At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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World Water Day Ingredients Need Big Dash of Urgency

Soaring coal production in this Inner Mongolia mine, and in others, is pushing China's water reserves to the limit. Photo/Keith Schneider

Soaring coal production in this Inner Mongolia mine, and in others, is pushing China’s water reserves to the limit. Photo/Keith Schneider

From east to west, ever since the world began, there was water. Plentiful. Clean. Always available.

None of those descriptions apply to water today.  Though the condition of the world’s water is perilous, and job-producing opportunities for conservation and efficiency are abundant, water’s ranking on the list of public priorities and attention typically is not near the top.

It’s not for a lack of effort from the water wonks. In 1993, a year after international leaders met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations took a step to raise awareness of water’s place at the center of life by establishing World Water Day. The annual event, held March 22 and now in its 23rd year, comes on Sunday.

The United Nations, a big unwieldy institution, has fostered a bit more heed to the day’s activities. It breaks up the immense, unwieldy world of water into more approachable streams flanked by a shoreline of optimism.  World Water Day’s annual themes, as a result, are a catalogue of earnestness and hope.

In years past, World Water Day focused on women and water (1994), thirsty cities (1996), health (2001), disasters (2004), supply (2007), pollution and sanitation (2008), food security (2012), and energy (2014).

This year’s theme is sustainable development. “Water resources, and the range of services they provide, underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability,” say U.N. organizers. “From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water contributes to improvements in social well-being and inclusive growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions.”

Coal mining in Meghalaya, a northeast India state, is so damaging to water that a high court shut down the industry nearly a year ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coal mining in Meghalaya, a northeast India state, is so damaging to water that a high court shut down the industry nearly a year ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Does Earnest Work?
Good stuff. Necessary to talk about. But not fit for stirring widespread attention on Facebook, or going viral on YouTube. This is, after all, an era of short attention spans and fixation on inconsequential agitation or the absurd.

The world’s residents, capable as they are, don’t like serious. They like to be amused. Shrinking from challenges is a global phenomenon. That’s as true in China as it is in India or Peru or the United States.

With public attention diverted by the French president’s paramours, or Angelina Jolie’s marriage, the consequential work of engaging tough and abstract problems like water supply and water quality falls to whom? Global legislators imprisoned by partisanship and ideology? Agency engineers and regulators suffering with thin budgets?

It might be that water needs a great spokesperson. Until the last 150 years or so, water didn’t need its own spokesperson, like the way Michael Jordan sells Gatorade. Where is the Katy Perry of water? For that matter where is the Archbishop Tutu of water? Water certainly needs a more magnetic personality than Matt Damon, whose effort to highlight global sanitation and health is far less emphatic than his work as Jason Bourne.
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U.S. Ports Modernize While Water Supply and Quality Deteriorate

Georgia's Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation's fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Photo/Keith Schneider

Georgia’s Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation’s fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Photo/Keith Schneider

SAVANNAH, Ga. — There’s not much about water infrastructure that gets America’s lawmakers excited these days unless it’s a big coastal port.

The New York/New Jersey port, with a big assist from the federal government, is spending $1.3 billion to lift the 84-year-old Bayonne Bridge high enough to allow a new generation of super-sized cargo vessels to pass underneath. Charleston, S.C., with state and federal support, is spending $2 billion to deepen the harbor and expand port facilities. Miami has a project of comparable size to do the same thing.

Here in Savannah, where ocean-going ships have arrived and departed since the city was founded in 1733, Georgia and its Congressional delegation collaborated to direct $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the nation’s fourth largest container port. Over the next decade, say port executives, an additional $1.4 billion is in the port’s capital budget, including $706 million to deepen the harbor and the Savannah River.

In all, spending on capital improvements to U.S. ports has averaged $10 billion annually over the last decade, according to a 2014 study of infrastructure investment by PricewaterhouseCoopers. By 2025, U.S. port capital investments are projected to reach $20 billion annually, the study concludes.

In contrast, U.S. capital investments in water supply and wastewater treatment totaled around $2 billion annually over the last decade. By 2025, investments in water supply and treatment may reach $3 billion annually, says PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Uneven Funding
The mismatch in spending is reflected in two essential metrics that are clearly apparent in Savannah. The Garden City container terminal, with its new electric cranes, redesigned loading deck traffic patterns, and expanded intermodal train facilities, is a showcase marine import and export installation. The decade of investment in equipment and practices by Georgia and the federal government, which came in anticipation of handling more cargo from the expanded Panama Canal, has resulted in hundreds of new jobs at the terminal, and thousands more inside the 45 million square feet of logistics, storage, and distribution centers that surround the port.

In the meantime scant investment in water quality infrastructure has left the Savannah River dirtier than ever. The most recent EPA Toxics Release Inventory, for instance, finds that only two other rivers — the Ohio River and the New River in West Virginia — have more hazardous chemicals being poured into them than the Savannah River.
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Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama's work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama’s work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLON, Panama – Across the expanse of a half-century-long career as an ecologist, reformer, and skilled raconteur, Stanley Heckadon-Moreno saw his native Panama engulfed by one spasm of political transition after another.

