Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
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A week in the world

Hot water

By Peter Snowdon

It wasn't a good week to be a molecule of H20. In an article published in Science magazine last Friday, a group of researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- it is a curious reflection on the spirit of our age that we should feel that oceans and atmospheres need to be "administered" -- published the first substantial evidence that the temperature of the world's seas has risen significantly over the last 40 years.

Previous data had concerned sea surface temperatures, which together with the reduction in the thickness of the Arctic sea ice, pointed towards the fact that the temperature of the planet as a whole was rising due to increased fossil fuel emissions and the decimation of the world's forest cover, among other reasons. However, scientists had long been mystified as to why the temperature rise they recorded should be less than that predicted by their theories.

"Climate modelers had suggested that this 'missing warming' was probably to be found in the world ocean," commented Sydney Leviticus, head of NOAA's Ocean Climate Laboratory, who coordinated the study. "Our results lend credence to this scenario."

This study, based on over five million data points from the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, pointed to an average temperature rise of more than half a degree Fahrenheit since 1970 in the upper 300 metres of the water. This suggests that the ocean system has acted to slow the rate at which atmospheric temperature has risen. As a result, however, this "lost" heat is now stored in the oceans. It is unlikely to remain there for ever, thus creating the potential for huge climatic change in the future.

As if to confirm the NOAA's findings, the day before the article was published, a massive iceberg was reported to have broken off from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Cracks in the ice cap are seen by scientists as a leading indicator of global warming. The present iceberg is one of the largest ever observed, measuring some 170 miles long by 25 miles wide. It has a surface area roughly equivalent to that of the State of Connecticut.

While the seas have been heating up, the rivers have been getting down and dirty. A helicopter carrying sodium cyanide from Port Moresby to the Tolukuma gold mine in Papua New Guinea contrived to drop about a ton of the lethal substance onto the banks of the Auga river. Cyanide, which is used to separate gold from the raw ore, is so deadly that a single teaspoon of a two per cent solution is enough to kill an adult human being. Its impact on freshwater life is even more devastating. Dome Resources of Sydney, Australia, the owners of the mine, claimed that almost all the cyanide was recovered from the crash site within 48 hours, and that "only a negligible amount" found its way into the river. Nevertheless, the government issued a warning to local people not to drink any water from natural sources. Activists expressed concern that the message might not have reached many of those most at risk, who live in remote rural communities.

This latest accident comes hot on the heels of the disastrous spill at Baia Mare in Romania, on 30 January, where the Aurul gold recovery plant, jointly owned by the Romanian government and Esmerelda Exploration of Perth, also in Australia, dumped 100,000 cubic metres of waste water contaminated with cyanide into the Tisza river. This poison found its way into the Danube system, polluting rivers in five countries and decimating their fish populations, as well as depriving local people both of clean drinking water, and of their livelihoods, by rendering their agricultural produce unsaleable. Last week, the international environmental organisation Greenpeace took unilateral measures to seal off the Aurul site, blockading the plant and demanding that international authorities take action to outlaw the use of cyanide in gold mining.

The timing of this protest was designed to coincide with the convening of the Second World Water Forum in The Hague. Delegates from 158 nations met to discuss the impending world "water crisis", and approve a special Declaration on Water Security in the 21st Century. One billion people currently have no access to safe drinking water, while 800 million go hungry in areas where water deprivation is one cause of inadequate food supply. Experts estimate that as the world's population continues to grow, roughly 20 per cent more freshwater will be required to meet global agricultural needs by the year 2025. Yet our supplies of freshwater are shrinking daily, due to pollution, abusive extraction levels and global warming -- among other factors.

The Hague conference essentially endorsed the Washington consensus on water, which sees privatisation and "appropriate pricing mechanisms" as the key to ensuring greater access to clean water. Whether such mechanisms can succeed in doing more than siphoning off taxpayers' money to "subsidise" infrastructure contracts for Western-based multi-nationals, however, remains open to question. (The results of the Forum and the ministerial meeting will be the subject of a special feature section in the next edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.)

While violence in Kashmir and nuclear proliferation continued to dominate mainstream coverage of President Clinton's visit to India -- the first official state visit by a US president in 22 years -- plenty of American business leaders are tagging along to make sure that the really important matters get attended to. More than 50 US corporate executives figure in the president's entourage, including the heads of IBM, General Motors and General Electric.

Also on the tour is Joseph W Sutton, CEO of Enron, the Houston-based energy company. In 1992, Enron was awarded the contract, through its subsidiary the Dabhol Power Corporation (DPC), to build the largest electricity generating plant in the world for the state of Maharashtra. DPC is a joint venture with General Electric, Bechtel and the state government, in which Enron currently has a 50 per cent controlling interest. The contract was obtained partly thanks to aggressive lobbying by the US administration, which then went on to subsidise the project to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The project has been controversial since its initiation. A recent report by the US-based watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), not only accuses the state of Maharashtra of seeking to suppress local opposition on environmental and social grounds through intimidation, arbitrary arrest, torture, and generalised denial of freedom of speech, but also points the finger directly at DPC, Enron -- and thus, ultimately, the US taxpayer. DPC contractors, according to HRW, directly engaged in systematic intimidation of project opponents, while the company also paid the expenses of the state security forces detailed to harass, beat and wrongfully arrest "trouble-makers."

Last week, however, speaking outside the Taj Mahal, rather than promising a full investigation into the dubious role played by US public money in Dabhol, Clinton instead pledged $200 million of aid to India for "efficient energy production." "We will take special steps to work with private enterprise to address these challenges," he added, without any visible sense of shame -- or irony.

Cooperation between the US and India on energy projects was broken off in May 1998, following the Pokhran nuclear tests.

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