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July 22, 2010

It finally happened…see what took to soo long and what I’m up to now at http://access-to-action.com .

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Positive News About Water

April 27, 2010
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I came across a little tidbit about water in the Economist that sounded a much more positive note that my post from a couple of weeks ago.  Not wanting to see myself as a Debbie Downer all the time I thought I should share this upbeat little article.  It states:

according to the World Health Organisation, some 5.9 billion people, or 87% of the world’s population, enjoyed access to drinking water from an “improved” source in 2008. In other words, those people had water piped to a dwelling, or got it from a public tap or a protected well. Back in 1990 only 77% of the world’s population enjoyed such a luxury.

This is especially impressive considering the world population has grown about by about 1.4 billion over that same time period. 

In related news, more kids are now peeing in pools around the world…

More Posts Soon!

April 24, 2010

I’m new to this game so there is a slight hobbling effect from trying to learn the technological side of blogging while trying to research and write new material.  Luckily, there are sites like WordPress.com with great services that allow you to start a blog with little technical understanding.  Thats great until you learn of the bigger world outside of the nest.  So, I have decided to grow up and move out on my own, sorry WordPress.  Though, now that I already have a blog going here it’s a bit like taking the training wheels off as I’m already flying down the street on my new shiny two wheeler.  It may be a bumpy ride and there might not be as many posts right now, but stick it out and hopefully I can branch out and get some more people to weigh in and make the blog more conversational rather than me just blah, blah, blahing.  Enjoy the sunny day!

Study Finds More Mothers Now Able to Tell Their Children ‘I Brought You Into This World and I Can Take You Out!’

April 16, 2010

Good news reported by the BBC on maternal health care (MDG #5).  It has been reported in the Lancet medical journal by University of Washington researchers that the number of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth has decreased from over 500,000 in 1980 to less than 350,000 in 2008 across the globe.  This is great news for those who work in health and development, but especially for the women who will now be around to raise their children.  The article gives no specific reasons why this change has occured other than a general campaign in the public health field focusing on the issue of maternal health.  The article relayed that over half of the deaths in 2008 were in six countries: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the DRC.  The next step needs to be comparative analysis of these six countries and then a look at each in contrast with other countries that may have similar political and economic climates, but which have fared better.  I find a commonality explaining the poor performance of those six countries elusive.  They are all developing countries, although some more successful than others.  India I imagine is one of the greatest contributors to maternal mortality due to its relative size in population compared to the other five.  The DRC’s instability and violence would lend to an extremely high percentage of maternal deaths  contributing to such a big total, as would Afghanistan.  I wouldn’t expect Nigeria on that list.  Intersting article.  Good news, but I still have a lot of questions.  Lets find out what is working and what is transferable to create positive progress with those who lagging in meeting the 5th Millennium Development Goal.

This is Making Me Thirsty

April 14, 2010
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In a time when the media landscape is dominated by controversial sound bites, big mouths and talking points repeated ad nauseam, it’s hard to get a substantive policy conversation started.  One replete with honest dialogue about various policies’ effects on people’s lives is like looking for that proverbial needle in the haystack.  I am sure Thomas Friedman would agree as he lament’s conservative lawmakers and pundits latching on to the term “global warming” and then dismissing it because of abnormally heavy snowfalls in Washington this winter.  Not that those on the other side have done the general public any favors by trying to garner support through trumped up data and dooms-day scenarios.  The depth of debate is as about as deep as two siblings in a who-hit-who-first squabble.  The issue with the problems we face today is their nature is complex and nuanced while the vehicle by which we understand them and utilize in decision making is base and entrenched.  The world’s economies are more integrated than ever, information networks are global, and we better understand the relationships between ecosystems.  Issues within these systems can not be adequately discussed for the public in four minute interviews on ideologically driven news programs.  

Having said that, I want to commend National Geographic’s attempts at taking a snapshot of the intricate cultural, political and economic relationships of water in our world today.  Literal snapshots also; there are beautiful pictures of water interacting with people and landscapes that are worth the cover price.  I admire that they dedicated an entire issue to the topic and feel they have done journalism justice in introducing our relationships and future challenges with this natural resource.  What it may have lacked in depth it made up for in breadth.  This could be by design as they have recently named a National Geographic Freshwater Fellow, Sandra Postel, to work on their behalf researching and educating about water use and management.

