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  • What next for Climate Change?


    December 3rd, 2018

    Today, at the climate conference Sir David Attenborough didn’t mince his words when he said that civilisation will collapse if humanity doesn’t take action on global warming. He had obviously read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5oC which documents the dire state of the global planetary system, something that has been picked up by mainstream media as a warning that we have 12 years left to save planet earth.

    “Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years, Climate Change”

    Here in Katowice I can understand why he made such an impassioned plea. It really has been 24 years since the first gathering of climate negotiators took place following the ratification of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  And yes it has been three years since the Paris Agreement was signed heralding a new era in climate action and global optimism. However, since Paris a lot has changed and not only has the development environment become more contested, but also the consequences of global warming have become more evident. It is now clear that it’s not only the poorest and most vulnerable who will face the dire consequences of unbridled climate change, but also the people living in the developed world as testified by the recent forest fires that have overnight swept away people’s homes and their communities.

    So what are the key issues on the table and why is the Katowice climate COP so important?  The Paris Agreement which enters into force next year, heralds a new era of global action to tackle climate change. The Paris Agreement outlines in separate articles clear action on Mitigation, Adaptation and Loss and Damage and provides guidance on the global cooperation required to provide the finance, capacity building and technology needed to deliver the agreement.

    Thus the Katowice COP is the forum at which the rules for the Paris Agreement will be agreed.  The great thing about these rules is that they are applied to all countries equally regardless of their contribution or otherwise to the problem in the first place. But equally the rules need to recognise that not all countries have the systems and processes in place to monitor their contribution to tackle climate change from the outset and therefore the rules will recognise different capacities to implement and be applied accordingly. This flexibility creates an incentive for developed countries to support developing countries put these systems in place enabling genuine global contribution to tackle the problem.

    Secondly, following the publication of the dire warnings contained in the IPCC report this COP is an opportunity to ramp up ambition. It is clear that under current commitments the planet is on track for at least 3oC of warming. Importantly the IPCC report highlights just how much worse things will get with each increase in global temperatures so as Sir David Attenborough pointed out today, now is a great time to review existing promises and for each country to increase their commitments, to ramp up their ambition.

    Finally, nothing happens without political will and the resources required. So this COP is a great opportunity for world leaders to make the commitments necessary for the green transition and for developed countries to commit the resources, technology and skills to support the developing countries accelerate action to adapt to changing climates and start to deliver the support necessary to address Loss and Damage.

    It is worthwhile to remember that the brunt of climate change will be felt first and hardest by the people least responsible for the problem in the first place. So isn’t it right that the developed world should step up to the plate and help their transition to a more resilient and sustainable future? Surely such a transition would have dividends for us all? As these new consumers of products would reinvigorate stalling global markets, their future security would reduce the drivers for migration and displacement, and the sense of global community will reignite the fires of global cooperation and reciprocity.

    So will Katowice a city in the heart of the Polish coal industry deliver a successful outcome? A lot has changed in the last few weeks following the publication of the IPCC report. I am hopeful that the planetary elder statesmen of Europe, India and China will step into the void created by the absence of the US and nurture the negotiations onto the path necessary for a successful outcome, watch this space.

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  • The Global Distributors Collective: Tapping the Untapped Potential of Last Mile Distributors


    November 22nd, 2018

    Written by the GDC partners

           

    Co-written / endorsed by leading last mile distribution companies

           

         

     

    This week sees the launch of the Global Distributors Collective (GDC), a new initiative to support last mile distributors in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This article from the founding partners – Practical Action, Hystra and BoP Innovation Center – explains why the GDC seeks to make last mile distribution the first priority.

    Last mile distributors are on the frontline of the fight to ensure no-one gets left behind. Sometimes they sell one kind of product but often they sell a range that can include solar lights, cookstoves, water purifiers, nutrition products and productive assets such as water pumps. Most companies selling these kinds of products focus on wealthier or more densely populated areas. For example despite the high risk appetite of leading impact investor Acumen, just 38% of their off-grid energy companies’ customers live in poverty (below $3.10 per day). In contrast, last mile distributors are often the only companies selling to the poorest customer segments, in risky and remote areas. There are thousands of them operating across the globe. No-one knows exactly how many exist or how many customers they are reaching. Understanding and shining a light on the sector is one of our key goals and we will be publishing a State of the Sector report in 2019.

    Last mile distributors have unique strengths, but face unique challenges. They know their communities better than anyone, and have strong local networks. This makes them exceptional salespeople and service providers. Distributors also create income generation opportunities not only through the products they sell, but also by recruiting and training local sales agents and retailers. However, they have to do far more than just sell products: they must raise awareness, change behaviour, generate demand, build routes to market, figure out logistics, train their salesforce, offer in-house consumer financing, and provide after-sales service. They particularly struggle to build capacity and to access finance.

