Archive for February, 2011

Bio-dykes saving lives

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 by

Nepal is a disaster prone country exposed to the various types of recurring hazards like floods and landslides, causing annual loss of about 300 lives, and properties worth over one billion Nepali rupees. Every disaster has been leaving messages for an urgent need for mitigation measures and early warning systems.
Practical Action in Nepal with financial support of the ECHO (DIPECHO) introduced bio-dykes as one of small scale mitigation components of its larger flood early warning system project. Earlier, the community people were not convinced that this small intervention really can protect them and their properties from the nasty floods. After testing this appropriate technology at some sites and seeing it working, community people were happy to replicate and scale it up to other vulnerable areas.
Experience from these projects demonstrated that the sand filled bag works effectively than the rock filled gabion net. The technology is very simple and affordable; using bioengineering measures it protects the river bank from erosion and ultimately reduces the vulnerability of the marginalised poor ethnic people who usually settle near the river bank for their livelihoods.

Flying Toilets: What they are, and how to get rid of them!

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 by

In many of the informal settlements (or slums) in Kenya, there are simply not enough toilets. Only a few houses have a private latrine, and for others there is a public toilet.  But at night, when it’s dark and there is no street lighting, public toilets are not a viable option for women, or small children.  One option many people use is to wee or a poo into a plastic bag, and then….yes you’ve guessed it… throw the bag over the wall into the street.  Hence the name ‘flying toilet’!

Needless to say this is not exactly a healthy way to dispose of human waste, never mind issues of dignity. It only needs a small percentage of people using a ‘flying toilet’, to make the streets a real public health risk for everyone, and it’s a problem that affects millions and millions of people living in informal settlements all over the world.

So we need a solution which works for everyone, all of the time.  100% coverage.

As Practical Action, we’ve been working on various approaches to urban sanitation for some years, and we’ve learnt a lot, and made improvements to sanitation coverage, but we haven’t yet reached got to that magic 100% coverage.  It’s clear that there is no one answer.  Going to the toilet is a pretty personal thing, and you can’t simply tell people where they must go to the loo.  Then there’s a bunch of financial, technical and even legal challenges as well.  Over the last three months our team in Kenya has been reviewing our urban sanitation work, and consulting with community members, partner organisations, and local government, and we now have a programme of work which we believe will help us get there.  All we need now is the funding.  This does present us with a bit of challenge, as the subject matter – poo – is hardly the most attractive.  Let’s hope we can. I’ll keep you posted.

Why do we care about carbon?

Friday, February 18th, 2011 by

In 2007 we committed Practical Action to the goal of cutting our overall carbon emissions by 25% by 2012. Why did we do this? Well, we saw that the impacts of climate change were already being felt around the world and that it was the poorest and most vulnerable people who were being affected first and who will suffer the most in the future.

We felt, given what we knew about climate change and its effect on the people we work with, we needed ourselves to make sure we did everything possible to limit our contribution to the problem and the damage it does to the lives of the people we seek to serve.  The target of a 25% reduction in our carbon footprint over five years was set based on the 5% annual reduction in carbon emissions we and others were advocating to the developed world governments at the time.

So how well are we doing? The short answer is not bad! Mainly through our efforts to reduce flights (but also vehicle travel, heating / air conditioning, electricity and paper usage across our operations) we have met or exceeded our target for the past two years. This has been a really amazing achievement when you realise that, since the start of this strategy, we have grown, in budget terms, by 25%. Carbon-wise we are now 40% more efficient, using 94.3 tonnes of carbon per £1 million spent this year, compared to 155.5 tonnes of carbon per £1 million spent in 2006/07. 

The real challenge comes next year however, the last year of our current strategy. The forecast for this year shows that our carbon footprint grew slightly over the past 12 months. If we are to meet the 25% goal in our strategy we will have to somehow halt this increase and stick at this year’s level of emissions.

Given that we expect our expenditure to go up again, this will not be easy.  We will have to plan more effectively to co-ordinate vehicle trips and question every flight to make sure it is absolutely necessary. Our 2012 carbon target is absolutely achievable, but it will require commitment and effort from all of us.  It will be difficult, but if Practical Action – an organisation actively working on climate change – cannot rise to this challenge, then who can?

Dams for drought-ridden Sudan

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011 by

I was in Sudan last week, when the final result of the referendum on the future of the South came in. An overwhelming 99% of people voted in favour of secession, which means that we’ll see a new country created some time in July. 

 While the big question has been answered, there are a lot of details to be worked out. Critically, there are three ‘transition zones’ and details of the boundaries have yet to be worked out, never mind issues about financing, debt, and revenue sharing. 

 I visited Darfur, where low-level conflict continues and there are few signs of peace on the horizon. While I was there, bombing close El Fashir town (the provincial capital of North Darfur) prevented me from visiting our projects in locations outside the town.

Despite this conflict, our important development work continues to help people make a living.  We have some really exciting work building simple, but unique dam structures which ‘harvest’ the limited rain water in this drought-ridden area. This enables people to grow crops where it would otherwise be impossible. 

Other work, like helping farmers to choose early maturing crop varieties and supporting community-based forestry is helping to ‘Green Darfur’ (ie change a desert into a green and productive land). If you’d ever been to Darfur, you’d understand how amazing this concept is, and like me even more amazed at the results we’re achieving with our local partners on the ground.

 Later this month we’re hosting a conference with a variety of local organisations (United Nations, Government, other Non-government organisations, local communities, academics) to share what we’ve done, and what we’ve learnt.  We hope that this will help us to continue to improve our work but also improve the efforts of others too.

Can we fight poverty AND climate change?

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 by

WWF has published an interesting and well-argued report (The Energy Report) outlining a vision of a world in 2050 that’s 100% powered by renewable energy.

The report recognises the challenge ahead, not just in changing the consumption patterns of the developed world but in ending energy poverty in the developing world – providing electricity to the 1.4 billion who don’t have it and providing modern clean energy for cooking to the 2.5 billion still cooking over open fires.

WWF makes a strong argument for investment in renewables in the developing world to tackle energy poverty, something Practical Action endorses.

However, we’d voice a couple of caveats to this. Firstly, we think the world needs to solve the issue of energy poverty in the developing world earlier than 2050 (we endorse the UN call for energy for all by 2030). Secondly, we believe to do this will, at least temporarily, involve using some non-renewable energy sources.

There are increasingly large poor urban populations in the developing world, living in shanty towns and slums with little or no access to modern forms of energy. In the short term, their needs are only likely to be met by connection to national grids, which may well be fed by non-renewable resources for a while yet. This isn’t a disaster in carbon terms – Practical Action has calculated that even in a worst case scenario (using only non-renewable sources to meet a minimum standard of energy access) global emissions would only increase by 2%. In reality, the figure would be much less than 2%, as a substantial part of that new energy demand, particularly in rural areas, could be met from renewables already.

The WWF report shows that it is possible to envisage a future where we’ve met the challenge of climate change AND provided energy for all. Practical Action’s work has shown that, even if in the short term this would require some additional non-renewable based supplies, that the carbon cost is manageable. It is possible to fight poverty AND climate change at the same time. We cannot use the latter as an excuse to keep 40% of humanity in energy poverty in order that we in the developed world can continue to live energy intensive and unsustainable lifestyles.

Floods in Brazil – poverty makes people more vulnerable

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 by

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.