Henri Giroux at Western: Public intellectuals and the common good

Earlier I posted about Henri Giroux’s lecture at Western University’s Public Humanities program. That lecture is now available on youtube.

Speculating on water

An interesting article/interview in Wired on market speculation and water. It is with Frederick Kaufman, who published this article on futures markets for water (i.e. speculating) and Wall Street in the recent (Oct 24) issue of Nature.

Public or private? The fight over the future of water.

Brandon Keim

All around the world, from the Himalayas to the Great Plains, fresh water is starting to run low. It’s shaping up to be one of the 21st century’s great environmental and humanitarian challenges: People use water faster than nature can replenish it.

Some people argue that privatization is the answer to the water crisis. But others, including food journalist Frederick Kaufman, say that’s a recipe for disaster. The author of Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, published in October by Wiley, Kaufman points to the recent history of food prices as an example of the dangers posed by modern finance.

In the last five years, food prices have gone haywire, rising steadily while spiking three times, causing global food shortages and social unrest. Many economists and some scientists blame food prices on speculation. Once the province of farmers and agriculture industry insiders looking to hedge their risks, food markets were opened in the 1990s to the financial industry. The market soon stopped working like it’s supposed to.

“We’ve seen the price of food become more expensive than ever three times in five years. Normally we’d see three price spikes in a century,” said Kaufman. “And part of the reason is this new kind of commodity speculation in food markets.”

In an article published Oct. 24 in Nature, Kaufman describes what he calls “Wall Street’s thirst for water” — the push to turn water into a commodity like food, with the same instruments that produced the mortgage-backed security collapse and 2008 financial crisis.

At risk, says Kaufman, are the 80 percent of humanity already threatened by water shortages and everyone who depends on a stable, affordable supply of life’s essential ingredient.

Wired talked to Kaufman about his fears


October Water Ethics Newsletter

The latest newsletter of the Water Ethics Network is available here and there is a nice diversity of issues covered – including a call for two paid internships.

Spin M.I.T.’s wheels of ecological doom

An illustrated guide about the consequences of doing nothing about ecological distress.

A Third Way Out: The Dilemma of Eastern Europe

I often find the articles at The Solutions Journal interesting food for thought, and this one is no exception.
A Third Way Out: The Dilemma of Eastern Europe


A long series of questions fuels the debate over sustainable development and the green economy. To name a few: Will the human capacity for innovation be able to offset environmental degradation? Can growth remain an economic priority? Or, conversely, is abandoning growth a viable development path? Amid theories and hypotheticals, the arguments must eventually shift from the abstract arena of general principles and focus on specific problems.

Eastern Europe provides an interesting test case.

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, most Eastern European countries reoriented their economies toward the European Union (EU). Many of these countries actually joined the EU, overcoming a division rooted in the split of the Roman Empire, 1,500 years prior to the iron curtain. It remains little short of a miracle that the re-unification of Germany and the enlargement of the EU bridged such an ancient divide.

However, this eastward expansion of the EU created a regional mismatch between economic and political institutions. Economic membership requirements—in particular, the Stability and Growth Pact, which placed limits on national debts and deficits—set unrealistic and unachievable expectations on new Eastern members. This mismatch, manifested in today’s Eurozone crisis, now threatens to separate the continent into a strongly competitive Northern economic region and a Southern region that severely lacks competitiveness. Regardless, both regions seem headed for a long period of slow growth and increasing social and environmental problems, while neither region seems capable of real cooperation on key regional or federal decisions like smart grids or research and development priorities.


Yemen water crisis

Last Saturday Harvard University hosted a conference titled Yemen in Transition: Challenge and Opportunities. The conference covered four topic areas: (1) Women and Youth; (2) Politics and Reform; (3) Economic Development; and, (4) The Water Crisis. The conference abstracts are downloadable from the above link and somebody was recording things (audio and video) so I’ll keep an eye out to see if/when that is publicly available.

I was able to make it to the session on the water crisis, which was fascinating. Not only because Yemen’s water problems have been in the news so much lately but because the opportunity to hear first hand from government officials and researchers was enlightening. Of course it would have been much better to have seen the linkages of the water crisis with the other areas covered by the conference. But at any rate, here were some of the take-home messages that I took home.

First a few facts: (1) The average water user in Yemen uses 140 cubic meters of water a year. That’s an order of magnitude less than comparable averages in the MENA region (Middle East/North Africa) and well below the 2500+ cubic meter level of North Americans. I’m always wary of these national stats disguising local variation, but the point is clear: people already conserve water. (2) The large and rapidly growing city of Sana’a has connection rates for water service of about 56% with service roughly once every three weeks. (3) There are around 50000 deep wells drilled for irrigation and 800 rigs indiscriminately (and often illegally) bringing new wells online. The water table drops anywhere from 1-7metres per year in most basins. (4) About 10 million people are listed as food insecure, half of them severely food insecure.

With that small bit of background it is not surprising why water is of such great concern. In January 2011 Yemen developed a new national water policy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the debate amongst the conference panelists was qat production. Qat is a cash crop that uses very little water, but still uses most of the water in a country where agriculture consumes upwards of 85% of the water. So on one side there is a contingent saying ‘get rid of qat and grow food.’ On the other is a contingent trying to put qat production in context. This latter group sees the current emphasis on qat as an outcome of structural adjustment processes that began in the 1970s and which sought to bring Yemen’s agricultural production into the global market economy. Those adjustments precipitated the large era of well-drilling. One of the participants at the conference noted that irrigated agriculture has increased 15 times from 1970-2008. At first the agricultural sector was growing citrus fruits, grapes and qat. But during a period of drought, and the ending of subsidies for the diesel needed to run irrigation pumps, water availability went down and costs went up. So qat production intensified as the most efficient way to use water.

