Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Desalinating Drip-Irrigation System

This patent is for a system that uses microporous hydrophobic materials such as Goretex to desalinate salt water within irrigation pipes that deliver the desalinated water directly to the root zones of plants.

I was thinking that something like this would be good to have and wondered if anyone had come up with a prototype. So I searched the Internet using the terms "desalination salt water irrigation," and found this patent application. Far as I know, this system is not being produced commercially. Based on the drawing that accompanies the patent application, the hydrophobic membranes are around the outer edges of the pipes.

My idea was to divide the pipe into two sections, separated by the membrane. Saltwater would flow along the bottom section of the pipe; water vapor would rise through the membrane and condense along the top of the pipe. The pipe would have small openings just above the membrane, to release the water to the soil. This would be simpler to make than the system described in the patent application, but there may be some reason this would not work well. For example, maybe the water has to be under pressure to keep the holes from clogging up with soil.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tea Shortage from Droughts in Kenya and India

A global tea shortage may increase by 10 per cent next year as drought in Kenya, Sri Lanka and India, the top exporters, damage crops and propel prices to a record, the world’s biggest tea plantation company said.
The deficit may widen to 110 million kg (243 million pounds) by May to June next year, compared with 100 million kg this year, Aditya Khaitan, managing director, of McLeod Russel India, said in an interview. Record tea prices in Kenya and India may gain another 15 per cent in the next 12 months, he said.
Reduced supplies will increase costs for tea marketing companies including Tata Tea, owner of Tetley brands, and Unilever, while boosting earnings at producers McLeod, Goodricke Group and Jayshree Tea & Industries. African tea prices rose to a record at auctions on August 29, while Indian prices have gained an average 25 per cent this year.
“I don’t see any relief for tea consumers for the next one year,” said Harsh Gupta, an analyst at SMC Global Securities. “The global shortage isn’t likely to be overcome anytime soon as prices will firm up further.”
Stagnant prices for almost a decade since 1999 caused some tea estates to close and forced plantation companies to cut investment in replanting old bushes and adding new machines, said McLeod Russel’s Khaitan. “Tea is playing a catch-up with other agriculture commodities, which have shot up in the past couple of years,” he said. “The tea deficit is here to stay and the prices will continue to rise.”

USDA Report - Food Insecurity in U.S.

The USDA has recently released a report stating that 14.5% of U.S. households lack adequate food at times. The data for the report were obtained through surveying a sample of 44,000 households in the U.S.

Questions asked included:

Worried food would run out before (I/we) got money to buy more
Food bought didn’t last and (I/we) didn’t have money to get more
Couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals
Adult(s) cut size of meals or skipped meals
Relied on few kinds of low-cost food to feed child(ren)

Not surprisingly, food insecurity is associated with poverty.

Judging by the raw data reported, of the people who answered "yes" to questions such as the ones shown above, very few people frequently went hungry. Most of them reported that their "yes" answers only applied now and then.

I live in one of the poorest communities in the U.S. and most of the people I encounter are overweight, many of them grossly obese. In the grocery store, I see fat people checking out carts full of soft drinks, white bread, boxes of sugary cereal, candy and so forth. It is not uncommon to see full carts that contain no nutritious food at all. For the cost of the junk people waste their money on, they could have bought fresh vegetables, whole grain products, beans, and other nutritious foods. Based on my observations, the problem in the U.S. (at least for people who live in houses or apartments with kitchens) is more ignorance or negligence rather than actual unavailability of food. This would not be true for people who are living on the streets, but I doubt that houseless people were included in the USDA survey.

More American households had difficulty putting enough food on the table in 2008

In 2008, 85 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the entire year, but 14.6 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during that year, up from 11.1 percent in 2007.

This is the highest recorded prevalence rate of food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted.

The Gift of Strength

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7 (cf. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 249: 6-13)

There are eight degrees of tzedakah, each higher than the next. The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid. With reference to such aid, it is said, “You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you” (Vayikra [Leviticus] 25:35), which means strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.

From the Ground Up

Unlike many organizations involved in fighting hunger, AJWS generally doesn’t provide food handouts. While this might appear to be a good short-term solution – and we do give food relief during times of disaster, such as the 2004 tsunami or the cyclone in Burma in spring 2008 – it’s an ineffective way to end global hunger and, in some ways, actually perpetuates it.

AJWS’s philosophy is predicated on the highest rung of Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah, which is designed to make the recipient self-sufficient. Or drawing on other traditions, our approach is aligned with the Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Of course, it’s not just about men and it’s not just about fishing. But people want to be able to feed themselves and need to do so if they have any hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty and oppression that leads to hunger, generation after generation.

AJWS supports more than 80 projects in Africa, Asia and Latin and Central America that are fighting hunger themselves – from the ground up.

