Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for July, 2009

Jul 30 2009

A Promising Solution To Clean Water Problem Fails To Win Support

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

ZURICH — When Martin Wegelin worked in Tanzania his three-year-old daughter’s playmate fell ill one morning. By afternoon the playmate, a boy who lived next door, was dead.

The boy routinely had been drinking water loaded with bacteria. He was stricken with diarrhea, became dehydrated and was gone before his parents realized how sick he was.

In Africa and other developing countries, diarrhea is at the top of the list of child-killers. Around the world, the World Health Organization says, 5,000 children die as a result of diarrhea every day; 1.8 million a year. Most of the children die because of drinking water that often looks clean but contains all kinds of bugs.

The boy’s death put Mr. Wegelin, a Swiss engineer who specializes in water and sanitation, on a mission. He determined that he would find a simple, low-cost way to purify drinking water. He developed a method that, in most cases, costs absolutely nothing. But 30 years later, only a few million of the nearly 1 billion people around the world who lack clean drinking water – and are often sick - are using his process called SODIS or Solar Water Disinfection.

Mr. Wegelin says the problem has to do with perception. “It is too simple,” he said in an interview in his government laboratory in the Zurich suburb of Duebendorf. “People think it can’t work.”

The only ingredients in Mr. Wegelin’s process are water, a discarded plastic bottle – the kind used everywhere for soft drinks and commercially packaged water – and sunlight. After six hours in bright sunlight the water is healthy to drink.

“It’s magical,” said Sally G. Cowal, a vice president and water specialist at PSI or Population Services International, a non-profit aid organization in Washington.

But water experts say there are several reasons that the process has never taken off, all fairly frustrating. For one thing, no one has been able to figure out how to make money with it. No big companies have gotten involved, as they have in producing chlorine tablets, liquid and powder that cost about a penny a day to purify water for a family of six. Not big money, but money.

Then there is the matter of the plastic bottle. Environmental groups hate the bottles. They are made from petroleum, their manufacture adds to global warming and they never go away: garbage dumps are filled with them and they are all over the oceans and the waterways. No one has a good word for them and at a time when some cities are banning plastic bottles from municipal vending machines, no government wants to back a program that depends on them.

Ten years ago, Ms. Cowal started a project on household treatment of water in developing countries and decided to go with the chlorine process. The water did not taste as good as sunshine cleaned water. But by using a product that could be sold, Population Services International could do good and continue to do good. They sell the chlorine at a shade above cost, Ms. Cowal said, and put their sliver of profit “into promotion and advertising.” A perpetual motion machine. The sunshine machine gets a nod of approval from the United Nations, but no big allocation of money.

The sunshine method is not without its problems. For one thing, if it’s cloudy the process takes longer, and it is often hard for families to gauge how long. More importantly, making the process work requires a change of behavior for people who have routinely just been drinking water as it has come to them. “We come along,” Mr. Wegelin said, “and tell people, ‘You have another activity. You have to treat the water.’ That requires a change of habit. And changing habits takes time.”

Educating people about water treatment and disease requires aid organizations to invest time and energy and the lessons don’t always stick. It is less complicated to just pump in clean water. But the worldwide problem is so great, that billions of dollars are needed. And, so far, that money has not been forthcoming.

The big government aid agencies and big private aid organizations have strategic problems with the sunshine purification system, the chlorine process and low-cost filters, all designed to be used by individuals and families. They want high impact. They don’t want to do their work one family at a time. They prefer to install networks of standpipes and dig new wells that serve lots of people. Their way provides water to people who might have previously had to walk long distances to get water. It doesn’t always provide clean water. Or water that stays clean. But it works on a large scale. A lot of people get some improvement and aid managers get credit for the accomplishment. If the water quality is not perfect, people can boil it when they get home – or not. The water providers and the health service agencies are not always on the same page, which is one of the many reasons that deaths from water-borne diseases have declined very little in the last decade. #

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Jul 23 2009

Hurricane Flood Danger Real, But Hard to Grasp Along Serene Gulf Coast

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. – Driving along the main drag here, lined with condos and hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, you catch glimpses of the dark blue Gulf of Mexico lapping gently at the sandy beach less than 100 yards away. The beach is so close and the main road, Estero Boulevard, is so low that it looks as if the water is level with your car window.

