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

October 31, 1997

Air Date: October 31, 1997


Indonesian Fires Keep Burning / Frank Koller

For months now, much of Southeast Asia has been blanketed by thick grey smoke from massive out-of-control forest fires. These fires were originally deliberately set by palm oil producers and others in the back country of Indonesia to clear the land. But with advent of the El Nino weather phenomenon, the monsoon rains that usually snuff out these seasonal fires have yet to come, and there is concern that coal seams and peat bogs may keep smoldering for years. More than 30 million people in 5 countries have been suffering from the effects of the smoke. People are dying as clinics and hospitals are crowded with people suffering from respiratory problems. A controversy is now raging in Indonesia over who is to blame for the disaster, and how to prevent it from happening again. Frank Koller of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation prepared our report from Jakarta. (07:20)

Advice Upon Travelling in the Rainforest / John Burnett

In some tropical forests a bit closer to the U.S., producer John Burnett recently had the good fortune to explore the rich biodiversity of Costa Rica. Along the way, John learned a few do's and don'ts about visiting rainforests. He sent us this reporter's notebook. (03:05)

Not So Great Lakes?

Steve Curwood talks with Michael Gilbertson, a biologist with the International Joint Commission which oversees Great Lakes cleanup. on the 25th anniversary of the joint U.S. - Canadian agreement to clean up the Great Lakes. Lakes Michigan, Erie, Ontario, Superior, and Huron together hold one fifth of the world's fresh water and Gilbertson says one of the most intriguing new findings concerns trout in Lake Ontario. (04:00)

Superior Fish Memories / Mary Losure

In the 1930's, Lake Superior supported a thriving fishing industry. Today, there are only a remaining handful of commercial fisher folk. This summer the tiny town of Tofte on the north shore of Lake Superior opened a museum to honor the Scandinavians who once made a living on the lakes' rugged coastline. Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Losure prepared this report about these fishing families, and the environmental catastrophes that ended their way of life. (07:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the U.S. National Weather Service (01:15)

Visitor From China

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin sat down a few days ago to talk with U.S. President Bill Clinton, the state of China’s environment was high on their agenda. China’s growing population and rising standard of living have created a huge demand for more energy. Steve Curwood speaks with Michael McElroy who is a professor of atmospheric science at Harvard University and chairs Harvard’s Committee on Environment China Project about China's energy consumption and its effects on global climate policy. (05:30)

Mideast Troubled Waters Series: Final Installment - Of Jordan: A River And A Nation / Sandy Tolan

Jericho on the west bank of the Jordan is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Today, the country which took the name of the Jordan uses little of the river's water as Israel and Syria use much of the river from dams and diversions upstream. Many in the nation of Jordan had hoped the situation would improve after King Hussein signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994. But as Living On Earth's Sandy Tolan reports, many Jordanians still feel they do not have enough water. (17:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Frank Koller, John Burnett, Mary Losure, Sandy Tolan
GUESTS: Michael Gilbertson, Michael McElroy

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The forest fire catastrophe continues in Indonesia, unabated. It's ruining the air for thousands of square miles, and now street demonstrations show it's damaging relations with Indonesia's neighbors.

HATFIELD: They are very angry. There is an Asian way of sending messages to us as a nation, that, "Hey, guys, clean up your mess."

CURWOOD: Also, stronger warnings about the dangers of eating fish from the Great Lakes, and a reporter's tips on touring a rain forest.

BURNETT: Number three: Go out at night--with a good flashlight, of course. Watch for luminescent mushrooms. Feel the whoosh of air as a bat sweeps by. Hear how nature's orchestra changes, the cicadas of the day replaced by the chorus of frogs at night.

CURWOOD: We'll have that and more, this week on Living on Earth, but first, this news.

Back to top

(NPR newscast)

(Theme music up and under)

Indonesian Fires Keep Burning

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. For months now, much of Southeast Asia has been blanketed by thick, grey smoke from out-of-control forest fires. These fires were deliberately set by palm-oil producers and other commercial interests in Indonesia. But with the advent of the El Niño weather phenomenon, much of the monsoon rains that usually snuff out these seasonal fires, have yet to come, and there is concern that coal seams and peat bogs may have ignited, and will keep smoldering for years. More than 30 million people in 5 countries have been exposed to the smoke. Mortality is up, and clinics and hospitals are treating thousands who are suffering from respiratory problems. A controversy is now raging in Indonesia over who is to blame for the disaster, and how to prevent it from happening again. Frank Koller of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation prepared our report.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native language]

KOLLER: On the steps of a wooden hut in the jungles of Kalimantan, an old woman talks about the smoke that's blanketed her village for the past 3 months.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native language]

KOLLER: "You're lucky today," she says. "Some days, it's so dark the chickens get confused, and go to sleep in the afternoon." The village of Dadahup lies 4 hours by speedboat up the Kapuas River. Its people are farmers, ekeing out a simple existence in the forest. Now, they're coughing, scratching their eyes, in smoke so thick, that Indonesian doctors say it's like puffing 5 packs of cigarettes every day.

