School Run

John Sayer helps his kids prepare for school in future Hong Kong

Good morning girls. Have you packed your lunches? We have some papaya from the tree beside our house, take that too. The tree’s doing better since we joined the Compost Compact. We need more home-grown fresh fruit since they put that quota on air-freight food imports to Hong Kong.

You can bring your sandwich onto the ferry. That new electric boat is more stable than the old one, and nice and quiet when I feel like a nap.

Yes, you can carry your parasolars today. Don’t stab other pedestrians in the eye while you’re playing with them and don’t damage the cells or the fans. Use them, though; the UV forecast is ‘extreme’ today. Wear your evapocool undershirts as well. You’ll look like the plastic bottles they’re recycled from!

I’ve got to stay in this morning, they’re fitting our home air-and-water temperature system later today. Yes, hot water and cool air from the same machine. It will run off our own roof panels on a sunny day, and we sell extra electricity to Hong Kong Electric . . . to get a lower power bill.

While the engineers are here I’ll ask when the salt water flushing water is going to be installed on the island. We are among the last districts to be fitted. Yes, most of Hong Kong’s toilets were converted years ago to use sea water.

Convenient to stay home; they’re doing a ‘floor lift’ at the office this month; moving everything out of the ground floor of our office block and knocking the walls out to allow water to pass under in case of street floods. Not too big problem for our work, I mean who in Hong Kong isn’t used to the best use of small areas? Just better sharing of desk space? And perhaps more working from home.

Actually the opened up street level under our office will be made into a walk-though public space, with improved air circulation. It will probably become part of the ‘cool spots’ initiative – that’s right, those places where people can sit in a mist breeze for a minute or two if they overheat on the streets. Yes, I do like them. Have you tried the new scented mists? Menthol, lemon, mango? I think the cosmetic companies should sponsor them! We could have an Issey Miyake mist stop, a Burberry breeze break. Perhaps Body Shop could produce a mosquito-repelling mist.

They have mist fans in the school playground don’t they? All the recreation areas are covered right? When you play on the fields you wear those Foreign Legion hats don’t you?

I do hope this Great Harbour Wall will help keep water levels down when it’s finished. I’m glad they covered the cycle track along the top with a solar panel roof. You can cycle anywhere along the whole waterfront without getting bleached in the sun. A clever idea to add that tidal energy trial into the wall over by the old airport too – they’ve nicknamed it “the steel dragon” because of the bendy bits.

Did you see that the Mandatory Provident Fund are offering higher returns to anyone who cycles or walks to work? That’s because they think we’ll use less money on medical costs. They call it nudging I think – so know your being nudged! Well, I’ll let you cycle to school when they have completed the separate track, I don’t want you to go under a bus – those electric ones are a bit quiet.

What’s your after-school CAS* activity today? Weather outreach for old people, so that they can respond to extreme weather or flood warnings? Some use smartphones and some need a young person to go round and talk to them. That’s nice for them anyway, you should plan to visit them even if they do have a smart phone; even when the weather is safe.

The school is helping with flood probability surveys? I see, you make a record of the types of doors and windows in low-lying houses, and the direction the doors face and then this is combined with a GPS flood map to work out overall vulnerability. Do they fit those flood shields? They block the doorway, it slots into the door frame, for about half a meter. Mostly plastic, very strong, made over the border in China.

And how about your CAS? Mozzie watch? That’s looking out for standing water isn’t it? You can report people? Sounds a bit tough, they can get fined can’t they? Well I suppose they’ve had enough warning about the rules, and the drainage services are free if work is needed. Still, children reporting adults . . . make sure you don’t start behaving like Red Guards and tormenting adults whose minds are not as sharp as yours.

Don’t forget that this weekend we’re doing the Really Really Free Market in the village. You’re working on ceramics, clothes and cloth. I’m on wood and furniture. I also agreed to do an hour on the Green Cottage stall with veggie breakfasts for everyone in aid of the help the Village Circular Economy initiative.

Have a nice day today. There’s a typhoon out beyond the Philippines, but you’ve downloaded the Water Watch app right? Why do you call it ‘turds’? Typhoon, tide deluge and surge; very funny – not. Alright, phone charged right? Use the elevated walkways okay! Sunblock please, parasolas or no parasolas.

Goodbye, stay safe

Bye . . . haven’t you forgotten something? Water bottles, water bottles. Remember the trouble you got into with that plastic bottle!

No, the typhoon’s still a couple of days away. You may have to have a day’s skypeschool if it arrives.