    Last mile distributors have been largely excluded from the financing schemes that have driven the growth of larger companies. Donors and investors have tended to focus more on technology innovation than supply chain innovation, and to focus on one product category, rather than working across a range[i]. The more basic products that distributors sell, such as solar lights, are often not considered to have a ‘big enough’ impact,[ii] despite the fact that they are often the only products that poorer customers can afford, and deliver profound cost savings. There is a perception that the unit economics of last mile distribution ‘don’t work’, but leading last mile distributors such as Essmart and Pollinate Energy have proven break even at a local operation level. Continued innovation – exemplified by the unbundling of the pay-as-you-go sector and the emergence of more and more specialist intermediaries that seek to help distributors succeed – is addressing capacity constraints, enhancing access to finance and improving the unit economics of last mile distribution[iii].

    Even when donors and investors have wanted to support last mile distribution, they have lacked the tools to do so. Grant funds and concessional financing facilities in the sector are designed to ‘pick winners’ and minimise risk. Last mile distributors are less likely to have the strong track record, or collateral, that most funders are looking for[iv]. Funders are put off by the higher transaction costs involved in doing a larger number of smaller deals, and by the sector’s relatively high risk profile. In off-grid solar, for example, funding is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite of international, vertically integrated companies. From 2012 to 2017, just 10 companies attracted 87% of the investment coming into the off-grid solar sector[v].

    Last mile distributors are finally starting to get the support they need at firm level. With the right support, they have the potential to increase efficiency, build capacity and boost overall performance – selling more products, providing better service, and increasing impact. Companies such as Angaza Design recognised this early on and are building specialised technology and logistics solutions for distributors. Pioneering investors such as VentureBuilder, SIMA Funds, Persistent Energy, Shell Foundation and the DFID-Unilever Transform initiative are finding new ways to invest in, and build the capacity of, last mile distributors. Increasingly there is interest in supporting an emerging ‘2nd wave’ of African and Asian-owned companies that focus on sales and distribution whilst outsourcing design, manufacturing, software and financing[vi].

    There is also a huge opportunity to enhance performance across the last mile distribution sector, through collective approaches that improve the visibility, interconnectedness and strength of the sector. Distributors often work in silos, reinventing the wheel with limited opportunities to learn from each other and collaborate. Collective approaches can address this by providing support to the sector as a whole, rather than to a small number of pre-selected firms. Through helping distributors unlock economies of scale, access information, share best practices and learnings, build capacity and test new ideas, we will help last mile distributors save time and money, adopt new business practices and form new business partnerships. We will pilot a centralised purchasing platform, run learning and collaboration events, and conduct open-source innovation pilots. We will shine a light on the sector by generating and sharing insight through a State of the Sector report, and build its collective voice through enhancing distributor representation at key events and forums.

    Practical Action, Hystra and BoP Innovation Center are proud to officially launch the Global Distributors Collective. The GDC is a collective of last mile distributors, which has been designed and built by last mile distributors. We are dedicated to helping our members reach more underserved customers, so that life-changing products can be made affordable and available to all. With the support of partners and funders, including DFID and P4G, we are committed to building a thriving last mile distribution ecosystem and welcome partnerships with those who share our goal. We invite last mile distribution companies to sign up as members to access GDC’s support services and funding opportunities. Contact us for more information at GDC@practicalaction.org.uk.

     

    [i] Last Mile Solutions for Low-Income Customers, Shell Foundation, October 2018

    [ii] In the case of energy, for example, the development community is increasingly focused on Tier 2 energy access and above, which excludes basic lighting and cell phone charging.

    [iii] Last Mile Solutions for Low-Income Customers, Shell Foundation, October 2018

    [iv] Last Mile Solutions for Low-Income Customers, Shell Foundation, October 2018

    [v] Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Report, Dalberg Advisors and Lighting Global, January 2018

    [vi] Last Mile Solutions for Low-Income Customers, Shell Foundation, October 2018; Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Report 2018, Dalberg and Lighting Global, 2018

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  • Chief Minister inaugurates Dhenkanal’s pioneering faecal sludge treatment plant, Odisha, India

    26th October 2018 marked a landmark moment for the town of Dhenkanal, with the ceremonial inauguration of the town’s faecal sludge treatment plant.

    The ceremony was presided over by the State’s Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik (the elected head of the state government). In a true sign of India’s digital age, the Minister inaugurated several such sites simultaneously, connecting via video conferencing to each during a national faecal sludge and septage management workshop held in the state capital, Bhubaneswar. At each site, an event was held attended by all the stakeholders involved in the project.

    We began this work in 2015, when at the time, the urban sanitation situation in Odisha was very poor. The 2011 census found that 35% of urban households in the state did not have toilets, the 2nd worst situation of all India’s states. There was also no provision at all within the state for the safe treatment of faecal sludge, and most urban areas did not have a sewerage system (baring parts of four major towns).

