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Posts Tagged ‘Nepal

How El Niño plans to hijack monsoon 2015

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ICP_El_Nino_monsoon_20150526_sm

Whether the monsoon starts off on time, whether the June, July, August and September rainfall averages are met, and whether the seasonal pattern of the monsoon is maintained are expectations that must now be set aside.

According to the Climate Prediction Center’s ENSO probability forecast, there is a 90% chance that El Niño conditions will prevail through June to August of the northern hemisphere and a more than 80% percent chance El Niño will last throughout all of 2015.

What this means, especially when record warm global atmospheric temperatures (because we in South Asia and our neighbours in East Asia have continued burned coal as if the resulting CO2 and soot simply doesn’t exist) are being set, is the remaining months of 2015 – the monsoon period included – will bring strange, dangerous and extreme weather. We have already seen that over the last week, with the death toll from the heat wave having crossed 550.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences El Niño/La Nina, Indian Ocean Dipole Update (10 May 2015)

The Ministry of Earth Sciences El Niño/La Nina, Indian Ocean Dipole Update (10 May 2015)

For the first time since 1998 – ­the year of the strongest El Niño on record, which played havoc with the world’s weather patterns and was blamed for 23,000 deaths worldwide – ­ocean temperatures in all five El Niño zones have risen above 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal at the same time. That is read by climatologists and ocean scientists as presaging an El Niño that is moderately strong to strong. The forecast models updated in May are now unanimous that El Niño is going to keep strengthening through the rest of 2015. (See also the official forecast from the USA’s government climate science agency.)

El Niño’s home is in the tropical eastern Pacific, but we in India need to watch the waters to our south very closely. New research published in the journal Nature Geoscience has examined records going back to 1950 and noticed that Indian Ocean absorbed heat at a low level until 2003. Thereafter, the excess oceanic heat in the Pacific Ocean found its way through the Indonesian archipelago and into the Indian Ocean. This is the gigantic reservoir of watery heat that is going to dictate terms to our summer monsoon, or what our school textbooks call the south-west monsoon.

It is a worry for the entire South Asian region – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Burma, Afghanistan and Bhutan. That is why when the Forum on Regional Climate Monitoring-Assessment-Prediction for Asia (FOCRA) issued its seasonal outlook for June to August 2015 it predicted weaker than normal Indian summer and East Asian monsoons. Precipitation over land is influenced by external factors such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (the ENSO), the ‘Indian Ocean Dipole’, the ‘Arctic Oscillation’, and so on.

There may be a “timely onset” of the monsoon, as the venerable IMD is used to saying, but that doesn’t mean our troubles are over. Far from it.

South Asia’s boring club

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RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_india3Next year will be the 30th since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed. Its career as an association has since the mid-eighties been neither distinguished nor even promising. The countries of the region, viewing the emerging tides of multi-lateralism elsewhere (especially in Latin America) and viewing the debris of the non-aligned movement, shuffled together to form SAARC. The group has all the equipment – a secretariat, various centres that profess to tackle common subjects, a stable of professionals who advise bored officials, and so on – but has produced little.

