This commentary by IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney originally appeared in the Ames Tribune. It is republished with permission.
“Living with floods involves two broad activities: better managing the risks and taking steps to reduce our vulnerability, and better managing the landscape to reduce the magnitude and destructive power of floods.” — Connie Mutel, Epilogue, “A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.”
In the spring of 2010, The University of Iowa Press published “A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008.” Connie Mutel edited this outstanding book. It should be required reading for those concerned with policymaking to address our recurring big floods. But we continue to battle day-to-day and event-to-event. Iowa State University officials talk of shoring up University Avenue in Ames, and the university and businesses clean up the damage. Who’s really hurt are the hundreds who have major property damage; basements, valuables and feelings of security are destroyed.
Are the Iowa cities that sit on large- or medium-sized river basins doomed to relive the experience of large floods regularly? No matter how much infrastructure we build to withstand the onrush of streams and rivers, flooding might be the “wave” of the future. In June 2008, the rivers of eastern Iowa created floods of epic proportions. In August 2010, the rivers of central Iowa did the same. What is going on? After the unprecedented statewide flooding of 1993, Iowans assumed we had seen the worst and returned to business as usual. How wrong can we be?
Rivers are not static. They are constantly eroding and reshaping their channels. When water flowing into the river exceeds the capacity of the channel, rivers use the naturally created floodplain to store the extra water. When rivers are denied access to the floodplain, or structures are built in the floodplain, we have a flood. Floods are natural, part of the water and biodiversity cycles. When we get in their way, damage occurs.
The climate of the Corn Belt is conducive to violent weather: high winds, tornadoes, blizzards, drought and intense rainfalls. The rainfalls seem to be the cause of much of our angst, especially recently. Reasons for the “unprecedented” floods include the possibility of major climate shifts, changes in land use, especially in agriculture, and lax urban building codes and poor storm management. I will take a quick look at these as space permits.
Probably the most sensible way to avoid flood damage is to get out of the way. But cities are not easy to move. Removing homes and businesses is a slow, expensive process, complicated by the private property ownership and by a multitude of government regulations. When public buildings are involved, such as Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and Hilton Coliseum in Ames, public funds must be used to restore the buildings, diverting resources that are desperately needed for education and research.
A recent news release indicated a new Hancher will be built, presumably out of harm’s way, and Hilton Coliseum and presumably also the Scheman Center will be protected by higher flood barriers (levees), though the latter is not clear.
ISU’s proposed solution—deny the river its flood plain—is not really a solution. No doubt this would lessen flood damage to the ISU complex, but it would certainly increase flooding in other areas of the flood plain with unpredictable results. The river will have its way.
A better alternative, but one that might now be impractical, is to increase storage on the land. Laura Jackson, a professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, and I discuss this approach in chapter 24 of the book I referred to earlier. Most of the watershed above Ames is agricultural. It has been altered in ways that lower the retention of water and hasten flash floods. Tile drainage, wetland and prairie destruction, stream channeling, and, of course, the annual corn and soybean cropping all hasten the movement of water through the watershed.
Similarly, Ames, and most other cities, was not designed with floods in mind. Water runoff must be decreased relative to infiltration in both urban and rural landscapes. Our manicured, reconstructed lawns are nearly as impermeable as the concrete they drain into.
Changing our urban and rural landscapes is daunting. Some regions have gone together to plan for flood mitigation. A regional flood control effort for the Story-Boone County region could identify new roads and bridges that could be designed to provide storage and locate flood plains where flood levees could be removed, giving the river a chance to recover its flood plain.
Finally, are flood frequencies and intensity partly a result of climate change? Eugene Takle examined this question in a remarkably clear manner in his chapter of the “Anatomy of the Floods” book mentioned previously. Cedar Rapids’ average annual rainfall has increased more than 9 inches over the past 113 years and now stands at 37 inches per year. More rain is falling in the late winter, spring and early summer and rainfall events are becoming more intense. These trends were predicted by climate models, and they likely will continue in the foreseeable future. Takle writes that “the dice have been loaded toward a higher probability of extreme flood events.” Now with three major floods in 17 years, it would seem public and private decision makers should take heed.
