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

July 9, 1999

Air Date: July 9, 1999


Water For Sale / Bob Carty

Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty reports on the changing nature of water from resource to commodity. Demand for fresh water is on the rise worldwide, and nations with abundant supplies, such as Canada, are weighing whether or not to begin exporting what is becoming a precious commodity. (12:55)

L.A. Wetlands

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about some head-to-head disputes between Hollywood and the environment, including the recent decision by DreamWorks SKG to cancel its plans to build a studio on the last, major open space in Los Angeles. (05:10)

Guiding Urban Cowboys / Susannah Wright

In the West, mining and logging have traditionally been targets of environmentalists, but commentator and Colorado trail guide Susannah Wright says that tourism, once touted for its promise of non-extractive income, is beginning to take an equally serious toll on the environment. (02:20)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the American bald eagle. Five years ago this week, the Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed that the eagle be upgraded from "endangered" to "threatened" status. In another year, it may come off the Endangered Species List altogether. (01:30)

Kosovo Environment / Drew Leifheit

Reporter Drew Leifheit summarizes the first detailed study on the environmental fallout from NATO bombing and refugee migration during the recent war in the Balkans. (02:35)

Arab-Israeli Teamwork / Patricia Golan

Youth in the Middle East are joining together to take on environmental problems their elders have overlooked. Patricia Golan reports that Arab-Israeli cooperation is forging a new understanding of the region's ecology. (07:00)

Listener Letters

This week, listeners respond to recent stories on: road rage, black flies, and Canadian super-pigs. (03:05)

Beach Erosion

Natural erosion along with human development is threatening 70-90 percent of the beaches on American shores. New York Times Science Editor Cornelia Dean, author of the book Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, discusses these threats to America's coastline with host Steve Curwood. (05:30)

Tunnel Gardens / Celeste Wesson

School kids in East Los Angeles are experimenting with planting tunnel gardens, drawing on an ancient technique that uses less water and prevents erosion. As Celeste Wesson reports, tunnel gardens use a canopy that shades plants from harsh sun and enriches the soil with nutrients. (05:55)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Bob Carty, Drew Leifheit, Patricia Golan, Celeste Wesson
GUESTS: Mark Hertsgaard, Cornelia Dean
COMMENTATOR: Susannah Wright

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Experts predict it'll be the cause of wars, misery, and make some people rich in the coming century. Fresh water is becoming hot on the international market.

BARLOW: The commodification, commercialization, privatization of water is happening now. Governments are standing like animals in the headlights of a car. They have just discovered the water crisis. They haven't the faintest idea what to do.

CURWOOD: One nation, Canada, has almost a fifth of all the fresh water in the world, but isn't ready yet to share. Also, Steven Spielberg backs away from plans to develop Los Angeles's last great open space.

HERTSGAARD: You know, in Hollywood all great stories come down to one of three things: love, greed, or ego. This great story at Playa Vista has got two, and love's not one of them.

CURWOOD: Those stories this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

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(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Water For Sale

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Every 8 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. That sad statistic is just one indicator of the world's current and growing demand for fresh, clean water. The United Nations predicts that within 25 years, almost a third of the world's population and at least 50 nations will face severe water shortages. Some will even go to war over the resource. This crisis affects thirsty regions of the United States as well. And when Americans talk of buying water in bulk, they often look northward, towards Canada. Canada owns one-fifth of the world's fresh water, but despite the abundant supply and a growing demand, Canadians are trying to prevent their water from being exported. Bob Carty explains.

(Helicopter engine)

WHITE: Now we're down over Grand LaPierre at the moment, and we're flying in a Bell 206 Long Ranger.

CARTY: Jerry White lifts his helicopter up and over a little community on the south shore of Newfoundland. The forests here are virgin, the lakes pristine, especially Gisbourne Lake, an 11-square-mile body of water just in from the ocean. Jerry White banks the helicopter to show where Gisbourne Lake empties into the sea.

WHITE: Now, I'm going to turn around so you can have a look and see the water that's going over the falls, so you can see the clearness and the purity of the water. Very crystal clear, you could just look right on through it. It's a beautiful sight.

CARTY: And Jerry White has plans for that water. Plans to take it to thirsty parts of the Middle East. Plans that Jerry White wants to show off up close. He lands the helicopter.


CARTY: Leads his guest down to the shore. And scoops up a handful of Gisbourne Lake.

(Mild splashes)

WHITE: Very good. Very nice. We have 100 million cubic meters of water a year that flow into the ocean, and we're looking at taking 25%, one tanker of water from the lake. It will drop it one inch. Before the tanker reaches the 200-mile limit, that one inch of water is back in the lake, and it's like nothing has happened here in the area.

CARTY: Jerry White is a millionaire owner of a construction company with a new entrepreneurial vision. He wants to make water the oil business of the 21st century. And the oil metaphor is intentional, except that this time the resource is renewable. And this time, Canada would be the OPEC of water, while the Middle East would be on the buying end. In fact, Jerry White's idea is to use single-hull oil tankers that are no longer environmentally acceptable to transport Newfoundland water to Saudi Arabia, just like any other raw material.