Some of the blame for such a desultory career must lie with the relations between Pakistan and India, which every other month swing between ‘hostile’ and ‘concerned’ but rarely tread any other territory. Still, that ought not to have weighed so heavily on the other members of SAARC – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan. The accoutrements of SAARC should have served them just as well, but have simply not been used.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_bangladesh_bhutan3This is the greyish and uninspiring background to the 18th SAARC summit this week in Kathmandu, Nepal. The script of this one, as with so many others before it, has followed the same desultory trajectory. The leaders of Pakistan and India say they will meet cordially, formally and informally, and dutifully repeat all that has been said (but not done) from the previous 17 summits and numerous non-summit SAARC meetings.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_ceylon3Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan announced that peace and stability is what the region needs, that the summit participants want to make SAARC a strong trading and economic bloc, and that the region will prosper through better security and economic cooperation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced that the development of close relations with neighbouring countries is a key priority for his government, that greater regional integration at all levels of socio-economic development is important, and that the participants would seek concrete outcomes.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_pakistan3Few, other than the most committed followers of South Asian diplomatic prose, pay much attention. The economic globalisation of the last decade especially has linked countries – within South Asia and outside – with bilateral agreements rather than through multi-lateral fora like SAARC. Even where the association has invested some collective funds (in the creation of specialist centres for example, and the endowment of study and research programmes meant to benefit neighbours) the outcomes have been close to invisible.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_smThis poor showing has not deterred the countries from announcing yet another new SAARC centre which will merge four existing regional centres – the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (in India), the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (in the Maldives), the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (in Bangladesh) and the SAARC Forestry Centre (in Bhutan). The suspicion, not unfounded, is that SAARC and its colourless apparatus exists to provide convenient sinecures for ex-diplomats from the eight countries and their colleagues.

Of course, the “meetings on the sidelines”, over which some mild interest is mustered pertaining to SAARC, may lead to a front page headline or two, but in the balance, that occasional fillip is hardly worth the expense of maintaining the club.

[Sections from maps are, top to bottom, (1) From ‘Madras, Mysore and Goa’, in Constable’s 1893 Hand Atlas; (2) from ‘India, Afghanistan, Belochistan, Burmah, and Siam’ by John Bartholomew; from ‘Zell’s Descriptive Hand Atlas of the World’, Philadelphia, 1873; (3) from ‘Southern India and Ceylon’ in ‘Letts’s Popular Atlas’ 1883; (4) from ‘India’ by Edward Weller, for the Weekly Dispatch Magazine, 1859. Click here for a sheet of them all (jpg, 772kb).]

If global food indices are descending, why are local food prices rising?

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The trends of ten international food commodity indices from 2006 onwards.

The trends of ten international food commodity indices from 2006 onwards.

The main chart plots the course of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Food Price Index and nine other international food price indices. These are FAO’s cereals index, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) food index, the International Grains Council (IGC) wheat index, the IGC’s rice index, the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) two wheat indices, Unctad’s rice index, the World Bank’s (WB) food index and WB’s grains index.

Consumer price index trends 2006 to 2013 for five South Asian countries

Consumer price index trends 2006 to 2013 for five South Asian countries

The familiar FAO blue pair for 2013 August

The familiar FAO blue pair for 2013 August

On the main chart, after 2008 December four stages are marked. The first stage is 2008 December to 2010 July, when the indices describe a plateau but which is very much higher than where they were through 2006. The second stage is 2010 July to 2011 April, which corresponds to the second global food price rise and when all these indices rose in concert. The third stage is 2011 April to 2012 September when they all declined to another plateau which nonetheless is higher overall than the last one (stage one), but which rose steeply for a short while towards the end of the stage. The fourth stage is still current, from 2012 June, which is seeing a gradual decline in all the indices to the point they were in 2011 August-September.

I have appended to the main chart the counterpoint of the consumer price indexes from South Asian countries – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The question that follows, when reading the main chart with ten indices and the CPI chart for South Asia, is why the CPI trends do not follow the international grains trends. One of the major factors (which charting this data cannot reveal, as the FAO Food Price Index does not) is the extent to which the industrialisation of prmary crops sets the retail price in the markets of Colombo or Chittagong or Karachi or Mumbai or Kathmandu. Primary crop – that is, cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetable, milk and dairy – is being moved internally, processed, packaged, moved again, retailed in modern convenience stores to a much greater degree than was the case a decade ago. Those costs lie outside what the FAO-IGC-IMF-Unctad-WB indices can describe. But we need to urgently – within these countries and as a group – share methods to gauge and monitor these costs and document their impacts on households.

