Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Dec 22 2010

A Problem Worse Than Cholera

Published by Knight Center under

MIAMI—Cholera is working its way through Haiti. It is killing people and terrifying everyone.  Medical help and money has been pouring in – not enough money, the United Nations says, but a lot of money, a lot more money than has been flowing for a much worse health problem.

In the first six weeks of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, more than 2,000 people died. During the same time, many more people in poor countries around the world died from the other health problem, an estimated 210,000.  But hardly anyone noticed.

“This is a silent killer,” said David Winder, an international aid executive in Washington who has been dealing with public health for decades.

Cholera and the bigger problem are cousins. Both are forms of diarrhea. But the more common, forms of diarrhea are far more widespread and far more deadly. Cholera kills about 120,000 people a year; the more common forms of diarrhea kill 15 times more people, about 1.8 million a year, 5,000 a day.  Hard to believe when you live in the United States or Europe; but in poor countries diarrhea is a persistent killer.

Cholera gets the headlines for good reason. It can kill in hours rather than days as with other kinds of diarrhea. “It’s very dramatic,” said Dr. Gordon M. Dickinson, a University of Miami specialist on infectious diseases at the Veterans Hospital in Miami.  People become dehydrated, go into shock and die. The other forms of diarrhea kill the same way.  But there is more time to react.

Children are the main victims. More of them die of severe diarrhea than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles all together.   Yet the problem has not captured the imagination.

“People think of diarrhea as a temporary illness associated with something like bad food,” said Brenda McIlwraith, a spokeswoman for WaterAid, a non-profit organization in London, working to reduce diarrhea around the world.

Very little progress is being made.  In Haiti, “diarrhea is here all the time,” said Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Port-au-Prince. In the first wave of cholera deaths, he said by telephone, people thought “it was just another diarrhea” and they did not seek treatment.

Cholera and the other forms of diarrhea are preventable. “We know how to deal with these diseases,” said Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat, the head of the World Health Organization’s Global Task Force on Cholera Control in Geneva. The bacteria, parasites and viruses that cause the diseases travel in drinking water. They get into the water and, sometimes, food, along with human waste, as sewage and on dirty hands. All that needs to be done to fix the problem is to provide clean drinking water, basic toilets and some tips on hygiene.

But the scale of the problem is staggering. About 1 billion people do not have clean drinking water, the United Nations estimates, and 2.6 billion, nearly 40 percent of the world’s 7 billion people, don’t have toilets.

It could take $50 billion dollars to put a big dent in the problem. No one is sure. But right now, Mr. Winder, the head of WaterAid in America, says spending “is far below what’s needed.”

The United Nations anticipates spending $164 million to tamp down a cholera epidemic that may sicken as many as 400,000 Haitians. Only about 20 percent of the money had been raised as the epidemic settled in. But it is a real spending target. And that is a lot of money in proportion to total spending in Haiti on public health.

Spending that kind of money in advance in Haiti on clean water and toilets would have saved lives. It would have made it harder for cholera to get going. It would have been the right thing to do economically, too. Half the hospital beds in the poor countries are filled with patients with severe diarrhea. That is a daily recurring cost. Improving sanitation would reduce those costs. It would also reduce days lost at work and from school.

Doctors and engineers may know how to solve the diarrhea problem, but every day there is evidence that it is not easy. Hundreds of aid agencies are working on it, but the work is piecemeal and sometimes counter-productive. In some places, Dr. Chaignat said, the people responsible for health and water “rarely talk to each other. The health sector doesn’t understand the water sector and vice versa.”

So the plague of diarrheal diseases grinds on. The people suffering most have no political clout. They are poor and they die quietly. Sometimes they make it to hospitals. But often they die in huts and shacks and out-of-the way places. One at a time. You don’t hear about it. #

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Apr 22 2010

In An African Slum, Clean Drinking Water Gets Low Priority

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

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 08 2010

In East Africa, Selling Drinking Water Straight From the Pond

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

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 18 2010

Drinking Water Filthy But Big Money Goes To Build New Stadium

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nov 26 2009

Clean Water Is Good Business; But It’s No Easy Sell

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

MIAMI—For nearly 10 years, Greg Allgood has been working on the problem of clean drinking water for one of the biggest corporations in America – Procter & Gamble, the maker of Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste and Pampers, the disposable diapers.

Procter & Gamble also makes a powder containing chlorine and iron sulfate that people in poor countries use to purify drinking water in their homes. Mr. Allgood’s job at the company is to get the product, known as PUR, to people who routinely do not have safe drinking water. There are at least a billion people in this category.

