Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for October, 2009

Oct 29 2009

Clean, Safe Water For Two Cents A Day; Not Bad, Not Happening

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI— Here is the problem: at least 1 billion people in the world do not have clean drinking water readily at hand—nearly one-seventh of all the people on earth. These people often burn up a lot of the work day simply lugging water. Kids get pushed into carrying the family’s water and lose time at school. The water they gather is either dirty or becomes dirty, and many of these grown-ups and kids are chronically sick. To many of them, an upset stomach is normal. Many die.

Some experts think the number of people in this miserable condition could easily be 2 billion. Maybe even more. The statistics are fuzzy and no one really knows how bad it is. They just know it is bad.

Here is the solution: put very low cost water purifiers into the homes of these people. These are poor people living on less than $2 a day. For a penny or two a day they could have safe water.

But here is the monkey wrench in the deal: To make this work someone has to go into the villages and slums where the water is unfit even for brushing your teeth and show the people that there is an alternative to being sick all the time. Someone has to hand over a water filter, or a chemical mix that you stir into the water, something like chlorine. Or show people how dirty water, put into clear plastic bottles, sealed and set out in bright sunlight, can be magically rid of bacteria in eight hours as a result of ultra-violet rays and heat.

All of this takes teams of health workers. It takes repeat visits. It costs money. The expense is a lot less than the tens of millions it might take to build a water treatment plant with pipes that can take running water into people’s homes. But it takes substantial money.

And the money is not forthcoming. In fact, a stand-off has developed: cleaning water in homes, versus building village, town and city water systems. With the big projects you’re talking big money.

When you get into the big money, national and local governments and international agencies like the World Bank and big aid providers like the United States and countries in Europe, start thinking about all the other big projects that need funding. And, historically, the water projects have been pushed to the back of the line. Somehow building a water treatment plant just doesn’t have the pizazz of a hydroelectric project that can bring power into a valley, open it up for development of one kind or another.

So the big money doesn’t come for the big projects and the people with the big money often argue that purifying water in households is a tedious process that takes forever to get established and doesn’t reach enough people to justify the effort and expense. Some water experts say that if you adopt the household approach you let the governments off the hook and they have even less incentive to do the big projects.

So you get a lot of debate, and very little happens. It has been that way for ages. Experts estimate that no more than five million of the perhaps two billion people with unhealthy water are using household water treatment devices or processes.

Dr. Stephen Luby is an advocate of disinfecting water in homes. He is in charge of the infectious diseases program at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in one of the world’s most beleaguered places in terms of water, Bangladesh. He was in the United States recently to receive an award for his work from Oklahoma University.

“Do I think household water treatment is a panacea, a silver bullet,” he asked in an interview. “No. But it’s something we can do.”

Dr. Luby said he was not opposed to building water treatment plants. “But those kinds of solutions,” he said, “are decades away for the populations at the highest risk for death from water-borne diseases.”

He and other water experts say there has been little or no progress in reducing the total of one billion or two billion people without regular access to clean water.

Perhaps three million people a year are getting deathly ill as a result of drinking contaminated water. That was true 10 years ago. It is true today.

But the annual number of these people dying has declined to perhaps 1.8 million- still a staggering number - because of the introduction of an inexpensive medicine that enables grown-ups and children who have been dehydrated by diarrhea to recover the balance of fluids in their bodies. It’s called oral rehydration. It saves lives. But it saves lives that would not even be threatened if the water were cleaned up. #

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Oct 22 2009

In Bangladesh A Crippling Poison Troubles The Waters

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

WASHINGTONBangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth, is a tough place to get a drink of water you can trust.

The country, surrounded by India and overlooking the Bay of Bengal, is laced with rivers and dotted with lakes and ponds. But most of the water is polluted.

One particular kind of pollution in Bangladesh is naturally- occurring arsenic. Water with arsenic in it is often sparkling clear and tastes great, according to Abul Hussam, who grew up in Bangladesh and is now the director of the Center for Clean Water and Sustainable Technologies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

But drink water with high-levels of arsenic for 10 years or so and bad things start to happen. One result of gradual arsenic poisoning is that the palms of the hands and soles of feet dry out and crack like old leather baked in the sun. Sometimes gangrene sets in and amputation is required. Some people develop cancers.

