Changing urban metabolism

I’m on my way back from Paris, a city that I’ve visited many times since my first baguette in 1991.

What was different this time is the “life on the streets,” i.e., the density of people, activities and “domination” that Jane Jacobs evoked as the essence of why we choose to live on top of each other: for the joy and connection that we can have in the density of humanity.

These changes are not accidental. In 2007, Paris implemented its shared bike program  to try to move citizens from cars to bikes. (My observation is that any bike that can survive French abuse — “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” — is a bike that can survive service elsewhere.) With COVID, the French mayor — Anne Hidalgo, a politician to watch — radically expanded places and priorities for people, bikes and other forms of “personal transit” over cars, in her quest to make Paris a “15 minute city.”

In my experience, Paris has always been “nice but for the cars” and that has changed now. We walked, biked and marvelled at the calm and joy of the streets, quays, and cafes. Sure, there are still busy boulevards, but it’s so much better to cross the street or just pause without noise, pollution or danger from cars.

These changes are likely to continue, IMO, as I think Parisians may have crossed a tipping point, as pedestrians, bikers and non-automobilistes, in terms of tolerance for cars. People are not stopping for crossing signals. Bikers are going where they want, with or against traffic. Pedestrians are learning (slowly!) to look both ways for bikes that did not exist 10 years ago.

My one-handed conclusion is that a city’s metabolism can change fairly quickly once a critical mass of its citizens sees and experiences an alternative to the old, wrong way of interacting. Cities are for people, not cars.

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: American cars have been rated by the superior gallons/100 miles (same as liters/100km) for over 10 years, but people haven’t noticed!
  2. Read: The suburbs also encouraged corporations to create their “perfect” (=artificial, high modern) campuses (as seen all over Silicon Valley)
  3. Watch: Bikes should NOT be taxed out of people’s budgets.
  4. Read: Why is Covid-death in the US (nearly 1 million so far) treated so casually?
  5. Read: The scientists behind the accuracy of Covid-tests
  6. Read: Schwarzenegger’s message to his Russian friends
  7. Read: People Deserve to Know Their Houses Are Going to Burn
  8. Read: This piece criticizes the way that Daylight “savings” is being stopped, but they are mixing up the problem of jumping clocks with the need for teens (and others) to have light in the morning.
  9. Listen: Texas’s electrical grid is a market and government failure

H/Ts to CD and PB 

How is Ukraine different?

Some people claim that the West’s reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukraine is hypocritical (the NATO “defense alliance” has been involved in a few offensive campaigns) or racist (the West’s support for Ukrainian refugees is stronger than it was for Syrian refugees), but I think it’s much easier to explain, as the first invasion with a goal of conquering and annexing territory since WWII.

What about wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq? “Operations” in America’s sphere of influence (Haiti, El Salvador, etc.)? “Actions” by other, formerly imperial powers (France in west Africa, the UK in the Falklands, etc.)?

None of these were about annexation. Most were attempts to topple governments, but none (IIRC) were about (successfully) installing a puppet government. There was always the veneer of democracy and self-rule.

That’s not true in Ukraine now, just like it was not true in September 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided Poland.

So people are right to say “this is different” in comparison with the previous 75 years. (Please comment if I’m wrong.)*

Ukrainians, otoh, have been trolling pretty hard.

Now WHY is this different. There are many articles floating around about Putin’s psychology, Soviet-nostalgia and potential mental deterioration, but I find the “he fooled himself” story to be the most plausible, i.e., that Putin started to believe the disinformation that he’s be peddling for years:

The upshot is that the most powerful man in Russia is making bad moves because his staff is either too stupid (because loyalty is paramount) or scared (of getting “suicided”) to correct his perspectives. That was also true of Putin’s hero, Stalin.

