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  • Water is life for villagers in Darfur

    March 20th, 2018


    A simple solution like a solar powered water pump can have a profound impact on a community. This is eloquently demonstrated in these first-hand accounts from residents of two villages in drought-prone North Darfur.

    These stories were collected and written by Hamid Bakheet. 

    “We were at the margin of survival. Most of the villagers have moved elsewhere to find water. It’s really hard to leave your homeland but the even harder to survive without water.

    We used to travel for about three hours on our donkeys to seek water for our families. You can imagine what that means. Going for water every other day meant you could only work fifteen days a month reducing our income.  The amount of water we could transport was not great.  At best we had enough to shower three times a week but usually only once a week.

    Now through this work with Practical Action everything has changed.  Our solar water pump has which has changed our life dramatically.  Now it is the easiest thing to get water, even the children can go alone to bring water for their families.”

    Believe it or not when I saw water coming out from the pump for the first time I felt something like a cloud covering my eyes.  It was tears of happiness, although is shaming for a Darfurian man to show tears!”

    Altayeb from Kweim village, north Darfur

    Hawaa from Mugabil village also expresses her joy at the new facility

    “In the past when there was no water in our village, pastoralists and farmers often came to blows. Now it’s very rare to hear that a conflict has happened. We women were usually exhausted because we had to go for about four kilometers to bring a small amount of water for all our needs, drinking, cooking, washing and showering.

    When we had a guest and there was no water, we used to borrow water from our neighbours!  And it was not good for our donkeys to carry water all that distance. A donkey might be expected to live for twenty years but the lives of our donkeys were reduced to only about five years.

    We also faced the risk of gender based violence on those long water gathering trips, but now with water become available here we are safe.  And the time we were spending in going for water we now use for other domestic, economic and personal activities. 

    We even become more beautiful because we can wash and shower every day,” laughed Hawaa!

    This project was designed by Practical Action and financed by the Swedish Postcode Foundation to provide water for both settled and pastoralist communities in the villages of Mugabil and Kweim in north Darfur. It benefits more than 8,000 individuals who live in the areas surrounding Mugabil and Kweim as well as 2,000 pastoralists.

    The most obvious impacts of this project are an increase in water access and quality in the area. Now clean water for drinking and cooking is available for the whole community and for pastoralists and their livestock.  This will have a significant benefit to the health of the community.  The community water management committee is taking responsibility for managing the water supply to ensure its sustainability.  And the pump is operated by clean, renewable solar power so is helping keep both people and the environment safe.

    Seeing how happy these villagers are about the positive change in their life with water makes me proud to work for the organisation that made this possible.



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  • Global SDG7 Conference: are we really doing things differently in energy access?

    March 15th, 2018

    More than two years have now passed since the 2030 Agenda was designed and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established – including SDG7 which ‘ensures access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’. The UN’s tracking of progress on SDG7 over the last two years has shown mixed results.

    Last month, I participated in the Global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 Conference in Bangkok, from 20-23 February 2018. The conference provided a thoughtful review of the progress on SDG7, ahead of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) later this year; which is expected to be the first critical milestone to take stock of progress to date.

    The context

    Although success stories and changes are being witnessed, including an impressive growth in the number of people gaining sustainable energy access in Central and South Asia and Latin America, and the role played by a diverse range of new business models and SMEs to bring energy access services to remote areas, we still face several huge challenges. More than 1.06 million people, mostly located in poor rural areas, don’t have access to electricity; and, shockingly, 3 billion people are still cooking without clean fuels or more efficient technologies.

    Practical Action has been deeply involved in promoting energy access for more than 40 years. We provide systemic solutions for un-served rural dwellers across the Global South; while also convening and facilitating processes and creating spaces to catalyse positive change at national, regional and international levels. We are perhaps more active now than we have ever been, working with new partners in exciting and challenging ways to solve this difficult equation.

    SDG7 Conference in Bangkok

    So, can we say that we are close to solving the gap and providing modern and sustainable energy access to all un-served communities? The result of the SDG7 Conference was clear. While some progress is shown in specific geographic areas – for instance in Kenya where energy access rates have risen from 15% in 2010 to 70% by 2017 – we see little or no advancement in other areas. This includes insufficient progress in electricity access for the sub-Saharan region (where the population growth is bigger than annual electricity access rate growth) and the very often overlooked cooking sector that suffers from, above all, an endemic lack of funding.

