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

March 6, 1998

Air Date: March 6, 1998


El Niño Acting up

The weather pattern El Niño has killed hundreds of people and inflicted millions of dollars in damage this winter. From floods in California and Peru, to high winds in Florida and Mexico, and the freak ice storm that devastated eastern Canada and northern New England, the drought in South east Asia may also be linked. While El Niño is a natural phenomena, some scientists suspect that recent shifts in its pattern is a response to human-induced global warming. Steve Curwood speaks with Kevin Trenberth heads the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. (05:00)

Emissions Credits Follies

Some folks say free market approaches have enormous potential to help improve air quality and spur investment in cleaner energies like wind, solar and hydro-power. Others, like commentator Michael Silverstein, call some of the recent economic incentive proposals pure folly. Commentator Michael Silverstein is with the Philadelphia based consulting firm - Environmental Economics. (03:00)

Lead Series; The Silent Epidemic: - Part Two (of 3) / Deirdre Kennedy

The way people get acute lead poisoning is through exposure to old paint right at home. The stereotype is of a poor child eating a paint chip in a dilapidated housing project. But, plenty of cases of poisoning come from lead dust, particles too small to notice. And while children living in low-income homes run a greater risk of poisoning this way, thousands who live in more affluent homes are also at risk. In Part 2 of the re-broadcast of our series, "The Silent Epidemic", Deirdre Kennedy reports on how one young family learned about lead poisoning the hard way. (06:40)

Mushroom Garden Spot

Vegetables really can be grown in winter. Steve Curwood meets with Living On Earth's resident gardening expert Michael Weishan to get how-to advice on growing mushrooms at home. (04:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... whales and some whaling history. (01:15)

Mideast Water Series: Collision in Gaza / Sandy Tolan

As we continue the re-broadcast of our series "Mideast Troubled Waters", Sandy Tolan brings us this journal from Gaza: a place where diminished and contaminated water supplies may spark a public health crisis, and make peace even harder to achieve in the Middle East. Our series concludes next week as we examine the politics of water. To obtain a cassette copy of our series, "Troubled Waters", call toll free 800- 218-9988. (22:30)

Water Essay / Steve Curwood

- Steve Curwood mentions that Living on Earth is preparing a series of special reports about our relationship to water. We'll explore how safe our drinking water is, pinpoint sources of contamination and explain how they affect us. We'll also examine what citizens can do at home and what we need to do as a society to insure a clean and lasting water supply. "The Thirst for Safe Water", coming this spring on Living on Earth. (02:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Deirdre Kennedy
GUESTS: Kevin Trenberth, Michael Weishan, Sandy Tolan
COMMENTATORS: Michael Silverstein, Steve Curwood

(Theme music intro)

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

As El Niño's storms and floods continue to batter the West Coast and Florida, many are beginning to ask if there is a link to human-induced climate change. Some early research suggests the answer might well be yes.

TRENBERTH: El Niño has been behaving unusually in, say, the last 20 years compared with the previous hundred years, and so that gives us pause. That makes us really ask that question as to whether what we are seeing might be a part of the global warming signature.

CURWOOD: Also, while poor people are at more risk from lead poisoning because of degraded paint and dilapidated housing, the middle class can be exposed, too, especially with home renovations.

HODGES: We had moved our kids into what we thought was our dream come true, and it ended up being our worst nightmare. It was terrible.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, but first this round-up of today's news.

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(NPR News follows)

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El Niño Acting up

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

El Niño. The weather pattern has killed hundreds of people, and inflicted millions of dollars in damage this winter from floods in Peru and California to high winds in Mexico and Florida. A freak ice storm that devastated eastern Canada and northern New England may also be linked to El Niño. In the meantime, New Yorkers note that this is the first year since records have been kept that there has been no snow in Central Park during February. And at the same time, halfway around the world drought has racked southeast Asia. While El Niño is a natural phenomenon, some scientists suspect that recent shifts in its pattern are responses to human-induced global warming. Kevin Trenberth heads the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

TRENBERTH: El Niño has been behaving unusually in, say, the last 20 years compared with the previous hundred years. And so that gives us pause. That makes us really ask that question as to whether what we are seeing might be a part of the global warming signature.

CURWOOD: What's new about El Niño's behavior?

