Gaza thirsts as sewage crisis mounts
Gaza’s aquifer and only natural freshwater source is “in danger of collapse,” the UN is warning.
Engineers have long been battling to keep the densely populated strip’s water and sewage system limping along.
But in September the UN Environment Programme warned that damage to the underground aquifer – due to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, conflict, and years of overuse and underinvestment – could take centuries to reverse if it is not halted now. Monther Shoblak, director of Gaza’s Coastal Municipality Water Utility, sniffs the air at the Beit Lahia water treatment plant and smiles.
“I’m happy when I smell sewage,” he jokes, “it means the turbines are working.”
Propellers are agitating the frothy sludge in one of the lagoons, aerating it to help bacteria digest it.
He says the machinery sometimes falls silent during the power cuts that plague most of Gaza.
But the mirror-smooth pond next to it is a perpetual concern.
The plant is handling twice its capacity and is only able to partially treat the sewage.
Lagoons designed to allow treated clean water to infiltrate through Gaza’s sandy soil back down into the aquifer are instead funnelling sewage straight back into the groundwater
In addition, with several years of drought and the digging of hundreds of illegal, unregulated wells, the UN Environmental Programme says at least three times more water is extracted than is replenished each year.
Will California become America’s first failed state?
California has a special place in the American psyche. It is the Golden State: a playground of the rich and famous with perfect weather. It symbolises a lifestyle of sunshine, swimming pools and the Hollywood dream factory.
But the state that was once held up as the epitome of the boundless opportunities of America has collapsed. From its politics to its economy to its environment and way of life, California is like a patient on life support. At the start of summer the state government was so deeply in debt that it began to issue IOUs instead of wages. Its unemployment rate has soared to more than 12%, the highest figure in 70 years. Desperate to pay off a crippling budget deficit, California is slashing spending in education and healthcare, laying off vast numbers of workers and forcing others to take unpaid leave. In a state made up of sprawling suburbs the collapse of the housing bubble has impoverished millions and kicked tens of thousands of families out of their homes. Its political system is locked in paralysis and the two-term rule of former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a disaster – his approval ratings having sunk to levels that would make George W Bush blush. The crisis is so deep that Professor Kevin Starr, who has written an acclaimed history of the state, recently declared: “California is on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America.”
Outside the Forum in Inglewood, near downtown Los Angeles, California has already failed. The scene is reminiscent of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, as crowds of impoverished citizens stand or lie aimlessly on the hot tarmac of the centre’s car park.
Water wars loom in a nation of parched fields
A Punjab Government draft water policy published last year said the state’s water resources were being polluted by industrial waste, sewage and excessive pesticide use in agriculture. “This can adversely affect the health of the populace and may cause diseases like cancer, skin diseases and miscarriage cases.”
These reports only confirm what local farmers already know.
According to Vandana Shiva, water shortages could split Indian communities along deeply entrenched divisions of caste and religion. ”What we will start seeing is localised conflicts over water,” she says. ”As livelihoods evaporate, along with water, you will see all sorts of cracks opening up in society.”
Conflict is also possible between India’s majority rural population and its bursting cities. “People with power live in cities and, as the water crisis is deepening, what remains is being increasingly delivered to the cities,” says Shiva.
She is tracking eight major river diversions under way in India to provide cities with more water.
Measuring economic activity from outer space is a new frontier in the struggle to quantify humanity’s impact on the natural world.
But new analytical techniques and observational satellites may soon open a more rigorous frontier for measuring economic activity from space. Brown University economists J. Vernon Henderson and David Weil, along with their graduate student Adam Storeygard, recently released an analysis of a decade’s worth of global night-light data from DMSP. Their research shows a link between changes in a country’s gross domestic product and the intensity of its electric lighting: On average, as a country’s GDP increases, its nighttime light emission becomes more intense. The work is particularly promising for measuring growth in the developing world, where the quality of collected economic data is notoriously poor.
“A lot of activity in these developing countries is in the untaxed, off-the-books informal sector, but very little information is gathered about it,” Henderson says. “So when [statistical agencies] estimate total economic activity, they don’t really know the size of that sector even though it may account for a majority of the employment in the country. When you get another metric to compare the numbers to, you can be shocked by how much they are off.”
Henderson cites the Democratic Republic of Congo as an example of where data quality is poor. According to the Penn World Table, a standard source used to measure economic growth across countries, during the period from 1992 to 2003 the country had negative GDP growth. In that same period, the satellite data shows a marked increase in nighttime light intensity, suggestive of positive growth, likely in the informal sector. Henderson says Myanmar’s numbers, on the other hand, may show political manipulation: Nocturnal lights indicate significantly lower GDP growth than that stated by the ruling military junta.
Henderson and his colleagues also used the DMSP data to examine economic activity on sub-national scales, investigating the relationship of African cities to nearby agricultural regions. They found that years of crop-boosting high rainfall in a city’s hinterlands significantly correlated with increased growth and development in the urban center as measured by artificial lighting intensity.
“There’s a lot of literature assuming hinterlands aren’t relevant to urban growth and development, but that’s not really the case,” Henderson says. “Farmers demand a bunch of products, they demand services, they demand inputs into agricultural production—this makes a lot of difference to a nearby city. In some sense it’s an academic debate, but this really is a fundamental matter of development and policymaking that can change people’s lives.”
Of course, there are dangers in using nighttime lights as an indicator for economic growth.
Whatever Happened to the Work Ethic?
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Avidly seeking personal gain, they could “lose sight of the close connection which exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all” and ultimately undermine both democracy and prosperity.
The genius of America in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville thought, was that it pursued “productive industry” without a descent into lethal materialism. Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty—virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called “the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality” to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted America’s economic success.
What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? (…)