Wednesday, December 4, 2013

People-Powered Relief

Boys standing amid the wreckage of Typhoon Haiyan
Hello Everyone:

By now we're very well aware of the total destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan.  The images are devastating, reminiscent of the images following the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We also know that global warming played a part in magnifying the intensity of the storm that made it possible for such images.  In her blog post, People-Power the Philippines, Heather Solarseed offers insight into the opportunities presented by  devastation.  The oft repeated saying crisis equals opportunity takes on new meaning as the Filipino people begin to rebuild their lives and communities.  Ms. Solarseed argues that rather than present the same old stories of people learning to survive, "we need to people-power the path and discover both our ultimate sense of humanity and our responsibility to inspire the deepest healing possible."  How does the Philippines begin to heal?

Aerial view of the aftermath
In the aftermath the first priority, according to Ms. Solarseed, is food.  Her take on the matter of getting people clean food and water is, rather than rely on air dropped food parcels, the Filipino need organizations like Growing Power and ECOLIFE Foundations to tour the archipelago, host workshops, and get self-sustaining food-generating tools to the people.  She speculates that in most cases, sustainable food production could be up and running within thirty days for a family at cost of less than $500 including basic vegetables and fish.  This is a good idea because it has the potential to teach people about growing crops that don't deplete the natural environment.  Ms. Solarseed advocates that food aid programs completely shift gears and provide immediate food relief, the means and methods for people to grow their own food.

Flooding during the typhoon
 Right after providing sustainable food source, shelter is the very next priority.  In this case, a sustainable source of shelter.  Tents, tarps, and caves are solutions, albeit temporary ones.  Ms. Solarseed asks "How sustainable is any solution?"  She argues that the top priority of "home" need not be a single family home, rather multi-family housing for small groups or villages.  She uses the example of the Native American tipi, which can be put and taken down, offering mobility to travel with the buffalo herds.  The types of sustainable materials available to construct housing depends on the regional source, but the idea of rebuilding in an area that is directly in the path of a storm is challenging enough unless you plan for mobility.

Man sitting beside destroyed shanty
The next two items on the high priority list are water and sanitation.  This goes without saying.  The Water Project has been an invaluable resource in drought-stricken Africa and would be certainly worth investigating as a cost-effective and inspiring solution. Heather Solarseed suggests that rather than approach the problem of getting clean water to the people from the point of view of a refugee, approach it as a hiker. "How can people adapt to their environment with the right tools in their hands, their lives?  Ms. Solarseed is quite adamant that the bulk of the aid money go toward sanitation.  She argues that "not only should new wastewater treatment plants be built to the highest code and capacity for earthquakes, storm, etc, but they should be built to tie-into something like the Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA) Project."  The OMEGA Project is an innovative way to grow algae, clean wastewater, capture carbon dioxide and ultimately produce biofuel with competing with agriculture for water, fertilizer, or land.  This all sounds fantastic and entirely possible however, I have an issue with her statement about building wastewater treatment plants to the highest code and disaster capacity.  This would require legislative action, which in the real world, is notoriously slow and often acting in the interests of  lobbying groups.

Mother and children huddled against the storm
Returning to the food issue, clean food is another top priority.  In addition to short- and long-term food growing kits, Ms. Solarseed argues suggest that the Filipino people need to learn to grow vertical farms, bring their growing seasons indoors, and starting over with fresh non-GMO seeds and aquaponics.  Ms. Solarseed is quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of vertical farming, touting the name Dickson Despommier.  Education is another way to create people-power relief.  In this case, Ms. Solarseed infers, a big science project or community project.  Teachers and students could work along side those in-charge and participate in the rebuilding process.  After all, it is the people who live in the specific communities that have the most insights into the needs of said community.  Ms. Solarseed calls for education to be brought to the forefront of the rebuilding process and give children the tools and knowledge on how to build, rebuild, and design, redesign for themselves.  Perhaps it would be a great idea to get the global architecture profession involved.  What do you think?  Architecture, after all does not always happen on a computer screen.

"The damage is worse than hell"
Finally, ceremony and inspiration are on Heather Solarseed's list of people-power typhoon recovery.  Ceremony is a necessary thing because it provide a source of continuity in the disrupted lives of the people.  Here, she suggests the tradition of honoring the power of mother nature is an essential part of humanity facing its collective future.  Whether its about honoring the dead or celebrating the living, it's more than just people, it's about people and their relationship to nature.  Our ancestors recognized this and so should we.  Inspiration from within is the source of people-power.  People-power is about affecting change, not just leaving it to relief agencies.  It's about empowerment.  We should consider asking the world's technology innovators to share their knowledge, which will result in new commitments from people around the world.  It takes a real understanding of what types of communities the Filipino can (re)build and letting that guide the design process.  The process of guiding the design from within is golden.

Destroyed streets
Last, when we read about natural and man-made disaster relief and recovery processes, we have this idea of what it should like: aid agencies bringing food and water, medical care, the clean up process, et cetera.  Yet they take on a more passive approach, the agencies are doing all of this for the people in the stricken areas instead of working with people to empower their recovery.  This "traditional" mindset can be limiting in terms of progress.  Thus, Heather Solarseed's thesis of people-power relief.  This thesis holds because it is premised on a novel concept of empowering the victims to affect their own recovery. It involves thinking creatively and making use of innovative technology.  Hopefully the results will have lasting and global impact.

If you would like more information on the organizations mentioned in this post, here are the links you can go to:

Growing Power:
ECOLIFE Foundation:
The Water Project:
OMEGA Project:

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