Saturday, May 7

Apocalyptic mix: natural forces, human error, megapopulations, 1960s thinking

"Poorly planned humanitarian responses can have unintended ill effects. Dumping aid into a country can drive its merchant class out of business. In conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan — one of the countries hardest hit by the current crisis — misappropriated aid has bolstered armed groups. Regimes such as Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have used aid as a weapon against political opposition, withholding food from opposition areas as punishment. The U.S. needs to work diligently to avoid these and other pitfalls to ensure its response does not inadvertently exacerbate parts of the crisis."
-- See report from the Heritage Foundation, below
With or without the issue of human-induced climate change as a contributing factor, megapopulations added to human error when it it's overtaken by natural disasters means our margin for error is getting smaller, faster. 

Moreover, the era of megapopulations has been here for some time and we still ain't ready. There is not a single national government I'm aware of that understands this era. They're living in the past -- stuck somewhere in the 1960s in their thinking. 

This means they've been unable to factor in tipping points for cumulative effects in their policy making.  And the 'either-or' approach to problem solving -- exacerbated by the political mindset that now rules urbanized societies -- is going to get us all killed unless voters and special interest groups are pried from it.  For crying out loud even an idiot should be able to figure out that in the age of megapopulations if everybody runs to one side of the boat to stabilize it, the boat capsizes.

Why limit it to the 1960s given that the either-or approach is as old as the hills?  Because the thinking prevalent in that particular era got codified in the basic approach to government spending on development with the creation in 1960 of the World Bank's IDA -- International Development Association.      
Here's a roundup of reports that illustrate how a mix of factors -- natural forces, megapopulations, human error, and out-of-date approaches to problem-solving --add up to disaster for the human race. We can't do too much about the first two factors, but there is plenty of leeway to cut down on the second two.      
The Fort McMurray Fire:
Fire is a natural part of the boreal ecosystem, but what’s happening in Fort McMurray isn’t natural. A messy mix of factors—including inadequate forestry management practices, rapid encroachment of the urban area into the surrounding environment, a particularly stagnant weather pattern, a record-strength El Niño, and human-caused climate change—all aligned to turn this fire into this continuously unfolding tragedy
"This is how serious India's drought has gotten"
After two or three successive drought seasons, water taps have run dry in many farming areas, causing panic and forcing officials to deploy security forces to guard some reservoirs. The hardship this year extends to urban areas, where in Mumbai’s wealthier neighborhoods, residents and businesses are grappling with hours-long water cuts.
"Migration to metros needs to be tackled: poll"
Over two-thirds of respondents to a Mint-instaVaani poll [in India] blamed migration from rural areas and smaller cities to metro cities for their sorry state of affairs and called for measures to address it.
An overwhelming number of respondents also felt that India’s metro cities have not been planned well.
Although steps like the National Rurban Mission — aimed at “reducing the burden of migration to the cities” — have been taken recently, the general sense is that what’s been done is too little, too late.
Not so easy to diversify from an oil economy
First and foremost, Saudi Arabia needs the technological base and the manpower for the alternative industries that it supposedly wants to develop. This does not currently exist to a large extent in Saudi Arabia, and I doubt that it can be developed over the next decade or so.
Despite having a major oil industry for many decades, many sectors of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry are still dependent on foreign expertise, manpower, etc. So, how is the country going to develop so rapidly the required technological base in a non-oil sector?
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been a sort of welfare state in which the government has kept the population under control and more or less content with huge handouts. How is the culture going to change so rapidly without causing political instability?
"Lebanon faces water crisis after record winter drought"
Lack of rain and increase in population makes this year’s situation far more serious ... The water demand for Lebanon is projected at about 1.8 billion cubic meters per year,” he said. “Most of this water needs to come from groundwater pumping this year...Renewable groundwater resources will all be depleted and we will be tapping from our strategic reserves.”
Lebanon’s parliamentary committee for public works and energy called in April for the creation of a crisis group to deal with the expected summer shortages.
Fadi Comair, director general of hydraulic and electric resources at the energy ministry, described a “truly dramatic situation,” exacerbated by waste and an influx of Syrian refugees.
"Corruption is Destroying the Social Fabric of the Middle East and North Africa"
Political and social problems aside, corruption has become the largest reason why many Lebanese have become frustrated with their home country. And the same has become true in other countries throughout Northern Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. 

In Lebanon, as well as the other eight nations surveyed by Transparency International, corruption has proven to become the insufferable reality for the region’s youth. Citizens younger than 35 are most likely to pay a bribe.
And in a region where tradition dictates that men absolutely must be the breadwinners, Middle Eastern men — far too many of whom are unemployed — dole out bribes at a higher rate than women. The poor, and those who live in rural areas, are also more susceptible to bribery’s vicious circle.
For anyone who thought the Arab Spring of 2011 offered hope to a population long subjected to authoritarian yet ineffective regimes, Transparency International’s findings are indeed depressing. And the report also offers one reason why so many young people want to flee the region — or become tempted to join organizations that seek to upset the status quo, usually by violence.
The result is a jaded population: The survey suggests 1 in 3 people, or 50 million people within this region, have paid at least one bribe in the past year. Many suffer in silence, as 40 percent who reported corruption say they have also endured some form of retaliation.

As to how bad the drought is in Africa -- so bad you don't want to think about how bad, but donor governments and aid organizations are having to think about it. Here, a report on the situation and recommendations about what the United States can do to help avert mass death in the affected countries:

By Joshua Meservey
May 4, 2016
Heritage Foundation

The latest iteration of El Niño—a recurring weather pattern associated with warmer Pacific Ocean temperatures—is one of the strongest ever recorded. The higher temperatures it has brought, coupled with unusually low rainfall in a number of countries, has since early 2015 created a drought in swathes of Africa more severe than has been seen in decades. The drought has decimated crops and livestock, and hunger among their citizens is overwhelming the ability of countries to respond adequately.

