We all know the awful feeling of trying to do a good thing, only for it to backfire in the worst way possible. Like a carefully planned surprise party that reveals mom's previously undetected fear -- diarrhea, or the charity bake-sale that ends with CNN labeling you "the Pillsbury Poisoner." And it turns out major relief agencies and charitable organizations run the same risk, with massive, well-intentioned programs turning into almost unbelievable disasters with no malice involved at all ...
In 2005, The World Health Organization declared Bangladesh in the grip of the "largest mass poisoning of a population in history." Did everyone in Bangladesh marry the same mysterious yet glamorous widow? Is the whole country eating at Jack in the Box? Who could have done such a thing? Well, the culprits turned out to be those monsters over at the ... World Health Organization. Plus the UN, the World Bank, and a bunch of other development groups.
To this day, millions of people around the world face illness and death from drinking disease-ridden surface water. To fight this crisis, development agencies and national governments pushed for the widespread drilling of tube wells, which bring unpolluted water from deep underground. The 1980s were even declared the "International Water Decade," (Eat shit Earth, Air, and Fire!) with the UN coordinating a major drive to drill tube wells in impoverished countries like Bangladesh. The water was completely untouched by humans, so it was assumed to be pure. They mostly didn't even bother to test it, or only tested for bacterial contamination. And then everyone started getting sick.
Bangladesh's underground water turned out to contain large amounts of naturally occurring arsenic, which often accumulates deep underground in delta regions over millions of years. Turns out, experts accidentally recommended digging the wells to exactly the depth where most arsenic is found. As a result, millions of people have been poisoned by arsenic from "clean" wells built with international development funds. And because arsenic builds up slowly in the body over time, the problem wasn't noticed for years (Similar to Mountian Dew poisoning found in gamers). In fairness, the tube wells also stopped millions of people from dying of water-borne diseases, but the arsenic poisoning could have been largely avoided if the wells had just been drilled to a different depth.
Things aren't much better in large parts of India, where UNICEF's tube wells accidentally tapped into large underground fluoride deposits, causing widespread bone defects and kidney failure. Over in China, an estimated 50 million people have been dangerously exposed to arsenic, fluoride, and iodine from tube wells. As a result, governments and development agencies are currently working on a second clean water program to fix the problems with the first one.
In 2010, Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake, then devastated again by one of the most incompetent relief efforts in modern memory. Most famously, doctors were surprised to discover the earthquake had somehow introduced cholera, a disease that had literally never been known in Haiti. Then it turned out that the UN had tried to help the recovery effort by sending peacekeepers from Nepal, which was dealing with a cholera problem. Locals also took issue with the sewage from the poorly built UN camp spilling directly into the Artibonite River, which provided drinking water for thousands of people. You can probably puzzle that one out from there.
There were many other problems, including Oxfam's attempt to help out by deploying an elite squad of sex predators. But probably the weirdest was a dipshit effort by human cigarette Sean Penn, who accidentally became the founder of a brand new slum-city on some formerly unoccupied scrubland. Penn had gone to Haiti, with his powers of brooding and smelling like a taxi seat, to help out with the relief effort and ended up running an enormous refugee camp on Port-au-Prince's only golf course, much to the irritation of the retired dentist trying to sink a tricky put on the 14th.
With the rainy season approaching, US army engineers warned that the camp was at risk of flooding and that 5,000 people should be relocated to make way for drainage ditches. It was decided to move them outside the capital to an area called Corail-Cesselesse, which the government had earmarked for a Korean garment factory. However, the Haitians were reluctant to leave, feeling that wealthy locals just wanted their golf course back. So Penn personally made an attractive pitch, pledging that everyone who moved would get $50, medical care, shelter and schools built by relief agencies, plus the first pick of jobs at the garment factory.
It didn't work out like that. The refugees found themselves dumped in a "desert-like" area with no permanent shelter. Relief agencies didn't manage to get any houses built for a year, there were no schools and the garment factory decided not to come. But by then word had spread of Penn's generous promises. Desperate people started pouring in from all over Haiti, including from areas not badly hit by the earthquake. There was a land boom, with plots sold illegally for up to $1,000 US. In under a year, Corail-Celesse was a vast new city of 100,000 people, all living in shantytowns without reliable infrastructure. Penn's plan to temporarily relocate 5,000 people quickly became one of Haiti's notorious slums.
Seoul's Mapo Bridge has a reputation as something of a suicide hotspot, although they'd prefer it if you didn't describe it that way in your TripAdvisor review. For many years, the city faced calls to install high guard rails, or at least take down the diving board. But the local government was reluctant to take a pessimistic step like guard rails, for the same reason the London Underground no longer has a guy standing on each platform screaming "for the love of God, don't do it!" Instead, they turned to Seoul's booming creative and tech sectors to stop suicides in a peppier, more cutting-edge kind of way.
