Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for January, 2010

Jan 29 2010

A Drinking Water Crisis In Haiti Long Before Earthquake Destruction

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—Long before the earthquake, Haiti was mired in a crisis that only a few experts noticed – a severe lack of clean drinking water.

The country’s 10 million people had drinking water from springs and rivers and wells and a broken-down municipal water system in the capital, Port-Au-Prince. But a great deal of the water was loaded with bacteria and parasites and, in some cases, chemicals and other pollutants.

The foul water undermined everything in Haiti. It caused chronic diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis and even typhoid and cholera. The diseases filled hospital beds, kept children out of school and grown ups from work. And the water-borne diseases caused death. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that half of all the deaths in Haiti in recent years — apart from those in calamities like floods and hurricanes — have been the result of water-borne diseases. In most cases, severe diarrhea took hold. People became
dehydrated and very quickly were gone.

Many countries share Haiti’s plight. According to the World Health Organization, at least 1 billion people around the world do not have clean drinking water. Even more do not have toilets. The lack of clean water and toilets is a disaster. Each year, about two million people die from water-borne diseases. That is eight times the deaths in the Asian tsunami in 2004, and it happens every year. It is not on the radar of most Americans.

Most of the victims are young children. They die quietly, at home and in little clinics in slums and out-of-the way places in the countryside in India and Nepal, in Bolivia and Honduras. Hardly anyone notices that, according to United Nations data, more children die from simply drinking unhealthy water than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

These people do not have to die. All the technology for providing clean drinking water exists. It is not very complicated and it is not incredibly expensive. But almost nowhere in the developing world does clean water get high priority. Drilling wells and running pipelines and building water purification plants have never really captured the imagination of political leaders. The people who suffer most are the poorest, the hungriest, the least influential.

It is not that nothing is being done about providing clean water. Even in Haiti, many water projects were underway before the earthquake. Some had budgets in the millions of dollars. Some involved small private groups that were able to put in a few wells or a few dozen water treatment devices. One group, International Action, says it has installed 110 neighborhood water tank chlorinators in Port-au-Prince. But in Haiti and elsewhere, the efforts have scarcely made a dent.

Nowhere in the developing world is there a plan that coordinates national or region water projects, small and large. Inevitably, some of the good work overlaps. Some of it never gets finished. Quite often maintenance is overlooked and systems collapse. For example, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, drinking water is fine at the treatment plant. But the water mains are corroded and punctured. They lie in the same trenches as the sewer lines and filthy waste sloshes into the drinking water.

As the rebuilding of Haiti gets underway, billions of dollars are going to be spent. Some of those dollars, perhaps a billion or more, should be dedicated to cleaning up the country’s drinking water and to making sure it stays clean. It would help put Haiti on a sound footing for the future perhaps more than any other single thing. A well-orchestrated plan for providing clean drinking water to the people of Haiti could be a model for the world. #

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Jan 14 2010

The Texas Drought, The Florida Chill—Climate Change? No

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MIAMI—That drought that just ended in Texas was not an example of climate change. Neither were the weird, freezing cold temperatures in Florida as the year began.

How confusing. You hear so much about climate change. Then you see what looks like evidence. And it turns out not to be evidence at all.

“Climate change is slower than that,” said Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor at Texas A&M University and the state climatologist in Texas.

Much slower. It is a decades-long process, a long, slow march that is hard for many people to grasp. Widespread confusion over short-term fluctuations and long-term trends worries the majority of scientists who are convinced that climate change is happening. They say it leads to apathy, inaction, a do-nothing approach, that could prove to be very harmful.

“People say, obviously, we don’t really understand this, so we need to wait until the uncertainty is gone,” said Don A. Wilhite, the director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in an interview. “But the uncertainty will never be gone. If you wait 25 or 30 years to do something, then it’s basically too late. If everything we are learning is correct, we need to be doing something now.”

The short-term fluctuations in the weather – like the drought in Texas and the cold spell in Florida - are caused by historic cycles and so-far inexplicable random episodes, scientists say.  They may contribute to long-term averages.  But the fluctuations often contradict the big picture. The confusion is aggravated when you hear from the handful of scientists who earnestly believe there is no such thing as global warming and climate change.

Recent polls justify concern. A year ago, 80 percent of those surveyed by the Washington Post and ABC television said they thought climate change was happening. But as 2009 ended, the percentage had shrunk to 72. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in Washington found even less public confidence. It recently got a positive response on climate change of 57 percent, down from 71 percent a year earlier.

Some scientists despair at ever getting people to understand climate change.  But Michael J. Hayes, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, another unit of the University of Nebraska, said, “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s forget about it.’”

Dr. Hayes and scientists who recently assembled at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, advocate putting more effort into finding clear and simple ways to demonstrate that short term changes in the weather and long-term climate conditions are two different things. Or as Dr. Hayes’ colleague, Dr. Wilhite put it, today’s cold snap does not mean that “climate change is a hoax.”

