Category Archives: Climate Change

Two Hurricanes

Source: Jacobin by 

Why environmentalists’ fear of bigness dooms the developing world.

(star of hope international / flickr)

I come from the minority on the Left that is skeptical of environmentalism. This is not skepticism of the science, but of the politics and ideology of environmentalism.

Consider the difference between Hurricane Mitch, a Category 4 hurri­cane, and Hurricane Andrew, a Cat­egory 5.

1992’s Andrew was a more power­ful storm than Mitch, but Andrew hit Florida, where it killed about 80 peo­ple and left about 125,000 temporarily homeless. Due to the wealth and social organization of the region, most people had a place to take refuge, and nearly everybody had found a new place to live within a year.

Mitch hit Central America – mainly Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – in 1998. It was catastrophic, killing 11,000 people, with just as many miss­ing, and it left 2.7 million people home­less. The economic devastation led to a cholera outbreak.

Why the difference?

The answer lies with Central Amer­ica’s poverty and underdevelopment. Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are much less industrialized countries, with bad roads, poor communication networks, weak construction, and so on.

The lesson here is that our most ur­gent environmental priority should be helping Global South industrialize, so that it has more protection from the vi­cissitudes of nature. After all, there are always going to be these natural disas­ters. So better to redistribute resources to the South so that it can scale up its ability to control nature, rather than to roll back that project in the developed countries.

That, to me, is the radical position on the environment. It calls for a large-scale industrial development and a mas­sive redistribution of wealth. And yet, it is almost entirely at odds with the poli­tics and ideology of environmentalism. Environmentalists consistently tend to see the development of industry, and the wider attempt to dominate nature, as wrong, perverse, and the source of man’s domination over man.

The control and manipulation of nature is a good thing. It is potentially emancipatory. Such technological con­trol is certainly a condition of possibil­ity for any of the aims regarding the reduction of necessary labor and en­joyment of leisure time that the Left used to be committed to and which have been consistently defended in Ja­cobin’s pages.

I may be more pessimistic than oth­ers about the ability to transform envi­ronmentalism, especially its tendencies towards misanthropy and despair, into something more affirmative and hu­manistic. These pessimistic and con­servative tendencies are rooted very deeply in environmentalism itself. To see the way these tendencies play out, let’s look at the ideological and political affinities between environmentalism and Occupy.

Ideologically, there is a shared view regarding the dangers of size. Through­out Occupy, there was a common ar­gument against corporations on the grounds that they are large-scale hu­man enterprises, which destroy com­munities and nature simply by virtue of their size.

That critique taps into the environ­mentalist tendency to be hostile to the industrial revolution and the aspiration to control nature for human purposes that lies at the heart of that revolution. A strain of antihumanism has been prominent in environmentalism for a long time. This antihumanism is rooted in that very premise – that it is wrong to control nature for human purposes, and that the attempt to control nature lies at the root of contemporary problems. The problem with large-scale human enterprises like corporations is not their size or relationship to nature, but who controls them. If anything, the hostility to controlling nature displaces a con­cern with the relations of production onto the forces of production. The most problematic thing about corporations is the way the distribution of owner­ship and control ends up socializing costs while privatizing benefits. But those benefits could be socialized and put into a more rational relationship to human needs.

The other ideological affinity is that while Occupy has been global in its per­spective, it has been very local in its uto­pian vision and prefigurative politics. That’s also true of environmentalism, which has had trouble giving us an al­ternative social vision that could be in­ternational in scope. At least, it has not given us anything that would be more than a bunch of federated, small-scale self-sufficient production communities. I don’t think there is anything attractive in that vision, and it is not something that I identify with the forward-looking, universalistic aspirations of the Left.

On the political side, Occupy has been a kind of cipher for a number of movements that have had trouble connecting up with mass politics. It seemed to offer a mass political mo­ment to which various groups could attach themselves. Environmentalism is one of those movements that have had trouble finding and establishing majoritarian connections.

There are a number of reasons why it has faced these obstacles. One is the social pessimism of environmentalism itself. Its narrative is one of despair. It is hard to convince many to sign on to a political project that is pessimistic and verges on misanthropy, or at least tends towards the view that, on the whole, human will and intention have largely led to destruction rather than produc­tion. After all, a basic premise running through much of environmentalism is that the past three hundred years teach us a particular lesson: when we try to control nature, the unintended conse­quences of human action are far more destructive than the intended ones.

The problem here is not merely that you are going to have trouble appeal­ing to mass interests when you begin by telling people they should consume less – it is deeper than that. When you are trying to mobilize people to engage in large-scale political action, but the lesson is that whenever we engage in large scale international action there are even worse unintended conse­quences, it is hard to see why anyone would be willing to sign up. It’s no won­der environmentalists find themselves in a certain kind of political impasse vis-à-vis mass politics.

There are two other self-limiting as­pects of environmentalism. One is the “crisis” mode of politics. This “we must act now, we don’t have time to reflect” that we find in much climate activism is deeply problematic. As I have written elsewhere, it is a politics of fear. Our existence is threatened (by natural ca­tastrophe); we don’t have time to argue or disagree; we must act now; politics has been reduced to the quest for sur­vival – this all sounds exactly like the War on Terror.

This appeal to fear will limit the ap­peal to mass politics. It is debilitating, not appealing. In the face of a crisis of this magnitude and immediacy, why act? Why would anyone think action can make a difference? Moreover, the appeal to fear is a way of supplanting rather than articulating more robust human aspirations. Survival alone is not much to aspire to.

