Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Got a Sinking Feeling?

The balance of this century is going to be driven by human beings learning to grapple with the rather direct impacts of global warming, a lot of man-accelerated problems compounded by normal phenomena like El NiƱo or solar flares. What, you say, what about terrorism and rogue states? They’re trying to kill us. Real bombs. Real bullets. Insane zealots with mayhem and genocide on their minds.
What, I say, you don’t think millions of people losing their homes and farms right in the epicenter of the most dangerous spots on earth, people angry with nothing left to lose who have taken up arms against incumbents, hasn’t already become the greater enabler of this ultra-violent rage? Displaced farmers are often the foot soldiers of extremism. Weather-changes have created massive disruptions that has cracked into the world of extremists and ultra-violence. And for those impoverished souls, at the bottom of survivalist farming, the pain has well-exceeded the harm experienced by, say, pistachio farmers in California. Both have experienced life-altering droughts. But subsistence farmers are much more desperate than corporate nut farmers. “It’s the water, stupid!”
For example, there’s the simmering explosion in a tiny country (about the size of Arkansas) with a population just under 160 million people: Bangladesh. It is abysmally poor (with a GDP of $200 per person), horrifically overcrowded, 70% of the country is within three feet of sea level, such that in 1998, 85% of the entire country was underwater. A small Islamic nation, ripped away from Pakistan in 1971 after a bitter conflict that drew in neighboring India.
Three of the greatest rivers in the world, the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Meghna, all spill into the legendary Bay of Bengal where Bangladesh sits. Normal annual flooding ranges between 18% and 30% of the total land mass. It is the legacy of the fact that 80% of the country is part of a massive flood plain. Deforestation and inadequate resource management in neighboring India and Nepal has exacerbated this deadly situation. Add powerful monsoons and cyclones, the flow of fetid, disease-laden waters during floods, and life in Bangladesh for the vast majority of people is incomprehensibly horrible. Death and destruction we cannot begin to understand.
Meanwhile, India has been eyeing that ravaging water flow with eyes glistening with hydroelectric ambitions. There are recently-built dams already in place along portions of these rivers and their tributaries. India envisions lots of water for her own farmers and the ability to generate so much excess power-generating capacity so as to become the regional supplier of electricity to vast portions of Southern and Southeast Asia.
Indian engineers are on a path to capture a huge portion (most) of the water flow that would ordinarily find its way to Bangladesh. Aside from the newest dams, a lot more are on the books, ready to go. Look at the red line above to understand the impact. Too many local residents in India have already lost their homes and farms due to the resulting water rise created by the new dams. This is simply the price of progress to government planners, who have done next to nothing to help those displaced villagers and farmers in their own nation.
Good news for Bangladesh? Flooding will be contained or stopped. Strangely, it is horrible news for this badly-located little nation with way too many people. While Bangladesh might want to reduce the raging floodwaters from those great rivers, the country actually needs much of that water to fertilize farms and provide water to villages, cities and towns. India’s dams will slowly turn off that tap to the extent that, until rising global tides claim large portions of Bangladesh… like many great deltas around the world… large portions of Bangladesh will become barren deserts, unable to support agriculture. Starvation will accelerate with deadly precision. India doesn’t seem to care.
Bangladesh also suffers from over-reliance on ground water (there are about 8 million wells in Bangladesh). The increasing water needs have produced the need to sink those wells deeper and deeper into the earth. As India’s damming projects siphon off surface water, this reliance will deepen even as agriculture slowly ceases to be viable. But there is yet another a horrible catch. 20% of Bangladesh’s wells are seriously contaminated with life-extinguishing arsenic. It is a very, very serious problem, particularly harsh for those villagers most impacted by those dams. Arsenic poisoning is epidemic.
Since the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River sit in China, could India’s ambitions be thwarted should China decide to dam those waters before they reach India? India and China have long-suffered from strained relations (they’ve even gone to war in recent memory), so this would not be too hard to anticipate. Then as India screws Bangladesh, China could screw India (and thus Bangladesh). Absent some major global backing of Bangladeshi needs, expect desperate reactions to desperate realities. Bangladesh is being squeezed by extremes.
But the lessons of Bangladesh, extreme as they are, are also a global canary in the coal mine for most delta regions around the planet, where billions and billions of people live. Whether it is the Mekong, the Mississippi (bye bye New Orleans), the Thames or even our own under-engineered Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. There is hope. After the great 1953 flood, the Netherlands began building the greatest flood control systems on earth. That know-how is essential to coping with the unavoidable mass of destruction from delta-community flooding all over the earth. But in a budget-impaired world, politicians are loath to spend the money to solve these inevitable string of disasters.
Dutch engineers blanche at America’s “solve problems only after the catastrophe” even as they actually have the technology that would prevent what they perceive is inevitable, particularly in that Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta… where one earthquake cuts about one-third of the water flow to Los Angeles for the number of years it would take to repair a system of dikes and levees heavily reliant on mud and stone barriers built at the end of the 19thcentury.
Given the fact that we have already passed the tipping point on climate change, even assuming we can slow this down, unless we get ourselves ready for what is already happening and accelerating, the cost to prevent the expected consequences will pale in comparison to what we will have to pay once these disasters hit. Those who simply ignore the problem are already dealing with flooding in Texas, fires and droughts in the West, mosquitos with new diseases in our South and the storm surges on our east coast, with a whole lot more of “bad” to come.  It really is getting worse.
For example, there’s this little bit of cheery news for us all: “China has been consuming as much as 17 percent more coal each year than reported, according to the new government figures. By some initial estimates, that could translate to almost a billion more tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere annually in recent years, more than all of Germany emits from fossil fuels… Illustrating the scale of the revision, the new figures add about 600 million tons to China’s coal consumption in 2012 — an amount equivalent to more than 70 percent of the total coal used annually by the United States.
Economists have grown increasingly skeptical about the economic data China publishes, and the revisions open a new episode in the debate over its energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions… China’s emissions — 4.2 billion metric tons in 2013, according to the new data — now far exceed those of any other country, including the United States, the second-largest emitter.” New York Times, November 3rd. And remember, there’s no such thing as clean coal. Even the most efficient commercial processes have to pump effluents deep underground to be dealt with later. Wanna buy some retirement acreage in Bangladesh?
 I’m Peter Dekom, and remember that nature will recover from whatever we do to the environment even if billions of human beings do not.

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