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Redefining the 6 p.m. Hour

 

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Around 6 p.m., the sun begins to set and darkness blankets the nation’s capital. The streetlights flicker on, illuminating the walk home for the city’s commuters. As darkness falls, a surge of electricity powers the light bulbs in homes and apartments in and around the Beltway.

But on the other side of the world, in many low-income communities in India, 6 p.m. marks the beginning of the scent of gas. It marks the release of fumes that are inhaled by the men and women working on fishing boats, the children studying for school and the parents cooking dinner. Nighttime marks an increase in the release of pollutants and risk of a fire. It marks another payment for fuel that a resident must make just to conduct a basic evening routine that so many of us take for granted.

The darkness marks another night that a low-income community’s need for kerosene stands as a barrier to achieving independence from this dangerous, hazardous and expensive energy source.

But night doesn’t need to keep communities chained to kerosene. Vort Port International (VPI), a DC-based international development nonprofit, incubates social enterprises to lead the way for low-income communities to participate in the energy revolution. At VPI, the Solaii project (previously known as India Solar Lamps or ISL) has been developing a solar-powered lamp that will not only light the night, but also empower these communities to work towards a brighter future

What separates VPI from the typical firm in the international development field is that it is 100% volunteer driven, with a mission that is directed by a passion to continuously develop sustainable tech-based solutions for communities in need. VPI isn’t a group of idealistic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but a team of experts working together towards tangible results. In 2011, VPI installed a solar-powered computer lab in the heart of southern rural India. During the day, more than 1,500 students and teachers are able to use the lab while at night, the lab turns into an Internet café, maximizing the potential of the technology.

Solaii is working to scale its successes and build on its experience with solar energy by creating a multi-use solar lamp. More than two billion people lack access to adequate electricity in the developing world, and building the infrastructure to improve these conditions is difficult for many reasons, including resource constraints, political obstacles and corruption. Currently in India, 840 million people live in villages, and kerosene is the main source of fuel for 60% of rural communities. Unfortunately, kerosene is also a non-renewable source of energy that is increasingly expensive and harmful. Chronic exposure to kerosene fumes can lead to lung cancer*, skin conditions and accidental poisoning among children. (*The World Bank cites that 67% of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.) In addition, because it is highly flammable, kerosene is inherently a fire hazard for communities that utilize these lamps indoors without proper ventilation.

VPI’s Solaii team believes that micro-solutions can begin to alleviate this desperate situation, and our goal is to create a solar lamp to replace the dangers of kerosene lighting. Our second prototype is near completion and elevates current market standards. We have worked to incorporate the voices of local communities by designing through an iterative ask-build-test-deliver model. The final product will be multi-functional, durable, waterproof and affordable, and the project will include an education component to ensure lasting benefits and increase economic activity. We plan to leverage established distribution channels by partnering with on-the-ground trainers from local NGOs in order to teach community members how to use and sell the lamps, eventually enabling them to create their own business.

Solaii will start delivering its solution in India and then expand to rest of the developing world. Based on estimates, the project will become profitable by its second year. Over five years we aim to replace more than 10 million kerosene lamps with solar lamps, and reduce over 76.5 million kilograms of carbon emissions.

Solaii is working to redefine the 6 p.m. hour around the world, one lamp at a time.

This blog post was written by Eric Shu, Educational Analyst for the Solaii Project

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Rooftops: The Urban Backyard

As a city dweller, if there’s one concept that never escapes me, it’s space. There’s so much of it, yet it’s never plentiful. Distances are vast, and if you live in Brooklyn, your friends in the Bronx might as well live in a different state, but personal space is hardly in high supply. Our kitchens are installed in the corners of living rooms almost as an afterthought; finding free parking takes hours of toil and strife; and we measure our yards (if we have them) not by acres but by square feet.

For this reason, I never cease to be amazed by the amount of eminently viable space that goes unused throughout the urban landscape. As more and more Americans flock to urban centers, our need for a paradigm shift in how we treat city living is becoming increasingly pertinent. And while urbanites continue to moan about their cramped quarters, they continue to fail to look up!

If you live in a densely populated city, and you don’t have a garden, and you’re wondering how I could even wonder if you do have a garden, then ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does the building I occupy have a “conventional” rooftop?
2. If yes, do I have access to said rooftop?
3. If yes again, is it host to a whole lot of tar paper and ventilation pipes?

If this sounds like your rooftop situation, then there’s cause to celebrate: you’re in possession of a slice of the urban landscape’s greatest untapped resource.

