Thursday, July 26, 2012

A tale of two sewage treatment debates, in Canada and Honduras

La Prensa
I've been following two sewage treatment debates this week, in Victoria, where I used to live, and San Pedro Sula, about three hours from our home in Copan Ruinas.
There are unhappy people in both cities.
I'm convinced B.C.'s capital region needs to treat its sewage. The 2006 scientific panel report on the issue was disappointing for its lack of precision, but it found seabed contamination at the waste outfalls had been documented, sewage plumes that currently rise to the surface are health risks and claims that the waste proves an environmental threat can't be scientifically refuted. "Prudent public policy" would see work on treatment begin, it concluded. (There has been lots of debate about the report; read it for yourself here.)
But the need is a heck of a lot more pressing in San Pedro Sula, Hondura's commercial centre with some 1.3 million people (and amazing murder rate). Sewage and waste just gets dumped, mostly in two rivers that flow into the Caribbean. That's bad news for the people living downstream, including some 165,000 in Puerto Cortes.
La Prensa has been writing about the troubled sewage treatment project this week. It started in 2000, when the city signed a deal with an Italian consortium to upgrade the water system and create a sewage treatment system. In return, the company would get operating rights for 30 years and recover its costs and make a profit by charging users.
Which makes the capital region's project, with up to two-thirds of the costs covered by the provincial and federal governments, look like a pretty good deal.
In a poor country, there is little money for infrastructure. Honduras is on a tight debt limit imposed by the IMF in return for setting up a line of credit. Borrowing is out of the question.
The plan could have worked, maybe. Water service has apparently improved.
Except for the problems with sewage treatment. The schedule called for the first stage to done in 2007, and the next in 2010. That would give the company 23 years to make its money by charging customers before its 30-year concession ran out.
But the city couldn't find the three sites needed for treatment plants. (Sound familiar, Victorians?) There were other snags, and, as things stand, completion won't happen before 2018.
That leaves just 13 years for the company to make its money, and rates would, as a result have to be 70 per cent higher than projected. The median income in San Pedro Sula is about $450 a month; any extra costs are a problem.
And at the same time, cost estimates have climbed from $70 million to $180 million, also meaning higher rates. (A development that should make CRD residents nervous, since provincial and federal contributions are capped - any problems or unexpected costs will be picked up by residents.)
So what happens, beyond political finger-pointing? Who knows. Some politicians want a search for international donors. That happened in Tegucigalpa, the capital, where the European Union funded a sewage plant and an Italian group got the contract.
Meanwhile, the sewage keeps flowing. And, as in Victoria, the federal environment department has given the city until 2013 to fix things, which is not going to happen.
Meanwhile, back in B.C., Green party leader Jane Sterk has weighed in with an interesting oped piece in the Times Colonist. Sterk says sewage treatment should be postponed - not cancelled - until the region the fixes the failing storm water system, which would reduce the scale of treatment. Water conservation should be a priority, again to cut he treatment needed. The delay, she adds, would allow better technology to reduce the environmental and physical footprint of the treatment plants and and more resource recovery as part of the process.
It's a credible argument, but the process is likely too far advanced - and federal and provincial governments too committed - for the project to be derailed now.
And as San Pedro Sula has learned, the longer you delay, the more these things cost.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Riding the train of death from Honduras

Every couple of days, a plane carrying discouraged Hondurans lands in San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa. 
They aren’t business travellers, or returning tourists. They’re deportees, caught living illegally in the United States, or trying to cross the border.
It’s the only time in their lives most will be on a plane.
And it’s an incredible contrast to their travels on their outbound journey - walking, hopping a Mexican freight train called ‘La Bestia,’ risking life and savings on a 3,100-kilometre overland odyssey through Guatemala and Mexico.
The numbers are staggering. So far this year, about 17,800 Hondurans have been deported by air from the U.S. - 660 a week. Another 15,700 have been sent back by bus from Mexico. More than a thousand people, every week who have travelled a huge distance and braved terrors for a better life.
No one knows how many more Hondurans make it across the border, but the U.S. government estimates one million are living there, 60 per cent of them “undocumented.” Most people I’ve talked to have a relative in the U.S., or recently returned.
The numbers, taken together, show a great migration - perhaps 275,000 a people leaving a year for a chance to make some money in the U.S.
It’s different from previous waves of immigrants to North America.
The border is supposedly closed and the migrants are illegal. They can be deported anytime, which makes them much less likely to put down roots. A few take children, but the journey is so dangerous most leave families here, and plan to return when they have made enough money.
Predators rape, rob and kill migrants, or kidnap them and demand ransoms from their families - typically $300 to $500. Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights reports 11,000 immigrants were kidnapped in 2010.
People die in the desert, or fall from the trains, where they cling to the roof and between cars. (Authorities have decided it’s easier to let desperate migrants ride the Beast and other trains than deal with thousands of them trying to walk to the U.S.)
Some pay coyotes to help with the journey - some $2,000 just for the final stage across the U.S.-border, often with money borrowed at high interest rates.
It’s dangerous and desperate. But it’s just part of life here for many Hondurans.
Many make the journey, work in construction or restaurants in the U.S., and then return to Hondurans, at least for a family visit. Though that means another dangerous trek northward if they choose to try to make it back to North America.
Life would be even tougher here without the migrants. They sent $240 million a month back to their families in Honduras in the first six months of this year. That’s 17 per cent of GDP - more than the contribution from any industry, six times as much as the banana exports.
But nothing comes without a price. People have to choose. Stay with your family, in poverty, or cut ties with them for two or five or 10 years, risk your life, and send money home. 
U.S. anthropologist Daniel Reichman wrote The Broken Village, a look at a small coffee community in Honduras. He noted the stresses as people balance the importance of family with the chance to make money in the U.S., and the jealousies when one family’s ‘ambición’ - not seen as a positive attribute here - provides a flashy house or new car. 
And then the inevitable cases when someone fails to make good in the U.S., or turns his back on those life behind.
Reichman notes another aspect of all this. Governments and corporations have pushed free trade for goods and capital, eliminating borders. But for people - workers and families - there is no such freedom to move from country country.
Canada signed a free trade agreement with Honduras last year, but immigrating is still almost impossible for Hondurans. (Although La Prensa reported last month that some 25,000 Hondurans are living “el sueño canadiense” - the Canadian dream. About 15,000 of them have legal resident status; most of the rest are working on it.)
I don’t know what it all means. I am struck by the contrasts. 
My grandparents packed up and headed to Canada to find better lives. It was brave, but they were welcomed and didn’t risk their lives. We’ve turned into a much meaner, more fearful country.
Then there is the contrast between some 250,000 people looking for a better life, and Canadian hysteria over a few hundred Chinese migrants travelling in rusty boats, posing absolutely no real risks.
And I’m troubled on another level.
For a Cold War kid, there is something familiar in the desperate risks Hondurans are willing to take to get to the U.S. It evokes those grim images of East Germans tangled in barbed wire, shot dead as they tried to scale the Berlin Wall.
And who is condemning the desperate to death today?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

