Archive for December, 2010

Gravity ropeways – a simple solution that changes people’s lives

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 by

Sitting here nice and cosy by the fire, it’s quite hard to cast my mind back to the time I hiked up a mountain in Nepal earlier this year.  The temperatures was 35°C, the sun was blazing and there was very little breeze.  I was visiting the gravity ropeway in Kurintar that has been built with the help of Practical Action two years before.

I knew that before the ropeway was installed it took farmers about two hours to walk from the mountainside, where they grow their produce, to the market below where they can sell it. The ropeway means they don’t have to do this journey anymore, all their produce can get down the mountain in minutes rather than hours.

Now you may be thinking ‘So what?  two hours is quite a long time, but not that bad surely?  I can walk round town for twice that long no problem’.  However, what you can’t imagine is how gruelling a walk like that is, even without a load to carry.  After half an hour of walking up that mountain I was absolutely exhausted and as I am a lady will say ‘glowing’!  The path up the mountain is tough. Steep, windy, often narrow and quite treacherous. How I managed to keep going for another hour and a half I’ll never know!

No wonder the community was so delighted at having a gravity ropeway installed. Farmers can now get more produce to market and in a better condition, improving the lives of their families in more ways than one.  One farmer who uses the ropeway told me that in the past his family only had salt and meat at festival time but now they could have it all year round, so his family were much healthier.  I also spoke to a main who runs a co-operative which has set up at the bottom of the ropeway.  He explained that as a result of the ropeways farmers can now afford to borrow small amounts of money to reinvest in their business, buying new seeds or equipment, safe in the knowledge they will be able to meet the repayments.

As the education manager, the gravity ropeway made such an impression on me that I developed a challenge for students based on it. It tests students’ abilities to think creatively to solve a problem in a developing country, and raises awareness of Practical Action’s work to help people out of poverty:

My video below asks you to image what it would be like if you lived in the mountains of Nepal and were about to have your life changed for the better with the help of Practical Action.

Darfur – water

Friday, December 17th, 2010 by

I have just written a blog on Darfur and you know how one thought sparks off another I recalled an interview I’d conducted with one of our team in Darfur – over a year ago now but I still I hope relevant to share.

Talking about one of the earth dams we had built together with the community Siham said

‘The difference between February last year and February this is the green area. When we came here last year it was completely dry, except for some very small pockets here and there. This year that whole area beyond the dams is green and the soil is still wet. Yet we are in February (some time after the rainy season). This is even more impressive as this year was considered to be a no good, a poor rainy season and yet the water is still here. Also in general the feeling of the farmers is very good, it’s positive. Last year that kept complaining, especially the women when they talked about water, this year it’s totally different.

Water is the main problem here. People need help with water throughout North Darfur.’

Another thing I recalled was how some women carry water – some have jerry cans which they haul with them or carry on their heads but many use old fashioned yolks – like 17th century milkmaids. I had never seen that before. The women let me have a go – I would have struggled to talk a few yards with one of those fully loaded with water – they had to walk much longer.


Friday, December 17th, 2010 by

I recently spoke with Mohammed Siddiq, Practical Action’s Programme Manager in Darfur. He spoke of declining rainfall, how years of drought have added to the turmoil of the war and how there remains a massive food gap exacerbated by the shortage of water.

He said

‘Water is still a huge need for the community and one I can’t emphasise enough. It has become an even bigger need because of the conflict as most water sources have been damaged or destroyed’

We are used to thinking of Darfur as a place beyond hope yet when I was there I saw lives being transformed permanently by the work of Practical Action. Reservoirs (haffirs) being built or rehabilitated so that communities could get water, simple irrigation systems making land available for cultivation giving hundreds of people a way of feeding themselves and even having produce to sell so as to earn a living.

The war has impacted on many people but there are areas where people are only indirectly affected and there are others where even with the conflict people want to get on with and start to rebuild their lives.

I was genuinely amazed by the work of Practical Action and the communities we work with – simple solutions making peoples lives better even in the midst of complex problems.

Bangladesh Heart Ache

Sunday, December 12th, 2010 by

This week’s Independent on Sunday article has stirred up some real heart ache for me. Just over a year ago I was in Bangladesh for Practical Action, helping to make some of the videos about people who could benefit from our technologies. I have been out talking about my visit to many people since. There are three things that stand out in my memory.

