When a natural disaster or political upheaval occurs, the conditions into which people are forced can last far longer than anyone anticipates. A relief organization might pass out tents, food, clean water, medicine, and other resources. But tents do not last more than six months, and one cannot rely on processed food flown in to a campsite forever. What if there is no land to grow one’s own food, or fuel with which to cook unprocessed food? What if the water source runs out? What happens when a tent disintegrates but there is nowhere else to go, and no new tents? What if an oppressive government forces relief organizations to leave, taking all their medicine and supplies with them?
Sometimes after a catastrophe, people become permanently stuck in the relief camps, which turn into slums that grow indefinitely. International development organizations have no control over the politics that may confine these people to any given area. But they CAN figure out ways to improve quality of life there for the long term, after relief organizations have moved on to the next disaster.
Or what if the two entities could join forces to do a better job of implementing both relief AND development in one go? Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institute wrote, “In spite of hundreds of articles, countless speeches, and numerous conferences, the gap between relief and development is still far from being overcome.” We are gathered here at Rethink Relief this week to generate ideas and form lasting connections that will work to bridge this divide.
There are 25 people from around the world at the workshop. They come from a variety of backgrounds: Doctors Without Borders, universities, NGOs, engineering companies, and more. Some have experience in relief work; others, like myself, have more of a background in international development. I am one of three structural engineers, and there are also industrial designers, doctors, relief workers, entrepreneurs, economists, social workers, and others whose work cannot possibly be confined to just one of these disciplines.
As you can imagine, Rethink Relief is a fantastic opportunity to meet others who share MASS’s philosophy of Well-Built Environments! During the first two days of the workshop, we have gotten to know each other and formed teams to work on individual issues affecting relocated populations. My team has decided to focus on the issue of potable water storage and distribution. Of course, clean water is crucial to maintaining health in a relief camp, and healthy people have time and energy to improve other aspects of their lives. You could argue that clean water is the first step to overcoming all other hardships.
Rainwater catchment has been studied by many different people over the years. However, catchment systems often involve large clay or plastic tanks that are not easily moved, and can also be expensive (see photo below). In a temporary housing situation, people need cheaper and more portable solutions for storing and sharing water. Ideally, this storage design would be versatile enough for people to expand, take with them when they leave, or transfer to a more permanent home on the same site. Since one of our team members is from Uganda and is sharing his own experience with obtaining clean water, we are focusing our design on a system that might work well in a climate like Uganda’s.
Stay tuned for an update on our work at the end of the week! For now, I leave you with these questions to think about: What is the proper role of engineers and designers in a relief situation? How can we design solutions to improve people’s quality of life when they are in a temporary housing situation that we fear might become permanent? And how will access to clean water help a relief camp’s inhabitants create a Well-Built Environment for themselves?
Libby Hsu- received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and two master’s degrees in high performance structures and building technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She now is bringing her engineering experience to MASS.