Archive for July, 2011

Kenya drought and knowledge sharing

Friday, July 29th, 2011 by

Steeling myself I decided to read more news coverage of the drought in Kenya. I’d been putting it off as even though I know our team there are doing fantastic development work and bring vital local and technological knowledge, the scale of the problem and human suffering is daunting. It feels like none of us are doing enough – can do enough.

Reading about people, poverty and disaster and wanting to do even more is heart-breaking even for us who work in development.

Practical Action is 100% committed to knowledge sharing. Actively helping others learn from our work, sharing expertise and doing what we can to help others share their learning too. This helps multiply the impact of our work dramatically but often the results are unreported, unknown even to us.

Why am I telling you this?

Well the second article I read was about how precious animals are to families in Mandera and how they are dying. It was, is, terrible for the people involved.

But towards the end of the article the Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS) was mentioned as an important resource.

We through Practical Action Publishing publish LEGS which is a ‘set of international guidelines and standards for the design, implementation and assessment of livestock interventions to assist people affected by humanitarian crises’.

Maybe only a small additional contribution from Practical Action – but one of those moments when I once again recognise the vital impact and importance of promoting knowledge sharing.

The Earth Awards

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by

Practical Action was honoured this year to be a partner in the Earth Awards. Last night there was a reception hosted by our Patron HRH, the Prince of Wales. I found it a really strange mix. An amazing venue, sustainable products, lots of posh, famous or wealthy people and Practical Action. I/we were outside of our comfort zone.

But I want to applaud Prince Charles, from feeling strange and ‘what are we all doing here’ at the start of the evening my attitude shifted as I heard conversations and saw people actively taking an interest in sustainable development. I like the way he seeks to enthuse people to make a difference. How he promotes innovation. He keeps trying.

One of the things we talk about here is how do we get people who are not naturally interested in development or in sustainability to think differently. The Earth Awards was an example of it from the Prince of Wales.

Practical Action is a very down to earth charity – our comfort zone will remain in the countries where we work and alongside poor people but affirming the attempts of others, working together must be a good thing. Well done Prince Charles – and thanks for asking us!

Global response to Pakistan floods must be met with preparedness

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by

A year ago, Pakistan experienced flooding unlike anything they had seen before. Killing 2000, destroying 1.7 million homes, displacing 11 million people and affecting an area the size of England, pictures of the flood and it’s aftermath hit the news worldwide.

But a year on, the charity Islamic Relief have highlighted in a recent Guardian article that not only has the response to the floods been inadequate, but preventative measures to stop flooding on this scale happening again has been lacking. With the monsoon season upon Pakistan once more and water levels on the rise, we’re asking, what needs to happen to prevent an estimated 8 million people being affected by flooding in Pakistan in 2011?

1)      Include communities in planning and allocate budgets for DRR at the local level

One of the most important aspects of reducing the risk of disasters is the inclusion of local communities and decision-makers in the planning process. It is only with the input of people exposed to hazards that the solutions will be appropriate. Financing for community action plans for disaster risk reduction  from national budgets is imperative to prepare for changing hazards.

2)      Make structural preparations

Reducing the impact of disasters like flooding will require some physical adjustments to the way people live. The video below from Bangladesh shows the identifying of new lands for exposed homes,  the raising of wells to prevent inundation, and the positioning of latrines on higher ground to prevent water pollution. By reducing the impact when a flood does hit, the financial cost of the damage is released, and the victims of the disaster are more able to cope with the added burden of such an event.

3)      Diversify livelihood assets

The video shows the importance of the introduction of new means of earning money.  Diversifying livelihood strategies enables people to respond better when the next flood hits.


This video describes our “livelihood-centred” approach to reducing the risks and impacts of disasters, illustrating some of the technologies promoted and emphasizing the involvement of local government in building community and household resilience. It shows our disaster risk reduction (DRR) project in the Gaibandha, Sirajgonj and Bogra districts of Bangladesh.

If the planning and implementation of these sorts of measures took place in Pakistan, the impacts of future flooding will be reduced.

By Ellie Hopkins – Climate Change Campaigner and Maggie Ibrahim – International Programme Coordinator – Reducing Vulnerability

My London to Paris Cycle Challenge – June 2011

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by

At last the suburbs of the great city. Meeting up in the Bois de Boulogne for more water, en masse and with much excitement and joy we set off down the Champs Elyssee. Steering a careful path around drunken rugby fans, drivers blasting their horns and cheering and applauding Parisians; it was exhilarating. The Tour Eiffel loomed large in the distance, closer, and then we were there! Congratulations all round! We’d done it!