WHITE: You know, we export our fish, we export our minerals, our forestry products. And of course the water should be just another commodity that we export. Under strict guidelines, of course. We don't want to come in and drain every lake and then just send it out.

CARTY: But there's a problem with Jerry White's project. The Canadian government has declared a moratorium on all bulk water exports. It seems Jerry White's scheme has struck a nerve in Canadian politics. Canadians have no compunction about exporting bottled water, nor about selling a river's worth of water treated with a little bit of hops and barley. But bulk water exports? That's another matter. Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a citizen's organization that works on issues of trade, health, and the environment.

BARLOW: Well, it's interesting because we don't take very good care of our water. We're absolutely terrible water abusers, both in our lack of conservation and of course our pollution of our water. Nevertheless, we have great pride in saying it's our water to pollute if we want to. (Laughs) So, I openly and up front admit the hypocrisy. But there is something about water that's part of our history, part of our -- our soul, if you will. Part of what we consider to be essentially Canadian, because we still have so much wilderness. And I think the notion that Americans can waste it, can build in the desert where there isn't any water because heck, they can take us for granted and we've got lots. And it's that being taken for granted, I think, that really rubs Canadians the wrong way.

CARTY: Canadians started feeling rubbed the wrong way in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

MOSS: Canada might well look to using its water as an additional resource.

CARTY: North Dakota Senator Frank Edward Moss was one of a number of American politicians who realized that in the long run, the people and industries of the US Southwest would need more water. Senator Moss's solution was a breathtaking scheme called NAWAPA: the North American Water and Power Alliance. It was the largest engineering project ever conceived, a plan to dam virtually every major river in Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia, and divert the water into the Rocky Mountain trench, creating a reservoir 500 miles long.

MOSS: The great and beautiful Canadian Rockies already offer a tremendous, beautiful retreat for recreation, but to this would be added a great mountain lake. This would flow on down all through the western United States and on into old Mexico.

CARTY: Billions of gallons of water surging southward to make deserts bloom and industry thrive. But some Canadians didn't quite like the idea of drowning a large part of one province and siphoning away rivers they thought were theirs. Water diversion schemes awakened Canadian nationalism.

MAN 1: Clearly we have here an exercise in sophomore civil engineering.

MAN 2: Well, this type of proposal, to my mind, is purely asinine.

CARTY: And so the NAWAPA scheme faded away, in part because of its exorbitant cost and massive environmental impacts. But it also stalled because Canada and the United States lacked a formal trade agreement to give water trade long-term stability. All of that changed in the late 1980s. Washington and Ottawa negotiated the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. And in Canada's Parliament, nationalist sensibilities were again aroused.

MAN 3: This is the Sale of Canada Act.

MAN 4: Right on.

MAN 3: Is it any wonder that the President of the United States called this the fulfillment of the American Dream?

WOMAN 1: Right on.

MAN 3: We have become a storehouse, a reservoir for the United States.

(Many people shout at once)

MAN 5: Quiet, please.

CARTY: Despite widespread opposition, the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement was approved, leaving some Canadians with musical questions about what the free trade deal would mean.

WOMAN 2: (Sings to background music) When the deal goes through, will our pace get quick? Will our beer get thin? Will our skins get thick? When the deal goes through, will our streets get hotter? Can we sell our blood? Will we sell our water? Will Uncle Sam say voulez-vous when the deal goes through?

CARTY: When the Canada-US Free Trade deal did go through, it transformed the playing field for water exports. Maude Barlow.

BARLOW: Essentially, what it did was, if you turn on the tap for water for commercial purposes in any state or province of the countries involved, then it can't be turned off again. You have to continue to supply to the area you've been supplying it to, and governments can enforce that. But more important, you give corporations of the other countries the right to come in. You can't keep it in your own backyard.

CARTY: Since the implementation of North American Free Trade, there has been a flood of new water export proposals. Besides Jerry White's plans for Gisbourne Lake in Newfoundland, there have been about 20 proposals for exporting water from glacier lakes in British Columbia. Another firm wanted to ship water from the Great Lakes to Asia, a scheme that provoked so much protest from Canadian provinces and the Great Lakes states that the International Joint Commission launched public hearings into the matter. The accelerated interest in Canadian water is why Ottawa announced a moratorium. Ottawa's not shutting the door on water exports, it just wants to go slowly. Alaska, meanwhile, is on the fast track. Aware of its declining oil reserves, Alaska is promoting the bulk water export business. There are reports that any day now, a shipment of Alaska H2O will be tankered to Los Angeles. When that happens, Canadian water companies get a right to a share of Alaska water under the trade treaties. In fact, the next company in line is a Canadian group. It wants to sell Alaska water to China, where it will be bottled by cheap labor for resale as international boutique water. There are analysts with doubts about the business of water exports. Sandra Postel is the author of The Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. She maintains that so far, bulk water exports are just not profitable.

POSTEL: The economics really depend on the cost of these transfers relative to, in most cases, desalination of water, which is a very expensive option, usually an option of last resort. So any proposal to trade water typically would have to be competitive with that cost. Now, that may change. At the same time, the cost of desalination is coming down at the same time.