Firstly there was the lack of hope. People I met were completely resigned to their fate. They had been worn down by the annual flooding and loss of belongings. In many developing countries it can be a surprise at how optimistic people are when they have so little, but in this case the people living on the river banks saw no reason to hope for any improvements in their lives.

Secondly there was the use of the word “starvation”. It’s a word we usually associate with famine, or drought. But in Bangladesh some of the people I met had to starve for days – not because there was no food, but because they didn’t have the money to afford it. This was usually because their casual work in the fields was not possible during the time of the flood.

videoing in Bangladesh

Filming in Bangladesh

Thirdly, it was amazing how a tiny, cheap intervention could make all the difference for people. For some people it was being given a couple of ducklings and some training. For someone else it was being taught how to grow pumpkins on the river bank. For yet another person it was to be given some baby fish and the ability to build their own fish cage. These interventions, which cost only a few taka, gave people a breathing space and enough resource to get themselves to a better place. It gave them an ability to take charge of their own lives and secure a way of getting themselves out of poverty. Some of the people I met had benefitted from a project two or three years earlier and were now making a small profit and able to share their money or their fish with others in the community.

So thank you to the Independent on Sunday for reminding me of these feelings – and more importantly, thank you for bringing it to the attention of thousands more of your readers!

A climate agreement is concluded!

Saturday, December 11th, 2010 by

The final plenary session got underway at 9.30pm in a hall packed to capacity. The President of the conference, Patricia Espinosa, in response to emotive calls from outside the hall, allowed far more people into the room than was probably safe – but we all wanted to be there, not just watch on a screen outside! She herself received a standing ovation as she came into the room.

We expected some countries to be negative about the new text, which was evidently a huge compromise in some areas – for us NGOs as well as for countries. And, true to form, Bolivia spoke passionately and at length about how the text did not recognise the need to keep global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees, and that current pledges on emissions cuts nowhere near achieve this.

But after Bolivia, every other country spoke out to say that yes, they had compromised, but the process to reach this text had been open and transparent, and of course negotiations mean compromise.

Speaker after speaker said the same, to loud applause. And the text was finally gavelled through around 3 am, with Bolivia still very unhappy. I

I feel so different from the numbness after Copenhagen – but very tired, and ready for a few days off – before I attend the meeting in Cancun of the Adaptation fund Board next week.

Rachel Berger

UN Climate talks – what a difference a day makes …

Saturday, December 11th, 2010 by

Just 24 hours ago civil society, press pundits and a number of
negotiators were anticipating the failure of the UN climate talks (and
no hopes for a deal to meet the needs of the worlds poorest people).

There was talk of “the death of multi-lateralism” and yet, at (quite
literally) the last minute the Parties took a gamble.

All bets were off … The stakes were incredibly high … And the
unexpected winners look to be developing countries …

It may not be the “jackpot” ( no fair and binding global deal was
reached) but there were some real winnings to be shared out.

Perhaps the biggest prize is the new global climate fund which has
been announced- it will have a board made up of more developing
countries than developed countries (hurrah!) and should be the one
stop shop for climate funding.

Now we just need to make sure it doesn’t end up as an empty fund and that a large amount is earmarked for adaptation – the need of poor
women, men and children right now.

So we leave Cancun with restored faith in the process and a renewed
energy that change (not just climatic) can and must happen.

Adios amigos!


Last night in Cancun!

Saturday, December 11th, 2010 by

This has been an unreal day. We arrived by 8.30 this morning for a plenary session to review the progress during the night towards a last-minute agreement on tackling climate change; the plenary session didn’t happen then, and is now scheduled for 8 PM! after a short meeting with some of the UK government delegation, who felt that ‘luck and skill (on the part of the Mexicans)’ in diplomacy would be needed to get an outcome here. Then – what to do, except get out of the soulless conference centre, and go, for the first time, to the pool and beach beyond the conference centre hotel. It was swarming with delegates, people in suits with their shoes off, trying to get a little sleep, and a few people paddling in the calm sea. A bit of a break before what promises to be a long night of meetings. At 5pm a proposed text of an agreement was released, and delegates reconvened to discuss it. Those of us from NGOs following adaptation are surprised and pleased with the new text: it doesn’t have everything we hoped for, of course, but more than we expected. If it goes through, there is much that we can work with in the months and years to come. But it’s a big IF. Let’s hope by morning we will still be smiling!