[Crackling of fire]

KOLLER: At first, small farmers were blamed for setting fires. But this is much bigger than traditional clearing. Most Indonesians now understand lumber companies and palm tree plantation owners set most of the fires--the easiest and cheapest way to clear land for replanting. Some companies admit they bribe government officials, getting protection from Indonesia's political elite, close to President Soeharto. The companies themselves blame the extent of the fires on drought, and El Niño , the global climate system that's causing it. But blaming El Niño is a bad joke, says Wimar Witoelar, a management consultant in Jakarta, who understands how power and politics mix in Indonesia's capital.

WITOELAR: Like the guy in the gas station, who lights up a cigarette, and the gas station blows up, and he says, "This explosion is not my fault. It is the fault of the gas station, that has so much gas in the station." It's rather simple, because it's just one case of collusion that's been going on for years, between the plantation industry, and the people in power. I use that word instead of the name "government," because some of the ministers involved here are actually good guys.

KOLLER: Sarwono Kusuaatmadja, is Indonesia's Environment Minister, one of the good guys in this search for blame.

KUSUAATMADJA: Actually, I'm at peace with myself, because, I think everybody had fair and early warning. I did my very best to convince the Pracotakan government that things are getting to be very dangerous.

KOLLER: Sarwono warned this would be a bad year for fires, if the logging companies kept burning such huge swaths of forest. They ignored him, and Sarwono Kusuaatmadja says that's because, like too many other environment ministers around the world, he didn't have enough raw political power to stop them.

KUSUAATMADJA: Well, you have to realize that, my position in the Cabinet is that of an advisory role, and coordination role. So my only weapon is information. But I don't have direct authority. Direct authority rests with the Land Departments, and the provincial and local government.

[More fires crackling]

KOLLER: In September, President Soeharto pledged to punish the major forestry and plantation firms. Several had their logging licenses canceled. But a canceled logging license won't put a company out of business. And recently, satellites showed images of new fires in the jungles.

[Cheers and shouts of a large crowd]

KOLLER: It was all good sportsmanship in Jakarta a few weeks ago, as Indonesia hosted the annual Southeast Asian Games. National teams competed and went home smiling, with or without medals. But sports aside, Indonesia's neighbors aren't smiling. The smoke has nearly closed down Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and caused fatal collisions at sea. Asian diplomats aren't saying much in public, but Amy Hatfield, director of Indonesia's largest environmental group, says her country has hurt itself badly.

HATFIELD: I think it is so embarrassing to us. The international worlds know that this kind of fire is not the first time. It's a recurrent problem for Indonesia, and we have not been able to address this problem more systematically and effectively.

KOLLER: You travel a great deal, and you're very plugged in internationally. How angry are your neighbors?

HATFIELD: They are very angry. They are very angry, and the way that the governments of our neighbors have allowed their people to express their anger, and not oppress them, I think, is the Asian way of sending messages to us as a nation, that "Hey, guys, clean up your mess."

[Motor sounds]

KOLLER: Jalan Sudirman, Jakarta's "Golden Mile." Forty- and fifty-story buildings form a canyon of affluence in this city of 10 million, mostly very poor Indonesians. The alliance of political power and big business these buildings represent, has transformed Indonesia over the past generation. But many question whether that alliance has much time for the environment of this huge country, or its people. Yet Wimar Witoelar is optimistic that something good may eventually appear, out of the smoke.

[Purr of motors]

WITOELAR: Having this issue of forestry come to the foreground, with world attention, with very clear issues of mismanagement, at the same time that we have a financial crisis, is, I think, the best thing that's ever happened to the country in the last 20 years, in terms of impetus for reform and change. They all focus on the role of the uncurtailed abuse of power by the government, so I think that's good enough, because you cannot kill that fire without killing the abuse of power in the national center.

[Motor sounds and a honk]

KOLLER: For Living on Earth, I'm Frank Koller, in Jakarta.

Back to top

[Tuneful bells and small drums up and under]

Advice Upon Travelling in the Rainforest

CURWOOD: In a tropical forest closer to home, producer John Burnett recently had the good fortune to explore the rich biodiversity of Costa Rica. Along the way, John learned a few do's and don't's about visiting rainforests. He sent us this reporter's notebook.

[Footfalls on an unpaved path]

BURNETT: The first rule of nature tourism is to educate yourself. Read a good book on tropical forests before you go. Then, when you arrive get a knowledgeable guide. Ours was Sergio Vega, a naturalist from the National University of Costa Rica, who has mastered the territorial call of the mantled howler monkey.

VEGA: [Makes hoots of mantled howler monkey] I'm doing a territorial call, that they do to keep other families out of their territory.

BURNETT: By hiring a guide, you'll learn more, you'll be supporting the local community, and he'll point out things you'd never notice on your own.

