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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

October 3, 1997

Air Date: October 3, 1997


Asian Haze

Huge fires continue to darken skies over Southeast Asia, choking millions of people. Laura talks with BBC correspondent, Jonathan Head about the origins of the fires, and response to them. (06:00)

Organophospates / Daniel Grossman

Every year, the U-S uses more than a billion pounds of pesiticides to exterminate rodents and insects, weed our lawns and protect crops. Recent research on one class of insecticides -- organophosphates -- may lead to restrictions on their use. LOE’s Daniel Grossman reports from a Washington state orchard. (10:10)

Citizen Suits Challenged / Steve Frenkel

The right to sue polluters has been granted citizen activists since 1970. But this provision, now included in most environmental law, is facing a challenge in the U.S. Supreme court. Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Frenkel reports. (03:46)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about walking, or running around the world. (01:15)

Ban On More Montana Drilling / Bob Reha

A recent U.S. Forest Service decision rules out new wilderness areas leases along the Rocky Mountain front in Montana. That is, for the next ten years. Bob Reha of High Plains News Service reports. (03:30)

Troubled Waters: Collision In Gaza

Poverty and crowding in the Gaza strip are the issues in this installment of our special series on Mideast Water. Unemployment in Gaza hovers near forty percent, and birth rates are among the highest in the world. Living on Earth’s Sandy Tolan reports that paltry and contaminated water supplies in Gaza may be fueling a public health crisis. ()

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

GUEST HOST: Laura Knoy
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Steve Frenkel, Bob Reha, Sandy Tolan
GUEST: Jonathan Head

(Theme music intro)

KNOY: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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KNOY: I'm Laura Knoy.

In Southeast Asia it's not over yet. Massive forest fires continue to rage in Indonesia, taking their toll on the landscape and the people.

HEAD: In one town I was in, in Sumatra in Jambi, there were hundreds of people lining up outside the main medical clinic every day. Many of the mothers with young children coughing away, their eyes red, really seriously distressed.

KNOY: Also this week, the case against organophosphates. There are growing calls for a second look at these widely-used pesticides.

WARGO: We don't have enough evidence to demonstrate that the organophosphates are safe. We have substantial evidence that demonstrates that they pose significant risks.

KNOY: Those stories and more just ahead on Living on Earth. First news.

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Asian Haze

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In Southeast Asia, huge fires continue to burn on, darkening skies over 6 island nations: Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Thailand, and choking millions of people. Indonesia's farmers stand accused of the crime because during the dry season they traditionally clear crop land with fire. But larger forces are at work this year. For starters, the global climate engine, El Nino, is at a 50-year peak. This warming Pacific current disrupts weather patterns worldwide and has brought severe drought to the region. As the BBC's correspondent in Jakarta Jonathan Head tells me, satellite pictures show that agribusinesses gobbling up land in former forest areas are largely to blame, and along with them the Indonesian government's economic policies.

HEAD: This is a rapidly developing country. It's in the sort of dynamic Southeast Asian sphere of economic growth. The government has been making a prolonged bid to pull the country out of its underdeveloped status and become a much more prosperous country. And one of the methods they've used is to encourage the conversion of forested land into productive land: into plantations for rubber, cocoa, palm oil. This has been expanding very fast, and a lot of big businesses have been going into what were forested areas that have already been logged, and trying to convert it. And they're burning on a massive scale. We've got hundreds of thousands of hectares of land still on fire at this moment.

KNOY: You've been to one of the centers of the fires, in Kalimantan. Tell us about that. What did people say to you there?

HEAD: Well, I've been to Kalimantan and Sumatra, the two worst affected areas, and it is absolutely devastating on life there. I mean, people are used to smoke and fires each year, and it's certainly been bothersome for them before. It's caused sort of problems like breathing difficulties and eye irritation. But nothing like on the scale of this year. They're living in a permanent gloom. I mean it's as though the sun never rises; all you have is this ghastly yellow glow through a thick smoky haze. You can never see more than about 20 or 30 yards in front of you. And in one town I was in, in Sumatra in Jambi, there were hundreds of people lining up outside the main medical clinic every day, many of them mothers with young children, coughing away, their eyes red. Really seriously distressed. I was in Jambee for only two and a half days. I've been coughing ever since. My eyes were very, very sore when I was there. All I can say is, if that's what this has done to me in 2 days, what about the poor people who have been living in this for more than a month?

KNOY: Are people talking about the long-term health effects?

HEAD: They're a little in the dark over this because nobody's really experienced massive smoke from forest fires before. But we do know that what are called particulates, small particles from combustion, either from petrol or from any carbon product like wood, when they get into lungs they are known carcinogens. They do cause lung cancer. And the irritation they cause and the constant coughing can, if untreated, lead to very severe long-term respiratory infections.

KNOY: What's been the Indonesian government's reaction to these fires getting so out of control?

HEAD: Well, they're very embarrassed about it this year, because it's had such a devastating effect on their neighbors, let alone their own people. But so far, there's not really any sign of a coordinated action plan to try to stop it.

