In Nepal, Oxfam earmarks earthquake response funds for 3-D printing

Men work to rebuild homes in Gorkha, Nepal. Photo by: Tom van Cakenberghe / CAFOD / CC BY-NC-ND

Oxfam is entering a new phase of reconstruction response in Nepal one and a half years after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated much of the Himalayan country. And rather than rely solely on traditional tools used in recovery efforts after a natural disaster, it is an initiative based on innovation, high-tech and experimentation.

The suite of experimental methods being tried include using repurposed plastic bottles as vital home insulation, 3-D printers to instantly create spare parts in remote rural locations and a handful of mapping mobile apps — all coming on top of the usual hygiene kits and input vouchers that dominated the first year of recovery.

In early December, Oxfam Nepal staff and partners will use material made from recycled plastic bottles to insulate approximately 50-100 homes in the most affected earthquake districts in the Kathmandu Valley. The insulation pilot, meant to test the effectiveness of keeping shelters warm in the winter and cool in the summer, is just one of a long list of ideas the aid and development charity is supporting or implementing — including a program idea, still in infancy, to create businesses to sell 3-D printed water pipe fittings.

A team that ballooned to more than 300 in response to April 2015’s violent earthquake and aftershock, Oxfam Nepal is slimming back down. It’s current 198 staff members will be reduced to just under 100 in 2017. With the earthquake response far from complete, it is now time to respond in new and nimble ways to persistent challenges, Christophe Hodder, humanitarian program director, told Devex from Oxfam’s offices in Patan, just south of Kathmandu.

While some international nongovernmental organizations are limited by specifically earmarked — or entire lack of — funding for innovation, Oxfam Nepal’s humanitarian response team is still working from earthquake appeal funding, or the approximate $50 million contributed by individuals from around the world to aid the organization’s quake response. This flexibility, explained humanitarian technical manager Annie Killefer, has placed Oxfam in the enviable position of being able to explore ideas that otherwise might have been seen as too risky to try.

The team still faces many of the same issues that it has from the beginning, Hodder said. Oxfam response is focused in five earthquake affected districts: Gorkha, Nuwakot, Dhading, Sindhupalchowk and Kathmandu Valley. Geographical access remains difficult in hard to reach areas, especially in the north. There are some areas only accessible three to four months of the year, mainly due to monsoon season, he added, while landslides continue to plague rural villages.

Lengthy government processes still slow program delivery, and economical barriers — such as the fuel shortage that for months left many INGOs unable to source critical building materials or transport resources to earthquake-hit regions — add an additional layer of complication to already difficult aid delivery.

“We got stuck in a bit of a routine, delivering what we’ve been told to deliver … but it hasn’t actually delivered as much as we would’ve hoped,” Hodder told Devex of continuing with the status quo.

Recycled, shredded plastic insulation is one promising innovation to address such a challenge by potentially sidestepping the need to import more metal sheeting from India or China for temporary shelters.

But it isn’t the only idea Oxfam is researching in order to break out of its routine.Together with nonprofit Field Ready, which specializes in using 3-D printing technology as a tool during disaster to produce replacement parts and medical equipment on the fly, Oxfam hopes to integrate 3-D printing into its water and sanitation programming.

There’s often one pipe that supplies water to a village, which should be joined by plastic fittings that seal it, explained Hodder. When these fittings are unavailable, those using the water system will fashion their own insecure connections using bamboo, plastic bags or rubber from tires, which lead to loss of pressure at the taps and potentially to contamination of the water supply.

One solution to creating better fittings is to print exactly the right size right then and there. Field Ready has already demonstrated printing a water pipeline joint replacement on a 3-D printer powered by a four-wheel drive vehicle in an internally displaced persons camp in Sindhupalchowk. Now, Oxfam is looking to take it further by creating small and medium-sized businesses that would either have the 3-D printer themselves during a particularly demanding pipe fitting period, or use the appropriate 3-D printed mold to then create silicon fittings to sell at a lower cost to water user committees trying to fix the piping in various regions.

“Imagine if you could push a few buttons and create a pipe fixture, as opposed to having to walk a day down to the market to see if they have something, finding out they don’t, then walking another day and another day until you get to Kathmandu to spend time searching there,” Killefer said.

The 3-D printing pilot is slated for early 2017. In the meantime, the Oxfam team also has its eyes on several mobile apps, one of which could integrate their emergency stockpile data with information about where the most vulnerable people in Nepal are located, allowing them to better understand when the organization has reached them.

“It’s time to divert from the copy and paste response,” Killefer said. “There are so many good ideas coming out of Nepal, and it’s our responsibility to harness them.”

There is a cut and paste emergency response model, which is to be expected, she explained, “but after a year or year and a half, everything has changed. The cut and paste… if you haven’t totally abandoned or changed it, it’s stale. That’s where we are, realizing ‘OK what we’ve got, we can do bigger and better.’”

For Oxfam, bigger and better will come in December or January, when the charity — along with several other INGOs and innovation hubs operating in Nepal — plans to hold an innovation challenge event.

Oxfam hopes to convene INGOs to first agree on their top 10 current humanitarian challenges in the country, then link up with innovation hubs and companies in Nepal to present those challenges. Any interested parties would be given one month to come up with a solution and invited back to pitch their concept. The INGOs involved would then choose which they’d like to help fund and pilot.

It’s not only a way to support innovation, Killefer explained, but also a means of boosting coordination after cluster systems taper off.

“If we can identify as an INGO community in recovery phase what our 10 primary challenges are, that alone is great in assessing how far we’ve come in addressing the needs of the people affected by the earthquake,” Killefer said.

But the ideal outcome would be for the exercise to lead to an innovation consortium with all INGOS interested in co-funding pilots and pursuing new, lean ideas together.

For now, Oxfam will work to produce proofs of concept for the insulation pilot, followed by the 3-D printing project, to be shared in Oxfam and with Oxfam affiliates — material that the organization’s global humanitarian team might later use to obtain funding from other donors and pilot these innovations in other countries.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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