Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Apr 15 2010

A Dying African Lake, Polluted, Overfished; Bad And Getting Worse

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

DUNGA, Kenya—It was shortly after daybreak and a long, wooden fishing skiff crunched up on the stony beach here along Lake Victoria. Women who sell fish in the market in nearby Kisumu swarmed the boat. They grabbed slippery Nile perch and tilapia and tossed them into their plastic baskets. Then they began haggling.

The catch that day was meager, and one woman came away with nothing. “The fishermen don’t get enough fish,” said Salin Atieno, 37. She has been buying fish at the Dunga landing for seven years. “There are not that many fish now.”

Lake Victoria, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, is suffering. It is polluted with raw sewage and it is muddy from the erosion of soil from nearby hills that have lost trees and shrubs to people in search of firewood. Like Lake Chad in West Africa and a few other lakes around the world, it has also been shrinking. Parts of Lake Victoria are clogged with hyacinths and algae. All of this has been thinning out the fish.

“The lake is dying,” said Dr. Raphael Kapiyo, the head of environmental studies at Maseno University in Kisumu, an East African trading post of a city with about 400,000 people.

As Kisumu and other towns and cities around the lake have grown and economies have struggled, more people have begun trying their hand at fishing. They forget about fishing seasons, if they ever knew about them, and they fish with nets that trap the smallest minnows. This all adds up to overfishing.

The governments of Kenya and the two other countries bordering Lake Victoria, Uganda and Tanzania, have established regulations on fishing and pollution. They have organized fishermen groups and restricted fishing on one of the most popular local species to give the fish breathing room for recovery. But conditions in Lake Victoria keep getting worse.

Fish processing factories dump their waste into the lake. New factories have sprung up, some of them producing soap and, as a by-product, pollution.

Kisumu has a sewage treatment plant, Dr. Kapiyo said, “but it is far from adequate and a lot of raw sewage flows directly into the lake.” Sewage spills into the lake from Uganda and Tanzania, as well. Rivers flowing into the lake pick up the runoff from farms: cattle waste and fertilizers and pesticides. The pollution might be worse were it not that the millions of poor, small farmers in East Africa use fewer chemicals than farmers in many places.

Dr. Kapiyo said the lake has receded as much as 150 feet in some places. Because of higher temperatures in Kenya, possibly because of global warming, the rate of evaporation has risen. Moreover, water is being diverted from the lake for use in running hydro-electric power plants.

“The amount of water flowing into the lake is becoming less and less,” Dr. Kapiyo said. It was late afternoon and we were talking in a garden shaded by bougainvillea and ficus trees.

“The amount of water going out of the lake,” Dr. Kapiyo said, “has become more and more.” In the shade of the trees, the baking heat had eased and there was even a little breeze.

On the Dunga beach the rising sun glinted off the water. I talked with Samson Masero. He is 29 years old and has been fishing for five years. Even in his short time on the water he has noticed a decline in fish. But as far as he can tell, he told me, there has been “no big change in the water.”

“This is like our office,” he said. “There has not been any big change.”

Jason Agwenge, 40, has 20 years more experience on the lake than Mr. Masero. He remembers a different Lake Victoria. “The water was so clean,” he said, “we used to drink it.”

Mrs. Atieno, the market woman who came away with an empty basket, was wearing a bright blue basketball jacket the morning I met her. Her hair was clipped short. Her long, leaf-patterned skirt fell to her sandals. To her, the biggest problem on the lake is overfishing. “There are not any kinds of jobs here,” she said, “and they just go to the lake. There is not any other kind of work they can do.” #

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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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Feb 25 2010

Post Earthquake, Some Nasty Voices On Battered Haiti

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI—A journalist friend in New York with good ideas and a big heart had been reading reports about Haiti and its worn, unproductive and often dangerous landscape.

Most of the country’s trees had long since been chopped down for firewood. Much of the topsoil had washed away and when the rain got really heavy, the bare hills and mountains became launch pads for killing floods.

