Category Archives: Vulnerability

Twenty two countries in protracted crisis

FAO reports that:

Twenty-two countries are … are in what is termed a protracted crisis, FAO said in its “State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010” hunger report, jointly published today with the World Food Programme (WFP).

Chronic hunger and food insecurity are the most common characteristics of a protracted crisis. On average, the proportion of people who are undernourished in countries facing these complex problems is almost three times as high as in other developing countries.

More than 166 million undernourished people live in countries in protracted crises, roughly 20 percent of the world’s undernourished people, or more than a third of the total if large countries like China and India are excluded from the calculation.

… Faced with so many obstacles, it is little wonder that protracted crises can become a self-perpetuating vicious cycle,” said the preface to the SOFI report, signed jointly by FAO Director General Jacques Diouf and World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

…For the first time, FAO and WFP offer a clear definition of a protracted crisis that will help improve aid interventions. Countries considered as being in a protracted crisis are those reporting a food crisis for eight years or more, receive more than 10 percent of foreign assistance as humanitarian relief, and be on the list of Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries.

Homer-Dixon on Risk, Uncertainty and Crises

Think Globally Radio recently posted a number of great interviews. Here is one interesting one with political scientist, and renown author Thomas Homer-Dixon from University of Waterloo (Canada) – one of the world’s leading scholars on the intersection of environment, security and crisis.

Direct link to the interview can be found here.

Flooding in Pakistan from the ground and from space

An aerial view of floodwater covering the land as far as the eye can see, around Taunsa near Multan, Pakistan, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

A boy sits on a bed as his family members salvage belongings from their destroyed house in Pabbi, Pakistan on August 5, 2010. (REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

From the Big Picture photoblog from the Boston Globe Severe flooding in Pakistan and  Continuing Pakistani floods.  Also National Geographic.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of the Indus River around the city of Jacobabad. Acquired August 18, 2009

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of the Indus River around the city of Jacobabad. Acquired August 17, 2010

Views from space of Flooding in Pakistan from NASA EOS.

A Pakistans flood FAQ

Kate Larkin writes Pakistan’s floods: is the worst still to come? in Nature News

What is the main cause of the intense rainfall?

It is weather, not climate change, that is to blame, according to meteorologists. An unusual jet stream in the upper atmosphere from the north is intensifying rainfall in an area that is already in the midst of the summer monsoon (see animation showing the growing extent of the flood waters). “What sets this year apart from others is the intensity and localisation of the rainfall,” says Ramesh Kumar, a meteorologist at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, India. “Four months of rainfall has fallen in just a couple of days.”

Has human activity exacerbated the flooding?

Yes. The high population growth rate in Pakistan has contributed to a rapid deterioration of the country’s natural environment. This includes extensive deforestation and the building of dams for irrigation and power generation across tributaries of the Indus river. Years of political unrest have also left their mark, and flood waters are transporting land mines, posing an extra danger to the relief mission.

Is the humanitarian crisis larger than the 2004 Asian tsunami, as some media reports have claimed?

Not in terms of the death toll. With 1,600 people reported dead, this remains 100 times less than the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami. However, the scale of the tragedy continues to increase, with around 14 million people in immediate need of emergency aid. Many of Pakistan’s bridges and roads have been destroyed, and severe weather is grounding helicopters, slowing relief efforts.

On 11 August the UN and its partners launched an appeal for aid, and the World Bank has announced a grant of $900 million for relief and reconstruction.

What about disease?

The harsh reality is that waterborne diseases are linked to floods — and with cholera outbreaks reported in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, this flooding event seems to be no exception. The fear is that a lack of sanitation will see the fatal diarrhoeal disease spreading. And stagnant water may pose other threats. “The Pakistan floods and stagnant waters may also cause an increase in malarial cases,” says Sandy Cairncross, public health engineer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

How resilient is the Pakistan government to floods?

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of many books on the geopolitics of central Asia, writes about the continuing floods in Pakistan in the New York Review of Books.  He argues that the floods have the potential to further weaken the Pakistani state.  In his articleLast Chance for Pakistan he writes:

Though it has received only moderate attention in the western press, the torrential flooding of large swaths of Pakistan since late July may be the most catastrophic natural disaster to strike the country in half a century. But even greater than the human cost of this devastating event are the security challenges it poses. Coming at a time of widespread unrest, growing Taliban extremism, and increasingly shaky civilian government, the floods could lead to the gravest security crisis the country—and the region—has faced. Unless the international community takes immediate action to provide major emergency aid and support, the country risks turning into what until now has remained only a grim, but remote possibility—a failed state with nuclear weapons.

