Our Nation is Sinking: The Maldives and Global Warming

by Benjamin Sacks

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

The Maldives is sinking. Like several other South Asian and Oceanic archipelagos, the Maldives’s topography suffers from a lethal combination of high surface erosion and rising sea levels. The former stems from the islands’ soft soils, but most scientists agree that the latter is a direct consequence of global warming. Although rising sea levels may not pose much of a concern to residents of Salisbury or Kinross, it has become an extraordinarily important issue for a country where the highest point above sea level is a paltry 2.4 metres. Heightening tensions, the archipelago is remarkably dense and urbanised. In Malé, the country’s political, social, and cultural capital, Over 100,000 people reside on an island with an area less than 6 square kilometres (2.24 miles).

The Maldives’ susceptibility to erosion and land loss has been acknowledged for at least a century. In a 1901 Royal Geographical Society expedition, J Stanley Gardiner noted how the islands of Minikoi Atoll were sharply controlled by currents (pp. 287-88). But Gardiner evidently recognised the beauty in the erosion process. ‘Together with the washing away of the land’, he recalled in The Geographical Journal, ‘fresh conditions tend to be found on its reefs’ (p. 293). But what Gardiner perceived as interesting, if not dangerous phenomena proved increasingly problematic in the years following the Maldives’ independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. In the early 1990s, British geographers and climate specialists repeatedly warned that such archipelagos as the Maldives were at increasing risk of flooding or disappearing altogether. Even a ‘slightly higher rise in sea level increase the areas of potential inundation, threaten[ing] the existence of certain island states (e.g. the Maldives) (Jones p. 127)’. Rising sea levels and increased erosion prompted Erlet Cater to accuse, in 1995 article in The Geographical Journal, the Maldives’ government of willful negligence and destruction for the sake of tourism. Cater identified a increasingly negative cycle:

  1. Rising sea levels and increasingly fast erosion led to fewer tourists, and hence much-needed income.
  2. To increase tourism levels, Malé increased mining of coral reefs around the islands, selling the dried corals as souvenirs and permitting tourists to travel in and around the fragile reefs.
  3. Coral levels plummeted, not only creating an oceanic environmental crisis, but destroying islands’ natural barrier against erosion. Erosion increased, to the shock and amazement of officials.
  4. The Maldives tried to both stem rising water levels and continue fostering tourism through coral sales. They failed in both instances.

As if deliberately echoing Cater’s call to action, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami most violently demonstrated the existential threat the Maldives faced. Although the country suffered remarkably few casualties relative to its neighbours, much of the islands were completely flooded, quickly leading to a national disaster. Malé – and most government administration and private business – came to a chaotic standstill for weeks while locals tried to apprise the situation on dozens of widely scattered and isolated islands.

In the most recent edition of The Geographical Journal (June 2014), Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) returned to the Maldives question, albeit with a new – and fascinating – perspective. In order to combat rising sea levels, recent successive Maldivian governments have sought to resettle thousands of residents from some of the more remote, impassable islands to larger, more populated, and accessible atolls. In total, the government intends to reorganise the country’s total population – currently thought to reside on some 200 islands and oversize reefs – onto about ten larger islands.

On the surface this appears logical, (relatively) efficient for a small state with a small population, and even honourable, given the Maldives’ enormous environmental obstacles. As Kothari explains, however, Malé is also influenced by longstanding political and economic priorities; environmental concerns, to an extent at least, have become a convenient mask. Although the government’s commitment to drastic environmental reforms is undeniable (In 2009 then-President Mohamed Nasheed pronounced that the Maldives intends to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2020), ‘environmental concerns have also been used to justify and legitimise other agendas’ (p. 135). Since the early years of independence, both the government and private sector elites have pushed for population consolidation as a means of reorganising national spending, raising the profile of tourism, and effecting greater political and social control (pp. 136-37). Although some Maldivians have vocally resisted the government’s declarations, the very real threat posed by climate change seems to have swung the balance far in Malé’s favour.

How does the Maldives’ approach and handling of rising sea levels and increasing land erosion compare to other, similarly at-risk states? Kiribati? Micronesia? Nauru? Has climate change become a front for consolidating other agendas?