Right after the earthquake in January, my colleague in New York, Molly Gordy, suggested on Facebook that somebody start “A Tree for Haiti” program. She recalled that “A Tree for Israel” had been successful. “A Tree for Haiti” might get millions of people sending in small contributions to help Haiti with one of its most serious problems – before and after the earthquake. I thought “A Tree for Haiti” was a good idea and promoted it on my Facebook pages.

Not everyone shared my enthusiasm. One reader shot back: “Haiti is not Israel.”

It struck me as a harsh thing to say. I don’t recall much elaboration. But I think the writer was saying, “Just because Israel can make a go of a tree program doesn’t mean it would work in Haiti.” Yes, I know, the two countries are extremely different. But how stunningly uncharitable.

It especially jarred me, I think, because after the earthquake my frame of mind was: Whatever people thought of Haiti before this disaster, however infrequently they thought of it or whether they were even aware of Haiti, there would now be an unambiguous outpouring of empathy and support.

In many cases, that is exactly how people reacted. Some of those on Facebook and other social media that I’ve been following offered suggestions on what trees might grow best and how to deal with the matter of making cooking fires without perpetuating the destruction of the forest. The idea of “A Tree for Haiti” has not gathered much support, as far as I know. I’ve since discovered there are lots of tree programs in Haiti – though none has had much impact.

I expected the helpful suggestions, the support. I did not expect the hard and cold, insensitive, mean and racist commentary that I sometimes came across. Some of the remarks read like pornography, much more direct and derogatory than “Haiti isn’t Israel.” I won’t repeat them. Some people questioned the Haitian work-ethic. Some suggested that helping Haiti was a waste of good money. Some brought up population. Some talked about other things that polite, respectful people never mention, even in the heat of the most intense, hard-headed problem solving.

We’ve always had this kind of behavior. But now, with the Internet, all kinds of thoughts can rocket around the world with a few key strokes. Maybe that makes it worse. At least it pushes the gross commentary into my world. In the past I would come upon it only when I was on a professional mission - an assignment - to report on some particularly vile aspect of human nature.

I haven’t done any kind of scientific survey on this. I don’t know how widespread it is. Most of the comments I saw were from people using made-up Internet names. I didn’t try to question them on their motives or further thoughts. I just decided to call attention to the nasty behavior. People shouldn’t behave like this – even a very few people. #

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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 www.summitonthesummit.com 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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Nov 05 2009

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

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oct 29 2009

Clean, Safe Water For Two Cents A Day; Not Bad, Not Happening

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI— Here is the problem: at least 1 billion people in the world do not have clean drinking water readily at hand—nearly one-seventh of all the people on earth. These people often burn up a lot of the work day simply lugging water. Kids get pushed into carrying the family’s water and lose time at school. The water they gather is either dirty or becomes dirty, and many of these grown-ups and kids are chronically sick. To many of them, an upset stomach is normal. Many die.

Some experts think the number of people in this miserable condition could easily be 2 billion. Maybe even more. The statistics are fuzzy and no one really knows how bad it is. They just know it is bad.

Here is the solution: put very low cost water purifiers into the homes of these people. These are poor people living on less than $2 a day. For a penny or two a day they could have safe water.

But here is the monkey wrench in the deal: To make this work someone has to go into the villages and slums where the water is unfit even for brushing your teeth and show the people that there is an alternative to being sick all the time. Someone has to hand over a water filter, or a chemical mix that you stir into the water, something like chlorine. Or show people how dirty water, put into clear plastic bottles, sealed and set out in bright sunlight, can be magically rid of bacteria in eight hours as a result of ultra-violet rays and heat.

All of this takes teams of health workers. It takes repeat visits. It costs money. The expense is a lot less than the tens of millions it might take to build a water treatment plant with pipes that can take running water into people’s homes. But it takes substantial money.

And the money is not forthcoming. In fact, a stand-off has developed: cleaning water in homes, versus building village, town and city water systems. With the big projects you’re talking big money.