Where the children sleep

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These pictures are from James Mollison’s book of photographs of children from around the world and where they sleep (thanks to The Telegraph of Britain for running an article on the book). Mollison hopes his photographs will encourage children to think about inequality. He sees his pictures as “a vehicle to think about poverty and wealth, about the relationship of children to their possessions, and the power of children – or lack of it – to make decisions about their lives”.

Indira, seven, lives with her parents, brother and sister near Kathmandu in Nepal. Her house has only one room, with one bed and one mattress. At bedtime, the children share the mattress on the floor. Indira has worked at the local granite quarry since she was three. The family is very poor so everyone has to work. There are 150 other children working at the quarry. Indira works six hours a day and then helps her mother with household chores. She also attends school, 30 minutes’ walk away. Her favourite food is noodles. She would like to be a dancer when she grows up. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Indira, seven, lives with her parents, brother and sister near Kathmandu in Nepal. Her house has only one room, with one bed and one mattress. At bedtime, the children share the mattress on the floor. Indira has worked at the local granite quarry since she was three. The family is very poor so everyone has to work. There are 150 other children working at the quarry. Indira works six hours a day and then helps her mother with household chores. She also attends school, 30 minutes’ walk away. Her favourite food is noodles. She would like to be a dancer when she grows up. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Jasmine, four, lives in a big house in Kentucky, USA, with her parents and three brothers. Her house is in the countryside, surrounded by farmland. Her bedroom is full of crowns and sashes that she has won in beauty pageants. She has entered more than 100 competitions. Her spare time is taken up with rehearsal. She practises her stage routines every day with a trainer. Jazzy would like to be a rock star when she grows up. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Jasmine, four, lives in a big house in Kentucky, USA, with her parents and three brothers. Her house is in the countryside, surrounded by farmland. Her bedroom is full of crowns and sashes that she has won in beauty pageants. She has entered more than 100 competitions. Her spare time is taken up with rehearsal. She practices her stage routines every day with a trainer. Jazzy would like to be a rock star when she grows up. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

 

Home for this boy and his family is a mattress in a field on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. The family came from Romania by bus, after begging for money to pay for their tickets. When they arrived in Rome, they camped on private land, but the police threw them off. They have no identity papers, so cannot obtain legal work. The boy’s parents clean car windscreens at traffic lights. No one from his family has ever been to school. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Home for this boy and his family is a mattress in a field on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. The family came from Romania by bus, after begging for money to pay for their tickets. When they arrived in Rome, they camped on private land, but the police threw them off. They have no identity papers, so cannot obtain legal work. The boy’s parents clean car windscreens at traffic lights. No one from his family has ever been to school. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Kaya, four, lives with her parents in a small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. Her bedroom is lined from floor to ceiling with clothes and dolls. Kaya’s mother makes all her dresses – Kaya has 30 dresses and coats, 30 pairs of shoes and numerous wigs. When she goes to school, she has to wear a school uniform. Her favourite foods are meat, potatoes, strawberries and peaches. She wants to be a cartoonist when she grows up. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Kaya, four, lives with her parents in a small apartment in Tokyo, Japan. Her bedroom is lined from floor to ceiling with clothes and dolls. Kaya’s mother makes all her dresses – Kaya has 30 dresses and coats, 30 pairs of shoes and numerous wigs. When she goes to school, she has to wear a school uniform. Her favourite foods are meat, potatoes, strawberries and peaches. She wants to be a cartoonist when she grows up. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Lamine, 12, lives in Senegal. He is a pupil at the village Koranic school, where no girls are allowed. He shares a room with several other boys. The beds are basic, some supported by bricks for legs. At six every morning the boys begin work on the school farm, where they learn how to dig, harvest maize and plough the fields using donkeys. In the afternoon they study the Koran. In his free time Lamine likes to play football with his friends. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Lamine, 12, lives in Senegal. He is a pupil at the village Koranic school, where no girls are allowed. He shares a room with several other boys. The beds are basic, some supported by bricks for legs. At six every morning the boys begin work on the school farm, where they learn how to dig, harvest maize and plough the fields using donkeys. In the afternoon they study the Koran. In his free time Lamine likes to play football with his friends. Picture: The Telegraph / James Mollison / Chris Boot Ltd

Extracted from ‘Where Children Sleep’ by James Mollison (Chris Boot).

