Climate Change in the Pacific: State of Emergency

As outlined in a previous post, “Climate Change in the Pacific:  Help we’re drowning,” Pacific islands are bearing the first clear environmental shifts of global climate change.  Not only are the islands being threatened by rising sea levels, their territory and societies ‘drowning’ in the process; but, climate change is combining with other environmental conditions to jeopardize the essential fresh water sources that these insular societies depend on.

On October 2011, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu declared a national state of emergency.   The emergency is that the country’s fresh water sources are running out and others are unfit for consumption.  Some areas of the island were projected to completely run out of potable, fresh water within two days of the declaration.  The conditions that led to the state of emergency are related to the longer term climate changes, but also to seasonal shifts.  A seasonal, La Niña weather pattern has been causing drought in Tuvalu.  Below-average rainfall has been experienced since June or at least and is projected to continue into December.  Most of the country’s fresh water supply comes from collected rainwater.  Another source of freshwater lies under the ground.  Yet, this source is limited.  Tuvalu is a series of low-lying coral atolls.  The geology of coral atolls does not support deep groundwater sources.  Further, the shallow groundwater that is found on these islands is being compromised by rising sea levels as salt water infiltrates the groundwater supply.  A reporting of animals deaths leads Tuvaluan Red Cross officials to question the safety of the groundwater supply for consumption.  Considering the nature of groundwater recharge, and most acute in Tuvalu, the lack of rainfall is accelerating the infiltration of seawater into subterranean water features.  The impacts of water shortages are felt in the islands’ traditional subsistence agriculture activities as well as water rationing affecting basic water services.  Tuvalu’s neighbor and New Zealand territory, Tokelau followed up soon after with its own state of emergency declaration.

The relief is coming from international organizations like the Red Cross as well as from the government of New Zealand.  The people of Tuvalu and Tokelau are being aided with water collection supplies, desalinization units and plenty of bottled water.  The larger affects are still yet to come.  In particular, questions about the long-term settlement of many low-lying Pacific islands have implications for nationhood, cultural traditions, economic rights, and logistics of mass migration.


The Conservation Balance in Sub-Saharan Africa

Most of our mental images of Sub-Saharan Africa are associated with the physical environment: its vast, open landscapes; its unique big mammals; and its native, “traditional” peoples.  Our geographic imaginations have been coded by historical travels, popular media, tourism, other narratives tagged as African.  Today, the real African landscapes behind our imaginations are caught in a struggle between population growth, development needs, and globalization.  In the middle of all this are Africa’s plant and animal systems.  Conserving Africa’s biodiversity is a complicated problem that marks battle lines between various actors: global organizations and local peoples; hunters, environmentalists and tourists; rich and poor; Africans and non-Africans.  In a September issue of The Economist, the article “Game Conservation in Africa: Horns, claws and the bottom line” provides a broad look at the debates over conserving African biodiversity, in particular its iconic large animal species.  Using this article as a starting point, we can analyze the geographies of human-animal conflict and interaction to gain a better understanding of the challenges to conserving Sub-Saharan Africa’s biodiversity.

One of the most difficult problems facing African wildlife is the encroachment of human settlements into wildlife habitats.  As human settlements move out into undeveloped, “wild” lands, fences are built, native vegetation is changed, and fresh water sources are taken over.  This expansion and appropriation of land and water in Africa is the main source for clashes between humans and animals.  Farm lands and crops are trespassed by elephants and other foragers.  Livestock is targeted by lions and other predators.  Shared water sources can bring human populations in direct conflict with dangerous animals like hippos and crocodiles.  When humans feel they are in danger, the only recourse is to kill offending or threatening animals. As more and more settlements materialize, the end result is the overall decline of wildlife populations.  Another effect of human settlement is the fragmentation of habitat, particularly of range lands.  Many large animals in Africa require significant land areas to hunt, migrate or forage.  As these human settlements pop up, they break up the necessary open land that many animals, especially big cats, need.  This creates more opportunity for conflict between these animals and settlements.