In summary, floods will happen. Climate change will likely cause further increases, and our rural and urban landscapes have been so modified as to make lessening the impacts of floods difficult. History tells us we will recover from the floods, get enough federal aid and insurance money to repair the damage, and move on with little thought to the next flood. We deserve better.
Dennis Keeney was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University. He resides in Ames and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the late 1870s, a series of droughts and famines devastated a broad swath of the globe, including what is now Pakistan. The 1876-78 drought killed 6 million people in India; in China, 12 million people died of starvation and disease. Many millions more were plunged into agonizing poverty. The story of the famines and their connection to extreme weather are the subject of a 2001 book by University of Southern California professor Mike Davis, entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World
In the late 19th century, El Nino cycles were not understood. Today, the world is witnessing the accelerating pattern of extreme weather events, like the floods that have engulfed Pakistan.
What Davis tells us is that the suffering and deaths that occurred were not caused by weather but the colonial and free trade policies of Europe, the U.S. and Japan. In the midst of mass starvation in India, basic food exports continued to flow to England. As whole communities perished, Indian peasants were taxed to pay for British wars against Afghanistan. British policies in India were predicated on the population theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, who was employed by the British East India Company—too many people, too little land, too little food—a description better suited to England.
Today, the flood victims in Pakistan were poor and hungry before the rain started to fall and the rivers and canals overflowed their banks. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the population of Pakistan lives on under $2.00 a day. For many years after partition from India, Pakistan was making strides in its development, but the combination of military dictatorships, corrupt governments and Cold War proxy wars (and now counter-terrorism campaigns) have left Pakistani peasants destitute and under siege.
What is new—and what was unknown at the end of the 19th century—was that the industrial system, then in its infancy, would lead to global warming and extreme weather events. From Katrina to the overflowing Moscow morgues, the industrial model that causes extreme weather is also responsible for exhausting the people, land and resources of the world. When the two meet the consequences are disastrous.
Two of the biggest hot button issues in Congress this year have been climate change and immigration. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the two issues are linked.
Researchers from Princeton University conservatively estimated the future impact of climate change on the yields of Mexican-grown corn and wheat. They looked at migration data in Mexico from 1995-2005 (the ten years following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement). After accounting for a number of variables, they concluded that a 10 percent reduction in crop yields would lead to an additional 2 percent of the Mexican population emigrating. Depending on how fast or slow climate change occurs, the result could be between 1.4 and 6.7 million Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result of declines in agricultural productivity.
While this research focuses on Mexico, there is little question that migration driven by a decline in crop yields is a big issue in many other parts of the world, including much of Africa, India, Bangladesh, and Latin America, according to the researchers.
The debate in Congress over climate change was dominated by the costs of implementing various strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. Less discussed were the costs of inaction. Perhaps this is why Congress failed to act.
On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly declared that "the right to drinking water and sanitation was essential for the full enjoyment of life."
The resolution was introduced by Bolivia, and was co-sponsored by 39 countries.1 There were 122 states in favor, 0 opposed and 41 abstentions.
This declaration by the general assembly is an important step towards the recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and will strengthen the rights already established in General Comment 15 on the right to water. General Comment 15 is an authoritative interpretation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by 160 States.
Interpreting the Covenant, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified (in 2002) that the use of the word “including”2 indicates that the right to an adequate standard of living is not limited to food, clothing and housing. It indicated that the right to water is also included within the right to an adequate standard of living since water is fundamental for survival. Since 2002, when the general comment was adopted, a large number of states have accepted the view elaborated in General Comment 15 that the right to water is legally binding. However, a few countries led by the United States have so far prevented the recognition of right to water in UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, which operate by consensus.3
Yesterday's unanimous declaration by the UN General Assembly will give a boost to those governments that have made an effort to recognize water as a basic right, and to other multilateral efforts to promote the realization of right to water and sanitation.
