Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Not Long Enough to Drink the Water

The Union Carbide plant isn’t hard to find, everyone in Bhopal I ask for direction knows where it is. From the entrance it could be the entrance to a rundown city park. Four police officers lounge by the gate and explain that without a permit I can’t enter. Ten minutes later I’ve put 200Rs in an officer’s hand (at his suggestion), he’s pulled on a shirt and he’s doctoring the date on an old permit as we walk into the restricted area.

We pass functional low rise office blocks now abandoned with broken windows and a film of grey city dirt engrained in the plaster. Then, above the thin tree growth I can see the rusting scaffold of a chemical plant being reclaimed by nature, slowly strangled by lianas, trees and bushels.

When arriving in the city I’d half expected there to be an operating plant on the site, with a visitors centre and a PR department extolling the virtues of how safe the plant is now, and how the cleanup has been a big success. A sign of how I misjudged the scale of what happened here in 1984 and the anger that still exists at the injustice that persists. It’s well documented but it’s worth repeating the details lest they get forgotten.

Due to lazy maintenance, and miserly cost cutting, the plant erupted, as a series of easily avoidable equipment failures compounded to release enormous volumes of the active ingredient used in the pesticides that were being made there. The people of Bhopal were “treated” like a plague of locusts.

Union Carbide shirked full responsibility and the court cases continue to this day in the US and in India 25 years later. UC was sold to Dow Chemicals who have denied ongoing liability. Some compensation has been paid but nothing compared to the medical or socio-economic damage the accident caused.

As an engineer I felt it was important to see the mechanics of how the accident happened. The refinery was ravaged by fire and now a quarter of a century later the metal work is rusting and starting to collapse in places. There's little evidence left to how it all started.

The 3 tanks that contained the toxic gas that was emitted each sit not far from where they exploded. The first calmly rests on the ground 20 metres away from its original placement, it’s exposed flanges of shinny stainless steel are unaffected by the fire or the passage of time. The second tank has been housed in a makeshift hanger; presumably to avoid exposing it to rain that might washout the final traces of toxic sludge. The hanger doesn’t look as if it’s seen any maintenance since the clean up in 1985. It’s sagging and cracked.

The final tank was deemed to contain such a volume and concentration of toxins that it was decided that rather than transport it away or chemically treat it in place, the safest option was to bury it next to the hanger in a concrete coffin.

However after 25 monsoons, the poison from the disaster has still not been washed away, and in fact the moving earth caused by the rains around the concrete bunker is giving life to the deadly poison again. The concrete casing is clearly falling apart above the surface, and any civil engineer will tell you the same thing is likely to be happening below it. Forces strong enough to break concrete can bend, fold and crack the steel tank encased in it. In the rainy season, water will leach through the cracks washing the poison down into the water table 200m below.

Less than 100m away from where the 3 tanks sit, is a shanty town butting up against the 2 metre walls of the abandoned complex. The land slopes, and the water table runs, in the direction of the shanty, and the inhabitants have few options but to drink the water from ground wells.

Its little surprise then that even today the Sambhavna clinic, run exclusively for patients with ailments relating to disaster, and funded by charitable donations from the UK and US, still sees 150 patients a day, and have over 24,000 registered. Respiratory problems, caused by the release of the gas now rival eye, skin, liver and kidney damage caused by the affected water supply. The clinic also deals with, diabetes, cancer and children born with birth defects, all of which are at a much higher incidence in Bhopal than elsewhere in India.

The local government now delivers water from outside the affected area to bauwsers on the streets, but they aren’t replenished rapidly enough. Inhabitants jockey to fill cans as soon as the water trucks have passed, but are also forced to resort to the ground water pumps that should have been shut off.

In a city of 1 million, over half have had compensation claims accepted. The amount paid out is trifling compared to the impact. Victims have received between US$500 to €2000 for the most severely affected. A figure described as “Plenty good for an Indian” by a US executive of the company.

Goats, cows and wild boar graze on the site, and kids step through the cracked brick wall to play cricket in the clearings. The government say the site is clean and want to open it as a tourist attraction.

But there's no independent monitoring of the cleanup operation conducted by the Indian government with a one time payment made by UC and seemingly no maintenance of the cleanup. A report in December '09 by the Indian Centre for Science and Environment’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory found 38 times the normal level of pesticide in the ground water 3km away from the plant. In the site itself they found pesticide concentrations in the soil is 9,866ppm. That means 1% of the chemical composition of the soil is pesticide.