The water in more than 40 countries is contaminated in varying degrees with arsenic. But the contamination in Bangladesh, with 140 million people, is among the worst. Arsenic contamination is also an especially serious problem in parts of India, China, Mongolia and Cambodia.

Dr. Hussam, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and his brother, Abul K. Munir, a medical doctor, began running tests on water in Bangladesh and found unhealthy levels of arsenic almost everywhere. They even found it in their own family’s wells in the city of Kushtia, near the western border with India.

“We had to do something,” Professor Hussam said.

Professor Hussam came up with a simple water filter that extracts the arsenic. The device consists of two thick plastic buckets – one red, the other green - containing a cast iron composite, charcoal, sand and gravel. A light metal frame holds the buckets, one above the other. You pour water into the top bucket, the red one. It trickles into bucket Number Two. Below bucket Number Two you place the kind of clay jug that people in Bangladesh have been using forever as containers for water. When the water hits the clay jug it is clean and ready for drinking.

Professor Hussam calls his creation the “SONO Filter.” He did the early development of the filter, he said, at his brother’s SONO Diagnostic Center in Kushtia. SONO, he said, is a local term for ultra-sound.

The filters sell for $30 to $40. That is too much for people who are living on less than $1.50 a day. But the Department of Public Health and Engineering in Bangladesh and private aid organizations have found that the filters work well and have begun buying them and handing them out to families. Highest priority goes to families where the damage has been most severe.

The National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., was so impressed that in 2007 it awarded Professor Hussam its Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability which provided $1 million to the winner. The challenge that year was to design an affordable, easy to maintain way of removing arsenic from water around the world. Only devices that required no electricity were considered. Professor Hussam said he is spending most of the money in Bangladesh to manufacture and distribute filters and to do further research.

The arsenic problem arose in Bangladesh as a result of an attempt by the government to deal with another kind of pollution. Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world where millions of people do not have toilets. It is also one of the most flooded countries in the world. The floods mix animal and human waste, garbage and fertilizer into the drinking water.

The government decided to drill wells, millions of them, most operated with hand pumps. The water that came up through the wells looked good. It also contained fewer bacteria than the surface water that people had been drinking, and illnesses and deaths from diarrhea diminished. But the well-water turned out to be contaminated with arsenic.

Professor Hussam and his brother set up a factory in Bangladesh to make the filters. They have produced 130,000 filters that they estimate are in the homes of about 500,000 people. They say another half million people, neighbors, are also getting their water cleaned through the same filters.

But the scale of the arsenic contamination is overwhelming. Professor Hussam estimates that more than 80 million people in Bangladesh are drinking water containing unhealthy levels of arsenic. The government puts the number at about 37 million.

For Professor Hussam, his filters are no more than “a very temporary solution.” A much more extensive approach is needed, he told me.

He has begun campaigning for village and town-sized versions of his filters or, as he says, “community water treatment systems.” He also says he thinks it is possible to clean up the water in the lakes and rivers and keep it clean. A significant part of the solution is providing toilets.

And where will the money for all of this come from?

Professor Hussam said he thinks the answer is private business, entrepreneurs. Many advocates for clean water insist that this work is the duty of governments. Those advocates worry that private investors will eventually price water beyond the reach of many people. Not professor Hussam.

“There is business to be done here,” he said. “We’ve approached the government and they’re not very helpful. The government doesn’t have the money. It’s as simple as that.” #

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Oct 15 2009

Never Mind Debate On Human Rights, Just Make Water Flow

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

SAINT LEO, Fla.—Human rights and water. For years people have been arguing over the topic. Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. Or it is not. Or, it may be a human right, but recognizing it as such would impose requirements that some governments reject.

Here at Saint Leo University, a small, beautiful, liberal arts university northeast of Tampa, I’ve been talking to students and faculty. Everyone I’ve met here regards access to clean drinking water as a human right.

“Water is life,” said history professor Anthony Esposito at one session with about 100 students and faulty. “No water, no life. Therefore, it’s a human right.”

It is the same in most places. But there are some big exceptions. And those exceptions are the reason the debate has not been resolved.

Now some experts are saying that the debate has gotten in the way of efforts to get clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of people. And a change in strategy may be taking shape.

