Archive for October, 2013

Showcasing green technologies in Sri Lanka

Thursday, October 31st, 2013 by

All around Colombo are the signs of a city preparing for special guests.  But with just a few weeks until the eagerly awaited Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, another very special event took place last week in the grounds of the same venue.Staff from Practical Action, Janathakshan, and partner organisations and networks, were working tirelessly to build a magnificent outdoor exhibition under the banner ‘Green Technology Village’ a celebration of 25 years of Practical Action’s work in Sri Lanka.

As a relative newcomer to Practical Action (very new compared to the many Sri Lanka staff who have decades under their belts!) this was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from the successes, challenges and collective experience of the exhibitors.  And I wasn’t the only one. At least 3000 people – professionals, academics, government officials, members of the public and school children – also came to learn about and discuss green technologies and explore the opportunities they present both for their own lives and those of poor communities in Sri Lanka.

We learned about traditional rice varieties – long out of fashion – revived and now marketed to Europe.  These earn a price premium (they are both organic and wholegrain after all) and improve nutrition in farmers households, as well as protecting indigenous biodiversity.

We were shown biogas and fertiliser being generated from food waste using affordable technology that is increasingly attractive to city dwellers and businesses looking to reduce energy bills, as well as rural communities without access to electricity.  Rising energy prices are just one of the problems shared by people in both the UK and Sri Lanka.

copyright/Friendship 2013

Schoolboys try their hand generating electricity from a bicycle at the Green Technology Village.

One problem not shared is the challenge of living alongside one of nature’s giants: the elephant. Sri Lanka is smaller than Ireland, but with 3 times the people and 7,000 wild elephants to boot.  Drawing on the knowledge of local communities, a low-cost bio-fencing technology is being promoted by Practical Action.  Planting huge, long-life, spiky Palmyra trees, in a 5-deep, zig-zag fashion, creates a natural barrier that can replace costly and difficult to maintain electric fences.  Not only will this better protect villages and villagers from roaming elephants, but they produce fruit in the dry season too, just when the elephants are searching for scarce food.

All of these examples (and the many more at the Green Technology Village) demonstrate that with the right technologies poor people can transform their lives.  And it reminded me that those of us who already enjoy access to transport, energy and other technologies of our choosing, have a duty to be mindful of the impacts of how we use them.

So, my first step to being a greener technology user?  Well, now I that have the know-how, perhaps I can cut my food miles and build myself a hydroponic veggie patch in my spare room…

copyright/Friendship 2013

A staff member demonstrates how to grow lettuce without soil.

‘Humanitarian technology’ and ‘Technology justice’

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 by

Sunday the 13 October was the International Day for Disaster Reduction 2013. Later that week on Thursday, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched its World Disasters Report 2013.

Between these two dates, Asia had a very busy week! Cyclone Phailin devastated the east coast of India (on the 12th), 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook the central Philippines (on the 15th), while Typhoon Wipha hit south-east of Japan (on the 16th).

The latest World Disasters Report explores the roles and impacts of technological innovations on humanitarian actions. Needless to say, ‘humanitarian technologies’ not only help in disaster response, but also in preparedness, prevention, mitigation, recovery and rebuilding efforts. Evacuation of nearly 1 million people from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh (India) before 220-km/h Phailin hit is the recent-most example of saving lives through disseminating early warnings and guiding people to safer places.

IFRC’s new report puts information and communication technology (ICT) at the heart of humanitarian technologies. It draws examples from recent major disasters − from Haiti to Bangladesh − where digital technologies effectively helped humanitarian responses. Successful management of recent calamities in India, the Philippines or Japan may make the similar list in the future.

When Henry Dunant established the International Committee of the Red Cross 150 years back, medical services without antibiotics or anesthesia and trained volunteers were the cutting-edge technologies in humanitarian actions. Although the IFRC took a technology-equals-ICT approach, its 283-page-long report shows that – by using text messages or satellite imagery or social media − we have come a long way since.

