Water -> Food

As a follow-up to the look at water in the previous post, last Tuesday, October 16th was World Food Day. I know it lacks the alliterative appeal of World Water Day, but as they say here, asi es.

Turns out World Food Day has been going on since 1945. This is the first I knew of it. It’s probably hard for the UN to find ad space.

One of things that caught my eye when I was reading through some of the statistics for the water post, was a section about sustainable agricultural practices and their importance in water conservation. For example the 1500 liters of water it takes to produce 1 (that’s right one!) kilo of wheat. Or the 15,000 liters of water it takes to produce a single kilo of beef. I feel like in the States people of my age have grown up with the concept of environmentalism and environmental stewardship all around us (choosing to partake is a whole other issue) – campaigns to save “the rainforest” or against littering or to recycle or images of mustached sea otters reminding us of the importance of clean waterways. The idea of preserving the environment has always been there in the background. More recently the sustainability movement and with it the idea of green everything has become not only en vogue, but also gone from being a mark of corporate savviness to an essentiality.

Agriculture has never been able to reach the level of hipness as environmentalism. Probably why we didn’t know it was World Food Day but all know for sure when Earth Day falls on the calendar. It’s a shame because they’re one in the same. Sustainable agriculture is the cornerstone of a sustainable future – especially in environmental terms. When will it get its Kermit the Frog?

So the World Food Day alarming stats say one in seven people suffers from undernourishment; 3.5 million children die every year from under-nutrition – one every six seconds.

What does this possibly have to do with Paraguay that I’ve taken the time to write about it? Small farmers. As impressive as Iowa is, it’s small farmers who are going to have to feed the bulk the rest of the world’s growing population over the next fifty years. The same small farmers that a very meager amount of Peace Corps volunteers around the world are working with demonstrating techniques on how to be more sustainable producers. The best argument for doing so isn’t even the environmental benefits – it’s that it works, is cheaper and in the long run easier. None of that though makes the effort less difficult.

In the early nineties, right around the time some of us in elementary were peddling those tee shirts in the name of endangered species, there was a brief period where we had these little white cardboard cubes, of some sort of origami construction, to collect change for the famine in the horn of Africa. We all know how that turned out. Ridley Scott jogged our memory and tired to open some eyes about a decade after the fact with Black Hawk Down. It’s a perfect reminder that the problems faced with thirst and hunger and extreme poverty don’t happen in a vacuum. They just don’t happen under our noses.  Or they do and we chose to smell brighter stuff.

I reckon to say we’ll hear a lot about Iraq and Iran in the final presidential debate on foreign policy tomorrow, but not a word about the larger scale issues standing to pose much greater problems and in desperate need of greater advocacy – everywhere.

We’ll see.



Good Good Water

I recently revisited a community I first went to on March 22nd. The only reason I happen to know I was there on March 22nd is because I later found out that happens to be World Water Day.

Like anyone else, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice (or even once) about that day’s moniker had I not been in a, how shall we say, uniquely ironic situation that day.

Several times on the drive, my boss and I found ourselves saying how we felt like we were in a different country. That’s how remote the settings were. I had a Paraguayan telling me it felt remote and removed. We were driving about as far off the beaten path as I’ve been in Eastern Paraguay – and by now I’ve been a few places. It’s definitely not the farthest away in hours or in kilometers, but in that other so hard to quantify measurement – feeling. Sometimes you just plain feel far from everything else. Most of the time it’s because it’s true. (Or because you’re lost).

The “road” (I use the term loosely) we were on cuts through the campo alongside the Parque Nacional Ybycui – the  borders of which seemed rather ambiguous, at least as far as the scenery was concerned. We were carrying with us, in the bed of the Hilux, a 200- liter blue plastic water barrel. For those of you reading in Liberia, Myanmar and  the United States that about 52 gallons. Like an oil drum. Only plastic. And filled with water.

On a side note. Water weighs 1 kilogram per liter. That’s convenient isn’t it. Or 8.35 pounds per gallon. Either way, there were 200 kilos worth of water standing up back behind our headrests.

The volunteer we were headed to visit had no water. When volunteers talk to each other and say they have no water, it means their community or their house doesn’t have running water. Some places do, some don’t. If you “don’t have water” you have a well. And bucket. And a pulley. Problem solved.

This particular fellow though, really didn’t have any water. His well dried up. Such an interesting expression. More like the land around his well dried up.

It hadn’t rained beyond a spit in certain parts of the country since before Christmas, almost four months earlier. The drought resulted in the nation’s soy exports falling by 60 percent this year according to one newspaper – a remarkable statistic given that it is the top export and the way this country earns its GDP. A very small handful of people lost several ocean freighters full of money, but the effects of the sequia reached well beyond crop production and began to hit families – ones with nothing invested in soy or anything else beyond the small plots of land they live on – directly.  Beyond personal consumption crops failing, wells in higher elevations began to dry up. Drinking water was carried from luckier, or lower-laying neighbors, or from the occasional meager and less-than-clean spring in the woods. Gardens, and with with them the source of any vegetables, shriveled in the sun. Laundry lines hung empty.

Turning on the faucet is something we take for granted, just like so many other things. Volunteers in Paraguay are spoiled you could say because lots of us have running water in our communities. Paraguay is a lucky spot in the world when it comes to h20 (I’ll resist the temptation to talk about the aquifer, again). In the Peace Corps you don’t expect to have running water – well let me rephrase, you shouldn’t expect to have running water. So you use a well. I won’t belittle it, using a well everyday for all your water needs (and they add up) isn’t easy or particularly fun. But you get used to it. You learn some of its benefits (always chilly drinking water that doesn’t rely on a pump to power it) and eventually you do the same thing as the rest of us: take for granted that it’s out there. Then one day, it’s not.