A weak democracy and resentment of American ownership of the Panama Canal in the 1960s begat the corrupt military dictatorship of the 1980s. A damaging American invasion in 1989 gave rise to a decade of hardship and confusion in the 1990s.

Even the transfer of canal ownership to Panama on the last day of the 20th century, which initiated the most economically buoyant era in the country’s 112-year history, produced a bout of national vertigo. Uncertain at first, government and business leaders took time to prove to themselves and a doubting world that they harbor the skills to manage a 21st century democracy, and an essential maritime main street.

“For a long time, the bankers, the builders, the government administrators, they all reached one conclusion,” said Heckadon, who’s served since 2000 as a staff scientist and manager of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Galeta Point Marine Laboratory, on the Caribbean entrance to the canal. “They said, ‘We don’t need no damn forests. It’s a waste. Trees? Forget the trees. We want development.’ Sea to sea along the Panama Canal. They wanted it to be like the Rhine River. One industry after the other.”

Yet through all of the political convulsions and government advocacy for new development, Heckadon persisted with a message of restraint and a knowing, personal approach that could be as tough as teak or as flexible as bamboo. Much of Panama’s public domain, and a good share of the nation’s land preservation and water conservation ethic can be traced to his work.
Panama’s Land and Water Steward

As one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists Heckadon is directly responsible for safeguarding Panama’s largest rivers, and permanently protecting thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Indirectly, his considerable role in securing Panama’s natural wealth is steadily producing a durable — and largely non-polluting — new economy that is based on maritime transit, logistics, trade, banking, housing, and tourism.

“Stanley is the voice of environmental conscience for Panama,” said Matthew C. Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “His deep understanding of the human activities that affect the abundant natural resources of the nation have made him a highly respected and articulate source of information and perspective on how we can sustainably manage our landscapes.”

The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider

The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider


Heckadon’s Work Is Seen Everywhere

The 90-kilometer (56-mile) drive from Heckadon’s home in Panama City to his sun-splashed office at the marine laboratory crosses the 289,200-hectare (665,000-acre) Panama Canal watershed. The unmarked hills and green forests are the crowning achievements of his career and a showcase of Panama’s allegiance to its fresh water and tropical geography.

If each of the protected tracts of land that Heckadon established were graphically illustrated, say with bright flags planted in the forests and on the summits of the Canal Zone highlands, the route would be aflutter with color. Read More

Along Ohio River, Big Data Lifts Cincinnati

Reconstructing Fountain Square in 2005 was essential to Cincinnati's development following the race riot in 2001. Photo/Keith Schneider

Reconstructing Fountain Square in 2005 was essential to Cincinnati’s development following the race riot in 2001. Photo/Keith Schneider

CINCINNATI – This 226-year-old Ohio River city came unglued in early April 2001, when three nights of riots and a plunge in the number of residents and businesses followed the death of an unarmed black man shot by the police.

Fourteen years later Cincinnati is climbing to the top of the heap of American midsize cities in real estate construction — a surge in investment and new buildings fostered not only by the hard work of social activists and human rights leaders, but also by scores of business starts, job growth, wage increases, public-private partnerships, and transit development that folowed. The city’s population, 297,517 in 2013 according to the US Census Bureau, grew over 600 residents, the first increase since 1950, when Cincinnati’s population peaked at 504,000 residents.

Cincinnati’s resurgence, based in large part on the development of a new big data industry and marketing analytics, is evidence of two powerful and promising trends reshaping the United States in the 21st century. The first is the pace of job growth in American cities, which now is faster than in the suburbs. (See my articles here in the New York Times.) The second is the recovery of the Rust Belt, and especially the strength of cities in the Ohio River Valley. In today’s New York Times I report on Cincinnati’s rise as a center of what city leaders call “consumer science.”

One measure of Cincinnati’s new relevance is the $85 million, 338,000-square-foot, 12-story office building that Atlanta-based Carter is building to house General Electric’s new Global Operations Center. Construction is due to be completed in 2016 in The Banks, an 18-acre Ohio riverfront development located between the city’s baseball and football stadiums. The building and the district will be served by a station stop on the 3.6 mile, $148 million Cincinnati streetcar line, scheduled to open the same year.

GE’s Operations Center, one of five the company is developing globally, contains first floor retail, parking on the second floor, 10 stories of conference and office space, and houses up to 2,000 GE professionals, 1,400 of them new to Cincinnati. The installation serves big development and manufacturing centers that GE operates in the U.S., including lighting and aviation manufacturing sites in two Ohio cities.

The center is being built with the help of $101 million in city, county, and state tax and investment incentives.  In exchange GE committed to employ at least 1,800 people in Cincinnati over the next 18 years, earning a total payroll of $142 million annually to start, or an average of $79,000 a year.

“Cincinnati was chosen due to GE’s long-standing presence in the state and southwest Ohio,” said Dominic McMullan, a GE spokesman, “as well as a pool of local talent and skills required for the roles in the Global Operations Center. In addition, the state, county and city provided a competitive incentive package to GE.”

