Appropriate Technology

Gil Williamson

Cold climate and no oxygen. A remedy for overcrowding?

You could count on the fingers of three hands - well, four, certainly - the number of people who actually lived in the valley. Now and again in summer, you'd see a climbing party, a few fit young men, sometimes women, from the first world, accompanied by a score of third-world porters, and for a week or two the valley's population would be more than doubled.

He detonated a few small explosive charges.
Occasionally, a Nepalese government official called Ashwali and his sturdy apparatchiks would dutifully struggle the forty kilometres of steep footpath from what passed for the nearest outpost of civilisation, his purpose, apparently, to assert Nepal's ownership of the area. Theoretically, the valley was also claimed by Tibet, but Tibet sent no officials, as no route into the valley existed from the north, unless you counted the laborious and temporary steps hacked in the high sheet ice from time to time by the climbers' ice axes.

On maps, the valley had no name. It was just a crease in the edge of the Himalayas. In the local tongue, it was traditionally called a phrase meaning approximately "Flower of the Sun". Though it was uniquely benign for its situation, it was not the comfortable environment implied by its name. The cold of its 5000 metre altitude, the constant wind, the relative shortage of oxygen and the lack of infrastructure saw to that. But for a few, it provided a welcome alternative to living cheek by jowl with the billions of human beings who infested all the more hospitable corners of planet Earth in the late twenty-first century. And whenever the sun shone, it tended to warm the whole area, winter and summer, and snow melted quickly, except in shaded corners along the ragged southern cliffs.

The valley was actually a tilted bowl, so that to enter it by the usual method from the south, you had to climb up and over the lowest rim of the bowl, to find the valley spread out below you. At some point in the past, the valley had been completely filled by a lake. The lake had been supplied from the melt waters above, and it had overflowed the southern edge of the bowl, carving a watercourse that was now dry and formed the main route into the valley. Some millennia ago, however, water had found its way through a crack in the base of the bowl and drained away through subterranean caves, to emerge through a fissure miles down the track to Kathmandu When the lake emptied, it left a rich topsoil of silt, in which grass and vegetables grew well. The crack was called "The Throat of Shiva". The river now ran across the valley, and disappeared down the Throat. The Throat was quite wide at the top, but it narrowed about twenty metres down. When the river was at its lowest volume, a climber could safely descend to see the flow gurgling through a circular hole a couple of metres in diameter. The hole was not wide enough, though, because at the height of the springtime thaw, the volume of glacial melt water backed up to form a pale blue lake some three to five hundred metres in diameter, and a dangerous-looking whirlpool appeared in the lake above the Throat. The houses that constituted the village were situated a few kilometres upstream. Although the river bisected the valley in a diagonal from northwest to southeast, part of it near the village ran in a narrow gorge, and an ancient Bailey bridge, dating from some military venture in the more than a century ago, joined the halves of the valley.

The appearance of a lean, tanned American walker with a rucksack full of mysterious equipment and a command of various local languages was not at first regarded as particularly remarkable. The area was not unknown to naturalists and documentary film makers, due to its unique ecosystem. The American based himself at Mona's inn, but often camped in corners remote from the inn. His name, according to Mona, was Frank.

Strangely, Frank spent several weeks hiking around the whole valley, from the green lower slopes and pastures to the windswept crags, and along every metre of the ice-melt river from its entry, high on the mountainside, to its exit through the Throat near the southern raised rim. He was observed to tinker with his shining apparatus and to inspect rocks. He detonated a few small explosive charges. He sometimes talked on his satellite telephone. He showed no immediate sign of leaving, but declined to reveal his mission, and he became a fascinating puzzle to everyone except Eric.

It wasn't that Eric knew what the American was up to. It was just that he didn't at first find him fascinating. He seemed to know what Frank was doing. Eric, a sun-dried, wiry Australian, had his own preoccupation with his wind farm. Eric's first project, six or seven years ago, when he had first retreated here from the unbearable overcrowding, water shortage and stark dry heat of Western Australia, was to supply the village with running water. It had been a simple piping job from the engineering point of view, and saved everyone the tricky, and often hazardous, business of fetching water from the river in buckets. Getting the supplies of piping and valves had been more difficult, and he had to persuade Vinod and his train of sure-footed donkeys to add the materials to his load from the nearest town.

