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new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989



Breaking boundaries
Flood myth

Images of Bangladesh's worst-ever flood grabbed the world's attention in 1988. Almost half the country was awash, 2,000 people drowned and over two million acres of farmland were destroyed. The international media speculated that the flood was a manifestation of the greenhouse effect. Few TV viewers realized that the previous year's flood had been almost as bad.

Flooding is a fact of life in Bangladesh. 'There's no statistical evidence that flood levels have increased over the past 100 years. They don't seem to be getting worse in the physical sense, though the economic consequences are greater,' says Peter Rogers, Professor of Engineering at Harvard University who recently completed a special report to the US Congress on flooding.

His argument shatters another popular explanation - that the floods are caused by rural people cutting down trees upstream. Without trees, soil is eroded during the monsoon rains - or so the theory goes. The mountains are left naked and the plains below are flooded.

Jack Ives, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, also pooh-poohs this theory: it is a way of scapegoating subsistence farmers, he says. His study of local agriculture reveals very little reduction in forest cover in the past 50 years. It is not even clear that deforestation is bad, he says. And some flooding is essential for the peasants of Bangladesh's lowlands. Normal floods supply the moisture and silt necessary for cultivation.

When the floods cease entirely, the moisture and silt are cut off - damaging local farms. This happened when foreign experts persuaded Pakistan to build huge embankments to protect 30 per cent of the country's flood-prone area in the 1960s. The Government plans more. But the farmers don't like the measures. And the embankment walls are also quickly eroded by heavy sediment in Bangladesh's rivers.

'The solution lies in small-scale projects that can involve the people of Bangladesh without foreign intervention,' says Harun Rasid, Professor of Geography in Thunder Bay, Canada. 'The emphasis should be changed from flood prevention to flood adaptation.' Rasid suggests reclaiming small areas of land with dykes, and equipping them with pumps to suck water off fields during the monsoon and irrigate them in the dry season. Rasid also wants to capitalize on the farmers' own flood adjustments: building homesteads above flood levels for example. This could be extended to the rural mud-road system. With more research flood-resistant strains of crop could be developed.

David Schuize


Desert giant
Appreciating camels

The Ship of the Desert

[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] 15 million camels worldwide, including 25,000 in the wild (all in Australia).

[image, unknown] Some breeds can go 2 weeks without water, losing 40% bodyweight, walking 80-100km a day; others can carry 1/4 tonne for 40km a day.

[image, unknown] 2.5 - 3m in height; up to 3m long; 25 year lifespan; 13 month gestation.

Did you know that camels have such an unerring sense of direction that they are used by smugglers in India's Rajasthan desert? Or that male camels court with great sensitivity and, once successful, guard their mates for years? And were you aware that decorous female camels form a circle around mating camels to screen them from outside view?

If not, you might be interested to know more about the Camel Research Centre and breeding farm in Jorbeer, western Rajasthan. Spread over 2,100 acres, the farm studies the behaviour of around 170 camels, as well as experimenting with livestock through genetic manipulation. Amongst other things, it aims to spread the word about the amazing transport potential of the proverbial ship of the desert.

Equipped with built-in antennae for direction and water, camels can faultlessly retrace their steps along any travelled path. When the animals are auctioned from the farm and taken to distant homes, they sometimes escape and come back. Their sense of direction is invaluable to smugglers who load pairs of camels with contraband and push them unaccompanied across the border into Pakistan. The camels return independently a short while later with goods from the other side.

Camels can also walk in scorching heat for two weeks without a drop to drink. But their remarkable abilities could be lost forever.

As pastoral societies disappear the camel may face extinction. Mechanical transport would increase, creating more problems in an already fragile ecology.

Rahul Bedi / Gemini


Dying for change
Sick society

You can't buy many drugs at a chemist's in Poland today. And patients going to hospital are often asked to bring their own bandages and hypodermic needles. Surgeons operate without gloves. Some hospitals have been closed because they lack the basic cleaning materials. And doctors regularly have to decide which of several equally deserving patients should be given medicine and therefore life.