KNOY: What about the neighboring governments, whose people have also been very badly affected by the smoke?

HEAD: Well, I think they're a lot more angry than they're letting on. You have to remember, there's a very strong tradition among the Southeast Asian nations of not openly criticizing each other, but I think that principle is being tested sorely by this environmental problem. Malaysia in particular has suffered very severely as a result of this smog. And while the Malaysian government is trying to be as polite and cooperative as possible with its Indonesian counterparts, Malaysian citizens and some opposition politicians are shouting from the rooftops saying, "You should impose sanctions on Indonesia. You should stop this practice." And I think privately they're probably putting a lot of pressure on their Indonesian colleagues.

KNOY: Jonathan, as a westerner, have you observed cultural differences in how the Indonesian culture has dealt with this crisis and how a western culture might react to an event such as this?

HEAD: Well, I think the tradition of not challenging authority here has been a problem. This is essentially an authoritarian system. The government acts as a kind of big brother or father figure, especially in local areas. There's not a very strong or dynamic media, there's no way in which people can really protest. And they've just tended to sort of shrug their shoulders and accept it as their fate, although they are beginning to get angry at what's happening. We are seeing the newspapers saying this is a national disaster, ministers ought to resign. And I've never seen that before.

KNOY: You mention this tradition of not challenging authority. How does that work with another tradition of looking after the group, the health and well-being of the larger group?

HEAD: Well, it is a very strong tradition, the tradition of the community here, and it's one that's often cited by Southeast Asian governments. I have to say my experience, while that is quite important--people feel very strongly they're belonging to a group--their behavior as development takes over, and as Indonesia modernizes, is much more akin to western individualistic behavior now than it used to be. Communities are changing fast, breaking down. Values are changing. This is no longer strictly a traditional society except in very rural areas. Java, the most populated island, which has a population of 120 million, that's about 60% of the population, is now 50% urbanized. So, I think all this talk about the value of the community and so on, it's there still as a value but it's breaking down fast. And Indonesia needs to embrace some modern methods and modern attitudes of damage limitation in what is becoming a modern society.

KNOY: Well, Jonathan, thanks a lot for talking with us.

HEAD: That was my pleasure.

KNOY: Jonathan Head is a correspondent for the BBC. He talked to us from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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KNOY: Health experts say it's time to take another look at a class of pesticides that almost all Americans come into contact with. Re-examining organophosphates is next on Living On Earth.

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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Each year Americans use more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides. We exterminate rodents and insects, keep our lawns weed-free, and protect our crops. Some of these chemicals are safer than others, but researchers are now beginning to assemble a powerful indictment against one class of insecticide, organophosphates. And pressure is building to dramatically restrict their use. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman visited Washington State, where organophosphates are widely sprayed in orchards. He has this report.

(The sound of keys, a car motor being started)

GROSSMAN: Gip Redman navigates his pickup truck down a bumpy lane through trees heavy with ripe, colorful fruit. He owns a good-sized orchard here in the Yakima Valley, one of the nation's largest fruit-growing regions.

REDMAN: This is a solid block of goldens. Peaches in the next orchard, flame cress variety. We're harvesting those.

GROSSMAN: With the harvest in full swing, migrant workers are busy picking peaches, nectarines, plums, and pears. It's like Eden's own orchard. And the serpent in this garden is the coddling moth.

REDMAN: If unchecked, they can grow and multiply to such an alarming rate that they in fact would put a hole in each fruit. At least one.

GROSSMAN: The coddling moth is the most serious foe, but many pests attack fruit here, including aphids and mites. Gip Redman says he uses a variety of strategies to protect his crops, like spraying oil on spring buds. But his chief weapon is pesticides. Fruit trees are among the most sprayed crop in agriculture, and it's easy to spot signs of pesticides in Gip Redman's orchard.

REDMAN: There's one of the signs of a block that we've sprayed. It says, "Do not enter." "Entrada prohibit." "Peligro." "Danger."

(A car door closes. A tractor motor revs up.)

GROSSMAN: In a nearby orchard a tractor ambles between rows of pear trees. Its driver wears a white jumpsuit and a protective mask. Spewing from behind his rig, a chemical called guthion rises in a mist above the treetops and settles back down on the leaves and fruit. Guthion is one of the most toxic pesticides produced. Four years ago, Moddy Schicker was sprayed with the chemical during a harvest.

SCHICKER: We were picking pears about 9, 9:15, and you could hear a tractor. Well, you hear tractors in the fields all the time, so we didn't pay a lot of attention to it. Tractor driver waved at one of the workers that was over closer. And I thought well, you know, I've seen them spray before but, you know, it was never nothing harmful. And he went down the road and then he made this turn and he come back and he sprayed again. Well by then, the wind was bringing it in our direction. And I'd say by 9:15, 9:30, your skin was burning, the eyes were burning. You could taste it, very bitter quinine taste in your mouth.

GROSSMAN: After work Moddy Schicker went home, washed up, and went to bed.