The water project was followed by a largely unsuccessful, or, rather, strictly seasonal, solar heating project assembled from plastic tubing. Since then, it had become his self-imposed mission to provide electricity for the cluster of homes in the village. His windmills were mounted on rock cairns along the highest part of the southern crags. They consisted of old motor car generators with vanes attached. There were billions of cars in the world when commercially available fuel became too rare and expensive to be practical. Most of the cars were still around, used as shelters, chicken coops, storage facilities, and so on. None of them needed their alternators any more, so alternators weren't hard to get hold of, even in Nepal. Eric's experiments with rigid propellers on his first dynamo proved that when wind varied between storm force and hurricane force, which it frequently did up here, a rigid structure would bend or blow over. Now he used plastic tubing for the ribs of the vanes, with triangular sheets of synthetic fabric as the sails, whose pitch and size he could vary by a clever arrangement of rope tethers. They resembled the traditional Greek windmill. The ribs flexed in high winds, reducing the sail area and relieving pressure. In extremis, if a rope gave way or a sail tore, all the other tethers on the windmill would let go without damaging the machinery. Now that he had more than a dozen windmills, however, it was a near full-time job to service them all when the winds were high. There was seldom a time when the air on the ridge was still, so power cuts were rare. His main problem had been cable from the generators to the village, until Vinod returned from a trip down the pass with a couple of reels of Vietnamese electric cable that didn't meet even the lowest quality standard permitted by the Nepalese hydroelectric company, but which was super-adequate for Eric's purposes. A few heavy accumulators, a box of Argentinian electronic dc-ac voltage boosters and Eric was supplying 240 volts AC to his customers. As with most things in the village, most commerce was based on barter, favour and obligation. In Eric's words: "No-one eats idle bread".

The fertile valley had always supported many more sheep and goats than were necessary for the valley's population. In these days, when most of the world lived on vat-grown yeast products, real meat had become a valuable commodity. Meat was the valley's main product, and its main employer. Driving the animals to market had proved inefficient, because they tended to become emaciated or to die of exhaustion or to meet with accidents on the rocky path to civilisation. An attempt to bring a yak to the valley failed when it proved unable to get through an extended narrow defile on the path. For some years now, Vinod's donkey caravan had taken sheep and goat carcasses to the market in the nearest town and returned with fuel, sometimes wood, but more usually expensive biofuel, along with flour and other dry goods. The lack of trees, and, therefore, fuel, in the valley accounted for the fact that it had not historically supported a large population.

Now, with electricity available, the need for calorific fuel was much reduced, and there was capacity on the returning donkey train for Eric's electrical supplies and for the villagers' modest electrical appliances. According to Mona, Frank the American was surprised and pleased to be able to recharge the batteries for his equipment at the inn.

When Eric was forced by Mona to speculate on Frank's activities, all he said was "Sounds like oil prospectin' to me. No oil up here, though. He's wastin' his time. Oil's so valuable they'll try anywhere." Eric was wrong, as it turned out.

It was, of course, Mona who found out what Frank the American was really up to. It started quietly enough when she entertained him to a mutton stew dinner washed down with potato wine that she made from the potatoes she grew in the vegetable garden nearby. When Eric had first tasted the wine, he had remarked that in his opinion, it "didn't travel", but Frank seemed to enjoy it. Mona, who purported to be German, was a rich brown in colour, and generously built, on the curvaceous side of plump. Sitting opposite Frank, she leaned forward, parking her bosom on the table like a bowl of fruit, and treating him to her most adoring gaze and her warmest smile.

"Why do you call this place Starbucks?" Frank asked, when he seemed to realise he'd been staring.

"Well, Vinod found the sign somewhere, and brought it back for me. We're not exactly franchised, ha, ha, but it's the closest you'll get for a hundred kilometres around here. You want coffee? We even had a bottle of Coca Cola at one point, but it's gone, I'm afraid."

"No. The wine's fine. Great."

"Have some more. Whereabouts do you come from, Francis?"

"Southern Carolina, originally. Near Myrtle Beach. The reclaimed offshore bit that links to the islands. Educated in Alaska, though, so I'm used to the cold."

"What was your major, then?"

"Geological physics."

"Cool. I bet you've had some really interesting jobs."

"Yeah, mostly land reclamation for building or cultivation."

"Really? Fascinating!" And so on, until the potato wine, the flattery and Mona's physical charms tempted Frank to confide to her that his current survey was on behalf of the "space cannon" project.