David May completes his London-to-Paris cycle ride at the Eiffel Tower

I have always wanted to cycle in France – now I have! The London to Paris challenge caught my eye and it got me dreaming of long quiet avenues of poplars with no hills, greeting and in turn being greeted with a friendly “Bonjour”, perhaps a bottle of wine in the evening sunshine… Then I had to focus on a charity to raise money for. The choice was fairly easy. It had to be my favourite Practical Action. (Many years ago I experimented with its ideas for water purification and solar water heating during three years volunteering in KwaZulu Natal.)

Excited about the prospect of an adventure and with some trepidation I set off from Cumbria for Crystal Palace and arrived at The Lodge to await the arrival of ninety-nine other cyclists. A wide cross-section of humanity and bikes passed me as I sat drinking tea and chatting with other similarly nervous types. After a quick breakfast next morning and following excellent signing we headed through the glorious fields of Kent. A bike is a superb way to see the country. Nine hours and eighty-six miles later we arrived at the castle and again en masse, pedalled for the ferry. I found myself chatting, during the voyage, to an ex-Gurkha soldier, Kishore, whose extended family had come to see him off from the quayside and who rode with a silk scarf wound around his handlebars. “For a safe journey,” he informed me.

It was late when we finally reached our hotel in Calais. Nine riders got lost in Kent and never even made the ferry. They were later rescued and arrived at two in the morning!

There were seventy-five miles to Abbeyville the next day across the Somme and through fields of poppies. I felt emotional thinking of all our young lads being blown to pieces thereabouts in the madness of war. It was hot and dry but a good easterly wind blew us along. I was pleased with my riding – not bad for a 64 year-old. Overall I found myself up with the leaders but not as quick as Kishore, whose great fitness and army training kept him as near the front as possible. Later one of the staff greeted me and shook my hand with a tear in his eye. He said I had been “an inspiration”. Several people did the same. I was quite touched.

After seventy miles, Beauvais, our third stop lay only another sixty from Paris. Saturday, the fourth and final day dawned again hot and sunny. So far, the ride had seemed like a jolly holiday. In fact I had never been on one quite like this before with ninety-nine friendly companions, hotels, a mechanic, food and water stops all laid on by an enthusiastic team (Skyline) organizing it so well. I didn’t want it to end.

People in Turkana, Kenya, need urgent help

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by

The current drought in Turkana County, in north western Kenya, has become a matter of life and death for children and families across the region.

The region and the Greater Horn of Africa is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years according to the United Nations. More than 3.5 million people are already affected. The number is rising and the country’s response is not keeping pace.

Pastoral families living in the arid and semi-arid area have lost a majority or all their livestock. Many can neither feed their families nor themselves. Many have moved to areas they hope will have just enough to save their lives. The long treks, empty stomachs and the scorching sun are taking their toll. The situation has led to an ever increasing number of children who are now so malnourished.  Children as well as adults could easily die. Some have already been reported to have died from hunger. On Monday 25th July 2011, a 27 year old man died in Turkana County. More are more likely to follow.

The situation in Turkana and the larger northern Kenya has reached acute emergency levels. The poor pastoralist families need help immediately. Many lives are at stake.

So what is Practical Action doing to help? We are helping build resilience to drought by:

•  rehabilitating water structures (ponds, shallow wells, storage tanks)

•  improving the market for stock

•  supporting animal health services

•  integrating traditional natural resource governance systems with formal government systems focusing on drought management

•  improving access to information services – animal and human health, water, rangeland, vaccinations, seasonal forecasts and technology

•  linking them to other emergency service providers

The government, humanitarian organisations as well as well-wishers need to urgently mobilise resources and not only deliver relief quickly to save lives and end suffering but also, for the sake of the future of these populations, help communities prepare for future crises, since major droughts are becoming increasingly extreme and common with climate change. Together with local communities and governments in the region, we need to develop climate adaptation plans and development plans that aim to build resilience of these communities to withstand future emergencies.  This process needs to be backed financially through the funding of programmes to avert future crises.

With the prediction that the next rains are very unlikely until October, we can only expect things to get worse before they get any better for the affected populations. Therefore, we need to look to the future and put years of experience and knowledge in drought mitigation to greater use to ensure that communities can build the resilience needed to avert disaster.

The future of relief efforts in drought prone regions in Kenya

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by

I had an opportunity to travel to a drought mitigation project in Kapuus in Turkana County. The beneficiaries of the project were asked a question I will never forget.

“From now on there is no more aid coming. What will you do?”

Nobody from the group had a response to it. In fact, they were still presenting the ‘shopping list’ of the issues they would like well-wishers to support them with. I had never been certain before how deep dependency had sunk in until I saw the reaction of the faces of these poor people.

Frequent drought and famine in Northern Kenya has caused donor and relief agencies working in the country to literally camp in villages for timeless periods. Little regard has been paid to the long term development initiatives in the region.