    Moreover, the imbalance between global and national agendas at the conference was plain to see, as we barely heard from countries offering national voluntary assessments.

    People at the heart of the solution

    There is a clear need to change the way we are framing the solution. It is widely acknowledged that business as usual will not challenge the current problem; as we have learned under our flagship series publication Poor Peoples’ Energy Outlook, and following IEA’s recent statement, decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions represent a better cost-effective and faster pace to achieve universal energy access than top-down traditional strategies. Contradictorily, we also know there is currently not enough available investment to cover the current funding gaps within the energy access sector; and as result of this, not enough financing flows to sufficiently support the sector’s service delivery. There is also an increasing recognition of the need to work with diverse groups of relevant stakeholders but not always the same understanding of the need to involve and listen to rural, under-served communities themselves from the very outset. They are often the ones who know what they need (in terms of their demand and priorities) and how to adapt current solutions to their current situations. Unfortunately, the discussion at the SDG7 conference was often framed around the ‘what’ (technology, natural resources availability) but not sufficiently the ‘how’ (systems building, bottom-up participatory processes).

    So, are we doing things differently?

    Meaningfully including civil society, which provides a bridge between public and private sectors and the populations they aim to serve, can help to address the ‘how’ of service delivery. Fortunately, a clear civil society voice was heard during the SDG7 Conference. The ACCESS Coalition organized a panel where Practical Action, together with other partner organisations (HIVOS and SNV, among others), were invited to showcase specific and positive experiences from civil society in Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Kenya – as well as highlighted learning around actions that require adaption or simply do not work.

    However, although the dialogue around this panel was substantial and alternatives to business as usual were showcased, across the conference more generally the voices of CSOs were not sufficiently represented. Recognizing the value of the civil society in solving the enormous energy access challenge we have in front of us is crucial. CSOs are excellent partners for better understanding the needs and demands of rural communities. CSOs can help other stakeholders connect with rural populations, raising awareness of and building trust around positive energy access behaviours and solutions. They can increase stakeholders’ understanding of energy-poor people’s cultural behaviours and socio-cultural challenges, which are so often overlooked and which can compound a perception among investors of rural populations being high risk.

    Overall, the SDG7 Conference offered an opportunity for exchanging global best practices, and it provided a good place to consider the interlinkages across SDGs; in particular how essential energy access is if we want to achieve many other SDGs by 2030. However, although we are starting to move in the right direction, more proven disruptive approaches that deliver energy access cost-effectively by including a diverse range of stakeholders are still needed if we want to see SDG7 accomplished by 2030 – and enjoy all the other development and wellbeing benefits that go alongside.

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  • ‘Woman’s Hour’ in Odisha

    Growing up and becoming a young woman in India can be a confusing, terrifying prospect in some rural and poor urban communities. Young women are given the barest of facts and no proper explanation of what is happening to their bodies. Traditions tell them they are both ‘unclean’ while menstruating; and that they are ‘now a woman’. They face up to the terrifying prospect (still practiced in some rural communities) of physical isolation in separate huts for the entirely of their period; as well as the potential of early marriage (despite child marriage being made illegal) to a man likely twice their age or more.

    Sunolo Sakhi radio broadcast

    So what can a simple radio show do in this context? How can the broadcast word make any difference? Of course it cannot be powerful on its own, but when combined with the courage of those teenagers and young adults, it can create shock-waves of change.

    This is something I heard about first hand during a visit to Sunolo Sakhi clubs in the town of Bhubaneswar in Odisha State in November last year. Their Facebook page is here. And see this short Video to find out more.

    A radio show now in its 3rd series with more than 30 hours being on air so far and being broadcast across six towns in the state of Odisha is allowing young women the chance to understand menstruation and all that surrounds it. The show, broadcast for an hour on a Saturday afternoon and then available as a podcast, allows girls to phone in and ask questions of an expert. Practical Action has supported the radio show, and helped girls and young women to form clubs at the community level where they can get together to listen to the show and discuss it.

    Sunolo Sakhi in braille

    To celebrate International Women’s Day 2018 #IWD, the team launched a braille version of the accompanying material: part of a commitment to make it even more widely accessible.

    These girls have not had an easy time of it. They had to fight with their mothers and fathers to be allowed to even meet up. There was fear that the knowledge would be disrespectful and turn their daughters against them. All this simply to listen to a radio show together once a week.

