Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for the 'OneWater.org' Category

Dec 22 2010

A Problem Worse Than Cholera

Published by Knight Center under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Cholera is working its way through Haiti. It is killing people and terrifying everyone.  Medical help and money has been pouring in – not enough money, the United Nations says, but a lot of money, a lot more money than has been flowing for a much worse health problem.

In the first six weeks of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, more than 2,000 people died. During the same time, many more people in poor countries around the world died from the other health problem, an estimated 210,000.  But hardly anyone noticed.

“This is a silent killer,” said David Winder, an international aid executive in Washington who has been dealing with public health for decades.

Cholera and the bigger problem are cousins. Both are forms of diarrhea. But the more common, forms of diarrhea are far more widespread and far more deadly. Cholera kills about 120,000 people a year; the more common forms of diarrhea kill 15 times more people, about 1.8 million a year, 5,000 a day.  Hard to believe when you live in the United States or Europe; but in poor countries diarrhea is a persistent killer.

Cholera gets the headlines for good reason. It can kill in hours rather than days as with other kinds of diarrhea. “It’s very dramatic,” said Dr. Gordon M. Dickinson, a University of Miami specialist on infectious diseases at the Veterans Hospital in Miami.  People become dehydrated, go into shock and die. The other forms of diarrhea kill the same way.  But there is more time to react.

Children are the main victims. More of them die of severe diarrhea than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles all together.   Yet the problem has not captured the imagination.

“People think of diarrhea as a temporary illness associated with something like bad food,” said Brenda McIlwraith, a spokeswoman for WaterAid, a non-profit organization in London, working to reduce diarrhea around the world.

Very little progress is being made.  In Haiti, “diarrhea is here all the time,” said Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Port-au-Prince. In the first wave of cholera deaths, he said by telephone, people thought “it was just another diarrhea” and they did not seek treatment.

Cholera and the other forms of diarrhea are preventable. “We know how to deal with these diseases,” said Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat, the head of the World Health Organization’s Global Task Force on Cholera Control in Geneva. The bacteria, parasites and viruses that cause the diseases travel in drinking water. They get into the water and, sometimes, food, along with human waste, as sewage and on dirty hands. All that needs to be done to fix the problem is to provide clean drinking water, basic toilets and some tips on hygiene.

But the scale of the problem is staggering. About 1 billion people do not have clean drinking water, the United Nations estimates, and 2.6 billion, nearly 40 percent of the world’s 7 billion people, don’t have toilets.

It could take $50 billion dollars to put a big dent in the problem. No one is sure. But right now, Mr. Winder, the head of WaterAid in America, says spending “is far below what’s needed.”

The United Nations anticipates spending $164 million to tamp down a cholera epidemic that may sicken as many as 400,000 Haitians. Only about 20 percent of the money had been raised as the epidemic settled in. But it is a real spending target. And that is a lot of money in proportion to total spending in Haiti on public health.

Spending that kind of money in advance in Haiti on clean water and toilets would have saved lives. It would have made it harder for cholera to get going. It would have been the right thing to do economically, too. Half the hospital beds in the poor countries are filled with patients with severe diarrhea. That is a daily recurring cost. Improving sanitation would reduce those costs. It would also reduce days lost at work and from school.

Doctors and engineers may know how to solve the diarrhea problem, but every day there is evidence that it is not easy. Hundreds of aid agencies are working on it, but the work is piecemeal and sometimes counter-productive. In some places, Dr. Chaignat said, the people responsible for health and water “rarely talk to each other. The health sector doesn’t understand the water sector and vice versa.”

So the plague of diarrheal diseases grinds on. The people suffering most have no political clout. They are poor and they die quietly. Sometimes they make it to hospitals. But often they die in huts and shacks and out-of-the way places. One at a time. You don’t hear about it. #

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Oct 12 2010

Florida Lake: Could It Kill Again?

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

PAHOKEE, Fla.—Glenn Gannon stood in dusty, steel-toed boots and white hard hat on the grassy dike at Lake Okeechobee, one of the biggest lakes in America and one of the most worrisome. A blazing sun glistened on the dark blue waters and a tiny breeze rippled the saw grass and cattails. “Occasionally you see alligators,” Mr. Gannon said.

Mr. Gannon, who is a civil engineer, was not drawn to the lake by its wildlife and natural beauty. He was part of a group in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was working to prevent a disaster at the 143-mile-long dike, a catastrophic flood that could kill thousands of people. In 1928, before the dike was built, a flood killed perhaps 3,500 people. Now, more than 40,000 people live around the lake. And there is cause for concern.

The Corps of Engineers keeps a vigil on the dirt and gravel dike inland from West Palm Beach and says that parts of it are in serious trouble, “critically near failure.” The engineers don’t foresee water washing over the top of the dike, as in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The danger at Lake Okeechobee is water seeping through the dirt walls in little wormy, cancerous fingers. Something like Swiss cheese develops and down comes the dike with the potential, the Corps says, for severe flooding with significant loss of life and immense property damage. Lloyds, the British insurance organization, says financial losses could run into the billions of dollars.

