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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Africa's Poverty in Retreat?

The conventional wisdom that Africa is not reducing poverty is wrong. Using the methodology of Pinkovskiy and Sala‐i‐Martin (2009), we estimate income distributions, poverty rates, and inequality and welfare indices for African countries for the period 1970‐2006. We show that: (1) African poverty is falling and is falling rapidly. (2) If present trends continue, the poverty Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people with incomes less than one dollar a day will be achieved on time. (3) The growth spurt that began in 1995 decreased African income inequality instead of increasing it. (4) African poverty reduction is remarkably general: it cannot be explained by a large country, or even by a single set of countries possessing some beneficial geographical or historical characteristic. All classes of countries, including those with disadvantageous geography and history, experience reductions in poverty. In particular, poverty fell for both landlocked as well as coastal countries; for mineral‐rich as well as mineral‐poor countries; for countries with favorable or with unfavorable agriculture; for countries regardless of colonial origin; and for countries with below‐ or above‐ median slave exports per capita during the African slave trade.

-Abstract of Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala‐i‐Martin paperAfrican Poverty is Falling...Much Faster than You Think! (January 2010)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pollution of Lake Victoria Worsening

Development analysts say the pollution problem will only worsen as Kampala's population, estimated at 2.5 million, expands fast, straining its fragile and perennially underfinanced waste-handling capacity.

Pollution in parts of Lake Victoria is worsening so fast that soon it may be impossible to treat its waters enough to provide drinking water for the Ugandan capital.

The lake, east Africa's largest by area, also supplies water to millions in neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, and supports fishing communities in all three countries.

Gerald Sawula, deputy executive director of Uganda's state-run National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), told Reuters that the lake's Murchison Bay, the northerly inlet on which Kampala sits, was becoming a "dead" zone.

"It is a real crisis, the water has turned completely green with algae blooms swamping the whole place," he said.
"The water has become so thick from effluent that is being discharged directly into the lake because the wetlands that used to filter it have all been destroyed by developers."

"As more algal blooms, phosphates, nitrates, heavy metals and fecal matter all pile into the lake, it's going to be harder and harder to clean the water," Sawula said.

"It's very obvious that in future the National Water and Sewerage Corporation won't be able to treat water from Lake Victoria to a level safe enough for domestic consumption."

The local daily New Vision reported Monday that the utility was considering extending intake pipes far out into the lake as pollution near the shore exceeds treatable levels.

-From Scientific American, March 22 2010.

The Cost of Environmental Damage

Every year the world’s largest companies cause $2.2 trillion in environmental damage to the planet and most of the time pick up none of the tab. According to the Guardian:

"The cost of pollution and other damage to the natural environment caused by the world's biggest companies would wipe out more than one-third of their profits if they were held financially accountable, a major unpublished study for the United Nations has found."

"The report comes amid growing concern that no one is made to pay for most of the use, loss and damage of the environment, which is reaching crisis proportions in the form of pollution and the rapid loss of freshwater, fisheries and fertile soils."

"Later this year, another huge UN study - dubbed the "Stern for nature" after the influential report on the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern - will attempt to put a price on such global environmental damage, and suggest ways to prevent it. The report, led by economist Pavan Sukhdev, is likely to argue for abolition of billions of dollars of subsidies to harmful industries like agriculture, energy and transport, tougher regulations and more taxes on companies that cause the damage."

More than half of this damage is caused by the emissions of greenhouse gasses. The longer we delay, the more it will cost future generations to clean up our mess.
-From Al Gore @

Friday, March 26, 2010

Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions

Sharing responsibility for emissions among producers and consumers could facilitate international agreement on global climate policy that is now hindered by concerns over the regional and historical inequity of emissions. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 presents an opportunity to move the global debate forward, hopefully in a positive direction.