It’s also true that he may be making these bad moves because he has become accustomed to inflicting pain on others (Syria, Georgia, Turkey) in geopolitical “tests” that provide short-term stimulation but do nothing to restore Russian power — a step that could only happen when there’s a collective goal (the Soviets had this) rather that the individualistic goal of glorifying Putin.

How will this end? My one-handed conclusion is that it will only end with Putin getting a (potentially fatal) “reality check.” The real question is whether that will happen before, during or after a (world?) war that costs millions of lives.

H/T to NN

*Exceptions: Israel’s taking the Golan heights, Gaza strip, West bank / East Jerusalem (1967/73) and China seizing Tibet (1950). Israel’s seizure is a bit tricky (invasion? counter-offensive?), but the Tibet example is clear (and worrying with respect to Taiwan).

Interesting stuff

  1. Read: Russia’s Economic Blackout Will Change the World, via some serious breaks in trade and supply chains.
  2. Read: Our quest to attention threatens our mental health and society.
  3. Listen: This is how a professor should think and teach. He sounds like the kinda person we should have as our next Dean!
  4. Read: An expert on Stalin discusses Putin, Russia, and the West
  5. Read: The influence of politics on public health (tl;dr: more deaths in Republican states)
  6. Listen: The story of “Build-a-bear” as a start-up
  7. Read: How to break (or start) a habit
  8. Listen: Witchcraft as a tool.
  9. Read: Race is not scientific. Skin color is… but what about hair?
  10. Ponder: Price of full tank of gasoline (60 l) as a percentage of average monthly net salary across the world:

Review: Kleptopia

Tom Burgis’s 2020 book, subtitled “How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World,” provides interesting and scary insights into a world where money and power are abused. Kleptopia is not a place, but a community of corrupt politicians, fast-buck “businessmen,” and the many professionals — lawyers, lobbyists and marketeers — who help them rob the poor. It is an excellent follow-on to Glenny’s 2008 McMafia.

The key to understanding the dynamics of kleptopia is that it is ok to over-pay professionals, kill the curious and persistent, and lie about one’s work and plans while in the process of stealing $billions from citizens. Since the goal is turning other people’s [stolen] money into your own [clean] money, it is ok to lose 90 percent on the way. After all, 90 percent of someone else’s $1 billion is still go enough to take you from $0 to $100 million!

The book is full of examples of crooks in poor countries (Zimbabwe, Kazakstan) working with fixers from rich countries (UK, US) to rob elections, rig markets, and punish opponents everywhere. When did this “business” get big and bad? After the end of the Cold War, when crimes against citizens would no longer be tolerated by US or Soviet allies. The corrupt needed an updated business model and there were many “consultants” ready to provide it.

Ex-Soviet states are featured in the book. Kazakstan’s Nazarbayev insisted on loyalty as he stole billions. Russia’s KGB (where Putin got his start) was very efficient at converting Soviet assets into power and wealth (at least $50 billion) for its members:

“Yeltsin would recall… ‘A country can’t be rich if it has no rich people in it. There is no real human independence without private property. But money, big money (which is actually a relative concept) is always, under any circumstances, a seduction, a test of morals, a temptation to sin . . . In order to cross that ethical line, in order to run that red stoplight, under Russian conditions you don’t necessarily have to peddle pornography, sell drugs, or deal in contraband cheap goods. Why fool around with such nickel-and-dime stuff? It’s easier to buy one government official after another” p 170.

There is no rule of law in Kleptopia, only delays, oversights and “interpretations” that make no sense to outsiders — until you understand that the goal is robbery, often accompanied by violence.

Tony Blair is one such person. Here’s the advice he gave to Nazarbayev on how to spin a massacre of his citizens (protesting the loss of their jobs due to their company being stripped of assets by Nazarbayev’s allies) in the city of Zhanaozen:

“Dear Mr President… I think it best to meet head on the Zhanaozen issue. The fact is you have made changes following it; but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made. Dealing with it in the way I suggest, is the best way for the Western media. It will also serve as a quote that can be used in future setting out the basic case for Kazakhstan.”

