Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Apr 29 2010

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

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nov 12 2009

A Tree Breathes Rain, An Axe Brings It Down; Floods Sweep The Land

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Deforestation

MIAMI—This is the story of a tree and what it means to the water supply and to the global environment. It is an ancient story but it is also a story as modern as the latest hardship in Haiti and El Salvador and parts of Africa and Asia.

The tree is called the huarango. It lives in southern Peru. Yet it can serve as a symbol for trees around the world and the influence they have on our lives.

More than 1,500 years ago, thick forests of huarango (pronounced wa-Ran-go) rose in the Ica River Valley of Peru, 120 miles south of Lima. The valley was one of the driest places on earth.  The huarango made the region livable. The trees caught sea mist and moisture in the humid air in their leaves. The mist and moisture condensed and trickled into underground reservoirs or aquifers.

Over time the trees drank up the underground water with their deep and broad network of roots. They breathed moisture into the air. The moisture turned to rain and the land provided food for thousands of people of the Nazca Culture.

But the Nazca did not fully appreciate the huarango, according to new evidence gathered by British researchers. As the Nazcas grew and prospered, they wanted more land for planting corn and other vegetables. They decimated the forests.

Then came the rains, a deluge of greater magnitude than has ever been seen. The Ica Valley was covered in silt and more than 12 feet of water. Rich soil washed away. The nearby valleys suffered, too, and the Nazca never recovered. Today a few descendents struggle to make a living in a swath of river valleys that has become almost entirely desert.

“Had the trees not been chopped down, this flood would not have been a disaster,” said Dr. David G. Beresford-Jones, the leader of a research team from Cambridge University in England in an interview from his home there. Instead, he said, much of the rain would have been caught by the trees. Their roots would have held the soil in place and the year of the flood “would have been a year of abundance.”

The devastation that can follow the destruction of forests played out in Haiti last year after several hurricanes inundated the poor country that shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic. More than 800 people died in flood waters and avalanches of mud that cascaded down denuded hillsides. Haiti was once heavily forested. Even now, with most of the forests gone, the people continue to hack down the surviving trees to make charcoal to cook their food.

El Salvador, a former battlefield in Central America, has also lost most of its forests. Compared with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it ranks second behind Haiti as a place of wasted forests, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In early November, a thunderstorm that was so small it was all but ignored by forecasters, hovered over El Salvador. For nearly two days the storm let loose with heavy rain. It was the rainy season and the land was already soaked. The little storm was more than the hills could take. Clumps of earth broke loose. Huge mud slides tore through villages. At least 1,500 houses were damaged or destroyed, the New York Times reported; 140 people died.

This is the modern-day story of the huarango tree. Around the world millions of acres of trees have been bulldozed and burned. Nigeria and Brazil are countries where the trees have gone the fastest, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. Often the goal of destroying a forest is to create more open land for farming and ranching. Smoky fires from burning the trees add to global warming. The loss of trees means that less carbon monoxide is absorbed from the air. Less rain falls. Without the trees farm land requires heavy irrigation. When the rains come there is nothing to hold back the floods. Civilizations are not being wiped out these days. But lives are being lost in floods and landslides that could be prevented. Some private organizations and a few governments are replanting trees. But they have a long way to go to make up for the abuse of centuries. #

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