The danger has been there for a long time. In 2006 consultants working for a Florida state agency said the dike posed “a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.” So far, the dike has held. And maybe it always will.

It is hard to calculate the odds of something tragic happening at the lake. But managing the 733 square miles of lake – more than twice the size of New York City and far bigger than most other American lakes - is complicated. Experts say there is at least some chance that elaborate safety measures could be overwhelmed.

Heavy rain can pour into the lake six times faster than it can be drained and at certain levels, the Corps of Engineers says, the dike is almost certain to fail. Eric Buermann, the chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, which commissioned the consultant’s study in 2006, says he sees the likelihood of a killer-flood as remote. But he also notes that controlling the lake “is a balancing act.”

The lake has a frightening history. A little more than 80 years ago, in 1928, hurricane rains poured into the lake and high winds sloshed tons of water over the southern portion of a much smaller containment wall. The flooding was severe and 2,500 to 3,500 people are believed to have died in one of America’s worst disasters. Bodies were buried in mass graves. No one is sure just how many lives were lost.

Soon after the flood, in the early days of the Great Depression, the federal government began building what is officially known as the Herbert Hoover Dike. Work crews dredged mud, gravel and sand from the bottom of the lake and piled it up on shore. That was it. No iron reinforcing bars. No concrete. Just lake-bottom goop. And that, still today, is the essence of the dike.

The Corps strives to keep the water in the lake below 15.5 feet, especially during the summer when rainfall is heaviest and hurricanes compound the danger. Should the lake rise to 18.5 feet, the Corps says, the chance of the dike giving way is near 50 percent. At 21 feet, the Corps says, the game is up, the dike will surely fail.

Twice in recent years the lake’s waters have risen higher than 18 feet – 18.5 and 18.6. The Corps says the lake has never yet risen beyond 19 feet.

The federal government takes the threat seriously. It has spent more than $250 million to strengthen the dike in just three years – 2008, 2009 and 2010 - and, the Corps says, costs could climb to $1.8 billion before the job is finished in perhaps seven to 15 years.

The Corps recognized the dike was vulnerable in the mid-1980s. But it took Hurricane Katrina and the disaster in New Orleans to shake up Washington and the Corps. Work on strengthening the dike finally got started in earnest in 2008. The Corps of Engineers operates and maintains 675 dams, dikes and levees around the country and it ranks the Lake Okeechobee dike as one of a dozen or so facilities in critical need of attention. Florida International University in Miami says the lake is America’s second most vulnerable place to hurricanes after New Orleans and ahead of the Florida Keys.

So far a stretch of a little more than 8 miles of the dike has been reinforced. Some of those working on the dike say that suggests a pretty rapid pace. But more than half of the most dangerous 22-miles of the dike remains as vulnerable as ever, like the rest of the 143-mile barrier.

The main feature of the project is the insertion of a roughly two-foot wide cement-like wall 60 to 80 feet down through the center of the dike. The wall is intended as a simple barrier to block seepage. The Corps is also putting extra dirt and gravel on the landside of the dike.

On the grassy dike just north of Pahokee on the southeastern shore of the lake, Mr. Gannon showed where a section of the wall had been put in. The top of the wall had been covered with dirt and the crest of the dike looked just as it had before the big red and yellow construction rigs and bulldozers arrived. Down the two-lane gravel path that runs along the top of the dike, Mr. Gannon pointed out where the next work would begin. “This is the starting point,” he said, “right here.”

In Belle Glade, one of the farm towns on the edge of the lake, a sculpture on the lawn of the public library freezes in bronze a frightened woman running with a child cradled in one arm, a man and a boy fleeing with her. The woman’s hair is streaming in the wind, her eyes intense. This is Belle Glade’s way of remembering the tragedy of 1928.

In the town of Clewiston, at the history museum, about half a mile from the dike, William Paul (Butch) Wilson, the director, talked about death and damage in the 1928 flood. Older people grew up hearing about the flood and people driving around the lake see crews working on the dike.

“I think we all know the possibilities,” said Mr. Wilson. “It’s kind of like death. You know you’re going to die. But you don’t dwell on it. We know it’s a factor. We just hope it never happens.” #

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Jun 19 2010

In An African Slum, Dreaming About Things So Close, Yet So Far

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KIBERA, Kenya—The little girl in the faded blue dress stood on a bare hillside in one of the most desperate slums in Africa, the mud-walled houses behind her packed so close together that their rusty tin roofs overlapped. She looked out across a steep ravine. A narrow, twisting open sewer cut along the red clay baseline. Off to the girl’s left, the mottled shanty rooftops looked like an old quilt, brown and gray after too many washings.

As the land climbed away from the little dirty waterway, it became grassy and green. And just far enough away to make them seem a little unreal you could see blocks of newly built apartment buildings, one trimmed in blue, another with red balconies.