A food and agri trojan horse for South Asia

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Keep your research questions away from our diets and our street food.

Keep your research questions away from our diets and our street food.

What happens when the formation of a “multi-country multi-institutional research programme consortium” is announced, the aim being to aid nutrition in South Asia? In my view, what happens is the beginning of a carefully guided construction of evidence, in some form, that will aid – not nutrition, but – the further industrialisation of crop staple cultivation, its transformation into processed food, and its delivery to urban consumers through retail food oligopolies.

Am I right or wrong? Time will tell, and as this is designed to be a six-year long programme, I think we will see early evidence by end-2013. The programme’s full name is curious as it is revealing – ‘Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA)’. Is the mix of agriculture in South Asia currently unable to provide nutrition? If so what has changed from say 50 years ago? What does ‘leveraging’ mean and who will move the levers? To what end? As I see it, the programme’s name advertises its provenance, and this is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

In the view of the CGIAR and its constituent research institutes, agriculture’s most important task “is to provide food of sufficient quantity and quality to feed and nourish the world’s population sustainably so that all people can lead healthy, productive lives”. According to the CGIAR (and its donors, and its powerful collaborators and patrons, more of which below) achieving this goal “will require closer collaboration across the sectors of agriculture, nutrition, and health, which have long operated in separate spheres with little recognition of how their actions affect each other”.

This view is insidious and its logic is cunning – the CGIAR and its patrons use the climate change problem, they use food insecurity as a totem, and use food price volatility as justification for what they present as solutions. Until the rise of industrial agriculture and chemical fertiliser and the mechanisation of everything from field preparation to remote sensing, agriculture and nutrition and health existed at the core of the holistic existence of agrarian societies.

Vegetables, fresh and local and simple, more sensible by far than 'incentivised' 'interventions'.

Vegetables, fresh and local and simple, more sensible by far than ‘incentivised’ ‘interventions’.

Because the CGIAR imprint is so visible, it becomes immediately clear when we look at the members of this consortium, for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is there. But not leading. The leading institution is the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) of India, and who better – for the CGIAR and its determined patrons – than to have as a helmsman in this spinerette of policy than the man who partnered Norman Borlaug all those years ago in the Punjab? Ah yes, in the shaping of modern agriculture contemporary history does provide inspiration, and I will tell you why in a moment more.

The excuse presented for LANSA to be brought to life is an unremarkable one, it is not original and has been used and abused for all sorts of schemes and programmes ever since India’s days of ‘garibi hatao‘, the 1960s mobilisation cry that was also an election slogan. “Despite rapid economic growth in South Asia, its rates of child undernutrition remain the highest in the world, with nearly half of children stunted or underweight,” complained the LANSA flyer, and added, “progress to reduce these rates is extremely slow. Ironically, most people in the region make their living from farming, which researchers say, offers great potential for improving nutrition”.

Great potential yes, but improving nutrition? We shall see. The programme (according to the scanty literature available, in concert, on all the partners’ websites) “will first examine existing agriculture policies and activities, looking at India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan” (why are Sri Lanka and Nepal excluded? I have a theory, and will comment in a follow-up post). “It will then propose new initiatives to link agriculture and nutrition in the region, working closely with key decision-makers to ensure the research meets their needs.” Read that again – to ensure the research meets their needs! What happened to the children you were so concerned about, dearies? “The goal is to promote cooperation throughout the region, given the trans-border nature of many of the region’s food- and nutrition-related issues”. Yes we share rice and wheat growing ecologies, but what trans-border cooperation does this vastly ambitious consortium have in its collective mind? That too, I think, we shall see soon enough.