SCHICKER: Next day I got up and my face looked like somebody had stuck boiling water into it. I went to my family doctor and he told my mom, he said, "You put this salve on her face twice today. Wrap her in this clear, cling-free wrap." And she had to pack my face in ice. And I could not go outside the house for 2 weeks straight. Then when I went out, I had to wear dark glasses.

GROSSMAN: Public health officials say each year as many as 20,000 farm workers in the US and about 1 million worldwide are poisoned with pesticides. Many of these accidents involve guthion and other organophosphates, the most common class of chemical used to control insects. Organophosphates come from the same family as the deadly nerve agents in the US chemical weapons stockpile, although they're considerably less potent. They were formulated early in this century, but didn't come into widespread use until the 1960s, after organochlorines like DDT came under attack. Today in the United States, 79 million pounds of organophosphates are sprayed on crops and in homes and businesses. A recent study by the US Centers for Disease Control found the byproducts of chlorpyrifos, the most common organophosphate, in the urine of 80% of Americans surveyed. It's likely that every American is exposed to one or more of these chemicals in food and drinking water, in fumes from roach and termite treatments. The good news is, organophosphates break down fairly quickly after being sprayed. The bad news is...

KIEFER: When you get overdosed with organophosphate pesticides, what happens is you suffer a sort of a glandular crisis.

GROSSMAN: Matthew Kiefer is a doctor of occupational medicine at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. He says organophosphates poison humans by disrupting the nervous system.

KIEFER: Your salivary glands secrete. Your tears secrete. Your bronchial glands secrete. The whole system that drives those glands basically starts, goes into overdrive. The same system controls the contraction of muscles. And as a result, you overstimluate the muscles. And with certain pesticides, they can enter into the brain and depress the centers that drive respiration. And if the case is severe enough you can actually have a person stop breathing, and sometimes they'll die.

GROSSMAN: It was once accepted that people surviving such events recovered fully. Now many researchers have their doubts. Dr. Kiefer is an author of one of the studies turning the tide.

KIEFER: The data that's been collected to date supports the fact that people just don't get quite back to their baseline after they've suffered an acute intoxication. The effects seem to be subtle, but they're there.

GROSSMAN: Subtle, but serious. Dr. Kiefer's study shows that poison victims suffer long-term and possibly permanent deficits, including decreased reasoning power, impaired speech, and memory loss. These conclusions don't surprise Moddy Schicker, who says she has still not recovered from being sprayed in 1993.

SCHICKER: You lose your concentration real quick after you've been sprayed with pesticide. Things that you used to do, you don't do no more. I mean, I was one that was outdoors all the time, I done crafts all the time, and you just -- it just -- you lose all interest. Actually, it turns your whole life upside-down.

(Clanking on metal; a farm worker sings in Spanish)

GROSSMAN: Pulling down a branch from a pear tree, Abito Rodriguez gently snaps the fruit from its green stems. These trees he's picking were last sprayed with guthion and other pesticides about 6 weeks ago. Federal law permits workers to re-enter orchards just hours after fruit is sprayed with these chemicals, and researchers have detected organophosphate byproducts in the urine of workers who've been kept out of sprayed orchards for as much as a month. Some health experts say laborers like Mr. Rodriguez, with no apparent signs of poisoning, could be in danger from cumulative exposure to such pesticides. Consumers of fruit and residents of homes treated for pests could also be at risk. Dr. Matthew Kiefer hopes to get some answers with a study he's completing of Yakima Valley farm workers.

KIEFER: We do know that the population in the United States does have exposure to organophosphate pesticides on a routine basis, both in very low levels in food and sometimes in house, pesticides that have been applied in the house. And so, if we find abnormalities in these populations who have much higher exposure than that, we may have something to say about people with lower-level exposure, or at least may motivate further study.

GROSSMAN: The evidence so far is inconclusive. One British study found that farmers suffered impaired reasoning power and other psychological deficits after treating sheep with organophosphate dips. Other occupational studies have come up empty-handed. Meanwhile, research on animals has found that some organophosphates interfere with the systems that regulate reproduction, growth, and development, raising additional concerns.

WARGO: If we can't prove safety in the very near term, we should revoke the licenses.

GROSSMAN: Dr. John Wargo is a professor of environmental policy at Yale University and author of the book Our Children's Toxic Legacy. He's among a growing number of health experts who say it's time to severely restrict or even ban this class of insecticides.

WARGO: We don't have enough evidence to demonstrate that the organophosphates are safe. We have substantial evidence that demonstrates that they pose significant risks. And from my perspective, the way that we should approach the uncertainty in the evidence is to be cautious.

McCARTHY: These products are important, and they're used with care.

GROSSMAN: Thomas McCarthy is a top official with the American Crop Protection Association, which represents pesticide manufacturers. He says banning organophosphates would jeopardize the nation's food supply and would not be supported by scientific evidence.

McCARTHY: There's a tremendous amount of information that's been developed on these over the years. There's been epidemiology information, good toxicology information. There's been surveillance of what kind of residues are in our food, in our water. It just all adds up to say it's safe.

