April 23rd is Saint George’s Day – The Patron Saint of England & dragon slayer extraordinaire

Wednesday is April 23rd and St. George’s Day which is remembered annually on the day of his death.  Whilst his famous dragon slaying exploits are the stuff of legend, Saint George himself was born in the Roman-Palestine town of Lydda around 275AD.  Both his parents were Greek and George himself served in the Roman Army.

Saint George is one of the most venerated Saints and unusually is remembered not just in Christian nations but Muslim ones too.  In places he is the Patron Saint of a country and in others of cities or districts. As such his Patronage extends from England in the west to India in the east and many places in between including Georgia, Israel, Palestine,Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Romania, Moscow, Barcelona, Preston and Rio.

George was a great soldier and rapidly rose through the ranks until in the year 302AD Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered that every Christian soldier should be arrested and that 50% of the Roman Army should offer sacrifices to the Roman gods.  George disagreed with this and risked his life and status to protest to the emperor in person declaring that he too was Christian and that he was loyal to God and Jesus before the Roman gods or emperor.  Despite the urgings of the emperor and the enticements of riches, land and titles, George wouldn’t change his mind.

George was sentenced to death; he gave away all his wealth to the poor and was tortured and subsequently beheaded outside the city walls of Nicomedia.  His suffering was such that even a pagan priest and the Roman empress Alexandra converted on the spot and they too were martyred.   His body was returned to Lydda where he was buried and soon his grave was visited by people from across the Roman Empire.

Of course Saint George is most remembered for slaying a dragon.  It is said that George went to Libya where at the city of Silene, the residents requested the help of George.  A large dragon (or perhaps these days a crocodile) lived in a nest near the spring from which the inhabitants relied on  for their water.  To keep the dragon happy the residents would first offer it a sheep or a maiden who was randomly selected.  Whilst George was passing by, the daughter of the monarch of Silene was selected to be the human sacrifice and so understandably distraught, he appealed for George for help.

George confronts the dragon in battle, protected by his cross and after a tough fight, the dragon is dead.  The city of Silene is safe and human sacrifice is abandoned with the city converting to Christianity with the people now able to draw their water in safety.

Flag of Georgia

National Flag of Georgia

His faith and bravery spread eastwards through the Middle-East, Georgia and onwards to Ukraine and Russia before he quickly became popular in Western Europe as well.    He was mentioned by the first great English historian, Bede, who himself died long ago in 735AD but it took a long time until he became the Patron Saint of England.  For centuries the very pious King Edward The Confessor was the patron saint but he was abandoned in 1552.

An apparition of St. George appeared to the crusaders during the legendary Siege of Antioch in 1098 and he became linked to English chivalry in the Middle-Ages and later his name was mentioned in war-cries against the French.  Saint George holds a similar status in Portuguese military history and Malta as well.

English KNIGHT WITH ARMOUR-ILLUSTRATION

English Knight wearing the flag of St. George

Saint George has his own flag which is flown in many places where he is the Patron Saint.  It was adopted as the flag of England and when combined with Scotland’s flag of Saint Andrew, became the Union Flag.

There has been lots of criticism within England that our Patron Saint is almost totally forgotten.  Until very recently, most people couldn’t even name the day whilst they all celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day or Saint David’s Day.  This is largely due to their not being a history of flag waving or overt patriotism in England as it was seen as distasteful and latterly as being politically incorrect and potentially offensive to foreign born residents.  In fact for many, being seen to be proud to be English is a very un-English thing to do and I can go from one year to the next without ever seeing a Union Flag of Britain or a flag of St. George of England.

Flag of England

The flag of England, the flag of Saint George.

There are calls for the day to become a National Holiday in-line with most other countries who celebrate either their saints day or an Independence Day.  For a few decades the flag of St. George was adopted by far right political extremists and then at football matches with Wembley Stadium full of either thousands of flags or the entire stadium seating plan coloured like the flag.  There is now a movement to make the flag more mainstream and to start a gentle form of patriotism so now most government civic buildings will fly a flag if not every day then at least on Saint Georges Day.

st-george-flag1

 

 

 

 

 

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The English Landscape Garden

Given that it’s Easter time, the traditional beginning to the summer season in the U.K., it means that I’m once again able to enjoy the countless country gardens around and about.

Many have seen our gardens on various TV shows and movies and they set the image of what people around the world imagine Britain and especially parts of England to be.  In fact they give us British a view of how our own country should be but it isn’t natural, it only looks that way.

Throughout history, much of Europe including the British Isles saw the rich and the powerful plant their gardens in highly ornate and formal patterns.   Whilst this style lives on in some places, especially in period character homes in Britain and elsewhere, it has largely been supplanted by the landscape garden or English landscape park or garden.

Originally the formal gardens were all walled and separated from the unruly and untamed countryside.  What was inside was civilised, ordered and safe.  Things changed quite suddenly in England when the fashion became to make everything look natural.  However, it is not the case of letting everything grow and die as it would but instead to enhance the beauty of the natural environments around the house.

800px-Stowe_Park_Palladian_bridge

Stowe Park Palladian Bridge – Open to visitors through The National Trust

Hills are heightened or levelled, valleys modified and often flooded to make ornamental lakes or rivers.  Trees and woodland are planted to enhance the natural form of the land, often with gaps between the woods to allow the accidentally on purpose placed ruins or follys as we call them.  Greek and Roman architecture are important with bridges, temples and ruins scattered around with sometimes even hermits being employed to show off at garden parties and impress the rich friends just how wild areas of the garden were.   Despite the Greek and Roman buildings, they are placed in such a way that the whole thing couldn’t be more British if it tried.