John SayerThe Really Really Free Market is real – operated by young people in Hong Kong for free exchange of unwanted goods. Already, over 80% of toilets in Hong Kong flush with sea water. The Green Cottage is a vegetarian Café on the car-free Lamma Island in Hong Kong. John Sayer (email) is Director of Carbon Care Asia, and lives on Lamma Island with two daughters who travel to school by public ferry.

* CAS stands for Creativity, Activity and Service in West Island School.

Climate change and childhood dreams

Usha Nair channels gratitude from a girl living in 2030. Thanks to prompt action at the turn of the 21st century, her life is not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Harsha looked out of the window. She could see a gale building up. Trees were swaying in the wind. The noise of waves crashing against the shore some distance away could be heard clearly. She sighed and tried to keep down the fear building up inside her. This could be the beginning of yet another bad period when they would be restricted within the four walls, scared to step out and forever weary of the giant waves and sea surge that had marked previous instances of such weather. She had read in her Class VI textbook that sea levels were predicted to rise by two meters by end of the century.

The year was 2030. Harsha recalled how her mother recounted stories of her own childhood when they enjoyed the rains, running out to get drenched in the downpour and get scolded on return. Rains were regular and moderate. There was a pattern in weather events and events round the year could be predicted fairly accurately. Schools reopened after the summer vacations to torrential monsoon rains. Festival season was filled with flowers, fruits and pleasant weather. Summer was hot and humid but not too hot to run out and play through the day. What fun they seemed to have had when the whole extended family assembled at the family home in the village for school vacations!

Her father regaled them with stories about his feats in the village pond and river. He and his friends used to spend hours splashing in the water and racing each other across the wide river. But the river she saw was only a small trickle of smelly water, waylaid with lumps of unfriendly grass and mounts of sand and rock.

The family had paid short visits to their village when she was a little girl. But the journey always left bad memories, plagued by water scarcity, swarming mosquitoes and inclement weather. Over the years they had stopped undertaking those visits, much to the regret of her mother. Harsha particularly remembered the vibrant colours of the butterflies her aunt had told her about. She had only seen a rare butterfly in the park, that too in dull monotonous colours. Where have the colours disappeared. How dull and dreary her childhood seemed when compared to the lively, peppy childhood of her parents and grandparents! Who had taken away all the fun and frolic? She wished something could be done to restore the old life.

Harsha ran to her grandfather and plagued him with questions and doubts. He explained to her how Man’s reckless activities over decades and centuries had destroyed the environment. Chasing the dreams of riches, comfort and enjoyment, Man went about exploiting Nature’s resources without giving anything back. Slowly, ominously, the balance of Nature crumbled. Natural resources were plundered and fragile species made extinct. Natural protection for lands and seas (such as, coral reefs and mangrove forests) were destroyed in the name of development, leaving them open to danger and destruction. Climate changed all over the world. The world now faced extreme events, unprecedented heat and cold, destructive deluges and fearful sea surges.

“But, Grandpa,” exclaimed Harsha, “if Man is responsible for all this, surely he can try to undo the destruction too, can’t he?” Her grandfather nodded his head, “Some of the damage is unfortunately irreversible. But the good news is that Man has realised his grave mistakes and is already trying to restore some element of harmony and beauty in nature. ” He explained that all the countries of the world got together at the turn of the century to discuss the serious implications of the recklessness of Man. There were scientific studies and political negotiations. Before too long everyone realised that climate change is the biggest threat ever faced by humanity. It respected no divisions of prosperity, education, social status or religious belief. All people and all countries were equally affected and were destined to suffer the consequences. They realised that unless everyone joined hands and worked really hard, this calamity could not be avoided. Good sense prevailed upon the leaders of all the countries – developed, developing, under-developed – who resolved to take urgent steps necessary to keep the threat of global destruction away.

Countries took urgent steps to reduce their carbon emissions through safe energy, improved designs of buildings and vehicles, managing and protecting water resources, altering luxurious life styles with huge carbon footprints, making towns, cities and villages safe and healthy for people, ensuring sufficient food for all etc.

Now scientists say that all this has helped in bringing down emissions of harmful gases. They were looking forward to a carbon neutral world very soon. The years leading upto 2030 had seen countries pursuing development in more responsible ways, taking care to keep the methods safe and nature friendly. Of course, developing and less developed countries had to pursue some traditional methods and patterns, but they too had crossed the level of peak emissions and had started showing a sloping trend.