The girl, Salome, 8 years old, a little small and a little thin for her age, murmured something to the girl beside her, Faith, age, 6, also in old clothing and worn sandals. A little boy translated. “They want to move to the better houses,” the boy said. He did, too.

Being poor and young in Africa does not mean that you cannot dream. But for millions upon millions of young Africans, the chances of the dreams coming true are pretty remote. There are too many people and not enough of all the things they need, not enough decent places to live, not enough schools and teachers, hospitals and doctors. If you get really sick you stand a good chance of dying.

Even the most basic things are missing in the Kibera slum on the edge of Nairobi. It is a very rare family that has even a single water faucet beside their mud-walled house. Most people buy jugs and buckets of water from slightly more well-off neighbors who put up storage tanks and buy in bulk from the city of Nairobi or simply steal city water from corroded municipal water lines. Very few people have toilets.

Wood smoke from cooking fires drifts down the dirt lanes in Kibera. Corn on the cob roasts on makeshift grills and chunks of meat and fish sizzle in pots of hot oil. Fat, indolent flies jitterbug in slow motion on the cooking food. The people with houses on the main dirt roads take advantage of their location and put out things to sell: flashlights, combs, nail clippers, shoes, old clothes, bunches of bananas, slabs of meat. The slum is a town, a very poor town.

The lack of sanitation makes diarrhea a constant. People just put up with it. Some develop immunities to the bacteria and parasites in the water and even in the air. Young children and pregnant women often do not do well. Around the world, about 2 million people, mostly children under 5 and young mothers, die each year from diarrhea and other diseases picked up from the only water available for them to drink. Many of the casualties come in places like Kibera and in distant villages where it is less crowded, but where there is no one to help when illness comes. At least in Kibera there are half a dozen clinics for a t least several hundred thousand people. The clinics often have no medicine or doctors, but nurses are usually around in the mornings.

At one of the clinics a nurse said that when there is no medicine on hand – which is most of the time – they write prescriptions for patients. Sometimes other clinics fill the prescriptions for free. But sometimes the only way to get medicine is to buy it.

“Many times, you don’t have money,” the nurse said. She seemed to be speaking from the heart and I decided that publishing her name might get her in trouble. “You have to decide, do I buy the medicine or do I buy food? You buy food.”

The little girl in the faded blue dress stood on the bare hillside, maybe a mile or so from the clinic. Four scrawny goats wobbled past her, taking care not to lose their footing on the steep, red clay. The goats came close to bumping into the girl, but she did not move. She may not have even noticed the goats.

She and her friend Faith had their eyes fixed on those new apartment buildings. The girls could only imagine what it would be like to live in the new clean buildings of cement and glass, each apartment with its own running water and toilet, each freshly painted with bright trim work. The girls did not speak. They just stood there for the longest time, so close yet so far. #

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Jun 10 2010

Bracing For Flooding At Hurricane Time In Already Soggy Florida

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Around the clock, from a control room on the edge of the Everglades, technicians track water levels in the canals, lakes and marshes across the southern part of Florida. On their computer screens, they can see changes hundreds of miles away and with a few key strokes they open and shut flood gates.

The flood controls in South Florida are among the most sophisticated in the world and they get a workout most summers. Summer is the wet season here, a time of downpours so dense that you can see no more than 50 or 60 yards. Summer is also the time of hurricanes and tropical storms. And those wind machines can dump a lot of rain.

This summer forecasters are predicting a busier than usual storm season with as many as 14 hurricanes. Floods and storm surge, a kind of tidal wave that hurricanes sometimes push across beaches, kill more people in hurricane season than the wind. The wind gets the headlines, the water brings out the undertakers.

No one knows where the storms will come ashore. But this could be a very bad year for South Florida. The land is soggy from more rain than usual in the months leading up to hurricane season and it would not take much to cause flooding. The biggest flood threat in the region is Lake Okeechobee, the wide, shallow bowl of water about 45 miles west of here. The water in the lake, one of the largest in the United States, is already high and experts worry that the lake’s earthen, 35-foot-high dike might not hold.

Killer-floods are not routinely heavy on the minds of the technicians in the control room of the South Florida Water Management District here. A few feet of water may rise in backyards and parking lots and push into houses and shops and offices and the ground floors of condos. It can make life miserable and expensive for the 7.5 million people packed into South Florida, and for the farmers and ranchers working the land back from the coasts. The costs can quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But deaths are rare. Trouble at Lake Okeechobee, however, could be a nightmare.

Nothing awful has happened at the lake in more than 80 years, but memories are still vivid of the flooding in two hurricanes in the 1920s. Several thousand people died. In the worst Lake Okeechobee flood, in 1928, high water covered a stretch of 75 miles of the flat, Florida landscape. Some of that land is still Everglades swamp. But much of it is now thick with houses and shopping centers.