Some draft passages followed. ‘I love my country . . . essential religious tolerance . . . strong ally of the coalition . . . progress and openness . . .’ Then a little false modesty: ‘But as the tragic events of Zhanaozen last December showed, there is much for Kazakhstan still to do . . . I understand and hear what our critics say. However, I would simply say this to them: by all means make your points and I assure you we’re listening. But give us credit for the huge change of a positive nature we have brought about in our country over these twenty years . . .’ Move on to a catalogue of reforms under way, then build to the climax[…]” — p 255.

Blair was paid $13 million per year for such advice — around $1 million per massacred protestor.

Why is real estate so expensive in London, New York and Dubai? Buyers are not looking for value; they want to launder dirty money into clean real estate. They don’t care if the price is outrageous; they don’t even live in the properties. That’s why they pay — and sellers are happy — to accept cash. The same is true about investors into poorly performing hedge funds: annual returns are irrelevant if the main goal is cleaning the principal.

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” — Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Fake news, loyal media, and outright lies are the language of Kleptopia. We can see it in the speeches of Putin and other (would be) dictators, but we can also see it in Trump’s words. Why? Because he’s been laundering money for decades via various “Trump projects.” Does it matter that they go bankrupt or fall in value? Not if the backers are able to turn $100 of dirty money into $50 of clean assets. Indeed, casinos (another failed Trump endeavor) are often used as places to launder cash, with the house getting a cut.

Corruption is always and everywhere a drag on prosperity, cooperation and human flourishing. It’s also a reason for mass death and suffering:

“Putin and his brother dictators in the other ex-Soviet republics wanted to use control of natural resources to magnify their influence abroad, be it by shaking down BP, listing mining companies in London or turning off gas supplies to Ukraine whenever its leaders leaned overly Westward. At the same time, their primary mission was to divert money from the collective to themselves. If you could figure out a business deal that would achieve both ends at once, there were fortunes to be made” p 352.

Although I am glad to see the Ukrainians resisting Putin’s invasion, it’s also sad that westerners (Blair, Trump and thousands of white collar “facilitators”) have helped kleptocrats, oligarchs and dictators beat and rob their people through lobbying, privacy laws, shell corporations and the like (the invasion has put these “under review” in the UK, but I’ll wait to see what laws actually change).

Are all westerners so eager to help the thieves? No, but those who do oppose them are killed “suicided,” fired, and hounded by police and prosecutors defending the flows of money. (The Swiss have gone after more than one banker for “breach of secrecy” aka, exposing money laundering.)

Remember that this book was released in 2020, so today’s headlines (Russia pivoting to China; Trump claiming Putin is “a genius”) are not accidents:

“Trump was helping to construct a new global alliance suited to the times. It was an alliance of kleptocrats. Like the court of Nazarbayev, they might at times seem like rivals, even enemies. In truth they were united in their common resolve to advance the privatisation of power. And what progress they had made. With Trump’s election, they controlled the three great poles of power. In the White House, a launderer, installed with the help of Putin’s Kremlin. And in Beijing, Xi Jinping. They had prime access respectively to the great repositories of plunder: the world’s biggest economy, the riches of the former Soviet Union, the one-party state containing a fifth of humanity” — p501

Are Xi’s hands clean? Not at all. He, like Putin, used “anti-corruption” to attack his enemies and hide his own crimes. Stay tuned for more, as Xi officially declares himself “leader for life.” It’s only a matter of time before corruption overwhelms all other decisions and facts.

My one-handed conclusion is that many thieves in “poor” countries have been aided and abetted by helpers in rich countries. If we’re going to stop corruption abroad, then we need to start at home. I give this book FIVE STARS.

Here are all my reviews.

Ethiopia and Egypt: A dam conflict

Eve writes*

Borders establish limitations, separations between political regimes, economic opportunities and resource rights. So how do we deal with the allocation of trans-border goods?

