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

January 22, 1993

Air Date: January 22, 1993


Landmark California Water Bill / Maia Krache

California is having its first wet winter in years, but as Maia Krache of member station KQED in San Francisco reports, the most important change for the state's parched cities and wildlife areas may come from a new bill passed at the end of the last Congressional session. The bill for the first time reserves some of the water from the Federal government's massive water project for wildlife, and allows farmers to sell some of their water to urban users. (06:57)

Somalia's Water Crisis

Steve talks with William Jobin, a civil engineer and consultant on African water projects, about the role of outside development aid in setting the stage for the current famine in Somalia. Jobin says decades of superpower competition and inappropriate foreign aid have disrupted the precarious ecological balance between humans and the environment in Somalia. (04:39)

Danube Donnybrook / Alexa Dvorson

Alexa Dvorson reports on the political battle raging between Hungary and the newly-independent nation of Slovakia over a hydroelectric dam Slovakia is building on the Danube river. (07:06)

Oil Spills: One Woman's Story / Alix White

The Shetland Islands oil spill brings back commentator Alix White's memories of another spill more than 15 years ago. (02:18)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Peter Thomson, David Baron, Maia Krache, Alexa Dvorson
GUESTS: William Jobin, Alix White

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Water-starved California is having its first wet winter in seven years, but the real relief for the state's parched cities and wildlife may come more from a new Federal law that has some folks very excited.

POPE: This legislation is the most important single commitment that human beings have ever made to the restoration of this planet, in any country on any issue or at any time.

CURWOOD: In Somalia, drought and famine led to civil war and the U.S. intervention, but one observer says the decline of the region's nomadic societies is at the root of the Somali crisis.

JOBIN: I've seen similar things in Chad, in Sudan, in Mali. It's a pattern in the Sahel zone of Africa and it's primarily due to the ecological situation.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth this week, after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

A novel agreement could smooth the way for thousands of people injured by asbestos to receive payment for their injuries, and help free the nation's courts from a crush of personal injury lawsuits. Living On Earth's Peter Thomson has the story.

THOMSON: Asbestos is a nearly ubiquitous environmental hazard. Once used nearly everywhere as insulation and fireproofing, its use was highly restricted in the U-S after it was shown to cause lung disease. More lawsuits have been filed over asbestos exposure than anything else in US legal history. At least 100-thousand claims are pending, and 100-thousand more may be filed over the next decade.

The new settlement would avert many of those suits. Two law firms representing current asbestos claimants have agreed with a group representing 20 manufacturers to a formula under which they would settle all future claims against the companies out of court. An attorney involved in the negotiations says the deal would get more money to victims faster, give companies financial predictability, and reduce legal fees for all.

The agreement would only cover a portion of future asbestos cases, and it may face challenges from other victims. However, if a federal judge in Philadelphia approves it, the deal could serve as a model for streamlining future environmental litigation.

For Living On Earth, I'm Peter Thomson.

NUNLEY: The last days of the Bush administration were busy ones for environmental policy-makers, with winners and losers on both sides of the issues. Bush approved measures halting clear-cutting in the Sierra Nevada forest habitat of the California spotted owl, and sharply increasing the number of animals and plants protected by the endangered species act. The E-P-A sped up the phase-out of ozone-damaging chemicals, such as the pesticide methyl bromide, imposed tougher rules on dumping of wastes from offshore oil rigs, and issued wetlands development rules far more restrictive than those pushed by former vice president Dan Quayle. But business and industrial interests scored too: with a transfer of Federal land to California for a new nuclear waste dump and approval of testing for a hazardous waste incinerator in Ohio. Outgoing Bush administration officials said most of the actions had been held up for years and were pushed through to give the Clinton administration a clean slate.

Bacteria found in most rivers and soils are breaking down the highly-toxic polychlorinated biphenyls -- or PCB's -- that were once used in electrical equipment and are now widely dispersed in the environment. So says a group of General Electric researchers, who've published their findings in the journal Science. A two-month test in a section of the Hudson River showed that common bacteria reduced PCB levels by more than half and that the effect was improved by merely adding oxygen. G-E researcher Daniel Abramowicz.

Abramowicz: Here's another example of how naturally occurring organisms in the environment can handle things that previously were believed to be not only very dangerous but intractable. So in a way the microorganisms have surpassed the regulations.

NUNLEY: G-E is submitting its findings to the E-P-A . . . in hopes the agency will modify its cleanup rules for P-C-B's.