CHILD: I don't see it--

VEGA: He's right through the leaf. Look right through the leaves- -

CHILD: Oh, I see it!

VEGA: Yeah. And there's a little baby--

CHILD: I see him! I see him!

VEGA: A little baby on the right--

CHILD: I see him!

VEGA: Yup.

CHILD: I see him!

VEGA: Yup. He's a little teeny baby, hanging from its tail, here on the right side.

[Whoops from monkeys along the trail]

BURNETT: Number two: Go slow. Too many people walk a rainforest trail like it's a triathlon event. Try the birdwatcher's trick. Stand in one place, and see what passes by. And if you planned five forest hikes during the course of your trip, why not pick two, and make those count.

[Whoops from monkeys, constant frog chirps]

BURNETT: Number three: Go out at night, with a good flashlight, of course. Watch for luminescent mushrooms. Feel the whoosh of air as a bat swoops by--there are 103 varieties in Costa Rica, compared to 40 bat species in all of the United States. Hear how nature's orchestra changes: the cicadas of the day replaced by the chorus of frogs at night. Just try not to stand on a nest of leaf-cutter ants, as I did.

[Fumbling sound, then "Ow?!"]

BURNETT: Finally, don't go into the rainforest to be entertained. It's not a theme park. Don't expect to see a jaguar bounding across your path, or a boa constrictor swallowing an ocelot. Notice the small things, such as, what lives in the water that collects in a bromeliad plant, or the teeming life that exists in the micro-environment of a rotting log. Walk into the tropical forest as you would go into a sacred place, reverent, rapt, and not a little repentant for all the terrible things we've done to this masterpiece of nature. And be sure to bring along some insect repellent.

[Trilling hoot closing on a high note]

BURNETT: For Living on Earth, I'm John Burnett.

Back to top

[Plucked guitar interlude]

CURWOOD: Stronger warnings about the health risks of eating Great Lakes fish. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.

[Fiddle music up and under]

Not So Great Lakes?

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been 25 years since the US and Canada signed an agreement to clean up the Great Lakes. The lakes, which together form the world's largest body of fresh water, have become badly polluted by industry, farms, and cities. Today, the Great Lakes are cleaner, thanks to better farming practices and improved sewage treatment, but a huge problem remains. How to deal with tons of persistent toxic chemicals, including DDT, PCBs, and dioxins, that lie in lake sediments, and leak from shoreline landfills. Michael Gilbertson is a biologist for the commission which oversees the Great Lakes cleanup. He says, new research indicates the pollution must share the blame with overfishing for the collapse of fishing stocks.

GILBERTSON: There have been two sets of studies which have been done, particularly by Dr. Phillip Cook, and Dr. Richard Petersen. Dick Petersen has been looking at the toxicity of dioxins to lake trout, and what he's found is that, if you get 100 parts per trillion, that's a minute amount of dioxins in the eggs of lake trout, none of them will hatch out. The other kind of research is by Dr. Phillip Cook, in which he's gone and taken a large sediment core from Lake Ontario, and what he's done is, to find out when each of the different layers of sediment was laid down, and then he's gone and found out, "Ok, how much dioxin was there in each of those different layers." So he knows how much dioxin was being put into Lake Ontario.

CURWOOD: Ah, hah. Now, what happens when you compare these two sets of data?

GILBERTSON: Well, when you bring the information together, I think the shocking thing was, that, by 1940, the amounts of dioxin in Lake Ontario, was high enough, that none of the lake trout could have hatched out after that period of time.

CURWOOD: 1940?!

GILBERTSON: 1940, yes. And, of course, the lake trout went extinct, in Lake Ontario, by the early 1950s.

CURWOOD: Now, last summer the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a new report saying that fish can be harmful, fish in the Great Lakes, especially to fetuses of mothers who consume fish. Now what's the significance of this report?

GILBERTSON: The significance of this report is, that one of the, US senior health agencies, has now made a definitive statement about the effects that are occurring, on reproduction and on the development of infants, who have been actually exposed to these chemicals. I think these are quite different statements from the kinds of statements which have been made in the past, where the agencies were talking about the potential effects, which might occur, if people were exposed to them. And it's taken a long period of time, but what we now understand is, just how certain we are, that these kinds of chemicals are having effects on humans in the functional development, the development of the neurological system, the behavioral systems, the systems for learning.

CURWOOD: So, eating fish from the Great Lakes is a risky proposition?

GILBERTSON: Well, the situation is, that people who are eating larger quantities of these fish, are exposing themselves to higher concentrations of these chemicals--they go and store them in their bodies--and if they are of reproductive age, then their fetuses will be exposed to these kinds of chemicals.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

GILBERTSON: Thanks very much.

CURWOOD: Michael Gilbertson is a biologist with the International Joint Commission.