GROSSMAN: But the US Environmental Protection Agency is far from convinced these chemicals are safe. It's reviewing the entire class of organophosphate insecticides in the first test of the year-old Food Quality Protection Act. Unlike previous acts, this new law instructs the Agency to estimate the total exposure individuals receive from all sources, and to take into account exposures to related pesticides. And it says regulations must protect even the most sensitive individuals, like children and pregnant women. The EPA is expected to issue new rules on organophosphates by mid-1999. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

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Citizen Suits Challenged

KNOY: In 1970 Congress gave citizens the right to sue violators of the Clean Air Act. Many saw the provision as recognition that the government lacked enough resources to enforce environmental laws on its own. Since then, citizens' power to sue polluters has been written into most environmental legislation. But the provision is now facing a challenge, and the US Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the matter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Steve Frenkel reports on a case from Chicago that tests one of the citizen enforcement laws.

FRENKEL: The law is called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to- Know Act, and it requires manufacturers to disclose the toxic chemicals they use and how much of the toxins they release into the environment. In Chicago a business called The Steel Company failed for 8 years to report that it uses hydrochloric acid to clean corroded steel. The company also failed to report that it released at least 14 tons of the toxin into the air for each of the 8 years. In vapor form hydrochloric acid can irritate the eyes and lungs and can cause bronchitis. The group Citizens for a Better Environment discovered the violation, and was preparing a lawsuit when The Steel Company filed the 8 years of delinquent reports all on one day. A series of appeals brought the case to the Supreme Court. Sanford Stein is representing The Steel Company before the High Court. He says since his client ultimately complied with the law, they can't be sued for punitive damages. Stein says his argument will hinge on the legal concept of injury.

STEIN: The Constitution of the United States does not permit private citizens to sue other private citizens to enforce the government's laws when there is no injury to themselves. Essentially, that's what's happened here. To the extent that there was an injury, because of the failure to file the forms, that injury was cured.

FRENKEL: But Stefan Noe, an attorney for the citizens' group, will argue The Steel Company did cause injury, because it withheld information that put public health at risk.

NOE: Perhaps a family, had they known that this company was the largest air releaser of hydrochloric acid in Chicago, might have put some pressure on them to reduce their releases. They may have moved out of the community, for example, if they chose to or were able to. But without that information, they could do none of those things. And therefore, they were injured.

FRENKEL: And Mr. Noe says, if the Supreme Court does not agree with that assessment, a wide range of environmental laws could be weakened.

NOE: If the Supreme Court were to rule in this case that citizens can't sue for civil penalties, in almost every other case, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund, you name it, citizens may not be able to sue for civil penalties. And it's entirely possible that the impact of that is going to be a dramatic increase in violations throughout this country of all our environmental laws.

FRENKEL: Ten years ago the Supreme Court limited citizens' right to sue for past violations of the Clean Water Act. In that case the Reagan Administration opposed the act's citizen enforcement provision. In the case now before the Court, the Clinton Administration is supporting the citizen group's right to bring suit. Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Georgetown University, says the White House is sending the Justices a message.

LAZARUS: That switch in size by the Federal Government may well make this court pause before making it even harder for citizens to bring suits in these cases, because the Federal Government is itself telling the court that it needs these kinds of citizen suits.

FRENKEL: The Supreme Court's decision in The Steel Company vs. Citizens for a Better Environment is expected by year's end. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Frenkel in Chicago.

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KNOY: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Great Lakes Protection Fund and the George Gund Foundation for Great Lakes reporting; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. KNOY: In the Gaza Strip, problems with water scarcity and quality could create a social and environmental collapse. Our continuing series on Water in the Middle East is coming up on Living on Earth.

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KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy

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The Living on Earth Almanac

KNOY: Living on Earth is one thing. Walking it is something else. Twenty- three years ago this week, David Kunst returned to Waseca, Minnesota, completing the first verified walk around the world. In a little more than 4 years, Kuntz covered 4 continents, 13 countries, and about 14,000 miles on foot. Kunst started the trek with his brother John and mule named Willie Makeit? But halfway through the walk tragedy struck. The brothers were ambushed by brothers in Afghanistan and John was killed. After a 4-month rest, David Kunst continued on. Twenty-one pairs of shoes and about 20 million steps later he arrived in Waseca to cheering crowds, his feet--and feat--noted in the Guinness Book of World Records. Not to be outdone, Robert Garside is in the midst of running around the world. His route, which began last December in London, covers 5 continents and 33,000 miles. He's run about a fifth of that so far and plans to arrive back home on New Year's Eve 1999. Mr. Garside has one advantage over David Kunst: a Walkman complete with its own solar panel. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Ban On More Montana Drilling

KNOY: The US Forest Service has decided to prohibit any new oil and gas leases near wilderness areas along the Rocky Mountain front in Montana. The ban will last for at least 10 years. Bob Reha of the High Plains News Service has our report.

(Footfalls on gravel)

SENSE: You can see your mountain from here, right behind those trees right there.