Since the early 1980s, concerns about another disaster at Lake Okeechobee have been growing. Water has been seeping under the 143-mile- long mud, gravel and rock dike that the United States Army Corps of Engineers began building in the 1930s. A report four years ago by the South Florida Water Management District said the dike posed “a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.” Portions of the dike, the report said, “bear a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese.”

The Corps of Engineers began reinforcing the southeastern wall of the dike, which is considered the most hazardous section, three years ago. But about half of the work in that 22-mile stretch remains to be done.

The water in the lake was at about 14.5 feet in early June or about two feet higher than what the Corps of Engineers and the water district consider prudent. The higher the water gets, engineers say, the higher the probability that the dike will give way and release an avalanche of water. Perhaps 60,000 people live south of Lake Okeechobee where flooding is most likely.

“It would probably kill many, many people,” said Eric Buermann, the chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. “You could have a lot of flooding in downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

Twice in the mid-1990s, water in the lake rose to more than 18 feet. The dike did not yield. But Nanciann Regalado, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said that at 17.5 feet “we get very, very concerned.” At 19 feet, she said, the authorities would be considering evacuation.

Trying to keep the lake from rising further, the Corps of Engineers and the water district have been flushing water from the lake into two main rivers and into huge holding ponds in the Everglades. But it rains almost every day around the lake and the rest of South Florida in June and early July and the pumps struggle to keep up. The engineers say that in the most intense rains, the kind that come with hurricanes and tropical storms, the lake can rise six times faster than the pumps can draw down the water.

“We’re concerned,” Mr. Buermann  said in an interview. “We’re taking measures to address this. But if you have the ultimate storm with wind pushing that water, the force of that water on the dike, anything could happen.”#

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Jun 03 2010

In The War On Malaria Some Hopeful Signs, But A Long Way to Go

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KISUMU, Kenya—The rainy season in East Africa is also the malaria season.

Rain water collects in puddles and old tires and gutters. It also accumulates in discarded tin cans and in the folds of plastic shopping bags in garbage heaps. Malarial mosquitoes lay their eggs in the stagnant water and pretty soon you have killer mosquitoes hatching.

Around the world more than 800,000 people die every year from malaria, mostly young children. More than 90 percent of the deaths are in Africa, and Kenya is among a handful of African countries where the disease is at its worst.

The red clay flatlands and hills here in western Kenya, around Lake Victoria and the hard-scrabble city of Kisumu, lie in the worst part of a bad malaria zone - ground zero in Kenya. “There’s a very high chance of getting malaria here,” said Tom Guda, a Kenyan researcher at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in the nearby lake shore town of Mbita.

Western Kenya is an ideal place to study malaria and American and Kenyan researchers have been working together here for years at a joint laboratory of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kenya Medical Research Institute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the main research institutes in the United States for malaria and other infectious diseases, began nearly 70 years ago as an important player in the ultimate elimination of malaria in the United States.

In the last few years malaria has caught the imagination of Hollywood entertainers, government leaders around the world, gazillionaires and ordinary people. Lots of money has been raised. The World Health Organization estimates that $1.7 billion was available for malaria in 2009, double the amount just three years earlier. The American Idol television show, alone, raised $9 million for the organization Malaria No More during a single charity broadcast, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put more than $168 million into overcoming the disease.

This may be a time of great progress against malaria. But it is hard to be sure. The latest data compiled by the World Health Organization shows little change in recent years: 863,000 deaths and 243 million cases of malaria reported in 2008 compared with 881,000 deaths and 247 million infections two years earlier. But experts say that record-keeping on malaria is poor and that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Much of the malaria money is going into buying and handing out mosquito nets saturated with insect repellant–at $10 each–

and to spraying insecticide on the inside walls of houses. And it may be paying off.

“We know that sleeping under insect nets is effective and we know that the number of people sleeping under nets is increasing rapidly,” said Dr. Matthew Lynch, the director of the Global Program on Malaria at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore in an interview.

Richard Tren, the director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a small organization with offices in Durban, South Africa and in Washington, told me that “progress in some places is phenomenal.” But, he added, “there are a lot of other places where things are not working.”

The World Health Organization says it believes there have been big gains against malaria in some small countries, including Rwanda and Zambia and on the island of Zanzibar off East Africa. But it is urging that anti-malaria efforts be concentrated more on bigger countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, where malaria is rampant and where the situation has either gotten worse or not changed much.

At the Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology on Lake Victoria, Mr. Guda said that malaria infections and deaths are increasing in western Kenya.

“People are getting bed nets but it is still rising,” Mr. Guda told me one sweltering afternoon at his center. One reason, he said, is that “people are not using the nets properly.”

In the one-room huts that are home to many people here, Mr. Guda said, there is one bed. “The big people sleep in the bed,” with the net, he said. “The children sleep on the floor.”