While studying peace and conflict resolution at Arcadia I remember articles prognosticating possible “water wars” in the future while other researchers found examples where mutual need for water created partnerships rather than conflict.  These arguments are alluded to in the NatGeo article on the Jordan River.  With my knowledge of international development I was not disappointed in my expectation of an article on African women detailing statistics about how much of their waking life is concerned with finding and retrieving water (up to 8 hours a day).  As much as our lives are dictated by the ease or difficulty of getting water, I was also reminded of how global climate change is now being understood as a determinant of its changing locations and abundance.

All together, the tone of the issue was one of concern.  A resource that is integral to life but scarce for some as demand is only increasing.  Southern California has quenched its growing thirst over the last 100 years by usurping the resource from Northern California, depleting lakes and altering ecosystems over the entire state.  The irrigated farms that consume this water produce over 50% of our fruits and vegetables and all Americans would feel the effect of heavy losses to California’s agricultural sector.  As the United States and other countries who can afford large public works projects are diverting rivers, building dams and drilling deep into aquifers, they also are altering ecosystems, which destroys wildlife habitat.  According to the article “Silent Streams” half of the 573 animals on the endangered species list in the United States are freshwater species.

Now this is a tough situation where vested business interests in Southern California will lobby for more water while environmentalists and those in Northern California will protest.  Understandable, but we can not see this as a zero sum game: to build, or not to build more aqueducts.  Maybe we need to build now but we can create a future where demand can actually come in line with supply.  I have two suggestions and they are both public-private in nature.  First, get rid of the subsidies, monetary and environmental.  Businesses are allowed to use water for manufacturing processes and then discharge pollutant laden water back into waterways.  They should be charged according to the percent and nature of the pollutants they put into our ecosystems.  Pharmaceutical companies should be charged or taxed to the extent that their chemicals are found the fish we consume.  Livestock farms should have to pay for the effluents they put in rivers.  The days of free inputs for industry need to end.  If a public common is used for the profit of a private corporation, the corporation needs to pay the public.  Protectionists will argue that this will make American businesses less competitive by driving up their costs and prices.  I would argue that these cost constraints are exactly what will spur innovation and keep American businesses competitive not only now, but in the future.  This innovation will create the technology that can then be exported around the world as consumers’ buying patterns change.  As they shift to buying products that are healthier for themselves and the environment, the companies who can provide products that are made more efficiently and with less environmental impact will be rewarded.  Those that can not will perish.  Maybe its time to let those who survive on governmental and environmental subsidies to either change or go out of business. 

Second, the general public in Southern California should also be charged more for the water they consume.  For that matter we all should pay more for the water we consume.  I do not know particulars (please enlighten me if you know), but I would venture that the money used to pay for California’s elaborate system of dams, canals and pumps over the years has been paid for by state taxes from all Californians and even federal grants and loans garnered from all Americans.  In that case those in Southern California should pay more.  Again, get rid of subsidies that allow them to prosper at the expense of everyone else.  Of course there should be programs to help the poor, like gas for heating and cooking here in NYC.  No one should be denied water, but increased water prices and government regulation could go a long way to conserving this precious natural resource (like no green lawns if you live in a dessert!  If you want green lawns, move).  Think of it like this.  I could fill gas cans all day long with water from my tap and my bill at the end of the month would be negligible versus filling those up with gasoline.  Now which one is the more valuable resource in the long run?  The pricing system for water needs to be fixed.  Now, I know some will argue that water should be free, and this is true if all the water you drink comes from a rain barrel you bought and keep on your roof, but if you turn on a faucet, you need to pay. 

