Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Jun 19 2010

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

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apr 22 2010

In An African Slum, Clean Drinking Water Gets Low Priority

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apr 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 18 2010

Drinking Water Filthy But Big Money Goes To Build New Stadium

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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Mar 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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Jan 06 2010

Dirty Drinking Water Pushes Jessica Biel Up Mt. Kilimanjaro

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thought it was probably the water.”

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

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

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

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

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

For More on the Worldwide Water Crisis See: http://1h2o.org

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Dec 03 2009

Hostile Winds Clobber Would-Be Hurricanes; But Next Year?

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI — Whatever happened to the 2009 hurricane season? It never amounted to much. And that was kind of a surprise.

As the season started in June, forecasters were expecting about a dozen tropical storms and predicting that perhaps half of them would grow into hurricanes.

It didn’t turn out that way. As the curtain went down on the season at the end of November, there had been nine storms. Three got strong enough to be called hurricanes with winds of more than 74 miles an hour. But not one of them hit the beaches of the United States as a hurricane. The best shots weakened over water and became mainly windy rainstorms.

“Most of the season you had hostile winds aloft over the main development areas over the Atlantic and the Caribbean,” said Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center just outside Miami.

The result, he said in an interview, was that as nascent storms came off the coast of Africa or popped up closer to the United States “they never got past” the stage of being a “cluster of thunderstorms.”

It was the quietest hurricane season in 12 years.

Even quiet seasons can have deadly and costly consequences, though. A dozen people were swept off an outcropping of rocks along the coast of Maine by rough seas accompanying Hurricane Bill and one of them, a seven-year-old girl, drowned. In Florida, the authorities attributed the death of a 54-year-old swimmer to Hurricane Bill. Bill was the first hurricane of the season and it arrived in mid-August. That was 10 weeks into the season. In early November, Hurricane Ida flooded the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, knocked out bridges and flattened dozens of homes. Later, as a weaker tropical storm, Ida dropped a lot of rain on the Alabama coast near Mobile.

But, to the bigger issue: Does the relative quiet of 2009 mean the end of the much-talked-about onslaught of several decades of more and stronger hurricanes? The busy cycle started in 1995. Fourteen years later, is it over?

No. The quiet of 2009, according to Mr. Read, who has been in the hurricane business for more than 30 years, means almost nothing useful. Next year could be a terrible year along the United States Coasts, the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Central America. Or it could be a mild year. Chances are though, it won’t be that mild.

The hostile winds that beat the baby storms to pieces before they could grow into monsters were created by what is known as the El Nino effect. El Nino periodically warms up the Pacific Ocean. Thunderstorms develop. Stronger than usual winds come racing over the Atlantic at 30,000 feet and more. The winds knock the tops off giant updrafts of spinning wind and rain that are on their way to becoming hurricanes. The next thing you know, the storm is falling apart.

What does the 2009 experience tell us about global warming? Again, nothing, Mr. Read said. This is a decades-long phenomenon and, he said, you “can’t take any particular set of weather events in one year and draw” conclusions. Even over the long run, weather experts are not sure of the impact of global warming on hurricanes. On the one hand, warmer oceans should provide fuel for hurricanes. On the other, the experts say, a generally warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans would probably add up to a more stable situation, which is not good for hurricane formation.

A little more on El Nino. These characters usually do not have staying power. “Normally,” Mr. Read said, “you don’t have a second one, two years in a row.” Historically, El Ninos have occurred about every seven years. Without El Nino, Mr. Read said, “the chances of storms developing in the Atlantic increases.” That seems to mean that 2010 could be trouble.

But just so you don’t start feeling like you know what’s coming, some El Ninos have hung around for a second year.

There was no mention of El Nino in the early forecasts for the 2009 season and you might be forgiven if you thought it came out of nowhere. But Mr. Read said the forecasters thought an El Nino might develop and worked it into their predictions.

“It was hard to anticipate how strong it would be,” Mr. Read said. But, he added, that if the experts had not been anticipating El Nino “we probably would have been looking at much higher numbers in the forecast.” And even those numbers, it turned out, were on the high side. #

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Sep 24 2009

A Fixable Problem Remains Unresolved And Kids Keep Dying

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

WASHINGTON—Dirty water is killing kids–lots of kids. The magnitude of the deaths is staggering, perhaps 5,000 a day, 1.8 million a year – more deaths annually than the combined total from malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS.

And who’s talking about it? Who is outraged? Practically no one. It is a problem that is virtually unknown in the United States and Europe. The victims are poor children in poor families throughout most of Africa and in remote parts of Asia.

Specialists in water and health are working on the problem and spending lots of money. But some experts say that progress has been meager and that the situation could be getting even worse.

The deaths come quickly and simply. Kids drink the only water they can get. It is loaded with bacteria. They get diarrhea, which is a manifestation of many diseases, including cholera. They get dehydrated and before their parents realize how bad things have gotten the kids are gone. Some grownups die, too. But mostly the 1.8 million victims annually are children, five years old and younger. Millions of kids don’t die from diarrhea. But their illnesses strain already strained hospitals and clinics. By some estimates kids sick with diarrhea miss nearly 300 million school days a year.

This has been going on for decades, almost unbelievable rates of death and sickness among millions of kids. They and their families cannot solve the problem on their own. And they are not getting enough help to break the pattern. They are stuck in a vast pool of nearly 1 billion people around the world who do not have dependable access to clean water every day. Most of them are also among the 2.5 billion people who do not have even the most basic toilets. Without a good supply of clean water and without toilets, disease, sickness and death are almost guaranteed.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which works in the most awful places and is not given to hysteria, said earlier this year that it had been seeing an increase in cases of water-related diseases that cause diarrhea, including cholera. Uli Jaspers, the head of water and sanitation for the federation at its headquarters in Geneva, said in a statement that “data suggests we may be losing the battle.”

Hundreds if not thousands of people in government and private agencies are devoting their energies to stopping the silent epidemic. Often times the work is one person, one-village, one school at a time. Paul Faeth, the president of Global Water Challenge, a group of organizations here in Washington committed to working against water-related diseases, is getting soap and water to schools in Africa. Sally Cowal, a water expert at Population Services International, also in Washington, provides several low-cost ways of purifying water. They are both having successes, they said at a conference here presented by UPI.com, the Internet incarnation of a former news agency that competed with the Associated Press and Reuters. But they also acknowledge that what they are doing is not enough.

Katherine Bliss, a deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said at the UPI conference that about $18 billion a year is needed to meet the United Nations’ goal of deeply reducing the problem of water and disease or about three times more than is now being spent worldwide.

But the barrier to a solution is not just money. Often people with the best intentions are working at cross purposes. According to a recent report by several environmental groups, including units of the United Nations and the Nature Conservancy, efforts around the world to provide clean water and sanitation are “plagued by institutional fragmentation that may result in governmental agencies working against each other” in pursuit of their own strategic objectives.

There is no coordinating body or global clearing house for work related to water, Ms. Bliss said, no one seeing that the work of governments and non-governmental organizations complement each other, don’t duplicate, don’t cancel out some other effort. For HIV/AIDS there is the United Nations organization, UNAIDS. Tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS come under the aegis of the Global Fund to Fight Aids. Water has no similar counterpart.

“Within the United Nations,” Ms. Bliss said, “water and sanitation activities are managed across 26 different technical agencies.” And no one is in charge. The work of the agencies is officially coordinated by the United Nations Water Office. But it does not have enough clout to have much impact.

For now, this is a problem that looks like it can be fixed. But it is a problem that is not getting the attention, the money and the coordination it needs. #

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Jul 30 2009

A Promising Solution To Clean Water Problem Fails To Win Support

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

ZURICH — When Martin Wegelin worked in Tanzania his three-year-old daughter’s playmate fell ill one morning. By afternoon the playmate, a boy who lived next door, was dead.

The boy routinely had been drinking water loaded with bacteria. He was stricken with diarrhea, became dehydrated and was gone before his parents realized how sick he was.

In Africa and other developing countries, diarrhea is at the top of the list of child-killers. Around the world, the World Health Organization says, 5,000 children die as a result of diarrhea every day; 1.8 million a year. Most of the children die because of drinking water that often looks clean but contains all kinds of bugs.

The boy’s death put Mr. Wegelin, a Swiss engineer who specializes in water and sanitation, on a mission. He determined that he would find a simple, low-cost way to purify drinking water. He developed a method that, in most cases, costs absolutely nothing. But 30 years later, only a few million of the nearly 1 billion people around the world who lack clean drinking water – and are often sick - are using his process called SODIS or Solar Water Disinfection.

Mr. Wegelin says the problem has to do with perception. “It is too simple,” he said in an interview in his government laboratory in the Zurich suburb of Duebendorf. “People think it can’t work.”

The only ingredients in Mr. Wegelin’s process are water, a discarded plastic bottle – the kind used everywhere for soft drinks and commercially packaged water – and sunlight. After six hours in bright sunlight the water is healthy to drink.

“It’s magical,” said Sally G. Cowal, a vice president and water specialist at PSI or Population Services International, a non-profit aid organization in Washington.

But water experts say there are several reasons that the process has never taken off, all fairly frustrating. For one thing, no one has been able to figure out how to make money with it. No big companies have gotten involved, as they have in producing chlorine tablets, liquid and powder that cost about a penny a day to purify water for a family of six. Not big money, but money.

Then there is the matter of the plastic bottle. Environmental groups hate the bottles. They are made from petroleum, their manufacture adds to global warming and they never go away: garbage dumps are filled with them and they are all over the oceans and the waterways. No one has a good word for them and at a time when some cities are banning plastic bottles from municipal vending machines, no government wants to back a program that depends on them.

Ten years ago, Ms. Cowal started a project on household treatment of water in developing countries and decided to go with the chlorine process. The water did not taste as good as sunshine cleaned water. But by using a product that could be sold, Population Services International could do good and continue to do good. They sell the chlorine at a shade above cost, Ms. Cowal said, and put their sliver of profit “into promotion and advertising.” A perpetual motion machine. The sunshine machine gets a nod of approval from the United Nations, but no big allocation of money.

The sunshine method is not without its problems. For one thing, if it’s cloudy the process takes longer, and it is often hard for families to gauge how long. More importantly, making the process work requires a change of behavior for people who have routinely just been drinking water as it has come to them. “We come along,” Mr. Wegelin said, “and tell people, ‘You have another activity. You have to treat the water.’ That requires a change of habit. And changing habits takes time.”

Educating people about water treatment and disease requires aid organizations to invest time and energy and the lessons don’t always stick. It is less complicated to just pump in clean water. But the worldwide problem is so great, that billions of dollars are needed. And, so far, that money has not been forthcoming.

The big government aid agencies and big private aid organizations have strategic problems with the sunshine purification system, the chlorine process and low-cost filters, all designed to be used by individuals and families. They want high impact. They don’t want to do their work one family at a time. They prefer to install networks of standpipes and dig new wells that serve lots of people. Their way provides water to people who might have previously had to walk long distances to get water. It doesn’t always provide clean water. Or water that stays clean. But it works on a large scale. A lot of people get some improvement and aid managers get credit for the accomplishment. If the water quality is not perfect, people can boil it when they get home – or not. The water providers and the health service agencies are not always on the same page, which is one of the many reasons that deaths from water-borne diseases have declined very little in the last decade. #

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