Water crisis = food crisis

July 8, 2009
Australia's rice production drops to practically zero because of water shortages; Image via SF Gate

Australia's rice production drops to practically zero because of water shortages; Image via SF Gate

When water availability diminishes, food crops tend to suffer.

TreeHugger has an excellent discussion of the impact of drought on food production in Australia.

Rice is a water intensive crop, and when drought hits, production suffers.  In Australia, “production has dropped from 1.6 million tons in 2000 to a mere 18,000 tons in 2008.”

This has important implications for planning for climate change.

Taking the experience of Australia to heart now can help other areas be proactive about water use and avoid sharp changes in agriculture, and therefore economy, such as what Australia is now facing. Getting started today and reduce our water use to only what we need as well as make practical decisions in the agricultural sector, can help a region avoid a more dire crisis in the future.


Collapse dynamics: a lecture on complex change in social systems

June 16, 2009

Noah Raford, a contributor to this blog and consultant with HFP, posts this video and slides from a recent lecture on collapse and social transition he gave at the LSE Complexity Programme.

Video of the talk can be found here, thanks to our good friend Vinay Gupta:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Thanks to Professor Eve Mittleton-Kelly and all those who attended from the Collapsonomics group.


US electric grid has been penetrated by spies

April 23, 2009

The Wall Street Journal reports on vulnerabilities in the US electric and infrastructure grids.  Another emerging threat facing complex, interconnected urban environments.

From the article:

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” said a senior intelligence official. “So have the Russians.”

The espionage appeared pervasive across the U.S. and doesn’t target a particular company or region, said a former Department of Homeland Security official. “There are intrusions, and they are growing,” the former official said, referring to electrical systems. “There were a lot last year.”

Many of the intrusions were detected not by the companies in charge of the infrastructure but by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said. Intelligence officials worry about cyber attackers taking control of electrical facilities, a nuclear power plant or financial networks via the Internet.

Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, the senior intelligence official said. He added, “If we go to war with them, they will try to turn them on.”

Officials said water, sewage and other infrastructure systems also were at risk.

It doesn’t take much imagination to forecast such an attack may occur in any major first world city, potentially in combination with other forms of sabotage or terrorist action.  Full article here.


Of piracy and overfishing; a case study in unintended consequences

April 14, 2009

Photo from <a href=The real roots of Somalian piracy lie in failed governance and overfishing.

He notes that thousands of Somalis used to make their living as fishermen.  But after two decades of state failure and no regulatory bodies, foreign fisherman illegally take nearly $300 million in fish per year from Somalia’s waters.

As a result fishermen became increasingly desperate, turning first to vigilante patrol boats to help self-police their own waters from illegal fishing and dumping.  They would storm a boat and demand “taxation” or payment for their illegal fishing or dumping.  This proved so successful, that while the economic situation at home grew even worse, many turned to piracy in order to survive and take in more lucrative catches.  War is Boring suggests that pirates have cut the Somalian tuna trade in half.  

In a 45 minute New York Times interview with a Somali pirate, they reveal their true motivation:

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

This is a fascinating portrait of a complex system of unintended consequences.  

Failed state -> unregulated waters -> illegal fishing and dumping -> violent vigilantes self-policing -> realisation of increased profit potential -> piracy.  


Climate: 1, Geoengineering: 0, Ocean iron fertilization experiment doesn’t work as planned

March 29, 2009
Satellitenaufnahme der Chlorophyllkonzentrationen

Satellite image of sea-surface chlorophyll concentrations with our bloom encircled. Note much larger natural bloom on the upper right and the generally higher values in the southeast than elsewhere. Graphic: NASA (http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov)

The verdict from one of the first real world geoengineering experiments?  It didn’t work (but they learned a lot).

A team of scientists from the German National Institute of Oceaonography and the Alfred Wegener Institute recently attempted one of the first large scale experiments in oceanic geoengineering.  

The team fertilized a 300 square kilometre patch of ocean with six tonnes of dissolved iron in an effort to sequester excess CO2.  The idea was that certain kinds of plankton eat the iron, die, then sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking tonnes of CO2 with them.  Unfortunately it didn’t work as expected.

From the press release:

The cooperative project Lohafex has yielded new insights on how ocean ecosystems function. But it has dampened hopes on the potential of the Southern Ocean to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and thus mitigate global warming.

Why did it dampen hopes?  Christine Lepisto has an excellent summary over at Treehugger.  She writes:

The experiment started out following scientists’ predictions. After the addition of the iron source to the swirling current, phytoplankton biomass doubled, as can be seen by the orange-reddish swirl in the NASA image above. But the growth was mainly a soft and tasty algae called Phaeocystis. Other little creatures, known as copepods, moved in quickly to gobble up the algae, soon followed by shrimp-like amphipods which lunched on the copepods. Ultimately, these amphipods end up in the bellies of squid and fin whales, so maybe iron fertilization could be a geo-engineering solution for supporting these top-of-the-food-chain species. But certainly, the experiment did not result in tons of CO2 safely sequestered on the ocean floor, proving the iron fertilization hypothesis not yet ripe for geo-engineering scale games with mother nature.

The experiments were not a failure from a scientific point of view, the press release notes that a tremendous amount of new data and information was gained.  But it does suggest that iron fertilisation is unlikely to be a solution to our climate change concerns.