Harsha smiled with relief. She felt assured that her generation could look forward to a better world, a world in which there are colourful butterflies and meandering rivers. A world in which they can run around and enjoy the rains and play to their heart’s fill in parks and gardens. In her heart she thanked the elder generation who had shown the wisdom and good sense to arrest the journey to doom by taking action with unity. At the same time she felt a sense of responsibility. It is up to children like her to make sure that the world does not fall back into the crevice of destruction and degradation of nature. They have to be vigilant and caring, to keep Mother Earth from again facing the inhumane treatment she had been subjected to in the past. She resolved to talk to her friends and spread the word about our precious earth and its bounty, and the need to preserve and protect them at all costs.

Usha Nair (email) is a voluntary social worker who is engaged in climate change related work. She is the Member-in-charge (Climate Change) at All India Women’s Conference, a 87-year old national women’s organisation in India. In this capacity she is in charge of organising awareness, advocacy and project-based activities on climate change across the country through more than 600 branches of AIWC. Till June 2016 she held the position of Co-focal Point, Women and Gender Constituency at UNFCCC. She has been attending UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) since 2011.

Water management should adapt NOW

Ralph Pentland says we should avoid over-reacting to climate change, as the best policy would be to do what we should be doing anyway.

At the outset, I would like to point out that my own background is in water and environmental management. I do not profess to be an expert on climate – so my few remarks will be based as much on intuition as on science.

Let’s begin with the basics – assuming the climate forecasters are somewhere near the right ballpark. The hydrologic effects of climate change could include changes in annual, seasonal and extreme precipitation, evaporation and runoff. There could also be an earlier onset of soil drying in early summer, and decreases in soil moisture availability. And in a cold climate like ours in Canada, we could experience a decrease in the ratio of snowmelt to rain, and an increase in the rate of snowmelt in spring months.

These hydrologic changes would translate into a number of water resources effects – for example, effects on drought and flood magnitude and frequency; supply reliability; demand requirements; and water quality and ecosystem habitat conditions.

Since water tends to be both an environmental and an economic integrator, these water resource effects would impact on a broad range of socio-economic activities – agriculture, forestry, hydroelectricity, industry, municipalities, recreation, shipping, and so on.

It seems to me the first step in preparing for climate change should be in identifying the areas and activities that are likely to experience the most serious negative impacts of an increasing greenhouse effect. Areas where water resources are already sensitive to climatic variability will probably be most vulnerable to the impacts of future climate change. Generally speaking, such areas have few or many of the following characteristics:

* natural water deficits
* high societal demands
* high flood risk
* dependency on reliable seasonal supply
* sensitivity to lake levels
* decreasing water quality
* dependency on hydroelectricity
* sensitive natural ecosystems

Despite lingering predictive uncertainties, the implications for water resource systems are likely to include increased stress and more frequent failures. The apparent dilemma for water planners, managers and policy makers is whether to act on incomplete information, or to wait for more solid scientific support.

My own perception is that the dilemma is in fact more apparent than real, because the directions we should be moving to prepare for climate change are identical to those we should be moving anyway. Let me illustrate by way of a few examples:

  • We should begin to seriously question the real viability and sustainability of proposed irrigation systems, and make the existing ones more water efficient, with or without climate change. Climate change may force us to do it sooner.
  • We should discourage new development on flood plains and along susceptible shorelines, with or without climate change. Increasing climate variability may convince our citizens of the wisdom of that approach sooner.
  • We should broaden our arsenal of weapons for combating water quality deterioration, with or without climate change. Climate change could induce us to do it sooner.
  • We should price water and other environmental resources in such a way as to encourage their conservation – climate change may give us the incentive to do it sooner.
  • We should do less subsidizing and more taxing of environmentally damaging activities, with or without climate change. Climate change could convince our lawmakers to do it sooner.
  • Decentralized decision making, and application of user/polluter pays approaches should be practiced to the extent possible. These principles, which make sense anyway, are coming increasingly prudent with a less predictable future.
  • Some claim that most countries have less water and environmental planning capability today than they had a few decades ago. To the extent that is correct, we should reverse that trend, with or without climate change.

Some have suggested massive capital works solutions – I disagree, with one small proviso. I would take climate change scenarios into account as a secondary design consideration for projects that we are building anyway. For example, it may be possible to design water management schemes, at little or no extra cost today, in such a way that they could be modified later, if necessary, in response to a changing climate.

I do not think we should even contemplate major capital works projects at this time just to deal with potential climate trends. For example, if it doesn’t make economic sense now to further regulate the Great Lakes, we should not consider building capital works merely in anticipation of lower water supplies a few decades away – the evidence simply does not support it.

