Flooding and Global Weirding

This article was first posted in November 2012 – but unfortunately seems equally appropriate for January 2014 !

Apologies for only updating NextStarfish once last week – one of the reasons is that I’ve spent quite a lot of time battling the effects of the UK’s latest flooding in my day job. Unfortunately, with more rain forecast over the next 24 hours, it’s probably not quite over yet.

Almost every year  it seems there’s more flooding, more properties affected, more damage and more demands for investment in flood defences – what’s going on ?

Partly it’s the media of course – online and 24 hour news coverage mean we hear more about, and are more aware of, flooding than ever before.

Secondly there are simply more of us around than there used to be. An extra 10 million in the UK compared to 50 years ago, so any given incidence of flooding is likely to affect a greater number of people. This is true right across our crowded world, especially in dense urban areas, which are often located on the coast or on rivers, and which become home to millions more every year.

Thirdly we’ve changed the way water flows through the landscape. Centuries of paving over more and more soil and installing drainage networks to quickly route rainfall downhill into the nearest stream, works well for saving us from puddles and a spot of soggy ground under typical rainfall conditions, but trying to direct all that water rapidly down the same pipes into the same watercourses is a recipe for disaster when the big storm comes!

Fourthly we’re putting ourselves in the way of the water more and more – as our cities have expanded we’ve built ever more homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure on flood plains. As most of us have become increasingly insulated from the reality of nature over the years, we’ve forgotten that ‘rivers sometimes get larger’ and ‘flood plains sometimes flood’, and, it seems, allowed less and less space for water.

If we want less flooding, it seems we’re going to have to get smarter in planning our towns and cities in ways that don’t put us on a collision course with water.

But there’s also another question – whether we’re also experiencing more frequent and more extreme rainfall events?

Is our weather changing ?

Lots of commentators seem to think they know the answer.

How do they know ?

Unfortunately our personal observations and recollections are just not all that reliable or helpful – recalling a particular long hot summer or heavy snowfall from childhood is a poor line of evidence for the reality of global climate change. Our memories are far from infallible, and tend to highlight the unusual, rather than the usual. In any event they are by definition local, limited to wherever we were, as well as to our own single human lifetime.

What does science have to say ?

Can we look at the evidence and work out what’s going on ?

A lot of people are asking the same question, whether in connection with droughts across America, monsoon failures in India or hurricanes in New York.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m a Pollution Scientist, not a Climate Scientist, and if I’m honest I haven’t really spent much time looking at the data, so even if I felt compelled to offer you my opinion, it probably wouldn’t be worth you listening to it!

But there are a increasing number of well respected institutions, who have offered their opinion, dabbling in the new field of attribution science. They’re probably worth listening to: 

NASA state that the number of record high temperatures in the US has been increasing, while record lows have been decreasing, as well as increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.

The European Environment Agency state that the combined impacts of projected climate change and socio-economic development is set to see the damage costs of extreme weather events continue to increase.

Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office has stated that “we are much more confident about attributing [weather effects] to climate change. This is all adding up to a stronger and stronger picture of human influence on the climate.”

So is this current flooding the direct result of climate change ? – Who knows – impossible to tell.

Is climate change making flooding like this more likely in the future ? – It appears the answer is yes.

It might not be much comfort to those affected by the recent flooding, but at least rich societies like the UK can provide alternative shelter, support and assistance to those affected, and devote resources to developing resilient communities and preventing future flooding.

This is not the case in many parts of the world, where millions are still living with the after effects of more catastrophic floods.

If you’re currently affected by flooding – the best of luck in sorting out your problems.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]

Photo Image used under Creative Commons License from Salford University, via Flickr

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Meet Mr Toilet

Jack Sim founded the Restroom Association of Singapore in 1998 to break the taboo of discussing toilet issues and habits and improve toilet design.

Globally 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet, with significant health and pollution consequences. Realising the extent of the global sanitation problem, Jack founded The World Toilet Organisation in 2001, with the aim of forming a global network to promote sustainable sanitation systems – now running a World Toilet College and annual World Toilet Summit.

After achieving financial independence at age 40, Jack has devoted the rest of his life to social work, receiving numerous business, environmental and humanitarian awards in the process.

“A life is 80 years, I’m now only 52. If I’m going to spend my next 28 years consuming ostentatiously, just to have a diamond watch, with which I can’t even tell the time because it’s so sparkly, it makes no sense! Doing social work that creates some impact, I think it is better to die doing that.”

Known as Mr Toilet to his many admirers, Jack hopes to see the day when everyone has access to a clean toilet.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]

Photo from Wikicommons

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Bottled Water = Manufactured Demand ?

Globally bottled water sales have boomed in recent years, and are now estimated to be at around 200 billion bottles annually (yes, 200 billion!) in a market worth nearly $66billion a year.

It seems rich world consumers are happy to pay a 1000 times or more for a plastic bottle of water, what it would cost them from their own tap – even thought there is usually little to no discernible difference between them.

This seems strange.

