All the evils in the world

Below is a picture of a wall painting seen on a school wall near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. It is done by a group run by a guy I know, Children for Green New Nepal.

Beware of acid rain, ozone depletion, middle age spread, the green house effect, toxic land fills, air pollution, climate change, global warming….

I like the way middle age spread fits in there juxtaposing all the ‘big’ environmental problems that we individually can do nothing about with one that can be resolved by having two mouthfuls less than full. And eating the right things of course.

An acquaintance, Alden Towler, has been researching diet in Kathmandu while on a Fullbright scholarship. His findings are as interesting as they are shocking.

According to a study conducted by the Nepal Diabetes Association, while only 3-4% of Nepal’s rural population is affected, 18% of Kathmandu’s urban population over the age of 40 has Type 2 Diabetes, and an additional 10% suffer from a pre-diabetic state called Impaired Fasting Glycaemia1 underpinned by insulin resistance.

Children for a Green New Nepal have their work cut out when the people in charge are struggling to keep their own health in order.

Read more of about Alden’s study here:

Meeting the happiest man in the world

It is not every day you shake hands with somebody crowned with a world title. At the time I had no idea who Matthieu Ricard was, other than a French monk of high standing.

I’d gone to Shechen Monestary in Boudha to track down a man building a huge monastery on a hill behind Swayambu. The area is pretty dry and I was wondering what how they were going to manage their water supply. I thought it would be an idea to suggest using dry-toilets rather than flush toilets. And so I did. Fortunately the man in charge of the project, Lucch, was present in his office and I presented my ideas to him over a cup of tea.

Today I looked up the pleasant and friendly Monsieur Ricard. Below is a rather amusing article published in the independant.

While searching Google for “the happiest man in the world”, I also found the story of Poppa Neutrino which sounds like another example of a life lived to the full.

Below is a snap of three people working hard on the monastery building project near Swayambu.

In pursuit of profit…

Its the dry season in Nepal. Or rather the very dry season. The vast majority of rain falls in the monsoon period between June and early September. This heavy rainfall recharges the water tables that everybody relies on to supply water until the following year. Some light rain falls in January and February, but in comparison to the monsoon, this is not much to speak of. By April and May the water table is dropping and streams high above the valley floor are drying up. People then have to go hunting for water, or do without.

Recently I travelled to Kaskikot, a small village on a panoramic ridge close to Pokhara. They have a huge issue with water supply. To cut a long story short, rainfall is decreasing and temperatures increase, both attributed to climate change. This means that people have access to water for as little as one hour per day, and roughly speaking, the per capita allocation of water is around 10 litres per day. That’s one traditional toilet flush to give it some perspective. So that has to function for drinking, cooking, washing and toilet usage. Its a very tough situation.

The story is not uncommon in Nepal. A popular perception held by outsiders is that Nepal is a land of snowy mountains and raging rivers, and that that somehow implies that water is in abundance. The former is true, the latter is far from the case.

Every week news reports cite another village as being in desperate shortage of water. In Kathmandu it is no different. Many houses, those that can afford it that is, are resorting to having water delivered by tanker.

Last week on a short hike up a hill beyond Swayambu I saw children ever so patiently waiting for something no more than a trickle from a standpipe to fill their assorted buckets and bottles.

The climate is undeniably changing and the debate on whether industrialisation and consumerism are responsible is all but closed.

Imagine the irony then of seeing bottles of Perrier and San Pellegrino mineral water for sale in a nearby supermarket in Kathmandu. Yes it is patronised mainly by tourists, but still, if there was ever a symbol of the profligacy of modern (western) society, it is shipping bottled drinking water long distances.

Wine however…

Slowly growing things will one day get ridiculously big

“the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”

So says Dr. Albert Bartlett, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado. I stumbled upon a transcript of his well-honed lecture on Arithmetic, Population and Energy.

It is a polished lecture, replete with wisdom and well worth reading. If his statement above is true, then by reading you are getting insight in to the greatest shortcoming of the human race. So, really, it is worth 10 minutes out of your day (or out of your facebook time).