CARTY: There are technologies that could cut the cost of bulk water exports. One is bag or bladder technology. You put fresh water into an enormous plastic bag. And because fresh water floats on salt water, you can drag it through the ocean. The bag of water is its own vessel, absorbing all the shocks of waves and storms. If it leaks, there's no environmental damage. But critics say the extraction of water for export could be environmentally devastating. Maude Barlow is the author of a new study called Blue Gold. She argues that although Canada does have a lot of water, much of it is locked up in ice, and much of the rest flows northward to the Arctic. Use of that water would require massive damming projects with extensive environmental impacts. And Maude Barlow bristles when she hears promoters suggest that fresh water running out to sea is wasted.

BARLOW: Recent studies in British Columbia show that fresh water, particularly the glacier water coming off the side of a cliff, where it meets the sea water is a very important spawning ground for salmon and other fish. And that taking that fresh water and, you know, drinking it up, putting it in a big tanker and taking it away would destroy the spawning system for that fish. So I think we need to understand what we don't know yet.

CARTY: As Director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts, Sandra Postel agrees. The supply of fresh H2O is limited; population is increasing. Something, she says, has got to give. For Postel, the answer is not moving water to thirsty nations and regions. The most effective measure is working on the demand side of the equation, on water conservation.

POSTEL: If you save a gallon of water, you in effect create a gallon of new supply. And it's a supply that's just as good as if you tankered it in. The cost of these demand-management options, whether it's drip irrigation in agriculture, putting more efficient fixtures in our homes, more efficient toilets, faucets, shower heads, recycling water within industries, these options increase the efficiency of water use, and they do it at a much lower cost, typically, than trading water through tankers and large bags.

CARTY: But solutions like that take time, and political attention. And so far, there has been a noticeable drought in international debate about water, and whether it is just a commodity like any other. Maude Barlow says water has been taken for granted for too long.

BARLOW: The commodification, commercialization, privatization of water is happening now. Governments are standing like animals in the headlights of a car. They have just discovered the water crisis. They haven't the faintest idea what to do.

(Flowing water)

CARTY: In downtown Ottawa, the Rideau River empties off a cliff into the Ottawa River. The capital of Canada was established here because it was far enough away from the threat of Americans across the St. Lawrence River. It seems water, and issues of Canadian sovereignty, are doomed to be married together for some time yet to come. As an American, Sandra Postel sympathizes with the Canadian conundrum over water. And she welcomes Canada's moratorium on bulk water exports.

POSTEL: Canada is one of the most abundant water countries in the world. But the idea of going carefully, I think, is justified, because water is more than a commodity. Water is fundamentally the basis of life. Access to a minimum amount of clean water for drinking, cleaning, basic household needs, is a human right.

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Ottawa.

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(Flowing water; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: Steven Spielberg cancels plans to build his DreamWorks studio in L.A.'s last big open space. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

L.A. Wetlands

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In California, land conservationists are increasingly running up against a formidable opponent: Hollywood. In April, we reported on plans to develop one of the last remaining open spaces in Los Angeles. Steven Spielberg's production company, DreamWorks, wanted to build a studio there. DreamWorks promised to protect fragile wetlands in the site. But some environmental groups claimed that any development would be too much. And recently DreamWorks announced the deal was off. Joining us now to discuss this turn of events is Living on Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard.


CURWOOD: Mark, most media coverage of the DreamWorks decision has been playing it as a business story. But there are some big environmental concerns here as well, right?

HERTSGAARD: Very big environmental issues. You're talking here about the last open space in Los Angeles. Very large piece of undeveloped land, about 1,087 acres. And for those of you who know Los Angeles, it's very close to the L.A. airport just on the other side of the ridge. If you stand with your back to the ocean at the ocean end of the property and you look back towards downtown L.A., the land stretches out for about 3 miles in a long oblong. And in fact, it bears a striking resemblance to Central Park of New York City. And that's one of the issues that the environmentalists who oppose this have raised, and say, look, if any city needs a new Central Park, it's Los Angeles. It uses only 4% of its land as park and open space. That compares with 17% in New York. L.A.'s a city where they literally pave the riverbanks. And so that's been a big concern: why would you pave over the last open space?

CURWOOD: But now, according to DreamWorks, they say they're not pulling out because of these environmental concerns. They're saying it is cold cash, and that they can't raise enough of it through financing. Do you buy that claim?

HERTSGAARD: I think there's maybe some truth to that, Steve. Financing has been a problem for this project for a very long time. The previous owner, McGuire Thomas, had to drop out because of financing difficulties. However, you're talking here with DreamWorks about some of the richest people in America. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, is a big backer of DreamWorks. These guys could put together the money if they really wanted it, out of their own pockets. Out of their own lunch money, almost. So you have to figure that there was something else going on here. And certainly, all the environmental lawsuits that have been brought against the project couldn't have helped.

CURWOOD: So what happens now, Mark, to this site?