Since the upper reaches of the Indus and other rivers in Northern Pakistan first flooded their banks over three weeks ago, the floods have spread to many other parts of the country, submerging dozens of villages, killing thousands, uprooting some 20 million people, and leaving millions of poor children and infants at terrible risk of exposure to water-borne diseases. But the next few months could be even worse, as the collapse of governance and growing desperation of flooded areas leads to increasing social and ethnic tensions, terrible food shortages, and the threat that large parts of the country, now cut off from Islamabad, will be taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups.

A key part of the security problem lies in the already precarious situation of the regions most affected. The floods and heavy rain have caused the worst damage in the poorest and least literate areas of the country where extremists and separatist movements thrive: this includes the northern region, near Afghanistan, but also parts of Balochistan and Sindh provinces in the south. By contrast, central Punjab, the country’s richest region, with incomes and literacy about double that of other parts of the country, has been relatively unscathed by the disaster. The longstanding resentment by ethnic groups in the smaller provinces against Punjab is thus likely to increase.

The situation in the north is particularly critical. Now inundated by floodwaters, the poverty stricken North Western Frontier Province—now officially known as Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KP)—is a haven for both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Millions of people have lost their homes and taken flight only a few months after many of them had returned following a successful offensive against militants by the Pakistan army.

In the Swat valley, where the army had flushed out extremists only a year ago, every single bridge has been destroyed and roads washed away. Across the province hundreds of miles of electricity pylons and gas lines have been ripped out, power stations flooded, and livestock and standing crops decimated by as much as 50 percent. All this will dramatically loosen what little control the state had managed to sustain over outlying areas—especially those bordering Afghanistan, which could now be quickly captured by local Taliban.

Another major recruitment center for extremists are the rural plains of southern Punjab and northern Sind, which suffer from underdevelopment and widespread poverty. Now, these regions too are drowned in water. Lacking any prospects for meaningful employment or education, more young men from these regions will join the militants, who are already proclaiming that the floods represent God’s wrath against the government.

In Balochistan, the large province in southwestern Pakistan that skirts Afghanistan’s southern border, the floods have deepened an already existing crisis. The country’s poorest region, Balochistan, has long hosted a separatist insurgency as well as Afghan Taliban bases (Quetta, the provincial capital, has been a haven for a number of senior Taliban leaders). Now, flash floods have destroyed infrastructure and what little was working in the region’s below-subsistence economy; the state’s fragile control of the region has become even more tenuous, as Baloch separatists, blaming the government for poor relief efforts, are urging a stepped up struggle for independence. (The last time such major floods hit the country in the late 1960s, the inadequacy of the government’s response led in part to the secession of east Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.)

Meanwhile, the floods have had little effect on the rampant violence by extremists and other groups that has been occurring across the country. The Pakistani Taliban continue to carry out suicide bombings and have vowed to wipe out the country’s government leaders while in Karachi, inter-ethnic violence between political parties representing the Pashtun, Sindhi and Urdu speaking communities has resulted in some 100 deaths in the past four weeks. Since the flooding began, the Taliban have also been seeking to prevent Pakistani non-governmental organizations from carrying out relief work by threatening their workers, while encouraging militant groups who have set up their own relief camps to expand.

Much now depends on the ability of the government and its foreign allies to bring relief to flood victims. Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops and virtually the army’s entire helicopter fleet are now involved in the effort. But its resources are way overstretched, and for months to come the army is unlikely to be in a position to even hold the areas along the Afghan border that it has recently won back from the militants, let alone initiate any new campaigns against the Taliban.

Disasters 2000-2009

The Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) maintains a global database on disasters.  In collaboration with the new United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) they summarize disasters in the past decade.  They state that in the first decade of the 20th century (2000-2009), 3,852 disasters killed more than 780,000 people over the past ten years, affected more than two billion others and cost a minimum of 960 billion US$.  Earthquakes were the most deadly disaster, killing nearly 60% of the people killed by disasters.  The next most deadly types of disasters were, storms (22%) and extreme temperatures (11%).

The most deadly disasters were:

  • the Indian Ocean Tsunami killed 225 000 people
  • Cyclone Nargis killed 140 000 people
  • the Sichuan earthquake in China killed 90 000 people.
  • Pakistan earthquake killed 70 000 people
  • European heat wave killed 70 000

The pattern of people affected by disaster is quite different.  Two billion people were impact by disaster.  The most important of these disasters were floods impacted 44%, droughts impacted 30%, and earthquakes impacted only 4% of this total.  Also, since the 1980s the number of impacted people has increased, but the number of people killed by disaters has declined.

