The Next Empire

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

By Howard W. French

Photography by the author

A porter helped me with my bags as I made my way, sweating, into the train station in Dar es Salaam. In addition to my normal complement of luggage, I had brought a carton full of provisions, including several gallons of water, for a trip of uncertain duration. With the carton perched on his head, the porter led me through the vast, densely packed concourse and into the waiting salon.

There, a clock sat high on the wall, its hands frozen since who knows when. Around the perimeter of the room, above the upholstered benches, the faded yellow walls bore what looked like a generation’s worth of oily stains, laid down in layers in the shape of heads and shoulders by people leaning back, like me, bludgeoned by the thick afternoon heat and waiting for the call to board.

I was about to embark on one of the world’s great train rides, a journey from this muggy Indian Ocean port city, the commercial capital of Tanzania, to the edge of the Zambian Copper Belt, deep in the heart of southern Africa. The official who’d sold me my ticket had seemed puzzled when I asked when the train would arrive at its final destination, and he refused to guess; in recent years, the 1,156-mile trip has been known to take anywhere from its originally scheduled two days to an entire week.

The railroad—known as the Tazara line—was built by China in the early 1970s, at a cost of nearly $500 million, an extraordinary expenditure in the thick of the Cultural Revolution, and a symbol of Beijing’s determination to hold its own with Washington and Moscow in an era when Cold War competition over Africa raged fierce. At the time of its construction, it was the third-largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Africa, after the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the Volta Dam in Ghana.

Today the Tazara is a talisman of faded hopes and failed economic schemes, an old and unreliable railway with too few working locomotives. Only briefly a thriving commercial artery, it has been diminished by its own decay and by the roads and air routes that have sprung up around it. Maintenance costs have saddled Tanzania and Zambia with debts reportedly as high as $700 million in total, and the line now has only about 300 of the 2,000 wagons it needs to function normally, according to Zambian news reports.

Yet the railway traces a path through a region where hopes have risen again, rekindled by a new sort of development also driven by China—and on an unprecedented scale. All across the continent, Chinese companies are signing deals that dwarf the old railroad project. The most heavily reported involve oil production; since the turn of the millennium, Chinese companies have muscled in on lucrative oil markets in places like Angola, Nigeria, Algeria, and Sudan. But oil is neither the largest nor the fastest-growing part of the story. Chinese firms are striking giant mining deals in places like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and building what is being touted as the world’s largest iron mine in Gabon. They are prospecting for land on which to build huge agribusinesses. And to get these minerals and crops to market, they are building major new ports and thousands of miles of highway.   [continue]


The Empathic Civilisation

Mapping Human Vulnerability to Climate Change

I found the following article at GIS and Science. Be sure to check them out for other environmental news.

In Climate Change, Environmental Science, Geography on March 7, 2011 at 10:02 am

First global map suggests climate change will have greatest impact 
on the populations least responsible for causing the problem

Researchers already study how various species of plants and animals migrate in response to climate change. Now, Jason Samson, a PhD candidate in McGill University’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences, has taken the innovative step of using the same analytic tools to measure the impact of climate change on human populations. Samson and fellow researchers combined climate change data with censuses covering close to 97 per-cent of the world’s population in order to forecast potential changes in local populations for 2050.

Local vulnerability of human populations to climate change based on ecological and demographic models is depicted by regions in red which are expected to be most negatively impacted by climate change. White regions correspond to human density values of zero in the global population database. (Credit: McGill University)

Samson’s team found that if populations continue to increase at the expected rates, those who are likely to be the most vulnerable to climate change are the people living in low-latitude, hot regions of the world, places like central South America, the Arabian Peninsula and much of Africa. In these areas, a relatively small increase in temperature will have serious consequences on a region’s ability to sustain a growing population.”It makes sense that the low latitude tropical regions should be more vulnerable because the people there already experience extremely hot conditions which make agriculture challenging. An increase in temperature over the next few decades will only make their lives more difficult in a variety of ways,” says Samson. [continue…]

Population Decline is Part of the Solution

Be part of the solution!

Will climate change burst the global ‘food bubble’?

Lester Brown argues the pressures of rising population, consumption, water stress and global warming will pose the first serious challenge to civilisation through our food.People feel rising food prices, says Brown, whereas rising CO2 is intangible. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

The world is in the midst of a “food bubble” that could burst at any time: that’s the conclusion of the eminent environmentalist Lester Brown, who I met yesterday to discuss his latest book.

He argues we are “one bad harvest away from chaos” and that “food has become the weak link in our civilisation”. Here’s my summary of his reasoning.

The bubble exists because food is being produced by the unsustainable use of its key resource, water. The most striking example is Saudi Arabia where, Brown says, the looming exhaustion of a major acquifer is moving the nation from self-sufficiency in grain just a few years ago to zero production in 2012. Statistics trip off Brown’s tongue as easily as water drips off the crops he is describing.

