Last month I was in Ulaan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia, for a meeting where the government appealed to the international community for emergency relief to address its most serious disaster known as dzud – a condition where extreme winter conditions lead to great livestock mortality in this nation of nomadic pastoralists. At that time 1 million animals had died. A month later the Guardian reports 2.7 million livestock have perished – more than 1 per citizen. The disaster has natural and human causes. Temperatures of -500, changing climate parameters and greater intensity of weather events affect pastoralists’ outdoor livelihoods. Equally, escalating livestock numbers for economic reasons, a collapse in the government’s ability to address disasters and a general lack of preparedness for a recurring natural phenomenom increases risk and vulnerability. As the United Nations releases the first tranche of assistance the Mongolian government and international donor community should consider how to mitigate dzud impact beforehand – it is more effective to minimize disaster impact through planning and preparation rather than wait until after the tragedy happens to ask for support
UN launches Mongolia $4m appeal to clear up livestock killed by big freeze.
Outside Hohhot, China the Yellow River is not yellow – it is a shade of muddy brown. But since January part of the Yellow River has been flowing black, the result of a huge oil spill. After a pipeline burst the contamination stretched for13 miles; authorities have been busy installing floating barriers and digging diversion ditches to contain the spill. The Yellow River is the main water source in northern China’s dryland interior, provides drinking water to 140 million residents and is essential for agriculture and mining (i.e. economic development). Already under threat from overusage, pollution and poor quality, some years the river dries before reaching the ocean.
The Yellow, often described as the Cradle of Chinese civilisation, is under threat from a growing population, a warming climate and ever-increasing extraction demands. The impact of the oil spill shows its susceptibility to man-made forces. The river’s future viability will depend on human action, particularly official policy, as much as traditional factors like rainfall and drought cycles. Valuing the environment, if even only for economic or political (thirsty citizens) reasons, is in the long-term interest of the government.
The Rest is Geography. Robert Butler in Intelligent Life
How geography has changed. In the past longshore drift, glacial retreat, ordnance survey maps made for a safe and somewhat dull subject. Today geography is essential, the one topic that covers our world from Arctic melting, desertification and population threats from climate change and disease to water scarcity and environmental migration. Atlases have moved beyond borders and flags to map CO2 emissions, drought and likely hotspots for resource wars – perhaps history before it happens.
By covering the world in its multifaceted glory and complexity geography becomes ever more relevant as we realize civilizations depend on how the environment treated. Whilst we have some control over politics and culture, the dominant factors of the next decades may elude our grasp as the Copenhagen summit showed. As the UN Secretary General said, ‘you can negotiate with Iran. You can’t negotiate with nature.’
Last fall’s British Museum Moctezuma exhibition highlighted what can happen when humans overstress their ecosystem. The Aztecs ignored basic geographical facts to the point of collapse; one can see parallels with our voracious resource appetite and personal consumption. Are we reliving an ancient fate? The answer is coming to a geography department near you, for geography is where things are really happening.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Turning seawater into drinking water has long been one of man’s a quixotic pursuits. Today desalination plants are expensive to build and require much energy; thus a simplified approach has great appeal. Leave it to two Canadians, from a country of unlimited water, to come up with a novel solution. By using sunlight to evaporate and concentrate the salt and natural chemical processes (electrically charged atoms) to separate the sodium and chloride ions in seawater the researchers have created an efficient technology that consumes a quarter of the energy of current processes. Even better, the technology can work at individual (a rooftop) to industrial scales to bring drinking water to the 20% of the world’s population that live in water-scarce regions that coincidentally often have an abundance of sunshine that is needed for the desalination process. A first plant opens this month in Vancouver – will there soon be water everywhere to drink?
The highest point in the Maldives, located off the coast of southwestern India, is 2.4 metres above sea level. To stress how climate change will affect this nation of 200 inhabited islands and 400,000 people the government held a recent cabinet meeting underwater. In full scuba gear the ministers met for half an hour, long enough to sign a document calling for reduction in global carbon emissions. An oft-cited impact of climate change will be rising sea levels that threaten low-lying island nations scattered throughout the world’s oceans, particularly in the South Pacific. The Maldives and its brethren cannot control climates or their fates – that duty rests with the global community. While the underwater photo op was meant to draw attention to their plight the hard work comes at the UN Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen this December. The Maldives hope the action of the delegates will save their nation – only time can tell.
Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan last month causing widespread destruction and 700 deaths, particularly in the south. The government was faulted thoughout for its inept handling of the crisis, including its slow response and lack of evacuation in the face of heavy rains and huge landslides. Now political heads must roll to appease the angry electorate. This week the Prime Minister Liu Chao-shiuan resigned with the full cabinet following him this week. Collapsing popularity forced President Ma to allow the Dalai Lama to visit the victims in defiance of heavy pressure from new best friend China. “Because so many people died someone must take responsibility,” said the ex-Prime Minister. If only George Bush had been so honourable after Hurricane Katrina…
Texas and Australia are experiencing extreme droughts that have not been seen for a half century or longer. Amid much press coverage government efforts to mitigate drought range from no water for gardens to aid, emergency loans and town prayer services (yes, in the U.S.). Drought is the world’s dominant natural hazard, thus can be no surprise in dryland regions. The severe impact comes from human efforts that are often inappropriate to the environment – farming in the desert, large populations where there are limited resources, the desire for swimming pools and green lawns in scrub land. The last century has seen myriad attempts by man to conquer the desert. Great effort and expense have made miracles happen, but these are temporary victories dependent on ever-increasing external inputs for success. For long-term survival in the desert we should look to the indigenous dwellers – camel, cactus, or lizard – and treat water as a scarce resource, maximize efficiency, and limit extraneous effort. Until this is learned human extravagance in arid lands will persist and the physical and economic effects of drought will continue to alarm us. Nature makes drought endemic, it is we who must adapt – the sooner the better.