India is phasing out the use of DDT, but it’s not tackling its long-term effects

India is phasing out the use of DDT

A few weeks ago, India entered into an agreement with the UN to end the use of the insecticide DDT by 2020. DDT had been used in agriculture for decades until it was restricted in 1989, but 6,000 tonnes of DDT are still produced annually for the eradication of mosquitoes and other pests. This would be perfectly understandable, except for the simple fact that DDT has become ineffective — in the last decade, most insects have developed a resistance to it. The resulting instinct to simply use greater amounts of DDT or replace it with other harmful Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has infused India’s soil, water and air with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

Other insecticides and pesticides that are used specifically for agriculture further contaminate our environment. After it restricted DDT, the government began encouraging the use of other POPs that were potentially even more harmful, such as HCH (later banned in 1997), endosulfan (later banned in 2011) and then lindane (restricted in 2012). Rather than acknowledge that the makeup of all POPs render them intrinsically harmful, the government seems to be promoting different POPs in turn until each is found to have tangible toxic effects.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that India is the second largest producer of pesticides inAsia and the fourth in the world. Samples of drinking water across India show high concentrations of HCHs, endosulfan isomers and DDT metabolites. Laws in India do permit some level of these substances in food and water, but these amounts are many times higher than those allowed in the West. DDT doses in food, for instance, are permitted to be seven times higher than doses in the European Union; lindane doses are allowed to be a 100 times higher and endosulfan doses 40 times higher (and 200 times higher for water). The air in Indian cities has also been recorded to contain the highest concentration of HCHs in the world.

The pervasive presence of DDT and other POPs is a consequence of their slow degradation. DDT-infused indoor insecticide spray used thirty years ago still lingers on the walls of homes. Crops that are grown in fields that were sprayed with DDT in the last decades show substantial traces of the insecticide. Unfortunately, the degradative products of some POPs are also highly toxic.

Because of their resilience, POPs have a tendency to persist in organisms. This leads to bioaccumulation, which means that the higher up an animal is in the food chain, the greater the concentration of a POP it contains. For instance, while the dose of DDT in one worm might not substantial, a bird that eats three worms ingests an amount that might be lethal to it. In the US, the use of DDT has been proven to thin out eggshells and make them prone to breakage. This has resulted in the severe decline of several species of birds, including America’s national bird, the magnificent bald eagle. In addition to birds of prey, waterfowl and songbirds, marine life is especially susceptible to the bioaccumulation of DDT. Fish from the rivers Gomti and Ganga have been found to have concentrations of DDT a thousand times greater than limits proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Humans, at the top of the food chain, are at great risk of ingesting harmful amounts of the insecticide. Samples of women’s breast milk in Delhi were found to have levels of DDT 12 times higher than those recommended and blood tests were also shown to possess unsafe levels of POPs. In human and animal bodies, large amounts of DDT turns cells carcinogenic, provokes endocrine disruption and corrupts reproductive systems (diminishing semen quality and increasing the potential for miscarriages in mammals).

Rachel Carson, through her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, galvanised the American public in the 1970s into protesting the use of DDT in the US. “In nature nothing exists alone”, she said. Carson showed that the use of DDT tore apart delicate ecological systems developed over millennia by inducing resistance in certain species and poisoning others. Moreover, DDT and other POPs can be found hundreds of miles away from the area they were used in. Soil erosion and rainwater runoff and wind and water currents means that no place, no animal and no person has escaped these chemicals. Freshwater bodies in India are contaminated with POPs, as well as a large portion of the country’s groundwater.

The Indian government has shown resistance to changing the current situation. During the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2011, India was the only country to resist the ban of endosulfan, probably because it was the largest producer of the POP in the world. It only ratified the agreement when certain crops were exempted from the endosulfan ban. Shockingly, this meeting took place after official reports had acknowledged in 1995 that the use of endosulfan in the state-owned plantations in Kerala caused at least 500 deaths, though unofficial estimates put the number at 4,000. More than 9,000 people were sickened in the endosulfan tragedy. Babies were increasingly being born with abnormalities, neurobehavioral disorders and congenital malformations.

