Archive for the ‘climate’ Category

Dhaka

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

We rushed from the Sundarbans to Dhaka in order to attend the Gobeshona Climate Change Conference. This conference, organized by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and held at the Independent University of Bangladesh, gathered people from all over the world doing research on climate change in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh 2 - Boat Journey to Dhaka

Due to mechanical trouble (one of the boat’s three engines failed), we arrived later than intended, but we still managed to attend a number of sessions, not to mention meeting and interviewing some of Bangladesh’s major climate change researchers. The conference website has most of the presentations available, so rather than going through details I’ll provide my takeaways here.

It was encouraging to see so many good minds addressing Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change. When we were visiting communities near the Sundarbans, it was obvious that the people living there face an array of problems, some of which are related to climate change. For example, people talked about how their usual sources of drinking water—the river and wells in their village—had become too salty or polluted to use. When crossing the Delta, we also heard about how farming had become more difficult in the aftermath of frequent cyclones, including the recent Cyclone Aila. At the conference in Dhaka, we heard from researchers working on salt-tolerant rice and studying the various factors that cause salinity increases in people’s water supply.

Bangladesh 3 - Dhaka

One of the conference’s themes was about integrating climate change adaptation into the general planning process. Before this journey, I worked for several years for the State of California, and learned that even in a developed economy like California, our approach to building and maintaining infrastructure is fractured and inconsistent. I can only imagine the challenges in Bangladesh, where a severely under-sourced government has its hands full just trying to keep its people from starving and constantly trying to recover from a seemingly endless wave of natural disasters. The government of Bangladesh, like many national governments, thinks in terms of five-year plans, while planning for climate change requires a much longer view. People at the conference seemed to think that while progress is slow, there is potential and interest within the government for integrating climate change considerations into their planning process.

We also heard, in casual conversation, about roadblocks to progress. For example, Bangladesh has two major funding sources to help adapt to climate change: the Bangladesh Climate Trust Fund, an internally financed fund administered by the central government, and the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Fund, which is funded by foreign donors. Both funds support projects under the framework of the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, which is housed in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. While it is encouraging that a Plan and finance mechanisms exist, we learned that implementation is slow—the government, apparently, has not yet put in place sufficient institutional controls to manage funds from outside donors, so some donations have not been transferred to the Fund. In addition, where money is flowing, corruption prevents some of it from making it to its intended project. Cyclone shelters, for example, might be built with only a percentage of the budget allocated them, because corrupt officials along the way pocket sizable chunks of the funds before construction even begins.

Bengladesh 1 - The Delta

In the week before arriving in Dhaka, we saw embankments and levees protecting settlements and fields, and at the conference we learned that the government has been setting aside funds to increase their height. I am skeptical about solutions that rely exclusively on building one’s way out of a problem as serious as flooding, especially when the solution—in this case, raising the embankments that were built to ‘reclaim’ land in the Delta—is actually part of the problem. We learned that the embankments, built in the 1960s to enable people to live and farm in an area that otherwise would flood regularly, also prevent sediment carried by the rivers from spreading out across the land. This has resulted in one to one-and-a-half meters of subsidence compared to the nearby protected area that is not enclosed with embankments. The resulting lower elevation of the land increases its vulnerability to sea level rise and natural disasters.

Both of us have studied climate change literature, and from our reading we gained a wholly dismal picture of Bangladesh, with some articles basically saying that tens of millions of people will lose their homes in the next few decades due to rising sea levels and storms. Bangladesh is the poster child for climate change, especially sea level rise, and it’s no joke. Bicycling across a country is a visceral way to get a feel for its flatness. People already have water problems, for drinking and for irrigation, and whether salinity is increasing due to sea level rise, shrimp farming, groundwater pumping, the Farakka Barrage, or the silting up of the rivers (or all of the above), rising sea level is only going to make it worse.

Bengladesh 1 - The Delta

Moreover, many people along Bangladesh’s coast (and elsewhere in the country) are poor, meaning they’re unlikely to have other options if they can’t grow crops, or that they won’t be able to rebuild if their homes, crops, or livestock are destroyed in a cyclone. So climate change adaptation, or resilience, is about more than seawalls and wells; it’s about basic economic development, and there are some bright spots there. Despite GDP per capita being lower than India’s, Bangladesh scores higher on most human development indicators—they have far better access to basic sanitation, for example, something we again experienced viscerally (in Bihar we saw countless men literally pooping along the road, while in Bangladesh we saw comparatively sparkling bathrooms in people’s homes and roadside restaurants); literacy rates are higher among both men and women, infant mortality is lower, and most people we talked to said that the economy is growing, that life is getting better.

Bangladesh 2 - Boat Journey to Dhaka

And, after biking across the country, visiting the Sundarbans and the Bay of Bengal, and meeting many of the country’s climate change experts, we actually feel dimly hopeful. People, while poor in many of the communities we visited, seem resilient; the government is starting to pay attention to climate change; and the international community is concerned and engaged. While big infrastructure may often only be a Band-Aid, the country’s plans to raise embankments, build cyclone shelters, develop salt-tolerant crops, and promote alternative livelihoods, among other initiatives, could enable people to stay where they are for awhile—to send their children to school, to learn skills that will allow them to thrive elsewhere, and to become better prepared for what is to come.

Kolkata – Adaptation, renewable energy, and sustainable sourcing

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

Kolkata (Calcutta) was not directly en route from Nepal to Bangladesh, but we went there to get visas for Bangladesh (the embassy in Kathmandu could not provide them) and also so we could visit a large Indian city. Our experience of India was far less comprehensive than our time in China, which we crossed west to east in a serpentine manner, visiting roughly a dozen provinces over two and a half months. From Nepal, we crossed the border into Bihar, biked east across the state until reaching West Bengal, and then rode to Kolkata. While we didn’t get our visas there—we learned at the embassy that Bangladesh now offers visa on arrival (at least at the Benapole border)—we did manage to meet with several people working on climate and energy issues and celebrated the New Year with some lovely new friends.

India 2 - West Bengal

Adaptation in the Sundarbans

We had the chance to discuss climate change in the Sundarbans with Asish Ghosh of Center for Environment and Development (CENDV) and Anurag Danda of WWF-India. The Sundarbans is a region of about 10,000 square kilometers that straddles the border of India and Bangladesh where the countries meet the Bay of Bengal. Lying in the enormous delta where the Ganges (Padma), Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers empty into the Bay after their journey across the subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world. A large portion of the area is protected as a national park, wildlife reserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site—the Sundarbans is the largest reserve for the Bengal tiger. The region is a vast network of rivers, creeks, and flat, low-lying islands, and the people living there are often held up as the poster children of vulnerability to climate change, and particularly to sea level rise.

The Indian Sundarbans are experiencing sea level rise and temperature increases at a faster rate than the global average, and farmers are already noticing changes. Data shows that while overall precipitation amounts have not changed, the timing and intensity of rainfall has, with short periods of very heavy rainfall occurring sporadically throughout the rainy season. CENDV is working with other deltaic regions in the world to help develop adaptation strategies. One of the major challenges the region faces is cyclones, which are projected to grow more intense as a result of climate change. In 2009, Cyclone Aila hit the region, destroying over 1000 km of the embankments that normally keep saltwater out of people’s villages and farms. After the cyclone, farmers were unable to grow rice in fields that had been inundated with saltwater, and CENDV helped locate and disseminate salt-tolerant varieties of rice. CENDV also studies migration, which is already occurring as people leave the villages in search of work or because their homes were destroyed, and which is anticipated to increase as climate change and natural disasters make it more and more difficult to sustain livelihoods in the region.