Back to top

(Stringed instrument music up and under)

Superior Fish Memories

CURWOOD: In the 1930s, Lake Superior supported a thriving fishing industry. Today, only a handful of commercial fisher folk remain. This summer, the tiny town of Tofte, on the north shore of Lake Superior, opened a museum to honor the Scandinavians who once made a living on the lake's rugged coastline. Minnesota Public Radio's Mary Losure prepared this report about these fishing families, and the environmental catastrophes that ended their way of life.

LOSURE: The 2-lane highway on the rugged north shore of Lake Superior winds through birch and aspen forests, along the edge of a lake so big it has fogs and breaking waves like the ocean. Walter Sve's Norwegian immigrant father and mother settled here in 1927. They fished for herring from a small wooden boat, like the one Walter Sve still uses today.

[Gull mews, whirring sounds]

SVE: It's a, pretty-looking boat, isn't it [laughs]? Yeah, this here is gonna be real good boat for, for Eric, my son Eric to, fish with.

[Gull cries]

LOSURE: From May to November, Walter Sve goes out each day to fish for herring. He steers by compass through a thick fog, to the buoys that mark his four nets, about a mile from shore.

[Boat motor whirrs, stops. Pulled ropes creak]

LOSURE: Standing in the bow, he pulls each net up, hand over hand, then picks out the herring one by one and tosses them into a bin. He's fished this same spot his whole life, since he quit school at age 16 to fish with his father. Once, there were families like the Sves every half mile or so along the shore. Now, Walter, who at 69 fishes mostly for a hobby, is one of just a few dozen remaining commercial fishermen and women.

SVE: Well, to the west, there's nobody till you get to Knife River, that's 25 miles, and to the east, it's 8 miles to the closest one.

[Boat motor starts up again]

SVE: And in that area, years ago, good grief! I don't know how many else you'd see, [laughs] but there was a lot of 'em!

[Gulls mew and cry]

LOSURE: The story of what happened to the north shore fishing families is an environmental cautionary tale, a series of human blunders that devastated Lake Superior's once-rich supplies of herring and lake trout. In the 1930s, an exotic species, the smelt, spread into Lake Superior after it was experimentally introduced into a nearby lake by a Michigan state agency. The invading smelt preyed on the native herring. At the same time, another exotic species, the lamprey eel, also made its way into Lake Superior, through man-made shipping channels that connected the Great Lakes with the North Atlantic. Lamprey bite into lake trout, rasp holes in their sides, and suck out their body fluids. But the disaster Sve remembers most vividly, was when Reserve Mining of Silver Bay, just a few miles northeast of the Sves, began dumping mine tailings into Lake Superior. The clear water took on a grayish-green cast. He could see through it for only about a foot, where before, he could see down 25.

SVE: August 27th or 28th, of 1956, that's when the dirty water reached our place, and beyond. And then each year it got worse, so I had to start moving my nets out, further and further out in the lake, to get outside of the dirty water, because the herring, with their gill structure, they can't tolerate any dirt in the water, so, by '64, I was 7 miles out in lake.

LOSURE: The next year, he went further out from shore, so far his small boat was out in the traffic from the big ore ships. But he never did get to clean water, and realized it was no use.

SVE: They just didn't set any herring nets for--oh, almost 25 years, they didn't even have any herring nets in the lake.

LOSURE: Today, both herring and lake trout are rebounding in Lake Superior, given a new start by restocking, an aggressive program of lamprey control, and the decline of the exotic smelt population. Reserve Mining was forced to stop dumping its tailings in the lake in 1980. The waters where Walter Sve fishes are clear again. But the rebirth came too late to save the traditional commercial fishing industry, now memorialized in a small museum at Tofte.

[People talking inside an airy building]

LOSURE: The barn-red building, a replica of an old fish house, sits next to the highway on the site of an old Standard Oil station. Inside, cotton nets hang from the ceiling, and wooden buoys are stacked in the corners. Brian Tofte, the grandson of one of the Norwegian fishermen who founded the town, is one of the museum's most active supporters. He wanted to preserve the stories of the fishing families before they were forgotten.

TOFTE: My earliest memories are, as a young boy getting on the grade-school bus, waking up in the morning and looking out our window and seeing these fishermen motoring out to their nets in the sunrise, and that was just a really romantic thing--

LOSURE: On one wall of the museum is a display marked "Memorials," traditional cedarwood fishing floats, each one with a brass plate with names of fishing families. Fenstad, Carlson, Sivertson, and Olson. Kermit Carlsen lives near the tiny town of Schroeder [name?], in a modest house with a view of the lake and his family's fish house. His father and mother came from Norway in the early 1920s, but Karlson says now, land on the shore is too expensive for a fishing family to buy.

KARLSON: Oh, I think the fish'll come back, but I don't think there'll be any place for anybody to fish. A lot of these old fishermen have died or quit fishing or stuff like that, and then, eventually they sell out, and there'll be no place to get on the lake again [laughs ruefully].

LOSURE: Not far down the road from the Carlsens, a 6-acre lake-front lot is for sale, for $325,000. Tourism, now, is the future of the north shore. New resorts are springing up in the rocky coves. The time when an immigrant family could homestead there is long past. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Losure.

