November 16, 2012
By Daniel Schillereff
While recent years have been typified by intensely dry spells interspersed with severe flooding in many parts of the UK, this year (2012) will be remembered by many for the occurrence of both meteorological extremes. This shift was of a ‘magnitude never seen before’, according to experts at the Centre for Ecological and Hydrology (CEH), quoted in a recent Guardian article. The current issue of Area (December 2012, Volume 44, Issue 4) includes a Special Section comprising a number of articles focusing on water management and climate change, which is clearly timely.
While interaction between scientists, local residents and decision makers is commonplace when flood-risk mitigation strategies are being developed, such cooperation and communication is rarer when addressing droughts, despite the severe negative ecological, financial and societal impacts of prolonged dry periods. The media coverage of the spring drought was extensive, however drought generating mechanisms and the historical record of drought frequency and intensity were rarely discussed and public knowledge of these mechanisms appears limited. The Rahiz and New paper in this section deals specifically with meteorological drought in the UK and therefore deserves special attention.
Their paper includes a summary of historical drought literature for the UK which should be a first port of call for all readers. Among the principal findings of their study is confirmation that the North Atlantic Oscillation is an important driver of UK droughts as well indicating that the severity of drought events exhibits significant variability in different regions across the UK. If these points are considered by decision makers at water summits, similar to that which took place in Kent this month as mentioned on the BBC, there is scope for more informed responses to be implemented in the future to address water security. The public also have a vital role in water resource management and the updated drought information on the Environment Agency website and their social media feeds will hopefully lead to greater understanding among citizens when water rationing is instigated in the future.
M Rahiz, M New, 2012, Spatial coherence of meteorological droughts in the UK since 1914, Area 44 (4) 400-410.
‘Water summit’ in drought-hit South East, BBC News Online, 3 November 2012
UK’s year of drought and flooding unprecedented, experts say, The Guardian, 18 October 2012
January 21, 2011
A Mopane caterpillar, found in southern Africa
The United Nations ‘Food Price Index’ recorded food prices (particularly cereals, sugar and meat) rising to record highs.
Warnings of dangerously high food prices were driven by dry weather in Argentina, cold weather in Europe and North America, and floods in Australia. For example, Australia is the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat.
However, our attention is rarely drawn to food consumption, rather than food production. In a paper in the Geographical Journal, Peter Illgner and Etienne Nel highlight the loss of traditional food and food consumption, which in many parts of the world has been displaced by imported Western fare.
In a case study of the Mopane caterpillar, the authors argue that edible insects have historically been important to diet in poor rural communities. If bias towards Western foods could be overcome, Illgner and Nel express the view that insects are an economically and practically viable addition to our diets. In addition, this might even empower poor communities that cannot aspire to lifestyles associated with high levels of consumption.
The Guardian (5th January 2011) ‘World food prices enter ‘danger territory’ to reach record high’.
Illgner, P. and Nel, E. (2000) ‘The Geography of Edible Insects in Sub-Saharan Africa: a study of the Mopane Caterpillar’. The Geographical Journal 166 (4): 336-351
August 6, 2010
Hosepipe bans are already in force in north-west England, which has experienced an unusually dry summer. On Monday 2nd August, British Waterways reacted to the drought by closing parts of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, in Lancashire and North Yorkshire. Clearly, both of these actions are intended to conserve water in order to prevent shortages.
In Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Graham Haughton (1998) reviews the management of a previous drought crisis in the area. The events recounted by Haughton provide an interesting twist to the usual discourse of crisis management.
The summer of 1995 was unexpectedly dry. Yorkshire Water warned the public that the mains water supply to areas of West Yorkshire might need to be cut off, with standpipes put in place on the streets.
However, public perception was that mismanagement of water supplies was as much responsible for the crisis as the drought itself. Yorkshire Water was allegedly reliant on inaccurate forecasts of water use and had given the impression that it was not investing substantially in reducing leakages from pipes.
The resulting public pressure forced institutional changes in how water was managed. This challenges a traditional one-way view of the relationship between the public and institutions responsible for crisis management. This view might even be more widely applicable in societal and environmental challenges.
Haughton, G. (1998) “Private profits – public drought: the creation of a crisis in water management for West Yorkshire.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 23: 419-433
“Drought forces partial closure of Leeds & Liverpool Canal.” British Waterways press release. 13th July 2010.
February 1, 2010
By Georgia Davis Conover
Arizona is one of the highest growth states in the United States. It is also in the midst of a decade-long drought. Much of the water for Phoenix and Tucson, the two largest cities in Arizona, comes from the Colorado River which forms the western border of the state. The water is brought across the Sonoran Desert to the two cities through a series of open canals known as the Central Arizona Project, or CAP. The increasing demand for water brought on by development, coupled with the prolonged drought, have CAP managers contemplating declaring their first water shortage since the inception of the canal system in the 1960’s. CAP officials stress, however, that a declared shortage is not a problem that will impact Arizona residents—the average consumer will experience no change in water service—because the CAP has been storing water underground for years in anticipation of such a situation.