It is an optical illusion. But it underscores the danger of flooding to this resort town on the west coast of Florida and to scores of other towns and cities along the great arc of the Gulf of Mexico, all the way through the westward curve of Florida, on through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and finally into Texas.

Disaster, however, is about the last thing on most people’s minds as the sun drops out of sight here each evening and the sky streaks with shades of vermillion and tangerine. The palm fronds droop in the heat and the waters of the Gulf touch the shore soundlessly, without drama, almost like the waters of a lake. Nothing could seem more peaceful.

Yet the Gulf can abruptly turn into a raging monster, hurling 30-foot-high walls of water at the beach, wrecking homes and sweeping away families. All it takes is a hurricane with the right characteristics. Those storms don’t come along every year. But when they do it is serious business. Hurricane Katrina is the best recent example. Katrina famously tore up the Louisiana and Mississippi Coasts in 2005 and, away from the coast, swamped New Orleans. Nearly 2,000 people died, hundreds of them along the coast as the storm created a kind of tidal wave known as storm surge.

The 2009 hurricane season started in June and will run through the end of November. Forecasters are expecting half a dozen storms, two or three of them major. One might veer into the Gulf – or not. Hurricane safety experts at the national weather service and in towns and cities want people to be ready. They run advertisements and hold public meetings. But they do not manage to get across the danger of hurricane flooding or storm surge.

In one study in Florida, for example, researchers found that about 75 percent of the people living in coastal areas that should be evacuated in any kind of hurricane thought they would be fine in a modest, Category 2 storm with winds of about 100 miles an hour. People showed more concern as the intensity of the storm rose. But even confronted by the most powerful Category 4 and 5 hurricanes with winds of 150 miles an hour and more, nearly 40 percent of coastal residents still said they thought they would not be in danger, according to research directed by Dr. Earl J. Baker, a geography professor at Florida State University.

The complacency is similar in other parts of the Gulf Coast, said Dr. Baker, who has been studying the issue for more than 30 years. “People in the most dangerous areas,” he said in an interview, “tend to underestimate their vulnerability.”

As wind speeds go up, people pay more attention to hurricanes. But even the mildest hurricanes can generate deadly flooding along the Gulf of Mexico. Shallow waters extend far out from shore in most of the Gulf. Hurricane winds push the water toward the shallow bottom. It has nowhere to go but forward toward the shore, gathering speed and size as it advances.

“Most of our citizens are more concerned about the miles-per-hour of a storm,” said Booch De Marchi, the spokesman for the Office of Emergency Management in Lee County, where Fort Myers Beach is located. “They ignore storm surge and in reality 90 percent of the people who die in hurricanes, it’s because of storm surge and not the wind.”

John Wilson, the director of Public Safety in Lee County and the chief of the Office of Emergency Management, said people hear that a hurricane is a Category 2 “and they say, ‘Okay, not a big deal.’”

But a relatively mild Category 2 storm can cause more flooding than a more powerful storm if the Category 2 storm sprawls over a large area and is advancing slowly, Mr. Wilson said. In 2004, Hurricane Charlie, a Category 4 storm with a small core and a higher than usual forward speed, shattered the town of Punta Gorda on the coast north of here, but caused little flooding. By contrast, in 2008, Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm with an especially large span, caused flooding of up to 24 feet on the coast of Texas.

People everywhere tend to rely more on local lore about hurricanes and flooding than on what the forecasters have to say. Because hurricanes are quixotic, changing course and wind speed faster than they can be tracked, the local lore often seems to make more sense. And personal experience is a powerful influence.

In June, Mary Wozniak, a reporter for The News-Press, the daily newspaper in Fort Myers, spoke with Craig Palmer, a man in Bonita Springs, on the coast just south of Fort Myers Beach. He would not budge should the authorities urge him to evacuate for a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, he said. “We’ve been here for those,” he said. For the more powerful storms, “for a 3, 4 or 5 I would” go, he said.