Dead Ahead: Similar Early Warning Signals of Change in Climate, Ecosystems, Financial Markets, Human Health

What do abrupt changes in ocean circulation and Earth’s climate, shifts in wildlife populations and ecosystems, the global finance market and its system-wide crashes, and asthma attacks and epileptic seizures have in common?

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, all share generic early-warning signals that indicate a critical threshold of change dead ahead. Cheryl Dybas writing for NSF.gov covers a new paper on “Early Warning Signals for Critical Transitions” (Nature, 3 Sept 2009, 461: 53-59).

In the paper, Martin Scheffer of Wageningen University in The Netherlands and co-authors found that similar symptoms occur in many systems as they approach a critical state of transition.

“It’s increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical thresholds–’tipping points’–at which these systems shift abruptly from one state to another,” write the scientists in their paper.

Especially relevant, they discovered, is that “catastrophic bifurcations,” a diverging of the ways, propel a system toward a new state once a certain threshold is exceeded.

Like Robert Frost’s well-known poem about two paths diverging in a wood, a system follows a trail for so long, then often comes to a switchpoint at which it will strike out in a completely new direction.

That system may be as tiny as the alveoli in human lungs or as large as global climate.

“These are compelling insights into the transitions in human and natural systems,” says Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Environmental Biology, which supported the research along with NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

“The information comes at a critical time–a time when Earth’s and, our fragility, have been highlighted by global financial collapses, debates over health care reform, and concern about rapid change in climate and ecological systems.”

It all comes down to what scientists call “squealing,” or “variance amplification near critical points,” when a system moves back and forth between two states.

“A system may shift permanently to an altered state if an underlying slow change in conditions persists, moving it to a new situation,” says Carpenter.

Eutrophication in lakes, shifts in climate, and epileptic seizures all are preceded by squealing.

Squealing, for example, announced the impending abrupt end of Earth’s Younger Dryas cold period some 12,000 years ago, the scientists believe. The later part of this episode alternated between a cold mode and a warm mode. The Younger Dryas eventually ended in a sharp shift to the relatively warm and stable conditions of the Holocene epoch.

The increasing climate variability of recent times, state the paper’s authors, may be interpreted as a signal that the near-term future could bring a transition from glacial and interglacial oscillations to a new state–one with permanent Northern Hemisphere glaciation in Earth’s mid-latitudes.

In ecology, stable states separated by critical thresholds of change occur in ecosystems from rangelands to oceans, says Carpenter.

The way in which plants stop growing during a drought is an example. At a certain point, fields become deserts, and no amount of rain will bring vegetation back to life. Before this transition, plant life peters out, disappearing in patches until nothing but dry-as-bones land is left.

Early-warning signals are also found in exploited fish stocks. Harvesting leads to increased fluctuations in fish populations. Fish are eventually driven toward a transition to a cyclic or chaotic state.

Humans aren’t exempt from abrupt transitions. Epileptic seizures and asthma attacks are cases in point. Our lungs can show a pattern of bronchoconstriction that may be the prelude to dangerous respiratory failure, and which resembles the pattern of collapsing land vegetation during a drought.

Epileptic seizures happen when neighboring neural cells all start firing in synchrony. Minutes before a seizure, a certain variance occurs in the electrical signals recorded in an EEG.

Shifts in financial markets also have early warnings. Stock market events are heralded by increased trading volatility. Correlation among returns to stocks in a falling market and patterns in options prices may serve as early-warning indicators.

“In systems in which we can observe transitions repeatedly,” write the scientists, “such as lakes, ranges or fields, and such as human physiology, we may discover where the thresholds are.

“If we have reason to suspect the possibility of a critical transition, early-warning signals may be a significant step forward in judging whether the probability of an event is increasing.”

Co-authors of the paper are William Brock and Steve Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jordi Bascompte and Egbert van Nes of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Scientificas, Sevilla, Spain; Victor Brovkin of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; Vasilis Dakos of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Potsdam, Germany; Max Rietkerk of Utrecht University in The Netherlands; and George Sugihara of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

The research was funded by the Institute Para Limes and the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies, as well as the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, the European Science Foundation, and the U.S. National Science Foundation, among others.

Should climate change research be 90 percent social science?

