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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Beyond Relief

WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: "Leapfrog Nations - Emerging Technology in the New Developing World

What if relief and reconstruction efforts aimed not just to save, but to improve the lives of the victims of this week's disaster?

This might not seem like the time to look ahead. The situation all around the Indian Ocean is grim: the bulldozers are digging mass-graves for as many as 100,000 bodies; at least a million people are homeless, hungry and utterly destitute; clean water and sanitation facilities don't exist; disease is beginning to break out; and relief is still far off for too, too many people. This is a full-blown global crisis.

But this is exactly the right time for foresight.

For one thing, history shows that the world tends to lose interest in disasters in developing world once people stop dying in large numbers. If we don't think now about our commitment to helping these communities recover and rebuild after the immediate crisis has passed, we never will.

And the ruined cities and villages lining the shores of the Indian Ocean are now home to some of the poorest of the world's poor. In many places, traumatized people, who had very little with which to earn their livelihoods to begin with, now have nothing left at all. Add to this the long-term challenges they face -- like decimated local economies, massive pollution (and some new industrial accidents), declining fisheries and forests, lack of capital and, perhaps most ominously, the rising seas and catastrophic storms they can expect from global warming -- and their fate may not be an enviable one.

But that fate is not written in stone. We can still change it. What if didn't just do something to help, but did the right things, and did them fully? What if we looked at this relief and reconstruction effort as a chance to not only save lives (and of course that must come first) but to truly rebuild coastal Southeast Asia along more sustainably prosperous lines? What if we made the commitment to take what are now some of the most ravaged, destitute areas on Earth, and worked with the people there to reimagine and rebuild their communities to be the cutting edge of sustainable development?

What if we made not just relief but rebirth the new measure of our success?

There are reasons to believe we could do it.

Delivering relief aid is a job of staggering proportions in a disaster of this size, and it will continue for months. As I've written before, the demands we put on aid workers are insane. "They have to fly in to remote corners of the Earth, where nothing, not even clean water, can usually be expected, and create an entire city from scratch, restoring order, throwing up tents, digging latrines, finding and filtering water, treating the wounded and diseased, counseling the grieving, and finding ways to bring shell-shocked people back to emotional engagement with their own lives. This is perhaps the hardest work on Earth, and the people who do it -- the bluehats and doctors without borders, the aid workers and missionaries -- are the closest thing we have to unquestionable heroes."

Let's give them tools to do their jobs better. Innovate and improve the relief effort, right now, from the start. Take ahold of the best innovations around and spread them as quickly as possible: employ better logistics methods, get aid workers better information about conditions on the ground and provide better and smarter disaster medical care to the victims.

Refugee camps can themselves become engines of transformation. At least a million have been made refugees by this tragedy: we can reinvent the refugee camp, and turn it into a launching pad for reconstruction.

We can't yet expect camps like this--

One possibility is the compostable tent city. In this model, the tents themselves would be treated cardboard shelters -- like Icopods (which resemble paper geodesic domes) -- which provide basic shelter and last for a couple years. The shipping containers and packaging for medical goods and food would also be treated cardboard. When the tents wear out and the packaging is discarded, though, it shows its true nature -- for each panel of cardboard would be impregnated with appropriate local seeds, spores of topsoil fungi and harmless fertilizing agents, so that by tearing them up and watering them, refugees could start gardens, complete with mulch, fertilizer and the microorganisms good soil needs. Even clothing and blankets can be designed to be composted as they wear out. The entire transitional tent city can end up plowed into gardens as the refugees settle in to stability -- and food is not all that can be grown. Fast-growing, salt-absorbing hybrid shade trees can go in as wind-breaks, helping to check erosion and desalinize the soil. If nearby areas have been mined, refugees can also broadcast the seeds for land-mine detecting flowers, local wildflowers which have been smart-bred to change color when they detect nitrogen dioxide in the soil (a chemical leaked by the explosives in the mines as they decay), like those being developed by the Danish Institute of Molecular Biology. More, some have proposed land-mine eating flowers, plants that'd send their roots towards explosives and grow around them, aiding their decomposition and perhaps triggering their explosion. Finally, if the land has been heavily polluted (a frequent consequence of war and civil unrest) specially-bred versions of hearty weed-like native plants which can slurp heavy metals out of the soil, concentrating them for safe disposal, even later reuse, and keeping them out of drinking water.
--but that doesn't mean that we can't do a hell of a lot better than the current reality: grim, sprawling, muddy, overcrowded and septic tent cities where services are rare and opportunities to actually work to improve one's life are few and far between. Tent cities now are often nothing more than places to warehouse people we don't care enough about to much notice. We can do much better.

