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Republic of Georgia, (c) S Tsopurashvili 2016

  • 23 Jul 2017 by Kevin Lee

    (a version of this blog appears in the Fall 2017 issue of WorldView magazine, published by the  National Peace Corps Association)

    If we are to reduce "Human Impact" on the global temperature rise, it will require governance and behavior change, it will not be about technology. My journey through Peace Corps from 2004-2006 and subsequent work founding and building A Single Drop for Safe Water inc. (ASDSW) in the Philippines has changed my perception on development and creation of impact, from technology and infrastructure (engineering basis) to understanding the role of behavior and governance in determining our well being.

    I arrived in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer February 1, 2004, the first stage of changing my career as an industry focused mechanical engineer to an engineer that primarily used community organizing and governance building to facilitate social impact using technology. My picture of the Philippines was of beaches, corals, and coconuts, so I ended up in the Cordillera Mountains in the middle of Luzon, 1300 feet above sea level, 17 miles from the market at the end of the "new" road. 

    As a Water and Sanitation (Wat/San) volunteer my primary project was to work with the Local Government Unit (LGU) and the community to build a water system. This was a two-year journey with several diversions into "eco-tourism" (trendy BS at the time) and "male reproductive health" (the best stories) while watching heavily forested mountains rapidly being cleared and turning into agricultural wasteland, because the road enabled access both ways. I observed the working of the local government units and being part of them I was able to understand their roles in the community, the influence they have and the pressures they are under from their communities and levels of government above them.

    My awareness of climate change and its impact is a different story. It started at middle school in the 1970's (yes, this was not invented with the internet), where I remember discussions of the impact on the ozone layer by fluorocarbons and the green house effects of carbon dioxide. However, as with most of us, this receded to the back of my mind as I pursued education, mainly with the goals of meeting girls, making money, and building noisy stuff that would allow me to make money and meet girls. ANYWAY, I graduated, met a girl, built lots of big noisy stuff, and made a little money. In Ambaguio (my Peace Corps site) I watched the forest disappear and I listened to the stories of how the seasons were a-changing, and not for the better.  Access to markets got better, technology made it easier to farm, yet people had to work harder to make as much money, because yields were decreasing. This was due to nutrient deficiencies as they repeated crops, but it was also due to hotter temperatures and the real impact of climate change: the dry season was longer and the wet season was wetter. Still only a small impression, as I was dealing with how to mobilize communities to build, operate, and maintain water systems, pay for service, and get the local government to take responsibility in partnership with the community.

    In a chance meeting at the end of Peace Corps service with Gemma Bulos, I ended up as a co-founder of ASDSW, a non-stock, non-profit organization, where we were introducing appropriate water filtration technology and building community organizations to build and install them. However the real setting apart of ASDSW was based on a partnership with a development organization that was governance focused.  Mags Maglana (later board chairperson) influenced me with her thoughts on the role of government and the process of governance in service delivery. With my experience in Peace Corps and this prompting, we totally refocused ASDSW as a governance organization that does water, sanitation and hygiene, versus the traditional technology/community organizing NGO. It was a very cool and inspirational transition that resulted in ASDSW to create a niche market, be a thought leader and work with and influence government at all levels. 

    As we progressed, we entered the Humanitarian Response sector as well as the education sector. Climate Change Adaptation was starting to become a hot topic in the development field and we were able to address this through engineering so as to mitigate impact, and through governance and demand creation to allow communities to prepare and adapt. But the biggest and most tangible impact was through humanitarian response. In less than three years we responded to three large flooding events: a killer tropical storm (Washi), a massive large scale typhoon (Bopha) which started closer to the equator than any other recorded typhoon, and Typhoon Haiyan that killed close to 10,000 people. Frequency was increasing, location was moving further south and this reflected the climate change science that has conclusively concluded that this is not just a weather cycle, but human impact which is accentuating any natural cycles that occur. Not only this, but the communities that we were responding to were actively discussing the symptoms and impacts of climate change, and they sure as hell know that it exists and that they need to adapt. They also know that they personally have not contributed much to it, but they do know who to blame.

    Funnily enough we also got to hear the same from experts that travel in planes, stay in air-conditioned hotels, drive in SUV's with carbon footprints the same size as whole villages, but that's a whole 'nother rant!