This is Living On Earth.

Environmental degradation may be threatening world peace. That's according to a report in next month's Scientific American. From member station W-B-U-R in Boston, David Baron has the story.

BARON: The study of environmental change and violent conflict was the work of 30 researchers from a dozen countries. The authors claim that unrest in China, the Philippines, East Africa, and the Middle East can be blamed in part on fights over dwindling natural resources. Co-author Jeffrey Boutwell of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences says these conflicts result from a loss of topsoil, a lack of potable water, and destruction of virgin forests.

BOUTWELL: Even though of these environmental degradation problems may seem localized in countries like the Philippines and China, increasingly they will affect the industrialized West as well.

BARON: Boutwell says unless population growth and destruction of the natural environment can be curbed, internal conflicts will increasingly spill over national borders.
For Living On Earth, this is David Baron reporting.

NUNLEY: China says it will not back down from building the controversial Three Gorges Dam, even if it can't get funding from international lenders. The Wall Street Journal reports that China expects the World Bank and foreign governments to heed environmental warnings about the dam and refuse to lend money for its construction. So it's making plans to finance Three Gorges by raising electricity fees and issuing bonds. The dam on the Yangtze River will be the world's largest, providing flood control and massive amounts of hydroelectric power to the energy-starved nation. But environmentalists charge it would also drown several of China's most scenic areas and displace over a million people.

Germany's Green Party has merged with another small party, in hopes of reviving its fortunes in next year's national elections. The Greens' new partner is the "Alliance '90" Party, which built its reputation on human rights advocacy in the former East Germany and already holds eight seats in Parliament. The Greens gained national standing on an environmental platform in the 1980s, but splintered and were ousted from Parliament two years ago.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Landmark California Water Bill

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

After six years of unrelenting drought, the rains and snows have returned to California, and with them the hope that parched cities, farmland and wildlife habitats will finally get some relief. But in a state where competing interests have fought over scarce water for decades, more than just the weather has recently changed. Maia Krache, of member station K-Q-E-D in San Francisco, reports on a new landmark Federal law that reallocates some of the Golden State's water supply.

(Sound of water and news report of mudslide )

KRACHE: Californians are having to deal with mud-slicked roads and flood warnings for the first time in years. Storm after storm has rumbled over the state, slowly filling major reservoirs. The all-important mountain snowpack approaches 200% of normal in some places, and come spring, this will mean more water for the parched state. But the fundamental change in the California water scene this year comes from Congress, not from nature. The Federal Government owns and runs the biggest water distribution system in the state: the Central Valley Project. For decades, the CVP has served primarily agriculture. But after a monumental battle in Congress last session, a bill emerged that will make more CVP water available to thirsty California cities and for critical environmental needs. National Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope.

POPE: This legislation is the most important single commitment that human beings have ever made to the restoration of this planet, in any country, or on any issue, or at any time. This is the biggest and the best.

KRACHE: Environmentalists like Pope are effusive in praising the reform because the project's decades of water diversions have strained a collapsing ecosystem to the breaking point. As the system has blocked and drained California rivers, fish species have plummeted. No fewer than half a dozen of them are now either protected or being promoted for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Congressional legislation guarantees a portion of federal water specifically for the environment, for the first time in project history. This water will help resurrect fisheries and provide water for wildlife refuges along the critical north-south migratory bird route known as the "Pacific Flyway." In addition, project users will underwrite a $50 million dollar annual environmental restoration fund.

But the reform probably wouldn't have passed without the support of some of the state's most powerful business interests. They argued the past practice of devoting 90% of Federal water exclusively to agriculture stunted other kinds of growth in California.

(Sound of conversation)

KRACHE: Economic concerns were key in winning vital support for reform from Southern California water official Carl Boronkay.

BORONKAY: We have to have some stability in water supply because industry is taking a second look at whether they want to develop in California or expand existing plants or move away.

KRACHE: Boronkay is General Manager of the gargantuan Metropolitan Water District, serving 15 million people. For decades, cities and farms have been pitted against environmentalists when it came to water. But the new law weds environmental concerns to something guaranteed to win urban support: broad-scale water marketing. Before now, only project contractors -- very few of them urban -- could hope to buy water from the system. Now willing farmers will be able to sell their water to any burgeoning California city for both residential and industrial uses.