Back to top

[Burbling sounds as boat moves away. Haunting wordless singing]

CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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.

[Fade music]

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: One view on how the US should respond to China's failing environment. That's coming up on Living on Earth.

[Funky jazz music up and under)


(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Forty-two degrees, clear, wind out of the west at 12 miles an hour. That was the weather report from Milwaukee on November 1st, 1870, one of 24 simultaneous reports wired to Washington, DC, that day from observers around the nation. And so began what is now called the National Weather Service. Throughout the nineteenth century, scientists were improving their means of measuring and predicting weather, but the real breakthrough was the invention of the telegraph. It allowed for synoptic forecasting, that is, the collection of data from many different places at once. Just a week after it began, the service forecasted its first storm. A year later, it was making nationwide forecasts three times a day. In the next 24 hours, the service will likely process 400,000 meteorological bulletins. Things weren't always so smooth at the startup. For example, the Weather Service had a hard time establishing a field station in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Most of the buildings there had been destroyed in the Civil War. And in the Midwest, an inspector visiting a field station discovered an empty room. It turned out the observer there dabbled in games of chance, and paid off a poker debt by pawning all the forecasting equipment. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Visitor From China

CURWOOD: When Chinese President Jiang Zemin recently sat down to talk with President Clinton, the state of China's environment was high on the agenda. China's growing population and rising standard of living have created a huge demand for more energy. By 2020, the country's coal consumption is expected to double, possibly triple. That means dramatic increases and emissions responsible for climate change. Congress has said it won't approve a global warming treaty unless developing countries like China agree to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Given those conditions, Professor Michael McElroy, who co-chairs Harvard University's China Project, says China's involvement is crucial in the upcoming climate change treaty talks.

McELROY: The question is, what does that mean? To be involved, in my opinion, does not mean that they accept the same schedule that we accept as developed countries. However, being involved means that they must accept that they also have responsibility, and then it's a matter of negotiating how that responsibility should be discharged.

CURWOOD: Now, Professor McElroy, does China see CO2 emissions as a vital issue for them?

McELROY: I would say in the scheme of things, China's hierarchy of issues that are important, I guess I would list number one, security. I mean, China's concerned, the government is concerned with making sure that a country doesn't simply collapse into chaos. And in order to have that security, China's concerned with maintaining economic growth. In order to fuel that economic growth you need to have an energy supply, so energy supply is very important. But then China is also surprisingly concerned about the environment. In fact, it has on the books a very good set of environmental laws.

CURWOOD: But are they enforced?

McELROY: Well, there's a story which I like to tell from personal experience. A few years ago I went to visit the city of Chunching, and Chunching is a large city, it's a city of a population of about 15 or 20 million people. And I was escorted by a senior official from the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency from Beijing. And he'd been telling me about their environmental laws, and I was very impressed with how good their environmental laws were. So I asked if I could see the local power plant, and he said no problem. So he brought me along to show me this power plant. And it was like a scene from hell; I'd never imagined anything like it in my life.

CURWOOD: You mean black smoke coming out of the top?

McELROY: I stood back half a mile away, up the hill, beside an apartment building, looking down on trainloads of coal trucking in at one end and empty trains leaving the other end, with smokestacks burning black, yellow smoke. So when I got back in the car to go back to the hotel, I turned to my host and I said, "Professor Wong, does this place violate the Clean Air Act?" And he looked at me with a quizzical smile and he said, "Of course." I said, "Well, what did you do?" And he said, "Well, we fined them. But they don't have any money." I said, "Well, what are you supposed to do if they don't have any money?" He said, "We're supposed to close them down." I said, "Well, but they're still operating." He said, "If we close them down, the city of Chunching has no electricity." So then you realize they have the laws, but it's very difficult to enforce in that particular case. Incidentally, I might say, though, that there's a change taking place in China. They have now taken steps to punish certain environmental offenses under the criminal code rather than the civil code. And that's pretty aggressive. And I'm convinced that they're very serious about that.

CURWOOD: In terms of taking businesses to China to help with their energy situation, some have suggested that companies like GE and Westinghouse, who are eager to start building more nuclear plants, should be allowed to do that in China. Should the US encourage this?

McELROY: I believe that we should definitely be involved in all aspects of the energy infrastructure development in China, including specifically nuclear. Because China is going to develop nuclear power, not on a very rapid time scale. I mean, with current Chinese plans it's unlikely that nuclear power will account for more than a few percent of their electricity generation, even 2 or 3 decades from now. It's going to be a slow process given the rapid growth that they need in order to satisfy the energy demands of their economy. But I think it's extremely important that the United States be involved in that process. It's going to happen, and if it's going to happen with unsafe nuclear power supplied by the former Soviet Union or places such as that, we deprive ourselves of a market. We also deprive ourselves of an opportunity to influence how it is going to go. Having said that, I also appreciate that the Chinese have to be responsible about the use of nuclear technology and exporting it to potential places where it could be abused.

