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The Next Refugee Camp
Alex Steffen, 27 Aug 04

One of the world's big tasks is to perfect the art of humanitarian intervention -- not only to stop genocides, bring criminals to justice and provide safe-havens for refugees, but also to get people in disaster zones and war-torn lands back on their feet as quickly as possible. We need to save lives, sure, but we also ought to use humanitarian interventions as a way of getting victims to a place where they can reimagine their own lives, learn the skills and acquire the tools to start on their own paths towards a bright green future.

A needed first step is a better toolkit for refugees. Everyone expects the world to have to deal with tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of refugees in the next decade. The demands we put on aid workers to do this are extraordinary. They have to fly in to remote corners of the Earth, where nothing, not even clean water, can usually be expected, and create an entire city from scratch, restoring order, throwing up tents, digging latrines, finding and filtering water, treating the wounded and diseased, counseling the grieving, and finding ways to bring shell-shocked people back to emotional engagement with their own lives. This is perhaps the hardest work on Earth, and the people who do it -- the bluehats and doctors without borders, the aid workers and missionaries -- are the closest thing we have to unquestionable heroes. But they need better tools.

There are signs they may get them. One possibility is the compostable tent city. In this model, the tents themselves would be treated cardboard shelters -- like Icopods (which resemble paper geodesic domes) -- which provide basic shelter and last for a couple years. The shipping containers and packaging for medical goods and food would also be treated cardboard. When the tents wear out and the packaging is discarded, though, it shows its true nature -- for each panel of cardboard would be impregnated with appropriate local seeds, spores of topsoil fungi and harmless fertilizing agents, so that by tearing them up and watering them, refugees could start gardens, complete with mulch, fertilizer and the microorganisms good soil needs. Even clothing and blankets can be designed to be composted as they wear out. The entire transitional tent city can end up plowed into gardens as the refugees settle in to stability.

Food is not all that can be grown. Fast-growing, salt-absorbing hybrid shade trees can go in as wind-breaks, helping to check erosion and desalinize the soil. If nearby areas have been mined, refugees can also broadcast the seeds for land-mine detecting flowers, local wildflowers which have been smart-bred to change color when they detect nitrogen dioxide in the soil (a chemical leaked by the explosives in the mines as they decay), like those being developed by the Danish Institute of Molecular Biology. More, some have proposed land-mine eating flowers, plants that'd send their roots towards explosives and grow around them, aiding their decomposition and perhaps triggering their explosion. Finally, if the land has been heavily polluted (a frequent consequence of war and civil unrest) specially-bred versions of hearty weed-like native plants which can slurp heavy metals out of the soil, concentrating them for safe disposal, even later reuse, and keeping them out of drinking water.

Meanwhile, technology and collaboration could help the refugees process the emotional damage and beginning the rebuilding. Cheap, discardable videocameras could offer them the opportunity to record their stories, in order to begin healing and to document those abuses they may have undergone and take an inventory of the skills the refugees bring. Open source textbooks rendered into the local language through collaborative translation can help spread literacy and education quickly through the population. And, as they begin to recover, new approaches to working with design for the very poorest could help them begin to create their own needed and empowering bright green solutions.

We're a long way still from implementing these kinds of innovations, and we may find better ones along the way, but if we're building a bright green future, we need a place in it for those who have lost everything to begin again.

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I keep plugging both of these, but here we go...

Potters for Peace have a fully tested, fifteen years in the field, water filter technology which local potters can make with minimal equipment. So in many refugee camps which have dirty water, but not clean water, taking out a small kiln and some wire screens and some instructions and a trainer could solve the water supply problem and allow the skilled tradesmen who have become refugees to practice their trades.

Similarly, Bernard Lieater (co-father of the Euro currency) has a fascinating idea for a currency *backed*by*the*food*supply* in a refugee camp. The idea is that even refugees can trade, even if it's only baby sitting time or a little extra firewood, and that without access to an economy (through poverty and geographical isolation) a lot of useful, purposeful interacting simply never happens - without something to turn the wheels of commerce, useful skills and exchanges are excluded from the life of the camp. $0.02

Posted by: Vinay on 27 Aug 04

These, along with the ideas presented in the post, would be incredible improvements over what is available now.

I would also like to add solar water pasturization and solar cooking to the list. Solar Cookers International is doing a wonderful job for villagers, and I can see their work extending to refugees.

Posted by: Jacqui on 27 Aug 04

I would think that one of the most important pieces of design for refugee camps and other people in need of material aid would be how to not have everything they need stolen by states, bandits, and other refugees, and sold.

you know, before we start giving them disposable video cameras or textbooks.

go onto ebay and look up a few textbooks, and buy one that says "softcover version: slightly different ISBN, same contents! NO RESERVE!" like I did a few weeks ago.

Wonder who stole them from where, and end up using them anyway. . . smell the glorious march of capitalism, all the way from bombay. . .

Posted by: Ben Hunt on 4 Sep 04



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