Blogs tagged as Rebuilding

  • Update on the Nepal earthquake response

    July 27th, 2015

    This is my second blog during my current visit to Nepal. I came back to Kathmandu this afternoon after visits to projects in Chitwan district (down close to the Terai region of Nepal which abuts the plains of northern India) and to also see some of the earthquake response work we have been doing in Gorkha District in the middle hills. I will stick with the earthquake work for this blog and then return to the other projects for a later one.

    Damage to old royal palace in Kathmandu

    Damage to old royal palace in Kathmandu

    Walking and driving around Kathmandu this evening it’s difficult to spot the evidence of the impact of the April and May earthquakes. At first sight things seem pretty normal and, truth be told, apart from some cosmetic cracking of surface finishes, most modern concrete framed buildings seem to have survived and coped well with the earthquakes. Bhimsen Tower, a notable landmark next to the Central Post Office in Kathmandu is missing – but the rubble has already been cleared away, so all that you notice is literally, that it’s not there anymore! On the Tundikhel (or parade ground) there are only a few left of the hundreds of tents that people sought shelter in in the immediate aftermath of the first earthquake. You have to dive into the narrow lanes of Assan, the old part of town before things become a little more obvious. Many of the old houses and shops here have temporary props installed to hold up the front walls and in a couple of cases buildings appear to lean at alarming angles. But its only when you get to the main Durbar Square that you see some really significant destruction, with many temples damaged, including the Kasthamandap, one of the most famous, completely destroyed, and large scale damage to the old royal palace (see photo).

    In Gorkha it was a bit like that too. I managed to visit one village development committee area (similar to a ward or a parish in the UK in terms of size) where we have been working – Ashrang. At first it was difficult to get a sense of the scale of the impact. There were occasional piles of rubble where houses had been, but generally most structures seemed to be OK. And where the buildings were modern and concrete framed that generally was the case. But many of the traditional stone and mud mortar houses that looked ok at first sight were clearly not OK after a more detailed view. Some had serious cracks that left them unstable and vulnerable to collapse whilst others, on closer inspection had sound facades but when you went around the back you could see entire walls missing.

    In the immediate aftermath of the first earthquake Practical Action, with support from Christian Aid and the help of our local partner Goreto, was involved in distributing relief materials (tarpaulins for shelter, water purification tablets, blankets and food) across 17 village development committees (VDC’s) in Gorkha and Dhading Districts.

    The disaster response as a whole has now moved on to a second phase of providing temporary shelter that will help people survive the monsoon. Proper rebuilding will only start once the monsoon is over. We are coordinating our effort with the local government and other NGOs and have been allocated two VDCs in Gorkha and two in Dhading to work on. Again with Christian Aid and Goreto, we’ve trained over one hundred men and women across these areas to build simple temporary shelters that are earthquake proof and helped over 1700 households get access to building material such as corrugated iron sheet to help with this construction.

    The remains of Khadanada Dhakal's house

    The remains of Khadanada Dhakal’s house

    Khadanada Dhakal, aged 79, is one example. Khadanada lives on his own as his daughter is married and his two sons overseas studying. His house was completely destroyed by the earthquake but, using material recovered from the debris and new corrugated iron sheet, we’ve managed to put something together that will provide adequate shelter for the rest of the monsoon.

    Achyut Luitel (Regional Director Practical Action) talking to Khadanada Dhakal outside his temporary shelter

    Achyut Luitel (Regional Director Practical Action) talking to Khadanada Dhakal outside his temporary shelter

    We’ve also restored water supplies and put some solar charging stations where there is no electricity to help people charge mobiles and keep communications working. And we’re in the process of assessing the status of latrines across the 4 VDC’s with a view to repairs to ensure safe sanitation.

    At the moment we are drawing up plans for how we want to be involved post monsoon in the reconstruction phase. Most likely it will be through trying to help with the design of the new houses that will have to be built to ensure they are a bit more resilient to future earthquakes.


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  • The long and winding road to Apurimac

    November 28th, 2013

    The long and winding road to Apurimac

    “There’s a line in a famous song, ‘The long and winding road…leads me to your door. ‘   On Tuesday, we travelled down to Apurimac to meet a community that don’t actually have a door – because they don’t have a permanent home.  Their homes consist of shelters made from plastic bags.