Dr. Danda told us that WWF works with communities near conservation areas that the organization supports. The Sundarbans, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reserve for some of the world’s most charismatic megafauna, receive a lot of attention when it comes to wildlife conservation, but the people living nearby are not so lucky. If their villages become uninhabitable, the nearby protected area is off limits for migration, and they can’t count on the government for protection. We learned that while some of India’s islands are likely to be protected for strategic purposes (because their very presence serves to maintain / expand the country’s territory at sea), the four million people in the Sundarbans, and the area itself, are not high on the government’s list of priorities.

Projections indicate that at least a quarter of these people will have to leave their homes in the next 30 years due to sea level rise, erosion, extreme events, and increases to the already large population. To help prepare for this, WWF helps young people—who for the most part only know farming and fishing—develop skills that will serve them if agriculture is no longer viable, or if they migrate to urban areas. These skills include basic education—the organization helps promising students find scholarships to advance their studies and pursue professions such as engineering and medicine—as well as training for work in the hospitality sector, construction, and driving.

These meetings were our introduction to the Sundarbans, which we would later visit on the Bangladeshi side of the border. What we learned is that climate change is already being felt in this area, both in the dramatic way portrayed on the news—with islands disappearing as sea level rises—as well as in more subtle ways. Changing rainfall patterns can destroy crops, tidal surges erode islands, and increased salinity—which has a variety of causes, including sea level rise and flooding during cyclones—can make farming impossible in some areas. It was encouraging, though, to see that organizations such as CENDV and WWF, along with others, are working to soften the blow. Developing or discovering rice varieties that can tolerate salt, submergence, or drought improves food security, while skill development gives people options outside of farming and could make it easier to survive if migration becomes necessary.

Renewable Energy

We had the opportunity to visit the offices of SwitchOn and ONergy, a joint NGO-business organization that helps bring renewable energy to rural people in eastern India, where 50% of households are not connected to the grid. SwitchOn, the NGO, was started in 2008 to do outreach, policy advocacy, and capacity building around climate change and sustainable livelihoods. ONergy, the business side of the organization, was started in 2009 to provide solar energy to underserved communities. ONergy uses innovative approaches such as distribution centers and micro-finance to make solar electricity and technology affordable, while SwitchOn helps build capacity among communities to install, maintain, and maximize the benefits of the technology.

The vision for SwitchOn began after founders Ekta and Vinay Jaju traveled with a friend from Kolkata to New Delhi by bicycle, following India’s coal belt. Along the way, they spoke with experts, activists, and affected communities about the impacts of mining coal. What they learned—about sinking towns, burning ground, and other effects—are detailed in the video, Why New Coal.

Why New Coal from Vinay Jaju on Vimeo.

Upon returning to Kolkata, Ekta and Jaju started SwitchOn and later ONergy, which have so far affected about 200,000 lives, with a goal of affecting one million lives by 2016 and ten million lives by 2022. The major benefits of solar electricity come from simply having convenient access to light. Instead of kerosene, which is smoky and provides poor quality light, SwitchOn/ONergy’s beneficiaries and customers can flip a switch and have high quality light for studying, working, and entertainment. The organization also provides street lighting, water heating systems, and cook stoves, as well as solar-powered technology in the agricultural sector, such as cold storage and irrigation systems.

We also spoke with Subhro Sen at WWF, who works on rural electrification in the Sundarbans. The program he described uses distribution centers and financing models to make the products affordable and to ensure that they are well maintained and provide the intended services to customers. One of our questions for both organizations was whether these sorts of projects could actually result in delaying connection to the grid for the communities they served. We learned that grid power and diesel, which is often used in generators and to pump water, are highly subsidized and therefore very cheap, making it difficult for solar power to be cost-competitive. Ekta told us, though, that over time solar is cheaper than diesel, and the hope is that eventually some of ONergy’s customers can become producers of solar energy. Then, if the government expands the grid to them, they can sell power back to it.

India 1 - Bihar

While it’s inspiring to learn about the positive impacts these organizations are having on people’s lives, it frustrates me that the government isn’t able to deliver such services. I am a strong supporter of renewable energy and this type of work, and I can definitely see the case for new electrification to be sustainable and low-fossil fuel. However, I can’t help but note a disconnect—maybe even an irony—in that the people who will be most affected by climate change, and who have contributed basically nothing to causing it, are the ones using renewables while much of the developed world goes on using fossil fuels. If the market is large enough, perhaps it will contribute to bringing down the cost of renewables and mainstreaming them, but this is something that everybody should be contributing to. Nonetheless, these sorts of projects are inspiring in that they are helping to improve people’s standard of living without contributing to climate change, which David writes about extensively in The Bicycle Diaries, and which is such a contentious and important issue in the international climate negotiations.

Sustainable Sourcing

Our final meeting in Kolkata was with ITC, one of India’s largest companies. We met with Dr. Ashesh Ambasta, Vice President and Head of Social Investments; Sanjib Bezbaroa, Vice President and Head of Corporate Environment, Health and Safety; and Nazeeb Arif, Vice President Corporate Communications, who told us about the company’s ‘triple bottom line’ approach to business. ITC’s products range from paper to food to hotels, and what stuck with me is that the company is able to support millions of what they call sustainable livelihoods as part of their business practices. For instance, they are “carbon positive,” “water positive,” and “solid waste recycling positive.” This means that they use a high percentage of renewable energy sources and sequester more CO2 than they produce through afforestation projects; ‘create’ more water than they use through rainwater harvesting and other means to capture runoff for use in irrigation; and recycle more waste than is produced from their operations.

India 2 - West Bengal

They showed us a video of communities where the raw materials for their products are grown, with testimonials of how people’s lives had improved. For example, the company provided saplings for trees that could grow in degraded farmland that was no longer productive, and the farmers were then able to make a living planting and tending the trees before selling them for paper production. This is done in a seven-year cycle rather than through clear-cutting, and more trees are now grown than the company can use, so farmers sell to other companies as well. ITC began this project at a time when most pulp was imported, and they are proud of creating both demand for and supply of domestically produced pulp, as it provides livelihoods for local people and, when managed correctly, improves the environment where the trees are grown. There were many such examples of triple bottom line practices that the company has implemented, often in partnership with civil society. In communities where they source agricultural products such as wheat, for example, the company has invested in infrastructure to harvest rainwater for irrigation, at the same time training and empowering local people to build and maintain such systems.

Interestingly, the company’s motivation does not come from its customers. While organic and fair trade labels are gaining in popularity in US and European markets, the people we met with at ITC said these issues are not really on the radar of Indian consumers. Instead, the company is motivated by the idea of ‘country before company’ and by profit. ITC is proud to support producers within India and contribute to the country’s economy—as they say, businesses can’t succeed in societies that fail. By creating sustainable livelihoods and supply chains, they are creating a secure base for their own operations. ITC, a $45 billion market cap company, is one of the top three companies on the Indian stock exchange. From what we learned, this success appears to be in part because of—rather than in spite of—their investment in sustainable livelihoods around the country.