This is indeed a huge step forward.
However there is much more to be done. The first step, of course, is to make the right to drinking water and sanitation a reality. This is particularly true for rural areas where 84 percent of water poor live.4 While the resource requirements for meeting the drinking water needs of 884 million people and sanitation related water needs of 2.6 billion people are well within the collective means of our 21st-century world, water remains a mirage for the water-poor. A commitment to help realize the right to water on the part of the rich governments of the world could help save the lives of 1.5 million children under age five who would otherwise die from water-related illnesses. To help meet Millennium Development Goals on water (to halve the number of water poor by 2015) poorer countries need a mere $18.4 billion annually, which they are hard pressed to raise. Yet we have seen that bank bail-outs of much higher magnitude come about easily.5
Equally important is recognizing that the realization of several other rights, such as right to food and right to livelihood, is contingent on reliable access to water. This is especially true in the case of the large number of rural people who are directly dependent on land-based activities such as agriculture, animal grazing and other related activities for meeting their food needs. Climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact these peoples’ food security. Ensuring clean water to help them realize their right to livelihood is of utmost importance.
At the moment, it is commendable that the declaration acknowledges "the importance of equitable, safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realization of all human rights."
A universal recognition that extends this by acknowledging "the importance of equitable, clean water as an integral component towards the realization of all human rights, especially right to food, and right to livelihood" would be of additional help, especially in the changed context of climate crisis.
1. Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, The Plurinational State of Bolivia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eritrea, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Haiti, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Seychelles, The Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu, Uruguay, Vanuatu, The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Yemen
2. In Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing...”
4. World Bank: Global Monitoring Report 2010, The MDGs after the Crisis, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTGLOMONREP2010/Resources/6911301-1271698910928/GMR2010WEB.pdf
In February of this year, the Chinese government released results of the first national pollution census （全国污染源普查). The most startling finding of this nearly three-year, 737 million RMB investigation was that agriculture is a bigger source of water pollution in China than industry. Because agriculture had never before been included in official pollution measures, the finding that farming is responsible for 44 percent of chemical oxygen demand (COD—the main measure of organic compounds in water), 67 percent of phosphorus discharges and 57 percent of nitrogen discharges was big news. The New York Times and The Guardian published articles on the Chinese pollution census.
In addition to fertilizer-, pesticide- and herbicide-containing runoff from crop fields, the census found that manure from livestock and poultry farms is a major source of agricultural pollution. An article this week in the China Daily further details animal waste problems, citing incidents of blue-green algae outbreaks in lakes and waterways because of excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen fromlivestock farms. The photo to the right is an example of this phenomenon near a commercial pig farm I visited in Sichuan Province. Given the lack of effective water treatment methods and facilities, combined with the ever-increasing scale of livestock production, this is indeed a serious problem for China to address.
In response to the census, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is promoting biogas digesters as a possible solution to the current “manure problem.” The ministry is currently executing and administering a $66.08 million (USD) loan from the Asian Development Bank to expand the use of biogas technologies. By 2020, plans are to construct an additional 80 million household methane digesters and 10,000 large-scale biogas plants. These projects build on technologies that have been used in China for decades. (Here is a report by Professor Li Kangmin and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho that gives a brief history of biogas use in China, dating from the late nineteenth century.)
The concern is scale. According to a water expert at the Asian Development Bank, presently less than 1 percent of the 4.2 million large-scale pig, cattle and poultry farms use biogas digesters to process manure. As these commercial farms follow the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) model by packing more and more animals into smaller and smaller spaces and continue to take an increasing share of production and markets, surely they are the operations to watch—and to regulate. But to date, biogas digester projects have focused on small-scale production. The MOA estimates that 35 million of the 140 million rural households were using digesters at the end of 2008. While digesters can bring certain benefits to rural communities, particularly production of cooking gas and nutrient-rich fertilizer, these small-scale farms are not the ones contributing most to the manure-in-water problem.