In fact, I would contend that the danger of over-reacting with structural measures is significantly greater than the danger of under-reacting. Let me elaborate by way of an admittedly far-fetched example. What would happen if two or more northern circum-polar countries were to decide simultaneously to solve their emerging drought problems by diverting some of their north-flowing rivers southwards?

Some oceanographers speculate that such an eventuality would affect arctic salinity gradients and climate circulation patterns in such a way as to actually accelerate the drying of the North American Great Plains. Whether one accepts that thesis or not, I am sure most would agree that the uncertainty alone is sufficient cause for caution.

In summary, what I am advocating is that we learn a lot more before contemplating any drastic adaptive measures, and that in the meantime, we simply do what we should be doing anyway – but that we do it much sooner and much better.

And cost should not be a serious concern. If my examples are anywhere near representative, a “sooner and better” strategy would almost surely result in long-term net savings.

PentlandRalph Pentland served as Director of the Water Planning and Management Branch in Environment Canada for 13 years, from 1978 to 1991. In that capacity, he negotiated and administered numerous Canada-U.S. and federal-provincial water Agreements, and was the primary author of the 1987 Federal Water Policy. Since 1991, he has served as a water and environmental policy consultant in many countries, and has collaborated with numerous non-governmental and academic institutions. Over the years, Ralph has co-chaired five International Joint Commission Boards and Committees. Most recently he was a member of the Government of the Northwest Territories Team negotiating bilateral water agreements in the multi-jurisdictional Mackenzie River Basin.

Soil will provide future food security

John Simaika warns that soil erosion is likely to be a big source of food insecurity.

As seen from space, we live on a blue planet – a planet full of water – with a little green and brown here and there. A closer look, however, reveals that especially around coasts, there is often a brown soup coming from streams entering the ocean, for example off the east coast of Madagascar (Green & Sussman 1990). The majority of times, this is associated with land use, starting far upstream of the wide rivers that then carry once fertile soils, accumulated over hundreds of kilometers, into the oceans. A lot of this soil will have been washed into streams by a process known as erosion, the natural enemy of soil formation. Erosion can be water-based or wind-based. In most cases, water erosion is of concern. In a world where the weather is predicted to become more extreme, soil erosion by water will, for many reasons increase significantly.

But why should we care about ‘dirt’? Well, because dirt is alive, an ecosystem of its own, that is so diverse, that it carries a plethora of organisms in just a teaspoon. In that teaspoon will be bacteria and fungi, part of the so-called microfauna, and nematode worms, mites and springtails, to name a few of the larger mesofauna. This might not seem all that significant, but soil ecosystems are responsible for the global storage and release of CO2 (Guo & Gifford 2002), a greenhouse gas known to cause global climate change (IPCC 2014). It is the capacity of soils overall to store carbon that aids in mitigating climate change (Lal 2004), but this capacity, and its response to a changing climate is not yet well understood (Frey et al. 2013). With limits on time for action, soil conservation and the creation of carbon sinks or pools is high on policy agendas.

Apart from their role in climate change mitigation, soils are responsible for good plant growth and thus maintain animal life, including human life. Soil quality, topography and microclimate are essential ingredients to plant crop health and thus good quality food. The effects of climatic change on soil per se are complex, as they depend on soil type (the physical composition), topography, biological soil composition (those little microbes and invertebrates mentioned earlier), ecosystem type (for example grassland or forest), local climate, the direction of rainfall change, land use and land management (Blankinship et al. 2011; Panagos et al. 2015).

Rainfall patterns and intensity in particular, are a direct concern: While areas that are already dry are predicted to become drier, those that are wet are becoming wetter still (Burt et al. 2016). The real concern is with the intensity of rainfall events. Fewer rainfall days are predicted, with more rainfall overall, in those days. It is the intensity of the rainfall that causes more soil to erode quicker. In a warmer, wetter world, rates of soil erosion will therefore increase (Burt et al. 2016). Already, in Europe, the mean soil loss rate (2.2 t ha-1 yr-1 for non-erosion-prone areas) exceeds the average soil formation rate (1.4 t ha-1 yr-1) by a factor of 1.6. About 12.7% of arable land in the European Union experiences unsustainable rates of soil loss (>5 t ha-1 yr-1), a pattern which is considered a major threat to food security for the European Union (Panagos et al. 2015). Factoring in more intense rainfall events in the future, would translate to higher incidences of crop damage (IPCC 2012) and to even greater losses of soils and carbon stocks across greater agricultural landscapes (Reichstein et al. 2013).