In a paper published in PNAS 23rd March 2010, Davis and Caldeira present the latest available data on global consumption-based CO2 emissions inventory and calculations of associated consumption-based energy and carbon intensities. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions differs from traditional, production-based inventories because of imports and exports of goods and services that, either directly or indirectly, involve

This study reveals that in 2004, 23% of global CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes of CO2, were traded internationally, primarily as exports from China and other emerging markets to consumers in developed countries. In some wealthy countries, including Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, >30% of consumption-based emissions were imported, with net imports to many Europeans of >4 tons CO2 per person in 2004. CO2 emissions. Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions demonstrates the potential for international carbon leakage.

See full article in PNAS March 23, 2010 vol. 107 no. 12 pp 5687-5692

Valuing Ecosystem Services – Not Currently Practical?

A conference was held on Wednesday 24th March 2010 on the subject of Ecosystem Services, organised by the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.

Prof. Bob Watson from Defra gave an opening presentation explaining how ecosystem services underpin sustainable development, and talked about the current emphasis on valuation of ecosystem services, using non-market values as well as market values. He identified the key challenge in this process as gaining the required understanding of natural science, since we already have the economic framework to be able to implement this process.

The overall impression from presentations by the other speakers at the conference was that although the ecosystem services approach can be successfully applied, valuation of ecosystems may not be practical or useful at the current time. A bottom-up participatory approach, which links land owners to beneficiaries of ecosystem services appeared to be an effective way of using the ecosystem services approach.

In particular, Peter Glaves from Northumbria University and Dave Egan from Sheffield Hallam University talked about a pilot project on “Valuing Ecosystem Services in the East of England”. They proposed a three level approach to evaluating ecosystem services, ranging from qualitative (identifying ecosystem services), then semi-quantitative, and finally fully qualitative. They concluded that the third level, involving valuation, is not practical at a local level at the moment, but the overall ecosystem services approach is useful when applied in a user-friendly and participatory way. In addition, Stewart Clarke from Natural England told us that pilot studies carried out through the “Delivering Nature’s Services” programme have shown that the ecosystem services approach can be practically implemented through building good relationships between land managers and beneficiaries of services.

A useful scenario demonstrating the potential risk of applying valuation mechanisms through the ecosystem services approach was mentioned by Diana Pound from Dialogue Matters. If an area of wetland filters nutrients from water, this ecosystem will be valued highly for the service it provides, but enrichment can be damaging to the natural habitat. If water treatment processes improve the quality of water input, the value of the wetland could become worthless because it would no longer be providing the service, but in fact the wetland would be in a better environmental condition.

The general consensus was that valuation of ecosystems could be a useful tool in the ecosystem services approach but it needs to be applied with care when there is sufficient scientific understanding to do so. In the meantime, the ecosystem services approach can be successfully used through managing relationships between service providers and beneficiaries.

To read more see

Food Security for a Billion Poor

There are at least 1 billion poor people living with chronic undernourishment, and the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goal of substantially reducing the world's hungry by 2015 will not be met. The developing world's poor are experiencing the effects of higher commodity prices, and declining agricultural productivity growth is exacerbating the problem. Next week, leaders in science and society will convene in Montpellier, France, for the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD 2010) to organize sweeping changes in global agricultural research. The meeting follows major reforms of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), endorsed in December 2009. CGIAR's new business model is meant to more effectively address food security, focusing on people, results, and efficiency. "Mega Programs" (now called "Themes") will deliver research outputs to achieve scaled-up impacts on poverty, and a new fund will harmonize donor contributions to support CGIAR's 15 research centers. But the total global investment in public-sector agricultural research is 20 times greater than that of CGIAR. How to better harness this critical resource (along with private-sector investments) for worldwide poverty reduction will be a major focus for GCARD

By Uma Lele is an author of Transforming Agricultural Research for Development for GCARD and a former senior advisor for the World Science 26 March 2010 p.1554

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Future of Africa's Agriculture is in the Small Farm

Climate change, rapid population growth and urbanization present the most daunting challenge to meeting the goal of eradicating extreme hunger and poverty in Sub Saharan Africa. The so-called experts, mostly non-African, have urged for modernization of African agriculture through a wider adoption of application of fertilizers, use of hybrid seeds and irrigation. These experts have also argued for the transformation of smallholder production systems to middle and large-scale industrial scale agriculture to meet the growing demand for food. Africa must have a Green Revolution, the Asian style.

