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close this bookGATE - 4/96 - Information - the Key to Sustainable Development (GTZ GATE, 1996, 60 p.)
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View the documentFilling the information gaps
View the documentPublic awareness creation - A delicate task
View the documentSafe disposal of hospital wastes
View the documentTapping renewable resources
View the document''CORE'': Co-operation in action
View the documentMeeting a rising demand
View the documentAppropriate textiles technology
View the documentGate competition
View the documentA leading role for self-initiatives

Filling the information gaps

New Southeast Asian centre promotes Appropriate Technology

by Tim Sharp, Bundit Na-Lamphun and Tien-ake Tiyapongpattana

More and more money is needed to maintain the momentum of development in the Mekong Basin region. But neither are human needs being adequately met, nor is there a let-up in the strain on the environment that rapid growth has been causing. Our authors argue that this is a case for appropriate technology.

During the past decade or so, mainland Southeast Asia has been one of the more vibrant places on Earth. Following the end of hostilities in the 1970s, almost all countries in the region have experienced rapid social and economic growth. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) says the region's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average 6.5 percent per year from 1985-1992,and regional growth rates have topped seven per cent each year since then. Even statecontrolled economies like China and SR Vietnam are enjoying the boom.

Some of the consequences of this growth are truly benign. Basic indicators of human well being such as nutrition, life expectancy and literacy have improved dramatically. The more superficial indicators of the good life such as housing and car ownership have also improved. In most countries, these developments have been accompanied by a marked shift away from agriculture to industry and even to the service sector. Modern telecommunications, computers and even the Internet now co-exist in cities with rural and small-town lifestyles that have not changed in centuries.

Changes not problem-free

But as this prospect suggests, some of the changes are not problem-free. For example, increasing income disparity is becoming steadily more noticeable. Whereas in many developed countries the wealthiest fifth of the population generally captures less than 40 per cent of total income according to World Bank figures, the same population group in rapidly developing countries often captures well over that. The wealthiest fifth in Thailand, SR Vietnam and China for example capture 51, 44 and 42 per cent of total wealth respectively while the poorest fifth in the same three countries must make do with only six, eight and six per cent of total wealth respectively. Such marked differences often reflect geographic and cultural divides, the different lifestyles of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, not to mention remote villages in Vietnam, being a dramatic example.

Underlying these immediate problems are a host of others that are only now becoming apparent. For instance, the Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific, hosted by the United Nations in Bangkok in November 1995, found growing land degradation, deforestation, big-diversity loss and pollution in Southeast Asia. Air and water quality is diminishing. Solid wastes, urbanisation, traffic congestion and industrialisation are all growing problems.

Unhappily, their solution at least in conventional terms promises to be hugely expensive and perhaps even unaffordable. The ADB recently compared investment in public infrastructure in Asia as a whole with and without at tension to the environment. It then compared these figures with the region's ability to pay. If no attention is paid to the environment at present economic growth rates, the 'business as usual' ease, the region would need to spend some US$ 13 billion on environmental infrastructure in the year 2000, mainly for water supply, population policies, forestry and sanitation. With attention to the environment and rapid development, however, the figure balloons to US$ 70 billion mainly for electricity generation, industrial waste management, water supply and transport. But the infrastructure development resource gap - the shortfall in funds needed to pay for these things-is growing. Estimated at 2.3 per cent of GDP for Southeast Asia in 1993, the gap grew to 2.9 per cent in 1994 and 4.5 per cent in 1995. It is expected to remain above 4.0 per cent for the foreseeable future.

Significantly, a mayor site for these problems could well be the countries along the Mekong River - SR Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and the Chinese province of Yunnan. Mekong Basin development has suddenly become a hot issue. The ADB is the lead agency to coordinate several international programmes for the basin whose total budget would be around US$ 40 billion, the dream being that the Mekong could become the Danube of the East.

These sums are of course beyond anyone's reach. Indeed, part of the paradox of the region's rapid development is that it now needs such huge sums to maintain the momentum. As many people have been saying for years, there must be a better way - one in which development can still be achieved but in greater harmony with people and with nature. One of the main means by which such development would be achieved would be through the use of appropriate technology (AT). AT is the technology, whatever its «level", that meets human needs in an affordable, environmentally friendly way. A more precise definition is impossible because the actual technology, even for the same application, differs according to the specific circumstances of time and place. Thus pumping water in Bangkok, Savannakhet or a hamlet outside Hanoi is three separate problems. Appropriate technology is the obverse of the single panacea.


But this specificity itself causes difficulty. For if appropriate technology is culture and site specific, then a mass of information must be available to the people who would like to use it. Yet the information is usually widely scattered and often incomplete or unmodified to local conditions. Prospective users therefore often cannot find it, let alone process, evaluate and obtain it. Thus a collector, filter and distributor of such information is needed. This was the starting point for the Regional Information Service Centre for Southeast Asia on Appropriate Technology (RISE-AT)inThailand. Setup within Chiang Mai University's Institute for Science and Technology Researchand Development (IST) in May 1995 as an independent body with initial technical and financial support from the Information and Advisory Service on Appropriate Technology (ISAT) of the Deutsche Gesellschaft fhnische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH, it is intended specifically to help the Mekong Basin countries mentioned earlier.

Focus on five main technologies

The Centre's role is to fill the gaps that exist in information about appropriate technology. Two main challenges are involved - first, to find and prepare information in a format that suits prospective users, and second, to deliver the information to the users and help them apply it.

