A Water-Stressed Region of the World

July 9th, 2014 by David

We are about to bike into a water-stressed region of the world.

The following map shows the ratio of water withdrawals to a country’s total available renewable water resources, as calculated by the Pacific Institute. That is, it shows how much water people extract in a given year divided by how much water is replenished by rivers and rainfall. Note that some countries, such as those in the Middle East, are “mining groundwater,” and thus extracting much more water than is sustainable (the ratio is bigger than 1).

Azerbaijan, where we are now, is an arid country that uses more than half of its water resources. And soon we’ll be in Central Asia, riding across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are siphoning off most of the water that would normally flow into the Aral Sea. This area is second only to northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula for unsustainable water withdrawals.

Note that “withdrawal” is different than “consumption.” Some water that is withdrawn is returned to rivers and water tables. If the water is well treated (at a wastewater treatment plant, for instance) and returned to a river or water table, it can be withdrawn again further downstream. There are many ways to measure water stress, and the map below is just one. For my favorite maps of water stress, visit WRI’s Aqueduct maps.

We’ll report more as we visit the Aral Sea and cross this region.


Hitch-Biking in Eastern Turkey

July 9th, 2014 by David

If you look at the map of our route, you’ll see almost 500 kilometers of hitchhiking in Eastern Turkey.

We did this because we wanted to bike both the Black Sea of Turkey and the mountains of Georgia, and we didn’t have time to bike the entire way and make it to Central Asia for our visas. So we hitchhiked. You can read about the trip and see pictures here.

Below is a video I made of this one-and-a-half-day journey.


GDP per Capita of Where We’re Biking…

July 9th, 2014 by David

I downloaded a good deal of country-level data from the World Bank recently, mostly to better undserstand the countries we’re biking through.

Below is one of the simplest metrics: GDP per capita over the past few decades (measured at exchange rates, in current US dollars). A quick look at this graph tells me the following:

  • Turkey is the wealthiest country we will visit, and it is the only country wealthier than the world average.
  • Many of these countries have seen impressive economic growth over the past decade.
  • India, Tajikistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh are very poor.
  • These numbers also explained a bit why this trip is different from my journey from California to Argentina. So far, in Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, we’ve encountered much less abject poverty than I experienced in Latin America. That isn’t to say there isn’t poverty — there is. There’s just less of it. Also, the economies here are growing quickly, which is reflected in the many new buildings, roads, and power plants (especially in Turkey) that we’ve seen.

    Below is the graph. For comparison, the GDP per capita in the U.S. is over $50,000 per year.


    Videos from Turkey

    June 29th, 2014 by David

    Here are a few rough “episodes” from biking Turkey. I have put together videos for only the first part of the country — the rest of Turkey is covered in the summary video which will be available soon.


    Get The Bicycle Diaries for FREE

    June 23rd, 2014 by David

    This Monday to Thursday, my book, The Bicycle Diaries, will be FREE to download to any Kindle device. Just go to Amazon and click to download.

    This is a special limited promotion, designed to get this story into more hands. So, get the book in your hands, and tell your friends!


    Reflections on Climate Change After Biking Across Turkey

    June 15th, 2014 by David

    I’m writing this blog entry from Batumi, Georgia, sitting on a beach chair and gazing across the Black Sea. This morning we left Turkey and entered Georgia, where we quickly realized just how much Turkish we had learned in our six weeks in the country. In Turkish, we can count to a thousand, make basic conversation about the weather, ask someone how many children they have, and ask if we can set up a tent for the night (our grammar is horrible, but we could communicate). In Georgian, we only know how to say “thank you.” It’s much harder to talk to people.


    I’m working on a video summary of Turkey, which will show the many highlights: campsites along lakes, rivers, and the Black Sea; families who have hosted us in the countryside and cities; countless stops for tea; the five-times-a-day call to prayer; witnessing the incredible pace of progress in a rapidly growing country — cranes everywhere, building new apartment complexes, new roads, and new power plants. Stay tuned.

    With respect to climate change, below are our thoughts after crossing Turkey. These are the generalizations reached by biking across a country and talking with as many people as possible. It was reached by speaking with experts and advocates in Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakir, and speaking with laypeople we met in the cities and countryside. It is not a scientific survey so much as a set of impressions.

