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Low technology is the only hope in Myanmar, China disasters

by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) May 13, 2008
We can send probes to the fringes of the Solar System. Swap instant messages with friends on the other side of the world. Conduct surgery by remote control over the Internet.

So surely we have some hi-tech help for the hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar and China who are walking on the tightrope of death. Right?

The short, sad answer is No. In the early 21st century, disaster relief bears a remarkable similarity to that of the mid-20th century -- and even before.

"I used to be an aid worker in Mozambique, back in the eighties," Oxfam spokesman Ian Bray told AFP.

"I had to travel all the way from Mozambique to Harare, all day in a Land-Rover, just to send a telex back to my operations here in Oxford. Now I can quickly phone our people. That's how technology has helped us.

"But the basics remain the same. People still need food, they need clean water and sanitation, they need something as mundane as soap and buckets to wash their hands after defecation to break the cycle of disease. You can't email that to them."

Trucks or boats, laden with sacks of rice, blankets, material for shelter and other big items, remain the method of choice for getting help to remote parts of cyclone-ravaged Myanmar and quake-hit Sichuan, said Bray.

Air transport may be faster and sexier, "but it's a very ineffective and very expensive way of delivering aid," he explained.

Helicopters can only carry small payloads, and dropping food from aircraft may cause a bloody scramble among refugees that benefits only the strong and the fit.

In addition, relief equipment, such as water purifying machines and medical gear, has to be simple and rugged, able to resist extremes of temperature and humidity and rough transport and to be operated by local personnel.

So a fancy scanner that works fine in a hospital in Surrey or California with the help of a university-educated engineer is clearly out of the question.

As for emergency shelter, the smartest aid -- the kind that is easiest and quickest to assemble and gives best value for money -- is the simplest, says Graham Saunders of the International Federation of the Red Cross.

"A lightweight tent costs 265 dollars, but a shelter kit, comprising a roll of plastic sheeting, a bag of tools and some fixings, costs just 60 dollars," he said.

For food, nutritionists have done great work on developing high-protein biscuits and a peanut-based substitute called Plumpynut as ready-to-use, wrappered food in disasters.

These are among the palette of therapeutic options for badly malnourished survivors.

But for the bulk of survivors, a food that is familiar, acceptable and easily digestible is the No. 1 requirement, which is why rice is the staple of choice.

Saunders recalls a mission in Afghanistan where he found that US military rations -- meals ready-to-eat, or MREs -- had been used by the locals as bricks to fill in road potholes. Nobody had explained to them that the strange, plastic-wrapped packages contained food.

In the Chinese earthquake, the search for survivors under the rubble will entail a mixture of technology, sniffer dogs and experience in knowing where a collapsed building may provide a survival space, said Julie Ryan of a British charity, International Rescue Corp.

The tools include a tried-and-trusted system of microphones set on the rubble to pick up sounds from a survivor and triangulate his position, as well as a "Scubar", a camera on a flexible pole that can be fed into the rubble.

A recent innovation is a device called a carbon dioxide analyser, said Ryan. "If you are unconscious and in a confined space, the level of CO2 in that space will rise."

Still in prototype phase is a ground radar system, which sends a signal through rubble to locate voids and, with luck, pinpoint a survivor's heartbeat.

Even farther down the track, in experiments conducted by US military scientists, are rats trained to home in on people and send back a radio signal via a brain implant to give their location.

"We take any increase in technology seriously, but there's a lot of instinct in this business," said Ryan.

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WHO sends body bags to Myanmar as corpses rot
Bangkok (AFP) May 13, 2008
The World Health Organisation said Tuesday it had sent body bags to cyclone-hit Myanmar, as experts warned that rotting corpses remain uncollected and pose a major health risk.

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