As I was flipping through the magazine I saw the map pictured below, and even though it fits perfectly within my socio-political worldview, it still was quite striking.  The map details the balance of water use to water availability and displays Sub-Saharan Africa as one of the least stressed areas of the world.  But, of course!  Water scarcity is largely about political and economic capital.  In the article “Burden of Thirst” women are described as spending eight hours a day fetching water.  This is not due to a lack of water; this is because clean abundant water is for the affluent.  It is for rich countries and for the rich of poor countries.  There is plenty of water for Sub-Saharan Africans just waiting to be dammed, pumped, channeled, and irrigated.  There are aquifers to be tapped and rivers to divert.  There are water treatment plants to be built and infrastructure to be developed.  This can be done, and in the long run would pay for itself by bettering health outcomes and freeing up human capital, both positive trends that benefit economic growth.

Map

Water Availability and Use

On the other hand, if you look at the developed countries which have done all of the previous water system developments, they are plagued by medium to extreme levels of water stress, just like California.  So even if we could get through the economic and political hurdles to make water clean and accessible to all, is following old models of infrastructure and water delivery the right long term choice?  Morally I feel compelled by the idea of human rights to fight for people, wherever they may be, to have the basic human security and not live in fear for lack of food, clothing, and shelter.  Still, once we meet the needs of those in a water scarce area, such as those in Southern California, are we not doing something very imprudent?  Though humans have become masters of their environment we also seem to have created precarious systems that can easily be thrown off balance through environmental change and technological shortcomings.  Shifts of population and weather can devastate whole regions as hurricane Katrina should serve as example.  Basically, this is the classic sustainable development debate, how do you meet current needs without jeapordizing the resources that will be needed by future generations? 

We need to plan, not just react: short term solutions, yes, but also long-term goals.  We should deliver water to wherever it is needed, but with an understanding of reducing and changing that need.  First, there should be monetary deterrents for those who live in areas that are suspect to environmental fragility in regards to supporting life.  The idea would be to help people now while incentivizing development to occur in places that are more apt to handle it.  Limit amounts of water that can be irrigated per acre; give farms tax breaks to move.  Carrots and sticks.  The higher costs of doing business and living in water scarce places should not be entirely spread across society.  Like insurance, the costs can be spread, but those with the highest risk are charged more.  The incentive being to not participate in the risky behaviors.

Second, conservation needs to be as important as delivery.  Conservation can be managed partly through regulation, but ultimately will be achieved only if true costs are reflected in pricing structures to spur business innovation and behavior changes.  If governments regulate with the people’s best interest in mind, businesses pay for all resources they use, and we all realized the power of our indivisual purchases, we could change what is becoming humans’ unhealthy relationship with their environment. 

Purchase from businesses that are stewards of the environment and their communities.  Stop buying bottled water.  Write your representatives for tax breaks for greywater systems installed into new houses or to support cap and trade systems.  Water touches so many aspects of our lives lets be proactive and not take it for granted.

Mugabe’s Folly

March 22, 2010

I think I need a little help from my literary friends here.  I am sure there is some great masterpiece, probably a Shakespeare play, which would aptly describe the folly of a man such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.  A story that tells of a man so consumed with a past injustice that all his decisions are born from desires of retribution, even if this means destroying himself and the very thing that he thought he was fighting for.  Zimbabwe’s condition is dire and its president may have just put the death knell in any hopes of progress for the near future.  Mugabe has championed the new Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Regulation which dictates that within five years businesses must be at least 51% owned by “indigenous Zimbabweans”.

Now I understand why Mugabe is often revered by those who live, or have lived, in previously colonized nations.  He literally fought for the independence of his country from an oppressive occupying government and won.  As a British colony a white minority group prospered and had held sway over national decisions with their own interests in mind rather than those of the black Zimbabweans.  The ascension of Mugabe to President signaled the end of an era and the beginning of a hopeful future.  He brandished a fiery rhetoric and castigating the white colonizers and their allies.  He became a hero to his struggling black countrymen. 

Until today he is often continued to be seen in this manner.  Even in the light of his record of brutalizing enemies and leading his country into economic and political disaster, I remember debating with a classmate in Tanzania whether or not he has created progress in Africa.  My colleague offered that Mugabe was successful in “developing” Zimbabwe because he was protecting his people from continued exploitation by the West and put the country into the hands of Africans as it should rightly be.  I ventured that it was probably little consolation to the majority of Zimbabweans, whose lives seemed to be measurably deteriorating, as to what the color of their leaders’ skin was.  Only a fool would be proud to gain the captain’s position of a sinking ship. 