After a whirlwind two and a half days in Kolkata, we rode out of the city on a rainy morning, accompanied by a camera crew for eTV and bound for Bangladesh. Stay tuned for updates from the front lines of climate change, the Sundarbans themselves.

India 2 - West Bengal

Energy and Climate in Nepal

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

As Lindsey wrote, we were mentally unprepared for Nepal. After two and a half months in China, I had forgotten what it is like to be in a country with lagging infrastructure and rolling blackouts. We confronted the poor infrastructure immediately: What we thought would be a one day ride, from the border to Kathmandu, turned into a two day slog due to long stretches of chewed-up or nonexistent pavement. And when we looked for a hotel our first night, we had to search for one that had electricity.

Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

Over our next two and a half weeks, we were reminded over and over that Nepal is a poor country that uses few resources and produces very little electricity. From a climate change perspective, this means that the country produces very little greenhouse gas emissions—but it also means that, as a largely agricultural society with little infrastructure, it is highly vulnerable to a warming climate.

To better understand these issues, while in Kathmandu we spoke with a few NGOs, an intergovernmental organization (ICIMOD), and a government agency. And during our week-long trek in the Annapurna region, we spoke with about a dozen people about how changes in the weather affect them. Here’s what we found from this cursory survey.

Electricity, Energy, and Emissions

Nepal produces very little electricity. If all the country’s power plants were running at full capacity (which is possible only during the rainy season, when there is enough water for the run-of-the-river hydropower plants), there would only be enough electricity for every Nepali to turn on a single, highly efficient, compact florescent lightbulb. No refrigeration, no computers. Just one bulb per person.

Because there isn’t enough electricity, Kathmandu has daily, scheduled, rolling blackouts, such that any given block has electricity for about two-thirds of the day. For this reason, people who can afford it have a battery (or even a generator) to keep the lights on. Many shops use such batteries to power a backup light, such that the streets at night become a row of well-spaced compact florescent bulbs hanging near the front of mostly-dark rooms. The lack of electricity means that instead of traffic lights, men in uniform stand and direct traffic at major intersections. At night these men have green and red light sticks which they wave like lightsabers, as if using the force to move the vehicles. Such power outages also challenge industry—factories need expensive backup generators.

Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

If Nepal is to provide better services for its people, it needs to produce more electricity—much more. The country could accomplish this goal without dramatically increasing its greenhouse gas emissions by building a series of reservoirs in the Himalaya. The economically-feasible hydropower potential is immense—about 40,000 megawatts. That would give Nepalis similar electricity per capita as most western European countries.

But nobody we met in Nepal wanted to dam as many rivers as it would take to reach a fraction of this goal. Employees of Clean Energy Nepal, a local nonprofit, argued that big dams were not the answer—they would displace people and wouldn’t be sustainable because of the heavy sediment load of the Himalayan rivers. They said that they wanted to avoid “China’s path,” and focus on smaller scale solutions. They noted that there are 200 days of sunshine in Nepal per year, making solar a great option (especially in conjunction with small hydro—small hydro works better in the rainy season, solar power works best in the dry season).

Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

We also met with the Alternative Energy Promotion Center, a government agency that promotes clean energy development. They support many small scale projects such as micro-hydro, improved cookstoves, and biogas (more on biogas in a minute). I asked them if they could develop their economy without using fossil fuels. The response was basically “yes, because we can use hydropower.” If they had enough hydropower, they could use the electricity to cook and heat, thus reducing some of the needs for fossil fuel. They said that distributed solar, biogas, and improved cookstoves were part of a solution, but not the entire solution to developing in a clean way—they also needed dams.

Many of these small projects, while not being the entire solution, are improving people’s quality of life without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. One example is the country’s many successful biogas projects. A consultant/researcher at Winrock, an international NGO, told me about how Winrock, other NGOs, and government agencies have helped install biogas digesters all over the country — there are now 300,000 small digesters, which allow people to take cow (or other ruminant) dung and turn it into natural gas for cooking. Using such gas is much more efficient and better for people’s health than burning the dung, which is what most people without digesters do. Two cows can provide four people with enough gas for all their cooking needs. Also, the waste from the digesters can in turn be used as fertilizer. Moreover, Nepal has been paid for the program through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Basically, it is a win-win-win. (Interestingly, one challenge is that people think that cooking with dung is “clean” and cooking with gas is not — getting people to use these new technologies can be challenging).

Such small-scale projects are great news. In the long run, though, Nepal will likely need much more electricity than they can provide, and the easiest way to do that cleanly is through hydropower. Hopefully the dams needed for this will be built in a sensible way that benefits all Nepalis without causing too much harm to the people and ecosystems in the areas around the proposed reservoirs.

Vulnerability and Changing Monsoons

We asked the employees of Clean Energy Nepal (CEN) what worried them about climate change in Nepal. They said: reduced agricultural output, water scarcity, and weather-related disasters, in that order. The same employees at CEN had recently surveyed 4,000 villages in the country, asking if people were experiencing climate change. The people surveyed said that the rain had become more erratic, in turn making farming more difficult.

At ICIMOD, the Director General, David Molden, told us that people in the mountains are experiencing climate change right now. Here’s an edited version of his interview. The part I found the most compelling is how he compares the urgency of climate change here in Nepal to that felt in the United States. He also noted that climate change is just one of the many problems facing mountain people.

And finally, we went into the mountains on a week-long trek (see Lindsey’s blog entry) and talked directly with people ourselves. We found that people were experiencing exactly what Dr. Molden said they were — the rains had become more unpredictable, and were coming later. Some people said these changes in rainfall made it more difficult to farm; others said it had no influence. Everyone also said that it had gotten warmer, although they were split over whether this was a good or bad thing. Higher in the mountains, some liked the warmth because they could grow more crops. Lower down, many said it was too hot.

Nepal - Trek in Anapurna

Nepal - Trek in Anapurna

I’ve seen a number of different rankings of “countries most vulnerable to climate change,” and Nepal is often near the top. After visiting the country, I can now see why, but I also think the worst effects of climate change aren’t here yet. Our survey suggests that people are noticing that the climate is changing, but for many people in Nepal these changes do not yet pose a dramatic challenge, especially given the many other problems they must cope with on a daily basis. Whether they will pose a dramatic challenge in the future depends both on how the country develops, and on how much the climate changes over the coming decades.

Thoughts on Climate Change After Crossing Asia

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Six months after leaving Istanbul, and cycling 5,500 miles (and taking a few buses, trains, boats, and trucks), we reached the eastern coast of China, thus officially crossing Asia with our bicycles. In addition to enjoying the open road and making friends with farmers, yak herders, and businessmen, we’ve talked to people we’ve met along the way about climate change. Do they hear much about the issue? Are they worried about it? In the cities, we’ve spoken with experts and advocates. In the countryside we’ve interviewed laypeople, showing them a piece of paper with questions written in the local language, asking if people think the weather has changed in their lifetime (Are winters warmer or colder than when you were a child? Are summers warmer or colder than when you were a child? Does it rain more or less?). The goal is to identify long-term trends — instead of what the weather is like this year — and we film their answers for later translation.