    The community of Bachaura live high up in the Peruvian Andean Mountains and unfortunately, they are the victims of a landslide that took place in 2011. What remains of their ‘old’ houses beggars belief, huge cracks if they are lucky, half or all the house missing if not.

    This is a community living quite literally on the edge, not only in terms of desperate need but also thousands of metres above sea level. They are at the mercy of the elements and experiencing extreme temperatures. In the heat of the day, the plastic houses are roasting them alive and in the extreme cold, they have no way of heating their homes, or keeping warm.  Problems with mining on the other side of the mountain, is only exacerbating the situation; they are desperate and live in fear for their lives and that of their children.

    Deisi, one of the ladies who seemed keen to speak up told us that they are increasingly afraid of more landslides and explained that they had tried to re-route the water coming down from the mountain away from their community and makeshift homes. The heat is more intense than ever before and the water levels are rising, increasing the risk of more landslides. The river running through the mountains divides the communities but Deisi is afraid for everyone.

    If a landslide wasn’t enough, a drought in 2011, inevitably led to food shortages. The communities improvised by making soups with the leaves from the trees, collecting and cooking algae from the river, eating the fruit of the cactus plants and bugs from the bamboo – using the resources they had available to them. They also set up an exchange scheme with other communities across the river. However, this in itself has highlighted problems as the Elder of the community was keen to tell us.

    “Diseases are staring here, worms and ants that are eating our crops”. He went on to say that in previous days, good practices were passed down from generation to generation. His father and forefathers used to read the sun and the stars, as well as the weather to know if it was going to be a fruitful year. “This is all gone now; this knowledge has been forgotten by the new generation”.

    There is a huge amount of work to do with this community and Practical Action is involved in the first phase of a project – that of collating the old knowledge and cataloguing it for generations to come. Looking at seed recovery and seed knowledge, so that for generations to come they can adapt to the changing climate and not go short of food.

    Deisi is part of that younger generation, who at the age of 25 has three children depending on her.  What she wants most of all is support to rebuild their homes away from danger, so that she can live without fear.  I sincerely hope that one day, she will get that wish and that the long and winding road will indeed lead to her door.



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  • Why your donation will be doubled for the rest of 2013

    November 6th, 2013

    I’m really excited about this piece of news. It is going to give us a huge opportunity to help people living in poverty and I’m urging you to get involved.

    We’ve launched our ‘Safer Cities’ appeal to transform the lives of vulnerable families living in slum communities in Bangladesh and Nepal. It is a unique chance to make your donation worth twice as much because the UK government will match your donations pound for pound until 31 December. That means we can help twice as many people!

    Safer Cities campaign to tackle urban poverty in Nepal and BangladeshUrban poverty is a growing problem

    The population of south Asian cities is growing by over 11 million a year as people move there to seek a better life. Many are escaping conflict, natural disasters or grinding rural poverty. Almost half of those find themselves living in slums— with no access to basic services like clean water and hygienic toilets and no opportunities to access education or get a decent job and break the cycle of poverty.

    Giving children a future

    Our appeal will focus on the lives of children living in urban slums in Nepal and Bangladesh – improving their safety, health and access to education by working with the communities to protect them from natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, helping them to access basic services and improve the livelihoods of their parents.

    The story of Dilmaya (pictured above)

    Dilmaya is 8, and she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Her mother’s job is to sit for hours on a rubbish heap, shredding plastic bags. Her health is threatened by dangerous diseases but she needs the money to feed and clothe her children. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence and school fees are an unaffordable luxury. So, Dilmaya has been working alongside her mother in the rubbish, barefoot amongst broken glass and human waste, with no hope of becoming a doctor.

    Through the ‘Safer Cities’ appeal, we’re training women like Dilmaya’s mother to set up their own businesses selling key-rings, baskets and mobile phone cases made from the plastic they recycle. The extra income means that children like Dilmaya will be able to go to school, and families can improve their living conditions. Dilmaya’s mother can now hope for a better future for her daughter.

    Until Dilmaya’s mother is able to earn enough through her new business to pay school fees, Practical Action is funding Dilmaya’s education.

    We caught up with her as she got ready for school one morning. We’ve never seen anyone so excited to go to school!

    waste picker girl in school uniform from Nepal

    Dilmaya said: “I love to go to school! I like all subjects, especially maths. I like my uniform – it has given me dignity. Other children used to shout ‘khaate’ (garbage child or worse) at me – now they don’t. They play with me at break time.”