While the Government of Kenya has declared the drought in Northern Kenya a national disaster, what is prominently circling the airwaves and the discussion tables is emergency relief. However, it is unclear how long this must go on. At Practical Action we agree that emergency relief is good, but is it enough?

At the moment, most relief efforts by organisations and donor agencies are focusing on these drought-ridden areas through implementing approaches for distributing emergency food relief. How these are coordinated is an issue for another day. In the end, when the communities wake up to find that there is no relief coming, what will happen?

The reactive nature of donors towards crisis and calamities cannot be understated. In fact, there is better prospect during emergency much more than in building concrete development plans that reduce our dependence on relief.

Kenya now has a government ministry solely devoted to developing and addressing arid and semi-arid lands in Kenya. Its capacity is overwhelmed by the task and so in the short term it is relying on other agencies to be able to deliver its mandate. Its efforts must be lauded although much more needs to be done.

However, the daunting task of fighting poverty is not only on the shoulders of governments. In order to improve coherence and effectiveness, appropriate policies regarding increasing food security and economic capacities of the poor need to be executed. International agencies need to strengthen the link between humanitarian and development policies. This cannot be addressed if we continue to rely on emergency relief.

Efforts must be made to ventilating instead of increasing refugee camps. Suitable environments in calamity and conflict prone areas must be established, service provided to the residents and the displaced resettled here. Mechanisms on how to manage natural resources must be established within community frameworks to enable amicable relationships between members of the community during and after drought and famine.

An exit strategy must be thought out of emergency relief. Only then will the residents of Kaapus illustrate an appropriate response to the question of aid.

Only nine meals away from anarchy

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011 by

Food prices are seldom out of the news these days. A Daily Mail report last week talked about UK shoppers moving en masse to budget supermarkets as price hikes for many essentials over the past 12 months reach double digits. A more interesting article in the 27th June edition of the New Statesman caught my eye though, entitled “Nine meals away from anarchy”. The article, which focussed mainly on the increase in numbers of people in London growing their own food, noted how hooked our food systems have become on cheap oil. The article claimed that 81% of the 6.9 million tonnes of food Londoners consumed last year came from outside of the UK. With such high levels of import dependency and with an increasing reliance on ‘just in time’ stock management systems we are incredibly dependent on oil to fuel our food supplies, leading a former head of the Countryside Agency Ewen Cameron to remark that we were only ever “nine meals – or three days – away from anarchy”.

Of course oil prices are not the only factor causing increases in food prices – a rising demand caused by population growth, a diversion of agricultural crops into the production of bio fuels, adverse weather  events, and problems of declining soil fertility and water shortages all also play a part in inflating food costs. And it’s not just shoppers in the UK that feel the pinch. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that rising food prices in the developing world have pushed another 44 million people into extreme poverty since June 2010.

The current global food production system makes no sense. We need a system which is less dependent on cheap oil, more resilient to climate change and better able to maintain the resource on which production depends – the fertility and water retention capability of soils. This probably means a shift back towards producing a greater proportion of food for local consumption and less production for export than at present. It also requires greater support for more agro ecological farming practices that rely less on oil based inputs and do more to maintain soil fertility and water conservation. In the developing world it also means more support for the small scale producers who are already more likely to be following this style of production and who, given the right conditions, can be highly productive and part of a strategy to ensure food price stability in the poorer nations.

E F Schumacher’s legacy in action

Monday, July 25th, 2011 by

SWASTHA (short for ‘Strengthening Water, Air, Sanitation and Hygiene Treasuring Health) is not the snappiest of acronyms. However, after visiting some communities working with this project near Bharaptur in Nepal,  I am convinced that the project exemplifies the very best of Practical Action in action.

The project involves people of all ages, from school children upwards, in concerted action to reduce health hazards.

The communities and local schools get together to install lavatories (with collection pits/tanks in the schools) and hand washing facilities. A lot of effort is put into the design and display of posters to get the message of the importance of hand washing across and signs are erected declaring that the area is and ODF (Open Defecation Free ) area.

In parallel, leaders in the community work with householders in an effort to improve basic facilities, which all have a direct influence on the health of  the whole family.

Children who have proper facilities in school householders proudly showed me their individual composting toilets often bearing a relevant poster about hand washing.

Then one look at the smoke- blackened rafters of a small kitchen in the village showed how deadly the open fire cooking had been to generations of women and children. By introducing a Practical Action designed clay stove, which uses much less biomass, and building a clay flue to carry the smoke to the open air, the kitchen environment is transformed.