A newly appointed official at the United Nations Human Rights Council assigned to dealing with water issues, Catarina de Albuquerque, a Portuguese lawyer with years of experience in international negotiations, says she has no doubt that access to both adequate water and sanitation facilities are intrinsic human rights.

But Ms. de Albuquerque, the Independent Expert on human rights and water and sanitation, says she is more interested in getting clean water and sanitation facilities to people who need them than in struggling for consensus on terminology.

Those who do not have adequate water and sanitation, she said in an interview with IPS Terraviva, an Internet publication focusing on the United Nations, “will not be served by years of political negotiations over a new international treaty.”

She’s opting for the practical. She is driven, she says, by the nearly incredible statistics on water – or the absence of water – and the consequences.

  • Roughly 1 billion people – about one-seventh of the nearly 7 billion people on earth—do not have access to clean drinking water.
  • 2.5 billion people or nearly 40 percent of the world’s population do not have toilets.

The result is severe and persistent health problems.  Because of drinking contaminated water, 1.8 million people die each year, most of them children under the age of five. That is about 5,000 deaths a day. This is not happening on my block or in your neighborhood in the United States or Europe. The deaths are scattered across the poorest countries in the world. They occur one or two at a time. They mostly go unnoticed by anyone beyond their grieving families.

People who have to struggle every day to find drinking water do not simply go without water. They would die in a few days, if they did. Instead, they find water; sometimes after walking for hours. But often the water they find is dirty. Or it becomes dirty, partly because they live without toilets. Their hands get into the water and it becomes toxic. Many things foul the water.

One of the hold-outs on accepting access to water and, also, adequate sanitation as human rights is the United States. The United States agrees that everyone should have an adequate supply of clean water and a place to go to the bathroom.

But United States government officials tell me they worry about the legal burdens of formally signing on to any international agreement that would explicitly recognize access to water and toilets as a human right. It would be one more thing the United States would have to police, the officials say. It could also mean that some countries would press the United States for more financial assistance. They could say they’d love to provide water for their people but they just don’t have the money.

The United States is already spending billions of dollars in foreign aid and with Barack Obama in the White House it is likely to be spending more. But it wants to maintain maximum flexibility in choosing how it spends its money and influence. It sees recognizing access to water as limiting its options. Canada and Brazil take similar positions.

For ordinary people, this doesn’t sit well. The United States comes off as cold-hearted. “I see the struggle,” said Sarah Holz, a senior at Saint Leo majoring in religion. “It’s tricky. I don’t think our role should be as universal police. But if people don’t have water, how can we not step in?”

Ms. Holz, who is the only student on the university’s board of trustees, had more to say. “We take on big problems like Iraq,” she said. “Maybe we should start from the opposite direction and start with the most basic human needs.”

Christine Barabas, a junior in biology, has always had all the water she needed. And then some. She knew there were water problems in the world. But until she heard the statistics, she had no sense of the enormous scale. “It really opened my eyes,” she said.

Jessie Moreira, a senior majoring in biology and environmental science, said the hanging back by the United States bothered her. “We’re a very powerful country,” she said. “We should be using our resources to help people.”

The hesitation on accepting the obvious, she said, that water is a human right, struck her as irresponsible insistence upon form over substance. “It’s like somebody gets hurts and needs to go to the hospital,” she said, “and you stand there debating whether it is a deadly injury or a not so deadly injury. They should just fix it.” #

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Oct 08 2009

Battle of the Bottles, Steel Angers Plastic; Litigation Commences

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI – To hear Tom Lauria tell it, he and his people in the bottled water business were just fed up.

A North Carolina company that sells stainless steel canteens as an alternative to buying water in plastic bottles was accusing the bottled water people in its advertisements of all sorts of foul things.

“People do not have to go to the emergency room if they drink bottled water,” said Mr. Lauria, the spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, in an interview.

“If they want to sell a multi-use bottle, that’s fine,” Mr. Lauria said. “But they’re not going to say that our product poisons people, poisons families. Everything in the grocery store is made of the same plastic.”

Mr. Lauria said his group in Alexandria, Va., the biggest organization of water bottlers, distributors and suppliers of bottled water labels and bottle caps in America, sent the company, Eco Canteen of Charlotte, N.C., a notice to stop their “false and misleading” accusations. “They ignored it,” Mr. Lauria said, “So we filed suit. Our membership wanted us to.”

