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America’s Star Teenage Scientist Is Catalyzing Generational Change

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/09/2021 - 6:00pm in

Motivated by the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, Gitanjali Rao was only ten years old when she created her first invention, a now patented lead test for water. For this, Rao, now 15, was named America’s Top Young Scientist of 2017 and TIME Magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year” in 2020. 

Not one to rest on her laurels, she has since invented an app to fight cyberbullying and an early detection kit for opioid addiction. But today, her greatest passion is getting more people like herself — young, female, people of color — involved in science. RTBC spoke with Rao from Lone Tree, Colorado, where she lives with her parents and younger brother, about the unique contribution her generation can offer, how science can catalyze social change and creating a platform for other young innovators. 

You just published a book this spring, A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM: 5 Steps to Problem Solving for Students, Educators, and Parents. Specifically, how can we get more young people into STEM, especially more young women and people of color? 

The first step is introducing young people to more role models. Most scientists don’t look like me. Seeing people who look like you in the field and on the news is one of the most empowering experiences. Science and technology don’t just revolve around robotics and coding, but that’s how it has been portrayed. That can scare people away. I like to present STEM as a means to solve problems, using science and technology as a catalyst for social change rather than just as raw skills.

Do you have role models that inspired you to get into STEM?

Gitanjali Rao“Innovation and problem solving should be introduced at a young age, as an everyday part of our life.” Photo courtesy Gitanjali Rao

My parents are both IT engineers and work in a different field than I do, but they have been my biggest supporters and are my biggest role models. One of the people who first got me interested in STEM is my second-grade teacher. Out of nowhere, she told me I was going to change the world someday, and that stuck with me. Little things like that empower me on a daily basis. 

Even now, I do tend to get comments about how I don’t look like your typical scientist. Or, ‘“You’re smart for a girl.”’ When it comes to innovation, a lot of times you’re expected to act or look a certain way. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to recognize that no one defines what I do, except for myself.

When did you first realize you had an interest in science?

When I was four, my uncle got me this earth science kit instead of the Barbie Dreamhouse I wanted. I complained about it for days, but I decided to open the kit and play with it. That was a great starting point. From a very young age, my parents exposed me to lots of ideas. Everything. I did everything. Ice skating. Hang gliding. Fencing. Baking. Playing the piano. I went to flight school. I was trying out things every single day. We had this deal: If I wanted to quit something I could the next day, but I had to go to one practice, one class, or one lesson. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but what that risk-taking did is that I was able to choose my own path and have that path fostered for me. 

Did your parents set any limits?

I wanted to invent a chair that sinks into the ground to save space, but my mom wouldn’t let me drill a hole into the floor. So that didn’t work out. 

You’re all about finding solutions to pressing problems, just like Reasons to be Cheerful. What are the problems you’re personally most passionate about solving? 

The biggest ones are definitely, number one, the contamination of our natural resources. Second, education opportunities, creating equality. Third, the spread of diseases and pandemics. I am working toward finding solutions for these three things in the next couple of years, but obviously, it takes time, effort and people.

Gitanjali Rao

Well, you already put in the effort with the first issue, contamination. When you were ten years old, you heard about the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, and with just a cardboard box and a couple of drawings in the beginning, you developed Tethys, a lead test that resulted in you winning the 3M Young Scientist competition in 2017, arguably the most renowned science competition for kids in America. How did you achieve this?

I found it absolutely appalling to see how many kids my age are drinking poison every single day that causes lifelong damage to their mental capacity, their organs and their normal growth. I was also interested to see the impact carbon nanotube sensor technology has. It was already used to detect hazardous gases in the air, and I wanted to create a water-soluble version of it.

Hang on, how did you know what carbon nanotube sensors are at ten years old? I had to look that up. 

I was just reading through MIT’s Tech Review, seeing stuff that had already popped up on my radar and recognizing that it could be easily used and shifted over for multiple uses. Tethys is a fully patented device, but it is not currently available for people to start using yet. I’m working with a variety of organizations such as Intel to help with field testing and mass production. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, people can start using it. 

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The idea is that it’s something that anybody could use, like a resident of Flint could use it to test their water, right? You don’t need to be a scientist or have a lab to use it. 


How many inventions have you created? 

Seven to eight, depending on if you want to count the ones that are not fully developed yet. I’m currently working very closely with UNICEF on Kindly, my app against cyberbullying. 

What sparked your interest in that? Have you experienced any bullying? 

Not personally, but I recognize it as an issue as someone who’s moved to seven different schools in the past 11 years because of my parents’ jobs. Every new place is something you have to adapt to, with a new set of people. But bullying is an issue that shouldn’t even exist in the first place. 

How does the app work?

Gitanjali Rao“I like to present STEM as a means to solve problems, using science and technology as a catalyst for social change rather than just as raw skills.” Photo courtesy Gitanjali Rao

The best way to describe it is “the spellcheck of bullying.” It looks at the latest terms, emojis, slangs, whatever, and basically categorizes them into various grades of intensity, what may be considered bullying or insults or “nice words.” The application itself is pre-programmed to take further action and send a message. It creates a learning experience out of every bullying situation, with a non-punitive approach. 

You’re also creating a network to bring other people who look like you into the field of STEM. How do you envision this? 

Three to four times a week, I’m running innovation workshops for students across the world. I have impacted about 50,000 students today across 26 countries and five continents. The goal is to make these innovation workshops self-sustaining beyond me to help students come up with an idea. But we do not stop at the ideation phase; I also mentor them on the execution, allowing their ideas to go from just a concept to out in the real world. 


That support needs to come from organizations in the workplace, being willing to bring students in and making internships about more than coffee and copies. Because, believe it or not, youth play a part in the real world. We just need to take advantage of the latest work Gen Z is doing. We might hear about it on the news, but we don’t do anything about their ideas. 

What kind of ideas have come out of your workshops that you think have big potential?

One of my favorite ideas is from a kid in Wyoming who came up with this app similar to Pokemon Go, which allows you to collect litter. In the beginning he hated coding, but then he programmed it all by himself. It’s incredible to see how these students really recognize their potential after they recognize that science isn’t as intimidating as it seems in the real world. We just need to present it in a way that people want to engage with it. And that’s what I aim to do.

One of your main interests is opening science access for people who have fewer resources. What do you think schools can do to get more young people interested in science? 

K-12 education should explicitly teach ideation and problem solving. We shouldn’t just focus on getting an A in a math class, but getting an A in life. Innovation and problem solving should be introduced at a young age, as an everyday part of our life. And I think that it’s completely possible. 

