Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for December, 2009

Dec 31 2009

Why Jessica Biel Is Climbing Kilimanjaro Without Timberlake

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—When Wold Zemedkun was in high school in Ethiopia he decided to take a sample of the water his family drank every day to his biology class. The water came from a nearby river. It was sparkling clear and tasted fine.

“We put it under a microscope and that clear water was completely full of moving creatures, billions of them,” Mr. Zemedkun told me in an interview.  Maybe it wasn’t actually billions of creatures, but he remembers the water as shockingly unhealthy.

It was stories like that, said Mr. Zemedkun’s son, the singer-song writer Kenna, that inspired him to organize an expedition of Hollywood entertainers and others to climb the highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, to attract attention to the problem of unsafe drinking water in developing countries.

Among those who have signed up for the expedition early in 2010 are actors Jessica Biel and Isabel Lucas, hip-hoppers Lupe Fiasco and Santigold and Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of the underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. She is the founder of an organization called “Blue Legacy” that focuses on water problems.

Kenna says that on a snowboarding outing he told his friend and actor Justin Timberlake about the climb and that Justin was “super excited about it.”

But by the time the expedition was scheduled, Justin had already committed to making a new movie, “Social  Network.” Justin and Jessica were together at a party in Los Angeles to publicize the climb. But Justin won’t be climbing.

Around the world, experts say, at least 1 billion people routinely drink unsafe water. They are regularly sick. They miss work and they miss days at school. A ghastly number of them die each year—nearly 2 million, according to the World Health Organization, mostly children under the age of five.

Kenna was born in Ethiopia in East Africa and came to the United States with his parents when he was three. Africa is the part of the world where the most people are struggling with unhealthy drinking water. It is bad also in parts of Asia and Latin America.

As I spoke with Kenna’s father, the older man recalled the reaction of his high school biology teacher to the river water under the microscope.

“The professor says, ‘Is this what you drink? That’s what your whole family drinks?’ And I said, ‘yes.’ And he said, ‘And nobody gets sick?’ And I said, ‘We’re sick all the time.’”

The professor told Mr. Zemedkun the family should be boiling their drinking water. They took his advice. But no one ever come around to try to clean up the river or to offer the family and their neighbors disinfectants for the water. That is the way it goes for most people whose only drinking water is unhealthy. Almost no one is on the case.

The celebrity climb is being sponsored by Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble and Eddie Bauer.  The climbers will be using Hewlett Packard gear to blog and Twitter as they work their way up the mountain.

For a decade or so, Procter & Gamble, has been making a powder that people dissolve in their water to get rid of bacteria and other unwanted things. The company does not make money on the powder. It is sold mostly at cost. But it has gotten the company a lot of good publicity and it has made a tiny dent in the problem in developing countries.

Greg Allgood runs the program on clean drinking water at Procter & Gamble and he is going up the mountain with Kenna and the others.  At 50, he is the oldest of the climbers. He’s athletic and in good shape and he’s been training hard. Even so, he says he’s not sure he’ll make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. “I’m gong to do my very best,” Mr. Allgood said. “I have fantastic motivation—to help save kids by providing safe drinking water.”

Kenna told me he tried to climb Kilimanjaro a few years back as a quiet test of himself. He did not make it. And that’s another reason he organized the celebrity climb. #

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Dec 23 2009

Dry Spells, Good Eats Put Everglades Birds In the Mating Mood

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—Drought, that killer of crops, destroyer of rivers and lakes, may turn out to have its good points – particularly in the Florida Everglades.

One result of severe dry spells in the Everglades, scientists say, is an abundance of food for beautiful wading birds like ibises, great egrets and wood storks – whose ranks have dwindled far from what they once were. After a hearty swamp buffet of minnows and crayfish, scientists say, the birds throw themselves into mating.

In 2009, in what is becoming a pattern, mating and nest-building by ibises and other wading birds soared, right on schedule, scientists say, two years after the most recent drought. The scientists counted 77,505 nests, up from 18, 418 in 2008.