HERTSGAARD: The owners, Playa Capital, are saying we're going to go forward, we're going to build a studio, we're going to build all the condos. But that sounds, to be honest, like PR spin. It's going to be very difficult for them to do that because, first of all, the financing problems that stopped DreamWorks are still there on the table. And in some ways they've even become worse, because there is about $100 million worth of public subsidies that were going to go into Playa Vista from the state and from the city of Los Angeles, and those subsidies were essentially offered on the grounds that DreamWorks is going to be there, they're going to be a star anchor tenant and bring in all kinds of other development. If you take DreamWorks off the table, all those subsidies are going to be taken away, and it's going to be very hard for them to get the money for this.

CURWOOD: So at the end, what will happen to this land?

HERTSGAARD: The environmentalists who've opposed this say hey, we've got the answer, we should turn this over as public land. This should be a Central Park for Los Angeles. This should be a wildlife refuge. And indeed, they're in discussions already with state and Federal agencies to try and come up with the money. They've even been quite cheekish and suggested to DreamWorks that DreamWorks could try and donate its 47 acres of the 1,000-acre plot to get this process rolling.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Well, that's ambitious. And DreamWorks says?

HERTSGAARD: Well, DreamWorks laughs at that kind of thing. Jeffrey Katzenberg had a great line to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago about this. He said, "You know, in Hollywood, all great stories come down to one of three things: love, greed, or ego. This great story at Playa Vista has got two, and love's not one of them."

CURWOOD: (Laughs) You know, speaking of Hollywood, there's a project now in San Francisco, at the Presidio, that's got what? George Lucas involved as a developer.

HERTSGAARD: Sure, it's actually got some interesting parallels. The Presidio is the land that is right at the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the most beautiful and striking pieces of publicly-owned real estate in this country. Used to be an Army base, and then it's been recently turned into a national park. And then just two weeks ago, George Lucas won the rights to develop the Letterman Hospital Complex there. This set off an absolute firestorm of protest here in San Francisco, from both environmentalists and neighborhood groups who are saying wait a minute, this is a national park, why are we commercializing a national park and developing it? And the reason for that is the act that went through Congress to buy the Presidio for the national park said that it has to be financially self-sustaining in 15 years. And this, as I say, has set off a lot of protest here in San Francisco. It's going to be a big issue in the months to come and a real story for us to watch.

CURWOOD: Author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

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Guiding Urban Cowboys

CURWOOD: Historically, much of the American West is rooted in logging and mining. Now, many say tourism is a promising alternative to the old extractive industries. But Susannah Wright, who works as a guide in the Colorado mountains, has come to believe that, like the loggers and miners of old, today's tourists are also plundering the wilderness.

WRIGHT: Last summer, my husband and I were guiding a horseback ride when a woman remarked that it must have been a lot of work planting all the wildflowers along our trail. And we were six miles into the national forest. The flowers were in their peak in a good year, but that's not why she thought we planted them. She expected to see abundant flowers along the trail, and she expected us to make sure she did.

Yet lately, I wonder if I should continue fulfilling our clients' expectations, reassuring the city folks that wild places will always be out there, when I'm not sure of it myself. You see, the backcountry where we live and guide is descending into a lawless jungle. Roads that once rumbled with machines turning trees into board feet now cry with the high-pitched whine of all-terrain vehicles. The drivers break open locked gates and carve 2-foot ruts through closed areas. The Forest Service ranger I spoke to admits that she's burned out and is avoiding weekend patrols. "Besides," she says, "why put up No Motorized Vehicle signs when they just drive right over them?"

We usually route our trails away from the worst 4-wheel-drive damage and bring our riders to the top of Prohibition Mountain, with its 360-degree views of snow-capped peaks and rolling plains. We take them to the perfectly circular grassy meadow hidden within miles of thick timber. And we point out the elk tracks, antler rubs on the trees, and berry seeds in the bear scat.

But I'm beginning to think that it's not enough to just visit the nice places. Maybe we should also bring them through the meadows lacerated with tire tracks. Take them to the 120-year-old cabin burned to the ground by vandals. And show them the thousand-acre valley that will be subdivided for vacation homes this time next year.

They must see that a wet meadow crisscrossed with gouging tire tracks is a clear-cut. And a huge smoking fire ring filled with broken bottles and Taco Bell containers is an open pit mine. For only then will they understand that the chainsaws and dynamite have been traded for 4-wheel-drives and ATVs. And that the face of the logger and the miner is reflected in the face of the tourist.

(Music up and under: "Happy Trails to You")

CURWOOD: Commentator Susannah Wright lives in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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(Music up and under)

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 Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under: "Happy trails to you, until we meet again. Happy trails to you...")

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: an update on the environmental impact of the war in Kosovo. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, dedicated to your health and the health of the planet.

(Theme music up and under)

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

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: A hundred years ago, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution translated this passage from a Pawnee ceremony: "O eagle, come with wings outspread in sunny skies. O eagle, come and bring us peace, thy gentle peace. O eagle, come and give new life to us who pray." By the time these verses were recorded, the North American bald eagle population, once a half million strong, was in steep decline due to hunting and habitat loss. Later in the century, heavy use of pesticides, including DDT, which contaminated fish eaten by eagles, decimated the population. By the early 1960s there were fewer than 450 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Then, in 1972, DDT was banned. A year later the eagle was placed on the newly-created Endangered Species List. Under Federal protection, the bird began to recover, and 5 years ago the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that the eagle be upgraded from endangered to threatened status. With the eagle count now at about 5,700 pairs, President Clinton is proposing that the bald eagle be removed from the Endangered Species List next year. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Kosovo Environment

CURWOOD: A Central European watchdog group has issued the first detailed report on the extent of environmental damage from NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Drew Leifheit reports.