Especially considering the significant environmental impact of the bottled water industry – the manufacture of the plastic bottles, the transport of filled bottles by road, the waste resulting from discarded empty bottles, often destined for landfill or incineration, or worse to become oceanic plastic pollution.

Large multi-nationals invest huge sums in advertising and marketing their bottled waters, trying to differentiate themselves from each other, and promote the ‘health benefits’ of drinking bottled water, when compared against bottled sodas.

Can consumer demand really be manufactured in this way ? It seems so in part, but it must surely also say something about the image and convenience driven nature of our societies – that many of us would rather spend money unecesserily on an environmentally damaging product than simply carry an empty water bottle with us and refilling it !

More positively there seems to be an increasing realisation of the detrimental effects of bottled water, with increasing numbers of organisations now campaigning against it, and two cities recently banning the sale of water in plastic containers: Concord in the US, and Bundy in Australia.

As the philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer points out:

“If you can afford to buy bottled water, where there is a tap, you are choosing to spend money on an unnecessary luxury, while others die elsewhere in the world for want of access to clean water”

Carry an empty drinking water bottle with you and fill it for free at taps, and encourage your friends to do the same. You might also consider giving the money you save to a water charity.


Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flickr

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Meet Doc Hendley

A new series of ‘Meet….’ articles focusing on a diverse range of individuals, who are all currently working in their own way to try and make a positive difference in the world.

In his own words bartender Doc Hendley was an average student at school, he loved sports, but was never a star athlete – just a regular, ordinary guy who was never meant to have a profound impact on the world.

But while travelling the world, riding motorbikes, playing the guitar and working as a bartender, he learned of the water crisis faced by millions across the world, which motivated him to begin running charity fundraiser events in nightclubs to raise funds for water projects in the developing world. But rather than simply continuing to raise money, Doc decided to travel to Darfur in Sudan, during the genocide, to help install wells himself.

Doc believes passionately in everyone’s ability to make a real difference in the world, and in just a few years has founded the non-profit Wine to Water, which works closely with local people to provide skills and support so they can install and, crucially, maintain water wells and treatment systems. His organisation has been able to significantly drive down the cost of providing clean water to communities across the world, and provide clean water to thousands of people.

He was named as one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year in 2009, and has written a book about his story: Wine to Water – A Bartender’s Tale.

“Here’s to being a nobody.”

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]


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Photo from Wine to Water

We’re Made of Wet Stuff

The world is running out of water.

Not literally – the amount of water present on Earth is actually extremely stable, at around 1.4 billion cubic kilometers, but access to clean, drinkable, freshwater is already limited in many parts of the world, and looks set to become even more so in the future.

The reasons should be obvious – there are billions more of us than there used to be and we need increasing amounts of clean water not only to drink, wash and provide sanitation, but also to irrigate our food, water our livestock and supply our factories.

And while freshwater continues to fall as rain, we are increasingly using it faster than it’s being replenished, the result being shrinking lakes, drying rivers and depleted underground aquifers, with the residual water remaining being too saline, too polluted, too expensive to clean and therefore unsuitable for domestic, agricultural, or industrial use.

Analysts have coined the phrase Peak Water - relating to the point at which the supply of clean freshwater actually begins to decline. Unfortunately most analysts are convinced peak water was passed some time ago. Not only is demand continuing to rise, but supply has begun to decrease.

The consequences are stark – inadequate access to safe drinking water for nearly 900 million people, inadequate access to sufficient water to provide sanitation for around 2.5 billion, increasing cost and energy footprint of producing clean water, reducing agricultural yields due to insufficient irrigation, erosion and desertification resulting from dryer soils, insufficient water flow in rivers to support natural ecosystems and increased risk of tension and conflict over access to water.

This global Water Crisis is considered by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and others to represent one of the most urgent threats we face, and potentially one of the hardest to resolve.

An amazing 80% of the world’s population are considered to live in areas where there is potential threat to water security – and those of us living in the rich world shouldn’t be complacent – the UK’s Environment Agency have categorised London and the South East of England as being an area of serious water stress, many cities in the South Western US are using water at unsustainable rates, Malta has nearly depleted its available groundwater and China is facing a significant water crisis in its northern cities, as are large parts of India.

Clearly not good news, but there is a solution. . . . we will all have to use less water.

We can all do more to reduce our water footprint – from reducing toilet flushing to xeriscaping. Many organisations, including most water companies produce useful advice on how to reduce our water usage.

Unfortunately things like taking shorter showers and not leaving the tap running while brushing your teeth are only a ‘drop in the ocean’ (pun intended). It’s going to take a little more than that !

The vast majority of our water usage isn’t used by us at all, but used on our behalf by others . . . in making things for us, and often this water is used in places and countries where water is in much shorter supply than our own.

The production of 1kg of wheat takes 1,300 litres of water, a disposable nappy 810 litres, a pair of denim jeans 10,850 litres and 1kg of beef 15,500 litres.

If we want more freshwater available across the world for people to drink and for farmers to grow food, without draining every drop from the natural environment, it seems the solution, once again, will involve consuming less ‘stuff’. Or at least less stuff with a significant water footprint.

“ Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

- W H Auden


Photo by from GroverFW

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