The jump is a hopeful sign for the birds that once filled the skies of South Florida. They began to thin out in the late 1940s as the United States Army Corps of Engineers began overhauling the Everglades to reduce flooding and to improve farm irrigation. The wading bird population plunged in the 1960s and 1970s as re-engineered water flows disrupted breeding.

Scientists say the come-back began about 10 years ago. At peak times these days, the scientists say, there may be 140,000 or so ibises and other wading birds in the Everglades, down from at least several hundred thousand before the engineers laid into the marshes and mangroves. A plan to restore the Everglades to conditions more favorable for the birds has been developed. But progress has been slow. The scientists say, however, that Everglades’s water managers have been coordinating with bird experts lately to provide conditions conducive to breeding.

While scientists mainly agree that droughts are beneficial to the Everglades birds, they disagree on some of the particulars. In hopes of confirming some of the theories, a team of scientists at the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach plans to spend the next three years studying wading birds in four miniature versions of the Everglades that they have created in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach.

The scientists say they are starting from a promising base. “There tends to be a fairly strong pattern between droughts and large wading bird events” or episodes of breeding, said Mark I. Cook, the co-editor of a report from the South Florida Water Management District that included the latest data on mating.

After a drought, extra food becomes available for the birds, scientists say, partly as a result of less competition from bass and other sizable fish and because of a boom in minnows, finger-length crayfish and other creatures that wading birds love. The scientists say big fish die in droughts as the water around them disappears. At the same time, as the soil in the Everglades dries out, the scientists say, it releases nutrients that stimulate the growth of plants and algae-like organisms that minnows and crayfish devour. With heartier meals, the scientists say, the birds have extra energy and zest and breed more. The spindly legs and long curved bills of the ibises turn an even brighter pink than usual.

Mr. Cook of the South Florida Water Management District said data suggests that jumps in nesting occur two years after a drought.  In 2002, he said, after a drought in 2000, the nest count soared to more than 60,000 from just under 40,000 the previous year. Smaller peaks were observed in 2004 and 2006, each two years after severe dry spells.

Peter Frederick, an expert on wading birds at the University of Florida, and John Ogden, a biologist now working as the director of bird conservation for Audubon of Florida, studied nesting patterns in the Everglades from 1931 to 1946 and from 1974 to 1998.  Nest counts zoomed two years after seven of the eight droughts they observed.

The graceful wading birds of the Everglades were nearly wiped out in the late 1890s and early 1900s by what were known as plume hunters who wanted the feathers for fancy hats that sometimes turned up in the Easter Parade on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Outrage at the slaughter of the birds inspired the creation of the Audubon Society, a national bird protection organization now known simply as Audubon. In the early 1900s Congress and Florida outlawed the killing of the birds. Scientists say the engineers who changed the water flows in the Everglades had not anticipated that their work would harm the birds.

After a drought, Mr. Cook said, little crayfish are among the first creatures to return. As the drought descends and water recedes in the marshes, the crayfish burrow into the mud. The crayfish can stay alive, Mr. Cook said, as long as they keep damp. The survivors breed, starting a new food cycle. With no big fish around to eat them, Mr. Cook said, “the crayfish population explodes.”

Then, he said, “you get an explosion of white ibises.”

Mr. Cook and his colleagues know more about the eating habits of the ibis than of other birds because when scientists approach ibises, the birds get nervous. One of their defense mechanisms is to throw up. More often than not, the scientists say, the birds regurgitate crayfish. Whether the wood storks are big consumers of crayfish is not clear, Mr. Cook said. They do not throw up.

Mr. Cook said the scientists are much more confident of their count of nests than of the birds themselves. The nests are easy to see from light planes and boats, he said – partly because they are stationary.

Counting birds is another thing. “You go into a colony of roseate spoonbills,” said Jerry Lorenz, the research director of Audubon of Florida from his office in Tavernier in the Florida Keys, “and all you see is pink birds flying away. There is no way you can count them. What you do is walk around and count the nests.”

Mr. Cook said he once worked on a program to attach radio transmitters on ibises so they could be tracked. “After they left the nest,” he said, “we lost them immediately. They flew straight out of the Everglades. We found a few in agricultural areas.” #

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Dec 16 2009

One Calm Season And You’re Thinking, No Hurricane Worries

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI — Here’s the bad news about the quiet, almost peaceful hurricane season in 2009: Right away, people start thinking this is the norm. They start to relax and maybe even make fun of hurricanes.

