Tag Archives: drought

Consumption, Behaviour Change and Sustainability

Taken by John O'Neill: View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.Jen Dickie

On Tuesday, the House of Commons International Development Committee published a report on global food security.  Issues around the changes in the supply and demand of food at a local and global scale are discussed and calls for food wastage to be reduced, nutrition programmes expanded and a revision of agriculturally derived biofuels are some of the recommendations made.  However, in The Guardian yesterday, Fiona Harvey focussed on a more specific warning from the MPs’ report, stating that the British public “should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world”.  Although only one of many factors contributing to the global food crises, the MPs’ suggest that by cutting down meat consumption, pressures on agricultural land will ease, deforestation and obesity will be reduced and recent food price inflation will stabilise.  The report emphasises that this is not just a national issue but a global one, highlighting that China has doubled its average meat consumption per person per year from 20kg in 1985 to 50kg today; whilst high, this consumption level is still shadowed by the UK, who averaged at 85.8kg in 2007.  However, the report recognises that simply “urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable”, and instead suggests a campaign for behavioural change is needed where we see meat as an “occasional product rather than an everyday staple”.    

The timing of the International Development Committee’s report is of particular relevance as it was UNEP’s ‘World Environment Day’ on Wednesday.  The theme for this year’s celebrations is Think.Eat.Save, an anti-food waste campaign that encourages you to become more aware of your food choices and the environmental impacts they may have.  Sustainable consumption is described by UNEP as being about ‘doing more and better with less’, not just in terms of food, but for all renewable and non-renewable resources.  

Whilst food consumption behaviours are the main focus of these activities, Meryl Pearce et al. report on the consumption and conservation behaviours of water in three parts of Australia in an article for The Geographical Journal.  They compared householders stated water use with their actual consumption and found that high water users knew that they were high consumers of water, and that location, household size and annual household income were good predictive factors for high per capita water use.  Interestingly, their study also found that having a healthy garden was seen as a “symbol of economic status in the neighbourhood”, and therefore more important than conserving water.  Pearce et al. suggest that successful behavioural change campaigns need to offer “alternatives that do not lead to any loss in social welfare or status” and that by promoting the growing prestige associated with sustainable living consumption behaviour could change for the better.             

books_icon Meryl Pearce, Eileen Willis, Loreen Mamerow, Bradley Jorgensen, John Martin, 2013, The prestige of sustainable living: implications for water use in Australia, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12016

60-world2 Eat less meat for greater food security, British population urged, The Guardian, 4th June 2013

60-world2 Global Food Security: First Report of Session 2013–14, House of Commons International Development Committee, accessed 4th June 2013

60-world2 United Nations Environment Programme, Think.Eat.Save.  World Environment Day, accessed 5th June 2013

Towards improved drought awareness

By Daniel Schillereff

The copyright on this image is owned by Peter Bond and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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

Food, Glorious Food… What Next is the Question?

By Jen Dickie

Corn in drought, Western Kentucky, August, 2012 by CraneStation via Flickr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en_GB)

This week, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation are hosting the ‘Committee on World Food Security’ in Rome. This follows an announcement last Wednesday from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) stating that the UK suffered its worst wheat harvest since the 1980s, blaming the combined forces of a spring drought followed by the wettest summer in 100 years (Met Office). Describing this year’s weather as “a rollcoaster for British farmers that most now just want to forget”, Fiona Harvey and Rebecca Smithers from The Guardian describe both the difficulties farmers face after a disastrous growing season, and in a related article, how this has impacted on British consumers by not only increasing our shopping bills but by changing our shopping habits. In response to a 32% rise in food prices in the UK since 2007, they report how ethical provenance has dropped down the consumer’s list of considerations when food shopping; instead, affordability is now the key priority.

It is not only the UK that is suffering; in The Observer this weekend, John Vidal highlighted the rising concerns over food security and the potential onset of a global food crisis due to failing harvests across the world. Quoting experts such as Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Research Centre in Washington, and Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and agriculture Organisation, Vidal stresses the complex interplay among concurrent global issues such as climate change, increasing consumption and decreasing production of food, population growth, water shortages and rising food prices.

In a recent article for The Geographical Journal, Tim Lang and David Barling acknowledge the complex nature of the concept of food security, arguing that even the term ‘food security’ is interpreted and used in different ways. They argue that “Much of the food security discourse still is about governments, farmers and the hungry” whereas more coherent policy frameworks are needed that address the development and understanding of a food system that “is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable”.

Whilst policymakers meet this week to discuss how to keep global food prices in check, earlier this month the UN reported that one in eight people in the world are starving or under-nourished. A global food crisis has not yet been declared, however, Lester Brown warns us that “As food prices climb, the worldwide competition for control of land and water resources is intensifying… Food is the new oil, land is the new gold”. This is food for thought!