Local peoples are not solely to blame.  And in fact, this conflict between humans and ecosystems has happened the world over.  However, it is the power of the African landscape in Western imaginations that seems to make conservation such a necessity.  The questions are what kind of conservation should be supported and how to best integrate tourismHistorically, conservation has involved the creation of parks or conservancies that had expelled indigenous peoples, creating “conservation refugees.” These early parks were built on imaginations of pristine, untouched wilderness that did not include the presence of native people.  However, increasingly, conservation projects have begun to centrally involve indigenous people in the stewardship of the land and its biodiversity.  Some of these conservation projects are seen as community initiatives where they provide local peoples with actual income or social support in exchange for promoting conservation or for more sustainable livelihoods.  Some hope that such initiatives will eventually provide an avenue for poverty alleviation, yet when studies have proved more data is necessary to judge them a success.  Safari tourism has provided a somewhat positive outlook, as first of all safaris are geared toward viewing wildlife, as opposed to hunting it.  Safari fees in some areas have been used to lease land from locals, which relieves some pressures allowing native vegetation and wild animals to return.  Further, fees have supported local schools, in addition to the staff, rangers and maintenance of the conservation area. However, the safari business has its spatial limitations, since most safari tourists are interested in the big game seen in the African savannas.  Such a model has yet to provide any benefits to other African ecosystems like the Congo Basin, which is plagued by illegal logging that directly threatens gorillas and other forest wildlife.

Ultimately, the question seems to relate to economic bottom lines.  The hope tied to locally inclusive, community initiatives requires a balance between providing indigenous people more income or a better quality of life than they would achieve exploiting the land and its wildlife as they had prior to the presence of conservation efforts.  And, that conservation money comes from private, international interests, which has political implications and creates a reliance on goodwill and continued valuation of outside geographic imaginations of Africa.

Concept Caching: Muslim women in Sanaa, Yemen

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all Geography classes.

Sanaa, Yemen is one of the most traditional capital cities in the world. Old Sanaa is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and within the city walls are tower houses which are known as the world's first skyscrapers. The architectural uniformity of Sanaa has made it one of the most atmospheric cities of the Middle East, and the traditional Muslim culture of the Yemenis adds to the city's character.

According to the post Geography Directions: No More Water by 2025? the Northern Yemeni city of Sanaa is at an extreme risk of water scarcity as its fresh water sources, already limited, are increasingly stressed by the combination of its arid environment, lack of freshwater hydro-geography, and growing population demands.  What will become of this UNESCO World Heritage site when all the water is gone?

Geography Directions: No More Water by 2025?

From our Geography Directions site reviewing Wiley-Blackwell’s Geography Compass review journal covering the entire discipline.  Keep up with cutting edge academic geography.  These articles may be useful for introducing students to the discipline or may be appropriate for upper division Geography classes.

Experts are warning that Yemenis living in the capital city, Sana’a, may no longer have access to water by 2025. Like many Middle Eastern countries, Yemen is an arid country that faces a problem of water scarcity*. Rain and groundwater are the main sources of water in Yemen since there are no rivers in the country. A recent New York Times article reports that if water management does not improve, it may lead to massive population displacement as well as job losses and declining incomes. These conclusions are based on a preliminary study produced by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company at the request of the Yemeni government.

Demand for water in Yemen has greatly increased over the past decades, due to a fast growing population that has doubled since 1975, and to the prevalence of the cultivation of qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that generates more income than other cash crops. Yemeni farms use about 90 percent of the country’s water. Thousands of wells have been drilled illegally to irrigate crops, and the growing need for water and inadequate irrigation techniques have resulted in the depletion of Yemen’s aquifers, with groundwater being extracted faster than it can be replenished by natural discharge. This has led to migration from rural to urban areas, as streams dry up and people can no longer farm on their land. It is important to note that Yemen is a major food importer, with around 90 percent of its food coming from abroad.

There have been different campaigns to educate Yemenis about sustainable water management options at the individual level, like the one in the video presented here, and the creation of Rowyan, a national mascot to encourage water conservation. Several projects related to sustainable water management in Sana’a and at the national level are being funded by international organisations and the EU, and water rationing is being carried out in most of the major cities.

Geography Compass paper by Hassan et al. (2010) provides insights into the challenges and opportunities related to water management in an arid Arab country. Although the politics, geography and level of water scarcity differ, a comparative approach could be taken to draw parallels between scenarios in Palestine and Yemen. For readers who prefer a more theoretical approach to the sustainability of water use, another Geography Compass paper by Hauhs and Graefe (2009) presents perspectives from the social and natural sciences, and shows how both of these approaches can be combined to facilitate discussions amongst water managers with different backgrounds.