REHA: James Sense's dark eyes light up behind his horn-rimmed glasses as he walks across the playground at the elementary school in Shota, Montana. Sense's lived and taught fourth grade here for over 20 years.

SENSE: You can see through the trees right over there, as far north as you can see --

REHA: Shota is on Montana's Rocky Mountain front where the plains and the mountains meet. The front is broad and majestic, a special place for people like author A.B. Guthrie and painter Charlie Russell, and Mr. Sense, who has fought for 20 years to keep it as it is.

SENSE: I feel very similarly to the Blackfeet people and the other tribal people, that for me these mountains are sacred. And I guess they represent a manifestation of Heaven on Earth to me. And that's why they're most important.

REHA: So Mr. Sense is relieved by the Forest Service's decision not to sell any new oil and gas leases along the front for at least the next 10 years. The somewhat unexpected move is the latest development in a 20-year battle over how Federal land in the area should be used. The decision will help threaten species like the grizzly bear, which roamed the front and the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness. However, the announcement angered oil industry officials who believe huge reserves of oil and gas lie beneath the front. They say examples of their ability to drill with minimal impact in similar areas in Wyoming and Colorado were ignored, and they believe the decision will make it infeasible for companies to develop leases they already hold in the area. Gail Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, says those investments can't just be abandoned.

ABERCROMBIE: People have made investments in getting those leases. There are rentals paid. There were lease bonuses paid. Some of those folks that have those leases may be interested in appealing this because of the impact on their current leases that they have spent some monies on.

REHA: The industry had expected the Forest Service to at least allow leasing in 3 small areas in a strip of land 70 miles along and a mile wide. But Lewis and Clark Forest supervisor Gloria Flora says an avalanche of public protest from across the country helped persuade her to toughen her stand. She recalled the words of Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the Forest Service, in announcing her decision.

FLORA: We were directed by Gifford Pinchot that where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.

REHA: Oil companies have 45 days to challenge the decision. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Reha reporting.

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Troubled Waters: Collision In Gaza

KNOY: Of all the obstacles to Middle East peace, one of the most daunting is the reality of poverty in the Gaza Strip. Fifty years ago 80,000 Palestinians lived in Gaza. Then the state of Israel was born, war erupted, and refugees streamed into the territory. Today, nearly a million Gazans crowd into about 100 square miles along the Mediterranean between Tel Aviv and Egypt. It is one of the most crowded places on Earth, and one of the most miserable. With the continued closure of Gaza by Israeli authorities, unemployment hovers near 40%. One out of every 3 Gazans lives below the poverty line, and the birth rate is among the highest in the world. The numbers take on added weight when you realize that Gazans have less available water now than they did in 1947. And what water they do have is rapidly deteriorating, further drying out an already brittle tinder box. Today, as our series Troubled Water continues, Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan brings us this journal from Gaza: a place where diminished and contaminated water supplies may fuel a public health crisis.

(Traffic sounds)

ABU SOFIER: We have here, this is one of the major features in fact of the Gaza Strip, that you find the donkey cars...

TOLAN: It was early in my journey to the Gaza Strip, and what happened in an instant one hot afternoon I took as a kind of omen. I was riding with Dr. Yousef Abu Sofier, soft-spoken environmental scientist, water expert, a representative of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

ABU SOFIER: Many problems are intermingled together...

TOLAN: We were on our way to a refugee camp in the middle of Gaza. The doctor's black Audi dodged potholes, passing old men in donkey carts, women carrying fodder by the road side, young men sitting on stoops with nothing to do. The doctor was explaining something about contaminated water in the camps, his specialty, and his mind was not fully on the road.

ABU SOFIER: Make a wrong detour, okay --

TOLAN: Watch it, watch watch watch watch watch watch watch watch ...!!!!

(The car screeches loudly. Abu Sofier shouts in Arabic.)

TOLAN: Everyone was safe, but if the man in the Toyota hadn't seen the collision coming it would have been a disaster.

ABU SOFIER: He was driving so fast. I didn't see him, you know.

TOLAN: Yeah, I know it.

ABU SOFIER: Sorry for that, what happened.

(A call to prayer over loudspeakers)

TOLAN: Fifteen minutes later we arrive at the Brayj refugee camp. The Mu'azzin calls for the evening prayer.

(Children yell)

TOLAN: It's nearing dusk and we can see children playing in the haze of the unpaved streets. We meet a group of men outside a cafe.

(Men's voices speaking in Arabic)

TOLAN: They're standing in front of a hand-painted bedsheet of a decidedly younger Yassir Arafat. Dr. Abu Sofier explains why I'm there. I've heard about how Gaza has grown more than 1,000% in the 50 years since Israel was born. How the aquifer is severely over-pumped, so badly that sea water is beginning to intrude. And that ruins a good cup of sweet Arabic tea.

(Conversation in Arabic, call to prayer and yelling children in the background)

ABU SOFIER: Preparing tea with the high salty water is not by any means, you know, tasty as tea. They cannot drink, you know, a cup of tea that tastes good.

TOLAN: But that's just the beginning, they tell us, for it's not simply the indignity of serving salty tea. It's what else is in the water. Sometimes it's so bad they can see tiny worms floating in their glass.