But if industry, the environment and the water-drinking public take shares of Central Valley Project water, where does that leave California agriculture? Now ag stands to lose some of its precious water to other users. After six years of drought, even current rainy weather won't make up for the water shortage the system is already suffering. That will take several years of above-average rainfall. So agriculture lobbyist Jason Peltier glumly watches water being drained from the farmer's bucket and warns:

PELTIER: The consequence is land out of production, lost jobs, lost tax base, lost land value. We know those things are real.

KRACHE: Some opponents of the reform bill have estimated taking water from agriculture would cost the California economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. That's probably a gross overestimation, according to University of California agricultural economist Richard Howitt. Howitt is studying the economic impacts of water redistribution for the federal EPA. Out of close to $18 billion dollars in gross farm receipts, Howitt predicts a loss to farmers of about 20 to 30 million dollars total. Add to that economic reverberations maybe one and a half times that for the surrounding communities. That's assuming the water market works as planned, says economist Howitt.

HOWITT: We're moving in a direction which will encourage efficiency, which takes into account the values of the environment, but at the same time doesn't penalize the people who use to have the rights by grabbing their water. We'll buy it from them.

KRACHE: California is the number-one farm state in the US, and supplies over half the nation's fruits and vegetables. Some have also suggested that if water is taken away from California agriculture, food costs will go up. But Howitt says that's unlikely, because prices are set in the larger international market -- where even California's abundant contributions are dwarfed. Besides, Howitt says, when farmers are short of water they don't eliminate high-value food crops, but lower-value plantings like cotton and hay.

Farm lobbyist Jason Peltier isn't convinced. But while he's bitter about the hardship he believes the Congressional reform will bring, he's also circumspect.

PELTIER: The reality probably is that we would have lost that water anyway, because of the Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act is now controlling the Central Valley Project.

KRACHE: As fish species come close to disappearing in California, Federal agencies responsible for fish and wildlife are stepping in to limit water diversions. The state of California is also now finalizing new limits to protect sensitive parts of the California river and estuary system. Still, to satisfy the state's conflicting demands and growing population, many veteran observers believe California will have to build new water projects. And that's potential political dynamite. But after all is said and done, the specter of recurring drought remains -- something Californians don't lose sight of, even as rainstorms pelt the state.

For Living on Earth, I'm Maia Krache in San Francisco.

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(Sound of windshield wiper, wet streets; fade under)

Somalia's Water Crisis

CURWOOD: In California, the water question is mostly economic. But in places like Somalia, its scarcity has become a matter of life or death. We've heard much about the drought that's left millions of Somalis starving, but even in a good year, Somalia gets from only two to 20 inches of rain. So drought is nothing new to the nomadic folk who've roamed the edge of the desert for millennia.

JOBIN: The nomads can follow the rains. And the rains are patchy -- they go all over Africa and traditionally the nomads have always followed the rains to stay alive.

CURWOOD: William Jobin is a civil engineer who has consulted on water projects in Somalia. He says decades of superpower competition and inappropriate foreign aid have disrupted the traditional nomadic Somali society, and its precarious ecological balance between humans and livestock herds on the one hand, and the environment and its natural dry cycles on the other.

JOBIN: Ordinarily, the nomadic peoples have handled this by raising large herds in wet seasons that get them through the dry seasons -- that's their savings account. But during the Cold War, when US and also Soviet aid built up the cities, then the nomadic groups were gradually dwindling and migrating to the cities where the bright lights were. So they didn't have their savings accounts on the hoof and they couldn't survive the typical five to ten year drought which they're in now.

CURWOOD: So are you saying that it's aid from the West and aid from the former Soviet Union that has led to this cycle of drought and famine?

JOBIN: Not exactly. The cycle has always been there, but the aid has magnified the extent of the problem. All sorts of outside support was given to Somalia by the USSR and by the Western powers that helped to raise the Somali population and the livestock population way above the carrying capacity of the land, way above the carrying capacity of the rainfall.

CURWOOD: So, let's say in 1930, what was the population growth of the people and the livestock, and what is it today, or before the present political problems?

JOBIN: I would guess that in 1930 the population was two or three million people, and maybe an equal number of livestock. And now before this current crisis, the population of Somalia was between six and seven million. And I would guess that that's almost double the capacity that a nomadic society could maintain on that amount of rainfall.

CURWOOD: Is this breakdown in Somalia unique to Somalia?

