Chicken Taquitos (NRC – Part 2)

This week of the NRC project features chicken³ (no, that’s not a footnote).

I had chicken taquitos for dinner the other night. Trader Joe’s, a grocery store with its headquarters in Monrovia, CA, prides itself on having “innovative, hard-to-find and great-tasting foods”. Well, as I found from examining the ingredients listed on the taquitos box, their food really is quite innovative. With these delicious meat tubes, they have achieved chicken inception. Chicken within chicken…within chicken. Chicken³.

This is the list of ingredients on the box (I put them into a bullet-ed list here, but on the box it’s listed in brackets, all in one paragraph):

  • chicken
    • chicken
    • water
    • flavoring
    • chicken base
      • chicken meat in natural chicken juices
      • salt
      • sugar
      • corn syrup solids
      • chicken fat
      • flavoring
      • autolyzed yeast extract
      • tumeric
    • chicken fat
    • spices
    • sodium phosphate
  • tortilla
    • corn
    • water
    • lime
  • soybean oil
  • modified food starch

What the (chicken) fluff. Isn’t that kind of ridiculous that the chicken is ‘incepted’ into itself? This makes the meat included in these delicious pipes of carne seem very processed, amirite? What is the deal with processed food anyway? A lot of people say it’s bad for you, but what is the true deal? This is a question I want to answer in this project.

At first glances, sodium phosphate looks a bit ominous. That said, sodium phosphate is just the name of a chemical compound. A fancy -ate or -ide name doesn’t necessarily mean eating it will have a negative impact on your health. For example, you could go around calling the stuff you put on your food every day sodium chloride but it’s no more dangerous to your health than calling it salt. There’s a fair amount of people who would say that “chemicals” are bad for you. Pray tell, what do you define as a chemical? Definitely, there are substances that are bad for you (e.g. too much “nitrate” in your drinking water from nearby agricultural run-off) but it seems there is too much alarmism about BIG BAD CHEMICALS IN YOUR FOOD. Another question I want to answer in this project, how do you define bad chemicals in food?

This is only one dish and already my NRC is looking like it’s going to get complicated. Bring it on!

As part of my fact-finding mission so far, I have emailed Trader Joe’s and the Water, Sewer and Street Bureau of Arlington County. I haven’t heard back from Trader-J’s but I am going to have a call with someone who was listed on my email as “Water Quality” in the next week to talk about dat H-two-Oh.

These first few weeks of the project have been focused on overall questions. I have been thinking about how I want to approach the whole thing. Do I list all the things I consume every single day (e.g. keeping a consumption journal?) or do I focus on specific case studies as I did in this post? Maybe I’ll do both. Who knows what the future holds! You just gotta keep checking back to find out.

–squariel

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Where does it come from? (NRC – Part 1)

Hello lovely people!

I just finished a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In it, Rubin sets out on a year-long project to determine the meaning of “happiness” and to boost it in her own life. At the beginning, she set out personal commandments for herself, such as “Be Gretchen”. She made a resolutions chart with concrete actions that would improve her happiness and fulfill these personal commandments. Each month, using these commandments and resolutions, she focused on improving a specific area of her life. The book is phenomenal and had great insights into personal happiness.

As I read it, I realized what one of my resolutions would be.

I frequently think about overpopulation. It really scares me. I think that human consumption of natural resources will damage the world irreparably if it continues unchecked. There are many scientists out there who argue that we have already gone too far. All in all, it makes me feel lousy and I want to do something about it.

My mini-“happiness project” is going to be aimed at answering the question: where does it come from?

In this project, I aim to determine the actual amount of natural resources (e.g. coal, water etc.) that I am using, sometimes implicitly, when I consume goods, be it food, clothes or running the AC in my apartment. As I was trained as an engineer in school, this particularly excites me because I’ll be using equations to quantify the “natural resources costs” of my consumption (YAY MATH!).

I do not think this will be easy, or that I will even be able to comprehensively determine the exact NRC, or natural resources cost, of all of my actions. I foresee needing to call various companies to determine where their products come from and how they were produced. 