Environmentalists have attempted to overcome these limitations by ap­pealing to the authority of science. It is very common to hear that “the science is in,” as if that tells us what we ought to do. But even if the science is in, the science does not tell us how to act.

Scientists can tell us about the com­plex things happening in the natural world. But before we can act, we have to find agreement on a host of political, economic and ideological questions about which scientists have nothing to say. Scientists often know very little about political and economic questions.

Should we adapt to effects or miti­gate the causes? Who should bear the burdens of adaptation or mitigation to climate change? Which economic and political institutions are the most desir­able? Which risks and natural changes are acceptable? These are social ques­tions, not scientific ones. But the ap­peal to science is an end run around trying to resolve them – it dresses up ideological concerns in the garb of un­impeachable scientific authority.

Even some of the more outlandish versions of “denialism” or rejection of the science, should be understood as a reaction to this authoritarian attempt to use science to force certain policies and projects down people’s throats. People can tell when science is being used as a stick to silence legitimate disagreement. And this holds not just for certain ele­ments of right-wing populism, but even within and amongst lefties themselves.

This appeal to “the science” is a last-ditch reaction to the failure to convince the public of environmental aims. It is, moreover, where the background ideological and political issues – is en­vironmentalism antihumanistic, does it really articulate progressive aspira­tions, can it do more than appeal to fear – matter. The turn to science reg­isters these ideological problems and weaknesses.

In the talk on which this essay is based, someone made the observation that when Israelis destroyed a power generator in Gaza, Palestinians turned to bicycle generators. They produced their own energy in their own homes. The Palestinian bicycle generators were offered as an example of how carbon-free energy technology could also serve as a moment of resistance to domina­tion. The sympathetic audience wel­comed this example.

This kind of argument exemplifies a very dangerous and conservative ten­dency in environmentalism. There was nothing subversive about the Palestin­ian response. It was accommodation to necessity – a necessity imposed by Israeli occupation and the authoritarian destruction of cheaper, more efficient sources of energy.

The virtue of a power plant is that it frees all but the few who run it from having to dedicate labor to power gen­eration, or having to rely on costlier energy sources. That Palestinians were forced to produce energy in their own homes was a further sign of their unfreedom, as they had to devote more of their labor to producing bare neces­sities than they had previously. Any cel­ebration of bicycle generators ignores actual power relations by turning the radically unequal relations of power between Palestinians and Israelis into a question of the Palestinian relation­ship to nature.

If this were an aberrant and mis­guided example, it would mean little. But environmentalist arguments fre­quently rationalize conditions that the Left ought to criticize. I remember being in San Diego, where I grew up, during the California energy crisis of 2000–2001. I would be sitting at home in the middle of the summer and sud­denly the lights would go out and the air conditioning shut off. This was the richest state in the richest country in the world and it couldn’t supply energy properly to its citizens.

As it turned out, this had to do with market manipulation by energy companies and traders, mainly Enron, who were creating artificial shortages to drive prices up and overcharge the public.

What I distinctly remember is that many California environmentalists ar­gued that this was an opportunity to learn to conserve, and spent most of their time either recommending con­servation strategies or arguing that this was further proof that we shouldn’t de­mand such cheap energy. Many people followed suit, and various conservation efforts sprang up across the state.

Now, I don’t think there was any­thing very positive about these efforts, and I think the environmental argu­ments were downright pernicious. Both in practice and in theory, environmen­talist efforts were rationalizing a major market failure. Like the defenders of Palestinian bicycle generators, these environmentalists turned a situation that was the product of radically unfair and unfree social relations into a moral story about our relationship to nature.

Not only do is there a tendency to rationalize relations of political and eco­nomic irrationality, but this tendency steers debates in a dangerous direction. Cheap energy is a good thing. It frees people from all kinds of mundane tasks, allows for the production and use of machines that could eliminate neces­sary labor, and makes possible much better standards of living.

There seems to be a strong environ­mentalist impulse to reverse that trend, to get us to spend more, not less, of our day having to waste our time with mundane tasks, even generating our own power. There’s a better way.


Locals bypass ADB Road Projects (Flood Recovery)

Locals bypass ADB road projects

Thursday, 06 September 2012
 Gregory Pellechi

Workers build a bridge in Prey Veng province yesterday. Photograph: Andy Jones/Phnom Penh Post

As much as local people are benefiting from the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) recovery project following last year’s record floods, they aren’t receiving all the benefits they could, according to some accounts.

Operating in five provinces of Cambodia to restore road access to those affected by the floods, the ADB and its government partners conducted a press tour to highlight their efforts at recovery, a year after the disaster.

Deputy Country Director Peter Brimble of the ADB’s resident mission said the work was part of the first two stages of a three-year plan to “build back better”.

The roads, bridges and dykes, all still under construction, were being built by workers from other provinces because some of the local people felt the pay was too low.

Oeun Bunthoeun, a concrete mold specialist from Kampong Chhang province working on the Krong Prey Veng and Brary Lex bridges in Prey Veng province along National Road 11, said he receives 20,000 riel (US$5) per day, while local workers, who are often classed as unskilled labourers, receive only 12,000 per day.

“The local workers demand 20,000 riel per day,” Oeun Bunthoeun said, estimating that only two workers out of the 30 on the bridge projects came from the same area.