But, there is a complicating factor: a decades- long battle over the water in the Colorado River. Arizona is one of seven states with rights to Colorado River water and, after years of negotiations, an agreement was reached so that California would stop taking more than its legal share. However, part of that agreement mandated that California pay to keep water flowing to the Salton Sea. While environmentalists cheered that development, a federal judge struck down the agreement saying it tied the budgetary hands of the California legislature without allowing lawmakers to vote on the agreement. The other states with rights to Colorado River water plan on appealing the judge’s ruling.
The Colorado River, like rivers around the world, has been shaped by decades of human interventions designed to ensure water supplies to growing areas. The work of Ellen Wohl and Dorothy Merrits suggests that such alterations have actually changed society’s expectations of what a river should look like. And that has implications for river use and restoration projects, which often are based on public perceptions. Wohl and Merrit argue, that to effectively manage rivers and river restoration projects, it is critical to understand more precisely how rivers, like the Colorado, have been altered by human activity.
Read and listen to the Arizona Public Media story.
Read Wohl, Ellen and Dorothy J. Merrits. 2007. What is a Natural River? Geography Compass. 1(4) pps.871-900.
December 28, 2009
By Georgia Davis Conover
Agua Caliente spring in Southern Arizona appears to be a natural oasis in the desert. Ducks and wading birds rely on the spring and its surrounding ponds as a source of water and food, but a decade long drought is threatening the existence of the riparian habitat. The spring now flows at about five gallons per minute, well below historic levels of up to 50 gallons per minute. One spring-fed pond has dried up and another is kept filled, not by the natural spring flow but by a well, dug by managers of Agua Caliente Park. An additional source of water for the spring is the Central Arizona Project or CAP. The CAP, which transports water from the Colorado River, is one of Southern Arizona’s major sources of irrigation and drinking water.
It is generally understood, according to Adrian Armstrong, that water environments need protecting. However, seldom does anyone question the basis for that assumption. Armstrong makes an argument that riparian environments have value beyond human uses and it is only when all users, be those human or otherwise, are considered is it possible to develop a true “water ethic.” This is an argument that would certainly resonate with park managers in Southern Arizona where a small portion of CAP water, designated for human uses, is being diverted to maintain wildlife habitat in Aqua Caliente Park.
Armstrong, Adrian. 2005. Ethical Issues in Water Use and Sustainability. Area 38(1) pgs. 9-15.
Watch the Arizona Public Media story on Aqua Caliente Spring.
October 19, 2009
By Georgia Davis Conover
Water managers in San Diego, California are having to cut their budget, not because of the recession but rather because customers have reduced their water usage. Compared to a year ago, consumers in San Diego County are using 20 percent less water. By the end of the summer, some water districts had already reached their conservation goals for the year. While that could be considered positive news in a drought stricken state, it is bad for the budget. As a result of the drop in water usage, utilities have less than anticipated revenues. To save money, water managers are leaving unfilled jobs vacant and are curtailing some planned projects, including conservation outreach programs. Some utilities are also relaxing conservation rules in hopes of encouraging people to once again use more water.
Geographers are increasingly interested in the nexus between social practice, regulation and the environment. In “Reasons to Be Cheerful: Thinking Sustainably in a (Climate) Changing World” Hobsen writes about her recent experience at a sustainable living workshop in Adelaide, Australia. Her work makes an argument for both environmentally and socially sustainable practices.
Read the full story in the San Diego Union-Tribune
Hobson, Kertsy. 2008. “Reasons to be Cheerful: Thinking Sustainably in a (Climate) Changing World.” Geography Compass. 2(1) 199-214.
October 1, 2009
By Clare Boston
Last week, dust storms in eastern Australia caused havoc to populated coastal areas, diverting flights, disrupting ferries and causing long queues on major roads. The dust originated from the Lake Eyre region following the movement of a cold front and strong winds eastwards over the area. Dr Craig Strong from Griffith University, Queensland suggests that a combination of floods, drought and strong winds caused the latest dust events, where sediment deposited by flooding earlier this year, dried out and became available for aeolian transport. Widespread drought in southern Australia over the last 10 years is also likely to have been an important factor in increasing dust availability due to a reduction in vegetation cover.
In Geography Compass Heather Viles reviews the affect of biological crusts on arid landscape dynamics. Biological crusts consist of a variety of micro-organisms and lower plants that can play a key role in trapping and retaining dust, providing stabilisation from surface run-off and wind erosion. The impact of climate change has not been widely researched, but it is likely that changes in precipitation patterns and increases in CO2 have had significant effects on crust stability. As well as a reduction in vegetation cover, the increased frequency of extreme flood and drought events in Australia may have caused a reduction in the performance of biological crusts as a mechanism for dust retention, thus contributing to the increased availability of dust in the Lake Eyre region.
Read the BBC News story
Read Dr Craig Strong’s opinion on Australia’s latest dust storm
Read Heather Viles (2008). Understanding Dryland Landscape Dynamics: Do biological crusts hold the key?Geography Compass