It is a powerful narrative that Mugabe exists within.  It is a not uncommon story and it is transferable.  It tells of oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom.  Our nation began with a similar story.  The narrative is imbued with various racial, religious and political conflicts depending on the context and makes clear dichotomy between who is good and who is bad.  Mugabe was a freedom fighter and he won, the only problem is the curtain did close.  There was no sunset to ride into.  The business of governing his country is obviously something he lacks the ability and ethics to do in a competent manner.

I too believe that Africans should be governed by Africans, but I also believe we need to rid ourselves of the mythology surrounding many of the leaders who have led the fight to accomplish this goal.  Most who read my blog probably think this is a moot point.  That no one in their right mind would support the likes of Mugabe.  I would beg to differ.  I would say that many people in developing countries, if not support, are at least sympathetic to leaders like Mugabe, Chavez and Ahmadinejad on an emotional and/or political level.  My very Christian room mate in Tanzania had Osama Bin Laden as the screensaver on his phone.  I don’t think he supported terrorism, he just saw the story of a man who is willing to fight the power.

I do not know the personal history of Robert Mugabe, and he may have at one time actually cared for and acted in accordance of the well-being of the citizens of Zimbabwe, but it is clear this is no longer the case.  Zimbabwe’s economy was formerly built on the back of a strong agricultural sector.  A small amount of white owners controlled and benefitted from owning a majority of arable land in Zimbabwe.    In 2000 Mugabe began his redistribution of white commercial farmers land to black Zimbabwean farmers with disastrous results.  It was executed poorly, with a feeling of lawlessness and was instrumental in an economic decline that has little signs of stopping in consideration of current events.  The two graphs below do not even show the worst of the two indicators as data for the last 5 years wasn’t available in the World Bank Quick Query database.  One article said inflation had reached 231,000,000% last year!

Zimbabwe Graphs

So, despite the fact of

  • The failure of the arable land redistribution.
  • The rise of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai whose supporters were threatened and killed by the ZANU-PF party and Mugabe gained less votes in the elections.
  • A blatant disregard for the unity government formed with Morgan Tsvangirai which is Zimbabwe’s only hope at attracting foreign aid and investors.
  • Sanctions.

Robert Mugabe has decided that pushing a law requiring all “foreign” owned companies to sell 51% of their business to Zimbabweans is the progress that his country needs.  First I do not see how this will help the poor of Zimbabwe.  The poor of Zimbabwe can not afford to buy a business.  This is going to help the powerful black elite of Zimbabwe of which Robert Mugabe is the ring leader, but you shouldn’t listen to me discuss the law, you should check out this enlightening discussion of four Zimbabweans.  Robert Mugabe is a powerful man with an understanding of the power of narrative and the ability to employ the politics of race to enrich himself and his friends.  Mugabe utilizes the rhetoric of a man fighting oppression while he oppresses his own people.

Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill Update

March 16, 2010

For those who read my earlier post on the anti-homosexuality bill, I have an update. Campaigners against the bill, led by Anglican priest Canon Gideon Biyamugisha, have delivered an online petition with 450,000 signatures denouncing the proposed anti-homosexuality bill. Unfortunately, the majority of the signatures was not of Ugandan citizens and may have little impact on voting down the legislation in Uganda’s parliament.
I can not say this for sure, but I imagine the sponsor of this bill, David Bahati, never thought of the international exposure his proposal would get. Even the African hero Obama has personally denounced this bill. The shaming the bill and the government of Uganda have received could have the desired effect and turn this bill into a political hot-potato that no one wants in their hands. That is what I hope for. On the other hand, Mr. Bahati could use this to his advantage. Being socially conservative, it would be easy for him to employ the trusted us vs. them rhetoric. To site most of the opposition as coming from outside of Uganda and foment a defensive ire towards those trying to meddle in Ugandan politics could work in his favor. In this case the bill would be passed in order to remind the international community of Uganda’s sovereignty and internally serve to strengthen their conservative politicians as they rally Uganda to “fight” the intruders. I am interested to see how this plays out. I will post another update once the bill is voted on.