Local fertilizer salesman Long Chen Thoeun, whose residence is adjacent to the construction area, knew of nobody from the local area working on either the bridges or the dyke that acts as a detour around Prey Veng city and connects National Roads 8 and 11.

Prek Po Deputy Commune Chief Khut An, who is also a rice farmer, said the road improvements made it much easier to get to market via rural road KC1A that links Srey Santhor district to Koh Sotin district in Kampong Cham.

“Previously I spent 10 minutes to get to market, now I spend only two or three. Now we fall a lot less and even save on fuel,” he said.

As part of the flood recovery project the ADB has engaged a cash-for-work element in its program to get local people involved, but that was in the immediate aftermath of the floods when emergency repairs were needed, according to Brimble.

Senior Project Officer for infrastructure at the ADB, Nida Ouk, said the construction and rehabilitation of Cambodia’s rural roads are more often done by local unskilled labour because the job does not require the use of heavy machinery.

As part of ADB’s plan for the third and final stage of the project, which should last a further two years, the ADB is looking to provide local workers with maintenance contracts along a section of road, Brimble said.

Together with the Australian and Cambodian governments, ADB provided about $67.18 million for post-flood infrastructure recovery, which the bank is integrating into its resident mission plan to dovetail with their other work, Brimble added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greogry Pellechi

Survival Lessons From an Ancient Failed City



Survival Lessons From an Ancient Failed City

The city of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was a vibrant, growing metropolis in the late 17th century. Angkor was the New York, Paris or Rome of its time. At its peak from the 9th to 17th centuries AD, no one could have imagined any threat to this Khmer city-state. Yet, Angkor collapsed almost totally in the 17th century, and the reasons behind its demise offer an important lesson for today’s cities.

Angkor was built on a vast transportation network: canals acted substantially like freeways. The metropolis grew by expanding its network of canals from the central city to form a vast complex of suburban satellites. As depicted below, this was a gigantic enterprise. Ankgor grew exponentially as internal wealth and power increased. The waterways allowed goods and people to move well beyond the central core of the city.

Angkor Wat Water Suburbanization, photo by Roland Fletcher

But as Angkor continued to grow, its waterways became more fragile and vulnerable. Rain and other small but severe weather changes occurred, and the system began to crumble. My colleague Roland Fletcher, a professor of architecture at the University of Sydney in Australia, describes this process as “low density metropolitan collapse.”

Fletcher excavates cities to discover their social, physical, and economic trajectories. He and his colleagues have found a high correlation between extensive low-density suburbanization and subsequent metropolitan collapse. His thesis is that city expansion increases with wealth, which leads to, in essence, suburbanization.

Angkor expanded in a mild weather period. So, Angkor policymakers assumed this weather regime would continue forever and thus built their canals with few water catchments and earthen dams.

Today’s sprawling cities expanded in a period of mild weather too, with no anticipation that seas might rise or energy resources could be depleted. Angkor and modern cities resemble one another in that they were built to survive in only the most benign weather regimes. The roads, sewers and the like of the modern suburb are based on an assumption of mild weather and cheap energy. Recent events like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and subsequent Midwestern intense storms show how poorly modern infrastructure performs in extreme weather.

Elongated shallow roads and related infrastructure are as vulnerable today to destructive forces as Angkor Wat’s canals were. Fletcher explains the consequences of this process from dense city to decaying suburbs in the video below:

There may be some debate over the causes and consequences of how cities rise and fall, but there is no doubt we have similar processes at work now in America. New Orleans, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and urban South Central Florida have experienced crippling disasters in the last two decades, where part of the cities have been destroyed beyond our capacity to rebuild them.

In 2012, there were more national emergencies for tornadoes, hurricanes, and snow storms that in any other year since records have been kept. As sea levels rise and weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable, basic city settlement systems are failing. Angkor Wat was not the first or last place to go through this evolution of city boom, sprawl and bust. Beirut and other cities around the world have grown and retreated as climatic conditions changed.

And of course, we don’t have to look as far back for even more analogues. As our energy supplies dwindle, we’ve watched as radical weather imperils America’s aging infrastructure. It is too simple to suggest that we can draw direct parallels here. But it is useful to learn from the past as we try to build or rebuild for the future. It is also unwise to suggest all suburbs are bad. What policymakers have to confront is what can we do in light of this past evidence.

Two blighted houses sit vacant in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Photo by Lee Celano/Reuters

Climate change plays a part but is not the sole culprit. New Orleans, where I spent considerable time post-Katrina as Recovery Czar, is a classic example of city sprawl. The city had almost 15,000 vacant units of housing in its core when the storm hit in 2005. City leaders had expanded the city into surrounding swamplands from 1965 to 1990, doubling the geographic size of the city. So when the storm hit, the city was expanded beyond the bulwarks of levees, leaving the entire city vulnerable to sea surges destroying much of the suburban infrastructure.

Many American cities have large suburban extensions held together by vast, over-stretched infrastructure. As Fletcher notes, the expansion of low-rise land use patterns require continued expansion of roads, water, and energy resources. This, in turn, could lead to a situation much like New Orleans, where the entire city framework is threatened when climate change alters rain, heat, and sea levels. Beijing experienced this phenomena last month with more than 30 lives lost because the expanded city could not support the volumes of flood water created by expansions of the city into surrounding natural habitat.