"But, Mona, this is just for you. Not a word to anyone."

Mona was none the wiser. Space cannon? Wtf? "Sure, Frank. Have some more wine."

Frank clammed up after that, and then fell asleep. Mona, of course, told everyone the news, swearing them to secrecy, and by the following day, Frank was the only person in the valley who didn't know he'd spilled the beans to her. Due to potato wine amnesia, Frank's memory of the evening was a warm, fuzzy blank. Only Eric had any clue what a space cannon was and he said nothing, but, unusually, he accompanied Vinod on his next trip to town, leaving the wind farm to its own devices for a week. Eric returned with a new fat data plug for his j-pad and a thoughtful look on his face.

It should be noted here that Eric's gimcrack windmills were not entirely original. Kunchen was their intellectual progenitor. Kunchen was one of the few inhabitants of the valley who, theoretically, "ate idle bread", to use Eric's expression. A fugitive from a Tibet which no longer revered the religion of his ancestors, Kunchen had already set up his wind-powered prayer wheels and prayer cylinders on the southern ridge long before Eric arrived. Kunchen now split his time between meditative chanting and unsolicited advice. He regarded Eric's windmills with suspicion, but approved of the design. He wondered aloud when Eric was going to write some prayers on the sails of his machines until Eric gave him permission to write his own, which he did. And, in the event, Kunchen ever after insisted that these prayers were instrumental in how things turned out.

Vinod would make an immediate trip to petition the Nepalese authorities
In due course, as the first cruel horizontal rains of autumn began, Frank left, and, for a while, things went on as they always had. It was an almost Marxist society - "to each, according to his need; from each, according to his ability", but actual money did change hands, principally for trade with the outside world. No-one in the valley went hungry. The richest people in the valley were David Lee, Vinod, and the sheep herders. The poorest were those who had migrated to the valley, but had no contribution to make yet. This year's immigrants were three in number, of whom only one was a failure. Jean-Paul, a French climber who had stayed after his expedition left, made furniture from unlikely scraps of material and did general repairs. David Lee was from Greater Hong Kong. By that time, so much reclamation had taken place in the hub of Asian trade that you could walk from Hong Kong island to mainland Kowloon without getting your feet wet. David had established a sort of savings and loan organisation which helped to even out the peaks and troughs in the valley's income and expenditure. David was running at a loss, but he didn't seem to mind. It was rumoured that he was an eccentric millionaire with illegal businesses in Hong Kong. The third immigrant, Anil, was preparing to return to the insanely jam-packed high rises of Hyderabad before winter set in. He couldn't take the cold, he missed the constant physical contact with fellow human beings, and he had never really fitted in.

Winter passed relatively quietly. The January gales enabled Eric's wind farm to reach a new high in power output, with fewer failures than ever before. Snowfall was fairly light and never much of an inconvenience. The river never once froze over. Vinod managed two return journeys to town as early as March.

First of April - no joke - an old twin-rotor Samson class ex-military helicopter laboured over the southern rim of the bowl. A massive machine, it could carry over two hundred tons of freight, though the thin air obviously gave it trouble. It landed in a meadow of rough grass and clover, just upstream of Mona's, on the north bank of the river, its tail wheel carelessly crushing a pregnant ewe which had been so paralysed with fear that she failed to run away when the flying monster appeared.

The crew unloaded a dozen heavy crates, several oil-drums and a mechanical digger. The helicopter roared and whacked its way back southwards, but eleven men were left behind. The crates contained pre-fabricated living quarters, generators, furniture, provisions and office equipment. The drums contained fuel. An unbelievable amount of fuel.

The new arrivals had set up two prefabricated buildings, a generator, and a satellite dish, surrounded by a high fence, before Mona's curiosity overcame her irritation at not being formally approached by the gang. She crossed the bridge and walked the three hundred metres to their compound, offering food and drink as an ice-breaker, but they politely informed her in American English that they were self-sufficient. They needed nothing. They gave her no explanation of their intentions, but showed her a document in Chinese which they said conferred upon them licence to drill north of the river. As de-facto spokesman for the valley, Mona demanded and received a photocopy of the document.

