Nature pays no attention to politics

(March 13, 2018)

There have been a lot of recent headlines about climate and Manitoba, quite apart from winter storms, but little action from different levels of government.

Manitoba finally signed on late to the federal climate strategy, so $60 million of funding did not fly south, though how we will spend it remains a mystery. Premier Brian Pallister continues to mutter and do nothing about a “made-in-Manitoba” climate plan, while the Business Council of Manitoba murmurs against the financial impacts of a carbon tax — hardly a surprise, as its former executive director is now our “minister of pipelines,” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr.

The city of Winnipeg continues with its last minute, pop-up, flash-mob “consultations” on a climate plan for the region — leaving the skeptical to wonder whether anything they have contributed will make a difference to decisions likely already made.

All the while, temperatures in the Arctic soar, freak storms dump snow on the Vatican and drought ravages east Africa, warning anyone who cares to notice that our petty politics mean less than nothing to Mother Nature.

Get with the program, please! A sea change is needed in how we live together, because — literally — the sea is changing, along with everything else.

Climate change is a real and present danger, everywhere. Pretending that seven-plus billion people can live the way we do without having major negative impacts on planetary ecology is sheer idiocy. Continuing to do nothing is worse — especially if you are a politician responsible for managing the society in which we live.

People who say things are not so bad are shills for the fossil-fuel industry, employed to troll people such as me to make people such as you think there is some doubt about what is going on, or to dispute the urgency of doing something about it.

I would tell you to count the number of bird songs or frog calls in Manitoba this spring and compare them to what you remember, even 20 years ago — but that would mean you had to find some birds and frogs to count. In too many places, even outside the city, silence greets the dawn after a spring rain.

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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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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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