 J Stanley Gardiner, ‘The Formation of the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 19.3 (Mar., 1902): 277-96.

 Erlet Cater, ‘Environmental Contradictions in Sustainable Tourism‘, The Geographical Journal 161.1 (Mar., 1995): 21-28.

 David K C Jones, ‘Global Warming and Geomorphology‘, The Geographical Journal 159.2 (Jul., 1993): 124-30.

 Richard Warrick and Graham Farmer, ‘The Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change and Rising Sea Level: Implications for Development‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 15.1 (1990): 5-20.

 Uma Kothari, ‘Political discourses of climate change and migration: resettlement policies in the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 180.2 (Jun., 2014): 130-40.

Outsiders at the Seaside

By Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth, Image Credit: The Author

When you live in a coastal town, as I do, you become aware of the peculiar social geographies of seaside communities. The social geography of coastal communities is defined by two factors: the sea and the visitor. The sea always seems to define the gestalt of the coastal town: it is the reason why the community is where it is. The sea does, however, seem to limit the geography of the seaside town: removing a large portion of its potential surroundings and making the place feel that bit more isolated as a consequence. If the sea is the defining environmental feature of the seaside town, the visitor is its defining subject. It is the visitor who supports the local tourist economy, who swells the population of the community in the summer, and who connects the community to the outside world. The sense of isolation and the orientation towards the visitor common in coastal communities generates an at times troubling social dynamic. Consequently, while the respectable, well-behaved tourist is welcome, those on the margins of society are seen as being particularly problematic. In seaside towns the homeless, the drug addict, the mentally ill, and the alcoholic appear to be much more conspicuous than in larger communities and they are seen to represent a much greater threat to the socio-economic viability of the place. Coastal towns are communities that rely on the temporary migration of the outsider into the community, but are also places that are particularly sensitive to the presence of unwanted outsiders.

The current issue of the journal Area contains a series of reflections on a classical article that is firmly grounded in the social geography of the seaside town. The paper in question is Chris Philo’s path breaking paper ‘Not at our seaside’: community opposition to a nineteenth century branch asylum, which was published in June 1987. ‘Not at our seaside’ neatly encapsulates geographical concerns about difference, inside/outside relations, and social justice. The paper recounts the story of the controversial decision (in 1856) by the Devonshire Public County Asylum to establish a temporary Branch Asylum in the seaside town of Exmouth, for those in mental distress. Drawing on the reports of the Commissioners in Lunacy, Philo considers the local tensions that were created by the establishment of this Branch Asylum. Although the paper does not delve into theoretical discussion per se, it prefaces and reflects the debates around mental health and moral geography that came to be a much more prominent part of the discipline during the 1990s. In this Classics Revisited section, Chris Philo provides some personal reflections on the background to the paper and his intentions in writing it. These authorial reflections are followed by two commentaries on paper by Tim Cresswell and myself, in which we discuss the broader significance of the paper and what it means personally to us.

Living, as I do, in the coastal community of Aberystwyth, Chris Philo’s groundbreaking paper resonated strongly with me. It also served to remind that the study of coastal communities has remained marginal within human geography. While I am sure that there are good reasons for, it is important to note that the socio-economic plight of coastal communities is now becoming s significant object of political debate. A recent article in Guardian newspaper, for example, reflected on a series of reports that showed that coastal communities (and not inner cities) are the main centres of social disadvantage limited opportunity and social isolation in the UK. Perhaps it is time to follow Chris Philo’s lead and to reconsider the geographies of the seaside town.

About the Author: Mark Whitehead is a Professor at Aberystwyth University.

 Whitehead, M. (2014), Editorial introduction: Revisiting Chris Philo’s ‘Not at our seaside’. Area, 46: 214. doi: 10.1111/area.12088

 Philo, C. (2014), Same, Other, NIMBY and an asylum by the sea: revisiting ‘Not at our seaside’. Area, 46: 215–218. doi: 10.1111/area.12089

 Cresswell, T. (2014), Around 1987: outline of a lesson in geographic thought. Area, 46: 219–221. doi: 10.1111/area.12090

 Whitehead, M. (2014), Proximity, acceptance and hopeful ontologies. Area, 46: 222–223. doi: 10.1111/area.12091

60-world2 Mc Veigh T 2014 Sun, sand and inequality: why the British Seaside towns are losing out The Guardian 22 June 2014

60-world2 RGS-IBG Society News, 27 years on: An academic classic is revisited

From “overstocking” to “overgrazing”: more livestock as a symbol of wealth?