The real challenge for addressing manure-based water pollution comes from the rivers of waste running out of commercial livestock farms and directly into bodies of water. If biogas digesters are to be the chosen path to correct this ill, perhaps there should be a mandate that all new CAFOs (and there are new ones coming into production all the time) must install digesters from the beginning. At the same time, the existing 99 percent of commercial farms that don’t already use them should be urged to do so.
Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.
In a letter sent to Congress and the Obama administration last month, leading voices in environmental justice, science and academics asked that: “1) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) should not be overturned or diminished; and 2) climate change policy should address the emissions of greenhouse gas co-pollutants, as well as the emissions of greenhouse gases themselves.”
The same facilities and vehicles that emit greenhouse gases also emit co-pollutants that lead to high rates of asthma and other serious public health concerns. In addition to the public health impacts associated with climate change itself, co-pollutants from coal plants and other fossil fuel sources disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color as these communities are largely located where fossil fuel facilities are located and where urban vehicle emissions are concentrated. This unique partnership of leading environmental justice activists, policy analysts, scientists and academics is the first of its kind.
While Congress has rejected initial attempts to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for public health reasons, additional attempts to challenge EPA’s authority are expected. Shalini Gupta, director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP, was among the 18 leaders who signed onto the letter. To find out more, read the press release and full letter.
To be in Brazil during the World Cup of futbol (soccer) is to see both a massive outpouring of national pride and mass marketing of the very first order. Museums will change their opening hours and churches will change the times they offer mass on any day that Brazil plays. Brazil will host the World Cup 2014. The government is already planning for ways to sweep the streets of beggars and hide the shanty towns (favelas) behind walls, not so they won’t be seen but so the favelas and beggar residents cannot interfere with the tourism and commerce of the tournament.
I am here to talk with NGOs about U.S. climate change policy and more specifically the U.S. financial reform legislation that will have much to do with how carbon emissions are traded in commodity futures markets if and when they are established. Given the current diplomatic stalemate in climate change negotiations, it would be idle to suggest that countries must compete more fiercely to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than they compete to win the World Cup. Certainly the stakes of losing the GHG Games are immeasurably higher than the national disappointment or even disgust when its team is ousted but where is that commercial GHG hook that will have “Beat Climate Change!” T-shirts outselling "Go Brazil" T-shirts?
Granted, the U.S. climate change story is not a happy one or one easy sell to Brazilian groups. Unhappily I explain that our most immediate challenge is not the members of the U.S. Congress who don’t believe that climate change is happening or that it is not serious enough to warrant a massive change in U.S. technology and investment policy. Our most immediate problems are the environmental organizations who believe that carbon markets will induce investment decisions to reduce GHGs.
Earlier this month, IATP published a critique of an International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) proposal that would finance GHG reductions by selling bonds to developing countries. The bond terms would be defined and administered by a new International Green Bond Board that would displace the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. The collateral for bond repayment would be developing country carbon credits that would be sold and resold in U.S. and EU markets. When I explained that several U.S. environmental organizations worked closely with IETA the Brazilian NGOs weren’t as shocked as I had been when I listened to IETA and the big enviros sing the same tune in Copenhagen.
They said that Brazilian conservation organizations, desperate for funds to fight the destruction of the Amazon by agribusiness, forestry and mining firms, had become believers that selling carbon offset credits to U.S. and EU businesses would stop the destruction of the Amazon. Indeed, as I had read in No Rain in the Amazon, some of the former deforesters were planting fast-growing eucalyptus trees to claim carbon offset credits from a space that once had been home to an immense wealth of biodiversity and climate stabilization. U.S. environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), had sold Brazilian conservation groups on carbon markets in such market conditions.
If Wall Street and other financial centers remain fundamentally unreformed, they will create extreme price volatility in carbon markets, as surely as they did in agricultural and energy markets in 2006–2008. IETA has argued that there should be no limits on the number of carbon derivatives, based on the value of the carbon credits, that some draft U.S. legislation proposes to give away for free to the biggest polluters. Furthermore, IETA opposes any attempt to reduce unregulated trading in the over-the-counter markets.
