<![CDATA[EYES ON THE STORM - BLOG]]>Mon, 18 Jan 2016 22:41:38 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Desert storm]]>Thu, 07 Jan 2016 15:02:04 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/desert-storm​In December 2015, news about the airstrikes in Syria was in danger of overshadowing the important developments at the UN climate conference in Paris.  While some environmentalists may have viewed this as highly regrettable, the upside is that the coincidence should highlight that the two are actually linked. Between 2006 and 2009, Syria experienced its worst recorded drought. It left up to 1.5 million people refugees in their own country. This placed severe demands on urban centres to employ, house and feed rising populations that were largely ignored by the Assad government. Protests and the subsequent uprising in 2011 led to the current civil war and the rise of Daesh. A study by Kelley et al published this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421533112) makes a convincing case for the initial drought to be associated with human-modified climate change. 

Kelley et al (2015) show some of the social trends in Syria.  But the World Bank give many more - and together they are enough to describe the anatomy of the growing pressurised Syrian system.  As the 2000s progressed, the urban population was rising, partly as a result of Iraqi refugees, but GDP was rising and food production was rising.   But it was also getting hotter with the groundwater reserves in decline, and inflation rising steeply.  The region is used to coping with fluctuating seasonal rainfall.  Indeed, the drought in 2006-2010 had been preceded by similar droughts in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s when food production had suffered but social stability had remained largely intact.   The real difference with the last drought was the growing inability of the whole social-political-economic-agricultural system to absorb the problem and to cope.  It had lost resilience through the gradual changes portrayed by the  social and environmental trends - and the widely reported rise of mobile phones had acted as the catalyst for coordinating protest. 

 Climate change didn't 'cause' the Syrian war - it just played a big hand in starting it.  It seems that we can expect more conflict, mass migration and geopolitical instability as an indirect impact of unmitigated climate change. 

Parts of this entry were published online in The Guardian 6-12-15 http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/06/nuclear-is-not-the-answer-to-the-climate-crisis]]>
<![CDATA[China’s trade-off with nature affects us all]]>Thu, 07 Jan 2016 14:16:59 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/chinas-trade-off-with-nature-affects-us-allPicture
Our 2015 study in eastern China showed that there has been a long running trade-off between rising levels of food production and a deteriorating environment. Yields of crops and fish have risen over the past 60 years at several locations studied in Anhui, Jiangsu and Shanghai Provinces.  But these are paralleled by long-term trends in poorer air and water quality, and reduced soil stability.  You may ask if this a bad thing.  After all, increasing agricultural productivity has been one of the factors responsible for lifting millions of rural Chinese out of poverty.  Does it really matter that the natural environment has taken a bit of a hit?  
Well yes.  For agriculture and aquaculture to be sustainable from one generation to the next, the natural processes that stabilise soils, purify water or store carbon have to be maintained in stable states.  These natural processes represent benefits for society, known as ecosystem services.  We show that, since 1950, losses of ecosystem services have occurred relatively slowly through the cumulative, everyday actions of individual farmers.  Indeed, when asked, farmers tend to underestimate the length of time since the degradation started. The problems started in the 1980s when farmers began to use more intensive methods, especially artificial fertilizers.  But the losses of ecosystem services have quickened after 2000 when intensification of production methods was spurred on by new national policies. Worryingly, in some localities, the slow deterioration has turned into a rapid downward spiral.  Some aquatic ecosystems have dropped over tipping points into new, undesirable states where clear lakes suddenly become dominated by green algae with losses of high value fish. These new states are not just detrimental to the continued high-level production of crops and fish but are very difficult and expensive to restore. We argue that overall the natural processes are degraded and destabilised to the point that they cannot be depended upon to support intensive agriculture in the near future.  The whole region is losing its resilience to withstand the impact of extreme events – from typhoons to global commodity prices. 

