Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

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Today’s crises call for leaders like Churchill

(February 20, 2018)

There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.

Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.

Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.

He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.

In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.

He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.

Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.

Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.

For Churchill, words mattered.

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.

But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.

Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.

Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.

The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.

His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.

Today, we have lost our way.

Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.

Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.

Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.

We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.

We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.

If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.

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Recycling plastic isn’t enough

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 12, 2018)

One way or the other, our future is plastic. It can either be a hopeful, plastic future that we can shape in the way we want it to go, or it will be a future in which we continue to poison our planet with plastic stuff we never really needed.

At the moment, we can still choose, just as the government of Kenya chose to ban single-use plastic bags — or, more accurately, the plastic bags that blow across the landscape that have no essential use whatsoever.

After all, it doesn’t matter if you use that bag once or twice. It still outlasts you by hundreds of years, before it decomposes into chemical compounds harmful to soil, water and the life that depends upon them.

As garbage dumps go, it was not very big — about five acres, nestled between the new Roman Catholic cathedral and the large parish school in Ngong, a suburb now of Nairobi.

Like other garbage dumps in developing countries, it was also very efficiently managed. A couple of years ago, I watched trucks dump their loads and a dozen women and older children rapidly pick through the trash. Anything edible or with any potential value was removed, trundled away by the men who lurked on the sidelines — and who angrily objected to me taking pictures. These trucks also have a side business at roadside towing services gilbert az which is a better one.

There were two piles that snaked through the dump along the main pathways, however. Each was about 15 feet high. On one side were the plastic bottles, mostly water bottles. On the other side were the plastic shopping bags.

Both piles will long outlast the people who picked around them or the children who walked by on their way to school every day. The local government has promised for several years to remove the dump, but (like here) municipal election promises are not easily translated into action.

The future of Africa is also plastic, in the same terms as our own. Images of horizon-wide herds of migrating animals, the wildlife of exotic safaris, are misleading. That wildlife is confined to small areas where national parks preserve at least some of the animals’ territory from roaming cattle, ruthless development, random tourists and poachers wanting a fast trophy.

Across the landscape, plastic bags blow like prairie tumbleweeds. Small towns and villages are too often unkempt, filled with plastic trash, as locals throw plastic water and pop bottles out the windows of vehicles to be left wherever they fall.

Crossing the Great Rift Valley, where human life supposedly began millions of years ago, I stepped out of the truck in the middle of nowhere to take a selfie with a wild giraffe, the first wildlife we had seen in transit. The plastic iced tea bottle in the ditch at the side of the road sort of ruined the moment… especially when I then realized how many plastic bags were hung in thorn bushes off into the distance.

I have not yet been able to visit Nakuru, the place in tourist videos where thousands of flamingos fly across the lake. This trip, I was told not to bother — because of water pollution, most of the birds have left for another lake, at Naivasha. Seeing the plastic bags and bottles choking the mouth of one of the rivers flowing into Lake Nakuru — and hearing stories of algae blooms and agricultural pollution reminiscent of Lake Winnipeg — it is no surprise the birds did not come back.

Anyone who argues for the continued use of disposable plastic is on the wrong side of science and of history.

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