What advice do you have for other kids who want to innovate solutions?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. And don’t be afraid to take that first step. Sometimes taking that first step is all you need to make a difference in society. And remember, the worst answer you’re going to get is no. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? It is that you fail. There’s no one stopping you but yourself.

The post America’s Star Teenage Scientist Is Catalyzing Generational Change appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

These Old British Coal Mines Now Pump Out Geothermal Heat

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

What’s mine is ours

As mining towns reinvent themselves for a more sustainable future, one on the coast of England is leveraging its former coal mines to propel a green transition. 

The last mine in Seaham closed in the 1990s, leaving behind holes that burrow deep into the earth. Today, these old mine shafts frequently flood, and when they do, the town pumps out the geologically warmed water. Heat pumps warm it further, and it is then piped into homes as a source of natural heat. Lo and behold, mines that once chugged out fossil fuels now dole out clean, green geothermal energy.

seahamSeaham, England. Credit: alh1 / Flickr

Today, 1,500 homes, a primary school and a shopping district are being planned in Seaham, all of which will receive emissions-free heat and hot water from the mines. The potential for replication is enormous — 25 percent of Britons live near former coal mines. Many of these towns have suffered economically as the coal industry has declined in recent years. Repurposing these mines as geothermal heat sources would require technicians and engineers, providing new jobs as well as a plentiful source of green energy. “It is really exciting to think that these are the coal mines which effectively powered the Industrial Revolution and now they are going to power the green revolution,” said one Seaham official. “It is a cracking thing to be involved in.”

Read more at the Guardian

Culturally relevant colleges

For a range of systemic reasons — economic disempowerment, cultural marginalization, skepticism of universities built on stolen land — Native American students have the lowest college attendance rate of any racial group in the U.S. Even in California, where 330,000 residents belong to a federally recognized tribe, less than one percent of college students are Native American.

Three emerging tribal colleges in the Golden State may be changing that. Designed to give Indigenous students a higher education experience that speaks to their identity, these colleges include classes taught in tribal languages on culturally relevant subjects like Native history, arts and culture. They also offer majors not often found at other colleges and universities, like ethnoecology, the study of the relationships between people and ecosystems. 

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As a tool for encouraging enrollment, the model seems to be working — the student bodies at California’s tribal colleges have held steady or increased throughout the pandemic, a time when enrollment at other universities has slipped. And 88 percent of their students say they feel a sense of belonging on campus. “There was this place for me,” said one student, a descendant of the Piro-Manso-Tewa tribe who is finishing a doctoral program on Native American health systems. “I felt like I could at least have a chance here.” 

Read more at Cal Matters

H2O 2.0

Scottsdale, Arizona has become a national leader in recycling wastewater. In 2019 it became the first city in the state — and only the third in the U.S. — to engage in “direct potable reuse” (DPR), in which water that goes down toilets and sink drains gets aggressively treated and turned back into crystal clear, drinkable water. The city’s advanced water treatment plant is specially designed to transform 20 million gallons of wastewater daily into fresh H2O that exceeds bottled water standards. In fact, Scottsdale’s recycled water is of higher quality than its unrecycled water, making it a model for “outlying communities in northern Arizona solely dependent on groundwater,” according to one official.

scottsdaleScottsdale, Arizona. Credit: Flickr

Now, thanks in part to Scottsdale’s success, other nearby cities want in on the game. Phoenix — which already recycles nearly all of its wastewater, though not for drinking — is planning to reopen a dormant wastewater treatment plant that will blend effluent with groundwater to serve customers in the northern part of the city. San Diego, too, is laying the groundwork to become the first city in California to send treated wastewater back into residents’ homes. And places like Orange County and Los Angeles are beginning educational campaigns to mitigate the gross-out factor of so-called “toilet to tap” water among residents, laying the groundwork to implement their own DPR systems.

Ensia has a long-read feature that delves into the range of efforts unfolding across the region, where drought has left major cities at risk of running dry. “When this is done,” said an official with the Los Angeles water authority, “I’d like to say that the words ‘drought’ and ‘Los Angeles’ will never be in the same sentence again.”

Read more at Ensia

The post These Old British Coal Mines Now Pump Out Geothermal Heat appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

When Oil Spills Strike, Call in the Hair Force

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

After you get your hair cut at Pitch, a salon in the heart of San Francisco, the stylists will carefully collect the clippings and feed them into felting machines at the eco-hub next door. As you look on, your locks will be turned into hair mats that look like tightly woven felt and will ultimately be used to clean up water pollution. Yes, your former ponytail can help save a pelican.

In 1989, Phil McCrory, a hair stylist in Huntsville, Alabama, was watching CNN coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska while washing a client’s hair in his salon. He knew how easily oil attaches to hair and wondered, what if human hair could be used to clean up oil spills? His salon happened to be close to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and its scientists confirmed what the EPA later found to be true as well: Hair is great at soaking up grease. Each hair adsorbs three to nine times its weight in oil. Its porous structure is the reason birds and furry sea mammals such as otters are particularly affected by spills: the grease sticks to their feathers and fur.

McCrory’s idea sparked a worldwide movement. After trying various techniques to create hair mats on his own, in 1998 he partnered with the San Francisco nonprofit Matter of Trust. Together, they launched the pioneering Clean Wave program to produce fiber mats from hair collected at salons, fur from pet groomers and even laundry lint. “I was 23 and naïve, and thought, such a good idea — why isn’t it taking off?” Matter of Trust founder and president Lisa Craig Gautier says. A self-described workaholic with a get-it-done attitude, she cold-called Paul Newman who invited her to Connecticut, and his lawyers helped Gautier set up the nonprofit. 

Clean Wave workers sort through donated hair. Photo courtesy Matteroftrust.org

Today, 40,000 hair salons donate their hair clippings in the U.S. alone. “You’re a captive audience of your hairstylist for about 20 minutes every six weeks,” Gautier says, combing her fingers through her brunette mane. “So this works great to raise awareness about the issue as well.” And since human hair is a renewable resource, there’s no shortage of it — if anything, there’s a glut. Each of the 900,000 hair salons and 400,000 pet groomers in the U.S. cut about three pounds of hair or fur per day, a massive amount of natural fiber that gets stuffed into trash bags and hauled off to landfills. At the bright and airy flagship factory in San Francisco, postal carriers drop off packages with hair snippets from 30 countries worldwide daily. 

Matter of Trust’s hair mats have been used in major oil spills, starting with Ecuador’s Mazon rainforest where Texaco (now owned by Chevron) dumped over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and spilled several million gallons of crude oil between 1964 and 1992. In 2007, Matter of Trust volunteers participated in the cleanup after the Cusco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. And in 2010, the BP spill of 205 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico sparked an unprecedented response: Within four days, Matters of Trust received three-quarters of a million pounds of fiber, filling 19 warehouses. The EPA called it the largest grassroots mobilization it had ever seen, and Lisa Gautier twice flew to the Gulf to coordinate part of the cleanup herself.

Lisa Gautier. Photo courtesy Matteroftrust.org

Two studies at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have shown that the hair mats and booms soak up oil just as effectively as conventional solutions. “Conventional methods involve oil-based chemical dispersants and synthetic absorbent booms, essentially using oil to clean up oil,” Gautier says. “They are very toxic. When the synthetic booms break apart, the synthetic pellets spread into the environment. When a hair boom breaks apart, it’s just a natural fiber and thus more planet-friendly.” The hair mats can be washed and reused up to ten times. As a side effect, “the hair mats divert natural fibers from landfills, create sustainable green jobs and clean up our waterways in the process,” Gautier says. “It’s humanity’s solution to humanity’s problem.”

What happens to the saturated mats? “After major oil spills, the hazardous material ends up in landfills or incineration,” Gautier explains. “Landfills are not my favorite.” Matter of Trust has tried to compost used mats, and has found some success experimenting with various fungi, worms and thermophilic composting to turn the hazardous waste into healthy compost. “After 18 months, we got some good compost,” she says, “but it remains a tricky issue.”

Gautier understands some people feel grossed out by the idea of wet hair and grease. “We lovingly call it our serial killer website because on our website you always see clumps of hair,” she jokes. But in reality, the eco-hub is completely dry and clean. “We only do dry felts,” she says.

Using their heads

“What is this place?” asks a giant banner at the entrance of Matter of Trust’s eco-hub before giving the answer: “Here you flow into the possibilities of clean air, clean water, clean energy and ideal materials.” In the factory, volunteers, interns and 23 full-time employees sort through the donations and feed the hair clippings into specialized needle felt machines. The city of San Francisco supports the project by sponsoring seniors with a stipend to participate. School classes visit and participate, as well. The machines are about the size of a large office copier. “It’s a very simple, low-tech solution,” says Gautier. 

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Matter of Trust mostly needs hair longer than three inches to produce a tight weave and then uses clippings of two inches or more to fill in the mats. The organization donates super-long strands to nonprofits that make wigs for ill people, like The Little Princess Trust or Hair We Share in New York. “Please don’t send us anything from below the neck!” Gautier half-jokes.

Instead of big oil spills, Matter of Trust now focuses on storm drains and the motor oil leaks from roadways. “50 percent of the water contamination comes from our streets,” Gautier says. The hair mats or booms can be placed around storm drains and act as natural filters, soaking up oil and trapping debris such as cigarette butts. “It’s not sexy, but it is a solution for cities and bus fleets, etc.” 

Hair is collected into booms that can soak up pollution. “It’s humanity’s solution to humanity’s problem,” says Gautier. Photo courtesy Matteroftrust.org

For instance, the Air Force has been partnering with Matters of Trust since 2011 and just ordered another 300 hair mats for a filtration project. “The Hair Force,” Gautier jokes, before turning serious again: “The mats can even be placed under snow plow equipment. They can last a really long time, up to two years or until they’re saturated.” Cities in Texas and New Mexico, and even the Coast Guard have signed on and ordered mats.

Gautier’s vision is to have 300 satellite locations around the world “to avoid the crazy carbon footprint of shipping a natural resource all over the planet.” Ten satellite locations already exist, including in Chile, Japan, Finland, Greece, England, France, Belgium and Spain. “At Matter of Trust Chile, for instance, they created these amazing kiosks where people can charge their phones with reused batteries from old scooters while at the same time donating their hair,” Gautier raves. In Oklahoma, a husky dog rescue participates. In rural areas, alpaca farms and sheep shearers send their surplus. “People are always asking what they can do,” Gautier says. “This is something where everybody can contribute.”

Others have set up their own networks. In Canada, Green Circle Salons are collecting hair clippings from 16,000 “waste warriors.” In France, Coiffeurs Justes have collected 40 tons of hair from 3,200 salons since 2015. They stuff them into booms made from pantyhose that are used in the harbors of the Cote d’Azur or Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. They realized that the hair booms can also soak up sunscreen in lakes and swimming pools. According to NOAA, between 6,000 to 10,000 tons of sunscreen contaminate waters every year and can harm marine life and plants. 

Gautier now experiments with using the hairy solution for soil erosion prevention as well. “The carotids slowly release nitrogen into the soil, acting as a fertilizer. Bugs and snails don’t like to crawl on it. The best part is the rain will go through it but will prevent water evaporation and prevent soil erosion,” she explains.

Finally a host of problems for which we carry the solution on our heads.

The post When Oil Spills Strike, Call in the Hair Force appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

For a Clean Ocean, Just Add Oysters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/08/2021 - 6:00pm in

Along the edge of Bastia’s colorful, seafood restaurant-lined port, a wetsuit-clad diver plunges beneath the surface with a large black cage full of oysters in hand and carefully attaches it to an underwater hook on the boardwalk. Resurfacing a few seconds later, the French diver takes another cage to fit alongside the dozens of others already in place.

“The oysters are ready,” he gasps, slowly clambering back on board the small boat laden with ropes, diving gear and empty cages. “Now we just have to let them do their magic.”

In a reversal of norms, instead of extracting this delicacy to serve up at the nearby waterfront eateries, the team from Corsica University’s marine research institute Stella Mare is depositing the oysters into the sea — and instead of cleansing the palates of hungry diners, these industrious mollusks are being used to clean up the water.

Oysters naturally filters water in order to absorb nutrients and grow their shells. Credit: Peter Yeung

The project, which launched in the Corsican city Bastia last September and is now in the second of three phases, will see a total of around 150,000 juvenile Ostrea edulis, commonly known as the European flat oyster, deployed to help depollute the port.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we introduced oysters, what pollution would be cleaned from the water and what would remain in the oysters’ shells,” says Sylvia Agostini, lead of the project for Stella Mare. “Normally, you can’t treat PCBs [an industrial chemical known as polychlorinated biphenyls]. But it’s proven to be a revolutionary method.”