I tried several times over two weeks to talk with people at Eco Canteen. I really wanted to hear their side of the story. Phone calls. Emails. Nothing worked.

Mr. Lauria said the lawsuit, filed in the federal district court for the Western District of North Carolina, was the first his organization had filed against critics of bottled water. And there are lots of critics.

Most if not all environmental groups are against bottled water. They say the manufacture of the plastic bottles from petroleum adds to global warming and that the discarded bottles become almost indestructible garbage.

Many environmental groups advocate drinking tap water from reusable bottles. Several environmentally oriented websites recommend Eco Canteen. But on one website called ecohuddle at least nine people who said they had bought Eco Canteens complained that they had been misled on pricing. “Scam,” said two writers. One blogger said the company was “to be avoided at all costs.” A note attributed to Eco Canteen said, “We apologize if there is any confusion on our products or their pricing.”

Part of the environmentalists’ criticism is that bottled water is hugely expensive. They say it is no better than tap water and sometimes worse. The bottled water association takes strong exception to suggestions that its water is of poor quality or that it is the least bit unsafe.

In the lawsuit the bottled water association says the quality of bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. It says it has its own quality standards and that plants operated by its members are inspected annually. “Every aspect of the operation from water source to the filling room” is tested and audited, the association says in the lawsuit.

The Government Accountability Office in Washington said in a recent report that the principal regulator of bottled water quality, the Food and Drug Administration, was not as strict as the Environmental Protection Agency. The accountability office suggested that the Food and Drug Administration should be looking more closely at the ingredients of plastic bottles, but it did not raise any specific health concerns.

The government report undermined some of the environmentalists’ claims. It said that discarded water bottles, which the environmentalists say are jamming garbage dumps, represented less than one percent of the total waste in municipal landfills. The agency said that while it took much more energy to produce bottled water than tap water, the amount of energy used by the water companies was a small percentage of all the energy consumed in the United States.

Bottled water sales have been declining after years of breathtaking growth. I wondered if after years of anti-bottled water comments from environmentalists, the bottled water people had decided it was time to try to shut down some of the criticism.

Mr. Lauria says, No. He said the decline in sales had nothing to do with campaigns by environmentalists. “The economists say it isn’t the environmentalists who are making a dent,” Mr. Lauria said, “It’s a recession dent.”

Environmentalists say that all of their work against bottled water must have had some impact. But, they say, they can’t be sure.

On their website, the Eco Canteen people sell their 26-ounce, stainless steel canteens against bottled water. On one Eco Canteen website a message pops on the screen: “Kick the Plastic Habit and Protect Your Family.” A video narrated by a woman begins, “Did you know that 40 percent of bottled water comes from city tap?” “Some brands don’t even filter it,” she says, “So why pay a fortune for something you can get for free?” Then a man’s voice: “Disposable bottles last 700 years. They’re taking over our landfills.” One written message says, “Some researchers believe BPA polycarbonate bottles could threaten your family’s health.”

The lawsuit attributes much stronger language to Eco Canteen. It says some of the company’s ads show a spokesperson standing in front of a hospital emergency room and saying that some plastic water bottles “release synthetic estrogen, linked to breast and prostate cancer.” Some ads say that “plastic bottles could be poisoning you and your family,” according to the lawsuit.

The first Eco Canteen listing I found in a Google search carried the words “official site.” The ad on that site made no reference to cancer or poison. But two items down on Google, I clicked on an Eco Canteen listing and saw a woman making the claims referred to in the lawsuit about breast and prostate cancer. It is hard to tell what is going on here.  Eco Canteen could do itself a favor by sending a consistent message in its ads and perhaps by getting someone to answer phone calls and emails from inquiring reporters. #

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Oct 01 2009

Fighting Over Pollution That Never Happened, Argentina vs. Uruguay

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

BUENOS AIRES— Here is a whopper of a water dispute between two countries that have only barely tolerated each other in the best of times: Argentina, one of the largest countries in South America, and Uruguay, one of the smallest.

Five years ago, a Finnish company announced plans to build a pulp paper plant in Uruguay, just across the Uruguay River from Argentina. The company promised to use new technology and not to spew the pollution that historically has resulted from pulp paper plants.