    I’m thrilled that our appeal will be able to give children like Dilmaya a better start in life. I hope Dilmaya’s story will inspire you to give.

    As this is for a limited time, I ask that you take action now and donate.

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  • Return to sender – address unknown

    Return to Sender – address unknown

    As the Elvis Presley song goes.   Despite email, for most of us the idea of not having a physical address to give someone is unthinkable and it would be almost impossible to function – how would you get a passport, how would you open a bank account?

    I’m a bit of a serial house mover, probably around eight houses in the last 30 years, not counting friends’ spare rooms, rented accommodation, etc. I love the whole process of house hunting, moving in, planning the decoration, spending contemplative evenings with the radio and paint brush, and then just when it’s all tickety boo, I find myself cruising the estate agents’ websites, checking out what ‘doer uppers’ are out there. This all comes at a price of course, letting people know that you’ve moved and then the irritation when an important piece of correspondence goes awry. But I have to remind myself, at least I have an address. 

    A completed cluster village

    Back in 2009, I visited Bangladesh, to see Practical Action’s ‘Disappearing Lands’ project in Gaibandha, where we were working with communities forced by their poverty to live on  land at the edge of the rivers, land not wanted by anyone else because of the increasingly regular and severe flooding following monsoon which shifted the soil.  As a result, each monsoon left them vulnerable to loss of crops, livestock, homes, and sometimes their lives. With Practical Action’s support, cluster villages were constructed on soil platforms built by the communities, raising their homes above the flood line. These cluster villages provide housing, gardens, schools, clinics and emergency shelters for livestock for when the monsoon season arrives. One of the cluster villages I visited had just been completed, but already gardens were fenced, crops planted, and people were busy setting up craft businesses to earn additional income. Amongst this busy, thriving community, I met a grandmother, standing in the doorway of her new house. She wanted to share with me her delight in her new home. That I completely understood! But what surprised me was her great excitement and immense pride in having an address. I just hadn’t thought about it before. For her, having an address meant that she existed, she lived somewhere permanently, she could tell someone exactly where she lived that day, where she would be next year, and hopefully for the rest of her life. Having an address gave her kudos.

    I’m visiting Bangladesh again in a couple of weeks with a great Foundation, Z Zurich Foundation, which has supported our project, ‘Vulnerability to Resilience (V2R)’, for almost five years, continuing our work with communities in flood prone areas.  I’m looking forward to seeing many of the ideas from our Gaibandha project helping others to finally have an address.

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  • The road north to Kilinochchi

    I’d done lots of reading and my conversations with local staff had painted in some detail. But I was utterly unprepared.

    It takes 9 hours to drive from Colombo to Kilinochchi.

    Colombo is the prosperous-looking capital of Sri Lanka, a middle income country. I’d chatted to a man working at my hotel in Colombo. He described to me how Sri Lanka is working for the Big People. But for him – a family man with two kids working 18 hour shifts as attendant and earning less in a month than the rate of my hotel room (a big overstatement, for certain, but we all understand his point) – life is difficult. High inflation of prices for essentials is just making it harder. He was describing a common predicament – large gap between rich and poor in middle income countries – and I felt for him.

    But the road up to Kilinochchi is a journey into a different, more complex world. Not simply the inequitable one that I have seen before.

    At first, from Puttalam to Anuradhapura, the evidence of conflict is not what you might expect. We’re in the heart of elephant country. A recent ‘census’ counted over 7,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Human-elephant country is a serious problem. Government policies yo-yo between discouraging settlement in elephant passes to intentional development in the areas. I see houses abandoned. The patchwork of rice fields remains untended.

    After Anuradhapura we begin to pass garrison after garrison of government troops: A silent, ominous, quickening drum roll. A war occurred here.

    A ruined UNICEF building, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have lived side by side on the Island for over 2000 years. Mostly they have been able to find peaceful co-existence. Throughout history however Sri Lanka has suffered invasions from India. These have periodically stoked popular resentment amongst the Sinhalese towards the Tamils, who share deep ties with populations in India, Tamil Nadu in particular. Tamils have been treated as outsiders. There have been times when large numbers of Tamils have evacuated or been expelled to India.