This is just the start of my quest for increased understanding of this massive trend. There is so much debate these days about global warming, climate change and our effect on this planet. I always find it hard to see what is the absolute truth. Looking at it from a scientific method perspective, to determine the “truth” you need data and an outcome that can be repeated. I’m going to focus on the data from my own life and go from there.

Here I go!

Let’s start off with my toilet because it involves two of my passions, drinking water and wastewater (yep, you have some normal passions there Ariel…). Every time I flush, 1.6 gallons (6 litres) of potable water is sucked down into the sewer system. I have been up for 2 hours this morning, and I have already used the toilet 3 times (I drink a lot of coffee…). That’s 4.8 gallons (18 litres) right there. I also use toilet paper. I’ve counted the number of squares I pulled out on two occasions. The first occasion, I counted 12 squares. On the second, I counted 10. From this sample, I average at 11 squares. 

For each time I use and flush the toilet in my home, 1.6 gallons of potable water and 11 squares move from my toilet bowl into the sewer system. To calculate the cost of this action, I need to determine the cost from the very beginning.

  • Where did the water in my toilet originate in nature?
  • What treatment process did it undergo before being pumped into the distribution system of my county?
  • How much energy was spent getting that water from the treatment facility to my toilet bowl?
  • How about the toilet paper, what tree(s) is it made of?
  • How were those trees cut down and processed?
  • How did the raw material get to the factory that makes toilet paper?
  • How did that toilet paper get to the store where I bought it?
  • Once the waste is in the sewer system, how did it get to the wastewater treatment plant?
  • What is the treatment process of waste at the plant?
  • How was it discharged back into nature?

There you have it, answering this list of questions is my homework. I’ll report back with my findings soon!

–squariel

It’s hard to blog!

Hey people, Ariel here.

I’ve found it hard to keep up posting regularly. (If you have any blog management tips related to that, I’d much appreciate it!) I think part of the problem is, related to the tagline we have on our front page, water is everything. It relates to and is influenced by so many different aspects of our lives. It’s overwhelming and hard to find a good starting point. Also, I have perfectionist tendencies which means I feel like I have to get my head ALL THE WAY AROUND something before I begin doing it. But, I think I will never get my head ALL THE WAY AROUND water and its many quirks. Heck, that’s why I want my career to always be in it.

So I’m changing my mantra to “strive for progress, not perfection”. I think that will help get (and keep) me going.

Also, I’m aiming to focus my content on a few areas:

  • water management in East Africa and the Western United States
  • water quality
  • urban water and wastewater infrastructure
  • aid effectiveness

What are your methods for combating your perfectionism? How do you keep yourself blogging?

 

-squariel

It’s about service delivery

My first work trip was this past April to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I had two main things I did while I was there. One: had the media launch event of the Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) program that is working in 7 rural woredas (districts) in Ethiopia. This is the main work of our office and is funded by The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation. It is an initiative to reach 2 million people in Africa with access to clean water by 2015. Two: attended the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre’s (IRC) Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery Symposium.

As Nico Terra, Director of IRC, said in his welcome note, “there is evident momentum for monitoring in the WASH sector, and a general willingness to improve it. But how and where do we start?” and we must make sure that data isn’t collected just to be collected. There must be an intention for collecting the data and a vision for improvement due to findings.

There are more people in this world that have cellphones than have access to improved sanitation. This seems like a monumental opportunity because of the sheer number of potential data collectors. Many WASH organizations are rushing to monopolize on this apparent capacity. So many people have mobile phones. What if they used their mobile phones to report on the functionality of a water or sanitation system? Akvo FLOW uses this methodology. charity: water just received a sizeable grant from Google to enhance their remote monitoring. Remote monitoring means that they will be able to see, in real-time, often from halfway around the world, how much water is flowing from their handpumps. The organization Grunfos also has done interesting work in this arena.

So, the problem is getting solved, right? We know where to start. We have fantastic technologies and enough users to monitor that have cellphones. We should be able to know exactly what happens once we have installed a handpump in a rural village in Ethiopia. A community member can text a monitoring system when the handpump is not working.

