UN Agency: Water-Smart Agriculture Could Cut Migration Risk

Water stress is increasingly driving migration around the world, but efforts to adapt to worsening shortages could help, a new U.N. study suggests.

Water stress — not just shortages, but water-quality issues — is expected to drive more people from their communities permanently and cause rapid growth of cities, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Two-thirds of the world’s people suffer some water scarcity for part of each year, with communities dependent on agriculture affected the most, said FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva in a video message for the 8th World Water Forum in Brazil.

Finding ways to adapt to that reality — rather than simply responding to disasters caused by water shortages — is the most effective way to deal with the problem, the FAO said.

Water use has increased six-fold worldwide over the past century, said the study, which drew on a survey of more than 180 research papers on water scarcity and migration issues.

As climate change brings increasingly irregular rainfall, worsening droughts and higher temperatures, water scarcity will likely increase, particularly as demand for agricultural water remains high, the study said.

Investment in preparing for water crises — such as adopting more water-smart agricultural practices — could cut the need for people to migrate, the study said, although drawing a clear link between water scarcity and migration remains complicated.

Experts believe drought played a role in the early stages of the Syrian conflict when 1.5 million farmers headed to cities as the country suffered its worst drought on record, said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute, a research body.

Drought was clearly not the major factor, he said, but instead exerted an additional pressure alongside political and social issues.

He said much of the world would face water scarcity by 2040 as populations and temperatures rise. Combating that would require changes including in agriculture, such as adopting water-saving drip irrigation, he said.

About 70 percent of freshwater used each year goes to agriculture, experts have estimated.


US-Russia Tensions Not Felt in Space

Despite tensions, sanctions and recriminations between the United States and Russia, two American astronauts will join a Russian cosmonaut blasting off Wednesday from Kazakhstan for the International Space Station.

Even when things get nasty between the two countries, experts say the space program rarely suffers.

The United States has depended entirely on Russia to deliver astronauts to the ISS since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

After President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 for annexing Crimea, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested U.S. astronauts could get to the International Space Station by trampoline.

But the launches continued.

“The politicians can be very cute and make their statements. But that doesn’t seem to have had an impact on day-to-day work on the International Space Station,” said Cathleen Lewis, a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

Cold War collaborators

U.S.-Russia cooperation in space dates back to the mid-1970s, during the Cold War.

In the race to the moon, both sides suffered losses. Three U.S. astronauts died in the first Apollo mission in a fire on the launchpad in 1967; the Soviet Union lost a cosmonaut in a crash later that year.

The two sides agreed to cooperate on a space project. In 1975, an American Apollo spacecraft and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft met in orbit, where cosmonauts and astronauts shook hands.

In addition to the political achievement, it was a major engineering feat to make the two crafts compatible.

“That created a bond, but also the knowledge that we could do this, even in the height of the Cold War, and probably one of the worst periods of the Cold War,” Lewis said. “Both sides could get together and do this, unperturbed by the politics around them.”

Reaching beyond Earth

Today, the United States, Russia and 13 other countries collaborate on the International Space Station.

Lewis says that kind of cooperation will likely be essential as humans reach beyond Earth.

“It’s going to take a lot of resources to make either the moon or Mars habitable for humans,” she said.

For now, collaboration is the only option for ISS crews. However, SpaceX and Boeing expect to bring human launch capability back to U.S. soil in a year or so.


Implantable Heart Defibrillators Deliver Shock in More Ways Than One

A resting heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute can be life-threatening. It means the heart is beating too fast to pump blood to the rest of the body, including the brain and the lungs. This can cause the heart to suddenly stop beating. It can cause a stroke or heart failure.

A implantable cardioverter defibrillator, commonly known as an ICD, can prevent sudden death, but the device has drawbacks. 

One is pain. The other is fear of defibrillation.

John O’Leary got an ICD about a year after having a heart attack.

“I had a couple of episodes where I became dizzy while exercising. I was out biking, and in one instant, actually, I think I lost conscious for a brief second or so,” he said. “I thought it was probably just dehydration, heat, what have you.”

But it wasn’t anything he suspected. Instead, O’Leary had the classic symptoms of a heart rhythm disorder. The lower chambers of his heart were beating too fast and irregularly. The ICD acts instantly when a patient’s heart rhythm goes out of sync.

