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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Jun 03 2010

In The War On Malaria Some Hopeful Signs, But A Long Way to Go

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KISUMU, Kenya—The rainy season in East Africa is also the malaria season.

Rain water collects in puddles and old tires and gutters. It also accumulates in discarded tin cans and in the folds of plastic shopping bags in garbage heaps. Malarial mosquitoes lay their eggs in the stagnant water and pretty soon you have killer mosquitoes hatching.

Around the world more than 800,000 people die every year from malaria, mostly young children. More than 90 percent of the deaths are in Africa, and Kenya is among a handful of African countries where the disease is at its worst.

The red clay flatlands and hills here in western Kenya, around Lake Victoria and the hard-scrabble city of Kisumu, lie in the worst part of a bad malaria zone - ground zero in Kenya. “There’s a very high chance of getting malaria here,” said Tom Guda, a Kenyan researcher at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in the nearby lake shore town of Mbita.

Western Kenya is an ideal place to study malaria and American and Kenyan researchers have been working together here for years at a joint laboratory of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kenya Medical Research Institute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the main research institutes in the United States for malaria and other infectious diseases, began nearly 70 years ago as an important player in the ultimate elimination of malaria in the United States.

In the last few years malaria has caught the imagination of Hollywood entertainers, government leaders around the world, gazillionaires and ordinary people. Lots of money has been raised. The World Health Organization estimates that $1.7 billion was available for malaria in 2009, double the amount just three years earlier. The American Idol television show, alone, raised $9 million for the organization Malaria No More during a single charity broadcast, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put more than $168 million into overcoming the disease.

This may be a time of great progress against malaria. But it is hard to be sure. The latest data compiled by the World Health Organization shows little change in recent years: 863,000 deaths and 243 million cases of malaria reported in 2008 compared with 881,000 deaths and 247 million infections two years earlier. But experts say that record-keeping on malaria is poor and that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Much of the malaria money is going into buying and handing out mosquito nets saturated with insect repellant–at $10 each–

and to spraying insecticide on the inside walls of houses. And it may be paying off.

“We know that sleeping under insect nets is effective and we know that the number of people sleeping under nets is increasing rapidly,” said Dr. Matthew Lynch, the director of the Global Program on Malaria at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore in an interview.

Richard Tren, the director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a small organization with offices in Durban, South Africa and in Washington, told me that “progress in some places is phenomenal.” But, he added, “there are a lot of other places where things are not working.”

The World Health Organization says it believes there have been big gains against malaria in some small countries, including Rwanda and Zambia and on the island of Zanzibar off East Africa. But it is urging that anti-malaria efforts be concentrated more on bigger countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, where malaria is rampant and where the situation has either gotten worse or not changed much.

At the Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology on Lake Victoria, Mr. Guda said that malaria infections and deaths are increasing in western Kenya.

“People are getting bed nets but it is still rising,” Mr. Guda told me one sweltering afternoon at his center. One reason, he said, is that “people are not using the nets properly.”

In the one-room huts that are home to many people here, Mr. Guda said, there is one bed. “The big people sleep in the bed,” with the net, he said. “The children sleep on the floor.”

Dr. Laurence Slutsker is the chief of the malaria branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Slutsker, who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratories in western Kenya for five years and still watches the area closely, said that after dropping sharply over the last 15 years, infections in children around here have begun to rise. Two years ago, 30 percent of those under five had malaria parasites in their blood. The latest samplings, he said, showed 40 percent were infected. Not a good sign.

The big picture on malaria around the world? “I think it’s getting better in some places,” Dr. Slutsker said in an interview. “I think it’s basically the same in other places. We talk about our success, which is good. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.” #

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May 13 2010

On the Road In East Africa: Bang, Bump, Ouch

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

KISUMU, Kenya—The roads in a country can tell you a lot about a place.

Some of the roads here in Kenya and in the rest of East Africa are smooth, black ribbons of asphalt. But many are pure torture. They are unpaved or once-paved washboards with crisscrossing ridges and odd-shaped craters. You start running into them just beyond the center of cities and towns.

Even in Nairobi, the capital, lots of streets are dusty, bumpy cultural experiences – until it rains. Then they become slippery bogs and mini-lakes, channels that look like rivers and swallow cars. Open sewers run along side them, right there in the capital of what was once regarded as one of the most pleasant places in Africa – for everyone.

As in just about every country in the world, the leaders of Kenya have dreams, and they can imagine a bright future. But the country has been in decline for some time.

The roads are flat out dangerous. Kenya has one of the world’s highest road accident rates. The bad roads also stifle the economy. They make it hard for farmers and fishermen and furniture-makers and even people who make beaded jewelry for Kenya’s often substantial tourist business to get their goods to market. And they are health hazards. They make trips to clinics and hospital take longer than they should and some sick people don’t survive the journey.

According to the World Bank, Kenya has 38,400 miles of roads; 12 percent of them paved. In a place where more than 40 percent of the nearly 40 million people do not have easy access to clean drinking water, where malaria is worse than almost anywhere else, where more than 70 percent don’t have toilets, 30 percent are not getting enough to eat and perhaps 40 percent are unemployed, lousy roads do not tell the whole story. Of course the roads say nothing about Kenya’s heavy losses from HIV/AIDS.