    1) Global warming is a low priority for Turkish civil society. We met few environmental advocates who focus exclusively on this issue — in fact, the main environmental movements in Turkey appear to be opposing new nuclear and hydropower plants, both of which are relatively good ideas if you care only about climate change.

    2) Global warming is very low on the political agenda. When talking with experts and reading over the official plans for the next decade, I see that greenhouse gas emissions are not a significant priority. The main priorities for Turkey’s energy future are to increase energy supply and reduce the amount of energy the country imports. This is a mixed bag from a global warming perspective: it means both more coal and more hydropower and wind.

    3) External international pressure matters. While in Istanbul, we learned that Turkey has renewable energy targets; that the main reason they have them is because they want to be part of the EU, and the EU requires countries to have such targets.

    4) Decisions Turkey makes today will make a big difference to future emissions. What we saw in Turkey is a country that is rapidly building infrastructure — new roads, dams, and buildings. This infrastructure will be there for decades. One advocate shared with me a summary of all the proposed power plants — and then noted that not all will be built. Some won’t be funded or will prove impractical, and others will be stopped by local opposition. We heard from a second advocate that only about one in seven of the proposed hydropower plants in the country’s rainy northeast would be built, largely because of local resistance to them. With regards to energy, Turkey can build many more coal and natural gas plants, or build more non-carbon polluting sources.

    Many advocates we met questioned whether Turkey even needs all of these new power plants. While there are many ways the country can become more efficient with its energy, and thus reduce current and future emissions compared to business as usual, this is actually a broader question over development, and whether we “need” so much energy and consumption to be a fulfilled, healthy, happy, prosperous society. Personally, I like to sidestep this question, as it seems inevitable that Turkey’s energy demand will grow (it currently uses about 1/5th as much energy per person as the U.S.), and rather than asking whether or not it should grow, I’m focused on how it will grow.

    5) It is getting warmer in Turkey, and people are noticing. You can see a longer blog entry about this here, but we were surprised by how many people said they thought it was warmer than when they were a child — even when they didn’t know what global warming was.

    6) We’re reminded why it is so hard to address climate change. In our conversations, it was apparent how intrinsically local environmentalism is — the biggest environmental movements in Turkey appear to be opposing specific new power plants by local communities. It’s hard to in turn think globally — what is best for a community or region (for example, building natural gas power plants instead of hydropower or nuclear) might not be what is best for the world (since fossil fuel power plants have higher greenhouse gas emissions). Also, we’re reminded how hard it is to work together. I usually think about how countries have to work together to solve this problem, but traveling through Kurdish Turkey, I’m reminded how much trouble countries have working together within their own borders. Lindsey writes more on this in her recent post from Kurdistan.

    Again, this is a list of impressions from biking across the country and talking with people we met. If you disagree with any of these thoughts, or think we should be considering other issues as we bike, please let us know in the comments below.

    After taking another day to recover and reflect here in Batumi, Georgia, we are going to take the next week to bike across this small former Soviet country — and ride north into the Great Caucasus mountains. Check back in a week for more stories and photos from the road.


    Thoughts on Climate Change from Kurdistan

    June 15th, 2014 by Lindsey

    In Diyarbakir, we were interviewed by a reporter for an online newspaper associated with Mezopotamya Ekoloji Hareketi, a group working with local municipalities to prevent ecological destruction in Kurdistan. When preparing for the interview, we thought about the questions we might be asked and wrote up some notes.

    We figured we would be asked about the overall purpose of our trip, and we boiled it down to 3 major goals:

  • To learn about how climate change will affect the regions we are biking through;
  • To share what we learn, mostly with an American audience, with the aim of personalizing climate change and showing how our actions – energy use, consumption – affect people and places around the world;
  • To raise awareness of climate change and its impacts where we are traveling.
  • Also, we thought they’d ask what we have learned about climate change in Turkey. Our answer comes from 3 different sources:

