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Disaster relief and humanitarian supplies are big business, and as our climate becomes more extreme, unfortunately, demand will increase.

The hierarchy of survival could be defined as water, shelter, heat (or in some cases cooling), fuel, and food. These are the things that we need to stay alive. The ways in which those things are delivered can alleviate suffering and return some dignity to those who have experienced disasters, but they can also add to the problems if they are ill-thought-out or culturally inappropriate.

Worldwide, access to clean drinking water is a challenge facing vast numbers of people. Drought, disease and industrial contamination, and the greed of those who believe that water is a commodity that should be bought and sold (we’re looking straight at you, Nestle Corporation…), are combining to increase this thirsty misery.

Swiss company Vestergaard makers of insecticide-permeated PermaNet mosquito bed nets to fight malaria, has branched out into water systems, with mixed reviews. Life Straw, their personal water filter, is a tube-shaped filter designed to be worn around the neck. It filters out 99.9 percent of bacteria and parasites from water, enabling the user to drink it safely, and one straw will filter 1000 litres of water. Despite its claim to fight diarrhea, the Life Straw does not filter out viruses, the cause of much of the fatal diarrhea in the developing world

The company also makes the Family Life Straw, a wall-mounted filtration system designed for home use, and the company says it will provide clean drinking water for a family of five for three years.

The Life Straw has been highly praised for its ingenuity and its potential to save lives, but bloggers and other reviewers have pointed out numerous problems with it. First is the lack of dignity involved in expecting people to drink from dirty puddles: this might be acceptable in an acute disaster, but as a way of life, more energy should be devoted to developing actual clean sources of drinking water for people in the developing world.

Another issue is that the user must be at the source of water in order to use the Life Straw: very near because the straw isn’t that long. Neither it nor the family unit will relieve the burden of women worldwide who haul millions of litres of water every day for drinking, washing, and cooking.

Finally, Vestergaard has launched a scheme whereby it will distribute free water purification units in Kenya in return for carbon credits, which it can then sell. Critics are extremely dubious about the ethics and the use of this project.

There are dozens of companies devoted to designing, making, shipping, and erecting emergency shelters for victims of natural disasters and for housing refugees.

The international standard for disaster shelters is 3.5 sq metres per person and at least 2 metres high. They need ventilation and mosquito netting, plus the facility to be sectioned into separate areas for privacy or for a division between sleeping and living quarters. They have to be waterproof and have the ability to be insulated for cold weather, and they have to be durable and quick and easy to set up.

Humanihuts (inhabitat) is a South Australian start up developing shelters that can be erected in five minutes. The shelter incorporates showers, toilets, electricity and laundry. Each insulated steel unit is 7.3 metres long and 2.4 metres high, and a shipping container holds 16 units, which are adaptable for various sizes of settlement. The solar panels on the roof deliver 110v power, and there is built-in water purification and heating. The developers say the units will last 20 years.

Since 2000, Shelter Box has provided tents, cooking equipment, water purification, blankets, tarps, and tools to people in 270 disasters in 95 countries. And first-world music festival goers can have the shelter experience by hiring a Shelterbox tent at the Womad Festival in England. One hundred per cent of the rental fee goes to Shelterbox, to provide emergency shelters for people in disaster zones.

Tentnology emergency shelters.

Finally, the king of the flat pack companies, IKEA, has collaborated with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to produce a flat-pack emergency shelter. The structure sleeps five and has a solar panel in the roof and heat deflecting technology to keep things comfortable.

There are four types of solar cookers: box cookers or ovens; parabolic (stove top) cookers; panel cookers for simmering; and evacuated tube cookers. Solar energy for cooking would solve some of the big environmental problems in the developing world such as expensive fuel and deforestation from harvesting trees for firewood. The problem til now has been that they work only at the brightest part of the day, and not at night and in the early morning when people often want to cook a meal. They also need to be operated outside, and sometimes that’s not very comfortable. Solar cookers that work even at night, and that store energy would be ideal. Engineering for change had a competition for ten university teams to try to design a solar cooker that would be acceptable in villages in Rajahstan, India, where other solar cookers had previously been rejected.

In another kind of technology, an aluminum parabola surrounds a vacuum tube, which heats up and cooks food in about 20 minutes, using no fuel but sunlight. So far, the only Canadian stockiest is in Petawawa or from Solar Stoves Canada in BC. They make a grill, a hot dog cooker, and a larger cooker with accessories. Cost between $300 and $600. It even comes with a carrying case.

One Earth Design makes a complete solar kitchen, which sells for $749, and a smaller grill, but these products are more unwieldy, using a large solar reflector with the pan attached.

Much of this technology, particularly the solar cooking and the portable water purifier, is not just for disaster relief. Campers and hikers and those who want to live more lightly on the earth in the first world also need ways to eat and drink without using fossil fuels far from taps with running water. Some of the companies developing this technology have programs where they donate goods and funds to disaster relief charities for each unit sold.

This survival technology is great, and it will make life more comfortable for those who need it most. I'm not sure that profiting from this stuff is right, and charities need to step up and build more settlements. The technology of survival should be open source. As the earth changes, it could be any of us in the position of needing emergency help.

The next steps in technological innovation should be in the areas of survival materials. If we work together, and use innovations for the common good, then there is hope.

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