Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for March, 2010

Mar 25 2010

Fish In Haiti Are Almost As Rare As Trees

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—As a boy in Haiti, Jean Wiener liked to poke around the coral reefs just offshore. The coral was thick and wild and splashed with bursts of orange and purple. Swarms of Yellow Tail Snappers and Nassau Groupers cruised past undulating sea fans and nibbled at rich, green sea grass. Sometimes young Mr. Wiener would catch a fish and grill it on the beach.

Now, several decades later, most of the fish are gone. “If you see anything at all,” Mr. Wiener told me the other day, “it’s almost never longer than six inches. You see little baby fish.”

Haiti has been seriously fished out. As the impoverished country’s population has risen to more than 10 million, more and more people have turned to the sea for food. It is against the law in Haiti to take under-size fish. But no one is enforcing the law and many Haitians are hungry.

Mr. Wiener grew up to be a marine biologist and one of the few specialists with an enduring interest in the coastal waters of Haiti. Now that the earthquake in January has people thinking of ways of helping Haiti, he is hoping some of them will recognize that the coastal waters could become a tremendous source of food. Tourists might also enjoy the beaches and reefs as he did as a boy.

For now, the reefs and coastal waters are as barren as most of Haiti’s land. The overworked fields of Haiti yield a tiny fraction of the produce of most other countries and in a world where overfishing is epidemic, the waters off Haiti are a model of how bad it can get.

With high unemployment, Mr. Wiener said, lots of people have become part-time fishermen. The newcomers and the experienced fishermen go at the fish relentlessly. The idea of fishing seasons is ignored and anything that gets caught stays caught. “Nothing is thrown back,” Mr. Wiener said.

To gain perspective, Mr. Wiener talked with an 80-year-old fisherman. “We used to let the sea rest during the months of January, February, March and April,” the old fisherman said. “Now there are more traps, more boats, more fishermen, more types of fishing methods. They are laying out nets all the time, everywhere.”

It’s not just pressure from hungry fishermen. The offshore waters have become a miserable place for fish. Fish thrive on healthy coral reefs. In Haiti, you don’t have that. Mr. Wiener, the founder of FoProBiM, the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine of Haiti, estimates that perhaps 80 percent of the reefs along Haiti’s 1,100-mile coastline have suffered some degree of damage, some of it very heavy.

Little fish, that in the right conditions grow up to be big fish, like to nestle in sea grass beds and the tangled branches of mangroves at the edge of the shore. But maybe a third of Haiti’s sea grass has been smothered by silt that gushes off the land every time it rains because most of the country’s trees have been chopped down for firewood. Mangrove branches also make fine firewood and much of Haiti’s mangroves are also gone.

Mr. Wiener has some ideas. He is getting a little help. But he and the coasts of Haiti could use a lot more. The coasts are being included in a restoration project – mainly on land – by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, is looking for grants to finance work in Haiti’s coastal waters.

One idea is to begin creating Marine Protected Areas – places where no fishing is allowed and where reefs and grasses are cultivated. Fish get a chance to recover. As they become more abundant, some of them leave the protected areas. The coastal waters begin to recover. Reef Check has a project like this in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and, true to script, more fish are being seen.

There is a lot more to do in Haiti. But this would be a start. “Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean without a Marine Protected Area,” said Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation. #

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Mar 18 2010

Drinking Water Filthy But Big Money Goes To Build New Stadium

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—The news was from South Africa. It was about an expensive new soccer stadium that had been built in a city where the drinking water is often dirty and many people have neither electric lights nor toilets.


It was an outsized example of what keeps happening with government spending in so much of the world and how it can be that decade after decade more than one billion people around the world struggle along without a reliable supply of clean drinking water. They are routinely sick and, each year, about two million die – mostly children.


They shouldn’t be dying. We know how to provide clean water and the cost is not overwhelming. But we’re not making much progress.


The barriers seem to involve human nature, politics and, often, good intentions: Instead of putting in wells and pumps and pipelines to get clean water to everyone, government officials put up hospitals and schools and sport facilities. Or they put their money into joint projects with businesses that promise to help the economy, and often do. Or they just squander the money, sometimes on themselves.