Once food has been cooked and eaten there is the washing up to be done. This traditionally was universally done outside on the ground where the water used can flow away. The dual improvement to this operation is the construction of 1) a concrete-lined platform with raised edges and a culvert to direct the waste water into the garden for washing up and 2) a simple wooden rack, normally two storey, on which the washed items can be placed. It takes little thought to see how much less a hazard (from whatever organisms are present on the ground) washing up with these simple facilities achieves.

It was especially striking how proud the leaders of the three VDC (Village Development Communities) were in showing me the improvements in their communities and schools and this must be the key to the success of the project.

I hope you will agree that the technologies I have described and the way they have been introduced are truly in the tradition established by E F Schumacher – simple, effective and inclusive.

I am really grateful to Binaya Shrestha of Practical Action, Nepal, and Prashanna Pradhan of ENPHO, the NGO working with Practical Action to introduce the benefits to the communities, for taking considerable time and effort to view the project work.

Pedalling for Papa

Monday, July 25th, 2011 by

Phew! Summer holidays and to my amazement I’ve actually survived my first year as a Newly Qualified Teacher (otherwise known as a Newly Qualified Target). The only downside is that I now have no work/time excuses left and have to start training seriously for this ride. As Papa used to say, ‘An ounce of practise is worth a tonne of theory’ and it must be said that pretty much all my training so far has been in my head.

OMG! Have just realised the date – 25th July – and exactly one month till we leave for Germany. Only a month to get my body and head into shape. What was I thinking when I agreed to this?!

Looking back I haven’t really twigged about the distance we are going or the 6 days we are meant to be spending doing it. It’s only as some of my kind sponsors have been dropping their jaws and wishing me, in a disconcertingly sincere way “Good Luck!”, that the penny thumped to the floor of my skull. This isn’t just a little further than last year’s 99 miles. This is a whacking three and a bit times as far and that’s if we don’t get lost! Furthermore, although I feel I could, given ample time, trundle 330 miles on a bike, who was the mad hatter (JAMES!) who suggested doing it in 6 days straight???

So, panic is truly setting in and I have begun to compile lists and plans.

First things first: my rapidly growing list of worries:

1. My bike, flying standby, simply doesn’t make it it to Germany at all so I have to walk the distance instead. This means I miss the start of term, lose my job, lose my husband who’s given up waiting for me to return etc. and my life spins into out of control and into orbit…

2. My bike and I make it to Germany but on the 3rd morning I simply can’t move my legs or sit down. I know I can do two days on a bike – that’s what we did last year – but SIX?!?

3. James – who has a ‘proper’ racing/road super-light, 21-gear bike – get’s fed up with waiting for me and my borrowed, folding, 7-gear, iron machine and simply pedals on without me leaving me somewhere in the middle of Germany.

4. I won’t be able to pedal in anything but 1st gear when I get my loaded saddle-bags on the bike – I think the only solution to this is that I’ll just have to travel with just a spare pair of gel-pants and a toothbrush.

The good news is that on the first day of the holidays – Saturday – I went for a potter around Shropshire’s country lanes. It took rather longer than expected – 2 hours – and when I mapometered it on-line I found I’d done 25 and a quarter miles! ;-))

The bad news is that when I got back on my bike today – a full 48 recovery hours later – my legs felt like putty and would hardly move. I persevered and completed my Condover – Uffingham loop which was quite beautiful but worry number 2 is really preying on my mind now. How on earth am I going to keep this (and more) up day after day?

Challenging the mono-cult 4: audio clips from Rome

Monday, July 25th, 2011 by

Earlier ‘Challenging the mono-cult’ posts are available (part 1, part 2 and part 3)

The following audio clips were recorded during the 13th meeting of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Toby – in the first clip below – is the editor of the excellent (and short!) publication ‘Biodiversity for food and agriculture’. Highly recommended.


Toby Hodgkin – Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research

Climate Change and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. (Interview by Patrick Mulvany)

“We need to recognise the importance of an ecosystem approach at farm, community and landscape scales and to increase opportunities for exchanges of GRFA [genetic resources for food and agriculture] between communities in different regions, backed up by release of materials from gene banks, in order to support their adaptation to climate change.”



Liz Matos, Director, Angolan National Plant Genetic Resources Centre

African engagement in the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. (Interview by Patrick Mulvany)

“Although there may be increased recognition of the importance of small farmers for conserving GRFA [genetic resources for food and agriculture], there has been almost no increase in benefits to them – all the more important at this time of increasing climate variability.”



Statement to the Commission by Neth Dano – etcGroup

Neth is describing the challenges in the engagement of the Commission with other international bodies and instruments (21 July)



Statement to the Commission by Patrick Mulvany – Practical Action

Patrick is describing Practical Action’s engagement with the Commission and calling for it to be more inclusive of the social movements of biodiversity-enhancing food providers in its work (21 July)