    The groups have been built, by social community workers. Building trust is essential, we start with a small number of slums (15 per month), and groups are now operating in 80 slums. Social mobilisers work with mothers in the community to build trust. These ice-breaking activities are essential: menstrual hygiene remains a cultural taboo and without building trust, awareness and openness girls would not be granted approval to join the clubs. Forming clubs is not easy, and it is essential to work closely with mothers and other families and community members, especially men.

    Members of the Sunolo Sakhi club

    On the show, questions are answered about the practicalities of menstruation: what is normal; and whether the myths they’ve been handed down are really true. They sometimes listen with their mothers. It opens a space for discussion, guided and organised by local facilitators. This may be the start of allowing these young women some basic agency. In urban contexts at least it can help gradually change the myths that constrain them. They will never forget what they’ve learned from week to week – and when asked how they would pass it on to their daughters they were adamant that the secrecy and taboos of the past would end in their generation.

    Speaking at launch of Sunolo Sakhi braille edition

    I confess I’m a fan of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – a national treasure of British radio which has been occasionally criticised as being too ‘safe’ with its discussions of how to make the best cakes, but also for being dangerously radical. It shares an objective of being a space where women lead the discussion about the topics of the day and how they experience them. It was a revelation to hear from these young women about the power of radio to both challenge and inform.

    What did the girls think should be the future of the show? They felt there was still much to do on the issue of menstrual hygiene, but other associated issues were important too, in particular questions of child marriage, and there certainly seemed a huge appetite for the format and content.

    Sadly no commercial radio station wants to take the show on with its own resources. But for the time being Practical Action hopes to continue our support. Personally I have rarely seen such fantastic value for money in empowering girls to take control.

    Happy International Women’s Day 2018 #IWD #pressforprogress

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  • Women as a force to build resilience

    March 8th, 2018

    Many risk drivers are created by development choices at global or national levels, but all are manifested at the local level, so local people must be central to risk reduction practice. But it is important to recognise that in these communities it is the disabled, elderly, women and girls who are the most at risk. For example, women accounted for 61% of fatalities caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, 70-80% in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 91% in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh[i]

    But women often have the weakest voice and the least opportunity or face restrictions of their voice being heard or listened to, but this shouldn’t be the case when they make up half of the adult population. Social norms around gender mean that women’s circumstances, for instance clothing and level of mobility, affect their ability to respond to sudden events. Exclusion means that women remain overlooked, resulting in preparedness and response measures that ignore their particular needs and in the worst cases actually exacerbate their risk. Unless gender equality is realised, planning will continue to add additional weight to women’s multiple burdens as care givers.

    The critical need to address gender differences in development is well established and has been acknowledged globally at the highest levels, although there is still a long way to go to achieve these lofty aspirations. This was best articulated by the women’s major group at Sendai, who commented that “…however, women are often included together with girls and marginalized groups, furthering the ‘victim’ paradigm; the term ‘gender equality’ does not appear in the text, nor is there a reference to women’s human rights[ii].

    There is nothing natural about disasters, disasters occur when development goes wrong. Disasters often highlight existing gender based imbalances and inequalities in societies; reflecting vulnerabilities as well as capacities embedded in the social systems and in the economic context of development. It is therefore paramount that responsible development is inclusive development, that women are central to development efforts, and challenge existing practices and norms so that we all #Pushforprogress.

    Practical Actions Disaster Risk Reduction programme acknowledges the central role of women in disaster risk reduction; that women and girls – like men and boys – possess skills and capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from crisis, and to manage risk and build resilience over the longer term.

    In Bangladesh one of the biggest challenges during the annual flood season is access to clean water. One way to provide clean water in spite of flooding is the construction of raised plinth tube wells allowing families to stay at home, and saving them the inconvenience to relocate. In discussions with communities women report psychological benefits of not being compelled to relocate and the assurance that the water supply they are using is unlikely to cause sickness to their family.


    But local decisions are decided by the Community Based Organisation, and getting women onto these bodies is vital. It is important that the voice of half of the community is heard in the decision making process. The CBO will decide on the location of improved raised plinth wells, so women must have a voice to ensure that they are located where women feel comfortable accessing them. In our flood resilience project in Sirajganj we have focussed on capacity building of CBO’s and of 16 CBOs established so far women lead seven.