Kasargod, the area in Kerala that was affected, was also once very rich in wildlife. But after the use of endosulfan, plant diversity decreased by 40-70%, fish species died in droves, and honeybees and butterflies were noticeably absent. A large number of animals and birds — the endangered Nilgiri langur, the jungle cat, the mouse deer, the flying fox, the fairy- bluebirds and large cuckoo shrikes, to name just a few— disappeared.

While part of the problem lies in the fact that POPs are fatal, other issues stem from their incorrect usage. Many farmers in India tend to use insecticides indiscriminately. Moreover, huge amounts — more than 47 tons — are lying in storage in various parts of India, past their expiry date. Like the radioactive waste from a nuclear reactor, these chemicals must be contained, lest they risk contaminating their surroundings. There is also a depressingly small amount of research being done about POPs and the impact they have specifically in the Indian context.

Much more needs to be done by the government, scientists, agricultural workers and environmentalists to ensure that POPs are disposed of safely and used in a limited manner — or even better, replaced with environmentally friendly insecticides and pesticides. As Rachel Carson asked, “How can intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”


Reflections of an Aid Worker from South Sudan

BANGKOK – The life of an aid worker is almost never easy, but adjusting to normal life comes with its own difficulties. Roman Majcher never makes plans for a night out in Bangkok city, where he is stationed now, because he would probably end up drowsing off on a barstool. In South Sudan, where he had spent the last ten years, everyone would have to turn in when the sun went down. There was never any electricity to waste, because South Sudan completely lacks a power grid. The only people who had electricity were those who could afford their own generator. There was also no sewage system and no running water. Water was taken straight from the Nile and delivered in trucks, unfiltered, to the humanitarian camps where Majcher worked as an aid worker.

“You think Afghanistan is bad to work in? Well, Afghanistan is paradise compared to South Sudan”, Majcher said, gesticulating emphatically. “There is nothing there, and nothing works.”

South Sudan is a country the size of France, and has only 360 km of paved roads. People who live outside the cities are completely cut off from the rest of the world. Aid organizations usually rely on helicopters to drop off food, water and medicine to desperate people. But during the rainy season, or in conflict-prone areas, transportation becomes exponentially harder. In these cases, Majcher says, bitterness entering his voice, “people starve and then they die. it’s as simple as that.” In most villages, living until thirty-five means you are old.

Working in these situations, where you are faced with immense psychological stress, guilt and physical hardship, it can get very hard to go on. Even more difficult is conceding that the unspeakable suffering you are confronted with is caused by unacceptable reasons that are difficult, if not impossible, to change. The government policy in Khartoum, for instance, was to actively keep South Sudan as undeveloped as possible. It only allowed enough aid in to keep the area under control, but kicked you out if you wanted to create something more sustainable.

“Realizations like these were the hardest to stomach,” Majcher said, shaking his head. “I was young and stupid and idealistic when I first started humanitarian work. I didn’t really understand that people could be agonizingly evil to each other on purpose. There aren’t really good guys or bad guys. Everyone is as opportunistic as the next person.” Many other misconceptions Majcher had were shattered too. He realized that the poor could be as corrupt and greedy as the rich, that the needy would not always be grateful for his presence, that people would hate him simply because he was white, because it then followed that he was imperialistic.

Some aid workers cope with these mental burdens by becoming callous and numbed to the waves of human suffering they see everyday. Many more start to become viciously cynical and stop believing that their work matters at all. But Majcher believes that cynicism is anathema to humanitarian work; it is a cancer that, more than corruption, misinformation or even a lack of donor money, can render aid ineffective. Simply put, once you stop believing that your work makes a difference, you do not do it as well.