CURWOOD: China's very concerned about its own internal security.


CURWOOD: There's been growing unrest throughout the country about some of the environmental degradation, hasn't there? Sooner or later, isn't this going to cause instability in the population there?

McELROY: I think that a broad spectrum of the Chinese people are very concerned about environment and regard it as a very important thing. I had an interesting experience a few years ago. I spent some time with a person who'd been one of the student leaders at Tiananmen, and he's very seriously involved in the whole human rights movement. And he told me that in his opinion, the environment was a problem for his country at least as serious as the problem of human rights. And having visited China and seen it, I believe that. So I think the government's committed to doing something about it, but it's a difficult task.

CURWOOD: It sounds like they're stuck. If they move to fight pollution, they shut plants down that they need, they'll cost people jobs. And if they don't, they're going to face social instability from the other side.

McELROY: The way I would see it is, China in some sense is having a second industrial revolution. And the first industrial revolution, our industrial revolution, ran its course for what? Not 250 years. So relatively slowly. And we learned about the problems rather late in the game. We learned about the problems of air pollution only when people started to die in Denorek, Pennsylvania, and in London in the early 1950s. But what is really alarming is you have the sense that China is repeating our industrial revolution step by step by step: burning coal, then trying to clean up the particulates. Then worrying about acid rain, and then beginning to worry about other issues related to the, you know, the industrialization. But at the same time taking every single step that we did. The challenge for China, which I hope it steps up to, is to do it in a different way.

CURWOOD: Well, Professor McElroy, thank you very much for taking this time with us.

McELROY: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Michael McElroy is Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard University and Chairman of the Department of the Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: To reach Living on Earth, call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. The e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: A deep thirst for water along the Jordan River. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Mideast Troubled Waters Series: Final Installment - Of Jordan: A River And A Nation

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, men and women began planting seeds in the rich river bottomlands. Along the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the River Jordan, a complex agricultural community emerged. Jericho, on the West Bank of the Jordan, is considered the oldest continuously-inhabited city on Earth. Today the country which took the name of the Jordan uses little of the river's water. Israel and Syria take much of the river from dams and diversions upstream. The situation improved somewhat after King Hussein signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but many Jordanians still feel they do not have enough water, and the scarcity is threatening social stability. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has the final installment in our series Troubled Waters.

(Bleating sheep, hurried on by a man; clanking bells)

MAN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I like the way we live. We're away from all the noise of the city. Of course we have problems, but I've always enjoyed this life. It's my life. But when I start reflecting on it, on our problems and what that means, I see that this kind of life is threatened. And I almost succumb to despair.

TOLAN: Four Bedouin brothers gaze intently at their visitors. They are young men with soft faces, charcoal eyebrows and piercing green eyes, sitting cross-legged on foam pads under a piece of burlap, offering Arabic bread and steaming cups of sweet goat's milk. We're at the base of a rocky hillside, beneath a ruin of the Roman Empire.

MAN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: Older people talk about how these mountains were green. There were woods and trees everywhere. We remember when we were young there was something of that sort. Not as much, but disappearing. I can't give an explanation, but I can tell you how we feel to see it happening in front of our eyes.

(A sheep bleats)

TOLAN: Sheep graze amidst the bedrock outside the tent. The hill is ravaged. It hardly rains any more, the brothers say, so there's no more grass and the sheep have to eat feed. The price of fodder is up, and worst of all, they say, now water is triple the cost of last year.

MAN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: After we heard about the peace treaty, we were hoping the water problem would be resolved. They say in 50 years there will be no water. Do they have an alternative for us? For Jordan? What are they talking about? We hear about reports all the time, and they tell us they're studying. But we don't hear about solutions. Is there no future for us? Would we die, or what? There's no life without water, especially for Bedouins, because we need a lot for our sheep. Definitely, we can't continue like this. We won't be able to if water remains as expensive as it is now. If this continues, we will be forced to leave this and go work as laborers in the city.

(Traffic sounds)

HADADIN: Let me then summarize the entire problem in one word: liquid. Americans call the electricity in the wires “juice,” so power is liquid. Water is liquid.

TOLAN: Munther Hadadin is considered Mister Water in Jordan. He was chief negotiator for the water provisions in the peace treaty with Israel, and now as Jordan's Minister of Water and Irrigation he is dealing with the country's continuing acute shortages.

HADADIN: The country needs more water resources than it actually has to cope with the population pressure on the resource.

TOLAN: In its 50 years as a nation, Jordan's growth has been due not only to a high birth rate. The nation has absorbed 3 great waves of Palestinian refugees. Once in 1948 after the State of Israel was declared, once after the 1967 War and Israel's capture of the West Bank, and then 6 years ago when several hundred thousand Palestinians were evicted from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War.

