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Flood, drought and satellites: online tools boost climate cooperation

MD Staff

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Online data is helping water authorities collaborate across borders to fight the impacts of climate change

It’s a cycle that is becoming all too common around the globe. A swing from flood to drought and back that costs nations billions of dollars every year and threatens not just the livelihoods but the very lives of millions of people.

Developing countries are often worst hit. In Kenya in 2018, close to 200 people died as a result of the worst flooding since 1997, with more than 300,000 displaced and over 21,000 acres of farmland destroyed, leaving thousands of people without livelihoods or sustenance.

The big wet came on the back of the nation’s worst drought since 2010, with 23 of 47 counties affected, leaving 3.4 million people severely food insecure and an estimated 500,000 people without access to water.

What is happening in Kenya is true in almost every corner of the world. Flood and drought are becoming not only increasingly common, but more intense and less predictable. Climate change may be the major driver, but the impacts are becoming ever more severe as a growing global population, increasing urbanization and pressures from agriculture and industry all tax scarce water resources and put more people at risk.

The World Resources Institute and partners estimate that floods disrupt as much as US$96 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) each year, with drought costing the agriculture industry alone US$6-8 billion annually according to the United Nations.

While global action is being taken to avert worst-case scenario climate change, the impacts being felt around the world already are very real – and often, nothing short of deadly.

According to UN Environment’s Yegor Volovik, to deal with flood and drought effectively, we need to be able to predict these risks – and to be adequately prepared for water shortages or surfeits as they occur.

“Building resilience and adapting to future challenges is essential to reducing both the human and the economic cost of climate change,” Volovik says.

“This is especially important in transboundary settings, where water resources are shared between two or more countries. With access to the right data and information, governments and water authorities can plan together to overcome these challenges despite political and economic competition.”

Enabling this planning is a core objective of the Flood and Drought Management Tools project, a four-year, multi-million-dollar, Global Environment Facility-backed initiative to improve the ability of water utilities and catchment authorities to predict and plan for flood and drought impacts.

Led by UN Environment, in partnership with the International Water Association and DHI Water & Environment, the project works with 10 water authorities across six countries and three transboundary river basins to pilot a groundbreaking online system that provides near-real-time access to hydrographic, meteorological and demographic information.

Transforming data into useable information

The new Flood and Drought Portal aggregates and translates publicly available data from a range of sources, making it accessible to water authorities in a form they can use to support decisions at a local level.

“There are satellites that countries and regions like the United States and the European Union have put up that are collecting climate data – and that’s freely available for anyone, but not really accessible,” the International Water Association’s Katherine Cross says. “This system processes that data and puts it into useable formats.”

“There’s forecasting data, as well as climate scenario data, that you’re able to visualise – you can see it as a graph, you can download it and use it as you want. The system brings all this data, whether satellite data or historical data, into one place and presents it in a digestible format.”

But the portal does more than just democratize data – it enables water authorities to put it to use to manage and overcome water-related risks in a changing climate.

“The portal doesn’t just provide data and information, it provides tools that allow you to integrate that into your planning,” Cross says. “There are other portals that provide climate data, but there aren’t any systems that provide a package allowing you to access information and then use it in your planning process.”

The portal includes flood and drought assessment tools that help users locate and identify hazards, estimate impacts and provide risk assessments; a water indicator tool to support decision making;  tools for water safety planning; and even an application to understand crop yields and water needs.

Getting the latest, most relevant data, is key

“When you have to take a decision, you want the latest data possible,” says DHI’s Bertrand Richaud. “So that’s one of the things the portal offers – it’s not just a repository of archived data, but it actually reflects the up-to-date state of the basin, and moves from this data to information that is meaningful.”

As a key part of the portal’s development, the system is being piloted across Lake Victoria, the Volta basin and the Chao Phraya basin. The pilot brings together stakeholders from local catchment authorities and water utilities to fine-tune and learn to use the tools.

At a training in Kenya’s Kisumu, representatives from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are positive about the transformative potential of the portal as they work to collaboratively manage the area’s shared water resources.

“It is important because getting this information in time can help us plan better, so at the operational level there are no surprises,” says George Odero, Water Safety Planning Team Leader at the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company.

“For example, if we know that rain is coming next week and that we will need to do a lot of pumping, then we check the pumps. If we know there will be drought in the next few months, then we start giving people warnings to conserve water and we check the pipes that supply them.”

A collaboration tool for water authorities

By bringing together stakeholders from across transboundary basins, the Flood and Drought Management Tools project also encourages cooperation between countries, catchment authorities and utilities that rely on shared water resources.