Majcher believes that the solution is not to be blindly idealistic or stupidly optimistic, but rather it is to make a conscious decision to ignore the bigger picture and focus only on the quality of the paint. “You need to accept that the world is messed up and will probably never be perfect,” Majcher said, peering earnestly through his wire-rimmed glasses. “But the point of your existence is to help ensure that, for now, this child’s life will be a little bit better. Even if it may end tomorrow.” This type of help is not necessarily quantifiable, but then again the most important things in life never are. Aid, contrary to how most people look at it, cannot always be seen as an investment.

This is a sentiment Majcher understands well. He was born with muscular dystrophy, a disease where your muscles are so weak you can barely move without falling over. At fourteen, Majcher’s body was so curved that his nose was bumping against his knees. Poland, his home country, was at the time still a communist nation with atrociously bad medical care and a depressing lack of resources. Even at that age, Majcher understood that he was dying.

But hope came out of nowhere. Doctors in France took up his case for no real reason, other than basic human kindness. One by one, they struggled through the visa processes and arrived in Poland, armed with instruments, machines, medicines and determination. They worked with him for seven years, conducting dozens of operations, until Majcher was well enough to live a relatively normal life. “Why did I win this lottery?” Majcher had always wondered. He began to feel that he had to pay back what he received.

Malthusianism: Theories on Poverty and Aid Theories on Poverty and Aid
Thomas Malthus was a clergyman and philosopher of the late 18th century. His ideas on the causes of poverty and the means by which it could be eliminated were controversial for his time and would probably have been unspeakable in ours. However, his work shaped England’s “Poor Laws,” influenced scientists and philosophers such as Charles Darwin, and remains pertinent today.

Malthus believed that the population would always increase more rapidly than food supply, which meant that large numbers of people would always suffer from starvation and poverty. His calculations demonstrated that while food supply grew at a linear rate, populations tended to grow at an exponential one.

The inspiration behind his ideas came from his work as a parish priest, where he noticed that the numbers of poor people he was baptizing far outstripped the number of deaths he was recording. As a member of a wealthy family himself, he was also struck by the abject poverty and miserable conditions the poor were living in. At the time, almost a seventh of England was on some sort of welfare, but its population was booming.

Carrying out more studies on England’s poor gave Malthus a clearer picture of the problem. Poor families showed a tendency to have more children when their economic situation improved, even slightly, as it had after the industrial revolution. This had the effect of again lowering the average living standard of the entire family.

In this sort of poverty trap, the poor would remain unable to escape their condition. A poor family was also generally more likely to have a greater of number of children because some were always expected to die in their infancy. The solution, Malthus stated, was to encourage the poor to marry later and have fewer children, if any at all. By having children, they would be sentencing more people to live in poverty and starvation.

The way to encourage the poor to adopt this solution would be to eliminate all types of aid. While this would initially be very hard and even cruel, it would eliminate poverty and dismantle the poverty trap in the long run.

What welfare did, Malthus believed, was encourage the poor to marry earlier even when they could not support a family and have children they could not afford. The effect of this was that families continued to be poor and live on the very barest of necessities. England’s Poor Laws, which propped up people who suffered from bad harvests, was creating the very poverty it hoped to eliminate.

Once these practices were taken up, food supply could finally keep up with the lowered population growth. If food supply could not keep up, Malthus believed that three necessary and inevitable things would take place: plague, famine and war. These would once again balance out the population, but at a much greater cost.

Critics have generally attacked Malthusianism from two different angles. One side believes that a small population is not good for a country. The Mercantalists argue that high population growth, even if it results in poverty, is good for the country. It would provide it with people to fight in the army, work in factories and provide cheap services.

Mercantalists did not want the population to earn very high wages or live far above the poverty line—this would stagnate economic growth and weaken the nation. Modern anti-Malthusians also believe that low birth rates are bad for the economy because the workforce would not be able to support its older population.

Other critics of Malthusianism believe that his proposed solutions are not the best way to tackle poverty. They are needlessly inhumane. Human ingenuity can come with with solutions to expand food supply to meet population needs. Norman Borlaug, the mind behind the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, is cited as an example. He created strains of corn and wheat that had much higher yields than before, saving millions from starvation.

