Writers feel the fear

This year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified documents about American digital spying, we’ve come to learn that big brother is definitely watching. As revelations about the NSA and the U.S.’ massive digital spying regime continue to surface it’s become increasingly clear that the majority of digital communications are anything but private.

A common analogy is that one should think of emails as “postcards” that can be read by anyone instead of letters sealed in envelopes that only the recipient can view.

The reality of digital surveillance and its scope is starting to hit American writers who, according to a new report by PEN America, are beginning to censor themselves, either through being reluctant to write about certain topics or being reluctant to contact sources they believe they will put in danger.

As the report (based on a survey of 520 writers) highlights, 1 in 6 of the writers surveyed avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance. Writers reported self-censoring on subjects “including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.”

One respondent explained how the extra precautions taken to protect sources, like meeting in person instead of talking over the phone, “remind me of my days as Moscow Bureau Chief of [a major news outlet] under Communism, when to communicate with dissidents and refuseniks we had to avoid substantive phone conversations, meet in person in public, etc.”

Censorship strangles intellectual thought and limits oppositional viewpoints. When journalists and writers start to steer clear of sensitive topics, either for fear of their own safety or that of their sources, public understanding suffers.
As the PEN report notes: “We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution.”

While it’s clear that digital communication is easy to intercept, and this reality is frightening to those who value privacy, there are tools, such as email encryption, that journalists and others who care about their right to freedom of expression can use to make their communications more secure. In the age of digital surveillance, writers have a responsibility – to themselves, their readers and their sources – to be informed of ways to stay secure and private online.

Hugging strangers

This evening I walked along the coast, long after the sun had died. I came across four friends who asked me if I was German. One of them had a guitar. I said I wasn’t German, but had spent some time there. I asked the guy with the guitar to play for me. He wanted to sing John Legend’s ‘Ordinary People’ but didn’t want to sing it to me. “Not the kind of song to sing to a guy.”

I asked him to sing it to the woman who was with him instead. He did; the whole song. She sang some parts, and so did the other guy who was with them. I just stood there and listened to them all. It was the best few minutes of my day. When the singer/guitarist finished I clapped, shook his hand, and hugged him. The three of them said they’d see me in Germany and walked off. I kept walking in the opposite direction, feeling better about people. Further down the coastal path someone had sprayed a red heart on the wall.


From Toilet to Tap for Water Scarce City

(My third and final article on the Umgeni River for Inter Press Service).

KWAZULU-NATAL, South Africa, Oct 1 2013 (IPS) – In a few years, residents of the eThekwini municipality in the port city of Durban in South Africa could be drinking water that was once flushed down their toilets, as authorities are planning to recycle some of the municipality’s sewage and purify it to drinking quality standards.

“We’re going through a crucial water shortage, which is increased by the water demand of eThekwini,” Speedy Moodliar, the municipality’s senior manager of planning for water and sanitation, told IPS.

The municipality relies on the Umgeni river system for water. But demand on the system, which supplies drinking water to about five million people and fuels industry in the economic hubs of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a town 66 kilometres from the coast, has outstripped supply for the past seven years.

To boost supply in future, the South African government has proposed building a dam with a capacity of 250 million cubic metres on the uMkhomazi river, the third-largest river in KwaZulu-Natal, and transferring water to the Umgeni system.

But this scheme will only be operational by 2024 at the earliest, said Moodliar. “Between now and when the uMkhomazi [project] comes online, [wastewater] re-use will be our mitigation measure.”

In dry countries like Israel, Egypt, and Australia treated wastewater is used for industry, landscaping and agriculture. But worldwide few countries put it directly into their drinking water supplies.

Singapore uses purified wastewater to meet 30 percent of its water needs, although just a small percentage goes to drinking water and the majority is used by industry. Citizens of Windhoek, the capital of South Africa’s arid northwestern neighbour Namibia, have been drinking recycled wastewater for over 40 years.

In 2011 the Beaufort West municipality, which serves close to 50,000 people, began treating its sewage for use as drinking water after a vicious drought, making it the first in South Africa to do so. According to a 2012 World Bank report “The future of water in African cities: why waste water?” few cities in Africa have functioning wastewater treatment plants and “only a small proportion of wastewater is collected, and an even smaller fraction is treated.”

eThekwini municipality plans to upgrade two of its existing, and underperforming, wastewater treatment plants – the KwaMashu and Northern treatment works, Moodliar explained.