There are 175 million people in China and 130 million people in India who live on food grown from unsustainable water supplies, according to Brown’s Earth Policy Institute. Half the world lives in countries where the water table is falling, he notes.

Add to the water problem the growing demand for food, from rising population, consumption and biofuels, and you see how the bubble forms. The so-called land grabs, in which countries and corporations are buying up farmland in Africa, is another sign of the bubble, he says, as is the growing activity of speculators in the food commodity markets.

So how might the bubble burst? [continue…]
Source: Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog @

Global Warming

Subhankar Banerjee/Associated Pres

By: Andrew C Revkin
Dec. 8, 2009
Source: NY Times


Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. On the one hand, warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases — produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests. On the other, the technological, economic and political issues that have to be resolved before a concerted worldwide effort to reduce emissions can begin have gotten no simpler, particularly in the face of a global economic slowdown.

After years of preparation for climate talks taking place in Copenhagen through Dec. 18, 2009, President Obama and other leaders announced on Nov. 15 what had already become evident — that no formal treaty could be produced anytime soon. Instead, the leaders pledged to reach a placeholder accord that would call for reductions in emissions and increased aid to help developing nations adapt to a changing climate and get access to non-polluting energy options.

This would in theory give the nations more time to work out the all-important details. Negotiators would then seek a binding global agreement in 2010, complete with firm emission targets, enforcement mechanisms and specific dollar amounts to aid poorer nations.

At the heart of the debate is a momentous tussle between rich and poor countries over who steps up first and who pays most for changed energy menus.

Within the United States, Congress is similarly fighting over legislation on climate change. The House in the summer of 2009 passed a bill outlining a cap-and-trade system that could, over the next few decades, lead to an early end to conventional use of coal and oil, fuels that have underpinned prosperity and growth for more than a century. But between stiff opposition from energy interests and the overwhelming distractions of health care reform and the economy, the legislation has stalled in the Senate.

In international discussions over climate, Mr. Obama has urged other countries not to be discouraged by the stasis on Capitol Hill, pointing to big investments in energy efficiency, solar and wind power and his move to restrict greenhouse gases using environmental regulations.

In the meantime, recent fluctuations in temperature, seized on by opponents of emissions restrictions, have intensified the public debate over how urgently to respond. The long-term warming trend over the last century has been well-established, and scientists immersed in studying the climate are projecting substantial disruption in water supplies, agriculture, ecosystems and coastal communities. Passionate activists at both ends of the discourse are pushing ever harder for or against rapid action, while polls show the public locked durably in three camps — with roughly a fifth of American voters eager for action, a similar proportion aggressively rejecting projections of catastrophe and most people tuned out or confused.


Scientists learned long ago that the earth’s climate has powerfully shaped the history of the human species — biologically, culturally and geographically. But only in the last few decades has research revealed that humans can be a powerful influence on the climate as well.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that since 1950, the world’s climate has been warming, primarily as a result of emissions from unfettered burning of fossil fuels and the razing of tropical forests. Such activity adds to the atmosphere’s invisible blanket of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping “greenhouse” gases. Recent research has shown that methane, which flows from landfills, livestock and oil and gas facilities, is a close second to carbon dioxide in impact on the atmosphere.

That conclusion has emerged through a broad body of analysis in fields as disparate as glaciology, the study of glacial formations, and palynology, the study of the distribution of pollen grains in lake mud. It is based on a host of assessments by the world’s leading organizations of climate and earth scientists.

In the last several years, the scientific case that the rising human influence on climate could become disruptive has become particularly robust.

Some fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature are inevitable regardless of human activity — because of decades-long ocean cycles, for example. But centuries of rising temperatures and seas lie ahead if the release of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation continues unabated, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for alerting the world to warming’s risks.

Despite the scientific consensus on these basic conclusions, enormously important details remain murky. That reality has been seized upon by some groups and scientists disputing the overall consensus and opposing changes in energy policies.

For example, estimates of the amount of warming that would result from a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations (compared to the level just before the Industrial Revolution got under way in the early 19th century) range from 3.6 degrees to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The intergovernmental climate panel said it could not rule out even higher temperatures). While the low end could probably be tolerated, the high end would almost certainly result in calamitous, long-lasting disruptions of ecosystems and economies, a host of studies have concluded. A wide range of economists and earth scientists say that level of risk justifies an aggressive response.

Other questions have persisted despite a century-long accumulation of studies pointing to human-driven warming. The rate and extent at which sea levels will rise in this century as ice sheets erode remains highly uncertain, even as the long-term forecast of centuries of retreating shorelines remains intact. Scientists are struggling more than ever to disentangle how the heat building in the seas and atmosphere will affect the strength and number of tropical cyclones. The latest science suggests there will be more hurricanes and typhoons that reach the most dangerous categories of intensity, but fewer storms over all.

