October 9, 2011
Most mornings, the line begins to form at dawn: scores of silent women with babies strapped to their backs, buckets balanced on their heads, and in each hand a bright-blue plastic jug. On good days, they will wait less than an hour before a water tanker rumbles across the rutted dirt path that passes for a road in Kesum Purbahari, a slum on the southern edge of New Delhi. On bad days, when there is no electricity for the pumps, the tankers don’t come at all. “That water kills people,’’ a young mother named Shoba said one recent Saturday morning, pointing to a row of battered pails filled with thick, caramel-colored liquid. “Whoever drinks it will die.’’ The water was from a community standpipe shared by thousands of the slum’s residents. Women often use it to launder clothes and bathe their children, but nobody is desperate enough to drink it. Instead, they take their buckets to a tanker stop, sit in the searing heat, and wait. Shoba found a spot in the shade next to a family of sleeping hogs. She wore a peach-colored sari and, to ward off the sun, a thin purple scarf around her head. Two little girls played happily in piles of refuse that lined the road.
There is no standard for how much water a person needs each day, but experts usually put the minimum at fifty litres. The government of India promises (but rarely provides) forty. Most people drink two or three litres—less than it takes to flush a toilet. The rest is typically used for cooking, bathing, and sanitation. Americans consume between four hundred and six hundred litres of water each day, more than any other people on earth. Most Europeans use less than half that. The women of Kesum Purbahari each hoped to haul away a hundred litres that day—two or three buckets’ worth. Shoba has a husband and five children, and that much water doesn’t go far in a family of seven, particularly when the temperature reaches a hundred and ten degrees before noon. She often makes up the difference with cups from the city’s ubiquitous and unhygienic kiosks, or with bottled water, which costs more than water delivered any other way. Sometimes she just buys milk; it’s cheaper. Like the poorest people everywhere, the residents of New Delhi’s slums spend a far greater percentage of their incomes on water than anyone lucky enough to live in a house connected to a municipal system of pipes.
Water is often seen as the most basic and accessible element of life, and seemingly the most plentiful. For every gallon in rivers or lakes, fifty more lie buried in vast aquifers beneath the surface of the earth. Yet at least since the cities of ancient Sumeria went to war over control of their rivers—long before tales of Moses parting the Red Sea or the Flood described in the Bible—water has been a principal source of conflict. (The word “rivals” even has it roots in fights over water, coming from the Latin rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another.”) By 2050, there will be at least nine billion people on the planet, the great majority of them in developing countries. If water were spread evenly across the globe, there might be enough for everyone. But rain often falls in the least desirable places at the most disadvantageous times. Delhi gets fewer than forty days of rain each year—all in less than four months. In other Indian cities, the situation is worse. Somehow, though, the country has to sustain nearly twenty per cent of the earth’s population with four per cent of its water. China has less water than Canada—and forty times as many people. With wells draining aquifers far faster than they can be replenished by rain, the water table beneath Beijing has fallen nearly two hundred feet in the past twenty years.
Most of the world’s great civilizations grew up around rivers, and few forces have so clearly shaped the destiny of human populations. When full and flowing, rivers have brought prosperity to the cities and nations they feed. Harnessing the power of a major river has been a signature of progress at least since Rome built its first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, more than two thousand years ago. New York, London, and Rome would have disappeared long ago without the Hudson, the Thames, and the Tiber. In the twenty-first century, though, no river can satisfy the demands of the world’s biggest cities. The fourteen million residents of New Delhi consume nine hundred million gallons of freshwater each day; the city supplies nearly seven hundred million gallons from rivers and reservoirs, but more than a third of it is lost to leaks within the ten-thousand-kilometre system of dilapidated pipes and pumping stations. Some of the rest is siphoned off by an increasingly brazen water mafia, which then sells it to people in slums like Kesum Purbahari who are supposed to get it for free.