The truth is, how things turn out for Mr. Palmer in future hurricanes will have a lot to do with the finer point of a particular storm. With hurricanes as with the stock market, the past is not a reliable indicator of future risk. And when you’re sitting at the water’s edge, like the people here in Fort Myers Beach, it’s always a good idea to give the hurricane the benefit of the doubt. #

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Jul 16 2009

On A Visit to See Fish, Lessons about Water

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

ATLANTA – You’re in a see-through tunnel looking up into an enormous tank of crystal-clear salt water. Whale sharks the size of buses and lots of other sharks are cruising around. A big manta ray rolls over in a slow-motion somersault. The water is thick with smaller tropical fish. A creature that looks something like a Volkswagen Beetle – the humphead wrasse – inches along near the bottom.

This is the Georgia Aquarium, a place that on summer days is often packed by noon. Opened just four years ago, it is the newest of the nation’s aquariums and the one drawing the biggest crowds: Ten million people by this summer.

It is also a place where water – water quality, pollution and wise use of water—is a big issue. Years ago, aquariums were almost entirely about fish. But as concerns about the environment have grown, aquariums have broadened their message, and water has become an important theme. “Environmental awareness is a very big priority for every aquarium,” said Dr. Bruce A. Carlson, a former director of the Waikiki Aquarium in Hawaii and the science officer at the Georgia Aquarium.

At the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., Dr. Paul Boyle, the senior vice president for conservation and education and a former director of the New York Aquarium, said: “We’re getting out the message that our behavior in our back yards is ultimately affecting local streams, lakes and the oceans.”

A severe drought in Georgia two years ago led to an increased focus on water and conservation, said Meghann Gibbons, the aquarium’s spokesperson.” We upped our conversation regarding education and water,” she said. Besides reaching out to visitors, the aquarium cut back its own use of water by 23 percent, she said.

Bernard Marcus, one of the co-founders of Home Depot as it started here in Atlanta 30 years ago, put up most of the $300 million to build the aquarium. He wanted a place with flair, something that would have the feel of a grand theatrical palace, excite audiences. And he got just that. The aquarium is the largest in the world, by several measures, and the only place in the United States where you can see those 20-foot-long whale sharks. People come to marvel at the design and the fish. And they figure maybe they and the kids will learn something. The hunch is rewarded.

From the spectacular Ocean Voyager exhibit with the sharks and dozens of stingrays to the River Scout section, which takes you to freshwater streams, and through other sections, there are lessons on remarkable creatures like the three beluga whales and the long-legged Japanese spider crabs, and on the importance of water in this world to both fish and people. The aquarium and staff also offer tips on things people can do to protect water and the rest of nature.

Eather Henry, a volunteer at the aquarium and a former middle school teacher from New York, stood in front of a movie theater-sized screen crisscrossed with exotic fish, diving and rolling and, often, just cruising. Actually, it was not a screen, but a two-foot thick acrylic or plexiglass wall. And this was no movie. This was the continuous live performance of the inhabitants of the main arena in the aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit. Ms. Henry called out the names of the fish as they glided to center stage. Grouper, sand tiger shark, whale shark, sawfish, tarpon.

Then Ms. Henry shifted to people and pollution. “Everything you pour down the drain poisons the rivers and flows into the oceans,” she said through a headset microphone, “Let’s not throw anything overboard.”

“That one metal can or plastic bag could harm one of these fish,” she said. Ms. Henry stepped off to one side and people started heading for other parts of the aquarium.

Signs delivering the water message are posted among the exhibits. At one point, where a river runs overhead and it seems as if you are looking up from the bottom of the stream, a catfish and a couple of gars lay in suspension. Nearby, a “Conservation Alert,” tells of human damage to the Mississippi River.

Not far from a pool of bluish-gray piranhas with orange-tipped fins, was a note on how deforestation can harm water quality, and a call to action: “When you buy lumber and paper products, make sure they come from companies that have made a commitment to protecting the environment.”

Don Kohler, who fixes computers and cash registers in Port Barrington, Ill., 35 miles north of Chicago, was making his way through the section on rivers with his wife, Connie, and their youngest grandchild, Lucy, just a year old. “She’s enthralled,” Mr. Kohler said. “I’m impressed with the way they do the displays, overhead, and glass way down to the floor for the little ones.”