This is an extremely unscientific survey. Its goal is to get a firsthand impression of climate change in the regions we’re traveling through, and to use our journey to better understand the issues that we’ve focused on for much of our careers. Our travels aren’t over yet (we will cross parts South Asia next), but here are some of our observations from the journey so far:

1. Most people say it is getting warmer. While some of the interviews we’ve recorded still need to be translated (we don’t speak much Turkish, Georgian, Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, or Chinese), it’s clear that many people think it is warmer than it used to be. In Tajikistan, almost everyone we talked to said that there is now much less snow than there used to be. I’m sometimes skeptical of people’s abilities to perceive changes in the climate (I don’t easily remember what the weather was like ten years ago), but we’ve still been surprised by how consistently people across the region have said that the weather has warmed, or that there is less snow than there used to be.

Wakhan Valley

2. Some people have been negatively affected, but most say the changes have not made a big difference in their lives. Although we haven’t translated some of our interviews in China, we have only two specific cases of climate change (or what is likely climate change) negatively affecting people’s lives: wheat farmers in Turkey said that warmer temperatures had hurt their crops (something that is backed up by scientific research), and people in the mountains of Tajikistan said that there is less water to irrigate in the summer when they don’t have snow in the winter, something that has become more common in recent years. (People living near the former Aral Sea said that the weather had changed and made life more difficult, but the changes in climate are mostly due to losing the Aral Sea, not global climate change.)

Mostly, though, people said that the changes had little effect on their lives. The same villagers in Tajikistan who said that less snow was bad for agriculture said less snow kept the roads open in winter, allowing more goods to arrive from the capital. And although Tajikistan is extremely poor, most people in the countryside seem to rely not on farming to survive, but on instead on family members working in Russia and sending money home — so they seemed less concerned about crop failure than we expected, as they actually end up buying much of their food. In China, although we don’t have many of the interviews translated, when we pointed to the question of whether changes in the weather had affected them, most gave us the thumbs up, as if to say “life is better now” and the changes haven’t affected them — which makes sense, as China’s rapidly growing economy has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty in just three decades, improving quality of life for most people.

China 8 - Baotou to Beijing

This isn’t to say that people haven’t yet been affected by climate change here or in other parts of the world. Warmer temperatures and slightly stronger storms and droughts have made life difficult for many people. Also, sometimes people may not be aware that these changes are affecting them or stressing their society. For instance, drought likely contributed to the Syrian civil war. And fairly convincing research shows that in warmer years, people and societies are more violent. People experiencing this upheaval and violence probably wouldn’t say “it’s because of the weather,” when in fact, the weather may play a role.

Nonetheless, when we crossed the continent by bicycle and interviewed people as we traveled, we encountered few people who say the changing weather is already causing them hardship. This isn’t surprising, but it also highlights the fact that even though climate change is here, and people are noticing it, the majority of its dangerous consequences are still in the future.

3. Local environmental movements sometimes help climate action, but sometimes they don’t. The two countries we visited that are building the most infrastructure, and whose emissions are growing the fastest, were Turkey and China. In both countries, we saw countless new power plants or dams under construction (usually while cycling on newly paved roads). Both countries have seen their economies more than double in the past decade, and both look for continued growth.

In China, concern over air, water, and soil pollution, often as a result of burning coal, has put pressure on the government to reduce the country’s dependence on this particular fossil fuel. As we learned in Beijing, one third of China’s provinces already have coal reduction plans in place. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one reason for these limits, but the bigger reason is local air pollution.

China 5 - Tibet 2 - To Lanzhou

In Turkey, the situation is different. We talked to a number of advocates, and we found that the biggest environmental movements in Turkey were 1) opposition to new hydroelectric dams, and 2) opposition to new nuclear power plants. We are sympathetic to both of these movements. Turkey is building a dam almost everywhere it can, forcibly removing people from their homes. And I might not trust the Russian companies that are building some of the nuclear power plants to do so in my backyard. Yet if these movements are successful, the result might be that Turkey builds more coal power plants instead of relying on relatively CO2-free hydro and nuclear power.

A Week in Ankara

4. The international process matters. After attending the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, like many other people, I lost a good deal of faith in international climate negotiations. Countries made pitiful pledges to reduce emissions, and it wasn’t clear that the negotiations led to significant cuts.

However, the two countries we visited that are building the most new carbon-polluting infrastructure, China and Turkey, also seem to respond to international pressure. Turkey has very ambitious goals for installing new wind power over the next decade, and according to the people we spoke with, this is partially because they have to adopt renewable energy targets if they want to join the EU. The case for China is less clear, as some experts have said that China doesn’t respond to such pressure. Others, though, have pointed out that China cares deeply about how it is perceived by the rest of the world. And after being in the country, and learning more about “face” and how important it is, it seems clear that China’s leaders do care that they are the biggest polluter, and they do not like bad press about China. Both countries are likely doing more to combat climate change than they would in absence of an international process.

Next we are taking a train from Shanghai to Lhasa, and then taking a jeep to Nepal, where we will start biking again (China forbids independent travel in Tibet, so we are unable to cycle across the plateau unless we hire a jeep to follow us for several weeks; instead, we are taking a train to Lhasa and then a group tour to the border with Nepal). From Nepal, we will ride for three more months, crossing parts of Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and (visas permitting) Myanmar, logging another few thousand kilometers. These regions, especially India’s state of Bihar and Bangladesh, are far poorer than anywhere we’ve been, and much more vulnerable to climate change. We will share with you more of what we learn here, and you can follow us on our blog or interactive map.

Three Days in Shanghai

Monday, November 24th, 2014

We had only three days in Shanghai. I expected it to be much like Beijing, but it felt both more modern and more crowded. It is the world’s largest city, as measured by population within the city limits (and not metropolitan area — Tokyo is much larger by that metric), and it also boasts some very tall buildings — we took an elevator to the top of the 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center, and then looked up at the 121-story, still-under-construction Shanghai Tower.

Shanghai

We visited Concordia International School, and gave presentations to the elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Shanghai

Shanghai

On our last day, before we caught a train to Lhasa for our tour through Tibet, we managed to meet up with Peggy Lui of the Joint U.S. China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE). JUCCCE does some fantastic work with both party leaders and the general Chinese public. You can watch a short interview we did with Peggy here.

Two Weeks in Beijing

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Six months after leaving Istanbul, after cycling 5,000 miles (and taking a few buses, trains, boats, and trucks), we arrived in in Beijing, the capital of the world’s most polluting nation. We were warned about biking into the city (it has “rings the size of Jupiter”), but we were pleasantly surprised to find that its wide roads had paralleling bike/scooter lanes for people like us. Although the air stung our eyes and the smog made our lungs burn, we felt safer riding into Beijing than I feel riding into most cities in the U.S.

Bikes in Beijing

We spent almost two full weeks in the capital, which we used to speak at two schools and two community events, and to meet with people at a few of the major environmental NGOs: the World Resources Institute (WRI), Greenpeace, the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Up to this point, most of our conversations about climate change have been with people in the countryside (In some cases we understood them — and in others we have no idea what they said). Now we could speak with the “experts.”