The lesson for American and similar land use pattern nations like Canada and Australia is to build compact, flexible settlements. One direction already underway is urban consolidation, in cities such as Miami, Indianapolis, and Louisville. Another is containment of sprawl, similar to Portland and Seattle and now Los Angeles. Finally, Denver, Phoenix, and Dallas are trying to re-knit the suburbs with the cities using light rail to generate development along corridors rather than continuous outward development. All of these approaches at this point have merit, but they may not be enough to prevent massive systems failures. So as the nation debates the need for more infrastructure spending, it would be wiser to think of a strategy to improve city cores and reinforce transport spines. Angkor Wat is a useful lesson because it shows that if we don’t take drastic action, we are all facing the grim prospect of massive regional system failures. Cities can generate suburbs; but suburbs cannot save the city.

Photo credit: Andrew L. /Shutterstock

Edward J. Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He served as the Executive Director of Recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is an international urban policy theorist and practitioner. His most recent book is My Storm. All posts »

Week 15 – Phnom Penh River Time Lapse

The river is down about half a meter from last week – it felt like it rained a lot this week. All photos here on Flickr.

Live water levels from the Mekong River Commission here and here. Rainfall levels are here (Tonle Sap Delta).

Phnom Penh (Bassac)
Flood level = 12.00 m
Alarm level = 10.50 m

Water level on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 07:00 AM = 5.82 m
Forecast level on Thursday, July 12, 2012 = 5.69 m

Water level on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 07:00 AM = 5.26 m
Forecast level on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 = 5.18 m

Phnom Penh Port
Flood level = 11.00 m
Alarm level = 9.50 m

Water level on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 07:00 AM = 4.66 m
Forecast level on Thursday, July 12, 2012 = 4.54 m

Water level on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 07:00 AM = 4.35 m
Forecast level on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 = 4.28

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6
Week 7
Week 8
Week 9
Week 10
Week 11
Week 12
Week 13
Week 14



Week 15 – 17 July 2012 – view left.


Week 14 – 11 July 2012 – view left.

11 July - Time Lapse

Week 13 – 3 July 012 – view left.

3 July - Week 13

Week 12 – 25 June 2012 – view left.

Week 12 - 25 June

Week 11 – 18 June 2012 – view left.

Week 11 - Phnom Penh River Time Lapse

Week 10 – 12 June 2012 – view left.

Week 10 - Phnom Penh Time Lapse

Week 9 – 2 June 2012 – view left.

Week 9 - Phnom Penh River Time Lapse

Week 8 – 26 May 2012 – view left.

Week 8 - May 26

Week 7 – 18 May 2012 – view left.

Week 7 - May 18

Week 6 – 11 May 2012 – view left.

Week 6 - May 11

Week 5 – 6 May 2012 – view left.

6 May - Week 5

Week 4 – 27 April 2012 – view left.

Week 4 - 27 April

Week 3 – 21 April 2012 – view left.

21 April - Week 3

Week 2 – 12 April 2012 – view left.

12 April 2012

Week 1 – 6 April 2012 – view left.

6 April 2012

Week 15 – 17 July 2012 – view right.

Week 14 – 11 July 2012 – view right.

Week 14 - 11 July - Time Lapse

Week 13 – 3 July 012 – view right.

3 July - Week 13

Week 12 – 25 June 2012 – view right.

Week 12 - 25 June

Week 11 – 18 June 2012 – view right.

Week 11 - Phnom Penh River Time Lapse

Week 10 – 12 June 2012 – view right.

Week 10 - Phnom Penh Time Lapse

Week 9 – 2 June 2012 – view right.

Week 9 - Phnom Penh River Time Lapse

Week 8 – 25 May 2012 – view right.

Week 8 - May 26

Week 7 – 18 May 2012 – view right.

Week 7 - May 18

Week 6 – 11 May 2012 – view right.


Week 5 – 6 May 2012 – view right.

6 May - Week 5

Week 4 – 27 April 2012 – view right.

Week 4 - 27 April

Week 3 – 21 April 2012 – view right.

21 April - Week 3

Week 2 – 12 April 2012 – view right.

12 April 2012

Week 1 – 6 April 2012 – view right.

6 April 2012

Mekong Flows


“This site is dedicated to  providing information on potential flow changes in the Mekong River and its tributaries.  Outcomes of on-going research  on  the expected  environmental and economic impact of these changes are also presented.” 

The  Mekong river flows 4800 km from  Tibet through China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand,Cambodia, the Vietnam delta, and into the South China Sea, draining an area of 795,000 sq. km.   It is currenlty one of the least modified large rivers and the second most bio-diverse river in the world after the Amazon.

Flows in the Mekong are naturally controlled by the seasonal tropical monsoons.  The current patterns and variations of water flows in the Mekong River are critical to sustaining fisheries, agriculture, ecosystems as well as the culture of people in the basin. The river supports the world’s largest freshwater fishery and the livelihood of 65 million people dependent on its flows.  These flows are  at risk of being significantly altered through  extensive ongoing developments and plans of hydropower in mainstream and tributaries, water abstractions for agriculture, and climate change.

When the River Stops Reversing


From the blog:

Could the compounding impacts of hydropower development,  climate change, and mismanagement one day stop the reversal of the Tonle Sap river?