HADADIN: You can imagine what kind of a challenge the resource management is. To give people in the States an idea, we spent a couple weeks last summer, my kids and I, my wife, we spent it on a ranch in Montana. That ranch had 2 creeks, 2 streams of water, that were privately owned. Either stream was bigger than our major river here, that is causing so much political turmoil.

(Beeps. A voice over radio speaks in Arabic. Translator: "This is Amman, the Radio Service of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." Local music plays.}

TOLAN: The poor mop their floors with drops of water. The middle class take fewer and shorter showers. The rich rip out their lawns. And on the street, in the newspapers, on TV and radio, government programs urge everyone to conserve.

(A woman's voice on radio, in Arabic)

TOLAN: On Direct Transmission, Jordan Radio's morning call-in program, experts offer regular advice on how to save every drop.

TRANSLATOR: There are many ways to conserve water. You can discipline yourselves to turn off water taps when you're washing your dishes. And you can take showers instead of baths, which will allow you to use 20 liters instead of 120. After washing your vegetables, reuse the water for your houseplants and garden. And you can use other wastewater to scrub the tiles on your patio or balcony. When washing your car, always...

TOLAN: Conservation is at the heart of Jordan's current water policy and of a lot of foreign aid. It's the number one strategic priority of US aid in Jordan.

(Pleasant chimes in a crowded area)

TOLAN: But some people say they've already reached the limit. At the Safeway in Amman's middle class Al Shmisani neighborhood, Siham Al Bujari pushes a cart with some soup bones and a bottle of Clorox. She says with water 3 times the price of a few years ago, she doesn't need the lectures.

BUJARI: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I don't know what they are talking about. I don't understand what they mean by conserving. We need to drink and keep our bodies clean. We do conserve when cleaning our houses, but we don't have the minimum we need. We are already conserving.

ABEIDAT: We really, sometimes we feel shame, when we ask them to conserve water. They assure us that they have not the minimum of the water which they should have to live in dignity.

TOLAN: Ahmad Abeidat was King Hussein's prime minister in the mid-1980s and director of state intelligence before that. He's now the chairman of the largest environmental group in Jordan and leader of a new opposition coalition.

ABEIDAT: How can the Jordanian government maintain this relationship between the regime and the people? If the citizens are not finding the minimum of their rights in water. This is very dangerous. Who are responsible for that situation?

TOLAN: The answer lies upstream. In 1953, Israel began diverting the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. Syria shelled the diversions. President Eisenhower sent a special envoy, Eric Johnston, who drew up a comprehensive plan to part Middle Eastern waters. Jordanians would have received a big share of both the Jordan and its tributary, the Yarmouk. The plan petered out amidst growing regional tensions. Today Syria's dams on the Yarmouk and Israel's diversion of the Jordan have left Jordanians downstream out of luck. They can't even use the trickle in the lower Jordan. Israel diverts salty springs away from its main reservoir and dumps them in the lower Jordan, making the river unusable. Thus, water was a major motivation for Jordan's move toward peace with Israel. The treaty promises to give Jordan 15% more water than it uses now. But former prime minister Abeidat says Jordan settled for far too little and allowed Israel to tighten its grasp on the region's waters.

ABEIDAT: Israel is now there enjoying the rights of the Palestinians in the water, the rights of the Jordanians in the water, and also some of the Syrian shares in the water, in addition to their share. I think that the peace treaty in general was unfair to the Jordanian people.

TOLAN: A few years ago, King Hussein removed Mr. Abeidat from his senate post after he criticized the peace treaty. Today, Mr. Abeidat says by negotiating one on one with Israel, Jordan undermined the interest of other Arab players like Syria and the Palestinians. He says the treaty does not account for the water rights of the 2 million Palestinians who've sought refuge in Jordan. But it does allow Israeli agricultural settlements to remain inside Jordan, giving them rights to drill for Jordanian water. Mr. Abeidat says because of the treaty, Israel's 2 to 1 advantage in water is now written virtually in stone.

ABEIDAT: They are trying now to oblige the Jordanian to surrender concerning the water issue. It's so obvious that the Israelis won the water issue.

MAHASNY: I surely do not agree that the Israelis won in that. If the Israelis would have won, it would have been zero water for Jordan and all kept in Israel, which is not the case.

TOLAN: Dored Mahasny, Jordanian water negotiator and deputy to water minister Hadadin.

MAHASNY: You have to be convinced that if it's the Arab way of how things should have been done, they would have been done differently before. But we are in a peace era, and a peace era means that you are recognizing your rights as well as your enemy's rights, who is from now on not your enemy. Now we achieved getting that water. The build-up of water in the region, it's always conserved.

TOLAN: One thing Jordanians agree on: they need a huge water project. Many hope for a canal running downhill from the Red Sea in the south to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, generating hydropower that would desalinate water. But Israeli reluctance, along with environmental concerns and a $5 billion price tag, make the Red-Dead canal appear unlikely. Then there's the idea of a dam on the Yarmouk to the north, but that would require Israeli and Syrian approval, and those countries aren't even speaking to each other. Another possibility: Israel wants to build a dam downstream on the disputed Golan Heights. But if the Jordanians approve that in exchange for a share of the water, they could risk war with Syria. In the spring, reports surfaced that Mr. Hadadin had approached Israel with another option: storing much of Jordan's future water in Israel's Sea of Galilee. Critics say this would undermine Jordanian sovereignty. Mr. Hadadin would not comment on the reports. But clearly, the chief water negotiator for the treaty with Israel is now struggling with the consequences.