When I first moved to Brooklyn from a city with considerably more space, I instantly came to rely on my apartment building’s roof as a place to get away from the din and stress of the busy city streets. From my roof, I could enjoy being outdoors while still able to have a phone conversation or read a book, all within a few steps (or, as was my case, ladder rungs) from my front door. My building’s roof became a much needed replacement for the back yard that I longed for but lacked. Yet what most astonished me about my roof was that no one from the rest of the block seemed to know it was there. What went unnoticed by everyone else became the largest back yard I’d ever had!

I now have my own roof in Brooklyn, and I’ve taken my roof dwelling to the next level. With a modest $50 inventment, I’ve developed a humble little rooftop garden. And for a guy who’s pretty green in the gardening department, the greenery on my vacant outdoor space has thrived. With a few minutes of research, I found plenty of vegetables that do well in direct sunlight, and besides their daily watering, nature has done the rest.

The few vegetables I planted this season won’t be slashing my grocery shopping budget by a whole lot come harvest. But rooftop improvements in the city are some of the easiest and most productive projects one can undertake to make city living more sustainable while beautifying the concrete jungle. They can keep your building cooler in the summer and help lower your energy bills. Plants improve air quality and mood, and can provide food. Plus, maintaining a garden dozens of feet above the bustling street provides at least a few moments of peace and tranquility every morning.

There’s a very real phenomenon in cities called the Urban Heat Island Effect, which describes the noticeable increase in temperature you experience in cities compared to surrounding rural areas. Dark surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, and rooftops absorb sunlight and radiate heat – the reason why the sidewalk often feels “hot enough to fry an egg”, but the grass in the back yard is always comfortable. If cities as a whole learn to promote the widespread transformation of rooftops into gardens and yards, rather than vast, desolate heat traps, our cities will become cooler, greener, and healthier. Energy consumption and pollution can both be reduced as our roof tops become the back yards of the city – and, with a bit of elbow grease, the envy of our friends in suburbia!

It’s frustrating to see so much space go to waste in the city – but it’s equally as liberating to discover that it’s easy to do for yourself. So aim to set an example for your neighbors! There’s no better way to contribute to a positive movement than by throwing your next great tiki party on your beautified roof yard and inviting the neighbors. The greatest boon to progress is proving to others that it’s fun.

In closing, I quote The Drifters:

When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet
I get away from the hustling crowd
and all that rat race noise down on the street
On the roof, the only place I know
where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof

Happy gardening,

Joe

This blog post was written by Josef Zook, a member of Vort Port International’s Media Team. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Connecting Sustainable Transportation and Access to Clean Water

Our global population has already hit almost 7 billion, and is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades. Consequently, one vital source of life has been and will continue to be compromised: water. Our global water system has been impaired by heavy industrial and agricultural use, ineffective water management systems, and inadequate infrastructure for rainwater harvesting. These trends, along with global climate change, will lead to major challenges in meeting the world’s water demands both in developing and developed countries. Specifically, climate change is exacerbating the issue of water scarcity and clean water. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changes in humidity, salinity, and wind have been linked to poor water quality and an increase in waterborne pathogens.

It has become apparent that water scarcity and access to clean water is one of the most important challenges that developing countries, such as Uganda, face. In fact, the UN’s seventh millennium development goal (MDG) includes “revers[ing] the loss of environmental resources” and “reduc[ing] by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 2.6 billion people or 50% of the developing world lack access to a basic “improved” latrine which inhibits sanitation, and 1.1 billion people lack access to a source of clean drinking water. 80% of those lacking access to safe drinking water reside in rural areas.  As a result, morbidity and mortality rates are increasing; approximately 1.6 million people die due to diarrheal diseases and other waterborne diseases (e.g., cholera) due to limited access to clean water and sanitation. 90% of the 1.6 million people are children under the age of 5.

The problem of access to clean water is evident in the target village of VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project: Kibuye Village, Uganda. The village is located in the Kamuli District in North Eastern Kamuli on the shores of the Victoria Nile. Kibuye has an estimated population of 60,000 people. Their livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming and barter trade within the village.  VPI’s potential partner organization, Arise and Shine Uganda, has documented the problems of villagers through a blog for the past couple of years.  Arise and Shine Uganda is a non-profit organization based in Jinja, Uganda focused on sustainable development through education.  As I read through the numerous entries written by various members of Arise and Shine recounting their own experiences, one message was consistent throughout: the people of the village have very little access to water and electricity.  A member wrote in December 2011: “The conditions in the village were very basic, as was to be expected.  There was no running water or electricity, and thus no sewage or apparent irrigation systems.”  Another member noted recently in March 2012 that there was “no water and no power” when they visited Kibuye, and said that they went to a well to get water.  Arise and Shine has really highlighted the source of the problem: the village initially relied on one public borehole for clean drinking water.  However, with just one source of water for 60,000 people, long lines would form everyday by villagers so they could provide clean water for their families.  Naturally, many grew tired of waiting, and turned to the nearby Nile for water, which only resulted in diarrheal and waterborne illnesses.  Furthermore, Arise and Shine noted that the village has one school with just two classrooms, accommodating around 600 children.  Children who get sick from unsafe drinking water are likely to miss school, which cause them to fall behind their peers.  This is partially reflective of the staggering statistic Arise and Shine reported: 80% of Ugandans over the age of 15 are illiterate.