Dr. Laurence Slutsker is the chief of the malaria branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Slutsker, who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratories in western Kenya for five years and still watches the area closely, said that after dropping sharply over the last 15 years, infections in children around here have begun to rise. Two years ago, 30 percent of those under five had malaria parasites in their blood. The latest samplings, he said, showed 40 percent were infected. Not a good sign.

The big picture on malaria around the world? “I think it’s getting better in some places,” Dr. Slutsker said in an interview. “I think it’s basically the same in other places. We talk about our success, which is good. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.” #

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May 28 2010

Telling It Like It Is On Killing Power Of Weakest Hurricanes

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

FORT LAUDERDALE—Summer time. Hurricanes. This year, with a very busy hurricane season coming up – according to government and university experts—the National Weather Service wants to set a few things straight.

For nearly 40 years, government forecasters have been describing hurricanes in the dispassionate, clinical terms of engineers and meteorologists.

Now the forecasters have rewritten the guidelines on hurricanes to make the impact of high winds more vivid. And they may end up scaring the daylights out of people.

The forecasters have thrown away terms like minimal, moderate and extensive damage and now starkly warn that even the most modest hurricanes can savagely dismantle mobile homes, shatter windows, rip off roofs, kill and maim. The most severe storms, the new guidelines say, are very likely to leave parts of towns and cities “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

You already knew hurricanes were bad. But you have never heard it so clearly from weather central. Now the forecasters are saying, enough with restraint, enough with ambiguity. Let’s try telling it like it is.

“This might scare people,” said Bill Proenza, the regional director for the southern United States for the National Weather Service. But, most of all, he said, it might motivate them to put up shutters, tie down lawn furniture and show a little respect for even the lowly Category 1 hurricane which, with winds as low as 74 miles an hour, has done its share of killing and wrecking. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a Category 1 when it sliced across Florida in 2005 and it wreaked $1 billion in damage.

This could be a terrible hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that up to 14 hurricanes could develop during the six-six month season from June 1 to Nov. 30 and that as many as seven of them could become major storms. A big hurricane could spread the BP oil spill across a wider swath of the Gulf of Mexico. Federal Emergency Management officials say that as little as several days of heavy rain on the periphery of a hurricane could create a new disaster for the one million Haitians still living in tents after the earthquake in January.

The forecasters worry that the tens of millions of Americans living in the hurricane zone, mostly along the southern coasts, may not be taking hurricanes seriously. One reason more than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, storm experts say, was that many shrugged when they should have been boarding up their homes and heading for higher ground. The awful memories of Hurricane Katrina may be fading, the forecasters say, especially after last hurricane season when not a single powerful storm made landfall in the United States.

“Complacency is always a problem,” Mr. Proenza said in an interview here during a break in the annual Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in late May.

People who are newly arrived in the hurricane zone, those who have been on the fringes of big storms and others who have lived all their lives along the coasts, but never endured a hurricane, are the most likely to ignore storm warnings and end up in trouble, the experts say.  “They really don’t comprehend the full potential impact of a hurricane,” Mr. Proenza said.

So after nearly 40 years of referring to hurricanes in low-key generalities, the weather service has decided to try something new. “We wanted to provide a realistic portrait of what winds can do,” said Chris Landsea, the Science and Operations officer at the National Hurricane Center near Miami. Mr. Landsea led a team of experts who rewrote what used to be known as “The Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale.” The guidelines are published on Internet sites around the world, distributed by emergency managers and referred to by journalists in their reports. The new guidelines were issued without fanfare in March and revisions were being made well into May.

The new name for the government guide that describes the five categories of hurricanes is “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.” Hard to see the difference? One big feature of the new guidelines is what you can’t see.

The whole project got started because complaints had been growing, both among experts and among ordinary Americans, that “The Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale” was misleading on storm surge, the wall of water that often slams ashore in a hurricane with the force of a bulldozer and that over the years has killed many more people than wind.

According to Saffir/Simpson, which was introduced in 1972, A Category 3 hurricane with winds of up to 130 miles an hour should create a storm surge of up to 12 feet. Katrina came ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi as a Category 3 hurricane and was pushing a wall of water nearly 30 feet high. Three years later, Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast as a Category 2 hurricane with a 20-foot-high storm surge, more than three times greater than anticipated by Saffir/Simpson.

The forecasters’ solution was to yank the information on storm surge from Saffir/Simpson. So it is no longer a hurricane scale with guidance on both wind and storm surge. The new Saffir/Simpson deals only with wind, hence the new name, “The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.” Now, on storm surge, the forecasters are going to be creating tailor-made estimates for each hurricane as it develops, working with a wide range of variables including one of the most important, the shallowness of offshore waters. The shallower the water, the bigger the storm surge.

Forecasters have routinely warned in commentaries that Category 1 hurricanes should not be disregarded and they have been offering their own calculations on storm surge. But their remarks and calculations have been contradicted by storm descriptions in official documents.

