Sunday, August 5, 2007

Iraq's Human Tide -- Independent

Patrick Cockburn in Sulaymaniyah
Published: 30 July 2007
Two thousand Iraqis are fleeing their homes every day. It is the greatest mass exodus of people ever in the Middle East and dwarfs anything seen in Europe since the Second World War. Four million people, one in seven Iraqis, have run away, because if they do not they will be killed. Two million have left Iraq, mainly for Syria and Jordan, and the same number have fled within the country.

Yet, while the US and Britain express sympathy for the plight of refugees in Africa, they are ignoring - or playing down- a far greater tragedy which is largely of their own making.

The US and Britain may not want to dwell on the disasters that have befallen Iraq during their occupation but the shanty towns crammed with refugees springing up in Iraq and neighbouring countries are becoming impossible to ignore.

Even so the UNHCR is having difficulty raising $100m (£50m) for relief. The organisation says the two countries caring for the biggest proportion of Iraqi refugees - Syria and Jordan - have still received "next to nothing from the world community". Some 1.4 million Iraqis have fled to Syria according to the UN High Commission for Refugees, Jordan has taken in 750 000 while Egypt and Lebanon have seen 200 000 Iraqis cross into their territories.

Potential donors are reluctant to spent money inside Iraq arguing the country has large oil revenues. They are either unaware, or are ignoring the fact that the Iraqi administration has all but collapsed outside the Baghdad Green Zone. The US is spending $2bn a week on military operations in Iraq according to the Congressional Research Service but many Iraqis are dying because they lack drinking water costing a few cents.

Kalawar refugee camp in Sulaymaniyah is a microcosm of the misery to which millions of Iraqis have been reduced.

"At least it is safe here," says Walid Sha'ad Nayef, 38, as he stands amid the stink of rotting garbage and raw sewage. He fled from the lethally dangerous Sa'adiyah district in Baghdad 11 months ago. As we speak to him, a man silently presents us with the death certificate of his son, Farez Maher Zedan, who was killed in Baghdad on 20 May 2006.

Kalawar is a horrible place. Situated behind a petrol station down a dusty track, the first sight of the camp is of rough shelters made out of rags, torn pieces of cardboard and old blankets. The stench is explained by the fact the Kurdish municipal authorities will not allow the 470 people in the camp to dig latrines. They say this might encourage them to stay.

"Sometimes I go to beg," says Talib Hamid al-Auda, a voluble man with a thick white beard looking older than his fifty years. As he speaks, his body shakes, as if he was trembling at the thought of the demeaning means by which he feeds his family. Even begging is difficult because the people in the camp are forbidden to leave it on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Suspected by Kurds of being behind a string of house robberies, though there is no evidence for this, they are natural scapegoats for any wrong-doing in their vicinity.

Refugees are getting an increasingly cool reception wherever they flee, because there are so many of them and because of the burden they put on resources. "People here blame us for forcing up rents and the price of food," said Omar, who had taken his family to Damascus after his sister's leg was fractured by a car bomb.

The refugees in Kalawar had no option but to flee. Of the 97 families here, all but two are Sunni Arabs. Many are from Sa'adiyah in west Baghdad where 84 bodies were found by police between 18 June and 18 July. Many are young men whose hands had been bound and who had been tortured.

"The majority left Baghdad because somebody knocked on the door of their house and told them to get out in an hour," says Rosina Ynzenga, who runs the Spanish charity Solidarity International (SIA) which pays for a mobile clinic to visit the camp.

Sulaymaniyah municipality is antagonistic to her doing more. One Kurdish official suggested that the Arabs of Kalawar were there simply for economic reasons and should be given $200 each and sent back to Baghdad.

Mr Nayef, the mukhtar (mayor) of the camp who used to be a bulldozer driver in Baghdad, at first said nobody could speak to journalists unless we had permission from the authorities. But after we had ceremoniously written our names in a large book he relented and would, in any case, have had difficulty in stopping other refugees explaining their grievences.

Asked to list their worst problems Mr Nayef said they were the lack of school for the children, shortage of food, no kerosene to cook with, no money, no jobs and no electricity. The real answer to the question is that the Arabs of Kalawar have nothing. They have only received two cartons of food each from the International Committee of the Red Cross and a tank of clean water.

Even so they are adamant that they dare not return to Baghdad. They did not even know if their houses had been taken over by others.

