Prayer Flags on Nepalese Mountains

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

The Institution of International, Comparative, and Area Studies (IICAS) at UCSD recently hosted two speakers, Nithya Ramanathan from UCLA and Alex Zahnd from UCSD, to speak about their efforts in “High and Low Tech Solutions that Improve Health and Combat Climate Change in South Asia”. Both speakers hail from impressive engineering backgrounds, and currently work on developing stoves in India and Nepal to reduce emissions of black carbon, which is both a health hazard and impacts our climate through the formation of brown clouds.

It was interesting to compare Ramanathan and Zahnd’s approaches to similar problems. They both want to solve the stove issue in South Asia, however, Ramanathan wanted to control black carbon emissions to ensure the safety of the environment whereas Zahnd is more concerned with the implications of the black carbon on the health of local residents. Both individuals have recognized one key factor that has distinguished their work from the work of other NGOs and non-profit organizations in the area. Instead of changing the lifestyle and customs of the towns and villages that they work with, Ramanathan and Zahnd have centered their studies around making the solutions fit into the existing culture of the different cities they work in. This was, by far, the most impactful part of their talk; understanding the areas in which the people live and tailoring solutions to the resources available and the present conditions should be by far the most important priority for NGOs involved anywhere. As Zahnd said, “If I design an excellent piece of machinery but the native people can’t use it, then I have failed.” Throughout the talk, both speakers emphasized their efforts to battle the black carbon emissions caused by stoves and other energy needs and keeping these efforts in the context of where they came from and where they would be used.

An engineer with a social purpose, Nithya Ramanathan’s drive to help and better the lives of residents in India is evident as soon as she begins her presentation. Her willingness to combine her humanitarian efforts with the empirical process of a research study is a testament to her success with past work in developing sensors to measure black carbon levels in homes. In developing new stoves for the residents of Khairatpur in Uttar Pradesh, India, Ramanathan’s first priority was to ensure that the reduced emission stoves would be fueled by already available sources instead of introducing new goods and products that would be too expensive for the townspeople. While this may have been more work on Ramanathan and Project Surya’s part, it is actually more beneficial for their endeavor, because it means that the people will actually use their modified devices, instead of letting all the work lay to waste because it wasn’t usable in the community that it was developed for.

When Zahnd was narrating his story in Nepal and the work that he has done there to contribute to the community, he emphasized the concept of “Holistic Community Development”, which really means focusing on the overall development of the area, not just on one aspect. This is important because while each area of development is important and has its virtues individually, the development of these ideas as a whole means more to the community. The four characteristics of HCD that Zahnd emphasized were pit latrines, stoves, access to drinking water, and lighting. Together, he and his NGO believe that these elements will improve the overall quality of life as well as increase the availability of electricity in remote areas of Nepal. He also wanted to design more efficient equipment that would use the native energy sources available in the area, while performing the work in a better way than before. According to Zahnd, the time it takes for the village women to obtain all the wood from the neighboring jungle is an entire day’s work, and the families use on average 20 to 30 kilograms of wood a day. This is because not only are they burning wood for energy to make meals, but also to keep warm in subzero temperatures. Because this talk was coupled with Ramanathan’s, the focus was on stoves and how they were improved. Zahnd developed a stove that could minimize the amount of wood needed for cooking, by incorporating several different components into one master stove, which has now been accepted as a government standard in Nepal. However, problems are arising regarding the integrity of these stoves and manufacturers mimicking Zahnd’s stove, but with cheaper materials, which makes these stoves less durable and less expensive. However, if a family has to buy one 2000-rupee stove, it’s a lot cheaper than having to buy five knock-offs at 1000 rupees. The corruptibility of the Nepali government is to blame, because they are allowing more elementary stoves to be comparable to the national standard, effectively cheating its citizens of limited resources.

Image by Nick Kenrick

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