Strictly speaking, hurricane experts say, the descriptions were not wrong. But they were not clear either. “The winds in a Category 1 hurricane are about the same as the winds in a severe thunderstorm, a little higher,’’ Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center told me. So in a sense you could say, as the old Saffir/Simpson did, that the winds might cause minimal damage. “But,” Mr. Read said, “the thunderstorm winds might last for one to 15 minutes. The same winds in a Category 1 hurricane last for hours and can have a tremendous impact.” #

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May 13 2010

On the Road In East Africa: Bang, Bump, Ouch

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KISUMU, Kenya—The roads in a country can tell you a lot about a place.

Some of the roads here in Kenya and in the rest of East Africa are smooth, black ribbons of asphalt. But many are pure torture. They are unpaved or once-paved washboards with crisscrossing ridges and odd-shaped craters. You start running into them just beyond the center of cities and towns.

Even in Nairobi, the capital, lots of streets are dusty, bumpy cultural experiences – until it rains. Then they become slippery bogs and mini-lakes, channels that look like rivers and swallow cars. Open sewers run along side them, right there in the capital of what was once regarded as one of the most pleasant places in Africa – for everyone.

As in just about every country in the world, the leaders of Kenya have dreams, and they can imagine a bright future. But the country has been in decline for some time.

The roads are flat out dangerous. Kenya has one of the world’s highest road accident rates. The bad roads also stifle the economy. They make it hard for farmers and fishermen and furniture-makers and even people who make beaded jewelry for Kenya’s often substantial tourist business to get their goods to market. And they are health hazards. They make trips to clinics and hospital take longer than they should and some sick people don’t survive the journey.

According to the World Bank, Kenya has 38,400 miles of roads; 12 percent of them paved. In a place where more than 40 percent of the nearly 40 million people do not have easy access to clean drinking water, where malaria is worse than almost anywhere else, where more than 70 percent don’t have toilets, 30 percent are not getting enough to eat and perhaps 40 percent are unemployed, lousy roads do not tell the whole story. Of course the roads say nothing about Kenya’s heavy losses from HIV/AIDS.

But the roads are a pretty good metaphor. You see the roads. You feel the roads. You know this is no way to run a country. The roads look to me like very good supporting evidence for the Transparency International report that Kenya is among the most corrupt countries in the world.

With the roads in your face, it’s no big surprise to hear that another fairly simple thing like clean drinking water is not that common. People all over the developing world struggle to get safe drinking water and, in that sense, Kenya is a good example. It is also a good example of the worldwide sanitation problem, which is a cousin of the water problem.

People don’t have as much water as they need so they don’t wash their hands as often as they should. So many people live without toilets in Kenya that it is almost surprising when you find one. A farmer showed me how he digs a hole in his yard just beyond odor-range from his mud-walled, one-room house. The hole becomes the family toilet. No walls. No curtains. No seat. Not even any shrubs. At some point, he said, he covers the hole with a few shovels full of dirt and digs a new one.

In much of East Africa, especially in the slums, they use what they call flying toilets. “You do your business in a piece of paper or a plastic bag,” one health worker told me. “Then you wrap it up and throw it over your shoulder.”

The waste missile can go anywhere. Sometimes it ends up on the rusty tin roof of your neighbor’s house. Maybe it flies on to your own roof. Often it just lands on the grassless, rusty-red clay around the houses.

When it rains everything fuses together, mud, waste, garbage. And the health consequences are sure-fire. In some places, after a rain, you can barely walk the roads, they are so slippery. Diarrhea is so common that most people don’t think much about it until they start to weaken from dehydration. Often, by the time people realize they are really sick, it is too late. Small children, often malnourished, have the least resistance and are the first to die.

One morning here in Kisumu, I went to talk to fishermen at a village just outside town. I was in a bus with stiff springs and stiff seats. We turned off the paved main road and from there on to the shore of Lake Victoria we were creeping over what could have been a test track for manufacturers of off-road vehicles, or maybe army tanks. Bang. Crash. Whomp. It was a short stretch, but it took us forever.

Later, we went out to some farms north of Kisumu. It took us two hours to go 35 miles. The roads tell you a lot about a place. #

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Apr 29 2010

A Farm Is Blooming In An African Slum Where Water Is Scarce

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KIBERA, Kenya—For years Mohamed Abdullahi and his young friends made a living beating up and robbing their neighbors here on the outskirts of Nairobi in one of Africa’s most desperate slums.

Sometimes, though, the victims fought back. Ten of Mr. Abdullahi’s fellow criminals were “brutally killed,” he told me. Some were stoned. “Mob justice,” Mr. Abdullahi said.

Mr. Abdullahi and the others began to see that street robbery “was not a good idea.” At about the same time, an outburst of political violence shut down the slum, a jam-packed place of mud-walled shanties and putrid, open sewers.

Food supplies stopped coming in. A very scary place got even scarier and Mr. Abdullahi had an inspiration. He would start a farm inside the slum. Even if the slum were blockaded there would be food. And he and the others would have jobs.