At the Rosenstiel conference, Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami professor, suggested that public support might be increased if people did not have to envision dire consequences many decades into the future – in some cases long after their likely death.  “We really want to get into the question of what’s going to happen in the next 10 or 30 years,” Dr.  Kirtman told the conference, according to the Miami Herald.

Lisa Goddard, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, who also spoke at the conference, said in an interview that studies that distinguished more clearly between “natural variability” in the short run and “man-made climate change” could not only reduce public confusion but also could be useful tools for government officials, farmers and others.

Texas has been through lots of droughts. The latest one, which began to manifest itself in early 2008, was the worst since the 1950s. But five droughts hit the state between 1996 and 2006 alone. The latest one cost farmers and ranchers more than $4 billion, according to state officials.

One of the driving forces in the Texas drought was the way things developed in the Pacific Ocean. Water temperatures in the Pacific were cooler than usual in late 2007 and through late 2008 in what is known as the La Niña effect.  La Niña reduces rainfall over Texas.  Last fall, the cycle shifted to El Niño. That brought rain to Texas and the drought was broken.

During the Texas drought, temperatures rose into the high 80s Fahrenheit or four to six degrees above average. “That made the climate projections” for the future “more real,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “People were able to feel what a hot summer would be like.”

That is one benefit of a shock like the Texas drought. Even though it is not evidence of climate change it gets people thinking about what lies ahead.

The New York Times captured the Texas drought and its dénouement in two photographsOne showed a sweep of dry, cracked Texas ranch land.  The other focused on the same terrain. But now there was bright green grass in the foreground, a good-size lake in the middle and more greenery beyond the lake. A family of cowboys and ranch women and young ones was lined up on the grass with their horses. The second picture so captured the sense of renewal and joy that, according to The Times, the family sent it out as their Christmas card. #

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Jan 06 2010

Dirty Drinking Water Pushes Jessica Biel Up Mt. Kilimanjaro

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MIAMI—Hollywood star Jessica Biel, the pop singer-song writer Kenna, the hip-hoppers Lupe Fiasco and Santigold and half dozen friends are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in East Africa as the new year begins as a way of drawing attention to the problem of unsafe drinking water in much of the world.

Justin Timberlake, the actor and boyfriend of Ms Biel, was one of the first to sign up for the expedition, the organizers say, but he had to drop out to shoot a new movie, “Social Network.”

Isabel Lucas, the Australian actress, is making the climb, starting Jan. 7, and so is Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, the ocean explorer who brought the underwater world into millions of living rooms through his television shows.

The climbers are on to a good cause. At least one billion people in developing countries, and probably many more, routinely drink water loaded with filth and bacteria. It is the only water available to them. They are often sick. Nearly 2 million of these people die every year from diseases picked up from the water. Most of the dead are children.

Kenna organized the expedition, inspired by stories from his father, Wold Zemedkun, about the hardship of growing up in Ethiopia and often being sick from drinking the only water he and his family could get. Kenna moved to the United States with his family when he was three years old.

Solving the problem of unsafe drinking water is not rocket science, experts say. It just requires concentrated attention and a good deal of money from the United States and other governments plus coordination of the many relatively small projects that are already underway but that sometimes conflict with one another.

Dirty water kills more children every year than malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS combined. But you don’t hear much about the water problem. That’s why the stars are going up the mountain in what amounts to a huge publicity stunt.

Kenna’s father, now nearing retirement as a finance professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia, said that when he was four years old his closest friend, who was also four, died suddenly. Later, his youngest brother, also four, died. Both boys had had a fever and diarrhea. In a few days they were gone.

“We didn’t know the reason,” Mr. Zemedkun told me in an interview from his home in Virginia. “Later on we

thought it was probably the water.”

It almost certainly was the water. His family got their drinking water from a river. “The water looked nice and clean,” he said. “You wouldn’t suspect anything.” But like the water of so many people in poor countries, it was laced with bacteria. At one point, Mr. Zemedkun said, he almost died himself.

“As children,” Mr. Zemedkun said, “we were always sick. We thought we were supposed to get sick.” It was part of being a child in Africa, he said.

Whether the entertainers’ stunt will be helpful on the water problem is not at all certain. But it surely can’t hurt. Big companies like Hewlett Packard and Procter & Gamble and the outfitter, Eddie Bauer, are sponsoring the climb.

The climbers hope to not only get attention for the cause but also to raise money through donations from the sponsors and other contributions. They’ll be blogging and Twitting progress reports as they move up the 19,340-foot high mountain. It’s the biggest in Africa – not nearly as tough a climb as Mt. Everest and the other Himalayan Mountains, but a challenge none-the-less.

Santigold, the hip-hopper, said the problem of unhealthy water needs a spotlight. “I don’t think many people, especially in the United States, realize what a huge problem this is,” she said. “So I think just drawing awareness to the problem will be a step in the right direction.” #

For More on the Worldwide Water Crisis See:

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