The crisis is projected to worsen and requires sustained effort from the international community to avoid further deterioration. It is also another reminder of the need for reforms that strengthen countries’ resiliency to food crises and the U.S.’s ability to respond quickly and effectively.

Drought and Crisis in East and Southern Africa

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-led Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), at least fourteen African countries have regions experiencing “crisis” or “emergency” levels of food scarcity, the latter of which is one step before the famine designation. Four African countries—Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe— and a regional body, the Southern African Development Community, have declared states of emergencies. [Pundita note: See also Facing Drought, Zimbabwe Says It Is Selling Off Wild Animals; NPR, May 4, ,2016]
Below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures have combined to create the drought. Northern Somalia has had three years of failed rains. Zimbabwe’s most recent rainy season was the driest on record, as was all of 2015 for South Africa since it began keeping records in 1904. October 2015 to January 2016 was the driest stretch in 35 years for areas of eight Southern African countries.[1]
Droughts are particularly dangerous in Africa given how dependent many of the continent’s people are on agriculture. Eighty-five percent of Ethiopia’s population—one of two African countries of highest concern according to FEWS NET—works in the agricultural sector. Agriculture employs more than 60 percent of the population throughout all of East Africa, and about 70 percent of Southern Africans.[2]
The effects are already being felt. The U.N.’s humanitarian agency estimates that more than 19 million people in East Africa need critical or emergency humanitarian assistance, while as many as 32 million Southern Africans lack enough food, a number that could rise to 49 million in the coming months.[3] Acute malnourishment is rising quickly in affected areas as well, as is the number of people contracting waterborne diseases from drinking unclean water.
The coping mechanisms that poor households use to weather crises are also failing. People who work as day laborers during harvest season have little, if any, work, given the poor crops. Households have resorted to selling off their livestock—akin in developed countries to emptying one’s bank account—to buy food, yet are receiving below-average prices. As the supply of staples has shrunk, prices have spiked—in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa, maize prices are nearly double their five-year average[4]—making food unaffordable for many.

Worse Yet to Come

There is little relief in sight as the crisis has not yet peaked. The April/May harvest is likely to be poorer than normal given the second straight year of low rainfall in many areas. Crop production this year in Malawi is projected to be 20 percent to 25 percent below average, 25 percent to 30 percent below average in Zambia, and 40 percent below average for South Africa,[5] forcing the Southern African region’s breadbasket to start importing maize. There is a chance as well that La Niña—characterized by colder-than-usual tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures that often brings extreme weather—could follow on El Niño’s heels towards the end of 2016, extending the crisis.
Droughts have knock-on effects beyond the danger to life and property they pose. Some people will migrate in search of water or grazing for their livestock, potentially leading them into conflict with neighbors trying to protect their own limited resources. Already, Ethiopians are crossing into Somaliland, an autonomous region of northern Somalia, in search of water and pasture. In a region prone to deadly raids among competing tribes, there is a risk that displacement will lead to further violence.
Many of the affected countries have built systems to mitigate the effects of drought, but they are being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. The international community is ramping up relief efforts, but as of April 2016, nearly $2 billion of the approximately $3 billion emergency request was unfunded.[6]

The Role of Poor Governance

The crisis has been made far worse by poor governance in many of the affected countries. Zimbabwe’s vulnerability is due largely to the ruinous economic policies of its nonagenarian dictator, Robert Mugabe, while South Sudan is gripped by a civil war between the president and vice-president’s forces that exacerbates the crisis.
Yet many of the strained countries are allies that cooperate with the U.S. on a range of issues. Ethiopia, for example, is one of the countries in greatest danger from the drought, but is also a major contributor to the military coalition fighting the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia. Similarly, Djibouti hosts the U.S.’s only permanent military base in Africa, which is integral to counterterror operations in Africa and the Middle East.


In the face of a burgeoning crisis, the United States should:
  • Rally the international community to respond quickly. The U.S. has existing resources budgeted for disaster relief it is using to respond, but it should also urge a timely, increased response from allies before the crisis worsens. Action now will save lives and be less expensive than intervening later when the crisis has deepened.
  • Do no harm. Poorly planned humanitarian responses can have unintended ill effects. Dumping aid into a country can drive its merchant class out of business. In conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan—one of the countries hardest hit by the current crisis—misappropriated aid has bolstered armed groups. Regimes such as Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have used aid as a weapon against political opposition, withholding food from opposition areas as punishment. The U.S. needs to work diligently to avoid these and other pitfalls to ensure its response does not inadvertently exacerbate parts of the crisis.
  • Reform how aid is delivered. “Buy American” provisions and subsidies to shipping companies that deliver aid make the U.S. food aid program unnecessarily expensive and inefficient. The U.S. adopted very modest reforms in this area in 2013, but eliminating all such subsidies and provisions would enable quicker and more effective aid to reach more people.[7]
  • Facilitate and encourage African countries’ connections to countries with agricultural expertise. Israel faces many of the same climactic and water-scarcity challenges as drought-prone African countries, yet is a food exporter and one of the world’s leading agricultural innovators. The U.S. should encourage and facilitate an enhanced relationship between its African allies and Israel that involves the latter using its technology and expertise to help African countries create more efficient and resilient agricultural sectors.
Countries around the world look to the U.S. to lead in calamities of all kinds, as with the current African food crisis. The U.S. should work to ameliorate the crisis while also pushing for longer-term reforms that can break the cycle of drought and food insecurity that grips too many regions of Africa.
—Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

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