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Film review: ‘Hidden Figures’ adds up to an uplifting drama about space and race

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated drama highlights the early contributions of black female mathematicians to the American space programme.

The best sequences in the superbly written Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, involve washroom behaviour. Every time she needs to relieve herself, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) must skedaddle from her desk at the National Space Aeronautics Administrations office, sprint across the driveway, rush into another building some distance away and dive into its basement.

Katherine is a gifted mathematician, whose work on the space programme at NASA will eventually prove to be ground-breaking. But she is also black, NASA is in the segregated state Virginia, and there are separate bathrooms, workplaces and canteens for whites and blacks. When future astronauts come for a visit, the NASA employees are arranged into colour-coded queues, with Katherine and the other black women working as human computers at the end of the line.

The repeated motif of Katherine’s toilet visits is a shorthand for the contradictions of American society in 1961. Even as the country tries to catch up with the former Soviet Union and send astronauts into space, its black citizens continue to be held back by deeply embedded racial discrimination on the ground. Are the Russians the real enemy, asks a movie greenlit during the Obama era but most apt for the Age of Trump.

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Hidden Figures.

In tracing the contributions of black mathematicians to the space programme, Hidden Figures throws another element into the mix – gender. The triumphs of Katherine, fellow mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are double-edged, best captured in a dialogue exchange after the successful launch of the first American human spaceflight Friendship 7. Now for the Moon, says space programme head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). We’re already there, replies the moist-eyed Katherine.

The screenplay, by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, draws a crossweave through the domestic lives of its three female characters, their rise out of the coloured section into spaces that are not ready for them, and the drama at NASA, which is under pressure to prove itself. Costner’s nicely underplayed character recognises Katherine’s worth, and briefly has a white saviour moment over the toilet break issue. For Harrison, the deadline, rather than an acknowledgement of the civil rights movement that is beginning to gather force beyond NASA’s walls, is more important than black empowerment. But even he recognises that integration, not segregation, is what will truly make America great.

Janelle Monae (right) as space engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Studios. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.
Janelle Monae (right) as space engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Studios. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.

The depiction of the private lives of Katherine and Mary are rose-tinted, but they are also a tribute to female solidarity and a reminder of the struggles that black women face on the home front. A sub-plot of Katherine’s romance with Lieutenant Colonel Johnson (Masherala Ali) is a charming distraction from the ugliness she faces at work, best expressed in the thump of the files dumped daily on her desk by an openly contemptuous colleague.

Even though the intertwined upward trajectories of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary never waver, their victories are hard-won. Dorothy’s campaign to be made a supervisor is opposed by her superior, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), while Mary fights to be admitted to an engineering college and earn the degree that will allow her to be employed full-time by NASA. The solid writing, accomplished performances, with Henson and Spencer topping the list, the faithful period reconstruction of the early years of the Space Race (including a reminder of the time when humans were called computers) and Peter Teschner’s skillful editing elevate the drama into something more than an attempt to make an Oscar-baiting and uplifting movie about black empowerment. Just like NASA is feeling its way around space, one rocket at a time, the women in Hidden Figures are launching minor revolutions on the ground, one mathematical formula at a time.

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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilized for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralized treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimize the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralized water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimizes the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independently of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.