A few consistent messages emerged from our meetings. The biggest message is that the top leadership in China “gets it.” They understand that climate change is serious, and that the country needs to do something about it — and the people we spoke with said that this was not the case just five or six years ago. The bigger challenge is implementation of new environmental policies throughout all levels of the government, as proper incentives might not be in place, and provincial leaders either lack training or don’t have the same priorities.

From our conversations, it appears that the government’s motivation to reduce emissions comes from a few sources. The main driver is definitely local pollution and the public outcry over dirty air, water, and soil (and consequently food). Addressing these concerns would fortunately result in lower greenhouse gas emissions, as there is substantial overlap in the sources of particulate emissions and greenhouse gases. (Of course, this is only the case if polluters clean up rather than simply being displaced to other parts of China or other countries). China is also interested in becoming a world leader. According to many people we spoke with, China cares about its image on the world stage, and the international process is thought to have some effect. Finally, China is considered highly vulnerable to climate change. Of all the impacts of climate change that came up in our conversations — sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, increased droughts — food security was the most frequently mentioned. Water scarcity is already a major problem in the north, which is also a major food-producing area and the site of many of China’s new, water-hungry power plants. Some villages have already been abandoned due to lack of water, creating climate refugees. If climate change results in even less water in this region, such problems could be exacerbated.

To help cut dependence on fossil fuels, NGOs can play a significant role. China is not a free society, and civil society plays a different role than it does in the U.S. Namely, NGOs are not allowed to directly challenge the government’s decisions. But because the central government wants action and has adopted several policies regarding pollution and climate change, it seems to welcome these organizations helping them identify both problems and solutions (although one person we spoke with did say that the central police interviewed him because of general suspicions around foreign NGOs).

Perhaps the best example is IPE, started by Ma Jun. IPE publishes pollution statistics and maps online, using data from government agencies. IPE thus helps publicize and highlight pollution violations, helping the government enforce laws that are already on the books but not necessarily followed. Currently, they do not focus on greenhouse gas emissions — mostly local air and water pollution — but they show how environmental NGOs can help make a difference. Our contact at IPE said, “The major problem is not regulations, but the lack of enforcement.”

And although the people can’t vote, public discourse matters. A few years ago, nobody talked about measurements for PM 2.5 — that is, particulate matter in the atmosphere about 2.5 microns in size, which has been shown to cause all types of health problems. One expert said, “In 2006, the air was really bad, but no one talked about it. Taxi drivers said it was ‘fog.’”

But over the past few years, air quality has deteriorated further. 2011 was a particularly bad year in Beijing, and newspapers have started covering such pollution more seriously. Also, the U.S. embassy was tweeting the PM 2.5 measurements in Beijing every day, and the papers reported on this pollution. Soon the government started reporting the numbers as well and recognizing the problem. Now everyone talks about measurements of air quality in Beijing. We have seen advertisements for masks that protect from “PM 2.5” and there is a free app that reports the AQI (Air Quality Index) for various pollutants.

At NRDC and Greenpeace, we talked largely about the country’s efforts to slow or reverse coal consumption. China now burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and coal power accounts for about 80 percent of the nation’s electricity. One of the major reasons that global greenhouse gas emissions have increased over the last decade is China’s construction of new coal-fired power plants. These power plants have also polluted the local water and air.

Greenpeace told us that they help educate government officials on the problems — for instance, before 2010, government officials were relatively unaware of how coal consumption also stressed water supplies. Mining, processing, and burning coal require massive amounts of water, and in China’s north, where most of the coal is found, there is little water. The five year plan for coal consumption did not reflect the physical limits set by water availability.

Greenpeace reports that 12 of the nation’s 34 provinces, accounting for just under half of China’s coal consumption, have made pledges to reduce emissions. Due in part to an economic slowdown, the pace of the increase of coal consumption has already been reduced — and one report says it even has decreased, although some experts told us to view this number with skepticism.

One challenge, in general, is that pollution limits are more lax in the nation’s relatively poorer west than in the prosperous coastal cities. One worry is that pollution caps in the east won’t necessarily reduce emissions, as more power plants may just be built inland or in other countries — similar to the way that factories are built in China instead of the (wealthier and more pollution-intolerant) United States. Nonetheless, the efforts are moving in the right direction.

One question we ask everyone is simply: “Is China the problem or the solution?” This is the paradox of China: Is it the country doing the most to cause climate change or the most to solve it? Will China save the world from climate change, or doom it to out-of-control warming? Our strongest impression from these meetings is not an answer to this question, though. It is that there is lots of very important work to be done here to reduce emissions, that this work is underway, and that it is possible to work with the Chinese government to slow and even reverse emissions growth.

The day after we left Beijing, Xi and Obama made a joint announcement to reduce emissions. While their goals fall short of what we need, such cooperation is an enormous leap in the right direction, and after our conversations in Beijing, I believe the Chinese leadership is sincere in their pledges. Now the challenge is acting.

We Interviewed People. We Have No Idea What They Said.

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Help us translate!

As we bike across China, we’ve been interviewing people about whether they think the climate has changed. We do this by showing them a sheet that has questions written in Chinese (“Are winters warmer or colder than when you were a child?” “Are summers warmer or colder than they used to be?” “Is there more or less rain than when you were a child?” “Have these changes affected you? Have they affected people in your community?” and so on) and filming their responses.

Now we have a number of videos – but we have no idea what people said to us.

We’ve uploaded most of these videos below. If you speak Chinese, we could use your help translating them! We are very curious what people said.

Restaurant Before Great Wall
Before Great Wall
Town Long Day
Getting Dark Village
Elderly Men
Restaurant
Town Store
Corn
Threshing
Carrot Farmers
Day 3 Bautou
Day After Baotou
Baotou 2
Baotou 1
China Post
With Yankee

Reflections from Halfway Across Asia

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

We have just passed the four month mark for our journey, which is the halfway point in our bike ride across Asia (see map). I’m writing this from a hotel by the Bibi Fatima hot springs about 1,500 feet up the side of the Wakhan valley. Across the valley, on the other side of the Panj River, I can see Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush mountains rising up and disappearing into the clouds. For the next week, we will bike through remote parts of the Pamir Plateau, and I likely won’t be able to post this entry until we reach China, probably two weeks from now.

Wakhan Valley

My greatest impression from this trip is the diversity — so many different languages, so many borders, so many (often inept, corrupt, and restrictive) governments. The speed of a bicycle, 10 miles an hour (actually, we average a slower pace than this) is slow enough to appreciate all of these changes and differences, but too fast to make sense of them. We are just scratching the surface of these countries and cultures.

In fact, this trip has made me feel incredibly naive, and the view of the world I received by crossing Latin America seems simplistic by comparison. I wrote a whole book about this previous journey, and claimed (implicitly) that I had learned something about the world. I now feel like I know so little. Just in this valley where I am right now, there are three different languages, and many more dialects. And that is in just one valley. Also, the local people are Ismaili, a Muslim sect I didn’t even know about before this journey, but they also incorporate Zoroastrian elements into their culture and religion. And this valley was on the border of so many empires that passed through Central Asia — Persia, Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane, and more recently, England and Russia during “The Great Game.” I’m amazed by how little I know.