    Therefore, gender equality is not a choice but an imperative. At Practical Action to ensure that we are true to this principle, we recognise that disaster risk reduction must be inclusive. We need to continually strengthen the gender skills and gender diversity across our teams. We need to strengthen the quality of our M&E work, with gendered outcomes identified from the beginning and data disaggregated by gender from the outset. This will not only help us better understand what works in different contexts and respond to these in the future, but deliver comprehensive DRR that changes systems and sets in place preparation,  prevention and transformations that deliver resilience for all.

    #IWD2018 #InclusionMatters #Pushforprogress

    Find out more

    Discover more ways to build community flood resilience on the Flood Resilience Portal by exploring the resources library or sending an inquiry . Or share your own experiences with the Flood Resilience Portal community.

    [i] UNDP, 2013:



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  • A Darfurian Woman Pressing for Progress  

    , | March 7th, 2018

    Kabkabyia is a small town in the Northern part of North Darfur state. It is one of the places where Practical Action Sudan is implementing development projects in post-conflict context. The area is badly affected by the protracted conflict and women in particular face the worst part of this reality when they find themselves heading their families and handling both productive and social roles.

    HaleemaHaleema, a 55 years old widow from Kabkabyia is one of those women challenging poverty, conflict, illiteracy and gender discrimination, and leading vital role in their communities. Wearing a white Sudanese traditional toub, with big smile and bright eyes, Haleema spoke to me about her interesting personal and professional journey.

    Haleema got married at 20 after she finished high school.  She joined the National Educational Institute and graduated as English and rural development teacher in 1985. She started her career as a school teacher and a young mother too in 1986.

    Haleema’s ambition was beyond a 4 hours teaching job in a primary school; she dreamed to do something different to her community and to contribute to the development of her small town. Therefore, Haleema fearlessly shifted her career to the development sector through working with OXFAM. Then, she moved between different development agencies included Small-Scale Farmers Association and Women Charity. She worked in different projects and manged funds from some important donors in the area what equipped her with great knowledge and experiences.

    Later, Haleema joined Kabkabyia Women Development Association; a women civil structure established by a group of female teachers in 1988 with the aim of rural development and women empowerment in the area.

    The association – which is now headed by Haleema – has become one of the most important civil society organizations in the area those play great role in changing women socio-economic situations in Darfur.

    The association is an important development partner for Practical Action in all its projects in Kabkabyia including Peace and Stability, and Sudan Humanitarian Funds. About this partnership, Haleema said; “I knew Practical Action long time ago when it introduced the donkey-driven plough in our town, that intermediate technology helped women preparing the land for cultivation with less efforts in shorter time,  and most importantly opened our mind to the significance of having innovative solutions for our livelihood issues”.

    haleema presentingDescribing how Practical Action encouraged the inclusion of women and their representation in community management structures (e.g. peace-building committees), she proudly said,

    “Our voices have finally been heard” adding,  “Practical Action supported our Women Development Association and we started building the capacity of rural women in agro-processing and other income generating activities, women are currently leading food-business in the town!”.

    Haleema is model for a successful working woman in rural Darfur, however, she is still challenging the social barriers standing from gender-undermining traditions and culture. She described her personal daily challenges as a working mother for 7 kids; ‘’ I suffer from the load of daily domestic work and I have No time for rest”. She added “our community hasn’t understood the importance of women’s work yet”.

    Haleema believes that women are key for communities’ development, she trusts that things will continue changing to the favour of women if we keep our hard work and press for progress in gender parity.

    In this International Women Day, I want to express my respect and appreciation to women like Haleema, who are challenging the darkness associated with conflict and poverty, they sparkle the light and keep fighting for the coming generation. I believe this world will be a better place with their spirit and braveness. “Thanks Haleema Elnour, a woman from Kabkabyia”

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  • Improving food security in Talkok

    February 16th, 2018

    Telkok is one of the most poverty stricken localities in the state of Kassala and needs a great deal of effort to build up the food security and resilience of its communities.

    clearing mesquite TalkokPractical Action and three local partners are leading a range of interventions in the area. These include limiting the spread of Mesquite trees which invade agricultural areas.

    One partner, the Elgandual network, is working to improve agricultural production and helpfarmers’ increase their income.  They held a practical demonstration on techniques for mesquite clearance, combined with skills development on mesquite charcoal production as a means of generating income. This was attended by 87 beneficiaries from four villages (Tahjer kumailab, Haladiat east, Drasta and Jabal Haboba);

    Hamed Ahmed Tahjer said:

    “The area of mesquite was increasing in the agricultural lands and we use it for firewood in the charcoal industry, to increase the income”.  