See also: Dryland Permaculture

Water Crisis in Yemen

Rain falls here in Tilmon. The trees, many of which had lost their leaves during the drought, have leafed out, and the grass grows. Pastures and woods vibrate with multiple shades of green.

We are lucky that world weather patterns have shifted, at least for now. There is a chance our lakes and aquifers will fill before the next drought. Already, ponds and cisterns are full.

The water from the well here, which had become almost unbearably foul smelling, has lost almost all its sulfurous odor.

We are safe here in south central Texas, for now. But some of us here would have starved to death, if we had not been able to draw on food and water resources from other parts of the state and world.

When I hear or read stories such as the one below about Yemen, I remember the drought on 1996 - 1997 when our 15 foot deep pond shrank to a muddy puddle. A great blue heron would come each day and wade all the way across the pond, eating whatever was still alive in there. I remember days when rain clouds would build up and approach so close I could smell the rain. But the never reached us. I would be so filled with despair I would cry or scream (our closest neighbors were over a mile away, so I could scream if I felt like it). The sun burned the garden crops to a crisp. My daughter and I would surely have been forced to abandon our land, if we had not been able to buy food and water. And what if we had been unable to buy food and water, and there had been no place to go? I have never known true hunger, where one's body begins to mine its own muscles for the energy to keep on going. Therefore, I cannot even imagine what it is like to be, for example, a Somalian refugee in Yemen.

This past year, as I watched the garden crops shrivel and die, I was awfully thankful for the full shelves in the grocery stores, and the money in my purse that made it possible for me to walk out of the store with a cart full of food.

One of the saddest things about the situation in Yemen is that all but the most arid regions were once fertile. The Romans called it Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). Mismanagement of water resources is at least partly responsible for the present environmental crisis.

NPR Story:
Lately, the news from Yemen has been dominated by an escalating rebellion along the border with Saudi Arabia. But for water experts, Yemen has been making news for decades because of its severe overuse of a rapidly disappearing water supply.
In 1998, Abdul Rahman al-Eryani was a young local aid worker explaining the desperate water situation in Ta'iz, south of the capital, San'a. Water was so scarce that some households only had it once every six weeks.
Eleven years later, Eryani is now the Yemeni government minister of water and environment, Ta'iz residents are still waiting six weeks for water to flow from the tap, and in San'a, the situation has gone from bad to looming disaster.
"We are in crisis. And this is expected. … We are using almost 100 percent more than the annual renewable water that's available in San'a," Eryani says.
The alluvial aquifers closer to the surface have been exhausted, and drill bits must now chew through more than 3,000 feet of earth before reaching the ancient sandstone aquifer that holds what Eryani believes is the last of San'a's reachable underground supply.
No one knows precisely when the water supply will run out, but there's no doubt that it will, and probably sooner rather than later.
Yemenis are responding by drilling illegal wells and pumping more water than ever.
Nature And Policy Blunders To Blame
On a recent day, well water gushes into Hassan al-Jibouri's tanker truck at a roadside pump along one of San'a's main streets. Jibouri and his fellow drivers spend their days selling water to hotels, restaurants and private homes.
He says a typical water delivery costs 1,000 rials, or about $5. If he has to drive a long distance, it might cost a bit more.
Yemen's water crisis is, in part, the inevitable result of a rapidly growing population, limited rainfall and finite water resources.

But experts and ordinary Yemenis agree that policy blunders have accelerated the crisis and made it harder to fix.
First, there is the massive problem of agriculture. Despite the severe shortages of drinking water, at least 85 percent of Yemen's available water goes to agriculture, where huge amounts are wasted.
For centuries, Yemeni farmers captured rainwater for their crops. But in the 1970s, well-intentioned international groups such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund showed up with a raft of incentives to get farmers to drill wells and use underground aquifers instead.
Anwer Sahooly is a water expert with the German Development Corp., a major player in Yemen's water reform efforts. He says more than 1 million acres of farmland that used to be rain-fed are now irrigated with underground water, using inefficient methods that lose vast amounts of water to evaporation and leakage.
"We have to reverse the process now, and make people get used to rainwater harvesting. We have to encourage harvesting from floods, from spit irrigation, from every drop that we get, and stop drilling any more wells," he says.
Cash Crop Depletes Water Supply
Despite a new law outlawing most private wells, the drilling goes on. The sound of water pumps can be heard on farm plots all around the capital. The most popular crop of all is khat, a plant that produces a mildly narcotic leaf that Yemenis love to chew.
Small farmer Abdullah al-Jidri, sporting a softball-sized wad of khat leaves in his left cheek, says many farmers would be happy to grow fruits, vegetables and grains, but they can't live without the cash brought in by khat.
"With food crops, we have to wait for a year or longer to get a harvest, and if there's a problem, you won't get a crop. But with khat, you just put some water on it and you have leaves in a month's time that you can sell immediately. It's a cash crop," he says.
When asked whether he's heard that the government wants farmers to stop growing khat to save water, Jidri and his brother laugh.
"Don't believe the officials. They ask us to grow more khat for them to chew," he says.
Other than cash for farmers, Yemenis agree that khat produces no benefit, and in fact impairs the productivity of much of the labor force most afternoons. But efforts to curtail khat production and consumption are so far largely ineffectual.
Water A Hard Sell Amid Other Problems
Some long-term reforms are under way, notably the decentralization of water management to the local level. Officials are also replacing open-channel water lines and flood irrigation methods with more efficient pipes and drip hoses.
But Sahooly, the water expert, says it is hard to bring water to the top of the agenda in a country with so many problems.
"It's very important in my opinion that there should be a champion, at the level of the president, vice president, always talking about water issues. All civilization has grown around water. Water is life, and we have known that for a long time," he says.
At the moment, however, a violent rebellion, secessionist movements and a growing al-Qaida presence are drowning out the voices of those warning that a massive water failure could soon be Yemen's biggest problem of all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Aaron Aaronsohn

