Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: millenium goals
Tuesday, 11 August 2009 00:00

Hercules and the Hydra: the Seven Crises of Humankind


 

When I was a child, I enjoyed reading the tales and legends from the Greek mythology. Young boys are especially mesmerized by the Twelve Labours of Hercules, a hero not so smart, but so brave and enthusiastic… Among the Twelve Labours he had to accomplish, Hercules fought a hydra with seven heads – or nine heads according to the different versions. In fact, there are several different tales of the fight. The most common one tells that the seven heads of the hydra would grow back after being cut and Hercules had to sever the heads one by one to prevent their growing again. One of these heads was even immortal and Hercules had to bury it under a rock. Curiously, the version I kept in my mind is different: each head would grow up if cut separately, and Hercules had to sever the seven heads at the same time to defeat the hydra… Each version of the same myth has its own coherence and its own significance, thus it is the latter version that I choose, to make Hercules be the symbol of mankind struggling with a multiplicity of crises and challenges…

 

The Crises are systemic

 
The lesson to be drawn from the Hercules’ story that I recall, is that we should view and tackle problems in their globalism. Nothing is more dangerous than the international community twirling around the crises, without solving any of them, while leaving aside a universal view of the planet’s situation.

We are not only living a time of recession. We are not only going through one crisis. We are facing an era of crises. Their complexity and their overlapping are entirely part of the challenge met by the global community now, at this time in history: the crises of the global financial system, global warming, natural resources, cultural diversity, great poverty, migrations and world governance… All these crises are systemic, they retroact on each other and they require us to think and ponder on a global level in order to really confront each of these crises in their entirety.

Certainly, technical solutions must be defined and adopted for each particular challenge. But when their interactions are ignored, the problems that appeared solved just re-emerge even more acutely. The present recession is a good example of this phenomenon: after the alert of the Asian financial crisis and the “Internet bubble” collapsing, around year 2000, the economists were professing to understand so perfectly the international system that another recession was not conceivable. But the lack of concern for ethics (the exhaustion of our “cultural resources”) and the excessive deregulation (sign of the global governance deficit) have broken this unwarranted self-confidence.

And yet, humanity has proven its capacity to reflect collectively as a global community on the significance of the times. An important step for this reflection on a global spectrum was taken with the ‘Millennium Goals’. Here, international institutions stated, in unison, the planets situation then they came to an agreement on priority goals, designing an action program for a period of time following the symbolic year 2000. Their striving to make judgements and the common will, were demonstrated with vigour and inventiveness. Nevertheless; while the global community has shown its aptitude and volition, it has also shown its limitations. These are also our limitations when it comes to taking action, and more importantly acting in unison. They did not make an error with the diagnosis or the objectives as such. However the means were simply not there to put the goals into practice. Admittedly, some efforts have been made to remedy the scandalizing situation where millions of people are suffering without access to clean water, to eradicate great poverty, to promote the sharing of educational resources and in the fight against epidemics - but the resources freed up for the tasks still remain minor compared to the challenges we are confronting…thus, it may not be enough to attempt to tackle each crisis one by one, rather it is a matter of apprehending, as a system, all the different challenges presently faced by the international community. Here, I have split these challenges into seven: the struggle against global warming, the need to overhaul the international financial system, the management of natural resources, the exhaustion of cultural resources, the crisis of structural poverty which nurtures the crisis of migrations and intercommunity tensions, and the reform of global governance.


 


Tuesday, 30 June 2009 19:32

One 'swimming pool' for Yangjuan village

You may complain that your internet access is too slow. In Taiwan, where I reside, 5785 kms of optical broadband networks will be completed by the end of the year. However, while we’ll enjoy easier and faster surfing of the global village, the small village of Yangjuan in Southwest China is in need of 3 kms of pipes for a water network to allow easier access to this critical, life-giving commodity.

Since the school’s inauguration in 2000, cleaner water has been increasingly at the disposal of villagers. The school well did provide water to 300 students all year long but recently it seems seriously in need of maintenance, as it runs regularly dry during winter. During the summer of 2004 the first communal well was dug in the lower part of the village. However, after a few months, it met the same fate as the well of the school. People learned from that failure, therefore some of them dig home wells during the dry season, aware also that underground water is healthier than water directly taken from the river. In 2005 and 2007, on the villagers initiative, we canalized water from two sources in the hills above their houses. These small scale distribution networks were a real relief for approximately 60 households. Once again this encountered the same problem: from October to May water scarcely runs from the faucets, when it runs at all! I visited the village again last May and now they’re asking for bigger scale water works that could meet the needs of all the villagers.

Every day 5000 children in the world die from water related diseases.
At the end of 2006, the United Nations Development Program was asking the international community “to ensure that every person has access to at least 20 liters of clean water each day to meet basic needs” as “a minimum requirement for respecting the right to water—and that is a minimum target for governments.”