Then comes the next issue. What will we do when we see failures? There is so much need in this area with over 750 million people without access to clean water and 2.5 billion people without access to an improved toilet. There is so much work to do! Partly because of this, donors are somewhat resistant to go back to the same area. Once you put in a handpump, the community is set, right?

There has been great work done by WASHCost project of IRC in this regard. The WASHCost Calculator was released in Beta testing just this week. Watch Nick Dickinson from IRC and two Water for People staff talk about the calculator and other financial tools for sustainable service delivery. The calculator, once you input data about local context, technology and quality information, will give a report of the true cost it will take to install and maintain that give water system. There is also a WASH Cost Sanitation calculator. This tool maps out the costs over time that a water system needs for maintenance in order to provide continuing services. I’m very excited about the potential of this tool and it has been neat to test it in Beta.

This was another big takeaway from the Symposium. It is not just about providing access to clean water. This is not to say that it isn’t amazing when a village receives water for the first time, because it is amazing and it is a large part of why I work in this field. I just think we have a tendency to be blinded by the glamor of providing first-time access. It is about sustainable service delivery that will be provided for years. It is not about a pump breaking down a year after installation because the NGO that installed it didn’t make sure the water committee in charge of its maintenance had access to a spare parts supply or the funds to pay for said parts.

Sustainability love,
squariel

What I’ve Learned at the 6 Month Mark

I currently hold my first money-paying, time-sheet-entering, boss-reporting job. Ever. (Unless we count the phone campaign I did for the boarding school I went to. Seeing as I was paid with a bottle of Champagne and 50 pounds, I think we can’t count that)

Anyways, I feel like I’ve learned a lot in these past 6 months. Here’s just a quick list.

  • I’m getting really good at telling who the charity: water employees are at water-y events. Hint: they are all ludicrously trendy.
  • Continuing with charity: water, I found out that they have trademarked the jerry can image you see on all their materials. Don’t know how I feel about that. Honestly, I don’t know.
  • Water For People is really vocal and I like what they’re talking (shouting) about.
  • I know what the capital of Burkina Faso is (it’s Ouagadougou).
  • If my dreams are realized (everyone having access to clean water and adequate sanitation) then I will have no job. That’s when I’ll start a green-roofing company in Portland, open a psychiatry practice or work for The National Park Service.
  • I learned that UNICEF stands for United Nation Children’s Fund.
  • If you’re excited for Monday morning, that’s good.
  • There will always be a new, cool water technology. Thankfully!
  • Providing water for a human being for life does not cost $25. Nope. Not possible. Think about it.
  • Sanitation is the awkward middle child of WASH. It has the some of the most complicated issues but is generally ignored in favor of the eldest sibling (water) and the youngest (hygiene).
  • People in DC like to talk about politics.
  • Matt Damon.

Also I’m going on my first work trip to Ethiopia in a week and a half! Look out for a blogpost about that for sure.

 

Gracias,

Ariel

Creating a SUSTAINABILITY ecosystem

This post was inspired by this article. When I was reading it, I was thinking about the WASH (water access, sanitation and hygiene) sector. This is not a surprise because I am pretty much constantly thinking about it.

I thought, what would a sustainability [meaning, simplified: the ability of an installed water system to function after the organization that installed it has left] ecosystem look like?

“In the ocean, a reef provides a structure that protects fish, provides food, and creates an arena for marine plants and animals to live and thrive.”

Using this example, the installed water system would be the fish (…or would the fish be the person using the water system?). What would the surrounding coral reef look like for the WASH sector? The ocean would be funding (as in the water would be the money…?). The coral would be local government. NGOs would be seaweed. Maybe the WASH sector right now would look a bit like the Great Barrier Reef and its current deteriorating state (sad…). The coral (local government) is being destroyed, weakened. The seaweed sustains the fish in the meantime but it is not a reliable source of food.

In the real world though (getting away from my marine metaphor) my initial thought is that the “ecosystem” would look something like this (yes, biased view, because I’ve been helping develop it). This is a platform for WASH sector stakeholders to promote the provision of lasting water services. It could be an on-line platform such as sustainablewash.org. Or it could be a collection of organizations that give best practice advice for WASH project stakeholders. I also think WASH Cost and crowd-sourcing WASH data such as mWater and Akvo FLOW (FLOW is in development. Also I am planning a post about platforms such as mWater and FLOW) should be included in the ecosystem. They are tools that all stakeholders should be using.