Agostini’s team initially tested the impact of both oysters and sea anemones on pollution levels in the 260,000 cubic meter port. But while the latter struggled to survive and few were left after a year, around 80 percent of the oysters survived — those that didn’t largely suffered due to boat traffic rather than pollution — and water quality has already improved. Monthly checks and quarterly in-depth analyses of water samples for contaminants will be carried out in Bastia’s port for three years. Leftover oyster shells will then be upcycled as construction materials such as roof tiles.

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The species naturally filters water in order to absorb nutrients and grow their shells. But scientists have discovered that a byproduct of this oyster growth process is that harmful pollutants such as phosphorus, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and nitrogen from fertilizers, which are difficult to remove from water and can persist for decades if left alone, are also extracted from the sea.

Overfishing, disease, pollution, poor water quality and dredging have dramatically altered oceans over the past century, pushing some species to the brink of extinction. But proponents believe Stella Mare’s method could be a low-cost, relatively simple solution to improve the health of our oceans.

The Corsican city of Bastia. Credit: Peter Yeung

Oyster habitats are crucial for marine ecosystems, and biodiversity levels are known to increase dramatically around reefs, which also act as barriers against storms and sea tides, mitigating erosion and flooding, according to Boze Hancock, senior marine habitat restoration scientist at The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization.

“The decline of global oyster reefs has been enormous,” says Hancock. “Oyster habitats clean the water for seagrass, influence wave dynamics and improve shoreline protection. Restoring them has the potential to do a lot of good things.”

However, Hancock warns that oyster reefs can’t, as some have suggested, replace traditional waste water processing facilities. “These habitats are part of the solution, not all of it,” he explains. “You can’t put in enough oysters to process what a waste water plant would. We need to try to stop these pollutants from going into the water in the first place.”

oysters“Each place is slightly different, in relation to the quantity and variety of pollutants, and we need to adapt to that,” says Agostini. Credit: Peter Yeung

For the team at Stella Mare, while improvements in water quality have been made, there is also no guarantee that the model will be instantly replicable in other parts of the world — or even parts of Corsica.

“Each place is slightly different, in relation to the quantity and variety of pollutants, and we need to adapt to that,” says Agostini, who will be carrying out testing at several sites across Corsica. “Will some pollutants be toxic for the oysters? The water salinity, temperature and pH can vary too.”

Nonetheless, there is optimism that the project, which is being funded by the European Union, will stimulate other successful efforts across the continent. “The objective is to be able to use this method to purify polluted sites in a natural way,” she adds. “If it works, why not export that savoir-faire elsewhere?”

Other similar restoration efforts support the belief that it could be widely replicated. One project in the U.K. found 95 different species growing on reefs after oysters had been introduced, including European eels, which are classified by the IUCN as critically endangered. The Billion Oyster Project in New York Harbor, meanwhile, aims to distribute one billion live oysters by 2035 — enough to filter the entire harbor every three days. 

“It could help protect and restore critical coastal habitats like saltmarsh, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass, as well as the communities that live in these areas,” says Hancock, who is also a professor at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.  “The potential is huge.”

The post For a Clean Ocean, Just Add Oysters appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Can Saudis/US Use Water Crisis to Bring Yemenis to Their Knees?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/08/2021 - 4:17am in

SANA`A, YEMEN — When the well ran dry, Abu Yahya al-Hamdani, who provides water to many residents of the Saruf neighborhood in northeastern Sana`a, had no warning. Last week, the water table dipped lower in his water well and the pump began to suck air. For the families in the neighborhood, to whom the danger of water shortage suddenly became visible, the specter of dying of thirst is closer than ever.

“Suddenly access to water is no longer possible. Really, the fear of dying of thirst was the first thing that came to my mind,” Jubran, a father of six, said. Despite the high price, Jubran used to buy water from the al-Hamdani water station that was delivered by truck. Now, he is struggling to find water from another water station, as the al-Hamdani’s station is among many that have recently run dry in the Sana`a Basin.

This year, dozens of water wells in Sana`a Basin have already dried up, leaving thousands of people to drink and wash from polluted water sources like ponds and dams or struggle to buy water at exorbitant prices. Many families have no choice but to send their children to far away places with plastic containers, under the rays of the scorching sun, to fetch clean water that will barely cover their needs for just a day.

The Sana`a Basin is the primary water source for more than 4 million people living in the capital and surrounding areas. It is located in the central Yemen highlands and covers around 3,200 square kilometers. It contains populated districts including Bani Hushaish, Hamdan, Sanhan, Bani Bahlool, Arhab, Nimh, Bani al-Harith, and some parts of Khawlan al-Tial and Bani Matar, as well as Sana`a itself.

Since the 1980s, fewer than 8,000 of the 13,425 wells drilled in the basin have been productive, according to a report to the Yemeni Ministry of Water and Environment. Well-drilling activity is ongoing and in many places wells are being re-excavated many times to a depth of 100 meters. The annual consumption of the basin’s water reaches 400 million cubic meters, compared to the small amount renewed annually in the basin, which amounts to only 20 to 45 million cubic meters — meaning that the drying up of the Sana`a Basin is only a matter of time.

In general, Yemen’s total renewable water resource amounts to 2.5 billion cubic meters per year, while the total demand is estimated to be 4 billion cubic meters per year, with 1.5 billion cubic meters per year being supplied from deep aquifers. Groundwater aquifers decline seven to eight meters each year, with very rare recharge.

The US-Backed Coalition in Yemen is Trying to Trigger Another Massive Cholera Epidemic


Time running out

War-torn Yemen is located in a dry and semi-arid region with the highest rate of exhaustion of water sources in the Middle East. It was already facing a severe water crisis in which both nature and the Saudi-led Coalition are squeezing people. More than 90% of the population struggles daily to find or buy enough clean water to drink or to grow food. In Sana`a, where more than 4 million live and host hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, it is even worse. The city is the only capital city in the world that may run out of water within a decade at a maximum, according to both the Yemeni Ministry of Water and the United States.

Dr. Fahmy Ali Saeed, a Yemeni hydrogeologist who taught at the University of Sana`a, fears that the Sana`a Basin will exhaust its groundwater in the foreseeable future. “Five years from now, the water in the Sana`a Basin will dry up if the war, siege and current practices in the basin continue,” Dr. Saeed said. Environmental scientist Rashad Al-Habari agrees that time is running out: “The available groundwater reserves in all basins are approximately [20] billion cubic meters. According to the current rate of consumption, Yemen will drain about 12.02 billion cubic meters [annually] until the year 2025, meaning that the stock will be sufficient for only a few years.”

