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 OneWater.org

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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Jun 10 2010

Bracing For Flooding At Hurricane Time In Already Soggy Florida

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Around the clock, from a control room on the edge of the Everglades, technicians track water levels in the canals, lakes and marshes across the southern part of Florida. On their computer screens, they can see changes hundreds of miles away and with a few key strokes they open and shut flood gates.

The flood controls in South Florida are among the most sophisticated in the world and they get a workout most summers. Summer is the wet season here, a time of downpours so dense that you can see no more than 50 or 60 yards. Summer is also the time of hurricanes and tropical storms. And those wind machines can dump a lot of rain.

This summer forecasters are predicting a busier than usual storm season with as many as 14 hurricanes. Floods and storm surge, a kind of tidal wave that hurricanes sometimes push across beaches, kill more people in hurricane season than the wind. The wind gets the headlines, the water brings out the undertakers.

No one knows where the storms will come ashore. But this could be a very bad year for South Florida. The land is soggy from more rain than usual in the months leading up to hurricane season and it would not take much to cause flooding. The biggest flood threat in the region is Lake Okeechobee, the wide, shallow bowl of water about 45 miles west of here. The water in the lake, one of the largest in the United States, is already high and experts worry that the lake’s earthen, 35-foot-high dike might not hold.

Killer-floods are not routinely heavy on the minds of the technicians in the control room of the South Florida Water Management District here. A few feet of water may rise in backyards and parking lots and push into houses and shops and offices and the ground floors of condos. It can make life miserable and expensive for the 7.5 million people packed into South Florida, and for the farmers and ranchers working the land back from the coasts. The costs can quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But deaths are rare. Trouble at Lake Okeechobee, however, could be a nightmare.

Nothing awful has happened at the lake in more than 80 years, but memories are still vivid of the flooding in two hurricanes in the 1920s. Several thousand people died. In the worst Lake Okeechobee flood, in 1928, high water covered a stretch of 75 miles of the flat, Florida landscape. Some of that land is still Everglades swamp. But much of it is now thick with houses and shopping centers.

Since the early 1980s, concerns about another disaster at Lake Okeechobee have been growing. Water has been seeping under the 143-mile- long mud, gravel and rock dike that the United States Army Corps of Engineers began building in the 1930s. A report four years ago by the South Florida Water Management District said the dike posed “a grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.” Portions of the dike, the report said, “bear a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese.”

The Corps of Engineers began reinforcing the southeastern wall of the dike, which is considered the most hazardous section, three years ago. But about half of the work in that 22-mile stretch remains to be done.

The water in the lake was at about 14.5 feet in early June or about two feet higher than what the Corps of Engineers and the water district consider prudent. The higher the water gets, engineers say, the higher the probability that the dike will give way and release an avalanche of water. Perhaps 60,000 people live south of Lake Okeechobee where flooding is most likely.

“It would probably kill many, many people,” said Eric Buermann, the chairman of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. “You could have a lot of flooding in downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

Twice in the mid-1990s, water in the lake rose to more than 18 feet. The dike did not yield. But Nanciann Regalado, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers, said that at 17.5 feet “we get very, very concerned.” At 19 feet, she said, the authorities would be considering evacuation.

Trying to keep the lake from rising further, the Corps of Engineers and the water district have been flushing water from the lake into two main rivers and into huge holding ponds in the Everglades. But it rains almost every day around the lake and the rest of South Florida in June and early July and the pumps struggle to keep up. The engineers say that in the most intense rains, the kind that come with hurricanes and tropical storms, the lake can rise six times faster than the pumps can draw down the water.

“We’re concerned,” Mr. Buermann  said in an interview. “We’re taking measures to address this. But if you have the ultimate storm with wind pushing that water, the force of that water on the dike, anything could happen.”#

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May 28 2010

Telling It Like It Is On Killing Power Of Weakest Hurricanes

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 18 2010

Drinking Water Filthy But Big Money Goes To Build New Stadium

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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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Mar 11 2010

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

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Flying into Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, you see a wide, milky border stretching out to sea from the beaches. It is Haiti dying a little more, bleeding off more of its topsoil and turning the coastal waters into a disaster zone.

The mud that washes down from Haiti’s treeless hills and stains the coastline settles over coral reefs and sea grass beds like a smothering blanket and drives away fish that once helped feed the impoverished country.

The damage to the coast is yet another chapter in a story of environmental degradation that has grown worse over the years.

Some aid projects have focused on restoring the country’s forests, but no one has tried to fix the generations of harm that has been done to Haiti’s coral, its mangroves, its beaches and, most of all, its fish. Most of those things are undersea and invisible except for the lifeless, milky border that so many people simply dismiss as further evidence of the country’s loss of trees - forests destroyed to provide the only affordable fuel for cooking fires.

In a poor country where getting through each day is often a struggle, the environment has not been a high priority. But now in the aftermath of the earthquake in January that killed more than 220,000 Haitians, the United States and other countries are expected to pour billions of dollars into rebuilding the country, and some of the money will almost certainly be spent on environmental projects.

Jean Wiener is one of a few marine biologists who have taken an interest in Haiti and are hoping that restoration of the reefs and fisheries figures into the mix.

Attending to Haiti’s reefs and fishing waters and mangroves, Mr. Wiener and the others say, would be good for the economy. A comeback of fishing would mean new jobs. It would provide food. Down the road, you could see how nice reefs and beaches and cleaned up water might help draw tourists.

For nearly 20 years, Mr. Wiener, who was born in Haiti but now lives much of the time in Maryland, has been working almost entirely alone on studying and restoring the coastal waters.

As a boy he explored the coral reefs and swam through clouds of Yellowtail Snapper and Nassau Grouper. He went on to earn a degree in biology at Bridgeport University in Connecticut and take graduate courses in marine biology. In the early 1990s, he started a foundation named FoProBiM using the initials of the French words, “Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine” of Haiti.

Over the years he has received a few grants. Two years ago he did a study for the United States Agency for International Development. The study may provide a foundation for a comprehensive environmental project – mostly on land – that is being undertaken by Columbia University and the United Nations Environmental Program. Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, has applied for a grant to the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to do the first thorough survey of Haiti’s coastal environment.

The milky border that speaks so despairingly of Haiti has been an enduring obstacle for Mr. Wiener. For many people it is a sign of hopelessness. Obviously, the thinking goes, you can’t do much about the coral reefs and fish if they are going to be inundated with mud and silt every time it rains. Trees, lots of trees and shrubs, must be planted. Something has got to make the soil stand fast.

“Everyone concentrates on reforestation,” Mr. Wiener said, “and ignores the ocean.”

But, he said, it doesn’t have to be that way. While the mud and silt is right there in everyone’s face around Port-au-Prince and other towns and cities, Mr. Wiener said, there are long stretches of Haiti’s coast where the reefs have been damaged and snappers and groupers have been all but fished out, but where the water is fairly clear; silt is not a problem. Work could start right away in those places. #

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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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Feb 18 2010

Fixing the Everglades: Looking for Wisdom In An Artificial Swamp

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

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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