LEIFHEIT: Based in Budapest, Hungary, the Regional Environmental Center monitors the ecology of East Central Europe. Its report, compiled for the European Union ministers, itemizes the potential harm caused by the war to the water, air, soil, and human health in Yugoslavia and its neighboring states. The center's Tom Popper says that while large-scale ecological catastrophes were averted during the war, resulting pollution from the 78 days of NATO bombing, especially near industrial communities, is severe. Popper says that while black clouds spewing from targeted petrochemical plants posed an immediate threat, the long-lasting environmental danger is in the water. The bombing, he says, released massive amounts of toxic chemicals, including polyvinyl chloride and PCBs into surrounding waterways.

POPPER: The bigger problem is the water table. The chemicals that seep into the water table slowly. And these can take a long time to build up to toxic levels. And suddenly, you'll find a well that was perfectly good a while ago is polluted. Or a water table that feeds crops, essentially the crops suck the water out of the ground and it has been fine, and after seepage of several months or, you know, longer, it gets damaged. That's something that you just have to constantly watch.

LEIFHEIT: Also needing long-term monitoring, says Popper, will be the effects of radiation from metal-piercing depleted uranium shells used by NATO forces against Serb armor. While the report shows the worst ecological impact occurred in Serbia and Kosovo, Popper says towns in Albania and Macedonia weren't prepared for the masses of Kosovar refugees that poured across their borders.

POPPER: Suddenly putting down a refugee camp somewhere would overtax the water and sewage systems of the nearby town. And the infrastructure there is already very weak. The damage done by this is again something that's going to be around for a while. Where there should have been sewage treatment plants, there were open pits.

LEIFHEIT: Popper says the West must integrate environmental concerns into its plans to rebuild the Balkans. And he says the ecological damage in Serbia, which affects the entire region, shouldn't be ignored, even if Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic remains in power. Meanwhile, a multi-national meeting of non-governmental organizations to address environmental concerns of the war is scheduled to take place in Belgrade on July 15th. For Living on Earth, I'm Drew Leifheit in Budapest.

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Arab-Israeli Teamwork

CURWOOD: In the Middle East, cooperation among the jumble of small, intermingled nations has long been elusive. So it's no surprise that there's been little progress in creating an environmental protection agency for the region. Even so, when talk turns to Israelis and Arabs working together, environmentalists appear to be besting the politicians. Patricia Golan has our report.

(Children laugh; a bell rings)

GOLAN: Children play in the school yard in the remote West Bank village of Arab Ka’abneh. The community is rundown and desolate. Like many Palestinian villages in the region, Arab Ka’abneh has no running water, no telephone lines, and no electricity.


NORTH: Yes, that's the printer warming up.

(Another man speaks in Arabic)

GOLAN: But this spring the American foundation Green Star set up a solar-powered energy plant here. A dozen men gather in one of the school rooms, gazing raptly as a brand new computer is plugged into the outlet connected to solar panels. Michael North, who supervised the installations and set up the computer, watches the men's faces as the screen lights up.

NORTH: Press this button here, and this tray comes out. It's unbelievable, it's magic. Lightning in a bottle.

(Footfalls and children's laughter)

GOLAN: Arab Ka’abneh is 1 of 4 villages, Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian, which are part of a unique project called the Solar Bridge for Peace-building. The project is sponsored by Friends of the Earth Middle East. Gideon Bromberg is Israeli director of the organization.

BROMBERG: One of the resources that we're really the most blessed with in this region is the sun, and therefore the idea of identifying 4 villages and trying to turn those villages into sustainable communities, relying on the energy of the sun to power their needs. And we thought that such a project would be a wonderful demonstration of both sustainable living and peace-building for the Middle East.

(Many voices mingling)

GOLAN: Palestinian and Israeli teenagers meet for a field trip in the Judean desert in the West Bank. Many of the kids already know each other from spending last summer together at an environmental studies camp organized by the Palestinian-Israeli Environmental Secretariat. The site of this encounter is a fourth-century Greek Orthodox monastery perched on a desert mountaintop overlooking the ancient city of Jericho.

ABU-DIEH: Now, the first group, which is Group A, is going to be with Arela and me. We're going to be heading the way...

GOLAN: Palestinian co-director of the group, Taher Abu-dieh, explains that today the kids will be studying the underground water sources that feed the Jericho oasis.

ABU-DIEH: They will be going out, testing the soil, testing water, testing air. And what you want to show them is they will find similar pollutants in both environments, because it's the same environment. It's one ecosystem.

(Many children speaking at once)

GOLAN: Whatever their age, Israelis and Palestinians are both highly politicized. Often, their previous contacts were in a hostile environment. Bringing them together is a challenge, says the secretariat's co-director Paul Amit.

