Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Death on the Nile

In Ethiopia, the construction of the Grand Renaissance dam, seems to be advancing, and the discussions around the water rights on the Nile got more intense. Aljazeera, in its program Inside Story wants to "examine the impact on water supply for Egypt's growing population."

It is almost a comical discussion that is presented in this debate that brings together, Bereket Simon, Ethiopian minister of information, Lama el-Hatow, co-founder of water institute of the Nile and Cleo Paskal  writer of Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  

It is a strange combination of guests, holding their pre-programmed monolgues on the Nile, which are too long for the time given by the moderator. It is also about  three invitees who fight with very unequal weapons. Instead of emotional monologues, now facts about water and solutions to conflictual situations are needed. The only one who really talked about the technicalities, threats and opportunities about the Dam is the Ethiopian minister, but his English is not good enough (ironically the Minister of information) to truly contribute to a constructive debate (he is just reciting the official story, that seems correct from a hydrological point of view, but not answering the questions).

Let me summarize my (non-hydrologist and non-expert) understanding of the problem and please feel free to correct them by commenting this blog.
  1. there is a certain amount of water in the Ethiopian Blue Nile, if water is used for electricity, then potentially the same amount of water will be flowing to Egypt. (which is not be the case if lots of water would be used for agriculture, i.e water is consumed by plants, as it is for example done in Sudan)
  2. With the dam, the water arriving in Egypt, will be more evenly distributed through out the year (as it is stored and used for evenly used for electricity production) allowing to reduce shortages in the dry season.
  3. The dam will keep silt up-stream, reducing siltation of down-stream dams (i.e reducing costs for downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt).
  4. Storing water for electricity in highlands is a regional optimum, as it is situated in a cooler area, there is less evaporation (i.e. less water loss).
  5. Filling the dam, might be a huge problem, because during this time there will be less (up to no water) flowing to Egypt. But it is a transitional time that needs to be managed smartly and across boundaries.
  6. Ethiopia could switch the water off from Egypt (but just up to the point when the dam is full).
  7. There could be ecological impacts due to more evenly distributed water and to the diversion. But let's face it, the first people to be damaged by the diversion are the (few) Ethiopian living around the dam. Secondly, this is not the first dam on the Nile, the famous flooding of the Nile we all learnt about at school bringing fertile soils and allowing to feed the Pharaohs is not existing anymore for a long time already. 
However, i am not sure if better watershed management, i.e. rainwater management, will increase the water availability in Egypt (as the Minister said), because again the amount of water in the area remains unchanged (note that some of my ex-colleagues come to the conclusion that increased use of water for food production through improved rainwater management is marginal), but its distribution will be changed,  siltation is reduced and water quality might be improved. Climate change, (i.e the global amount of water in the region is decreased) is an issue that is important and that emerges with or without dam. The dam could even help reducing impact of climate change.

When i look at the list above, I see two points where Egypt should be worried about, the dam filling if not done smartly could be a huge problem as well as Ethiopia switching off the water fully. There should be clear agreements for these points, as for example on a minimum flow (get inspired, there is a legal minimum flow to every dam in Switzerland to preserve the ecosystem). All the other points should not be so much of a problem to Egypt. Egypt can even benefit. And if not? then why is it that none of all these pro-Egyptian experts (who speak English very well) can explain it in clear words?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

agriculture in the 18th century : the kitchen garden from Prangins Castle

view on Geneva lake from Nyon

Yesterday, i went on a small tour around Nyon, to visit the garden of Prangins Castel, which is also a part of the National Museum.

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(zoom into the green arrow to see the castle in 3D)

My personal interest went to the gardens. "The kitchen garden is in its form a copy of an 18th century palatial garden. Here, old types and sorts of fruits and vegetables grow that were cultivated and eaten/consumed in the region some two and half centuries ago. These plants, to some extent all but forgotten today, serve as witnesses to the nutritional habits and customary use of the period. This living conservatorium thus serves as a hoard of a fragile and threatened heritage with historical, botanical and ethnological facets of a broad palette of indigenous vegetable and fruit plants." (text taken from here)
the kitchen garden from Prangins Castle
An audio guide, guides the visitor through this garden, explaining the origine and the use of a selected amount of plants. These explanations are often completed by referencing to the dairy of Baron who lived in the castle as well as the encyclopedy of Yverdon that is dating from the 18th century. 

Through this audio guide I learnt a lot about agriculture in the 18th century, which i did not know before : some lessons learnt and thoughts I wanted to share with you in this post.
Morus tree

One of the first thing that stroke me were the Morus trees, the black and the white sort. I know that the white one is the one needed for the silk worm and the dark one is the one I used to go collecting and eating the fruit in Serbia. I had seen these trees in many places around the world, but not at home. So I learnt that the silk in the Castle is "home made". Silk made in Switzerland? So why does it today always come from developing countries?

Asparagus is still today a well known plant and one of my favourite vegetable on my plate. The audio guide was explaining that in the 18th century, they managed to grow them in January. Wait a second, climate change is yet to come, so how did they manage to get asparagus without heater and glasshouses? They used a pretty interesting technique. Between the ranges of asparagus, they would dig ditches before the cold season. They would fill the ditches with manure and cover them with straw. The fermentation process of the manure produces warmth that is sufficient for asparagus to grow in the winter. Is that a technology we will reinvent when we face an energy crisis?

Topinambour or Jerusalem artichoke
Topinambour is a sort of potato that grows very fast and once it is in the ground, can hardly be taken out. I had some in my garden in the Netherlands and never managed to get them out of there. The audio guide was explaining that this crop helped a lot to fight the famine, because it grows so easily and the leaves could be fed to livestock. So it just dropped into my mind, would that not be a solution for Africa? Does anyone know about evidence that it would not work?

