Monday, November 24, 2008

Rewiring Pedro Badejo

It’s Saturday and there are no students in the courtyard of Pedro Badejo’s Vocational Education School. The sun is shining on a series of Greek arches---the final exams of the school’s stone masonry students--giving the school courtyard the odd feel of an ancient mosque. Andrew is standing beside a table saw talking to the wood shop professor.
The wood shop teacher flips the switch and the two excitedly watch as the saw begins to spin: Pedro Badejo’s technical school hasn’t had electricity in about a month, which hasn’t exactly made it easy for Andrew to begin teaching electrical wiring to his students. A strong wind blows through the courtyard and the saw slows, stops, and begins turning in the opposite direction. The two chuckle. No more power.
Andrew is a first year Peace Corps Volunteer, a recent electrical engineering graduate of Drexel University, and the son of Columbian immigrants, who wouldn’t have made it to the United States if it hadn’t been for the Peace Corps, Andrew says. “Like all other volunteers, I guess, [I joined because] I wanted to help out…I really saw the impact first hand of another generation of Peace Corps volunteers.”
His mother and father, Aura Maria Rosa Vernaza and Jorge Enrique Vernaza, immigrated to the United States in 1976, eventually settling in Mount Laurel, New Jersey to raise their two sons. His father learned English from an ESL volunteer at the Universidad de Valle in Bogotá where he studied engineering. His excellent English skills aided him in his embassy interview and subsequent transition to America. His mother, from the rural suburb of Tenza, watched as an irrigation volunteer helped her family greatly improve their farm’s efficiency. “We still go back there for vacation and eat the tomatoes. They’re really good,” says Andrew. “The reason the farm is still in the my family is probably because of that Peace Corps Volunteer…My family really understands the impact Peace Corps has had on their lives.”
Andrew joined the Peace Corps to give back, a decision he is still committed to, though his job isn’t always easy. “I’m not a teacher, I engineer things,” he says. As he glowingly describes “cool circuits” like burglar alarms, it’s easy to imagine he is happiest when working on his own experiments.
Teaching, he explains, “is so frustrating sometimes. Once we were doing this problem with the equation V=IR. Its like the most important equation of electricity.” He writes it, voltage equals resistance times current. “I gave the students simple numbers for resistance and voltage, but they couldn’t come up with the current. They hadn’t learned that you could divide both sides of the equation by the same number. A lot of them didn’t go to high school and don’t have basic math skills.”
Nevertheless, there are definite eureka moments.
A student once confessed to Andrew after class that she still didn’t understand an equation. “I just couldn’t explain it again, so I asked this other student if he could.” The student answered that he thought so.
“And then he just totally nailed it,” Andrew recalls. “He derived the entire equation perfectly, and the girl got it, and I hadn’t said a thing. I was like, ‘oh my god, I think I have just built capacity.’”
We leave the school and head down the road to the stadium where his students have a soccer match. Half-clad children run across the cobbled road, which narrows to a few feet in places where most of the stones are missing. Unpainted rectangular cement homes line the hilly, winding street that descends towards the expansive ocean, which eats up most of the horizon. A few women wash clothes in cement basins. Most people sit on stools and stone walls along the side of the street that still has a sliver of shade.
While Cape Verde is one of the most prosperous countries in West Africa, Pedro Badejo is among the poorest towns on the island of Santiago, with frequent power outages, high unemployment, and poor infrastructure. “It doesn’t make sense that the only school specializing in electricity is in this poor town with bad power.”
But Andrew is working on that. In the evenings he repairs broken street lamps with some of his motivated students. He is writing a proposal to install a wind turbine at the school that would generate power to offset the malfunctioning generator, and allow him to teach his students about renewable energies, an increasingly important field for a country with no petroleum resources and growing electricity demand.
For other challenges, Andrew turns to his parents. “I was complaining to my mom about not having running water. And she was like ‘you should do what we used to do—soak a towel in water and shower with that.”
Many of Andrew’s anecdotes about Columbia are funny or touching. But when he explains that drug-related violence claimed the lives of his father’s two brothers, you are reminded of the real suffering that Columbia’s infamous problems mean for its people.
And yet, knowing what his parents escaped from--and seeing how far they got—gives Andrew a clear sense of what he can achieve in Cape Verde. “The Peace Corps gives hope. If we weren’t here, they wouldn’t know their abilities. When I leave here they will say, ‘Oh I can do that.’”
When other volunteers second-guess the Peace Corps’ potential for making a difference, Andrew unthinkingly replies, “Volunteers have an impact. You probably won’t ever get to see it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have one. Twenty years from now, someone may do something because of something you said and you will have no idea.”
We reach the stadium, a cement, walled-basketball court on the edge of town. Andrew’s students, the red shirted “biscuits”, file by and greet Andrew before the game starts.
“See that one, number eight?” He points to a player. “That’s the one I was telling you about, who explained the equation. He is super motivated. Sometimes he asks if we can go fix another lamppost and I am like, ‘how about tomorrow, ok?’”
Andrew leans forward as one of his student shoots on goal, and then continues.
“Maybe he won’t get to America. But he will get a good job, give a good life to his kids, and maybe they will be able to go.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Less Water, More Grandma Underwear