    A year ago we reported on the ‘trade-offs and choices’ in urban sanitation projects, and some of the challenges we have faced in our work to improve the sanitation situation in three towns in India’s Odisha State. It is a huge testament to the project team to have got to this point where the first of three treatment plants we have planned has been inaugurated and is ready to become fully operational.

    The work in Dhenkanal was initiated in 2015. The treatment plant is part of a wider set of activities and has been strongly backed by all local stakeholders, with the state government providing the municipality with new vehicles to help increase rates of pit emptying. It forms an important pillar of the city sanitation plan that the project also supported. We have also supported the construction of community toilets in slums, raised awareness of sanitation and hygiene issues, and built the capacity of local and community stakeholders. We are aiming for a viable end-to-end solution for the safe management of faecal sludge across the town.

    Faecal sludge treatment plant under construction in Dhenkanal

     

    Completed faecal sludge treatment plant, Dhenkanal

     

    Municipal vehicle delivering sludge to the faecal sludge treatment plant, Dhenkanal

    The work is driven under Practical Action’s Project Nirmal, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and in partnership with the Centre for Policy Research, Arghyam, the respective Urban Local Bodies and the State Government of Odisha.

    As a result of these efforts a recent national sanitation survey placed Odisha among the top-performing states for its efforts to achieve Open Defecation Free status, and make progress on sustainable sanitation more widely.

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  • The change we want to see for urban slum dwellers


    September 25th, 2018

    Last week the World Bank released an update of its ‘What a Waste’ report. It highlights how over 90% of waste in low-income countries is openly dumped or burned. This affects everyone, but impacts poor people the most. Rubbish is rarely effectively collected in their neighbourhoods. It causes pollution (including 5% of global climate change emissions), acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other diseases and blocks toilets and drains. It can exacerbate the impacts of flooding. Landslides of waste dumps have buried homes. The situation is only likely to get worse as the combination of urbanization and population growth, together with growing consumption, will lead to a 70% increase in global waste in the next 30 years.

    The release of this report coincides with the meeting of our global leadership team, and with re-vitalising of a crucial internal hub drawn from expert staff from across the world, to provide greater leadership and collaboration in our actions.

    Practical Action has been focusing on supporting urban poor communities for nearly 20 years in our programmes in Africa and South Asia. Our teams on the ground have witnessed these changes first hand, and have built up expertise over time on how to work effectively in these contexts with multiple stakeholders: helping slum communities to ensure their voices are heard, and local authorities to be better able to respond.

    Our work over the last few years has focused on basic services: water, sanitation, hygiene and solid waste management. This is because we know that improvements in these issues makes a dramatic difference to the day-to-day realities of women and men. It helps them live healthier lives, less burdened by the struggle of inadequate services and unpleasant, dangerous conditions. It helps restore dignity and ensure they feel included as part of the city. But also it can be a ‘gateway’ to helping them go on to solve other problems they face. We know that there are challenges for urban Local Authorities, who can be poorly staffed and resourced, struggle with effective community engagement, and lack knowledge of the latest appropriate technologies, financing mechanisms or ideas for partnerships.

    On the positive side, the existing informal sector already plays a huge role in delivering essential services in sanitation, water supply and rubbish collection and recycling (as work by WIEGO shows). The World Bank report suggests there are 15 million informal waste pickers in the world, and that if supported to organize this work can be transformed to provide decent livelihoods and support municipalities in delivering a good service. They can be at the heart of the circular economy, and models of green and inclusive growth.

    Practical Action’s work has strong, concrete evidence:

    Linking our areas of work

    Practical Action is also increasingly trying to see the links between different areas of our work – for example linking our work on solid waste management with energy (biogas technologies), or with our work on improving soil organic matter (composting of faecal sludge and kitchen waste).

    In our global strategy, we remain committed to improving the lives of urban poor communities. We are aiming to support the achievement of the SDG goals of universal access to these services in the towns and cities we are working in across Kenya, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

    Our unique approach works with existing systems and stakeholders, puts poor people at the heart of everything we do, and identifies how the right kinds of technologies can be part of positive change. In a fast-changing world, we need to be agile to respond as these challenges grow. We need to find new ways to walk with some of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities through engaging positively with the private sector, and inspiring local authorities and national departments to be pro-poor in their thinking, actions and financing.

    Internally we are committed to doing even more to promote peer-to-peer learning to challenge and inspire staff as they discuss compelling stories, exchange learning, plan together, and gather our evidence to engage effectively in national and international policy dialogues.