Some of the inspiration for this came from the British visitors to China who came back full of wonder and excitement at the Chinese style of gardens.  Another even larger influence was the desire to get away from anything that resembled a European garden.  The formality of European gardens can be epitomised by the magnificent Versailles Palace just outside Paris.  However to the English they signalled the absolutism of European dictators and nothing that a civilised Lord or Lady in England should aspire too.

Things really took off at Stowe House in Buckinghamshire which was owned by Richard Temple, the First Viscount Cobham.  He had been on good terms with the very firm Prime Minister, Robert Walpole and a leading party of the Whig (Liberal) Party but eventually he disagreed with the policies of the Prime Minister so much that he changed political party and had some of his prestigious powers stripped away from him.

The Viscount was the first person to introduce landscaped practices to his estate when he hired William Kent and James Gibbs who began to naturalise the garden.  He also got back at the Prime Minister in the most embarrassing way possible, he made fun of him in his newly designed garden.  As well as having Greek and Roman statues and temples added, he created two sections of the garden one of which featured the positive aspects of Britain and one the negative aspects.  The Temple Of Modern Virtues was deliberately left ruined with a statue of the Prime Minister missing his head!

800px-Chatsworth_House_

A relative close-up of the massive Chatsworth House and its entirely landscaped and enhanced natural gardens by Elisa Rolle. Fans of many films including The Wolfman will have seen a small part of these great gardens.

 

This was the 18th century equivalent of bad-mouthing the Prime Minister or President on national news and making a “I hate Walpole page on Facebook” put together.  Of course all the great and powerful people in the realm came to visit the gardens.  The Prime Minister became a hated figure of ridicule and the idea of a naturalised landscaped garden took off.

Perhaps the single greatest and most influential landscape gardener is Lancelot “Capability” Brown who lived from 1716-1783.  From very modest backgrounds he changed the way of gardens all around the world.  If your garden or local park as any form of naturalised planting, ornamental pathways, fountains, waterfalls, curvaceous lawns and more or as many mature trees as flowers then you can thank Capability Brown.

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire

Another view of the Chatsworth Estate

Capability Brown entirely did away with formality and instead embraced rolling lawns, clumps of trees and water features in a way that made the already massive estates seem even grander.    He compared his own role as a garden designer to that of a poet or composer. “Here I put a comma, there, when it’s necessary to cut the view, I put a parenthesis; there I end it with a period and start on another theme.”

All in all, Brown oversaw the creation or re-design of 170 gardens and his work so impressed foreign dignitaries that Jardin Anglais spread through France through the Englischer Landschaftsgartens in Germany to the fine homes in Russia and back throughout Europe to the rest of the world.

If your garden or local park as any form of naturalised planting, ornamental pathways, fountains, waterfalls, curvaceous lawns and more or as many mature trees as flowers then you can thank Capability Brown.

The Grand Bridge over the lake at Blenheim Palace

The Grand Bridge over the lake at Blenheim Palace

I’ve seen a few dozen of these gardens now so aren’t in the position to say which is the best but I can see the difference between Brown’s own gardens and those of the gardens he inspired and in my eyes Brown had an extra special gift. Some of the best include Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire and the supremely beautiful Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.  My favourite is the view from the palace across the rolling meadow to The Grand Bridge across the lake and then up the hill-side with the trees guiding your eye to the tall monument on the top.  Sadly I can’t find a non-copyright photo of this amazing view but on this Easter weekend, if you imagine that you had died and gone to heaven and you open up your eyes then the view that you see will be the gardens designed by Capability Brown at Blenheim Palace.

 

 

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Legends of the Blood Moon

Much of North America is currently under the gaze of a Blood Moon.  We know it today to be formed when light passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, bathing the moon in an eerie red glow.

Whilst today’s event is the first of several in the next few years might be either incredible or foreboding depending on your point of view, this relatively rare celestial event has for millennia been seen by our ancestors as being a harbinger of doom.

There are several references in The Bible relating to Blood Moons including this one in 2:30 Joel “And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
 Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness. And the moon into blood,
 Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord”.

However, I myself saw at least one Blood Moon in the 1990′s and can attest that the world hasn’t yet ended though sometimes it does seem a close thing.  This though is the beginning of an event that has only happened 3 times in the past 500 years.  Known as a Tetrad, the first of four blood moons is meant to be particularly significant and to a small minority of Christians even the second coming of Jesus Christ though of course this didn’t happen in the previous Tetrad events.

It’s not just Blood Moons that are said to have meaning, stars have done too.  The Three Wise Men followed “a star” all the way from Iran to find the baby Jesus.     Comets are also seen to be a messenger from the heavens and are said to bring about change and misfortune. Never more has this been the case than in England when Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies for 15 days in April 1066.  Scholars saw this as a bad sign.

Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry tells how Halley’s Comet was seen as an unlucky oman.

“At that time a star appeared in the north-west, its three-forked tail stretched far into the southern sky remaining visible for fifteen days; and it was portended, as many said, a change in some kingdom.”

William of Jumièges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum

Of course just months later England was invaded almost simultaneously first from Scandinavia which saw the brave but unlucky Kind Harold march his army from London up to Yorkshire where he fought an intensely bloody but victorious battle that in effect ended forever Viking claims over England only to then have immediately march hundreds of miles down to the south coast where William of Normandy had landed. Despite a stupendous effort that was very nearly enough, an all-day battle at Hastings saw King Harold dead and the arrival of Norman supremacy in Britain.