Activists from the Bhopal Group for Information and Actions (BGIA) are in Delhi this week to lobby the government to stand by its commitment made in 2008 to set up the Empower Commission, to be run by an established victims group. The Commission is due to manage a budget of US$400m over 30 years. All six relevant government departments have agreed the plan, the only stumbling block is the local Madhya Pradesh government who see an opportunity in distributing the funds and want to manage it themselves, but, say the BGIA, have shown little in the way of track record of supporting the victims over the last 25 years.

In amongst all this wrangling to spend government money it’s easy to get distracted from the fact this was an accident caused by negligence, with massive consequences. As individuals, it’s too easy to be negligent, and most of the time it causes little or no repercussions, but as a corporation Union Carbide, now Dow, had an obligation to put systems in place to forcibly prevent negligence. More than reminding employees to keep on their toes, they should have had a management system and technical systems that made negligence impossible. The courts are deciding if they did enough in this respect.

Corporations working in the developing world are doing so because it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper because space and resources are cheaper, but the big saving is workforce and freer operating legislation. That’s MBA double-speak for lower skilled people working in less safe environments. Union Carbides' defence against negligence was that the Indian government didn't have sufficient safety standards. Standards which would have made it more expensive to opperate the plant. The lack of standards made the need for UC to negligence-proof thier opperation all the more important.

Dow, as with any quoted corporation, has a "responsibility to its shareholders". All those hardworking middle class savers and investors around the world, who knowingly or not have put their money and financial expectations in the portfolios and funds that contain Dow stock. Even if Dow were to put their hands up and pay out, (which ethically there is no doubt they should), it's the shareholders and not those who made the decisions that led to the negligence who'll be stumping up the corn.

Warren Anderson the American CEO of UC legged it to the US skipping $2000 bial, and has fought extradition to India ever since. After Enron and Madoff, the anger of America’s middle class 501 losers has encouraged the judiciary there to convict senior management to long prison terms for company crimes that they actively orchestrated. Corporate negligence is different from corporate corruption but the climate now exists to apportion blame the top management. Perhaps the fact the Bhopal trial has run so long, into this era where CEOs can't shirk their corporate responsibilities, will mean due punishment will be dispensed in the US to Warren Anderson, and the management team who allowed this negligence to take place. Or perhaps it will procrastinate further beyond the lifetimes of the survivors and the perpetrators.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Panchgani Above My Weight

I’m waiting for the Indian Treasury to decide if they can give me back my bail money in cash. They won’t accept my bank card as proof of my UK account details, and they won’t pay the money to someone I nominate, in case that person rips me off. How thoughtful, far better that they keep my bail money safe for me, forever.

So in the meantime I am slowly heading to Delhi hoping to get there in time for this to be sorted, but I certainly don’t want to get there sooner and have to wait it out in the capital. I am using the time to call and email sponsors and fund-raisers in the hope of meeting my €5000 target I need to continue the journey. I’ve already got cash and pledges of €1000 so quietly confident there is a good chance.

I’m also taking full advantage of not having to be anywhere to go paragliding, and at the moment I’m in Panchgani, which is another amazing world class site. It’s great for cross country flying. You set off from one place and hop from one thermal to the next covering huge distances. I’m not that good, and the season has finished so the weather isn’t ideal anymore, but with a lot of patient waiting (nic-named “para-waiting” by pilots) keeping an eagle eye on conditions I and a couple of friends here, Arabind and Chetan, have managed to get some good flights in and improve my skills.

I’m parked at the top of the take off site, so in the morning I can check the windsock streamer from bed. Strawberries and mulberries are in season, and haven’t tired of fruit salad and yogurt for breakfast. There is a 14 year old boy who sells freshly squeezed lemon juice who brings his cart next to the truck around 9am, and we chat in sign language about the wind. He can’t fly but knows well enough when the conditions are good from having watched countless pilots in the past.

The police have clamped down on the un-insured tandem wallahs who offer a 20 minute flight for 2000Rs to the wealthy Pune weekenders, after an accident last week, so we have the launch site to ourselves and instead of having to wrestle for a takeoff slot we’re surrounded by tandem wallahs with nothing better to do but help us lay out our wings and lend their experience to assess the wind.

The rival tandem pilots have to collectively pay some cash to the police, but as the wind is too strong and the tourist season is still a few days away from starting they are holding out before paying up and starting work. On a good day they can earn €400-500, but it’s a short season and most pilots are in endless hock to their backers who paid for their wings and harnesses.