Though there were heavy rains in Sana`a Basin two years ago, there is insufficient drainage and reservoir capacity to cope with such downpours. International projects aimed at alleviating some of the country’s water problems, like the Dutch project to run the Sana`a Basin, have been abandoned and building desalination plants is out of the question because of the high cost and the bankruptcy of the country as a result of the war.


No water means no food

In Hasabah area — in Sana`a near to  the famous corridor, known as al-Saayilah — Om Hani, holding a water jerry-can, is sitting next to a water point where people gather to wait for trucks under the rays of the scorching sun. “We are thirsty. I have no water to drink or cook for my children. We are left alone to face this fate, al Hamd to Allah,” she said. The mother of seven was one of the beneficiaries of a water tank funded by UNICEF, or what is known locally as Sabil Water, which serves many neighborhoods inside Sana`a.

In one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, Yemen’s water crisis affects millions of people a day; the people are thirsty and hungry. Much of the land is dried up and poverty is everywhere, amidst a deadly blockade supported by the Biden administration. Without water, not only are people thirsty but also crops cannot grow. And without crops, there is no food, making it difficult for Yemenis to afford both catastrophes at once.

Only a tiny number of families who live in major cities like Sana`a are connected to the supply of   state-run water. Even in these cities, only 30%-40% of the houses are connected and they’re lucky if water comes out of their taps just once in 10 days and for only two hours. Moreover, the pipe network is old and an estimated 40% of the water they carry is lost through leaks. Even worse, more than 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas and depend on stagnant or commercial water, and most of the time their only source for drinking and cooking is uncovered dams.

In fact, the nation’s network of water pipes reaches only 30% of the population and is damaged from Saudi bombing and fighting on the ground between Saudi mercenaries and resistance forces, which has left it in need of upgrading and maintenance in many places. With Saudi Arabia preventing access to storage tanks, pipes, valves, and hydrants, more than 15 million people resort to expensive and time-consuming ways to find enough water every day.

Yemen Water Feature photo

A boy rinses a bucket as he collects water from a well contaminated with cholera on the outskirts of Sanaa. Hani Mohammed | AP


Aid organizations pressured to pull out

Today, the truck did not arrive. The mother came back home with an empty jerry-can, not because there was no fuel for the truck, as usual, but this time because the truck company had its financing halted by the international organization that kept it afloat, according to what the driver told customers over the phone. Climate change, weak law enforcement, and a rapidly growing population are not the only problems that stress Yemeni residents in a country with such limited water resources.

The Saudi-led Coalition has imposed a blockade on the country and has prevented the entry of fuel, and thus a number of pumps have been stopped and the costs of transporting water have increased. Fundamentally, Yemen suffers from water scarcity and relies on groundwater, which in turn needs equipment that is not always available in Yemen and needs to be imported from abroad. Also, most of the projects supported by international organizations have stopped in response to strong pressures that have been exerted by both Washington and Riyadh to compel the locals to accept the Saudi version of peace.

The Ministry of Water and Environment in Sana`a has warned that the blockade may lead to  complete paralysis of government water services. Deputy Water Minister Hussein al-Darib stated.that “the lack of fuel leads to a sharp decline in the level of water services,” and added that “water supplies are currently classified in the category of ‘severe need’ with the percentage of beneficiaries having decreased to 30%.”

Ahmed Mudaher, the official for water distribution in Sana`a, said that the main pumping station for water in Sana`a is currently operating only 60 out of 330 wells due to the blockade, adding that “the unsafe withdrawal of the organizations financing the operations of the main pumping station in the Municipality exacerbated the decline in the level of service.” Yemen has many years of experience with water conservation, but the Saudi-led Coalition war has made it impossible for the locals to regulate water use in war-affected areas.


Geography, climate, geopolitics and war come together

In Yemen’s complex humanitarian crisis, water scarcity, climate change impacts, and Saudi bombing of water facilities are interlinked. Saudi forces, under the eyes of successive U.S. administrations, use water as a weapon to bring civilians to their knees. The oil-rich kingdom not only prevents the arrival of aid that carries clean water supplies but also targets dams, wells, reservoirs, water structures and infrastructure including networks, diversion dams, and irrigation systems. That has led to acute water shortages for both drinking and irrigation.

There are no rivers in Yemen, as in some other countries, so the major form of water reserves has historically been from rainwater and building weirs and bunds. But many dams have been damaged or need to be repaired. Saudi attacks have destroyed 1488 water installations (dams, barriers, reservoirs) completely and 488 water installations partially, according to a report on Yemeni water bodies. Sana`a’s central water tanks, which cost $4 million to build and were located in Nahdian district in southern Sana`a, were destroyed by U.S bombs dropped by Saudi warplanes. Saudi bombing also destroyed the seawater desalination plant on Kamaran Island in Hodeidah.

Oxfam: Saudis Carry Out Equivalent of One Attack Every Ten Days on Yemen’s Medical and Water Facilities

According to a regional representative of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the war has left around 20 million Yemenis without access to drinking water. “With the current conflict, the number of people who don’t have access to clean water is believed to be more than 80% of the population,” said Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, who represents the FAO’s Near East and North Africa region. Yemen has the highest water scarcity in the world, he said, with more than half the population lacking a regular supply of drinking water even before the fighting began.

Lack of access to clean water is notorious for being the biggest cause of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality in Yemen. Many deadly diseases associated with water shortage, such as cholera, have emerged in many areas throughout the country, including Sana`a. Today, according to observers, there are some diseases that are widespread among the residents of the Sana`a Basin — such as cancer, typhoid, and dysentery — due to forbidden weapons that had been used by the Saudis, in addition to diseases of the liver, kidney and urinary tract caused by a high concentration of salts in the basin water.

Feature photo | A Yemeni shepherd walks a herd of goats through a drought-affected dam on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. Hani Mohammed | AP

Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.

The post Can Saudis/US Use Water Crisis to Bring Yemenis to Their Knees? appeared first on MintPress News.

Inside the struggle for water sovereignty in Brazil

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/07/2021 - 7:00am in


Blog, Water

Todos somos atingidos
(“We are all affected”)

— Common MAB saying

A person can go a few weeks without food, years without proper shelter, but only a few days without water. Water is fundamental, yet we often forget how much we rely on it. Only 37 percent of the world’s rivers remain free-flowing and numerous hydro dams have destroyed freshwater systems on every continent, threatening food security for millions of people and contributing to the decimation of freshwater non-human life.