Bangladesh 2013, mother and child by garden, Sirajgong

House in Bangladesh built on a raised platform for flood protection

In this progressively digitized world, there remain other dimensions and perceptions of disaster-related vulnerabilities and technological solutions. Raising homestead plinth above the ‘last highest flood level’ still remains a crucial technology for a poor family living in the middle of a floodplain. Increasing uncertainty in timing and amount of rainfall in the recent years is making traditional flood preparedness techniques less effective.

IFRC’s latest report admits that discussions on technology in the humanitarian arena apparently do not contain accountability, transparency and efficiency − the key aspects of existing humanitarian governance. This absence is considered as one of the major limitations of humanitarian technologies. This may also make some humanitarian actors and disaster-affected communities being cynic about using new technologies in disaster situation.

This interaction among people, technologies and systems can also be seen from a ‘technology justice’ point of view. ‘Technology justice’ is the right of people to decide, to choose and to use technologies that help them to lead the life they value, but without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

Innovation and promotion of humanitarian technologies, therefore, always need to put people in the centre. There should also be a mechanism to receive feedback from the technology users. The technology development system, often led by non-humanitarian actors, should be responsive to these feedbacks to improve the technologies, thus the humanitarian efforts.

The latest IFRC’s World Disasters Report proposes an innovation-evaluation-diffusion cycle for deploying humanitarian technologies. The problems and contexts related to hazards give us the opportunity for technological innovations. But, before going for wider adoption and scaling up, evaluation of these innovations is an important step to pass through. This is expected to minimize the technological risks; and possible tension between traditional humanitarians and ‘tech-savvy’, new humanitarians.

With increasing dominance of technologies in our lives, I echo Kristin Sandvik of the PRIO, are we ready to redefine humanitarian actions and the humanitarians?

Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at

Biogas in Viet Nam – ”All good… bad!”

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 by

On a recent trip to Viet Nam I had the chance to visit the house of Mrs Le Thoa, about half an hour from the capital city, Hanoi.  She had had a household biogas digester installed in about 2001 by a micro-enterprise trained by two local Vietnamese NGOs, CCRD and VACVINA as her family are small-holder arable and livestock farmers.


Cooking with biogas

As well as growing rice and vegetables her family keep between 8-10 pigs within their living compound.  Her neighbours used to complain about the terrible smell of the dung the pigs produced.  Previously she had no way to dispose of it and it quickly festered in the hot sun.  The dung attracted a lot of flies and her pigs would often get sick.  Fortunately, pig dung is highly suitable for feeding a typical biogas system.

The system cost Mrs Le Thoa about £300, as she was able to take advantage of a 30% “early bird” marketing promotion offered by the micro-entrepreneur.

Since she installed the system, she says it’s transformed her family’s life.  Her pigs are much healthier and she’s much more popular with her neighbours as the smell is greatly reduced.  In addition the flies are almost all gone so her home is a much more pleasant place.


Health and financial benefits

The biogas system produces enough clean burning gas to completely replace the smoky and unhealthy wood and coal they used to use.  Sometimes it produces excess which she uses to prepare rice wine for local community celebrations, such as weddings.

As the biogas is produced every day with no cost she saves about £6 per month on her cooking fuel bills.  In the 12 years the system’s been operating it has not needed to be repaired or maintained even once, and only takes about 15 minutes to deal with the pig’s dung, which is washed into the biogas reservoir beneath the pigsty once a day.

All-in-all she says “the biogas system is very good for me.  There is nothing bad about it.  No bad!”

After having visited her home, her spotless healthy looking pigs, and clean and smoke free kitchen on which her son made us fresh green tea, I could certainly see no reason to disagree!

News from Peru

Monday, October 21st, 2013 by

We may think of Peru as a holiday destination, and imagine scenes like Machu Pichu, or hiking in the Andes yet according to The World Bank 50% of people in Peru are poor and 20% extremely poor. Most poor people live in rural areas. This poverty is something we in the rest of the world rarely see as it doesn’t fit with the image travel companies want to promote – and to be honest people – poor or not – in their traditional dress can look amazing!