(Discussion in Arabic continues)

ABU SOFIER: When they run out of water, you know, they send their children to get some water from the nearby agricultural wells, from the farms in fact. They go and, you know, this water is not monitored, and nobody knows what can go on sometimes. They get it, you know, mixed with dirt and with maybe sewage, and that is what they are saying.

TOLAN: Dr. Abu Sofier explains that as the level of the aquifer goes down, the salinity of the water that remains goes up. So does the concentration of agricultural chemicals used on nearby farms. Tests by Dr. Abu Sofier indicate that 85% of Gaza's drinking water wells are unfit for human consumption. There is a little clean fresh water delivered by pipeline from Israel, but it's only a fraction of what the people here need. Some people in this camp are down to about 15 liters per day, barely 5% of the average in Israel, and not nearly enough for basic hygiene or drinking. And then, there's the raw sewage flowing in open canals down the hillsides and into a big black lagoon nearby, where it seeps back into the groundwater. At some nearby camps, the sewage is pumped back up into the wells, and people are drinking their own excrement. Here in this camp, every night from the black sewage pond, swarms of mosquitoes rise up and visit the camp.

(Men conversing in Arabic)

ABU SOFIER: What they are saying, and if you want to know how they suffer because of the sewage and the smell and the mosquitos, they invite you to spend one night in the camp and see how it looks like. You know, living, you know, with the sewage running into the street and the mosquitoes are just, you know, flying everywhere here and there.

(Children in the streets, men talking in Arabic)

ABU SOFIER: Here, this little baby fell 2 times this day into the sewage. And you can imagine the impacts. That's why they catch diseases.

(Children yelling; fade to a hospital with crying children and echoed footfalls)

TOLAN: At hospitals and health clinics around Gaza, scores of children come in every day with parasites.

(Crying children)

TOLAN: There's a big decal of Donald Duck on the waiting room door of the children's ward of Al Nasser Hospital. I'm in Gaza City in a narrow room under a spinning fan, watching children squirm on six tiny jammed-together beds. Their mothers in white head scarfs try to calm them down. A harried doctor hurriedly writes out prescriptions. He's way too busy to talk to me, so nearby I find Dr. Abdul Jaber Tibi, Director of Public Health in the Ministry of Health, Palestinian authority.

TIBI: The major health problem is diahrreal disease, the prevalence of diahrreal disease in our area is very high. Especially dysentery, and also the anemic cases is increasing because a lot of parasite inside the gut of our children. In some locality, we do a study and we discovered 80% of one or more parasitic infestation in children in some of the schools.

TOLAN: Four out of 5 children in some schools with parasites. The Health Ministry study indicates 60% of these kids suffer from anemia.

TIBI: Anemic child--that means the growth of this child, the attitude, it reflect on all the health. It affect on the mentality of the children, it affect on all aspects of their life.

TOLAN: The anemia may be the result of elevated nitrate levels. Nitrate in Gaza's drinking water wells coming from sewage and agricultural chemicals in the groundwater is up to 13 times the safe standard set by the World Health Organization. Dr. Tibi says he's also seeing sharp rises in hypertension linked to high salinity levels, and kidney stones and kidney failure, which could be caused by excessive fluoride levels in the Gaza wells. Natural fluoride and salinity levels rise sharply as the aquifer is over-pumped. Kidney problems are also linked to dehydration. People don't have enough to drink. The scarcity can also cause skin problems because they don't have enough water to wash properly. For all these problems, says Dr. Tibi, there's little money available for studies to connect cause and effect. But there are a few exceptions.

TIBI: The quality of the water, here we have the worst standards, maybe, in the world. I don't know. I am -- these data are really awful. I never saw in other countries so high concentration of lead, for example.

TOLAN: I've tracked down Piero Ingrosso, a research physician working in Gaza for an aid program of the Italian government. Contamination of wells from pesticides combined with chemical and fecal matter from the sewage makes for the worst drinking water Dr. Ingrosso has ever seen.

INGROSSO: In some wells, there is a concentration of lead which is highly dangerous. Three hundred times more than the recommended ones by WHO. The nitrates or the pesticide concentrations in some wells are so high that you, you could use it as pesticide (laughs).

TOLAN: Are people drinking this water?

INGROSSO: Oh, of course they drink it. My daughter drinks mineral water. I buy for her. And sometimes I think to all the children in Gaza who cannot have the mineral water and drink that water that we couldn't use neither for our flowers. You know, that's really hurt me a lot.

TOLAN: Dr. Ingrosso was one of the few people from the outside looking into the health effects of the contaminated water here. Along with Dr. Tibi of the Palestinian Health Ministry, Dr. Ingrosso believes the chemical contamination from sewage and agricultural pesticides is linked to anecdotal reports of increased cancers.

INGROSSO: This is maybe the most alarming question, and already now we have evidence that there is a correlation between pesticides and growth increase of the cancer of the liver. We expect that after 15, 20 years, a lot of cancer will come out.

