Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for November, 2009

Nov 26 2009

Clean Water Is Good Business; But It’s No Easy Sell

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—For nearly 10 years, Greg Allgood has been working on the problem of clean drinking water for one of the biggest corporations in America – Procter & Gamble, the maker of Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste and Pampers, the disposable diapers.

Procter & Gamble also makes a powder containing chlorine and iron sulfate that people in poor countries use to purify drinking water in their homes. Mr. Allgood’s job at the company is to get the product, known as PUR, to people who routinely do not have safe drinking water. There are at least a billion people in this category.

Procter & Gamble sells PUR at cost to aid organizations. It is not a money-maker. But helping to ease one of the world’s persistent health problems has proved to be good business. The work has drawn praise from former President Bill Clinton and clean water advocates. Mr. Allgood said it has boosted morale among Procter & Gamble employees and drawn attention to the company’s other products, including water filters sold in the United States.

The problem of unsafe water around the world is enormous. Many experts say estimates of 1 billion people without consistent access to clean water are probably way low. The number, they say, could easily run to more than 2 billion.

The water these legions of people drink – mostly poor people in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America - is loaded with bacteria and viruses. They are often sick with diarrhea. They get dehydrated. Their energy is sapped. Those with jobs sometimes don’t make it to work. The children miss school and, too often, they die before anyone realizes how much the sickness has drained them.

The product, PUR, sells for a few cents. It is one of a handful of processes and devices that have been developed in the last 15 years that enable people to disinfect drinking water in their homes. But the whole idea has been slow in getting off the ground. Only a few million of the huge number of people whose water is unsafe are using these methods.

For one thing, many people don’t associate their illness with the water they drink. “They might think diarrhea is something that is supposed to happen when a child is teething,” Mr. Allgood said. So it is hard to get them to try something new that they don’t necessarily think they need – even if it is free, which is often the case.

For another, governments and agencies like the World Bank tend to think in terms of large-scale projects like multi-million dollar water treatment plants and networks of pipes that can bring clean water into people’s homes. But these projects are often too daunting to actually get funded. So the large number of people without safe drinking water stays large.

Mr. Allgood’s product works like magic. You empty a packet into 2.5 gallons or 10 liters of really dirty water full of germs and twigs and actual dirt, stir for five minutes and let it sit a while. The solid bits and pieces drop to the bottom and the water becomes remarkably clear. Then you strain the water through a piece of cloth and in 20 minutes it’s ready to drink.

Procter & Gamble was unable to figure out how to sell PUR directly to the people who need it most. But the company liked the idea. Now it sells PUR at cost to non-governmental organizations. The organizations either give it away or sell it to people who run grocery stores and small shops. With the middle-men involved, you have someone who has a cash incentive to get PUR into people’s homes.

Dr. Eric Mintz, a team leader working on diarrheal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is an advocate of household treatment of drinking water. Instead of waiting for treatment plants to be built, he said in an interview, “we can do something now – something simpler and less expensive.”

Nearly 2 million children die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. A staggering number. It works out to 5,000 a day. The total is more than the annual number of children killed by HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.

“This is something that will help keep people alive,” Dr. Mintz said, “especially children, the vulnerable ones.”

The unsafe water problem gets worse in emergency situations like outbreaks of cholera. In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, much of the drinking water was contaminated.

It is in emergency situations that Mr. Allgood has been most successful. But after the emergency, people go back to drinking their usual water and routinely living with bouts of diarrhea.

Some big international agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, and the World Health Organization have begun supporting household water treatment, Mr. Allgood said. Population Services International, a Washington non-profit with wide experience in the developing world, also has been promoting household treatment.

Mr. Allgood has won several awards, including the strategic vision award in 2007 from CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Procter & Gamble has gotten a lot of good press. President Clinton has been praising the company at his annual Global Initiative meetings. Popular Mechanics magazine sited PUR in 2008 as one of the top 10 World-Changing innovations of the year.

Mr. Allgood estimates that PUR is reaching four million people a year. He says the number could be 12 million four years from now. “With any new public health approach there are a series of barriers,” Mr. Allgood told me.

He talks about oral rehydration, a powder that helps people, especially children, recover from severe diarrhea. Before the advent of oral rehydration, five million children a year were dying from unsafe water. The deaths have been reduced by three million annually.

Oral rehydration, Mr. Allgood said, also had a slow start. “It took a decade for oral rehydration to start making an impact,” he said. “It hit its stride in the 1970s and 1980s. They started developing it in the 1960s.” #

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Nov 19 2009

In Land of Holy Rivers Getting Rid of Pollution May Have Low Priority

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

NEW DELHI—Bhola Nishad spends his days on a dusty bluff overlooking the Yamuna River. Like so many Indians, Mr. Nishad regards the river as a holy place. It is also his place of business.

All along the river as it winds through New Delhi, the capital of India, devout Hindus stop to toss into the dark, slowly moving water, bouquets and garlands of flowers, money and sometimes statues and framed pictures of Hindu gods.

When they want their offerings taken to the middle of the river, they come to Mr. Nishad. In exchange for a few coins or a plate of food, he swims out to mid-river with the offerings. The hope is that they will stay in the river and not immediately wash up on shore as do so many gifts thrown in from the banks.

Mr. Nishad’s work is dangerous business. The Yamuna, especially as it drifts past New Delhi, is polluted beyond belief. Most of the city’s raw sewage pours into the river. Factories dump chemicals and garbage into the water. When it rains, fertilizer and pesticides used on farms north of New Delhi get washed into the river. The water is thick with bacteria.

Many of India’s rivers are like this. So are many rivers around the world. But this is a holy river.

How could it be, you might ask, that a river is an object of worship, yet permitted to get dirtier and dirtier, to become a threat to the health of the very people who revere it, who, as part of their ritual, often bathe in the water and drink it?

The answer, according to experts who have studied the dichotomy, is that many of the faithful take the river as it is and as it has evolved in the last few decades from a healthy stream to an abomination of sewage. They regard the pollution and the holiness of the river as separate issues and don’t necessarily see intervention as desirable.

David L. Haberman is a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. He has written about the Yamuna in his book, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India.

“To see a river as a goddess,” he said in an interview, “can lead to a kind of inhibiting of the efforts to clean up the river because one sees it as an all-powerful god who couldn’t possibly be polluted.”

Others among the faithful, he said, acknowledge the pollution and that it can be harmful to people. But, he said, they believe that the filth does not diminish the goddess – and therefore is not a critical issue. Yet others say that because of the pollution, the goddess is sick and dying. That minority has been pushing for a cleanup of the river.

Those who would restore the Yamuna have not made much progress. When I was there not long ago, it was an ugly viscous soup of garbage and disease. I walked along the Yamuna on a damp, gray day. The river smelled of burnt wood, tinged with acid. I saw men squatting to relieve themselves at the water’s edge.

The Yamuna begins in the foothills of the Himalayas and flows more than 800 miles through New Delhi, past Agra, the place of the Taj Mahal, and eventually joins the Ganges River.

Shyam Sunder, who is 20, had come by to pay homage to the Yamuna. He had a regular job as a janitor at an open market and was dressed in white trousers and a leather jacket. He likes to swim in the river, he said. He takes jars of the water home to sip with his family, and he shrugs off the health concerns.

“The Yamuna is a very holy river,” he told me. “It is like our mother. We trust the river and we don’t care” about the other things. As far as he can recall, the river has never made him sick.

There has been little public pressure to improve the condition of the river. One group circulated a petition urging the government to get to work on the river. In a country of a billion people, the organizers of the drive said they got 451 signatures.

“Somehow, religion provides a cover for industrial abuses and government inaction,” said Dr. Kelly D. Alley, an anthropology professor at Auburn University in Alabama in an interview. She has spent years studying the Ganges River in India. The Ganges, often referred to as the Ganga, is another unspeakably polluted holy river and in some ways is similar to the Yamuna.

When Dr.  Alley was researching her book, On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River, she drank a cup of tea made from water from the Ganges. She came down with hepatitis. “Many blamed me,” she wrote in her book. “Because I had no immunity, they argued that it was my fault.”