Neo-Malthusians, as modern proponents of Malthus are called, say the current statistics speak for themselves. Populations in almost every developing country are growing rapidly as they become wealthier and advancements in medicine keep more children and older people alive. In the last 110 years, the world’s population has grown from 1.6 billion to 7.2 billion.

But 805 million worldwide go to bed hungry, and most are from developing countries. A fourth of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are chronically malnourished. More than 750 million lack access to clean water, which leads to 850,000 deaths per year. In major cities, such as Mumbai, half the population are living in wretched and slum-like conditions. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this number reached 61 percent. Most poor people continue to have more children than they can afford to take care of.

While the poor continue to have high fertility rates, they will continue to be poor. Neo-Malthusians advocate for better family planning, a change in societal expectations and norms, greater access to contraceptives and more education about conception to reduce the poor’s fertility rates.

Sources: Orion Magazine, Population Connection, Economist, BBC
Photo: Flickr

Debates Over Deworming
Although multiple studies have found that worm infections in developing countries should be treated with deworming pills, there is some debate within health organizations as to who qualifies for treatment. Currently there are 280 million children that are being treated for worms worldwide, but some experts believe that this is excessive.

When people are infected by worms, they suffer multiple ailments, primarily internal bleeding, which can lead to a loss of iron and anemia. Worms also cause diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients. Compounding the problem, people also suffer a loss of appetite, which means they ingest less food overall. People most at risk are children and women of childbearing age.

Deworming people, especially children of a young age, has shown to be an effective measure to ensure that they stay in school for longer periods of time. A study conducted in Kenya after a deworming program showed that school absenteeism decreased by 25 percent. Even improved attendance in schools in which no children were treated within a three kilometer radius was remarked.

However, diagnosis is relatively expensive in developing countries because it involves a lab analysis of fecal matter, costing four to ten times the price of treatment. Some experts therefore recommend that mass deworming programs be carried out where a large number have been found to be infected.

This is currently the World Health Organization’s policy. Some scientists have challenged this practice, claiming that the available evidence is not enough to assure the safety or necessity of mass treatments. They believe that a lack of teachers, rather than absent children, are the cause of most problems in education in developing countries.

The deworming medication itself is extremely cheap, at just 30 to 40 cents per child. Many studies have suggested that this is a cost effective way of getting kids to go to school. These children also performed better at academic tests eight year later and at cognitive tests ten years later. In the southern United States, a deworming campaign in the early 1900’s had the same effects.

Sources: The Conversation, Harvard University, Voxeu, WHO
Photo: Answers

Power Africa Continues to Face Hurdles
In 2013, President Barack Obama launched Power Africa, an $8 billion foreign aid program designed to help improve access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. It aimed to provide electricity to the region’s 961 million residents, who currently only use as much electricity as New York City. Two thirds of sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity.

Power Africa is adding 60 million new electricity connections and is generating up to 30,000 megawatts of power in six countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania. The project works with local and U.S. partners to improve regulations, build capacity and provide technical assistance. However, two years in, research has shown that Power Africa still faces major hurdles in its implementation.

In Kenya, for instance, the power grid infrastructure has rapidly expanded, covering most of the countryside. However, only 30 percent of Kenya, including just five percent of rural households, have power. Building a bigger infrastructure was not going to be a solution, researchers realized, because connecting to the power grid was much more expensive than what many households could afford. Moreover, Kenya lacked people who could design and construct electrical wiring. Even when a household bought a connection, it still took months to actually get electricity. When they finally did get power, it was extremely unreliable. Power outages would sometimes last for weeks at a time.

Power Africa has not brought any electricity to Nigeria at all. Bickering between government agencies, private companies and foreign governments has slowed projects down in a country that is not able to provide electricity to half of its population. Officials say there have only been conversations about potential projects in the future. The Obama administration has boasted of a few closed deals, but they had already been in the works before the Power Africa initiative.