The garden tour at Prangins Castle give you much more information than these and is definitely worth a visit. I will go back end of September to see the saffron  flower flowering with my own eyes.

the saffron flower (taken from wikipedia)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Scaling issues in art (Art Basel)

Crossing Basel today, was a pretty great experience, it is Art Basel.It is the big meeting of all artists and art lover. Part of the experience is a so called Parcours that leads through through the old military barrack, a place that is currently re-used as ateliers for artists. It was an amazing afternoon, discovering wonderful places, including a shop with home made ice cream or Ethiopian coffee. But is was mainly full of art.

One piece of art particularly attracted my attention : it tries to represent scaling issues. It is named "avalanche".

Avalanche at high scale

"The work Avalanche #2 by Evariste Richer is a floor piece consisting of 60 000 dice. The dice form an enlarged and pixelated image of an avalanche. The six nuances of grey correspond in this way to the six sides of a dice. A mimesis of a snow avalanche emerges from the ground through the methodic and fragile assembly of 60 000 dice.  
Spatial patterns in Avalanche

Avalanche (#2) addresses, through the shape of the dice, the contiguous relationship between the arbitrary game and the unpredictable course of a natural phenomenon. Through this work, the artist addresses the same landscape at different scales: from the overall perspective (a grisaille image through vibrant pointillism) to the detail (black dots on white background)."
Taken from here

Avalanche at low scale

Another piece that made me smile, are the shopping caddies full of plants reminding us of where our food comes from. It is not part of Art Basel, it is just there as part of a restaurant... some food for thoughts for people who have a break there...

just decoration?
some plant shopping?
Food for thoughts?

Monday, June 10, 2013

The challenge of managing water in Ethiopia and in Senegal

Recently,  at Lausanne University, in the faculty of Geosciences and Environment, a series of presentations on the challenge of water in Africa took place. I gave a presentation on Ethiopia and my father on Senegal.
Below you can find my presentation, which tries to convince people that Ethiopia at least the Highlands does not suffer from water scarcity, as rainfall is higher than in many places in Europe, but the rain is very unevenly distributed. It also tries to show that there is a lot of knowledge about the known solution to the problem, namely rainwater management. The real challenge is to bring this knowledge on the ground. Research is in fact much more needed for knowledge transfer and communication. The presentation overflies the suite of knowledge transfer tool that the NBDC program component 3 on targeting and scaling out has developed and its impact on the ground, namely the new rainwater management concept, the Nile-Goblet tool and Happy Strategies game. (see output)

Here you can find my father's presentation on water challenges in Senegal. It presents the re-use of water for agriculture in peri-urban area. The reuse of water for agriculture is a great option. However urbanization is threatening agriculture. It concludes that in Dakar, the challenge is not water scarcity, but salinity, pollution and the lack of management.

This presentation series was a great opportunity to look into different African countries, their water issues and possible solutions. Both in Ethiopia and Senegal, it is not so much about water availability than it is about managing and governing water. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Secondary residences in Switzerland, a lack of targeting?

The threat that secondary residences are destroying the landscape in touristic area in Switzerland is not a new topic.  Already during my master studies in 2004, the amount of houses with closed shutters and low return for the touristic area were considered as a problem. Indeed, ghost villages are not authentic and do not attract tourists. It is therefore crucial that there are whole-year-residents in these villages, also to take care of the holiday homes. But because of the rush for secondary residences land price go up and locals cannot afford building and living in these areas anymore. They move out of the attractive landscapes, to live outside in cheaper location and commute for work, leaving the touristic villages empty.

The fascination to this topic had lead to my master thesis. It looked at the particular case of the Engadin, the touristic region in the East of Switzerland, where St. Moritz is located.

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With a system dynamic model, I tested several possible policies, among other fixing a maximum percentage of land for secondary residence, or separating land markets for residents and for non-residents.
The model showed that only policies that split the land market for resident and non-resident were efficient , as it would keep housing prices low and affordable for residents who could stay in the touristic area and keeping it authentic. Threshold policies would slow-down the urbanization but would not solve the problem of locals having to move to the periphery. 

Not only i was fascinated by the topic of secondary residences, but also some people took political actions. Last year the Swiss population accepted a popular initiative (a political procedure through which the population can propose a new law) that foresees to fix the maximum secondary residences to 20%. If a municipality already has more than this threshold, then no more secondary residence can be built, which is now binding the construction in all touristic areas.

Somehow it reminds me of discussions I had in Ethiopia. It is clear to  everyone that every location is different and therefore a different solution should be applied. But what do you expect from a developing country? they can only develop threshold based policies, though context specific policies would work much better... but Switzerland is not a developing country, yet context specific policies seem to be very difficult. And the lack of differentiation between the different context had consequences. It has lead to an almost comical drama. It was unclear from when the limitation on the construction for new secondary residences enters in force, at the day of acceptance of the popular initiative or January 1st 2013 as proposed by the government. In the meantime many construction authorizations have been requested and accepted in touristic areas, in order to build just before the new law enters in force.
Some weeks ago, the highest tribunal of Switzerland had to decide when the construction limitation enters in force and decided that it would be the voting day. In many touristic regions, this is a drama as many of these recently accepted project cannot be implemented anymore, and everyone fears economic slow down.  Politicians from these touristic cantons are already looking for new options, and even think of an initiative to contra-balance this initiative...  At least the Swiss political system offers escapes...

Here the new announcement of the tribunal's decision 

It is just a brilliant example of what happens when policies are implemented without accounting for different contexts. Stays that developing context specific policies are very challenging. What is fair and who decides about this? how to avoid corruption?