Aaron Aaronsohn discovered Triticum dicoccoides, emmer wheat, thought to be wild ancestor of domestic wheat.
His parents were Romanian Zionists -- the family moved to Palestine when Aaron was six years old. Aaronsohn established the first agricultural research station in Israel.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Surviving 344 Days in a Cave

“My mother always said, ‘We are not going to the slaughterhouse.’ She said to my brother, Nissel, ‘Go to the forest, find a hole, anything.’ Thanks to him, we survived.”

The night of October 12, 1942, when the Stermers finally ran for good, was moonless and unseasonably cold. The roads in and out of the town of Korolowka, deep in the farm country of western Ukraine, were empty of the cart traffic that had peaked during the fall harvest days. After a month of backbreaking work, most residents had already drifted off to sleep.

Zaida Stermer, his wife, Esther, and their six children dug up their last remaining possessions from behind their house, loaded their wagons with food and fuel, and, just before midnight, quietly fled into the darkness. Traveling with them were nearly two dozen neighbors and relatives, all fellow Jews who, like the Stermers, had so far survived a year under the German occupation of their homeland. Their destination, a large cave about five miles to the north, was their last hope of finding refuge from the Nazis’ intensifying roundups and mass executions of Ukrainian Jews.

The dirt track they rode on ended by a shallow sinkhole, where the Stermers and their neighbors unloaded their carts, descended the slope, and squeezed through the cave’s narrow entrance. In their first hours underground, the darkness around them must have seemed limitless. Navigating with only candles and lanterns, they would have had little depth perception and been able to see no more than a few feet. They made their way to a natural alcove not far from the entrance and huddled in the darkness. As the Stermers and the other families settled in for that first night beneath the cold, damp earth, there was little in their past to suggest that they were prepared for the ordeal ahead.

* * *

At the surface, Priest’s Grotto is little more than a weedy hole in the ground amid the endless wheat fields stretching across western Ukraine. A short distance away, a low stand of hardwoods withers in the heat and is the only sign of cover for miles around. With the exception of a shallow, 90-foot-wide depression in the flat ground, there’s nothing to indicate that one of the longest horizontal labyrinths in the world lies just underfoot.

On the afternoon of July 18, 2003, I am standing with Chris Nicola, a leading American caver, at the bottom of the sinkhole, sorting our gear. It has taken us four days, traveling by jet, train, and finally ox cart, to get here from New York City. Our guides, 46-year-old Sergey Yepephanov and 24-year-old Sasha Zimels, are standing next to the rusting three-foot-wide metal entrance pipe that leads underground.

I’ve come here to explore Priest’s Grotto for the first time. For Nicola, a 20-year veteran of major cave systems in the U.S. and Mexico, our expedition is the culmination of a journey that began in 1993, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, when he became one of the first Americans to explore Ukraine’s famous Gypsum Giant cave systems. His last excursion was here, to the cave known locally as Popowa Yama, or Priest’s Grotto, because of its location on land once owned by a parish priest.At 77 miles, Priest’s Grotto is the second longest of the Gypsum Giants and currently ranks as the tenth longest cave in the world. Yet what Nicola found fascinating about the cave was located just minutes inside the entrance: Soon after they’d set out, his group passed two partially intact stone walls and other signs of habitation including several old shoes, buttons, and a hand-chiseled millstone. Nicola’s guides from the local caving association told him the campsite had already been there when their group first explored that portion of the cave in the early 1960’s.