Category Archives: Vulnerability

Seasonal Rain Floods the Sahel

From NASA Earth Observer Seasonal Rain Floods the Sahel:

The Sahel region gets most of its rainfall between June and September when the band of near-perpetual thunderstorms that hover around the Equator shifts north. In 2007, the final months of the rainy season brought unusually heavy rainfall to East, Middle, and West Africa, causing floods in river basins from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean coasts of the continent.

sahel flooding

This image illustrates how extensive the extreme rainfall was. The image was made with data collected by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite between August 20 and September 21, 2007. The average daily totals recorded during this period are compared with average rainfall totals recorded during the same period since TRMM’s launch in 1997.

Regions that received more rain per day than average are blue and green, while places that received less rain would be red, orange, or yellow. The image reveals that most of the Sahel received more rain per day than average in August and September. Some places, marked with pale blue, got as much as 15 millimeters more rain than average per day. The northern Sahel, by contrast, was slightly drier than average, as indicated by its pale yellow tint.

The unusually heavy rains caused flooding in as many as 17 countries and affected more than a million people across Africa. … For those areas that escaped flooding, the rains were beneficial, since farmers in the Sahel rely on rain to water their crops, reported the Famine Early Warning System Network on September 19.

For more on the flooding see BBC news Sept 19th, and BBC news Sept 21st.

A damaged world vs. a severely damaged world

The full report from the IPCC Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability working group is now available (it can be downloaded from their website). Martin Parry, co-chairman of the working group says:

“The choice is now between a future with a damaged world and a future with a severely damaged world,” said Professor Martin Parry, of the Met Office and joint chairman of [IPCC working group 2 – Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability]. “It’s quite striking how big the challenge is. It’s not so long ago that we were all talking about how our children and grandchildren would be affected by climate change. Now, looking at this evidence, it’s in our own lifetimes.” (via 3quarksdaily)

In the report Chapter 20: Perspectives on Climate Change and Sustainability contains Table 20.8 and 20.9 that summarize some of the expected amount of climate change expected for different emissions scenarios and the consquences of those those changes. Click on the images below to see the fullsize versions.

highway to hell

Table 20.8 – global impacts

highway to hell - regional version

Table 20.9 – regional impacts

Catastrophe Bonds: Markets, Learning and Volatility

“Wall Street is a machine for turning information nobody cares about into information people can get rich from.” Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, Aug 26 NYTimes in his article about catatrophe bonds – which are used to share disaster lossses – Nature’s Casino:

From Miami to San Francisco, the nation’s priciest real estate now faced beaches and straddled fault lines; its most vibrant cities occupied its most hazardous land. If, after World War II, you had set out to redistribute wealth to maximize the sums that might be lost to nature, you couldn’t have done much better than Americans had done. And virtually no one — not even the weather bookies — fully understood the true odds.

But there was an exception: an American so improbably prepared for the havoc Tropical Depression 12 was about to wreak that he might as well have planned it. His name was John Seo, he was 39 years old and he ran a hedge fund in Westport, Conn., whose chief purpose was to persuade investors to think about catastrophe in the same peculiar way that he did. He had invested nearly a billion dollars of other people’s money in buying what are known as “cat bonds.” The buyer of a catastrophe bond is effectively selling catastrophe insurance. He puts down his money and will lose it all if some specified bad thing happens within a predetermined number of years: a big hurricane hitting Miami, say, or some insurance company losing more than $1 billion on any single natural disaster. In exchange, the cat-bond seller — an insurance company looking to insure itself against extreme losses — pays the buyer a high rate of interest.

everywhere he goes, he has been drawn to a similar thorny problem: the right price to charge to insure against potential losses from extremely unlikely financial events. “Tail risk,” as it is known to quantitative traders, for where it falls in a bell-shaped probability curve. Tail risk, broadly speaking, is whatever financial cataclysm is believed by markets to have a 1 percent chance or less of happening. In the foreign-exchange market, the tail event might be the dollar falling by one-third in a year; in the bond market, it might be interest rates moving 3 percent in six months; in the stock market, it might be a 30 percent crash. “If there’s been a theme to John’s life,” says his brother Nelson, “it’s pricing tail.”