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  • My kind of heroes … the unsung WASHeroes of Gulariya

    “An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.”
    Ernst F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

    Monday, 25 May 2015 was a memorable day in Gulariya – the day the town declared itself ‘Open Defecation Free.’ This milestone was achieved through the construction of more than 11,000 toilets. A huge crowd gathered to enjoy music and dancing. Faces beamed with joy, as everybody came together to celebrate the fruits of their hard work. It was hard to believe that just seven months before only half the households here had toilets and people went to the bushes or river banks for open defecation.

    I met my kind of heroes on visits to Gulariya during Practical Action’s Safa and Swastha projects there. I got to know them – their characters, their tone of voice, and their situations that gave me the opportunity to dream of La La Land.

    The conversations, the twists and the plots – the highs and lows made me feel like a small boy boasting and jumping around.  I gathered their practices, learning and wisdom as real knowledge to share with others.

    The Mask of Zorro

    This hero, a down-to-earth family man, puts on a home-made mask containing the spirit of  sanitation. He becomes a natural and confident leader which allows him to lead a team at a plastic recycling facility. Under the mask, he can explain the various processes of faecal sludge treatment plant components. He easily explains the sludge drying bed, what it does and how it functions.

    The sludge drying bed separates solid and liquid part using sand and gravel layers, solid part gets dried in top of sand and liquid part goes to the tank (anaerobic baffled reactor)” he says.

     

     

     

    Wonder Woman

    My hero, is full of doubts about what to do with unusable plastics. But she pushes on, when others would have quit. She still separates plastics which have no commercial value.  She wrestles with her own image to stop being a hero, doing her best in the current circumstances.

     

     

     

    The Filter-Man (Khamba Pd. Gharti)

    This hero is a normal man who became an entrepreneur by chance.  He became involved in the biosand filter business after learning basic construction techniques. He started his own business named “Kritag Raj Biosand Filter Industry”.  This hero is a cheerful character and there is a charm hiding under his rough exterior, full of joy and hard work.

     

     

    The Entrepreneur (Nilam Chaudhary)

    The entrepreneur hero is full of contradictions. She operates an inclusive public  toilet facility, and was assigned to operate this facility by her husband after he signed an agreement with the municipality office. Being a housewife, she was forced by circumstances to change.  Although initially afraid she is now very proud of her work.

     

     

     

    The Ring-Man (Ayodhya Pd. Godiya)

    This experienced mason started working at the age of thirteen. He started his own ring construction business after learning about the sanitation business in couple of training programmes. He had had his doubts, fearing that his plans might not work. But he kept pushing on, providing rings for toilet construction and has helped his own municipality become open defecation free.  My hero, got recognition from the municipality and his children feel proud of the work he has done.

    So tell me about your hero … who is he/she?

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  • World Water Week 2018: highlights from an urban WASH fanatic

    Practical Action Publishing was in the forefront for us this year at World Water Week in Stockholm. The event is a key point in the WASH calendar with 3,700 delegates over a packed week of discussion and learning.

    Water a cross-cutting issue for all our programmes

    Our exhibition stand was a reflection of the depth and breadth of Practical Action’s engagement in water and sanitation issues across the organisation. We featured a range of Practical Action Publishing materials from manuals, to experience-sharing books, to more weighty academic texts. We included materials from the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance and our Urban WASH and Waste programme. We were joined by Nazmul Chowdhury from Bangladesh, whose attendance was sponsored by the Securing Water for Food programme, featuring our work on sandbar cropping. I was delighted that the opening plenary featured aQysta and their river-powered irrigation pump which we helped pilot in Nepal under our energy programme.

    The materials we featured and the team of staff were a small illustration of the ‘One Practical Action’ we are aiming for in our global strategy.

     

    New materials launched with high-profile partners and authors

    Practical Action Publishing were featuring three books in particular:

    Faecal Sludge and Septage Treatment. Written by Kevin Taylor, a world expert with many decades of experience and described as, “one of the most pragmatic and experienced engineers I have ever encountered” by a key adviser from the World Bank. His book is set to become THE go-to text for people designing the details of appropriate, low-cost treatment plants, and was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank.

    Scaling up Community Led Total Sanitation: From Village to Nation, by Kamal Kar, a founding father of the CLTS movement. He charts what he sees as the next stage for the movement as we move to SDG 6 and the global elimination of open defecation. The book will be available from January 2019.

    Associated with this, we featured and promoted Innovations for Urban Sanitation: Adapting Community-led Approaches written with the CLTS Knowledge Hub at Sussex University and PLAN International, and drawing on innovative experiences from Practical Action’s work in Kenya and Nepal. It is a guide for practitioners wanting to adapt CLTS methods to work in urban contexts.

    All of these books are or will be available FREE to DOWNLOAD in perpetuity. The World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have ordered 1,800 copies of the Faecal Sludge book for distribution through their networks globally. And they can be purchased at very reasonable rates.