In such countries, only the wealthy can afford electricity, which they get through the use of private generators. It has even become a status symbol to own one. However, private generators add to these countries’ worsening environmental problems.

President Barack Obama said, “Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power.”

The U.N. predicts that sub-Saharan Africans will make up nearly 25 percent of the world’s population by 2060. Ensuring that this generation has access to electricity in order to expand their economy, improve education and enhance living standards is important to mitigate poverty in future generations. Currently, blackouts are costing sub-Saharan Africa 2.1 percent of their GDP every year.

Sources: Reuters, USAID, NY Times 1, NY Times 2
Photo: NY Times

The Poor Find Haven In Monrovia’s Cemeteries
Liberia has had a trying past couple of decades. Most recently, it was plagued by the Ebola virus, which killed thousands of people. Before this, it had suffered though a 14-year-long civil war, which had taken place just a few years after yet another civil war ended. Both wars killed hundreds of thousands of people, leaving many homeless and destitute. Lacking housing or money, many poverty-stricken Liberians have turned to living in cemeteries, many of which are in Monrovia, its capital.

Most go to the Palm Grove Cemetery. Many of these dwellers arrived when they were just children and after their parents had been killed. Some had been child soldiers. They were taken there by friends from the street, who used the relative peace and security of the cemetery to indulge in marijuana, cocaine and heroin. They used tombs for shelter after smashing them open and throwing out their long-dead inhabitants.

Monrovians look upon the cemetery dwellers with distaste and fear. They are viewed as criminals and drug addicts who disrespect the graves of their families and are deprecatorily called “friends of the dead.” On Decoration Day, a public holiday when Liberians paint and adorn tombs, conflict always erupts between the tomb dwellers and the families of the tombs’ rightful owners.

Rather than provide an area for the homeless to live in, President Johnson Sirleaf simply put up walls around the cemetery in 2007 to keep them out. Just a few months later, however, people had already breached the walls to live in the cemetery once again. Now the walls serve to better hide the dwellers and their activities rather than keep them out.

Prostitution has also become commonplace behind the cemetery’s walls. Some women and girls are only able to survive through sex work. They are afforded no protection from the police, who often rape them themselves. Unwanted births are commonplace.

Many diseases also run rampant. Ebola was just another problem to add to a list of illnesses that included ones such as tuberculosis and diarrhea.

Hope may yet be around the corner for these cemetery residents. Last year, the British charity organization Street Child began to work with them, setting up counseling sessions, schools and rehab centers. However, many roadblocks stand in the way of their progress. It is extremely difficult for many residents to even consider weaning themselves off their dependency on drugs. Sometimes, drugs make them aggressive and hostile, which makes it hard for people from Street Child to engage with them.

The outbreak of Ebola also set back efforts. Schools were banned, as were public gatherings. Street Children also started redirecting efforts to the 2,000 children orphaned because of Ebola. Officials have been hostile to Street Children’s efforts in cemeteries, calling their residents a “lost cause.”

Now that Ebola has largely disappeared in Liberia, Street Children is ready to make a renewed effort to help the cemetery dwellers. To the charity organization, small successes have boosted their belief that these people can be saved from a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

Sources: Independent, BBC 1, BBC 2
Photo: Independent

Climate Change Refugees and the Man from Kiribati
A man from Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island, has asked New Zealand to officially recognize him as a climate change refugee. New Zealand refused what was the world’s first appeal for climate change refugee status, and Ioane Teitiota now faces deportation. Teitiota had argued that rising sea levels had damaged his crops and contaminated the water supply, and that he feared a worsening situation in the future. Kiribati is expected to be three-fourths underwater in just 30 years. Its government has had to buy land from Fiji.

Climate change refugees might soon become a common place occurrence. Sea levels are predicted to rise by at least a couple of feet in the next few decades. Cities, or even countries, that lie below sea level are at high risk of being submerged. Bangladesh, for instance, would have already lost 17 percent of its land by 2050. An estimated 20 million people from this highly over-populated country are expected to become refugees. Rising sea levels could also sink all 1,200 of Maldives’ islands. Its government is attempting to work out an evacuation plan with nearby countries. Other coastal cities such as Manhattan, London, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Mumbai are at risk. Entire cultures and identities could be wiped away forever.