The 18-acre The Banks in Cincinnati connects center city to the Ohio River. Photo/Keith Schneider

The 18-acre The Banks in Cincinnati connects center city to the Ohio River. Photo/Keith Schneider

Big Data Urban Economics
Another big project that is competing with GE for attention, and illustrates the Queen City’s powerful embrace of new market opportunities, is the dunnhumby Centre just a few blocks away. The $140 million, nine-story, 285,000-square-foot office building opens in the spring and will make the corner of Fifth and Race one of downtown’s most prominent addresses again.

Rising from a parcel that for more than a decade was a city-owned surface parking lot, the new building sits atop 29,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and a six-level, 527,000-square-foot parking deck. It is a joint project of dunnhumbyUSA and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, the city’s non-profit real estate development organization, known here as 3CDC. It houses the fast growing staff of a market analytics firm jointly owned by a small British-owned big data analysis company and The Kroger Company, the grocery store chain, which is based here.
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Panama’s Hydropower Development Defined By Fierce Resistance and Tough Choices

The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama's electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider

The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama’s electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHANGUINOLA, Panama – Rain clouds regularly settle atop the 1800-meter (5900-foot) summits of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. When the mist clears, the full measure of the blue sea, powerful rivers, and splendid forests full of toucans and cacao trees is visible and stunning.

In the five centuries since Christopher Columbus alighted on the beaches of Bocas del Toro in 1502, western Panama’s water-rich tropical bounty has enticed outsiders, built financial fortunes, and led to periodic and fierce popular resistance. In 1899, for instance, American growers tore down tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest and planted the trees that produced the Chiquita-brand bananas that are still shipped from the port at Almirante. From time to time, including a violent confrontation with government security forces in 2010 that left one person dead, Chiquita’s unionized workers organized big disturbances and determined strikes over wages and working conditions.

That same stubborn spirit, widespread across this province of 126,000 residents, still animates the region. It stirs a decade-long battle in the Changuinola River watershed driven by the construction of hydropower projects and by Panama’s shifting views about energy production, economic growth, social fairness, and the value of its prodigious wild forests and water resources. No other Central American country is reckoning with these often-conflicting features of national life with as much consideration and consequence as Panama.

Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country's most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider

Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country’s most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider

“This is an exciting period for this country,” said Osvaldo Jordan, a 43-year-old biologist and political scientist educated in the United States who leads the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a human rights organization in Panama City.

“Twenty-five years ago we were a military dictatorship. Fifteen years ago we gained control of the Panama Canal. The last ten years our economy has grown so fast. We have choices to make. There are different definitions for defining modernity. The biggest challenge for Panama is to find the right definition.”

Unrest Over Water Power
For many of Bocas del Toro’s indigenous citizens the definition does not include big hydropower projects.

Since 2003, the tiny Naso indigenous community has fought to a standstill construction of the 33-megawatt Bonyic dam on the Teribe River, a tributary of the Changuinola. The project, undertaken by Hidro-Teribe, a subsidiary of Colombian public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín, also is opposed by Panamanian and Costa Rican environmental organizations because of its proximity to La Amistad International Park. The 401,000-hectare (1,550 square miles) park spans the Costa Rica-Panama border, protects countless species of tropical plants and wildlife, and is the largest nature reserve in Central America.

Not far away, Ngobe villagers are organizing to halt construction of Changuinola II, a 213-megawatt, $US 1.1 billion dam that Panama has approved in a bend of the Changuinola where the free-flowing river cuts between high cliffs of white limestone. Norberto Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, gained government permission this month to build the project, which indigenous villagers say they intend to stop.

Both resistance campaigns are informed by the consequences to the river and native villages from building the $US 630 million, 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam. The AES Corporation, a Virginia-based global energy developer, opened the dam and its power station in 2011 after four years of construction that generated active protests and long blockades of construction routes. The dissent attracted international attention and a rebuke from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission before it was put down by national security forces, which beat protestors bloody.

“Nothing good came from what happened here,” said Bernadino Morales, a 27-year-old college graduate and protest organizer whose family farm was inundated by the 1,400-hectare (5.5-square mile) backwater lake behind the dam. “The river is gone. One thousand people were forced to move. A lot of forest is under water.”

Neither AES executives nor Panama government authorities responded to phone and email requests for interviews for this article.  In published reports and prior interviews with Panama reporters, dam developers and regulators insist that they are building projects according to high standards of environmental protection and with regard to fairly compensating families forced to move.

The dam developers also note that they are performing a national service. Panama, they say, needs the power. And water-powered electricity prevents millions of tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere that otherwise would be produced from the same levels of oil- and coal-fired electrical generating capacity. Government statistics indicate that the carbon savings from the Changuinola I dam alone amounts to over 600,000 metric tons a year, or approximately the level of carbon pollution produced by a coal-fired  fossil thermal power plant of similar size.

Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider

Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider

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