By Yonten Nyima Sichuan University, China

Yaks in a summer pasture, eastern Nagchu, Tibet, July 2009 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)

Yaks in a summer pasture, eastern Nagchu, Tibet, July 2010
(Photograph by Yonten Nyima)

In 2011 China, which claims to have the world’s second largest grassland area after Australia, launched its largest grassland protection program literally known as the grassland ecological protection subsidy and reward mechanism in its pastoral region. The backbone of the program is to subsidise or reward pastoralists for not “overgrazing”. Nonetheless, it is hard to celebrate this new program as progress on grassland management and pastoralism because it is merely the latest example of an underlying assumption deeply embedded in state policy on grassland management and pastoralism in China.

In China overgrazing has long been assumed to be a direct or main cause of grassland degradation. Accordingly, adjusting livestock numbers to “carrying capacity” has been both a means and a goal of protecting grassland ecosystems. Pastoralists have often been accused of overstocking because they are believed to want to raise more livestock as a symbol of wealth.

Through a case study from Nagchu Prefecture, the largest pastoral prefecture on the Tibetan Plateau in terms of both grassland area and livestock numbers, in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is reported to have the largest grassland area in China, my Area paper raises the questions whether more livestock are a symbol of wealth for pastoralists and why pastoralists appear to raise more livestock than they currently appear to need. My research in Nagchu shows that pastoralists do not raise more livestock as a symbol of wealth. Instead, three overlapping reasons explain why pastoralists want to raise more livestock than they currently appear to need.

First, owing to biological, cultural and economic factors, current livestock numbers are not equivalent to actual livestock available for production. Second, pastoralists want to raise more livestock as a long-term strategy for livelihood security and flexibility. Third, pastoralists want to raise more livestock as a means for improving their standard of living. Therefore, for pastoralists raising more livestock is a means rather than an end. My Area paper also shows that in practice, labor power, grassland and economic status are three primary overlapping factors constraining pastoralists from raising more livestock.

A take-home message for policy advisors and policymakers from my Area paper is that pastoralism must be understood from the standpoint of pastoralists and in the socioeconomic, cultural and environmental context in which pastoralist live, rather than from outsider perspectives and values.

The author: Dr. Yonten Nyima is Associate Professor, Institute of Social Development and Western China Development Studies, Sichuan University, China

 Nyima, Y. (2014), A larger herd size as a symbol of wealth? The fallacy of the cattle complex theory in Tibetan pastoralism. Area, 46: 186–193. doi: 10.1111/area.12099

60-world2 China to susidize herdsmen to curb overgrazing, China Daily, 6 May 2011

New issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers now available online


by Fiona Nash, Managing Editor: Academic Publications RGS-IBG

Untitled

The latest issue of Transactions of the British Geographers is now available via the Wiley Online Library

 Transactions of the IBG Volume 39, issue 3 Pages 333–475, July 2014. 

 

Let’s get a proper grip on flooding

By Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Middlesex University, London

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

The floods in winter 2013 show the damage and disruption such events can cause. Spurred on by this flooding the government is moving to secure ‘affordable’ flood insurance arrangements, after a bruising ‘battle’ with the insurance industry and the prospect that the scheme will be vetoed in Europe. Flooding remains highly political!

But the total flood risk that England and Wales is facing has been exaggerated by the Environment Agency for over a decade, as this paper shows (Penning-Rowsell, 2014a). I am not saying that this country cannot suffer from serious flood events (as in 1947, 1953 and 2007). What I do say is that the average economic losses from fluvial and coastal flood are being exaggerated some 3-4 fold by the current national assessments, and that this is not a good basis for wise evidence-based decision making.