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Lessons of Katrina

From TimeIt was roughly two years ago that New Orleans spectactularly failed to cope, technologically and socially, with Hurricane Katrina. Over 1,8oo people died, neighbourhoods and livlihoods were destroyed, and the storm is estimated to have caused over $80 billion in damage.

One of the fundamental principles of successful ecological management is learning from your mistakes, and incorporating those lessons into management practices. Two recent retrospectives, one in Time and the other in Mother Jones, on what has followed the storm indicate not a lot has been learned by the various institutions responsible the ecological management of the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

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Climate change and Tipping Points in the Amazon

Most of the talks from a recent conference on Climate change and the fate of the Amazon at University of Oxford are available online as slides and podcasts. Some of the interesting points from the conference:

  • Intact forests may be more resistant to drought than climate-vegetation models usually assume (deep roots, large soil water reserves, hydraulic uplift)
  • The interaction of drought with forest fragmentation and fire ignition points can trigger tipping to savanna forest with less biodiversity and biomass.
  • Global demand for soybeans and biofuels could drive substantial land clearing.
  • Substantial opportuntities for land use change feedbacks exist in Amazonia. Climatic drying could allow the expansion of soy and sugarcane cultivation, which would feedback to stimulate further drying.
  • There is a need increase the resilience of the Amazon, because models estimate a non-trival chance of severe drought and forest dieback over the 21st century. Resilience can be enhanced by enhancing the recycling of water vapour that maintains mesic forests in the amazon.

David Oswald works on Amazonia forest resilience in my lab. He attended the conference and has these recommendations on the talks:

Carlos Nobre – Dr. Nobre is very well-known internationally and especially in Brazil. He is a climate scientist by training but is involved in the leadership of scientific research projects such as IGBP, CPTEC, and the LBA project. He alludes to the importance of Ecological Resilience and Stability in his talk, but more detail and a conceptual framework is required – (that is what I am working on).

Peter Cox – Dr. Cox is a well-known global climate modeller and first published a paper in 2000 about the “Dieback” of the Amazon. This was very controversial when it came out and inspired many people to look at this problem from different perspectives and also using different global climate models. The follow up work to the 2000 paper has similar results and unfortunately, one of the outcomes of the conference was that there is general concensus that increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the corresponding climate change could have very serious effects on the Amazon. Again, these research projects at this scale have a high degree of uncertainty, but the people presenting, who are all experts, came to similar conclusions. Check it out for yourself.

Chris Huntingford – Dr. Huntingford’s presentation was a follow up to Cox’s work, basically testing the hyothesis and strength of results.

Luiz Aragao – Dr. Aragao and his collaborators did some interesting work with remote sensing, similar to the type of approach I am taking. Very solid work.

Michael Keller – Dr. Keller is with the US Forest Service and has been involved with the LBA project in a leadership position since the early 90’s. He has a broad historical as well as sound scientific perspective on things.

Dan Neptad – Dr. Nepstad is extremely well known in Amazonian research and is at the Woods Hole Research center. He has done some very interesting work with water availability and ecosystem health in the Amazon and has designed some very cool experiments. Increasingly, his work is focused on the interaction between science and development policy in this region. His presentation speaks to that. He is a progressive thinker, and also very active on the ground in the Amazon.

Juan Carlos Riveros – Dr. Riveros gave a very interesting talk on conservation strategies in the Amazon. I was blown away by the extent of the research they have done and continue to do with respect to conservation strategies. They have done some very interesting spatial analytical work. Good for a geography-oriented person.

Diogenes Alves – Dr. Alves is an interesting person. By training, he is a computational mathematician. He has been involved extensively with the design and planning of the LBA project. His presentation outlined the epistemological framework they used and also some of the challenges they initally faced with the structuring of an international scientific research project that clearly was embedded in a complex social and economic situation. He alluded to Systems Theory in his talk, and that really appealed to me, so I am including this one for those that are interested in the links between Social Science and Natural Science and the practical realities one faces when doing this type of research.

Kevin Conrad – Mr. Conrad is with a group called the Rainforest Coalition. He presented a strategy for rainforest conservation based on using the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol as a means of attaching economic value on the carbon market to rainforests that are preserved and not degraded. I did not understand in depth this strategy, but it seems that there are positive merits to this approach. I personally, am not 100% sold on exclusively using market solutions but I think that they do play an important role. For more detail you can check out his presentation and come to your own conclusions.