Mr. Kohler’s two other grandchildren had gone to the Georgia Aquarium the day before with their mom and dad. “Abby is four,” Mr. Kohler said. “She came back and told us everything she saw,” he said.

It had been a worthwhile experience. “It’s educational,” Mr. Kohler said. “It’s creating environmental awareness.”

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Jul 09 2009

Florida Wildlife Refuge Struggles With Pollution But Still Beguiles

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla.–Just a few yards inside the gate, my wife spotted an Ibis—pure white with long pink spindly legs, curved beak—poking around in the mangrove for a meal. A little further along in the  J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge we saw a great blue heron and four egrets out on a sandbar with a thin covering of water.

The tide was running out and soon the sandbar would break the surface and begin baking in the hot Florida sun. The birds would move on, lifting off in the warm, moist air like graceful ballerinas, in no hurry, going no place in particular.

We were taking the paved gravel road through Ding Darling out of season and at an ill-advised time of day, neither early morning nor early evening. Yet we were seeing a sizeable swath of mangrove and tropical greenery not far from Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida that seemed as wild as what the pioneers came across more than 130 years ago. A black anhinga, just back from diving for a mullet, perched on a nearly submerged bit of mangrove and spread its wings to dry in the streaming sunlight. A young roseate spoonbill, with a long white neck and pink-streaked feathers spreading over its fuselage, dipped its head into the salt water.

I’ve been coming to Ding Darling for years and it has always been a treat. But the 6,400-acre refuge has struggled with severe pollution.  Experts who watch Ding Darling closely say it is gravely threatened and could ultimately be destroyed by discharges of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee, 75 miles inland. The water is loaded with fertilizer and waste water that cause eruptions of toxic algae.

In 2004 and 2005 Ding Darling was beset by algae that smothered huge swaths of sea grass and sucked the oxygen out of the water. Truckloads of fish died, according to Michael J. Valiquette, the chairman of the Planning Commission or zoning authority for the upscale town of Sanibel, which shares the island of Sanibel with Ding Darling. The loss of the fish and the sea grass left little for birds to eat and flocks of them pulled out. The damage, which never attracted much attention beyond southwest Florida, was still evident in  2006.

The refuge is recovering, Mr. Valiquette said. But he said full recovery could take a decade. Mr. Valiquette, who is also both a home builder and an environmentalist, founded an organization called People United to Restore Our Rivers and Estuaries or PURRE in 2004 as the algae problem was beginning.

Patrick D. Martin, the deputy manager of Ding Darling, said he worries that the long-term consequences of the algae outbreak have yet to be uncovered.

Lake Okeechobee, in the heart of Florida’s richest farm land, is drained off whenever it threatens to top or topple its dikes and flood nearby towns.

Mr. Valiquette and PURRE are urging lawmakers to restrict fertilizer use and are pushing for federal legislation to help clean up the refuge and to dig further into the effects of the pollution. But he and other experts say Ding Darling is in danger of another pollution assault anytime Lake Okeechobee’s water level must be drastically lowered.

“All the pieces are in place for this to happen again the next time there is a big hurricane” with heavy rain, said Mr. Martin, the deputy manager of Ding Darling.  And, he said, another strong outburst of algae could be disastrous.  “I don’t think we’d be able to perpetuate the refuge,” Mr. Martin said.

The United States Corps of Engineers, which helps manage Lake Okeechobee or Lake O, as it is often referred to, recognizes the damage that the lake water inflicts on Ding Darling and other parts of the Gulf Coast. But its first responsibility is to protect lives.  James Evens, an environmental biologist for the City of Sanibel, said, “Public safety always trumps the environment.”

The refuge was established in 1945, after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a newspaper editorial cartoonist who won two Pulitzer Prizes, helped block a land development project on Sanibel Island and persuaded President Harry Truman to create a wildlife sanctuary. The refuge was renamed in Mr. Darling’s honor in 1965.  During the Roosevelt years Mr. Darling served for 18 months as the director of what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and later was a founder and the first president of the forerunner of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Ding Darling refuge is not a manicured place. When a tree falls, the wind and the tides decide whether it will stay or drift away.  In one concession to convenience, the authorities have built a few boardwalks and small platforms with stainless steel railings so that people can get out from shore and closer to the birds and other wildlife.

