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Posted at 12:39 a.m., Tuesday, May 28, 2002 

Will technology solve refugee problems or wind up being James Bond-style nonsense?                                                                                                                                                                                                By Joseph B. Verrengia, AP Science Writer

NEW YORK, May 27 - The United Nations estimates that 23 million refugees live in virtually medieval conditions throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas. With every civil war or natural disaster, aid groups offer the same response: an airlift of tents and sacks of grain.

Western scientists and engineers watching the misery say it's time they got involved. They are offering their skills to improve living conditions and to reduce the environmental damage left by refugee camps.

Many of the scientists' ideas are utterly simple. A water pump with bike pedals. A solar stove made of tinfoil. Other ideas are more complex, like a solar-powered satellite phone.

Much of the equipment already exists, but has never been tried in a refugee setting. Soon, these technologies may be field-tested in poor barrios along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an ambitious "sustainable camp" experiment sponsored by the United Nations and the Pentagon, among others.

The tools that are successful would be introduced in real refugee camps from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Perhaps refugees might carry the equipment home where it would improve village life, too.

The scientists wonder, how hard can it be?

"Refugees are all in one place and they don't particularly have anything to do," said one of the program's engineering consultants, Steve Troy. His online clearinghouse based in Boulder, Colorado, distributes 8,000 portable and environmentally friendly tools.

"It's a great educational opportunity," Troy said. "It makes it so easy to demonstrate things." But refugee aid veterans are wary. This wouldn't be first time that Western scientists have arrived in a crisis bearing new gear that is too complicated, delicate or simply irrelevant. Outsiders must tread carefully and enlist the aid of both camp administrators and tribal elders, they warn. Otherwise, the scientists risk being accused of spreading witchcraft. Or worse.

"Refugees are very conservative people who generally are not thinking much beyond getting their next meal," said Larry Thompson of Refugees International, a Washington nonprofit group that is advising the technology trials.

"Nobody has very much time to experiment with anything new, and they're not in a terribly receptive mood."

Refugee camps are established according to a formula explained in the United Nations' 400-page "Handbook for Emergencies."

It's a bitter calculus. Each refugee gets 43.5 square meters (483 square feet) of total space, including footpaths.

Water spigots: One every 100 meters (yards). Latrines: One 100-liter (26-gallon) pit for every 10 families.

A daily ration: 2,100 calories of food and 7 to 15 liters of "reasonably clean" water.

In real life, camps operate less precisely.

"One agency provides water tanks with a 3-inch (7.5-centimeter) spigot," said Bill Browning of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado think tank coordinating the technology trials. "Another supplies containers with 2-inch (5-centimeter) openings. You wind up spilling water, which runs into a ditch and breeds mosquitos. And people get malaria.

"All for the want of a funnel," Browning said.

But scientists say modernizing camp life is not impossible.

Administration would be improved by data and telecommunications systems similar to the military's tough portable units, complete with microwave receivers and solar power arrays.

Refugees would be issued personal swipe cards. Such a database could be instrumental in reuniting families, disease surveillance, tracking criminals and reducing waste and fraud, especially in food rations. Farfetched? In south Sudan, German aid workers already are issuing laminated photo IDs.

Refugees in some countries also might use long-distance telephones and e-mail. Any system must be self-contained and impervious to mud and bad weather.

"When you pull it out of the box, it had better have the right adapter to plug in," warned U.N. telecommunications consultant Mark Prutsalis, who has worked in the Balkans and Rwanda.

All those computers would need electricity. In Golden, Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is testing small solar and wind power plants in 25 developing nations. They were intended to power rural villages, schools and clinics, but they could be adapted for camps.

One model was successfully used in a hurricane relief effort in Central America.

But unlike disaster relief, refugee camps drag on for years and become frontier towns. Host countries resist extending power lines and other infrastructure.

"As the camps drag on, renewable energy can play a large role because it is low-cost and low-maintenance," said NREL senior engineer Ian Baring-Gould.

Cooking and heating is another problem. The United Nations encourages families to prepare family meals to reinforce cultural ties and boost morale.

To reduce environmental destruction, the United Nations often delivers firewood. Scientists suggest switching to small stoves that burn natural gas, which is plentiful and clean.

To replace charcoal, the Seattle-based Christian relief group World Concern has developed a lever-operated press to make fuel briquettes from composted agricultural waste, scrap paper and wood fibers. The dlrs 300 machine is being tested in Haiti, officials said.

Solar-powered ovens require no fuel at all. Though at dlrs 229 plus shipping, they cost less than the briquette-maker, a refugee camp would need one for every family. That makes them too expensive for agencies that typically spend dlrs 55 a year per refugee.

A crude version made of folded cardboard and aluminum foil is being tested at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Sacramento-based Solar Cookers International is distributing the dlrs 10 kit to cook stew in a few hours.

What to cook isn't much of an issue. Refugees survive on starchy rations. Agriculture experts are experimenting with cardboard boxes infused with vegetable seeds and fertilizer.

When the supplies are emptied, plant the box and water it. Days later, veggies sprout.

Some humanitarian experts shake their heads in disbelief at what they describe as "James Bond stuff."

Refugees just want to go home, they explain.

"And that means cash," said famine expert Karen Jacobsen of Tufts University. "Not fancy technology."

Even some of the scientists acknowledge they must resist the urge to over-engineer technologies for refugees who might not have dlrs 20 to their names.

Jacobsen is spearheading a microlending program in south Sudan that lends Ugandan refugees as little as dlrs 50. They might build a fishing boat or start a crafts trade or buy a foot-powered pump to provide irrigation. Anything to earn money to buy their passage.

"They're doing whatever they have to do," Jacobsen said. "How little people can live on is astounding."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.

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