I have the same feeling of gratitude, though, that I did during my last trip. So many people have invited us into their homes, shared tea (or in Georgia, chacha), and showed us hospitality. Muslim culture, in particular, places a high value on guests; people have said “guests are a blessing,” which in a sense both welcomes us and makes us feel like we are partaking in a holy act — which, I think, welcoming strangers into your home is.

Gaziantep to Diyarbakir

Georgia - Tbilisi to Azerbaijan

That said, one thing that I’ve surprisingly struggled with is simple tolerance of other cultures. As travelers, we should respect the customs of the places we visit. Yet it’s difficult to respect the very different treatment of sex roles in many of the places we’ve been. In some Muslim communities we’ve traveled through — mostly small towns — it’s clear that men and women are not supposed to mingle. Men would not talk to Lindsey — they would only talk to me. And in a few houses that we were invited into, the wife/daughter-in-law of the household would cook for us, but wouldn’t eat with us or talk to us. This has reminded me that although we share so much with other people around the globe, as shown by their generosity, we are also very different.

I’ve also been reminded of how individualistic our American culture is. Here it is all about family. Especially in Tajikistan, where we’ve spent the most time with families, we’ve realized that marriages are often arranged, with women married — sometimes (in our limited survey) to cousins — in their late teens. Then, they live with their husband’s family, doing all of the cooking and cleaning while their mothers-in-law help look after their children.

To Khorog, Part I

It’s been interesting to see the importance of Russia as we bike through these former USSR countries. All older people speak Russian, and many are surprised when we don’t (One man asked, incredulously, “didn’t you go to school?”). We see the legacy of Russian and communist influence as the following: governments are authoritarian, heavily censor the media, and, especially in the case of Uzbekistan, continue to play a role in regulating the economy; almost every household has at least one family member working in Russia, sending money home; people drink vodka, and it is much easier to buy alcohol than in Turkey; and, I’m not sure if it is communist influence or not, but it’s also hard to find good food in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan

We’ve encountered a lot of poverty, but for some reason it feels very different from the poverty I experienced in Latin America. I don’t feel like I’ve encountered the same type of oppressive, entrapping poverty as I saw in places like Honduras or Venezuela. Maybe it is because societies aren’t quite as unequal here — in Latin America, it feels like the division between the elites and the poor is much starker, and even racial in origin, dating back to colonial history. Here, people complain about the lack of jobs, and the empty shelves in stores suggest a complete lack of commerce in some places. But nonetheless, it feels different. One reason might be the legacy of education that the USSR left — people in villages here are often quite well-educated. One of the towns where we met the most English speakers was Khorog, Tajikistan, which is a small mountain town of only 28,000 people. We talked with many people who spoke excellent English and are pursuing post graduate degrees — even though the town was relatively poor and didn’t even have treated water. Nonetheless, the region overall is very poor, and the quality of life could improve dramatically with development.

With regards to climate change, we’ve been interviewing people — especially older people — as we travel, asking them if they think the climate has changed in their lifetime. We’ve been surprised by the responses. So many people say that it has in fact gotten warmer, and in Central Asia almost everyone says that there is less snow now. I am skeptical of many people’s abilities to accurately compare current weather conditions with that of three or four decades ago. The “less snow” may be just due to a few bad years in the past decade, and not a true long term climatological trend. Nonetheless, the consistency of answers suggests that it is real, and that people are noticing it.

To Khorog, Part I

Unfortunately, our conversations have also shown that few people understand much (or anything) about climate change, and those who do don’t give the issue much thought. This isn’t too surprising. Over the past few decades, people in Central Asia have seen the collapse of the USSR, which has totally upended the political and economic system. Tajikistan endured a brutal civil war, which left the country among the poorest in Asia. In some parts of the countryside, farmers had to relearn subsistence farming techniques, which had been forgotten during Soviet times. Turkey, the only non-former USSR country we’ve visited, hasn’t seen quite the same level of change, but it has seen its economy double in the past decade. It isn’t too surprising that people in these countries aren’t thinking about a problem that is looming in the future, but still abstract.

Wakhan Valley

Nonetheless, this is unfortunate, because climate change is something that will affect their lives in the next few decades — especially the farmers we’ve stayed with. It is also especially unfortunate in countries like Turkey, where economic growth is leading to a rapid growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Turkey is planning to double its electricity supply in the next decade and is building so much new infrastructure. And yet it is doing so almost without considering climate change. The only cases where it puts policy in place to support wind or solar energy appear to be due to pressure from the European Union, or because the country wants to develop more domestic energy supplies. Even more worryingly, the strongest environmental movements in Turkey appear to be the anti-dam and the anti-nuclear movements — both of which have merits, but if successful, will likely result in the construction of more coal and gas power plants. Climate change needs to be a more meaningful part of the public dialogue.

Istanbul to Ankara

Next up, we will be traveling through the giants of Asia: China and India, with Nepal and Bangladesh also on the schedule. In these countries, both the causes and the impacts of climate change should be more evident. We are planning to visit the northern parts of China, where coal is both produced and burned at a rate equaled nowhere on earth. And we’ll bike Bangladesh, where tens of millions of people are at risk to sea level rise, and the Ganges River Basin, where tens of millions are at risk to annual flooding. It is daunting and exciting. We look forward sharing with you what we learn.

For now, though, we will bike through the wilderness of the Pamir Plateau and enjoy an isolated part of the earth where few people live. Check rideforclimate.com for updates.

Water Use in the Amu Darya Floodplain

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

After visiting the Aral Sea and learning about the impacts of its near-disappearance, we decided to travel along the Amu Darya, one of its two former sources, in order to learn a bit about where all the water goes now.

In Nukus, about 200 km south of Muynak – the town that used to be on the shore of the Aral Sea – we met with Izzet, a civil engineer who works as a professor in Nukus and helps run an NGO dedicated to protecting the Aral Sea. Then we biked another 200 km along the Amu Darya to Urgench, via the ancient Silk Road city of Khiva, and met with Inna Rudenko, who helped form and now manages a group of academics doing research and outreach to improve land and water management in the region. From these two meetings, we learned about some of the major problems with water and land use in Uzbekistan, as well as potential solutions. (Of course, in such a short time we were only able to scratch the surface of this complex issue, and there is much more to learn.) As we biked, we also observed a stark contrast to the former Aral Sea shore. While Muynak was parched and dusty, the towns we passed through between Nukus and Urgench were lush and green. The streets were lined with cotton and rice fields with water ponding between the rows, and each home we visited had a large garden with small canals running through them. It was cooler – though still scorchingly hot – near the canals, and leaky pipes spraying water into the air were everywhere.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

As is the case anywhere in the world, land use and water management are tightly linked. In Uzbekistan, water management and agricultural practices follow the patterns established by the Soviet Union, which collectivized farms and set quotas for major crops such as cotton. While water from the Amu Darya had been used for centuries for irrigation, diversions increased dramatically as the Soviet Union turned Central Asia – especially Uzbekistan, south Kazakhstan, and parts of Tajikistan – into a major cotton-producing center. Irrigation is generally done by canal and relies on gravity to distribute water to and across each field. These canals are very rarely lined, and up to 40% of irrigation water is lost to the water table due to infiltration.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