Beginning with how we build these first, temporary camps, we can think differently about the goal of relief and reconstruction:

"Encouraging communities to be active participants in the rebuilding is key to creating sustainable solutions and to reducing the impact of a disaster. Representatives from the International Red Cross (IRC) spoke at the (last) World Urban Forum on disaster relief and noted the new city of Ciudad Espuma in Honduras - built after Hurricane Mitch swept through in 1998 - was the best example of a "disaster reduction initiative". The 14,000 families who has lost homes had rebuilt their own houses with an awareness of the potential of future disaster."
New approaches to working with design for the very poorest can involve the refugees from this disaster in the reconstruction of their own lives. Microlending programs can be quickly established to provide capital for transitional small businesses, and combined with recovery aid to reunite farmers and fishermen with plows and nets.

One of the first steps should be to get the kids learning again. As Forced Migration Review (perhaps the most disturbingly-titled social studies publication in the world, if ya' really think about it) says, by creating "safe zones" for kids, and providing access to essential knowledge, educators not only help the whole community return to a sense of psychological stability, but can save a generation which might otherwise be lost. Indeed, by involving elders and parents in the process, a whole community can be moved out of traumatic shock into action.

Meanwhile, technology and collaboration can also help the refugees process the emotional damage and mentally begin rebuilding. Cheap, discardable videocameras could offer them the opportunity to record their stories, in order to begin healing and take an inventory of the skills the refugees bring. Open source textbooks rendered into the local language through collaborative translation can help spread literacy and education quickly through the population. Telecentros and other community technology resources can help bring real opportunity even to impoverished rural people, while, in the bigger picture, helping to redistribute the future.

A primary goal of the first couple year's of relief and reconstruction work should be to help arm these communities with the expertise, technology and capital to "leapfrog" over older, out-moded, costly and centralized technologies and start right in on building lives of sustainable prosperity.

This process should start the moment boots hit the ground. Relief is not simply about saving lives (though that is of course the top priority) -- relief is also the first step in the reconstruction. In the next months, vast efforts will go into building roads, air strips, water and power systems, emergency clinics and other infrastructure to support relief efforts. With that in mind, big international NGOs ought to be thinking, whenever possible, about the long-term utility of that infrastructure to the local communities. Can these huge investments be structured in ways that not only save lives today, but improve the community tomorrow.

An example: many relief efforts should include solar energy, right from the beginning:

"A viable use for PV is to meet the emergency demands in large-scale disasters, where power will be out for long periods of time and survivor support is difficult to provide due to the extensive area destroyed. Massive infrastructure damage makes refueling generators a challenge, as pumping stations are often inoperable and roads impassable. Power distribution lines are difficult to fix because of the impassable roads, much less transporting materials for reconstruction. When a disaster strikes an island and the port is destroyed, shipping fuel for generators becomes a problem. ... There are inappropriate applications for photovoltaics in response to disasters. The large-scale power needs of sewer and water facilities, hospitals, large shelters, distribution and emergency operations centers are better met with gasoline or diesel generators in an emergency."
But solar panels don't just fill many emergency roles better than generators could. Widespread use of solar energy in the disaster relief efforts will also provide kernels of equipment, infrastructure and expertise around which communities can build distributed energy systems -- the kind of systems more likely to work for many developing world communities in the long run. They can become a sort of seed-stock for new developing world smart grids, LEDs, access to computation and communications, village technologies and renewable energy, even better shelter -- the "bright lights, small villages" strategy.

Then, as the rebuilding commences in earnest, people can aspire to really move forward. There's no reason why the area which now lies ruined could not be something like a technologically empowered Costa Rica in ten years: prosperous (at least by developing world standards) and green, reasonably stable and well-governed, prepared for future disasters, and choosing its own future.

Let's not just "restore to them an equal portion." Instead, let's give them the opportunity to imagine an entirely new future. Let's not stop at saving lives and easing suffering today so they can return tomorrow to poverty in the shadow of an increasingly angry climate. Let's go farther. Let's change the dynamic. Let's help them make themselves into the stories we tell when we want to explain how things can be made better, the examples of how lives can be improved -- a better future made real where today there is only misery.

Posted by Alex Steffen at December 29, 2004

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