​Long term trends of provisioning services and regulating services in the lower Yangtze river basin, eastern China during the period 1900-2006. A) Map showing study site and locations with names. B-F) Indices of food/timber production (red) and regulating ecosystem services (green) based on aggregated and scaled data from official statistics, monitoring records and lake sediment records for Huangmei County (B), Shucheng County (C), Wujiang County (D), Yangtze tidal zone/Chongming County (E) and the whole region (F) respectively. 

What can be done?  Clearly the priority must be to regulate the management of landscapes in rural areas by reforming and implementing national policy that prioritises sustainable agriculture.  Farming practices need to be modified.  Policies need to emphasize correct fertilizer and pesticide applications, appropriate treatment and disposal of cattle slurry and human sewage, reducing soil runoff to streams and rivers, and the controlled use of fish feed.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because urbanisation, low farm incomes, low educational attainment, lack of agricultural advice and an ageing demographic all militate against rapid action.  The recent introduction of the Land Circulation reform policy, allows farmers to rent their land to larger combines.  The policy is designed to overcome the inefficiencies of small farm holdings but it may not be taken up widely in the more marginal landscapes where potential profits are low.  All the evidence points to a need for a significantly improved system of information and technology transfer to individual smallholders, probably involving a more efficient coordination between agencies. 
But there’s a larger scale context to this problem that may affect us all.  China’s production of grain has risen fivefold since the 1950s, outstripping the pace of population growth.  Despite this, the nation is no longer self-sufficient.  The shift towards more meat production has placed a demand for soybean and cereal animal feed that can no longer be met internally.  In 2012, China imported over 60% of all the world’s soybeans that were available for export, and cereal imports are also on the up.  Reliance on imports to fill a shortfall in home produce is nothing new.  But in China’s case, the additional risk that agriculture is increasingly unsustainable may amplify the demand. The potential scale of demand for imports is bound to have repercussions for global food production and food prices.  Unless reforms are introduced quickly, the rest of the world may well find that they are sharing China’s trade-off with nature - through the weekly shopping bill. 
Zhang, K., Dearing, J.A., Dawson, T.P., Dong, X., Yang, X., Zhang, W. 2015. Poverty alleviation strategies in eastern China lead to critical ecological dynamics, Science of the Total Environment 506–507, 164–181.  doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.10.096
Open Access download: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969714015575

<![CDATA[A Perfect Storm In Bangladesh]]>Mon, 02 Feb 2015 18:39:12 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/a-perfect-storm-in-bangladeshPicture

Few nations better illustrate the idea of a ‘perfect storm’ (see blog 16-7-14) than Bangladesh. With per capita incomes at only around $1000 per year it’s a poor country.  With the 8th largest population in the world  - and still rapidly growing - it’s one of the most densely populated.  Spread out over the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, 160 million people have to utilise all the available natural resources in order to sustain life.  Not surprisingly the country is vulnerable to ecological degradation caused by unsustainable use of mangrove forest and groundwater.  But it’s also affected by changes taking place beyond its borders  - and control – such as managed river flows upstream, rising sea levels and the unpredictable nature of destructive cyclones coming out of the Bay of Bengal.  There is a real sense that over the next decade or so these different elements could increasingly affect each other in quite unpredictable and devastating ways.

Up until now we didn’t have a clear picture of how these elements had changed over time and with respect to each other. It was tricky to answer some key questions.  How quickly is the environment changing?  What is the trade off between rising incomes and ecological deterioration?  Is shrimp farming or rising sea level the cause of declining water quality?  Is there any evidence that the ‘storm’ is already brewing?

       Figure 1. Trends for the different trends in A) per capita income and poverty alleviation; b) mangrove density and cultural services; and c) regulating services (water availability, water quality and groundwater), food provisioning services, climate (rainfall and temperature) and wealth (GDP). 