    The British colonial period threw toxic yeast into the mix. In an account that so echoes what I understand of Rwanda, my colleague Rane puts me straight. When the British took control of the island in 1815 they sought to take the power away from ‘trouble-making’ Sinhalese leaders by eroding the institutions on which their statuses were founded. They abolished slavery and replaced in kind servitude with salaried labour. The British promoted the minority Tamils into a ruling class, appointing them to all the leadership roles of public office. They invested in their education, already at a higher level than the Sinhalese, in so doing entrenching this divide and rule order. When Sri Lankan Tamils were not malleable to the plan, the British brought in Indians to do the job. By the time Sri Lanka (which was called Ceylon at the time) achieved independence in 1948 the British had transformed the economy (tea anyone?), turned the structures of power in the country on their heads, and created an environment ripe for ethnic conflict.

    Support for Buddhist-Nationalism grew strong. When in power populist leaders took increasingly steps to reaffirm the Sinhalese at the centre of culture and Buddhism as the dominating religion. In 1972 the number of Tamil places in universities was capped and Buddhism was written into new legislation as holding the “foremost place” amongst the island’s religions. Widespread unrest ensued and groups of young Tamils, including The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), called for an independent Tamil state in the north and the east. They established jungle guerrilla bases.

    Boiling point hit in 1983 when the Tamil Tigers ambushed and massacred an army patrol in the Jaffna region. The Sinhalese retaliated with a month of killing and looting, now known as Black July. As many as two thousand people were slaughtered, and whole areas were levelled.

    The war lasted 26 years. The war had its ebbs, including an unstable ceasefire from 2002 to 2005. But its crests were horrific. Upwards of 100,000 women, men and children, a large proportion of them civilians, were killed. Over 1 million people were displaced. War crimes were almost certainly perpetrated by both sides, but with no independent observers allowed into the war zones, nothing can be confirmed.

    Kilinochchi town was the base of the Tamil Tigers, the symbolic capital of their Eelam. The district was the place of the Tamil Tigers’ last stand to the Sri Lanka Army’s massive offensive in 2008. By the time President Rajapakse declared the final victory of the Sri Lanka Army in May 2009, and a conclusive end to the war, Kilinochchi had been utterly flattened.

    Kilinochchi is where I am heading. (This blog was written in October 2011).

    I’m on assignment to provide technical support for pro-poor market development as part of Practical Action’s one-year rehabilitation and recovery project here. I’m delivering training to our staff and a number of other agencies working in the conflict affected north and east – CARE, Oxfam, Worldvision and UNDP. I am the first Practical Action head office staff to go there.

    United Nations Development Program at the training workshop, Sri Lanka

    It was as we passed Vuvuniya, after the army checkpoint, that my stomach started turning.

    On the final 70 km stretch to Kilinochchi there are more bunkers than other buildings put together. Hardly a single building from three years ago remains. The buildings that stand are mostly the result of the UN’s Refugee Agency: corrugated iron shacks covered with waterproof sheets, and occasionally, newly built ‘permanent resettlements’. There are far more soldiers than civilians. Every road, bridge and irrigation channel has been blown up.

    It’s dark by now. On the insignificant upside, there is so little around that there’s no light pollution. As the driver, Bandara, and I take a cheeky pee on the side of the road, I can see the Milky Way.

    Temporary shelter, paid for by the US government, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    In the two and a half years since the end of the war, reconstruction and rehabilitation has started apace. Road building, bridge repair, irrigation rehabilitation. De-mining programmes abound. Large scale programmes to return internally displaced persons have made swift, safe and effective progress. ‘Return’ often proves to be a misleading word though, many ‘returnees’ have been resettled in new locations, bringing both challenges and opportunities. All work is led or closely monitored by the government, and financed by the international humanitarian and development industries. Faith-based groups (especially Christian) tend to be at the forefront of putting civil society roots back in the ground.

    Returning home, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    The private sector is patchy. The biggest companies who are kitted out to cope with high risk have re-established themselves. Cargill’s national supermarket chain, for example, has set-up a new supermarket even before the road leading to it is completely finished. Individual entrepreneurship is also strong. This is a consequence of many not having access to natural resources; traditional occupations on which they used to depend difficult to return to. This entrepreneurship comes in every flavour: Small shops selling small goods; tractor rental; basic eateries; and also prostitution, largely serving the humanitarian expats. My colleague Sampath tells me that in Batticola, another conflict-affected district, as much as 40 % of women who have lost their husbands in the war have entered into prostitution. There’s also a missing middle to the business environment: small and medium enterprises do not have the skills and resources to understand the risks and opportunities of this post-conflict world.

