Time to resolve a cursed old water problem

Goal 6 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be achieved by 2030, concerns the global water challenge and includes measurable indicators of progress.

But “You cannot manage what you do not measure” is a long-familiar saying to many, nowhere more so than in professional water circles at almost every level. Just as you cannot manage your bank account without knowing how much money you have, it is all but impossible to make informed water management decisions without reliable, sufficient, and freely available water data. Obtaining such data, however has always proven difficult.

Surprisingly, despite its obvious importance and value, river flow data collection has been declining for decades now, with literally thousands of gauging stations in many countries, including large ones like USA, Canada, Russia, and Australia — closed in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

River flow in most developing countries of the global South has never been measured well (and what was measured was seldom properly archived). Even more limited observed data are available on groundwater, or on withdrawals and abstractions from aquifers and various other water sources globally.

Understanding of the importance of various water data seems lacking beyond the water community. It is not a ‘sexy’ subject, does not hit the headlines. Nor does water data collection attract sufficient funding.

It is not hard to imagine that we could measure water flows using orbiting technology with reliable accuracy. In fact, it is coming close to that. Already a car’s license plate can be read from space, and some remote sensing technologies are able to penetrate water and soil. Direct water observations obtained via satellites could be made at a much larger number of locations, and will, naturally, cross the national boundaries, making such new data sharing unrestricted.


The war on Syrian children and civilians

At the heart of the Syrian conflict and devastation are helpless civilians. To help us shed light on their plight, following are insights from two individuals: Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International which is currently providing humanitarian assistance to 2.5 million people in Syria, including 1.7 million children. And Dr. Raphaël Pitti, a French medical doctor who trains Syrian doctors and nurses there.

Helle Thoorning-Schmidt: “Eastern Ghouta is basically a suburb of Damascus … and when war moves into these areas, it is an attack on civilians and particularly children. …These children are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Many of us will not know what that is, but that is children who are hiding or going into acute stress when they hear bombings, children who are wetting their beds, children who can’t sleep, and basically children who cannot function in a normal way.

“Almost 2 million people are in besieged areas and hard-to- reach areas denied food and also medical assistance. This is a new level of horror and I really fear that we are accepting this as the new normal. Basically it’s a war on children.”

Raphaël Pitti: “Syria had well-organized health and sanitary facilities until 2011, but it has all collapsed completely. Long-term, chronic illnesses are no longer treated, there are no vaccination programs, and of course cancer patients, diabetics or those with high blood pressure, etc get nothing. Today we can estimate that around 1.5 million people have died in Syria indirectly because of the ruined health system.

“Often the most competent doctors couldn’t take it anymore and left with their families. They were often replaced with medical students. Often people with no training at all offered their help. We have seen cleaning staff take on nursing duties, and then some becoming midwives. We’ve seen students become nurses, first year undergrads become vascular surgeons.

“When you are in a hospital with no supplies you see how conditions deteriorate and that has a direct effect on how you handle the flow of casualties. Triage becomes vital and there will be a certain number of patients who you could certainly have treated in different conditions, but here, with the numbers we have to deal with and lack of supplies, you will leave to die.

“The Syrian population has traveled a long way from the revolution it had hoped for. All Syrians are now hostages to one group or another, and it is the people who pay the highest price.”


‘Horrific inter-ethnic’ violence in DR Congo drives thousands into Uganda

Fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has forced 4.5 million people to flee their homes over the past year and left more than 13 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters that the agency is working with partner organizations in western Uganda to support the influx, many who are exhausted, hunger and deeply traumatized by “horrific inter-ethnic violence and sexual abuse” they have reportedly endured.

Since the year began, an overwhelming 77.5 per cent of more than 57,000 refugees displaced by the violence in eastern DRC are women and children, according to the agency.

“These numbers are on a larger scale still than in 2017, when some 44,000 fled over the course of the entire year,” he continued. “UNHCR fears thousands more could arrive in Uganda if the security situation inside the DRC does not immediately improve.”

UNHCR has received chilling accounts of violence – rape, murder and separation from family members. A growing number of reports indicate that the violence is taking on ethnic dimensions as tribal groups engage in retaliatory attacks. “These are linked to the deteriorating security situation, internal conflicts and inter-communal tensions,” the spokesperson maintained, saying that armed men are reported to be attacking villages, looting and burning houses, indiscriminately killing civilians and kidnapping young men and boys.