Droughts and desertification are increasingly destroying arable land, forcing many people to migrate further inland to already crowded cities. The Gobi Desert, for instance, expands 3,600 km square each year. Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are losing 1,000 km sq each annually. Poorer countries that depend on agriculture for both economic growth and basic subsistence are heavily impacted by the increasingly extreme weather patterns. Food security will become a serious issue for many countries when it was not before.

Although the need for one is clear, a universally accepted definition of climate refuge is lacking. The Global Governance House defines climate refugees as environmental migrants forced to move “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” Environmental migrants are defined as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” by the International Organization for Migration.

Last year, 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters. Of this number, an astounding 20 million were climate change refugees. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, predicts that the number will increase rapidly, and not just because of changes in weather in climate. The shortage of food and clean water will lead to “resource wars,” as they are called in popular culture. Increased competition for water, food and grazing lands will lead to conflict. A recent study predicts that the probability of civil war will increase in Africa by more than 50 percent by 2030 as compared to 1990.

Sources: UNHCR, Telegraph, International organization for Migration, Global Governance House,National Geographic
Photo: ABC

Mice Utopias and the Behavioral Sink
John Calhoun’s Behavioral Sink experiment was undoubtedly one of the most discussed during the 1970s. It is still highly relevant today when the effects of overpopulation are discussed. With his “rat utopias”, Calhoun proved that overpopulation is not a problem because it leads to a scarcity of resources – overpopulation is a problem in itself. It results in violence, a rejection of social roles and the eventual breakdown of society.

Calhoun had been creating “rat utopias” since the 1940s, but it was only his “Universe 25” of 1972 that captured both academia and the public’s attention. Four breeding pairs of mice were introduced into a box 100-inches square and 54-feet high. It was a “perfect universe.” The mice were safe from predators and disease and given ample food and water. Calhoun was trying to figure out how the mice would react to it. After about 100 days, the mice started breeding. They doubled in population every 55 days.

Although the mice were in a sort of “mouse heaven,” things soon took a nasty turn. By Day 315, males had stopped defending their territory – there were too many mice to fight against. Random violence broke out between mice for no reason. Female mice would attack their own offspring. Normal social bonds and interactions completely broke down. Procreation screeched to a halt, infant abandonment soared, and mortality climbed. Cannibalism appeared, even though there was more than enough food, and some mice became pansexual, even though there were ample females for each male. As time went on, it seemed that the mice had lost the ability to carry out the complex social interactions that would allow them to procreate. Fertile females closed themselves off from society and males of reproductive age – Calhoun called them the “beautiful ones” – and did nothing but eat, sleep and groom.

This breakdown of society and social roles was named the “Behavioral Sink.” Calhoun believed it came about when there were too many mice and a lack of important social roles for each one to play. By Day 560, population growth ground to a halt. The box had 2,200 mice, although it was able to hold far more. Barely any mice survived past weaning. Calhoun found that even when enough of the population died off so that only an optimal population remained, the mice were not able to return to their natural behavior. Never being a part of normal society themselves, the mice simply did not know what it was; they did not even show the understanding that they were in an abnormal state of affairs. The population of “Universe 25” slowly became extinct.

Many people believed that the behavior of Calhoun’s mice and the Behavioral Sink could be extrapolated to humans. The connection between a breakdown of social bonds and violence was observed by Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century. In traditional societies, where family expectations and religion held sway, people enjoyed strong social bonds and had distinct social roles to fill. However, as they moved to cities, they found they were fighting for a place in society. In exasperation and a state of helplessness, many fell into poverty or turned to crime, violence and even suicide.