This experimental data confirms many of the anxieties of commentators writing about geoengineering, which we have previously covered here (“Irreversible Climate Change, Meet Unstoppable Political Force”).


Hackers have already attacked US electric grid

March 28, 2009

electric-tower

GreenerComputing reflects on CIA reports recently released which admits that hackers from around the world have already attacked the US electric grid.

A year ago at the the critical infrastructure SANS SCADA Summit in New Orleans, the CIA said that hackers had already hacked into the networks of power companies overseas. The site SecurityFocus reported:

The cases involved unknown attackers compromising a utilities company’s network and then demanding ransom from the firm. In at least one case, the attack cause a power outage that affected multiple cities, the CIA analyst said.

The attacks were launched via the Internet. Here’s the full statement that the CIA official gave, according to the SANS Institute:

“We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyber attacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.”

 


Resilient, durable, or agile? A metaphor for future aid organisations

March 26, 2009

oak-and-reed

Much talk is made about resiliency as a social strategy in the face of uncertainty.  But is this the right metaphor for future aid organisations?

Resilient

Resiliency is an often used term in climate, ecology and social sciences, taken to denote a sense of flexibility or endurance.  The dictionary defines resilience as the ability “to recoil or spring back into shape afterbendingstretchingor being compressed,” or to “be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions the fish are resilient to most infections.”  It is thus often associated with the term flexibility.

A good image of resiliency then is the reed, which can bend in the face of massive pressure and then bounce back into shape. 

Durable

The French word for sustainable is durable.  The two terms have something in common; sustainable is often defined as “the ability to maintain a certain level or rate,” while the English word durable can be defined as “the ability to withstand wear, pressure, or damage.”  Thus resistance to change or the maintenance of a current state or form is implied by both.

A good image of durability then, is the oak tree, which can withstand massive amounts of pressure unchanged.

Agile

The corporate and private sectors make much use of the term agility, which can be defined as “the ability to move quickly”.  Agile comes from the Latin agilis, meaning “nimble or light, easily moved.”  Agility is thus associated with the concepts of change.  Like resilience, agility is also related to flexibility, but more so in the sense of change or transformation.

A good image for agility then, is the gymnast, who can quickly reconfigure themselves in the face of massive pressure, in a way which balances or relieves this pressure.

Which metaphor is most appropriate for the future of aid?

Given the “perfect storm” we are facing in the coming decade, which is metaphorically equivalent to the “massive pressure” discussed above, which of these three concepts makes the most sense for aid? 

Do we want an aid system that is resilient, i.e., that will be able to bend and flex in the face of stress, and then return back to its current form?  Perhaps, but what exactly is its current form, and isn’t this changing all the time?  Is it possible to hope for some kind of stability in the face of massive change?

Or do we want an aid system that is durable, i.e., resistant to large amounts of pressure and stress, doing its best to maintain its current structure and relationships?  Isn’t this perhaps what we already have, a system resistant to change?  And what happens in the classic children’s story about the Oak and the Reed?

Or finally, do we want an aid system which is agile, i.e., can actually change and transform itself in new ways, like a gymnast, ultimately morphing into some entirely new balance of forces and stress?  Isn’t this perhaps the most desirable metaphor to use?  Doesn’t this take into account the evolutionary, indeed, co-evolutionary nature of the world?  

Which kind of aid system do you want in the future?  Resilient, durable, or agile?


Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.

 


US researchers find disaster relief laws unsuitable for modern threats

March 25, 2009

New York University Professor Mitchell Moss suggests in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that US Federal disaster relief legislation is dangerously out of date and must be reformed to provide for rapid relief after a catastrophe.

The paper argues that the main US Federal Disaster laws, in the form of the Stafford Act, is too cumbersome to be of use for today’s complex crises.  The report’s author argues that the laws:

 

  • Not recognizing 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attacks or accidents as legal grounds for a major disaster declaration by the President; 
  • Fail to establish a difference between the scale of rural and urban disaster – the Stafford Act offers the same level of aid for a blizzard in a rural community as it does for a major earthquake in a metropolis. 

It goes on to suggest that US lawmakers should,

  • Amend the definition of a “major disaster” to recognize 21st century threats such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks and accidents; 
  • Create a level of disaster specifically for “catastrophes” to cover incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11 and to provide increased levels of aid beyond that provided at the “major disaster” levels

The press release can be found here and the full paper here.


ICRC says, “Humanitarian work has never been as difficult as now” in Afghanistan

March 18, 2009

… and it’s likely to get more difficult in the future, but not just in Afghanistan.

IRIN reports on an ICRC comment that humanitarian work has never been more difficult.  Although the warning is specific to Afghanistan, we suggest it may foreshadow similar warnings in the future.  The ICRC said:

[The warning was[ echoed by the head of the ICRC in Afghanistan, Reto Stocker: “Humanitarian work has never been as difficult as now… 2009 will be a very difficult year for Afghanistan and its people,” he said on 17 March. This is the first time that the UN and the ICRC have made such a bleak forecast – one that is highly relevant for the aid community.

In a statement which could apply to many regions, and increasingly so in the future, the warning concluded “We are already dealing with a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” said Stocker, adding that more hostilities, inaccessibility and drought could produce further suffering for vulnerable communities.”