I have named two of the members of this group, and the others are: the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC, Bangladesh), the Collective for Social Science Research (CSSR, Pakistan), the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, UK), and the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH, UK). Let’s take the last first. This is the philanthropic part of the Lever that we find today, far more omnisciently, via Unilever, for whom processed food is a large and growing part of its businesses. The IDS is at first glance an odd member of the group, but it has worked with the centres from both Bangladesh and Pakistan, and moreover, carries some weight with the government of Britain, whose chestfuls of pound sterling are fuelling the whole enterprise. Policy-making connections apart, this does seem to me to be mercenary of IDS, but perhaps that is the new nature of development research outfits, and neither vintage nor experience now provides insulation from the temptations of the infernal market.

What have they said they will attempt? The minimalist pamphlet mentions three “core research questions” and these are: 1. How can agriculture be provided with an enabling environment in which to leverage nutrition? 2. How can agriculture and agri-food chains be incentivised to be more pro-nutrition? 3. How can more pro-nutrition agricultural interventions be designed and implemented?

I find these very worrying. What is meant by “enabling environment”? Does it mean the same as “reform” and “austerity” for example? Are they intending to tamper with India’s mid-day meals programme from which many millions of schoolchildren benefit – and who currently (most of them every schoolday at least) eat fresh cooked meals instead of packaged, processed, biofortified, micronutriented cardboard? That second core research question reads like MBA gobbledygook to me, but coming from this famously wise group, becomes all the more worrying – “agri-food chains” and “incentivised” and “pro-nutrition”? Who will do the incentivising and at what public cost – isn’t that a fair research question too? And the third one has “pro-nutrition” again, this time combined with “interventions” – by who? Tesco and Walmart?

It is troubling that hovering behind all this trendy goal-setting and consortium building is the hungry shadow of the CGIAR and its powerful patrons. It has striven mightily to place the agriculture, nutrition, and health combination on the development agenda (formally with the IFPRI ‘2020’ conference in 2011) and including the CGIAR Research Program 4 (insiders call it CRP4). But there are the close links that are far more alarming – to USAID’s Feed the Future, to the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture machinations and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its championing of agri-biotech. These, in our era, are designed as the heavy machinery that supports foreign and trade policy in the international sphere. With such connections LANSA, I fear and suspect, is a new food and agriculture policy trojan horse being readied for South Asia.

What ails the South Asian monsoon?

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Rainfall in India’s meteorological sub-divisions for the 2012 monsoon. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has finally admitted that this year will be a drought, as it has forecast rainfall for August and September as “below normal”. Map: IMD

This set of images helps explain the worrying 2012 monsoon season in South Asia and why drought conditions are emerging in more districts with every passing week.

We are coming up to the eight-week mark of the 2012 monsoon (taking the 04-06 June date as the ‘normal’ for the monsoon to become active over south-west India, after which the climatological system slowly advances over the peninsula and up into northern India).

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has not helped, by maintaining a scientific detachment between forecasting science and the dire situation of farmers and consumers. With emergency drought programmes new being rolled out in many states (more than a month late), the IMD’s refusal to speak plainly to those who need the information the most is unpardonable.

Worse, the Department on its website and its communications walls off its forecasting behind a very unfriendly science interface (see this commentary for a detailed explanation), and appears oblivious about its responsibilities to those for whom it exists – the citizens of India who are waiting for rain.

This set of images (strips below, you can click on the images for the full-size versions) describes what the IMD ought to be disseminating (but stubbornly refuses to). These are 24, 48, 72 and 96 hour regional forecasts for South Asia of accumulated precipitation and temperature extremes.