The moon though has always been the biggest influence on us though.  Our calendar was often based upon the phases of the moon and though the legends of werewolves are almost entirely fictional, modern day police and doctors have on occasion mentioned that certain people are prone to wilder acts on a full moon, perhaps due to our bodies being composed so greatly of water which the moon is known to have great effects on.

In Japan traditional cannon shots were fired to ward off eclipses which were seen to coincide with earthquakes.  India too sees lunar eclipses as unlucky with women being urged to keep inside in case it harms unborn babies.

Many superstitious people see a new moon as a good time to embark on new projects, courtships or even for farmers to plant seeds.  Muslim cultures see lunar eclipses as good luck and offer a link with Allah with the moon bowed to and prayed upon with Muslims seeing the day to be one of kindness and forgiveness.

A Blood Moon

A Blood Moon

Of course due to the nature of eclipses and Blood Moons, what can be seen in one part of the world isn’t often seen elsewhere so whatever effects these events have for good or bad go largely unnoticed elsewhere in the world so on this occasion those of us in Britain, India and Japan can rest easy!

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Women Who Eat On Tubes

In recent weeks something of a storm has appeared in London and the rest of the U.K. regarding a Facebook page entitled “Women Who Eat On The Tube” and predictably shows photos of women who are eating, sometimes scoffing their face on the London Underground trains and usually surrounded by passengers.  Once the photos are posted on-line then viewers are free to leave comments or poke fun at those snacking on the train.

Women Who Eat On Tubes

Opinion is divided on the group. Some think it is bullying, over 21,000 people subscribe to it and probably most couldn’t care less.

Things started heating up when a journalist by the name of Sophie Wilkinson was herself snapped whilst eating on the tube only to find herself on this Facebook page which she said was hurtful and humiliating.  However, Sophie admitted that she herself had taken many photos of people in public places and sent them to her friends to make fun of on various social networks.  Despite her hypocritical situation, she argued that  taking photos of women eating on the train was uniquely anti-woman although there are also popular websites with photos of men for women to leave comments on too.

Personally, I found the whole thing shocking though not for the same reason Sophie did.  Having never dreamt of taking a photo of someone in public or as far as I know, seen anyone take such a photo I’m wondering when did it become ok to take anyones photo without their permission.

It’s not illegal to take a photo on the London Underground, maybe it should be.  It’s not illegal to eat on the Underground but that definitely should be.  When I was little, everyone was taught that it was rude to eat or drink in public.  Whether it is drinking in the street or eating a subway walking to the office, it’s still wrong.

There are so many food shops and restaurants in London, that it really isn’t necessary to eat on the move at all and indeed most people don’t.  If it is illegal to drink alcohol on the London Underground which in many ways is much less intrusive than food then surely food should be banned too.

What could be ruder than eating in public just a few inches away from the person sat next to you.  The passenger opposite definitely doesn’t want to watch anyone stuff their face and who wants to have the whole carriage smelling of junk and fast food which is just as offensive and often worse smelling than cigarette smoke which is rightly banned.

There is little fresh air on tube trains, obviously as they spend hours or in some cases days underground.  Inevitably, the person eating doesn’t eat the whole meal and then someone 2 hours later ends up putting their feet or bottom on an old cheeseburger or bag of chips.

Besides which, everyone knows it is bad to eat on the go.  If you can’t spare 5 minutes to eat outside the tube trains then you’re obviously very bad at planning your time.  The icing on the cake though has to be just how unhygienic it is for the person eating the food.  Not just exposed to all the bugs from people breathing but the filth of the tube trains anyway.  Even though they are all regularly cleaned, it has been proven that the average hand rail on a tube train has more bacteria on it than a toilet seat.  Hhmmmm, yummy.

Maybe the people taking photos should stop it, maybe the women eating should stop it too.  Perhaps like in the good old days instead of banning either, people should just have a bit more consideration for those around them and if they don’t rather than take their photo, politely ask them to put their food away.    As it happens, if you don’t want to have your photo taken and have people make fun of you, a good starting point is probably not eat on a public train.

Today Facebook closed the page down but it has immediately re-opened.  Whilst more people are arguing that the group is wrong, the publicity is bringing more and more members, it seems more people hate eating on the tube than who don’t like being photographed eating on the tube.  Maybe this is the 21st century way of shaming people.

What do you think?  Would you eat in public?  Would you take a photo of someone without telling them?  Personally I wouldn’t do either and I definitely wouldn’t want to look at photos of people eating on trains, that is almost as bad as being there in person.

 

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Wrestlemania XXX

With political scandals, the Queen dining with former terrorists and my sending a manuscript to the publishers, it’s a fair question to wonder why I’m writing today about wrestling.  The answer is because I had such fun watching it on Monday afternoon.

Despite having working at home now for a year, I have never until now had an easy day.  Every morning I am logged on to my PC by 6am and I am still mostly there until 7pm.  I blog, I write, I work on my business and in the summer spend a few hours in the garden or on walks and during the winter managed to decorate half the house.

Sunday night or for me, Monday morning saw Wrestlemania XXX.  Why does someone who loves history, culture and classical music manage to also love WWE, which is almost the antithesis of my other interests?   Well, we all need to let off steam and I’ve always been one who likes most of everything.  I can enjoy Beethoven and Eminem, a fine dinner or a cheeseburger.  I’m not snobby on the more popular things and I’m not intimidated about getting into something like Opera.  If I like it then I like it.