    Training in TalkokAnother partner, Sudan Vision, is working to improve access to water for agriculture and livestock. They have rehabilitated two hafirs, (reservoirs) which provide water for approximately 20,000 animals.

    The third partner, the Kassala Women’s Development Network, conducted 12 public sessions on healthy diets, targeting 800 women and 150 men in 6 communities (Drassta, Haladiat East, Twaite, Baryia, Tamay, and Jabel Haboba).  The aim was to challenge traditional diets which adversely affect women and children The sessions raised awareness about healthy nutrition in term of food diversity and food processing using video, direct dialogue, and practical training on food processing for nutrition.

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  • Managing the sanitation challenge for Rohingya refugees

    February 15th, 2018

    Nearly a million people of Rohingya community are living in the makeshift shelters in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar.

    Hasin Jahan, Practical Action’s country director in Bangladesh, recently visited the camp and describes her experience.

    It felt like one fine morning half a million Rohingya people just landed on the doorstep! It may be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis ever.

    It has been well managed with the government and agencies working together to provided the Rohingya communities with food, non-food items, shelter, water, sanitation, and hygiene.

    All the greenery has disappeared from the hills around the camp. And when the monsoon season arrives, there will be the risk of flooding and landslides. But, against all odds, life goes on.

    An experience during my last visit still brings tears in my eyes. I met a woman whose husband and son were killed in front of her. When I entered her room at the shelter, I noticed that she had made a mud stove, a mortar and pestle out of rocks, and a small washing area from mud and bricks at the corner of her tiny room. She had also made an overhead shelf that had two cooking pots, her only possessions. The gravity of the situation touched me so much when I understood that she still had that desire to build a home and a family.

    Various agencies have constructed toilet facilities and drilled boreholes for drinking water to manage the immediate crisis. But it soon became obvious that the absence of proper management of toilet waste posed severe public health concerns. The toilets filled up quickly and were overflowing and contaminating  the water sources with E. coli.

    Because of our expertise in delivering faecal sludge management systems in Bangladesh, Practical Action was approached to help manage the safe disposal of this waste, in order to protect the health of these community, the environment and the quality of the water.

    It was not easy to tailor the technology, given the hilly terrain, lack of skilled labour, and space constraints due to a densely packed population. But Practical Action took up the challenge and devised portable faecal sludge management units made of steel with rainproof shed at the camps at Ukhyia.

    How does the technology work?

    The technology uses a simple upflow filtration system. The faecal sludge is collected mechanically using suction pumps

    and discharged through a series of filtration chambers to separate liquids from solids. The liquid passes through a number of filter chambers. The effluent is finally treated by a natural process in a ‘constructed wetland’ through the roots of of Canna indica plants. The solid parts are removed at a certain intervals to bury in pits with sand envelop. After a certain time, it get digested and can be used as compost.

    Another important consideration was the health and safety of the sanitation workers who clean and empty the toilets. So training and provision of safety equipment play a key part in this work.

    Need for safer energy

    There are two other ways Practical Action can help the displaced communities. In view of the danger of cooking in tents and the quantity of waste plastic lying around in the camp, we are planning to install a bio-gas cooking facility using gas extracted from the faecal sludge plants. Another facility planned is a plastic recycling unit to make toys out of waste plastic. This will not only reduce the pollution but also provide toys the children in these communities can play with.

    Further reading

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  • Bio-dykes: saving communities and instilling confidence in them

    February 14th, 2018

    As we approached Bangalipur, a closed-knit community of 135 households, dark clouds started covering the sky and a light sprinkle followed after. Enchanted by the fresh, earthy smell wafting from the gravelled road and ducks swimming in the brownish water in the canal running by the road, we thought of delving further into the rural life.

    The surrounding was verdant with freshly transplanted rice. Nearby a young man was ploughing to ready the field for rice transplantation while a group of women clad in bright colours were uprooting rice seedlings.

    Agriculture is the main occupation of people in Bangalipur.

    A man transporting the seedlings was singing a folk song from the depth of his heart. At the village outskirts, the Aurahi River, a distributary of Karnali River, had swollen to its brim. However, nobody was concerned – about the river, floods and soil erosion.

    Over the last 15 years the river eroded three bighas (2 hectares) of agriculture land owned by 10 families rendering some of them landless.

    The river used to erode 4-5 metres of land every year,” said Rongali Tharu, 70, of Madhuban Municipality-2, Phulbari, Bangalipur.