The annual average losses are not over £1bn as suggested by the Environment Agency (in NAFRA 2002), reaffirmed by Foresight in 2004, repeated again in the Agency’s Long Term Investment Strategy (LTIS, in 2009), cited in the National Audit Office report in 2011, and repeated once more in the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s 2012 report. The real annual average economic loss value is more like one quarter of that sum: my thinking is that flood depths are being exaggerated, as is the likelihood of existing flood defences being breached.

And the 2013/14 flooding supports this argument. Figure 1 shows that the years 2012 and 2013/14 are indeed above the average, but that the mean of £0.146 billion is actually lower than the mean for the years 1998 to 2010 (£0.147 billion). This is because the year 2011 saw relatively few floods, with a total flood insured loss of no more than £52 million (Penning-Rowsell, 2014b). Grossing up to total losses we get total annual average loss/compensation of c. £0.294bn. Again this is less than one quarter of the figure recently quoted in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Figure 1.  Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

Figure 1.
Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

The results of this research should help the Environment Agency improve its evidence base for the decisions that it has to make: better data equals better decisions. But for this we need a radical overhaul of the Agency’s methodology and data sources: what we have now is simply not good enough (as many involved privately admit). The results also need proper peer review – hitherto minimal – and a willingness to accept that risk may be much lower than those oft-quoted figures that appear now to have become embedded. We want flood risk to be taken seriously, but not at the expense of rigour and transparency.

About the author: Edmund Penning-Rowsell OBE is a Professor of Geography at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, London. Edmund is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University and is currently a member of the Defra/Environment Agency Research Sponsoring Board. He was awarded the O.B.E by the Queen for services to flood risk management in May 2006.

 Penning-Rowsell, E. C. (2014), A realistic assessment of fluvial and coastal flood risk in England and Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12053

 Penning-Rowsell, E C 2014b The 2013/14 floods: what do they tell us about overall flood risk in England and Wales? Circulation. Forthcoming.

60-world2.jpg (15×15) DEFRA 2013 Water Bill Flood Insurance: Flood Re – Finance and Accountability (pdf)

60-world2.jpg (15×15) Ross, T New flood insurance tax ‘could breach EU law’ The Telegraph 26 August 2013

Relational Geographies: Sea – shore and the Super-rich

by Fiona Ferbrache

Super yachts at St Tropez (author's own image)

Super yachts at St Tropez (author’s own image)

In 2012, the Economist noted that even in troubling economic times it was still possible to discern rich people, alongside the poor. It then asked “will there also be the really rich, the super-rich?”.

There seems to be substantial evidence for the category ‘super-rich’. Geographer Danny Dorling notes that the (super-)richest 1% in Britain (“people with a pre-tax household income of at least £160,000″) are growing wealthier and that the gap is increasing between them and the remaining 99%. In 2013, “Geographies of the Super-rich” (authored by Professor Iain Hay) was introduced to bookshelves and identified a class of individuals with investable assets in excess of $1 million. In recent weeks, the British media have reported on the super-rich overseas buyers of prime London addresses who buy properties as investments and then leave them empty; drawing Kensington and Chelsea nearer the top of the ranking, alongside northern towns such as Blackpool and Bradford, of areas with the highest number of empty homes.  Another article reported that for those coming to visit their London investments, the most popular mode of travel is private jet.

As the above examples demonstrate, the lives and mobilities of the super-rich are being opened up to enquiry. Contributing to this trend, a paper by Spence, in Area, explores leisure activities of super-rich mobility along the Cote-d’Azur – “between sea, super-yacht and the shore” (and air, via private jets) (p.203). While examining the leisure activities of the super-rich on board luxury yachts, Spence also provides insight to the lives of the crew catering to them through a relational framework spanning sea, shore and ship. Spence uses this case study to argue for a more-than-sea approach to maritime geographies, which plays on the idea of more-than-human geographies and indeed captures the relationality of human and non-human materialities.  A more-than-sea geography aims to promote a perspective from the sea, to incorporate the land, rather than the other way around. Spence achieves this by discussing cabin fever, seasicknes and the meaning of going ashore. Here, the experiences of the super-rich (guests, tourists and yacht owners) and the necessary supporting and waiting crew, differ in a cyclical series of relations between sea, shore and ship, as the yachts move into and out of port.

