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Meeting the UN's Global Goals village by village

ASU community is working on sustainable solutions to global problems by starting with specifics

United Nations headquarters New York
September 28, 2018

In 2015, world leaders agreed to establish 17 goals to achieve a better world by 2030. An end to poverty and hunger. Clean water and energy. Gender equality and decent work. Together, they are called the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

And when they’re met, it's remarkable.

Arizona State University faculty members working on projects that fulfill the goals have seen it in places stretching from Pakistan to Pacific islands.

Here’s a look at three Global Goals-related projects coming out of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society: 

Fuel from a pest in Nepal

The Nepalese government has established buffer zones around their national parks so local people can gather firewood or fodder for their animals. In 2007, the buffer zone around Chitwan National Park began to be invaded by a vine similar to kudzu. One plant was recorded that year. Seven years later, it covered 75 to 100 percent of the forest surveyed. The vine, called mile-a-minute leaf, can grow very rapidly within a week, and it can cover the forest and kill the trees. The Nepalese jungle is trees and grasses, not vines, so the vine changes the dynamics. It creates extremely dense cover in the jungle. Women go to the jungle every single day for about two hours to collect wood and grasses.

“In that time you’re really risking your life because there are so many animals there that are threatening,” said Associate Professor Netra Chhetri. “In that way it’s taking more time to collect resources because where they used to go is now covered in the vine. They have to go deeper and deeper into the jungle to find the things they need. … We want to convert this problem into a solution through bio char.”

Bio char is charcoal used as soil enrichment.

“This charcoal is better than the coal we mine,” said Chhetri, who also is part of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

In June, Chhetri began working with 29 communities in the buffer zone surrounding Chitwan National Park. “We engaged with them and went with them to the forest,” he said.

They built charcoal kilns, collected heaps of the vine, and created a solution to several problems.

The bio char is a source of fuel. It contributes to the health of the forest. It adds nutrients to the soil and helps retain moisture. Chhetri calls it a low-cost, high-impact solution to multiple social problems.

“It increases the productivity and farmers don’t have to buy these expensive chemical fertilizers,” he said. “The reaction was ‘Wow.’”

The work isn’t over. Chhetri is working on how to scale the solution and how to improve collecting the vine. “My job is to hone in on this problem.”

Socially driven, clean, cheap power in Pakistan

Along Pakistan's Afghan border in the mountainous north is an extremely poor part of the country where villages don’t have electricity — or don’t use it because it’s too expensive.

The provincial government has been building a series of small-scale hydropower projects in an attempt to bring electricity generation to local communities at a price they can afford.

In a collaboration with the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar, Associate Professor Clark Miller traveled to Pakistan in July.

Miller went in with a team from the university to collect data on the social and sustainability outcomes of the hydro projects, using a methodology developed at ASU in order to improve the design of future projects. The province has built a couple hundred of the projects and plan to build a couple thousand more over the next few years.

“The design specs for one of the projects contained 50 pages of engineering details — and four bullet points on how it would fit into the community,” Miller said.

“What our framework does is flip that around and ask the question to begin with: How are people going to actually use this energy to make a difference in their lives? To create new income? To improve their ability to deliver healthcare? Or to advance any one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: improve food security, access clean water, improve their agricultural productivity? How are they actually going to use the energy to make that difference in their lives? How do you design the technical part of the project in order to make it possible for them to use the energy in that way? It recognizes that effective energy systems have to be both socially and technically designed.”

Seven master’s degree students from the Pakistani university are at ASU this fall as part of an exchange-student program, training in social data analysis. A report on the project will be produced in May.

A library in a backpack, where there’s no power or internet

Obviously, remote communities without electricity — or internet access — don’t have the same educational advantages shared by the industrial West.  

Enter Assistant Professor Laura Hosman and SolarSPELL, a portable, solar-powered digital library that comes with its own digital Wi-Fi hotspot, able to function without electricity or existing internet connectivity.

“A library that can fit inside a backpack,” it’s full of educational resources. The only thing needed to access the information is a laptop, smartphone or iPad. The information in SolarSPELL is curated to include as much localized information as possible. This allows the device to teach things like science and mathematics, but also to preserve local indigenous knowledge.

“This project hits on a lot of ASU's charter aspirations,” said Hosman, who holds a joint appointment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “I'm all for engaging globally and providing access to those who don't have it.”

Today there are 220 SolarSPELL digital libraries in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Rwanda and South Sudan. They are used by teachers and Peace Corps volunteers.

"Since we received the SolarSPELL digital library, students do not miss school,” said the dean of students at a Rwandan primary school where SolarSPELL was introduced. “Previously, there were students who would come in the morning but leave in the afternoon. Now, we find them in the morning and the afternoon. … They say, 'If I don't go to school, I won't use the SolarSPELL.' When they arrive they ask teachers to use the SolarSPELL library. They are so interested.” 

Both biochar in Nepal and SolarSPELL are projects in GlobalResolve, a service abroad program with a student focus, headquartered in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

Top photo: United Nations headquarters in New York. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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