*Water scarce countries are defined by the World Bank as those that have less than 1,000 m3 of renewable internal freshwater resources available per capita in a year. Yemen is estimated to have about 200 m3 of water per capita, which is 3 percent of the global average of 6,750 m3.

By Magali Bonne-Moreau

To view the original article please visit the Geography Directions Blog.

Interconnections amid the floodwaters of Pakistan

The devastating floods that have inundated most of Pakistan over the summer provide plenty of opportunity for a sobering look at the interconnections between climate, politics, economy, and society, across scales.  Outside of the aid and trade questions that have been raised among the international community in helping Pakistan recover, there have been other interesting connections that can be discussed in many geography classes.

For many following this story, it seemed to begin with the torrential monsoon rains.  However, the actual events began with drought.  Below average rainfall levels were experienced in 2009 and as of early July 2010 they were expected to worsenNational Geographic released a series of photos titled, “Amid Drought, Pakistan Prays for Rain.” And come the end of July, their prayers were answered.

Only a few weeks after the National Geographic photos, torrential monsoon rains begin to engulf Northern Pakistan, the very area shown to be stricken in the photos.  The levels of rainfall in just a few weeks broke records for the last 100 years.  Early on, there were cautionary words for the stressed Pakistani government, already fighting insurgency and coping with other domestic disasters, as they began to appeal to the international community for aid.  Following the initial rains, Pakistan was hit by high temperatures and continued rains that caused additional flooding and landslides.

For a developing world infrastructure, already uneven and inconsistent, the magnitude of destruction during and following the floods proved immense.  The first reports profiled the human devastation as thousands of people were killed and millions made homeless.  Included in these reports were the effects on livelihoods, as entire villages and towns, agricultural fields and livestock herds, food stores, and essential transport and social networks of roads, hospitals, etc., were wiped out.  The widespread damage is seen to set back the Pakistani infrastructure by many years.

For survivors, they were challenged with the day to day battle for food, limited by actual provisions or by rising food prices.  Limited access to clean water was leading to dehydration and dangers of water-borne disease.  The lack of shelter saw many flood victims exposed to the sun, high temperatures, disease-bearing insects and poisonous snakes.  The largest at-risk group of survivors are the millions of Pakistani children who are incredibly vulnerable to disease and malnutrition.  Continued rains on top of existing destruction meant survivors had to improvise transport and had to continue moving from one flood-ravaged area to the next.  The spreading impact of the floods and of survivors led to renewed fears over the future food and livelihoods of much larger populations.

Amid the devastation, some reports focused entirely on the destabilizing affects of such a natural disaster, in the already delicate stability of a place like Pakistan.  Much of this potential destabilization was shared between two foci:  the government and the Taliban.  The recovery was argued as the “Last Chance for Pakistan” being the “gravest security crisis” to be faced by the country and the South Asia region.  There were discrimination accusations of aid being delivered first to certain party supporters or wealthy landowners diverting floodwaters from their own fields to others’.  Out of this disarray, it was reported that the Taliban in Pakistan were able to regroup to the degree that considered targeting the already under-resourced aid workers in the country.  In the last few weeks after the flooding, the same problems remain, yet political in-fighting on how to move forward and who should act is now worse than ever.  This has led some to argue that it is the civil-military elite in the Pakistani government that have hindered international aid and that should be relieved of their duties in leading the recovery.  Ultimately, the appeals for international aid have been made on behalf of political stability, fighting insurgency, and also in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Through the drama of Pakistan’s natural disaster, issues of environment and society can be discussed in geography classes.  In physical geography courses, the discussion can focus on big scale issues of climate change and increasing extreme weather events, or can be smaller scale in illustrating flood plain events, like 100- and 500-year events.  In human geography courses, the discussion may venture into economic and social development, political structures, inequality, and the consequences of these for certain cultural/social groups, or overall recovery.  In world regional courses, the discussion can weave these issues together looking at the many human-environment interactions within the country, but also investigate global connections among security, international aid, and sovereignty.

