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Trying to Engineer Solutions to Refugee Problems

Science: Existing equipment such as a water pump with bike pedals might be used to improve living conditions in camps.

June 02, 2002|JOSEPH B. VERRENGIA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The United Nations estimates that 23 million refugees live in virtually medieval conditions throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas. With every civil war or natural disaster, aid groups offer the same response: an airlift of tents and sacks of grain.

Western scientists and engineers watching the misery say it's time they got involved. They are offering their skills to improve living conditions and to reduce the environmental damage left by refugee camps.

Many of the scientists' ideas are simple. A water pump with bike pedals. A solar stove made of foil. Other ideas are more complex, like a solar-powered satellite phone.

Much of the equipment exists but has never been tried in a refugee setting. Soon these technologies may be field-tested in barrios along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an ambitious "sustainable camp" experiment sponsored by the United Nations and the Pentagon, among others.

The tools that are successful would be introduced in real refugee camps from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Perhaps refugees might carry the equipment home where it would improve village life as well.

"Refugees are all in one place, and they don't particularly have anything to do," said Steve Troy, one of the program's engineering consultants. His online clearinghouse based in Boulder, Colo., distributes 8,000 portable and environmentally friendly tools.

"It's a great educational opportunity," Troy said. "It makes it so easy to demonstrate things."

But refugee aid veterans are wary. This wouldn't be the first time that Western scientists have arrived in a crisis bearing new gear that is too complicated, delicate or irrelevant.

Outsiders must tread carefully and enlist the aid of both camp administrators and tribal elders, aid workers warn. Otherwise, the scientists risk being accused of spreading witchcraft. Or worse.

"Refugees are very conservative people who generally are not thinking much beyond getting their next meal," said Larry Thompson of Refugees International, a Washington nonprofit group that is advising the technology trials. "Nobody has very much time to experiment with anything new, and they're not in a terribly receptive mood."

Refugee camps are established according to a formula explained in the United Nations' 400-page "Handbook for Emergencies."

It's a bitter calculus. Each refugee gets 483 square feet of total space, including footpaths. Water spigots: One every 100 meters. Latrines: One 26-gallon pit for every 10 families. A daily ration: 2,100 calories of food and 7 to 15 liters of "reasonably clean" water.

In real life, camps operate less precisely.

"One agency provides water tanks with 3-inch spigots," said Bill Browning of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado think tank coordinating the technology trials. "Another supplies containers with 2-inch openings. You wind up spilling water, which runs into a ditch and breeds mosquitoes. And people get malaria.

"All for the want of a funnel," Browning said.

But scientists say modernizing camp life is not impossible.

Administration would be improved by data and telecommunications systems similar to the military's tough portable units, complete with microwave receivers and solar power arrays.

Refugees would get personal swipe cards. Such a database could be instrumental in reuniting families, monitoring disease, tracking criminals and reducing waste and fraud, especially in food rations.

Farfetched? In southern Sudan, German aid workers already are issuing laminated photo IDs.

Refugees in some countries also might use long-distance phone service and e-mail. Any system must be self-contained and impervious to mud and bad weather.

"When you pull it out of the box, it had better have the right adapter to plug in," warned U.N. telecommunications consultant Mark Prutsalis, who has worked in the Balkans and Rwanda.

All those computers would need electricity. In Golden, Colo., the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is testing small solar and wind power plants in 25 developing nations. They were intended for rural villages, schools and clinics but could be adapted to camps.

One model was successfully used in a hurricane-relief effort in Central America.

But unlike with disaster-relief efforts, refugee camps last for years and become frontier towns. Host countries resist extending power lines and other infrastructure.

"As the camps drag on, renewable energy can play a large role because it is low-cost and low-maintenance," said Ian Baring-Gould, a senior engineer for the laboratory.

Cooking and heating are another problem. The United Nations encourages families to prepare family meals to reinforce cultural ties and boost morale.

To reduce environmental destruction, the U.N. often delivers firewood. Scientists suggest switching to small stoves that burn natural gas, which is easier to come by and cleaner.

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