Dr. Alley said it was hard, at first, to understand the attitude toward the rivers. “You would think that they would protect the river, stand up for it,” she said. “But the cosmology is different. The Ganga is more powerful than humans. That kind of prevents activists from doing anything.”

Still, she said, “There are some activists who will take the strong parts of their faith and combine that with modern day views.”

Mr. Nishad, who depends on the Yamuna for a living, is a religious man. But he is also a practical man. He has found a way to increase his earnings as a deliverer of religious offerings. When the prayers are over and his patrons have gone, Mr. Nishad dives back into the Yamuna and retrieves whatever he can of the carvings and paintings and money.

“I don’t consider it wrong,” Mr. Nishad told me. “I pray to the Yamuna River. Because of the Yamuna River I am given food—

given by people and given by the Yamuna.”

Mr. Nishad manages with one leg and a wooden crutch. He lost his right leg to the river. A boil became infected and doctors amputated. But, he says, his devotion to the river has not faded. “It was destiny,” Mr. Nishad said. “I won’t blame it on the river. The river is holy and it will always be holy.” #

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Nov 12 2009

A Tree Breathes Rain, An Axe Brings It Down; Floods Sweep The Land

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Deforestation

MIAMI—This is the story of a tree and what it means to the water supply and to the global environment. It is an ancient story but it is also a story as modern as the latest hardship in Haiti and El Salvador and parts of Africa and Asia.

The tree is called the huarango. It lives in southern Peru. Yet it can serve as a symbol for trees around the world and the influence they have on our lives.

More than 1,500 years ago, thick forests of huarango (pronounced wa-Ran-go) rose in the Ica River Valley of Peru, 120 miles south of Lima. The valley was one of the driest places on earth.  The huarango made the region livable. The trees caught sea mist and moisture in the humid air in their leaves. The mist and moisture condensed and trickled into underground reservoirs or aquifers.

Over time the trees drank up the underground water with their deep and broad network of roots. They breathed moisture into the air. The moisture turned to rain and the land provided food for thousands of people of the Nazca Culture.

But the Nazca did not fully appreciate the huarango, according to new evidence gathered by British researchers. As the Nazcas grew and prospered, they wanted more land for planting corn and other vegetables. They decimated the forests.

Then came the rains, a deluge of greater magnitude than has ever been seen. The Ica Valley was covered in silt and more than 12 feet of water. Rich soil washed away. The nearby valleys suffered, too, and the Nazca never recovered. Today a few descendents struggle to make a living in a swath of river valleys that has become almost entirely desert.

“Had the trees not been chopped down, this flood would not have been a disaster,” said Dr. David G. Beresford-Jones, the leader of a research team from Cambridge University in England in an interview from his home there. Instead, he said, much of the rain would have been caught by the trees. Their roots would have held the soil in place and the year of the flood “would have been a year of abundance.”

The devastation that can follow the destruction of forests played out in Haiti last year after several hurricanes inundated the poor country that shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic. More than 800 people died in flood waters and avalanches of mud that cascaded down denuded hillsides. Haiti was once heavily forested. Even now, with most of the forests gone, the people continue to hack down the surviving trees to make charcoal to cook their food.

El Salvador, a former battlefield in Central America, has also lost most of its forests. Compared with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it ranks second behind Haiti as a place of wasted forests, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In early November, a thunderstorm that was so small it was all but ignored by forecasters, hovered over El Salvador. For nearly two days the storm let loose with heavy rain. It was the rainy season and the land was already soaked. The little storm was more than the hills could take. Clumps of earth broke loose. Huge mud slides tore through villages. At least 1,500 houses were damaged or destroyed, the New York Times reported; 140 people died.