As if this event was not powerful enough in black and white print, there have been many accompanying photo reports.  They add a greater significance to in-class discussions allowing students to visually identify the magnitude of the flooding, destruction and human devastation that these reports entail.  Photojournals have been posted by the Huffington Post, NPR, NPR’s The Two-Way blog, NPR’s Picture Show blog, and National GeographicNPR has also produced an interactive map detailing the extent of the floods in Pakistan’s four provinces, providing links to images and videos.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Identify what climate region is Pakistan and the Indus River included in and what other climate regions border it?  How might this climate position explain the cycles of drought, monsoon rains, and flooding stages that have been seen in the 2010 Pakistan Floods?
  2. Review some of the articles discussing the extent and effects of the Pakistan flooding.  What do these impacts tell us about the economic and social development in Pakistan, and in South Asia?  Think about infrastructure and settlement, population and poverty, and gender equity, among others.
  3. What is the primary economic activity in Pakistan?  In what ways is it already environmentally vulnerable?  How has this vulnerability informed issues related to food security and development?  What additional vulnerabilities are revealed in the 2010 Pakistan Flood event?
  4. What are some of the global concerns that hinge on Pakistan’s political security?  How are arguments over aid or trade in Pakistan’s recovery aimed at serving global security concerns?

Concept Caching: Luxor, Egypt

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all Geography classes.

"The contrasting character of the Egyptian landscape could not be more striking. Along the Nile River, the landscape is one of green fields, scattered trees, and modest houses, as along this stretch of the river's west bank near Luxor (top figure). But anytime I wander away from the river, brown, wind-sculpted sand dominates the scene as far as the eye can see (bottom figure). Where people live and what they do is not just a product of culture; it is shaped by the physical environment as well."

In our Concept Caching site, there are countless examples of the human-environment connection.  Despite its subdued appearance, this image of Luxor, Egypt offers an extraordinary representation of this interaction.  On the banks of the Nile River, surrounded by the vast Egyptian desert, Luxor is one of the world’s oldest continuously settled and cultivated areas on Earth.  In the post Biomes to Anthromes, the inclusion of human influence on ecological communities puts this Egyptian riverine landscape in true perspective.

Concept Caching: Shennong River, China

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all Geography classes.

The Shennong River is one of the tributaries to the Yangtze River in China. It is a sleepy river valley with farm houses nestled along the valley floor and its surrounding mountains. Farmers in this community must terrace the surrounding hills to have sufficient acreage to cultivate. This means laborious work by hand, bringing buckets of water up and down the mountains every day to make sure their precious crops are sustained.

This image submitted by Vicki Drake offers a picturesque visualization for some of the rural landscapes of the Chinese interior.  The Shennong River, or Shen Nong Stream, is one of the tributaries to the Yangtze River just miles upriver from the Three Gorges Dam.  The Shennong valley blends from agricultural landscape to geological landscape as its stream grade cuts one of the lesser gorges leading to the Yangtze in this high relief area.  The image can suggest the “sleepy” quality of the area, but can also foster recognition of the potential for natural disasters and difficulty in providing emergency services in such relatively remote, but populated area, as mentioned in the post Chinese Environmental Problems and the Potential for Change.

Concept Caching: Soybean Agriculture in Presho, South Dakota

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all  Geography classes.

Soybeans growing in the semiarid ranchlands of western South Dakota.

This image submitted by Erin Fouberg provides a visualization of the scale and landscapes of crop agriculture in the United States.  The companion image description offers insight into this landscape and details over the two types of crop agriculture in this region.  It is also an interesting visual companion to some of the issues raised in the post, “Geographies of Green Diets.”

“Driving across the semiarid ranchlands of western South Dakota, I noticed the presence of a crop in the landscape that was recently found only in the eastern, moister region of the state: soybeans.

I called a colleague who works in agriculture at South Dakota State University to ask, “When did the cattle ranchers of western South Dakota start growing soybeans?” He replied, “When the soy biodiesel plants started popping up in Nebraska and Kansas and when genetically modified soybeans made it possible to grow the crop here.” He explained the development of Roundup Ready soybeans, a particular genetically modified soybean that can grow in more arid regions of the country. First, you plant the soybean; then you use an airplane to spray Roundup, a common weed killer that is manufactured by the company that produces the Roundup Ready soybeans, over the field. The application of Roundup over the entire field saves a lot of time and energy for the farmers because the genetically modified soybeans are resistant to the Roundup, but the weeds are killed. Monsanto, the company that produces Roundup, has developed soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops that are resistant to Roundup.

