the Thames, know only too well what it is like to lose everything. I know because I’ve been to both countries and seen the floods there for myself.

    In Nepal we have put in place early warning systems to alert people when the water level rises. There I met Parbati Gurung, 45, a widow who regularly checks our water gauge station 2 km north from Chisapani. If there is a danger of a flood she lets people along the river bank know by texting them and a siren is blown three times.

    In Bangladesh I’ve seen how with funding from the international aid budget Practical Action has helped protect many local communities by working with them to build bunds around villages and through innovative technologies like floating gardens has helped people feed themselves during the floods. We have also worked with communities to build flood-proof homes and raise wells to protect vital drinking water.

    In the short term our work in Nepal and Bangladesh has helped to save hundreds of lives. In the long term, it means thousands of people’s lives are not devastated every time there is a disaster.

    It is something I believe the British taxpayer and many Daily Mail readers would be very proud of.

     

     

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  • Can we stop climate change in time?

    David Flint
    January 27th, 2014

    The science is clear. ‘Business as usual’ will increase global temperatures by at least four degrees – possibly much more. This will have catastrophic impacts on many parts of the world – and especially on the poorest people.

    That’s why one of our leading climate scientists, Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, convened a Radical Emissions Reduction conference at the Royal Society. This was not a climate science conference, the speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, politicians, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman! The conference brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the technical, social and political feasibility of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

    “We are [energy] addicts … [and] shale gas is our methadone.”  Kevin Anderson.

    The conference passed no motions and made no declarations but I took away three main messages:

    • It is technically feasible, though it will be very hard, to reduce emissions fast enough.
    • To do so will require the citizens of developed countries to make significant sacrifices.
    • Neither the people nor the leaders of these countries have the will to make the changes needed.

    The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Green MP Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly, ‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution but that’s already happened six times!’ Many speakers stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and emphasised the political and ideological roadblocks.

    The Good News

    The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station.  In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!

    Some speakers discussed technologies. Brenda Boardman, for instance, told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (much more than I’d have guessed). Wed may already have reached ‘peak light bulb’. Other speakers discussed low energy technologies for homes and shipping.

    Other speakers presented scenarios for the transition to a low-emissions energy system and Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.

    The necessary changes are technically possible, economically affordable and offer many benefits.

    The Bad News

    Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done. Global emissions continue to rise. “Global recession,” John Barrett told us, “is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly.” The impacts are serious and increasing precisely known. According to Tyndall Director Corrine Le Quere “Of the one metre Hurricane Sandy storm surge, 20cm was due to global warming”.

    The oft-cited 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10% in the developed world. Yet almost everyone, and not just mainstream politicians, is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:

    1. Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies and automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie. almost all of them.
    2. The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments, thus strengthening their enemies. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
    3. The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.

    What is to be done?

    The general shape of the needed policies is clear. We need more R&D funding for renewables, energy storage, insulation, energy efficiency and low-carbon farming. We also need much tougher standards for energy efficiency, carbon taxes and selective subsidies, eg for house insulation.

    But how, politically, can we get them when government is doing the opposite? The necessary actions follow from the reasons for inaction: We need political reform to reduce corporate power, and we need, as Naomi Klein said, “to shred the neoliberal ideology”. Everyone agreed that the necessary action would not happen without strong public pressure so we need a political movement.

    All this is hard but our future requires no less.

    Videos of the conference sessions can be found at http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/communication/news-archive/2013/radical-emissions-reduction-conference-videos-now-online

    David Flint is a retired management consultant, visiting fellow at the Cass Business School, Practical Action supporter and active member of the Green Party.

    11238 maasai shepherd

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  • After the dust has settled – it’s time for hard work

    Chris Henderson
    December 19th, 2013

    One month ago Warsaw was abuzz with thousands of people. Senior politicians, government representatives, development agencies, academics, civil society and the media were all engrossed in addressing what is one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change.

    Now everyone is back home and most are probably thinking more about Christmas than how the world is going to cope with an inevitable increase in temperature that will permanently change the lives of us all.

    A floating garden to grow crops when land is flooded

    A floating garden to grow crops when land is flooded

    Looking back, I went to COP 19  with an agriculture perspective, keen to identify hooks and partnerships that would strengthen the recent decision by our global group of agriculturalists to focus on adaptation by smallholder farmers. Practical Action’s specific aim is to improve agricultural policy and planning so that it builds the capacity of smallholder farmers to use their unique knowledge and resources to adapt to climate change through ‘Climate Resilient Agriculture’.

    It was disappointing that there was little discussion on agriculture during the days I was in Warsaw. A few things did become clear, however, from the people I met and the events I attended. Notably, that much still needs to be done on ‘adaptation’ in agriculture to understand what is really needed, and meant, by ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. Practical Action can contribute to this issue and provide grounded examples relevant to policy makers based on lessons learnt by smallholder farmers and the rural poor in developing countries. In our Country and Regional offices this will mean engaging with Government and stakeholders in the National Adaptation Planning (NAPs). In the UK we should work with partner organisations to make sure our learning influences the global debates and donor policies.