Dams and dam failures have catastrophic socio-environmental consequences. In the 20th century alone, large dam projects displaced 40 to 80 million people globally. At the same time, the communities most impacted by dams have been typically excluded from the political decision-making processes affecting their lives.

In Brazil there is an extensive network of mining companies, electric companies and other corporate powers that construct, own and operate dams throughout the country. But for the communities directly affected by hydro dam projects, water and energy are not commodities. Brazil’s Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens, or MAB — pronounced “mah-bee”) fights against the displacement and privatization of water, rivers and other natural resources in the belief that everyday people should have sovereignty and control over their own resources.

MAB is a member of La Via Campesina, a transnational social movement representing 300 million people across five continents with over 150 member organizations committed to food sovereignty and climate justice. MAB also works with social movements across Brazil, including the more widely-known Landless Workers Movement (MST), unions and human rights organizations. These alliances speak to the importance of peasant movements and Global South movements in constructing globalizations from below.

MAB focuses its fights on six interconnected areas: human rights, energy, water, dams, the Amazon and international solidarity. The movement organizes for tangible policy and system-level changes and actively creates an alternative to capitalist globalization.


Just over two years ago, on January 25, 2019, the worst environmental crime in Brazil’s history resulted in the loss of 272 lives. In Córrego do Feijão in Brumadinho, in the state of Minas Gerais, a dam owned by the transnational mining company Vale collapsed. Originally a state-owned company, Vale was privatized in 1997 and since then has made untold billions of dollars mining iron ore and other minerals.

Brazil is the world’s second-largest producer of mineral ores and in 2018 iron ore accounted for 20 percent of all exports from Brazil to the United States. More than 45 percent of Vale’s shareholders are international, including some of the world’s largest investment management companies based in the US such as BlackRock and Capital Group.

The logic of profit has dispossessed people of their sovereignty, their wealth and their water, the very essence of life. The massive dams Vale uses in its mining operations privatize and pollute water used by thousands of people.

When you fly over the state of Minas Gerais, you can see the iron mines as large gaping holes in the ground. Vale and its subsidiaries own and control 175 dams in Brazil, of which 129 are iron ore dams and Minas Gerais accounts for the vast majority of these. Minas Gerais is a region where thousands of people depend upon the water for their livelihood and survival, but the mining leaves the water contaminated. Agriculture and fishing are disrupted or halted, and residents struggle to live without access to potable water.

Exacerbating the problems associated with the privatization and contamination of water for residents, local economy and ecosystems, the dams themselves are vulnerable: the types of dams Vale uses are relatively cheap to build, but also present higher security risks because of their poor structure.

When the Brumadinho iron ore mine collapsed, it released a mudflow that swept through a worker cafeteria at lunchtime before wiping out homes, farms and infrastructure. The disaster killed 272 people and an additional 11 people were never found. What made it a crime was that Vale knew something like this could happen. In an earlier assessment, Vale had classified the dam as “two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines.”

The Associação Estadual de Defesa Ambiental e Social (State Association of Environmental and Social Defense) conducted an assessment and released a report in collaboration with more than 7,000 residents in the regions impacted by the dam collapse. This report shows that depending on the town — the effects of the collapse vary from those communities buried in mud, to those impacted further downstream — 55 to 65 percent of people currently lack employment due to the dam disaster.

MAB occupied a highway in Juatuba, Minas Gerais last January to demand the right to water and to income. Photo by Nádia Nicolau via Mídia Ninja.

Brumadinho is considered one of the worst socio-environmental crimes in the history of Brazil, but it is far from the only one. Five years ago, a dam collapsed in Mariana, killing 20 people; the impacted communities still suffer the effects and are without reparations. On the second anniversary of the Brumadinho collapse, on January 24, 2021, another dam collapsed in Santa Catarina. On March 25, 2021, a dam in Maranhão state, owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian company Equinox Gold, collapsed, polluting the water reservoir of the city of Godofredo Viana, leaving 4,000 people without potable water.

On January 22, 2021, MAB held a virtual international press conference to commemorate two years since the Brumadinho collapse. Jôelisia Feitosa, an atingida (an “affected person”) from Juatuba, one of the communities affected by the dam collapse, described the fallout. People are suffering from skin diseases due to the contaminated water; small farmers cannot continue with their livelihood; people who relied on fishing can no longer do so. As a result, many people have been forced to leave. The lack of potable water has created an emergency. Feitosa said that presently, there are “not conditions for surviving here” anymore. The after-effects of the collapse, compounded by the pandemic, continue to take lives.

There are more than 100,000 atingidos in the region, but people do not know what is going to happen or when emergency aid will come. Further, government negotiations with Vale for “reparations” were conducted without the participation of atingidos. On February 4, 2021, the Brazilian government and Vale reached an accord. Nearly US$7 billion was awarded to the state of Minas Gerais, making it the largest settlement in Brazil’s history, along with murder charges for company officials.

To MAB, however, the accord is illegitimate. It was made under false pretenses, the affected population was not included in the process, and the money, which is not even going to those who are most impacted, does not begin to cover the irreparable and continuing damages. As José Geraldo Martins, a member of the MAB state coordination, said: “[Vale’s] crime destroyed ways of life, dreams, personal projects and the possibility of a future as planned. This leads to people becoming ill, emotionally, mentally, and physically. It aggravates existing health problems and creates new ones.”

As Feitosa put it: “Vale is manipulating the government, manipulating justice.” The accord was reached without the full participation of atingidos, and to make matters worse, Vale decided who qualifies as an atingido based on whether or not people have formal titles to ancestral lands. Vale’s actions create a dangerous precedent that allows corporations to extract, exploit and take human life with impunity. Nearly 300 people died from the 2019 dam collapse, and since then almost 400,000 people have died in Brazil from COVID-19. Yet, during this time, Vale has made a record profit. Neither the dam collapse nor the pandemic has stopped production or profits, even as workers are dying.


MAB is committed to continued resistance and will bring the case to the Supreme Court. MAB organizes marches and direct actions and also partners with other movements in activities all across Brazil. They have recently occupied highways and blocked the entrance and exit of trucks to Vale’s facilities. MAB also uses powerful, embodied art and theater called mística that tells a real story and asks participants to put themselves into mindset that “we are all affected.”