    Back to the point of why we as RPCVs need to make a statement, and why I joined the RPCV for Environmental Action Group.  First of all Melissa twisted my arm really badly.  Secondly PCVs live in a society that is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses and is the biggest influencer for change.  PCVs generally serve in communities that are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Not only do these communities contribute the least to the increase in temperature, but they do not have a voice and they certainly have limited influence over those that can make a difference. Often PCVs can be a burden to their host communities and have limited impact during their service.  However they can pay back those that they worked with by providing their voice to not only influence policy, but to proactively change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint. 

    The Paris Climate Accord is the biggest call to action on the most important issue that faces the world today. This is governance in action, where the world combined to make a policy statement. But that's the easy part. Implementation will be difficult to sustain and only good governance on a world stage will make it work. Already we are seeing where good governance and demand for action is starting to override influences that are threatening this accord. In the Philippines the current administration threatened to pull out of the accord, but public pressure has stopped that action. In the USA the current administration has pulled out of the accord, but local administrations at state and city level have stated and enacted policies to not only meet but sometimes exceed the requirements of the accord. We see where other countries are starting to fill the leadership void and take a more dynamic role. 

    There are no magic bullets to solve this issue. Technology will allow us to meet the targets, but it will require citizens of the world to change the way they live, so as to reduce their footprint while actively participating in the governance process to ensure that government as duty bearers continue to move in the right direction. As RPCVs we have the privilege to speak with authority and the RPCVs for Environmental Action is one of the channels where we can participate in the governance process that will be the prime mover to reduce human impact on global temperatures.


    Kevin Lee was born in South Africa to American parents. He was raised in New Zealand and graduated from Auckland University with a Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering. For 14 years he worked in New Zealand and the U.S. as an engineer in the steel and construction industries. From 2004-2006 Kevin served in the Peace Corps/Philippines as a Water and Sanitation Volunteer. In his post-service career, Kevin co-founded A Single Drop for Safe Water, Inc. where he serves as Executive Director, and in Single Drop Consulting Services as President. Kevin was honored as Echoing Green Fellow 2007, Tech Museum Equality Laureate 2010, Ashoka Fellow 2015, and Standards 2015 Visionary Award. He is married to Luzviminda Lee and lives in Puerto Princesa, Philippines.

  • 21 Jul 2017 by Ellen Arnstein

    [A version of this blog appears in the Fall 2017 issue of WorldView magazine, published by the National Peace Corps Association.]

    None of the Bolivian farmers I worked with as a natural resources volunteer ever mentioned climate change. They said the rainy season started later every year, dry seasons were dryer and dryer, there used to be more shade trees and windbreaks, there’s not as much water as there used to be, and an increase in hail storms and disease has lowered their peach crops.

    Climate change is complex and it’s hard to predict its impact in the Andes.

    However, we can make some assumptions: high elevations will warm to a greater degree than the global mean warming and we expect the changes in oceanic circulation, extreme meteorological events, and precipitation anomalies to severely reduce water supply. Some of these predictions have already come true: In 2009, the 18,000-year-old Chacaltaya glacier disappeared six years earlier than predicted; water levels of Lake Titicaca, which supports 2.6 million people, dropped by 2.6 feet, the lowest level since 1949; And the rainy season in the high plains has been reduced from six to three months.

    Less water leads to fire-prone landscapes, destabilized slopes, and erosion. Warmer temperatures promote disease, increase stress on plants, and alter the ranges of several important crops and insects.

    People in the Andes face lower food production and increased prices as climate change and its effects contribute to decreased crop species diversity, land degradation, environmental changes, and increased population pressure with its attendant poverty and internal migration. Most of the hardship will be borne by farmers with only a small plot of land.

    They may not call it climate change but it does not go unnoticed there. How farmers perceive their environment is an indicator of seasonal climate variability. Communities can respond to challenges by taking specific actions such as adjusting their herd sizes, diversifying sources of income, and acquiring usage rights to higher elevation land. They can adopt new modern crops and agricultural techniques or try to recover traditional strategies. A recent study reports that those homes with significant ethnic knowledge of traditional farming practices incorporating ritual and Quechua language maintain greater diversity in their fields, planting tens of different types of potatoes, for example. This may indicate that the preservation of Andean culture could preserve genetic diversity and mitigate the effects of climate change.

    Farmers in the Andes can and do pursue strategies to mitigate climate change through their own societal ethics and social structure with traditional indigenous knowledge, respect, and diversity. With our language training and sensitivity to local cultures, Peace Corps Volunteers are an integral force against climate change in the Andes. These first-hand field experiences build in us a lifelong commitment to reducing the impact of climate change worldwide.