This blog is an attempt by Sophat Soeung to answer this question by following, collecting news, and reflecting on the latest and most challenging developments facing the Mekong and Tonle Sap, and the people who depend on them, with a focus on Cambodia.

The Tonle Sap lake-river during the dry season (dark blue) and rainy season (light blue).

So this will be my presentation topic atthis year’s 4th Khmer Studies Forum at Ohio University, April 27-29, 2012. Interestingly, the presentation comes at a time when there is more media coverage on the Mekong river issues, including the recent Mekong-Japan Summit, Cambodia’s warning to Laos about the Xayaburi dam, and Cambodia’s own criticized tributary dam plans.

You can also follow my musings on the Mekong river issues pertaining to Cambodia at I hope to see you at Ohio University. Here’s my presentation abstract:

When the River Stops Reversing: Raising Environmental Awareness for the Tonle Sap

The Mekong river’s unique hydrology has profoundly shaped Cambodian culture and its civilization for over two millennia. From the author’s experience, however, modern Cambodians do not appear to fully understand or appreciate this connection, resulting in lack of engagement on environmental issues and misguided development policies. The Tonle Sap river is believed to be the world’s only inland river that seasonally reverses its flow. The significance of this hydrological reversal lies beyond its physical symbolism – more importantly, it determines the food security of Cambodia, having shaped its cultural lifeblood for over two millennia. To most Cambodians, this river’s strange rhythm seems ‘natural’ and enduring. However, today the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers are under threat from infrastructure development and climate change more than ever before. For example, the erection of a dam or a decrease in rainfall could disrupt the seasonal reversal. In this context, the author believes that the metaphor of an irreversible Tonle Sap river can serve as a wake-up call for Cambodians of all walks of life to be more aware of their physio-social environment. Through better education and activism, this narrative could elicit more widespread engagement in Mekong river issues, while also bringing about more sustainable national policies to address the developmental and environmental challenges that Cambodia and neighboring countries face in managing this shared resource.

Hydropower Sustainability Protocol

The CPWF recently held a workshop in Laos on Hydropower Sustainability. The International Hydropower Association released its Hydropower Sustainability Protocol.

“The Protocol topics cover the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental, and include issues such as downstream flow regimes, indigenous peoples, biodiversity, infrastructure safety, resettlement, water quality, and erosion and sedimentation.”

National Security Assessment: Water Scarcity Disrupting U.S. and Three Continents

National Security Assessment: Water Scarcity Disrupting U.S. and Three Continents

TUESDAY, 03 APRIL 2012 13:04

In a new report, the U.S. State Department finds a global confrontation between growing water demand and shrinking supplies, in addition to predictions for the next 30 years of water security.

U.S. State Department Secretary of State Hillary Clinton World Water Day Circle of Blue

On World Water Day, March 22, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced a new State Department report on the world’s water crisis. Fourteen of Circle of Blue’s photographs were featured at the State Department event. Click the image to launch slideshow.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

The world’s demand for fresh water is growing so fast that, by 2030, agriculture, industry, and expanding cities on three continents will face such scarce supplies that the confrontation could disrupt economic development and cause ruinous political instability, according to the first U.S. cabinet-level report on the global water crisis.

The report, “Global Water Security,” prepared for the State Department by the National Intelligence Council, found that, unless there are serious changes in conservation and water use practices, global water demand will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters (1,800 trillion gallons) annually by 2030, a figure that is about 2,400 billion cubic meters (634 trillion gallons) higher than today. The authors of the report concluded that level of consumption is “40 percent above current sustainable water supplies,” and will “hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.”

In other words, this would be the equivalent of adding four Chinas over the next 18 years,since China currently uses around 600 billion cubic meters (158 trillion gallons) of water annually.

2006 – After a bureaucratic consolidation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is created. Each year, the director is required to report to Congress on America’s chief national security threats. In this first assessment, neither water nor climate nor food is mentioned. The report mentions the environment only in relation to Chinese domestic political stability.
2007 – There is no reference to water, climate, or food, but the environment is again mentioned in relation to Chinese domestic political stability.
2008 – Because of price spikes this year, a section of the report is dedicated to food security. This is also the first reference to water, as a factor in food production. Climate change is not mentioned.
2009 – The first report from the Obama administration. Four pages are dedicated to environmental security. Climate change, food, water, and global health are discussed.
2010 – There is a section on the regional effects of climate change. Water is discussed in the section on climate change and in the analysis of individual countries.
2011 – For the first time, there is a separate section on water scarcity, chiefly regarding the potential for conflict in shared river basins. Food is mentioned in several country assessments — Cuba, North Korea, Pakistan, Venezuela — but it is no longer pulled out for special attention.
2012 – This report has the most comprehensive analysis of water security, but climate change is no longer mentioned. Water is one of many factors that could contribute to state failure. Groundwater depletion could affect food production, and water scarcity could diminish hydroelectric generation, hurting national economic performance. Better management, more investment, and the use of water-efficient technology are listed as potential solutions.

These and other findings about global water supply were made public on World Water Day, March 22, by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called the study “a landmark document that puts water security in its rightful place as part of national security.”

“It’s not only about water,” she added. “It is about security, peace, and prosperity.”

But those goals are imperiled, according to the report, by the collision of two powerful global trends. The first is what the report called “key drivers of rising freshwater demand” — population growth, expanding cities, rising energy demand and production. The second is declining supply caused by deforestation; pollution; leaks and waste; and climate change that is melting glaciers, speeding evaporation, deepening droughts, and increasing the number of extreme weather events.