Steps Toward a Response

The debate over such climate questions pales next to the fight over what to do, or not do, in a world where fossil fuels still underpin both rich and emerging economies. With the completion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in 1992, the world’s nations pledged to avoid dangerously disrupting the climate through the buildup of greenhouse gases, but they never defined how much warming was too much.

Nonetheless, recognizing that the original climate treaty was proving ineffective, all of the world’s industrialized countries except for the United States accepted binding restrictions on their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in Japan in 1997. That accord took effect in 2005 and its gas restrictions expire in 2012. (The United States signed the treaty, but it was never submitted for ratification, in the face of overwhelming opposition in the Senate because the pact required no steps by China or other fast-growing developing countries.

It took until 2009 for the leaders of the world’s largest economic powers to agree on a dangerous climate threshold: an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from the average global temperature recorded just before the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear. (This translates into an increase of 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the Earth’s current average temperature, about 59 degrees).

The Group of 8 industrial powers also agreed this year to a goal of reducing global emissions 50 percent by 2050, with the richest countries leading the way by cutting their emissions 80 percent. But they did not set a baseline from which to measure that reduction, and so far firm interim targets — which many climate scientists say would be more meaningful — have not been defined.

At the same time, fast-growing emerging economic powerhouses, led by China and India, still oppose taking on mandatory obligations to curb their emissions. They say they will do what they can to rein in growth in emissions — as long as their economies do not suffer. The world’s poorest countries, in the meantime, are seeking payments to help make them less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, given that the buildup in climate-warming gases so far has come mainly from richer nations. Such aid has been promised since the 1992 treaty and a fund was set up under the Kyoto Protocol. But while tens of billions of dollars are said to be needed, only millions have flowed so far.

In many ways, the debate over global climate policy is a result of a global “climate divide.” Emissions of carbon dioxide per person range from less than 2 tons per year in India, where 400 million people lack access to electricity, to more than 20 in the United States. The richest countries are also best able to use wealth and technology to insulate themselves from climate hazards, while the poorest, which have done the least to cause the problem, are the most exposed.

In Copenhagen in December 2009, negotiators had planned to try to settle on the basic terms of two new global climate agreements. One would renew the commitments of countries bound by the Kyoto emissions limits; the other would rein in emissions of all countries to varying extents, depending on their wealth and emissions history. Given the many competing interests, and the reality that any big emissions shifts would have substantial economic impacts, the negotiations have been called one of the most complex diplomatic challenges ever.

Democratic leaders in the United States Senate continue to try to follow the lead of the House of Representatives by securing passage of a bill aiming to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The chief mechanism would be a “cap and trade” system that sets a gradually declining ceiling for over all emissions. Companies and institutions could buy and sell credits from one another as a way to curb emissions at the lowest cost. Companies that made deeper cuts than required could sell credits to companies that fell short of their targets.

But a national preoccupation with the slow economy and competing issues, led by health care, threaten to delay or weaken such legislation. Another impediment is the shortage of money flowing to basic energy research and large-scale demonstrations of non-polluting energy technology. While the Obama administration and Congress directed some stimulus money toward such efforts, such spending comes only after decades of declining investment in these areas.

President Obama came into office vowing to take swift action on climate change, and under him, the Environmental Protection Agency has declared that it will regulate carbon dioxide emissions. But with the cap-and-trade bill facing an uncertain future in the Senate, his ability to take big steps on the issue has been severely constrained, and without significant actions by the United States, China and India had made it clear they would remain on the sidelines. Just weeks before the planned Copenhagen session, he and other leaders gathered for an Asian summit announced that no treaty would be reached in 2009. Instead, leaders will try to reach a political agreement that could be the basis for new treaty talks in 2010.

In the meantime, a recent dip in emissions caused by the global economic slowdown is almost certain to be followed by a rise, scientists warn, and with population and appetites for energy projected to rise through mid-century, they say the entwined challenges of climate and energy will only intensify.

Water Facts

Here are the facts about the water crisis. Every day, thousands of people die from lack of access to clean water. The safe water issue is intimately linked to hygiene education and proper sanitation, which is why we take an integrated approach to bringing safe water to the world’s poor.