    Regular drills enable communities to respond effectively when disaster strikes

    Regular drills enable communities to respond effectively when disaster strikes

    Unexpected by me, and probably many others, was that Warsaw would be able to achieve something good on ‘Loss and Damage’. This is an important issue for us because the people we are working with are being increasingly impacted by climate change. Impacts which are becoming irreversible – ‘beyond the reach of adaptation’ – and affecting people who are least to blame for the situation: e.g. extreme droughts, ever worsening floods, sea level rise and loss of fresh water. At the beginning of week 2, I signed an NGO Global Call for Action for the establishment of an ‘International Mechanism on Loss and Damage in Warsaw’.  To cut a long story short the agreement to have a mechanism for ‘Loss and Damage’ was probably the most significant achievement of COP19.

    Life may have returned to normal for those who were in Warsaw but, I for one, am committed to keeping the buzz going and starting the New Year with a renewed commitment to our work on Climate Resilient Agriculture.

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  • Will Typhoon Haiyan stop procrastination at the Warsaw COP?

    Colin McQuistan
    November 11th, 2013

    As many people return from remembrance Sunday, attending a service in memory of the lives lost to human conflict, the death toll in the Philippines from Typhoon Haiyan mounts, do we need a service to remind us of the ever increasing death toll from Climate Change?

    Typhoon Haiyan has caused immense devastation in the Philippines and is now threatening Vietnam. Will this disaster generate the political will necessary to get the climate negotiations back on track? Unfortunately, historical precedent is that despite the disaster mobilising international aid efforts and generating global sympathy, the global political community is more interested in protecting self-interest than making the sacrifices necessary to deliver a global agreement.

    Only twelve months ago the lead negotiator of the Philippines delegation, broke down during his prepared statement at the COP18 climate talks in Doha, as he appealed to the world: ‘no more delays, no more excuses’ as the death toll from Typhoon Bopha, which was at then the most powerful tropical typhoon to ever hit his country leaving many hundreds of people dead. Less than twelve months later and a new ‘most powerful’ typhoon leaves many thousand, certainly ten and maybe hundreds of thousands of people dead, will it make a difference?

    So what was I hoping for as I remembered the sacrifice of a previous generation? I am hoping that we can put down our own self-interest and come together to deliver a global agreement that responds to the damage we have already done to the climate and to the planet. MITIGATION, we need to act to halt greenhouse gas emissions, ADAPTATION, we need to step forward with our promise to deliver adaptation financing to those who are already suffering as a result of changing climates and we need to act on LOSS and DAMAGE, recognising that for many it is already too late!

    Let us all hope that the government representatives meeting in Warsaw remember the plea of only twelve months earlier, “what is demanded of us by 7 billion people… if not us, then who; if not now, then when; if not here, then where?” Will Warsaw be remembered as the first positive step on the road to a new global agreement, to do this it is critical that now is not the time for pointing fingers, but now is the time to act? Will a set of decisions and a road map be agreed that demonstrate we are serious about averting further catastrophic warming before it too late not only for the people of the Philippines, but for all of us!

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2012/dec/06/philippines-negotiator-emotional-plea-doha-climate-talks-video

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  • Climate Change Vulnerability Index, Russell Brand and Brian Cox

    The guy who just took my order for dinner - ‘chicken or fish, rice or chapattis?’ – nonchalantly waited for my reply while picking fluff out of his belly button.

    He seems a nice person so I didn’t complain.

    I am choosing to let that image remain in my mind rather than the ‘we’re all doomed’ message from my dinner time reading – the Russell Brand-edited New Statesman.

    I agree with Russell’s overarching message - ‘before we change the world, we need to change the way we think’ – however I found the pessimism that runs through the magazine deeply depressing. He, and also interviewed, Noel Gallagher, won’t vote becaus,e as Billy Connolly said, ‘it encourages them’, describing voting as ‘a tacit act of compliance’. He also includes an article by Naomi Klein writing after interviewing eminent scientists who feel gagged and their criticism of various governments’ environmental policy massaged (or worse) away. One who chose to break the gag, Brad Werner, a geophysicist, invited to address 24,000 space scientists at the American Geophysical Union titled his talk ‘Is the Earth F***ed?’ and when pressed by journalists to answer his own question replied ‘more or less’.

    This is deeply depressing, even more so as I’ve just arrived in Bangladesh which is the country most at risk according to the just published Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2014. It’s also one of the poorest places in the world and many families living on the edge are already feeling climate change impacts.

    Moniva Begum and familyManagement theorists etc. tell us there are lots of things you need to deliver change

    One is fear – to shock people out of their complacency and natural inertia. Russell Brand in The New Statesman tries I think to do this.

    The second is vision – how because of the change things can be better, and the change can even be better for you.

    Russell Brand focuses too much on fear, I prefer vision but I get the need for balance. We agree the time to act is now.

    I am not willing to blame politicians, their short termism is driven by a  ‘spectacle and cakes’ approach to keeping people happy, but even with this I’ve seen real and massive change in my life – in South Africa, in Germany with the fall of the Soviet Union, through the transformation of IT. I believe our world can change I’d like to think each and everyone of us has a part to play in making the change happen. This isn’t complacency – sitting here in Bangladesh it’s hard to be complacent - it’s about hope.