    Practical Action’s project here is called A New Beginning – Rehabilitating Irrigation Infrastructure and Initialising Market Development.  It is funded by the United States government Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

    With the traditional tanks in disrepair, the returnee communities wait for the government to deliver water each week, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    The team here is working with recent returnees and government engineers to rebuild traditional water tanks in two locations. The tanks are little more than natural bowls, each around half a kilometre in length and width. The natural edges of the bowls are raised with soil covered in grass, and strategic channels and gates are installed to allow locals to control the flow of water. Maintenance of the banks and the irrigation gates is traditionally carried out by the communities living around the tanks. Rain water is captured and stored during the monsoon and channelled into fields in the torrid dry season. The bowls also raise the surrounding water table, keeping wells filled higher and for longer and create an oasis for wildlife. To me this is a perfect example of indigenous, intermediate technology.

    Returnees plan the irrigation rehabilitation, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    With Kilinochchi in the heart of the conflict zone for the most of the 26-year war, these communities have had to flee their homes and lives, sometimes on a number of occasions and often for years at a time. Families are now returning, but empty handed and often penniless, they do not have the resources to maintain the tanks as they had done in the past.

    To get the tanks back into good shape the project uses a common humanitarian approach – ‘cash-for-work’ – offering incomes to returning locals by hiring them to do the work.

    Locals work on raising the banks of the tank, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    As Suganthan, the project’s technical officer tells me, this approach is much harder to use effectively and not necessarily desirable.

    Most other humanitarian cash-for-work programs around here are really just trying to shift cash to returnees, and use cash-for-work as a guise to argue that they are not creating aid dependency. In practice though these programmes hardly judge their performance on getting the ‘work’ that is carried out, and care little whether those hired actually work or not. Often they don’t. Workers sit under trees all day and they still collect the cash in the evening. The work doesn’t get done, is it is done poorly and no-one cares. Aid dependency still festers.

    The approach in this project is different. We really want the work to be done. The completion of the tank rehabilitation in time for the end-of-year rains will determine whether the returnees can grow anything in the dry season in the new year. So Suganthan calls Practical Action’s approach ‘work-for-cash’. If locals want to work, they can, and they’ll earn something, he explains. “If this doesn’t happen, we hire local construction companies to get the work done.”

    In reality around 60 % of the work is carried out by the poor. Poor people spend some time working on the tanks and spend the rest of their time rebuilding their homes and preparing their fields.

    Local construction companies working on the tank rehabilitation, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    (written a few months later) Now in March, with tanks full, irrigation systems ready and the dry season arriving, the project now helps the locals around the tanks to recommence vegetable or fruit production. These are crops that can bring in income, what these people say they really need most.

    The tank, now rehabilitated, Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

    Many other livelihood support programmes around here and elsewhere focus entirely on agricultural production and end up panicking when the project ‘beneficiaries’ produce a glut of produce no-one wants to buy.  Again Practical Action’s team is taking a different approach.

    We are working with the farmers and other people who work in agriculture to think about the demand for crops in the end markets: local ones, those in Jaffna up north, and those down south and identify what can be done to meet this demand. The team is facilitating a process that enables poor returnees to produce in-demand fruit and vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way and sell them for reliable prices into the markets that want them.

    To make agriculture work again for those most in need, the team realises that production needs to be demand-driven and the market system as a whole needs to work well. The team therefore works not just with the poor farmers but also with other actors in the whole supply chain that takes produce from the field to the kitchen table and the fruit bowl. These actors include traders, buyers and retailers. We also work with the people who provide important services for the farmers such as agricultural advice and inputs. Many of these actors face their own huge challenges in this post-conflict situation: they feel the risks and cost of doing business here are too high, they are ill-equipped and have poor skills. The networks and relationships their occupations depend on are non-existent or hostile, as a result of the war and the displacement it caused. If their problems are not addressed alongside those of the farmers, then the returnees’ produce will not find reasonable and reliable prices.

    Using market maps to understand the whole agricultural system, from seed to kitchen table, Sri Lanka

    In this way the project is demonstrating the potential of the area and its farmers, encouraging the government and others take seriously the opportunities that exist here and begin to reinvest in small farmers.

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  • Shelter me – and I’ll shelter you too

    This week I have been researching shelter in Africa, namely Zimbabwe.