[UN News]

The happiest countries have the happiest immigrants

Finland is the happiest country in the world, according to the latest World Happiness Report.

Norway, last year’s winner, came in second place in the 2018 report. It’s followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. The Netherlands came in sixth place this year, followed by Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.

The World Happiness Report was released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations on March 14, days before World Happiness Day on March 20. The report ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity.

The 10 happiest countries were also 10 of the top 11 spots in the rankings of immigrant happiness. “The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born,” to quote the news release.

The United States landed in 18th place, dropping four spots from last year.

This report is the sixth to come out since 2012. The rankings of the world’s happiest countries came from an analysis of data from surveys in 156 countries taken from 2015 to 2017. The analysis of immigrant happiness was based on surveys of 117 countries covering the years 2005-2015.


Protests at schools run by UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees

At 700 UNRWA schools across the Middle East, thousands of students flew and carried kites to send a message of hope, demanding that all the schools run by the Agency remain open, in spite of the financial crisis confronting UNRWA.

More than 500,000 students took part in kite flying events in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, where the Agency provides a daily education to 525,000 children.

This ambitious initiative comes in advance of an Extraordinary Ministerial Conference in Rome on 15 March convened by Jordan, Sweden and Egypt to bridge UNRWA’s funding shortfall for 2018 of 446 million US$.

UNRWA has described this as the worst financial crisis in its seventy- year history.

[Aid News]

Civilians pay heavy toll as Syrian conflict enters its 8th year

“The last seven years feel like 20,” says Fatmeh, a 23 year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, referring to the war in her home country that is dragging into its eighth year. Fatmeh is one of millions of Syrians who have been left homeless — inside and outside their country — as the conflict wreaks havoc throughout Syria. Civilians pay the heaviest price, as they are killed, wounded and displaced daily.

One-quarter of Syria’s pre-war population has crossed the border, and inside the country more than 6 million people have been displaced. Around 100 people, on average, have been killed each day since the start of the conflict in 2011. Hundreds of thousands are living under siege, in places like Eastern Ghouta, where entire families have been going without food or clean water for weeks now, a few miles from Syria’s capital Damascus.

As the conflict enters its eighth year, women have been hit hard. With the Syrian army and its allies, as well as non-state armed groups, fighting on the ground and unprecedented violence in the country, many women have lost a husband, son or brother to the war. This has shifted the customary male role of heading the household to many women in Syria, who are increasingly assuming both the role of breadwinner and caregiver. According to the UN, one in three households in Syria is headed by a woman. Women and girls constitute more than half of the 13.1 million people who are in need in Syria.


China floods Africa with needed assistance, stoking US concern

With Beijing’s astonishing investments in ports, roads and railways throughout Africa, the US warns, come dependency, exploitation and intrusion on nations’ basic sovereignty.

“We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese investment dollars out of Africa. They are badly needed,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week in the Ethiopian capital. “However, we think it’s important that African countries carefully consider the terms.”

Tillerson and other US officials say Chinese firms, unlike American ones, don’t abide by anti-bribery laws, fueling Africa’s pervasive problems with corruption. And if countries run into financial trouble, they often lose control over their own infrastructure by defaulting to a lender that historically has not always been forgiving. Some African countries now owe sums double that of their annual economic output, the US has said, with most debt owed to China.

China, unlike the United States, is showing up on the continent with a generous checkbook in hand. Given the unpredictability involved in investing in poorer countries, China is often the only one willing to take the risk. And African nations realize that China’s investments don’t come with the same nagging about human rights and good governance that often accompanies US assistance.

The eye-popping investments through China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, believed to run into the trillions of dollars, form just one part of the Asian power’s bid to promote a new global system that puts Beijing at the center. Equally alarming to the US are China’s military designs.

There are obvious reasons why the United States would want to cast itself and its companies as a more favorable alternative to China, the geopolitical rival and economic competitor whose influence is also on the rise in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.


Rural women are essential to the struggle against hunger

Rural women make up more than a quarter of the world’s population and 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, according to 2010 data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women’s make up between 12 and 25 percent of the economically active population in agriculture, depending on the different areas.

Julio Berdegué, FAO representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS that “rural and indigenous communities have a crucial role to play in food security, first of all for their own peoples. The persistence of hunger is very high in indigenous populations. In many countries it doubles, triples or quadruples the national averages. If indigenous communities are not central actors, there is no way to solve hunger in those places.”