Abla Abbas, a mournful looking woman in black robes, said her son had been killed because he went to sell plastic bags in the Shia district of Khadamiyah in west Baghdad. The poor in Iraq take potentially fatal risks to earn a little money.

The uncertainty of the refugees' lives in Kalawar is mirrored in their drawn faces. While we spoke to them there were several shouting matches. One woman kept showing us a piece of paper from the local authority in Sulaymaniyah giving her the right to stay there. She regarded us nervously as if we were officials about to evict her.

There are in fact three camps at Kalawar. Although almost all the refugees are Sunni they come from different places and until a month ago they lived together. But there were continual arguments. The refugees decided that they must split into three encampments: one from Baghdad, a second from Hillah, south of Baghdad, and a third from Diyala, the mixed Sunni-Shia province that has been the scene of ferocious sectarian pogroms.

Governments and the media crudely evaluate human suffering in Iraq in terms of the number killed. A broader and better barometer would include those who have escaped death only by fleeing their homes, their jobs and their country to go and live, destitute and unwanted, in places like Kalawar. The US administration has 18 benchmarks to measure progress in Iraq but the return of four million people to their homes is not among them.

Bottled Out -- from the Independent

July is surrendering to August, and a blazing afternoon sun has drawn the lazy crowds into Union Square in Manhattan. Loving couples are entangled on its dusty lawns, mothers perambulate babies, young men escape into their iPods while tatty old dames lounge on benches clasping paper fans. In this heat, one prop binds the human diversity together, however: the plastic bottle of water.

Never mind that dotted conspicuously at decent intervals all around the shady park are public water fountains. On this sultry afternoon, they are lonely and neglected, except for one where a nanny and infant are playing at putting fingers over the spout to see how far they can make it spray. A newly purchased bottle of spring water rests in a cup holder of the pram, in case either one of them should actually need to slake their thirst.

Even a decade ago, there would have been queues for the fountains. No longer. They have been rendered almost redundant by bottled water, rather as public phones have been by mobiles. We used to live perfectly well without either of these modern accessories. Today, they are vital to our happiness.

No one would suggest returning to the pre-wireless age, of course. But as the heat builds across America this summer, a backlash against packaged water is gathering. It is led by environmentalists, consumer activists and increasingly by local political leaders. The media is gulping down the brouhaha; and the beverage business, with much to lose, is starting to squeal.

The H2O militants, who include the mayors of cities such as New York, Salt Lake City and San Francisco, are asking why spend your hard-earned cash on buying fancy brands of bottled water such as Fiji, Poland Spring, Aquafina and Dasani, when the stuff that comes out of the tap at home - or from the fountains in public spaces - is perfectly good? The quality controls imposed on public water supplies here by federal regulators are, after all, far more stringent than those required of bottled water.

But it is not just an issue of wastefulness. Rather, the principal objection to our love affair with bottled water has to do with ecology. It takes energy and oil to make those bottles, all of which contributes to global warming. And then there is the question of where you throw them when you are done.

According to most estimates, less than a fifth of empty bottles in the United States are actually returned by consumers for recycling. The rest end up in landfills where they will take hundreds of years to decompose.

New York launched a public service advertising campaign in June, reminding residents that the metropolis has some of the most pristine public water supplies in the country, all of it from the Catskill Mountain watershed, north up the Hudson Valley. Just a week ago, the federal government delayed plans to build an expensive new filtration system for the city because the quality of its water right now is still unimpeachable.

This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to a new controversy about where some of the bottled water actually comes from - neither springs nor glaciers - repeated his pitch. "New Yorkers can turn on the tap whenever they want and fill up a glass of some of the most delicious water on the planet," he said. "And that's something I hope New Yorkers will continue to do, because drinking tap water, instead of bottled water, is not just easier on your wallet: it's also easier on the environment."

The economics of the bottled water industry in America are astounding, and there is little to suggest that the "just say no" pleadings of Mr Bloomberg or anyone else will have any impact. In 2006, wholesale revenue for the purveyors of bottled water, including beverage giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola, topped $11bn (£5.4bn). That's more than Americans pay to go to the movies every year. And the industry is set to grow at the rate of about 10 per cent annually.