Now Mr. Abdullahi’s Youth Reform Self-Help Group is growing spinach, eggplant, kale, bananas and sugar cane and selling it to neighbors. Most farmers in East Africa do not use irrigation – because of the cost – and rely on seasonal rains. Their yields are often low. The farmers get wiped out in floods. These are worldwide problems.

In the Kibera slum, water is scarce. But the farm is thriving with a frugal irrigation system that was developed long ago and gained widespread attention when it was refined in Israel and helped make the desert bloom. It is called drip irrigation.

In Kibera, black plastic tubing runs along each row of vegetables from a big water tank at one end of the field. The tubing is perforated with tiny holes. One tiny hole is lined up with the roots of a single plant.

To guard against the farm being swept away by the kind of flash floods that turn Kibera’s rutted clay roads into muddy bogs, the group has terraced its field, putting each long row on a slightly higher level.

The youth reform group built its farm on a piece of sloping land almost the size of an American football field. It overlooks a railroad ravine. The land had been waist-high in garbage. “It was an asset just lying there,” Mr. Abdullahi said.

On the walk to the farm, Mr. Abdullahi and I steered around clumps of roadside merchants and customers and made way for a boy herding a half dozen scrawny goats. We talked with a man who rents out shanties as shops and sleeping quarters and in his spare time chases people with sacks of garbage away from the creek beside his own place.

At the farm-site, about a dozen young people in their 20s and 30s had raked and shoveled and piled the garbage on the edge of the narrow ravine, 12 feet above the tracks of the battered diesel commuter train that disgorges passengers returning from mostly menial jobs in nearby Nairobi each evening. The group covered the wall of garbage with fine black netting to keep it from spilling onto the tracks and covered the netting with pumpkin leaves and weeds to create a green look.

The youth reform group got help from several Kenyans, including Su Kahumbu Stephanou, the founder of Green Dreams, an organic food company that is part of the Food Network East Africa. The youth reform group hauled in a truckload of fresh soil and agreed to use natural fertilizers. They had tested the original soil and discovered it had elevated levels of zinc, partly, Mr. Abdullahi said, leached from discarded flashlight batteries. He said the group decided it could grow food that would not harm people, but also planted sun flowers that Mr. Abdullahi said draws zinc from soil.

Al-Amin Ibrahim, who is 26 years old and supervises the farm workers, plunged a three pronged rake into the red clay beside a row of kale, big green leaves spreading like fans from a tight stem. In a moment he turned up a corroded double A-size battery. He kept digging and a D battery surfaced.

Mr. Abdullahi says he has learned a lot from working the farm in Kibera over the last two years and wants to pass on the knowledge. His country is among many in the developing world that are having trouble feeding themselves as people abandon small farms and cram into slums. Mr. Abdullahi wants to go into Kenya’s schools and encourage young people to take up farming. “So far,” he said, “the government and the schools don’t agree.” #

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Apr 22 2010

In An African Slum, Clean Drinking Water Gets Low Priority

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KIBERA , Kenya —The government clinic gets a shipment of water purification tablets every three or four months. In a week or two the tablets are gone. And then the people here in this rambling slum on the edge of Nairobi are on their own.

So how bad is that? This is one of those places around the world where the water can make you very sick. But, just like a lot of other places, it doesn’t always make you sick. Many people are convinced that the water is fine, or almost fine. People take the purification tablets because they are free. They don’t routinely use them, just like they don’t routinely boil their water. Most people in Kibera don’t have toilets and that adds to health problems.

The worn , reddish clay hills of Kibera are packed with tin-roofed shanties. The stench of sewage is strong in the air . Little clouds of smoke from charcoal cooking fires and burning garbage st ing the eyes. The slum is a microcosm of horrible conditions in much of the developing world . The United Nations estimate s that more than a billion people in places like Kibera – and places that are not nearly so extreme – don’t have consistently safe drinking water piped into their homes or within easy walking distance. Perhaps 2.5 billion people don’t have toilets. This adds up to a lot of sickness and about two million deaths every year. Over the last decade or so the situation has improved only slightly and it may very well get worse as the world population relentlessly rises.

Governments in many developing countries pay very little attention to clean drinking water and toilets and I could see from conversations in Kibera that there is little or no demand for improvement from many people living withiffy-water and unspeakable sanitary conditions. They don’t see a problem with their water. Some non-governmental organizations put a lot of energy into water and sanitation. But the going is tough.

In Kibera I sat on a railroad bridge with two men in their 30s who said they work from time to time as laborers in Nairobi . They said they were never sick because of the water. Just about everyone I spoke with said the same thing. Dolith Okello has set up a sports bar with four television screens in a three-room shack that she calls the Miami Inn Café. Ms. Okello, who roots for a British soccer team and speaks colloquial English, s aid the water never made her sick either.