    Rongali Tharu is a witness to the soil erosion caused by Aurahi River.

    The river used to flow among those simal trees,” said Shree Ram Chaudhary, secretary of the community disaster management committee (CDMC), pointing to a row of red silk cotton trees on the opposite bank of the river. “The river would erode our fields and sweep away standing crops every year,” he said. “The river continued eroding our land for 10-15 years.

    For the communities, by the communities

    The river has shifted towards Bangalipur in the last decade and to further stop it from eroding the banks and getting closer to the village, the communities came forward to build a bio-dyke, an embankment along the banks of the river.

    The Nepal Flood Resilience Project (NFRP) formed a CDMC and supported technically and financially to build the bio-dyke.

    NFRP has supported financially and technically to build the bio-dyke.

    We worked for 25 days at a stretch to build this bio-dyke,” said Phularam Chaudhary, chairperson of the CDMC. “Two people from each household worked till we constructed 100 metres of the bio-dyke and one person from each household continued supporting the bio-dyke construction.

    Safe communities, safe crops

    The 220 m long bio-dyke has prevented the flood waters from entering the community and eroding the banks of the river. It has also saved the crops in the nearby fields from being swept away by the river.

    This year there has been no soil erosion at all,” said Rongali.

    They are planning to plant more Napier grass and bamboo on the bio-dyke. Since the area falls under the buffer zone of Bardia National Park, animals, mainly elephants from the protected area come and destroy houses and eat crops. So, they have avoided planting rattan, elephant’s preferred food according to them, although it is more beneficial, economically.

    More embankments, lesser the fear

    When we reached Budhi Kulo, the main canal irrigating lands in Rajapur, it had swollen into a wide river. I could see swathes of land being eroded slowly and slowly by the violent waves.

    The Budhi Kulo turns into a wide river during monsoons.

    Due to sand deposits, the water from the Budhi Kulo overflows into the adjacent settlement during the rainy season,” said Dinesh Chaudhary, the sub-engineer working with NFRP. “To stop the bank erosion and water from entering the village, the communities with support from Practical Action built a bio-dyke.

    The recently constructed 150 m long bio-dyke along the banks of the canal has been crucial in preventing the soil erosion and water entering the settlement at Mukta Kamaiya Tole, a village of freed bonded labourers.

    The recently built bio-dyke has stopped floods from entering into the communities.

    Looking at the new sprouts of bamboo and rattan saplings planted on the dyke, it is poised to be a strong green embankment. Adjacent to the dyke was a long patch of marshy land covered with long grass, which otherwise would have been filled with sand. Two little girls were busy cutting grass on the marshland. On the other end of the canal two fishermen were casting their nets in search of fish.

    And none of them feared the ferocious waters!

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  • World Urban Forum 9: The good, the same-old, the hopeful, the shocking…

    The World Urban Forum (WUF9) is a major conference run every two years by UN-Habitat. This year it took place in the city of Kuala Lumpur from 7-13 February 2018.

    The last time this global community came together was in October 2016 to negotiate the ‘New Urban Agenda’ – the global urban agreement endorsed by the UN General Assembly about the future of the world’s cities. It was meant to give a steer to how all 17 Sustainable Development Goals should be implemented in cities.

    WUF9 was therefore an opportunity to take stock ahead of the more formal process of SDG reviews that will take place later this year, which will include a review of SDG Goal 11 on cities.

    Practical Action has long been involved in questions of good urban development, speaking from our experience of 20 years or so of working with urban slum communities on building materials, livelihoods, participatory planning and access to basic services. Our current strategy reinforces our commitment to supporting urban informal and slum communities with access to water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management. We have had representation at almost all of such conferences since they began in 2002.

    Uttam Saha, Lucy Stevens and Hasin Jahan at the Bangladesh Exhibition Stand at WUF9

    This time, we were a team of four: I was there from the global policy perspective and to fulfil our role as a lead partner of the World Urban Campaign. Three team members came from Bangladesh including our Country Director Hasin Jahan on the invitation of the Government of Bangladesh’s Urban Development Division. The delegation included the Minister of Housing and representatives from academia, women’s groups, and NGOs. They had an exhibition stand and two events where we had an opportunity to talk about our work.