With about 11 billion people to feed, agriculture will have to intensify, presumably on smaller pockets of land, as increasingly erosion and salinization take their toll on the landscape. Anti-erosion measures will have to be implemented such as reduced or no tillage, the planting of cover crops, keeping plant residues at the soil surface, the maintenance of stone walls, and the increased use of grass margins and contour farming (Panagos et al. 2015). Urban populations will have to adapt, and new innovative ways of making food in cities will have to take precedence. Urban agriculture might take the shape of roof-top and balcony gardens, and hydroponic installations. Urban gardens and public parks could also increasingly play a role in food security, as they will be increasingly used to grow food. It could also mean that our reliance on high impact foods such as red meat will have to take a backseat to eating insects (van Huis 2013). Food production in the city would not only add utilitarian value, but potentially decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality (Lee et al. 2015), while increasing the aesthetic appeal of city life, where at least some people would experience a sense of place and being.

John P. Simaika is a Conservation Ecologist at the Department of Soil Science, Stellenbosch University. His research is applied, focusing predominantly on the conservation of insects in land- and water-scapes. He is an active member of the IUCN Freshwater Conservation Sub-Committee, and is Conservation Chair of the South African Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. To find out more, visit

The new normal of extreme weather events

Ilaria Meggetto explains how “crazy storms” of today are likely to become harmfully normal.

Science tells us that we should expect increased temperatures in the upcoming years and that, even if we were to suddenly cease all anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases today, the global thermometer would still go up by some points, due to the climate system’s inertia, and stabilize only in the long term. As discouraging as it is, this is not the worst thing about climate change. The data we have is also consistent in indicating not only an increase in temperature records, but also an increase in their variance, so that while all temperatures rise on average, so does the frequency of their extremes and the events connected to them – droughts, floods, heatwaves and storms.

Hong Kong. Together with the Pearl River Delta cities, this coastal area hosts about 50 million people. Source: Author (August 2014)

I have lived in different places, experiences hot and cold climate. Before 2013, though, I had never been to the Tropics so when I moved to South China I did know what a typhoon is but had no idea what it means. During my first week there I was awoken by a strong thundering noise, so overwhelming and continuous that it could not be ignored. They sky over the 14-million-people-megacity of Guangzhou had turned deep red and, together with the intense smog above the whole area – making the horizon smoky all the time – for a moment I was under the impression the city was being bombed. Then, all of a sudden, a violent wind carried a mountain of water down the place. The rain did not stop for 4 days. Streets flooded. Electricity failed. Typhoon Utor had landed.

Typhoon Haiyan’s trail, 11 November 2013. Source: GDACS – Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System

A typhoon is a tropical cyclone is a storm system generated by the evaporation of massive amounts of water and it is characterized by intense thunderstorms whose winds blow above 118 km/h. As I learnt, locals call the period from May to September the “Season of Storms” and 2013 was the most active Pacific typhoon season since 2004 and the deadliest since 1975. A total of 52 depressions, 31 storms, 13 typhoons and 5 super typhoons formed in that year, the last being Category 5 Super Typhoon Haiyan that, with its winds up to 230 km/h, bought devastation across the South China Sea and 6,300 victims in the Philippines.

Understanding how this system works was crucial for me as it will be for many: deciding whether the apartment you want to rent is at risk of flood, knowing where to go when the typhoon alarm rings, stocking water supplies, putting together an emergency kit… are only some of the basic things needed to live in a place hit by intensified weather events. This situation, however, is not a local problem as it is transforming in geography and occurrence as we speak.

Oceans are warming up all over the world. The duration, intensity and number of storms has already increased by 50% compared to the 1970s. 70 to 100 tropical storms used to be the annual average but in the past few years this number has been almost matched by the storms generated in the North Pacific Ocean alone

Half of the world’s population resides along the coast, threatened by the sea level rise and the violence of weather events. When it comes to climate talks, water scarcity is in the spotlight but where water is too much, rising above the 2-meter-threshold and storming densely inhabited shores, the situation is equally dreadful. As disrupted climate patterns and unpredictable trends reach areas considered stable or safe in the past, being able to “read the signs”, subscribing to weather alerts, living “prepared” is likely to become the new normal for most of us.

IMIlaria Meggetto (email) is a Project Manager at Hydroaid (Italy), researcher, traveller, and passionate about climate change.