TRENBERTH: Well, traditionally, we have an El Niño event, which is a warming of the tropical Pacific, interspersed with its sister, the La Niña, which is a cold event in the tropical Pacific. And in historical times these have occurred about every 3 to 7 years, alternating from one to the other. In the last 20 years we have seen a lot more El Niño events, and we've also seen bigger and longer El Niño events than we have historically. And so, this is the reason why we ask that question.

CURWOOD: So you're saying that if you look back over the record of 100 years, the most recent 20 are quite a bit different.

TRENBERTH: That's right. Since about 1976.

CURWOOD: Have you done any statistical analyses of this? I mean, what are the odds that the present El Niño pattern is just, you know, a random walk?

TRENBERTH: This requires firstly getting good information on what has happened in the past, and that is not an easy thing in itself. And so, using the best information we have, we have done some sophisticated statistical analysis, which indicates that given the previous hundred years, what's been happening is about a 1 in 2000 event. And so, it is sufficiently rare that it looks like global warming must be playing a role or some other form of climate change must be playing a role, and then the next question is, what is that role?

CURWOOD: Could you please explain to us briefly how global warming could affect the El Niño?

TRENBERTH: Well, one of the things global warming does is, at high latitudes it mainly affects temperature. And a lot of people think global warming just refers to increases in temperature. It's really much more than that. In the middle and low latitudes, in the tropics in particular, most of the heating, the additional heating that goes on, goes into evaporating moisture. And that means that in places where it's dry, where a drought is occurring, say, for natural reasons or associated with El Niño, things dry out more quickly, and so the drought is more severe, longer lasting, more intense. Secondly, because there's more moisture in the atmosphere, that moisture gets sucked up into whatever weather systems there are, whether they are thunderstorms, whether they are rain storms, mid-latitude cold fronts, and there's more moisture available to all of those systems. And so we get heavier rains, and we've seen a lot of evidence that indeed, it is raining harder, especially across the United States, when it rains, than it has historically. And so because El Niño causes floods and droughts and redistributes those around the world, the intersection with one of the main manifestations of global warming may be simply that the droughts and the floods become more severe.

CURWOOD: From your work, Dr. Trenberth, do you think that we're in trouble? That the human-induced climate change is putting us on a course that we're going to find even worse weather than we've seen in the El Niño problems this year?

TRENBERTH: I think the biggest changes that we really need to watch out for, and which we have probably not paid enough attention to, are the changes in extremes. Those are the main ways in which we will actually notice global warming. We won't notice a one-degree change in temperature. What we will notice are when it gets extremely hot in summer and there are heat waves, or there are extremely dry conditions and we have droughts, as we have had in Indonesia, record-breaking conditions over there. And floods, such as we've seen in California and even Florida, very recently. And it's impossible to say, point your finger at any one event and say yes, this is caused by global warming. But global warming's probably contributing a little bit to all of these things. And if El Niño becomes the norm, and it may be that there are shifts in population that result from this kind of thing.

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

TRENBERTH: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Kevin Trenberth heads the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He spoke to us from member station KGNU.

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Emissions Credits Follies

CURWOOD: A senior White House economist says the average US household would pay $70 to $100 a year extra in energy costs if the nation implements the global warming agreement crafted in Kyoto this past December. In the first step of what's expected to be a long and protracted effort to convince Congress to ratify the treaty, the head of the President's Council of Economic Advisors told lawmakers that one key to holding down costs would be an international emissions trading program in which industries and governments can buy and sell the right to pollute. Some folks say this free market approach has enormous potential to help reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and to spur investment in cleaner energies like wind, solar, and hydropower. But others, like commentator Michael Silverstein, call the idea pure folly.

SILVERSTEIN: There's nothing quite so powerful in Washington these days as a bad idea whose time has come. Like trading emission credits. This right to pollute for a price is billed as a way to harness the free market, to bring into being innovative, cost-effective solutions to clean the air. It's nothing of the sort. As a sulfur dioxide emissions trading program operating in the US has shown, no company ever invests serious time or money in targeted efforts to create salable emission credits. What actually happens is that as a natural consequence of certain business decisions that would be made anyway, like closing facilities, installing new equipment, or changing a fuel source, a company's pollution output is reduced.