But the roads are a pretty good metaphor. You see the roads. You feel the roads. You know this is no way to run a country. The roads look to me like very good supporting evidence for the Transparency International report that Kenya is among the most corrupt countries in the world.

With the roads in your face, it’s no big surprise to hear that another fairly simple thing like clean drinking water is not that common. People all over the developing world struggle to get safe drinking water and, in that sense, Kenya is a good example. It is also a good example of the worldwide sanitation problem, which is a cousin of the water problem.

People don’t have as much water as they need so they don’t wash their hands as often as they should. So many people live without toilets in Kenya that it is almost surprising when you find one. A farmer showed me how he digs a hole in his yard just beyond odor-range from his mud-walled, one-room house. The hole becomes the family toilet. No walls. No curtains. No seat. Not even any shrubs. At some point, he said, he covers the hole with a few shovels full of dirt and digs a new one.

In much of East Africa, especially in the slums, they use what they call flying toilets. “You do your business in a piece of paper or a plastic bag,” one health worker told me. “Then you wrap it up and throw it over your shoulder.”

The waste missile can go anywhere. Sometimes it ends up on the rusty tin roof of your neighbor’s house. Maybe it flies on to your own roof. Often it just lands on the grassless, rusty-red clay around the houses.

When it rains everything fuses together, mud, waste, garbage. And the health consequences are sure-fire. In some places, after a rain, you can barely walk the roads, they are so slippery. Diarrhea is so common that most people don’t think much about it until they start to weaken from dehydration. Often, by the time people realize they are really sick, it is too late. Small children, often malnourished, have the least resistance and are the first to die.

One morning here in Kisumu, I went to talk to fishermen at a village just outside town. I was in a bus with stiff springs and stiff seats. We turned off the paved main road and from there on to the shore of Lake Victoria we were creeping over what could have been a test track for manufacturers of off-road vehicles, or maybe army tanks. Bang. Crash. Whomp. It was a short stretch, but it took us forever.

Later, we went out to some farms north of Kisumu. It took us two hours to go 35 miles. The roads tell you a lot about a place. #

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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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Apr 08 2010

In East Africa, Selling Drinking Water Straight From the Pond

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

LUANDA KOTIENO, Kenya—The gray donkey stood passively, shifting a little now and then as a man in a deeply faded shirt strapped yellow plastic barrels of water on its back.

The man was a water merchant. He was working a few miles from this little ramshackle town in western Kenya at the edge of a pond streaked with bright green scum. He had just filled the barrels with water from the pond and was about to head off in search of customers.

It is easy to find customers around here on the shore of Lake Victoria and elsewhere in much of Kenya, a struggling country in East Africa where unemployment and crime are high and disease and malnourishment come with the territory. The country has a tired and worn look.

Many people here and in other parts of the developing world do not have drinking water within easy reach. The United Nations estimates that about a billion people are living like that. Some experts say the number is much higher. To get their water, many people spend hours walking to streams and lakes and ponds. When they have the money, they buy water. What they get is often loaded with bacteria and parasites. Sickness is routine. Death is not rare. Children suffer most.

The water merchants are small businessmen and health is not their business. They sell convenience. They haul water here from the ponds and from murky Lake Victoria for people who want to spend their time cultivating small garden-size farms or at school or doing things around the house or just hanging out. Some people pour disinfectant into the water they get from the water merchants. Others just drink it as delivered.

The water merchants, usually referred to here as water vendors, charge about six cents for about five gallons or 20 liters of water. But even that is too much for many people. Bottled water at up to $1 for a single liter – more than 15 times what the water merchants charge for 20 times more water – is far beyond the reach of most.

Bouncing along on the main road from Kisumu, the largest Kenyan city on Lake Victoria, in a beat up bus with its shock absorbers gone stiff, I saw people solving their own water problems: walking and lugging, each one a snap-shot of water in the developing world.

A barefoot boy, probably no more than 10 years old and wearing just shorts, steadied a used plastic liter-size bottle of muddy gray water on his head with one hand; a shoeless man herding goats, carried his water in a large pail; a woman stepped along with a huge plastic jerry can on her head. She had a rhythm to her pace and, under all that weight, she was really moving.

The road was wide open, not many cars or trucks or motorcycles or even bicycles. Lots of people were walking. The poverty was vivid. On bare, rough patches of dirt, men and women trying to scrap up a few Kenyan shillings offered piles of old shoes and worn out clothes for sale. One farmer with a tiny piece of land told me his wife had one pair of shoes that she bought used and wore only to go some place special, like church.

Ahuga Graham is a banker in Mbita, a town on Lake Victoria about 45 minutes across the Gulf of Winam from Luanda Kotieno. He specializes in micro-finance, providing tiny loans of as little as $6.50 to very poor people. The water merchants, Mr. Graham said, don’t need his services. They get their product almost free, for just their labor: “They don’t require much capital.”

A water merchant can make more than $2.50 a day, Mr. Graham said, in a part of the world where many people manage to get along on half that. “They are poor people,” he said, “but this can give them a living.”

At the ferry landing in Luanda Kotieno, a town of about 6,500 people, Walter Omondi, 20, just out of high school and working as a helper on a little, skinny water jitney with a small outboard motor, said he had tried drinking water straight from the lake. “It is dangerous to my stomach,” he said. “I feel it in my stomach”

But he said some people who regularly drink untreated lake water – often provided by water merchants – say that “it builds character.” #

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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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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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