Our new study (Hossain et al., 2015) tackles these questions by reconstructing the changes in ecosystem services – the benefits we get from nature - across the coastal zone of Bangladesh since 1950.  Comparing the social and biophysical trends over this period reveals (Figure 1) some interesting changes.  The good news is that rising levels of food production have led to rising incomes and, over the past 15 years, a drop in the number of people living under the poverty line.  The bad news is that these trends are linked to deteriorating water availability, water quality and land stability – at least by comparison with the 1960s.  The concern is that eventually these deteriorating trends will undermine people’s ability to conduct viable agriculture.  Further, statistical analyses of the data suggest that rapid ecological changes in the 1980s constitute tipping points – that is, the trends are accelerating as a result of strong positive feedback mechanisms.   Theory predicts that such changes are difficult to slow down and sometimes impossible to reverse.  So, is Bangladesh heading towards a ‘perfect storm’?

Inevitably, we want to see more results from our colleagues’ ongoing research (ESPA Deltas) particularly from the mathematical models that are simulating future changes.  But on the present evidence you would have to say yes - it’s highly probable - especially if climate projections for the rate of sea level rise and more frequent cyclones are correct.  

Simply put, too many trends are running in the wrong direction -  and converging.  


Hossain, M.S., Dearing, J.A., Rahman, M.M., and Salehin, M. 2015. Recent changes in ecosystem services and human wellbeing in the Bangladesh coastal zone. Regional Environmental Change. DOI 10.1007/s10113-014-0748-z  Open access download here 

<![CDATA[Who will grow China’s food?]]>Thu, 23 Oct 2014 05:09:29 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/who-will-grow-chinas-foodPicture

Visitors to China’s cities might be excused for thinking that the demographic is skewed towards the young.  Smart, young men in upmarket European cars, super fashion-conscious women in the malls and large groups of children going back and forth to school all point to a dominance of the under 35s.   But nationally, this is an aging population with a majority of the 50s+ generation still living in rural areas.  In fact, this older generation makes up most of the farmers responsible for growing China’s food.  Where we have been working in Anhui Province, eastern China, our survey of farmers in one county reveals that the modal age of farmers is 60-64 with the oldest 81 years: less that 20% are in their 20s and 30s.  With only 10% continuing into their 70s, it seems likely that the next 10 years may see this bulge in the farming demographic moving out of farming.   It’s less clear as to who will take their place.

The main reason for this state of affairs is the massive shift of mainly youthful labour from rural to urban areas where incomes are higher.  In fact, on average nearly 80% of the incomes of the farming families in our survey come from non-agricultural activities – some focus on farm diversification but they mainly rely on income from other jobs in local towns and remittances from migrant members of the family.   Over 90% of the farmers had a family member working in a town.  Since 2004, government subsidies have helped to raise farm incomes but the 80 RMB/month our farmers receive on average from this stream hardly compares with the 1000 RMB/month that could be earned in a low-income city job, like waitressing.   Small-scale farming in China today is not financially viable without several income sources.  

Perhaps the city young will takeover the farms?  Young people in China have a great fondness for their rural roots: witness the travel chaos during the national holidays as families gravitate back to the home village.  But ask the same youngsters (in my case university students) about taking over the farm, and you will find that they are not so keen.

What about renting out the land?  One new scheme allows farmers to rent their land to ‘private’ companies who will take on the work and possible bring more efficient mechanisation to rice planting etc.   But unless efficiency gains are significant, how will they attract employees when profits, and presumably wages, are so low?

At the same time, there are multiple growing pressures on China’s ability to feed itself.  Actual yields of the staple crops have not been rising over the last few years.  Diets are changing towards a preference for less-energy efficient meat.  Urbanisation and infrastructural development consume high grade rather than marginal land.  Tighter implementation of environmental regulation puts stronger curbs on the worst – and often cheapest- farming practises.  And, farmers are increasingly looking for non-staple crops that give a higher profit – as we recently witnessed in the valleys of northern Yunnan where the previous rice paddy landscape is now strung up with line after line of grape vines.  