When you get into the big money, national and local governments and international agencies like the World Bank and big aid providers like the United States and countries in Europe, start thinking about all the other big projects that need funding. And, historically, the water projects have been pushed to the back of the line. Somehow building a water treatment plant just doesn’t have the pizazz of a hydroelectric project that can bring power into a valley, open it up for development of one kind or another.

So the big money doesn’t come for the big projects and the people with the big money often argue that purifying water in households is a tedious process that takes forever to get established and doesn’t reach enough people to justify the effort and expense. Some water experts say that if you adopt the household approach you let the governments off the hook and they have even less incentive to do the big projects.

So you get a lot of debate, and very little happens. It has been that way for ages. Experts estimate that no more than five million of the perhaps two billion people with unhealthy water are using household water treatment devices or processes.

Dr. Stephen Luby is an advocate of disinfecting water in homes. He is in charge of the infectious diseases program at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in one of the world’s most beleaguered places in terms of water, Bangladesh. He was in the United States recently to receive an award for his work from Oklahoma University.

“Do I think household water treatment is a panacea, a silver bullet,” he asked in an interview. “No. But it’s something we can do.”

Dr. Luby said he was not opposed to building water treatment plants. “But those kinds of solutions,” he said, “are decades away for the populations at the highest risk for death from water-borne diseases.”

He and other water experts say there has been little or no progress in reducing the total of one billion or two billion people without regular access to clean water.

Perhaps three million people a year are getting deathly ill as a result of drinking contaminated water. That was true 10 years ago. It is true today.

But the annual number of these people dying has declined to perhaps 1.8 million- still a staggering number - because of the introduction of an inexpensive medicine that enables grown-ups and children who have been dehydrated by diarrhea to recover the balance of fluids in their bodies. It’s called oral rehydration. It saves lives. But it saves lives that would not even be threatened if the water were cleaned up. #

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Oct 22 2009

In Bangladesh A Crippling Poison Troubles The Waters

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

WASHINGTONBangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth, is a tough place to get a drink of water you can trust.

The country, surrounded by India and overlooking the Bay of Bengal, is laced with rivers and dotted with lakes and ponds. But most of the water is polluted.

One particular kind of pollution in Bangladesh is naturally- occurring arsenic. Water with arsenic in it is often sparkling clear and tastes great, according to Abul Hussam, who grew up in Bangladesh and is now the director of the Center for Clean Water and Sustainable Technologies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

But drink water with high-levels of arsenic for 10 years or so and bad things start to happen. One result of gradual arsenic poisoning is that the palms of the hands and soles of feet dry out and crack like old leather baked in the sun. Sometimes gangrene sets in and amputation is required. Some people develop cancers.

The water in more than 40 countries is contaminated in varying degrees with arsenic. But the contamination in Bangladesh, with 140 million people, is among the worst. Arsenic contamination is also an especially serious problem in parts of India, China, Mongolia and Cambodia.

Dr. Hussam, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and his brother, Abul K. Munir, a medical doctor, began running tests on water in Bangladesh and found unhealthy levels of arsenic almost everywhere. They even found it in their own family’s wells in the city of Kushtia, near the western border with India.

“We had to do something,” Professor Hussam said.

Professor Hussam came up with a simple water filter that extracts the arsenic. The device consists of two thick plastic buckets – one red, the other green - containing a cast iron composite, charcoal, sand and gravel. A light metal frame holds the buckets, one above the other. You pour water into the top bucket, the red one. It trickles into bucket Number Two. Below bucket Number Two you place the kind of clay jug that people in Bangladesh have been using forever as containers for water. When the water hits the clay jug it is clean and ready for drinking.

Professor Hussam calls his creation the “SONO Filter.” He did the early development of the filter, he said, at his brother’s SONO Diagnostic Center in Kushtia. SONO, he said, is a local term for ultra-sound.

