Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Sloshed in Bangkok: No way to save the planet

I’m in Bangkok and, outside the concrete wall of the UN conference centre, the monsoon is in full fury with bolts of lightening and water sloshing down. I arrived on Sunday and joined rarely seen colleagues from my former UN life in a café by the Chao Phraya River, returning to our hotel by tuk-tuk through the bustling streets, just before the deluge began again. But the monsoon is a regular event, essential for the food production and hydrology of south-east Asia, so I shouldn’t be complaining … or should I?

The Thai Minister of Science Dr. Prodprasob Surasawadi had a very clear message about the nature of recent monsoons. Thailand has changed from a country where the main concern was water supply to one where flooding dominates the agenda. “I told everyone, we need a paradigm shift” he said “from how to store water to how to drain water”. Last year’s monsoon was deemed a 1 in a 100 year event and flooded 63,000 km2 of land, leaving 600 people dead, the majority from short-circuiting as they struggled with inadequate pumps. The economic damage was vast and estimated by the World Bank as US$ 45.7 Bn. The minister doesn’t see this as a one off event however. He reminded us that eight thousand years ago, Bangkok was 6.4 metre below sea level: “It will come back for sure”. It isn’t just an issue of increased rainfall though; sea levels are rising at least as fast as they did during the Holocene and sea water is beginning to intrude into rivers and aquifers.

But what to do? The Thai government is facing hard choices. Bangkok is the beating heart of the Thai economy, an Asian tiger that has been unleashed in a globalised world. That new world that we all inhabit has extraordinary economic interconnections due to globalisation and supply chains that work on very short timescales. Some 25% of the world’s hard disks are made in Bangkok as are key automobile components and a sudden flood can shut down production of computers or cars in remote parts of the planet. According to Minister Surasawadi, the choice is to construct massive flood defences or to move the 9 million inhabitants somewhere else; but where? “I don’t know how to do it”. He estimated that it will cost at least US$10Bn to change water management in Thailand and US$20Bn to construct levees, dams and sea walls. “I don’t believe we have much time” he says. “This will happen not only in Thailand but in other parts of the world”. And he threw scientists and engineers a challenge: “We need an answer from you: more practical, more focussed”.

All of this brings me to the reason why I am here in Bangkok, adding 3.18 tons of CO2 to the planetary burden despite my economy class flight. I’m at a meeting of the Global Environment Facility, created in 1992 and the biggest funding mechanism in human history for dealing with shared environmental problems. The GEF has three main areas of interest: climate change, biodiversity and international waters. The international waters focal area covers all waters that cross national boundaries: aquifers, rivers, lakes and the oceans and, since 1992, US$ 2 Bn it has spent in this area that has ‘leveraged’ (World Bank speak for persuaded people to cost share) a total of around US$ 7 Bn. That sounds like a huge amount of money but bear in mind the US$ 30 Bn bill for a temporary fix to Bangkok’s problems alone. Need I say much more?  The GEF can help trigger action, but it won’t ‘save the planet’. And the planet doesn’t need saving anyway; it is human society that’s high up on the risk register but we’re far too twee to talk about it in those terms.

I have a bit of a history with the GEF as I convinced them to hand over US$ 11.7 m to fund the first marine international waters project – on the Black Sea – in 1992. Yesterday, a former colleague reminded me how I had presented my case to a ‘brown bag lunch’ of senior World Bank officials in Washington. The Black Sea is now in a much better state than it was then but, to be fair, this is much more to do with the reduction of polluting activities due to economic decline than my five years of efforts. Only time will tell if we left a legacy. We did, however, learn a lot through our failures as well as our successes and we helped develop an ‘adaptive management’ approach that is being applied worldwide. So almost 20 years later, I was invited to chair an international panel of practitioners with the remit of looking how we can improve the science behind international waters projects of every kind. Sheila Heymans from SAMS also worked alongside the group to help bring together the information from projects all over the world through a GEF project financed through the UN University (who coordinated the overall study). The report Science-Policy Bridges Over Troubled Waters that I co-authored with Adeel Zafar, Head of the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health, was published last week and shows how systems thinking can be used to make the best use of science in future GEF International Waters interventions. My attendance at the conference was to explain the findings and join in with the discussions on future application of science in the GEF strategy. The GEF is operating in almost every developing-country shared waterbody on the planet and it has the potential to exert enormous influence on the way these systems are managed.

One source of personal amusement was the press conference following the launch of our report. Earlier press releases had been picked up by a few agencies including Reuters and I had done a Skype interview with the Financial Times. We had foregone our coffee break and were set up for a Q & A session with local correspondents. In the event, nobody showed up. The entire press pack had gone off in pursuit of the Science Minister. What do you expect when you have talked about uprooting 9 million people? At least it was an environmental news story. I remember doing a long piece on fishing for the BBC a few years ago. They dispatched a crew to do a seven minute news slot from a fish market. Just as it was about to be aired, Paul McCartney announced his engagement to Heather Mills and the editor cut seven minutes to one so I had a 15 second sound byte. “Overfishing is a serious problem that damages our economy” CUT!

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