HADADIN: The only way I can see that we can respond to it is by harder work, and then trying to establish a tradition of working hours that average 16 hours a day. And believe me, when I do that, people under me respond. I used to come in alone in the early morning at 15 to 7. Pretty soon 4 more people, 10 more people. Now there are others who impress me by coming even earlier, at 6:30. I myself have to provide the leadership.

(Mulling voices and applause)

TOLAN: All this tension over water leads the Jordanian government to celebrate every new drop. On a sunny morning last May, as the summer shortages approached, King Hussein turned a wheel to open the floodgates and bring millions of gallons of water from Israel as part of the peace treaty.

(Gushing water, followed by applause)

TOLAN: But even this water, only 3% of Jordan's annual use, is contested. It's bound for the Jordan Valley, the country's farm belt, not for thirsty urban areas. City dwellers with water in their pipes only twice a week may not be happy about that, and farmers are getting worried.

HALABI: There will be priorities about the use of water. They say that the agriculture is no more feasible, let's buy tomatoes from Lebanon and let's have a shower in Jordan. You never know. I think it's coming soon, 5 to 10 years.

{Flapping cloth, bird song)

TOLAN: Aisa Halabi sits in the breeze under a flapping canopy. It's dusk. He's munching a cucumber, drinking a beer. Isa's family owns large orange groves in the Jordan Valley. He says the water shortage creates tensions between the city and the farm.

HALABI: Probably there will be like a big plan that the people of Amman drink water while the growers in the Jordan Valley don't drink water. So the people of the Jordan Valley will hate the people from Amman. They'll come to Amman and make demonstrations.

TOLAN: Aisa says there are important reasons to keep the water in the fields.

HALABI: You have to think about it socially. If you want to decrease the water on Jordan Valley and eventually have no farming, all the people of the Jordan Valley will come to Amman, okay? When these people come to Amman, the rate of rent will increase in Amman, because, you know, there will be more people. Then the government has to spend more money on these people because they have to put more police people, police force, more civil servants, so eventually they're going to spend money on them. One way or the other. So might as well spend money on the Jordan Valley now and keep the people there to create less social problems.

TOLAN: The Jordan Valley is also important to the country's security. It has been ever since the 1967 War, and the days that followed when Israeli fighter jets crossed the River Jordan in pursuit of Palestinian resistance fighters. Aisa's father died in one attack. Isa says he's not bitter. It was war then.

HALABI: We're at peace now.

TOLAN: But many Jordanians see theirs as a dry peace forcing excruciating choices. Western economists say Jordan should no longer grow thirsty oranges in the desert. It should diversify its economy, shift water use to the cities, and implement population programs that will guarantee enough resources for the next generation, so that the peace will last. Many Jordanians resent this advice. They'd prefer more water. But with no new projects in sight, the country is reduced to patching its leaks.

(A jackhammer)

TOLAN: Jackhammers make rubble of a residential street in Amman. Half the water delivered to Amman is lost, partly due to illegal connections but mostly because of the crumbling network of pipes.

(Noises in the background: jackhammer, voices on radio, traffic)

NAJI: This is a very, very critical thing and sensitive things. And really, we take it very seriously and very urgent. We take action if you have, for example, a shortage of water, a problem with water. If you have a broken line, if you have water in the streets, we taken action immediately.

TOLAN: Mohandis Abdel Kareem Naji directs one of dozens of response teams that answer hundreds of calls a day, applying tourniquets to a bleeding network. Mr. Naji says peace time or not, it feels like he's in a war.

NAJI: We are soldiers. We are soldiers. I think we don't have any difference between us and the front. We are fighting here to save water. Every man is in his position, I think, a fighter or soldiers.

TOLAN: But even if these soldiers save every drop, even if they work 20 hours a day, Jordan still faces a future of severe shortages. In 30 years Jordan's population may double, and people here fear that social tensions may burst out in every direction, like the water from the ruptured pipes under Amman. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

(Jackhammer continues; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our series Troubled Waters was edited by Peter Thomson and engineered by Eileen Bolinsky, George Homsy, and Liz Lempert, with production assistance from Betsy Gammons. For a tape or transcript of this program call 800-218-9988. That's 800-218- 9988.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production team includes Julia Madeson, Peter Christianson, Roberta de Avila, and Peter Shaw, Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Liz Lempert, and Jesse Wegman. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. Peter Thomson heads our Western bureau. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. We had help from Dana Campbell and Carolyn Martin. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Jeff Martini engineers the program. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800-PRO-COWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth