Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Friday 11th of July 2014 05:00:05 PM

In East Africa, Selling Drinking Water Straight From the Pond

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.” #

No responses yet




Fish In Haiti Are Almost As Rare As Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No responses yet




Drinking Water Filthy But Big Money Goes To Build New Stadium

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


One response so far




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No responses yet




Africa Water Project Captures Difficulty Of Global Struggle

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.” #

No responses yet




Post Earthquake, Some Nasty Voices On Battered Haiti

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. #

No responses yet




Fixing the Everglades: Looking for Wisdom In An Artificial Swamp

THE EVERGLADES—The sawgrass and cattails, green with brown accents, bent in the late afternoon wind. Sunlight glinted off the tight ripples scudding across the ponds and little bays. A turkey buzzard shot sideways on an easterly gust.

From my spot on a narrow dirt dike, marshy fields stretched to the horizon. Off to the left, four rectangular ponds broke up the flat, watery landscape. Each rectangle – about the length of four football fields - was a miniature of the Everglades – trees, sawgrass, patches of water, small islands and ridges, water lilies, fish, tropical birds and a few alligators.

The rectangles were man-made structures, open-air laboratories, designed to help find ways to repair decades of damage imposed on the Everglades by other man-made structures – like canals and flood gates - that were installed to tame the vast swamp and provide more dry land for farmers, ranchers, developers and the towns that have steadily encroached on a wilderness like no other in the world.

Now that the engineer-designed improvements have wiped out most of the tropical birds and other swamp creatures, and concerns are rising about the quality and quantity of South Florida’s drinking water and irrigation supply, a broad agreement has been reached to try to return the Everglades to something close to its original condition.

Lots of research has been done in the Everglades. For the first time, researchers are working in scale models that include the essential ingredients of the Everglades. Unlike in a traditional laboratory with Petrie dishes and test tubes, the open-air laboratories are big enough for birds and fish to come in and react to what is going on. They become part of the experiment.

In the mini-Everglades in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach, on Florida’s Atlantic coast between West Palm Beach and Miami, nearly a dozen scientists have planted trees like pond apples and gumbo limbos, sunk tiny wells and tracked the effect of water currents on erosion and soil build up. They are preparing now to drain two of the four replicas of the Everglades to create a drought and see if, as they expect, when the water returns there is an abundance of food for wading birds and an increase in mating to rebuild decimated flocks of herons, egrets, ibises and wood storks.

Some Everglades experts say that conducting experiments in models of the Everglades just across a dike from the real Everglades is about the silliest thing they’ve ever heard of. “The most valuable research is likely to be research focused on the real system,” said Joe Browder, an environmentalist who has spent much of his life advocating for the protection and restoration of the Everglades.

But the scientists working in the mini-Everglades say they can learn things in their controlled testing place with a precision that is impossible in the wild. They say they can create floods and droughts without risk of damaging a national treasure.

The Everglades is mostly shallow water, dotted with thousands of small islands and wide ridges of sawgrass. Its nickname is “The River of Grass.” The water meanders south from around Lake Okeechobee in the middle of Florida in a more or less single sheet and ends up in the salt water bays at the tip of the state.

Water depth and the velocity of the water are important. They can affect feeding opportunities for birds and the shape of the islands and ridges.

In the wild, the depth and rate of flow cannot be separated, said Dr. Dale E. Gawlik, the director of environmental sciences at Florida Atlantic University and one of the developers of the open-air laboratories. As a result, he said, it is impossible to know for sure what independent impact either the depth or the speed of the water is having on the Everglades. “The only way to tease those two apart,” he said, “is to control one and manipulate the other” which is what scientists do in the open-air laboratories.

The mini-Everglades are known collectively as Lila, short for a moniker that only a government official or scientist could love: the Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment Project.

In one water flow experiment, scientists imported bright green synthetic soil that was both magnetic and florescent. “We tracked where the soil particles went and measured the speed of the water,” said Eric Cline, a scientist with the South Florida Water Management District and the manager of the open-air laboratories. They tested pools of water stocked with fish to see whether birds were attracted to open water or water with moderate or heavy vegetation. The birds chose the moderate vegetation.

Fred Sklar, the director of the Everglades Division of the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach, is one of the creators of the open-air laboratories. He likes the easy access they provide for researchers. “You can drive to the site,” he said. To get to many parts of the Everglades you need an airboat or a helicopter or a contraption called a swamp buggy. Lila’s drive-up location does wonders for costs. “To rent an airboat and operator is $20,000 a year,” Dr. Sklar said. “For a helicopter it’s $600 an hour.”

The scientists working in the open-air laboratories have made a few interesting discoveries; so far no big breakthroughs and nothing that has been applied in a practical way to the Everglades. Maybe something significant will come out of the work, maybe not. It is a slow process, the scientists say, and, at the least, they hope to influence thinking on the restoration.

However it turns out, the costs for the whole project are going to be small compared to the more than $20 billion that is expected to be spent on the Everglades over the next few decades. Dr. Sklar said the expense of operating the open-air laboratories, including the cost of individual projects, is running just under $340,000 a year. #

No responses yet




Haiti’s Tomorrow May Be Rooted In Trees, Fertilizer

MIAMI—Throughout the history of foreign assistance, charitable organizations and government agencies have built schools and water treatment plants and created farm projects only to discover that their good works did not really fit in with the local scene. Or that one project contradicted another. Schools and water treatment plants fell apart and experimental farms withered.

Before the earthquake in Haiti, international aid groups had begun working on a comprehensive plan to convert the country’s treeless, dirt hills and mountains and its over-farmed valleys into verdant, productive land. The key features of the plan would be linked together in mutual support. It would be the opposite of piecemeal.

That was before more than 200,000 Haitians died as homes, hotels, hospitals, stores, schools and small factories collapsed. Now the aid groups, including the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, are urging that restoration of the Haiti’s countryside be incorporated as a key element in rebuilding the country.

The task of restoring Haiti’s countryside is almost too much to imagine and could turn out to be impossible. Very few trees are left in Haiti because the tradition –as in many developing countries – has been to chop trees into charcoal for cooking fires. In an impoverished country, people do not buy fertilizer. After a few decades the soil in their small plots becomes exhausted. In Haiti, farmland produces five times less corn than just across the border in the Dominican Republic. Farmland in Haiti is 10 times less productive on average than in the United States.

Some of the key points of an environmental restoration project would likely include:

* Planting tens of thousands of trees, including fruit varieties that would set down long roots to help prevent erosion and also provide food.
* Providing fertilizer to increase the growth of corn and wheat and other crops. Just adding fertilizer to fields in Africa has doubled yields.
* Persuading Haitians to rely less heavily on wood and charcoal for cooking fires. Some ideas: providing inexpensive stoves that use less charcoal, hiring some woodcutters and charcoal makers to work in a security force to protect the trees, planting fast growing varieties of trees that could be used for charcoal and showing Haitians how these trees can produce the ingredients for charcoal for years if they are pruned instead of killed.
* Dredging rivers and canals and, in some cases, erecting walls along the banks to reduce flooding.

A healthy countryside would provide more food for Haiti. Flooding would be less severe. The restoration work would provide jobs. Little by little, the land would support more farmers with better crop yields.

As envisioned by the experts at Columbia, the restoration would involve a series of coordinated projects within a small section of the country. Not overly ambitious, not staggeringly expensive. If the work succeeded, it would start anew in another section. It would move section by section until the entire country had been covered. It would take a long time, maybe 20 years at a minimum. Over the long run, the work could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But it would give Haiti a strong agricultural and environmental base for the first time in many, many years.

To start with, the Columbia plan calls for a study of the landscape and conversations with people in the area to find out how things have gone over the years and what might help. Then a set of complementary projects would be devised.

“An idea is always going to fail if you just kind of pick a village here on a hillside and try to do some good thing,” said Marc Levy, the director of Columbia University’s contribution to the Haiti project. The problems in an area, Mr. Levy said, “are all interconnected.” So the plan is to make sure all the work meshes with “all the ecological and social dynamics.” #

One response so far




Haiti Earthquake: Greening of Hillsides Can Bolster Recovery

MIAMI—It was long, long ago that the hills and steep, craggy mountains of Haiti were covered in rich, green forests. One by one the trees had been turned into firewood by a poor people on the way to becoming poorer. The hills and mountains became dirt slopes, spillways for rushing flood waters when it rained. The soil had worn so thin that it produced one of the most meager crop yields of any place on earth.

By the time an earthquake shattered the capital city of Port-au-Prince in January, a consensus was forming that lifting the country out of poverty depended to a great extent upon restoring the countryside. Several teams for international aid organizations had begun working on projects to replant trees and revitalize plots of corn and rice. One new group was planning to head out in a few days to begin taking soil samples in southwestern Haiti – far from the capital – when the ground shook.

Now with parts of Haiti in ruin and perhaps 200,000 people dead, the tree-planting and the soil sampling have halted. But the catastrophe makes it more critical than ever that Haiti be re-greened.

“To me this is one of the top three most important things for Haiti,” said Marc Levy, a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs working on a joint effort of Columbia and its Earth Institute with the United Nations Environment Program. “Two-thirds of the people still live in the countryside and their livelihoods have been going down every year. They were already very, very poor and things have been getting worse. That’s completely unsustainable and morally untenable. We’ve got to find some way to reverse that.”

Jobs and political stability are also at the top of the list. But now there is an earthquake to deal with. Tens of thousands of people are living in tents and makeshift shelters. They need food and water. Medical teams are trying to mend crushed victims. The capital and Jacmel and other damaged towns must be rebuilt. Mr. Levy’s own work has shifted to helping with the recovery. “The whole project is on hold,” he said.

But he does not expect the hiatus to last long. The environmental work can contribute directly to the recovery. Tree-planting, for example, can be among the public works projects. So can work on dredging rivers and streams to make them less likely to flood in hurricanes.

A hurricane helped shape agreement on addressing Haiti’s deforestation. Haiti officials and aid specialists had long known that the denuded landscape was like a dead weight on the country’s development. I spent years as a foreign correspondent in Haiti. I only saw the degradation grow worse.

But after four storms raked Haiti in 2008 and more than 800 people died in heavy flooding, momentum on fixing the environment picked up. The United Nations turned to Columbia and the Earth Institute, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, the economic development expert. Their work was to study 38 square miles of mountainside, rivers and coastline in southwestern Haiti. The idea was to develop a comprehensive plan that could be applied to the entire country. They were going to do their first field testing just as the earthquake struck. There was $3 million in seed money for the first few years of the United Nations Environment Program’s work. Mr. Levy and his colleagues thought the restoration efforts could easily stretch over 20 years – probably more. The cost would likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even more than a billion.

“What makes this worthwhile,” Mr. Levy said, “is that there is no way for me to image any other way to achieve what everybody says they care about – alleviating poverty and restoring political stability.” #

4 responses so far




A Drinking Water Crisis In Haiti Long Before Earthquake Destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One response so far




« Prev - Next »