780 million people in the world lack access to clean drinking water. That’s two and half times the population of the United States. That’s one out of every nine people on the planet. Diarrhea – not heart attacks, not car crashes – is the leading cause of death in the world, mostly due to dehydration and lack of proper sanitation that relays on water. It claims the lives of 3.4 million people each year. That’s the population of Los Angeles. Drought has claimed more lives in the last century than any other natural disaster.

That was the alarming statistics section of this post. I’m not trying to say that the dried up well of a volunteer in Paraguay is causing kids to die of thirst. That wouldn’t be true. Or that the drought earlier this year caused any deaths. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that it took me trying to unload a 440 pound barrel of water from the back of a pick truck four hours from nowhere, to begin to not take what comes out of the faucet for granted. Not sharing that seems like a disservice to those with buckets in their hands.

A few weeks after our delivery the rain returned and so did water in the well. As of this morning that volunteer’s well had again dried up.

Facts all come with points of view… (cont.)

ONE liter of bottled water uses THREE liters of water to produce

I understand people don’t want to drink the tap water because of the crap that makes its way in there. Fair enough. But what’s being done to keep that same crap out? Buying more bottled water probably isn’t helping.

I get water from a well. Conveniently (for now), Paraguay sits on top of the world’s largest contiguous fresh-water aquifer. The Guarani Aquifer contains enough fresh water to supply the world with 200 years worth of fresh drinking water. The locals don’t let that one be forgotten. Mostly because they think I’m a spy sent here to figure out how to steal it, but also ‘cause they’re proud of it. I can’t blame them – somewhere near the top of the list of best reasons to be a PCV in Paraguay: You can drink the water. Followed closely behind by: You can drink the water!

At least for now.

The soy got sprayed again this morning. That’s not helping matters.


Those who build dams, they can build fountains…

About two weeks back I paid a visit to the Itaipu Dam with a few folks. Pretty sure it’s the first dam I’ve actively set out to go see – let alone tour – but seeing as though it’s one of Paraguay’s few claims to fame AND and incredible marvel of modern (or any type of) construction, I figured it was worth a few hours of my afternoon. And it was free.

For those who aren’t engineering nerds, or who missed the Modern Marvels episode, the Itaipu (Guarani for singing rock) Dam is the largest hydroelectric complex in the world. Asterisk Asterisk Asterisk. The Three Gorges Dam in China, now recently operational, I’m pretty sure is new rightful holder of that title – although I think Itaipu still puts out the most kilowatts. Either way the scale of the operation is amazing. The appearance of though, doesn’t do it justice – and neither does anything short of an aerial photograph. The structure is so massive, that without any deep canyon walls, like Hoover, to contain it, it just fades into the distance – all 25,459 feet of it.

Itaipu Dam the day I visited

The dam sits on the Rio Parana on the border of Paraguay and Brazil. A binational organization formed by both governments operates the facility which provides 26% of the power to to Brazil and 90% of the power to Paraguay or just under a total of 30 million people – about the equivalent population of New York state.

The stats speak for themselves:

  • During construction the course of the seventh biggest river in the world was shifted, as were 50 million tons of earth and rock – Enough soil excavated to line dump trucks bumper to bumper 3 times around the earth.
  • 1.2 million drawing sheets were used in construction (that’s a plan set 50 stories tall!)
  • 12.8 million cubic meters of concrete were poured
    Some facts on this alone:
    The pace of work allowed them to pour the equivalent of constructing one of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana football stadium’s worth of concrete every 4 days
    Or a 20 story building every 55 minutes.
  • The amount of concrete used to build the Itaipu Power Plant would be enough to build 210 stadiums the size of the Estádio do Maracanã.
  • The iron and steel used would allow for the construction of 380 Eiffel Towers.
  • The volume of excavation of earth and rock in Itaipu is 8.5 times greater than that of the Channel Tunnel and the volume of concrete is 15 times greater.
  • Peak construction of 30,000 workers – eating 1.4 million meals per month. 3000 kg of rice were cooked at each meal.
  • The total length of the dam is 7235 m. The crest elevation is 225 m.
  • The maximum flow of Itaipu’s fourteen segmented spillways is 62.2 thousand cubic metres per second, into three skislope formed canals. It is equivalent to 40 times the average flow of the nearby natural Iguaçu Falls.
  • The flow of two generators (700 m3·s−1 each) is roughly equivalent to the average flow of the Iguaçu Falls (1500 m3·s−1).
  • If Brazil were to use Thermal Power Generation to produce the electric power of Itaipu, 434,000 barrels (69,000 m3) of petroleum would have to be burned every day.
  • The dam is 196 metres high, equivalent to a 65-story building.
  • Though it is the seventh largest reservoir in size in Brazil, the Itaipu’s reservoir has the best relation between electricity production and flooded area.
  • Each turbine generates around 700 MW; by comparison, all the water from the Iguaçu Falls would have the capacity to feed only two generators.
  • 94.8 BILLION kWh generated in 2008

To me, building something in Paraguay would prove difficult enough. Let alone dealing with the bureaucracies of two governments (one not particularly know for it’s transparency) and a location clearly situated in the middle of nowhere. (Cuidad del Este was nothing more then a border outpost on the river before the dam came along). That in eight years something of this magnitude could be completed is incredible.

Equally incredible as the man-made marvel that straddles it, is the little heard of Rio Parana. This river, second only to the Amazon in length on the whole continent puts out so much water that it’s dammed a second time farther on downstream. By the numbers it the 4th biggest river in the world in terms of discharge, falling behind only the Amazon, Congo and Brahmaputra rivers. But since it sits where it does, this is probably the first – and barring some major catastrophe – the last, time you’ll ever hear of it from anyone other then me.

(thanks to wikipedia for some of the above stats)