In addition to the water used to irrigate crops during the growing season, farmers ‘flush’ their fields several times each year before planting.This involves sending water across the empty fields to pick up salts and toxins in the soil and carry them away. While most fields require this, it is rare for a farmer to know just how contaminated his field is, and therefore how much water is actually needed to effectively remove the toxins. Therefore, many farmers will use as much water as is available, sometimes flushing their fields up to three times. This causes an enormous amount of water waste and water pollution, and until recently also had the effect of routing toxins back to the canals and downstream, as the water used in flushing would be returned directly to the canals at the other end of the field. In the past several years, a World Bank project has built a sewer system to collect the wastewater and keep it separate from the canals that feed downstream fields. Instead, the water ends up in lakes constructed in the desert for this purpose. Apparently people fish in these lakes, and the concentration of salts and agricultural chemicals isn’t dangerously high, but I have trouble believing this.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

Taking a step back, we see that this inefficient water use is just part of a much bigger problem: the countries that the Amu Darya flow through don’t see eye to eye on water issues. The river’s headwaters are in the mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and it flows through a part of Turkmenistan – whose constitution states that all waters in its territory belong to it – before re-entering Uzbekistan. While the five Central Asian countries have formed an organization, the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC), to manage transboundary waters, the interests of the individual countries are often at odds. Tajikistan, which faces serious electricity shortages every winter, is planning to build a dam in the Pamir Mountains that would be the tallest earthen dam in the world, and Uzbekistan is worried that this would cut off their water supply. During Soviet times, heating fuel would be shipped from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan in the winter, and in return Tajikistan would refrain from running existing hydroelectric plants so Uzbekistan would have enough water in the summer. This coordination broke down after the Soviet Union collapsed. Meanwhile, during Soviet times a canal was built across the desert in Turkmenistan to divert Amu Darya waters for cotton production – 60% of water in this canal evaporates or infiltrates before it reaches its destination. Afghanistan is currently using less water than envisioned in an agreement reached during Soviet times, but if the country stabilizes and starts to develop, its water use will increase. Finally, projections indicate that climate change will affect the water balance in the region, with more precipitation falling as rain – meaning it would not be held in the snowpack to be released during the summer months, as currently is the case – and melting glaciers, which could increase river flow in the short term, but decrease it in the long term.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

It seems clear that farming a thirsty crop such as cotton in the desert isn’t sustainable, but farmers do not pay for water, so they have very little incentive to use it carefully. As we learned, the government plays a very large role in farming in Uzbekistan. They own the land, and farmers sign contracts to lease the land and grow a specified crop (usually cotton) for a certain period of time, up to 50 years. The government provides detailed instructions for how to grow the crop, and a production quota is determined. Seeds and other inputs are all purchased with government credit, and water is delivered to the fields on a schedule determined by the government. When the crop is grown, the government buys it from the farmer and it then goes through processing before being sold on the international market.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

We had read that people were forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, and we asked a number of people about it. They told us that as high school students they were required to pick, although it appeared that one could get out of it if well-connected. One person told us that they were paid, but that she ended up losing money because the money she earned wasn’t enough to buy lunch out in the fields. Another boy told us it was fun, because he and his friends got out of school when it was picking time. We had also read that the government buys cotton at a much lower rate than they sell it for, but when we asked Inna she said that farmers received a fair price, and that the value on the international market reflected processing that occurred within the country.

If a farmer fails to produce the quota, he may end up buying surplus from other farmers – at a marked-up price – to then include with his harvest at the government rate. Since the land has become degraded in many parts of the country – 20% is degraded in Khorezm, and 100% of the farmland in Karakalpakstan is degraded to some extent – it can be difficult to meet the quota. The solution, other than buying from neighbors, is to demonstrate to the government that the land is degraded and therefore the quota cannot be met. This involves a lengthy process with inspections and piles of paperwork, so farmers are reluctant to initiate it.

Given the damage caused by this large-scale cotton production – the disappearance of the Aral Sea, degradation of the land – and the possibility that water availability will dwindle in the future, due to climate change and the construction of a dam upstream, many believe that Uzbekistan should stop growing cotton completely. However, cotton is hugely important to Uzbekistan’s economy. Not only are large portions of the country’s land devoted to it, but everything is set up for this particular crop: farmers know how to grow it, machines are available to plant, tend, and harvest it, gins and other processing plants are set up to process it (and extract value from every part of the plant such as its seeds), credit is available, and all of the trade links are set up to sell cotton. As an example of cotton’s importance, during our ride we were waved over by a group of men repairing a canal. They showed us the cotton plants, which were just flowering, and when I mimed picking cotton and asked if it was difficult, they just smiled and said one word: ‘dollars!’

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

So, will Uzbekistan continue to grow cotton until the water is gone and the land is all degraded? What are the alternatives? Already, the country is heavily dependent on remittances from abroad – many men seek work in Russia and Kazakhstan, and 16 percent of the country’s GDP is from money they send home. Inna’s group conducted research and pilot projects to investigate ways to make cotton farming more efficient and less environmentally damaging. One promising approach is to line canals with plastic; while cement is cost-prohibitive, using plastic can pay off in two years – not through savings in water costs, of course, but in additional profits where water currently doesn’t reach some parts of a field due to infiltration. Drip irrigation has also been introduced, and while this is more practical for vegetables, there are cases where it has been used successfully for cotton.

Field preparation and the location of specific crops also makes a difference. Where fields are not level, water can get backed up and not reach crops that need it. Planting less thirsty crops at the far end of the field away from the canal can also help make sure the most thirsty crops – namely, cotton – are planted upstream and are most likely to receive water if there is a risk it won’t reach the far end of the field (due to infiltration, evaporation, or insufficient water released into the field). Another approach to save water is to use a device to measure soil salinity. These measurements can show where flushing is necessary and help farmers determine the appropriate amount of water to use in each section of their fields. The device is expensive, but the group has proposed ways to share it among farmers. Finally, for land that is too degraded to produce cotton, the group has found that a certain type of tree can tolerate these salty soils. This tree produces useful products such as firewood and timber for building, so where farmers have lost land for cotton production, once they have convinced the government of their predicament, they can at least get some value out of the land.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

Learning about these projects made us hopeful, but ultimately the situation seems unlikely to change dramatically as long as the current governance and market system is in place. Nobody expects the Aral Sea to be refilled, but there are at least a few people working to protect what is left and to keep the Amu Darya flowing.

A Visit to the Aral Sea

Monday, August 11th, 2014

When we considered crossing Central Asia in a Ride for Climate, I knew we had to visit the Aral Sea – or at least what remains of it. Even though the sea’s demise wasn’t due to global warming, it’s one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes, serving an example of how humans can alter the planet. We wanted to visit the sea, meet the people who live near it, and understand if it is truly the cautionary tale we’ve heard it to be.

The Aral Sea was once fed by two mighty rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, which flowed from the mountains of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan into a vast desert, where they formed the Aral. The sea has no outlet – its water levels are determined by the balance between water flowing into it (or falling into it through rain) and evaporation. Fifty years ago it was the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, with a surface area greater than Lake Michigan’s. It contained over a million square kilometers of water – about 30 times the amount of water Lake Mead can hold at capacity. In the early 1960s, more than 40,000 tons of fish were caught annually in the sea.