In his lecture he looks at the oxymoron “sustainable growth”. Think about it business people. He offers a very simple trick to understand growth rates and what they mean in terms of doubling time.

You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.

He goes on to use this to make us look at population growth, space and the use of natural resources. Using the simple maths, he shows how intelligent people can be rather dumb. It reminds me of an intelligent friend who’s mother was involved in a pyramid scheme. He just couldn’t see that after several levels, there simply wouldn’t be enough gullible (or otherwise) people left in the universe to join the scam.

Anyhow, his main thrust comes back to population. Its worth re-quoting a quote he quotes by Isaac Asimov:

“What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues?” and Asimov says, “It’ll be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there’s no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, ‘Aren’t you through yet?’ and so on.” And Asimov concluded with one of the most profound observations I’ve seen in years. He said, “In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.”

And from this he summarises.

“And so, central to the things that we must do, is to recognise that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises.”

So, there you have it. If you don’t decide to read the article, at least try to work out right now what the doubling time is from a 1.3% growth rate is. Then you’ll know, theoretically at least, when you’ll be sharing the planet with 13 billion others.

“You have a good life”

There are many levels to occupation in Palestine from the obvious to the extremely subtle. A subtle example would be some of the more interesting laws that people must abide by.

Like when you loose your ID document, you must first place an advert in Al Kuds newspaper, apply and go to the court to swear and oath that you are not committing fraud, pay a couple of hundred dollars and finally wait during which time your movement is pretty heavily restricted.

Or the fact that if you have a bank account, you can’t have funds transferred in from overseas beyond a certain amount. Otherwise those monitoring the funding of terrorist cells may pay you a visit.

Nor can people ride motorbikes – and it is odd to realize that you haven’t noticed this before – it would make it too easy for people to bypass the hundreds of roadblocks.

Chemical Engineering cannot be taught at university lest it be educating bomb-makers.

The more obvious of course is the ubiquitous checkpoint. Huwwara is one of the checkpoints that affects many people; everyone who passes out of Nablus to the south must go through this checkpoint. Depending on the time of day and the mood of the soldiers operating the checkpoint, it can be closed or take a couple of hours to get through. And if you are special, and your name appears (correctly or incorrectly) on a list, you can be arrested and go straight to jail without passing go.

This was the case with Amer, who is sitting in front of me trying to study psychology whilst watching TV at the same time. This gentle guy was on the way to Lebanon to his father’s funeral (his father died over twenty years ago in the war in Lebanon and new DNA analysis was starting to allow identification of remains). His name was on a list and he went to prison for 2 years and remained in administrative detention without a specific charge being brought.

If you are an older man, a woman or traveling with children, you can use the ‘Humanitarian line’ that avoids the body checks, the x-ray machines and a lot of the shouting. As I am an old woman with some childish behaviors (and carry a British passport) I can use this line too.

Anyhow this is aside. I got to the front of the line and handed over my visa stamp on paper and my driving license, in lieu of my lost passport.

“Where are you from?”

– from the UK.

“Ah, you have a good life.”

I gave no response. His voice was almost neutral or numb sounding but there was a hint of melancholy. Was he yearning to get away from this mess? Was he trying to pre-empt any possible judgment of him and his actions in the name of the occupation, by making me reflect on the fact that I could (and would) escape at anytime and therefore had no right to judge?

I don’t know. Either way, as so many things do in Palestine, it made me ponderous and it made me sad.

Being shot at with live ammunition: Ni’lin demonstration 2008.07.17

A plume of white tear gas drifted above the olive groves. Arriving late in Ni’lin it was difficult to locate the head of the demonstration against the wall. But there it must be.

Ni’lin has had a history of land dispossession beginning in 1948 with land being acquired for the building of several Jewish settlements. In 2002 Israel began building the separation barrier which will result in about 20 percent of the land that remains in the residents’ possession being seized.