In remarks at the World Water Day event in Washington, D.C., Clinton introduced a new government initiative to improve global water management and conservation, steps that the report’s authors repeatedly called for in the study. The U.S. Water Partnership, she said, brings together 28 organizations — including government agencies, philanthropic foundations, environmental groups, corporations, and universities — and their body of water knowledge, which will be spread globally through training sessions, web-based data libraries, and collaborations with any organization looking for solutions.

“You can’t work on water as a health concern independently from water as an agricultural concern,” Clinton said. “And water that is needed for agriculture may also be water that is needed for energy production. So we need to be looking for interventions that work on multiple levels simultaneously and help us focus on systemic responses.”

What The Report Says
The Global Water Security report confirms much of the data about the severity of the world water crisis, as well as many of the conclusions about how to solve it that have been developed by research groups, by other lower level U.S. government offices, and by news organizations — among them Circle of Blue, whose photographs of the crisis from around the world were featured at the State Department event.

Delhi India water views anita khemka pollution supply

Photos © 2009 Anita Khemka/Photoink/Contact Press Images for Circle of Blue
Women and children wait for a trickle to fill their buckets with water in a slum area in Delhi, India. In some parts of the city, tap water — often salty, yellow, and smelly — only comes between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. From “WaterViews: India” package.em>Click the image to launch slideshow.

But, in conducting the first cabinet-level assessment and in personally announcing the results, Secretary Clinton continued the work she has undertaken since joining the Obama administration to elevate the threats to the water supply to an urgent national and diplomatic priority.

The United States itself is certain to be buffeted by the water crisis, according to the report, which cites extensive research on food and energy production, groundwater abuse, and trade economics, as well as studies on international conflict and water management practices. For instance, achieving U.S. foreign policy goals could be more difficult, since nations may be too “distracted” by domestic problems to work with other nations. Additionally, there are risks of instability, increased regional tensions, and perhaps even state failure in nations that are important to U.S. national security interests. Water shortages could inflame pre-existing social and political tensions; they could cause disease outbreaks; and they could threaten food security, energy production, and the stability of local economies.

“Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure,” the report says. “However, water problems — when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.”

Strategically Important Basins
In a companion classified report for the State Department, the National Intelligence Council assessed the national security implications from these river basins: Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Mekong, Jordan, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Amu Darya.

The report names Southern Africa, northeastern Brazil, eastern Australia, the Mediterranean Basin, and the Western U.S. as places where climate change will decrease the amount of freshwater. North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia face the most difficult water challenges due to demographic and economic development pressures.

Such conditions will likely not be the direct cause of violent conflicts during the next 10 years, the authors argue, because, “historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts.” Still, the authors of the report state that, beyond the next 10 years, they expect water to be used increasingly as leverage between countries that share a river basin, or even used as a weapon. Further, the report notes that water delivery systems — dams, desalination plants, pipelines, and canals — are a potential target for terrorists.

Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, these concerns about government instability, or even collapse, have formed a significant chunk of the academic research on environmental security. The new National Intelligence Council report — and related government programs begun in the last few years — shows that leaders in the nation’s capital have grown more comfortable with the need to address non-traditional, more oblique security threats.

The report gives good news, as well, stating that there are preventative actions that can be taken, with many of the technologies available now.

“From now through 2040, improved water management (e.g. pricing, allocations, and “virtual water” trade) and investments in water-related sectors (e.g. agriculture, power, and water treatment) will afford the best solutions for water problems,” the report says. “Because agriculture uses approximately 70 percent of the global freshwater supply, the greatest potential for relief from water scarcity will be through technology that reduces the amount of water needed for agriculture.”

A Short History of Water in U.S. Government Reports 
One of the first U.S. government reports to address water in relation to national security was in 2000, with the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2015 Survey,” which sought to identify the strategic undercurrents that would shape U.S. policy.

Qibudi China Yunnan Province karst water j. carl ganter farm

Photo © 2011 J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue
A farmer outside Qibudi in China’s Yunnan Province surveys his field. Although it has been raining for days, the same field, where karst stone is beginning to poke through the topsoil, turns dry for eight months of the year. He carries household water three times daily from a hillside pond. He and his elderly father make due on six buckets of water each day. From “Hidden Waters, Dragons in the Deep” of China’s Karst regions. em>Click the image to launch slideshow.

A more rigorous assessment came five years later, with a 134-page report on water from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Sandia National Laboratories. The “Global Water Futures report” argued that water was a blanket force: “Virtually every major U.S. foreign policy objective — promoting stability and security, reducing extremist violence, democracy building, post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, poverty reduction, meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, combating HIV/AIDS, promoting bilateral and multilateral relationships — will be contingent to some extent on how well the challenge of global water can be addressed.”

The report criticized where the U.S. government spent its foreign aid dollars for fresh water. Using data from the Government Accountability Office, it showed that aid was concentrated in war zones (Iraq and Afghanistan) and in the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank). In 2004, only 3 percent of USAID money went to countries in Africa.

Since “Global Water Futures,” however, circumstances have flipped.

Later that year, President George W. Bush signed the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, which made water and sanitation foreign policy priorities. As a result, the geographic distribution of water aid has changed. In fiscal year 2010, some 41 percent of the U.S. government’s water-related investments were made in sub-Saharan Africa.

