Pinky Munda, 25, is eight months pregnant with her second child. She lives at a tea plantation in India's northeastern state of Assam, where her husband is a laborer.
Six days a week, Assam's tea workers—more than 50 percent of whom are women—have to collect at least 48lb (22kg) of tea leaves to earn 137 rupees ($2.10) for a day's work, well below the 250 rupees ($3.80) minimum daily wage for unskilled labor in the region. Most plantations have no toilets, no drinking water and no running water. Workers are forced to defecate in the tea bushes and have no way to wash their hands before they go back to picking.
Of the approximately 1,000 laborers working at Ouphulia Tea Garden, Pinky's husband is one of the permanent laborers, which entitles his family to a house on the estate. But the Mundas' single-room brick house, plastered with an amalgam of mud and cow dung, doesn't have a toilet or bathroom.
The Assam region is known around the world for its tea, found in supermarkets and pricy tea boutiques. The tea grown across the state's 765-odd estates and 100,000 smaller gardens, mostly concentrated in the eastern part known as Upper Assam, contributes more than half of India's annual tea production of about 1.2 million tons, making it second only to the world's leading tea producer, China.
But the world's thirst for Assam tea has also earned the region a far more dismal reputation. Almost a fifth of the state's population of about 32 million is estimated to be living on tea estates, and most of them are in Upper Assam, the region with the worst maternal mortality ratio in the county. According to the latest national health survey, Upper Assam records 404 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births—more than double the national average.
Health experts say the high maternal mortality rate among tea garden workers is due to a combination of poverty, malnourishment, and a lack of basic sanitation and healthcare facilities.
The Plantations Labor Act of 1951 mandates that certain basic provisions be offered to plantation workers, including drinking water, separate toilets for men, and women, housing and medical services. But the law does little to guarantee even these basic rights for most of Assam's tea pickers. Without action from plantation owners and the government, rights activists and tea workers worry nothing will improve.
Bare-bones Hospitals and Salted Tea
At home, Pinky Munda and her family often drink salted black tea, a vestige of the British colonial era. Colonizers in the 19th century would give laborers salted black tea to help replace the essential salts lost through dehydration. But as each generation born on the plantations produces the next batch of laborers, drinking salted tea has become an everyday habit, even for family members who don't work in the fields.
Dr. Khalekuz Zaman, a maternal mortality specialist with the Assam government, said consumption of copious amounts of salt by female tea workers is one of the reasons for the region's high rates of maternal death. "The nutritional intake of adolescent girls is poor on plantations. They suffer from anemia, and due to their regular intake of salted tea they develop hypertension," he said. "This then becomes pregnancy-induced hypertension or anemia."
Every week, Pinky gets a free ration of just 6.7 fluid oz (200ml) of milk, one banana and an egg that the plantation's management gives to pregnant women living on the estate. Every three weeks, she goes to the estate hospital for a free checkup.
The hospital, with its bare-bones facilities, has not had a doctor for the past year. A pharmacist prescribes medicines; nurses deliver the babies. Five to six babies are born at the hospital each month, one of the two nurses on staff told News Deeply. The nurse asked not to be identified because she didn't have her employer's permission to speak to the press.
"We look at the ultrasound results and if a pregnancy seems complicated, we take that woman to Assam Medical College for delivery," the nurse said, referring to the government-run teaching hospital about 35 miles (56km) away.
"Tea garden women come to the hospital at the last minute of delivery," Dr. Ratan Kumar Kotokey, the principal at Assam Medical College, said. "They come with severe anemia, high blood pressure, respiratory and abdominal infections."
Uttam Majumder, senior assistant manager at Ouphulia Tea Garden, acknowledges the estate is falling short on hygiene and medical facilities, but said his company is doing all it can. "The hospital here is not good. But all other tea garden hospitals have similar facilities," he said.
Majumder said drinking water is always available to laborers during their work hours, and every year the estate builds a few new toilets and repairs old ones in workers' homes. "But workers are habituated to defecating in the open. They don't use them," he said. When asked about the lack of toilets for workers out in the fields, Majumder said: "Putting toilets in the field is impossible. If we start doing that we will have to build 100-200 toilets. We are helpless."
No Place for Pregnant Women
About 30 miles (48km) from Ouphulia, the laborers at Singlijan Tea Estate have similar grievances about toilets and drinking water. Singlijan is owned by M.K. Shah Exports, which supplies its teas to leading international chains such as Starbucks, Twinings and Tetley, according to the company's website.
"The limited drinking water we get has tea leaves and salt added to it. It stinks at times," Sangeeta, a tea picker who requested only her first name be used to protect her identity, said. "The groundwater here has high iron content. It changes color and even after boiling looks dirty."
With no water filters installed in their homes, most of the laborers use a crude contraption that funnels water through a piece of cloth holding sand and crushed bricks, which are supposed to absorb some of the iron. But it doesn't help much.
"That water is harmful," Dr. Kotokey at Assam Medical College said. "It can cause neurological as well as abdominal problems."
When asked to comment on the issues raised by Singlijan tea workers, the manager of the estate directed this reporter to the Indian Tea Association (ITA), an independent body representing the interests of tea producers in India. Madhurjya Barooah, a secretary with the Assam Branch of ITA, did not respond to several requests for an interview, only saying in a brief phone conversation: "MMRin tea gardens is not high."
But Dr. Zaman said that, "except for a few tea gardens, the management at most have done nothing for pregnant ladies."
He agrees the government needs to do more and pointed to the recent introduction of mobile medical vans in Assam as a step in the right direction.The vans are expected to travel around tea plantations conducting regular free health checks for tea garden workers.
But Sangeeta from Singlijan plantation said it will take more than new toilets and health checks to improve the lives of Assam's tea laborers.
"The real problem of tea garden workers is that we are not aware of our rights and entitlements," she said. "Until that changes, nothing will change for us."
This story has been updated to remove the description of salted tea as a medical treatment in the colonial era and to clarify that the mobile medical vans have not yet started giving free checkups to tea plantation workers. We have also specified that Dr. Kotokey is the only principal at Assam Medical College and corrected the spelling of Madhurjya Barooah's name.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Global Citizen.
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.