Andre, an expat from Montreal who’s run a campsite here for solo-pilots for 11 years, usually turns up to offer meteorological advice in his drawly French Canadian accent littered with Indian idioms, “Yeah-er, Wat-to-do?”. He’s even run us 3 km down the road in his pick up to another launch site when the wind was backing. There’s a thermal over his campsite which means his windsock regularly points upwards.

The conditions have been unusually strong here, making take off risky and flying even riskier. Landing back on the launch site is a near impossibility in strong winds so the only option is to “land down” in the valley which stretches out 1000ft bellow around the manmade lake and dam.

The black areas of burnt grass provide good sources of thermal air, warmed by the hot ground and sent upwards like the goo in a lava lamp. I’m learning to “core” thermals, finding the centre and circling upwards in it.

For landings, I’ve mostly used the fields zig-zagging around trees and shortening my approach with plenty of brake as the as the terracing cheats me by dropping the ground away from me the further I travel. I’ve landed by the lake a couple of times, and today I took my togs for a swim. After stripping naked in front of non-plussed washer women I then balked at the mirky waters. The ladies shrugged grunts eventually persuaded me in. I didn’t want them to think I was another of these exhibitionist from Mumbai come to flash at the village girls. Usually I catch a local bus which winds up the mountain switchbacks to the cooler air of Panchgani or hitch a ride in a truck that’s going that way.

When I get back I’m greeted by the concerned lemonade boy who asks me where I landed and how the flight was. Nods, grins, hands and pointing, our conversation is completely silent apart from the word “Wind” which can mean strong or weak, depending on the wind.

In the evenings I cycle into town for dinner with Chetan and Arabind, my co-pilots, after washing off the red dust in the bus shower. My water pump has burnt out and I have to take the motor apart to check it, so in the meantime I’m using a bucket filled at the nearby spring. Before bed I sit on one of the benches near the hotel and use their free wifi with the black valley below lit only by a smattering of village lights and the red lines of grass fires spreading up the opposite side.

So as you can imagine , until the bail money is ready, I’m not in any great rush to leave for Delhi to be shunted from one heartless government office to the next.


Next to the launch site is a gypsy camp of tarpaulin tents. Their donkeys compete with the mosquitoes in the truck to keep me awake at night. I’ve been watching how they live, and really impressed how little they consume. Their energy is from firewood, and they draw water straight from a spring at the edge of the launch site.

India is one of the few countries that emits less than 2 tonnes of CO2Te per person, thanks in large part to people like this. At first I’m struck with the thought that if everyone lived like this the global carbon footprint would disappear overnight. Ironically, the famines and mass-migrations which will result from climate change, will result in more people living under tarpaulin tents.

The battle to find sustainable solutions of energy creation and consumption is in many ways more a battle to maintain our standard of living rather than to save the environment. We have to turn unsustainable consumption into a responsible and globally fair use of resources, or expect a reduction in the standards of living we take for granted. Probably we’ll have to do both, and probably we won’t do either enough.

So we, as a planet, could ration energy now and see a drop in our standards of living, or we can take small possibly ineffectual steps which will result in more people living under tarpaulin tents. Those people will probably be from poor countries, because poor countries are typically dependent on agriculture and poor countries are in the tropics where weather patterns are most likely to be affected. In Croydon we will struggle to find Zimbabwean Bok-Choi in Tescos

No one knows with much certainty how much climate change will really impact on agriculture and sea levels, so it’s hard to know how strictly to ration energy now, but not doing it allows richer countries to take advantage of their wealth to exploit global resources, to the detriment of people living in poorer countries (again – see oil, , fishing rights, minerals, diamonds, agricultural land, holiday resorts...).

Wherever I fly I’ve found out about the local agriculture, to know which fields I can land in, and even more importantly I find out about the local weather. Really understand it in detail, how it should be, how it is this minute, and how it changes during the day. Everywhere I’ve been, from Annecy to Panchgani, pilots tell me the weather is unusual for time of year. Maybe it’s me! Or maybe it’s the human nature of pilots to be diffident of the winds, but I believe it’s a sign that weather patterns that are changing, and it makes me feel that the changes will become quite radical.

As long as these gypsies can scavenge pressed sugar cane for their donkeys and don’t have to move in to a city, they’ll be ok. It would be hard for their standards of living to drop further. But in the valley below the fields are all empty at the moment. It’s great for me as it provides endless choices of landing areas. They are waiting for the first signs of the monsoon season to start planting. I wonder if they can afford the irony to call it agri-waiting?