The filters sell for $30 to $40. That is too much for people who are living on less than $1.50 a day. But the Department of Public Health and Engineering in Bangladesh and private aid organizations have found that the filters work well and have begun buying them and handing them out to families. Highest priority goes to families where the damage has been most severe.

The National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., was so impressed that in 2007 it awarded Professor Hussam its Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability which provided $1 million to the winner. The challenge that year was to design an affordable, easy to maintain way of removing arsenic from water around the world. Only devices that required no electricity were considered. Professor Hussam said he is spending most of the money in Bangladesh to manufacture and distribute filters and to do further research.

The arsenic problem arose in Bangladesh as a result of an attempt by the government to deal with another kind of pollution. Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world where millions of people do not have toilets. It is also one of the most flooded countries in the world. The floods mix animal and human waste, garbage and fertilizer into the drinking water.

The government decided to drill wells, millions of them, most operated with hand pumps. The water that came up through the wells looked good. It also contained fewer bacteria than the surface water that people had been drinking, and illnesses and deaths from diarrhea diminished. But the well-water turned out to be contaminated with arsenic.

Professor Hussam and his brother set up a factory in Bangladesh to make the filters. They have produced 130,000 filters that they estimate are in the homes of about 500,000 people. They say another half million people, neighbors, are also getting their water cleaned through the same filters.

But the scale of the arsenic contamination is overwhelming. Professor Hussam estimates that more than 80 million people in Bangladesh are drinking water containing unhealthy levels of arsenic. The government puts the number at about 37 million.

For Professor Hussam, his filters are no more than “a very temporary solution.” A much more extensive approach is needed, he told me.

He has begun campaigning for village and town-sized versions of his filters or, as he says, “community water treatment systems.” He also says he thinks it is possible to clean up the water in the lakes and rivers and keep it clean. A significant part of the solution is providing toilets.

And where will the money for all of this come from?

Professor Hussam said he thinks the answer is private business, entrepreneurs. Many advocates for clean water insist that this work is the duty of governments. Those advocates worry that private investors will eventually price water beyond the reach of many people. Not professor Hussam.

“There is business to be done here,” he said. “We’ve approached the government and they’re not very helpful. The government doesn’t have the money. It’s as simple as that.” #

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Oct 15 2009

Never Mind Debate On Human Rights, Just Make Water Flow

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

SAINT LEO, Fla.—Human rights and water. For years people have been arguing over the topic. Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right. Or it is not. Or, it may be a human right, but recognizing it as such would impose requirements that some governments reject.

Here at Saint Leo University, a small, beautiful, liberal arts university northeast of Tampa, I’ve been talking to students and faculty. Everyone I’ve met here regards access to clean drinking water as a human right.

“Water is life,” said history professor Anthony Esposito at one session with about 100 students and faulty. “No water, no life. Therefore, it’s a human right.”

It is the same in most places. But there are some big exceptions. And those exceptions are the reason the debate has not been resolved.

Now some experts are saying that the debate has gotten in the way of efforts to get clean drinking water to hundreds of millions of people. And a change in strategy may be taking shape.

A newly appointed official at the United Nations Human Rights Council assigned to dealing with water issues, Catarina de Albuquerque, a Portuguese lawyer with years of experience in international negotiations, says she has no doubt that access to both adequate water and sanitation facilities are intrinsic human rights.

But Ms. de Albuquerque, the Independent Expert on human rights and water and sanitation, says she is more interested in getting clean water and sanitation facilities to people who need them than in struggling for consensus on terminology.

Those who do not have adequate water and sanitation, she said in an interview with IPS Terraviva, an Internet publication focusing on the United Nations, “will not be served by years of political negotiations over a new international treaty.”

She’s opting for the practical. She is driven, she says, by the nearly incredible statistics on water – or the absence of water – and the consequences.

  • Roughly 1 billion people – about one-seventh of the nearly 7 billion people on earth—do not have access to clean drinking water.
  • 2.5 billion people or nearly 40 percent of the world’s population do not have toilets.

