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water, cities, political economy, governance, access to water

Apples and Oranges: Acknowledging Intra-Urban Complexity of Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

I recently read an excellent paper on comparisons of infrastructure within cities (as opposed to the more frequent between/among city comparisons that are made in both the academic literature and the policy world.  As someone who appreciates water policy discussions at the intersection of academia and the real world, this was an enjoyable read.

In this paper, Colin McFarlane, Jonathan Silver & Yaffa Truelove discuss some of the factors within Delhi, Cape Town, and Mumbai that drive access to infrastructure services.  Many of these factors come as no surprise to a human geographer- political connections, gender, religion, ethnicity, class, and income.  Inequality of access within a city is certainly what I saw in my doctoral research in Dar es Salaam. In fact, I have seen situations in my hometown of Everett, Massachusetts (Greater Boston) where the ability of local businesses to contest chronically overcharging of water and sewer bills is dependent upon favoritism and access to the right people in the city public works department.

So, what are the implications for the real world?  

I believe that water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals should look to this “radical shift”  that was recently highlighted on the World Bank’s Water Blog that calls for the policy world to think about WASH within the context of urban governance and city-level service provision, address issues of accountability and transparency, improve supply chains, train city leaders, and provide clear roles and responsibility.  

This is, of course, not an easy endeavor, not only due to weaknesses in the factors above, but also since city-level leaders in many countries still operate in a very centralized power structure in which ministry/cabinet-level decisions dominate.  What I see, therefore is a disconnect- between the need for local accountability and transparency in service delivery and the decentralized and empowered municipal governments who would be able to do this.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.

 

 

 

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Urban Redevelopment and Water in the Boston Area: Giving a Voice to the Mystic River

As far back as Mesopotamia, cities have developed along rivers.  Water that once fed the industrial revolution has been polluted for over a century, but sparked by voices like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, water and environmental quality have bounced back over recent decades.  Waterfronts and nature will always call humans to them, for recreation and for less polluting land uses, let us hope.  This is where urban redevelopment comes in.

What I would like to talk about is this tiny sliver of waterfront, the intersection of Boston and three of its suburbs – Everett, Somerville, and Medford.  These four cities meet at the Mystic River, a river that has brought the area economic growth, but has the pollution to show for it.

What I would like to suggest is that the cities ‘pay back’ the river for its service, to bring it closer to its cleaner past.

 

While each of these cities, to some extent or another has had its share of industrial growth, I would like to focus on Everett.   Everett, a 2.5 square mile, often maligned inner-ring suburb of Boston, is home to a largely lower income working class population that recently decided to allow the redevelopment of a large section of waterfront that was once the home of a Monsanto chemical plant.

While the redevelopment of polluted urban lands should normally be met with applause, this plan has been met with extraordinary, grinding resistance, largely due to two issues– first, the fact that this area will be redeveloped as a casino (Wynn Resorts) and second, that this, like any other development will have an impact on traffic in an area where the geography (a narrow bridge over the Mystic forms the border between Everett and Boston) already makes vehicular traffic difficult.  [The casino has just been given the go-ahead, but my feelings about this have not changed]

While I will not detail the excruciating and bitter, endless drama that this development has brought on (this would take forever), I am summarizing the categories of resistance and making an argument that the missing stakeholder from this discussion has been the river itself.

On top of the numerous and repeated referendums and the strict licensing has followed, the talk of this casino has been imbued by paternalistic moralism about gambling.  This has been the idea- largely from people outside of the City of Everett-that the presence of gambling is bad for the poor and vulnerable residents of Everett and that, others’ (non-residents’) paternalistic perspective on what is good for the people of Everett should override both the state’s and the city’s approval of the development.  This is a bit much, in my view.  Having said this, safeguards for some of the social and economic externalities of gambling are fine (resources for potential gambling addicts, etc).

The other concern is essentially a mixture of understandable mitigation and, to some extent plain old NIMBYism. There has been resistance to the project by adjacent cities because of traffic.  This is very understandable, and numerous adjacent city agreements and mitigation plans have been negotiated.  This is a good thing- this is cooperative planning.

What has been missing from this discussion of the redevelopment along the river is the voice of the Mystic River. Redevelopment that remediates polluted land and water is good, and this is a major opportunity for an economically disadvantaged community to improve the environmental health of its waterfront.  Otherwise, the land and water will stay polluted and dilapidated.  

In the management of cities and natural resources, rivers need to have a voice.  

They cannot speak.  Sometimes we must speak for them.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

What’s Behind Rio’s Water and Wastewater Woes?

On top of the Russian doping scandal and the Zika virus fears,  the world has become shocked and worried by the water quality situation for the upcoming Summer Olympic games in Rio De Janeiro.  Numerous articles have come out with jarring statements like the following:

 The first results of the study published over a year ago showed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered worrisome in the United States or Europe. At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and more rarely heart and brain inflammation …”

There are both bacterial and viral water issues.

Recent news reports have shown the level of fecal coliform colonies to be 400 per 100 milliliters (ml.), which is more than ten times the EPA standard of 35/100 ml. for marine water swimming.  (As an other guideline, the WHO states the risk of gastrointestinal illness for swimming in water with levels of  40 /100 ml. to be approximately 1%).

On top of the bacterialogical concerns is the issue of viral pathogens.  Ninety percent (90%) of sites tested in a 16 month long study in the waters around Rio De Janeiro found the presence of viral pathogens called bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria).  Although there is no water quality standard for these pathogens, they are associated with human illnesses such as gastroenteritis.

The sources of this problem are well-known.  Rio’s Guanabara Bay is the recipient of nearly endless amounts of untreated wastewater and solid waste and local canals pass through unhygienic “favelas” (shanty towns) and industrial areas.  This problem, as WaterAid has recently rightly stated, should be put in context of a global set of urban water and wastewater challenges, and should be a call to action to improve health in Rio and similar cities across the globe.

What I would like to suggest in this post is that this problem exists and persists not just because of the real challenges of urbanization, economic development, poverty, urban planning, technology, and costs, but also due to government priorities and a lack of accountability to citizen demand to address this problem.    

 

For example, while early plans at the time of the awarding of the Olympic games to the city, slated for the development of seven waste treatment plants, only one was built.  Other solutions have also been suggested, including numerous dredging and waste picking/reuse projects and the development of constructed wetlands, but very little of this has materialized.  Mismanagement and bureaucratic infighting has been an issue, but so have protests in the informal settlements/favelas of the city about evictions and resettlement in advance of the Olympics.  Even more worrying is a recent Bloomberg report of the murder of Executive Coordinator of the Environmental Sanitation Program for the Guanabara Bay Area (this is something so bad that I do not care to speculate further on this).

These problems, this neglect, and conflict, rooted in class and economics, certainly existed before the run-up to the Olympic games, and aiming to paper over the extraordinary challenging economic and environmental problems in the city during the time of the Olympics is shameful.  Forced displacement is before the Olympics is unfortunately not rare, as we saw this ahead of the Beijing games.

With a backdrop full of chaos that includes a nearly impeached president, a bankrupt state government,  and most recently, protests of the Olympic Games themselves, it is critical to take Rio De Janeiro’s corruption and government accountability challenges seriously when asking what’s behind their water and wastewater problems.  It would be real progress if the spotlight on these social and environmental challenges led to serious improvements, but, in order to do so, we cannot forget that environmental problems are social and environmental problems.