Procter & Gamble sells PUR at cost to aid organizations. It is not a money-maker. But helping to ease one of the world’s persistent health problems has proved to be good business. The work has drawn praise from former President Bill Clinton and clean water advocates. Mr. Allgood said it has boosted morale among Procter & Gamble employees and drawn attention to the company’s other products, including water filters sold in the United States.

The problem of unsafe water around the world is enormous. Many experts say estimates of 1 billion people without consistent access to clean water are probably way low. The number, they say, could easily run to more than 2 billion.

The water these legions of people drink – mostly poor people in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America - is loaded with bacteria and viruses. They are often sick with diarrhea. They get dehydrated. Their energy is sapped. Those with jobs sometimes don’t make it to work. The children miss school and, too often, they die before anyone realizes how much the sickness has drained them.

The product, PUR, sells for a few cents. It is one of a handful of processes and devices that have been developed in the last 15 years that enable people to disinfect drinking water in their homes. But the whole idea has been slow in getting off the ground. Only a few million of the huge number of people whose water is unsafe are using these methods.

For one thing, many people don’t associate their illness with the water they drink. “They might think diarrhea is something that is supposed to happen when a child is teething,” Mr. Allgood said. So it is hard to get them to try something new that they don’t necessarily think they need – even if it is free, which is often the case.

For another, governments and agencies like the World Bank tend to think in terms of large-scale projects like multi-million dollar water treatment plants and networks of pipes that can bring clean water into people’s homes. But these projects are often too daunting to actually get funded. So the large number of people without safe drinking water stays large.

Mr. Allgood’s product works like magic. You empty a packet into 2.5 gallons or 10 liters of really dirty water full of germs and twigs and actual dirt, stir for five minutes and let it sit a while. The solid bits and pieces drop to the bottom and the water becomes remarkably clear. Then you strain the water through a piece of cloth and in 20 minutes it’s ready to drink.

Procter & Gamble was unable to figure out how to sell PUR directly to the people who need it most. But the company liked the idea. Now it sells PUR at cost to non-governmental organizations. The organizations either give it away or sell it to people who run grocery stores and small shops. With the middle-men involved, you have someone who has a cash incentive to get PUR into people’s homes.

Dr. Eric Mintz, a team leader working on diarrheal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, is an advocate of household treatment of drinking water. Instead of waiting for treatment plants to be built, he said in an interview, “we can do something now – something simpler and less expensive.”

Nearly 2 million children die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. A staggering number. It works out to 5,000 a day. The total is more than the annual number of children killed by HIV/AIDS and malaria combined.

“This is something that will help keep people alive,” Dr. Mintz said, “especially children, the vulnerable ones.”

The unsafe water problem gets worse in emergency situations like outbreaks of cholera. In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, much of the drinking water was contaminated.

It is in emergency situations that Mr. Allgood has been most successful. But after the emergency, people go back to drinking their usual water and routinely living with bouts of diarrhea.

Some big international agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, and the World Health Organization have begun supporting household water treatment, Mr. Allgood said. Population Services International, a Washington non-profit with wide experience in the developing world, also has been promoting household treatment.

Mr. Allgood has won several awards, including the strategic vision award in 2007 from CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Procter & Gamble has gotten a lot of good press. President Clinton has been praising the company at his annual Global Initiative meetings. Popular Mechanics magazine sited PUR in 2008 as one of the top 10 World-Changing innovations of the year.

Mr. Allgood estimates that PUR is reaching four million people a year. He says the number could be 12 million four years from now. “With any new public health approach there are a series of barriers,” Mr. Allgood told me.

He talks about oral rehydration, a powder that helps people, especially children, recover from severe diarrhea. Before the advent of oral rehydration, five million children a year were dying from unsafe water. The deaths have been reduced by three million annually.

Oral rehydration, Mr. Allgood said, also had a slow start. “It took a decade for oral rehydration to start making an impact,” he said. “It hit its stride in the 1970s and 1980s. They started developing it in the 1960s.” #

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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 24 2009

A Fixable Problem Remains Unresolved And Kids Keep Dying

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jul 30 2009

A Promising Solution To Clean Water Problem Fails To Win Support

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 28 2009

Natural Disasters Not Entirely Natural

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI – Andrew Maskrey, an expert on disasters, was talking about floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides and other occurrences in nature that can ruin your year – or worse.  They might be called natural disasters, he said, but modern mankind has had a lot to do with making them worse – usually in the name of progress.

Take paved streets and sidewalks, for example. The more of those you have, the less ground there is to absorb rainfall.  Next thing you know, you’ve got urban flooding.