What will actually happen is difficult to predict.  Maybe rural farm incomes will increase to attract the younger, more educated worker, or perhaps the government will increase the level of subsidy for key crops.  But both these options make food production more costly with impacts on food prices, the cost-of-living for rural and urban communities, and overall inflation.  Maybe the situation will be eased as farm practises become more efficient.  A recent paper in Nature by Chen Xinping et al (2014) suggests that adoption of integrated soil-crop system management techniques could raise average grain yields by 18-35%.  But even these authors note the constraints imposed on efficient farming by the rise in the number of part-time farmers -  in part driven by the pull of the expanding cities.

Xinping Chen et al. 2014 Producing more grain with lower environmental costs. Nature 514, 486-489.

<![CDATA[Finding a safe space to live sustainably]]>Wed, 10 Sep 2014 08:31:36 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/finding-a-safe-space-to-live-sustainablyPicture
Ever since the book, Limits to Growth, was published over 40 years ago, environmentalists have argued that continued growth is unsustainable.   But in the face of rapid economic development and resource use, how do we know if we are approaching a limit?  A few years ago, Joachim Rockström and colleagues reviewed (2009) the limits to the use of natural environmental systems at the scale of the whole planet.  They argued that global society had already moved out of a ‘safe operating space’ for climate, biodiversity and nitrogen.  In other words, we had pushed the atmosphere and biosphere over a boundary to a point where nasty surprises are possible – unpredictable changes, failure of natural systems to recover from impacts, or even their total collapse.

A recent research article by John Dearing and colleagues applies the ideas of safe operating spaces and limits to low income, rural agricultural communities where people are to some extent dependent on their local environment to provide food and water.  They also include a review of social conditions so that it is possible to link any efforts to alleviate poverty or raise health standards to the use of the surrounding environment. They define a ‘social foundation’ from about 10 social conditions, like access to education, health care, drinking water, and sanitation, identified internationally as the expected norms for everybody.  

Figure.  Safe and just operating spaces mapped for two Chinese regions in 2006. (a) Erhai lake-catchment system, Yunnan Province; (b) Shucheng County, Anhui Province. The figures show the extent to which each region currently meets expected social standards (blue sectors) for an acceptable social foundation (green circle), and the current status of key ecological services/processes: safe (green sectors), cautious (yellow sectors) and dangerous (red). The environmental ceiling (red circle) defines the approximate boundary between sustainable and unsustainable use of ecological processes. The safe and just operating space exists as a ‘doughnut’ between the environmental ceiling and social foundation. 

Similarly, an ‘environmental ceiling’ defines the upper limits for a range of ecological conditions , like biodiversity, air quality, water quality and soil stability that are viewed as essential for maintaining local forestry, agriculture, and fisheries.   Using these two ideas, they define a ‘safe and just operating space’ as lying between the ‘social foundation’ and the ‘environmental ceiling’ where people would have an acceptable quality of life within a natural environment that is ecologically sustainable. At the heart of the approach is a new classification of safe and dangerous limits for different ecological conditions based on analyses of time-series of data records according to complexity science principles, like tipping points.  In some regions, lake sediment records are used as a substitute for long data records which may not always be available.

Working in two rural Chinese counties the authors show that many social conditions almost reach the expected ‘social foundation’ as defined by the local authorities, but the standards for water/sanitation, in particular, fall well short.  In both counties, the ecological status of water is poor – it has exceeded the ecologically safe limits on pollution -  meaning that the current operating space for the general management of water has moved from a safe to dangerous space.    The new approach highlights the importance of developing water treatment plants, sewage disposal facilities and piped water in conjunction with careful management of natural water resources, non-point pollution sources and fisheries.   Only then can the villages in these communities develop sustainably within ‘safe and just operating spaces’.   

You can also read a related article "Sustainable development must be doughnut-shaped" published on The Conversation.