“The empowerment of indigenous women is part of the agenda in the fight against rural poverty, poverty and hunger in indigenous communities,” he said.

The UN Women agency warns, however, that “in practically all development measures, rural women are lagging behind rural men or urban women, as a consequence of deep-rooted gender inequalities and discrimination.”

“Less than 20 percent of the people in the world who own land are women, and although the global wage difference between women and men stands at 23 percent, in rural areas it can reach up to 40 percent,” it stated, to illustrate.

[Inter Press Service]

Monsoon season could wreak havoc in Bangladesh refugee camps

Since August 25, 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled targeted violence and persecution in Myanmar to take refuge in makeshift shelters in camps in Bangladesh. The refugees ended up in densely crowded and overpopulated makeshift settlements in the southern district of Cox’s Bazar. Their shelters are mostly made of plastic and bamboo, packed closely together and with inadequate water and sanitation conditions.

All factors combined—the sheer size of the population, the densely crowded conditions, the inadequate shelter, and the apparently very low immunization status—create a perfect storm for the public health situation.

Something I am concerned about is fresh emergencies within the current emergency. For example, the upcoming rainy season, with the monsoon and tropical storms in an area that is prone to heavy cyclones, presents an obvious greater potential for waterborne diseases such as acute watery diarrhea, which is a significant concern.

Furthermore, there are very few settlements that can be accessed by vehicle—a lot of them still can only be reached on foot.

[Doctors Without Borders]

Drought-driven wildfires on rise in Amazon basin

Intensifying droughts in the Amazon basin are now a primary determinant of increases in forest fires, a reality that will hinder Brazil’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions solely by limiting deforestation, according to a new study. Highlights:

  • Despite a 76 percent decline in deforestation rates between 2003 and 2015, the incidence of forest fires is increasing in Brazil, with new research linking the rise in fires not only to deforestation, but also to severe droughts.
  • El Niño, combined with other oceanic and atmospheric cycles, produced an unusually severe drought in 2015, a year that saw a 36 percent increase in Amazon basin forest fires, which also raised carbon emissions.
  • Severe droughts are expected to become more common in the Brazilian Amazon as natural oceanic cycles are made more extreme by human-induced climate change.
  • In this new climate paradigm, limiting deforestation alone will not be sufficient to reduce fires and curb carbon emissions, scientists say. The maintenance of healthy, intact, unfragmented forests is vital to providing resilience against further increases in Amazon fires.

[Nature Communications]

Violence leaves at least 200 dead in Syria

It’s hard to believe that in a brutal civil war that’s lasted seven years, some of the worst acts of violence in Syria have come in the last 48 hours. At least 200 civilians have been killed in government shelling and airstrikes.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, is trying to bury the opposition on the outskirts of Damascus. After one airstrike, residents scrambled to find survivors and protect themselves from the next one. Even by the standards of the Syrian war, activists describe what’s happened in the past 48 hours in the rebel-held enclave of Ghouta near the capital as a bloodbath.

White-shrouded bodies lined the hospital floors, many of them children. Ghouta has been under siege for more than five years. Pro-government forces are reportedly preparing a new ground assault that will crush the rebels once and for all. All residents can do is brace for the onslaught.


The impact of climate change

Of the top ten costliest hurricanes of all time in the U.S., nine have been since 2004. And half have been in the past five years.

In the past three years, the city of Houston alone has endured three so-called 500-year floods.

While there’s much we don’t know about climate change, here are three things we know for certain:

  1. Climate change increased the intensity and likelihood of storms – 2017 was a devastating year of natural disasters, by any measure, from wildfires in several western states to intense heatwaves in the Southwest to Harvey, followed closely by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

A recent study by hurricane experts in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found that Harvey’s unprecedented 51 inches of rainfall in the Houston area, as well as wind speeds in other parts of the state, were three times more likely and 15 percent more intense than without climate change. The study even called the rainfall “biblical” – as in, it has likely occurred only once since the time the Old Testament was written.

In Texas now, the odds of another Harvey-like rainfall could be nearly 1 in 5 per year by 2100 – put another way, rain of this magnitude could hit the state 18 times more often by the end of the century. Storms that have more than 20 inches of rain in Texas are about six times more likely now than they were at the end of the 20th century, just 18 years ago.

Climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey, but it certainly made its impact much worse. Like an athlete on steroids, climate change enhances the performance of an already powerful force.

