Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Lights without Electricity; Better Shelters for Refugees

Early on, I accepted Buckminster Fuller's idea that we do not need to accept scarcity of resources because we could do more with less. His example was communication from continent to continent: one could do it using tons of copper laid in transoceanic cables, or one could launch less than a gram of copper into orbit in a communications satellite. The second choice is not only cheaper, it is better, but it requires that we focus our attention on the problem. That is what, most often, we fail to do well.

When we do so, the result cheers me up immensely and gives a little hope for civilization's ability to survive. Two stories have recently appeared that show how such ingenuity can improve the lives of the poor.

The first was a better solution for a vast problem: finding suitable shelter for refugees, who number about fifteen million now. At the moment, many are leaving the violence in Syria and need basic shelter, fast. The traditional solution is to put them in tents.

Tents are solutions, but not good ones. They are dark, cramped, cold, and last only about six months before needing replacement. The better solution emerged when the UN High Commission for Refugees asked the designers at IKEA to create a refugee shelter. As one would imagine, they designed a basic home that can be made in a factory, shipped in flat packs, and assembled with included tools in a few hours. It is bigger than the tents that were used, is wired for electrical lights and small appliances, is designed to last for years, includes insulation, and will cost only £655 ($1066.55 Canadian) once mass production starts, and perhaps a tenth of that later, according to PRI. It is now being tried in Ethiopia. Here is one report on it  on Dezeen and another from MSN News:
It can also be upgraded with, for example, solar panels for the electricity and earth walls for extra insulation.

The other story comes from Alfredo Moser, a Brazilian mechanic, who designed a way to light up homes during the day without using any electricity. It is simple and cheap enough for people to install it themselves. It goes like this:
  1. Collect a number of two-litre water bottles.
  2. Clean them, remove labels, and fill them with water and two capfulls of bleach, to prevent algae from growing in them.
  3. Cut holes in the ceiling that the bottles can fit into.
  4. Push the bottle up into the hole, so the top third or so protrudes beyond the roof.
  5. To improve the evenness of the light, put an opaque cap on the bottle, such as the plastic container for camera film.
  6. Seal the bottle in place with polyester resin, so no water can enter.
The result is that the sunlight that strikes the upper part of the bottle refracts through the clear water and provides an even light in the house. On a sunny day, each bottle provides as much light as a 40 to 60 watt bulb.

It is easy to dismiss this idea if one lives in a developed country where electricity is available, reliable, and cheap. However, it makes a difference where it is not, as Mr. Moser says:
There was one man who installed the lights and within a month he had saved enough to pay for the essential things for his child, who was about to be born. Can you imagine?
A good idea like this spreads. Mr. Moser did a few installations of his lights. Other people saw them, thought "good idea," and did their own installations. Now, the Moser light is being installed by charities in the Phillipines, Bangladesh, and about fourteen other countries. By the start of next year, Moser estimates that over a million people will have installed his lights.

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