    When I think of the word ‘shelter’, I think of feeling warm, safe and dry; of cups of tea, or my lovely, cosy bed, or hugs from my Mum; or that gorgeous Ray LaMontagne song Shelter, where shelter is more than just a sense of physical safety but one of emotional security too; of feeling that all is right in the world; and of my home, a sanctuary.

    All too often in the world’s poorest places, your home is not a safe place where you can seek sanctuary from the evils that populate the world. In fact, your home might be the problem itself. Perhaps it’s simply physically insubstantial and doesn’t protect you from harsh weather like flooding, or natural disasters such as earthquakes.  Or maybe there are so many people squeezed inside it that the danger lurks within.

    For communities in urban Zimbabwe, overcrowding and inadequate housing are very real and dangerous realities.

    It wasn’t always like this. Zimbabwe used to be one of Africa’s most successful countries, ‘the bread basket of Africa’, with a strong economy, a local government system that delivered the services it was meant to provide, and with the people skilled to support those services.

    The country is now struggling economically. The gap between rich and poor is widening, skilled people are migrating in search of better employment prospects, and access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, waste collection and roads, is now for many people just an impossible dream.

    Hyper-inflation, very high unemployment (estimated at over 90%), a rapidly devaluating currency and a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (15.3%) have all contributed to increasing levels of vulnerability for Zimbabwean people. 80% of the population lives on less than 85p a day.

    And in 2005, life became so much worse for 700,000 poor women, men and children who were the victims of the Zimbabwean government’s Murambatsvina Operation.  Murambatsvina (English: Operation Drive Out Trash), also officially known as Operation Restore Order or the Clean Up Operation. This was a large scale Zimbabwe government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across the country. The campaign started in May 2005 and according to United Nations estimates, has affected at least 2.4 million people. In July 2005, UN-HABITAT estimated that 700,000 people lost either their homes or livelihoods, or both.

    But the Government of Zimbabwe says the operation was launched after extensive consultations with stakeholders.  The primary objective, the Government says, was to rid the urban environments of illegal structures and unlicensed trading premises. The aim of the national clean-up exercise was meant to decongest the cities and towns and establish an environment conducive to investment.

    Unfortunately, the Government wasn’t able to replace the people’s homes, with inflation then raging at 1,700,000%.

    Local authorities have struggled since the ‘clean up’, with the enormous task of ensuring that poor and vulnerable people living in urban areas have access to the basics that we take for granted – clean water at the turn of a tap, toilets, where people, particularly children, are protected from the waste and have privacy, refuse that is removed regularly, streets that are clean and safe to walk in, and, fundamentally, the security of knowing you have a home that is legally yours to rent or own.

    Furthermore, since the ‘clean up’, overcrowding has become a massive problem in many urban areas. Almost overnight houses suddenly had to host three families rather than one, with nothing more than blankets to separate different families’ living areas. TB and cholera are rife. Children will often sleep on the floor underneath their parents’ bed. This fact is actually a contributing factor to the high HIV rate. Children are exposed to their parents having sex just above them, and children being children, will begin to copy this from a very young age. Young girls are falling pregnant as young as 12 years old, and rape cases are on the rise. And I’ve read stories of mothers who are forced to prostitute themselves just to make enough money to pay rent and feed their children.

    Practical Action is training  these marginalised communities, who have come through so much, to improve their houses, ensuring they are safe places offering real shelter. Brick by brick, people here are rebuilding their own homes, and their hopes for a brighter future.

    Our approach is to help people to make the best use of their own labour and to use locally produced building materials and construction techniques that they can afford and manage themselves.  Ensuring that people have good quality homes to live in, with enough space for everyone, doesn’t just improve living conditions – it can become a catalyst for the further development of communities by creating local jobs, and an infrastructure that benefits everyone.

    I sit here at my desk listening to that song Shelter, hoping from the bottom of my heart that the people in Zimbabwe with whom we are working will once more have safe homes that are full of happiness and love, and free from harm and danger. Sanctuaries.

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  • Angelina Jolie eclipses full-time humanitarians

    October 7th, 2011

    I just read this in Guardian’s G2 magazine about Angelina Jolie winning another humanitarian award for her philanthropy. I enjoyed it, thought others would to. While Practical Action is not a humanitarian agency (though we do plenty of work to influence humanitarian agencies to improve their practices, see our Recovery and Reconstruction work) I feel this article is also a tribute to the unsung, hard-working, tired heroes  I have a privilege to work with around the world.