The fear of failing to be a productive member of society and fulfilling social roles can also push people, like the “beautiful ones,” into isolating themselves. The infamous Japanese hikikomori are a case in point. They are people who refuse to leave their rooms, sometimes for years at a time. They feel shame for being unable to fulfill familial expectations, find the “right” job or be a productive member of society. These men (and sometimes women) hole themselves up in their rooms and never come out.

However, it is not clear that a high population density necessarily leads to a breakdown of society and social roles. Humans might be able, with our ingenuity and almost unlimited demands, to create social roles for everyone and avoid the Behavioral Sink. Some critics, such as psychologist Jonathan Freedam, suggested that it was not the density of population that overwhelmed the mice but the large number of social interactions they had to deal with. Humans are able to avoid this, even while living in a highly dense area.

Sources: Cabinet Magazine, National Institutes of Health, Open Yale Courses, BBC

The Concept Behind $300 Housing


The concept of building cheap houses for the poor to improve their living standards is hardly a new one. However, a house that is sustainable, affordable, part of an “ecosystem” of services of electricity, water and sanitation, and, perhaps most importantly, maintains people’s dignity. Sounds far-fetched, especially with price tag of just $300. Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar, the brains behind the idea, believe that it can be done.

Govindarajan and Sarkar first outlined their concept in a Harvard Business review blog a few years ago. Since then, architects, companies and other students have all tried to take up the challenge of building such a house. Some have had limited success, while others introduced ideas that make the concept even more inspiring.

The solution to the problem of affordable housing, Govindarajan and Sarkar argue, comes about when companies start treating the poor as valued customers. Once they are, innovation and efficiency will fill the gap governments and NGOs have not been able to satisfy. The market for affordable housing amounts to more than $5 trillion.

More than 1.5 billion people in the world lack houses that are sustainable and able to cater to their needs. More than 330 million of them live in slums, where poor quality housing compounds the problems of unsanitary practices and overcrowding. This number is projected to rise by another million by 2025.

Govindarajan and Sarkar believe that the secret to affordable and sustainable homes lies in three “D’s”: dignity, durability and delight. Building homes out of waste material furthers inequality and the segregation of poor communities from the richer. The house must be built of out materials that would maintain the dignity of the poor.

The house should also be durable, because a house that constantly falls into disrepair will end up being more expensive to the owners. It should also be appealing to the eye and enjoyable to live in. When owners regard their house as more of a home rather than just their living quarters, they will be more inclined to look after it.

Harvey Lacey, an engineer from Texas, took these ideas even further. He calls his concept Ubuntublox, where people build their houses themselves. This helps create an attachment to the house and teaches them the skills they would need to maintain it.

Sources: The Guardian, Harvard Business Review 1, Harvard Business Review 2, Harvard Business Review 3, Harvard Business Review 4
Photo: Weymouth

Democratization in Myanmar Catastrophic for the Rohingya

Democratization in Burma, now Myanmar, seems to have opened up a can of worms. Freeing political prisoners, allowing freedom of speech, granting access to social media and tolerating freedom of assembly has allowed many Burmese people to express what had long be suppressed, albeit incompetently at times – a deep-seated hatred for the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The Rohingya make up five percent of Buddhist-majority Myanmar and have been discriminated against for centuries. They are denied citizenship and many basic rights because they are not seen as Burmese, even though their families were brought over from what was then Bengal many generations ago. But while the military junta was in power, it jailed anyone who incited violence against the Rohingya in the interest of keeping peace.

In 2011, the regime finally started opening up and passed a series of political, economic and social reforms. Among other developments, Myanmar freed opposing politician Aung San Suu Kyi after placing her under house arrest for fifteen years. It also gave general amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners, one of which was a monk named Ashin Wirathu.

Wirathu had been jailed for twenty-five years for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. Now free to resume his activities, Wirathu helped instigate a wave of resentment toward the Rohingya that cumulated in the deadly 2012 Rakhine State riots and the 2013 nationwide anti-Muslim riots. He now heads the fanatic 969 movement, which has a large following among the Buddhist population.