Under the emission trading umbrella, this creates fake assets that can then be sold to other companies that find it inconvenient to reduce their own emissions for several years. If practiced on an international scale, trading emission credits would not only keep this country's air dirtier than it should be, it will retard development of a domestic market for scores of 21st- century technologies. It will foster even more corruption among recipient foreign factory managers who will fast become experts in Potemkin greenhouse gas projects. It will provide endless opportunities for academic bean counters to gauge whether 87 pine trees in Patagonia are an adequate greenhouse compensation for a ton of CO2 emissions in Missoula, Montana.

What's the great appeal of pollution credit trading inside the Beltway? It's being strongly lobbied for by the same commission-seeking brokerages that contribute so generously to political campaigns of both parties. It comes packaged of free-market solution, a wrapper guaranteed to cause government officials to go glassy-eyed and loose-lipped. Perhaps the greatest appeal of this inherently silly exercise is that it creates the illusion of policy when no policy in fact exists.

Pollution credits are environmental da-da. They are a fundraising mechanism, a clean-up cop-out. If trading the right to pollute is indeed this administration's core initiative to checking domestic and international air pollution in coming years, this administration's always half-hearted environmentalism is well on its way to achieving near-total irrelevance.

CURWOOD: Commentator Michael Silverstein is with the Philadelphia-based consulting firm Environmental Economics.

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CURWOOD: You can reach us through our e-mail address: LOE@NPR.ORG.
That's LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org.
That's www.livingonearth that's all one word .org.

Lead poisoning. It can happen in even the nation's finest homes. One family's experience with the silent epidemic is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: frogs, crickets, and other animals)

Lead Series; The Silent Epidemic: - Part Two (of 3)

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

The metal lead can poison large areas through improper waste handling, industrial emissions, or as fallout from leaded gasoline. But most often, the way people get acute lead poisoning is through exposure to old paint right at home. The stereotype is of a poor child eating a paint chip in a dilapidated housing project. But plenty of cases of poisoning come from lead dust, particles too small to notice. And while children living in low-income homes run a greater risk of poisoning this way, thousands who live in more affluent homes are also at risk. In Part 2 of the rebroadcast of our series, The Silent Epidemic, Deirdre Kennedy reports on how one young family learned about lead poisoning the hard way.

(Woman: "Can you open up that ravioli?" Man: "That's potato salad." Child: "Can I do it, Dad?")

KENNEDY: Linda and Dan Hodges live with their 5 children in what looks like a picture book Victorian house near the San Francisco Bay. When they went shopping for their first home, they had a particular dream house in mind.

L. HODGES: I wanted a Victorian. And I wanted 5 bedrooms, formal dining room, and a fireplace. And when we saw this house we couldn't believe it. We were just thrilled.

KENNEDY: The house the Hodges bought was a 110-year-old fixer-upper. They knew they had a lot of work to do, but they didn't bargain for what they got.

L. HODGES: We had moved our kids into what we thought was our dream come true, and it ended up being our worst nightmare. It was terrible.

KENNEDY: Their nightmare came to life about 3 months after they moved in. Almost by accident, a friend suggested that they have their house checked out for lead.

L. HODGES: We had a Halloween party. We were giving, you know, the nickel tour. And Doug, who works for the lead abatement program, came to the party. And he said "you know, you should probably have the house tested." And the guy came out, and the minute he started testing, it was off the charts and they came back with the results right away saying we had near hazardous waste levels outside in the soil, and lead everywhere in the house. And we had no idea. You can't see it.

KENNEDY: What the Hodges didn't know was that a previous owner sandblasted the outside of the house, sending a fine lead dust raining down into the soil. When the Hodges moved in their children were age 3 to 10 years old. Within weeks their youngest child Zachary's blood lead was around 25 micrograms per deciliter, more than twice the level of concern for children.

(Child making noises: "Hm hm hm hm hm hm...")

KENNEDY: But Dan Hodges says, like most lead poisoned youngsters, Zachary didn't show any obvious symptoms.

D. HODGES: That's the thing -- that's the most scary. By the time you start seeing any signs, there's usually permanent damage already been done. And so, hopefully we've caught it before any permanent damage was done.