Nature’s Climate Feedback reports that Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in his talk at the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) urged social scientists to become more involved in climate change research:

“Speaking as a natural scientist,” he said, “I think 90% of research [on global change] will have to be done by the social scientists.”

…Physicists, he told me at the coffee break, can describe climate threats increasingly vividly and can tell decision-makers that technological solutions are out there. But it’s up to social science, he says, to figure out how we bring about massive economic and social transformation on a tight deadline.

Case in point: feeding solar power from the Sahara where it’s plentiful to Europe where it’s highly in demand, one of Schellnhuber’s favorite ideas. “All the technical problems have been solved,” he says, “but it cannot be done.” We don’t have the legal framework, the transboundary agreements, the international will for this mode of energy delivery.

This is where policy experts, economists, and even anthropologists come in. But, he says, “I don’t think the social science community has grasped the scope of the challenge.” Operating on the basic principle that all groups are different, 95% of social science papers are local case studies, not global-scale work, he says. And indeed, there are an awful lot of case studies among this week’s 800 talks. It remains to be seen whether the picture emerging from the conference will be piecemeal or planet-wide.

Slow variables that shape bushfire resilience

fireausCreating the perfect firestorm on the BBC writes about two of the slow variables that produce a fire situation: climate and fuel accumulation:

Current climate projections point to an increase in fire-weather risk from warmer and drier conditions.

Two simulations used by Australia’s lead scientific agency, CSIRO, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology point to the number of days with very high and extreme fire danger ratings increasing by some 4-25% by 2020, and 15-70% by 2050.

The agencies’ Climate Change in Australia report cites the example of Canberra which may be looking at an annual average of 26-29 very high or extreme fire danger days by 2020 and 28-38 days by 2050.

Continue reading

Stephen Pyne on the Australian fires

Photo from National Geographic

Photo from National Geographic

American fire historian Stephen Pyne comments in The Australian on the current Australian fires in Bushfire leader becomes laggard:

Australia knows better. It developed many key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behaviour. It pioneered landscape-scale prescribed burning as a method of bushfire management. It devised the protocol for structure protection in the bush, especially the ingenious stratagem of leaving early or staying, preparing and defending. In recent decades it has beefed up active suppression capabilities and emergency services.

… Yet Australia keeps enduring the same Sisyphean cycle of calamitous conflagrations in the same places. It isn’t translating what it knows into its practices. It seems to be abandoning its historic solutions for the kind of telegenic suppression operations and political theatre that have failed elsewhere. Even when controlled burning is accepted in principle, there always seems a reason not to burn in this place or at this time. So the burning gets outsourced to lightning, accident and arson.

It’s too early to identify the particulars behind the latest catastrophe. But it’s likely that investigation will point to the same culprits, perhaps aggravated by climate change and arson. Both are relevant, but both are potential distractions.

Global warming might magnify outbreaks, but it would mean a change in degree, not in kind; and its effects must in any case be absorbed by the combustible cover.

Arson can put fire in the worst place at the worst time, but its power depends on the capacity to spread and to destroy susceptible buildings.

Yet neither is fundamental. With or without global warming or arson, damaging fires will come, spread as the landscape allows and inflict damage as structures permit. And it is there – with how Australians live on the land – that reform must go.

Australia will have fire, and it will recycle the conditions that can leverage small flames into holocausts. The choice is whether skilled people should backburn or leave fire-starting to lightning, clumsies and crazies.

After the 1939 Black Friday conflagration, a royal commission set into motion the modern era of bushfire management. At the time the official ambition of state-sponsored conservation was to eliminate fire as far as possible, and through fire exclusion alter the character of the landscape so it would become less fire prone. Leonard Stretton asked the nation’s forester why he continued to hold this view when it had never succeeded, when bushfires had inevitably wiped out his every repeated effort. Wryly, Stretton mocked the absurdity of those who sought to make sunburnt Australia into green England.

Black SaturdayII will yield another royal commission. Much has changed in 70 years; Australians are more urban, more sensitive to environmental issues, keener to protect unique ecological assets. Yet perhaps they are substituting another, more modern delusion: striving to remake the burning bush into an unburnt Oz, only to find this vision also repeatedly obliterated by remorseless fire.

Good points, but I think he under-states the change in settlement patterns, as increasing number of people live in ex-urban areas that complicate fire management, and also the risk that climate change produces a disequilibrium between vegetation and climate that can result in much larger than fires one would observe in an equilibrium climate.

Stephen Pyne is also on an ABC radio podcast discussing the environmental history of bushfire in Australia.