Americans consumed 8.25 billion gallons of bottled water last year. Equally unsettling is the background story of how all this water is distributed. Upwards of one billion bottles of the stuff are shipped around the US every week. That's a lot of exhaust fumes. To shift that amount of water (it is a heavy commodity) you need a fleet of no fewer than 37,800 18-wheeler lorries. It doesn't help that the most popular bottles are the small, slip-in-your-backpack size, making more plastic to chuck.

The poster-child for the packaged hydration objectors is Fiji Water, a popular US brand that stands out from others in part because it is among the most expensive and, therefore, the most chic. It is usually $1.50 for half a litre, more expensive than petrol. True, there are even more pocket-burning varieties, most famously a brand called Bling H2O that sells at one suburban New York bar for $55 per bottle. Paris Hilton (of course) has been spotted sipping Bling. No one would deny that spending that much on water is plain obscene.

Buying Fiji water is not entirely rational either, because it really does come from a remote corner of the island of the same name. First the bottles have to be shipped there. They are filled, trucked to port and then brought by ship across the Pacific before distribution across the US. The best way to expand your carbon footprint? Drink Fiji.

What, on this bright day, does Sean Gallagher, 26, an actor from Los Angeles in New York for an audition, have hiding in his shoulder bag? (Sean has been picked because he is sitting on a bench directly across from one of the Union Square water fountains.) Oops, there it is: Fiji Water.

"I needed a container," he blurts almost immediately. And it is true; the square Fiji container with its patterns of South Pacific blossoms has more capacity than most of the competition. He swears when he is finished, he will refill it with regular water. Sean admits that buying Fiji is particularly ironic in his case because he has three municipal water engineers for uncles lecture him for ever about the purity of tap water. "I am not into this yuppy bullshit of buying Fiji because of the brand."

Sitting beside him is mathematics student Russell Avdek, 21. He has eschewed the fountain in favour of Poland Spring. He too is contrite, swearing tap water is his usual tipple. But he bought the bottle from a vendor across the park "because it's just convenient." Fair enough. What he finds "outlandish", he says, is people buying whole cases of bottled water in supermarkets to take home. He too says he will refill from a tap.

Then there is Marilyn Smith from Nebraska, in New York on a Christian mission and found lingering by the dog run. Poking from her bag is a bottle of Nestlé Pure Life. She would drink from the fountains, she says, but fears that in "a big city like this it might not be sanitary". What she did not know, however, is that Pure Life is among a number of leading bottled water brands that are not quite what they seem.

Last week, the Pepsi Company succumbed to pressure from a group called Corporate Accountability International, to change the labels on its Aquafina water, the largest-selling brand in the US. Up to now, three initials, PWS, are all that tells you that what is inside actually comes from the same sources as the water in your kitchen. In future, the words will be spelled out in full: public water source.

Other popular brands that are little more than tap water, if refined a little with extra filtering, are Dasani from Coca Cola and, yes, Pure Life. "That is a rip-off," said a disgusted Ms Smith.

It is the dodgy marketing of some varieties of bottled water that has riled San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, who has just banned city employees using public funds to buy any kind of bottled water, for functions like meetings or conferences. "We are now exposing an underbelly truth - a big percentage of bottled water in this country is tap water," he declared the other day. Some of America's poshest restaurants, including Chez Panisse and the Larder, both in the San Francisco area, are also taking a stand, refusing to offer bottled water to patrons.

Rocky Anderson, mayor of Salt Lake City, a town as proud of its water quality as New York, has even gone so far as to forbid firemen from taking bottled drinking water with them on emergency calls.

There is not a major news programme in the United States that has not run a bottled-water story in the past seven days, focusing particularly on the provenance of brands like Aquafina. "Aquafina. It sounds so nice, so refined, so special" said Katie Couric on the CBS evening news the other night. "You might think this biggest-selling brand of bottled water must come from someplace special. Well, today we found out it doesn't." Ouch.

Offended by this assault, the industry contends that consumers should be allowed the choice. "We think it's unfortunate it's turned into this either-or battle," comments Joseph Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association. "We do feel like we're being unfairly targeted."

This reporter, meanwhile, will return now to the Union Square and the dog run with his pooch. But, because it is still hot, first he has a purchase to make. A bottle of PetRefresh. It is a product designed exclusively for our four-legged companions which, according to the company's web site, "begins with natural water from high mountain streams of unusual purity, clarity, and beneficial mineral contents". I will spare you the rest of the blurb. (And, in truth, I will spare the dog from having to drink it, too.)