Medronic, a company that makes ICDs, reports that every month, 10,000 people in the U.S. have one implanted.

Here’s how it works: A doctor inserts a small electronic device under the skin, usually under the collarbone. The ICD is powered by a battery. It’s connected to one or more sensing wires, called leads, that are implanted in the heart. If the heart is out of rhythm, the ICD automatically sends small electrical signals through the leads to correct it. If that doesn’t work, the defibrillator delivers a shock to restore the heart to a normal rate.

“That’s just the basic physics of the process,” said Dr. Mehdi Razavi, an electrophysiologist at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. “When you deliver a shock, there’s pain involved.”

Like ‘lightning’

O’Leary didn’t experience any pain, but Anne Bunting did.

“It was like being hit by lightning. I actually saw a flash of white light and the sound that lightning makes coming down a tree, and then, boom! And it shocked me five times in a row, and I was screaming. That’s how much it hurt.” 

Bunting got on the floor to keep herself from falling. 

Razavi said that when shocks are delivered, they can happen more than once.

“You can have half a dozen shocks in a row, and that’s typically because the underlying cause has not been immediately reversed,” he said.

O’Leary compares the shock to walking into a lamp post or a wall. It happened while he was walking toward his car in a parking lot.

“There was no lamp post, no wall, there was nothing between me and the car. But that’s exactly what it felt like.” He also saw a flash of light, which he figured to be the electrical discharge. Then he realized what had happened.

More improvements sought

Over the years, ICD designs have improved. The devices are smaller and less invasive than they used to be. But Razavi wants them smaller still. And he doesn’t want patients to even notice that they are being defibrillated. He is working with an electrical engineer at the University of California-Los Angeles to develop small chips that provide small, inconspicuous shocks that return the heart to a normal rhythm, without the patient’s noticing — no flash of light, no pain, no feeling of having walked into a wall.

Razavi and Aydin Babakhani, the UCLA professor of engineering, feel that they are on to something that fills the bill. It’s at least five years away from being available to heart patients, but the men are confident they’ll get there. 


Venezuelan Health System Decays Further, Opposition-led Survey Says

Venezuela’s health system is sinking into further disarray, a survey led by the opposition-dominated Congress showed on Monday, with most hospitals plagued by water outages, unable to feed patients and lacking even basic devices like catheters.

In the midst of a crushing economic crisis that has caused medicine shortages and emigration of doctors, President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government has stopped issuing weekly bulletins on health.

To fill the gap, Venezuela’s Congress and a health group have for five years asked doctors and hospital workers to report the situation in their institutions. Those in government-run hospitals have usually been ordered to keep quiet, and so communicate surreptitiously with the pollsters.

“The government has decided not to inform, to hide the truth. The truth is that every day Venezuelans are dying due to lack of supplies and medicines,” said opposition lawmaker and oncologist Jose Manuel Olivares as he presented the findings on Monday.

All indicators worsened in 2018 and the private sector is increasingly hit, the survey said. Some 94 percent of x-ray units are out of service or only partially functional. Around 79 percent of hospitals have poor or in existent water service. Only 7 percent of emergency services are fully operative.

“Behind each number you see here, there is a story. There is a father, a mother, a son … there is a Venezuelan suffering,” said Olivares.

“We hope the government reflects on this. Political differences can never supersede the problems of the people.”

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the survey. The poll was conducted between March 1 and March 10. Information was drawn from 137 hospitals in 55 cities.

A crumbling state-led economy and low global prices for oil, which is Venezuela’s main export, have led to a shortage of medicine and vaccines, sparking the return of diseases that were once controlled such as diphtheria and measles.

Venezuelans suffering from chronic illnesses like cancer or diabetes are often forced to forgo treatment. Transplant patients who had gotten a second shot at life are terrified as anti-rejection medicine runs short, heightening chances that their body will reject the foreign organ. Epileptic patients are struggling with seizures due to drug shortages.

Amid the dire panorama, patients and health groups have been lobbying for international aid. But Maduro’s government says there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and has refused to accept aid.


Our First Interstellar Visitor Likely Came From Two-star System

Our first known interstellar visitor likely came from a two-star system.


That’s the latest from astronomers who were amazed by the mysterious cigar-shaped object, detected as it passed through our inner solar system last fall.


The University of Toronto’s Alan Jackson reported Monday that the asteroid — the first confirmed object in our solar system originating elsewhere — is probably from a binary star system. That’s where two stars orbit a common center. According to Jackson and his team, the asteroid was likely ejected from its system as planets formed.


“It has been wandering interstellar space for a long time since,” the scientists wrote in the Royal Astronomical Society’s journal, Monthly Notices.

Discovered in October by a telescope in Hawaii millions of miles away, the asteroid is called Oumuamua, Hawaiian for messenger from afar arriving first, or scout. The red-tinged rock is estimated to be possibly 1,300 feet (400 meters) long and zooming away from the Earth and sun at more than 16 miles (26 kilometers) per second.


Last month, a science team led by Wesley Fraser of Queen’s University Belfast reported that Oumuamua is actually tumbling through space, likely the result of a collision with another asteroid or other object that kicked it out of its home solar system. He expects it to continue tumbling for billions of more years.


Scientists originally thought it might be an icy comet, but now agree it is an asteroid.


“The same way we use comets to better understand planet formation in our own solar system, maybe this curious object can tell us more about how planets form in other systems,” Jackson said in a statement.


Close binary star systems may be the source of the majority of interstellar objects out there, both icy comets and rocky asteroids, according to the researchers.


Want to Avoid the Flu While Flying? Try a Window Seat

Worried about catching a cold or the flu on an airplane? Get a window seat, and don’t leave it until the flight is over.

That’s what some experts have been saying for years, and it’s perhaps the best advice coming out of a new attempt to determine the risks of catching germs on an airplane.

It turns out there’s been little research on the risks of catching a cold or flu during air travel. Some experts believed that sitting in a window seat would keep a passenger away from infectious people who may be on the aisle or moving around.

The new study, published Monday, came to the same conclusion.

For somebody who doesn’t want to get sick, “get in that window seat and don’t move,” the study’s lead researcher, Vicki Stover Hertzberg of Emory University in Atlanta.

The study was ambitious: Squads of researchers jetted around the U.S. to test cabin surfaces and air for viruses and to observe how people came into contact with each other.

But it also had shortcomings. In a total of 10 flights, they observed only one person coughing. And though the experiment was done during a flu season five years ago, they didn’t find even one of 18 cold and flu viruses they tested for.

It’s possible that the researchers were unlucky, in that they were on planes that happened to not have sick people on them, Hertzberg said. 

The new study was initiated and funded by Boeing Co. The Chicago-based jet manufacturer also recruited one of the researchers, Georgia Tech’s Howard Weiss, and had input in the writing of the results. “But there was no particular pressure to change stuff or orient it one way or the other,” Hertzberg said.

The article was released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers did some mathematical modeling and computer simulations to determine how likely people were to come close to a hypothetical infectious passenger sitting in an aisle seat on the 14th row of a single-aisle airplane. They concluded that on average, only one person on a flight of about 150 passengers would be infected.

Researchers who were not involved said it would be difficult to use the relatively small study to make any general conclusions about the risks of an airline passenger getting a cold or flu, let alone other diseases like measles or tuberculosis. 

But it’s a novel study about a subject that hasn’t been well researched, they said. Studies have looked at how respiratory viruses spread in labs and in homes, but “this is the first time I’ve seen it done for airplanes,” said Seema Lakdawala, a University of Pittsburgh biologist who studies how flu spreads. 

She and others not involved in the research were intrigued by the study’s findings about how people moved about the cabin and came in contact with each other.

It found:

_About 38 percent of passengers never left their seat, 38 percent left once, 13 percent left twice, and 11 percent left more than twice. 

_Not surprisingly, a lot of the people getting up had an aisle seat. About 80 percent of people sitting on the aisle moved at least once during their flights, compared with 62 percent in middle seats and 43 percent in window seats.

_The 11 people sitting closest to a person with a cold or flu are at the highest risk. That included two people sitting to their left, the two to their right, and people in the row immediately in front of them and those in the row behind.

A lot of frequent fliers will be interested in the study’s results, said Edward Pizzarello, an investor in a Washington-area venture-capital firm who also writes a travel blog .