It was hot and muggy the day my wife, Barbara Dill, and I were there. We saw few other people. A man in a red baseball cap came along one of the boardwalks. It was Michael Ahlgrim, a retired chemist from Cologne, Germany.  The water near us was copper-colored. But you could see the sandy bottom and there was no sign of pollution.  “The water looks good,” Mr. Ahlgrim said. “It’s clear. You can see the fish.” He had just seen some turtles that I had missed.

Mr. Ahlgrim and his wife, Hiltrud, were making a swing around Florida, their 11th trip to the United States, this time without their grown children. “We like the U.S.,” Mrs. Ahlgrim said. Then she talked about Ding Darling. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “So quiet. People who come here want to see wildlife. And because of that they are watching and listening.”#

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Jul 02 2009

The World’s Cities, Growing Like Mad, Are Sitting Ducks For Floods, Hurricanes

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI - The overpowering and seemingly irreversible trend in the world’s cities has been toward ever greater concentrations of people.  Last year, for the first time, cities had swollen to hold more than half the world’s 6.7 billion people.  The increased density creates bigger, more deadly and more costly targets for floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.

Everywhere you look, says, Andrew Maskrey, a United Nations disaster expert, “you see people building in hazard-prone areas; you see vulnerable structures.”

The ability of towns and cities to deal with disasters is a question of high priority these days as the Atlantic Hurricane season in the United States is underway. The official start of the season was June 1. It runs until Nov. 30. Government and university forecasters are expecting half a dozen hurricanes. Two or three of them, they say, could be whoppers. The great unknown, as every year, is how many storms will make it to the United States.

Some of the most powerful hurricanes start just off the west coast of Africa. As the storms make their way north, there are lots of islands to take the brunt of the wind, change a hurricane’s course. Shifting wind and sea currents in the Atlantic and fluctuations in air pressure can send storms elsewhere.  Historically, the heaviest hurricane assaults have been in late summer, August to October.

Usually, the greatest suffering from hurricanes and other disasters occurs in poor countries. The homes are often flimsy, and whole towns and villages are built on hillsides that collapse in heavy rain, or when the earth shakes.

But people in some of the fastest growing countries are becoming more endangered.  China, for example, has thrown up big new cities along its sea coast. An earthquake in China last year brought down schools and many other buildings that were thought to have been well-built. That has raised concerns about construction quality across the country.

Mr. Maskrey, who heads the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Geneva, and his colleagues around the world in government and non-governmental organizations, provide advice on how to head off disasters before they occur. They call this risk reduction.  The bad news is that a lot of risks that they spot are simply not addressed by the people most at risk. Most often there is not enough money. Sometimes it is lifestyle and a reluctance to accept that some of the most paradisiacal places are very dangerous.

Miami, for instance, can give you a case of the willies. Office and apartment towers, wrapped from ground to sky in sleek, tinted-glass that glints beautifully in the sun in fair weather, are everywhere. Miami Beach had wide-open patches along its oceanfront when the devastating 1926 hurricane struck, No more. Now Miami and Miami Beach are all built up.

The 1926 hurricane was the worst thing to ever hit Miami. Books have been written about it.  But a hurricane of the same magnitude would do much more damage now, simply because there is so much more to wreck. Economists and hurricane specialists estimate the cost to Miami today of a storm just like the 1926 hurricane at about $140 billion to nearly $160 billion - about double the cost of government calculations of the damage in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina was the most costly storm since the 1926 hurricane. It was also one of the most deadly, with about 1,800 people killed.

Miami has building codes that are often cited as models elsewhere in the hurricane zone, along the United States’ southern coasts.   But virtually nothing can withstand a hurricane driven tidal wave or storm surge.  And plenty of Miami homes and office buildings were put up before the rigorous codes went into effect in the 1990s.

That doesn’t mean that Miami or any other city is a lost cause. Deaths can be reduced simply by making sure that people get off the waterfront as storms are approaching. Older buildings need not be written off. Lots of things can be done to strengthen them.

“Every time someone remodels a house, or government decides to renovate a water or drainage system,” Mr. Maskrey said, “each time that happens is an opportunity for risk reduction.”

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