“It is quite important, because when we talk about transboundary contexts, we talk about political boundaries – and catchments do not respect political boundaries,” says International Water Association Programme Officer Kizito Masinde.

The utilities at the Kisumu training all sit in the Lake Victoria Basin – their key source of water. This makes collaboration across borders essential.

“They have to find a way of cooperating, because any abstraction from the lake is going to affect the other utilities and all the other activities that happen within the basin, whether that be farming activities or industrial activities,” Masinde says.

While the focus may be on the tools now at hand, forging connections between different stakeholders has been equally important, as utilities and catchment authorities come together to share both their challenges and solutions.

“It has also helped us to talk to other people – because we are sharing the same problem, and they can also share it from their perspective and see possible solutions,” Odero says. “If we know what other organizations are doing, then we can plan with them.”

With the tools in place – and an enthusiastic response from stakeholders across the three pilot basins – the focus is now on how to upscale the pilot’s success to other transboundary river basins.

“I think there is great potential,” Richaud says. “We’ve seen interest from many international and transboundary organizations, from the Amazon to basins in Africa, Europe and Russia.”

“What I like about this project is that it is scalable to about any basin organization. There will always be a set of tools that are relevant to them.”

The Flood and Drought Management Tools project is a four-year project (2014-2018) that develops and tests web-based technical applications, and makes them available through the Flood and Drought Portal. The tools can be applied individually or together to include information about floods, droughts and future scenarios into planning. It can be scaled from the transboundary basin to the water utility level. The project is testing outputs in the Volta basin, Lake Victoria and the Chao Phraya basin, with the aim of improving the ability of land, water, and urban area managers in transboundary river basins to recognize and address the implications of the increased frequency, magnitude, and unpredictability of flood and drought events arising from climate variability and change.

The Flood and Drought Management Tools project is funded by the Global Environment Facility, implemented by UN Environment and jointly executed by DHI and the International Water Association.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Climatic refugees: Natural calamities and migration flows

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image credit: Frontex/Francesco Malavolta

The London-based Institute of Economics and Peace has presented a Report with a profound insight into environmental dangers that threaten countries and territories and could jeopardize socio-economic stability worldwide. According to the Report, “in 2050 the living space of more than one billion people may turn out under threat”. This could be the result of climatic changes, “hurricanes, floods, deficit of water and food”. “Many residential areas will no longer be habitable”

In the estimates of the authors of the Report, climate changes affect the rate and direction of movement of masses of people in at least two ways. Firstly,  the more profound they are, the stronger the impact of natural disasters on the living environment will be. Secondly, these processes will depend on the extent of the climate change – caused destabilization in the sphere of food security, on whether they will restrict or close access to fresh water and food for a significant number of people.

In turn, the dynamics and geography of migration have an immediate impact on the structure of the population in countries and regions. Meanwhile, in terms of politics,  demography plays a major role in determining the level of  stability and ascertaining the historical prospects for political regimes. It produces a tangible influence on social policy, geopolitical potential, and domestic electoral processes.

Poor countries with a growing population will run the risk of plunging into “political instability and violence”. A decrease in the number of employable residents will likely have a negative impact on the rates of the economic growth “in mainly developed and in some developing countries”.  Cross-border migration will become an ever more important factor in political processes. Maximum population growth is expected over the next 20-30 years in Africa, which is home to most poor and unstable countries. Under a negative scenario, this will trigger a new wave of global migration “of unprecedented scale” which will provoke blatant interference in the affairs of the region on the part of foreign powers.

According to the Report, such countries as India and China are more than others likely to experience shortages of fresh water. While Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar are facing “a combination of threats which they find ever more challenging”. In the estimates of the authors of the research, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran are countries where “a slight deterioration” of the environmental situation, along with natural calamities, can produce a significant number of migrants.

In general, the authors of the Report predict that the most acute shortage of social and economic resources, which has been caused by negative climatic changes, will take place, in decreasing order, in countries of Africa,  South Sahara, the Middle East, North Africa,  and South  Asia. 17 of 28 countries that are most affected by the  deficit of essential resources are located in “black” Africa, another 4 – in Maghreb and in the Middle East.

Citing the given trends, the authors of the Report predict the formation of “powerful migration flows which may first affect European countries, which are believed to be relatively resistant to crisis”. “Ever since 2015 we have observed how a relatively small number of migrants may provoke large-scale political unrest and disorder”, – chief of the research Steve Killelea said in an interview with dpa.

