Geology for Global Development

Flooding

The importance of wetlands

The importance of wetlands

World Wetlands day is celebrated on 2nd February, marking the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, also known as Ramsar Convention, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on 2nd February 1971. It “provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Today 170 countries have adopted it and 2,341 Ramsar sites covering over 2,5 million km² are designated as Wetlands of International Importance. But what are wetlands and why should we care about them? I’ll address these questions and other important points in this article.

First, what are wetlands?

Basically, a wetland is an area of land that is covered with water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. This water can be salt, fresh or somewhere in between, and have a maximum depth of six metres. Mangroves, marshes, ponds, peatlands, swamps, deltas, estuaries, low-lying areas that frequently flood are all wetlands and they can be found on every continent. Some of the largest ones are the Sundarbans mangrove forest in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, the Amazon River basin (figure below), and the Pantanal, both in Brazil.

Wetlands cover about 3% of world’s surface. A web-based map shows the global distribution of wetlands and peat areas. It was launched in 2016 by researchers from Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program – SWAMP and is based on satellite images acquired by the  Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument.

Why should we care about wetlands?

Wetlands are rich but also fragile environments. They can provide water, fish/biodiveristy, recreational areas and help to regulate the climate.

  • Biodiversity: Wetlands function as wildlife refuge, supporting high concentration of mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates, being nurseries for many of these species.
  • Resources: Further, they can be a huge resource for humans, supporting rice paddies (Figure 2), a staple food. They also help purify water by trapping pollutants and heavy metals in the soil and neutralizing harmful bacteria by breaking down suspend solids in the water.
  • Geohazards: Wetlands provide flood control and storm protection in coastal areas acting like a sponge during storm events such as hurricanes, reducing their power of destruction.
  • Climate change: Here is another important point that I would like to highlight about wetlands. They play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation, since they store huge amounts of carbon. If you are curious about this topic, see this post where Heather [a regular contributor to the GfGD Blog] discusses how carbon is stored in peat soils in the tropics and the main threats to these areas.

Wetlands in Amazon river basin during the dry season (Oct 2017), close to Santarém, Brazil – Photo: Bárbara Zambelli

Threatened environment

Despite their social and ecological importance, wetlands are continuously being degraded and even destroyed worldwide. According to this research the world has lost 64-71% of their wetlands since 1900 AD. Here is a list of the main threats towards wetlands:

  • Pollution: Generally located in low-lying areas, they receive fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural runoff, industrial effluents and households waste or sewage. These pollutants have detrimental effects on water quality and threaten the fauna and flora of wetlands. As I mentioned before, wetlands work as water filters, therefore there is a growing concern about how pollution will impact drinking water supplies and wetland biological diversity.
  • Agriculture and urbanization: One of the biggest threats to this environment is its drainage to make room for agriculture and human settlements. Such activities are an increasing threat and they destroy the ecosystem and all the benefits wetlands can provide.
  • Dams: The construction of a dam alters the natural flow of water through a landscape. This alteration may lead to an increase or decrease of water flow through a wetland, being potentially harmful for wetland ecosystems. Thus, it is essential to choose the location of a dam wisely, to reduce the impact on existing ecosystems.
  • Climate change: Climate change is shifting the world’s temperature and precipitation patterns. Wetlands are getting lost due both too much and too little water. Shallow coastal wetlands such as mangroves are being swamped because of sea level rise. In areas affected by droughts, estuaries, floodplains and marshes are drying up. Wetlands and climate change are the theme of World Wetlands Day in 2019.

Opportunities – taking action

Wetlands are a critical environment and their effective management can give a substantial contribution to biodiversity conservation and restoration, maintaining its bioecological characteristics and allowing the using of resources economically.

According to SWAMP, “carbon-rich mangroves and peatlands are high priorities in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies throughout the world.”

With their partners, SWAMP have developed a collaborative agenda expected to raise the awareness about sustainable management of wetlands in changing world and livelihoods of local communities. The Ramsar Convention, an international agreement, is still important today because it supports environmental policy development and it encourages countries to commit to it. It is also valuable as an international forum for gathering and sharing knowledge about sustainable wetlands management. Also international NGOs such as Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Wetlands International play an important role.

Finally, regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), recently Ramsar published a briefing note of how wetlands can contribute to their achievement. Access it hereto find out more details.

Climate migration needs to be predicted and planned now. Geoengineering can slow down sea level rise but could also lead to international conflicts. CO2 as a natural resource. All in Jesse Zondervan’s Mar 8 – Apr 4 2018

Climate migration needs to be predicted and planned now. Geoengineering can slow down sea level rise but could also lead to international conflicts. CO2 as a natural resource. All in Jesse Zondervan’s Mar 8  – Apr 4 2018

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

Imagine 140 million people across sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America migrating in response to climate change effect, by 2050. This is what a recent World Bank report claims, by projecting current internal migration patterns due to effects, like coastal land loss and crop failure, into the future using climate models.

Climate migration will tend to be mostly internal to countries and can foster inequality as well as economic loss. Since it’s inevitable, we will need to plan for it.