And now, the hokey pokey, from Honduras

My partner, Jody Paterson, has been helping out the local orphanage/foster home, a fairly grim place. I have been doing a little too, mostly helping with occasional swimming expeditions, which I wrote about here.
Jody wrote about the orphanage here, which prompted B.C.'s most consistently interesting blogger, The Gazetteer, to request a video of the kids doing the hokey pokey, one of the cross-cultural elements Jody has brought to the place.
And here it is.

And, should you be in a position to help out, check the fundraising page she has set up here.

(And note the fine cinematography.)

What Honduras needs most

(Reposted, because I accidentally deleted the first version.)

It's easy to see what's wrong in Honduras. It's hard to figure out what to do about it.
I spent the last two days in a "taller," the Spanish term for workshop, looking at development priorities for Honduras.
There are an endless number of grim stats. 
Want to worry about the environment? Between 1990 and 2008, Honduras lost 33.2 per cent of its forest land. Only six countries in the world, all in Africa, had greater deforestation. 
Poverty? The World Bank says 65 per cent of the population live in poverty, and 18 per cent in extreme poverty. In the nearby centre of Santa Rosa de Copan, 56 per cent of the households report income of less than $50 a month. Even for subsistence farmers, that's poor. 
Inequality? Based on the income gap between the top 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent, Honduras had the third greatest inequality in the world, behind Namibia and Angola.
Honduras ranked 129th of 164 countries on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perception Index. The teen birth rate is 26 per cent higher than the Latin America/Caribbean average.
And on and on.
The workshop brought together some Cuso staff, volunteers and people from the partner organizations they work with in the country. You can’t do much in a day-and-a-half, but it was a chance to start gathering perspectives on where the need is greatest, Cuso’s role and future directions.
That’s ultimately complex. Cuso International has set five priority themes, and in Honduras is attempting to focus on two of them - secure livelihoods and natural resource management, and citizen participation and governance. But the partner organizations have their priorities. And they get funding from a wide range of international sources, and the funders have their own ideas on the most important areas of work. 
There are obvious tensions. If you’re a Honduran development organization working in rural communities, you’re going to feel a great pressure to look for quick ways to bring small - but important - improvements for families and communities. Help a family begin to grow a couple of crops besides corn and beans and they can get a few dollars more in annual income, which means less hunger.
But a few dollars more might not mean that the children go to school, so the basic problems of people with limited skills, lousy land (or none) and no path to a better life continue for another generation.
And programs to improve incomes in their communities don’t develop people’s knowledge of their rights and potential political and community power, or how to exercise them. The political system doesn’t work for people here; government scarcely works at all. Leaving those issues aside, many communities could do more collectively on their own.
It’s not all a question of hard choices. Some organizations are working on both things at once, offering tiny loans for women to start micro-businesses while helping poor families to get title to the little patch of land they farm. 
In the cities, as soon as the smallest construction project starts, even a house being built by three workers, a woman sets up a food stand on the street to sell them lunch. An aid worker said they surveyed the women to see what would help them. One said she bought the worst fruit at the market each night to make liquados - fruit smoothies popular here - but had to make them one at a time by hand. Customers got tired of waiting so she lost business. A $30 loan to buy a blender would give her and her family a better future.
Ultimately there will be hard choices. (And not just about programs in one country - Honduras or Guatemala? Central America or Africa (or Canadian reserves)?)
I don’t know enough about Honduras or development work or anything to have firm views. In fact, there were moments in the workshop when my Spanish skills left me unsure what the heck we were talking about.
But I’m struck by the vast numbers of little kids in Copan Ruinas, and birth rates are even higher in rural areas. About 30 per cent of the population is under 10. (In B.C., it’s 9.8 per cent.)
Maybe the driving theme should be on changing the future for those children, whether by building more capable families, improving education, boosting family incomes or teaching them about rights, political power and community organizing.