The result is severe and persistent health problems.  Because of drinking contaminated water, 1.8 million people die each year, most of them children under the age of five. That is about 5,000 deaths a day. This is not happening on my block or in your neighborhood in the United States or Europe. The deaths are scattered across the poorest countries in the world. They occur one or two at a time. They mostly go unnoticed by anyone beyond their grieving families.

People who have to struggle every day to find drinking water do not simply go without water. They would die in a few days, if they did. Instead, they find water; sometimes after walking for hours. But often the water they find is dirty. Or it becomes dirty, partly because they live without toilets. Their hands get into the water and it becomes toxic. Many things foul the water.

One of the hold-outs on accepting access to water and, also, adequate sanitation as human rights is the United States. The United States agrees that everyone should have an adequate supply of clean water and a place to go to the bathroom.

But United States government officials tell me they worry about the legal burdens of formally signing on to any international agreement that would explicitly recognize access to water and toilets as a human right. It would be one more thing the United States would have to police, the officials say. It could also mean that some countries would press the United States for more financial assistance. They could say they’d love to provide water for their people but they just don’t have the money.

The United States is already spending billions of dollars in foreign aid and with Barack Obama in the White House it is likely to be spending more. But it wants to maintain maximum flexibility in choosing how it spends its money and influence. It sees recognizing access to water as limiting its options. Canada and Brazil take similar positions.

For ordinary people, this doesn’t sit well. The United States comes off as cold-hearted. “I see the struggle,” said Sarah Holz, a senior at Saint Leo majoring in religion. “It’s tricky. I don’t think our role should be as universal police. But if people don’t have water, how can we not step in?”

Ms. Holz, who is the only student on the university’s board of trustees, had more to say. “We take on big problems like Iraq,” she said. “Maybe we should start from the opposite direction and start with the most basic human needs.”

Christine Barabas, a junior in biology, has always had all the water she needed. And then some. She knew there were water problems in the world. But until she heard the statistics, she had no sense of the enormous scale. “It really opened my eyes,” she said.

Jessie Moreira, a senior majoring in biology and environmental science, said the hanging back by the United States bothered her. “We’re a very powerful country,” she said. “We should be using our resources to help people.”

The hesitation on accepting the obvious, she said, that water is a human right, struck her as irresponsible insistence upon form over substance. “It’s like somebody gets hurts and needs to go to the hospital,” she said, “and you stand there debating whether it is a deadly injury or a not so deadly injury. They should just fix it.” #

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Oct 08 2009

Battle of the Bottles, Steel Angers Plastic; Litigation Commences

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI – To hear Tom Lauria tell it, he and his people in the bottled water business were just fed up.

A North Carolina company that sells stainless steel canteens as an alternative to buying water in plastic bottles was accusing the bottled water people in its advertisements of all sorts of foul things.

“People do not have to go to the emergency room if they drink bottled water,” said Mr. Lauria, the spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, in an interview.

“If they want to sell a multi-use bottle, that’s fine,” Mr. Lauria said. “But they’re not going to say that our product poisons people, poisons families. Everything in the grocery store is made of the same plastic.”

Mr. Lauria said his group in Alexandria, Va., the biggest organization of water bottlers, distributors and suppliers of bottled water labels and bottle caps in America, sent the company, Eco Canteen of Charlotte, N.C., a notice to stop their “false and misleading” accusations. “They ignored it,” Mr. Lauria said, “So we filed suit. Our membership wanted us to.”

I tried several times over two weeks to talk with people at Eco Canteen. I really wanted to hear their side of the story. Phone calls. Emails. Nothing worked.

Mr. Lauria said the lawsuit, filed in the federal district court for the Western District of North Carolina, was the first his organization had filed against critics of bottled water. And there are lots of critics.

Most if not all environmental groups are against bottled water. They say the manufacture of the plastic bottles from petroleum adds to global warming and that the discarded bottles become almost indestructible garbage.