This is the modern-day story of the huarango tree. Around the world millions of acres of trees have been bulldozed and burned. Nigeria and Brazil are countries where the trees have gone the fastest, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. Often the goal of destroying a forest is to create more open land for farming and ranching. Smoky fires from burning the trees add to global warming. The loss of trees means that less carbon monoxide is absorbed from the air. Less rain falls. Without the trees farm land requires heavy irrigation. When the rains come there is nothing to hold back the floods. Civilizations are not being wiped out these days. But lives are being lost in floods and landslides that could be prevented. Some private organizations and a few governments are replanting trees. But they have a long way to go to make up for the abuse of centuries. #

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Nov 05 2009

Argentine River Cleanup Greeted With Skepticism: Can The Job Be Done?

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

BUENOS AIRES—At its broad mouth on the edge of Buenos Aires, the Riachuelo River looks more like a lake than a river. The water seems to be barely moving. It is dirty and smelly. And it may be more like a sludge pit than a lake, a sludge pit festooned with floating islands of plastic bottles and soda cans, rainbow blotches of oil and diesel fuel, clumps of newspapers and plastic bags, tree branches, water-logged planks and truly foul garbage that no one should have to look at.

If prizes were awarded for pollution, the Riachuelo, also known as the Matanza-Riachuelo, would be in contention for a gold medal. People here like to say it is the most polluted river in the world. They are probably wrong. But it may be the most polluted river in Argentina – and that, in itself, is a very competitive zone.

Now an ambitious clean-up is underway. The Supreme Court of Argentina has ordered that the river, which winds through 40 miles of the capital city of Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires Province, be scrubbed and that the thousands of factories along its banks be compelled to stop desecrating it with the residue of leather tanning, the bloody remains of slaughtered cattle, the full range of petroleum fuels and a paralyzing list of industrial chemicals. The court also demanded that communities stop dumping raw sewage into the river.

The World Bank is lending Argentina $840 million. Among the things the money will pay for are sewage treatment plants and hook-ups to the homes of many of the perhaps 4 million people along the river who have always lived without their own toilets. Congress has created the National Authority of the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin to replace a tangle of government agencies that had been responsible for overseeing the river but had done virtually nothing. A federal judge, Dr. Luis Armella, has been appointed to enforce the Supreme Court order.

All of this sounds like a new day for a river that has been a health hazard and an eyesore for generations. But people in Buenos Aires are skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Diego Dillenberger, the editor of the bi-monthly magazine Imagen in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Dillenberger and the people of Buenos Aires have witnessed several false starts on the Riachuelo. In 1993, Maria Julia Alsogaray, Argentina’s Minister of the Environment, vowed to revitalize the Riachuelo in a thousand days. Two years or about 730 days later, President Carlos Menem promised pleasant days of boating, fishing and swimming. Ms. Alsogaray was later accused of corruption, including siphoning off money designated for work on the river. In 2006, another Argentine Minister of the Environment, Romina Picolotti, arrived with another earnest pledge. In that same year, the Supreme Court issued the clean-up order that now seems to be gathering steam.

Argentina has some of the most severe pollution in the world. The country’s leaders have mainly ignored the issue and there has been little public clamor. I walked alongside the Riachuelo recently, the brightly painted and charmingly tilted old wooden houses of the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires over my shoulder. A musky, briny odor rose from the water. It has been that way for decades – unchanged by the occasional flash of interest.

But this time, says Dr. Armella, the judge appointed to fix the sick river, it is going to be different. He sounds like he means it. I spoke with him at a conference in Buenos Aires sponsored by Greenpeace. “This is a process that has started,” he told the audience of perhaps 100 environmentalists, “and it will not stop. Perhaps we will not get it done very quickly. But we will work steadily. And we will never stop.”

Environmental experts say the work could easily take 20 years. Within a few years health conditions could be markedly improved.

Economic tension is bound to rise. Under the court order, factories must retro-fit or close. Some workers will lose their jobs. Dr. Armella says he is going to be “respectful of private interests” but he also says there is going to have to be a cultural change.

He is bracing for reaction and hoping to avoid years of litigation. “The companies should not be spending money for lawyers,” he told the conference. “They should be spending money on the clean-up.”

Juan Carlos Villalonga, a senior executive of Greenpeace in Argentina, and other environmentalists say they are encouraged, but also wary. “We always felt that we were working with the wind against us,” Mr. Villalonga said. “Now we feel the field has been leveled.” #

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