  • 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease. (11)
  • 43% of water-related deaths are due to diarrhea. (11)
  • 84% of water-related deaths are in children ages 0 – 14. (11)
  • 98% of water-related deaths occur in the developing world. (11)
  • 884 million people, lack access to safe water supplies, approximately one in eight people. (5)
  • The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. (1)
  • At any given time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from a water-related disease. (1)
  • Less than 1% of the world’s fresh water (or about 0.007% of all water on earth) is readily accessible for direct human use. (12)
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day. (1)
  • About a third of people without access to an improved water source live on less than $1 a day. More than two thirds of people without an improved water source live on less than $2 a day. (1)
  • Poor people living in the slums often pay 5-10 times more per liter of water than wealthy people living in the same city. (1)
  • Without food a person can live for weeks, but without water you can expect to live only a few days. (4)
  • The daily requirement for sanitation, bathing, and cooking needs, as well as for assuring survival, is about 13.2 gallons per person. (3)
  • Over 50 percent of all water projects fail and less than five percent of projects are visited, and far less than one percent have any longer-term monitoring. (10)


  • Only 62% of the world’s population has access to improved sanitation – defined as a sanitation facility that ensures hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact. (5)
  • 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, including 1.2 billion people who have no facilities at all. (5)
  • The majority of the illness in the world is caused by fecal matter.(9)
  • Lack of sanitation is the world’s biggest cause of infection. (9)
  • At any one time, more than half of the poor in the developing world are ill from causes related to hygiene, sanitation and water supply. (9)
  • 88% of cases of diarrhea worldwide are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation or insufficient hygiene. (9)
  • Of the 60 million people added to the world’s towns and cities every year, most occupy impoverished slums and shanty-towns with no sanitation facilities. (8)
  • It is estimated that improved sanitation facilities could reduce diarrhea-related deaths in young children by more than one-third. If hygiene promotion is added, such as teaching proper hand washing, deaths could be reduced by two thirds. It would also help accelerate economic and social development in countries where sanitation is a major cause of lost work and school days because of illness. (6)

Impacts on Children

  • clockEvery 15 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease. (2)
  • Children in poor environments often carry 1,000 parasitic worms in their bodies at any time. (8)
  • 1.4 million children die as a result of diarrhea each year. (11)
  • 90% of all deaths caused by diarrheal diseases are children under 5 years of age, mostly in developing countries. (8)

Impacts on Women

  • Millions of women and children spend several hours a day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources. (1)
  • A study by the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) of community water and sanitation projects in 88 communities found that projects designed and run with the full participation of women are more sustainable and effective than those that do not. This supports an earlier World Bank study that found that women’s participation was strongly associated with water and sanitation project effectiveness. (7)
  • Evidence shows that women are responsible for half of the world’s food production (as opposed to cash crops) and in most developing countries, rural women produce between 60-80 percent of the food. Women also have an important role in establishing sustainable use of resources in small-scale fishing communities, and their knowledge is valuable for managing and protecting watersheds and wetlands. (7)

Impacts on Productivity

  • On average, every US dollar invested in water and sanitation provides an economic return of eight US dollars. (1)
  • An investment of US$11.3 billion per year is needed to meet the drinking water and sanitation target of the Millennium Development Goals, yielding a total payback for US$ 84 billion a year. (11)
  • Other estimated economic benefits of investing in drinking-water and sanitation (11) :
    • 272 million school attendance days a year
    • 1.5 billion healthy days for children under five years of age
    • Values of deaths averted, based on discounted future earnings, amounting to US$ 3.6 billion a year
    • Health-care savings of US$ 7 billion a year for health agencies and US$ 340 million for individuals

What Can You Do?

Join us was we combat the water crisis and work for the day when everyone in the world can take a safe drink of water.

  • Sign up to receive’s monthly eNewsletter with our latest stories, projects, events, and ways you can help.
  • Bring someone clean water for life: Donate.
  • Get involved in your school, community, and/or church, and spread the word.

Learn more:

Water in the News

Read about the latest developments on the global water and sanitation crisis.

Lesson Plans launched new school curriculum materials in March 2008. Aligned with national standards, the lesson plans and mini-units include elementary, middle and high school levels. Stand-alone lesson plans are part of larger units that cover a broad scope of subjects including English, science and technology, and social sciences like geography, civics and economics. Classroom activities cover everything from poetry seminars and vocabulary-building worksheets to science and math lessons about potable water availability. Funding for this global water supply curriculum project was provided by the Open Square Foundation. Download’s Global Water Supply Curriculum now.


  1. 2006 United Nations Human Development Report.
  2. Number estimated from statistics in the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report.
  3. Asian Development Bank web site. 2009.
  4. The Discovery Channel web site. 2009.
  5. UNICEF/WHO. 2008. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation.
  6. UN. 2007. International Year of Sanitation Global Launch
  7. UN Water. 2008. Gender, Water and Sanitation: A Policy Brief.
  8. UN Water. 2008. Tackling a Global Crisis: International Year of Sanitation 2008
  9. Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). 2008. A Guide to Investigating One of the Biggest Scandals of the Last 50 Years.
  10. Rajesh Shah of Blue Planet Run Foundation.
  11. World Health Organization. 2008. Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.
  12. World Health Organization Fact Sheet Health in Water Resources Development.