    As our content development manager Clare Tawney pointed out, the Faecal Sludge book is an illustration of what Publishing aims for in all our work: to provide high quality materials useful to practitioners as much as academics, widely available and distributed, for free or at affordable prices.

    Our promotional push including on social media resulted in a spike in page hits and downloads. My twitter account @lucykstevens had 13,500 impressions, 21 new followers and 57 re-tweets.

    Insights for Urban WASH programming

    While the conference was very diverse, I was following strands and networking with like-minded organisations on global trends in the WASH sector: learning about the state of play on approaches, financing and policy. I was reflecting on the contribution our own projects and programmes make to this, and the extent to which the needs of the urban poor are being addressed. I spent an intense three days listening, discussing, contributing and networking with old friends and new: partners, funders and policy-makers.

    My personal highlights

    1. My week started with a ‘Morning of Systems’ hearing from the partners from ‘Agenda for Change’. This set the tone for the week as the WASH sector seeks to move from delivering taps and toilets to changing the official, government-led systems and capacities which will see these things delivered ‘for everyone for ever’.
    2. Reflections from DFID’s policy team that the tide is turning. Policy-makers have heard and understood the urgency of addressing the needs of the urban poor, and there may even be a danger of forgetting the needs of rural communities. The AfDB is launching a new Africa Urban Infrastructure Fund, and AMCOW includes ‘safely managed’ sanitation which they understand as dealing with on-site urban sanitation in their strategy to 2030. The question remains (as stressed by SWA chief Catarina de Albuquerque) how to make the best use of available resources.
    3. Insights into the continuing fragmentation and dysfunction of parts of the system. From Uganda we heard how well civil society has been organised, but that connections are still not always made between Ministries. In many countries responsibilities for sanitation are still separate from water, and those for sewered sanitation separate from on-site sanitation. Cases where on-site sanitation is taken on as the mandate of a city-level utility are celebrated as a rare exception.
    4. The hilarious interference of pathogens (willing participants kitted out in bright t-shirts) at WSUP’s session on faecal pathways, reminding us of the routes to exposure (the sanipath tool is useful) and the importance of multi-pronged strategies to reducing this, including the on-going role of good hand and food hygiene.
    5. The growing confidence and maturity of container-based sanitation service providers, with good cross-learning happening. We need to think more seriously about how these services could be part of a diverse range of options available to households.
    6. WSUP’s useful framework for the enabling environment for urban sanitation which helped to crystallise much of the good work Practical Action is already doing in this area.

    What was missing?

    • Very limited discussion on hygiene. Few sessions featuring it in the search function of the app.
    • A disappointingly low level of discussion on gender issues in the mainstream sessions. There seems to have been almost no attempt to understand what the gender issues might be in pit emptying and faecal sludge treatment services, and it rarely comes up in discussions.

    There remains much for us to do as Practical Action and at times I felt frustrated by our lack of resource, profile and global reach compared to other larger or more specialist organisations.

    However, I left the conference feeling encouraged that the work we are doing is in tune with current debates in the WASH sector. I will now be better able to guide our future programmes, and help our project teams discuss their work in ways which chime with current thinking. Our work is not at a huge scale, but it is innovate, linked well to existing systems and service providers, and adds new insights to the body of practice globally.

     

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  • Why is Raspberry Pi perfect for building flood resilience?


    August 20th, 2018

    Could a palm-sized $10 computer become a life-saving tool against disasters and climate change? In this blog, Rob Mullins (Raspberry Pi co-founder) and Miguel Arestegui (Disaster Risk Reduction specialist at Practical Action) discuss how the Raspberry Pi micro-computer is building flood resilience in Peru and how it could help us in the future.

    A Raspberry Pi micro-computer. Source: www.acadecap.org

    A Raspberry Pi micro-computer. Source: www.acadecap.org

    Creator meets user

    Raspberry Pi was founded by Rob Mullins and five other friends in 2009 at Cambridge University. Rob and Eben Upton (now CEO of Raspberry Pi trading) met to discuss “how applicants for computer science had fallen sharply and how those applying had less experience than in the past. The solution, we thought, was to build a low-cost computer. The idea was that this would be something that children could own, experiment and create with and build into exciting projects.”

    Since then, more than 15million Raspberry Pi computers have been manufactured and it has become the go-to technology for creating low-cost, yet powerful, solutions to local problems.

    Miguel Arestegui and his team have used the technology to adapt and improve flood early warning systems in Peru

    “As part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance we’re working in communities [in Chosica, Peru] where we have the problem not only of floods but also of rapid debris flow”. 

    Without enough warning, communities cannot escape the danger. Although national warning systems do exist, Miguel explains, “There is a strong distrust of flood forecasts, because we have a serious lack of historical data in this area”. An effective local solution was clearly needed.