Poverty in Peru may not be ‘in your face’ but it is severe and people are in need of urgent solutions which is why I loved this case study of Practical Actions work there and the pride of the women who are now able to help their families and communities.

Doris from our Peru office writes:

The deep sound of a horn in the highlands of Cusco, that loud sound of a conch shell across the mountains, could only be a signal of one thing: on Monday 12th November in the vicinity of the Toxaccota community, forty five women from 17 communities in the Canchis province would demonstrate to 400 guests what they had learnt during twelve months of studies in the Kamayoq school organized by Practical Action for extremely poor towns situated at altitudes of more than 4000 m.a.s.l.

The Kamayoq school is where dozens of people have to opportunity to acquire technical expertise in what for them are common activities, like raising livestock or growing crops, among other things.

There would be nothing new about this fair, which has been held for the last ten years every time a promotion completes the course in the school, except for the fact that this occasion could not be more special: it is the first promotion comprised exclusively of women alpaca-raisers. Although livestock-raising is considered a natural activity for these women, they are the ones with the least opportunities for broadening their knowledge beyond the popular know-how they have inherited.

Vicentina Cahuana had arrived early from the Erca community in Sicuani to prepare the stands at the fair and provide advice to some of the nervous graduates. Her experience as one of the graduates of the very first promotion of Kamayoqs in 1997 has given her enough confidence to encourage the new students to continue practicing what they have learnt.

Peru Women Kamayoqs

She did not specialize in alpacas, as the first five promotions in the school were divided into workshops on horticulture, cattle-raising, forestation, small and large animal breeding and sanitation.

There were not many women participants when she began her studies. “We were very afraid as we were learning new things and our husbands were not in agreement with that”, she acknowledged. “That is why seeing these 45 fellow alpaca-raisers here explaining their methods and talking like experts gives me great satisfaction”, said Vicentina.

She herself remembers that she used to think she should only acquire basic knowledge. “Looking after my family was all I knew how to do”, she said. “When my husband went out to work I didn’t know how to control the flock, many animals would die and we had great losses”, she explained.

Now she recalls that when her animals were ill she had to hire a technician who was not always able to cure them. “I had animals for the sake of it, I had no idea of their value”, she explained. Now that she can identify the symptoms of certain diseases she can prevent the adverse effects on her economy.

Vicente continued helping the students and remembering how they must be feeling during their presentations. However, the confidence with which they speak and the way they express themselves is what makes them different from other women who are not Kamayoqs.

She is also well aware of the fact that responsibility and example are important parts of being a community leader. Of the 150 people trained in the schools 113 are active. The previous promotion of alpaca-raisers began with 49 but only 35 remained. “This time nobody left, in fact one more even joined us on the way”, said Vicentina. “The community and the family itself are more demanding now, but they are also more confident in our skills”, she remarked. “It is a question of each one forgetting to make excuses and continuing this work for generations”, she ended.

I think Vicente is an inspiration! I hope you do too.

World Energy Congress – great factoids, some flies and a disappointing debate on energy access.

Sunday, October 20th, 2013 by

This is my 4th and final blog from the World Energy Congress. Day 4 finally got round to a discussion of energy access, with the main morning plenary session based on a panel including Kandeh Yumkella, the CEO of the UNSE4ALL secretariat and Vijay Iyer of the World Bank. Both know their subject well but the chairing of the panel unfortunately failed to spark anything really interesting in terms of debate. Having made a bit of a token gesture to the issue the delegates then returned mostly to the sessions discussing the more profitable areas of the energy industry. The audience for the only other panel session on access (the one I was part of) was limited to under 100.

I have enjoyed my time at the Congress and learnt a lot, both about technology trends and about how the industry sees the future. It has confirmed my suspicion however that although the there’s plenty of technical ingenuity avaiable within the energy industry, the sort of leadership and revolutionary thinking that’s going to be needed to halt climate change and ensure universal energy access is not going to come from within the industry itself. Not surprising I guess as long as global policy frameworks don’t provide real commercial incentives to drive that sort of innovation.