L. HODGES: We were very, very lucky. Because we weren't educated. We just thought oh, lead, our kids don't eat paint chips. You know, we didn't know we were breathing it in.

KENNEDY: The Hodges had an emergency lead clean-up and containment done. They moved out of their home while a crew used solvents and a special high- tech vacuum cleaner to remove the fine lead particles. Then, specially trained contractors sealed up the old lead paint and covered the leaded soil in their back yard with concrete and wood chips.

(Child in background: "Hey, you pushed me down. Don't push me down.")

KENNEDY: The lead remediation cost the Hodges about $20,000, which they paid for with an interest-free emergency government loan. Their lead problem is finally contained, but, they say, after their ordeal they're not taking any chances.

L. HODGES: Zack?


L. HODGES: You need to wash that plum before you eat it. Because it fell, was it on the ground?


L. HODGES: Okay. It needs to be washed.

But we're watching them, you know, every minute. And then you want them to be able to play outside, but then there's all the dust and you worry and it's just -- oh, it's always on your mind. You know, you're living in it.

KENNEDY: Like many more affluent parents, the Hodges didn't think their children were at risk for lead poisoning. Because they didn't think they lived in the kind of neighborhood where kids got lead poisoning. What parents don't realize is that a vintage mansion may have more lead than a modest home built in the 1980s. Alice Chang Kaufman, a lawyer with the Environmental Law Foundation, says in houses built before the 1950s, it's not uncommon for the underlying paint to be up to 50 percent lead.

CHANG KAUFMAN: People thought lead was great in paint. It made the paint more durable. Any building that is relatively old is going to have lead paint somewhere, unless it's at any point been sanded right down to the walls and repainted.

KENNEDY: But unless it's done by a qualified contractor, sanding down the lead can be worse than leaving it alone. That's how the Hodges' home became a lead nightmare in the first place. Under a new Federal law, owners of homes built before 1978 must tell buyers and renters about known lead hazards on their property and provide them with a pamphlet about lead poisoning. But only a few states and cities actually require property owners to test for lead hazards or to fix them.

(Water runs from a tap)

KENNEDY: Paint is the main source of lead poisoning in children, but there are many other sources, including tap water. In Roman times plumbing was made of pure lead. In fact, the word plumb comes from the Latin word for lead. These days lead in drinking water is a problem for about 1 in 6 homes in the United States. It can leach out of old municipal water tanks or lead pipes in older homes. It can even come from lead solder in copper plumbing installed until a decade ago. Lead can also come from faucets.

(Water boiling; a teakettle whistles)

KENNEDY: Alice Chang Kauffman says water absorbs lead when it's been sitting in lead-contaminated pipes for several hours. Unlike germs, lead can't be boiled out of drinking water, but she says you can help reduce the amount of lead by letting the water run for a minute or more before using it. Groups like the Environmental Law Foundation also provide inexpensive home kits to test for lead in water, soil, paint, and imported ceramics.

CHANG KAUFMAN: I certainly would advise -- certainly somebody who's buying a home, and probably somebody who's renting a home if they have children -- to check the place out before buying it. To conduct lead tests to find out if there's a problem. Because once you've discovered lead problems in a house, it can be very costly to take care of.

(Machinery; sanders or saws?)

KENNEDY: Now that Dan and Linda Hodges have gotten their own lead problem under control, they're facing another hazard: the same one threatening residents across America. Lead dust blowing into their yard from their neighbors' renovations.

D. HODGES: And they're working on that house next door.

L. HODGES: I'm worried about that.

D. HODGES: Yeah, right. Because they have lead and asbestos over there, and I'm not sure how aware they are of it. And, you know, we've done so much work to help protect ourselves from our house, and then to have all that construction going on next door, you know, with dust being stirred up and things. I just wonder what our exposure risk is for that.

KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

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(Construction continues)

CURWOOD: Next week our series continues with a look at the problem of lead poisoning for industrial workers and how it affects their children.

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Mushroom Garden Spot

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
It's the middle of winter and there are many dark and gloomy days, not so good for gardening, except well, Michael Weishan, Living on Earth's expert gardener, has some ideas. What can you do when the days are dark and gloomy?

WEISHAN: Well, what I'd like to do is grow some mushrooms.

CURWOOD: Mushrooms?