Day 1 – 02 Aug 2012

Day 2 – 03 Aug 2012

Day 3 – 04 Aug 2012

Day 4 – 05 Aug 2012

The four regions you see in the panels are Peninsular India and Sri Lanka, Western India and Pakistan, Northern & Central India and Nepal, and Eastern India and Bangladesh. These are from the monsoon forecasting sub-site of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies – of the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) – which processes and synthesises data from the NOAA/NCEP, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the US government agency), National Centers for Environmental Prediction. These regional weather forecasts are presented as a running four-day ensemble of images showing daily forecasts of 2-metre temperature minima and maxima and accumulated precipitation covering the four sub-regions.

The Great Nepal-India-Pakistan Spinal Beetle Rally

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That's Kanak with a cuppa 'chai' behind the wheel of his powder blue 1973 VW Beetle

Kanak Dixit of Kathmandu will embark on a fundraising drive across South Asia – from Kathmandu to Lucknow to Delhi to Amritsar to Lahore to Rawalpindi to Peshawar, to raise funds for spinal injury centres in all three countries at the rate of USD 100 per mile for a journey of 1,100 miles (EUR 45 per kilometre, GBP 62 per mile, INR 3,089/km) or 1,760 kilometres.

Here’s what his campaign flyer says:

The Journey: Our 1973 model VW Beetle will start its journey from Kathmandu Valley on 4 of November 2011. Coming down to the plains, it will enter Uttar Pradesh and reach Lucknow. Westward to Delhi, it will arrive at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC). Travelling along the Grand Trunk Road, it will pass Amritsar and the Wagah-Atari border to Lahore and its Mayo Hospital. We will then take the M-1 motorway to Rawalpindi / Islamabad, and end our journey at the Paraplegic Centre in Hayatabad Peshawar on 16 November 2011.

Why the Adventure: The sudden rise of the number of patients over the last year has forced us to raise our service from 39 beds to 51. This has led to an unexpected financial crunch. The rally will help meet the challenge of growth even as we make plans for sustainability.

One More Reason: The Spinal Beetle Rally is also an effort to raise awareness of spinal injury prevention, rescue, care and rehabilitation in the Subcontinent. In this effort, the Spinal Centre is assisted by ISIC-Delhi and the Paraplegic Centre-Peshawar.

The Rallyists: The Spinal Beetle will be driven by journalist and civil rights activist Kanak Mani Dixit, Founder Chairman of the Spinal Centre Nepal. He will be accompanied by Shanta Dixit, board member and educationist. It was Kanak’s trekking accident a decade ago, resulting in a broken spine, which led to the establishment of the Spinal Centre.

That's the route plan for the Spinal Beetle, parathas and chicken tikka not included.

Done it Before, Twice: Kanak has driven the Spinal Beetle Kathmandu-Dhaka, in 2002 and 2005, to generous response.

Support and Sponsorship: The Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi is 540 miles from Kathmandu. The final destination, the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar is 1100 miles away. Supporters are asked to sponsor the drive at the rate of USD 100 per mile, or any fraction or multiple of that amount. Payment details are given below. If you find the payment procedure cumbersome, please just pledge and we will revert.

About the Spinal Centre Nepal: Inaugurated by Sir Edmund Hillary [the mountaineer, think ‘Everest’] on April 2002, the Spinal Centre will be ten years old in 2012. Originally catering to patients from traditional accidents such as fall from trees and cliff-sides, spinal injury victims of ‘modern-day accidents’ related to construction, rock mining and traffic events are more and more filling our wards. We offer physiotherapy, occupational therapy, nursing, medical care, counselling and home rehabilitation. We are also involved in prevention. The Spinal Centre is run by the non-profit Spinal Injury Sangha Nepal.

Jump in and donate your MILE! Send us the equivalent of USD 100, or more or less!