It’s summer in Praia and it’s so hot I can barely keep my clothes on. There are several shirts strewn around the floor, tossed down around 1:00 pm each day when I get home for lunch. Yesterday’s is still soggy.
Today is Saturday and I am back from the beach, sandy and hot. I open the faucet more out of curiosity than hope or expectation. Still nothing. Not even the trickle of the last few days. I peer into the blue plastic barrel that holds our water reserves. The shimmering circles around my reflection are far away, four feet down and maybe a foot up from the bottom. By Monday, it will have been two weeks without water.
I look around the kitchen, prioritizing. The dishes march across our spacious counter. At mealtime, we either eat out, or on chopping boards and Tupperware tops. Still, dish washing is not a priority. The kitchen floor is covered with brown blotches, from the days when there was enough water for it to spill from the sink and mix with the ubiquitous dust. This muck too is not a priority. I have two more pairs of grandma underwear—the kind you almost throw away every few months but for some clairvoyant voice that warns you of it would be rash. Looking nice at work is getting challenging… but laundry is still not a priority.
It’s the murky smelly toilet, the vacuous drinking water filter, and the bathtub—oddly devoid of water droplets--that have to come first. The two of us—my roommate and I, sworn joggers, who easily chug several 1.5-liter-bottles of water a day, who dump copious amounts of it down our long tresses, and who always gut up for mysterious street food only to repent before the porcelain god later that night—use a lot of water. Drinking, Bathing, Sanitation. There they are, our water priorities in descending order.
The reason for our water problem, we learned finally, was a neighbor’s unpaid water bills. But water outages arbitrarily afflict different neighborhoods in Praia on a fairly regular basis. 58% of urban residents are connected to the central network. 88% of the water from the networks comes from desalinization. Desalinization, the process of turning salty seawater into potable drinking water, is the country’s main response to low rainfall and dwindling subsoil resources. It is energy intensive, requiring 2-3 kilowatt hours to produce a cubic meter of water. When Electra, the national electricity and water company, runs out of diesel fuel to power desalinization, water is cut intermittently in different neighborhoods to ration use. Periodic malfunctions in the pipes also provoke cuts. When you’re not in the mood to tackle last night’s dishware, it’s awesome. When you’re fresh out of even the most inelastic of underwear, it’s infuriatingly uncivilized.
Lack of resources, insufficient financing, and poor management are clearly at play here. But there is a greater significance. It’s relative water consumption. My roommate and I--two Americans accustomed to infinite sprinkler systems, bountiful toilets that flush at will, and faucets left running while teeth are brushed-- can’t make a barrel of water last a week. A barrel contains 240 liters, or just under a quarter of a cubic meter. How long could a Cape Verdean family make that barrel last, without ever having to forgo clean dishes, floors, and snugly fitting underwear?
On average, rural Cape Verdeans consume 15-25 liters of water in a day. City dwellers consume roughly 40. It is thanks to residents’ conservative use of water that Cape Verde’s water situation is even tenable.
But what would happen if our Praia neighbors suddenly began to consume like Emily, me and other Americans? Americans consume 200-300 liters per person per day, for domestic use alone. That’s between five and twenty times as much as Cape Verdeans. Such an enormous growth in consumption would overwhelm a system that already struggles to meet current water needs.
Ok, but is it likely that 500,000 Cape Verdean residents suddenly start using 20 times more water? Nope. Electra has registered only modest average growth in demand of 4.4%, per year over the past five years (and actually recorded a 3% drop from 2006-2007). The world financial crisis may serve to slow growth further.
Still, our hypothetical situation is not off the mark for global trends. In quickly developing countries like China and India, more and more people are reaching a point of affluence that allows them to consume like Westerners. In one sense, it’s wonderful to see high standards of living reach previously impoverished countries. On the other hand, the earth can barely support the excessive consumption of one America. How can it support the excessive consumption of many?
In “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Tom Freidman quantifies the problem. “Not only will the world’s population grow from around three billion in 1955 to a projected 9 billion by 2050, but—much, much more important—we will go from a world population in which maybe one billion people were living an “American” lifestyle to a world in which two or three billion people are living an American lifestyle or aspiring to do so.”
Jeffrey Diamond breaks down the numbers in a fabulous January, 2008 New York Times article. The 1 billions people who live in Japan, Australia, Western Europe and North America consume about 32 times as much water, metals, and oil as most people living in developing countries. So, for example, when Kenya’s population balloons, as it is expected to, it will still take 32 Kenyans to consume as much as one American. That’s grossly unfair, but it means we can worry less about the impact of population growth impact on global resources, right?
Wrong. China and India are catching up quickly. China’s 1.3 billion people, according to Diamond, currently consume at a factor of 21.

“China's catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent...If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).”

So what to do? How can we eliminate socio-economic inequalities---that leave Kenyans consuming 1/32 of the water we do---without destroying the planet? Moreover, how can we convince developing countries, eager to finally achieve the high living standards we have enjoyed for so long, to pitch in and fight the environmental problems that we created pretty much on our own? Says Freidman: “As an Egyptian cabinet minister remarked to me: ‘It is like the developed world ate all the hors d’ouvres, all the entrees, and all the desserts and then invited the developing world for a little coffee’ and asked us to split the whole bill.”
We Americans can, at the very least, set an example, by reducing the consumption that so many poor countries seek to emulate. As Freidman says, in his book,

“I certainly don’t blame the citizens of Doha or Dalian for aspiring to an American lifestyle or for opting to build it on the same cheap-fossil-fuel foundation that we did….We Americans are in no position to lecture anyone. But we are in the position to know better. We are in a position to set a different example of growth. We are in a position to use our resources and know how to invent the renewable, clean, power sources and energy efficient systems that can make growth greener.”

It is going to be hard. Neither prices nor government legislation have forced us to do it yet. Most Americans today have never had to limit resource use and cannot directly observe the effects of unequal consumption or resource depletion, which could shock us into behavior change.
Emily and I are lucky: each period of forcible grandma underwear use has ingrained in us the preciousness of water, and other resources that are already scarce in parts of the developing world. Will we retain this awareness, when we return to the land of sprinklers and motion sensor toilets? Will we effectively communicate it to other Americans to bring about behavior change? Who knows? But it’s the 9 billion person question.