The movement calls on all Buddhists to refuse to do business with the Rohingya and demarcate their homes and businesses using the “969” sticker. They are already pervasive on many shop windows, cars and motorbikes across Myanmar. The economic boycott against Muslims is only one of the four propositions of 969; the others are to restrict marriage between Buddhists and Muslims, forbid religious conversions and prohibit polygamy.

The general intent of these laws, according to Wirathu, is to prevent a much-feared Muslim “population explosion.” He calls Muslims “African carp” that “breed quickly and eat their own kind.” The Rohingya, he claims, are a threat to Buddhism and the Burmese national identity.

The movement has already succeeded in getting a “population control” bill signed into law. The bill gives the government the power to stop mothers from having another child for 36 months. Human rights groups are certain that this law will only victimize Rohingya women.

These racist attitudes are not marginal, according to Richard Horsey, a political analyst from Yangon. In fact, these extremist views are mainstream. Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said that people often get together in community meetings similar to American town hall meetings to discuss how to get rid of the “Bengali problem.” In Karen State, host to Myanmar’s capital Hpa-an, fliers exhort people to stop Muslims from leasing homes and farms, and some threaten Buddhists who act as their middlemen.

Facebook, which had long been suppressed under the junta regime, is now also being used as a means to spread hatred. Users encourage their friends and family members to support the 969 movement. Groups such as the “Kalar Beheading Gang” (“Kalar” is a highly derogatory word given to Muslims) have popped up.

Attacking the Rohingya has therefore become good politics in Myanmar, Jonathan Head, the BBC correspondent for Southeast Asia, asserts, and rhetoric is heating up as elections approach in November. Fear mongering has allowed new and rising politicians to curry favor with the Buddhist majority. Aung San Suu Kyi, once seen as the symbol of human rights in the country, and now head of the National League for Democracy Party, has been conspicuously silent.

The Rohingya were also recently stripped of their right to vote. Just before the end of military rule in 2008, the junta had allowed them to vote and even put up candidates for election. But in 2013, when the government said it would maintain the Rohingya’s right to vote in a constitutional referendum, Buddhists staged massive protests. Hoping to appease the population, the government made the Rohingya turn in their identity cards.

Many international organizations have said that the recent events amount to genocide. More than 170,000 Rohingya live in internally displaced persons camps throughout the country after their houses and villages were burned to the ground in riots. They are circled by hostile Buddhist populations that do not allow them to leave the camp. The camps rarely have medical facilities and the Rohingya often have to sell their meager food rations to obtain medicines for their children. Jonathan Head calls the conditions “ghetto-like.” The government has actively refused to count casualty rates.

During a recent international conference in Norway that aimed to address the Rohingya crisis, George Soros, a business magnate turned philanthropist, said that “In 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I, too, was a Rohingya…Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by the Nazis in eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families who once had access to healthcare, education and employment. Now they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming.”

More than 150,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in overstuffed and rickety boats within the last three and a half years of democratic reforms. Smugglers promise to take them to Malaysia or Indonesia, Muslim majority countries. Jonathan Head voiced concern over the appalling conditions of the boats, which he said “were akin to the 18th century slave trade.” People cannot stand or sit properly, and are beaten if they try to stretch their legs. They are given a cup of rice, a single chili and two cups of water a day until the food runs out, as it often does.

Many boats never reach their destination and are instead handed over to traffickers, usually in Thailand, where people are then held ransom for up to $2,000. This often means that relatives in Myanmar have to sell their remaining land and homes to get them out. If they cannot, the traffickers simply leave them to starve. Recently, mass graves were uncovered in Thailand and Malaysia.

Myanmar refuses to admit responsibility for the crisis. Major Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, said that the country would “not accept allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem.”

Sources: Bangkok Post 1, Bangkok Post 2, Foreign Correspondants Club of Thailand, Bangkok Post 3, Al Jazeera, Asia Nikkei,Global Post 1, The Guardian, Global Post 2, BBC
Photo: Flickr