    Ellen Arnstein taught classes in solid waste management, tree biology and English and started two schoolyard nurseries and a vegetable garden while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Camargo, Bollivia from 2007-2008. She now supervises volunteer stewardship projects for the Emerald Nature Conservancy in the parks of Boston.

  • 09 Jul 2017 by Mel Siegel

    (a version of this blog appears in the Fall 2017 issue of WorldView magazine, published by the  National Peace Corps Association)

    Since I served a very long time ago - my Ghana II cohort arrived in country one year to the day from the first-ever Peace Corps cohort - I will take a longer-term perspective on this question. In early Peace Corps days our U.S.-based training was exhaustive and exhausting: we did ten intensive weeks on the UC Berkeley campus, followed by two weeks in-country on the University of Ghana (Legon) campus. By the time we arrived at our schools we really knew a lot about the country - and we probably thought we knew even more.

    Things we believed included:

    1. the economic and educational level in Ghana south of the Volta River was comparable to remote rural areas in southern Europe, e.g., Portugal and Sicily;
    2. the southern edge of the Sahara Desert was retreating from northern Ghana at a mile or so yearly; and
    3. the Akosombo dam project - turning the river into Lake Volta - would transform Ghana and much of the West African region by bringing electrification, an aluminum smelting industry, water transportation, and irrigation-based agricultural.

    One of the highlights of our in-country training was an overnight trip to the construction site, where we all ignored everything that we'd learned about tropical intestinal infections and pigged out on the fresh water crayfish.

    I have been back to Ghana twice: in 2002 for an in-country reunion of our cohort, and in 2008 for a conference onto which I was able to tack a visit to the far north. Based on these visits, I have observations about what has actually happened relative to our beliefs in 1962.

    1. There has been truly substantial economic - but probably less educational - progress, but the gap between Ghana and the now no-longer-poor parts of Europe has become enormous.
    2. The increase in the gap - albeit on top of an improved base - is intimately related to issues of climate change and failure to implement sustainable environmental practices: the Sahara is again moving south, population has quadrupled, civil infrastructure has fallen far behind residential and commercial construction, and architecture now relies on air conditioning instead of the climate-adapted low-energy-demand structures that were previously prevalent
    3. The aluminum industry never developed to the planned extent, electric power generation is far below what was expected, so brown-outs and black-outs are common, and old-timers are convinced that the lake has dramatically changed the climate for the worse in the central region - adding insult on top of the injury of global climate change.

    I would like to expand a little on the architecture and infrastructure issue, which I think is symptomatic of "how not to do it" for environmental sustainability as well as for human comfort in the tropics. The school campus on which I taught and lived was built in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Walls were thick, windows were shuttered but not glazed, and trees and arcades provided shade. Cross ventilation and an occasional electrically-powered ceiling fan, along with acceptable attire that was appropriate to the climate, made our working and living spaces comfortable most of the time, despite the heat. In contrast, what I experienced in 2002 and 2008 were thin-walled buildings, glazed windows, and air conditioning that was inadequate when it worked – and that frequently didn't work, either because it was broken or because the electrical power had failed. It all contributed to tropical misery. To exacerbate this misery, temperatures seemed higher, and western-styled clothing that is unsuitable for a tropical climate is increasingly the norm. Hopefully, the realization that the climate is becoming more inhospitable and energy will probably become more expensive and less reliable, before it becomes more reliable, will encourage a return to adaptive architectures and life styles.

    My Peace Corps service, post-service career decisions, and involvement in the RPCVs for Environmental Action are closely linked. A component of our Peace Corps training at Berkeley was writing a "term paper" on a personally meaningful topic related to our training. The topic of my paper was a hypothetical analysis of the social and economic consequences of a Peace Corps volunteer introducing a mechanized fufu pounder to a traditional Ghanaian village. This led to my thinking about sustainable development; in particular, technology for sustainable development, probably before the idea had that name. Although my professional career has been in physics and robotics, I have always had in the back of my mind that when I get around to retiring I would take up work on the technological aspects of sustainable development issues. It was my good luck that RPCVs for Environmental Action came along at just the right time for me to realize my now more than 50-year dream in collaboration with this enthusiastic, talented, and like-minded group.


    Mel Siegel is professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in its School of Computer Science. He received his bachelor's degrees from Cornell University and his PhD from the University of Colorado - Boulder under Nobel Laureate John L. Hall. He served in the Peace Corps, teaching physics and math at Achimota School, outside Accra, Ghana, in the two years between his undergraduate and graduate studies. During this period, he traveled extensively on the ground in West and Central Africa, sometimes even in compliance with Peace Corps rules.