AMIT: In this environmental framework there's this social and personal contact, which we believe is crucial in helping the people overcome fear and suspicion that they may have of each other.

GOLAN: Beyond overcoming the psychological and cultural barriers, there are also very real physical barriers, of roadblocks, and closures. Palestinians must have permits from the Israeli authorities to enter Israel. These are impossible to get when Israel imposes closures.

(Voices echoing)

GOLAN: Bethlehem University in the West Bank. A team from the university carried out a major joint research project with Israeli scientists. Environmental chemist Alfred Abed Rabbo headed the Palestinian team.

ABED RABBO: We cannot go there and they cannot come here, you know? We needed permits. It wasn't available at the time. It was so difficult to get them.

GOLAN: The 4-year project investigated pollution of a vital shared water resource, the mountain aquifer, which runs the length of the West Bank. But Abed Rabbo's team faced constant obstacles, not only difficulties traveling into Israel but problems with the Palestinian authority as well. It forbids Palestinian academicians to work with Israeli academic institutions. So all cooperative projects must be channeled through private organizations.

ABED RABBO: The project went finally, and we did our part and they did their part and 2 reports were submitted. But I wanted more of a forum, more of a dialogue. The political situation really did not help us.

GOLAN: The teams discovered that while virtually all of the wells in the West Bank are polluted, the aquifer itself is still pure.

(Music and milling voices)

GOLAN: A holiday boat cruises in the Red Sea waters the Israelis call the Gulf of Elat and the Jordanians call the Gulf of Aqaba. The party-goers dancing on deck are an unlikely combination of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and American students. This is a reunion of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which is affiliated with Tel-Aviv University. It offers a one-year course in regional conservation and environmental protection. Palestinian Mo’ayid Sallah is from Nablus in the West Bank. He says the course has turned him into a green activist, despite issues of daily survival.

SALLAH: I think people, they are ready to think about other things instead of occupation, peace process. They start to have the chance to go beyond these issues. I feel they are ready to help out the environment, because it means their life.

GOLAN: But while these and other programs and projects are valuable as interpersonal experiments, and do sometimes raise public awareness on specific issues, most serious environmental activists here admit there is still a long way to go in developing a regional environmental policy. Phillip Warburg is an American environmental lawyer who's worked on several Middle East projects. He says he's yet to see any serious bilateral or multi-lateral cooperation in environmental protection, a fact he blames on the stalled peace process.

WARBURG: One can't take environmental protection out of the broader context of the peace process. And if there isn't confidence that major issues that are still outstanding pertaining to the peace process are going to be addressed fairly and satisfactorily, I don't think we're going to see significant, real, consequential in terms of their impact, environmental protection initiatives undertaken on a joint basis.

(Milling children's voices)

GOLAN: Still, quietly, around the region, environmental groups seem to be doing better than politicians in bringing people together. Perhaps this generation, the kids at this camp, the university students, will provide the key. For Living on Earth, I'm Patricia Golan in the West Bank.

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(Voices continue; fade to music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, letters from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Steve Brady, who hears us on KCHO in Chico, California, takes issue with commentator Sy Montgomery's assertion that the increase in black fly populations in recent years is due to cleaner rivers. "It's not because our rivers are less poisoned that black flies are too numerous," Mr. Brady writes. "It's because natural balances are disturbed. River ecosystems are healthier, but compared to what they were like before the Industrial Revolution they are ruined still."

Our interview with Warren Leon at the Union of Concerned Scientists caught the ear of Frederick Longan, a listener to KEMC in Billings, Montana. He disputes Mr. Leon's claim that eating beef produces up to 17 times as much water pollution as eating pasta, and has a greater impact on endangered species. Mr. Longan writes, "No credible scientist would make those kinds of sweeping generalizations without some kind of qualification, even in the short time he had on your program."

Our interview with another scientist who created EnviroPig, the pig that produces cleaner manure, prompted a call from Gregory Markham, who hears us on WCPN in Cleveland. Creating new animals is misguided, Mr. Markham feels, and rests on several false assumptions.

MARKHAM: Transgenic pig research rests on the assumption that feeding grains to pigs is desirable, and it rests on the assumption that intensive confinement of these animals is desirable, and that artificial insemination and the other methods that are used to create the pigs that fill these factory farms is desirable. And really, those are all the problems right there.

CURWOOD: And Jeff Hartnett, who hears us on KOPB in Portland, Oregon, wrote to say he enjoyed our story on road rage, but wondered about our terminology. Mr. Hartnett is the executive director of the Oregon Safety Council, which provides defensive driving training to Oregon drivers. Noting that the story repeatedly used the word "accident," Mr. Hartnett writes, "The term 'accident' connotes something that could not be avoided, something over which we have no power. Neither is the case when a vehicle collides with some other object. The drivers and even the pedestrians in these occurrences most likely could have prevented the 'accident' if they were focusing on their driving or walking, instead of being enraged or talking on the phone or thinking about dinner." As a substitute for "accident," Mr. Hartnett suggests using the term "collision."