The objective of these demonstrations, for some, is to temporarily stop the construction of the separation barrier by reaching the earth moving equipment. For others it is about freedom of speech, carrying out their right to protest and letting their voice be heard. Either way, the demonstrations don’t get very far with either before they are dispersed with good quantities of tear gas. Once dispersed, it is like small herds of sheep shepherded one way or another by rude placing of CS gas canisters and later, rubber (-coated steel) bullets.

The protest is disintegrated and the majority of protesters are eventually persuaded up the hill, back to the village. A group remains at the front line – males from the village throwing, quite professionally, stones. I hung around under the merciless sun for more than two hours with this group of about 40, half curious what would happen, half as a non-Palestinian to witness whatever might happen. With an international presence it is thought that ‘less’ might happen, that restraint might be shown, but stone throwers are fair game: just having a stone in your hand is enough grounds for arrest.

The theatre continues like this on an almost daily basis. The soldiers try to chemically push people backwards into the village away from the construction area, the peaceful part of the protest ends and the youth respond by throwing stones in their direction. Suddenly a shot is heard from an unexpected direction and a helmeted body clad in olive-green clothing is spotted amongst the olive-green olive trees. Everyone runs for cover and then relocates to new stone launching positions. And repeat. I felt sorry for the teenage Rukab ice-cream salesboy who had to run with his coolbox over his shoulder.

Many stones were launched with sling-shots and catapults. In return came rubber bullets by which several boys we hit. It looked painful – a bleeding sore on a back, on a shin and on the soft part of the arm where you measure body fat. In return, more stones were thrown and more rubber bullets came back and so on. And so on until the sound changed. Sharper cracking sounds indicated live ammunition was being used. As much as the fear of being hit by a rubber bullet is real, real bullets are simply something else.

I asked a soldier once what being hit by a rubber bullet was like. “Just like being hit by a stone” he informed me with a smile. It is possible but pointless to make a comparison between stones and rubber-coated steel. Either can be deadly and certainly injurious but the soldier has range and accuracy with which he can safely fire without risk of being hit by incoming stones. With live ammunition all need to compare evaporates.

At a certain point it becomes more serious and the army cross over from containment and dispersion, to what could be called an urban combat training exercise, or punishment, or even revenge.

Today soldiers came right the edge of the village. In a narrow street, bullets severed a water pipe who’s spray then pleasantly cooled the air, the hydraulic pipes of a digger, a window was shot through, the outer walls of a clinic had several fresh shot wounds, bullet casings were collected and displayed with anger. It is hard to know if anything in particular was in the sights the rifle owners or if the shooting was just random to create panic and put a nail in the coffin of the day’s protest. The bullets hit between 10 centimeters and 4 meters from the ground. It was quite surreal, this situation, the panicked run for cover, the call from the lunatic with the megaphone to move forward again, the sharp crack and immediate fizz as a bullet ricocheted, the woman screaming for us to move away as one of her window’s had already been expensively shot through, the kids watching from windows and roof-tops who would ask “what’s your name?” if you so much as looked at them as if oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, the ambulance co-driver patiently waiting having already stretched his rubber gloves over his fat hands and further sterilizing his fingers with cigarette smoke.

I couldn’t get hit of course as I was from elsewhere, I didn’t throw any stones, I was just observing and anyhow a coward. A bullet hit a wall and a small piece of the wall hit my trouser leg. Time to move away.

Today, according to Sayid, a pleasant young guy who repeatedly told me with a smile to “be careful”, 3 solders were ‘shot’ with stones: a military ambulance was seen taking one of them away apparently. One international volunteer expressed his ‘happiness’, for want of a better word, at this news. I felt otherwise. Violence is violence whatever the flavor: the tear gassing, firing rubber bullets at or beating of innocent civilians, throwing stones back at soldiers or firing live ammunition at stone throwers – even though you could perhaps call them (geologically or prehistorically) armed combatants.

This routine open-air theatre will stop once the separation barrier is completed or once the route is changed through the courts. Sadly it seems the former will be the case.