“Unfortunately, people take it that maybe we’re not going to get hit for a while,” said Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center on the edge of Miami.

“But,” Mr. Read said in an interview, “You never know.”

With all the satellites and aircraft and ocean buoys that help hurricane specialists figure out which way the wind is blowing, forecasters cannot confidently predict how storms will develop a year in advance. In fact, they are not entirely sure where a storm is going to go over any given five days. As a hurricane approaches land, they lay out a pretty wide swath of possibilities which they call the cone of uncertainty.

Hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University know very well about the imprecision of long-range estimates on hurricanes. But they are also concerned about complacency. So to keep up interest in hurricanes, they take a stab at what next season might look like. They say they see a busier than average run of tropical storms for 2010, including as many as eight hurricanes, possibly five of them major.

The Colorado forecasters, Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray said in a joint statement in early December that they think the El Nino condition that diminished hurricanes in 2009 will not affect the Atlantic hurricane zone in 2010. They put the odds of a major hurricane hitting somewhere along the coasts of the United States at 64 percent, up from the average probability of 52 percent.

Hurricane experts living near the coasts solve the problem of uncertainty in their own professional and private lives by always being ready for the big blow. They know where the shutters are and how to put them up. They have laid in plenty of bottled water and canned goods and their portable radio and flashlights have fresh batteries. The pros have already reinforced their garage door – which is one of the first things to crumple in a big storm. The garage door caves in and there goes the roof. Pretty soon you’re looking at a skeleton of a house.

But for most people, hurricanes are not a business. They are some kind of nuisance that can turn into a huge dislocation and sometimes can even kill. But you get a couple of quiet years and the killer hurricane begins to look more like a nuisance. That’s what Bill Read and other forecasters worry about after a year like the 2009 season that just ended in November: nine storms that got stronger than 39 miles an hour, three that kept building until they were up to more than 111 miles an hour – the low demarcation for Category Three hurricanes; and one storm, Hurricane Bill, that got up to 135 miles an hour, reaching Category Four status. Not one of the storms hit the United States with much force.

“We got precious little in the way of information” from the 2009 season that could serve as a warning or a lesson on the danger of hurricanes, Mr. Read said. “There was no unusual storm that gave us something that could be used to teach people about preparedness.”

Hurricane experts say that we’re in the midst of a cycle of generally heavier hurricane activity that began in 1995 and may run for a decade or two more. The nine storms in 2009 was a little below the average during the cycle. But the volume is not as critical as the direction. One big hurricane can make for a very bad year.

Emergency management officials around the hurricane zone, from Texas to the Carolinas, caution not to put much stock in hurricane performance in 2009. In Fort Myers, on the west coast of Florida, Gerald Campbell, the emergency planning chief for Lee County, told the “It’s just like the disclaimer on stocks–past performance is no indication of future performance.”

Mr. Read at the Hurricane Center near Miami does not wish for hurricanes. He hopes for quiet years. But he does worry that quiet years feed complacency. There is already way too much complacency about hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is an example. New Orleans and the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi had not had much of a blow since Hurricane Camille in 1969 – nearly 40 years earlier. There had been a lot of nears misses and some flooding, but not enough bad stuff to rattle most people. So a lot of them just shrugged as Katrina approached. Nearly 2,000 people ended up dead.

“The further you get from experiencing an event personally– or close enough to watch it go by and learn from it,” Mr. Read said, “the more people return to ‘it’s-not-going-to-happen-to-me mode.”#

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Dec 10 2009

Climbing Kilimanjaro Because Dirty Water Is Killing Children

MIAMIGreg Allgood will do almost anything to draw attention to the huge number of poor people – more than 1 billion – whose only drinking water is loaded with bacteria and viruses and who are often sick, sometimes so sick they die.

Now, in the name of what he calls the global crisis on drinking water, Mr. Allgood, 50 years old and in pretty good shape, is preparing to climb the biggest mountain in Africa, 19,340-foot-high Mt. Kilimanjaro. One of his drills is running up 17 flights of stairs in his office building in Cincinnati in hiking shoes with a knapsack on his back. He does that eight times— up, then down, twice a week.