Dr. Yadvinder Malhi’s provides a summary of the conference. He draws out the key points and overall conclusions.

Disaster Data

The World Resources Institute’s EarthTrends weblog points to some data on trends in natural and manmade disasters.

Although natural and manmade disasters occur in all countries regardless of income or size, not all governments have the resources necessary for prevention and emergency response. For those regions already battling widespread poverty, disease, and malnutrition, disasters are a significant constraint on social and economic development. Understanding the trends that describe disasters through time and space is very important, particularly in light of climate change, which threatens to alter both the distribution and severity of disasters worldwide.

EarthTrends links to an interesting/scary figure on Trends in disaters below from UNEP.

trends in disasters

With growing population and infrastructures the world’s exposure to natural hazards is inevitably increasing. This is particularly true as the strongest population growth is located in coastal areas (with greater exposure to floods, cyclones and tidal waves). To make matters worse any land remaining available for urban growth is generally risk-prone, for instance flood plains or steep slopes subject to landslides. The statistics in the graph opposite reveal an exponential increase in disasters. This raises several questions. Is the increase due to a significant improvement in access to information? What part does population growth and infrastructure development play? Finally, is climate change behind the increasing frequency of natural hazards?

Decreasing vulnerability to desertification reports that Forced migration from desertification and land degradation is an emerging environmental issue. Researchers are trying to identify to identify policies that increase the resilience of agro-ecosystems to climate change and decrease social vulnerability to desertification:

Desertification could create more than 135 million refugees, as droughts become more frequent and climate change makes water increasingly scarce in dryland regions, warn UN experts. …”Migration is a top-of-mind political issue in many countries. We are at the beginning of an unavoidably long process,” said Janos Bogardi, director of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security.

Drylands are home to one third of the world’s population, but they contain only eight per cent of global freshwater resources.

The Toronto Star writes:

The main current problem is the spread of deserts, both because Earth’s climate is warming and because impoverished people in dry areas are denuding the land for cooking fuel.

Poverty and climate change impacts feed on each other, Adeel said. For example, once land is cleared of vegetation, it reflects more of the sun’s heat into the atmosphere, warming the climate. That, in turn, increases the spread of areas too dry to support vegetation.”We have a poor sense of how fast it’s happening, but current estimates are that 200 million people now live in desertified areas,” Adeel said. Some 2 billion live in dry areas threatened with becoming desert.With every rise of 1 degree Celsius in average temperature, the boundary of such parched areas expands by another 200 kilometres, he said.

A Reuters article continues:

“Bad policies are as much to blame for aggravating desertification as climate change,” said Zafar Adeel, head of the U.N. University’s Canada-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health.

…”If millions of people with skills as farmers suddenly find themselves living in desertified areas … they have no time to adapt and have to flee,” Janos Bogardi, head of the U.N. University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, told Reuters.

New policies could include helping people whose lands are at risk from erosion to plant more drought-resistant crops or turn to new activities such as eco-tourism, fish farming or production of solar energy.

Too often farmers tried to offset degradation of drylands by ever more costly irrigation rather than switching to less water-demanding activities.

“Crops transpire water. It’s a very water-intensive process,” Adeel said.

Human development, Canada, and water

Canada ranks #6 in the world according the UN’s annual report on human development. Back in the 1990s Canada ranked number #1, a fact frequently trumpeted by the Canadian government. Today, are Canadians worse off?The human development report ranks countries using an index that combines three aspects of human development: living a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), being educated (measured by adult literacy and enrolment in primary, secondary and post-secondary education) and having a decent standard of living (the per capita purchasing power parity adjusted GDP). The index provides a broader view of human wellbeing than economic growth, but it also excludes difficult to measure aspects of development such as respect for human rights, democracy and social inequality.

canada HDI

As shown in the figure above, Canada has actually improved on all these indicators over the past decade, but some other rich countries have improved a little bit more. The difference between Canada and other rich countries is relatively minor, compared to that between the rich countries and other regions.

The big pattern revealed in this graph is that contrary to many people’s expectations, human wellbeing has substantially improved in most places in the world. Trends for individual countries can be explored using an interactive graph on the report’s website. The Swedish NGO Gapminder, founded by Hans Rosling, also has a visualization of data from the 2006 Human Development Report. These show huge changes in child mortality and family size, with some countries in Africa lagging behind the rest of the world.