Wrestlemania XXX

Let the Good times roll in New Orleans

I always used to watch wrestling with my Grandad in the late 70′s and early 80′s.  It was the old style British wrestling on a saturday afternoon.  There was one camera angle, if we were lucky, no fireworks or entry music and though the wrestling was sometimes more technical than today, the athletes were also less versatile in their moves and much less entertaining to watch.

Somehow things changed around about 1989 when we got satellite tv.  Sky TV filled their broadcasts schedules with cheap TV, much of it being from the WWF and to almost everyones surprise it became a big hit.

The reasons I liked it then are the same that I like it now.  Instant gratification, a bit of glamour and violence… more of that later.  I remember staying up until 2am in the morning to watching Wrestlemania 6 and watching The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan live from Toronto.  I loved every minute even though I had an exam at school the next morning.

The WWE labels itself not as sport but as sports entertainment.  The entertainment bit is important because of the many years detractors claimed wrestling wasn’t real.  Maybe not, but if you like that sort of thing then it is entertaining.  They “fight” day after day, travelling from city to city, country to country and often fighting 10 or 12 days out of 14.

If the results are often though not always fixed, it takes nothing away from the entertainment of the event itself.  Lots of people go to the cinema to see say James Bond.  We all know everything will be ok in the end, the fun is seeing how we get there.  It’s the same in wrestling except that regardless of the factor that it may not be entirely real,  the twists and turns are the fun.  We can marvel at the moves, the physicality, the stunts, the stupidity and the entire spectacle of the event.

The Independent

News of The Undertakers loss even hit the headlines of quality British newspapers.

There are few areas of society that it is acceptable to watch or enjoy violence.  You can try to do it in real life but you’ll probably either get killed or arrested and besides, no-one wants to actually hurt someone or get in trouble… the wrestlers can do it all for you and probably better too.

The amount of training and dedication to become a successful professional wrestler is incredible and it is one of the most dangerous sports to pick as a career.  You don’t have to do too much investigation to see how many suffer permanent severe injuries from them doing their job, when something goes wrong or their bodies just give out from the huge strain they put themselves through.

Sadly you don’t get to see many wrestlers reach old age.  Many of those that I watched in the 1990′s are no longer with us.  Mr Perfect, the British Bulldog, Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerreo, Rick Rude, Buddy Rose to name just a few .  Many die from heart problems or those related to substance abuse.  A few like Owen Hart die whilst performing.

Unlike other performers, they never shy away from the cameras and they deserve as much respect as any other sportsman or any theatrical actor for their work combines both elements.

I always enjoy watching wrestling and I don’t mind saying so.  Whilst I enjoy watching other sport for sports sake, it is much easier if you at least sometimes have someone who wins.  So I like tennis but I was 39 before Andy Murray win Wimbledon so in essence I spent half my life cheering for “the other guy”.

It can easily cost £60 or $100 to watch a Premier League Football match.  In my near 40 years of supporting my football team, Newcastle United, they have never won anything of note and probably only had 4 or 5 enjoyable seasons in all that time.  They have been owned by a succession of incompetent owners and largely either hard-working but less than stellar players or over-paid and non-interested footballers who cheat, dive and all ready to move to a new club if they get even more money.

I don’t like car racing or formula 1, it’s all boring to me.  The same with swimming, horse-racing, much of golf and the sports I do like are often minority sports, rarely on television except for Cricket which again isn’t what it was due to its obsession with money and short 20-20 matches rather than the full-on 5 day matches.

I like rugby but don’t really like the England rugby team as they often have an arrogant attitude as opposed to Wales who I much prefer to watch.  How can I cheer on the England football team when it is composed almost entirely of players I dislike as they play for English teams I dislike?

It’s not the same with wrestling.  If I watch an hour of wrestling, then I will probably see at least one or two people I like, win and even for those I dislike, I enjoy the action, the stupid commentary and the razzmatazz.   I actually went to see Summerslam 92 at Wembley Stadium and was one of around 130,000 people probably having the time of their lives as The British Bull Dog Davey Boy Smith beat Bret Hitman Hart at the finale for the championship.

So on Monday I watched my first Wrestlemania for about 10 or 12 years.  I had been timing by meal-breaks in previous weeks to get into the current story-lines and I handily had finished writing the first draft of my book a day or so earlier.  Wrestlemania was screaming for my attention.  Would I still like it?

Taker v Brock

The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar face-off (photo from Wrestling depot)

Of course I did and probably had the most fun afternoon that I’d had for years.  One or two of the bouts were bizarre but fun and the main action was even more incredible and better presented than it had been before.  Wrestlemania is the FA Cup Final or the Superbowl of wrestling and everything about it is more ostentatious than the usual events.  The fact the The Undertaker lost his unbeaten streak of over 21 years was such a surprise that it even made the British newspapers.  I was pleased as I had gone off him about 10 years ago and in Brock Lesnar, a legitimate UFC  heavyweight champion in a hard-hitting sport not at all plagued with suggestions it is not real.  It was a moment of sporting history that I was glad to experience and the silence and looks of horror on the 70,000+ crowd showed that those who like their wrestling, really love their wrestling.

The Beast Incarnate

Brock Lesnar – “The Beast Incarnate” and legitimate tough guy having won the UFC belt after just 4 fights. Photo from The Void

It is said that The Undertaker hand-picked Lesnar to be his final opponent but there is also the possibility the fight ended early as The Undertaker is now 49 years old and is rumoured to at times need walking sticks just to walk.  To be honest, he was only a shadow of the wrestler he used to be and it seems likely he got badly hurt and that the match ended in an emergency as he was later sent to hospital along with another wrestler who spent the night coughing up blood.