WEISHAN: Absolutely. We have some shiitake mushroom kits. I'll bring them over here from under the bench.

(A box being moved; crackling of cellophane)

WEISHAN: This is actually the mushroom kit as it comes.

CURWOOD: So what's in it?

WEISHAN: Originally, it was sawdust and shiitake mushroom spawn, that's now sort of grown through it and knitted the sawdust into a sort of a spongy hole.

CURWOOD: Mushroom spawn? I mean, this sounds like something from a horror movie.

WEISHAN: (Laughs) Yeah, it does actually. Most of the mushroom is not what we actually think of as the mushroom. The main part of the mushroom plant is called the mycelium. And it's what we refer to as the spawn. It's a perennial part of the plant that grows underground. Its primary purpose is to decompose organic material. It has a specialized cell structure that creeps in between organic material and breaks down rotting dead organic matter. And that's the main part of the mushroom organism. What we call a mushroom is, the cap is actually the fruit body, the flower as it were, of the mushroom.

CURWOOD: Now, the sawdust adds the organic matter, is that it?

WEISHAN: Yes. The sawdust adds the organic matter, and different types of mushrooms grow in different properties. They've all been genetically bred over the millennia to break down specific organisms. Shiitake breaks down wood. The white button mushroom, for instance, that you see that's so common in the store feeds on compost and manure. Each one decomposes a slightly different aspect of the environment. The mycelium, the base of the mushroom, is actually exceedingly common in nature. Estimates range that up to 10% of the forest floor biomass is actually this mushroom mycelium creeping underground really. It's there, but you just don't notice it's there.

CURWOOD: Is this how all the mushrooms we find in the stores are grown?

WEISHAN: Yes, actually, it is. And it's really rather a good thing. Because these days, a lot of the species are somewhat endangered, and the natural environments in which they're grown are rapidly being developed. So if we had to depend on the environment for mushroom culture, we would be in trouble. A lot of them are grown in caves, actually. Certain varieties of mushrooms, like the white button mushroom you see in the store, actually do grow in the dark. These shiitakes actually prefer a bit of light. They don't photosynthesize, but they prefer a lighted condition in order to grow and fruit. And of course, there are also specialized mushroom houses, where the majority of the commercial production takes place these days.

CURWOOD: But now, with this kit you have here, it seems that people really don't need a cave or a special house to grow their own mushroom.

WEISHAN: No, because of course this has all been prepared for you, and this is the glory of the thing. It looks totally foreign. The kids love it, you know. (Laughs) What is this thing? And it's actually very easy to use, and you can get kits for various kinds. For shiitake, for oyster mushrooms, which are a delicious culinary treat. And they actually grow in coffee grounds, which is really cool, so if you have a lot of extra, if you're a big coffee drinker, you have a lot of extra coffee --

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Coffee grounds?

WEISHAN: Coffee grounds. Espresso grounds, I'm told, are especially palatable.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. Now, is it really cost-effective? I mean, is it expensive to get a kit?

WEISHAN: Well, let's put it this way. By the time you actually do this and harvest the mushrooms, the kits are about $20 a piece, generally. And they produce sometimes several, 2 to 3 pounds of mushrooms. So, it depends on what you can pay for organically-grown mushrooms in your part of the country, or whether you can even get them at all. The main part is educational. And it also shows you the value of the kit shows you how to actually grow this yourself.

CURWOOD: And I guess having mushroom kits is certainly well, safer than trying to go outside and finding wild mushrooms anyway, right?

WEISHAN: Yeah. Especially if you don't know what you're doing. Obviously, there is a danger of eating a poisonous variety. These will only grow what they're scheduled to grow. I think it's important, though, if you do this with kids, to stress that this is something that you do inside and that you then don't go eat every mushroom or fungi you see outside.

CURWOOD: What's your favorite?

WEISHAN: I happen to really like these shiitakes. That's my favorite. And also the oysters. I actually like all mushrooms. (Laughs) I've developed a taste. As a kid I never liked them at all, but now you put a mushroom in front of me and it's gone.

CURWOOD: Well, Michael, thanks for the info.

