It's always horrified me when a relatively small earthquake - which I'd take in stride as a Californian - kills 25,000 people in, say, Iran.
Obviously, that doesn't have to happen. This house, currently being perfected by the Federation of American Scientists, is composed primarily of expanded polystyrene (EPS) made without CFCs. It's cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And its inhabitants can sneer at earthquakes:
[A] two-story test house...made of EPS clad with cement board (and fit together without wood framing or braces) has passed earthquake testing. But this wasn't just passing minimal structural requirements: the house remained fully intact after being shaken harder than the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.The drawback to buildings of this type is usually the lack of locally available materials, and the expense and hazard of shipping materials into poor and possibly chaotic countries. This is why many reconstruction groups prefer straw-bale architecture and other traditional building techniques. But according to the FAS, a small styrene house can apparently be built in Afghanistan for as little as $1000, provided a small steam plant is built in Kabul to expand the lightweight styrene pellets. Humanitarian building projects need to be tailored to the needs of individual communities, so EPS isn't going to be appropriate in every situation. But it sounds very promising indeed.
The outfitting of such houses with solar power is also very exciting; there are currently plans to power entire Afghani villages this way. Strangely enough, in areas with intermittent or no electricity, the "downside" of solar energy isn't quite as apparent as it might be to a family of four in Duluth. In Afghanistan, where the sun shines 300 days out of the year, solar power is the ideal choice for rural electrification.
But even without a community-level solar infrastructure, primitive solar water-heating systems are very cheap and easy to install; the simplest solar water-heater, after all, is a plastic bag with a hose attached.
Solar ovens are great, too; there are many varieties, and some of them are very low-tech indeed. Along with water-heaters, they reduce the need for chopping and gathering wood, and for using kerosene and the like.
Also, you can build a solar water-pasteurizer for much less than ten dollars. We always hear about people in poor countries being told to boil their water, especially after disasters. But as Dr. Robert Metcalf notes:
During the cholera outbreak in Peru, the Ministry of Health urged all residents to boil drinking water for 10 minutes. The cost of doing this would amount to 29% of the average poor household income. In Bangladesh, boiling drinking water would take 11% of the income of a family in the lowest quartile....Because the quantities of fuel consumed for boiling water are so large, approximately 1 kilogram of wood to boil 1 liter of water, and because firewood, coal, and coke are often used for this purpose, an inadequate water supply system significantly contributes to deforestation, urban air pollution, and other energy-related environmental effects.Think about this, and look again at the simplicity and low cost of solar water pasteurizers. And finally, consider the fact that contaminated water kills roughly two million children per year.
It's a funny thing about human nature. People in rich countries will hem and haw about contributing money to lifesaving projects like sturdy low-income housing or solar water-purification...it's like pulling teeth to get $25 out of them. But when a tiny earthquake crushes tens of thousands of people who were living in cemented cinderblock hovels, they'll write out a check for $100 without thinking twice.
My advice is to avoid the post-catastrophe rush, and send a few bucks to Architecture for Humanity. You can also make donations to Solar Cooking International, which "has enabled 30,000 families in Africa to cook with the sun's energy, freeing women and children from the burdens of gathering wood and carrying it for miles."