Spence’s paper offers two key insights: a conceptual framework for exploring geographies of the sea, and which complements earlier works by authors such as Peters (2010) and Hasty and Peters (2012); and micro-geographies of the super-rich that help to flesh out media representations and existing geographical knowledge of this group.

books_iconSpence, E. 2014. Towards a more-than-sea geography: exploring the relational geographies of superrich mobility between sea, superyacht and shore in the Cote d’Azur. Area 46(2): pp.203-209
books_iconHasty, W. and Peters, K. 2012. The ship in geography and the geographies of ships. Geography Compass 6: pp.660-676
books_iconPeters, K. 2010. Future promises for contemporary social and cultural geographies of the sea. Geography Compass 4: pp.1260-1272

60-world2Danny Dorling on the super-rich

60-world2The super-rich will always be with us (and so will the repo man). The Economist

60-world2A passage to Mayfair: India’s super-rich elite are colonising the heart of the former British empire. The Economist
60-world2The ghost town of the super-rich: Kensington and Chelsea’s ‘buy-to-leave’ phenomenon. The Evening Standard

Workfare and the Unions

By Julie MacLeavy, University of Bristol

Worfare image

Workfare: doesn’t work and not fair. Photo by Howard Jones licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

The potential role of organised labour organisations in policy debates on and resistance to workfare programmes is a complex issue, as is broached in relation to the US context in the article accompanying this blog. Recent developments outside of the US might point to a more engaged role for unions in such debates. In the UK, the state’s largest union, Unite, responded to last fortnight’s launch of the Coalition government’s new ‘workfare’ programme with a plea to charity managers not to sign up for community work placements, which are by part of a set of measures aimed at helping jobless benefit claimants move from welfare into work. In a statement, Unite described the mandatory work placements as “nothing more than forced unpaid labour”.

Their opposition to the Help to Work programme, which aims to reduce unemployment by making the payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) dependent on individuals’ enrolment for a six months work placement, is threefold. First there is no evidence that workfare programmes get people into paid work in the long-term. Second, workfare programmes stigmatise job seekers by making them work for nothing, or face having their benefits docked. Third, workfare displaces existing workers and enslaves jobseekers and in doing so undermines collective bargaining.

Unite’s statement of opposition to the implementation of workfare is important. Given the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics over the past two decades as the welfare system has increasingly required work in exchange for time-limited assistance, the addition of this established organisation’s voice to the critique of workfare could help to forge a counter discourse about welfare that consciously recasts welfare struggles in terms of civil and economic rights. Unite’s opposition identifies the manner in which the reduction of welfare assistance/imposition of workfare ensures a steady supply of cheap labour to industry and in doing so narrows the distance between the concerns of unemployed and its union members.

Until now, those targeted by workfare have not had the necessary institutional resources to effectively dispute the received wisdom that welfare recipients are unemployed because of a lack of motivation, skills and a ‘work ethic’. There have been independently-organised campaigns against the Help to Work scheme and its predecessors – including the former Labour government’s suite of ‘New Deals’ for the unemployed (which similarly required unemployed persons to undertake education, training or work experience in return for JSA payments) – but these have produced little in terms of long term resistance. With further support from the unions, claimant-led campaigns could be horizontally linked, relationships between welfare activists and the trade unions developed, and a greater level of public debate about the government’s reforms fostered. These nascent developments might also provide a model for the organisation of counter-workfare coalitions in the US context, where workfare programmes have also proceeded apace along broadly comparable lines to that of the UK, and with similar degrees of quietude and ineffectiveness within progressive welfare politics (see article reference in The Geographical Journal below), albeit with important differences and national inflections.

About the author: Julie MacLeavy is a Senior Lecturer in political and economic geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK.

books_icon MacLeavy, J. (2014), Workfare and resistance in the US: the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics post 1996. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12092

60-world2 Guardian, The (2014) New Help to Work programme comes into force for long-term unemployed. 28 April

60-world2 Unite (2014) Charity bosses urged to shun ‘workfare’ scheme by Unite. 28 April