In April of 2015, a massive earthquake struck Nepal. Registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake killed over 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. Less than a month later, an aftershock with a 7.3 magnitude hit and killed over 200 people. The effects of a disaster like that can last for years, particularly in poverty-stricken nations where resources are already thin. More than half a year later, relief efforts still continue.
Foreign aid, while it does plenty of good, is plagued by its own problems. It’s expensive for supplies to be flown in from other countries, and those supplies don’t always get to the people who need them most. With the amount and size of disasters, both natural and man-made, increasing, relief agencies are overstressed and understaffed, which sometimes results in problems being overlooked.
Andrew Lamb and Mark Mellors of Field Ready noticed one such problem when visiting a camp in the central Nepalese town of Bahrabise in September. The camp houses about 200 families left homeless after the quake, and some of the water pipes flown in as part of the relief effort were missing washers and fittings, causing them to leak. Without the proper supplies to repair them, the pipes were badly patched with tape and plastic bags. That night, Mellors designed a water fitting on his laptop, and the next day they returned to the camp, hooked a 3D printer up to the battery of their Land Rover, and within two hours the fitting was printed. They attached it to one of the pipes, and the leak stopped. Visiting Bahrabise again this month, Lamb was able to see that the fitting was still in action.
“We were thrilled because it’s one of our proofs of concept: this idea of making useful things in camps for internally displaced people [IDP] is fundamental,” says Lamb. “It was the first time – at least that we’re aware of – that this has been done: that you 3D print a sort of proper water fitting, rather than having to make an improvised one, in an IDP camp. It’s that process of identifying the need, doing the design and then printing it out and fitting it out – and doing all that in less than 12 hours in a remote area. It’s a pretty important step forward, I think, for the use of this kind of technology.”
Field Ready operates differently than most relief agencies, in that they focus on creating sustainable solutions right at the sources of problems, rather than relying on supply chains that are prone to delays and often don’t provide lasting solutions. By bringing technology like 3D printers into the field, the organization is able to address issues immediately and in a lasting way, creating a cure rather than a Band-Aid.
Lamb believes that if other agencies were to adopt similar technology-oriented, field-based methods, billions of dollars could be saved each year on logistics alone. The majority of the money being spent on foreign aid, he says, is used for getting supplies from their origins to their destinations.
Field Ready is also working on establishing the means for people in disaster-stricken areas to adopt technology themselves. Currently, they are working with World Vision to create an innovation lab in Nepal, as well as creating an open-source online supplies catalog where they will post their designs for anyone to download.
“One of the things that we’re very keen on is that we essentially do ourselves out of a job,” says Lamb. “It’s probably one of the first things you learn when you’re at school and you start learning about charity and there’s this basic thing that what you should be doing is not just giving a man a fish and all that rubbish … And then there’s a phase where you think that’s naive and the world doesn’t work that way.”
“What we’d really like to see is the major aid agencies adopting this technology themselves,” he continues. “We’re not being precious about the existence of our organisation. What we want to ensure is that the innovation is successful because we think it can significantly improve the effectiveness of disaster response.”
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