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The Vegetable-Industrial Complex

Michael Pollan article The Vegetable-Industrial Complex in the October 15th New York Times describes an example of Holling’s pathology of natural resource management in agriculture.

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem — chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

But if industrial farming gave us this bug, it is industrial eating that has spread it far and wide. We don’t yet know exactly what happened in the case of the spinach washed and packed by Natural Selection Foods, whether it was contaminated in the field or in the processing plant or if perhaps the sealed bags made a trivial contamination worse. But we do know that a great deal of spinach from a great many fields gets mixed together in the water at that plant, giving microbes from a single field an opportunity to contaminate a vast amount of food. The plant in question washes 26 million servings of salad every week. In effect, we’re washing the whole nation’s salad in one big sink.

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Two faces of India: water and wind

india sanitationIn two recent articles the New York Times has written about different faces of India: environmental crisis and environmental innovation both driven by failures to effectively govern energy and water systems.India’s water management crisis is described in the article In Teeming India, Water Crisis Means Dry Pipes and Foul Sludge. The article focuses on New Delhi and how India’s inequality limits its ability to govern public goods, such as aquifiers, rivers, and even its water system.

The crisis, decades in the making, has grown as fast as India in recent years. A soaring population, the warp-speed sprawl of cities, and a vast and thirsty farm belt have all put new strains on a feeble, ill-kept public water and sanitation network.

The combination has left water all too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for millions who are flooded each year. Today the problems threaten India’s ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities healthy and habitable. At stake is not only India’s economic ambition but its very image as the world’s largest democracy.

…New Delhi’s water woes are typical of those of many Indian cities. Nationwide, the urban water distribution network is in such disrepair that no city can provide water from the public tap for more than a few hours a day.

An even bigger problem than demand is disposal. New Delhi can neither quench its thirst, nor adequately get rid of the ever bigger heaps of sewage that it produces. Some 45 percent of the population is not connected to the public sewerage system.

Those issues are amplified nationwide. More than 700 million Indians, or roughly two-thirds of the population, do not have adequate sanitation. Largely for lack of clean water, 2.1 million children under the age of 5 die each year, according to the United Nations.

[New Delhi’s] pipe network remains a punctured mess. That means, like most everything else in this country, some people have more than enough, and others too little.

The slums built higgledy-piggledy behind Mrs. Prasher’s neighborhood have no public pipes at all. The Jal Board sends tankers instead. The women here waste their days waiting for water, and its arrival sets off desperate wrestling in the streets.

Kamal Krishnan quit her job for the sake of securing her share. Five days a week, she would clean offices in the next neighborhood. Five nights a week, she would go home to find no water at home. The buckets would stand empty. Finally, her husband ordered her to quit. And wait.

“I want to work, but I can’t,” she said glumly. “I go mad waiting for water.”

Elsewhere, in the central city, where the nation’s top politicians have their official homes, the average daily water supply is three times what finally arrives even in Mrs. Prasher’s neighborhood.

The same public failings have also lead to an unexpected wind power boom in India. This boom, lead by Suzlon Energy, is described in The Ascent of Wind Power.

Not even on the list of the world’s top 10 wind-turbine manufacturers as recently as 2002, Suzlon passed Siemens of Germany last year to become the fifth-largest producer by installed megawatts of capacity. It still trails the market leader, Vestas Wind Systems of Denmark, as well as General Electric, Enercon of Germany and Gamesa Tecnológica of Spain.
Suzlon’s past shows how a company can prosper by tackling the special needs of a developing country. Its present suggests a way of serving expanding energy needs without relying quite so much on coal, the fastest-growth fossil fuel now but also the most polluting.

Roughly 70 percent of the demand for wind turbines in India comes from industrial users seeking alternatives to relying on the grid, said Tulsi R. Tanti, Suzlon’s managing director. The rest of the purchases are made by a small group of wealthy families in India, for whom the tax breaks for wind turbines are attractive.

The demand for wind turbines has particularly accelerated in India, where installations rose nearly 48 percent last year, and in China, where they rose 65 percent, although from a lower base. Wind farms are starting to dot the coastline of east-central China and the southern tip of India, as well as scattered mesas and hills across central India and even Inner Mongolia.

WorldChanging also comments on wind power in India.