Undoubtedly, a dramatic rise in the  number of climatic refugees and forced migrants may be envisaged in case there is an unfortunate combination of a population growth, on the one hand, and an increase in territories suffering from shortages of water resources, on the other. As history shows, the political instability caused by an ever growing deficit of fresh water may put into question the long-term plans of socio-economic development of entire regions and even continents.

Regions which will see climate change – caused conflicts in the next few years  include territories south of Russian borders. For example, the number of territories in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey which suffer from low precipitation rises year after year. In this way, “climatic refugees” are becoming a potential threat to stability and security of the Russian Federation.

The environmental issues which are frequently overlooked by observers  but which can send people fleeing comprise so-called “heatwaves” – periods of abnormally hot weather. Meanwhile, these problems are already causing “superfluous” mortality in many regions, including the developed countries. According to The Economist, the heatwave that hit Europe in 2003 killed about 70,000 people. This issue will acquire still more urgency as yearly temperatures continue to rise and urbanization proceeds at fast pace.

A dramatic increase in the number of climatic refugees can also evoke an increase in the level of the World Ocean. Under a forecast made by the Institute of Economics and Peace, coastal territories in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are at a particular risk over the next 30 years. Estimates presented in the Report maintain that water levels in the World Ocean may rise by more than 2 meters by 2100. As a result, territories populated by at least 200 million people will face the danger of flooding.

Cross-border migration, which was caused, among other things, by ecology-related factors, is contributing to the strengthening of “extreme” political forces.  Poor nations with a growing population are particularly exposed to violence and political instability. Trends of this kind tend to lead to revision of political agenda. This means a new stage of regulating social and economic processes on the part of the state. In addition, according to Professor Rubinsky of the French Research Center of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, «mass migration is becoming a target, and at times, an instrument of the foreign policy of a whole range of countries».

Climatic changes lead to ever more cross-border and internal migration and may contribute to the strengthening of separatist movements in many regions of the world, including Europe. Disintegration of countries into smaller territorial entities stimulates conflicts and encourages intervention from foreign powers. In the long run, the natural need for expanding international cooperation for settling global problems will go hand in hand with the equally natural growth of nationalism and isolationism.

The issue of climatic refugees has been recognized at the international level. Formally, the UN Convention on the status of refugees does not  embrace people who flee their homes because of the deterioration of the climate. Nevertheless,  the Executive Committee of the Agency of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has passed a decision to expand the Agency’s mandate “to include commitments regarding refugees who cannot return to their countries because of climatic changes”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in person is rendering substantial assistance to the victims of environmental disasters.

However, there is no international system of a long-term assistance for refugees and migrants, including climatic, to help them move and adapt to their new place of residence. The policy of countries and territories that most climatic migrants strive for is fairly controversial. In the first place, due to the growing public discontent over “an influx of migrants” in the past decades.

“The European Union boasts one of the most elaborated systems of migration policy, which has no analogues elsewhere». One of the most remarkable achievements of the EU is the European Commission – suggested «mechanism of using an emergency trust fund to ensure stability and assistance in connection with the problem of migrants and refugees in Africa». But, as we know, this does little to solve the problems of Europe, which stem from migrants and public discontent over their growing numbers.

For this reason, it is easy to understand why some European countries refuse to support the UN Pact on Migration, which was signed in December 2018. More than two million refugees that arrived on the European continent after 2013 caused serious upheavals on the political scene of leading countries of Europe. They even put into question the mere existence of the EU in its present format. As a result, most EU countries are involved in an intense political battle with Brussels for regaining their sovereignty in regulating migration flows.

In the USA, a country which has always received millions of migrants, immigration issues had acquired so much urgency by 2016 that they became a top point on the agenda of the presidential election campaign. However, like in previous years, emotions took upper hand ousting the attempts to produce a balanced and comprehensive solution. At present, the opponents are criticizing the Trump administration for the draconian migration policy, which is depriving America of thousands of highly qualified immigrants.  They point to Canada, which, they say, is much more open to migrants, though on the basis of fairly tough criteria.

Until recently, a particular approach to this issue was demonstrated by Japan, which makes considerable contributions to the funds of the Agency of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but does not receive migrants. In recent years, public opinion has become more tolerant towards refugees and forces migrants. Tokyo has been examining the experience of Australia, which is ready to receive a large number of immigrants as long as the process is well-organized. Meanwhile, Canberra’s tough policy regarding the “illegals”, who are sent to detention camps in difficult-of-access areas in New Guinea and Nauru, вis facing ever more reprimands from the international community.

On the whole, as it appears, climatic changes which trigger degradation of the environment and socio-political conflicts will produce an ever more significant, and, at times, decisive, influence on migration processes. This, in turn, will cause political, social, economic and geopolitical problems.

Degradation of the environment leads to socio-political conflicts while military operations or long-lasting public unrest can easily inflict damage on ecosystems. There is thus a vicious circle. Given the situation, the international community will sooner or later have to focus on political, economic and social measures which could help the humanity to better adapt to the changing natural environment.

However, judging by the current state of affairs, the world’s leading countries are highly unlikely to step up their coordination on migration issue in the years to come.  As the 2010s experience shows, the migration issue will be resolved by every recipient nation progressively, “one at a time”. For many ordinary voters the problem of migration “seems obvious and relevant” but they hardly know of the many aspects associated with it. For this reason, only “simple”, tactical in essence and consequences solutions, enjoy most support. The main challenge of the present-day migration will still be a search for a balance between humanistic issues and global security in the context of changes of the climate. The importance of this context is bound to increase over time.  

From our partner International Affairs

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Blessing In Disguise: The Lockdown-Effect On Environment

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Authors: Deepanjali Jain and Prateek Khandelwal* 

From one Wuhanese to over 4 million humans, the coronavirus has shackled pillars and institutions of our civilisation. The pandemic has socially distanced humans and spread fear which could be gauged from any nook and corner of the world. Though it seems, nature can finally breathe after decades, the signatures of which were visible from space.

As the factories and vehicle closed, dirty brown pollution belts shrunk over industrial centres in the country within days after lockdown. After decades of relentless exploitation, the human footprint on the earth has lightened. The persistent denial by the industrialist got an answer that climate change is real and that it is a reflection of human ‘exploitation’. The overexploitation of nature is fuelled by human greed, where consumption increases production and vice-versa. This vicious cycle depletes the natural ability of environment, which can be sensed in the lockdown months, to balance itself and so disrupts ecology.   

COVID-19 is not only a pandemic; it reflects a broader trend that more planetary crisis is scheduled for upcoming years. While we muddle through each new crisis, with the current economic model, then the repercussions will eventually exceed the capacity of financial institutions to respond. Indeed, the “corona crisis” has already done so. For just climate transition, new economic reforms should have a blueprint for “planned degrowth” that emphasizes on the wellbeing of people over profit margins.

The initial move towards this is assuring the incentives that governments are announcing across the globe are not exhausted on bailing out corporations. Instead, the funds should be allocated to decentralised renewable energy production to implement the ‘Green’ New Deal and create meaningful jobs for ‘the Great Depression’ post-COVID-19. Along with this, the state should enact on the provision of social welfare such as universal healthcare and free education for all vulnerable populations.        

Though set for 2025, by G7 and many European countries, elimination of perverse fossil-fuel subsidies can be done amid the recent oil-price plunge. It is the appropriate moment to deploy renewable energy technologies, which are now globally accessible without any economic barrier and phase out age-old fossil fuel.

A shift from exploitative industry setup to regenerative industries is immediately feasible. Also, it would allow us to sequester carbon emission spread by the current economic framework at a rate that is ample to reverse the ongoing climate crisis. This will have a positive impact on the environment and improve global wellbeing; also, it would turn to be an economically profit-enhancing model.

Though defined with differences and demarcated with boundaries, the planet with various species, nations, and geopolitical issues are ultimately interconnected. COVID-19 narrated that crisis does not observe national or even physical borders; the same is the case with climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental problem. Collective actions to curb these from becoming a full-blown crisis can only help in managing these issues. The current rescue plan for battling COVID-19 could usher these changes, as we are getting accustomed to the lifestyle and economic pattern that minimise consuming.

With the idea of sticking with this development structure, Governments can succeed in curbing the Corona epidemic. But we should move a step ahead to do a greater good for society and nature. The use of science can be moulded to construct an economy that will not mitigate the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics and other challenges. A green economy should be laid down that has a preamble of nature-based solutions and is geared toward the public good.

Obviously, the circumstances are not ideal, but the rapid reflex actions and response to the virus of mutual aid also illustrates that human society is capable of controlling and working collectively in the face of a grave pandemic. The phase of development which humans are at, they are entrepreneurial and capable to begin again perfectly. If we learn from our failures and embrace this moment of upheaval as an opportunity to invest in shared prosperity, planetary health, and green economy, we can build a brighter future than the one we are heading towards. We have long since exceeded our natural limits; it is time to try something new.