Brock Lesnar wins!

History as made as Brock Lesnar smashes The Undertakers 21-0 record at Wrestlemania 30. Wrestling is full of traditions and one of them is that when a great wrestler retires he loses to a star that can carry on his name rather like the idea of a warrior taking the glory and power of the fallen he has beaten.

The shock of the historic events in the WWE universe pretty much overshadowed the rest of the event until the underdog Daniel Bryan fulfilled his dream of winning the championship belt in a 3-way match against Randy Orton and Batista.

What really made me write today was the news that The Ultimate Warrior died yesterday aged just 54.  He had only been on Wrestlemania a day or two earlier being inducted into The Hall of Fame.  He seemed extremely well but it is a reminder of what happens all too often to the men who are often derided for putting their bodies on the line time and again.  It was strange to think that one of the two men I stayed up until 2am to watch 24 years earlier had died just a day after I saw him again for the first time in years.  If the defeat of The Undertaker was one giant end of an era for wrestling then this is an even bigger one.

Ironically The Ultimate Warrior appeared on Monday Night Raw less than 24 hours before his death we he passionately spoke to his fans:

“No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life what makes the blood pulse through the body of others and makes them bleed deeper and something larger than life then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized. By the story tellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honour him and make the running the man did live forever. You, you, you, you, you, you are the legend makers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back I see many potential legends. Some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. I am The Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans and the spirit of Ultimate Warrior will run forever.”

Warrior

The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan for the champtionship at 1.50 am my time in Wrestlemania 6.  RIP James Hellwig.

 

 

 

 

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How Technology Can Help Solve The Water Crisis In Africa

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was thrilled that I was approached and then commissioned to write for one of the leading academic environmental magazines in the world, TerraGreen after they read my post on The Green Wall of Africa.  I was thrilled that it was made the March 2014 Cover Story with no edits needed.  I thought for a different sort of post, and with the kind permission of TerraGreen, I would put it here too.

Cover Story

Me with my cover story

Africa is no longer the unilaterally impoverished continent that many of us grew up with.  Famines and diseases have been eradicated in many areas and subsistence living has been replaced by an ever growing middle-class urban population complete with modern homes, cars and wireless communications.  Slowly dictatorships and corrupt regimes are giving way to democracy and the wars which did so much to suck up resources are by large given way to stability and trade.

However, vast swathes of the continent are still lacking in infrastructure and many people still suffer abject poverty.  Even in areas that have made a great deal of progress since the 1980’s, one factor is constraining growth and prosperity above all others, that of the availability of clean water.

Africa is the continent that has contributed least to global warming and climate change, relatively industrially undeveloped two centuries after the first smoking factories of Europe and 20th Century North America and its pollutions is almost insignificant compared to the latter day industrialists in Asia.  However, as is often the case, those whom are most innocent are the ones most susceptible to climate change.  Africa is forecast to receive 10% less rainfall in the coming decades and what water does fall will be more quickly evaporated by the increasing temperatures.  The worst affected area is bound to be in the marginal areas of Sub-Sahara Africa where population growth already results in water poverty and its primarily agricultural economy is highly dependent on rainfall and surface water.

Africa_Koppen_Map

Africa Koppen Map showing the climate range across the continent. Red areas are desert and low in water.

In 2006, the United Nations identified 300 million people out of 800 million in Africa live in water scarce environments, some areas because there is little physical water present and others because there is water present but it is difficult and prohibitively expensive to access the water.  Many of us are familiar with the ecological tragedy of the Aral Sea but much less prominence is given to Lake Chad which now holds just 10% of its former volume due to over extraction often because access to the water is priced so cheaply that little thought is given to conserving this precious resource.

Much of Sub-Saharan Africa receives sufficient though irregular rain-fall and if only simple measures were taken including the collection of rain water in reservoirs or even the roofs of houses for small communities then an improvement would be quickly felt by all and reduce the destruction and waste from seasonal flooding.  At present only 5% of agricultural land is irrigated.

Whilst technology has not always been the saviour of ecological problems in Africa, recently it has become apparent that much of the continent is sitting on a number of vast underground aquifers.  Studies indicate that there is actually 100 times the water volume underground than on the surface of Africa and this could hold the key to the development of the continent and its people.

Is this water source sustainable?  The answer is of course a ‘maybe’.  Even if it were accessed and utilised in an irresponsible manner, many areas would have unlimited water for over 70 years.  However, if properly managed then this water source could supply African indefinitely, particularly so if the problems of over-population are brought under control.  This is because excess rainfall that does not flow to the oceans in rivers or get absorbed by plants will very slowly trickle down between layers of rock.  The water is either held in spaces between rocks or in porous stones such as sandstone, is contained in between the individual grains of the rock itself which in effect acts as a giant sponge.   As the water moves between the rocks, impurities are filtered away resulting in the water often being cleaner and more pure than that available from rivers or lakes.

The British Geological Survey and University College London (UCL) have released maps which collate data from national governments and 283 individual research sites that they hope will assist in the development of water resources.  It is particularly striking that many of the areas that are driest on the surface such as Libya, Algeria, Chad, Egypt and Sudan are sitting on the largest water reserves which the researchers estimate are the equivalent of 75 metres deep across the area.

Africa Aquifers

Map showing the underground water sources in Africa. Many of the most arid areas have vast subterranean water resources.

