The Walrus Blog

The Donkey and the Ninja

One of the problems with writing about developing-world technology is that all too often the sexy tech is useless, and the useful tech is deeply unsexy. Innovations that actually change lives in a profound and meaningful way are frequently grimy, clumsy, noisy and ugly. Like this donkey:

Donkey 1.0

That’s not quite a non sequitur. What you have in this photo (taken a four-hour walk from the nearest road in the foothills of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains) are two eras of technology, side by side: animal power, and in the hut behind it, hydro power.

Hill country is rough country. Think Appalachian hillbillies, Bosnian ethnic cleansing, Bolivian coups, Nepali Maoists, Papua New Guinea blood vendettas, Colombian paramilitary strongholds, the Rwandan genocide, Osama Bin Laden’s hideout: all lands of steep, barely accessible hills and valleys, bloody tribalism and abject poverty. (I’ll concede Switzerland as the exception that proves the rule.)

But at the same time, hill country has incredible potential. I mean that literally: the potential energy of the water flowing through their mighty rivers. Himalayan hydro could conceivably light up not just Nepal but a sizable fraction of the entire Asian continent.

But hydro power has too often meant megaprojects for megawatts: huge artificial lakes, mass forced migrations, decades of construction. Examples include Lake Volta in Ghana, Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, and China’s huge Three Gorges dam, which has created the world’s largest artificial lake upstream of the most densely populated real estate on Earth, in an area prone to massive earthquakes. I’m just saying.

That little hut behind the donkey, however, is home to this small and unsexy Pelton wheel engine:

Pelton wheel engine

Its 300 watts power a fridge, a string of light bulbs, a TV, DVD players, and a satellite dish. Not much — but enough that this remote river valley is no longer cut off from the world. Finally they can avail themselves of civilization’s elegant and educational delights. For example, on the night I spent here, the entire local population clustered around the TV to watch… um… American Ninja.

Well, the road to Kubrick and Kieslowski has to start somewhere.

An obvious Catch-22; hill country is poor country, and thus cannot afford hydro power. There are various solutions. Microcredit is one. Another is tourism; this engine was paid for by the trickle of tourists who spend the night in this valley while trekking through the Colombian jungle to Ciudad Perdida. I’ve been saying for years that the best way to give to developing countries is spend your money in them having fun.

Oh, and don’t worry, that donkey’s not going to be out of work anytime soon. How do you think the engine got there?

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