As the article says:

Get the right people involved.

In this sector, that would mean promoting ownership by local government of water systems. It would mean getting donors to require long-term monitoring post project close-out (from when the grant agreement or contract is signed) of the system they are funding. One of the reasons that approx. 30% of WASH projects fail after 2-5 years is that the right people haven’t yet been involved in the sustainability dialogue. It’s donors and governments. They are the heavy-weights. NGOs will require monitoring of their systems if they are being required to by their donors.

In summary, there needs to be an environment (or ecosystem) in place that promotes WASH projects that actually last. Just what that looks like is to be determined. It something that I wholesomely intend to get to the bottom of.

 

Good night my WASH-y friends!

A-say

WASH-ing everything

It’s been busy over here! I (absolutely) love my job. Basically, it has me doing a lot of the kind of thinking that I want to post about here on H2dayO. As I adjust to the work, (it’s currently exhausting me!) I’ll start to post more.

I’ve been looking a lot at the sustainability of water systems over time from more of a financial stand point than I have been used to. I’m learning a lot. NO FREE WATER PLEASE. I love this website.

There are so many acronyms floating around in the WASH sector (even more than from this summer’s experience with the Navy). I was speaking with someone the other day about “WASH issues” and felt like a lot of a butthead when they had to stop me to ask what WASH stood for (Water Access, Sanitation and Hygiene). I really do not want to further this practice of speaking in wonky, acronym-y terms.

The problem here is that the WASH sector covers so much. You need acronyms when you have such long titles full of words like “sustainability”, “environment” and “water quality”.

On a more national note, I found this fascinating interactive report about opinions of American citizens of the national water crisis (? to be determined if crisis is the correct term).

As I said above, I’ve been thinking more about the financial backgrounds of water access issues. The part of the report that particularly fascinated me was titled “Unaware of Water Cost Drivers”.

Perceived factors:

  • water quality
  • utility company management
  • water use
  • access to water

Real factors (according to the Columbia Water Center):

  • financial factors (labor, debt, infrastructure improvements)
  • rate structure
  • water source
  • service population

Not sure yet if I agree with this assessment.

Feeling wonky in D.C.,

squariel

Should water be free?

Access to sufficient clean drinking water is a basic human right.

And this was only explicitly recognized in 2010 by the UN. Does that seem a bit late to you? (upcoming post about this issue soon — I wrote my senior thesis about it)

WHO (World Health Organization) defines “adequate access” as 20L/person/day within a 1 km distance. The factors that are addressed here are quality, quantity and distance of the user from the water source. This metric, however, does not engage with the issue of the cost of water.

I believe that clean drinking water should not be free. Ever. Never ever.

Let me break that down before you think I have no soul (I do think it should be free in short-term emergency mitigation situations such as in war time, at refugee camps and following natural disasters, what’s up Hurricane Sandy). I am a strong believer in the power of economics to influence human behavior. I am of the opinion that if you give something to someone for free, it will not be valued and maintained effectively by the recipient as much as if you had sold it to them. An investment will show a commitment to the product by the consumer. In this sense, I believe there should be flexibility in charging for water. Yes, it is a basic human right, but that does not mean it should be free.

Food is a basic human right. It is not free. Access to health care is a basic human right. It is not free (not in the US of A at least).

There should be boundaries though. I would not want to see a private enterprise come in, see an area afflicted by water scarcity and make a killing by charging ridiculously high rates for clean water because they have a monopoly on the only water source. I think making such a large profit off a vulnerable population is unethical. A classic case of the (perceived) evil engineering company coming in and robbing the poor is the “Cochabamba Water War”. In this historic protest, the contract with Bechtel was canceled due to a popular uprising. I honestly believe that Bechtel could have benefited the area (yes, this is speculation). They aren’t doing too well as it stands with the system people protested to keep:

But the results, in terms of access to clean and affordable water, are far more mixed. Half the homes in the area served by the public water utility still have no water service; many of those that do have service only have it a few hours a week. A decade after people shed blood in the streets to retake their water, the company that manages it remains riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency—a source of graft for the city’s mayor and the union that represents the company’s workers.

