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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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Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

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The Climate Action Summit Fiasco

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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No one could fail to be touched by the fear (for the future) and urgency in Greta Thunberg’s young voice as she broke down while addressing world leaders on the last day of the UN Climate Summit.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the oceans showed a worse prognosis, the patient is clearly worse.

Sad to say, despite all Greta’s efforts, nothing happened — no commitment by any of the major polluters.  Trump sauntered by before going on to mock her in his address — a grown man bullying a 16-year old girl! 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wanted a commitment to the higher ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5C instead of 2C.  He got excuses, and of course no promise of net zero by 2050 from any major polluter.  Net zero implies balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal.  He also wanted a commitment to no new coal plants beyond 2020. Instead China, India and Turkey will be shamelessly expanding coal power well beyond that date. 

China wanted the developed nations to take the lead due to their long history of emissions and consequent responsibility.  It refused to make concrete commitments unless the US and EU did so.  The EU blames Poland, a coal exporter; the US has Mr. Trump.  In the end none of the major polluters (China, India, EU, US) did although 80 other countries pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Included in the 80 who pledged were 47 least developed countries (LDCs) although they are the least responsible for the emissions.  They have also been victimized by past colonialism, slavery, and for many the IMF’s notorious structural adjustment programs.

The climate data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) presented at the summit is sobering:  Global temperatures are up 1.1C since 1850 of which a 0.2C (or near 20 percent) rise occurred from 2011 to 2015.  The five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the hottest on record while carbon emissions over the same period are up 20 percent from the previous five years.  Sea level rise since 2014 has averaged 5mm annually while the 10-year average up to 2016 was only 4mm.

One consequence of the sea level rise and warmer temperatures has been the human catastrophe from the unprecedented storms in Mozambique and the Bahamas recently.

Ninety percent of the excess heat from climate change is absorbed by water, and the WMO recorded the highest ocean heat content on record in 2018.  It poses a special danger for the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic.  New research (July 2019) also finds melt under the water surface from glaciers reaching the sea and icebergs is ‘orders of magnitude’ greater than previously believed.  It threatens a dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century.  

Professor Brian Hoskins, a meteorologist from Imperial College London warns, “Climate change due to us is accelerating and on a very dangerous course,” adding “We should listen to the loud cry from the school children …”  No one is listening Professor, despite human-induced warming exacerbating storms, wildfires, heatwaves, coastal flooding, etc.  No, not a single major polluter stood up to make a commitment.  The EU blames Poland which relies on coal exports and has veto power over any EU-wide policy; the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia scrupulously avoided the event as if it were a plague.

The IPCC officially adopted its report on oceans and the cryosphere (those portions of Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground).  Compiled by 100 scientists, it  forecasts a catastrophic rise in sea levels, coastal flooding and worsening disasters.  It moved none of the implacables — not even the terrifying fact that Greenland’s ice sheet alone can raise sea levels by 20 feet.  All of it was ignored and instead of a breakthrough, the IPCC was left touting its evidence and reports at the end of the summit.

To summarize, nothing happened.  The climate action summit became a climate inaction summit, and the climate can was kicked down the road to Chile for the next IPCC meeting in December. 

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Actions not words: What was promised at the UN’s landmark climate summit?

MD Staff

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Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg , speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. UN Photo/Cia Pak

UN Secretary-General warned leaders not to come to his landmark Climate Action Summit with beautiful speeches, but to present concrete plans for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050. So what, exactly, was promised at Monday’s all-day event at UN Headquarters in New York?

Profiting from sustainability

The private sector had a chance to demonstrate how it can bring about real positive change, when 87 major companies – with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion, over 4.2 million employees, and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants – committed to setting climate targets across their operations.

These businesses include well-known brands such as Burberry, Danone, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, and Nestlé. A number of these companies (you can find the full list here), went a step further, by committing to “science-based targets”, which means that their corporate emissions cuts can be independently assessed.

Speaking at the UN Global Compact Private Sector Forum, Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate with over 200,000 employees, said that more and more business leaders are waking up to the fact that sustainability and profit go together, and that climate action represents the biggest business opportunity of the next few decades.

In the finance sector, some of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers, responsible for directing more than $2 trillion in investments, have joined together to form the Asset Owner Alliance, which committed to moving their portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050. The members of the Alliance are already engaging with companies in which they are investing, to ensure that they are decarbonizing their business models.

Unlocking the power of nature

Using the power of nature is believed to be one of the most effective and immediate ways to address the climate crisis. Strengthening natural ecosystems such as forests, for example, is one such solution: more forests means more capacity for carbon capture, and replanting mangrove forests provides an effective and cheap natural barrier against coastal floods and shoreline erosion.

Monday saw the launch of several initiatives designed to boost nature-based solutions. These include the Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve around 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a High-Level Panel for the Sustainable Ocean Economy, which will build resilience for the ocean and marine-protected areas; and the Central African Forest Initiative promises to protect the region’s forest cover, which provides livelihoods for some 60 million people.

Cleaning up cities

It is now possible to construct buildings that are 100 per cent net-zero carbon emitters, and the Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative is pledging to make all buildings – new build and existing – net zero carbon by 2050. This could potentially lead to a $1 trillion investment in developing countries, by 2030.

A total of 2000 cities committed to placing climate risk at the centre of their decision-making, planning and investments: this includes launching 1,000 bankable, climate-smart urban projects, and creating innovative financing mechanisms.

Tackling traffic congestion and pollution is the aim of the Action Towards Climate Friendly Transport initiative, which includes actions to plan city development in a way that minimises travel, shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to non-motorized and public transport, and increase the use of zero-emission technologies.

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