While it would be tempting to immediately extract vast amounts of water through industrial sized bore holes, specialists are of the opinion that small-scale and local extractions take place.  These would be enough to support the local populations and surrounding agriculture but not large enough to ‘waste’ water or risk the aquifer drying up as in places under the Sahara, the water there is the result of rainfall approximately 5,000 years ago.  Scientists believe that this water should not be merely used as the primary source of water but as a supplement, to assist during those periods of prolonged dry weather due to climate change and in conjunction with improved water storage infrastructure.  Care must be taken as aquifers in similarly dry locations such as Saudi Arabia have begun to run dry after prestigious vanity projects involving farms and golf courses have squandered water reserves after a short period of uncontrolled use leaving them to return to desert once more.

The study was financed by the U.K. government and its International Development minister has welcomed its findings and its ability to transform the lives of many Africans.   The importance of clean water isn’t just a matter of life and death but easy availability of clean water improves many aspects of life.  Diseases and premature deaths are reduced allowing the state and individuals to invest in other services and projects.  Still, too many Africans spend hours each day walking to the nearest water well stopping people from improving their lives.

Children currently spend much of their time helping mothers gather water and perform house-hold duties which are time-consuming and difficult without easy access to water.  It is estimated that African children would sit 272 million extra school days per year if water related issues were resolved. Even those who do get to school often suffer from poor hygiene due to undeveloped toilet and washing facilities.

In particular, the position of women in Africa would be greatly improved once improvements to water infrastructure has been set in place.  Put simply, the lack of water stops the people of Africa from reaching their full potential, once water can be taken for granted, time and effort can be spent on less menial aspects of life and allowing more people to be productive and economically active which in the longer term will be beneficial for both people and nation-states themselves.

The World Health Organisation estimate that Sub-Saharan African states spend 12% of their healthcare budgets merely on treating diarrhoea caused by the drinking of contaminated water supplies whereas waterborne diseases such as malaria, typhoid, cholera and dysentery are still killers when with adequate water supplies, they need not be.

Access to water is also vital in the realm of food production with 80% of Africa’s water being used in this sector.  When rains fail, so in many cases do food supplies. African governments have themselves set a target of doubling the area of irrigated land.  Presently waste-water is used in many agricultural areas which result in chemicals and poisons being inadvertently consumed by unknowing consumers.  Better irrigation and better management of land such as by the mass planting of native trees can also assist in not just the slowing but the reversal of desertification.

As already indicated, big projects may not always be the most beneficial to Africa when it comes to water.  Not for profit NGO’s are leading the way in removing sewage from water supplies. Using technologies that require little or no power are vital in more isolated parts of the continent.  Devices must also require low maintenance and be easily serviceable by local villagers.  This is important as a high percentage of existing pumps are broken and unused due to their complexity and difficulty in obtaining replacement parts.  In the past up to 50% of water projects have failed and only a tiny number of projects are checked up on at a later date to make sure they are still functioning.

Systems such as the ‘Elephant Toilet’ separate water from solid material and aid in their speeding the breakdown of matter and so safeguarding local groundwater. The Eco-Sanitation toilet takes a different approach and treats sewage at the source so that only clean water is discharged.

Invented by the brains behind the Segway personal transportation device, the Slingshot technology can produce 1,000 litres of drinking water from contaminated water or even sewage.  Requiring no electrical power, instead its generator runs on cow dung.  Though each unit costs $2,000, it has the bonus of also generating enough electricity to power village light bulbs.  Such imaginative solutions are only waiting for governments, charities or entrepreneurs to make a real difference to villages in even the most remote parts of Africa.

Slingshot

Slingshot technology bringing water to African communities. Photo by Paul Lazarus

Innovative ideas with small-scale water pumps are in the process of being tested in communities throughout Africa with even hand pumps being developed to draw water from wells.  An extremely creative approach has been developed by Water For People’s ‘Play Pumps’ which involve the traditional childrens toy of a roundabout in a play area.  When the children play and push the roundabout, it harnesses a pump which then moves water from a storage facility to either toilets or washing facilities.  As it can be maintained using locally sourced parts, its only drawback is that it can only pump water where there is pre-existing water supplies however each Play Pump can serve 250 people, 40 litres of clean water per day.

On an even smaller scale, clean water technology now exists to allow filtration in individual straws which have a life-span of 1 year for the approximate price of $5-10 US. Benefiting from requiring no electricity, battery or replacement parts it can remove 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria.

Though technology offers a glimpse of a future where Africans enjoy water like the rest of us, many limitations remain that have to be solved by other means. In many urban areas, the poor pay between 4-10 times more than the ruling elite.

The solution to the water problem is different for each part of Africa depending on its geology, population and climate.  Egypt is well known for its growing population being confined to a fraction of its territory which is overwhelmingly arid.  Egypt has long sought to use technology to improve its water situation with first the British in the 19thC and then Nasser in the 20thC building dams on the Nile.  Whilst these have massively improved the situation they have not been without their problems, interfering with the traditional and natural flooding of the Nile river banks which give fertility to the fields that border the Nile.  The dams have also caused ecological problems in the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean Sea, many of which were entirely impossible to foresee by scientists of the time.  A soaring population has meant that even more projects are required to stop the social fabric of the country entirely collapsing.

In order to increase the area of land available for cultivation and habitation, Egypt has embarked on huge projects such as the New Valley Project, sometimes known as the Toshka Project.   This author has himself visited these enormous canals that feed water from Lake Nasser to the country’s Western Desert and stretch out 310km to the Baris Oasis.  However, this now 17 year old project is still someway from completion due to political instability and technical difficulties with the soil types encountered during the construction phase.  Additionally, it has been discovered that much of the surface is highly saline which if exposed to water would produce a very salty mixture, not particularly suitable for crops or humans.