  1. The costs are and will continue to be enormous – If we do not act to mitigate further damage, while adapting our infrastructure and our systems to the reality of climate change, we will face dire financial consequences that may prove impossible to work around.
  1. The impact on people is much deeper than numbers and dollars – Climate change isn’t just about studies and storm patterns, it means people are devastated.

After Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, “Three 500-year floods in three years means either we’re free and clear for the next 1,500 years or something has seriously changed.”

Unfortunately, the reality is the latter.

[Environmental Defense Fund]

Getting Lebanon’s water flowing

The Syrian conflict has displaced at least 1.5 million people to Lebanon, putting pressure on water services and resources. Humanitarian agencies and the national government have drawn on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicators to gather new data on access to water and water quality, to be able to respond more effectively to the water crisis.

UN-Habitat estimates that demand on water services has increased by 30 per cent since the crisis began. 3.7 million people – both Lebanese and Syrian are in need of water. The water crisis affecting Lebanon predates the arrival of the Syrian refugees. Decades of civil unrest and under-investment, followed by episodes of conflict driven by regional and sectarian tensions, have splintered towns and cities, damaging the country’s existing water infrastructure that delivers water to towns, cities and households.

Although Lebanon is rich in water compared to Jordan, Israel and Syria, the amount of renewable water in the region has dropped from 1,000 cubic metres a year per person – considered the threshold of water poverty – to around 700m3 per person since the refugees arrived.

Humanitarian agencies, national government and water utilities have been working to respond to the infrastructural and water resource challenges that underpin the crisis. UNICEF has been working with the MoEW to collect and support data collection on access to water linked to the new SDG indicator on quality.

[International Institute for Environment and Development]

Somalia ‘not out of the woods yet’ on drought relief efforts

Despite Somalia experiencing over five failed rain cycles, drought-related famine was averted through the efforts of Somalis and their international partners.

The top United Nations humanitarian official in Somalia has commended the drought relief and recovery efforts of the authorities in the northern state of Puntland, while cautioning that the current humanitarian crisis is far from over.

The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Peter de Clercq, said “We are not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination.”

There are still 5.4 million people in Somalia needing life-saving humanitarian assistance. Work is being done in all regions to build and sustain resilience in all communities.

[UN News]

Yemen: The world’s worst humanitarian crisis enters another year

Four years after the Houthi takeover of the capital Sana’a and the beginning of the Saudi-led military intervention, there is little to suggest that Yemen will find peace in the near future.

As of January 2018, the conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions, causing widespread devastation to the country’s civilian and public infrastructure, including hospitals, airports, roads, houses and factories.

With more than 8 million people ‘a step away from famine’ (Al Jazeera, 10 December 2017) and a major cholera outbreak that has killed 2,000 people and infected almost 1 million (World Health Organization, 11 December 2017), Yemen has descended into what has been described as the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’.

The ongoing civil war in Yemen is the result of several local and national power struggles, aggravated by a regional proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).


Gender equality and women’s empowerment unmet development targets

Without speedy progress on gender equality and real action to end pervasive discrimination against women and girls, the global community will not be able to keep the promise to ‘leave no one behind’ on the road to ending poverty, protecting the planet and advancing prosperity by 2030, according to a new United Nations report launched on Wednesday.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women said: “As a world, we committed through the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] to leave no one behind,” but the report reveals many areas where progress remains slow to achieve the Goals by 2030. Even where progress is made, it may not reach the women and girls who need it most and the ones that are being left furthest behind.”

The report points out that a girl born into poverty and forced into early marriage is more likely to drop out of school, give birth at an early age, suffer childbirth complications and experience violence – a scenario that encompasses all the SDGs. Moreover, new data in 89 countries reveals that there are 4.4 million more women than men living on less than $1.90 a day – much of which is explained by the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work women face, especially during their reproductive years.

“It’s a problem in all countries, developed, developing, north, south, east west,” Shahrashoub Razavi, UN Women’s Chief of Research and Data, told UN News. “We have a long way to go to achieve gender equality universally,” she added, calling it “a problem that stymies the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

[UN News]

Bill and Melinda Gates accomplishments from giving away over 40 billion dollars

It’s been 18 years since Bill and Melinda Gates announced that they intended to give away their fortune—now an estimated $91 billion—to better the planet, along with the lives of its most vulnerable inhabitants. Since then, they’ve hired over 1,400 employees and spent $40.3 billion to tackle some of the hardest-to-solve problems—like healthcare, poverty and education—in both developing countries and here at home.

