Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

May 28 2010

Telling It Like It Is On Killing Power Of Weakest Hurricanes

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar 11 2010

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

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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. #

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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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Feb 11 2010

Haiti’s Tomorrow May Be Rooted In Trees, Fertilizer

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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.” #

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Feb 04 2010

Haiti Earthquake: Greening of Hillsides Can Bolster Recovery

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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.” #

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Jan 29 2010

A Drinking Water Crisis In Haiti Long Before Earthquake Destruction

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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. #

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