JOBIN: Well, I think it's a pattern that's been going on for the last 20 years. And I've seen similar things in Chad, in Sudan, in Mali. And of course we all know about Ethiopia, the terrible -- it was really anarchy in Ethiopia. That wasn't an organized warfare. I think it's a pattern in the Sahel zone of Africa and it's primarily due to the ecological situation.

CURWOOD: What's the solution to this problem?

JOBIN: I wish I knew. I think -- there are two things that I think should be done. One is that we have to lower the birth rate, and my impression of the intelligent way to do that in Somalia, and probably in other countries in the Sahel, is to educate women. Presently most of those countries have very poor education of any kind, and usually none for women. And secondly, the nomadic culture and nomadic economy has to be rebuilt instead of the urban and sedentary economy.

CURWOOD: That seems almost anathematic, though, to the traditional aid agencies. If you give an aid dollar, you like to see the brick go right there, with the aid dollar. How could these agencies shift their focus to support nomads?

JOBIN: That's a very difficult part of it. The only reason I think it can work in Somalia is because there is no government in Somalia. And we should not try to create a central government in Mogadishu who runs everything. I think we should deal with the clans individually, and that has to on a diplomatic level. I think there are something like 14 clans now, negotiating. If you dealt with them as clans and build up the water holes and the other facilities that they needed, and provided education for the women, and mobile health services, not big hospitals in the city, I think there's a chance. But you're right, it has to reverse all of our previous patterns of giving aid to African countries.

CURWOOD: William Jobin heads Blue Nile Associates, a consulting firm specializing in African water projects.

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Danube Donnybrook

In Hungary, they're calling it river robbery. In the newly independent nation of Slovakia, they call it an engineering triumph. The two countries are deadlocked in a dispute over a massive dam on the River Danube that forms the border between them. The Gabcikovo hydro-project was part of a two-dam construction scheme developed by the two former Communist governments. But with the advent of democracy, Hungary backed out, saying the dams pose too great a threat to the environment. Slovakia went ahead anyway and diverted 24 miles of the river to make electricity, and now Hungary says it wants the river back. Alexa Dvorson reports.

(Sound of water over dam)

DVORSON: This is not the River Danube of lilting waltzes and romantic landscapes of Central Europe. This is a fifteen-mile-long greenish-brown canal whose water has been squeezed off from its original riverbed a few miles away. As construction workers put the finishing touches of cement on the Gabcikovo Dam, hundreds of villagers say their wells have run dry and their fishing holes have vanished, along with the fish. But Slovak engineer Miroslav Liska says all the residents' worries are unfounded. Speaking for Hydrostav, the Slovak construction firm building the dam, Liska admits the concrete hulk and power station at Gabcikovo don't add much aesthetic appeal to the region. But he denies the project will threaten the ethnic Hungarians living on the Slovak side of the river.

LISKA: Do you think that production of electricity is harmful for anybody? I can assure of one thing: that this project was never meant to do any harm to the Hungarian people living in this country. On the contrary, they worked on the construction, they had many very good possibilities of employment, they built new houses, they renewed the whole villages, and the whole region will be very much economically developed.

DVORSON: The director of a Hungarian environmental group, economist Gyorgy Dropa of the Danube Circle, disagrees.

DROPA: This is simply not true, because if you dam the river you have to face the question of the poisoning of the drinking water, and nothing can be done against that.

DVORSON: The Danube Circle, along with other environmental groups like the Worldwide Fund for Nature, say the Gabcikovo Dam has disrupted the river's natural flushing processes that once kept the drinking water for five million people free of pollution. They say the project will demolish the habitat for five thousand species of plant and animal life, including deer, otter, beaver and birds. It was warnings like these that led Hungarians to the streets in 1989 to demand that the self-dissolving Communist government drop out of the joint effort with former Czechoslovakia. Two years later, Hungary declared the 1977 project treaty null and void, and suspended construction of the Nagymaros Dam near Budapest, which was to be the first of the two dams built. To the government of former Czechoslovakia, this step was a violation of international law. Now Slovakia has inherited responsibility for the Gabcikovo Dam since its break with the Czech republic. Roman Bruzak, who heads the Slovak Foreign Ministry's press department, blames Hungary for hurling the river issue into the political arena.

BRUZAK: The unilateral cancellation of an international treaty is an entirely political step. There is a dam already built, we are ready to discuss all questions, all proposals, but first of all, let us reaccept the original treaty from 1977, and discuss the project as a whole.