Well, this is really interesting to me because there is now this contextually thick problem. Qat uses most of the water but it is also supporting Yemen’s agricultural production – which accounts for around 17% of GDP. It isn’t irrational for farmers to produce qat but the lack of domestic food production leaves Yemen exposed to globally volatile food prices. Further, with cities like Sana’a and Taiz and rapidly expanding urban populations it pushes the question of water use to the fore: should water be used for qat or for cities? At present there is a lot of talk about desalination – but the water would have to be pumped up several kilometers and inland several hundred, so it isn’t a particularly feasible prospect. Somebody suggested a program of coastal urbanization and desalination. Moving people to water while also making water for people.

For me, this introduction to more of the Yemeni water crisis has prompted much interest, so I’ll be starting to follow this more closely and to post more as I learn more.

Global Water Forum: Emerging Scholars Essay Winners

The Global Water Forum announced the winners of its emerging scholars essay contest today. Here are the abstracts, they can all be read freely here:

Emerging Scholars Award


Announcement and publication of finalists

The Global Water Forum Editorial Team would like to thank all of the participants in the 2012 GWF Emerging Scholars Award. Congratulations to the recipient of the Award’s First Prize: Dr. Edward Spang of the University of California, Davis. We would also like to congratulate Christos Makridis (Stanford University) and Adam Abramson (Ben Gurion University of the Negev), recipients of Second Prize and Third Prize respectively, as well as the other finalists. The entries of the top 3 Prize recipients and those of the other top 10 finalists can be found below.


First Prize

A thirst for power: A global analysis of water consumption for energy production
Edward Spang
University Of California, Davis, United States

Understanding the water demand of energy systems is fundamental to overall national water security. This study develops and applies the first water consumption indicator for national-level energy systems.

Second Prize

Multilateral water governance: Prospects for transboundary water banking
Christos Makridis
Stanford University, United States

The emergence of policy instruments that optimize the outcomes from transboundary water governance is a pressing concern. This article considers the conditions and market design elements of a transboundary water bank along the Colorado River.

Third Prize

Outlining a transition from cost-effective to productive rural water service improvements
Adam Abramson
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Most remote water interventions use the cheapest available means for providing improved water services: the borehole water pump. This study shows however that higher-yielding pumping approaches provide superior returns on investment.

Other finalists (alphabetical order) 

Securing the future of India’s “Water, energy and food”
Naresh Devineni & Shama Perveen
Columbia University, United States

India’s water, energy, and food production systems are being subjected to increasing stress. This study consider the design of an efficient Indian food procurement system that considers climate, groundwater needs, and varying regional productivity of crops.

Unpacking water conflict in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Why some conflicts escalate, why some remain intractable, and why we can be optimistic about the future 
Christopher Kuzdas
Arizona State University, United States

The most intense water conflicts usually occur within sub-national or sub-regional contexts. This article examines the drivers of regional water conflicts in Costa Rica.

Breaking up water monopolies: Costs and benefits
Alexandros Maziotis
Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, Italy

This study looks at vertical and horizontal integration in the English and Welsh water industries, showing that there is no reason why water and sewage industries should necessarily be integrated.

Opening the black box of River Basin Organizations
Susanne Schmeier
Earth System Governance Project and MRC-GIZ Cooperation Programme, Lao PDR

This article provides a baseline analysis of how the institutional design of River Basin Organizations can vary, and why this is important for transboundary water governance.


Leveraging carbon financing to enable accountable water treatment programs
Evan Alexander Thomas
Portland State University, United States

This article outlines the technical premise and policy considerations concerning the first Clean Development Mechanism project to finance rural water treatment.


Water supply and sanitation in India: Meeting targets and beyond
Sridhar Vedachalam
Cornell University, United States

Despite India’s progress on the water-related Millenium Development Goals there remain significant disparities and shortcomings, particularly with regards to sanitation.


Big is beautiful: Megadams, African water security, and China’s role in the new global political economy
Harry Verhoeven
University of Oxford, United Kingdom

This article looks at the role of dams in development and energy production arguing that their impact on water security is deeply questionable.


Secretary Clinton on Water Security

Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered this speech on water security September 25 to the U.N.


Urban-Nature Ethic for L.A. Water

An interesting article in Counterpunch available here (you have to scroll down a bit).

Ethico-Politico Weariness

Some good Sunday thoughts from Levi Bryant – especially interesting are his comments on the way(s) that politics come to replace theology. Here is a snippet:

“Where the humanities used to be organized around theology and knowledge of God and advancement of his glory, the humanities encountered a void in the movement towards secularization. Something was needed to function as a telos or justification of our work. Politics became that replacement. But it’s been a weird sort of politics that is seldom addressed to the broader population and that seldom takes to the streets. I repeat, who is it for? What does it do? It’s as if we can’t admit that we just genuinely love Shakespeare for his own sake.”

Larval Subjects .

These days I find myself feeling deeply weary where discussions about ethics and politics are concerned. I reflect on this, I wonder why. Why is it that I grow so tired, so jaded, whenever discussions of politics and ethics come up. I’m divided between two tendencies, two orientations. On the one hand, there is my desire for justice, equity, and fairness. On the other hand, there is my Lucretian and Spinozist desire for peace of mind and beautitude. Ethico-politico desire, the first orientation, is a desire to transform the world, to render it just, and to denounce injustice; injustice that we see all about it. The desire for beautitude and peace of mind is something quite different. It is a desire to simply delight in the machines of the world, the beings of the world, taking them for what they are. The person who has what Spinoza called an “intellectual…

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