  • Scientific papers, which project warming and drying throughout much of Turkey, with reduced surface runoff in major transboundary rivers such as the Euphrates and Tigris;
  • Experts we talked with in Istanbul and Ankara, who discussed projections and observations of rising sea levels, eutrophication of lakes, and the same warming and drying we saw in the literature.
  • Ordinary people we meet along the way, who we ask about whether the climate has changed where they live. Nearly everybody we’ve talked to says that it has gotten warmer and drier in the last decade (see this post by David). Here in the southeast, we’ve been told that it has gone from 4 seasons to just 2 – winter and summer, and a couple people said that the dams in the area have changed the local climate, making it more humid than in the past.
  • The interview ended up being a bit different than we anticipated. The reporter first asked about what sort of ecological destruction we had seen in Turkey as we rode. This question got us thinking about the areas we had ridden through – mostly we’ve been going through small towns and the countryside where, with the exception of a day or two of forests and the ride along Lake Tuz, it’s been mostly farmland. Whether farming counts as ecological destruction depends on your perspective; one thing David has remarked on many times during this trip is the vastness of the human footprint. Biking through Mesopotamia, we can’t help but mull over human history and the ways the landscape around us has been altered, from megafauna extinctions, to the development of agriculture and permanent human settlements, to the many hydroelectric and irrigation dams built on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

    We responded that we’d seen a lot of construction – new roads, dams, pipelines, power plants, buildings, transmission lines; but that we didn’t know what degree of destruction they had caused. We did go up the Euphrates – or rather, the Birecik Reservoir, where we saw several drowned villages, which certainly is destruction of a kind. We also visited the Ataturk Dam, which holds back a reservoir bigger than any in the U.S.; there’s no way a dam of that scale didn’t cause considerable ecological destruction.

    Gaziantep to Diyarbakir

    The rest of the interview/conversation was mostly about dams and politics, two inseparable issues in Turkey. In fact, everything seems to come down to politics, especially in Kurdistan – the southeastern part of the country, where the population is largely Kurdish. While we observed a consistent displeasure across the country regarding government-backed hydropower and nuclear projects, it seems more personal in the southeast: people feel that the government has a policy of taking good things – power, water – from the east and transferring them to the west, leaving behind pollution and destroyed landscapes. We were asked what we thought people in this region should do to preserve their environment in the face of unfavorable governmental policies. It was a question we were not prepared to answer; there is a long history of oppression, violence, and distrust in this part of the country that as outsiders we can only get a glimpse of. We don’t have enough context and local knowledge to offer advice on whether and how to push back against a powerful central government on projects that are a core part of its program.

    As we talked, we felt a tension similar to that we’ve been feeling all along on this trip: Turkey is installing more energy capacity – what form should it take? Dams are very unpopular – there are three planned on the Tigris near Diyarbakir alone, one of which would flood a large patch of farms and gardens where most of the produce for the city comes from. If they don’t build those dams, will they build coal or natural gas power plants instead? What local treasures might those destroy, in addition to creating greenhouse gas emissions that affect the whole world? Or could Turkey choose not to build new energy projects? Many environmentalists argue that they don’t improve anybody’s lives and that the energy isn’t necessary. (On the other hand, in the apartment where we are staying in Diyarbakir, the electricity has gone out several times a day – and Turkey’s energy consumption per capita is much lower than the average developed country.)

    Cappadocia to Gaziantep

    When we set off across Turkey, we hoped to answer some of these questions. Two thirds of our way across the country, we don’t feel much closer to the answers. Instead, we’ve become more acutely aware of why it is so hard for us to address climate change. For one, environmentalism is intrinsically local, and what is best for a community or region (for example, building natural gas power plants instead of hydropower or nuclear) might not be what is best for the world (since fossil fuel power plants have higher greenhouse gas emissions). Also, climate change is a problem that we all have to work together to solve. Getting the countries of the world to work together seems all the more daunting when you observe how people struggle to work together within national borders, as we’ve witnessed here in Kurdistan where people complain of an oppressive national government and Turkish fighter jets make flyovers several times a day, drowning out conversation.

    Diyarbakir to Hasenkeyf

    If anything, this tension between the local and the global, and the personal nature of the anti-dam movements, highlights why we’re doing this trip: to personalize climate change. A dam under construction poised to drown a village that has been inhabited for over 10,000 years (such as Ilisu Dam, which will flood Hasankeyf) is immediate, dramatic, and personal. Right now, it’s hard to show that any particular event – hurricanes in the Philippines, droughts in Turkey or California – is due to climate change, but the science suggests that these kinds of destructive events are likely to become more frequent and intense as the planet warms. In order to inspire action with the same passion we see in the anti-dam movements here, we need to understand how climate change – an abstract, slow-moving, global phenomenon – could ultimately be as locally damaging as a nuclear power plant or dam – perhaps even more so. As we mentioned in our interview, it is our hope that the stories we share will help demonstrate this and move people just a little closer to action.