MAB emphasizes popular education to understand how historical processes inform present-day struggles. Drawing heavily on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, they focus on collaborative learning and literacy by making use, for example, of small break-out groups where people take turns reading and discussing short passages. In these projects, there is an intentional effort to fight against interlocking systems of oppression: classism, racism, heterosexism and patriarchy, which are viewed as interlinked with capitalism at the root.

MAB also has a skilled communication team that makes use of online media, including holding frequent talks and panels broadcast via Facebook Live. A recent MAP pamphlet entitled, “Our fight is for life, Enough with Impunity!” details four women important to MAB’s struggle: Dilma, Nicinha, Berta and Marielle. Dilma and Nichina are two women atingidas who were murdered in their fights against dam projects in their communities. Berta was a Honduran environmentalist who also engaged in dam struggles and was murdered. Marielle was a Black, lesbian, socialist city-councilwoman (with Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party) in Rio who was murdered in 2018.

For MAB, the struggles of those who have died in their fight for a better world serve as seeds of resistance, a theme further explored in their film “Women Embroidering Resistance.”

MAB occupied a highway in Juatuba, Minas Gerais last January to demand the right to water and to income. Photo by Nádia Nicolau via Mídia Ninja.

For the past two years, MAB has organized events to commemorate the anniversary of the crime committed by Vale in Brumadinho. In 2020, MAB organized a five-day march and international seminar, beginning in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais’ state capital, and ending in Córrego do Feijão with a memorial service. Hundreds of people from around Brazil as well as allies from 17 countries marched through Belo Horizonte, chanting, “Vale killed the people, killed the river, killed the fish!”

Famed liberation theologian Leonardo Boff is a supporter of MAB and spoke at the seminar, decrying that letting people starve is a sin and asserting that “everyone has the right to land; everyone has the right to education; everyone has the right to culture; we all need security and have the right to housing—these are common and basic rights.” He went on: “We don’t get this world by voting — we need participatory democracy.”

MAB commemorated the second anniversary of Brumadinho this past January with various symbolic actions. In one such event, people tossed 11 roses into the water to honor the 11 people who have still not been found, with additional petals to honor the river that has been killed by the mining company. They also organized various virtual actions since the pandemic precluded an in-person convergence like the one held the year before.


Less than a month after commemorating Brumadinho in 2020, COVID-19 exploded and the world went into lockdown. Brazil is now one of the hardest-hit countries with the actions and inactions of right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro — from calling COVID-19 a “little flu” to encouraging people to take hydroxychloroquine as a remedy, to defunding the public health system, and cutting back social services — leading to a dire situation.

In April, Brazil recorded over 4,000 COVID-19 deaths in 24 hours, with a death toll second only to the United States. On May 30, the official death toll from COVID-19 was 461,931. Brazil will not soon realize vaccine distribution to the entire population, and people continue to die from lack of oxygen in some regions, prompting an investigation of Bolsonaro and the health minister for mismanagement.

On May 29, 2021, MAB participated in protests with other social movements, unions and the population in general that spanned across 213 cities in Brazil (and 14 cities around the world). The protesters called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, demanded vaccines and emergency aid for all, and denounced cuts to public health care and education as well as efforts to privatize public services.

In the past five years, the number of Brazilians experiencing hunger has grown to nearly 37 percent. The COVID-19 crisis has only worsened this reality. In August 2020, Bolsonaro vetoed a bill that would have granted emergency assistance to family farmers.

But Brazil’s story is one of resistance, resilience and hope. Efforts bringing together many social movements, unions and other popular organizations have mounted critical mutual aid efforts. MAB is a leader in these efforts, putting together baskets with essential food, hand sanitizer and other essential goods for families in need. The pandemic presents significant challenges, but MAB has continued to resist Bolsonaro’s policies. For example, they are fighting against the defunding of the national public health care system and continuing to organize in communities impacted by dam projects or threatened by new ones.

The fight for the right to water and against the socio-environmental impacts of dams is global. MAB’s struggle is one of resistance against the capitalist system for a world where the rights of people come ahead of profit. As MAB has said: “In 2020, Brazil did not sow rights; on the contrary, the country took lives, especially the lives of women, Black and poor people, all with a lot of violence and impunity.”

MAB’s struggle extends beyond the fight against water privatization. It is part of a global effort to regain the commons of water and fight against the commodification and privatization of life. MAB’s insistence that all forms of oppression are interconnected is also a statement of hope and a catalyst for envisioning a different world. Imagining new possibilities is a prerequisite for creating them.

This year, MAB celebrates 30 years of fighting to guarantee rights and their message is that the only way is to fight and organize: “Justice only with struggle and organization.” In doing so, they are sending a strong message to Vale: they cannot commit a crime like Brumadinho again and profit will not be valued over life.

This post originally appeared on ROAR Magazine (12 June 2021).

The post Inside the struggle for water sovereignty in Brazil appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).

Maine Will Charge Companies to Encourage More Recyclable Packaging

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 21/07/2021 - 6:00pm in

Outside the box

You’ve likely heard about the world’s recycling glut: As countries like China, where many materials are sent for recycling, become pickier about what they’ll accept, cities across the world are facing higher costs to recycle their waste — and in response, are scaling back their recycling efforts, or abandoning them altogether. 

In the U.S., one state is trying a solution: Maine just passed a law requiring companies to pay fees for the packaging their products come in. The more easily that packaging can be recycled, the lower the fees. Most reusable packaging incurs no fee at all. In effect, the policy transfers the cost of recycling from municipalities to the companies that make recycling necessary in the first place.

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Such policies have existed in other places for years. Just over the border from Maine, a similar policy in Quebec has generated $250 million for the province’s cities per year. It also encouraged more companies to make their packaging easier to recycle — recycling rates in Quebec average 63 percent, compared to 25 percent in the U.S. “Sure, people need to take individual responsibility,” said a program director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, “but these corporations have a lot more control over the waste and pollution that we’re seeing.”

Read more at Fast Company

Let the river run

America’s rivers are an obstacle course: across the country, two million dams impede fish from swimming freely through 600,000 miles of water. In recent years, many areas have begun removing these dams to revive ecosystems. In Washington State, Indigenous tribes are helping to facilitate some of the biggest dam removal projects yet.

elwhaThe Elwha River dam in 2002. Credit: Thomas O’Keefe / Flickr

These efforts began in earnest in 1992 with the Elwha Act, legislation passed in response to a motion filed by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to stop the relicensing of a dam, arguing that it violated their treaty rights by blocking the passage of fish. The law mandated “full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and native anadromous fisheries.” The fact that the law centered on the use of the river system by local tribes laid the groundwork for years of restoration made possible by these tribes’ involvement. In the years since, tribal biologists have worked with universities, nonprofits and local governments to remove dams — including, in 2011 and 2014, the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, collectively the world’s largest dam removal project ever.