Governmental regulation and public-private partnerships can prevent exploitation from happening. Well-managed public utilities (shout-out to George Hawkins and his fantastic management of DC Water) can charge reasonable prices for water. A private entity can work with the public utility to increase efficiency. Utilities do need money to maintain their systems of water delivery after all! If they have help from the government in the form of subsidies they would be able to effectively deliver water and maintain their delivery system (old pipes!).

As I spoke about in an earlier post, giving out free water systems will not solve the water crisis. There needs to be a (reasonable) charge for a water system or a water delivery service. This can help ensure that the consumer has the income available to purchase spare parts for an installed system later on when it breaks. It also promotes conservation. You are more likely to conserve a resource you had to pay for.

Access to water is a basic human right. This does not mean that it is unethical to charge for it. You do go to the grocery store don’t you (well, not today, the grocery stores around here are certainly bare…)? Same idea.

I strongly disagree with this article.

Going to blow away in D.C.,

A-say

Fracking: is it really that evil?

I went to San Diego last weekend. On my flight back, I sat next to a frack hand. He works in natural gas extraction, or “fracking“. He was flying to North Dakota to go work at a natural gas extraction site. In undergrad, I watched Gasland which got my feathers all ruffled about the dangers of fracking. So my default reaction was one of shock and horror. How could he sell his soul to such an evil practice? Sure it pays well, but people can light their taps on fire! Fish die! Water is polluted!

…but is it really that bad?! (I’m asking because I really don’t know)

I asked my seatmate about how damaging fracking can be on the surrounding environment. The apparatus he works with sucks gas out of the earth 8000 feet below. He spoke of the heavy duty well casing that is put in so that the fracking fluid won’t leak into the surrounding groundwater system. Does that mean the well casing would have to be 8000 feet tall? That’s pretty steep. Also the fracking fluid is injected at redonkulously (technical term) high pressures. Wouldn’t that put a strain on the well casing that could cause cracking and therefore leaching of the fracking fluid?

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding fracking. It’s hard to get a straight answer from anyone. Trying to figure out the truth.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY H2DAYO! (it’s one month old!)

Feeling fracking crazy in D.C.,

A-say

Engineering crush: Green Roofs

I thought I would write my first ‘spotlight on a technology’ post on…. Green Roofs! It’s because they’re so great. And because I intend to live in a house that has one (if I don’t end up living in a tree house).

What a Green Roof is…

They are multiple layers of soil and plant matter that are installed on the roof of a building. Basically, if all houses and buildings had green roofs, we’d be living in the Shire (minus the hairy feet).

The forest is really good at dealing with storm water. Rain falls on a natural area relatively evenly and it percolates down into the soil. Effectively 100% of the ground is permeable so the water can infiltrate down into the groundwater system (recharging aquifers! Yay!). When an area is built-up, however, rainwater gets erratic. It will run off traditional roofs and onto paved, impermeable sidewalks. If there is no drainage system, flooding will occur. That’s bad. Also, even if there is a drainage system it may be old. Old systems tend to just siphon off the water into nearby lakes or streams. These natural water bodies haven’t been adapted for influxes of large volumes of water. Their delicate stream beds and shores may begin to erode due to the water’s force.

So if you put a little forest on your roof (that’s what a Green Roof effectively is) you can restore the natural process of rainwater movement through our environment. You are protecting streams and lakes! You are helping prevent flooding! You are planting trees and greenery which gobble up CO2! Also, they look pretty boss.

Can I get one?

Yes. I’m glad you asked. There are varying thicknesses of Green Roofs that you can install on your roof. Even a thin layer of soil and plant matter (generally called an “extensive green roof”) can help manage storm water. And it won’t be crazy expensive or require a retrofit to support the added load to your roof.

See, you can even graze your goats up on these bad boys.

I want to learn more!

Go here: http://www.greenroofs.org/grtok/index.php

And here: http://www.ecogeek.org/architecture/894

“Ecogeeking” out in D.C.,

a-say