    So what were my impressions? Of course, with such a large event with over 25,000 participants registered and hundreds of sessions over 7 days, we could only scratch the surface, but these are a few reflections:

    The good

    • UN-Habitat has a good track record of taking multi-stakeholder participation seriously, and this was again the case. Slum dweller representatives talked freely and openly with Ministers: academics, professionals and planners shared their views without an overt sense of hierarchy getting in the way.
    • We were able to form new partnerships and re-energise old ones. For example, we talked with PLAN International colleagues who are very keen to trial some examples of our composting work in Bangladesh. And in Kenya, we have made a link with UN-Habitat’s energy team on issues of waste-to-energy, with an invitation to participate in an up-coming workshop.
    • Our sessions allowed us to showcase our work on Faecal Sludge Management both in the context of secondary towns and for the displaced Rohingya community. They helped us to cement our relationship with key government actors and other partners.

    The Same-old Same-old

    The New Urban Agenda was supposed to be a turning point, setting a new direction for good development in urban areas. It contains excellent wording about e.g.: policies to prevent “arbitrary forced evictions”, “recognizing the contribution of the working poor in the informal economy”, and allowing “all inhabitants, whether living in formal or informal settlements, to lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives and to achieve their full human potential“.

    However, I was left feeling that it has not had an impact. It is not providing a challenge to ‘business as usual’ for example:

    • The vision for cities expressed by those in authority, or sometimes by technocrats, is too often about glass, steel and highways, but people are rarely present in their vision. Certainly not people who provide services to the city, like recycling its waste, or feeding its office workers, or cleaning its homes. Slums and their resident are still talked about as a problem that other people need to solve – dismissing the people and their ability to be part of and lead their own solutions.
    • Federations of the urban poor represented by SDI (and also outside SDI), still have a struggle to make their voices heard at the local level with their municipalities

      Just outside the conference venue

    • Data collected at the global level (for example on WASH) still does not reflect carefully collected community enumerations despite continuing evidence that these numbers consistently underestimate urban poverty
    • The Special Session on Access to Basic Services seemed old-fashioned, with too much emphasis on city-wide master-planning and not enough on the latest thinking on markets-based approaches, and how to incorporate the formal and informal private sector.

    The Hopeful

    • UN-Habitat has drifted somewhat since Habitat III. It has not take the leadership it should have on SDG discussions, for example. However, a new Executive Director, Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif  has taken up her position (just 3 weeks ago). She comes from being Mayor of Penang City in Malaysia for the last 7 years, so hopefully she has the skills to get things done, and to show the leadership the organisation so desperately needs. She is a champion of gender-responsive and participatory planning and budgeting.
    • Similarly the World Urban Campaign remains a growing and committed multi-stakeholder group: a project of UN-Habitat, with a collective aim of campaigning to raise issues of The City We Need. The group felt re-energised and with a clearer direction.

    The shocking

    Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. but it was still horrifying to hear about the times when poorer, less powerful city residents are deprived of their homes and their livelihoods. And sometimes this is done in the name of ‘climate resilience’ if people are living on land that is prone to flooding for example (whether or not that flooding may actually caused by man-made actions further up the chain…).

    In my view, the best cities are those with vibrancy, local colour, life and mixing on the streets, safe public spaces that can be used by all for a variety of purposes, bringing together a diversity of people. Cities are their people as much as their physical fabric. It’s similar to Practical Action’s approach to technology: putting people at the heart of the solution. That is what we will continue to push for across all our areas of work, including our programmes in urban slums.


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  • Enhancing Flood Resilience through Livelihood adaptation

    February 7th, 2018

    “The 2014 flood was worse than the 2009 flood but the loss and damage was less because people had learned from the earlier event.” Dinanath Bhandari

    I am currently visiting the Practical Action Nepal flood resilience project in the western region, which has been supported by the Z Zurich foundation for the last five years. The project is working in 74 flood vulnerable communities adjacent to the Karnali River, located in the Terai plains, the flat lands that connect Nepal to India. The western Terai is one of the poorest regions of the country and has faced migration from the mid-hills by landless farmers looking for space to farm. When they arrived much of the unoccupied land was next to the river, the flood prone area which has fertile soil great for agriculture, as long as you can save yourself and your assets when the monsoon flash floods arrive. It is in this context that the flood project operates, and I’m fortunate enough to be exploring the lessons from phase one with my Nepali colleagues before we start a second phase.