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  • Calling for more action on disaster risk reduction

    Practical Action is joining more than 2,000 experts on disaster risk reduction, recovery and reconstruction from across the globe in Geneva this week to share experiences and set new directions for disaster risk reduction, at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Third Session.

    Staff from Practical Action will be making an official statement which calls for action on how to integrate disaster risk reduction into development processes (see the full statement below).

    We will also be making various presentations at side events and the ignite stage. Please join us in adding your experiences on promoting integration of disaster risk reduction into development processes by attending the sessions (see details below) or adding your comments to this blog.

    Together, let’s put the Action Back into the Hyogo Framework for Action!

    Practical Action at the Global Platform:

    1. Theo Schilderman, Head of International Programme on Access to Services will be speaking on Urban Housing Reconstruction and Land Management at Thematic Session 1 of the World Reconstruction Conference – Tuesday 16.45-18.30, in rooms 7+8 on level 1 of the CICG.
    2. Practical Action as a member of BOND will be running a Hyogo Hard Talk Session – the Challenge of Local Partnerships for DRR- Tuesday 12:15-13:15 SEI, Room 5.
    3. Theo Schilderman will be speaking on Building Back Better on Wednesday 12:15-12:30 at the Ignite Stage.
    4. Practical Action South Asia will be speaking at the panel “Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation: Frameworks for Integrating DRR and CCA at the local level”. Thursday 12:30-13:30, Room 13.

    5. Maggie Ibrahim, International Programme Coordinator will be delivering Practical Action’s Official Statement – please check the GP for times.

    For more information about our work on Disaster Risk Reduction, see: Please link to

    Practical Action’s statement to the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, Third Session, Geneva, Switzerland, 2011

    Practical Action acknowledges the importance in identifying what needs to be done to reduce disaster risk. But having an impact on the lives of marginalised people who battle and confront disaster risks in their day-to-day lives, means more than just identifying issues and preparedness, it means integrating climate sensitive disaster risk reduction into development processes.

    We are here to challenge our fellow practitioners and policymakers to take more action in demonstrating how to integrate disaster risk reduction into these development processes.

    Our experiences demonstrate that four critical elements are needed to integrate disaster risk reduction into development. These are:

    • Understanding and building on a community’s livelihood system
    • Assessing the changing hazards and vulnerabilities which communities face
    • Understanding and committing to change governance systems which drive vulnerability
    • Incorporating knowledge of changing trends – including climate and other trends such as urbanisation and rising food prices.

    These four elements make up our Vulnerability to Resilience Framework (V2R), from which we now need to develop context specific tools, and appropriate indicators for application at community level.

    We have seen real benefits to communities through increased livelihood security and wellbeing. For example, the livelihood-centred approach to disaster risk reduction adopted in Nepal resulted in a significant net contribution to the economic welfare of communities and delivered real value for money.

    There has also been considerable progress in mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into development planning at the Village Development Committee (VDC) and district levels. We have supported the District Development Committees (DDCs) of Nawalparasi and Chitwan in Nepal to prepare Village Development Committee level disaster management plans.

    Practical Action’s work demonstrates that by adopting a holistic approach which focuses on people’s livelihoods, their assets and the environments on which they depend, communities can adopt appropriate strategies that reduce the impact of disasters. Building on local knowledge and utilising resources with appropriate support, even the poorest communities are able to engage in activities that increase their resilience to future hazards.

    Action is part of our ethos as an organisation – we are committed to harnessing local technologies to promote resilient, sustainable livelihoods.  We are tackling changing disaster risk with communities and government authorities in Latin America, South Asia and Africa.

    We are doing this in three ways:

    • Creating links between local communities and local government to map and plan for hazard reduction.
    • Providing resources for livelihood-centred disaster risk reduction programmes.
    • Forming partnerships with a range of actors – from the private sector to faith groups – to incorporate risk reduction into development processes and build adaptive capacity from local to national levels.

    Achievement of the Hyogo Framework for Action demands practical action!

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  • Floods in Brazil – poverty makes people more vulnerable

    Torrential rain in Brazil recently led to the country’s worst ever recorded natural disaster with at least 750 people killed by the resulting floods and landslides. This national calamity hit the international news headlines at the same time that Sri Lanka was reeling from the impact of widespread flooding.