Colonial agreements, climate change and increasing demographics are all contributing factors to the tensions revolving around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

This is a case study about Cairo, we could hence wonder why an innovative project in Ethiopia could create such concern to all of Egypt? Well, GERD threatens the source of, according to Egypt Today, 95% of Egypt’s water.

A non-negligible fact is understanding the colonial 1959 agreement that “entitles” Egypt and Sudan to 55.5 Billion Cubic Metres (BCM) and 18.5 BCM of Nile water, respectively (Nashar).

Growing population contributes to Cairo’s water scarcity and food insecurity. Abdelkader says that Egypt is the most populous country in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), with a population of 92 million and a population growth rate of 2 percent.

Indeed, more people imply more mouths to feed and lives to sustain, hence increasing demand and further accentuating the need for supply. The later, hence increases reliance on this Egyptian watershed, a dependency that is not complementary to decreased water flows, due to the GERD. As the matter of fact, the filling of the reservoir is a primary concern linked to the dam. Though the filling time remains unpredictable, estimations vary from 3 to 7 years. The British Journal of Applied Science & Technology predicts that the Nile’s flow will decrease by 12-25% during this period.

The country is already food and water scarce. Currently, according to Falkenmark (1989), Egypt’s renewable per capita water resources of 630 m3 per year are already too low for food self-sufficiency. Indeed, the Nile plays a crucial role in Cairo’s economy. As mentioned by Abebe, 2014 the River provides almost 86% of Egypt’s freshwater for agriculture and benefits industrial production and sewage treatment.

However, it’s not all negative: the GERD could have numerous benefits on Sudan and Egypt. Tesfa’s research concludes that the GERD could remove up to 86% of silt and sedimentation, regulating the flow year-round and reducing flood risks.

Can we hope for cooperation? As we face the global issue of climate change and increasing population threats in countries such as Egypt, the need for regional cooperation rises. Water management issues demand cooperation between the Nile Basin states. Proposed adaptation strategies by Dr. El-Din suggest mutually beneficial adaptation strategies along the borders of the riparian countries, by the means of which water distribution corresponds to trade in water intensive goods, for example food and hydroelectricity. Cooperation could help everyone.

Bottom Line: The agriculturally dependent Egyptian society of Cairo faces food and water scarcity as unpredictable changes, due to the GERD, modify the flow of the River Nile.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Fire and water (quality) in Sydney

Jenny writes*

Temperatures in Australia have been rising by 0.5°C rise per decade since the 1980s due to climate change. In New South Wales (NSW), higher temperatures have intensified precipitation events and increased the intensity and frequency of droughts  [Deb et al., 2020]. Intense precipitation increases fuel availability because it allows for widespread herbaceous plant growth in what would otherwise be barren land [Deb et al., 2020]. In combination with high temperatures, more fuel encourages bushfires, as occurred in 2019 in NSW, with negative consequences to water quality.

In the 2019/20 fire season, more than 3,200 km2 of native forests burned in the Lake Burragorang catchment, which supplies the Warragamba dam. Warragamba is Sydney’s largest dam (holding more than four times the water of Sydney Harbour when full); it  provides about 80% of greater Sydney’s water. By mid-January 2020, reservoir levels had dropped to about 42% capacity. Only days after local fires were declared to be contained, the most intense rainfall in 30 years doubled the amount of water stored in Warragamba dam from pre-rainfall levels.

Thermal decomposition during bushfires creates ash and soil material high in nutrients (including nitrogen and phosphorus), metals and organics, which erode quickly due to lack of vegetative ground cover and surface litter. Heavy rainfall increases the rate of runoff of this ash and soil material to nearby water networks which can produce algal blooms that reduce water quality and dissolved oxygen, which leads to fish kills.