    Worryingly though, I have D:Ream’s song ‘Things can only get better’ going through my mind – but I’ll go with it and recall the transformation of Brian Cox from D:Ream keyboard player to Professor of Astrophysics and popular science presenter. Things only got better for him! One person changed – and a mass movement is just that – a movement of individuals. Let’s act so things get better for our planet.

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  • Technology Justice for Risk Reduction

    Colin McQuistan
    November 3rd, 2013

    If you ask someone “what is the role of Technology in Disaster Risk Reduction?” they may scratch their head and look puzzled, but if you ask the more direct question “how can technology alleviate or exacerbate risk?” you can start a much more lively debate. Well that is what happened when I recently challenged a group of post graduate students on the MSc Disaster Management[1] and MSc Emergency Planning and Management[2] courses at Coventry University, to think about how technology can influence risk.

    The popularity of these courses is recognition of the increasing levels of risk facing us today. The scale, frequency and severity of natural and man-made disasters have risen progressively, with the key drivers being climate change, depletion and destruction of natural resources and increasing populations living in vulnerable locations. Disasters not only kill and injure people, they also damage infrastructure, reduce productivity and generate social tensions, they consume resources that would otherwise be directed towards productive activities, and they can wipe out years of development in seconds.

    Met officePractical Action’s work in the field has highlighted that it is insufficient to focus only on responding to disasters; there is an urgent need to shift to risk reduction in which avoidable risk is eliminated and unavoidable risk is factored into the livelihood choices of local people. There is no doubt that technological advances have increased productivity, income and life expectancy, they have improved quality of life and removed the threat of disasters from our daily lives. Technology such as early warning systems are vital in this transition, as experienced with the 4 day advance warning of the passing of the Atlantic storm by the Met Office in October 2013[3] as compared to the swath of disaster left in the wake of the unexpected 1987 hurricane. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to work with students at Coventry University to explore the role of technology in the risk equation, to understand how the application of technology can reduce or exacerbate risk, and explore what changes are necessary to deliver the promise of technology justice for the over one billion people who still live in extreme poverty and vulnerability.

    The day began with a presentation of Practical Action’s work outlining our achievements in disaster risk reduction.  The students were then asked to brainstorm the multitude of hazards facing poor people today. They selected natural disasters such as earthquakes, Tsunami, flooding, drought, extreme storms, landslide, volcanic eruption, wildfire and disease epidemics, as well as human induced disasters such as conflict, war, terrorist attack and chemical spills. The students then broke into five groups and selected one hazard and a key sector to explore in more detail. The five hazards and sectors selected were; flooding and the communications sector, disease and public health, earthquake and public works, wildfire and forestry and war and the health sector. Each group was then asked to identify technologies that are involved in the sector and to explore the potential of the technology to alleviate or exacerbate risk and identify the key players involved.

    Group work 02Looking at the group that studied the health sector in conflicts situation, the group identified a wealth of different technologies involved, including; communications such as targeting of first aid, coordination of search and rescue for the recovery of casualties; food storage and distribution to ensure hospitals are well supplied but also ensuring the front line health staff have adequate supplies; transportation critical for ambulances, medication and food delivery and equipment supply; shelter especially for casualties, but also providing adequate facilities for doctors such as operating rooms; utilities such as water and electricity supply and the need for refrigeration to keep medicines safe. The group also explored the role of protective technologies for healthcare workers such as gas masks and other protective clothing.

    Health sectorThe groups were asked to explore the issue of technology justice for their selected hazard. They picked one or two technologies already identified and were asked to explore the drivers and barriers to the development and implementation of technologies in a developing country context. Each day, everyone regardless of where they live is exposed to risk of one form or another. The students quickly realised that the majority of technological solutions reflect the ability to pay and not the priorities on the ground. Thus the majority of disaster risk reduction technologies reflect consumers demand, rather than deliver vital risk reduction to poor people living in vulnerable situations. More work is needed to understand how decision processes can be changed to ensure that the right technology is available at the right place so that when the next hazard strikes it doesn’t become a disaster.

    Health strategyTechnology justice in DRR requires the involvement of the poorest and most vulnerable in the development of solutions so that technologies deliver the biggest impacts for the poorest and most vulnerable and are not driven by a profit motive alone. Changing this mindset will be a challenge but one of the first steps must be the realisation that existing technologies applied at the right place could save many thousands of lives each year.  Practical Action is uniquely positioned to increase global recognition of the role that technology and innovation play in alleviating and occasionally exacerbating disasters on people’s wellbeing. We must make efforts to demonstrate and advocate for the positive role that technology can play to promote disaster sensitive development; ensure the right technologies are available in the most demanding situations regardless of the cost and reverse technology based development approaches that exacerbate long term vulnerability. Thus technology justice is central to the work of Practical Action as we build a movement, where technology is used for the benefit of all, in a way that is not at the expense of future generations.

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