Later, Gulam, an important sheep owner, whose sheep the helicopter had crushed and in whose spring meadow the Americans were setting up their operation, barged into the office hut and complained to them. When they understood what he was complaining about, they gave him a metal suitcase containing Chinese currency worth sixty thousand dollars, and left him standing while they got on with their mysterious work. David Lee was astonished at the size of the sum Gulam deposited with him.

The same day, at a hastily arranged noisy multi-lingual conference in Mona's inn, the inhabitants of the valley expressed their fear of this development.

When it was Eric's turn to speak, he said: "I've been expecting this ever since Frank was here. I was hoping that the terrain would be unsuitable, or that the Nepalese administration would kill the idea."

David spoke up: "What idea?"

"Remember Frank and his space cannon survey last year? I investigated these space cannons when I went to town. It's a cheap method of sending bulk materials into orbit, anything that can take a brutal acceleration. It costs a fraction of lifting them by rocket. They just shoot containers from a cannon that faces east and is at high altitude, to take advantage of the earth's rotation and the low atmospheric pressure. A spacecraft intercepts the projectile and delivers it to where it's needed."

"A cannon?" said Vinod. "A big gun?"

"Yeah, well, the barrel of the gun is sunk a few kilometres into solid rock, and only the muzzle appears above ground. Then there's the elevator mechanism to take the payload and the ammunition down to the loading end."

"That's not too bad, then, once it's finished." said David. "Apart from the noise, of course."

Eric looked sad. "The noise is the least of it. Yes, it's going to be a deafening explosion several times a day. And don't forget the constant shuttle service of helicopters. But that's not the only reason why they are built in uninhabited areas. The gun is powered by a small atomic explosion, and the area around the muzzle becomes contaminated very quickly."

"How big an area?" asked Mona.

"The one in the Andes has made a radio-active slick thirty kilometres long and ten wide. When this cannon gets going, the valley will be uninhabitable apart from the loading crews in shielded accommodation. That's why this area is ideal for them. It's isolated, and there aren't a lot of us to complain about being moved."

"So the only hope is to stop the building." said Mona.

"You got it." said Eric, rubbing his chin and looking grim.

There was lots more discussion, to no particular effect, except that it was agreed that Vinod would make an immediate trip to petition the Nepalese authorities to sort out this outrage. Vinod took with him the photocopy of the licence (which David had read, but whose authenticity he could not verify) and a shopping list from Eric. The round trip was scheduled to take at least a week. In the event, he didn't return for a month.

The village electricity supply was cut off, though the windmills still twinkled on the ridge.
Meanwhile, the helicopter supply trips to the site became a twice-daily occurrence. More men and equipment arrived. The men working on the job started to patronise Mona's. The project manager, Billy Macdonald, a veteran of the Bering Strait tunnel in Alaska, was friendly enough, and appeared sympathetic with the valley dwellers. David Lee and Eric bribed one of the helicopter pilots to add a load of copper piping to one of his trips. Mona was mystified. What use was an additional water supply when they'd all be leaving soon? David clearly was prepared to fund Eric's operation, however.

Vinod eventually returned with Ashwali from Kathmandu. Sadly, explained the official, the licence document issued by the Chinese government was entirely valid, and had been sanctioned by Nepal in exchange for certain trade advantages. In fact, satellite imaging and treaty borders demonstrated that all of the land north of the river had always been part of the province of Tibet. Only the lower part of the bowl was actually Nepalese territory.

Eric remained very busy for the whole of this time. While everyone else was letting things slide at the prospect of having to leave this lovely haven within a year or two, Eric appeared more energetic than ever. He became thinner and stronger. He worked long hours, frequently arriving late at Mona's, dirty, often soaked to the skin, and sometimes covered in scratches and grazes as if he'd been climbing. He spent a lot of time in his workshop joining sections of pipe in strange configurations. He started scrounging old clothes and any kind of heavy grease, mostly mutton fat from the shepherds. He also "borrowed" a cylinder of butane from Mona, who sometimes cooked with gas. What Eric was actually planning, though, he would not reveal.

As the spring melt began in the mountains, the river started to back up and form a small lake around the Throat as usual. But this year, it didn't drain away. The lake kept growing. Jean-Paul built a few temporary shelters on high ground, and Mona's inn moved uphill, together with all the villagers. Work on the tunnel for the cannon barrel, now, inevitably, an open secret, had to stop, as the tunnel and then the prefabricated buildings on the site became flooded. The cannon workers were forced to evacuate all their equipment, fuel and stores to higher ground. And still the water rose. The village electricity supply was cut off, though the windmills still twinkled on the ridge.