Many cities – and Miami is Exhibit A – cannot resist pressures to expand their frontiers – build more houses, more roads, more sidewalks, pack in more people. The extra people pay taxes; they’re good for business. In Miami, as in many other cities around the world, expansion often means pushing into swampy areas, edging deeper into places like the Everglades.  The rains come, the water rises and you have a flood.

Then there is negligence. No one seems to like to spend money on plumbing, least of all municipal leaders. So, many cities lack adequate drainage. The storm sewers may have been fine years ago.  But as cities have grown, the need for bigger pipes and culverts has grown. Old ones need to be replaced.

Take all of this together and you’ve got a serious problem; a man-made problem that did not have to happen. “You look at flooding in urban areas,” Mr.  Maskrey said, “and you see that probably 80 percent of the flooding is due to the way cities have developed: encroachment on flood plains, increased run-off because of paving over areas and chronic under-investment in drainage.”

Mr. Maskrey, a senior executive at a United Nations organization in Geneva that concentrates on disasters,  sketched out his picture of urban flooding and the impact of hurricanes, earthquakes and mudslides at a conference here recently of journalists, editors and academics from throughout North and South America. The event was organized - for the 27th year - by the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. The region ranks high on the scale of losses in disasters.

With the June 1 start of the hurricane season in the United States approaching as they met, the experts talked of risk reduction, taking steps to reduce the likelihood of a disaster. And they lamented that not nearly enough risk reduction was being carried out.

Mr. Maskrey, who has years of experience with disasters, said that over much of the world, disasters of almost unimaginable size are in the making. Other experts at the conference backed him up.  Climate Change is part of it, they said.   But whatever nature is doing, people are magnifying.

In addition to raising the curtain on the hurricane season, Mr. Maskrey’s talk in Miami served as a preview of the United Nations 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. It was released in Bahrain in May.  Mr. Maskrey, the coordinator of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, oversaw the work on the report that the United Nations plans to publish every two years.

The way of looking at hurricanes and other natural disasters has shifted sharply in recent years. “If you went to a disaster conference in the 1970s and 1980s,” Mr. Maskrey said, “the audience was split pretty much evenly between meteorologists and people working on response.” The predictors and the rescue teams.

Now, he said, the focus is on action rather than reaction, taking steps to prevent deaths and destruction instead of hunkering down and moping up later.  Preparedness is the term of art the experts prefer. The main players have become construction engineers, architects, economists, social services crews, medical teams and, of course, government officials and police and fire departments. All this is woven together, with advice from experts like Mr. Maskrey, as Emergency Management.

“The whole concept of risk has become gradually more complex, more sophisticated,” Mr. Maskrey said. “We now look at it from many more different angles.”

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Nov 13 2008

Corruption A Key Factor In Worldwide Water Problems

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

UNITED NATIONS, New York - Corruption was the theme. Water was the focus. It was a different take on the worldwide water problem.

Often discussions on water problems hover within the sphere of the environment. But a panel of experts on water and corruption convened at the United Nations recently with the objective of illuminating an ambitious study showing that corruption was a factor almost everywhere that water problems existed.

You might have suspected episodes of corruption related to water in parts of the world where slums and children dying by the tens of thousands are a part of the historic wallpaper.  Or that some of the money for huge power projects and sewage projects in Europe and Asia and the United States might be skimmed off as bribes.

But for the first time a group in Europe decided to provide a comprehensive study of corruption related to water all over the world, all in one document. The group was Transparency International, which has headquarters in Berlin and works against all kinds of corruption around the world. The result of their work was a  book-length report, The Global Corruption Report 2008: Corruption in the Water Sector.

Transparency International also publishes an annual report that it calls its Corruption Perceptions Index, which provides a broader context for its work on water.

The panelists at the United Nations had spent much of their lives studying water issues. They were Jean-Michel Devernay, an expert in hydropower and an executive of France’s largest power company, Electricite de France; Dr. Hakan Tropp, from Sweden, a senior executive of the Water Integrity Network, an organization that concentrates on corruption in water and is closely allied with Transparency International. Dr. Donal O’Leary, a senior advisor to Transparency International, was an expert in corruption.

I served as the moderator of the panel at the United Nations and of a similar one in Washington at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

In both New York and Washington, Dr. Tropp of the Water Integrity Network talked about how corruption in water becomes a critical issue in the poorest places. It means some people devote a big part of their day to carrying water from a stream or a lake because money that might have provided easier access to water was pocketed higher up the social ladder.  It means drainage work does not get done and malarial mosquitoes breed in stagnant pools. It means water does not get purified and children and older people become dehydrated.

Corruption related to water deserves special attention, Dr. Tropp said.  The reason is simple and stark. When it comes to water, Dr. Tropp said, “Corruption kills.”

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