Bushfires in the Burragorang catchment can impact drinking water quality in Sydney. However, various measures prevented this in 2019/20. WaterNSW installed floating sediment booms across the Burragorang catchment to limit the movement of high turbidity water toward the Warragamba dam wall. Monitoring at sampling stations was increased and fallout radioactive nuclides were used to measure the transfer of sediments and nutrients from wildfire locations to downstream areas. However, in other areas like the nearby Tenterfield region, large quantities of ash entered the Tenterfield Dam, resulting in residents needing to boil water from October to December 2019.

Research suggests the “record high” temperatures of 2019 will be “average” by 2040 if emissions continue to grow [Sanderson and Fisher, 2020]. Additional actions that can minimise impacts of bushfires on waterways include hillside sediment erosion traps like silt fences and planting vegetation like grasses and trees to stabilise soils, and prioritising the restoration of burnt riverbank vegetation zones.

Bottom Line: Unprecedented weather events due to climate change are increasingly likely. It is imperative that water managers in Sydney adequately prepare and adapt to maintain high water quality as bushfires grow more frequent.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Interesting stuff

  1. Listen: An interview with the author of Jackpot: How gambling conquored Britain
  2. Read: What happens when Americans stay in the same house forever? “No one is suggesting forcibly moving Americans via strategic lava flows. But there are costs to taking the steps that”
  3. Listen: An excellent discussion of the economic impacts of sanctions on Russia. Related: A discussion of Russia’s political options and The end of “the end of history” as Russia goes rogue (and the privatization of war?). Read: These are the Russians the Netherlands can squeeze.
  4. Listen: Why are there so many bad bosses? The Peter principle is true!
  5. Listen: An amazing series — According to Need — looks at the institutional weaknesses prolonging homelessness in the Bay Area (near San Francisco).
  6. Read: “The new owner of Argentina’s de facto national treat stopped paying his majority-female workforce — so they seized control of the entire operation.
  7. Read: UC Berkeley has been forced to reduce student numbers as fixed housing supply and increasing demand drives home/rental prices ever higher.
  8. Read: The grandsons of “Doctor” Bronner are using their soap profits to fund research into and legalization of psychedelics. Nice.
  9. Read: Social sciences need to improve on their medieval standards of evidence and logic
  10. Watch: Remember to wash your hands… to save grandpa and just to spread fewer germs!

H/Ts to JH and MG

Missing water

Lorette writes*

Water on Basse-Terre’s coasts is blue and beautiful, but water from Basse-Terre’s taps is… missing.

Unlike metropolitan French departments, the overseas department of Guadeloupe is suffering from important water mismanagement leading to regular water shortages for consumers. Reports from the past years powered by the Guadeloupe Water Office (Office de l’Eau Guadeloupe) have shown consistent worrying data on severe leaks in the network, on growing concerns concerning the degradation of groundwater resources and on the lack of water treatment. This all led to more-than-angry consumers demanding transparency and accountability from the entities responsible for Basse-Terre’s water network and distribution.

Constant water shortages are the most visible consequences of a series of water mismanagements in Basse-Terre.

First major problem relating to water shortages is linked to leaks across the water network. On average in Guadeloupe, only 40% of distributed water volumes make it to consumers’ homes, or, in any case, is accounted for. However, for Basse-Terre in 2018, only 25% ended up in the consumers’ taps, which was the lowest water output in Guadeloupe that year. Existing infrastructure is falling apart and the million-euro budgets dedicated to the maintenance and reconstruction of the network never seem to help improve the service.

Furthermore, an average of 30% of bills were left unpaid in 2015, compared to a national average of 1.3% unpaid bills in 2013.  Several factors are at play here. On the one hand, this lack of payment from the consumers/customers may be due to a lack of satisfaction: too many water shortages, low quality water and high water prices. On the other hand, petty corruption might be at play, with water meters not reporting consumed volumes, which in turn leads to money being spent for the distribution of water and water volumes never accounted for.