On a lighter note, to finish up, here’s some interesting factoids I picked up during the week:

  • Most renewables (without subsidies) are now becoming cost competitive with coal and gas (exceptions are newest / least mature technologies such as solar thermal and wave power).
  • Solar pv costs have dropped 60% since 2010, while wind turbine costs have fallen by 30% since 2008. But solar and wind can be land intensive technologies (i.e. they take up space) and so are influenced heavily by the price of land.
  • Global annul subsidies for renewables amount to $60 billion; global annual subsidies for fossil fuels a colossal $500 billion.
  • Data centres (the things that Google relies on to shift our e-mail traffic round the world and host our internet browsing) now consume 2.5% of global power production!
  • 40% of world’s population lives in water stressed areas

Oh yes! And maggots are set to take over from fish! A guy called Jason Drew, who’s the CEO of a South African company called AgriProtien, made an interesting contribution to a panel on the water / food / energy nexus by talking about his company’s business breeding and selling maggots. He collects 150 tonnes of organic waste a day and feeds flies on it, converting the resultant fly eggs into 30 tonnes of protein in the form of maggots each day! The market is to replace industrial use of fishmeal for animal feed!

From ‘Poverty to Prosperity’ – the World Bank’s big new ambition

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 by

Last week I was in Washington for the World Bank’s annual meetings where I heard Richard Quest of CNN interview President Jim Yong Kim about the Bank’s new strategy and their ambition to halve global poverty by 2020 to put them on track to their big goal to end extreme poverty by 2030.

World Bank's annual meeting in Washington
World Bank’s annual meeting in Washington

Much of this progress is expected to come from economic growth and since agriculture is the foundation of many of the least developed nation’s economies it means we need to pay particular attention to how agricultural systems will be expected to ‘transform’. Practical Action knows that agriculture is critical to the rural communities who depend on it for their livelihoods and to the growing numbers of urban poor who want access to affordable and nutritious food. We have been working with colleagues in the Africa Smallholder Farmers Group to talk to teams in the World Bank and IMF about their new initiative called ‘Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture’. Last week I had opportunities to meet the teams and some of the Executive Directors in the countries where the BBA will be piloted.

Our two big ‘asks’, that the BBA focuses on the capacity needs of smallholder farmers and that it takes account of sustainability, were well received by the teams and the BBA donors we met (Gates, USAID and the Danish government). In a panel presentation I shared our view that the BBA has a flawed logic. It assumes that by improving the enabling environment around smallholder farmers then that will result in better outcomes for them and ultimately agricultural systems will be improved. We know from our on-the-ground experience that this is not the case.

I also asked the World Bank team to take another look at sustainability. Their own President has recently highlighted that sustainable agricultural systems are vitally important particularly in the context of a changing climate, more unpredictable and in some cases extreme weather. Ecosystem services that underpin agricultural production are under pressure and the BBA needs to promote and incentivise the take-up of agro-ecological farming approaches. Sustainability can’t be an ‘add-on’ to the BBA and there is a strong case to mainstream indicators on sustainability across all areas of the BBA– ultimately this will make the systems more efficient and resilient.

Torrential rain in Washington DC

Torrential rain in Washington DC

Outside the World Bank building the US Capital Washington DC was struggling to function, the government in shut-down and torrential rain causing gridlock in transport systems. Yet inside I found people from different countries and agencies wanting to make things work differently in some of the most challenging situations in the globe. Transforming agricultural systems to benefit the most marginalised does not have a simple ‘roadmap’ for success. My experience last week was that there are policy makers, World Bank staff, donors and NGOs keen to work together to make this an initiative that could be part of ending poverty by 2030.

World Energy Congress: The future for sustainable energy – not a dilemma but a trilemma

Thursday, October 17th, 2013 by

This is my 3rd blog from the World Energy Congress in Korea. Wednesday’s theme was what the World Energy Council calls the ‘Energy Trilemma’, the need to find the right balance between 3 conflicting goals  energy security (ensuring enough energy to meet today’s and future demands), environmental sustainability (managing carbon emmissions amongst other things) and energy equity (the accessibility and affordability of energy supply across the population). WEC publishes an annual report on this topic which contains, amongst other things, an interesting traffic light index which shows how well individual countries do against each of the 3 elements of the trilemma. Surprisingly the UK is 5th out of 129 countries with green traffic lights on all 3 elements of the trilemma. Developing countries generally do not fare well on the basis of this index and largely populate the bottom half of the table with a lot of red. Peru, ranked 45  does best out of all the countries we work in; Zimbabwe worst, ranked 129 out of 129.

