16 July 2015

Collaborative Piece: Art and Science - Passion for the Nile River

Some months ago I traveled to Egypt to meet friend and photographer Karina al Piaro for a journey along the Nile River to her field sites. On the way we spoke of collaboration - the science that I pursue in the Upper Nile River basin and the art that she creates with her photography in the Lower Nile River basin. Below is a link to the first attempt we've made to join our efforts in one work.

Science and art have many connecting features, many overlaps. The following piece we created showcases Karina al Piaro's passionate photography and, through her interview with me, my passion and inspired research.

The original publication appeared in print in Zamalek Island magazine, out of Cairo, Egypt.

The Nile New Wave: Emergence

02 May 2015

Drinking Water Crisis in South Sudan

Last week in South Sudan, drinking water supply came into crisis. The capital city, Juba, provides no safe public sources of drinking water. Residents rely on bottled water. However, bottled water companies have come under pressure to be able to purchase the material, which they import, to make the bottled water. The rising value of the US dollar plus ongoing internal governance problems in the fledgling country are the reasons given for bottled water companies shutting down. There may only be two bottled water companies still operating. As a result, there are bottled water shortages.

In the shops, the last of the supplies are being sold. Shopkeepers are rationing what is left. People are resorting to drinking Nile River water, which is not hygienic or safe. There are tanker trucks pumping Nile River water to serve the citizens, but the rising cost of the US dollar has caused a shortage of fuel, which is all imported, so there are sections of the population that will not be served by this method at all. Even though unsafe, humans cannot go more than 3 or 4 days without water.

South Sudan is under pressure from the UN to stop fighting and get it together, or else there will be sanctions. This happend just hours ago. 

Thanks UN - yet another example of how absolutely removed the organization is from reality. We have witnessed the result of sanctions over and over again - and it hurts common people, while doing little to rattle the chains of the power hungry who are more concerned with securing their own place in history, rather than taking care of the country they want power over. In other words, the leaders. But this is just my opinion and that is why I put it in italics.

Getting water to citizens is a critical, but difficult situation for a fractured government and a brand new country. This is not just a problem in Juba with the current bottled water crisis. This is something experienced in other parts of the new South Sudan, such as in Pibor. Refugees fleeing the ongoing fighting in Sudan and South Sudan - a war that has been going on and on and on for more than 30 years - are numbering in the hundreds of thousands. An estimated 260,000 Sudanese have fled to South Sudan as refugees, while an estimated 200,000 South Sudanese have fled to Ethiopia as refugees!

Water security in South Sudan is in crisis.

Human security in South Sudan (and Sudan) is in ongoing crisis.

This situation with water shortages has happened in other insecure and war-torn places. Water security, as understood by the scholars, has very little to say about crisis events and insecure conflict zones. Solutions are few. The International Red Cross is one of the few actors on the international community scene that enter a country in crisis and attempt to solve the water security issues in cities and villages without safe access. However, the water security issue is still not coordinated by the international community in a transparent way. and people resort to river water in places where those same rivers serve as places for bathing, washing, feeding cattle, and dumping wastewater. There must be another way.

In Iraq today, water supplies are threatened by shortages, drought, mismanagement, and occupation by this ISIS crew. ISIS has taken much of the territories where wheat is grown and eyes the water supplies that are already insecure in Iraq due to upstream neighbors in Turkey. In 2007, Iraqis were bemoaning the collapsed government, and tanker trucks were using the Tigris-Euphrates rivers for drinking water supply distribution. This UN page illustrates the progressive water issues over time, since the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

African Flowers for Europeans: Water Loss in the Details

Cut flowers add a something to a room: a splash of color, a piece of nature inside, a pleasing aesthetic of texture and smell, and a simulated spring in the dead of winter. However, the cheap flowers you can buy at the shop in Europe and North America come at a higher cost to people and water resources somewhere else.

In the Nile River basin there are water resources. Tanzania, as I also saw in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, features the white tent like structures that signify flower farms. These farms are typically not owned by local investors - they are foreign owned and run, but locally staffed, powered, and farmed.

At the surface, people say one of two things -

  1. Western exploitation of Rest of World local cheap labor for a profit, or,  
  2. Great economic resource for the local community through providing employment, economic empowerment for women, an opportunity for using manual labor rather than using machines.
But before one starts to go on either about human rights or the benefits of a market economy through foreign investment in flower farms, there are some details to consider:

Flowers are political, socially, environmentally, and economically sensitive.

Flowers impact water systems - which in turn impact environmental and human systems. 

Flowers require chemical treatment.

Flowers are shipped in water.

I was told by a teacher in Kenya that the flower farms near Nairobi are secured with fences and armed guards, and no one is allowed to take photos. Why would this be? Besides reported violence based on gender inequality, the majority of flower farm workers are women, there may be other reasons.

The devil is in the details:

First, these farms must be located somewhere where there is access to local water resources. The water is then embedded in the product, also water is used in the shipment of flowers, and removed from the water system - the watershed.

Why does this matter? 
This matters because the water is not being cycled back into the system in a way that allows for sustainable and continued use of the same recycled resource. Local people and local needs lose that water resource. Over enough time, this could make up a significant portion of local water storage. Agriculture accounts for, on a coarse global scale, approximately 75% of water consumption (consumption different from use).

The water goes away with the flowers. The embedded water will be included in some other, geographically distant, system - the atmosphere of your living room, the landfill in your town. This is sometimes referred to as "virtual water" on which a great man named Tony Allen has built his career. Virtual water is one water problem - the water is removed and the economic cost of the water is not included in the economic cost of the flowers. It is assumed.

Water is also under pressure from chemical contamination. If you combine introduction of a potentially harmful chemical to a healthy water system that has full capacity to flush and cycle, maybe only the people who come into direct contact are at risk. If you combine introducing the same contaminant to a system that is taxed and water is being removed, the flush and cycle are much less effective and perhaps fail completely leaving an unusable, undrinkable resource. Not that local people will stop drinking local water in a place with little to no alternative.

The flowers take about 5 days from the day they are cut to the day they arrive as a centerpiece on your mantel or table. The flowers will undergo changes in temperature and humidity during this time as they are gathered and shipped to a central location, then flown to Europe, then collected again in a distribution warehouse center and then either flown, trucked, or trained to their destination countries/cities/shops.

This means that they must somehow be preserved.

Why does this matter? 
Chemicals have three general impacts: 1. contaminate local water resources (yes those same ones that are also being depleted over time); 2. contaminate people handling the flowers; 3 preserve the flowers.

I was told by this same teacher that she has seen women's hands and forearms covered in blisters after only a few months working on the flower farms. Also the women experience issues with their respiratory systems and inside their noses.

What chemicals are used?

Several news agencies and researchers have written articles that state generally that toxic chemicals are used in flower production. No one is quite specific about what is being used, however it is known that several pesticides and chemicals are often mixed and applied to the flowers. I suspect one such chemical is Pyrethrin. Considered low toxicity, it is quite nasty stuff if inhaled.

Are flowers political?

Flowers are money. Money is political. 

Flowers constitute a multibillion dollar (over $100 billion) industry in trade. There are three main groups of people in on this gig - the growers, the wholesalers, and the traders. There are flower auctions, and like the fish market in Japan, this allow for price setting, bidding, and big money exchanges on flowers. The people doing the farming are usually the lowest paid, at the highest risk personally, and local communities are at the highest risk environmentally. The Netherlands dominates the world flower market with about 60% of all flower trade.

Some reported 25% of all flowers in Europe came from African farms in 2008. The EU this year employed tariffs and then removed them on imports from East Africa, particularly aimed at Kenya. Again the issue of the countries of the EU and USA that subsidize their farming industry are raised. How can an African dairy farmer compete in price with subsidized milk products from France? This sort of imbalanced trade arrangement is what brought the WTO talks to a halt years ago.

There is a colonial history in flower farming. And like in many other areas, colonialism never really went away. Colonial hangover - the once dominating governments just changed the name of the domination to "economic development". Many developing countries in the once colonized world are often still dominated by the presence of the invading/colonizing country - today, through trade agreements. I am told DFID, the UK's development agency, is housed in the same building that the colonial mission headquarters were contained in London. Whether or not this is true, the sentiment says something. These same post-colonial occupation countries still benefit and profit off of the sweat (and water and environmental health) of the economically (and medically, educationally, etc., etc., etc.) deprived.

What can you do?
I encourage you to take action by writing to your political representative about this issue. Let them know your feelings. Purchase flowers from local sources. Boycott the purchase of flowers not grown under fair trade conditions. Fair trade usually, but not always, points to the money exchange and conditions for workers. Tell your family and friends. Grow your own.

Or, buy silk or paper flowers and call it a day. Most flowers purchased are not for consumption anyway.