Pioneers | PREMIUM CONTENT

Priti Parikh wants to provide infrastructure to every person on this planet!

Apr/10/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi
Dr Priti Parikh, founder of Engineering for International Development (EFID)
Dr Priti Parikh, founder of Engineering for International Development (EFID)

As a teenager in India, Priti Parikh would follow her father, also an engineer, into slums and informal settlements as he worked to improve sanitation and water access for the poor. Today, Parikh, who has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, is the founder of Engineering for International Development (EFID), at the University College in London, and is recognized by Apolitical as one of the 100 most influential academics for government and policy-making in climate and sustainability. EFID advises policymakers and charities on sustainable engineering solutions for human development and well-being, especially in low-and middle-income countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

We sat down to chat with Parikh about her life’s work and to learn from a woman at the forefront of technological innovations about where exactly we stand on climate change.

  1. Tell me a bit about yourself and your career. Where did you grow up, and what was your journey into the field of sustainable infrastructure and construction?

My parents moved from East Africa, to the UK, [then] to Gujarat in India where I did my schooling, undergraduate studies and early industry work. I then moved back to the UK 21 years ago. So in a way this journey instilled in me an interest in global challenges and the desire to explore why there are disparities in living conditions on this planet. 

I saw how difficult life was without clean water and sanitation and electricity. I also saw how the provision of infrastructure (water, sanitation, roads, electricity, flood management) transformed living conditions. The process also included a large component of engaging with local communities to make engineering solutions more sustainable. Since then there has been no turning back and now I am heavily engaged in the field of sustainable infrastructure. 

  1. Tell us a bit about Engineering for International Development (EFID). How did it begin, and what was your vision behind it?

After working in the engineering industry for 15 years I joined academia where I noticed a gap in skills in the sector. For example, undergraduate courses in engineering have been very technical and rarely focus on behaviour change which is so important while helping underserved communities adjust to new technology. I first developed an MSc program to train engineers in the development of solutions specifically for marginalized communities, and then founded and now head the EFID center at University College, London. 

Our mission and passion at EFID is to provide infrastructure to every person on this planet. As a center, primarily we combine technical solutions that can improve human lives with social sciences to understand social-cultural acceptance of technologies. 

For example in my fellowship funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and industry partner Bboxx Ltd, my team models electricity consumption trends for people in remote villages who use solar panels. 

But we combine this work with consumer behavior studies to understand why people use appliances and what their future needs are likely to be so that the sector can develop the right appliances and design energy efficient systems. 

We also provide evidence to governments and charities on the benefits of providing infrastructure to marginalized communities. We do that through identifying links between those services and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr Priti Parikh stands before some solar panels
Dr Priti Parikh stands before some solar panels
  1. There is a great deal of conversation around how women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change, and the role of their empowerment in dealing with it. Could you shed some light on this?

Women and girls bear the burden of poor infrastructure and climate change. In settings such as slums and villages often they are the ones who are responsible for collecting water and cooking fuels, disposing waste water from houses and sourcing food. So women and girls are already more likely to face hardships, and climate change simply adds another layer or dimension to it. For instance, with frequent flooding it takes longer to collect water and source cooking fuel. It is often difficult for women and girls to quickly evacuate during flood events.

Sanitation or the lack of it is hugely problematic due to the risk of violence near public toilets or open fields, especially during nights. With droughts when rural communities migrate to cities they find themselves in new settings where they are more vulnerable and this has an impact on safety and education of girls.

  1. One of the most heartbreaking things about climate change is that those who are perhaps least responsible for it are the worst affected — the poor living in urban informal settlements. What are some solutions you’ve come across to address this?

Globally 50% of the population mostly in low and middle income countries are responsible for just 10% of the emissions. Most of the urban informal settlements are located in low- and middle-income countries, which are more vulnerable to climate change in spite of being low emitters. 

Millions of children in South Asia are being put at risk due to climate related events such as floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts. Unfortunately, vulnerable communities who are already struggling to survive and access basic services are the ones most adversely impacted. Children living in those communities face being trapped in poverty, lack of healthcare and education due to displacement as a climate change. We have to act now to provide a safer and sustainable future for our children.

We are researching and advancing knowledge on water, sanitation and energy solutions which are climate friendly – which leads to lower emissions and improves the capabilities of communities to adapt to climate change. 

Our research shows that access to clean water and sanitation services in slums not only improves health, education, income and housing conditions for families in slums but also enhances their resilience to adapt to climate change. Our research on solar energy shows that households use of combination of clean and polluting fuels depending on financial circumstances. Transitioning those households to clean fuels will require a combination of technical innovation, targeted subsidies and engagement to raise awareness and change behaviors.

  1. What’s in the future? What are you planning to work on? Are there any exciting opportunities coming your way?

759 million people lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion people are unable to cook cleanly. Some 2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed drinking water services, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities. We want to a) develop partnerships with governments, private sector and charities to fix this and b) create a future generation of engineers to continue this journey until the last person on this planet has access to basic services and can live a dignified life. 

  1. How is developing engineering solutions for the poor, the worst-affected by climate change, different from designing for the mainstream?

The main barrier for infrastructure is affordability, because people have fluctuating and low incomes. We need to come up with high quality and high performance solutions using principles of frugality. The consumption patterns of those communities are different too. For instance, in East Africa, despite the availability of LPG, many household revert to charcoal, citing that food tastes better when cooked on a traditional stove or use candles even with solar systems. 

Through my ongoing fellowship I work with communities in villages in Africa to understand their current and future energy needs. My industry partner, Bboxx, has developed and installed household level solar panels to provide electricity in remote settings. They use a pay-as-you-go business model so that houses with fluctuating incomes can afford to pay their energy bills. This has scaled up electricity in communities that have never used electricity in their lives. This will also enable those households to transition to clean energy sources to reduce emissions from polluting fuels to address climate change.

  1. How does working in sustainable construction change you as an individual? Do you ever feel like you carry a huge burden because of the immense responsibility and the urgency to help people and the planet?

There are times when I feel overwhelmed, but then I remind myself that it is not my job to fix everything on the planet. It is my job to train future students who will be leading practitioners and policymakers. We are not alone in this. As an academic, working with students is a joy, especially when I see them progress to top positions in the field. 

Lastly I make sure to be grateful and focus on the little pleasures in life – like a bar of chocolate.

Seema

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