DVORSON: Crossing the border by train from Slovakia to Hungary is fairly routine. At the customs post, a young man wheeling a pushcart sells burnt coffee and cola through the windows of the train. But part of the border between Hungary and Slovakia is the River Danube itself. And here, the dispute over the dam has intensified. Hungary defines its border with Slovakia as the navigable waters of the Danube. But since Slovakia built the diversion dam to funnel the water into its own territory, the old riverbed is no longer navigable, so Hungary says its border has been violated. Foreign Ministry spokesman Gyorg Tatar says it's Slovakia that's broken international law, but he hopes the political tension of the Danube dispute will diminish now that it's up to the International Court of Justice to decide the Danube's future.

TATAR: We know that we have to live together with Slovakia. If we want to live in peace, and we want to develop as a nation, then we have to settle the whole dispute by peaceful means.

DVORSON: But the decision of the International Court in the Hague could take two to three years. In the meantime, there's no resolution on how the Danube's water should be managed. In defiance of an agreement last fall, the Slovaks are already generating electricity at the Gabcikovo Dam and they refuse to return the water to the Danube's old channel. Slovak dissident Martin Simecka isn't surprised. Although the Danube issue is extremely complex, he says nothing could be more blatant than the contrast between the portrayals of the issue in Slovak and Hungarian media.

SIMECKA: It's black and white. As in Hungary it started to be in fact a symbol of ecological disaster and symbol of political success to stop Gabcikovo from the Hungarian side, from the Slovak side on the contrary it is to finish it and fulfill our job as a big Slovak success. All over the newspapers, radio, TV, Gabcikovo is good.

DVORSON: On its nearly twelve-hundred mile journey through nine nations from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube flows past Budapest and Bratislava, the Slovak capital. It's as though the Danube itself has become a metaphor for the ideological differences between Hungary and Slovakia. Martin Simecka says Slovak censorship has all but denied critics a chance to voice their opposition to Gabcikovo. In Hungary, it was precisely freedom of the press that opened the Danube issue to public debate. Now environmentalists warn if the waters aren't returned by mid-March, an area of wetlands twice the size of Toronto could die, and a vast agricultural area will lose its groundwater. But with the dam nearly finished, Slovaks say they can't just erase it off the map. After investing over a billion dollars, they claim it would make neither economic nor ecologic sense to abandon the project now. Whatever the International Court of Justice in the Hague decides in two to three years' time, the odds are the Danube will be the loser in this dispute long before that.

For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson at the Gabcikovo Dam on the River Danube.

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Oil Spills: One Woman's Story

CURWOOD: The recent oil spills in Scotland and Spain have gotten commentator Alix White thinking about a spill she was involved with years ago.

WHITE: It was a foggy night at the end of June in 1976. The pilot had boarded the tug in Massena, New York to help guide an oil barge upriver to the Great Lakes through the narrow, rocky stretch of the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands. The tug got off course, and the barge hit a shoal, dumping 300,000 gallons of crude oil. The spill traveled as fast as the currents and wind would take it. Eventually 200 miles of shoreline would be contaminated. The oil spill cleanup company went into overtime. The tourist season was ruined, but if you were willing to scrub rocks, clean out marshes, work twelve-hour days, and get covered from head to foot in crude oil, then you could get the job.

One day, someone brought me a Great Blue Heron to clean. The spill had moved past the nesting ground of this noble bird. Such a symbol of the river. I held the bird in my arms and watched as her feathers, weighted down with oil, fell off her back one by one until I could see her spine. The bird was taken away from me. She was killed so that she wouldn't suffer any more. I was stunned -- how could the oil that I depend on to drive up and down this beautiful river be so deadly?

Each year, we continue to use more oil than the previous one. We also continue to import more oil -- usually by single-hull supertanker. But making safer tankers is only one solution. We must alter our lifestyles to use less gasoline. We must push for stronger mass transportation and then use it. And we need to change the way we use energy in our homes and offices. Today someone in Scotland or Spain holds that dying bird, just as countless of us have in the 17 years since I held mine. Whether we actually hold that bird or not, the oil is on our hands.

CURWOOD: Alix White is a writer, living in Cohasset, Massachusetts.

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(Music up and under)

Deborah Stavro directs our program. . .The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Cox and engineer Laurie Azaria. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR Boston. The editor and producer is Peter Thomson. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

Let us know what you think about our show. Write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Or call our listener line at 617-868-7454. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

(Theme music up and under funding credits)


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