Many environmental groups advocate drinking tap water from reusable bottles. Several environmentally oriented websites recommend Eco Canteen. But on one website called ecohuddle at least nine people who said they had bought Eco Canteens complained that they had been misled on pricing. “Scam,” said two writers. One blogger said the company was “to be avoided at all costs.” A note attributed to Eco Canteen said, “We apologize if there is any confusion on our products or their pricing.”

Part of the environmentalists’ criticism is that bottled water is hugely expensive. They say it is no better than tap water and sometimes worse. The bottled water association takes strong exception to suggestions that its water is of poor quality or that it is the least bit unsafe.

In the lawsuit the bottled water association says the quality of bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. It says it has its own quality standards and that plants operated by its members are inspected annually. “Every aspect of the operation from water source to the filling room” is tested and audited, the association says in the lawsuit.

The Government Accountability Office in Washington said in a recent report that the principal regulator of bottled water quality, the Food and Drug Administration, was not as strict as the Environmental Protection Agency. The accountability office suggested that the Food and Drug Administration should be looking more closely at the ingredients of plastic bottles, but it did not raise any specific health concerns.

The government report undermined some of the environmentalists’ claims. It said that discarded water bottles, which the environmentalists say are jamming garbage dumps, represented less than one percent of the total waste in municipal landfills. The agency said that while it took much more energy to produce bottled water than tap water, the amount of energy used by the water companies was a small percentage of all the energy consumed in the United States.

Bottled water sales have been declining after years of breathtaking growth. I wondered if after years of anti-bottled water comments from environmentalists, the bottled water people had decided it was time to try to shut down some of the criticism.

Mr. Lauria says, No. He said the decline in sales had nothing to do with campaigns by environmentalists. “The economists say it isn’t the environmentalists who are making a dent,” Mr. Lauria said, “It’s a recession dent.”

Environmentalists say that all of their work against bottled water must have had some impact. But, they say, they can’t be sure.

On their website, the Eco Canteen people sell their 26-ounce, stainless steel canteens against bottled water. On one Eco Canteen website a message pops on the screen: “Kick the Plastic Habit and Protect Your Family.” A video narrated by a woman begins, “Did you know that 40 percent of bottled water comes from city tap?” “Some brands don’t even filter it,” she says, “So why pay a fortune for something you can get for free?” Then a man’s voice: “Disposable bottles last 700 years. They’re taking over our landfills.” One written message says, “Some researchers believe BPA polycarbonate bottles could threaten your family’s health.”

The lawsuit attributes much stronger language to Eco Canteen. It says some of the company’s ads show a spokesperson standing in front of a hospital emergency room and saying that some plastic water bottles “release synthetic estrogen, linked to breast and prostate cancer.” Some ads say that “plastic bottles could be poisoning you and your family,” according to the lawsuit.

The first Eco Canteen listing I found in a Google search carried the words “official site.” The ad on that site made no reference to cancer or poison. But two items down on Google, I clicked on an Eco Canteen listing and saw a woman making the claims referred to in the lawsuit about breast and prostate cancer. It is hard to tell what is going on here.  Eco Canteen could do itself a favor by sending a consistent message in its ads and perhaps by getting someone to answer phone calls and emails from inquiring reporters. #

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Oct 01 2009

Fighting Over Pollution That Never Happened, Argentina vs. Uruguay

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

BUENOS AIRES— Here is a whopper of a water dispute between two countries that have only barely tolerated each other in the best of times: Argentina, one of the largest countries in South America, and Uruguay, one of the smallest.

Five years ago, a Finnish company announced plans to build a pulp paper plant in Uruguay, just across the Uruguay River from Argentina. The company promised to use new technology and not to spew the pollution that historically has resulted from pulp paper plants.

Almost immediately protests broke out in Argentina. But the Finnish company, Oy Metsa-Botnia AB, pushed on. Two years ago the plant went into operation just outside the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos. Several analyses by water experts have concluded that the plant is not hurting the river, and the World Bank, which helped finance the plant, has accepted the findings.