Counter to the genetically modified Roundup Ready crops, organic agriculture —the production of crops without the use of synthetic or industrially produced pesticides and fertilizers—is also on the rise in North America. In wealthier parts of the world, the demand for organic products has risen exponentially in recent years. Sales of organic food in the United States, for example, went from under $200 million in 1980 to $1.5 billion by the early 1990s to over $10 billion by 2003 and $17.8 billion in 2007. Organic foods are now about 3 percent of all food sales in the country. The growth rate is so strong that some predict organic sales will approach 10 percent of total U.S. food sales within a decade. Parts of western Europe are already approaching that figure—notably Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Germany.”

To continue reading the cache description visit the Concept Caching website.

Geographies of Green Diets

With the discursive onset of “global warming” in the global lexicon, seemingly inconsequential personal choices are subject to questions of ‘Greenness’ (Green indicating an alternative that is better for the environment than the status quo).  In a world that is increasingly linked technologically, economically, and culturally in a complicated web of globalization, your diet (what you eat, not your weight loss plan) raises convoluted issues of scale, politics and environment that are not always so easy to comprehend.

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of the questions behind a “Green Diet” is how geography is implicated in all aspects.  Whether this is a question of agricultural and land-use practices, of environmental problems or solutions, of scale from the local to global, or of socio-economic, culture or politics, each has a spatial component and consequence.

The United Nations International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management argues in a June 2010 report that, “Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies; triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests; intensifying disease and death rates and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels.”  The report calls for a controversial shift in global diets to reduce such environmental pressures.  This shift would be away from those including a large amount of animal-based products to those including more vegetable-based foods.  This report was certainly not the first to call for such a dietary shift, another contribution came from well-known author and activist, Michael Pollan who challenged readers to eat whole fresh foods, a little meat, and avoid processed foods.

Yet, after the UN-backed report, there seems to be a resurgence of dialogue over the greenness of our diets.  An author from the Atlantic asks, “Can Meat Eaters be environmentalists?” arguing that the two are not a contradiction.  She has also authored the New York Times article “The Carnivore’s Dilemma” researching the connection between meat and global warming.  An excellent Mother Jones article tackles the “merits of vegetarianism” by taking the question to a panel of experts and to readers, cheekily poised as “Bacon Lovers vs. Soy Huggers.”  This article is an outstanding source for both sides of the debate and includes plenty of interesting, albeit covert, geographical references from trophic structures to cultural preferences.  Another aspect of greening diets comes from the Local Foods movement, dubbed by the USDA as “Know your Farmer, Know your food”, which focuses more on where your food comes from rather that what you eat.  An NPR program and article offers a very interesting once over of the movement, but also of the economic and logistical challenges, combined with the overall reluctance of food distributors to make the change.

Overall, the underlying issues behind these questions have to do with various ‘costs’:  energy costs, food supply costs, economic costs, and environmental costs.  Each of these costs indicates difficulties that can be best understood in a holistic, interconnected way.  Indeed, geographers best understand the human-environment connections behind our diets:

–  How fossil fuel use may be translating into warmer climates;

–  How most crop agriculture is devoted to animal agriculture, creating fossil fuel and economic entanglements in between, and then topping it all off with the addition of more heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere;

–  How the economic networks associated with status quo crop and animal agriculture mean jobs, taxes, and livelihoods to large populations of Midwestern and Central United States;

–  How environmentally costly, both looking back and forward, commercial agriculture has been for native grassland ecosystems and rainforest ecosystems, freshwater supplies, and perhaps for climates throughout the globe.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you know where your food comes from or how it is produced?  When you are out at your local grocery store, favorite restaurant, school cafeteria, café, farmer’s market, etc. look for clues about where food products come from, how they are produced, and how they are delivered.
  2. What do you think about the arguments made in the “Bacon Lovers vs. Soy Huggers” article?  What conclusions can you draw about which diet is greener?  What are some further questions you might have?
  3. Think about the connection between food production (meat, vegetables, and processed foods) and climate.  List the various ways that production, distribution, and consumption contribute or neutralize effects on climate.

Sarah Goggin

Hoover Dam, On Location with Alan Arbogast

Learn about the Geography of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead with Wiley author and MSU Professor Alan Arbogast.

Running Time: 7:08