    Miguel’s team discovered that the “Raspberry Pi Foundation has this weather station kit  for high schools, and that gave us an idea: what if we tackle this need…[by] adapting or developing this sort of early warning system?” 

    Miguel and Practical Action then worked with the community and local government to implement a warning system controlled by monitoring stations based on Raspberry Pi. The micro-computers receive and process information on rainfall, soil moisture and river water levels, and take pictures. This information then feeds into platforms that issue alerts.

    An ‘end-to-end’ early warning system composed of four components, including monitoring which in Chosica is controlled by Raspberry Pi. Source: Practical Action

    An ‘end-to-end’ early warning system composed of four components, including monitoring which in Chosica is controlled by Raspberry Pi. Source: Practical Action

    From toy box to tool box

    So what is it about the Raspberry Pi that makes it the perfect flood resilience tool?

    It’s open-source

    “The fact that the board is used by so many people means it’s become a standard component” says Rob. Plus, because all those users are creating projects with open-source code “other people can build on them and improve them”. This means there’s a community of people and experience to kick-start new projects.

    Miguel’s experience demonstrates this advantage: “We completely constructed this [early warning system] with the community. The open-source code was the building block that helped us complete this in […] just over one year. It would have been impossible if we were working on our own.” 

    It’s adaptable

    Because users have full access to Raspberry Pi codes without commercial constraints, the technology can be tailored perfectly to fit need. “People are able to use computers as tools” says Rob, “they’re able to produce the solutions themselves rather than having to go to someone else to provide the implementation. This stimulates local solutions to local problems.”  

    For example, in Chosica the previous early warning system was controlled by nation-wide commercially-owned software, which made local-scale changes impossible. But Miguel explains that because the new system was based on Raspberry Pi adaptations could be made based on local knowledge, for example “to take data more often than what technical studies would suggest. This was later found to be necessary based on the short lead time for these rapid events, stressing the importance of local memory in data scarce regions. The fact that these technologies can be locally adapted makes them good for building resilience, which goes way beyond isolated preparedness measures.”

    It’s low-cost but not low-tech

    “Previously, low-cost implied low-tech” says Miguel. To have both high-tech and low-cost “is providing a new platform that could help link the gap between local needs in developing countries and the usual high cost of equipment that hinders National Scientific Institutions to address those needs”. 

    Rob agrees, he has seen that “there is enormous scope to…replicate an expensive and very specialised system using something like Raspberry Pi to produce something that is technically almost as good, but using a very low-cost solution.”  

    Miguel Arestegui with first version monitoring station controlled by Raspberry Pi in Chosica, Peru. Source: Practical Action

    Miguel Arestegui with first version monitoring station controlled by Raspberry Pi in Chosica, Peru. Source: Practical Action

    The future of risk, resilience and Raspberry Pi

    How do our experts think the technology will change in the future, and how could this make an even better tool in the fight against climate change?

    Better hardware

    Rob, as the hardware expert, thinks the next few years will bring “ultra-low power computers that can be used in these monitoring applications. Also computers that eventually just biodegrade and don’t have the impact on the environment that they do today.”

    Better connectivity

    Miguel sees a future where more and more of us are connected to the internet. “Right now there are some constraints with connectivity that I think are going to start changing quite rapidly. [This] is going to provide so many tools for people in vulnerable situations”. 

    Changing the way people can share their own knowledge will help them cope with climate change. According to Miguel, “in climate vulnerable areas there is a critical problem in the lack of connection between the impacts of climate change and the amount of data you have in those areas. I think that these technologies can help the role of local information that communities themselves can provide to address this gap.”

    Better networks

    Rob says “even though the community is very strong I still think there are opportunities to build better networks, for example between universities in different countries”.

    But Miguel predicts better networks may also need to exist at higher levels. “I am curious to see if we arrive at some sort of standardisation of these open-source and decentralised initiatives. It is useful to adapt development to local contexts but I think to scale-up these initiatives and make them reliable and robust enough to take to high-level discussions, a level of standardisation is needed.” 

    Local volunteer Anghelo Dueñas with the latest version of the Raspberry Pi based monitoring station. Source: Practical Action

    Local volunteer Anghelo Dueñas with the latest version of the Raspberry Pi based monitoring station. Source: Practical Action

    To discover more solutions for building flood resilience, or to find other information and guidance visit The Flood Resilience Portal

    Or find out more about Chosica’s flood early warning system in this technical brief, or this 360 degree video 

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  • The rescuers


    July 31st, 2018

    One of my (not-so-pleasant) vivid memories, is witnessing overflowing sludge from the septic tank at our home when I  was studying at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). My mother, one of the smartest ladies I have ever seen, just rushed to the nearby refugee camp, known as ‘Geneva camp’ in search of rescuers. It was getting dark, and we were desperately waiting for the arrival of the rescuers to salvage us from the mess and to relieve us from the sight of utter disgust at the entrance of our home.