But the reports have not satisfied the Argentines, particularly the people of the town of Gualeguaychu, population 80,000, about two hours’ drive from Buenos Aires and eight miles from the Uruguay River. They are continuing to fight.

Years ago both sides appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the highest court of the United Nations. In mid-September the court began hearing arguments on Argentina’s claim that Uruguay had violated a 1975 river treaty by failing to consult with Argentina on the project. Uruguay said it had complied fully. Proceedings in the case are expected to run through Oct. 2.

It has been an astounding dispute, a display of human foibles, of the intensity of rivalries and suspicions across borders and of the distrust of big business and foreign investors. But it also has been a dispute that has underscored concerns around the world about the quality and scarcity of water, concerns that have grown as the dispute has dragged on and as climate change and global warming have become a part of daily life.

Argentina is the second largest country in South America in territory after Brazil and, with about 40 million people, ranks third after Brazil and Colombia in population. It sprawls over the equivalent of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Uruguay has 3.4 million people and is about the size of the state of Washington. The Argentines joke about the Uruguayans being country bumpkins. The Uruguayans say the Argentines are brash and overbearing.

In the paper plant dispute, there have been some truly remarkable moments. At one point, both sides appealed to King Juan Carlos of Spain to mediate. At a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Vienna, Evangelina Carrozo, who was 25 years old and had been named “Miss Gualeguaychu,” peeled off all her clothes except for a skimpy bikini and hoisted a banner reading, “No Paper Mill Pollution.”

When it comes to the water quality reports, the people of Gualeguaychu say they don’t believe the reports because some were paid for by the Finnish company. Even Greenpeace, the international environmental group, says there is no sign of pollution from the plant. Gonzalo Girolami, a spokesman for Greenpeace in Buenos Aires, said he is at a loss as to why Argentina and the people of Gualeguaychu are still pressing the issue. “The position of the people of Gualeguaychu is very stubborn, very nationalistic,” Mr. Girolami said in an interview.

The plant has been an economic bonanza for Uruguay. It cost $1.2 billion to build and is the largest foreign investment ever in Uruguay. Its construction provided 8,000 jobs and 600 people are now running the plant.

The Finnish company anticipated opposition. It sent out engineers to explain how its new ways of making pulp paper differed from the processes that for decades had dirtied the waters around the 12 paper plants operating in Argentina and that had made a mess of Finnish lakes and rivers 30 years ago.

But the Argentines were not buying. Within months, the people of Gualeguaychu began raising their voices. The Uruguay River would be ruined. Their drinking water would suffer. Summer vacationers would stop coming. Eventually the protesters shut down the Libertador General San Martin Bridge, connecting Argentina and Uruguay. Government officials in Argentina called for a halt to the project. The bridge, impassable for three years, is still blocked and Uruguay says the loss of the link to Argentina has cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in business. The disruption has hurt Argentina as well.

“We always said Argentina was making a big mistake,” said Mr. Girolami of Greenpeace.

It has some of the world’s worst pollution and Argentines say that except for this case, the environment has not been a matter of high priority. That leads some analysts to speculate that the dispute over the Finnish paper plant is really more about politics, nationalist sentiment and public opinion in Gualeguaychu than about the environment.

At The Hague, the Associated Press reported, Ambassador Carlos Gianelli, the leader of Uruguay’s delegation, said the dispute was “a sad episode in the historically close relations between Argentina and Uruguay.” He said matters had been made worse “by the excessive language that Argentina used throughout” the early part of the proceedings “in which it portrayed Uruguay as nothing short of an international outlaw.”

Susana Ruiz Cerutti, the chief representative of Argentina in the case, said the Finnish plant was “a bad mill in a bad place.”

Alan Boyle, a lawyer representing Uruguay, countered: “It is the right mill in the right place on a river more than capable of sustaining this type of economic development.”

A ruling by the international court is expected early next year. And the question arises: Will the court’s decision finally end the dispute? #

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