Then in September 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, which established programs for climate change, food security, and public health, putting these programs at the core of American foreign policy.

Funding for these programs has dropped slightly since the fiscal stimulus in 2009, but, combined, they still comprise nearly one-fifth of the State Department’s budget.

These new commitments have caught the eye of people in the water, sanitation, and health (WASH) field.

John Oldfield — the managing director of WASH Advocacy Initiative, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization, working to increase global access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene — told Circle of Blue in a December interview that, in terms of budget allocations, projects, and policies, the U.S. government is “trending in the right direction” for water and health.

Other Findings
Despite the potential pitfalls from declining water availability, the new assessment describes several ways that the U.S. could help to shape a more water-secure world. The U.S. is recognized as a global leader in water management and water technology — expertise that can be applied in a host of circumstances, from improving farming methods and irrigation efficiency to aiding water-sharing negotiations.

San Marcos Tlacoyalco Mexico Brent Stirton water drought Tehuacan sewage pollution garbage

Photo © 2009 Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
San Marcos Tlacoyalco: A young boy pauses on a makeshift garbage bridge as he crosses a stream of raw sewage near San Marcos. The townspeople fear that these unregulated discharges will eventually seep into and contaminate their wells, which are a couple of miles away. From “Tehuacan: Divining Destiny” package. Click the image to launch slideshow.

Technical knowledge, such as hydrological modeling and satellite data, will also be sought after, but, because agriculture uses more water than any other sector, the greatest tool to prevent shortages will be technology to reduce water needed for irrigation.

Helping countries to address these problems could bolster U.S. influence, but water stress also opens economic windows. The report notes that the U.S. is a major food exporter. As water resources become scarcer in places like the Middle East, agricultural giants such as the U.S. and Russia could benefit from higher demand for their products. This, of course, depends on global food markets remaining open, as well as prudent water management at home, where unsustainable groundwater use, poor policy decisions, and misplaced incentives are not unknown.

Reaching Policymakers and Connecting the Dots
The report makes clear that water availability will not be able to keep up with demand without more effective management of water resources, thereby hindering the ability of key countries to generate energy. Water scarcity poses a risk to global food markets and ultimately thwarts economic growth.

Such a comprehensive, networked view of water is something that high-ranking national security officials are trying to get policymakers to understand. During a Congressional hearing in January, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, shared the conclusions from his organization’s annual unclassified report on the most critical threats to America’s national security. The water security report released last week was prepared as part of that process.

Sitting at the witness table with six colleagues from the government’s intelligence agencies, Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the security challenges today are “more complex and interdependent” than any he has seen in his 49-year career.

“Throughout the globe,” Clapper said, “wherever there are environmental stresses on water, food, and natural resources, as well as health threats, economic crises, and organized crime, we see ripple effects around the world and impacts on U.S. interests.”

Yet, many of the questions the senators asked in response — What can we do about Iran’s nuclear program? How can we shield ourselves from cyberattacks? Can you explain the machinations within Pakistan’s government? — centered on what might be called “actor-driven” events. This is the realm in which the national security dialogue traditionally and most comfortably operates: an arena where causes and effects have a one-to-one relationship and where threats can be identified and isolated.

But the seven witnesses and the threat assessment itself sought to connect these political relationships with the environmental, social, and economic substructures that can unexpectedly well up and completely change the script.

“Capabilities, technologies, know-how, communications, and environmental forces,” Clapper said, “aren’t confined by borders and can trigger transnational disruptions with astonishing speed, as we have seen.”

Inner Mongolia herder grassland palani mohan nomad nomadic mongol china desertification

Photo by Palani Mohan, Getty Images
Chinese scientists experimented with various methods of planting hybrid shrubs and grasses, and aerial seeding. They now acknowledge what Mongol herders knew all along. The grasslands repair program was a costly failure, a product of trying to find a technological solution to a much more complex environmental and socioeconomic process. From “Reign of Sand: Inner Mongolia” package. em>Click the image to launch slideshow.

With this final clause, Clapper was referring to the tumultuous Arab Spring, in which popular uprisings toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. In Libya, Western air powerhelped rebels oust Muammar Ghaddafi. In Syria, a bloody civil war is still unfolding.

As studies begin to show a correlation between spikes in food prices and the events last year in North Africa and the Middle East, policymakers are gaining more understanding about the conditions that link national security, with water availability and climate change, said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and an expert on international water issues, in an interview with Circle of Blue.

Last October, in fact, an advisory board recommended, in a report on climate change and national security, that the Defense Department include water as a “core element” of its security strategy.

Indeed, the latest national threat assessment takes the most comprehensive view of water security since the assessments began in 2006. Yet, climate change — given prominence in past reports and mentioned in the Defense Department’s most recent military operations review — was not addressed at all.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence would not comment on why certain issues rise and fall each year. Instead, the office submitted this statement to Circle of Blue: “There are a number of important issues that the intelligence community pays close attention to, including issues related to climate change, but as the introduction [to the unclassified report] noted, ‘it is virtually impossible to rank — in terms of long-term importance — the numerous potential threats to U.S. national security.’”

Report Excerpt:

Water as a Driver for Peace

Water challenges have often brought divergent actors together to resolve a common problem. Once
cooperative water agreements are established through treaties, they are often resilient over time and
produce peaceful cooperation, even among other existing hostilities and contentious issues.