You know what you have to do: take practical action

Friday, December 10th, 2010 by

“1,000,000,000 children are at risk today from war, poverty, and hunger, failed by the word’s governments.”

This was the headline of a front page article from The Independent on 10 December 2004. It was accompanied by a grim photograph of a small Ugandan child, crouched behind a muddied human skull. The article highlighted the devastation that war reaps upon the lives of billions of forgotten children, as researched by UNICEF for the 2004 edition of their annual report The State of The World’s Children.

Nowadays we live in a society used to thinking big numbers – as exemplified by utterly mind-boggling facts such as these: – but when I first read that headline, as a 17 year-old, I remember thinking: 1,000,000,000 hungry children is 1,000,000,000 too many.   

And I promised myself that ‘when I grew up’ I would try and do something about this inequality. I wasn’t really sure what, or how, as my future plans included studying literature at university and moving to Paris.

But I kept the article as a call to arms.

As I look at the slightly yellowed newspaper on my desk I feel both gratitude and sadness. I am enormously thankful that my work at Practical Action enables me (albeit in the tiniest way) to ‘make a difference’. And I still feel very lucky that my childhood was not overshadowed by the harsh triumvirate of war, poverty and hunger.

Yet I remain overwhelmed at how much there is for us to do to fight the injustice of poverty, for the world’s poorest children and their families.

Considering that it was The Independent which first inspired me to take action, it is perhaps rather appropriate that today – six years (to the day!) after that article – I have spent my time researching our forthcoming features for The Independent on Sunday Christmas Charity Appeal . My hope is that the stories shared will move all those who read to undertake a little practical action, and donate to Practical Action.

As Schumacher himself wrote “The answer [to poverty] is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

You know what you have to do.

Click here.

Michael Gove take note – Sustainable development education IS important!

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010 by

There is real concern that sufficient progress is not being made at the UN climate change talks in Cancun.  If things don’t take a serious turn for better we coudl reach the situation where by 2012 (when the first period of the Kyoto Protocol ends) there will be no international, binding agreement with regard to climate change.

One thing that has been agreed upon however was put through with the help of over 100 young people around the world from various youth groups including the UK Youth Climate Coalition.   Their slogan ‘No decisions about us, without us.’ must have hit a chord.

Article 6 ensures that ‘education for sustainable development is supported, especially outreach by youth nongovernmental organizations. The policy also ensures equity, sustainability and opportunity to young people and women from all backgrounds and cultures’.

Helen Marsh, Practical Action’s climate change campaigner is at the talks

‘It’s fantastic to see real progress on the issue of climate change education here in Cancun. In fact, this is the one area where Parties are showing real ambition and flexibility – accepting all of the asks put forward by the youth delegation and achieving a decision in a record-breaking 90 minutes! Let’s hope this sets a strong marker for other areas of the negotiations in the remaining few days’.

So Mr Gove, when you sort out the details of the new curriculum please do take note of your colleagues in the UN and  ensure sustainable development has its rightful place at the heart of our  British education system.


UN climate talks – UK – 60 by 30?

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010 by
To be clear, I don’t really see myself as having a national identity or loyalty. Fond as I am of our ‘green and pleasant land’ I would prefer to see myself as a ‘world citizen’ (if only it didn’t sound so naff!)

Yesterday though, I felt relatively proud to be a ‘Brit’.

  • Firstly, the UK Committee on Climate Change called for the UK to raise the global bar – by setting the target of reducing UK emissions by 60% by 2030. It’s bold and ambitious but let’s hope our government listens to the advice from the Committee set up to … advise them on climate targets.
  • Secondly, having attended a session with the UK’s Sir Nicholas Stern – an inspiring tour de force in the field – I’m more clear than ever that the neccessity to cut carbon emissions is also hugely desirable.

In his words,’ we are talking about a new industrial revolution, transforming the way we see and do things. It’s time we started looking at the opportunities rather than the costs’.

The task is huge – essentially to almost halve the carbon emissions of each person in the next decade (from 7 tonnes to 4) – but it’s this change of spirit, focusing on the positives, which will be the power behind the new industrial revolution.

And it’s the positives, the solutions, that Practical Action focuses on. To find out more, click here