Three ways to support the Spinal Beetle Rally:
1. Donate online on our webpage www.sirc.org.np : through our project partner Livability Ireland at the Biggive – free of charge!
2. Contact us: (if you want to hand over the money personally) kanakd@himalmag@.com or spinalinju@wlink.com.np
3. Transfer money to our account: Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre, Current Account No. 00501030250429 – Nepal Investment Bank Ltd., Banepa Branch, Kavre, Nepal (Swift Code: NIBL NPKT)

More information: Contact Ms Esha Thapa, Director, Spinal Centre Nepal | Tel: +977 11 660847/48 | spinalinju@wlink.com.np | eshthapa@hotmail.com

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

The slow spread of the right-side-up map

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Himal Southasian's pioneering 'right side up' map

The excellent monthly journal from Kathmandu, Himal Southasian, had some years ago invested much time and some money to create a “right side up” map of the Southasia region. (Himal spells it that way, one word.) In this map, Sri Lanka is at the top, India spreads out below it, like a large triangle, the water bodies of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea (or the mer d’Oman, as the French have long called it) are to the left and right respectively.

The delta of the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra empties upwards, and so does that of the Indus. India’s major peninsular rivers flow from right to left (and not the other way around). The terai and Nepal are to be found towards the bottom of the map, where the topographical artwork shows the high Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram. Right at the bottom of the map are Tibet and China.

It is a first class rendering of Southasia carefully done, and I have a print copy which I have kept carefully. You can order Himal’s right-side-up Southasia map here.

The Economist's very shoddy knock-off 'right side up' map

Now, several years after it first drew surprised comment and made waves in international conferences and media, the Himal map has been used as inspiration by a mainstream weekly, The Economist. (Actually, the Economist is right-wing and transatlantic, not worth subscribing to but useful as a borrowed read to learn what the globalisation crew are plotting next.)

As part of their special report (9 September 2010) on South America (the magazine calls it Latin America – try telling that to the tribes of the cordillera) they have a comment titled ‘Nobody’s backyard’, which has to do, transatlantically, with the USA and South America.

The illustration accompanying this comment is a map of South America right-side-up, Himal style – Argentina and Chile at the top of the continental triangle, Brazil to the left, the USA and Canada at the bottom. Of course the Economist has used only country outlines and names, not the painstaking rewriting of several hundred towns, cities and natural features which is what makes the Himal right-side-up map remarkable. Still, it’s a start.

Written by makanaka

September 20, 2010 at 10:29

The global water trade, by ship from Alaska to India

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Niger-Men draw water

Niger: Men draw water from a deep well in Zinder. They must make tough decisions as to how to divide the scarce resource between cattle, people and crops. Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN

The ecological crimes committed in the name of trade and for the benefit of the ‘market’ grow in outrageousness. The latest example of utter irresponsibility, both regulatory and environmental, comes from a company headquartered in the state of Texas, USA, which plans to ship water from Alaska, USA, all the way across the Pacific Ocean, to India, where it plans to set up what it calls its ‘global water hub’.

The alert came on the Triple Pundit site, which quickly explained that the Texan company, S2C Global Systems, plans to ship 11.35 billion litres of water every year from the Blue Lake Reservoir in Sitka, Alaska to the west coast of India and other Asian countries. From there, S2C Global Systems plans to sell the water via “smaller ships that can deliver to shallower ports, like Umm Qasr in Iraq”. Do you smell the hand of US defence contractors like Halliburton here? S2C said the project is expected to begin moving water within six to eight months.

There are a number of obvious questions here. How has a Texan company gained conttrol of an entire lake in Alaska, which is a common property resource? How have the communities and settlements there in Alaska permitted this, or have they? How can US environmental regulation – the EPA for example – permit such commercial exploitation? Who is funding this obscene project – India may be a way-station for S2C now, but the company categorically says India is going to be an important market for its water. But at what cost to Alaska and to India?