• The Mekong Committee, established by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in 1957 exchanged
data and information on the river basin throughout the Vietnam War.

• Israel and Jordan held secret “picnic table” talks to manage the Jordan River starting in 1953, even
though they were officially at war from 1948 until 1994.

• The Indus River Commission survived two major wars between India and Pakistan.
In some cases, joint water governance has created cooperation on broader issues. Water can serve as a
potential entry point for peace and support sustainable cooperation among nations.

Climates of Migration


Historical Intersections of Climate Change and Environmental Migrations

The three-year research project Climates of Migration is a common project of The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen (KWI), generously funded by the German federal Ministry of Education and Research. The project looks at the historical intersections between environmental change and migration and is particularly interested in climate-induced movements of people in the past. Six individual projects consisting out of four dissertations and two post-doctoral projects, will shed light on how, where, and why people migrated as a result of droughts, cold periods, floods, hurricanes, and other extreme natural events.

The team will also develop a chronological database CLIMMIGRATION.dat with examples of environmental migration in the last 500 years, weighing the social and environmental factors that played a role. Both individual research and the collaborative project will focus on three main thematic areas: Climates of Famine, Climates of Colonisation, and Disaster Migration.

  • Climates of Famine
    Research in this area aims to analyze how climate and climate change have triggered famine in the past. Using famine theories, climate reconstructions and ethnohistoric methods, projects will look at the correlation between the environment and migration from a “push” perspective and with respect to adaptation strategies.
  • Famine in Ireland caused massive migration
  • Climates of Colonization
    Rather than focusing on migration as an effect of environmental/climate change, this thematic area questions what it means to experience climate change as an effect of migration, and what influence this has on a communities social and political practice. It aims to find out how social assumptions about the climate-culture nexus organized and legitimized social hierarchies in colonial times.\
  • Disaster Migration
    This thematic area explores sudden rather than long-term environmental stressors, such as floods, hurricanes, landslides and earthquakes. Such severe natural events very often destroy livelihoods and thus turn into catastrophes, forcing people to move. The question arises, when exactly does their dispacement exactly turn into migration. The answer depends on a variety of contextual factors, such as individual, social, and cultural coping capacities; the situation at the origin; and the destination of these “refugees.” Research in this area thus not only takes into account the events themselves, but also (long-term) patterns of vulnerability and resilience.

The project members have organized several small research workshops with leading scholars in the field such as:

In early August 2011, scholars from around the world gathered at the Internationales Begegnungszentrum in Munich for the first of three international conferences of the Climates of Migration project. The main and most important result of this conference was the insight that “environmental migration” is a much more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than usually acknowledged. The sixteen individual presentations highlighted the diversity of the migration/environment nexus in different places at different times. Case studies from Alaska, India, Bolivia, Australia, and many other places emphasized how environmental factors often played an important part in individual decisions to move or migrate. In most cases these environmental reasons were, however, accompanied by deliberations on social, economic, ethnic or cultural grounds.

After three years the case studies and individual projects will be summarized and analyzed in a synthesis study, which will give insight in the dynamics, characteristics and diversity of the phenomena of environmental migration. The research results will be published and presented digitally in the database CLIMMIGRATION.dat, explained with a non-deterministic model for the description of the relation between climate and migration. It will take the social, political and ecological components of human interaction into account; balancing societal and natural environmental factors to overcome the dualism between natural and social science.

A rich overview of case studies will serve scientists and scholars with ideas for potential future research. The project findings will give an important insight in climatically induced migration. The results of the research project will contribute to the improvement of scenario building on climate impact research and environmental migration.

Water Conferences

April 16-18: Water Security, Risk and Society International Water Security Conference, April 16-18 in Oxford, UK.
Water security is a defining challenge for society in the 21st century. The ancient struggle to cope with water access and shocks is now magnified by global change to societies, economies and climate at multiple scales.

The International Conference on Water Security, Risk and Society will be held April 16-18th 2012 at the University of Oxford. The event will convene many of the world’s thought leaders from science, policy and enterprise to understand the status of and pathways to water security at multiple scales.

The conference offers a platform for 200 academics, policymakers and business leaders to respond to society’s pressing water security challenges by (i) taking stock of the evidence base informing policy choices and strategic business decisions; and (ii) establishing investment priorities for science-policy-enterprise partnerships. The conference fosters exchange across developed and developing countries and regions, seeking to identify and elucidate global interdependencies between different socio-economic and cultural contexts.

April 21-22: Global Health & Innovation Conference 2012. Presented by Unite for Sight, @ Yale University.
2,200 participants from all 50 states and from more than 55 countries who are immersed in global health and international development, public health, medicine, social entrepreneurship, nonprofits, philanthropy, microfinance, human rights, anthropology, health policy, advocacy, public service, environmental health, and education.
Company Overview

The Unite For Sight Global Health & Innovation Conference is a must-attend, thought-leading conference that convenes leaders, changemakers, and participants from all fields of global health, international development, and social entrepreneurship

April 27: The Glass Half Full: Valuing Water in the 21st Century, Tufts and UMass Amherst water symposium. April 27, 2012.
The theme for this year’s symposium is The Glass Half Full: Valuing Water in the 21st Century. Students, academics, and professionals in the greater Boston area and across the nation from the public, private, and non-governmental sectors will join us to explore the various complex and interlinking factors of valuing water throughout developed and developing nations.