“The human condition, by all key measures, has improved dramatically,” says Bill. “People are living longer and less children are dying; the death rate for children under five has been cut in half over the last 15 years.” Adds Melinda: “Last week I was in West Africa and Kenya. The amount of entrepreneurism and people lifting themselves up is palpable. The world is changing for the better and we want people to know that.”

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Bill: Global health is our biggest area, and it’s going well. With any luck we’ll have the last polio case this year.
Melinda: There are literally millions of children alive because of the vaccines that we’ve been involved with.
Bill: And there are things that are much longer term, like getting an HIV vaccine done, which unfortunately will probably take another decade. Eradicating malaria will probably be a 20-year quest.

Q: You often bring your kids on your humanitarian trips to the Third World. What have they learned?
Melinda: All three of our kids have spent a lot of time in the developing world, not just on nice safaris but sometimes living with these families. So it’s become central to our lives and, I’d say, has changed us all for the better. I think it will probably affect the path they’re each on in life. It certainly grounds us in what’s important.


Deterring emigration with Foreign Aid

As waves of migrants have crossed the Mediterranean and the US Southwest border, development agencies have received a de facto mandate: to deter migration from poor countries. The European Union, for example, has pledged €3 billion in development assistance to address the “root causes” of migration from Africa. The United States has made deterring migration a centerpiece of its development assistance to Central America.

Will it work? Development aid can only deter migration if it causes specific large changes in the countries migrants come from, and those changes must cause fewer people to move.

Evidence suggests that greater youth employment may deter migration in the short term for countries that remain poor. But such deterrence is overwhelmed when sustained overall development shapes income, education, aspirations, and demographic structure in ways that encourage emigration.

Emigration tends to slow and then fall as countries develop past middle-income. But most of today’s low-income countries will not approach that point for several decades at any plausible rate of growth. Because successful development goes hand in hand with greater migration, aid agencies seeking to affect migration must move beyond deterrence.

[Center for Global Development study]

Climate-smart agricultural initiatives set to scale in India

India brought to light a new plan for promoting solar farming. With an allocation of USD 21.8 billion, the government plans to start building 10,000 MW solar plants on barren lands, providing 1.75 million off-grid agricultural solar pumps. Through the scheme, farmers’ income levels are projected to see a sharp rise as they will be given an option to sell surplus power generated to the local power distribution companies.

Research partners first set up a solar pump irrigator’s cooperative in Dhundi Village of Gujarat in 2015, as a model of reference to be scaled for attaining multiple benefits of income growth, regularization of power, sustainable ground water use and de-dieselizing of agriculture leading to a curb in carbon dioxide emissions.

Now their efforts have come full circle with the Finance Minister of India announcing the government will take necessary measures and encourage state governments to put in place a mechanism that their surplus solar power is purchased by the distribution companies or licensees at reasonably remunerative rates.

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) as a concept envisions the creation and implementation of innovative models for attaining multiple benefits and resilience not just for the farming community but a wide range of stakeholders. The power from the sun is fetching not just economic dividends for the farmers but also helping create a sustainable business model on the whole. By early 2016, enough surplus power was sold to earn the farmers an additional income of around USD 5,300. Importantly, such initiatives put to motion the attainment of the nation’s intended nationally determined contributions towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


Refugee-made products on display at the world’s biggest trade fair

For the first time ever, refugee-made products will be on display at Ambiente, the leading international consumer goods trade show, from 9-13 February 2018, in Frankfurt, Germany. Twelve product lines created by refugee artisans and craft people from Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria will be presented.

This breakthrough is the result of MADE51, a new initiative by UNHCR and a global network of social enterprises to help talented makers fleeing war or persecution achieve greater self-reliance and access to the global marketplace. At Ambiente, potential buyers can view and order a variety of products, including:

  • bowls and jewelry created by Malian Tuareg refugees
  • cashmere throws, embroidered bags, block-printed scarves, lampshades and soft furnishings crafted by Syrian refugees
  • wall hangings and basketry woven by Burundian refugees
  • complex pile rugs, wool kilims and embroidered home textiles created by artisans who have returned to Afghanistan
  • scarves and bags hand-dyed by South Sudanese and Somali refugees
  • smoked bamboo lighting and embroidered jewelry made by refugees from Myanmar