In 2012, the city teamed up with Samsung and an advertising agency to rebrand Mapo as "the Bridge of Life." The existing guardrails were outfitted with brightly-colored LED lighting. Motion sensors would detect pedestrians and quickly project images of babies and happy families on the rails. Others would light up with suicide hotline numbers and comforting messages like "Your worries will feel like nothing when you get older," or "Isn't it nice to be walking on a bridge?" and "Have you eaten yet?" They also installed a statue of a depressed youth being pinched on the cheek by a "grandfatherly" man. Suicide attempts more than quadrupled.
Yeah, it turned out a fucking bridge telling you to stop being dramatic and eat something wasn't the automatic pick-me-up people had hoped. The 65 suicide attempts in the first year after the revamp dwarfed the 15 attempts the previous year. It was also dwarfed the annual average of 20 attempts for the previous five years. If Korea had been re-making It's A Wonderful Life it would have took place here, and ended with Korean-George Bailey telling Clarence to kiss his ass then jumping. This was a fiasco.
Critics of the measures suggested that images of happy families and trite messages were really more likely to convince people to commit suicide than not. Others just argued the publicity around the new measures had cemented the bridge in the public mind as the place to commit suicide. Either way, the goal of fewer suicide attempts on the bridge was a spectacular miss. The campaign was shut down and the lights removed in 2015, citing a failure to decrease suicide rates, with the government finished installing higher guardrails the next year.
From the '30s to the early 2000s, the world was building dams faster than a beaver downriver from an Adderall factory. The international development community in particular went dam-crazy, seeing hydroelectricity as the solution to economic problems in river-heavy developing nations. The World Bank alone spent $75 billion building dams in third-world countries, before an internal commission found that they consistently provided less water and power than promised, and often weren't worth relocating thousands of people and devastating local fisheries. But, hey, at the very least hydroelectric dams provide clean energy, right?
About that. Many dams actually emit quite a lot of greenhouse gases. That's because dams trap organic matter underwater, where it produces harmful methane as it rots. Brazil's Balbina dam was supposed to provide clean energy by flooding a vast area of rainforest (the equivalent of flooding a soccer field to power one air conditioner). If left alone, that rainforest would actually have helped fight climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. But all that vegetation trapped underwater by the dam is now absolutely pumping out methane, a greenhouse gas even more powerful than C02. By some estimates, the dam's greenhouse gas emissions are eight times worse than an equivalent coal plant. And coal plants are not exactly the gold standard we should be shooting for.
Balbina is something of a worst-case scenario, but we're only just beginning to understand the dangers posed by emissions from dams. One recent study found that dams and reservoirs produce roughly 1.3% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, including as much methane as all of Canada. And we're not exactly reacting to this discovery at high speed, especially since many people benefit from large-scale dam construction projects. Brazil continues to build hydroelectric dams, even though some estimate that over half the nation's existing dams produce more harmful emissions than equivalent fossil fuel plants would have.
This isn't to say that all dams are bad, but we need to be way more cautious about building them. For example, studies suggest emissions are worst in heavily forested tropical countries, where rivers carry plenty of vegetable matter downstream. Which is just where the World Bank and other development groups have been funding them. And look, if we're going to drown a bunch of adorable baby jaguars, we should at least make sure we're getting a few icecaps out of the deal.
Back in 2007, the World Bank agreed to provide $68.5 million to finance a forest preservation program in Kenya, which vastly expanded the protected area of forest in the Cherangani Hills. Protecting the world's remaining forests from loggers and ranchers is vital, so that sounds like a great program! Unless you're a member of the Sengwer, an indigenous people who have lived in the forests for centuries, in which case it sounds like the moment your house caught fire.
The Sengwer are a marginalized people in Kenya, and the government has long wanted to clear them off their ancestral lands to secure water supplies for the nation's cities. Forced evictions tend to provoke a lot of whining from the international community, but the forest preservation program was the perfect cover. The World Bank cheerfully signed off on funding for a newly expanded forest reserve, with thousands of Sengwer people inside the redrawn boundaries. They were promptly informed they would have to leave their homes in order to preserve the "pristine" forest.
This wasn't exactly a polite request. When the Sengwer protested, heavily armed rangers from Kenya's Forest Service rampaged through the hills, burning down Sengwer houses. Many were forced into hiding, sleeping rough in makeshift shelters in the trees. The Sengwer allege that the guns and vehicles used in the evictions were bought with the World Bank money, meaning that international development money went to fund something not far removed from a Viking raid.
The World Bank's internal investigation found that the bank had violated its own rules by approving the project without imposing any conditions to safeguard the local people. However, the bank denies direct responsibility for over 1,000 evictions linked to the preservation program. Meanwhile, an officer of Kenya's Forest Service offered the following defense: "You are being lied to ... They claim that we are burning the houses -- how do you know that they are not burning their own houses?" Which is the equivalent of "No officer, he must have shot himself in the back through the trunk of my car."
Top image: Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock