Physical Geography

The role of the physical environment in issues of geographical significance

Misleading Lists of Large Lakes

Conventional lists of the world’s largest lakes by area are often misleading. Most claim that the Aral Sea is one of the Earth’s most extensive bodies of inland water, some placing it in the fourth position, and others, including infoplease and factmonster, in sixth place. In actuality, the Aral Sea has virtually disappeared, and now is essentially a massive salt-flat, as can be seen in the paired images to the left. As a result, it should be deleted from such lists.

Second-place standing is also controversial. Most lists place Lake Superior in this position, including AboutGeography. The Wikipedia, however, has demoted Superior to third place, as it claims that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are actually a single lake, the world’s second largest. From a strictly limnological point of view, it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

The Wikipedia list of the largest lakes conveniently includes small maps, made to scale, of the water-bodies in question. I have copied and traced out several of these images to construct a simple map overlay that shows relative sizes of a few noted lakes. The massive extent of the Caspian Sea (which is actually a lake) is evident, dwarfing the combined Michigan-Huron. Michigan-Huron, in turn, is shown to be massively larger that Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul (in maroon), the world’s second largest Alpine lake, which in turn is vastly large than Lake Tahoe (dark blue), widely viewed as sizable lake. (Lake Tahoe is actually too small to be on the Wikipedia list; as a result I have had to estimate its relative size here.)

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The Centrality of the Caucasus

London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the Caucasus

London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the CaucasusFor the past month, GeoCurrents has focused on the Caucasus, exploring the region’s history, languages, cuisines, and more. Two additional posts will conclude the series. We will subsequently pause to introduce some new features of the blog, and then we will move on to examine a different part of the world.

The current series began by asking a seemingly banal question, “Where Is the Caucasus?” Although the region is easy to locate on a world map, its geographical categorization is tricky, as the Caucasus straddles the conventional divide between Europe and Asia and can plausibly be placed in different regions of the world. The initial post concluded by suggesting that the Caucasus might be regarded as a world region in its own right.

After inspecting the Caucasus for the past month, I am more convinced than ever that it merits such a designation. Despite its compact size, the Caucasus contains as much human diversity as most recognized world regions. Its role in world history has been profound—and deeply underrated. When we append the Caucasus to some other part of the world, its distinctiveness tends to fade away, leaving a vague peripheral zone of rugged landscapes and obscure peoples. In the process, the region’s larger significance is lost.

The seeming obscurity of the Caucasus is an artifact of our inherited and rarely questioned schemes of global division. Newer ideas about the geographical structures of the pre-industrial world, however, can help reposition this historically important region. In the traditional Western imagination, the Caucasus is situated between Europe and Asia: the two major divisions, along with Africa, of the Eastern Hemisphere. World historians posit instead an “Afro-Eurasian ecumene” of loosely linked civilizations that encompassed most of the so-called Old World. Within this mega-region, the primary divide is increasingly seen not as that separating Europe from Asia, but rather that marking off East Asia from everywhere else. Physical geography played a role here; the mountains between India and China are so formidable that travelers between them often detoured thousands of miles through the Silk Roads of Central Asia. In demographic terms, Europe and India were the twin anchors of this rump ecumene (without East Asia), constituting its major population centers.

Population Map of Eastern Hemisphere Circa 1648 by Colin McEvedyTo the extent that the area encompassing Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Peninsula formed a historically coherent sphere of interaction, the Caucasus served as its fulcrum. That centrality is evident on the first map posted here, made by  Jake Coolidge for GeoCurrents, which shows the most direct line, or great circle route, between London and Bombay (Mumbai). Such a pivotal location was an advantage, if a minor one, for the Armenian merchants* who helped knit together the Afro-Eurasian ecumenical societies.

*Although Tbilisi, situated near the mid-point of the London-Mumbai axis, is a Georgian city, its population was predominately Armenian until the second half of the nineteenth century.

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Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics?

Wikipedia map of the Subtropics

Wikipedia map of the SubtropicsIn 2010, Foreign Policy magazine asked Russian opposition leader and Sochi native Boris Nemtsov why he opposed the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown. Nemtsov’s reply was broad ranging. He decried the displacement of 5,000 people while warning that corruption and organized crime would devour most of the construction funds showered on the city. He began his critique, however, with Sochi’s climate:

“[Putin] has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.”

Sochi does indeed have a subtropical climate, with average winter temperatures well above freezing, complicating Olympic plans. As Nemtsov elaborates, most of the skating facilities are being built in the Imereti Valley, which is warmer than Sochi itself. Cooling, needless to say, will be expensive. The ski venue might seem to be even more of a problem, as Olympic-quality skiing requires natural snow in copious quantities. The snowy Caucasus Mountains, however, lie just to the northeast of Sochi.  The main skiing facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) from the city center, will probably have adequate snow.

Tabular Comparison of Climate in Sochi Russia and Portland Oregon, Wikipedia DataBut while Sochi qualifies as subtropical by strict climatological criteria,* it can be misleading to characterize it as such, at least in the United States. If I were to use the term “subtropical” in class, my students would imagine Miami or perhaps Los Angeles at a stretch. Certainly those native to California’s Bay Area would never consider their winter-chilled homeland as “subtropical” in any sense. Yet the Bay Area is actually much warmer in winter than Sochi. In Palo Alto, the average February high temperature is 62°F (16°C), far exceeding Sochi’s 49.8°F (9.9°C). In terms of annual temperature range, Sochi is closely analogous to Portland, Oregon, as can be seen in the paired tables reproduced here. In the United States, the notion that Portland has a subtropical climate would seem quaint if not ludicrous.

From the Russian perspective, however, Sochi definitely is subtropical. If anything is mentioned about Sochi in the Russian press, it is generally its sub-tropicality—and for good reason, as it is essentially the only place in the country with a non-freezing winter. Climate evaluations turn out to be variable, relative to one’s personal experience. I once spent a summer in the Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimo”) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the locals found their own summer climate delightfully temperate and that of the adjacent Yukon Valley oppressively hot. In Anaktuvuk Pass, July temperatures rarely exceed 50°F (10°C). Yet one day during my sojourn the winds died down, the sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a delightful 75°F (24°C)—or so I thought. The villagers were not pleased at all with the brutal heat.

The (US) Wikipedia article on Sochi describes its climate not only as subtropical, which is technically true if slightly misleading, but goes on to characterize it as being of the “Mediterranean–type”—which is simply incorrect. Mediterranean climates are characterized by dry summers, and those of Sochi are distinctly wet. True, Sochi gets a bit more rain in the winter than in the summer, but its average July precipitation of 4.9 inches (124 mm) is hardly meager. In most climate classification schemes, a Mediterranean climate cuts off at 30 to 40 millimeters (1.2-1.6 inches) of precipitation in the driest month. (Note that by such criteria, Portland Oregon is definitely Mediterranean, yet few Americans would place such a wet city in that category.)

Beyond ice-rink cooling costs, the Sochi Olympics faces a number of problems. The Circassian protests have already been discussed in previous posts, and issues surrounding organized crime and corruption are noted above. But according to Boris Nemtsov, the mire runs much deeper. In a 2011 television interview, he claimed that the total costs could exceed U.S. $30 billion—ten times the figure of the Vancouver Olympics. Nemtsov also highlights the cultural and environmental damage suffered by the city and its environs, as roads are pushed through nature reserves and old residences are demolished without replacement. Such disruptions, he claims, have already undermined the summer tourism industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. Construction, moreover, is running behind schedule, worrying Russian leaders. In mid-January 2012, “President Dmitry Medvedev … ordered the government to ensure facilities for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were finished on time, in a rare official show of impatience with the sluggish progress.”

Sochi is not the only part of the Caucasus impacted by ambitious winter tourism designs. Russia plans to build major downhill ski resorts elsewhere. According to a January 14, 2013 article:

[T]he draft project of the tourism cluster in the south of Russia envisages the construction in 2011-2020 of five world-class mountain resorts in Lagonaki (Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Elbrus-Bezengi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania), Matlas (Republic of Dagestan). The length of all the ski slopes will total nearly 900 km. 179 elevators will be installed. Hotels of various levels of comfort designed for 89,000 places will be constructed. … Each year the North Caucasian tourist cluster will accept 5-10 million tourists.

            Such plans seem overly optimistic, as security concerns, inadequate infrastructure, and poor hotel management may make it difficult to attract many tourists. Some critics think that Russia would be much better off building additional winter sports facilities in the Khanty-Mansiysk area in the Ural Mountains of western Siberia. Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, boasts of its mountain skiing facilities and the fact that it has successfully hosted several world biathlon championship. It is also an oil-boom town located in the Russia’s richest administrative district. As such, it would seem to be a more reasonable place for winter resort development than the violence-plagued northern Caucasus.

*One prominent climate classification scheme, for example applies the subtropical label any place where the average temperature of the coldest month is between 6°C (42.8°F) and 18°C (64.4°F), while another uses the range between 2°C (35.6°F) and 13°C (55.4°F).

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for translating Boris Nemtsov’s interview.)


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The Afghan “Graveyard of Empires” Myth and the Wakhan Corridor

Map of Greek Kingdoms in Afghanistan and India, Circa 150 BCEThe idea that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires,” a country that perennially entices imperial conquerors only to humiliate and expel them, is often encountered.  This potent cliché has been thoroughly debunked, yet it refuses to die. An October 7, 2011 Time magazine article, for example, opens with the provocative headline, “Afghanistan: Endgame in the Graveyard of Empires.” And as we saw in Sunday’s GeoCurrents post, the same idea was recently invoked by Thomas Freidman, although he avoided the cemetery analogy.

The “graveyard of empires” idea rests on a shallow understanding of world history. It proponents point to the fact that many empires have tried to conquer Afghanistan, yet none has been able to maintain permanent rule. In its stronger version, the thesis holds that no foreign power has ever subjugated Afghanistan, even temporarily. As a 2009 Cato Institute report put it, “Although Afghanistan has endured successive waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it.” Others allow that conquests occurred, but maintain that the conquerors always came to grief, sometimes losing not just Afghanistan but their entire empires in the process. As a 2009 CNN report put it, “And can it only be coincidence that in the wake of their Afghan disasters both the British and Soviet empires … crumbled?” In both versions, the syndrome is depicted as one of long-standing, extending “throughout [Afghanistan’s] history” according to a 2009 Guardian article. Many authors stress the difficulties faced by two of the world’s most formidable empire-builders, Alexander of Macedon and Genghis Khan. As stated in a 2009 article in the New York Times:

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army suffered staggering losses in fierce battles against Afghan tribes. His astonishing conquest of Eurasia became bogged down in Afghanistan …. Over the next two thousand years, the region was deeply problematic for major empires from the West and the East — from the Arab armies to such legendary conquerors as Genghis Khan, Timur (more commonly known as Tamerlane), and Babur.

           Map of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Afghanistan and Environs, Circa 180 BCE The “graveyard of empires” canard does rest on a few factual supports. The rugged, mountainous areas of central and eastern Afghanistan have historically been difficult to conquer and control—as is the case in many rugged and mountainous areas across the world. The Pashtun people, moreover, who form roughly half of Afghanistan’s population, do seem culturally predisposed to resist foreign rule, and they have produced more than their share of doughty warriors willing to die for the cause. The British Empire in the mid-1800s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s proved incapable of subduing the region, and the current military efforts of the United States do not seem any more sustainable in the long run. But beyond these limited instances, the “graveyard thesis” does not withstand scrutiny.

The failure of the thesis as a trans-historical generalization is evident in almost any historical era one chooses to investigate. Take, for instance, the forays of the ancient Macedonians and Greeks. Certainly Alexander had troubles in the Hindu Kush, as he did in a number of other areas that he and his troops vanquished. But conquer and rule the region they did. Greek power remained ensconced in the area now called Afghanistan for roughly two hundred years, contributing to an interchange of ideas and practices that enriched South Asian, Central Asian, and Greek civilization. The so-called Greco-Bactrians did fall eventually, succumbing to Yuezhi (Kushan) invaders who absorbed much of their culture. But this was to be expected; great powers ebb and flow, and no empire lasts forever.

Serious authors such as Christian Caryl and Thomas Barfield have turned the graveyard cliché on its head, arguing that Afghanistan is better interpreted historically as both a “highway of conquest” and a “cradle of empires.” Even the British failure to subdue the region has been much exaggerated. As Caryl cogently notes:

[In the] Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), [Britain] succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. … London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain’s foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that  Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.

            The fact that an independent Afghanistan served British interests as a buffer state is evident in the very outline of the country. Northeastern Afghanistan features a curious panhandle, the Wakhan Corridor, that extends all the way to the border of China. Negotiations during the late 1800s, first between Britain and Russia and then between British India and Afghanistan, ensured that the territories of the British and Russian empires would never directly touch each other. As a result, Wakhan was appended to Afghanistan. Today it is a sparsely populated and generally peaceful region eager to welcome tourists, at least according to a recent BBC report.

Map of Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan In 2009, both Afghanistan and the United States asked China to open its border along the Wakhan Corridor to provide an alternative supply line for the embattled Afghan government. China responded to the Afghan request with vague promises of increased cooperation. Its response to the American appeal was less accommodating, noting that it would not consider opening the border unless the Unites States were to agree to change its stance on such issues as Taiwan and the Uyghur militants held at Guantanamo. An October 12, 2011 Strategy Page report, however, claims that China is now reconsidering the issue, promising to open the border provided that “a sturdy road [is] built along the length of the 210 kilometer long corridor.”

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The Congo Pedicle and Its Challenges to Zambian Development

Map of Congo Pedicle Location Namibia’s Caprivi Strip is not the only African panhandle to result from European imperial attempts to reach water-bodies. Cameroon, for example, has a northern protuberance that connects to the much-diminished Lake Chad. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s southern panhandle—officially the “Congo Pedicle”—falls in the same category. The agents of Belgium’s King Leopold II were determined to gain access to Lake Bangweulu and adjacent wetlands in what is now Zambia, an area of abundant fish and game. Competition with the British South Africa Company led to international arbitration, which failed to satisfy Belgian desires. The “little foot,” or pedicle, that King Leopold II obtained in the process, however, contained valuable resources of its own. It also proved an obstacle to Zambian development in the post-colonial era.

Before annexation in the early 1890s, the Congo Pedicle and environs were largely under the control of Msiri, an African merchant and empire-builder based in Bunkeya in today’s DR Congo. Msiri was reportedly the first individual to establish a set of direct trade-links from Africa’s Atlantic shores to its Indian Ocean coast. His realm was also rich in copper and ivory, attracting European adventurers. Aware of the waiting dangers, Msiri invited British missionaries, whom he seems to have valued as both interpreters and potential hostages. One of the proselytizers urged him to have potential treaties translated to avoid inadvertently signing away his sovereignty. Msiri complied, and as a result, an 1890 British South Africa Company expedition to his capital gained nothing. Soon afterward, however, a less diplomatically inclined Belgian military convoy arrived. Misiri was killed in the resulting fracas and his realm annexed to the grotesquely misnamed Congo Free State, essentially the personal territory of the brutal king of Belgium.

Map of Congo Pedicle, Natural Environment and BoundariesDespite this coup, Leopold’s designs were still limited by the British drive to the north. A general agreement between the contending powers set their territorial division along two natural features: Britain would prevail to the south of the Zambezi-Congo river divide, as well as to the east of the Luapula River, while their Belgian rival would have a free hand in the lands to the north and west. Yet as can be seen on the map to the left, a gap exists between the Luapula River and the Congo-Zambezi watershed: the area comprising the Congo Pedicle. Operating with incomplete geographical knowledge, Leopold’s agents hoped to take advantage of this gap by pushing their claims all the way to the Bangweulu Basin. Britain resisted, and the King of Italy was asked to arbitrate. His straight north/south boundary line gave Leopold a long salient but awarded the lake and its basin to Britain. In 1895, a British South African Company expedition led by the accomplished American scout Frederick Russell Burnham found the fantastically rich ore-bodies of the Copperbelt, straddling what is now the Zambia/DR Congo border. As the mining map shows, the Pedicle gave Belgium, and eventually the DR Congo, substantial mineral resources, although the most productive ore belt lies just outside of it.

Map of Mines in the Zambia/Congo CopperbeltThe Congo Pedicle has been a major hindrance to Zambia. Its intrusive presence cleaves the country into two lobes of roughly equal size. Transportation is the major problem. Traveling from northeastern to central Zambia is not too difficult if one crosses the Pedicle, but going around it is terribly arduous, as the Bangweulu wetlands stand in the way. After World War II, Belgium allowed Britain to build an unpaved through-way across the salient. The resulting Pedicle Road proved a major boon for British Northern Rhodesia, and later for independent Zambia.

Wikipedia Map of Congo Pedicle RoadWhen the government of Zaire (DR Congo’s name from 1971 to 1997) began its slow-motion collapse in the 1970s, problems in the Pedicle mounted. As Congolese border guards were no longer paid, they look to extorting money from, and looting, Zambian traffic on the Pedicle Road. As early as 1975, conditions along the corridor had become one of Lusaka’s most pressing concerns. Yet throughout the time of anarchy in its giant northern neighbor, Zambia continued to respect Congolese sovereignty. Even when various militias, armed gangs, and proxy armies* were carving up the carcass of Zaire, Zambia remained on the sidelines, the inviolability of colonial borders being a cornerstone of its geopolitics. Zambia’s response to Congolese chaos was the costly 300-kilometer Samfya-Serenje Road, requiring nearly 20 kilometers of elevated causeways to allow passage through the Bangweulu wetlands. Completed in 1983, this road is a circuitous replacement for the Pedicle route, as can be seen on the map to the left.

Recent improvements in the governance of DR Congo have allowed easier transit across the salient. But by now, the long-neglected Pedicle Road has deteriorated. Constructed of laterite (an iron- and aluminum-rich form of soil that makes a hard crust when exposed to the air), it formed only a passable roadway in the best of times. Efforts are now underway to refurbish the highway. In mid-2011, Zambian newspapers proudly announced that the Pedicle Road would be paved, resulting in a “breakthrough which will facilitate enhanced communication and transportation of goods and services.”


*Unlike Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad all took sides Congo civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s.

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International Boundaries, Peace Parks, and Elephants in Southern Africa

Map of Southern African Peace ParksOver the past century, a number of “international peace parks” have been established, designed both to demonstrate amity between neighboring countries and to facilitate the preservation of wildlife, habitat, and natural beauty. The first such “transboundary protected area,” as peace parks are more prosaically labeled, was inaugurated by Sweden and Norway in 1914, an inauspicious year that nonetheless marked 100 years of concord between the two countries. In 1932, the United States and Canada created two such trans-border parks: the International Peace Garden in Manitoba and North Dakota, and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in Alberta and Montana. Over the years, several other border-spanning protected areas have been carved out, but the idea has been slow to catch on. Only a handful of such parks existed at the turn of the millennium.

In southern Africa, however, the movement to establish transboundary protected areas has recently taken off, thanks largely to the efforts of the Peace Parks Foundation. Established in 1997, the foundation emerged through the patronage of three powerful, elderly men: Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa; Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld, prince-consort of the Netherlands (and co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Bilderberg Group); and Anton Rupert, an Afrikaner billionaire businessman and conservationist. Based in Stellenbosch, South Africa, the foundation has overseen the designation of several transboundary protected areas, as can be seen on the map. The best-known is probably the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which, when completed, will link three national parks: South Africa’s Kruger, Mozambique’s Limpopo, and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou. The foundation’s most recent creation, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), is its most ambitious, located where, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge. As the Peace Park Foundation’s website explains:

 Map of Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area[KAZA] is set to become the world’s biggest conservation area and will eventually span an area of approximately 444,000 km2 (similar in size to Sweden). It will include 36 national parks, game reserves, community conservancies and game management areas. Most notably, the area will include the Caprivi Strip, Chobe National Park, the Okavango Delta … and the Victoria Falls (a World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World). Kavango Zambezi promises to be southern Africa’s premier tourist destination…

            Southern Africa is an appropriate place for the establishment of international peace parks. A generation ago, it was one of the most war-torn parts of the world, beset with seemingly intractable and often bloody conflicts almost everywhere but Botswana. Today it is a relatively peaceful place, noted for the cooperation of its countries through the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Although tensions persist both within and among southern African countries, the region as a whole has made tremendous strides in reducing conflict. Such amicable international relations make possible the development of large trans-frontier conservation areas.

Environmental factors in southern Africa further encourage the formation of border-spanning conservation zones. As it happens, most of the region’s premier wildlife havens are located near or along international borders. This correlation is most evident in the geography of elephant survival, a good indicator of intact ecosystems. As can be seen in the map to the left, the large tracts of wild land that support viable elephant populations in southern Africa are largely found across or near boundaries between countries. In this context, successful wildlife management requires international cooperation. Rebuilding wildlife numbers decimated in earlier periods of warfare also demands transboundary planning and implementation. Prolonged struggles in Mozambique and especially Angola devastated the fauna of both countries; Angola’s elephants were all but exterminated during its civil war. At the same time, successful conservation efforts in South Africa and Botswana have allowed excess elephant populations there, threatening national parks with partial deforestation. The international peace parks initiative facilitates the transfer of elephants from over-populated to under-populated areas, promising the restoration of balanced ecosystems over a broad area.

Map of Elephant Distribution and International Boundaries in Southern AfricaOne of the largest areas of prime elephant habitat in the world is found along the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—precisely the zone designated for protection in the KAZA initiative. In fact, the Peace Parks Foundation estimates that it contains “the largest contiguous population of the African elephant (approximately 250 000) on the continent.” Yet as the map of elephant distribution indicates, herds within the boundaries of the KAZA conservation area are not fully contiguous; a substantial gap exists between the main area and a smaller zone to the north in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. One of the primary goals of the Peace Parks Foundation is to establish linkages between different sites of wildlife concentration within the KAZA zone, allowing elephants and other animals to reestablish their migratory pathways.

Elephant preservation can be a tricky issue. Although the Southern African countries want viable wild elephant populations, they are mindful of the animals’ potentially destructive powers. Rampaging pachyderms can wreak havoc on farms, threatening the food security of a poor region. In early September 2011, for example, “a herd of stray elephants suspected to be from Botswana descended on the 50-hectare Shashe irrigation scheme [in Zimbabwe], destroy[ing] crops and fencing,” and leading to pronounced local anger. Given such risks, successful elephant management usually entails the construction of solid, electrified fences. Officials in charge of Zimbabwe’s Shashe project are now “looking for help to connect electricity to the 11km fence that was donated by the Peace Parks Foundation to protect the irrigation scheme.” Less expensive methods of elephant control are also being investigated by local researchers, including “using chili in various ways, such as embedding it in grease that was rubbed into ropes.”

Zambia in particular has much to gain from the KAZA project. Although it has numerous attractions, the country has not lived up to its tourism potential. The Zambian government plans to address the situation, hoping to increase its annual number of tourist arrivals from 900,000 at present to 1.5 million by 2015. Successful implementation of the transfrontier conservation scheme would go a long way toward making that goal achievable. But much work remains to be done. Zambia’s existing national parks have only been afforded partial protection, and neither wildlife management nor tourist facilities have received much attention. The country’s transportation system is notoriously challenged as well. Yet the Zambian government is currently being lauded for its economic reforms, which have supported solid growth in recent years. Optimism about the future of the copper-rich country is increasing.

If Zambia is to take full advantage of its eco-tourism potential, it will need to pay careful attention to its elephants. Leaders of the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) fully recognize that many tourists want to see these large beasts. As the Zambia Post reported in June 2011, quoting a local wildlife official, “Last week, two elephants were killed in Lower Zambezi; this is unacceptable. That’s why ZAWA needs strong support from the government because our tourism is wildlife based.” Yet in some parts of the country, tourists do not have to go out of their way to see elephants.  As the managers of a tourist lodge in South Luangwa National Park discovered, building a hotel along an elephant migration route can bring interesting results. As captured in this YouTube video, elephants stroll right through the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge between October and December of every year, on their way to a grove of wild mangos.

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Lozi (Barotse) Nationalism in Western Zambia

Political Map Southern Africa 1750, Detail from DK Atlas of World HistoryThe deeper roots of dissatisfaction in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip (discussed in the previous post) extend to the colonial dissolution of the Lozi Kingdom of Barotseland. Centered in what is now western Zambia, Barotseland was one of the strongest indigenous polities of southern central Africa, controlling a broad swath of territory that encompassed the Caprivi Strip. Although the Strip was never predominantly Lozi in terms of ethnicity, the Lozi tongue (Silozi or Rozi) did become its common language. Barotseland also developed an incipient sense of national identity, which extended beyond the Lozi proper to include some of the kingdom’s affiliated ethnic groups. As a result, some Caprivi people look north to western Zambia rather then southeast to Namibia proper as the heartland of their political affiliation.

The Barotse issue, not surprisingly, burns much hotter in Western Zambia than it does in Namibia. In January 2011, clashes between Zambian security forces and demonstrators linked to a pro-secession group resulted in several deaths. Lozi leaders have demanded an apology from president Rupiah Banda for the killings, and they accuse him—like previous national leaders—of ignoring the developmental needs of the region. Such grievances are exacerbated, they maintain, by the fact that Banda won the last presidential election in part through the support of the Lozi electorate. A militant group called the Linyundangambo has discussed declaring the independence of Barotseland. Tensions are currently running so high in western Zambia that one risks a beating for singing the Zambian national anthem in public rather than the Barotse anthem.

The Zambian government, not surprisingly, stresses the need to maintain national unity, proclaiming “Nobody breaks away from Zambia; it’s a legal entity. Secession is not part of our constitution.” In attempting to defuse tensions in July 2011, President Rupiah Banda met with the Litunga of Barotseland, the region’s traditional monarch, who maintains a largely ceremonial position bolstered with extraordinary cultural prestige. Although many Lozi have hoped that the Litunga himself would advocate secession, his position has been more moderate. Instead, the BRE—the “Barotse Royal Establishment”—has demanded a review of the Barotse Agreement of 1964 that brought the kingdom into the newly established Republic of Zambia. The BRE claims, in a complex argument, that while the agreement did establish a unitary state, such a state was supposed to allow a regional government in Barotseland and reserve significant powers for the Litunga and his staff. Such legal claims, even if accepted by the Lusaka government, seem unlikely to satisfy demands of the more adamant Lozi nationalists.

Image of Barotseland FloodplainThe Lozi kingdom is historically rooted in the distinctive environment of the Barotse Floodplain, a vast wetland some 230 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, located along the middle stretch of the upper Zambezi River. In the pre-colonial period, few areas of southern central Africa offered an environment productive enough to support the concentrated settlements and surplus foodstuffs necessary to underwrite a powerful, centralized polity. Soils are poor over much of the region and tsetse flies abound, preventing intensive cattle production. The Barotse floodplain, however, presents a different kind of environment. The river floods annually, turning the basin into a shallow lake and depositing a fresh layer of fertile silt. Flooding also prevents tree growth, which in turn precludes tsetse flies. Farming, fishing, and especially cattle herding on the Barotse Plain are quite productive, allowing relatively dense settlement. Flooding presents its own challenges, of course, as entire villages must seasonally relocate from the center to the margin of the plain. Intriguingly, Lozi oral traditions link the establishment of such annual migrations to the transition from female to male royal authority.*

Map of Mfecane Once the Lozi, themselves 17th century immigrants to the region, learned how to take advantage of the floodplain, they were able to establish a powerful kingdom that exercised authority over a broad area. As was typical for the region, the Lozi polity was ethnically inclusive, able to fold various groups into its proto-national formation. The state was not without rivals, and in the early 1800s it fell to the Makololo, a southern people propelled north in the Mfecane, the scattering of southern African peoples occasioned by the rise of the Zulu kingdom and the depredations of the Europeans. The Makololo were overcome in 1864, but not before spreading their language. The modern Lozi tongue, Silozi, is closely related to Sesotho (the language of Lesotho and adjoining areas of South Africa). The original Lozi language seems to persist only in the rituals of the royal court.

Map of Barotseland; Lozi Kingdom at Its Height The British established relations with the Lozi during the Makololo interregnum. The famed doctor, explorer, and missionary David Livingstone was impressed with Barotseland and especially its monarch. In the late 1800s, the British South Africa Company gained an early mineral concession from the kingdom, which Cecil Rhodes and company regarded as tantamount to annexation. As the scramble for Africa reached its final stages at the turn of the century, Britain imposed a protectorate over the Lozi kingdom, allowing its monarchy to retain circumscribed authority.

The subsequent relationship between Britain and Barotseland remained ambiguous; as Wikipedia puts it, “Although having features of a charter colony, the treaty and charter gave the territory protectorate status although not as an official protectorate of the United Kingdom Government.” In any event, Barotseland was affiliated with other British holdings in an area known as Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia when it gained independence in 1964. Throughout the colonial period, Lozi leaders pressed for autonomy as well as separation from the rest of Northern Rhodesia. As independence was being discussed in the early 1960s, some Lozi leaders expressed a preference for remaining under British “protection” rather than joining the new country of Zambia. Accession to Zambia came in 1964 with the signing of the Barotseland Agreement, but its terms were not followed. In 1968, the Zambian government changed the name of Barotse Province to Western Province, a move widely seen as deliberately insulting the Lozi people.

Lozi authorities would like to encourage tourism in the region, but they are hampered by its extremely poor infrastructure. As unflinchingly puts it, “Vehicles on [the road from Lusaka] vary in reliability. Journey time can vary between 6 and 10 hours. Breakdowns are a frequent problem but this is still the most reliable mode of transport into the heart of Barotseland.” Zambia is currently trying to build a causeway across the Zambezi floodplain to increase accessibility, but thus far the project has been stymied by flooding and the lack of local rock and gravel. Much of southwestern Zambia, however, is slated for inclusion into the massive Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, a development that could substantially augment its tourism prospects. For such potential to be realized, infrastructure would have to be improved and security enhanced. Considering the frustrated aspirations of the Lozi people, such developments do not seem likely in the near term.

*Female royal authority is still found elsewhere in Zambia. In recent weeks, Zambian papers have been running multiple stories on the on-going feud between President Rupiah Banda and Chieftainess Nkomeshya Mukamabo II of the Soli people. The comments on the article linked to above from the Lusaka Times make interesting reading.

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The Toshka Scheme: Egypt’s Salvation or Mubarak’s Folly?

Dictatorial rulers often favor grandiose construction projects, on which they not uncommonly bestow their own names. Egypt has been no exception. The world’s largest water-moving facility is the Mubarak Pumping Station, located on an island in Lake Nasser. When such rulers fall from power, their names are often stripped away from such monuments. It will be interesting to see what happens not just to the name of the pumping station, but to the entire Toshka/New Valley Project with which it is associated. The Toshka scheme is certainly grandiose; whether it is sensible and sustainable is a different question altogether.

Some of the effects of the Toshka project are easily visible from space. In the 1990s, astronauts orbiting the Earth began to notice several vast lakes appearing in low-lying areas of the southern Egyptian desert west of the Nile Valley. The water filling these new lakes originated in Lake Nasser, the massive reservoir that sits behind the Aswan High Dam. When the lake reached a sufficiently high level, Egyptian engineers began shunting off excess water into the desert rather than letting it flow downstream through the Nile. By creating the new Toshka desert lakes, planners hoped to recharge depleted aquifers and to establish a new, more productive physical environment in an arid “wasteland.”

More important than the lakes were the irrigation facilities that followed. Plans were initiated in 1997 to create an intensively farmed “second Nile Valley” in the area between Lake Nasser and the Toshka lakes. More than sixty billion dollars have been earmarked for the project, which has entailed building not only the world’s largest pumping facility but also a gargantuan concrete main canal, a network of smaller irrigation channels, a road system, and a number of new towns. According to the former Egyptian government, the “New Valley” is supposed to increase Egypt’s farmland by ten percent and provide new homes for as many as sixteen million Egyptian citizens by 2020. The project is designed to significantly increase Egypt’s food supplies and relieve congestion in the Nile Valley and Delta, allowing some breathing room for a densely packed and still expanding population.

It is highly uncertain that such plans will ever be realized. The lakes are already in trouble. Studies show that relatively little water is seeping into underlying aquifers; most is lost to the intensive evaporation that characterizes the region over much of the year. The lakes are also rapidly becoming salty, threatening the fresh-water fauna that immediately established itself upon inundation. The very existence of the lakes, moreover, depends on excess water storage in Lake Nasser, which is itself dependent on unreliable summer downpours over the Ethiopian plateau. When run-off is short, as it periodically is, water must be reserved for the all-important Nile Valley. Indeed, by 2001 the lakes were already diminishing, and by 2006 one of the smaller lakes had dried up.

Far more important to Egypt’s economy is the future of the irrigated agricultural lands in the “New Valley.” The project has plenty of defenders, as is evident in the comments sections of the few internet news sources and blogs that have covered it in any detail. The engineering works are by most accounts well-constructed if not marvels of ingenuity and planning. Enthusiasts also point to the new farms that have recently appeared in the desert, providing much-needed food supplies to a country that was in 2009 the world’s largest importer of wheat. Proponents acknowledge that it will not be easy to attract migrants to the relatively isolated and still generally barren area. They argue, however, that higher wages, tax breaks, and enhanced social services – coupled with the overcrowding found in most of the Nile Valley – will ensure success in the long run.

Critics paint a different picture. Some call the project “Mubarak’s Pyramid,” a monument to ego and folly. Many worry that the heavy clay soils will lead to water-logging and salinization. As noted on the Free Copts website:

As an engineer, Jan Bron, the head of the Dutch team that co-ordinates the Water Boards Project in Egypt, recognises the Toshka Project as a great engineering feat, but he predicts the project will fail from a social point of view. “From an engineering point of view it is a great project: the largest pumping station in the world, the irrigation of millions of hectares of land… basically it is a playground for engineers. For now it is still justifiable and when it does finally go wrong, others will be in power. But the idea of sending the overflow of people from the Delta and the Valley to Toshka is delusional. I think the project will fail disastrously.”

In exploring the area via Google Earth, I find that most evidence supports the critics. Satellite imagery seems to indicate that many of the new farms are not well maintained, and some even appear to have been abandoned. Equally important, very few villages, or even houses, are visible in the area. The farms that do seem to be thriving appear to be capital-intensive operations that employ few people. Such an assessment is reinforced by the verdict leveled by Dr. Mohamed Nasr Allam, a professor of irrigation engineering at Cairo University: “We are giving the income from our water and land to foreigners who are developing large, mechanized farms that require limited labor force.”

The idea that millions of people would make this inhospitable area their new home by 2020 may be a pipedream. And if settlers do come, they will be vulnerable to both drought in the Ethiopian highlands and future water projects in Sudan and Ethiopia. It is all to easy to imagine that the entire Toshka/New Valley project will end up as a boondoggle, a memorial to the Mubarak regime that the Egyptian economy can ill-afford.

The Toshka Scheme: Egypt’s Salvation or Mubarak’s Folly? Read More »

The Misleading Ecological Footprint Model

The Happy Earth Index, discussed yesterday, relies on the ecological footprint to measure environmental sustainability. The footprint, widely regarded as “the world’s premier measure of humanity’s demand on nature,” is defined as “the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste.” Calculations of country-level ecological footprints are substantially based on consumption figures, especially those of energy, food, and water. As all wealthy countries consume heavily, all have relatively large footprints. Some, however, are much larger than others. Rich countries that use energy efficiently, such as Japan, come in with lower figures than those that don’t, such as Canada. Poor countries consume little and thus generally have small footprints. Less developed countries with large prints typically have energy-intensive mining economies, Mongolia being the prime example.

The ecological footprint is a reasonable metric if used in the narrow sense of assessing the extent of land and sea needed to underwrite consumption. When it comes to the disposal of waste, however, the calculations become impossibly complex. How can does one, for example, determine the area required to “render harmless” the carbon dioxide pouring out of a coal-burning power plant, and then compare it precisely with the area needed to nullify radioactive waste generated by a nuclear power plant? And when used as an overarching measurement of environmental sustainability, the “footprint index” fails completely as it conceals many of the most severe forms of ecological degradation.

The environmental failings of the model are several-fold. Ironically, its signal flaw stems from its anthropocentric nature. The entire scheme is concerned only with the resources used by people. Other creatures, unless they are consumed, are of no account. A country could suffer an eco-catastrophe, seeing the extermination of all its large mammals and birds, and it would not register on the index. Wholesale deforestation, swamp drainage, and other forms of habitat destruction are hardly noted. The model is also static. The fact that the populations of Yemen and Pakistan will probably double within a half century, while that of Japan will likely decline, does not figure, nor does the break-neck industrialization of India and China.

The failure of the ecological footprint as a proxy for sustainability, or for any other form of ecological well-being, is glaringly obvious on the map. Could anyone actually contend that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and the DR Congo are more sustainable than Norway, Sweden, or Finland? Are we really expected to believe that the poorest societies of tropical Africa and South Asia offer models of living within environmental limits? Yemen, its water and oil near exhaustion and its society near detonation, admirably avoids consumption of just about everything but the narcotic qat and hence makes the planet happy, whereas Denmark, with the third largest per capita footprint in the world, is a resource-sucking burden on the Earth? Bizarre though it might seem, this is what a literal reading of the ecological footprint map tells us.

Environmentalists are often accused of seeking to impoverish society, an accusation that the movement denies, and with good reason. But more than a few eco-radicals do seek to establish a low-consumption economy that most people would regard as poor indeed, and many others find merit in an ecological footprint model that unfavorably contrasts Scandinavia, let alone the United States, with socio-environmental disaster-cases such as Yemen. Such thinking offers plentiful ammunition to anti-environmentalists seeking to portray the entire green movement as opposed to development.

The ecological footprint model is rarely used to make explicit comparisons among specific countries. It is more commonly employed as a means of environmental persuasion. People are asked to contemplate the footprints of the wealthy countries, and of their own existence, in the hope that this will shame them into consuming less. Whether the model is useful in this regard is a separate issue.

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Beyond Economic Development: The So-Called Happy Planet Index

Most measurements of development rely heavily on per capita economic output. While the U.N.’s Human Development Index (HDI) considers education and longevity as well, Gross National Income remains an essential component. The use of such economic data as a proxy for overall development is controversial. Some find it unduly materialistic, focusing on the raw production of goods and services, hence deemphasizing human relations or spiritual values. Environmentalists criticize such indicators for ignoring ecological degradation. High levels of economic production, they argue, are not necessarily sustainable, and may even undermine human civilization by generating a runaway greenhouse effect through excess carbon dioxide emissions.

Several alternatives to economically based measurements of development have thus been proposed. A few years ago, the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan announced that it would seek to maximize “gross national happiness” rather than “gross national product.” Although the concept has proved difficult to put into operation, a number of scholars, developmental agencies, and even national governments have expressed interest. Within the last week, discussions of using a “gross national happiness” indicator have appeared in the Times of India, the Otago Daily Times of New Zealand, and the Inquirer, one of the Philippines’ main newspapers. In Britain the conversation has gone further, with the government announcing that it will “follow through on Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign pledge to gauge national happiness and use the findings to help shape policy.” In Bhutan itself, however, the pursuit of happiness has by no means eclipsed the quest for conventional develoment. The country’s GDP expanded by 9.8 percent in 2007, 2.7 percent in 2008, and 5.7 percent in 2009, its economic growth heavily underwritten by the building of dams in order to export electricity to India. Whether such projects increase the happiness of the Bhutanese people remains open to debate.

The most carefully constructed scheme for measuring ecologically sustainable development along with human contentment is probably the Happy Planet Index (HPI), devised by Britain’s New Economics Foundation. As the official website puts it, “the index combines environmental impact with human well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which, country by country, people live long and happy lives.” Happy Planet figures are statistically derived from measurements of longevity, perceived happiness, and environmental sustainability. The use of the HPI is spreading, as showcased earlier this year by Time Magazine. The author of the Time article concluded that “in terms of the world wants measured, it seems that the … HPI [has] it over the GDP.”

But does the Happy Planet Index provide a reliable guide to either human happiness or environmental health? I do not think so. Although Costa Rica’s top ranking is no surprise, it difficult to credit Jamaica’s third-place showing, Guatemala’s fourth, or Colombia’s sixth, as these countries are afflicted with high levels of violence, class and ethnic conflict, and social disruption. In terms of murder rates, they rank third, fourth, and seventh respectively. The index, moreover, implicitly contends that such factors as freedom and gender equity are little account in determining human wellbeing, with such an authoritarian and male-dominated country as Saudi Arabia receiving an extremely high ranking. Environmentally as well, Saudi Arabia’s elevated standing makes no sense, nor do those of a number of other countries, including Indonesia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Indonesia, after all, could be the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide if deforestation and the burning of peat-lands are taken into account.

The more I contemplate the Happy Planet Index, the more bizarre it seems. Could the authors of the index really believe that Pakistan is much better off, socially and environmentally, than Norway, or that Yemen outranks the Finland? Do they really believe that the earth would be a happier planet if all countries were to follow the developmental pathways of Egypt, Pakistan, and the Philippines, rather than those of Canada, New Zealand, and Denmark? Pakistan, already at the edge of social and political chaos, suffers extreme deforestation and soil salinization, yet its population of 170 million is expected to reach almost 300 million by 2050. Yemen is on the verge or running out of water, yet its average woman can be expected to bear roughly five children, an utterly unsustainable level of fertility. But we are expected to believe that both environmentally and socially, Pakistan and Yemen solidly outrank Iceland and Norway? The mind boggles.

The infelicities of the Happy Planet Index stem in part from its component indicators, as subsequent Geocurrents posts will explore. But I suspect they also derive from a desire to castigate wealthy countries, particularly the United States. The U.S. ranks high in conventional measures of development, especially those that stress per capita GDP. But as the U.S. also has extremely high per capita carbon dioxide output, it is widely seen as undermining overall planetary sustainability. The HPI thus appeals to many by putting the United States in a low position.

But one must wonder whether the scholars at the New Economics Foundation actually take their own findings seriously. Do they really view Saudi Arabia as a social and environmental model, ranking thirteenth in the world? If so, the real problem is one of gross geographical ignorance.

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Britain Vs. Spain and Spain Vs. Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar

Maritime chokepoints, where ships must pass through narrow passageways, are sites of geopolitical advantage that have often been contested. Sea-based empires, especially Portugal in the 1500s and Britain in the 1800s, seized and garrisoned towns and fortresses at the entrance to marine chokepoints scattered over vast distances. Today, remnants of earlier imperial projects are evident on the maps of several such passageways. The southern bank of the Strait of Hormuz, for example, remains an exclave of Oman, once a formidable naval power, while Singapore, established as the “Gibraltar of the East” at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, is the world’s premier city-state.

The Strait of Gibraltar itself, joining the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, is arguably the world’s foremost maritime chokepoint. It certainly is the most geopolitically contested. The strait itself is essentially controlled by Spain to the north and Morocco to the south, as one would expect. But its Mediterranean gateway, marked by two promontories once deemed the Pillars of Hercules,* falls under a different sovereign regime. The “Spanish” side is controlled by the U.K., whereas the “Moroccan” side is controlled by Spain. Neither Spain nor Morocco accepts these foreign enclaves. Spain wants to retain Ceuta and reclaim Gibraltar, Morocco seeks to control Ceuta, and Britain is determined to keep Gibraltar.

Spain and Britain gained these possessions during their naval heydays. Ceuta was seized first by Portugal in 1415, an event that some say gave birth to the Portuguese Empire. That empire passed in its entirely to the Spanish crown after a disastrous Portuguese invasion of Morocco in 1580; Portugal regained its independence in 1640, but Spain kept Ceuta. Gibraltar fell to an English-Dutch naval campaign in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession; Spain formally ceded sovereignty to Britain in the Treaty of Utrech in 1713. Spain has periodically sought to regain Gibraltar, just as Morocco has tried on occasion to redeem Ceuta, but neither country has had any success.

According to the Spanish government, Gibraltar is a colonized portion of Spanish territory — an unconscionable geopolitical anachronism. Spanish pressure helps keep the peninsula on the United Nation’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, regarded as colonial remnants. Britain responds that people of Gibraltar actually enjoy democratic self-governance through their own parliament, as well as British citizenship. In the 1990s, Britain and Spain hammered out a proposal for joint sovereignty, but the Gibraltarians rejected it overwhelmingly in a 2002 referendum. The Spanish government maintains that their wishes are of no account, as the dispute is between the sovereign powers of Britain and Spain. But in 2006, Spain agreed to talks with Britain and with the leadership of Gibraltar itself, aimed at facilitating trans-border linkages. Progress has not been easy. In August 2010, the mayor of the adjoining Spanish town of La Linea announced plans for new tolls on traffic between the peninsula and the mainland, citing the need to make up for revenues lost in Spain’s budgetary crisis.

The dispute between Spain and Morocco over Ceuta and other Spanish possessions in the region is much more intense. In early 2010, Morocco called for renewed dialogue on Spain’s cross-straits holdings; Madrid responded by reaffirming its sovereignty over the contested lands, which include not just Ceuta but also the exclave of Melilla and a number of near-shore islands. Morocco subsequently charged Spanish authorities with mistreating Moroccan citizens in and around the territories, heightening the conflict. In August 2010, massive Moroccan protests temporarily blocked overland transit into the two Spanish exclaves, threatening their economies.

It may seem hypocritical for Spain to demand the return of Gibraltar while consistently rebuffing similar Moroccan claims in North Africa. Its government insists, however, that the two situations are not the same. Ceuta and Melilla, it argues, are integral parts of Spain, not colonial holdings. Their residents not only possess Spanish citizenship, but vote in Spanish elections, pay Spanish taxes (albeit at a reduced rate), and have all other rights and responsibilities of membership in the national community, as well as the E.U. The position of Gibraltar, the Spanish government maintains, is colonial. As a British Overseas Territory, the peninsula is under British sovereignty yet is not part of the United Kingdom. Gibraltar even has its own currency, the Gibraltar Pound, which is not legal tender in the United Kingdom. The dispute is further complicated by the fact that Spain never formally ceded the isthmus, which remains under British-Gibraltarian control.

The territorial anomalies in and around the Strait of Gibraltar have a number of interesting cultural features as well as potentially serious geopolitical implications, as will be explored in subsequent Geocurrents this week.

* Although the northern “pillar” is clearly Gibraltar, debates persist on the identity of its southern counterpart. Some scholar favor Monte Hacho on the peninsula of Ceuta; others Jebel Musa, located a few miles away in Morocco.

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Border Delineation and Desiccation in Lake Chad

Unrest in the Bakassi Peninsula should not blind us to the fact that the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments have peaceably settled a long-standing dispute that once threatened to break into war. With UN help, the two countries are setting up 3,000 pillars to demarcate their border, a process that is scheduled to be completed in 2011. And as Africa: The Good News reports,“The military forces of the two countries are holding joint training, and they are considering joint patrols in the Gulf of Guinea to discourage piracy.”

Boundary demarcation has been especially problematic in the Lake Chad area, where Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad converge, owing partly to the lake’s drastic fluctuations. The Lake Chad Commission, which attempts to regulate local water resources, has pushed forward a boundary delimitation treaty, but thus far only Nigeria and Cameroon have ratified it. According to GlobalSecurity, “Chad rejects [the] Nigerian request to redemarcate [the] boundary, the site of periodic cross-border incidents.”

A larger concern is the lake itself. With no outlet to the sea, Lake Chad naturally waxes and wanes depending on the balance between precipitation and evaporation in its drainage basin. All such endorheic lakes fluctuate in size, but Chad’s variations are especially pronounced, owing largely to the fact that it is only about five feet (1.5 meters) deep on average. As recently as 1983, Lake Chad covered more than 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometers), but by 2000 it had been reduced to around 580 square miles (1,500 square kilometers). Satellite imagery indicates that the lake has expanded since then, but measurements remain disputed. As the Google Earth image posted above shows, much of the basin is a complex mixture of wetlands and pools, making it impossible to precisely delineate the lake’s expanse.

The desiccation of Lake Chad, like that of the Aral Sea, is a tragedy for both its human communities and its once-abundant wildlife; unlike that of the Aral Sea, the plight of Lake Chad is seldom mentioned in the global media. The diminishment of Lake Chad is also much more poorly understood than that of Central Asia’s large undrained lakes. Increased human population and irrigation expansion in the drainage basin have played major roles, but do not offer a full explanation. Overgrazing has also been implicated, but many experts suspect that climate change is the major culprit. One commentator also blames the “infestation of aquatic weeds,” particularly typha (cattail), arguing that “Typha is a dessication machine and a siltation machine. Clear it, and the silt it has deposited from the lake and its tributaries and the problems will correct themselves. Typha is all biomass, ideal for ethanol production, some of it fit for human consumption.”

Although it has generally been overlooked by the media, Lake Chad has received the attention of the global environmental community. In early 2010, environmentalists welcomed the news that the lake had finally been “declared a wetland of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.” The new internationally protected area covers 6.4 million acres (2.6 million hectares), although, as organizers of the protection effort admit, it will be a challenge to “turn the promise of protection for Lake Chad into a reality for the millions that depend on it.”

Concerns about the fate of Lake Chad are of long standing. In the 1960s, proposals were made to divert water from the Ubangi River, a tributary of the Congo, into the Chad basin. In 2008, the governments of the Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon pledged support for the diversion project. Some local scholars are enthusiastic. According to Lawan Maina of the Department of Geography at the University of Maiduguri in Borno State, Nigeria, if the Ubangi were to be diverted,Fish-stocks would be revitalised, intensive irrigation farming could be undertaken in order to produce important crops, livestock will be healthier, and the Lake Chad’s tourism potentials could then be fully exploited. These will result in the creation of employment opportunities for the local population, member states will witness an increase in foreign exchange and perhaps even food security in the entire West African region will be further guaranteed.”

Diverting water from the Ubangi River to the Lake Chad Basin would, however, be an expensive proposition, and would also require the full commitment of the Central African Republic, where the main hydrological engineering works would be situated. It would also likely cause environmental problems of its own. But considering the importance of Lake Chad, a vast lake and wetland system sitting in a deeply impoverished area near the edge of the Sahara, the desire for such a project is understandable.

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Election Controversies and Ethnic Complexities on the Not-So-Tiny Island of Bougainville

In June 2010, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) voted out three quarters of its parliamentary representatives along with its president. Whereas the outgoing leader was a former revolutionary committed to independence, the newly elected chief executive favors continuing ties with PNG. Most sources, however, do not see a loss of interest in sovereignty. The election focused on governmental competence, which the voters of Bougainville evidently found wanting in the former administration. Another divisive issue was the future of the shuttered Panguna mine. While most candidates supported reopening, they disagreed over who should carry it out. Some favored returning control to the former operator, a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto; others argued for turning to Chinese investors.

Security formed another electoral concern. Interethnic strife remains deadly, although the body count has diminished in recent years. Violence is concentrated in southern Bougainville where, according to The Economist (June 10, 2010, page 47), “some 14 armed militia groups still openly carry arms.” During the election campaign, the successful challenger accused the incumbent of condoning the warlords who hold sway over much of the south.

Ethnic tension in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is linked to pronounced cultural fragmentation. Roughly two dozen languages in three families are spoken by the region’s 175,000 inhabitants. Two of these families, North Bougainville and South Bougainville, may be unique to the island. They were formerly classified within the Papuan family, but linguists no longer think that the “Papuan languages” constitute a genuine group, descended from a common ancestral tongue. Other forms of cultural distinctiveness further divide the peoples of Bougainville. According to the delightfully discursive Wikipedia article, among the northern peoples of Bougainville, “Cheerful friendliness is the prevalent norm. Austronesian Bougainvilleans and especially Bukas value outgoing openness, chattiness, a generally friendly mien.” South Bougainvilleans, in contrast, are said to “value privacy, discretion, quiet. Just listen to the silence of their markets and religious and political gatherings. When they are contemptuous of ‘redskins’ and ‘mastas’ (i.e. white people) it’s not that they are vulgar racists as to the colour of your skin. It’s that they find noisiness and intemperate speech shocking and impolite.”

On an unrelated issue, Bougainville also offers a lesson on human perceptions of spatial scale. The otherwise excellent article on the island’s problems in The Economist magazine begins as follows: “The tiny troubled island of Bougainville has a new president …” Tiny? Bougainville is the 79th largest of the world’s roughly 100,000 inhabited islands. It covers more territory than such substantial islands as Cyprus, Crete, or Corsica. Bougainville is almost as large as Hawaii, which is called “the big island” in reference to the fact that it is seven times the size of Oahu, the state of Hawaii’s demographic, economic, and political center. Yet even Oahu, which covers almost 600 square miles, is almost never described as “tiny,” a term best reserved for islands like Australia’s Norfolk (13.3 square miles).

My point is not so much to chide the normally astute Economist for an uncharacteristic slip as to illustrate a common problem in geographical perception. Unfamiliar places far from one’s homeland tend to diminish in apparent size, as illustrated by Saul Steinberg’s famous “view of the world” New Yorker cover. A tendency to mentally shrink exotic places seems to be a natural human disposition. We should be vigilant against it if we want to remain geographically accurate.

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Struggles over Dams and Waterfalls in Paraguay

The uproar over Kathryn Bigelow’s plans to shoot a film in the Triple Frontier region (discussed yesterday) might seem surprising at first glance. Ciudad del Este and the tri-border zone are already known in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay for smuggling and crime, and are thus unlikely to suffer much domestically from American movie insults. Potential international tourists dissuadable by a grim film might seem too few to worry about; the Triple Border cities have scant attractions beyond the cheap electronics and cigarettes of Ciudad del Este. But the larger region does have one tourist draw of tremendous significance: Iguazu Falls (see photo). If the Triple Frontier gains notoriety as the result of a hit film by an acclaimed director, tourism revenues could drop.

Although by no means the highest drop, Iguazu is often ranked as the world’s most spectacular waterfall. Iguazu outranks Niagara, its nearest competitor, in two respects: it is higher (82 meters vs. 51) and wider (2,700 meters vs. 1,200). Since the Iguazu River has a more variable discharge than the Niagara, it also carries more water during peak seasons. And visitors can experience Iguazu more directly than they can Niagara. Iguazu’s intricate shape, along with its well-developed system of walkways, allows visitors to be enclosed by 260 degrees of plunging water.

Fifty-five years ago, Niagara and Iguazu ranked only third and fourth by flow rate,* but the world’s two biggest waterfalls have since gone extinct. The second largest, by a wide margin, was Celilo on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. Celilo’s drop was only seven meters – low enough for salmon to jump over – but it was still an impressive sight. The Dalles Dam, finished in 1957, inundated the falls, and in doing so evidently drowned the longest continually inhabited site in North America. Celilo Falls had been a premier salmon fishing location, with permanent settlements dating back some 15,000 years.

While Celilo was massive, it was dwarfed by Guaíra Falls on the Paraná River coursing between Brazil and Paraguay. Guaíra was the waterfalls of waterfalls, with seven distinct drops, the highest of which plunged 40 meters. The roar could be heard 20 miles away. But in the early 1980s, Guaíra disappeared behind Itaipu Dam. Just before that, its national park was disestablished and its rock faces were blasted away, due to fears that they might impede navigation during low water periods. Guaíra, unlike Celilo, is beyond resurrection.

Itaipu Dam itself is an impressive structure, deemed by the American Society of Civil Engineers one of the “seven modern wonders of the world.” Until the completion of China’s Three Gorges Dam, it was the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, generating 19 percent of Brazil’s electrical power and 90 percent of Paraguay’s. In 1989, Philip Glass composed a symphonic cantata in honor of the dam, appropriately named “Itaipu.” (Glass’s symphony is not the only musical homage to a hydroelectric facility. Woody Guthrie, of all people, recorded another: “Well the world has seven wonders, the travelers always tell / Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well / But the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land / It’s that King Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.”)

Itaipu’s electricity is currently an item of contention between Paraguay and Brazil. Paraguay sells the bulk of its share to Brazil. Most Paraguayans think that the power is underpriced, owing to the cozy relations between their country’s historically dominant Colorado Party and the Brazilian government. Fernando Lugo won the presidency of Paraguay in 2008 in part by campaigning on a platform of “energy sovereignty.” Paraguay wants its annual compensation to increase from $120 million to $360 million. Brazilian president Lula da Silva agreed to the hike in 2009, but the deal is currently stalled in the Brazilian congress. Brazil’s business community is not pleased by the prospect, arguing that it “would have an impact on energy costs and consumers’ pockets.”

*Sometimes the cataracts on the Congo River are counted as the world’s largest waterfalls, but these are more properly classified as rapids.

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The Temporary Rebirth of Lake Eyre

As the Southern Aral Sea dies, another massive lake on the opposite side of the world is being reborn, although its life expectancy is not long. When full, South Australia’s Lake Eyre is about the size of Cyprus. More often, Lake Eyre is a giant salt-flat pocked with briny pools. But Ayer’s drainage area is massive, covering one sixth of Australia, and when heavy rains fall, the lake fills. The lowest part of the Eyre basin — 49 feet (15 meters) below sea level — floods roughly once every three years. The entire lake fills about three times a century.

2009 saw a partial flood in Lake Eyre, and 2010 promises much more. The runoff from the early 2010 storms in central and southeastern Queensland has slowly made its way to the southwest, and is now pouring into the lake. Forecasters predict that at least 70 percent of the basin will fill. Members of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, who have been waiting for a flood like this for years, are thrilled. As their website announces, “2010 looks like the best year for sailing in the Lake Eyre Basin since 1989-90. HIP, HIP, HOORAY!!!”

Lake Eyre’s rebirth will almost certainly be temporary. In the lake itself, a familiar boom and bust cycle is in the making. Fish that washed down with the floodwaters will thrive in the nearly fresh water of the renewed lake. In about six months, however, the salt crust will have dissolved, killing the fish. The lake will then begin to evaporate away. As it shrinks, its salt content will steadily increase. Eventually Eyre will turn pink, owing to the beta-Carotene pigment found in one species of salt-tolerant algae. Then it will vanish altogether until the next flooding cycle commences.

Lake Eyre’s major tributaries–Cooper Creek, the Diamantina River, and the Georgina River–exhibit extraordinary fluctuations of their own. The annual runoff of the Georgina apparently varies from nothing at all in extremely dry years to as much as 6.28 km³ (5,100,000 acre feet) in a year of heavy rains. Copper River has the largest discharge, but little of its water ever reaches the lake. The Diamantina River, the Georgina River, and especially Cooper Creek lose most of their water as they flow across the exceptionally flat Channel Country of southwestern Queensland, where they divide and redivide into innumerable waterways (see image above). Seepage and evaporation in the Channel Country prevents the flow of even the Diamantina and Georgina from reaching Lake Eyre in years of average or below average rainfall. In dry periods, which are frequent and can be long, these streams are little more than strings of waterholes.

When heavy rains do fall, as they have recently (see map), the Cooper, Diamantina, and Georgina swell into major rivers, up to 15 or even 20 miles wide in places. As the floodwaters rise, local cattle stations (ranches) find themselves isolated for weeks or even months. But the pastoralists seldom complain, because as the waters recede, lush forage returns. During flood periods, the rivers of the Channel Country effectively irrigate vast areas. Years of drought in the early 2000s brought desperation to the region; now, as The Australian reports, the continent’s “Red heart [is] turning green as life returns.”

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