Mr. Allgood, who heads a water purification program at Procter & Gamble, the big American maker of soap and many other drug store items, is going to be part of a platoon of socially-concerned glitterati that includes two pop singer-song writers, Kenna (who does not use his last name) and Lupe Fiasco, and actors Jessica Biel and Isabel Lucas. Justin Timberlake, the pop singer and Ms. Biel’s boy friend, had considered joining the expedition, the organizers said, but the date of the climb – in early January – conflicts with a movie he’s making.

Mr. Allgood and the others are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in hopes of creating a buzz that will get people around the world to focus on the stark fact that unhealthy water annually kills 1.8 million people, mostly children – about eight times the number of people who died in the Great Asian Tsunami in 2004. The worst victims of contaminated water get diarrhea, become dehydrated and die. They go quietly, one by one, at home and in little clinics. This is mostly happening in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America. It is not on the radar of most Americans.

“Most of the world is asleep on the subject of the clean drinking water crisis,” said Kenna, who is leading the expedition.

One of the agonizing characteristics of the problem is that it does not have to exist. Dirty water was killing people long before climate change was recognized. The situation may worsen as droughts and downpours alternate more radically. But it has persisted because of neglect.

“This is a solvable problem,” said Steven Solomon, the author of a new book being published in the United States in January, “Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power and Civilization.”

“There is enough water for this,” Mr. Solomon said. “This is a logistical, political and organizational problem. It doesn’t require so much money that there are economic limits. There are no technical problems. It’s purely a problem of logistics, organization and political will.”

And that’s why Mr. Allgood is going up the mountain. He believes that once people understand the magnitude of the problem and that it is preventable, they will begin clamoring for governments “like the U.S. Government, to contribute a lot more significantly toward providing safe drinking water.”

More people die every year from diarrhea and other water-borne diseases than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Just about everyone seems to know about the Great Asian Tsunami. But the water problem rarely comes up.

Kenna, whose given name is Kenna Zemedkun, came to the United States from Ethiopia as a child and grew up mainly in Virginia Beach, Va. Until his dad, now a finance professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia, mentioned that he was sending money to Ethiopia to build a well, Kenna said in an interview, “I had no clue about the world water crisis.” When Kenna’s father was four years old and living in Ethiopia, his best friend, also four, died after drinking foul water. Kenna said his father, himself, “was sick from water-borne diseases for 10 years.”

After hearing his father’s account, Kenna started putting together a group of high-profile friends to tackle the mountain and looking for commercial sponsors “to do something extreme to raise awareness about an extreme social issue.” He calls his Mt. Kilimanjaro project “Summit on the Summit.”

Kenna, who is in his early 30s, said he hoped to get the message on water to young people who follow him and his entertainer friends. Hewlett Packard, one of the main sponsors of the project, has built a website at with a slick, high-tech video on mountain climbing. Kenna is promoting the project on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Hewlett Packard is producing a wireless signal on the mountain and outfitting the climbers with laptops. They plan to Twitter as they advance in the five-day journey from a rainforest base to the bare upper reaches of the mountain and, finally, to its icy crown.

“I believe we have a currency that cuts through pop culture and that people will pay attention to us because they feel they know us,” Kenna said.

Kenna and the others will be wearing jackets from Eddie Bauer and sleeping in Eddie Bauer tents. Mr. Allgood’s company, Procter & Gamble, is one of the main backers. Procter & Gamble also sells water filters. As part of its support for the Kilimanjaro project, it is donating enough of its purifying powder, PUR, to clean two and half gallons of water in poor countries for each purchase of a filter. Mr. Allgood is the director of Procter & Gamble’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water program and Kenna said he saw him as a natural climbing partner.

“He fights for this everyday,” Kenna said. “I thought we could all learn from him.”

Kenna said he expects about a dozen friends to be climbing with him, including Alexandra Cousteau, the grand daughter of Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer, environmentalist and star of the television series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” and Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the grand daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, the assassinated brother of President John F. Kennedy. Elizabeth Gore, an executive at Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation, and two photographers, Michael Muller, who specializes in celebrities and fashion, and Jimmy Chin, who has climbed Mt. Everest, are also in the group. A video crew will be documenting the whole thing.