The report, or at least the executive summary version, is worth a quick read as it explores 10 recommended actions to help cope with the trilemma. Actually I found the material in the 3 boxes in the executive summary version the most interesting part as it reflects issues that seem to come up again and again during conversations this week:

  1. The need for international standards to drive improvements in efficiency in consumer electrical products,
  2. The important role pension fund investment has to play in the energy sector and what needs to change to provide the pension funds the security they need to invest at the level required.
  3. The critical importance of R&D into improving large scale storage (very big batteries to you and me) in enabling the renewable energy industry to take a real leap forward, particularly in terms of helping national grids cope with a significantly increased proportion of their generation capacity being intermittent (i.e. dependent on the sun shining or the wind blowing).

Just because we can exploit nature, doesn’t mean we should

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 by

Were you horrified by Simon’s blog on the World Energy Congress? I was!

The energy industry is putting forward two scenarios, the first seeing a 30% increase in global energy consumption, the second an approximate 80%. Both scenarios leave huge numbers of poor people without access to decent energy – the rich remain profligate, the poor without?

Last night I put the scenarios from the World Energy Congress report to the panel of eminent speakers at the Royal Society and All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change meeting. The response I got was twofold:

  1. These would be included within the business-as-usual scenario (is that reassuring?!)
  2. From Professor Tim Palmer, University of Oxford: ‘The IPCC’s job is to assess the scientific literature. It’s quite a conservative document in many respects.’

I think I was a bit shocked or maybe I’m a bit naive … Is it just me that finds the idea that the world is working on a major increase in carbon-based energy surprising?

We need to work together with nature and respect our planetary boundaries. Just because we can exploit nature doesn’t mean we should.

Poor people are feeling the impact of climate change first and hardest. As the impact increases, they will be the least protected – I read today of an asylum seeker in New Zealand arguing his case on the basis of climate change making his island home untenable. The judge found his argument tenable, but outside the criteria on which asylum was allowed.

I’d love the climate scientists to talk to the energy planners. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a joined up vision of our future – even is its one that scares us?

Is scientific objectivity morally wrong?

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 by

Is scientific objectivity morally wrong? In other words is it a cop out?

I’ve just attended a meeting of The Royal Society and the All Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, at which hugely eminent scientists – Professor this and Lord that – presented the findings of the 5th Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The truth is we’ve heard it all before – and while in scientific circles the evidence has become yet more conclusive: now at 95% for anthropogenic climate change – what it tells us, we already know. The world is warming quickly, rainfall patterns are changing – and the change is probably irreversible. The question is how far we go before we as a world decide to take action?

Talking about Bangladesh, Professor Tim Palmer, professor in climate physics at the University of Oxford, said ‘By any stretch of the imagination this is going to put a major stress on humanity. The impact could be devastating.’

Yet all of the scientists there agreed the need for impartiality – the scientific methodology. Not having opinions beyond the scientific facts.

Lord Oxburgh told a story of going to a meeting a few years ago with 80 ‘captains’ of US industry and how they were turned off from tackling climate change by the scientists’ love of the unknown. The business people wanted to know facts and plan what to do. The scientists wanted to tell them what they needed to explore further. The meeting ended in disarray and no action.

The impact of climate change is close to my heart because I’ve seen how poor communities are already feeling its impact. I’m going to Bangladesh in two weeks, and sitting at the meeting thinking about the people we work with, somehow the impartiality, the studied objectivity seemed wrong. How can we say Bangladesh will be devastated, and not apply moral values to the impact on millions of people? How can we not argue with passion the need for change and start working towards solutions?

flooding in Bangladesh

I love science, the curiosity and solutions-focus. This studied impartiality is a trend, I understand that it’s in response to the furore that surrounded the last IPCC report and ‘email gate’, but even so in my view, it’s wrong.