To remove contaminants and clean the water to drinking quality standard, a three-stage system that treats effluent through ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis, as well as disinfection by ultraviolet light and chlorine would be used. The treated water would also be stored and tested before being released.

The purified water will be mixed with conventional drinking water at a ratio of 30 percent re-used water to 70 percent conventional, said Moodliar. It will feed the municipality’s northern regions, including Umhlanga, Durban North, Reservoir Hills, and KwaMashu.

Re-using wastewater in this way will add 116 megalitres of tap water to the municipality’s supply daily. This is enough to fill just more than 46 Olympic-size swimming pools. It is roughly 13 percent of the municipality’s current daily consumption, and will provide an estimated seven years of water security.

Read the full article at Inter Press Service.

Saving an Overburdened River


(The second installment in a three-part series on the Umgeni River for Inter Press Service).

HOWICK, South Africa , Aug 14 2013 (IPS) – Over the course of a 28-day trek down South Africa’s Umgeni River, which flows from the pristine wetlands of the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve to the Durban coastline, Penny Rees, a coordinator for the Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust, witnessed the polar opposites of river health.

The trust is a nonprofit organisation that works to conserve the Umgeni and its tributary, the Msunduzi river. At the Umgeni River’s source the water ran clean and was good enough to drink for Rees, and the four volunteers who joined her in walking the length of the 232-kilometre river and documenting its health. Further downstream, after the river had wound past agricultural land and urban terrain, the water became sludgy and smelly.

“Sometimes you can smell it, like [we could] in Durban the last time we crossed the river,” Rees told IPS during an interview at her home in Howick, 97 kilometres north of the port city Durban. “You get to know the colour of the water – [it has] this grey, grungy look, and it stinks of sewage.”

The Umgeni River supplies drinking water to more than five million people, and is the main source of water for the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg town 66 kilometres from the coast. Rees’s sojourn further highlights the work of scientists who have pinpointed pollution problems in the river.

Read the full story at Inter Press Service.

Steps to Protect South Africa’s Wattled Cranes

(The first article in a three-part series for Inter Press Service I recently tied up about Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Umgeni River).

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa, and the total population is less than 260. Credit: Ian White/CC 2.0

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa, and the total population is less than 260. Credit: Ian White/CC 2.0

KWAZULU-NATAL MIDLANDS, South Africa, Aug 5 2013 (IPS) – On a winter’s afternoon in late July, potato farmer John Campbell and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Tanya Smith surveyed the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve from a hilltop on Ivanhoe Farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

Separated from Smith’s binoculars by a swathe of golden brown grass, the water pooled in the wetland basin that sources the Umgeni River glistens in the mild sunshine as it winds its way for 265 km to meet the ocean at Durban’s coastline.

“We’ve got two pairs [of wattled cranes] nesting in here at the moment,” Smith, a senior field officer with the African Crane Conservation Programme told IPS. A week earlier she had flown over the wetland for an annual aerial survey of the critically endangered birds. The birds can grow taller than five feet and are characterised by a bumpy red patch of skin between their beaks and eyes.

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa. The total South African population is less than 260.

To maintain Umgeni Vlei’s biodiversity and protect the regal cranes’ habitat, the South African government declared the reserve a Ramsar Site in April this year, giving it special protection as a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on the protection of wetlands.

“On the Ramsar-designated wetland we’ve had up to seven breeding pairs of wattled cranes, but the number fluctuates every year,” said Smith. “If you include [the surrounding] wetlands we’ve had up to 13 breeding pairs – it’s a huge proportion of the country’s breeding population.”

Wetlands on the land owned by Ivanhoe Farming Company, of which Campbell is a director, serve as home to up to six breeding pairs of wattled cranes. To help conserve them, Campbell has designated 800 hectares of farmland which buttress the reserve.

This is a protected area with nature reserve status through the KwaZulu-Natal Biodiversity Stewardship Programme run by provincial government body Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife.

“I think cranes and agriculture can co-exist,” Campbell told IPS. “Most farmers, I find, are conservation-minded.”

Read the full article at Inter Press Service.