When you can’t get enough water from the surface of the earth, there are really only two alternatives: pray for rain or start to dig. In India, Africa, China, and much of the rest of the developing world, people are digging as they never have before. Nearly two billion people rely on wells for their water, some of which is easily accessible. Far more lies trapped in the pores of rocks, or buried hundreds of metres below tons of ancient shale and metamorphic debris. Sturdy drills and cheap new pumps have made much of that water available—liberating millions of farmers from centuries of dependence on rain. The freedom comes at a cost, though, because once groundwater is gone it is often gone for good…
October 9, 2011
Sixty-four years ago, in August 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine presented to the General Assembly a startling and unexpected report, calling for an end to the British Mandate of Palestine and division of most of the territory into two independent states, with the Jewish state occupying the majority of the land. What came next, of course, is well known — a vote in the General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947, in favor of partition, and the war that immediately followed. The decision is viewed in the Arab world as “the great crime,” and Palestinian leaders, including the current president of thePalestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, regard it as the original sin that led to the catastrophe, the nakba, that befell their nation — a disaster they now want the General Assembly to remedy. What is not widely known is how a possibly pro-Arab committee, or at least one that was supposed to be neutral, came to issue a report that led directly to the establishment of the state of Israel. What happened on that committee’s trip to Palestine, and how were the minds of its members changed in a way that so radically altered history?
For decades, Unscop’s classified documents were scattered in archives all over the world, and only recently have they been made available. Many were discovered by the historian Elad Ben-Dror, whose book on the Unscop role in the Arab-Israeli conflict will soon be published. The committee consisted of 11 members who arrived in Palestine on June 15, 1947. Because the U.S. and Britain wished to maintain the appearance of neutrality, no international powers were represented in the delegation. The Palestinians believed a deal to establish a Jewish state had already been made behind closed doors and so ordered a complete boycott of committee proceedings. Palestinians were warned against making any contact whatsoever with Unscop, and Arab journalists were forbidden to cover their visit. Out of fear of appearing to support one side over the other, the British, too, avoided contact with the committee. In the vacuum created by the Arabs and the British, Zionist diplomats and spies were able to work unencumbered on the Unscop members. The Jewish Agency (the representative body of the Jewish community in the British Mandate) appointed a former British intelligence officer, Aubrey (Abba) Eban, to serve as a liaison with Unscop. Eban focused his energies on two Latin American members, from Guatemala and Uruguay, who became increasingly pro-Zionist as the committee’s investigation proceeded, providing Eban with inside information on specific members and their deliberations.
Alongside Eban, the entire intelligence service of the Jewish underground organization Haganah was put to work monitoring Unscop members. Microphones were placed in hotel and conference rooms. All phone conversations were tapped. The cleaning staff in the building in Jerusalem where the committee held daily hearings was replaced by female agents who reported back each day on its activities. The tactic did not go unnoticed. A member of the Swedish delegation complained that the women on the cleaning staff were “too pretty and educated. They are the eyes and ears of the Zionist leaders, who come to hearings with replies prepared in advance.” The committee’s chairman, Emil Sandstrom, also suspected the Guatemalan member of leaking information to Eban. “I don’t know that he took their money,” Sandstrom commented, “but he certainly took their girls.” At the end of each day, intelligence was collated and circulated to the heads of the Jewish community under the code name Delphi Report, which bore the inscription “Read and destroy!”
The Haganah also gathered personal information on each member, in an effort to discover his particular areas of interest and vulnerabilities. On many of the field trips that committee members took, efforts were made to ensure that they serendipitously encountered someone who spoke their language or shared a common interest. N. S. Blom, a former Dutch official in Indonesia, arrived in Palestine with a pro-Arab agenda, but during his stay he found himself in frequent impromptu meetings with immigrants from the Netherlands, who pressed a different perspective upon him. On one occasion, while traveling in his official vehicle, he came across two farmers herding dairy cows across the road. When Blom got out of the car he discovered that, amazingly, the two farmers were immigrants from the Netherlands. Even more important, their cows were also of Dutch stock! In his otherwise dry reports to the Dutch Foreign Ministry, a welling up of national pride over the contribution of Dutch dairy farming to agriculture in the Holy Land stands out…
October 9, 2011
Superlatives about Steven Jobs’s tenure as the head of Apple reached new heights once he announced his retirement in August 2011. Those smitten by the sleek Apple products that Jobs liked to introduce in much-anticipated stage presentations have rarely seen them as anything but revolutionary, and claimed that they repeatedly changed not only the expectations of what modern electronics can deliver but our lives.