While people had been using water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya for centuries to irrigate crops, in the 1960s the Soviets dramatically increased the water withdrawn from these rivers to feed agriculture, with an emphasis on cotton, one of the thirstiest crops. As less and less water reached the sea, its level started dropping. By 1970, the Aral Sea had dropped six feet. As the level dropped, the water became saltier, and fewer and fewer fish could survive. By the early 80s, the fishery disappeared entirely.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the sea’s water level had dropped 50 feet, and its area was cut almost in half. The newly independent countries where the sea is located – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – continued the agricultural practices started by the Soviets, and the sea continued to shrink. Today the Aral is a series of small lakes, with less than one tenth the water it once held. The satellite images below, provided by NASA, show the lake in 1989 and 2008.

The Aral Sea in 1989 and 2008

The Aral Sea in 1989 and 2008

After taking the train to Kungrad, Uzbekistan, Lindsey and I biked the 90 kilometers to the town of Moynak, which once sat on the shore of the Aral Sea. Our ride to Moynak intersected with several canals, which appeared to bring a feeble amount of the Amu Darya’s final water to the town. These canals kept the surrounding landscape from being entirely barren – we saw pockets of water and green bushes instead of pure desert. The town itself follows a long road, as it used to jut out as a peninsula into the lake. It was dusty, with a few abandoned buildings, and at the far end sat an abandoned cannery, where thousands of tons of fish were once processed every year.

Aral Sea

It was over 100 degrees F when we arrived, and we bought some water at the one store we found, where several of the packaged items we inspected were expired. We struggled to find food to eat in town – there appeared to be only one store (we later learned that there were a number of small stores, but they weren’t labeled, as they aren’t set up for outside visitors). We also didn’t trust the food at restaurants, as the water supply isn’t good, and intermittent electricity means that refrigeration is sometimes lacking. The town has one hotel, which cost $8 per person per night. We had hoped to stay at the one homestay mentioned in our guidebook, but we learned that the police had shut it down (we’re not sure why).

Aral Sea

We hired a guide, a man who spoke English and has lived in Moynak his entire life. He told us he didn’t like the criticism his town receives, and that it actually has a good community that supports itself – it isn’t the ghost town suggested by some journalists. Following him around Moynak, we found more stores where we could buy food (and vodka), as well as a treatment station built by the French where people get drinking water for a few hours every day. He also said the population was growing and not shrinking, as it did after the collapse of the fishing industry.

Aral Sea

I asked our guide what the biggest problems were in Moynak. He said “water, weather, and unemployment,” in that order. Moynak is literally the last town to get water from the Amu Darya River, and by the time the river reaches town it is too salty and contaminated, as it has already been used by millions of people upstream. As for weather, our guide explained that it was too hot in summer, with horrible dust storms, both of which are a result of losing the sea. And of course, there isn’t much work in the town – the fishing industry collapsed long ago, as did the cannery in town.

In our reading of the literature on the Aral Sea, one topic that comes up over and over is how increased dust from the old sea bed – contaminated with toxins from industrial agriculture – has led to cancer and respiratory problems. Rates of childhood pneumonia are higher in this region than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union. We asked our guide about this, and his response was interesting. He said that yes, there were health problems, but that the media made it sound worse than it was.

One scholarly paper we read listed the health effects of losing the Aral Sea, but then also noted that the most serious health issues “are directly related to Third World medical, health, nutrition, and hygienic conditions and practices.” In other words, while changes in air quality have hurt the population, the biggest problems are the same as those faced by any poor population in the world. However, one major reason for the poverty is that the town has lost its major industry – fishing.

Our guide took us to the highest point in town, a hill that was once a bluff overlooking the inland sea. Stretching out to the horizon was the former lake bed, a flat desert emptiness with a row of rusted boats lining the former shoreline. Our guide told us that this was a holy place: during World War II, soldiers bound for the front lines were bid farewell from that point – and then they sailed north across the Aral Sea. It felt surreal to hear this story and envision parents watching their sons disappear on boats to cross the sea and fight Hitler. Now all we saw was empty desert.

Aral Sea

We decided to see what is left of the Aral, so we hired a jeep, and along with our guide and a Korean tourist who also wanted to visit the sea, drove out into the former lake bed. I was surprised to find a paved road, and then pass by gas wells. Apparently, the drying of the lake has made it easier to extract fossil fuels. I asked our guide what people thought about the gas wells. “They’re good,” he said, because they were giving people in the region jobs.

Aral Sea

The paved road quickly gave way to a rutted jeep track, and it took three hours on a bumpy road to reach the shore of the sea, where we found ourselves in an isolated, beautiful place in the desert. The water was once one third as salty as the ocean; now it’s three time saltier because the fresh water has evaporated, concentrating the salt (and anything else in the water). We went for a swim after our guide assured us that it was clean enough to do so. Salty water makes you more buoyant, and I almost fell asleep in the water lying on my back. It felt strange to so greatly enjoy a place that I knew was an ecological disaster. That night, we camped on some cliffs overlooking the water, and then woke before dawn to watch the sun rise over the shrinking sea. It was beautiful, sad, and lonely.

Aral Sea

The next day, we drove back through Moynak and our guide took us to where the Amu Darya now ends. A dike blocks its progress, creating a lake that collects the small amount of flow that makes it this far. We were told that there are several projects creating such lakes to provide habitat and some opportunities for fishing. A few bulldozers sat idle nearby. A river with an annual discharge about one seventh that of the Mississippi is stopped by a simple dirt wall.

Aral Sea

Our jeep drove us to the town of Nukus, where we started biking again, following the Amu Darya upstream. We crossed the river, finding that it had grown in size. And then, as we passed rice and cotton fields, we saw where the Aral Sea has gone. It has gone to agriculture. Whereas Moynak had almost no water, it was everywhere in the upstream floodplain. Families have canals running behind their homes, with verdant gardens in every yard. We’ve heard about many problems with the agriculture that feeds off the Amu Darya – it is hugely wasteful of water, and soil salinization is lowering yields. But after seeing the emptiness of the Aral Sea, it was almost refreshing to see a place with so much life and water.

Khiva and Amu Darya Floodplain

Based on studies we’ve read (I read much of this book, and highly recommend it), even if agriculture becomes many times more efficient with water use (as it could, especially if they stop growing cotton and rice), the Aral Sea won’t come back soon. It would take too long to refill, and there is simply too much thirsty agriculture. One bright story is the Northern Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, which we didn’t visit. A dam has been built to block off part of the sea. The small lake that has formed now has low enough salinity to support many of the species of fish that used to live there, and a small fishing industry has begun again. But most of the Aral Sea will be gone for many generations. Also, climate change will likely make the return of the sea less likely. Here in the Aral basin, warmer temperatures will cause increased evaporation, meaning that even more water will be needed for irrigation, making it even less likely that the Aral will ever be refilled.

While this journey is named “Ride for Climate,” the tragedy of the Aral Sea is not due to climate change; it has shrunk to a tenth of its former size due to poor water management. However, the Aral Sea serves as a reminder of how dramatically humans are able to reshape the face of the planet, and what happens when the balance of water is changed. Climate change will upset this balance all around the world and require us to improve how we manage water. At the very least, this basin serves as a warning.