The 2020 target for completion of the project seems unlikely and currently only the Sheikh Zayed canal is fully functionally.  It has been hoped that the project would increase available land use by 10% but some farmers are complaining of difficulties and there are contrasting claims made by those who have relocated from overcrowded Cairo to the new settlements as to how viable the entire project is.  Whilst the goal of the project is laudable, many are unconvinced that exposing so much water to evaporation during its transport along the canals and even agriculture in the desert itself is the best use for water.  However, already there appears to be signs that the water table in the area is rising with the appearance of a number of large bodies of water known as the Toshka Lakes.

The Toshka area is now home to growing numbers fields of wheat, beans and nuts as well as grapes.  However in a country where hunger and a lack of food is always a problem, most of these crops are exported to bring in foreign money even as Egypt becomes the worlds largest importer of grains.  As if often the case in Africa, such mammoth projects are often run to the detriment of smaller, local problems and in this case the farmers on the outskirts of nearby Abu Simbel have seen their crops fail and their pleas for water to be diverted the short distance to their fields have been ignored.

Corruption has been a problem with funds going missing and the amount of new jobs created in the agricultural sector doesn’t make a dent in the 700,000 new jobs required in Egypt every year.  Such social forces and the unrest seen in recent years indicate that a solution to the water, food and overpopulation crisis must be found quickly in Egypt.

Similar large scale irrigation work is underway in Sudan and Ethiopia where water is such an overwhelming issue that war loomed between the three countries.  In fact war over water resources is a concern in many areas including Africa.  War can be caused either due to the desperation of a government to obtain water for its people or simply by a neighbouring or even distant country damming a river for both water and to generate hydro-electricity with a resulting reduced water flow further downstream.   Egypt and Sudan long threatened war on Ethiopia with its plans to dam the Nile but intensive negotiations have found a viable way forward for Ethiopia without jeopardising the needs of people in the desert states downstream.  In fact it may result in water being used more effectively as less water will be lost to evaporation in the desert due to more dams holding back water in the Ethiopian highlands.

West Africa sees the Niger being a contentious point amongst many countries with Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, heavily dependant on the river but its over-usesage is seeing it increasingly polluted and un-drinkable.   Further flashpoints include the Zambezi river system being hotly contested by both Zimbabwe and Zambia and its waters being over-used by both.

The state of Kenya in East Africa faces many different challenges to that of Egypt but in the area of water, its problems are almost as similar.  It’s population of 37 million people is growing at twice the rate of India and its natural resources which should be sufficient are being pushed to the limit.  Deforestation and soil erosion mean what water does fall is not retained and the central government has until now been unable to invest in improving its water infrastructure leaving much of the country without access to clean water.  Whilst the government can’t or won’t provide a water infrastructure for the poor, it has also stopped private companies from attempting from doing so as the Kenyan authorities claim they want to protect the people from profiteering.

1st page

I really love how the magazine lay out my article. Their formatting really enhances the writing.

However, once again technology is looking to rescue people from the water poverty trap.  New hand-pumps are being trialled with technology borrowed from mobile telecommunications which send SMS text messages when the pumps break down, allowing prompt repairs.  It is expected that repair times will be reduced from 1 month to 1 day.  Researchers also anticipate that such intelligent pumps will be able to predict failures before they occur leading to planned maintenance and continuous water supplies.  Similar trials are being held in Zambia where pumps could be powered by both solar and kinetic energy, which is energy generated by the movement of the pump handle itself.

Kenya may soon benefit from the large underground aquifers discussed earlier in this article due to the discovery of Lake Lotikipi, 300 metres underground.  Its size is massive at around 100KM x 60KM, a surface area of 4,162KM squared and holding an estimated 200 billion cubic metres of water which is 900 times more than existing Kenyan water reserves and 25 times larger than the famous Loch Ness in Scotland that supplies water to much of northern Britain.  This lake alone could supply Kenya with water for over 70 years without replenishment but as water trickles into it from distant mountains, with proper management Lake Lotikipi should be a sustainable and almost limitless supply of water well into the future.

Sometimes, the solution to an areas water needs are investments or partnerships by international organisations.  In South Africa, many of the townships are still without mains water supplies and work is ongoing connecting them using the latest technology of western firms with the systems being managed and maintained by local bodies.

Middle Pages

The central pages of my article as it appears in the magazine.  In the TerraGreen devote 6 pages to my article.

Despite the fact that many African national or district governments seem unwilling or unable to invest in water supplies, there are examples that show opposite it possible given the political will. An example of this can be found in Uganda where a “pay as you fetch” scheme is in operation under the auspices of local government.  Here a water entrepreneur is given responsibility for a small number of wells.  This person has the authority to charge the sum of 100 Ugandan Shillings for each Jerry Can of water, this amount equates to 5% of average household income. A meter is installed at the well which measures consumption.  In return, the water entrepreneur is tasked with the maintenance and operation of the water wells under their authority and about 50% of the revenues raised put aside for its ten year total refurbishment.

The scheme seems to be a success and avoids the usual government dislike of managing water supplies and the tendency of aid agencies to initially build wells and then move on to build new wells rather than maintain existing ones.  By tasking individuals to take care of them, the wells are well maintained as the individual concerned is motivated not just by profit but by their livelihood as well.  It gives individuals the chance to become upwardly mobile but also stability and water independence for the village concerned.