    Finally a troop of six people came with their ‘equipment’. Being a student of civil engineering, I was eagerly waiting to see the ‘operation’ with my own eyes. Despite my mother’s red-eyes and gesture of annoyance, I kept on observing with a hope of being a (devoted) engineer.

    They brought with them the necessary equipment – some ropes and buckets together with a drum full of (so-called) chemical. They started by pouring the chemical from the mini drum which was simply kerosene. They mixed kerosene with water to dilute the sludge inside the septic tank to bring it to an optimum consistency. They tied the buckets to ropes and started collecting the semi-solid sludge from the septic tank by dipping the bucket into the tank, and then carried that to the nearby open drain and dumped it manually in the shadow of the darkness of the night. The operation continued for hours and finally shut down early in the morning at the cost of some few hundred Takas after some heavy haggling with my mother.

    I had almost forgotten that memory in the midst of so many lovely and lively events of my life. When I entered my professional career, I discovered that many things have changed over time, in terms of technology, lifestyle and what not, but the story of the rescuers didn’t change much!

    I started my development career after switching from hardcore civil engineering and devoted myself to work on the waste value chain. At some point of time, I wanted to know how septic tanks were emptied and came to know that the same practice prevailed even after two decades!

    I continued my professional journey with the aim of turning ‘waste into resources.’ While working on the ‘waste value chain’, I found, people who are associated with managing waste as their day to day business, are the most neglected, deprived and vulnerable in society.

    After two decades, my rusty memory again came to light. I noticed that we are using our toilets every day and our faecal waste is deposited into septic tanks. When these septic tanks are full and start overflowing creating nuisance, only then do we look for some untouchable sweeper communities to clean up the mess. And they appear as our ‘Rescuers’ to clean it manually using the same primitive technology – a rope and few buckets.

    Unfortunately, even in the twenty-first century, people are cleaning human waste manually!

    Every year at least 30-50 people die while cleaning septic tanks because of carbon monoxide and other poisonous gas generated inside the tanks. We really need to think of their lives, dignity and health and safety.

    The stories of other ‘waste workers’ are not something rosy. Every day, no less than 20,000 tons of municipal waste are generated from our houses, offices, industries. The waste workers are putting their lives at risk for making our lives better.

    Among the waste workers, women are even more deprived. Despite clear indication of the payment of equal wage for men and women in the National Labour Policy-2012, women are getting much less than men, and this is a common practice.

    Nowadays, ‘waste’ is drawing the attention of many entrepreneurs. Some areas are booming like recycling plastic and mobile phones. But what is happening to the workers? What about their working environment? Wage parity? Dignity?

    Sanitation and waste workers of all categories are lacking dignity and risking their lives, and surviving in an unhealthy and sub-human environment. We need to work to safeguard their dignity, realise their rights, minimise wage disparity and secure their health and safety.

    I wish to continue my journey for my fellow brothers and sisters who are putting their best efforts towards making cities liveable. I want my memory to be replaced by a shiny new one.

     

     

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  • 7 actions to boost small scale green enterprise in Bangladesh


    July 26th, 2018

    The term “green business” is barely understood by the majority of people, even the business fraternity.

    There is no clear definition of “green business” in Bangladesh yet. People take it as a business that either contributes to keeping the environment green, in other words, unharmed, or that doesn’t produce anything that contributes to a carbon footprint. Most people also understand that responsibility for keeping our environment green and safe rests solely on our own shoulders.

    Green enterprise

    The question is whether we have done anything to protect our environment? The answer is both yes and no.

    The “yes” answer would come up with some cherry picked examples, but the answer “no” would be weightier,  because what we have done so far are just some unplanned initiatives that have turned out well. When I say unplanned, this does not mean that we don’t have any plan on paper – you would be amazed at the many wonderful papers and policies in place!  We are very good at writing documents like policies, laws, orders, etc., but lack the capacity and political will to put them into practice.

    So, what could we do to sustain and scale up green enterprises?

    Many ideas have been put forward, but I am going to share with you seven that I have picked up from a Learning Sharing Workshop, organised by Practical Action in Bangladesh, entitled, ‘Promotion of Green Enterprises for Accelerated Inclusive Green Growth’.