(Traffic sounds, horns)

TOLAN: There's one place in Gaza where the water is not nearly so bad. The Israeli settlement of Gush Katif on the Mediterranean coast appears on the UN maps of Gaza as an island of green. Sunbathing areas are marked with little beach umbrellas, and at one the words "Settlers Only." But I wonder, are the contrasts really so stark as they appear?

(A car door slams, a motor revs)

TOLAN: Gush Katif is about 20 miles south. To get there I have to take a taxi north to the checkpoint, walk a narrow steel gauntlet back into Israel, and drive all the way around Gaza and back in through a corridor of Israeli military checkpoints that cut Gaza in two to protect the settlers.

(Traffic sounds mingle with bird song. Men converse in the background.)

TOLAN: Some people want this to be the Riviera of Israel. Days Inn has a hotel here, 114 rooms on the Mediterranean, with horseback riding and jeep tours.

(More motors rev up)

TOLAN: A bulletproof tourist bus passes me, heading toward the hotel with a military escort.

(Traffic honks)

TOLAN: Finally I arrive at a gas station to wait for Akiva Baker, an American who came here in 1971. At the little settlement village I stare through an electrified fence topped with the looped barbed wire you see atop prison fencing.

(A singer over speakers)

TOLAN: Through the links I can see the face of a young soldier absorbed in a book. “Unbreak My Heart” blares from cheap speakers at the guard post.

(Singing continues; fade to sounds inside an auto)

BAKER: Take you around the other way and see the whole size of this place...

TOLAN: Twenty-six years in Israel have given Akiva Baker a slight accent, almost a British lilt, not a match for his Ann Arbor origins or the big belly, bushy-gray beard and farmer's hat he wears. He went to Harvard in the ‘60s, lived in Jerusalem in the ‘70s, and moved here 15 years ago. We're riding in his old Volvo toward his greenhouses. There's plenty of water, Mr. Baker says, for his tomatoes and green herbs. For whatever the settlers need.

TOLAN: So what will you say, nobody --

BAKER: I can't remember Israel talking about limiting water consumption drastically. I can remember way, way, way, way back in a drought when the people were told over the television to wash their car with one bucket of water once a week. That hasn't been the situation for a long, long time. Nobody would think twice. But washing the car, taking as many baths as they want, keeping a nice green lawn going, well, we're talking about pretty big lawns, too.

TOLAN: The reason? He pulls over to show me.

(Car door opens, shuts)

TOLAN: Fat white pipes protrude from the sandy soil bound for the concrete storage tanks on the hill above us. This water comes from Israel's National Water Company, pumped from aquifers beneath Israel and the West Bank and diverted from the Jordan River about 100 miles away. The rest of the settlers' water comes from underground, pumped from a sweet pocket of the Gaza aquifer. Together with the water in these pipes, it means no one's thirsty in Gush Katif.

(Car motor)

BAKER: And it's been really a blessing, that we don't have to worry about water like we did once. We were really tight.

TOLAN: I tell Akiva Baker what I've seen in Gaza. How people are struggling.

BAKER: What sort of an answer do you want? I don't have to solve their problem in order to live. I have to solve mine. They have to solve theirs with whatever help they can get, but it's not my responsibility to solve it. If they were able to solve it the way they wanted to solve it, I wouldn't exist any more. Now, I can understand it. But I'm not understanding it in the same sort of liberal leftish way that I did when I was back in my 20s. I don't see the world that way any more.


TOLAN: Mr. Baker says the plight of the Gazans is not just to be pinned on the Israelis. It's a direct result of the tactic the Palestinian leadership took in their struggle against Israel.

BAKER: There was a concentrated effort, and it was enforced, so that people would not leave the refugee camps. It was politically correct to stay there, until -- (laughs) we were all pushed into the sea or sent back to Brooklyn or wherever. It was to be a pressure cooker for politics. And this is the sad side of the politics all along the way. Things could have been better. It didn't have to be this bad.

(Motors, honking)

TOLAN: Back inside the gates and fences of Gaza, I find a white-haired old man in a crisp blue suit sitting at his desk squinting at his papers through a magnifying glass. Dr. Issam Shawa is from Gaza's most influential family. He's been cajoled out of retirement by Yassir Arafat. When he sees me, he rises slowly and shows me to a corner of his office.

SHAWA: These are the hand grenades, gas grenades, bullets, all sort of war articles that they used against us, you know. These are flares, which they use...

TOLAN: These are the means by which Israel's will was enforced during the Occupation. Brute force, says Dr. Shawa, is largely to blame for the deterioration of the water supply in Gaza. He says Israel actively impounded water that would have flowed into Gaza from Israel and then stood by as the aquifer became contaminated through 27 years of neglect. Now that the Palestinians are in charge, it's no better. And now, the rage builds against both the Israelis and the Palestinian authority. As bad as it is, problems with water here are going to get worse. With the Gaza's high birth rate, the depleted, contaminated water supply will be reduced by half in 20 years or so.