We cannot prevent climate migration, but geoengineering will be a very powerful way to combat unnecessary increases in damage from climate change. With this power comes responsibility through. What will happen if one country decides to spray aerosols to decrease temperature, and inadvertently changes things for the worse for another region?

So yes, we need laws on geoengineering to prevent battles over well-meant geoengineering failures. Interestingly, I found a lot of research articles with new geoengineering proposals, so it’s really coming soon, and we need to think about regulation now.

Geoengineering can be costly. Pumping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere may prevent crop failures due to elevated temperatures, but it is still expensive. But what if we could use CO2 as a natural resource? A team of US and Canadian scientists say it will be possible to use captured CO2 for feedstock, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or renewable fuels.

This month you will find an article under the section ‘career’, which you should have a look at if you’re doing or thinking of doing a PhD and you want to consider working outside academia. You will find a lot of articles under the usual headings too, so go ahead!

Geoengineering

Once we can capture CO2 emissions, here’s what we could do with it at ScienceDaily by Sarah Fecht at State of the Planet

Preventing hurricanes using air bubbles at ScienceDaily

Geoengineering polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise at ScienceDaily

Mekong River dams could disrupt lives, environment at ScienceDaily

Climate Migration

Wave of Climate Migration Looms, but It “Doesn’t Have to Be a Crisis” by Andrea Thompson at Scientific American

Addressing Climate Migration Within Borders Helps Countries Plan, Mitigate Effects by Alex de Sherbinin at State of the Planet

Career
Having an impact as a development economist outside of a research university: Interview with Alix Zwane by David McKenzie at Development Impact

Sustainability

Structuring collaboration between municipalities and academics: testing a model for transdisciplinary sustainability projects at Lund University

To Sustain Peace, UN Should Embrace Complexity and Be UN-Heroic by Peter Coleman at State of the Planet

Climate Change Adaptation

The Rise of Cities in the Battle Against Climate Change by Allison Bridges at State of the Planet

A City’s Challenge of Dealing with Sea Level Rise at AGU’s Eos

The absence of ants: Entomologist confirms first Saharan farming 10,000 years ago at ScienceDaily

Turning cities into sponges: how Chinese ancient wisdom is taking on climate change by Brigid Delaney at The Guardian

Risk of sea-level rise: high stakes for East Asia & Pacific region countries by Susmita Dasgupta at East Asia & Pacific on the Rise

National Flood Insurance Is Underwater Because of Outdated Science by Jen Schwartz at Scientific American

Disaster Risk

Mobile phones and AI vie to update early disaster warning systems by Nick Fildes at The Financial Times

7 years after tsunami, Japanese live uneasily with seawalls by Megumi Lim at Japan Today

Volcanic risk

GeoTalk: How will large Icelandic eruptions affect us and our environment? By Olivia Trani at EGU’s GeoLog

Earthquake risk

The Wicked Problem of Earthquake Hazard in Developing Countries at AGU’s Eos

External Opportunities

Summer 2018 Internship Opportunities at the Earth Institute

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev& Facebook.

Heather Britton: China’s Water Diversion Project

Heather Britton: China’s Water Diversion Project

China has enjoyed economic growth over the past decades, bringing undoubted prosperity to the country. But exponential industrialisation and rapid growth comes at a significant environmental cost. The nation is heavily dependent on coal-fired power, making it one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and it’s thirst for development is a drain on vital resources, including water. In today’s post, Heather explores how China’s geography accentuates an anthropogenic problem. 

When travelling from the North to the South of China there are number of trends that can be observed – dialects change, the dominance of noodles is replaced with a preference for rice and, crucially, the climate becomes more humid. The South typically receives excessive rainfall, often leading to devastating flooding, whilst the North dries due to the thirst of industry and a booming population. China’s water diversion project aims to solve both problems with one monumental feat of engineering – by diverting 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually from South to North via a network of canals and tunnels. I’ll explore the impact that this is having on China and its people, and whether it is a sustainable solution to the disparity in water supply across the country.

Water shortage is a constant concern in the North, with the groundwater stores that support the region dwindling to a fraction of what is required to allow the cities and industries centred here to thrive. In addition, more than half of China’s 50,000 rivers have disappeared in the last 20 years. Having experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past few decades, Beijing is on the brink of a water crisis. In the South, flooding is the primary hydrological issue, exacerbated by the drainage of lakes and the damming of rivers for construction. It was commented in the 1950s by Chairman Mao that ‘The south has plenty of water, but the north is dry. If we could borrow some, that would be good’. This statement is heralded as the idea that has grown to become what is now ‘The world’s most ambitious water-transfer program’.

The project is not merely a fantasy – construction on a number of the pathways is already complete or nearing completion, and already over 70% of Beijing’s water is transferred from the South as a result of this project. Costing $62 billion, there is a clear driving force for the project – the thirsty North is running out of water fast, and although an extreme move, it is true that this project will provide some vestige of relief – but for how long, and at what cost?