WEISHAN: Oh, my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is editor of Traditional Gardening. When he's not digging in dirt or sawdust or whatever, he's happy to answer gardening questions. You can reach him at our Web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Click on the picture of the watering can.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's 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 National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: In the Gaza strip, problems with water scarcity and quality threaten a social and environmental collapse. Our continuing series on water in the Middle East is coming up, right here on Living on Earth.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund, and Stonyfield Farm Yogurt: If the planet's health isn't our business, whose is it?

(Theme music up and under)

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

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: March was a bad month for Julius Caesar and it hasn't been much kinder to whales. For instance, in March 1644, men of Southampton, Long Island, began the first organized whaling expeditions in the colonies. Beached whales were their early targets. Then, learning from the Native Americans, who had been hunting whales for thousands of years, the colonists took to longboats and harpooned the docile right whale by the thousands. Two hundred years later, whaling was done in ships far out at sea. Whalers had figured out how to turn blubber into oil while still on the ship, allowing them to hunt for much longer periods. During whaling's peak in the mid-19th century, one expedition could last up to 10 years. It was also during this period that 2 Germans patented the first electric whale-killing machine in, yep, March of 1852. The hand-cranked device was supposed to deliver a jolt of electricity down a copper wire attached to a harpoon. But even the strongest men could only crank out about 100 watts, enough to light a bulb but not enough to harm, let alone kill, a whale. And finally, in the March whale chronicles, the year 1947 saw whalers in the South Atlantic kill the largest animal ever on record. The 190-ton, 90-foot female blue whale had a heart that weighed more than 1,500 pounds. But that was nothing compared to her tongue. It weighed nearly 5 tons. And as legend has it, that mighty tongue wagged the final warning to all the giants of the deep: Fellow whales beware the Tides of March. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Mideast Water Series: Collision in Gaza

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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's 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 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 we continue the rebroadcast of our series Troubled Waters, Sandy Tolan brings us his journal from Gaza: a place where diminished and contaminated water supplies may spark a public health crisis.

(Traffic sounds)

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

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 in 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 --

PASSENGER: 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: I'm 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 on, 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 mosquitos 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 mosquitos 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 6 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 the aerial disease, the prevalence of the aerial 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: And in a child that means the growth of this child, the attitude, it reflects on all the health. The affect on the mentality of the children, the 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 of 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 2 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 form 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.

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, and tell -- (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 and 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 to 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 2 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)

CURWOOD: The Palestinians need it. The Israelis control it. And tensions over it make peace even harder to achieve in the Middle East. Our series concludes next week as we examine the politics of water.

MAN: [Speaks in Hebrew]
TRANSLATOR: In our struggle, in our fight, in our war, the war is not over a well in Hebron or a water hole in Gaza. It is between 2 cultures. The question is which culture is going to win? That's how it begins, and that's how it ends.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: To obtain a cassette copy of our series Troubled Waters, call toll- free 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988.

(Music up and under)

Water Essay

CURWOOD: When you view the Earth from space, the most prominent color you see is blue. It's the water that covers three quarters of our planet. And when you add up what's inside us humans, you find that the biggest part again is water. Water is life, and when it is denied, life itself is denied. Around the world from the Gaza Strip to Grand Rapids, the supply of healthy fresh water is dwindling. Even here in America, where water pipes run almost everywhere, we are told that there are places where it is not safe for pregnant women to drink local tap water because of increased risk of miscarriage. And under current regulations, even bottled water is no absolute guarantee of purity. Other studies tell us that contaminants in water supplies may be linked to cancers and reproductive problems, increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and neurological disorders. All from a simple glass of water.

In the coming months, my colleagues here at Living on Earth will join me in preparing a series of special reports about our relationship to water. We'll find out how safe our drinking water really is, pinpoint sources of contamination, and explain how they affect us. We'll also examine what you can do at home, and what we need to do as a society to ensure a clean and lasting water supply. The thirst for safe water this spring on Living on Earth.

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(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 Peter Christianson, Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, and Julia Madeson, George Homsy, Jesse Wegman, Terry FitzPatrick, Daniel Grossman, and Liz Lempert. We had help from Dana Campbell, Jeremy Jurgens, Vanessa Melendez, and Miriam Landman. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Kim Motylewski is our associated editor. Chris Ballman is our senior producer. Our technical director is Eileen Bolinsky, and Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health; www.wajones.org; the Surdna Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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