Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for September, 2009

Sep 24 2009

A Fixable Problem Remains Unresolved And Kids Keep Dying

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

WASHINGTON—Dirty water is killing kids–lots of kids. The magnitude of the deaths is staggering, perhaps 5,000 a day, 1.8 million a year – more deaths annually than the combined total from malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS.

And who’s talking about it? Who is outraged? Practically no one. It is a problem that is virtually unknown in the United States and Europe. The victims are poor children in poor families throughout most of Africa and in remote parts of Asia.

Specialists in water and health are working on the problem and spending lots of money. But some experts say that progress has been meager and that the situation could be getting even worse.

The deaths come quickly and simply. Kids drink the only water they can get. It is loaded with bacteria. They get diarrhea, which is a manifestation of many diseases, including cholera. They get dehydrated and before their parents realize how bad things have gotten the kids are gone. Some grownups die, too. But mostly the 1.8 million victims annually are children, five years old and younger. Millions of kids don’t die from diarrhea. But their illnesses strain already strained hospitals and clinics. By some estimates kids sick with diarrhea miss nearly 300 million school days a year.

This has been going on for decades, almost unbelievable rates of death and sickness among millions of kids. They and their families cannot solve the problem on their own. And they are not getting enough help to break the pattern. They are stuck in a vast pool of nearly 1 billion people around the world who do not have dependable access to clean water every day. Most of them are also among the 2.5 billion people who do not have even the most basic toilets. Without a good supply of clean water and without toilets, disease, sickness and death are almost guaranteed.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which works in the most awful places and is not given to hysteria, said earlier this year that it had been seeing an increase in cases of water-related diseases that cause diarrhea, including cholera. Uli Jaspers, the head of water and sanitation for the federation at its headquarters in Geneva, said in a statement that “data suggests we may be losing the battle.”

Hundreds if not thousands of people in government and private agencies are devoting their energies to stopping the silent epidemic. Often times the work is one person, one-village, one school at a time. Paul Faeth, the president of Global Water Challenge, a group of organizations here in Washington committed to working against water-related diseases, is getting soap and water to schools in Africa. Sally Cowal, a water expert at Population Services International, also in Washington, provides several low-cost ways of purifying water. They are both having successes, they said at a conference here presented by UPI.com, the Internet incarnation of a former news agency that competed with the Associated Press and Reuters. But they also acknowledge that what they are doing is not enough.

Katherine Bliss, a deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said at the UPI conference that about $18 billion a year is needed to meet the United Nations’ goal of deeply reducing the problem of water and disease or about three times more than is now being spent worldwide.

But the barrier to a solution is not just money. Often people with the best intentions are working at cross purposes. According to a recent report by several environmental groups, including units of the United Nations and the Nature Conservancy, efforts around the world to provide clean water and sanitation are “plagued by institutional fragmentation that may result in governmental agencies working against each other” in pursuit of their own strategic objectives.

There is no coordinating body or global clearing house for work related to water, Ms. Bliss said, no one seeing that the work of governments and non-governmental organizations complement each other, don’t duplicate, don’t cancel out some other effort. For HIV/AIDS there is the United Nations organization, UNAIDS. Tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS come under the aegis of the Global Fund to Fight Aids. Water has no similar counterpart.

“Within the United Nations,” Ms. Bliss said, “water and sanitation activities are managed across 26 different technical agencies.” And no one is in charge. The work of the agencies is officially coordinated by the United Nations Water Office. But it does not have enough clout to have much impact.

For now, this is a problem that looks like it can be fixed. But it is a problem that is not getting the attention, the money and the coordination it needs. #

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Sep 17 2009

Way Out In The Pacific Ecology Zone Promises Climate Insights, Jobs

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI—You don’t hear much about the nation of Kiribati.

It is a little out of the way, out in the Pacific Ocean near the equator and about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. It consists of 33 mostly uninhabited islands scattered over a patch of the Pacific as big as the United States. Most of the 100,000 or so people of Kiribati live day to day. They get along by fishing and growing bananas, breadfruit and papaya. About 16 percent of them have paying jobs. One of the biggest sources of national income is foreign aid.

A little more than a year ago, the government of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-uh-bahs) broke into the world news. At the suggestion of American conservationists, it designated a section of its territory the size of California as the world’s largest marine environmental preservation zone. Fishing, polluting and tampering with coral reefs would be forbidden. The eight Phoenix Islands were included and the place was named the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.

Remote and rarely visited by anyone, the vast expanse is one of the least disturbed marine areas in the world and is regarded as a near-perfect natural laboratory for climate change and the study of coral reefs, fish and tropical birds. The place is swarming with sharks and tuna and more than 500 other species of fish. Rare birds hang out in the islands.

“In most places in the world it is very hard to understand what the real impacts are of climate change on coral reefs because so many factors are involved,” said Sue Miller Taei, the director of the Pacific Island Marine Program of Conservation International, an American organization with headquarters in Arlington, Va.

But since Kiribati has been virtually untouched, Ms. Miller Taei said by phone from her office in Samoa, “it gives you a chance to understand the response of the system to climate change.”

The capital of Kiribati is on Tarawa, which, like most of the other islands, is a roughly donut-shaped atoll with a central lagoon and barrier reefs. Tarawa has one main road, many thatched huts and a few tin-roofed stores and warehouse. It is the most populous of the islands with about 40,000 people. During World War II, Tarawa was a killing ground for United States Marines and Japanese soldiers. Christmas Island, the largest land mass in Kiribati, attracts wealthy sport fishermen pursing the notoriously hard-to-catch bonefish.

About 35 people live on one of the now protected Phoenix Islands and they are only there on government assignments. There are no people on the seven other islands. There is no airport in the Phoenix Islands and the islands are several days by boat from Tarawa.

Creating the Phoenix Islands Protected Area meant that Kiribati would lose millions of dollars in fees it has long collected for letting commercial fishing boats from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and the United States work its waters. But American conservationists agreed to make up the loss.

The money is coming from Conservation International which has been working for years to protect rain forests and smaller sections of oceans. Christopher Stone, an executive of Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund in Arlington, and Betarim Rimon, an official in the President’s office in Kiribati, said a trust fund was being started with an initial $2.5 million from Conservation International. Ms. Miller Taei and Mr. Rimon said Conservation International was seeking matching funds to increase the trust to $5 million and hoped eventually to have $50 million in the fund. Kiribati’s compensation is to come from the investment earnings of the endowment.

The Phoenix Islands area is one of those places people dream about but never find. Dr. Greg Stone, who is in charge of Global Marine Programs at the New England Aquarium in Boston, got a look at the pristine reefs and waters of Kiribati in 2000 and immediately began thinking preservation. Mr. Stone, who colleagues on the project said was on a research boat in the protected zone and could not be reached for this article, presented the idea to Conservation International and to the leaders of Kiribati. In 2006 Kiribati announced it was preserving part of its territory. Two years later it greatly expanded the protected zone.

Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, graduated from the London School of Economics. He sees a lot of benefits for his people. Running the endowment office will give jobs to some of Kiribati’s people. Australia has already provided a patrol boat and at least two more are thought to be needed. The boats will need crews and maintenance. High-end ecotourism is being contemplated. Ms. Miller Taei said investors in tourism are already applying for operating licenses.

“If the coral and reefs are protected,” Mr. Tong told reporters when the first phase of the protected zone was announced, “then the fish will thrive and grow and bring us benefit.” #

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Sep 10 2009

One Step Forward In Fixing Sprawling Florida Water Pollution

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI – All over the country, rivers, lakes and coastal waters are being hammered by outbreaks of algae that suck oxygen out of the water and smother vital river and sea grasses. Wildlife suffers and sometimes drinking water is contaminated. It is rare that the fouled drinking water seriously harms anyone. But rashes and illnesses similar to food poisoning are not uncommon. The fumes from what are sometimes referred to as “algae blooms” also cause respiratory problems.

The outbreaks of algae—which kill fish and force birds to search for new sources of food—are the result of huge amounts of fertilizers and human and animal waste flowing into the rivers, lakes and offshore waters. Every time it rains hard the gunk gets swept into nearby bodies of water. The fertilizer and waste are loaded with nitrogen and phosphorus and they are like rocket fuel for algae.

Now there has been something of a break through. This summer environmental groups in Florida reached agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency on a plan to bring about big reductions in the pollution.

The plan is likely to have national impact. But it is not a clear shot to clean water. In Florida, the farmers, cattle ranchers and town, city and government officials responsible for most of the pollution are dead set against changes that they say could cost them and taxpayers billions and drive some farmers out of business.

“There’s no way we can throw enough money at this to make it work,” said Charles M. Shinn, a citrus farmer from central Florida and an assistant director for government and community affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s biggest agriculture organization. Mr. Shinn sees a long legal battle.

David Guest, the managing attorney for Earthjustice, a public interest law firm that is representing the environmentalists, said the plan would “probably not” cost the farmers and local governments a lot of money.

The truth may be somewhere in between.

Agriculture is a powerful force in Florida. It is the second biggest wheel in the economy after tourism and people who get elected to office in Florida find they must listen to the farmers and ranchers.
The local governments get their money by raising taxes. All of this suggests that some serious compromising lies ahead.

The pollution has been on the environmental agenda around the country for more than a decade. “It is endemic throughout the United States,” Mr. Guest said. It is perhaps at its worse in Florida.

About a year ago, on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups, Earthjustice sued the Environmental Protection Agency. The environmentalists were insisting that the agency enforce federal laws broadly designed to maintain water quality around the nation.

In August, Earthjustice and the Environmental Protection Agency settled the lawsuit. They agreed that the federal agency would come up with new regulations affecting Florida waters within about two years. Florida, like most states, has only vague guidelines on this kind of pollution. The new plan would be very specific.

In a news conference, the environmentalists declared victory. But facing protests from the farmers, ranchers, local government officials and others, Federal District Court Judge Robert L. Hinkle in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida, decided not to immediately endorse the agreement.

Instead, he scheduled a fairness hearing on Nov. 16 where the main points will be thrashed out in open court. Under-scoring the uncertainty of the outcome, Deb Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency said, the agency would not comment on the developments because “we don’t comment on cases in process.”

The judge may very well give his blessing to the agreement in November, environmental experts said. But they said an intense battle over the details is almost certain and that the two-year time frame could stretch. The focus will be on standards for limiting pollution and cost will be a big factor.

Environmentalists say they are confident the pollution can be sharply reduced. The concept is to create rules that reduce the amount of fertilizer that reaches bodies of water. The environmentalists want towns and cities and counties to better police sewage flows and rain water drainage from streets and parking lots. All kinds of unpleasant things like dog and cat litter, gasoline, oil and other industrial and household chemicals accumulate on the streets and sidewalks and come unglued when it rains. Cattle farms are like factories for cow manure.

The farmers say they are frustrated. So do local government officials, united under the settlement Florida Stormwater Association. They acknowledge that pollution is a big problem in Florida. But they say they have been doing more on pollution than their counterparts in other states.

“We want to clean up the water as bad as anybody else,” said Kurt Spitzer, the executive director of the Florida Stormwater Association, which represents most of the large and mid-size cities and many counties and smaller towns. “This is not a bad idea,” he said, “It’s just that it is being painted as so simple when it’s not.” Whether the environmentalists’ plan is going to work, he said, “boils down to a question of financial resources.” #

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Sep 03 2009

Boston Harbor: From Stinking Mess To Sailor’s Delight

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

BOSTON – Back in 1988, George Bush the elder took a theatrical boat ride around Boston Harbor and proclaimed it “the filthiest harbor in America.” It was mainly a stunt to undermine his opponent for the Presidency, Michael S. Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts and therefore, one might argue, the guardian of the harbor.

To some, Mr. Bush’s attack on Mr. Dukakis was unfair. But no one disputed that Boston Harbor was the prince of pollution. The evidence was in plain sight: floating islands of trash, rainbow streaks of oil and, of course, that earthy, nose-crinkling aroma.

Now 21 years later, after several lawsuits, a reorganization of the management of the harbor’s waters and spending of more than $4 billion, Boston Harbor is a different place.

It’s still not perfect, said Dr. James P. Shine a marine scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. But “it’s a lot better.”

The clean up has given Boston some of the highest fees for sewage and drinking water in the country. Political leaders know that nagging, persistently rising fees can be lethal at voting time. And their concerns are driving a new debate on how much monitoring of the improved harbor and the more distance Massachusetts Bay is necessary.

Nearly a decade of monitoring the flow of treated sewage nine miles off shore “has shown no adverse effects at all,” according to Ria Convery, the spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the independent public agency that runs Boston’s water and sewer system and oversees the health of the harbor. She says monitoring costs can be cut in half to $1.5 million annually. She concedes that the savings would have a small impact on water and sewage bills, but says, “every little bit helps.”

Environmentalists are wary. “Everyone is willing to consider some reduction,” said Bruce Berman, the spokesman for the non-profit organization Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. “But we don’t want it gutted.”

Those most concerned about cutting back on monitoring say that rising ocean temperatures, higher sea levels and shifting currents, thought to be related to climate change, could possibly result in harmful interactions between marine life and the treated sewage. Preserving the present monitoring system, they say, would ensure an “early warning” of a shift for the worst and help prevent serious damage.

But the monitoring questions are a mere ripple in the grand scheme of things. Boston Harbor today is a thing of beauty. On a bright sunny Saturday this summer little fleets of sail boats tilted in the wind, cutting through slightly choppy water that glinted in the bright sunlight. Waterside cafes were packed. Nearby some of the most outrageously expensive motor yachts hugged well-maintained piers. Triple-decker tour boats showed off the landmarks. One of them, the Fort Independence, took me past the Deer Island Sewage Treatment plant that was critical to the revival of the harbor, past the Coast Guard station, the spire of the Old North Church of Paul Revere fame and past blocks of multi-million-dollar condos rising on wharfs where down-at-the-heels cargo sheds once rotted.

Marine and environmental experts give the harbor high marks, too. They rank it in about the middle of the half dozen or so major harbors in the United States. It is not as clean as much of Chesapeake Bay and the Port of Baltimore, they say, but it is much better off than parts of Puget Sound and the Port of Seattle.

Good things started to happen for Boston Harbor shortly after Bill Golden, the lawyer for the nearby town of Quincy, became outraged one morning when he went out to jog on a harbor beach and found it coated with a blanket of gray sludge. He filed the first of the lawsuits that forced the clean up. Another milestone was the creation of a single agency to take responsibility for the harbor: the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

The biggest remaining problem is that after even a modest rain, Boston’s sewers overflow and gush into the bay. Bayside beaches have to be closed. In addition, the harbor bottom is thick with toxic chemicals. Scientists say that time and the tides will restore the harbor bottom.

But the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is building an underground storage facility designed to halt the sewage overflows. Ms. Convery says it should go into service in May of 2011, a little less than two years from now.

Without the overflows Boston Harbor will take another leap forward, said Mr. Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. It still won’t be perfect, he said, but it will be unrecognizable from the days when it was a political punching bag. “We will have the cleanest urban beaches in America,” Mr. Berman said. “There will be more work to do. But, boy, the improvement has been wonderful, and incredible.” #

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