We'd like to hear your suggestions, too. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is letters@loe.org. Once again, letters@loe.org. And check out our Web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Tapes and transcripts are $15.

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(Music up and under: "The Girl from Ipanema")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: gardening made in the shade. School kids in East L.A. show the cool side of horticulture. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Beach Erosion

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's summer. It's hot. And for many Americans, a soft, sandy, windblown beach provides one of the few escapes from oppressive heat. But scientists say erosion, coupled with intensive coastal development, has left more than 70% of US beaches threatened with disappearing entirely. Cornelia Dean, science editor of the New York Times, explains in her new book, Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, how sand moves along shores and how human intervention is disrupting this natural process.

DEAN: The beach has a little self-defense system that it operates when it's threatened by a storm. And what happens is, the waves cut into the dunes and take sand out of the dunes, and move it offshore, where it forms sand bars. And the sand bars break the waves, weakening them, and thereby protecting the beach from the force of the waves. And then when the storm ends and gentle weather comes back, the gentle waves pick up the sand from the sand bars, carry it up onto the beach, and the wind blows it back up into the dunes.

CURWOOD: You say the beach has this natural, almost living process. What happens when you try to interfere with this process?

DEAN: When people build walls, they block the exchange between dune and sand bar. And then the beach, especially if the beach is in an erosion area, and normally people don't build sea walls unless they're in an erosion area, the wall makes a fixed line on the beach. The beach can't move any more. It's pinned down by the wall. The water is moving in, it hits the wall, and the beach is drowned. The beach is gone.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

DEAN: The other thing that people don't realize is that sand moves parallel to the coast and currents. There are places where it predominantly moves in one direction. There are places where it moves back and forth depending on the weather. But when you build something like a groin or a jetty or a breakwater or something like that to trap sand, you trap sand in front of your beach, wherever you've put that little bit of armor, but it prevents the sand from moving further down the coast and you're in a sense starving the beach downdrift.

CURWOOD: Where in particular have people really made a mess of trying to preserve the beach? By trying to protect it they're actually ruining it. Any places come to mind?

DEAN: Well, New Jersey is probably the worst example. New Jersey's coast is very heavily armored. It has groins and jetties and sea walls, and in all of those places erosion continues to be a terrible problem. They are now replenishing beaches by pumping sand up on them. Virtually as soon as it arrives, it washes away. They're in what seems to me to be a losing battle with the ocean to preserve their beaches. And the steps that they are taking, in many cases, degrade the beaches.

CURWOOD: How much money do you think is being spent to pump those thousands of tons of sand onto those beaches. What is this, Sandy Point, in that area?

DEAN: Sandy Hook.

CURWOOD: Sandy Hook, I'm sorry.

DEAN: And south of it is Monmouth Beach and Seabright. But the whole coast of New Jersey has been replenished, you know, again and again, and is constantly in need of it. And in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, most of it from the Federal treasury.

CURWOOD: Well, what's the best way, in your view, to prevent this problem? To prevent the loss of the beaches, the coastline?

DEAN: Actually, it's interesting. When I first started working on the book years ago, I attended a talk by a professor from Tulane University. And he said we should just buy the coast. And he meant it as a joke, because clearly it's impossible to buy the coast. The coast is the most expensive real estate anywhere. But in fact, lots of the coast has been bought, and there are people who are buying more and more of it. And sort of taking it out of circulation, so to speak. The National Seashore Program, the Federal government has bought stretches of coast. The Nature Conservancy has bought stretches of coast. And now there are starting to pop up coastal land trusts. And also things called land banks. And the way land banks work is, every real estate transaction is assessed a fee, and that money goes into the land bank, and the land bank uses it to buy undeveloped land and just preserve it.

CURWOOD: Looking ahead 25, 50 years, what's the future of America's beaches?

DEAN: I hope that preservation efforts will increase, and that more of the pristine beaches that remain will be preserved. I hope that communities that have big beach economies or big tourism economies will recognize that their well-being depends more on the health of the beach than on the sites of their restaurants or motels or condos or what have you, and they will encourage those installations to move inland, away from the beach. Not even necessarily a great distance, but just well away from the active beach. And I think if people knew what was at stake, that's what they would want to have happen.

CURWOOD: Cornelia Dean's new book is called Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches. Thanks for taking the time with us today.

DEAN: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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(Music up and under)

Tunnel Gardens

CURWOOD: In East Los Angeles, there's a class of school kids trying their hand at an unusual method of gardening. Unusual for a major US city, that is. It's called tunnel gardening, a sustainable gardening technique used mostly in developing nations with warm climates. Producer Celeste Wesson spent a morning with seventh-grade science students at the El Sereno Middle School, and their elementary school visitors, and has this report.

(Many children speak at once)

WESSON: There's a swarm of students at the base of a gently sloping field tucked between peeling tan bungalow classrooms and a steep grassy hillside.

WOMAN: Okay. Priscilla and Louis, right here. Okay, Omar, you can go with this young man. Leslie and Hector, right here...

WESSON: Teachers pair up the little kids with the big ones, and they fan out over the garden, the seventh-grade guides clutching their notes.