There are still large problems that Africa must overcome but with a mixture of technology, investment and local responsibility these problems can be overcome. The most key of these remain a continued move towards democracy and local empowerment and accountability coupled with a reduction of the population growth to manageable and sustainable levels.  Only when clean and cheap water is available to all, can Africans reach their true potential and become economically active.  As with elsewhere in the world, greater household income brings increased consumption of resources including water but with the proper application of technology and careful controls there is every reason to be hopefully that despite the vagaries of climate change, this can be achieved not by destroying the environment but in many ways, improving it.

The United Nations has identified overcoming water and sanitation issues as being one of, if not the single greatest problem that must be overcome in the 21st Century.  There is more than enough water on this planet; it is just not always in the places or form that we need it but we are long past the time when the accident of where one is born should dictate our access to water.

This article was first published in the March (2014) issue of TerraGreen appearing as the Cover Story.  It was written by Stephen Liddell and is Copyright by TerraGreen.  TerraGreen is the flagship magazine of TERI, the leading Indian research institution in its field. Their website and subscription details to their excellent magazine can be found here  .

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All About Aprils Fools Day

This is going to be my very last blog ever.  I’ve just won £20 million on the lottery on Saturday night so I decided to go out on a high.  Really?  No, don’t be stupid.  I don’t even do the lottery… April Fools!!!

Yes today is April 1st, traditionally the day where stupid people do marginally funny pranks on people who they think are as stupid as they are.

The origins of April Fools are unclear, there may be some links to the Roman festival of Hilaria on March 25th and also the Medieval  Feast of Fools which was held annually funnily enough on my birthday, 28th December.  I put the word ‘annually’ in there just in case anyone thought it had anything to do with me!

However the real inspiration for April Fools Day may be from Iran when the ancient Persians celebrated the 13th day of the Persian new year or Nowruz called Sizdah Bedar and which usually held on the 1st or 2nd April as long ago as 536BC and ever since then people have been playing pranks on each other and still do to this day.

The old English stories of Chaucers Canterbury Tales released around 1392 in ” Nuns Priest Tale” a vain Cock was tricked by a Fox on April 1st.

In much of continental Europe and parts of French speaking Canada there is the traditional of April Fish where people attempt to stick a paper fish to a persons back without being noticed.  It sounds a lot like a 19th Century precursor to sticking an office Post-It note on someone with a silly message on it.

In some areas there is a tradition that you can only do the April Fools joke on someone until midday and if you do it after this time then you are the fool.  Of course it was probably just a thing teachers said to try and get some work done in the afternoon at least.

I remember helping in one April Fools joke near my university campus in London where a group of students dressed up to pretend they were surveyors and handed a long piece of string to a passerby, asking if they could keep hold of it while measurements were taken around the other side of the building.  Of course, no measurements were taken and instead on the far side of the building another passer-by was asked to hold the string as measurements were taken on the far side of the building.

Everyone walked off trying not to snigger and we waited until one of the string holders gave up.  Put it this way, the students got bored before the victims did!

Its not just students and children who play pranks but the media too.  Most papers in Britain and many around the world deliberately print a slightly outlandish story, of course the way the world is sometimes their hoaxes are sometimes less likely than the real events.

One of the earliest was when the normally very serious BBC investigative programme Panorama did a feature on Spaghetti trees.  It claimed that the pesty Spaghetti Weevil had been eradicated and that the Spaghetti trees farms of Switzerland were all set for a great future.  This all took place in 1957 when spaghetti in the U.K. was still a mysterious and exotic food and so the video clip of farmers harvesting live spaghetti from trees seemed very convincing.  Decades latter CNN described this as the biggest and most convincing hoax that any reputable broadcaster had ever managed to pull off.

Swiss Spaghetti Tree Hoax

Hmm, I wonder if they do Ravioli bushes too?

Infact it was only revealed as a hoax when the BBC were flooded by requests from viewers asking where they could buy their own spaghetti trees!

Later BBC jokes included the invention of smello-vision in 1965 which many viewers said was successful even though it was a total hoax and the esteemed astronomer Sir Patrick Moore who in 1976 said that due to a planetary alignment, if people were to jump up at precisely 9.47am they would be able to experience a strange floating experience.   Several dozen people phoned in to say it worked including a woman who claimed that she and her 11 friends were floating in orbit around their living room!

The secret to a good April Fools day joke is to have something happen that though highly unlikely is just about possible and when you think about it, isn’t surprising at all only for the reveal which then makes you think… what an idiot.

Here are a pick of some of the ones doing the rounds today in the U.K.

 

One Direction

I barely know who One Direction are but I do know that no-one would willingly get their hair cut like that kooky Korean dicator

Frackingham Palace

Would the richest woman in the world really have fracking in her garden?

Square egg

ITV’s breakfast show feature a breakthrough in square eggs.

I admit that I fell for the story below and wrote it off in my head as a typically stupid thing that he would want to do….

Salmond

Scottish Nationalist wants his own face on money instead of The Queens.

Groundshare

Fierce London rivals, agree to tear up centuries of tradition and opt for a groundshare??

Of course not all bizarre stories are April Fools.  The village next to my own is called Kings Langley and the mayor as temporarily officially renamed the village as Kings Landing, capital of Westeros in Game of Thrones.

Kings Landing

Actually, my wife and I often get confused watching Game of Thrones as we get our Kings Langleys and Kings Landings muddled up

 

 

 

 

 

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