SHAWA: You need water for your food, your bath, your sanitation, and the toilet, you know. You need water for all these things. And if you don't have it, it'll be a catastrophe. If this situation prevails for much longer, the people here will not keep quiet. They cannot. They'll have to go out seeking food, seeking water. The Israelis are not even heeding this thing, you know. They're not thinking of this. They think that America will always protect them, will always give them arms, and they will be the biggest power in the Middle East. They are now. But you think this can prevail forever and a day?

TOLAN: I left Gaza. I have to admit it felt like I escaped, and I went to talk with some Israelis at the Techneon, Israel's scientific and technical institute in Haifa. Fresh from a high-pressure shower with 2 shower heads, I drove the lush green boulevards to Professor Dan Zazlavsky's office. Professor Zazlavsky was once Israel's water commissioner. He's considered hawkish. But when he talked about water in Gaza and in the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif, he sounded more like the Palestinians I'd been talking to.

ZAZLAVSKY: The fact that people in Katif don't save water is rotten it's unacceptable, it's inconsiderable for me. It's bad education. To have a lot of water here and no water on the other, across the fence--. It's not that it's not right, it just won't exist, to not, you are not able to maintain it, forget about it. You cannot have peace this way. It will explode in our face.

TOLAN: Immediate solutions are nowhere to be found. But there are plenty of grand schemes for the long term. In the ivory tower, Professor Zazlavsky has designed an aluminum tower: a cone one kilometer high that would pump sea water to the top and spray it back down, creating winds that would generate electricity that would desalinate water. Vast amounts of water, he says, potentially enough for everyone in the region. The professor admits this scheme, years away at best, wouldn't solve the short-term problems for Gaza. But he says conventional desalinization could.

ZAZLAVSKY: Gaza without desalinization, it's doom. They stand in line with cans to get water.

TOLAN: Taking the salt out of sea water is expensive, and at the moment unrealistic for the cash-strapped Palestinians. Then there's the pipe dream for Nile water to cross the Sinai from Egypt, but that's fading, too.

TIBI: It's a difficult question, what we can do.

TOLAN: We're back in Gaza with Dr. Tibi of the Palestinian Health Ministry.

TIBI: We have limited resources. We have a very big problem. The water is deteriorating. The political solution not reaching to its maximum in order to divide the water equally between the Israeli and the Palestinian. The settlement is still there, no solution for the problem of settlement till now. It is difficult, it is a challenge to the authority.

TOLAN: Some say Israel should give back to the Palestinians the water that lies under the mountains of the West Bank, and then some of that could be piped West across Israel into Gaza. But with the collapse of the Oslo peace process, the chance of that happening is remote. The two sides can't even agree on how to pipe in a small amount of water from Israel as part of the Oslo process. There are some plans now to tackle Gaza's sewage problem, but not to bring in more fresh water. As bad as it is here, there are no realistic plans to sharply increase Gaza's access to fresh water. The only certainty is that Gaza's water supply will continue to go down.

(Bird song, traffic sounds)

TOLAN: Before leaving Gaza, I travel to the south, home to some of the sweetest oranges on Earth. As the aquifers have grown shallow and salty, the orange trees have begun to die. You can see the leafless, curling branches on the surviving orchards. There are only a few healthy orange groves left, and their days are numbered.

(Motors from pumps)

TOLAN: Here at the farm of Ali D'Har, pumps suck away at one of the last sweet pockets of water in the territory.

D'HAR: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: The situation is very bad. We need fresh water for farms and for drinking. Every year we pump and it goes down and down.

TOLAN: Ali's oranges are accelerating the decline of the aquifer because citrus is among the thirstiest of crops. Now, as new straws pull at the small, sweet pocket of water, Ali's well now supplies his fields plus nearby farms and homes. Elsewhere in Gaza there are reports of hundreds of new unauthorized wells, since the Palestinian autonomy began. At this well a diesel engine pumps the good water out of the ground for 15 hours a day.

D'HAR: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I have been born to this land. It is more precious than a son. It is more precious than life. It is more precious than a human being. The fresh water is being drained. I am worried. Our fathers and grandfathers irrigated this land with our sweat. Our family has lived on this land for centuries.

TOLAN: Palestine, wrote the late novelist Ghassan Kanafani, is the land of sad oranges. As I leave Gaza it's clear the way things are going, Ali's orange groves, the farms and homes around him, will eventually all go dry. They don't really have to; the technical means are there to deliver plenty of water to Gaza. But given the expense and the renewed bitterness of long-time enemies, it's hard to imagine when that might happen.

(Motors rev up)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Later this month, as Troubled Waters continues, we go to Israel and consider that nation's dream to make the desert bloom.

MAN: I lived on a kibbutz in the desert for a while, picking cucumbers out of the sand. You think to yourself, this is amazing: how did they do it? But when you look behind the whole picture and you see it's no magic, you have to question whether or not this is what we should be doing.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: For a tape or transcript of this program, call 800-218-9988. That's 800- 218-9988.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Jeff Martini is our engineer. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Special thanks to New Hampshire Public Radio. I'm Laura Knoy. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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