Yet leaks might not be the only reason behind the lack of accessible drinking water for Guadeloupeans in Basse-Terre. There are considerable concerns when it comes to groundwater and surface water pollution from chlordecone, a pesticide used between 1972 and 1993 that has now contaminated around 90% of Guadeloupe and Martinique. With Basse-Terre draining water exclusively from groundwater resources and rivers, everyone can potentially be affected by this contaminant. Serious health issues are associated with chlordecone, especially the rise of prostate cancers which turns the distribution of water into a great threat to public health in the region.

Finally, another mismanagement that leads to consumers not receiving (enough) drinking water and repeated water shortages is the lack of water sanitation across the region. Water sanitation is, for reasons cited above, absolutely necessary for a quality drinking water and to ensure public health. In 2018 for instance, 67% of the major wastewater treatment plants were not up to standards. This is once again due to bad infrastructure and low maintenance of the existing infrastructure, because of a lack of stable money inputs.

Bottom Line: Highly polluted water, lack of wastewater treatment and regulators as well as bad infrastructure and management of the water network leave Guadeloupeans in Basse-Terre thirsty and angry.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Farmers and water scarcity in Thailand

Sarah writes*

I have been living in Thailand for two months now. While here, I have had the opportunity to visit farms, agricultural learning centers, and farmer’s council meetings. During these experiences, I have been able to collect information on the concerns and opinions farmers have about water scarcity.

In order to grasp their frustrations and worries, I first needed to develop an understanding of the water situation in Thailand. Who manages the water? What policies are in place? What are the main industries that use water? How does the change in climate affect farmers’ crops, the price of water, and their irrigation systems? It will be difficult to answer all of these questions within one blog post, however, they are important to consider in order to understand the reasoning behind the concern of many farmers.

After the economic boom, water sources became heavily exploited from industries such as textile manufacturing and agricultural processing leaving less water for farmers and residents. The government of Thailand established a national water resources regulator in response, however, this system turned out to have its flaws. One is the fact that local concerns are not represented and there is a gap in communication that leads the water to be poorly managed and exploited.

In this design, there is a lack of government planning and skills available for the farmers regarding solutions and projects development for the water scarcity issue. Water tanks are widespread, as there are common in monsoon climates. However, water collection facilities are missing and no plan seems to be implemented. The region of Pak Chong takes its water from the Lamtakong Dam, but the farmers there have no collective or private capability to store the rainwater except in natural ponds, leaving many farmers without enough water.

Farmers try to exploit their water availability and consequently they overexploiting their land’s water supply, thus further impoverishing soils from their nutrients and increasing the need for fertilizers and other chemicals. Lack of sufficient water thus generates a vicious cycle of need and scarcity which dramatically affects the environment. Lack of water leads to overexploitation of ground reserves, decreasing soil fertility, and decreases the number of plants that can be grown, thus leading to the need to use fertilizers to make up for the fertility losses.

Additionally, the change in climate patterns of Le Nino and La Nina due to climate change has caused Thailand to see more flooding and droughts than usual. Droughts have been so extreme that two water sources dried up in the Nakhon Ratchasima region.  These droughts have led to a decrease in viable irrigation water for farmers, poorer quality crop production, and overall, fewer yields. This decrease in income has had negative effects on the livelihoods of many farmers in the region.

Many farmers turn to a mono-crop system in order to maximize their produce and sell to big export companies that are looking for large quantities, which is mostly rice and sugarcane. Agricultural specialists have advised farmers to establish multi-crop or agroforestry systems whose crop diversity allows more more efficient water use.  However, organic systems make up less than 5% of Thailand’s agricultural industry.

The main takeaways from my discussions with farmers are that there needs to be a better management system that is capable of allocating resources more effectively, which is conducted on a local scale. This management needs to be based on knowledge sharing on effective water storage, filtration, and collection that is appropriate for the region and the people.

Bottom Line: Local management and clear, effective knowledge sharing is key to beginning the process of solving the water scarcity challenge in Thailand.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