WESSON: Berta shows her charges how to stomp weeds.

BERTA: There are a lot of weeds. Some of them you can step on because they, like shadow the sun for the plants that we want to grow.

WESSON: Nearby, Viviana and Freddie kneel next to a small tree planted in a bowl-shaped depression.

(Water splashes)

VIVIANA: Oops, hold the plant.

(More water splashes)

VIVIANA: And then, I was explaining to him that while holding the plant, you would have to be very careful, not really touching the leaves. As soon as you do that, you pretty much shut off their breathing system.

WESSON: What Viviana and the other students are doing looks pretty much like ordinary gardening.

(More water splashes)

WESSON: What makes it a tunnel garden?

VIVIANA: Well, there's holes all around in perfect rows, and as soon as all the trees grow up, it's going to pretty much look like a tunnel. It's going to have shade, and plants on the floor are going to have enough moisture because of these plants.

WESSON: That's the idea behind the tunnel garden. The dappled shade under the foliage tunnel becomes the garden plot. Because the area is protected from harsh sun, and because the falling foliage serves as mulch, a full-grown garden doesn't need much water. The technique was developed, building on traditional farming practices, by agronomists at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, which promotes organic and sustainable agriculture worldwide. The Institute has started such gardens in Guatemala and Senegal to help prevent erosion and desertification. When El Sereno science teacher Richard Birmele read about the tunnel gardens, he thought they'd be perfect for L.A.'s dry climate and the school's hilly garden plot.

VIVIANA: You see that tree right there? The one that sort of looks like a pine tree? That's leguminosa. Don't step on those.

WESSON: The key to the technique is planting a particular kind of tree to grow the tunnel. Leguminosae, plants from the pea family, spread a network of roots under the other crops.

VIVIANA: They give nutrients to the soil, nitrogen penoxide -- oxide, that helps the soil grow more plants.

WESSON: The roots also hold soil in place, preventing erosion. And another virtue of leguminosae? They grow quickly. The ones in East L.A., at a rate of 5 feet a year. Three years into the project, however, there is no sign of a tunnel in this tunnel garden. Teacher Richard Birmele.

Birmele: This area behind us is an unused county park, and people go up there to do drugs and things. You can see they've torn down our 6-foot chainlink fence, and they come in and just pull plants out and throw them around for fun, I guess. When you're loaded on glue, I guess everything's fun. I don't know.

WESSON: Yet Birmele persists. He has finagled a donation from the Metropolitan Water District to start the garden, convinced the fire department reforestation project to donate native California leguminosae, and persuaded an agronomist at California State University, Northridge, to help him track down an African farm co-op to provide seeds for African crops to plant in the tunnel garden.

VIVIANA: Okay, the teff.

(Water splashes)

VIVIANA: The water on it. Another teff.

WESSON: Such as teff, an Ethiopian crop, and fonio.

Birmele: Fonio and teff are traditional African grain crops, more nutritious than wheat. But since they're non-hybridized, nobody plants them here, because nobody can make money off them in the middle.

(Children's voices, digging)

WESSON: The students have done all the labor. The weeding, the planting and replanting, clearing ground.

CHILD: We're digging up these bricks, and we're piling them up over there. In this whole pathway we're going to plant some new trees.

(Bricks falling, children speaking and laughing)

WESSON: It has taught them, says Birmele, new skills.

Birmele: TV remote, they wade through that. Video game, no problem. But most of our kids didn't know how to use a shovel.

WESSON: Of course, they're also learning the science that underlies the principles of tunnel gardening. But Birmele's purpose is not only to teach about ecology but also to encourage its practice.

Birmele: Their parents and themselves, a lot of them do gardening at home. It's a strong part of Asian and Latin culture. And it was a large part of American culture when I was growing up. And what we're trying to say is, you can have a home garden using this same technique, and in 3 years you'll have a garden that you'll never need to water, or hardly water. And you'll have a fertilizing system built in, given by nature. So you never have to add fertilizer.

WESSON: Perhaps the project at El Sereno Middle School will launch tunnel gardens across East L.A. Even if it doesn't, the students now have gained an understanding of native and exotic plants, of sustainable farming and hybridization, even a bit about the global economy. And they will tell you they've had a fruitful time doing it.

CHILD: We're just interacting with natural resources and just getting dirty and, you know, just planting stuff. It's fun (laughs).

WESSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Celeste Wesson in East Los Angeles.

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(Children's voices, fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, gerontologist Bill Thomas shares the secrets of finding happiness in our final living quarters.

THOMAS: For thousands of generations, human beings, particularly elders, have lived their days close to plants and animals and children, in harmony with those things. And it's only very recently that we've come up with the notion that somehow these things can be dispensed with. That a sterile medical institutional environment will somehow suffice.

CURWOOD: The Eden alternative, next week on Living on Earth. We're produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our staff includes George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Miriam Landman, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Bree Horwitz, James Curwood, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Allison Dean, Maggie Villiger, Chris Berdik, and Mahri Lowinger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads our Western Bureau. Our senior editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening, and tune in again next week.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.A. Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to eliminate environmental threats to children's health: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Surdna Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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