    1. We don’t have a government-approved definition of green business. Often small-scale green businesses are not considered by agencies that could have worked with and supported them. Therefore, this is essential to have a definition in place as soon as possible.
    2. With a government-approved definition of green business, entrepreneurs will get access to Micro Finance Institutes. At the same time insurance companies could open their doors to them to safeguard their business. Other private sector businesses will also join in.
    3. Small scale entrepreneurs are not holding back in spite of such an identity crisis. They are doing business which contributes to keeping our environment clean and safe. Our small-scale green entrepreneurs are mostly poorly organised and untrained, and they work in unhealthy conditions. The time has come to develop cooperatives for them. Unless they get organised, deprivation will continue, and they will be looked down upon. With unity, they will be able to achieve dignity.
    4. One of the important components of green business is organic fertiliser. Government needs to give especial attention into this. Every year we lose nearly 82,000 hectares of land in Bangladesh, and there are roughly around 2 million more mouths to be fed. We churn out the nutrients of our soil to produce more and more food from a gradually decreasing amount of land. At some point of time, our arable lands will stop providing us with food. Organic fertiliser is the only solution available to rejuvenate our soil. Now is the time for an orchestrated initiative to save our soil by promoting the green business of organic fertiliser.
    5. Kitchen waste could a good source of organic fertiliser. But, turning bio-degradable kitchen waste into fertiliser is not an easy task. It would take an orchestrated effort of different government agencies, private sectors, donors, NGOs and civil society groups. Effective and strategic partnerships to do this need to be put in place now.
    6. In the recent past, the collection, transportation and dumping of household waste (mostly kitchen waste) was managed by small scale waste vendors, commonly known as waste-pickers. Now that there is money to be made in this, vested interest groups have appeared to take over control of these. These groups are also controlled by the local political leaders. Strong steps need to take to give back these ventures to the real waste vendors, and provide support them to turn into green business entrepreneurs.
    7. With a government-approved definition of green business, a major public awareness programme needs to put in place so that people, especially unemployed people, will be inspired to start in this business.

    You may be able to add other actions to this list. But, one action, which is essential is that we all work together for this cause – locally, nationally and globally to ensure that more people become involved with green enterprise.

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  • Technology for Development


    June 28th, 2018

    Why is technology justice central to international development?

    As history demonstrates, technology provides a catalyst for change. Practical Action has been working on flood Early Warning Systems (EWS) for over ten years and we have seen not only technology adoption taking place but also social change occurring.

    At the Technology for Development conference the focus is very much on the former, but in my active participation and interaction with the conference delegates I am interested to explore the latter.

    Looking beyond the hardware

    Practical Action’s experience of developing EWS, demonstrates the benefit that new technologies can have on development. However, although technology may provide a jump in capability, understanding the nature of the change is vital if these developments are to be maintained. We need to understand the causal factors in adoption and what are the threats to this progress being maintained?

    EWS appear to have a transformational impact on the communities that they reach, although this transformation doesn’t take place immediately in synchrony with the delivery of the technology, there is a time lag between the rollout of the technology and the social change needed to embed the EWS into people’s lives.

    For EWSs the following greatly simplified process takes place:

    • Phase one – No EWS, the community lives at high risk, they may implement a basic observation based systems and flee at the onset of each flood event, but losses accumulate as population density and climate change impacts progress;
    • Phase two – EWS arrives but trust is not yet built so impact on behaviours is limited. Critical is the provision of reliable warning combined with the delivery of actionable warning that people can understand and follow;
    • Phase three – community members begin to trust the EWS system, they begin to rely on it as rainfall events, this starts to adjust behaviours, rather than fleeing when the warning is announced they prepare for the evacuation, and in the process they start to learn about what preparedness actions are the most beneficial;
    • Phase four – communities begin learning about hazard profiles, and that no floods are the same, they start to recognise critical impacts and trends in the hazard event, this learning leads to adaptations in their lives and livelihoods to limit loss and damage.

     

    At the Technology for Development conference we are hearing a lot about the success of the technology systems, but less about the impacts these systems have on people’s lives. People almost seem to be passive beneficiaries rather than components in the system. As we have learned, the EWS must become integrated into people’s lives. This will enable people living in flood prone areas to be empowered and informed to live with the risks they face.

    Looking at the roll out of EWSs, and how this is being reported in the key global agreement, we find a similar disconnect. Reporting for global agreements is too focussed on the technology roll out and not on the impact the technology has on avoided losses. Most systems are focussed too heavily on the monitoring and warning components and most systems are failing to reach the poorest and most hazard prone.

    Recommendations

    Investment in technology is vital if we are to deliver on the SDG’s, to put the Sendai framework for DRR into practice and to meet the global obligations under the Paris Agreement and hence avoid the disaster of climate induced change. Central to delivery under the Paris Agreement is the need for a financing mechanism under the Loss and Damage mechanism to ensure investment to put in place to ensure avoidable losses are maximised.

    EWS are vital transformational mechanisms, not as simple silver bullets but as catalysts for behavioural change. It’s not just the hardware but the orgware and software that also requires investment, time and patience, and the system must be owned and for the communities to ensure these benefits are delivered.

    Find out more

     

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