    Poverty, vulnerability and disasters are linked – it is most often the poorest that are worst affected and suffer most. This was clearly visible in the Brazil landslides where it was the low income settlements built on marginal lands – in particular the steep upper slopes of hills surrounding some urban centres – that suffered most from the landslides triggered by the rain. It is their poverty that makes them more vulnerable in the first place (in this case the only place they have to build their homes is on land that is fundamentally unstable). And their capacity to cope with disasters and recover from the effects are constrained by their lack of resources – there is no insurance company to turn to for most of those effected by the recent events in Sri Lanka and Brazil; no savings put aside for that ‘rainy day’.

    Disasters rob the poor of their meagre possessions, their homes and livestock and most importantly, their livelihoods. But it doesn’t have to be so. There are plenty of examples of droughts, floods and even earthquakes that have impacted on people’s lives and livelihoods without being deemed a disaster, when those people were sufficiently prepared and had the capacity to cope and recover quickly.

    The Brazilian government is reported to be considering investing in a high tech radar system for detecting approaching storms in the future and allowing for early warnings to be given to those who are vulnerable. Certainly early warning systems can make a huge difference in reducing vulnerability, as the experience of Bangladesh’s system of cyclone early warning system, combined with a network of robust cyclone shelters that people can go to when the warning sounds, has shown. The technology behind early warning systems doesn’t always have to be that sophisticated either.

    Practical Action has worked with local communities in the southern Terai area of Nepal, which is susceptible to flash flooding from rivers coming out of the Himalayas in the monsoon. Using mobile phones to link people a few miles up in the hills to those down on the Terai plains is often sufficient to allow a warning to be passed on in time for people downstream to be alerted to rising waters heading their way. Combined with pre-rehearsed emergency procedures this sort of approach can save not just lives but also give people time to move their most precious possessions to high ground and safety. That means, when the flood passes, they still have the sewing machine, rickshaw, agricultural tools or animals so vital to ensuring they can continue to maintain their livelihoods and recover.

    Early warning, whilst important, is not sufficient to eliminate needless deaths and losses from natural disasters. In some cases, such as earthquakes, providing an early warning is often very difficult. And, in the case of the Brazil floods, even though having early warning would have reduced the death toll, it would not have reduced the loss to property and infrastructure caused by the landslides. This is where standards play such an important role. Urban planning processes tend to ignore the needs of the poor. Indeed ‘informal’ urban settlements in many countries are often deemed not to ‘officially’ exist, despite the fact that they may house the majority of a city’s population and be the source of its factory workers, cab drivers, market traders and junior civil servants. Not officially existing, leads to not being included in municipal plans and not being provided with safe and regulated building space. As a result, the urban poor are squeezed into settlement in land that is marginal and unsafe, like the steep Brazilian hillsides that suffered so badly two weeks ago. However politically difficult it may appear, planning processes and standards need to accommodate the needs of the poor if these sort of disasters are to be avoided in the future, allowing them to be incorporated safely in urban development rather than exiled to the margins. And what about those unpredictable disasters such as earthquakes? Well, with a little bit of careful design, as Practical Action has shown time and again in Peru, it is possible to provide affordable housing that is resistant to earthquakes. But again, those design approaches need to be enforced in building standards if the benefit they offer is to be widely available.

    We will never be able to avoid natural disasters. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, with some planning and forethought, their impact on everyone, the poor included, does not itself have to be devastating.

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  • Sri Lanka floods

    January 20th, 2011

    The situation in Sri Lanka is very worrying. A few years ago, flooding affecting 300,000 people might have captured the headlines, but these days it feels like this is just business as usual. I had the impression that the reports on Sri Lanka tended to get coverage only because it was one of three countries (Australia, Brazil, and Sri Lanka) all badly affected by exceptional rains.

    On the ground of course, whether you’re part of a group of 300 or 300,000 people affected, it can be a truly devastating experience. I have spent time in flooded areas of Bangladesh, and India before now, and the way people cope can be quite amazing.

    Practical Action has been working in Kathiravely and Kalmadu where some 150 families are still living in relief camps set up and run by the Government, unable to return home yet. We’re not a relief agency, and are not set up with the kind of logistical capacities to buy and distribute the large amounts of food, blankets, soap and cleaning items that people need today. However, a number of our partners are engaged and we’re helping them where we can.

    Soon we will be turning our heads to the task of rebuilding water tanks and flood bunds, and here I am hopeful we can ensure people are aware of the techniques we’ve developed, so structures will be able to withstand future flooding when it occurs. Unfortunately, it does seem that it’s a question of when, not if.

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