    Five Chinas & The Cartoon Guide to Climate Change

    June 15th, 2014 by David

    In the past six weeks, Lindsey and I have biked across Turkey, talking to people about climate change. While a summary of our impressions can be found in this blog post, what struck us the most is how much new infrastructure — and especially power plants — Turkey is building. In fact, in the next decade, the country plans to almost double its electrical generating capacity.

    I’ve been looking for good ways to explain why this is a problem. Turkey’s per capita emissions are about one quarter of the U.S.’s, comparable with China’s per capita emissions. Turkey makes up only one percent of the global population, and emits only about one percent of human-produced greenhouse gases — why should it matter if they dramatically increase their emissions?

    A great explanation can be found below, courtesy of The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, a new book by Grady Klein and “Stand Up Economist” Yoram Bauman. It sums up why “business as usual” is a major problem. If Turkey, and all of the other countries with similar per capita emissions, “catch up” with the developed world using energy from fossil fuels, emissions – and global warming – will spiral out of control.

    80a copy

    80b copy

    81a copy

    81b copy


    Northeast Turkey: Photos

    June 15th, 2014 by Lindsey

    After our last ‘driver’ dropped us off in Erzurum, we met up with Cilem (who had waited patiently for over 6 hours since her bus arrived) and started biking towards the coast. There was a lot of up and down, notably climbing up the pass on Ovit Dagi and reaching our highest elevation yet – 2640m! It was cold up there, but beautiful, and we were rewarded with a descent all the way to sea level. On the way up, we noticed many beekeepers – the region is famous for its honey – and the way down was through a river valley with steep slopes covered in tea plantations (now we’ve seen where the endless Turkish tea comes from!), with small villages impossibly high up – we can’t figure out how people get to and from their houses. We saw tons of construction – they are widening the road and blasting tunnels through the mountains. Cyclists riding this route next year may have the choice of a 14km tunnel instead of going over the pass (choose the climb!). We also saw many run-of-the-river hydroelectric stations (HES). When we reached the Black Sea, we met one of our first cycle tourists – from Kazakhstan! – and we also saw a lot of propaganda in preparation for an upcoming visit from the prime minister, Erdogan. One of the highlights of this part of the trip was our campsites. We stayed at the top of one of the first passes, with fantastic views; the next night, we came across a small hut by the river; as we were scoping it as a potential campsite, the owner drove by – thanks to Cilem, we were able to understand that it was his place and that we were welcome to pitch our tents outside for the night. Later that night, his friends stopped by – after they overcame their surprise at our presence, we shared some snacks and conversation. We also spent one night in a tea warehouse when a local shopkeeper warned that a storm was coming in, and on our last night in Turkey we camped right next to the Black Sea on a gorgeous, cloudless night.

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    Hitchbiking from Hasankeyf to Erzurum: Photos

    June 15th, 2014 by Lindsey

    We had planned to ride northeast from Hasankeyf before crossing into Georgia near the Armenian border. However, we decided we wanted to see the Black Sea and spend more time in Georgia, including a visit to the Great Caucasus mountains in the north. Cilem, from Diyarbakir, had some time off and was interested in the Black Sea as well. So we arranged to meet her in Erzurum, 440km from Hasankeyf (and over 1000m higher). In order to still make it to Central Asia in line with our visa dates, we needed to travel quickly, so we decided to hitchbike. We managed to cover the distance in just under 30 hours, stringing together 11 rides in everything from a public dolmus (minibus) where they threw our bikes on top, to trucks small and large, to a small SUV where the owners struggled for 15 minutes to fold the seats down so everything could fit, despite us repeatedly saying that it was OK and we could find another ride – they ended up taking us all the way to Lake Van and buying us lunch. The trip involved learning more Kurdish, an abbreviated conversation about Allah, a nice campsite in a field outside of a small village, a bit of biking – including a stretch along a beautiful valley where we suddenly came upon yet another dam under construction – and so much generosity and kindness. People would not only stop to give us rides, but climb up into truck beds to heave our bikes and panniers up, offer us food and drink, and wish us a safe journey when we parted ways. It may have been less efficient than taking a bus, but it was so much more rewarding, allowing us to meet more people and see more of the country.