To begin with, RISE-AT has targeted five main technologies. These are anaerobic fermentation and waste water treatment, renewable energy, construction, agriculture/ food processing, and handicrafts/small business. Most of these technologies are in strong demand in all five countries. The Centre then collects from the Internet, directories, research institutes and other organisations all the information it can find on these technologies and their suppliers. It then encourages either individuals or private sector, NGO or government organisations at whatever level to use its question and answer (Q&A) service. This direct contact with potential AT users helps to ensure that RISE-AT's information is demand oriented. Once it knows what the actual demands are, it can develop an overview of the issues and contribute towards solutions. Because it can quickly search the relevant databases, it can generally offer a broad range of options that often include alternatives. Because it also maintains a database of resource persons, manufacturers and suppliers it can then follow through on the original request by organising seminars or workshops on the topic so that the chosen technology is actually delivered to the user. The networks and user groups that come into being in this way join RISEAT's growing network of contacts. Steadily, as more and more technologies become ever more widely dispersed through the region, market demand for them will develop leading to indigenous, environmentally-desirable industry.

Key role for universities

A crucial aspect of this structure is the network of contacts. Right at the start, therefore, RISE-AT carefully identified at least one government and non-government organisationin each country that can either supply it with information or help it reach out to prospective end-users. In practice, RISE-AT has several key partners in most of the five target countries including government departments, NGOs, universities and private sector organisations. Some of these, particularly the universities, provide both information and outreach channels and may also provide links to several different kinds of technology. Thus an apparently select group of network members - RISE-AT currently has about 30 key partners across the five countries - actually translates into a considerable technological and grassroots reach. Consider for example, solar energy issues. Following queries to RISE-AT's Q&A service and working together with the Solar Energy Research and Training Centre (SERT) at Naresuan University in Phitsanulok, Thailand, and the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of Yunnan (ISTIY), RISE-AT helped to organise an international seminar on the financing and commercialisation of solar energy activities in South and East Asia that was held in Kunming, Yunnan Province, PR China, in August 1996.

The seminar helped to bring private sector manufacturers, academics, bureaucrats and development NGOs together. It exceeded expectations by attracting 70 participants from 16 countries. Predictably and properly, most of these were from RISE-AT countries - Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Thailand and SR Vietnam - but India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines, not to mention several European countries, were also represented. The seminar helped to introduce a regional organisation now headquartered in Lao PDR - the «Council on Renewable Energy in the Mekong Region" («CORE"; which see in the following).

In other examples of its work, RISE-AT will contribute towards a regional seminar on anaerobic technology for waste and waste water management in Ho Chi Minh City, SR Vietnam in December 1996. The seminar is jointly organised by the Renewable Energy Centre at Can Tho University, SR Vietnam, CEFINEA, Ho Chi Minh City, and the Deutsche Gesellschaft fhnische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) Gmb H. Anaerobic technology has applications in sewage treatment, waste recycling, energy recovery and methane emission reduction and is therefore hugely important to both municipalities and many kinds of industry.

Also in co-operation with Thailand's Department of Agricultural Extension (DoAE), RISE-AT organised training on anaerobic and biogas technology for two technicians from the Science, Technology and Environment Organization (STENO) of the Lao PDR. STENO will now start a demonstration programme to apply the technology with further support from Thailand's DoAE and RISE-AT.

Small businesses

The Centre has also initiated a successful working group on hospital waste treatment that now involves all major hospitals in Chiang Mai (cf. further on in this edition) and is moving strongly into textile technology, particularly spinning and dyeing, as part of its emphasis on handicrafts and small businesses. This issue offers a classic example of the Q&A service in action. By responding to a simple request for information about faster, more productive spinning machines, the Centre uncovered a whole cluster of interrelated problems whose solution would restore textiles to a viable cottage industry. In fact one of the best ways to gauge RISE-AT's activities is to look at the data on the Q&A Service. Less than 18 months after its establishment, RISEAT had answered about 140 requests from 16 countries by end of September 1996, far more both in number and geographic spread than was anticipated. Queries have come from as far away as Argentina, Bhutan, Mexico and Sri Lanka, and the affiliation of respondents is equally broad. Significantly, these are spread more or less evenly across government, NGOs and the private sector, indicating its work in appropriate technology is a very welcome addition to efforts to achieve sustainable development in Southeast Asia.


Ces dix dernis ann, le Sud-Est asiatique a connu un essor nomique prodigieux, marquans la plupart des pays de la ron par une mutation radicale de socis traditionnellement agricoles en socis industrielles. Un peu partout, le niveau de vie moyen de la population s'est vMais l'environnement fait les frais de ce dllage nomique. Les technologies appropri pourraient aider notablement emer ette situation. A cette fin, le service d'information RISE-AT recueille et diffuse les informations correspondantes dans la ron.


En el curve de los os a el desarrollo econo de los pas del sureste de Asia ha sido vertiginoso, caracterizado, en la mayor parte de los pas de la regipor la marcada transformacie sociedades agrlas en industriales. En general, el nivel de vida de la poblacia mejorado significativamente. No obstante, el auge econo repercute negativa y marcadamente sobre el medio ambiente. Las tecnolog apropiadas podr contribuir considerablemente a solventar esta situaciEl servicio de informaciISE-AT recopila y divulga informaciobre este tema en la region.