These dam removals have spurred other tribes to replicate the model — earlier this year, a Republican congressman in Idaho put forth legislation to remove four large hydroelectric dams in a proposal that was co-signed by several local Indigenous tribes. The model has “really empowered the tribes in Washington to become, essentially, a co-manager with the state,” said the fisheries manager of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. 

Read more at Yes! Magazine

Happy to help

“Voluntourism” has long been viewed as problematic. The model, in which people — many of them young, white and privileged — travel to poorer areas of the world to donate their time, sometimes benefits the volunteers more than the communities they parachute into. What’s more, it can also perpetuate a “white savior” dynamic that some organizations are giving second thoughts.

NPR has an interesting report on how the pandemic didn’t just slam the brakes on such activities, it reshaped them in a way that may be permanent — and better for everyone. For instance, rather than fly in college grads from Western countries, Habitat for Humanity shifted its model to pay local builders to construct homes right where they live. Even better, many of the would-be volunteers who had already paid for the experience let Habitat keep their money as a charitable donation. 

Other organizations figured out how to let young people get involved in ways that avoided the pitfalls of voluntourism. For instance, instead of traveling to Malawi to volunteer at a community arts center, one British marketing student helped the foundation that was going to send her there improve its social media presence. “I’ve done so much without even leaving my house,” she said. “I think the pandemic has changed the game completely for volunteering.”

Read more at NPR

The post Maine Will Charge Companies to Encourage More Recyclable Packaging appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Gimme Some Truth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/07/2021 - 3:46pm in

In the wake of St Barnaby’s latest resurrection/resuscitation, the ABC news flashed up with a story about an aborted attempt by his National Party of opportunists, carpetbaggers and grafters to rewrite the Murray-Darling Basin plan, a 2012 bipartisan agreement about how to use the water that flows down Australia’s longest […]

Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/06/2021 - 6:00am in


Blog, Water

Capitalism is characterised by relentless structural pressures towards constant outward expansion. It strives to submit ever more areas to market forces and profit-making. Water is no exception in this respect. Whether it is the expropriation of water for the extractive industry or bottled water, or the privatisation of public water and sanitation services, capitalism is constantly striving to transform water into a commodity, which can be bought and sold for a profit. My new book Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books/Bloomsbury, 2021), however, is not about the power of capital and its all destructive dynamics. This book is about successful resistance against water privatization. It is about the power of collective action and the possibilities of constructing alternatives.

Fighting for Water analyses in detail four key struggles against water privatization in Europe. From the successful referendum against water privatization in Italy in 2011, via the European Citizens’ Initiative on ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right’ in 2012/2013, to the ongoing struggles against water privatization in Greece and the resistance against the introduction of water charges in Ireland between 2014 and 2016, this book investigates why water has been a fruitful arena for resistance against neoliberal restructuring.

Importantly, these struggles should not be understood as isolated, individual moments of contestation. Throughout the book, I indicate how struggles in one locale, in one particular country impacted on struggles elsewhere. When privatisation of water started in some towns in central Italy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, consumers were almost immediately hit by drastic increases in water charges of over 100 per cent. In response, resistance started to emerge around local water committees. When they encountered water activists from Latin America and other parts of the world at the first Alternative World Water Summit in Florence/Italy in 2003, Italian activists realised that their local struggles are part of a wider pattern. They moved towards establishing the Italian Forum of Water Movements at the national level in 2006, which became the organisational basis for the successful mobilisation in the referendum on water privatisation in 2011, when Italian citizens rejected water privatisation by a large majority.

In turn, the success of the Italian water movement in the 2011 referendum encouraged the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) to organise the first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) ‘Water and Sanitation are a Human Right’ in 2012, collecting close to 1.9 million signatures in 2012 and 2013. When water activists from the Greek city of Thessaloniki followed the hearing of the ECI outcome in the European Parliament (EP) via video link in 2014, these activists decided that they too would organise a referendum in their city in support of public water. The rejection of privatisation was overwhelming. On 18 May 2014, 98 per cent of participating citizens voted in favour of keeping water in public hands. Ireland came rather late to the struggles over water in the EU. It was only in 2014, when the Irish government established a national water company and started to roll out a programme of installing water meters – perceived by many as the first steps towards privatisation – that activists mobilised. Large demonstrations, a non-payment campaign of water charges and civil disobedience in the active blocking of the installation of water meters proved to be a powerful set of strategies, which ultimately led to the suspension of water charges in 2016.

Nevertheless, it is not only the successful resistance against privatisation, which marks these campaigns. It is also the development of potential alternatives of how water can be managed differently, which is a major contribution of these moments of collective action. Water activists in Italy realised early on that simply putting forward the state or local municipality as the better way of managing water would not be sufficient. The idea that the public can be an efficient provider of services such as water had suffered in Italy prior to privatisation. Simply arguing that the public is better would not have worked. Hence, activists focused on treating water as a commons, something which should be jointly managed, jointly used and jointly preserved for future generations, as an alternative to both private management and its focus on profit-making as well as public management by technocrats. This focus was combined with a new, participatory form of democracy in the running of water services. Precisely in a situation perceived by some within the water movement as post-democratic, the focus on a new form of democracy proved attractive. “It is written water, it is read democracy” was a key slogan of the campaign.

While a focus on the commons was of importance in struggles against water privatisation in Thessaloniki/Greece, it did not gain wider traction during the European Citizens Initiative across Europe and struggles against water charges in Ireland. What has, however, materialised in all these struggles is a quest for a different kind of democracy, which facilitates the direct involvement of people in decision-making. Be it in relation to a democratisation of how water companies are managed via the participation of workers and water users, be it in relation to more general decision-making in society, what has characterised all the struggles covered in the book is a rejection of representative democracy, often perceived to facilitate a continuation of existing capitalist structures of exploitation, and a demand for direct, participatory forms of democracy. It is in this respect, linking forms of democracy to the way of how the economy is organised, that we can identify a potential for transformation beyond capitalism.

An online book launch will be hosted by the Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham, on 7 July. You can register for the launch here.

This post was first published by We Own It on 9 June 2021.

The post Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/11/2017 - 3:00pm in


Society, Water