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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Poisoning the Well

Poisoning The Well

Finally, a week’s worth of news not overshadowed by the need to select a Republican candidate for the upcoming US elections, nor the outrageous lip-service being paid to us by politicians claiming to be saving us from an economic crisis that my personal spending habits have created! This week I was able to view, with both disbelief and revulsion, the events in London and the Horn of Africa. Believe it or not, there’s a link.     
In the early 80’s I attended a day-long seminar at the Scarborough U of T campus. The topic of concern was environmental disease. Environmental diseases are an interesting phenomena; illnesses caused by the quality of the environment we live in. Quite often they can reach epidemic proportion, sometimes devastating entire communities, towns and cities, and even whole societies. These illnesses and the resulting devastation sometimes led to scientific and medical breakthroughs but more often than not a shift in societal priorities.
Historic accounts of environmental diseases include the Bubonic and Pneumonic Plagues that ravaged Europe throughout the Dark Ages, Middle Ages and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. More recently, an outbreak of Cholera during the mid nineteenth century in the US led to the first recording and tracking of a disease. Eventually the reporting of Cholera in the US gave way to the creations of such reputable groups as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Earlier this month the latest Cholera outbreak was reported. Among the refugees traveling from famine ravaged Sudan to Kenya, Cholera has claimed well over two-hundred lives. Although this is but a small number comparative to those affected by the famine, and sentenced to death by starvation, it is still an outbreak of an environmental disease. A disease created or perpetuated by the environment lived in, or traveled through in this case, and indicative of its quality, its poor quality.
Getting back to the that U of T seminar. The disease being studied was not Cholera, it wasn’t either of the great plagues that ravaged Europe long ago. Its aim was the study of water borne parasites. During the 80’s, and I’m quite sure little has changed in thirty years, one in four people on the planet suffered from parasites; in other words twenty-five percent of the world’s population had worms. Our study concentrated on west Africa, where that percentage was considerably higher. This high incidence was created  by a contaminated water supply. Not caused by a chemical spill or industrial accident. This was simply poor waste disposal, inappropriate sewage control. In other words, defecating upstream of ones’ water supply.

At that time a great amount of resources, financial, research hours and technology, was pouring into solving this problem. Education programs were created, teaching the local populations how to properly dispose of their waste. NGO’s were funding filtration systems. Church groups were financing the drilling of better wells. Unfortunately Geo-political happenings in the early to mid 80’s overshadowed the importance of the measures taken. The public lost interest in such causes, transferring their care, and therefore their donated dollars to more fashionable concerns. This of course was then reflected in the monies allocated by western governments.

Environmental disease took a backseat to more fashionable issues. Tackling environmental disease had fallen from favor. There were more pressing concerns, at least for those that decided what was stylish and what would gather a greater audience share.
By ignoring the affects of environmental diseases, and their causes, we have seen other  tragedies in the past few decades. E. Coli is an environmental disease which has affected many communities in the western world. Most recently an outbreak in Europe involving tainted vegetables. Closer to home, and perhaps even more telling, the Walkerton tragedy and the evacuation of the Kashachewan First Nations Reserve. 
Environmental diseases point to a problem: abuse of the environment. The environment then tries to warn us of our abuses of it, or tries to rid itself of what is causing the problem; Us. When are we going to learn that peeing upstream of our water supply is not a good idea?
Nature has a way of defending itself, of correcting out of control abuse. Wildlife populations run in cycles; lemmings cast themselves off cliffs, snowshoe hares are thinned by lynx predation. Lightning creates forest fires which cause re-growth of unproductive stretches of woodland. And disease and starvation reduce a population that demands more on the environment than nature can feasibly sustain.
When man dumps sewage and other wastes into the environment with complete disregard for nature, man pays the price and suffers the consequences. Nature tries to eliminate the cause and return a balance to the environment. When man pees upstream of his water supply the entire village gets sick. If that village continues with this irresponsible waste management program the village is destroyed. 
It doesn’t stop at waste management: But it does begin with personal responsibility.
When are we going to realize that speeding on a residential street could cause harm and injury to those we love? And how long will it take before people understand that talking on a cell phone while driving puts your passengers at risk? 
Will we ever come to understand that littering in our neighborhood parks and street sides not only shows a disrespect for our personal surroundings but also a disregard for the environment that nurtures us?                          
The disenfranchised are not furthering their cause by steeling flat-screen TV’s. 
Burning our neighbors’ homes down, trashing the local convenience store and beating on those around us with similar concerns, or living under alike circumstances, is simply poisoning the well we all must drink from.

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