When we put into perspective the Millennium Development Goals: “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation” with the needs of Yangjuan and the possibilities to improve the situation there, we feel sad and compelled to take immediate action. “The urgency of achieving the Millennium Development Goal for water and sanitation cannot be overstated. Even if the targets are achieved, there will still be more than 800 million people without water and 1.8 billion people without sanitation in 2015”. This extract from “Human Development Report 2006 Beyond scarcity: Power poverty and the global water crisis” leaves a chilling picture for the future.

On a micro level, there is hope for this small village in the mountains of Sichuan Province, crippled with all sort of difficulties. Ten years ago, the villagers had no consciousness of the need for clean water. Following the failure of the communal well, the villagers became aware of the necessity of clean water and started experimenting inside their own compounds. It was the villagers themselves who came up with the idea of bringing water from the hills behind the village. It was then easy convince them that it was better to canalized water from the source, than to take water directly from the brook. That was not a big deal to complete the job. Since we were providing the pipes and materials needed to build the water tank everybody was motivated to work together. Now, following these trials, that are far from complete successes, villagers are dreaming of a bigger scale project that could satisfy all their water needs for good. The informal network of ’friends of Yangjuan’, created and put into action using the power of the Internet, is coming together to solve any new, bigger problems they may meet in order to succeed in this huge undertaking. Who will be the responsible leader able to coordinate the efforts on a local level? Where will they find supplementary funds? How can they ensure that water taken from the brook will be drinkable at the faucet? How to solve all these problems without increasing the financial burden of the villagers once installation is completed?

In the village of Yangjuan, people leave, sometimes far away, to find jobs. Those who stay behind are the eldest and the youngest. Being forced to fetch water daily is a heavy burden when added to farming and schooling.

Water is not only the problem of Yangjuan as shown by a 2006 report from the WWF: a combination of climate change, drought and loss of wetlands that store water, along with poorly thought out water infrastructure and resource mismanagement, is making this crisis truly global.

Even in Taiwan, where tap water penetration rate hits 90.7 percent, one mountainous county only manages 45 percent.
It is estimated that the network of one water distribution company in the UK, leaks enough water daily to fill more than 300 Olympic size swimming pools! By western standards, such an amount could supply water for 2 800 000 homes…while for Yangjuan, one swimming pool would be more than enough.


Friday, 28 December 2007 20:17

Millennium Goals or Global Warming?

The struggle against global warming has taken a new dimension during the year 2007. Though many concrete decisions remain to be agreed upon and implemented, financial and human investments are sure to increase dramatically during the years to come so as to tackle an unparalleled challenge. This is good news indeed. At the same time, this evolution reflects a shift in global consciousness that might bear some preoccupying counter-effects. Around 2000, the Millennium Goals were sketching a roadmap, the focal point of which was the elimination of extreme poverty for 2025. It was apparent enough that humankind had the means and the know-how for achieving what, in other times, would have seemed like an impossible dream.

Struggle against poverty is still very much on the agenda. At the same time, mobilization has been far below what is deemed necessary for achieving such a lofty goal. And we might now witness a subtle trade-off between two objectives: eradicating poverty and alleviating global warming. For sure, the two goals are not contradictory per se, they are even mutually reinforcing: eradicating poverty will prove to be impossible if natural disasters caused by climatic changes occur in Africa or impoverished Asian coastlines. Deforestation and water depletion diminish the meager capital that many populations have to rely upon for earning an income. However, international credit allocation obeys to bargaining laws and power games, and these games might actually benefit rising developing nations rather than the ones suffering from extreme poverty – the latest counting for around one sixth of the world’s population. Developing nations contribute to the rise in carbon emissions and rely on highly polluting technologies: subsidies for cleaning up the environment will go primarily to them. When poverty is such that you do not contribute to greenhouses emissions you might be left out of the new distribution mechanisms of global subsidies… Global warming would such become a pretext for developed nations to spread and sell their technologies, and for middle—income nations to profit from an array of international subsidies.

World governance is still suffering from a lack of comprehensive mechanisms that would allow people to arbitrate between priorities and policy choices. Still, from now on, the struggle against poverty and the one against global warming must be conceived and implemented together rather than risking to become, even partly, a kind of trade-off – in which case the losers of the game would be, once again, the poorest of the poor. This shows that the struggle against global warming cannot be considered as a mere technical challenge bur rather as a political and humanist endeavor. It is not enough of a Al Gore for tackling the issue. We also need a Gandhi who would remind us of the humane, social and spiritual issues at stake.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Thursday, 13 September 2007 23:38

Water for All!