    Mrs Mana Kumari Tharu and her elevated rice store

    The raised grain store

    In the Terai flooding is a matter of life and almost every year a flood event of varying severity occurs. For many of the poorest members of the community this can be a devastating loss as hurriedly harvested rice stored in traditional ground level storage jars are ruined by the flood waters. It only takes moisture reaching the jar for the rice to spoil. One simple measure to avoid this problem is to raise the storage bins off the ground. But the problem is the bins can be very heavy and wooden structures aren’t strong enough to support their weight. So the project has provided 40 of the poorest households with concrete platforms to elevate their rice storage bins. Mrs. Mana Kumari Tharu[1] told me that now when she gets the message to flee to the flood shelter she is less worried about her precious rice. She knows it has a much better chance of surviving. If she can preserve this staple food supply her family will have enough to eat and will not be forced to adopt erosive coping strategies such as selling equipment or livestock. This will also reduce their dependency on relief food aid, something that not all families will be fortunate to avoid, hence ensuring those supplies reach the remote families who need them the most.

    The off farm training

    Youth workshop trainees from Rajapur

    We joined a workshop in which 12 young people between 20 and 35 years old, came together to share their experiences of a series of off farm training courses in which they had enrolled. This gathering was organised 12 months after their training to learn about their experiences and whether they had been successful in their new careers. The 14 young people gathered had been trained in such diverse topics as carpentry, dressmaking, engineering, plumbing and construction. The course was validated by the district education office and each of the graduates received a certificate which greatly enhanced their employment opportunities. All of the participants reported success in finding work and the story of one young graduate Mr. Anil Tharu who went to Kathmandu was particularly interesting. After receiving his certificate he tried to find work locally but was unable, so he ended up paying a middle man to join a construction project in Kathmandu. Initially he had to pay back the travel loan and the finders fee for securing the work. But he quickly realised that there was more work in Kathmandu than there were skilled workers. So he was able to pay back his loan find work on his own and after three months, he has saved enough money to return to Rajapur. He is now employed with a local construction company building houses and earning 30,000 Nepali Rupees (£200) per month.

    Mr. Sita Man Tharu and Mr. Prem Thapa discussing his Banana plantation

    The banana plantation

    Mr. Sita Ram Tharu is a traditional rice farmer who grew up in the Terai region. He was invited as a member of one of the target communities to attend a farmer field school at which a number of different cultivation methods were demonstrated. He said that most of the methods on show didn’t interest him, until they presented banana plantation. He and his wife, who suffers from high blood pressure, found that the annual chores of preparing the rice filed, growing the saplings, dibbing them out, caring for them during the rainy season and finally harvesting and winnowing his crop was getting too much. In addition the rice plants were vulnerable to flash flood events washing the young seedlings out of the ground. So Mr. Tharu replaced his seasonal rice plot with a banana plantation. He purchased the tissue culture produced saplings for 45 Nepali Rupees (30p) each and planted them in this plot. He admitted that the first year the labour was excessive, but now the 90 trees are established the job of wedding the plantation and harvesting the bananas is a lot less stressful than the challenge of producing a rice crop. And he knows that if a flood event does occur his banana trees have a much greater chance of withstanding the water providing him with continued income once the waters recede. The old rice plot used to generate a maximum of 30,000 Nepali Rupees (£200) per year, his banana plot now generates over 200,000 Nepali Rupees (£1,400) per year. When I asked him what he did with the extra money, he said he had put some in the bank in case his wife needed medical treatment for her blood pressure, and the rest he had used to send his son to Kathmandu to study for a master’s degree.

    All these stories demonstrate the transformative power of well targeted interventions and local choice in their uptake and adoption. This wasn’t mass development but locally targeted appropriate development, but I am still wondering if this will be enough to make the people and their communities flood resilient?

    Next steps…

    I am interested to explore with my Nepalese colleagues how these individual successful pieces of the puzzle, could fit together to tackle the underlying resilience challenges facing these people. Floods will undoubtedly continue, and will be supercharged by climate change making the monsoon rains more intense as we saw last year. But what can the individuals, the communities, the local government, private sector, national government and international community do to build the resilience of these people? These three examples are all successes in building resilience, however we still have a long way to go to roll this out across this one river basin let alone the other twenty plus river basins that criss-cross Nepal.

    More to follow….

    Find out more

    Discover more ways to build community flood resilience on the Flood Resilience Portal by exploring the resources library or sending an inquiry . Or share your own experiences with the Flood Resilience Portal community.

    [1] Tharu is indigenous to the Terai with over 70% of the population sharing this surname

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