Yesterday in the Atlee Suite Lord Oxburgh, referring to the way the IPCC reports are ‘approved’ by government before they are published, dared to use the word appeasement!

It’s probably not a word I’d use – I’d paraphrase Fritz Schumacher and quote Elvis Presley: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action’.

No part of our society is morally neutral – science, for all its stringent processes and methodologies, needs to take a stand. To talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.

By the way, the scientists were a hugely impressive and personable bunch. Lord Oxburgh as the Chair was most outspoken and thought provoking. For all my ‘please take a stand’ demands, they are doing a great job and would be brilliant to work with. I just want such brilliant people to engage more.

And finally from Lord Oxburgh: ‘We have to have more articulate, user friendly speakers who are actually selling the product.’ Exactly!

Did you know that access to science is a human right? I didn’t until very recently. With this in mind, how do you think scientists should behave, and should they focus on the problem (now well understood) or the solution?

Or is that a leading question?

World Energy Congress – Where’s the revolution in energy industry thinking?

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 by

Continuing my series of blogs from the World Energy Congress in Korea, Tuseday’s theme at the confrenece was all about identifying business opportunities in the exploitation of resources and the development of energy technologies. Once again though truly revolutionary thinking to address climate change and energy poverty seemed to be strangely missing. Two examples illustrate this:

Firstly, there is a lot of talk at this conference about the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States and the possibility of it being replicated in other countries, including China. In chemical terms shale gas is similar to that produced from the North Sea. It is liberated from rock strata by a process known as ‘fracking’, where water is injected under high pressure through boreholes to fracture the rock and allow the gas to be released through the cracks formed. It’s a controversial technique that can involve real environmental challenges as it needs vast amounts of water which, once flushed through the well, is itself an environmental hazard that needs careful disposal. Depending on who you talk to here, shale gas is either a revolution that will make the US energy independent in a couple of years and provide it with cheap energy for a century or it’s just another bubble that is about to burst (at the moment shale gas comes with some shale oil attached which keeps costs artificially low; the shale oil production will finish quite quickly though and once that happens the cost of extracting the gas alone will rise dramatically).

A second example would be the session I attended on Tuesday morning called ‘New frontiers: what is the next game changer?’ I was hoping to hear something about renewables, off grid solutions or new applications of smart grid technology. Instead I got a lot of information about ‘unconventional oil’ – shale gas, shale oil, oil exploration in the artic and something called methane hydrates (for more information on the latter see here). Apparently there is 4 times more oil locked in shales alone than there are left in conventional sources, which leads to the frightening (if you are worried about climate change) claim that the idea we might be reaching Peak Oil (the point at which consumption exceeds the rate of new discoveries and oil prices start to spiral) no longer applies. According to many speakers here, Peak Oil no longer an issue as there is at least 100 years left for coal oil and gas when you include unconventional sources.

The problem with all of these ‘solutions’ to the looming global energy crisis is that, apart from the obvious environmental issues associated with each of the extraction and production processes themselves, they are all about extending the life of hydrocarbons and our dependency on fossil fuels. Discussion of renewables is not entirely absent here, but the level of enthusiasm for innovation in renewables doesn’t seem to be anywhere near  the level of enthusiasm for innovation in unconventional fossil fuels. The mantra repeated over and over again here is that the world will still be heavily dependent on fossil fuels in 2050, however much we invest in renewables. I can’t help wondering how much this mantra is dependent on the current subsidy regime. As someone pointed out during a session, at the moment the world provides around $500 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuels and only about one tenth as much ($60 billion) on subsidising renewables. What if we reversed this and made subsidies for renewables 10 times greater than those for fossile fuels? Would we still be heavily dependent on oil and gas in 2050 then?

Maybe I’m just not selecting the right sessions but from what I’ve seen in the first two days I do not detect the sort of revolution in energy industry thinking that’s going to be necessary to address climate change or achieve universal access to energy.