new internationalist
issue 199 - September 1989



Beauty or beast
Sludge power

Everybody knows we are running out of fossil fuels. They are non-renewable. Nature worked for hundreds of millions of years to make natural crude oil from minute marine organisms that died and decayed. Millions of years in the making and we have used most of the oil in one profligate century.

If our generation gobbles all available fossil fuels, what will be left for our children and grandchildren? Will they freeze in the dark? There is still plenty of coal but it produces acid rain. If only some genius could discover an inexhaustible, eternally self-renewing source of oil, like the milk in the magic pitcher in Grimm's Fairy tales. Well, incredibly enough, something like that is developing, although the milk metaphor doesn't quite convey the quality of our magic source, which is sewage sludge. The temptation to make rude jokes must be firmly repressed.

Sludge-derived oil cannot be produced in sufficient quantities to meet all our energy needs, but it is definitely a renewable resource. Sludge has so far been an orphan child even in the world of garbage, where it presents one of the worst disposal problems; the cost of treating it is daunting, and growing worse almost by the hour. It is estimated that Canada, the US and the European Community are spending about $2 billion annually to get rid of their accumulations of sludge. As a result more and more is discharged untreated into our lakes and streams, distributing bacteria through the drinking water and ruining our beaches.

The transformation of this unlovely Beast of the garbage world into a glamorous oil-producing Beauty began at Tubingen University, West Germany, and has been validated in Canadian experiments at the Centre for Inland Waters, Burlington, Ontario. In a process described as 'simple and elegant' sludge is heated to 300-350 degrees centigrade in an oxygen-free environment for 30 minutes. Contrary to expectations, the sewage-derived oil produced in this way contains no more toxin than natural crude oil.

Our malodorous bonanza may not provide all our energy needs, but at least it doesn't have to be imported, and it can be controlled by each municipality for its own benefits. The technology is practicable only for larger centres, however. For those with a population of less than 50,000 the cost would be prohibitive, although smaller places might be able to co-operate in a regional treatment centre.

A pilot plant was set up in 1986 at the Woodward Avenue sewage plant in Hamilton, Ontario, and its findings have been positive. Another pilot study is being carried out in Perth, Australia.

Meanwhile, cities like Melbourne in Australia as well as Boston, New York and Los Angeles are actively seeking alternative technologies which are less expensive than incineration or landfill.

Supplemented by good conservation measures, and by development of other 'soft path' renewable resources such as solar and wind power, we can achieve a considerable measure of energy independence. If we really put our minds to it, we can free ourselves from the environmentally destructive practices of oil exploration and exploitation, and the even more sinister potential of nuclear power.

Victoria Branden


Behind the picture
Symbol of struggle

There are two small brass coloured marks on Sam Nzima's Asahi Pentax SL, to the right of the lens, where countless pressings from his index and middle fingers have worn away the surface of the camera body.

It is a camera Nzima has had for 20 years. It is the camera with which he took a picture which more than any other image of a country, has come to symbolize for people around the world the struggle of Black South Africans against apartheid.

The picture Nzima took on June 16, 1976 was of Hector Petersen, a 13-year-old Soweto boy in his sixth year of school, as he was carried away from the first gunfire of that fateful day in South Africa's history.

But this momentous photograph that went around the world has brought little fame and even less money to the man who took it. He has never received royalties for it.

'I am happy that the community is happy with that picture,' says Nzima. 'But the media should at least have shown respect by putting a by line on the picture.

Nzima remembers well the circumstances of the picture. He had been sent by The World to cover the sutdent protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools.

When police first opened fire on students gathered at the gate of Orlando West Secondary School in Soweto, Nzima was standing between the two groups. Then he saw Petersen, his sister and Makhubu coming towards him. 'I was standing next to our press car. They were looking for the nearest vehicle.'

As they approached, Nzima clicked the shutter six times, then rushed to open the car door. He, a reporter and their driver squeezed into the front seat - the others laid the boy in the back and got in beside him. When they reached a clinic nearby, Petersen was dead - the first person to die in the Soweto Uprising.