Mr. Allgood said he has learned how to tell the story of the drinking water crisis so that it inspires people. “If you only give the negatives, you’re going to turn people off,” he said. The situation seems hopeless. “But if you give them the negative plus the solution – that there are practical, proven and scalable ways to prevent the deaths – they are very inspired and want to do something.” #

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Dec 03 2009

Hostile Winds Clobber Would-Be Hurricanes; But Next Year?

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI — Whatever happened to the 2009 hurricane season? It never amounted to much. And that was kind of a surprise.

As the season started in June, forecasters were expecting about a dozen tropical storms and predicting that perhaps half of them would grow into hurricanes.

It didn’t turn out that way. As the curtain went down on the season at the end of November, there had been nine storms. Three got strong enough to be called hurricanes with winds of more than 74 miles an hour. But not one of them hit the beaches of the United States as a hurricane. The best shots weakened over water and became mainly windy rainstorms.

“Most of the season you had hostile winds aloft over the main development areas over the Atlantic and the Caribbean,” said Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center just outside Miami.

The result, he said in an interview, was that as nascent storms came off the coast of Africa or popped up closer to the United States “they never got past” the stage of being a “cluster of thunderstorms.”

It was the quietest hurricane season in 12 years.

Even quiet seasons can have deadly and costly consequences, though. A dozen people were swept off an outcropping of rocks along the coast of Maine by rough seas accompanying Hurricane Bill and one of them, a seven-year-old girl, drowned. In Florida, the authorities attributed the death of a 54-year-old swimmer to Hurricane Bill. Bill was the first hurricane of the season and it arrived in mid-August. That was 10 weeks into the season. In early November, Hurricane Ida flooded the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, knocked out bridges and flattened dozens of homes. Later, as a weaker tropical storm, Ida dropped a lot of rain on the Alabama coast near Mobile.

But, to the bigger issue: Does the relative quiet of 2009 mean the end of the much-talked-about onslaught of several decades of more and stronger hurricanes? The busy cycle started in 1995. Fourteen years later, is it over?

No. The quiet of 2009, according to Mr. Read, who has been in the hurricane business for more than 30 years, means almost nothing useful. Next year could be a terrible year along the United States Coasts, the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Central America. Or it could be a mild year. Chances are though, it won’t be that mild.

The hostile winds that beat the baby storms to pieces before they could grow into monsters were created by what is known as the El Nino effect. El Nino periodically warms up the Pacific Ocean. Thunderstorms develop. Stronger than usual winds come racing over the Atlantic at 30,000 feet and more. The winds knock the tops off giant updrafts of spinning wind and rain that are on their way to becoming hurricanes. The next thing you know, the storm is falling apart.

What does the 2009 experience tell us about global warming? Again, nothing, Mr. Read said. This is a decades-long phenomenon and, he said, you “can’t take any particular set of weather events in one year and draw” conclusions. Even over the long run, weather experts are not sure of the impact of global warming on hurricanes. On the one hand, warmer oceans should provide fuel for hurricanes. On the other, the experts say, a generally warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans would probably add up to a more stable situation, which is not good for hurricane formation.

A little more on El Nino. These characters usually do not have staying power. “Normally,” Mr. Read said, “you don’t have a second one, two years in a row.” Historically, El Ninos have occurred about every seven years. Without El Nino, Mr. Read said, “the chances of storms developing in the Atlantic increases.” That seems to mean that 2010 could be trouble.

But just so you don’t start feeling like you know what’s coming, some El Ninos have hung around for a second year.

There was no mention of El Nino in the early forecasts for the 2009 season and you might be forgiven if you thought it came out of nowhere. But Mr. Read said the forecasters thought an El Nino might develop and worked it into their predictions.

“It was hard to anticipate how strong it would be,” Mr. Read said. But, he added, that if the experts had not been anticipating El Nino “we probably would have been looking at much higher numbers in the forecast.” And even those numbers, it turned out, were on the high side. #

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