In June, members from Vort Port International (VPI), including myself, will be traveling to Jinja, Uganda to conduct a feasibility assessment for VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project. Last summer, VPI’s very own Project Lead, Song Nguyen, went to Jinja and worked with Restless Development, conducting research on youth-friendly sexual reproductive health services.  During her time in Jinja, she also volunteered with Arise and Shine.  From interacting with local community members for 6 weeks, Song found that most people in many districts of Uganda lack access to transportation.  In fact, one community member specifically mentioned to Song that a bike would prove extremely useful for their daily needs. When Song returned to the US, she was determined to provide her friends and local community members in Ugandan villages with a sustainable source of transportation.  Inspired by her experiences, she created the Bamboo Bikes project under VPI. This project is focused on empowering local community members in Uganda to build and sell bamboo bikes to others in their community, meanwhile providing greater access to basic resources through their bicycles.  The project will improve the business acumen of Ugandans, help them to gain practical skills, and ultimately develop a sustainable business.  Moreover, the bike itself will provide Ugandans with an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.  The bike may serve to improve their economic opportunity, increase their access to healthcare, increase their mobility enabling them travel to nearby cities to explore other opportunities and expand their businesses, and increase their access to basic necessities, including water.

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Song Nguyen visiting with in-school youth in rural Uganda.

It is clear that access to clean water is critical for the people of Kibuye Village, and many others across Uganda.  Efforts to create sustainable, affordable, effective, and applicable solutions to this problem are needed across Uganda and much of the developing world.  The benefits of investing in the problem outweighs the costs; WHO estimates that meeting MDG goal 7 could prevent 470,000 deaths attributed to lack of clean drinking water and sanitation, and could result in an extra 320 million productive working days every year.  For the children and families of Kibuye, this could mean a better education due to more consistent attendance, improved literacy, a greater ability to compete with their peers in their own district and in nearby urban areas such as Jinja, and allowing both women and men to lead more productive lives. Most importantly, it would mean children will have a greater chance of survival, lead healthier lives, and will be more likely to see their futures through.  It is our duty to help empower others to obtain what is their human right: access to water, sanitation, transportation, and education, among others. It is my hope that VPI can play an integral part in empowering the people of Kibuye, starting with providing villagers with access to transportation.  Moreover, as women and sometimes children are typically responsible for fetching water for their families and spend considerable time doing so, they may find the bikes useful for finding other sources of clean water that may not have been accessible otherwise. Bamboo bikes may also allow them to more easily transport water back to their families.  Most importantly, villagers may no longer need to rely as much on the unsafe waters of the Nile to fetch water for their families, which has been detrimental to the health of so many.

VPI’s members have started to brainstorm ways to successfully address clean water issues at our project sites, including Kibuye. The technologies for improving access to clean water that have already been developed seem endless; the key to success is implementation. VPI’s trip to Kibuye in June will allow us to better understand the problems that these villagers face, and develop and implement culturally sound, applicable, and affordable solutions to the challenges they face every day.

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To learn more about VPI’s Bamboo Bikes Project please visit: www.vortport.org/our-projects/bamboo-bikes, and check out pictures of the bikes our members have designed and constructed on VPI’s facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/vortport).  If you would like to get involved with VPI’s projects or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at shivangi@vortport.org.

The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” — Helen Keller

Shivangi Khargonekar, the author of this blog post, is the Internal Director of Vort Port International. Shivangi recently graduated with a Master of Public Health in Environmental Health from Emory University. She will be joining Deloitte Consulting as a full-time consultant in their federal practice; she will be a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shivangi currently resides in Atlanta, GA.

Patz, J.A., et al. (2000). The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Variability and Change for the United States: Executive Summary of the Report of the Health Sector of the U.S. National Assessment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 108(4): 367-376.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. United Nations Development Programme website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://web.undp.org/mdg/goal7.shtml

Health through safe drinking water and basic sanitation. (2012). World Health Organization website.  Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/mdg1/en/index.html

Arise and Shine Uganda. (2012). Arise and Shine Blog. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.ariseandshineug.blogspot.com/

Koolwal, Gayatri and Dominique van de Walle. Access to water, women’s work and child outcomes. (2010).  World Bank website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://water.worldbank.org/publications/access-water-womens-work-and-child-outcomes

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