Compared with building hospitals and schools and even soccer stadiums, water projects are not that interesting. But clean drinking water underpins everything. More than half the people in hospitals in developing countries are there because they drank foul water. School attendance is much lower than it might be because children get sick from the only water available to them and can’t go to classes.


The United Nations, in its latest global report on water, said that work in this area “has been plagued by lack of political support, poor governance, under-resourcing and under-investment.” The U.N. estimated that $148 billion was needed for water projects over the next 20 years, but that somewhere between $33 billion and $81.5 billion might be available.


The story from South Africa involved much more money than is often in play. The soccer stadium cost $137 million. It was built as part of South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup games in the summer of 2010.  The stadium was put up in the city of Nelspruit, population 600,000, in northeastern South Africa.


The story in The New York Times got me thinking about water and injustice. The spending on the stadium was bad enough. But some of the money apparently went into people’s pockets and investigators are now recommending criminal charges. The corruption seems to have led to at least two murders.


It is hard to argue against any kind of development in countries that need almost everything. It is especially hard to oppose building hospitals. But using the money to fix the dirty water problem would cut back on the number of people who need hospital treatment. More kids would make it through school. Both would be good for economies.


The impact on the economy of spending to clean up drinking water might be more gradual than an investment in a factory or a high-tech center that could handle overseas business. But not long ago, a panel of experts on finance and water, led by Michel Camdessus, a former chairman of the International Monetary Fund, said that solving the drinking water problem would do more for reducing poverty and advancing other social goals “than almost any other conceivable actions.”


In Nelspruit in South Africa, Simon Magagula lives in a mud house on a dirt road near the new stadium. He talked with Barry Bearak of The New York Times and seemed to be saying that he thought the stadium was part of a plan to make things better in Nelspruit. But he said work on the stadium had provided fewer jobs than expected and that not much had changed. The drinking water is still a model of neglect.


“We’ve been promised a better life,” Mr. Magagula told the Times reporter, “but look how we live. If you pour water into a glass, you can see things moving inside.”


The soccer stadium in Nelspruitone of five built in South Africa for the World Cup games – is just one more example of the exciting things you can do with money, and how hard it is to get anyone to focus on the mundane work of making sure that people like Simon Magagula get clean drinking water. #


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Mar 11 2010

Haiti’s Fish and Coral, An Untold Story Of Environmental Loss

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Flying into Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, you see a wide, milky border stretching out to sea from the beaches. It is Haiti dying a little more, bleeding off more of its topsoil and turning the coastal waters into a disaster zone.

The mud that washes down from Haiti’s treeless hills and stains the coastline settles over coral reefs and sea grass beds like a smothering blanket and drives away fish that once helped feed the impoverished country.

The damage to the coast is yet another chapter in a story of environmental degradation that has grown worse over the years.

Some aid projects have focused on restoring the country’s forests, but no one has tried to fix the generations of harm that has been done to Haiti’s coral, its mangroves, its beaches and, most of all, its fish. Most of those things are undersea and invisible except for the lifeless, milky border that so many people simply dismiss as further evidence of the country’s loss of trees - forests destroyed to provide the only affordable fuel for cooking fires.

In a poor country where getting through each day is often a struggle, the environment has not been a high priority. But now in the aftermath of the earthquake in January that killed more than 220,000 Haitians, the United States and other countries are expected to pour billions of dollars into rebuilding the country, and some of the money will almost certainly be spent on environmental projects.

Jean Wiener is one of a few marine biologists who have taken an interest in Haiti and are hoping that restoration of the reefs and fisheries figures into the mix.

Attending to Haiti’s reefs and fishing waters and mangroves, Mr. Wiener and the others say, would be good for the economy. A comeback of fishing would mean new jobs. It would provide food. Down the road, you could see how nice reefs and beaches and cleaned up water might help draw tourists.

For nearly 20 years, Mr. Wiener, who was born in Haiti but now lives much of the time in Maryland, has been working almost entirely alone on studying and restoring the coastal waters.

As a boy he explored the coral reefs and swam through clouds of Yellowtail Snapper and Nassau Grouper. He went on to earn a degree in biology at Bridgeport University in Connecticut and take graduate courses in marine biology. In the early 1990s, he started a foundation named FoProBiM using the initials of the French words, “Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine” of Haiti.