IATP, with the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) and Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), is fighting to put binding limits on derivatives trading and allow OTC trading only for commodity traders, such as municipal power companies, for whom the greater cost of trading on public and regulated exchanges impedes their ability to provide energy to all consumers. As Wall Street rains campaign contributions on New Democrats to help the Republican Party defeat reform, we fear that if real reform is defeated, the next bill to be bought and paid for by industry will be climate change legislation. Then the only thing for which we will be able to cheer is the World Cup—if it isn’t disrupted by drought, flash floods and more frequent and violent weather.
As combined economic entities, members of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) exceed the size of most governments. So, when IETA made a new financing proposal just prior to last week's UN global climate talks in Bonn, attention was paid.
IETA's 170 transnational financial, law, energy and manufacturing firms are aggressively pushing for a global system for trading carbon emission credits and their financial derivatives. Their latest proposal, “green sectoral bonds,” are being sold as the only option for developing countries to access financing for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Like conventional bonds, the green sectoral bonds would allow developing countries to borrow money from private investors to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets—the principle to be paid back with interest over time. The proposal represents a major shift in climate finance discussions.
As IATP's Steve Suppan writes in a new analysis of the IETA proposal, “If implemented, the proposal would transform climate finance from a public fiduciary duty primarily funded by developed countries to a new source of developing country debt to private creditors and of profits for IETA members.”
Post written by Mark Muller, originally published on the Food and Society Fellows Fresh Ideas blog.
I've spent too much time determining who would be on my basketball
dream team, but haven't given enough thought to who are my top picks
for commencement speakers. Thankfully, TakePart has done the hard work
and announced it's Commencement Speaker Dream Team. Coming in at #4 is AnnaLappé!
"Anna Lappé, renowned author and founding principal of The Small Planet Institute, is a
terrific role model for graduates who are looking to get involved in the
food movement. Anna is committed to finding sustainable,
climate-friendly solutions to our industrial food system, particularly
in her latest book Diet
for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What
You Can Do about It."
And it won't be a commencement speech, but those of you in the
vicinity of the Twin Cities have an opportunity to hear Anna, as well
as her renowned mother Francis Moore Lappé, speak in Minneapolis on
June 16. Billed as "From Small Planet to Hot Planet"
and moderated by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy President
Jim Harkness, the event features a discussion between the Lappés on the
challenges of transforming the food system and the opportunities for intergenerational collaboration.
Join us for this exciting opportunity!
William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of the New York Times dug deeper earlier this week into the growing story of Roundup-resistant weeds and the chaos this is causing within the agriculture community. The Times story quotes Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts as saying, "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen." And Tennessee farmer Eddie Anderson says, "We're back to where we were 20 years ago. We're trying to find out what works."
Why is growing resistance to Roundup in weeds such a big deal? Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops are one of the linchpins of conventional agriculture. Roundup Ready crops allow farmers to douse their crop with Roundup to kill the weeds, while the crop survives. Currently, more than 80 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, and most are Roundup Ready.
As we wrote last month, the Natonal Research Council's assessment on the impact of GE crops on farmers pointed to nine species of weeds that have been identified in the U.S. as being resistant to Roundup. As Roundup loses its effectiveness, other—more toxic—herbicides will likely take its place.
But the Times story also points out how the loss of Roundup affects no-till farming, at least the way corn farmers practice it. No-till has been touted as more environmentally friendly by curbing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides. It also has been hyped as an important part of a prospective carbon market. By not tilling, carbon is sequestering in the soil, and hence could become an additional income stream for farmers as part of a carbon-offset system. But as the Times points out, with the decline in Roundup's effectiveness, commodity crop no-till may no longer be practical.
What might make more sense? A new study by researchers out of Iowa State found that farmers using a two-crop rotation (corn and soybeans) could cut their fossil fuel use in half by switching to a four-crop rotation (adding oats and alfalfa)—and they could make the same amount of money.
The emerging challenges of Roundup-resistant weeds point out once again why climate change policy needs to get it right on agriculture.