“We don’t boil our water and we don’t get sick,” she told me. “There are diarrhea outbreaks, but they’re not related to the water . It’s because we don’t have proper latrines and we don’t have proper garbage disposal. ”

She thought a little more about water having nothing to do with diarrhea in Kibera and added: “ That’s 75 percent no and 25 percent maybe. ”

At the hot, dusty government clinic, Joyce Omune, a registered nurse who is in charge, said most of the patients are very young children. “Number one on the list” of problems,” she said, “is diarrheal diseases.” There are five other nurses, two of them registered nurses, and no doctors. There is no electricity. The paint is peeling. Each morning about 60 children are brought in with diarrhea, Ms. Omune said. One day like that would be a crisis in the United States and Europe.

Dr. Onesmo K. Ole-MoiYoi, a Kenya n graduate of Harvard University and an expert on disease in East Africa, said the problem in Kibera w as almost certainly a result of “drinking contaminated water.” Malnutrition, he said, makes children more susceptible. In turn, frequent diarrhea contributes to malnutrition, said Dr. Linda K. Ethangatta, a former United Nations nutritionist .

Some treated municipal water lines flow into Kibera , but the pipes are corroded and sewage seeps in. Middlemen routinely intercept the water and sell it. P eople end up with just enough to get by. They don’t wash their hands often en o ugh. There is garbage and filth everywhere. Flies dip into open sewers, then dance on fish and chunks of meat sizzling in open pots.

During surges of diarrhea, Ms. Omune said , people ask for purification tablets. “But when things settle down,” she said, “they go back to their old routine of just using the water the way it is.”

Ms. Omune said several non-governmental organizations had conducted campaigns to help people understand the bad things that can happen with drinking water . But there is still a lot of work to do here and around the world. And most of it is not getting done. #

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Apr 08 2010

In East Africa, Selling Drinking Water Straight From the Pond

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

LUANDA KOTIENO, Kenya—The gray donkey stood passively, shifting a little now and then as a man in a deeply faded shirt strapped yellow plastic barrels of water on its back.

The man was a water merchant. He was working a few miles from this little ramshackle town in western Kenya at the edge of a pond streaked with bright green scum. He had just filled the barrels with water from the pond and was about to head off in search of customers.

It is easy to find customers around here on the shore of Lake Victoria and elsewhere in much of Kenya, a struggling country in East Africa where unemployment and crime are high and disease and malnourishment come with the territory. The country has a tired and worn look.

Many people here and in other parts of the developing world do not have drinking water within easy reach. The United Nations estimates that about a billion people are living like that. Some experts say the number is much higher. To get their water, many people spend hours walking to streams and lakes and ponds. When they have the money, they buy water. What they get is often loaded with bacteria and parasites. Sickness is routine. Death is not rare. Children suffer most.

The water merchants are small businessmen and health is not their business. They sell convenience. They haul water here from the ponds and from murky Lake Victoria for people who want to spend their time cultivating small garden-size farms or at school or doing things around the house or just hanging out. Some people pour disinfectant into the water they get from the water merchants. Others just drink it as delivered.

The water merchants, usually referred to here as water vendors, charge about six cents for about five gallons or 20 liters of water. But even that is too much for many people. Bottled water at up to $1 for a single liter – more than 15 times what the water merchants charge for 20 times more water – is far beyond the reach of most.

Bouncing along on the main road from Kisumu, the largest Kenyan city on Lake Victoria, in a beat up bus with its shock absorbers gone stiff, I saw people solving their own water problems: walking and lugging, each one a snap-shot of water in the developing world.

A barefoot boy, probably no more than 10 years old and wearing just shorts, steadied a used plastic liter-size bottle of muddy gray water on his head with one hand; a shoeless man herding goats, carried his water in a large pail; a woman stepped along with a huge plastic jerry can on her head. She had a rhythm to her pace and, under all that weight, she was really moving.

The road was wide open, not many cars or trucks or motorcycles or even bicycles. Lots of people were walking. The poverty was vivid. On bare, rough patches of dirt, men and women trying to scrap up a few Kenyan shillings offered piles of old shoes and worn out clothes for sale. One farmer with a tiny piece of land told me his wife had one pair of shoes that she bought used and wore only to go some place special, like church.

Ahuga Graham is a banker in Mbita, a town on Lake Victoria about 45 minutes across the Gulf of Winam from Luanda Kotieno. He specializes in micro-finance, providing tiny loans of as little as $6.50 to very poor people. The water merchants, Mr. Graham said, don’t need his services. They get their product almost free, for just their labor: “They don’t require much capital.”

A water merchant can make more than $2.50 a day, Mr. Graham said, in a part of the world where many people manage to get along on half that. “They are poor people,” he said, “but this can give them a living.”

At the ferry landing in Luanda Kotieno, a town of about 6,500 people, Walter Omondi, 20, just out of high school and working as a helper on a little, skinny water jitney with a small outboard motor, said he had tried drinking water straight from the lake. “It is dangerous to my stomach,” he said. “I feel it in my stomach”

But he said some people who regularly drink untreated lake water – often provided by water merchants – say that “it builds character.” #

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