Tim Lang and David Barling, 2012, Food security and food sustainability: reformulating the debate, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00480.x

Weather-beaten UK farmers lament a dismal year for food production, The Guardian, 12 October 2012

 Food prices: ‘Bread, coffee and fresh fruit have become a bit of a luxury’, The Guardian, 12 October 2012

A mixed harvest, but wheat well down, The NFU website, 10th October 2012

 UN warns of looming worldwide food crisis in 2013, The Observer, 13th October 2012

Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, Earth Policy Institute Press Release

What a scorcher!

By Kelly Wakefield

Phew!  What a lovely summer we are predicted here in the UK, of course it always seems to be a little more breezy in coastal areas but in the East Midlands a very warm and rain free spring has begun to feel alot like summer.  However, as a geographer, the weather is never far from one’s mind and as stories about the very dry spring continue to spring up in the media, my interest was piqued.  Stories such as ‘Northern Europe’s farmers fear drought as bad as 1976′, ‘Drought takes toll on barley crop’ and ‘Cuba battles against worsening drought’ appear in all media outlets.  Stories from North America have also covered issues relating to drought such as this headline ‘Severe drought in Texas worst in map’s history’. 

One of the major effects of drought is of course the lack of production of food as crops refuse to grow and the use of irrigation has to be considered, if not already done so.  Conway (2008, p272) discusses drought as well as the price of food rising in his ‘Food crisis’ presidential address, ‘although climate change is a response to global warming, most of the serious consequences involve the availability of water: in some regions greater and more intense rainfall, in others increasing droughts’.

There is no doubt that the issue of water globally will become more and more mediated as a lack of rain effects places from Norfolk to Texas, Northern Europe to Cuba.

Conway, G (2008) ‘Presidential Address, The Food Crisis‘, The  Geographical Journal, Volume 174, Issue 3, p269-273.

Peter Jackson, BBC, 11th May 2011, ‘Northern Europe’s farmers fear drought as bad as 1976

Betsey Blaney, Bloomsberg Businessweek, 5th May 2011, ‘Severe drought in Texas worst in map’s history‘.

BBC, 1st June 2011, ‘Drought takes toll on barley crop‘.

BBC, 31st May 2011 ‘Cuba battles against worsening draught‘.

Local solutions to global food shortages

Mopane Caterpillar

A Mopane caterpillar, found in southern Africa

I-Hsien Porter

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

Who is in control in a crisis?

I-Hsien Porter

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.

Live Aid 25

By Alexander Leo Phillips

Tuesday 13th July marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Live Aid.  The “global jukebox”, devised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, was held simultaneously in Wembley Stadium, London and John F. Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia and viewed by an estimated two billion people across the globe. The aim of the concert was simple; to raise money for the millions of Ethiopians struck by the devastating famine of 1984. The result was over £150 million raised for famine relief and a defining television event marking the generosity of millions.

Its easy and indeed reassuring to look back, twenty-five years on, and think of the event as the day the “developed” nations and publics of Great Britain, America and others got together and said NO to starvation, suffering and death amongst some of our poorest neighbours; but did the event really make much of  a difference?

To mark the anniversary, celebrities, activists and charities are once again joining together in a renewed call for aid, since the situation now is as bad as ever.  To quote Colin Firth on East Africa “These people are facing another food crisis. A dangerous storm of factors, drought, conflict, poverty and rocketing food prices, are pushing people over the edge. Oxfam needs public support to avert catastrophe and keep people alive” (Mirror.co.uk).

International aid, poverty and global development remain critical issues in our world today.  Indeed international aid and the NHS were the only two areas protected from the savage cuts of Britain’s new coalition government.  Geographers have also written extensively on the subject.  In recent months Paul Milbourne has provided a critical review of the recent geographical work on poverty and welfare and William Gould has asked us to reconsider our understandings of links between HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa, questioning the nature of our aid policies.

As the decades pass and the preventable deaths multiply, it’s becoming abundantly clear that throwing money at the issue does little to help; furthermore the very act of doing so has become ‘big business’ in itself as Linda Polman‘s new book illustrates so painfully.  So what are the solutions, if they even exist and what can geographers do to help?

Gould, B. 2009. ‘Exploring the Anomalous Positive Relationship between AIDS and Poverty in Africa’, Geography Compass, 3 (4), pp. 1449-1464.

Milbourne, P.  2010. ‘The Geographies of Poverty and Welfare’, Geography Compass, 4 (2), pp. 158-171.

For further information regarding the 25th anniversary of Live Aid see The Daily Mirror.

For further information regarding Linda Polman’s work on the aid industry see The Sunday Times.

Court Battle over Colorado River Water

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.

Whose Water Is It?

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.

Water Conservation Means Tighter Budget

water drop 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.

60% world Read the full story in the San Diego Union-Tribune

GECO $1.99 Hobson, Kertsy.  2008.  “Reasons to be Cheerful: Thinking Sustainably in a (Climate) Changing World.” Geography Compass. 2(1) 199-214.