Water and energy thanks to plastics
Water and energy thanks to plastics
The destruction or complete absence of infrastructures in refugee camps limits or even prohibits access to a vital resource: water. The provision of drinking water in emergency situations and the establishment of a sewerage system are the main priorities once the matter of accommodation has been "resolved". Humanitarian engineers often use plastic equipment for logistical reasons. In times of crisis, they can rely on flexible bladders made from PVC-coated high-density polyester fabric for carrying and storing drinking water.
A tank filled with ten cubic meters of water can be transported on the bed of a truck. A 500 cubic meter reservoir, which only takes up three cubic metres of space when folded up, can provide enough water for thousands of refugees. These versatile high-capacity containers can take on various functions throughout the water cycle: emergency delivery, collection of rainwater to be filtered or wastewater to be treated, and more. Flexible pipes, manufactured by the same method, are used for distributing water during the emergency phase, and for groundwater extraction during the water network rehabilitation phase.
All-terrain polymers for humanitarian designers
It is a challenge, but also a chore for the women who are then responsible for managing the daily ration for drinking, cooking and hygiene. These tasks are made easier with the help of polyethylene. This cheap, flexible and resistant polymer is used by the rare designers who deign to try and improve products such as jerry cans, buckets and basins.
Oxfam, one of the five major players of humanitarian action, paved the way with its food-grade high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bucket. Originally designed to replace the bulky and difficult-to-transport cans used in camps, it has since conquered the planet thanks to its qualities in terms of hygiene and ergonomy: it is hard-wearing, resistant to deformation, it has a curved underside to prevent the accumulation of dirt, can be doubly hermetically sealed thanks to a fixed lid and cap, and has a tap to avoid contamination. The designer went so far as to move the point of attachment to the manufacturing mold in order to ensure that it does not hurt the heads of the women transporting them. Stimulated by this approach, manufacturers have made use of the performance of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) to create flexible and foldable containers which meet the UNHCR's standards.
The designers at France's Humanitarian Design Bureau recently designed a new type of reusable plastic packaging for the metallic kitchen set distributed by the ICRC. Instead of receiving a battered cardboard box, the recipient now has a rigid airtight container which can be used as a basin or for storing water and food, in addition to the kitchen set..
A "survival straw" in the eye of the storm
One out of every two human beings on this planet does not have access to drinking water which meets WHO standards. The only solution for isolated homes is to convert dirty water into drinking water at home. This is why NGO and industry players on all continents are striving to develop autonomous water filtration systems. One of the simplest of its kind is the system developed by Guatemalan doctor Fernando Mazariegos and distributed by the Pure Home Water NGO in Ghana. Over 100,000 families worldwide have adopted this system which filters water through a ceramic pot filled with sand and placed on the rim of a plastic bucket much like the famous Oxfam Bucket.
The Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen, which is known for its insecticide-coated synthetic fibre mosquito nets and agricultural storage bags, developed a much more sophisticated system. It now sells an inexpensive water filtration system, under the LifeStraw brand, which has proven its effectiveness in the wake of the 2008 Nargis cyclone in Burma. All of the systems derived from this "survival straw" are made from a plastic body containing several membranes of Ultrason® E, a polyethersulfone resin developed by BASF. It provides ultrafiltration of water and helps to filter out viruses and bacteria from surface of rain water, considerably reducing the risk of infection linked to drinking contaminated water. Better known in its individual cylindrical version, the process can also be applied to larger water purification stations such as the LifeStraw® Family model which, according to the manufacturer, is able to provide a family of five with drinking water for three years with no need for electricity or maintenance.
The electricity fairy dresses in plastic
After water, it is often electricity which is most needed by poor populations or those affected by humanitarian crises. Once again, designers are competing to create portable devices able to provide sufficient energy to light a dwelling or to power a radio or a mobile phone. Although the ever-useful dynamo is still in use, it has been made lighter and more reliable thanks to the use of plastic mechanisms. Even better, elbow grease can now be combined with solar power thanks to newly-developed inexpensive photovoltaic membranes. Despite their relatively higher price, LED-equipped solar lamps are much more power-efficient than oil or kerosene lamps. In addition to the cost of two or three litres of fuel per month, the lamps are not only health- and environmental risks, they are also the cause of many domestic accidents.
Outre les dépenses de carburant, à raison d’environ 2 à 3 litre par mois, ces lampes sont une source de nuisances pour la santé, l’environnement mais aussi de nombreux accidents domestiques.
Parmi les dispositifs d’urgence les plus ingénieux, notons la lampe LuminAID imaginée par deux américaines après le tremblement de terre à Haïti en 2010. Elle est constituée d'un boîtier très plat qui contient à la fois l'électronique, le panneau photovoltaïque monocristallin, la batterie Li-Ion d'une capacité de 850 mAh, la LED principale et l'interrupteur accolé sur une poche gonflable en polyuréthane translucide. Une fois chargée, elle est capable de diffuser, en mode « high » quelques 30 lumens durant 8 heures.
The LuminAID lamp, designed by two Americans following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, is one of the most ingenious emergency devices. It consists of a very slim case which contains the electronic circuits, the monocrystalline photovoltaic panel, the Li-Ion battery with an 850 mAh capacity, the main LED and the switch attached to a translucent polyurethane inflatable pouch. When charged and set to "high", it is can provide 30 lumens of light for 8 hours.