The encomiums reached their peak with Ken Auletta’s homage in The New Yorker:
The twentieth century’s Thomas Edison has stepped from the stage … the scope of the technologies that sprang from or were transformed by Jobs’s Apple laboratories—the Mac, the mouse, the laptop, Pixar, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad—is awesome, as was that from Edison’s Menlo Park. And Jobs, like Edison, accomplished his imaginative feats without the crutch of survey research, of endless polls to tell him what people wanted.
I have no desire to disparage or dismiss anything Jobs has done for his company, for its stockholders, or for millions of people who are incurably addicted to incessantly checking their tiny Apple phones or washing their brains with endless streams of music—I just want to explain why Jobs is no Edison.
Any student of the history of technical progress must be struck by the difference between the epochal, first-order innovations that take place only infrequently and at unpredictable times and the myriad of subsequent second-order inventions, improvements, and perfections that could not have taken place without such a breakthrough and that both accompany and follow (sometimes with great rapidity, often rather tardily) the commercial maturation of that fundamental enabling advance. The oldest example of such a technical saltation was when our hominin ancestors began using stones to fashion other stones into sharp tools (axes, knives, and arrows). And there has been no more fundamental, epoch-making modern innovation than the large-scale commercial generation, transmission, distribution, and conversion of electricity.
I thought that perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of electricity in modern civilization was to ask what we would not have without it:
The answer is just about everything in the modern world. We use electricity to power our lights, a universe of electronic devices (from cell phones to supercomputers), a panoply of converters ranging from hand-held hair dryers to the world’s fastest trains, and almost every life saver (modern synthesis and production of pharmaceuticals is unthinkable without electricity: vaccines need refrigeration, hearts are checked by electrocardiograms, and during operations are bypassed by electric pumps), and most of our food is produced, processed, distributed, and cooked with the help of electric machines and devices.
This fundamental innovation was created during a remarkably short period of time—most of it between the late 1870s and the beginning of the 20th century—by a surprisingly small number of inventors, engineers, and scientists. In order to avoid the most obvious exclusionary injustice, even a brief list of the pioneering creators of electric systems must include the names of Charles Clarke, Sebastian Ferranti, Lucien Gaulard, John Gibbs, Zénobe-Théophile Gramme, Edward Johnson, Irving Langmuir, Charles Parsons, Emil Rathenau, Werner Siemens, William Stanley, Charles Steinmetz, Joseph Swan, Nikola Tesla, Elihu Thomson, Francis Upton, and George Westinghouse. But, justly, one name stands above them all, that of Thomas Alva Edison.
Contrary to the standard narrative, his greatest contribution was not to invent the light bulb: a score of other inventors beat him to it, and he has to share the glory of its first commercially successful and relatively durable variety with Joseph Swan. Edison’s contribution was fundamentally far greater because he put in place, in a remarkably brief period between 1880 and 1882, the world’s first commercial system of electricity generation, transmission, and conversion. T.P. Hughes put it best when he concluded that “Edison was a holistic conceptualizer and determined solver of the problems associated with the growth of systems.” And the pace and breadth of his inventiveness is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that during those three critical years he was granted not only nearly 90 patents for incandescent filaments and lamps but also 60 patents for magneto or dynamo-electric machines and their regulation, 14 patents for the system of electric lighting, 12 patents for the distribution of electricity, and 10 patents for electric meters and motors.
Perhaps no contemporary testimony of his accomplishments is as revealing and as appreciative as the impressions of Emil Rathenau, a pioneer of the German electric industry, after seeing the display of Edison’s system at the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881:
The Edison system of lighting was as beautifully conceived down to the very details, and as thoroughly worked out as if it had been tested for decades in various towns. Neither sockets, switches, fuses, lamp-holders, nor any of the other accessories necessary to complete the installation were wanting; and the generating of the current, the regulation, the wiring with distribution boxes, house connections, meters, etc., all showed signs of astonishing skill and incomparable genius….