What is an appropriate technology?

May 29, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

It’s day one of Tech4Dev 2012, and the question on everyone’s lips is ­­- “What is an appropriate technology?”

I sat in on some fascinating presentations that aimed to answer this question by looking at water management technologies in India and Africa.

The one that provided the most food for thought was a talk by Ravinder Malik from the New Delhi branch of the International Water Management Institute.

Presenting research on the use of treadle pumps in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India, Malik broke the question down and asked “Who are technologies appropriate for, the promoters or the users?”

Treadle pumps are simple and cheap – but that doesn’t mean farmers want them. Credit: Mukul Soni

Treadle pumps use body weight and leg muscles to lift water from a depth of up to eight metres for use in irrigation. They were introduced in Bangladesh to great success in 1985, boosting crop productivity and helping to lift small farmers out of poverty. To date, 1.5 million of the pumps have been sold across the country.

On the strength of this success, the pumps were introduced and disseminated in India from the mid-1990s onwards.

But nearly 15 years later, says Malik, “promoters and donors are assuming status quo conditions [in India] and pouring huge amounts of money into treadle pumps”.

They are equating sales with demand, assuming that ownership implies usage – but rural India’s socioeconomic and technological landscape has changed.

Treadle pumps succeeded for a variety of reasons, including their simple design and their suitability for the conditions at the time – low irrigation water requirements, a lack of electricity in villages, and the high cost or awkwardness (for example, heavy diesel-powered pumps) of alternative technologies.

Nowadays, farmers have access to small, lightweight, fuel-efficient diesel-pumping kits and have improved access to electricity. There are increases in irrigation water requirements that treadle pumps can no longer meet. And there are increasing concerns over drudgery – many family members have refused to tread because of health-related concerns.

In Cooch Behar, just eight per cent of farmers are using the treadle pumps that they originally purchased. They told Malik and his team that they will never go back to using them – even though they are more affordable – preferring instead to buy or rent motorised pumping technologies.

“Low cost and affordability doesn’t mean farmers will accept and adopt,” Malik said, “and sales cannot be used as a proxy for adoption”.

“Treadle pumps have no new takers, they are slowly being phased out. Any more money pumped in is unlikely to serve the intended purpose of improving accessibility of irrigation for small farmers and helping them in improving their income.

“Tech adoption is a dynamic process and an intervention appropriate at one point in time and under given conditions may not remain so.”

He called for regular and independent monitoring in the field to understand the changing landscape of smallholder irrigation and ensure that farmers have access not only to technologies they need – but technologies they want.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

A verdict on Planet under Pressure

March 30, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

Planet Under Pressure is over. We’ve heard from eminent sociologist Antony Giddens about the ineffective, virtual world of conferences; we’ve heard from technology policy specialist Nigel Cameron about the scientific bubble that has no purchase on the real world. Did PuP, as we came to call it, have ‘cling’ power?

Did the plane fares, the carbon offset fees, the daily lives left in suspension, the mammoth, expensive, conference apparatus, merit the effort — or could it all have been better directed, as one senior delegate argued , towards actually tackling environmental problems?

Most commonly used words in questions asked during the first three plenaries of the conference
Planet Under Pressure

Some over-used words at the meeting no longer have ‘cling power’ with me. I apologise for this but words like ‘engagement’, ‘governance’, ‘value-change’ and ‘empowerment’ slide off my tired consciousness leaving nothing behind.

But, because of this, one of the delights of this conference was the way in which social scientists offered routes away from these increasingly empty terms. Their presentations helped explain why scientists are modern-day Cassandras – accurately prophesying doom (and, in their case, repeatedly prescribing engagement, governance and empowerment) — but destined never to be heeded.

Values don’t just change to order: scientists have to be a bit more sophisticated than that. This was made compellingly clear by sociologist Kari Marie Norgard. She presented a mind-boggling (to a humble science reporter) analysis of personal, cultural and social attitudes to climate change based on the nested theory of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

She convincingly demonstrated that the climate change message is so damaging to our perceptions of ourselves, on all three levels, that it is no wonder we ignore it.

From Richard Wilkinson there was the insight that some values do alter with the changing level of equality in society. From governance expert Oran Young, we saw that common crises (World War II, the Great Depression) can drive bickering nations into new ways of governing themselves at a global level. This linked with a call from panellist Pamela Collins for a ‘global patriotism’ – a kind of wartime footing that would bring out the collective best in us and see us acting for the global good.

And the insight from several sub-captains of industry (including oil company Shell and UK waste company Viridor) seemed to be: don’t bother with complex, value-changing engagement strategies – slap the right tax on us and we will innovate our way in a new, greener direction.

I wonder if the social scientists picked up similarly illuminating titbits from the natural sciences. Surely this meeting has been a success in fostering links between them (in addition, of course, to Future Earth – the vast, tangible conference outcome).

When I asked a number of senior organisers, before the meeting, how I would know if it had been a success or not, they all told me that its uniqueness (which lay mostly in its interdisciplinarity) meant it was already a success, simply by existing.

More formal negative and positive analyses will emerge over the next months (and see our final news story here). But for me, at least, it did shed light on why scientists’ exhortations fail and what might begin to solve the problem.

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

How to make business environmentally ingenious

March 29, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

A plea against bureaucracy when designing ways of getting businesses to be greener was made by Colin Drummond, chief executive of a UK waste company, Viridor, one of the few industry representatives to address the plenary sessions.

“Bureaucracy prevents new ideas coming forward,” he said, and gave a compelling example.

He contrasted the environmental footprint of the UK’s water industry with that of its waste industry.


Tax on landfill in the UK has seen a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

“But we have achieved it at the cost of a huge increase in carbon dioxide emissions – and is the system robust enough to cope with future droughts?” he asked.

In contrast, with the waste industry there was “no bureaucratic approach” he said. There was just a tax on every tonne of waste that went to landfill.

Making landfill too expensive drove ingenuity, with the result that waste handling in the UK has seen a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions; a five fold increase in recycling; a six fold increase in renewable energy generation … and a profit for shareholders.

The argument that incentives work better than regulation was also put forward by Shell’s Martin Haigh, whose reception on Day One we covered here.

“If there was a global price on carbon that would transform the incentives for Shell,” he said

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

%d bloggers like this: