Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

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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Feb 18 2010

Fixing the Everglades: Looking for Wisdom In An Artificial Swamp

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

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. #

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Feb 11 2010

Haiti’s Tomorrow May Be Rooted In Trees, Fertilizer

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

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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Jan 14 2010

The Texas Drought, The Florida Chill—Climate Change? No

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—That drought that just ended in Texas was not an example of climate change. Neither were the weird, freezing cold temperatures in Florida as the year began.

How confusing. You hear so much about climate change. Then you see what looks like evidence. And it turns out not to be evidence at all.

“Climate change is slower than that,” said Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor at Texas A&M University and the state climatologist in Texas.

Much slower. It is a decades-long process, a long, slow march that is hard for many people to grasp. Widespread confusion over short-term fluctuations and long-term trends worries the majority of scientists who are convinced that climate change is happening. They say it leads to apathy, inaction, a do-nothing approach, that could prove to be very harmful.

“People say, obviously, we don’t really understand this, so we need to wait until the uncertainty is gone,” said Don A. Wilhite, the director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in an interview. “But the uncertainty will never be gone. If you wait 25 or 30 years to do something, then it’s basically too late. If everything we are learning is correct, we need to be doing something now.”

The short-term fluctuations in the weather – like the drought in Texas and the cold spell in Florida - are caused by historic cycles and so-far inexplicable random episodes, scientists say.  They may contribute to long-term averages.  But the fluctuations often contradict the big picture. The confusion is aggravated when you hear from the handful of scientists who earnestly believe there is no such thing as global warming and climate change.

Recent polls justify concern. A year ago, 80 percent of those surveyed by the Washington Post and ABC television said they thought climate change was happening. But as 2009 ended, the percentage had shrunk to 72. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in Washington found even less public confidence. It recently got a positive response on climate change of 57 percent, down from 71 percent a year earlier.

Some scientists despair at ever getting people to understand climate change.  But Michael J. Hayes, the director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, another unit of the University of Nebraska, said, “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s forget about it.’”

Dr. Hayes and scientists who recently assembled at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, advocate putting more effort into finding clear and simple ways to demonstrate that short term changes in the weather and long-term climate conditions are two different things. Or as Dr. Hayes’ colleague, Dr. Wilhite put it, today’s cold snap does not mean that “climate change is a hoax.”

At the Rosenstiel conference, Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami professor, suggested that public support might be increased if people did not have to envision dire consequences many decades into the future – in some cases long after their likely death.  “We really want to get into the question of what’s going to happen in the next 10 or 30 years,” Dr.  Kirtman told the conference, according to the Miami Herald.

Lisa Goddard, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, who also spoke at the conference, said in an interview that studies that distinguished more clearly between “natural variability” in the short run and “man-made climate change” could not only reduce public confusion but also could be useful tools for government officials, farmers and others.

Texas has been through lots of droughts. The latest one, which began to manifest itself in early 2008, was the worst since the 1950s. But five droughts hit the state between 1996 and 2006 alone. The latest one cost farmers and ranchers more than $4 billion, according to state officials.

One of the driving forces in the Texas drought was the way things developed in the Pacific Ocean. Water temperatures in the Pacific were cooler than usual in late 2007 and through late 2008 in what is known as the La Niña effect.  La Niña reduces rainfall over Texas.  Last fall, the cycle shifted to El Niño. That brought rain to Texas and the drought was broken.

During the Texas drought, temperatures rose into the high 80s Fahrenheit or four to six degrees above average. “That made the climate projections” for the future “more real,” Dr. Nielsen-Gammon said. “People were able to feel what a hot summer would be like.”

That is one benefit of a shock like the Texas drought. Even though it is not evidence of climate change it gets people thinking about what lies ahead.

The New York Times captured the Texas drought and its dénouement in two photographsOne showed a sweep of dry, cracked Texas ranch land.  The other focused on the same terrain. But now there was bright green grass in the foreground, a good-size lake in the middle and more greenery beyond the lake. A family of cowboys and ranch women and young ones was lined up on the grass with their horses. The second picture so captured the sense of renewal and joy that, according to The Times, the family sent it out as their Christmas card. #

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Oct 01 2009

Fighting Over Pollution That Never Happened, Argentina vs. Uruguay

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sep 03 2009

Boston Harbor: From Stinking Mess To Sailor’s Delight

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

BOSTON – Back in 1988, George Bush the elder took a theatrical boat ride around Boston Harbor and proclaimed it “the filthiest harbor in America.” It was mainly a stunt to undermine his opponent for the Presidency, Michael S. Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts and therefore, one might argue, the guardian of the harbor.

To some, Mr. Bush’s attack on Mr. Dukakis was unfair. But no one disputed that Boston Harbor was the prince of pollution. The evidence was in plain sight: floating islands of trash, rainbow streaks of oil and, of course, that earthy, nose-crinkling aroma.

Now 21 years later, after several lawsuits, a reorganization of the management of the harbor’s waters and spending of more than $4 billion, Boston Harbor is a different place.

It’s still not perfect, said Dr. James P. Shine a marine scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. But “it’s a lot better.”

The clean up has given Boston some of the highest fees for sewage and drinking water in the country. Political leaders know that nagging, persistently rising fees can be lethal at voting time. And their concerns are driving a new debate on how much monitoring of the improved harbor and the more distance Massachusetts Bay is necessary.

Nearly a decade of monitoring the flow of treated sewage nine miles off shore “has shown no adverse effects at all,” according to Ria Convery, the spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the independent public agency that runs Boston’s water and sewer system and oversees the health of the harbor. She says monitoring costs can be cut in half to $1.5 million annually. She concedes that the savings would have a small impact on water and sewage bills, but says, “every little bit helps.”

Environmentalists are wary. “Everyone is willing to consider some reduction,” said Bruce Berman, the spokesman for the non-profit organization Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. “But we don’t want it gutted.”

Those most concerned about cutting back on monitoring say that rising ocean temperatures, higher sea levels and shifting currents, thought to be related to climate change, could possibly result in harmful interactions between marine life and the treated sewage. Preserving the present monitoring system, they say, would ensure an “early warning” of a shift for the worst and help prevent serious damage.

But the monitoring questions are a mere ripple in the grand scheme of things. Boston Harbor today is a thing of beauty. On a bright sunny Saturday this summer little fleets of sail boats tilted in the wind, cutting through slightly choppy water that glinted in the bright sunlight. Waterside cafes were packed. Nearby some of the most outrageously expensive motor yachts hugged well-maintained piers. Triple-decker tour boats showed off the landmarks. One of them, the Fort Independence, took me past the Deer Island Sewage Treatment plant that was critical to the revival of the harbor, past the Coast Guard station, the spire of the Old North Church of Paul Revere fame and past blocks of multi-million-dollar condos rising on wharfs where down-at-the-heels cargo sheds once rotted.

Marine and environmental experts give the harbor high marks, too. They rank it in about the middle of the half dozen or so major harbors in the United States. It is not as clean as much of Chesapeake Bay and the Port of Baltimore, they say, but it is much better off than parts of Puget Sound and the Port of Seattle.

Good things started to happen for Boston Harbor shortly after Bill Golden, the lawyer for the nearby town of Quincy, became outraged one morning when he went out to jog on a harbor beach and found it coated with a blanket of gray sludge. He filed the first of the lawsuits that forced the clean up. Another milestone was the creation of a single agency to take responsibility for the harbor: the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

The biggest remaining problem is that after even a modest rain, Boston’s sewers overflow and gush into the bay. Bayside beaches have to be closed. In addition, the harbor bottom is thick with toxic chemicals. Scientists say that time and the tides will restore the harbor bottom.

But the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is building an underground storage facility designed to halt the sewage overflows. Ms. Convery says it should go into service in May of 2011, a little less than two years from now.

Without the overflows Boston Harbor will take another leap forward, said Mr. Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay. It still won’t be perfect, he said, but it will be unrecognizable from the days when it was a political punching bag. “We will have the cleanest urban beaches in America,” Mr. Berman said. “There will be more work to do. But, boy, the improvement has been wonderful, and incredible.” #

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