Here's the link:

Meadows, D.H. et al 1972 The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, pp 205.
Rockström, J. et al  2009. A safe operating space for humanity, Nature 461, 472–475.

<![CDATA[Why aren't we feeling the effects of ecological degradation?]]>Fri, 08 Aug 2014 11:07:00 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/why-arent-we-feeling-the-effects-of-ecological-degradation
One of the long held ideas in sustainable development is that any activities that cause ecological degradation will affect local wellbeing.  So if a farmer misuses the soil, the reduction in crop yields will hit him or her in the pocket.  But is this actually the case?  It turns out that it's quite difficult to show that ecological degradation has restricted farmers' wealth or reduced incomes.  In fact, most data show that poverty alleviation has risen despite widespread pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity losses - a curiosity coined by Raudsepp-Hearne et al (2010) as the Environmentalist's Paradox.  They concluded that the likely reason was a combination of three factors: wellbeing is dependent on rising food productivity and less affected by other ecosystem declines; technology has effectively decoupled wellbeing from nature; and there are time-lags between ecological decline and its effect on wellbeing - a potential time-bomb for the future.

But that was 2010.  In late 2012, Ray et al (2012) surveyed over 2.5 million crop census reports from across the world for the period 1961-2008.  They found that 23-37% of soybean, maize, rice and wheat areas were now  experiencing yield stagnation, and 3% of maize, 1% of rice and 1% of wheat areas had experienced a yield collapse.   Heat stress, loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, and pest and disease build-up all suggest that at least for world agriculture the time-lags are beginning to play out.   If the environment is biting back, we surely need to take more care of the 'ecological hand' that feeds us. 

Raudsepp-Hearne et al 2010. http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/60/8/576.full.pdf 
Ray et al 2012. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v3/n12/full/ncomms2296.html
<![CDATA[Ecosystem services and poverty alleviation - dealing with complexity]]>Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:17:38 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/ecosystem-services-and-poverty-alleviation-dealing-with-complexityA meeting in London on the 8th and 9th July (ESPA Complexity Workshop) brought together mathematicians, environmentalists, development experts and computer scientists.  They discussed how studies aimed at reducing poverty through improved management of ecosystems could (and should) incorporate ideas from complexity science, like tipping points.  My talk " Engaging with complexity science in ecosystem services: what is the value-added of new empirical approaches?"  focused on how we have been trying to do this in China.  The bleak message is that agricultural intensification over the past 2-3 decades in eastern China has driven some ecosystems to the point of collapse, particularly lakes.  In long records it's possible to see the gradual loss of resilience in the environment to withstand the impact of climate, land use changes and urbanisation.  There's even evidence that crop yields are declining.  It seems the very basis of sustainable agriculture and fisheries is being rapidly eroded.  You can see the slides here.
<![CDATA[Perfect Storm]]>Wed, 16 Jul 2014 09:42:01 GMThttp://www.eyesonthestorm.org/blog/perfect-storm'Perfect storm' describes how several sets of circumstances come together to amplify the effects of any one of them.  The original meaning was literally applied to describe how air temperatures, wind direction and moisture levels could come together in just the right ways to create a large storm.  But we can apply the term to describe social and environmental conditions in different world regions where - among many factors - population, food demand, crop productivity, water access and climate change might interact to produce food shortages, civil unrest, migration and land grabbing.  If these interactions are difficult to understand and the outcomes almost impossible to predict, we have to address a serious question: how do we manage environments where the perfect storm idea might apply?  

That's the aim of Eyes on the Storm.

Dearing, J.A., Bullock, S., Costanza, R., Dawson, T.P., Edwards, M.E., Poppy, G.M., Smith, G. 2012. Navigating the Perfect Storm: research strategies for social-ecological systems in a rapidly evolving world. Environmental Management 49 (4), 767-775 DOI: 10.1007/s00267-012-9833-6