September 23, 2011
Some vitally important stories are hard for the media to cover: the scale is too large, the content too human, the distance too far, or the narrative just too familiar. The catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the horn of Africa is such an example. Triggered by the worst drought in sixty years, the famine which is just now taking its toll is predicted by the UN to have a direct impact on more than twelve million people.
These east Africans were already living on the margins, and now, compounded by this environmentally driven crisis, millions are walking through a desert landscape led forward by scattered bodies of previous travelers on their way to UN refugee camps. Already, tens of thousands have died on the trek or in the camps, mostly children. This number is surely to rise into the many hundreds of thousands and depending upon such factors as the weather, politics, and the scale of international response, the death toll could potentially rise to millions.
Does any of this really have to happen? Particularly when we have shown our ability to create stunning cities in the desert just around the corner, think Dubai.
The catastrophe in the horn of Africa is indeed a preventable one. But like any tough problem, we just need to work through the complexities of the issues one by one. Lack of water for consumption, irrigation, and industry; lack of shelter for protection and community building; lack of energy required to power all societies today; lack of infrastructure and urban planning to operate a sovereign nation. Lack of money to pay the bills? Maybe, but without some investment in the regional infrastructure, the global community will face these issues time and time again.
These are not “moon shot” scale problems; we have addressed and solved them throughout the world. Let’s face it, this is what engineering does!
The vast capabilities of today’s engineering companies can only be put to work if there is a “customer” with a “budget.” In cases like the refugee camps in east Africa, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, www.unhcr.org) has the awesome responsibility to provide for those who make their way to UN camps. The UNHCR, under the current leadership of former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, has prioritized modernizing their efforts — engaging the “innovation” community to help find creative and durable technical solutions to these large scale problems.
I am fortunate to have been directly involved in this work with the UNHCR, helping lead the creation of a global network of companies, universities, and government laboratories to provide the technical expertise and solution base needed to transform life in refugee camps and urban slums.
Much work is to be done, but we have selected as our first task to build “Field Innovation Centers” amidst these populations to enable engineers, innovators, researchers, and students to work directly with those who face problems of survival on a daily basis. The existence of these “R&D” centers in the midst of despair will provide hope that we are there and will help. Not imposing our solutions on these communities and societies, but working hand in hand to improve their quality of life. DN
Geoffrey C. Orsak is Dean of the SMU Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com