Over the years he has received a few grants. Two years ago he did a study for the United States Agency for International Development. The study may provide a foundation for a comprehensive environmental project – mostly on land – that is being undertaken by Columbia University and the United Nations Environmental Program. Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, has applied for a grant to the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to do the first thorough survey of Haiti’s coastal environment.

The milky border that speaks so despairingly of Haiti has been an enduring obstacle for Mr. Wiener. For many people it is a sign of hopelessness. Obviously, the thinking goes, you can’t do much about the coral reefs and fish if they are going to be inundated with mud and silt every time it rains. Trees, lots of trees and shrubs, must be planted. Something has got to make the soil stand fast.

“Everyone concentrates on reforestation,” Mr. Wiener said, “and ignores the ocean.”

But, he said, it doesn’t have to be that way. While the mud and silt is right there in everyone’s face around Port-au-Prince and other towns and cities, Mr. Wiener said, there are long stretches of Haiti’s coast where the reefs have been damaged and snappers and groupers have been all but fished out, but where the water is fairly clear; silt is not a problem. Work could start right away in those places. #

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Mar 04 2010

Africa Water Project Captures Difficulty Of Global Struggle

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMISteven Solomon was just starting the research on a huge book on the global water problem when his wife Claudine got the idea – independently – to take some of her middle school students to Africa to work on a water project.

In three weeks in southeastern Kenya, near the border with Tanzania, Mr. Solomon, his wife, their three teenage daughters and three other young people managed to help install a couple of miles of pipe and a water tank that brought clean drinking into the heart of a cluster of homes in the area of Chyulu Hills.

To provide water for all of the roughly 8,000 people living in Chyulu Hills, three more water lines and tanks were needed. The Solomons figured the job could be done for about $80,000. They went home to Washington eager to round up the money and return to East Africa to do the work.

But, it turned out, they could not find anyone to pay for the project. Maybe they didn’t know enough about development. And maybe, Steven Solomon concedes, they didn’t try hard enough. Mr. Solomon managed to publish a nearly 600-page book, Water, the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, in January. So I doubt that the Africa water project failed for lack of trying.

The Solomon’s expanded project failed to get off the ground several years ago. But nothing much has changed. Water projects around the world often fail or don’t get started at all for a common, fundamental reason: No one is in charge on this issue. There is no dominant, agreed upon policy that could knit together the many well-intentioned small projects and, at the same time, encourage the multitude of political leaders to step in and do something meaningful. The work that is being done is fragmented, sometimes contradictory. Maintenance is often overlooked. The issue is near the bottom of everyone’s agenda.

For decades, at least one billion of the world’s now 6.8 billion people have not had regular access to clean drinking water. It could be 2 billion, even 3 billion. The statistics are not reliable. But the numbers are huge and the needle is not moving much in the right direction.

The water that people haul into their homes from rivers and lakes is often contaminated with bacteria and parasites. As many as 2.5 billion people do not have toilets. So there is a problem of human waste, too. When people have barely enough drinking water to survive, they don’t wash their hands as often as they should. Sometimes the water starts out clean. But dirty hands transform drinking water into something you shouldn’t drink.

The result is a lot of sickness. A high percentage of all the hospital beds in the developing world are taken up by people with what are often referred to as water-borne diseases. Each year the diseases kill about 2 million people, mostly children under five. That is about 5,000 deaths a day, mostly children, children who should not be dying.

The technology to get clean water to everyone exists. The work is not overwhelmingly expensive. In the course of writing his book, Mr. Solomon has become an expert on water. “This is a solvable problem,” he said. “It is a logistical, political, organizational problem.”

Often, it is a matter of scale. When Mr. Solomon’s wife Claudine was trying to raise money, one expert told her: “This project is too small for us. We need to have a big project to make it worthwhile.” But, experts have told me, big water projects often get shunted aside for other big projects. Hospitals, for example, seem to be more attractive. Yet if the water problem were solved, fewer hospitals would be needed.

Strong leadership is missing. A few members of Congress have been working on the water problem and Matt Damon, the actor, has made it his cause. But the issue is not getting traction.

Al Gore, the former vice president of the United States, has done wonders in raising consciousness about global warming and climate change. Water needs someone like him.

“We need somebody of stature to step forward,” Mr. Solomon said. “We need an Al Gore of water.” #

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