As the uprising dragged on, Nzima took hundreds of pictures. 'A camera became a dangerous thing to have,' he recalls. Police were going to the schools using press clippings to find people. The police also wanted to arrest us. Press work was becoming unmanageable.'

Nzima now runs a bottle store, which he reckons is more profitable than photography. But every year on June 16 he closes shop to commemorate that fateful day in Soweto.

John Perlman / Gemini


Mother of invention
Paperclip surgery

A Bangladeshi paediatrician has found a novel solution to the shortage of equipment in his operating theatre. Professor Shafiqul Hoque never walks into an operation without a handful of paperelips. In the absence of retractors - an instrument which holds back the edges of a surgical incision and is too expensive for many Third World hospitals to afford - the ubiquitous clips are invaluable.

During an operation the humble clip can be bent into a variety of shapes to provide big or small hook-like retractors. The Hoque invention is then used for tasks like holding open the edges of small wounds, retracting blood vessels and helping in the insertion of stitches.

'I make my retractors in the theatre as I need them. And when I have forgotten to bring a supply, I simply sterilize and reuse old ones,' says Hoque, Associate Professor at Dhaka Medical College. Each paperclip costs one cent compared to an imported stainless steel retractor which costs around $100.

The paperclip retractor first hit the headlines at a conference of paediatric surgeons held in Singapore when Professor Hoque presented a paper on 'Vascular and Soft Tissue Retractors from Paper Clips'. Before surprising delegates with his innovation however, Professor Hoque put the problem in perspective. 'The world of medicine is moving forward every day but unfortunately we in Bangladesh are not. In such a poor country we have to search for alternative instruments to use during surgery since imported ones are so expensive. The paperclip has been one answer.

Hoque is not the only Third World surgeon using low-cost equipment for high-tech operations. In Sri Lanka, Dr Michael Abeyaratine uses a teaspoon to help with hernia operations on tiny babies. He places the tiny blood vessels and sperm ducts in the spoon out of harm's way while cutting the fragile hernia sac.

While paediatric surgeons in the West replace their traditional instruments with ever-more sophisticated and expensive gadgets, Third World surgeons have to cater for an expanding population of children with a minimum of equipment. Innovation is often the only way.

Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha / Gemini


Mona Lisa to elephants
Thailand's condom campaign

Elephants, T-shirts, taxi cabs, and children's songs - many of the innovative ways of spreading the family planning message in Thailand are now being adapted for AIDS prevention.

'Our approach has not been conventional,' says Dr Mechai Viravaidya, Secretary-General of Thailand's Population and Community Development Association. 'In terms of providing information there must be many ways, not just the traditional ways.

Dr Mechai speaks of a Bangkok restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms: 'It's the only restaurant in the world where you can eat and get contraceptives at the same time'.

At the international conference on AIDS in Montreal recently, where he handed out condom key chains to anyone within reach, he stressed the need for AIDS education in Bangkok, home to most of the country's 100,000 drug users. Most are male and heterosexual, he said, and are putting millions of women at risk.

'Of the 73 provinces in Thailand, there has been evidence to show that there are 70 provinces where HIV-positive (Human immuno-deficiency virus) cases have been shown.

He notes that, although many Thais are worried about AIDS, they know relatively little about it. But the spread of family planning has provided a role model. Over the course of four years a network of community-based workers has been established in 16,000 villages. Contraceptives are now readily available. T-shirts display a modified portrait of the Mona Lisa, condoms in hand. Even elephants have become walking billboards, reminding villagers to 'Think Condom'.

If AIDS prevention is to succeed, reckons Dr Mechai, it has to begin at an early age. That means working with primary school children, getting them to blow up condoms instead of balloons so that they grow up to be adults who are not embarrassed by a simple device that should be worn by half the world's population. Alphabet songs should also be adapted to educate - for example B for Birth, C for condom', says Dr Mechai.

Emil Sher / Gemini


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New Internationalist issue 199 magazine cover This article is from the September 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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