Emergency power in disaster zones

Guest blogger
Humanitarian Engineering

Paul is a civil engineer with experience in relief, development and commercial work. He is also a member of international disaster relief charity RedR UK. Committed to the humanitarian sector, Paul has more than 10 years experience in all aspects of international aid work and development as a water and sanitation expert. He is currently working for Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) based in Spain although travels frequently to areas affected by disaster

The perils of life as an aid worker are all too familiar to me. I have faced my fair share of hairy situations – it’s something that comes with the job.

But, not that long ago, one particular story caught my eye. It involved the sad death of an aid worker who was killed, not by bullets, but by simple human error – he was electrocuted while taking a shower in a poorly wired, rudimentary bathroom while on a field mission.

This tragic case shows just how dangerous electricity supplies in remote locations can be. In fact, ensuring electricity is available to power medical facilities in the aftermath of a major disaster – something I have done in places like Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe – is a major challenge of emergency response.

Imagine setting up a fully functioning, state-of-the-art hospital with no power. Often, there is no central grid to connect to – or if there is, the chances are that is has been damaged beyond repair by the recent quake, flood or war.

If there is an existing supply, it’s likely that there are other complicating factors, such as fake switches, exposed wiring, cables hanging from the ceiling or unearthed appliances, making for additional problems.

And then there’s the problem of rodents – often you can’t set up a hospital until you have dealt with rats. Not just because of the health risks, but because rodents love to eat cable casings. If left unchecked, they also chew through wiring which can shut down an entire medical facility.

As in many technical areas of humanitarian response, successful electrical supply in emergencies demands an entirely new approach. So, we start by wiring or re-wiring our medical facilities where we can. We bring in generators and back-up generators which won’t fail us when our doctors are performing life-saving surgery (there have been more than a few cases where the lights have suddenly gone out in the middle of an operation!) And we create a series of secondary circuits to isolate the most important pieces of equipment – so that heart monitors, oxygen generators, incubation units and X-Ray machines are protected in the event of a power surge or cut.

Drug storage is a challenge as well. Whereas we would usually keep vaccines and other medications in a fridge, in a field situation, if power is lost, thousands of pounds of drug supply can be ruined. In the heat of a major crisis, that can have devastating consequences for thousands of people who need care.

One of the best solutions we have found is the kerosene fridge. They have been around a long time – in fact, we’re using these today in places like South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rather than being plugged in to the mains, kerosene is burnt underneath the specially designed appliance, in turn heating the element. Through a process of heat exchange, warm air is sucked from the fridge unit. And we’re able to get a very accurate temperature reading too. And as long as there’s enough kerosene available, there’s no need to worry about electricity.

In Kashmir, where we have supported a number of small local field hospitals, we noticed and encouraged another method of generating electricity altogether. Here, we have followed the locals and constructed a small water wheel in the fast-flowing river. Linked to a generator, and a car battery, we are able to light the entire hospital through the night.

The challenge is to ensure that these methods and tools are passed on to local communities, helping to ensure safer medical facilities in the years to come but also to instill good practice and safe handling of electricty. We have begun this process, training local engineers where we can.

The hope is that when the next disaster strikes, electricity supply becomes the least of our worries, giving us more time to concentrate on what we do best: providing medical aid where it is needed most.

For more information on RedR, to donate or to volunteer, please visit the website: www.redr.org.uk