*Prateek Khandelwal is a 2nd Year student pursuing B.B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) from Chanakya National Law University, Patna. 

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Green Planet

How video games are joining the fight to save the planet

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As bush fires were raging across Australia in December 2019, players of Space Ape video games reached out to the company and asked what they could do to help. The London-based firm quickly put an in-game purchase into several of its mobile titles, with all proceeds going to either a wildlife or humanitarian charity working in the area.

In just four days the company raised $120,000.

“That just speaks to how much people want to do good,” said Deborah Mensah-Bonsu, former Head of Content at Space Ape Games, who now runs her own consultancy focused on using games for social impact. 

Now, the video game industry is poised to roll up its sleeves and do even more for the planet. In August 2020, some of the biggest names in mobile gaming unveiled a series of environmentally themed missions and messages that will be integrated into popular titles, such as Angry Birds 2, Golf Clash and Subway Surfers. The additions will encourage players to do things like combat climate change or protect endangered wolves. The initiative is part of a push by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to work with game developers to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues.

“Video gaming is one of the biggest communication mediums on the planet,” says Sam Barratt, Chief of Education and Advocacy with UNEP. “We aim to support the industry to encourage gamers to be educated, inspired and activated around the wider environmental agenda, and so far it seems to be working.”

Globally, 2.6 billion people play video games and a growing number are taking an interest in the environment and conservation. A 2019 UNEP report, Playing for the Planet, found that video games could engage billions to contribute to solutions to social and environmental challenges.

The video game industry has yearly revenues of $140 billion—more than Hollywood, Bollywood and recorded music sales combined. In 2017, 666 million people watched other people play games on YouTube and Twitch – more than the combined audience of HBO, ESPN and Netflix. According to the UNEP report, channelling even a small portion of that attention and the industry’s revenues towards the planet would create tremendous impact in the real world.

Playing for the Planet

Space Ape is one of 25 members of UNEP’s Playing for the Planet Alliance, an initiative that aims to harness the power of gaming to encourage action on climate change. The project, which launched in 2019, has reached more than 970 million players. In joining the alliance, game companies make commitments, ranging from integrating green activations into games to reducing their emissions to supporting the global environmental agenda. 

The alliance held a Green Game Jam earlier this year which saw 11 mobile game companies compete to add a sustainability element to one of their existing games, a so-called “green nudge.” The objectives included asking players to make personal commitments, like skipping meat on Mondays or biking to work, or designing green environments, solar panels or electric cars into games.

Space Ape, whose game Transformers: Earth Wars contains environmental themes in the original storyline, picked renewable energy. For the updated release, it brought both good and evil Transformers together to find a new technology to harvest Earth’s energy resources more sustainably.

Mensah-Bonsu says that the company also wanted to give players a call to action, so it asked them to take a pledge to switch their lightbulbs from incandescents to LEDs.

California-based Pixelberry Studios focused on climate change in its title “Choices.” The game centres on a young woman who returns to her coastal hometown where there has been a large fish die-off. The girl’s younger sister is convinced the die-off is connected to climate change, despite skepticism from local politicians and business owners. The player’s role is to help their young sister rally others and raise awareness about climate change.

Saran Walker, one of the writers at Pixelberry, said the team had read dozens of articles about younger generations experiencing anxiety around climate change. (A recent survey of millennials — 30,000 individuals under the age of 30 from 186 countries confirmed this — finding that climate change and destruction of nature were the most critical issues for them.)

“We were all really inspired by Greta Thunberg’s story,” Walker said, referring to the young Swedish environmental activist. “Anyone at the company who has kids is thinking about what kind of world are they going to leave to their children. We wanted to show people that they can actually do a lot as an individual.”

A shift in the industry

The gaming industry is also considering how it can become carbon neutral, or in some cases carbon positive – a welcome move for a sector that has been scrutinized for its environmental footprint. Currently,  50 million tons of electronic waste is generated annually, with that number projected to reach 120 million tons by 2050.

Supercell, which makes mobile titles, recently committed to going entirely carbon neutral and offsetting the carbon dioxide used by players when playing their games. Rovio and Space Ape aim to take similar action.

The Playing for the Planet Alliance will share guidance with its members on how to decarbonize, with Sony leading a working group that includes other console makers. The alliance will help devise a new carbon calculator for the industry, develop fresh guidance on offsetting and forge new collective commitments around the restoration of forest landscapes, which help absorb carbon emissions.

“When we set out on this journey we wanted to help others in the industry too,” said Mensah-Bonsu. “If we all do our part, we can make a change in the world.”

UN Environment

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