Billy Macdonald, seeing his project slowing to a standstill, came to visit Mona at her makeshift café. "Is this unusual?" he asked. He didn't have to explain what "this" was.

"It floods every year." said Mona. "But this is the worst I've seen it."

"When does it go down?"

Mona was not encouraging. "Couple of months, usually. It doesn't normally concern us, because it's not remotely this bad."

Macdonald also consulted Eric, who was mending a wind turbine on the southern cliff. To get there, he had to make a wide detour around the lake and climb several hundred feet. "What do you reckon, Eric?"

"In my opinion," Eric replied, "the Throat of Shiva is partially blocked. At this rate, the lake will fill until the water level reaches the southern pass and it spills out down the trail to Kathmandu. But by that time, the whole valley will be one big lake."

"We could drill a relief tunnel through the rim, maybe. Take the water away."

"You know as well as I do that by the time you finish that, the lake will be too big to handle. Wherever you decide to build the relief tunnel it would have to be above the current level of the lake, and the lake is already too high for your gun. Nope. You'd better get your bosses on the blower, and advise them to cut their losses. You must have an alternative site. It's just unfortunate geology. Something's shifted down in the tunnel under the Throat. We'll all be out of the valley by the end of the year, anyway, if the lake keeps growing. And I don't know if you've noticed, but you can often see the lake steaming in the mornings, just above where the Throat is. In my opinion, there's volcanic activity down there. Cut and run is my advice."

Billy Macdonald didn't take anyone's word for it. Divers were flown in, and, though underwater visibility was extremely limited due to the milky suspension of ground-up rock from the glacier, they could verify that flow through the Throat appeared to have ceased, and that there was, on the contrary, a current of warm water coming up, a clear indication of volcanic activity below. It was obvious that, even if the flood could be dealt with, it would be foolhardy to mount a space cannon in an area where earthquakes were a possibility.

In early August, the last workers left the space cannon site. By the end of September, the lake had disappeared. The temporary inconvenience of the flood was more than compensated for by the huge volume of supplies, fuel and building materials the tunnellers had abandoned.

Kunchen attributed the miracle to his ancestors. Somehow, however, everyone else knew that Eric was behind the miracle, but he only creased his face in a grin when he was asked about it. Only David was ever told the truth.

One evening, Eric and David sat in the setting sun, braving an energetic horizontal fall of sleet in the lee of Mona's inn, having drunk an incautious quantity of Chateau Potato. From inside, they could hear Mona and Jean-Paul laughing together and four herders quarrelling happily over their incomprehensible card game while downing cups of buttered tea. The sound of sheep bells drifted in the breeze as a flock, dimly visible on the upper slopes, settled for the night. David suddenly asked: "How did you do it, Eric?"

"Blocked the Throat with ice."

"Ice? Where did you get it?"

"Made it."

"But they said it was hot down there, not cold"

"Heat pump, David. It's old technology. Electric pump, submersible in this case, tubes, the stuff we got from the chopper pilot. Basically, it's how refrigerators work. You pump heat from one part of the system to another. The pipes have butane in them. When I could still get down into the Throat, I climbed down and shoved the freezer coils into the vent. The heating coils were buried in the ground near the Throat before the lake started. All you could see even before the flood was a couple of pipes going down, and I hid them as best as I could in the cracks. Once the lake was there, you couldn't see a thing. Set the pump going, and a block of ice formed in the vent. What I didn't reckon on at the time was that the heating coils would produce enough heat to give the volcanic effect. The main problem was all the electricity and insulation under the water. I had to make my own Denso tape with rags and mutton fat. And it took a week or more to form the plug, even though it only had to cool the water by a few degrees of temperature. And when the wind dropped halfway through, and I had to go to battery power, the pump nearly stopped."

"So how did you clear the ice?"

"Put the heat pump in reverse. They work both ways. No problem there. And I could block it again if we needed to."

The sun dipped below the western ridge, the sky blazed with colour and the sleet slackened to a soft drizzle.

After a moment, David removed one of his sheepskin mittens, adjusted the earflap of his hat, and said: "Nice here, isn't it?"

Eric permitted himself a grin. "Shangri-La, mate, Shangri ruddy La."

© Gil Williamson 2011 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 18:13 Fri 09 Dec 2011
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