“It’s absolutely a fear I hear from people all the time. They just believe that they’re going to get sick from going on an airplane, or they got sick from being on an airplane,” he said.

Pizzarello said he’s an aisle person, because he doesn’t want to feel trapped in the window seat if he needs to get up.

Will he now go for the window? 

Maybe, he said, if a sick person sits next to him.


UNESCO Study: More Investment Needed in ‘Green’ Water Management Systems

Population growth, changing consumption patterns and development are taking their toll on the world’s water supplies, and governments need to rely more on ‘green’ water management to ensure a healthy planet and meet the needs of the fast-growing global population. 

That’s one of the messages in a new study by the U.N.’s cultural and scientific organization, UNESCO, presented today at a world water conference in Brazil.

Water demand is increasing by about 1 percent a year, even as climate change, pollution and erosion threaten its quality and availability. But until now, most countries have relied on traditional, man-made water management systems such as reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants. The study considers the many benefits of natural water “infrastructure” — like wetlands, urban gardens and sustainable farming practices — and finds that very little investment has gone into these greener water management options. 

Stefan Uhlenbrook, coordinator of UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Program, which authored the study, notes, “Green solutions can meet several water management solutions at the same time — improving water management, while also reducing floods or droughts. Improving access to water.” He also points to multiple benefits outside the water sector, to “help store carbon, create jobs — particularly in rural environments. They can also help increase biodiversity, which is also very essential.”

Striking a balance

The goal, UNESCO says, is not to scrap traditional water management options like dikes, but instead to strike the right balance between man-made systems and those relying more on Mother Nature. 

Some places are starting to do that. New York City saves hundreds of millions of dollars yearly in water treatment and maintenance by protecting vast, natural watersheds. China plans to build pilot initiatives that recycle rainwater for urban consumption. 

Some communities are building artificial wetlands to fight flooding and pollution. Others, like the Indian state of Rajasthan, have adopted more sustainable soil and water management practices that boost harvests and fight drought — growing challenges in the future. 

Uhlenbrook says these are important steps. “We have to grow some 50 percent more food in the next 30-40 years. We have to think of how to do that without cutting more forests, cutting more trees and trying to develop more land — which is hardly possible in many places around the world.” 

Experts say greener water management can help to increase agricultural production by 20 percent — which may prove key in feeding a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050.


Polio Vaccination Team Members Killed in Pakistan

Two vaccination workers were killed and two were seriously wounded, officials said 

Militants ambushed a polio vaccination team in a remote tribal region in Pakistan, killing two of the medical workers and seriously wounding another two, officials said Sunday.

The gunmen also attacked tribal police and the paramilitary Frontier Corps when they responded to the attack late Saturday, killing one paramilitary and wounding another.

Polio workers have come under attack on several occasions since it was revealed that the CIA used a polio vaccination campaign as a ruse to get information on Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. commandos in Pakistan in 2011.Those revelations fed into claims by Islamic extremists that the vaccinations are part of a Western plot against Muslims.

Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where polio is still endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.


An official in Pakistan’s restive Mohmand Agency, Younus Khan, said two workers from the seven-member polio vaccination team went missing after the attack but later returned unharmed. He says security forces are still searching for the attackers.


Jamaatul Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed the attack.


Khan said the bodies of the polio workers were handed over to relatives and their funeral will take place later in the day.


Provincial Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra condemned the attack, calling the polio workers heroes.


In California, Men Can Get Their Blood Pressure Checked in Barbershops

Visiting the doctor to get your blood pressure checked might be stressful and time consuming, but what if you could get a check-up at your regular barbershop instead? That’s the idea behind a recent study in Los Angeles, where pharmacists are working with 52 barbershops to try to help African-American men, who have higher rates of high blood pressure than other ethnic groups. Faiza Elmasry has the story, narrated by Faith Lapidus.


Women ‘Weed Warriors’ Leading the Way in US Pot Revolution

The pot revolution is alive and well in the state of Colorado where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2014. While the full impact of legal marijuana in Colorado has yet to be determined, what is clear is that cannabis has become a giant moneymaker for the state. And as Paula Vargas reports from Denver, women entrepreneurs — weed warriors, as some have called them — are leading the way.