S2C says it will sell the water in “20-foot containers with flexi-tanks suitable for pharmaceutical/high tech manufacturing and packaged water (18.9 and 10L) for the consumer markets anywhere containers are delivered in south and west Asia from India.” In a statement dated 07 July 2010, the company said that for “security reasons” the Indian port which is to serve as its “world water hub” will not be disclosed. It will “include a berth for a Suezmax vessel (156,000 cubic meters/41Million USG), an offloading system to a dedicated tank farm and a distribution complex for packaged water. Within 18 months after that we will be able to switch to a very large class vessel (302,833 cubic meters/80 Million USG), as both the ship and the berth for her will be completed within this time frame. Contracts for the distribution hub and ships are being finalised.”

Nepal-children fetch water

Nepal: In some places, children have to walk more than five hours to fetch water. Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN

The company says: “India itself provides a particularly significant growth market for the packaged waters with a current population of 1.15 billion people, an emerging middle class and an increasing clean water shortage. Sales efforts throughout south and west Asia will continue with travels planned immediately through the region.”

Rod Bartlett, managing partner of Alaska Resource Management and President of S2C Global Systems, USA, is quoted in the statement as saying: “S2C Global has an exciting future in India and the region. After recently spending time in India meeting port authorities and potential distributors, our vision to distribute water globally became real. We fully expect the India World Water Hub to fulfill our minimum expectations of a half a billion gallons sold annually”.

Export Development Canada (EDC), Canada’s export credit agency, announced in March 2010 up to US$10 million in equity commitments to XPV Water Fund Limited Partnership, a venture capital fund focused on investing in the water sector. The press release described the water sector as an “area of significant growth potential for Canada”.

I can’t imagine this profiteering being part of a ‘growth’ strategy that the average Canadian would subscribe to. Meanwhile, what are conditions in countries which companies like S2C say are its world water market?

In India, figures from the Ministry of Rural Development show that the country had enough drinking water for its people in 1951 at 5,177 cubic metres per person per year. But by 2000 India had become a water-deficient country. In 2003, the country had a 25 per cent deficit, at a rate of 1,500 cubic metres per person per year. The deficit is projected to rise to 33 per cent by 2025, unless measures are taken to resolve it.

In Liberia, three out of four Liberians have no access to safe drinking water and six out of seven cannot access sanitation facilities, such as toilets, according to Oxfam. A further US$93.5 million is needed to boost clean water access to 50 percent of all Liberians; and to improve access to toilets to 33 percent – goals set out in the government’s 2008-2011 poverty reduction strategy.

Children draw water in Chad

Chad: Chadians receive US$3 in water aid per capita annually. Photo: WaterAid

In Iraq, there is an acute shortage of water nationwide and a collapsed economy, which makes it very difficult for farmers to do other work. Tribal sheikh Ali Ismael al-Zubaidi from Diwaniya Governorate, about 200 km south of Baghdad, said in an IRIN report he had been having “tough negotiations” over water allocations with another tribe that lives upstream from his. “We have daily problems with water. They are siphoning water with huge electric water pumps and leave only drops for us. Government officials can’t control the regulation of irrigation and stop those who violate their regulations either because of corruption or because they fear for their lives. So we have to solve this issue ourselves.”

In Nepal, according to government statistics, more than 4.4 million people do not have regular access to safe drinking water in rural and urban areas, be it via piped water, wells, rainwater or bottled water. Public health concerns are increasing as a result. Already, more than 10,500 children die before their fifth birthday from diarrhoea, mainly due to inadequate access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, according to WaterAid. More than 80 percent of diseases are the result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, according to its 2009 report, ‘End Water Poverty in Nepal’.

In 2000 the world pledged that half the 2.6 billion people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation would have access to these basic facilities by 2015, but poor countries will need US$18.4 billion more a year to reach this Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which at this rate will only be met in 2200. In 1997, 8% of overall development aid went to water and sanitation; in 2008 this dropped to just 5%-less than commitments for health, education, transport, energy and agriculture, according to the Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Moreover, the bulk of this global aid went to middle-income countries, with low-income countries receiving just 42%, said WaterAid, an international NGO working to provide access to clean water, sanitation and health education.