Almost immediately protests broke out in Argentina. But the Finnish company, Oy Metsa-Botnia AB, pushed on. Two years ago the plant went into operation just outside the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos. Several analyses by water experts have concluded that the plant is not hurting the river, and the World Bank, which helped finance the plant, has accepted the findings.

But the reports have not satisfied the Argentines, particularly the people of the town of Gualeguaychu, population 80,000, about two hours’ drive from Buenos Aires and eight miles from the Uruguay River. They are continuing to fight.

Years ago both sides appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the highest court of the United Nations. In mid-September the court began hearing arguments on Argentina’s claim that Uruguay had violated a 1975 river treaty by failing to consult with Argentina on the project. Uruguay said it had complied fully. Proceedings in the case are expected to run through Oct. 2.

It has been an astounding dispute, a display of human foibles, of the intensity of rivalries and suspicions across borders and of the distrust of big business and foreign investors. But it also has been a dispute that has underscored concerns around the world about the quality and scarcity of water, concerns that have grown as the dispute has dragged on and as climate change and global warming have become a part of daily life.

Argentina is the second largest country in South America in territory after Brazil and, with about 40 million people, ranks third after Brazil and Colombia in population. It sprawls over the equivalent of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Uruguay has 3.4 million people and is about the size of the state of Washington. The Argentines joke about the Uruguayans being country bumpkins. The Uruguayans say the Argentines are brash and overbearing.

In the paper plant dispute, there have been some truly remarkable moments. At one point, both sides appealed to King Juan Carlos of Spain to mediate. At a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Vienna, Evangelina Carrozo, who was 25 years old and had been named “Miss Gualeguaychu,” peeled off all her clothes except for a skimpy bikini and hoisted a banner reading, “No Paper Mill Pollution.”

When it comes to the water quality reports, the people of Gualeguaychu say they don’t believe the reports because some were paid for by the Finnish company. Even Greenpeace, the international environmental group, says there is no sign of pollution from the plant. Gonzalo Girolami, a spokesman for Greenpeace in Buenos Aires, said he is at a loss as to why Argentina and the people of Gualeguaychu are still pressing the issue. “The position of the people of Gualeguaychu is very stubborn, very nationalistic,” Mr. Girolami said in an interview.

The plant has been an economic bonanza for Uruguay. It cost $1.2 billion to build and is the largest foreign investment ever in Uruguay. Its construction provided 8,000 jobs and 600 people are now running the plant.

The Finnish company anticipated opposition. It sent out engineers to explain how its new ways of making pulp paper differed from the processes that for decades had dirtied the waters around the 12 paper plants operating in Argentina and that had made a mess of Finnish lakes and rivers 30 years ago.

But the Argentines were not buying. Within months, the people of Gualeguaychu began raising their voices. The Uruguay River would be ruined. Their drinking water would suffer. Summer vacationers would stop coming. Eventually the protesters shut down the Libertador General San Martin Bridge, connecting Argentina and Uruguay. Government officials in Argentina called for a halt to the project. The bridge, impassable for three years, is still blocked and Uruguay says the loss of the link to Argentina has cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in business. The disruption has hurt Argentina as well.

“We always said Argentina was making a big mistake,” said Mr. Girolami of Greenpeace.

It has some of the world’s worst pollution and Argentines say that except for this case, the environment has not been a matter of high priority. That leads some analysts to speculate that the dispute over the Finnish paper plant is really more about politics, nationalist sentiment and public opinion in Gualeguaychu than about the environment.

At The Hague, the Associated Press reported, Ambassador Carlos Gianelli, the leader of Uruguay’s delegation, said the dispute was “a sad episode in the historically close relations between Argentina and Uruguay.” He said matters had been made worse “by the excessive language that Argentina used throughout” the early part of the proceedings “in which it portrayed Uruguay as nothing short of an international outlaw.”

Susana Ruiz Cerutti, the chief representative of Argentina in the case, said the Finnish plant was “a bad mill in a bad place.”

Alan Boyle, a lawyer representing Uruguay, countered: “It is the right mill in the right place on a river more than capable of sustaining this type of economic development.”

A ruling by the international court is expected early next year. And the question arises: Will the court’s decision finally end the dispute? #

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