Millions have benefitted from the water transfer and it certainly is a solution to the disparity in water supply between the North and the South of the country, but it is also arguably one of the worst. China’s demand for water is growing so quickly that even before the project’s completion in 2050 further solutions are likely to be required, and industrialisation along diversion routes poses a serious pollution threat. Salinization  of some waters heading North seems inevitable. An even larger concern is that the South may no longer have enough water to spare – the Han river, an important tributary to the Yangtze, is planned to have 40% of its water diverted to the North, but the towns and cities situated along its course are already experiencing water shortages. Furthermore, 345,000 villagers have been displaced from their homes to make way for the new water courses, often to lands and property far inferior to what they were promised and what they left behind. It is clear that the project is far from sustainable.

It would be wrong, however, to say that the Chinese government is doing nothing to reduce the impact of the scheme. Addressing environmental concerns in the Danjiangkou reservoir, a $3 billion ecological remediation package has been put together, and the water diversion project has allowed the groundwater reservoirs in Beijing to rebound by at least 0.52m. The environmental threat persists, however, and it seems unlikely that retrospective measures will be able to dissipate all of the environmental risk. By considering more sustainable solutions, the impact on the land and the people of China could have been drastically reduced. The Chinese vice minister of Housing and Urban-rural development has called the project unsustainable, acknowledging that, in the case of many cities, recycled water could replace diverted water. If efforts were focussed on water desalination technology and the collection of more rainwater, rather than the creation of multiple colossal aqueducts with unsavoury environmental consequences, then water resource management could be tackled in a far more sustainable manner.

Effective water conservation is something that is becoming a larger and larger problem for the Global South, particularly in the drier parts of the world. The water diversion project acts as an interesting case study, and shows the repercussions of dramatic engineering solutions to water resource problems. Although possible from an engineering perspective, forcing a change in the hydrological system of a country is rarely without its complications (and substantial expense). Lessons can be learned from the water diversion project, and future Global South nations should think twice before entering into any project of such scale without considering the full implications or other, more sustainable options. Doing this would help towards the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 6 (clean water and sanitation).

Blog Competition (Highly Commended) – Omeye Chimaobi Kenechukwu: Floods in Nigeria

bdffc848f1cd7c498b5d19bf47b610c8For our Blog Competition 2013, we asked people to submit articles addressing one of two topics.  Omeye’s article discusses a recent flooding event that resulted in disaster in Nigeria, and his entry was highly commended by our judging panel.

Omeye is a second year geology  student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. When he graduates, Omeye wants to work as a geologist and have a positive impact on his nation. Omeye is currently editor-in-chief of the society for exploration geophysics, and plans to publish a magazine on how geologists can tackle issues of global poverty.

 

Nigeria_political

Political map of Nigeria’s 36 states. Source: Wiki

A flood is the unusual presence of water on land to a depth that affects normal activities. Floods are a natural occurrence, yet their impact can be controlled by man. A flood in itself is not disastrous, it becomes so only when people are not prepared for it, early warnings are flagrantly ignored and mitigation measures are not put in place. In July 2012 Nigeria experienced the worst flooding in over 40 years, with 30 of the country’s 36 states affected, according to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). The floods brought many social and cultural consequences to the country – reports shows people clinging to trees to stay afloat and alive. In Benue state all those on the banks of river Benue woke up to discover that water had entered their houses. Like a nightmare, a step on the floor from their bed was a step on water, for some up to waist level.

“We woke up inside water”, one of the victims of the flooding lamented. With the plethora of canoes now plying the areas in Anambra state, you could easily mistake the terrain for a pure river line area.  It caused many problems such as limiting the movement of people and thereby depressing the economy of the area. Some communities lost properties worth billions of naira. Even churches, police stations, law courts and schools were totally submerged.

The response of the local government, NGOs, and the international community was encouraging as members and officials of NEMA, and that of the Nigerian red cross society were helpful in ensuring that the displaced persons had access to good medicare and food. First ladies of different states and local government areas were also on hand to extend assistance and aid to children, women and families. On 9th October, president Jonathan Goodluck allocated 17.6 billion Naira (0.11 billion USD) to states and agencies to respond to flood damage, as well as setting up a committee to lead flood relief and rehabilitation efforts. Several international NGOs, including Oxfam, have launched responses, while the NRC responded in 10 states and appealed for 850,000 US dollars to boost their efforts. Some government agencies provided as many tents, healthcare services and basics (such as cooking utensils) as they could from their warehouses in different parts of the country. Many governors also released huge sums of money for the purchase of relief materials for the victims.

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Canoes being used in flooded areas. Source: The Watchers

In order to reduce risk in future disasters, possible actions include government implementation of a master plan for areas that are prone to flooding. The government should expedite action on the construction of major embankments on rivers such as river Benue to keep off flood water. Also, the government in conjunction with civil society groups, NGOs and other organizations must embark on aggressive environmental awareness campaign and build capacity to reduce people’s vulnerability – communities living in flood plains should be helped to relocate to higher grounds on time. Finally, the state emergency management agencies must be fully equipped to take on the onerous task of combating disasters. It is agonizing that in several states, the agency lacks functional and even the institutional framework to manage disasters. This has often led to escalation of the damage.