Yes, we were back at dear old Yangjuan village during the summer of 2007… That was the seventh year in a row that volunteers from Chengdu, Taiwan, France and the United States were gathering there. The months preceding the trip were somehow hectic due to the constant changes in the preparation of the projects. But finally, everything went very well…

Since the moment we have started to implement small scale hydraulic projects in Yangjuan we had been relying on volunteers from the French organization “Hydraulic without borders”. One of the volunteers managed the digging of a communal well (summer 2004) and the bringing down of water from a stream in the hills to 20 households in one part of the village (summer 2005), He was not available this summer. That is the reason why we started to look for an aborigine volunteer from Taiwan. And this proved to be the right move: Mr Yun has been indeed the very person to manage the work we did this summer 2007:capturing a spring in the mountains to bring water to 30 households in the “5th brigade” of the village.

For the hydraulic projects my concerns were many. It seemed to me that from the spring to the water tank above the village most of the pipe could not be buried in the ground. In theory, that would require better and more expensive material. We found out that the ideal material was not available in Xichang and, if available, that the installation would require electricity. Finally we had to rely only on the material available in the closest place to Yangjuan. The experience of Mr. Yun was such that he got immediately a good comprehension of the nature of the soil and after one morning of work the source was already captured. Work was not finished yet as the pipe (about 1500 m long) had to be buried in the ground or hanged along a cliff in the last stretch to the water tank. The building of the water tank took also another two to three days. The last days, when we were installing the pipes and the faucets in the village, invitation was made for all the “workers” with the killing and eating of a young pig and the coming of the water in the households was celebrated with abundance of beer! Mr. Yun could give precious advice to maintain the system, and, before we left, a “maintenance manager” was elected by the villagers.

The other project consisted in building two greenhouses for cultivation of vegetables. For the realization of the project we asked for help from the Agriculture technical University of Pingdong. The President was very helpful in introducing a professor who in turn introduced two students who were very fit for the job and very good in training the people to new ways of growing vegetables.

The so called “hydraulic project” comes from our very first stays in Yangjuan. Two nurses conducted a health survey and it appeared that the quality of the water could be greatly improved since all the water consumed comes from the river polluted by dejections from animals (pigs, sheep and horses). For sure, the people say that in their place there are no illness related to the quality of the water. Which to some extend is true compared with the situation in other places in Liangshan area. Still, hygiene had to be improved. The digging of a well in 2004 has been beneficial to the people. This summer again, I was told that people like very much to drink water from that well. This project has not been a perfect success, as during autumn and winter the well runs dry. But it was a good example anyway since afterwards at least two families dug a well in their courtyard. From this experience we know that July and August are not the ideal time for that activity: during that period the level of underground water is rather high and then keep lowering till March. A timid initiative by the people from the 3rd brigade the following year obliged us to change our minds (we were prepared to dig another well), and so we brought instead water from the mountains to their houses. Though the distribution network is very simple and made of cheap material it has been a very good surprise for me to see how well it has been maintained and somehow improved. What happened in 2005 was an encouragement, showing the willingness of the people to be more active in taking care of their living conditions.

It was not a surprise that at the end of my stay in 2005 villagers from the 5th brigade came to ask for the same thing for them. I went to see the spring that could be capture to meet their needs, but as the volunteer from “Hydraulic without borders” was already back to France I was not very sure of the feasibility of the project. Summer 2006 we had not “hydraulic project” (the French civil engineering professor was in Haiti) I went again to inspect the site of the water spring in the mountains. In March, taking occasion of a trip to Nanjing, I went again to Yangjuan mainly to test the willingness of the villagers to realize the project, knowing that it needed more manpower.

The implementation of our project this summer has been a success in the sense that the participation of the villagers was very good. The first meeting we had before starting the work was held in one of the offices of the school, the head of the village was there and my old friend the secretary of the Party was also present (he is one of the beneficiaries of the water adduction project in 2005). The fact that one of the villagers has been elected as maintenance officer is also a very good thing.

Is concern for the quality of water growing in Yangjuan? I received two requests in July, one coming for the people from the 5th brigade asking for a well, the other one from the principal of the school. During the winter period the bottom of the well that supplies water to the school is filled with a whitish muddy deposit. During this period the pipe bringing water to the tank above the school is placed in the river. I am not a specialist but I think that the well of the school just needs a serious maintenance during the dry season (i.e. in February or March).

It is difficult to give an evaluation on the other project, the construction of two greenhouses for cultivation of vegetables. It was not possible to find a common land. The owner of the plot of land where the two structures were built and where the first beds of greens were sown was getting along very well with one of the two Taiwanese students and hopefully will benefit from this improvement on his farm land. We can hope that the greenhouses will be a good example for other villagers.

Since 2000 we have been witnessing many changes in Yangjuan. A lot of people went outside to work in places like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and even abroad. There is no sign so far that the village will be abandoned in a few years. Making life easier for example with a better access to water may slow down the process or at least ease the burden of the “grand parents” left there to take care of the farm and the grandchildren.


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