The situation reflects a national sickness which began in 1981 when the worsening balance-of-payments crisis forced Poland to curtail its imports from the hard-currency countries of Western Europe and the US. Since then the country has depended on individuals and charities in the West for most of its medical supplies.

Poland is not a healthy place for anyone - especially men. In industrial Silesia only three per cent of men live to claim retirement benefits at the age of 65. And the death rate of males between 35 and 55 far exceeds that in East or West Germany. Main killers are cardio-vascular disease and lung cancer, caused largely by smoking and air pollution.

Quite apart from the disaster at Chernobyl - which happened practically on Poland's doorstep - industrial pollution is a serious problem throughout the country. In Silesia, south-west Poland, between 6,000 and 7,000 deaths per million inhabitants occur each year as a result of air pollution. One-third of the population lives in environmental disaster areas: Poland has the second worst record in Europe (after the USSR) for sulphur dioxide pollution.

The state of the water is equally worrying. About half the river water is biologically dead; only one per cent could be called pure. Analysis of water in village wells shows that only 37 per cent is 'good', with the rest either 'bad' or uncertain'. Most water in the 'bad' category is polluted by both chemicals and harmful bacteria. Around Lublin in south-east Poland over 80 per cent of the water is infected.

This catalogue of gloom includes agriculture. Every year up to 20 per cent of the country's GNP is lost because of damage to farming land. In many places, people cannot drink the local milk or eat the meat because it is so heavily contaminated with lead and mercury. The cadmium, zinc and lead in the soil have made carrots unsafe to eat. And in areas near copper plants the soil has become contaminated by cyanide used in the smelting process.

Unless something is done soon, Poland will become a country unfit for humans to live in.

Sarah Lawson


Tough choice
Prostitutes beat AIDS

Poverty drives desperate African mothers to prostitution. Men seeking prostitutes in the Ghanaian capital of Acera, are facing a difficult decision: use condoms or go away. 'We are gratified to discover how much prostitutes know about AIDS and to see what they are doing to prevent from getting it,' says Dr Alfred Neequaye, Head of the Ghana Technical Committee on AIDS. He made the discovery when he recently sent plain-clothes detectives to find out how prostitutes were reacting to AIDS.

Ever since the disease hit Ghana, experts have been trying to contain it by educating high-risk groups. In 1986 a handful began working through clinics for sexually-transmitted diseases, trying to get to know local prostitutes.

One of these - Alice - now chairs a 15-member association of prostitutes known euphemistically as the 'Widows Association'. She describes how her group got involved in the condom project. - Most of us had heard about AIDS on the radio. Although we all tested negative, we were afraid because we knew the risks we were running.'

A survey among city prostitutes in 1986 showed that six per cent were HIV-positive. And word had come that many prostitutes from Krobo in the east, were returning from the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, with AIDS. There is a long history of two-way traffic between Abidjan and Accra: doctors estimate that about 90 per cent of the 200 AIDS patients being treated in Accra contracted the disease in Abidjan.

'Dr Neequaye's team was a godsend because they explained how AIDS could be avoided,' says Alice. Today she ensures that members of the club are regularly supplied with condoms donated by the US-based Family Health International.

Although business has fallen by a third since the prostitutes implemented the condom rule, Alice is adamant. 'We tell clients that if they don't like it they can go away. We can't risk getting this disease for money.'

Alice's plight is typical. She is a widow and mother of eight children. When her husband died she had the choice of going to live with his family or fending for herself. She chose the latter. But because all her husband's wealth went to his family, she had to start from scratch. Prostitution is one profession for women in which hardly any capital is necessary, she observes. Given a choice she would prefer to be a seamstress. But the money is not good enough. Today she earns slightly more than one dollar a day, which is just above the minimum wage.

Dr Neequaye is investigating ways of generating alternative employment for prostitutes. 'We would like to set up a revolving fund for projects which do not require a huge capital outlay, such as trading, basket-weaving and bread-baking,' he says. Then Alice and others like her would not have to risk their lives every day just to survive.

Colleen Lowe Morna / Panos

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New Internationalist issue 198 magazine cover This article is from the August 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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