I argue that in the face of adverse climate impacts and declining per capita land holdings, an Asian style Green Revolution is not the universal panacea to Africa’s chronic hunger and malnutrition. Moreover, the coupling of fertilizers prices with the volatility of global fossil fuel markets as well as heightened consumer preference for organic foods presents a new and unprecedented opportunity for recognition and global significance for Africa’s smallholder production systems. The future of Africa’s agriculture is inextricably bound with the plight of the under-resourced smallholder farm families who toil in the forgotten corners and remote villages of the continent.

The image of African children starving and dying from hunger and malnutrition is certainly emotive and swiftly moves the international community to compassionate action. Given the excruciating spectacle of death and hunger, it is easy to argue that low input, low productivity rain-fed small farm agricultural production systems are the culprit and must be replaced with production systems that utilize fertilizers, high yielding hybrid seeds, pesticides and irrigation.

Smallholder African agriculture is widely perceived as backward, unproductive and inefficient because most agronomists and agricultural economists do not understand how it works. The complex agro-ecological balance achieved by the complex integration of cereals, legumes and livestock reflect an intuitive mimicry of the natural environment. The so-called modern high input farming techniques must not be intended to supplant but supplement traditional, ecological practices of African agriculture.

Approaches that apply agro-ecological principles and tap into indigenous knowledge systems practiced by thousands of farmers have been shown to enhance food security while conserving biodiversity, and soil and water resources throughout hundreds of rural communities in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The household food security, poverty alleviation and climate resilience benefits of diversified and complex smallholder African agriculture are not well understood. Smallholder production systems must be supported with research, extension and financial services as a significant part of the solution to hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa. How many people must go hungry while we are busy testing new fancy approaches for African agriculture before we start supporting farming systems already tested and proven to benefit the poor?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bacterial Forensics

Forensic scientists may soon have a valuable addition to their toolkit. A study published in PNAS 15 March 2010 by Noah Fierer of University of Colorado, Boulder reveals that “personal” bacteria deposited on computer keyboards and mice matched bacterial DNA signatures of users more closely than those of random users.

In a previous study published in PNAS 12 November 2008, Fierer and colleagues identified 4,742 unique bacteria across palmer surfaces of 51 hands of healthy young adult volunteers. A typical hand surface was host to more than 150 unique species-level bacteria. The study revealed pronounced intra-and interpersonal variation in bacterial community composition. Hands from the same individual shared only 17% of bacterial phylotypes, with different individuals sharing only 13%.

In a sense, each of us leaves a unique trail of bugs. While these findings are still preliminary, they offer a real opportunity for forensics experts to independently confirm the accuracy of DNA and fingerprint analyses

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Lake Victoria Basin: A Family Portrait

We finally turn the corner into the village of Mashambani after an excruciating couple of hours drive from the town of Riziki on the shores of Lake Victoria. More than a dozen children throw around us a ring of curious and gleeful welcome. In the moment of encounter we note dry and scaly skins, distended abdomens, and thin reddish hair.

“Are your parents out in the shamba?” We inquire. A feisty, youngster, named Vumilia belches out abruptly “No!” His face distorted and his pain apparent. There they are, our fathers and our mothers, all of them”. Said Vumilia pointing to a neat row of earth mounds at the edge of the compound.

“You want to see our grandmother, come.” Murefu, the tallest of the bunch decides rather confidently. He leads us down a winding path behind a row of mud huts. “Have you come to sponsor us?” Murefu asks as we follow his lead in a single file down a footpath.

We stop on the edge of little patch of freshly tilled soil amidst an overgrown weed fallow. The soil is pale, drained of its lifeblood, the vital organic minerals. Our arrival causes Mama Mwamba to lift up her head. She lets go of her hoe and stands as straight as she can with the arc of aging weighing down her posture. And she hails with gusto, “peace be with you”. Aged 70, mama Mwamba actually looks 10 years older.

Mama Mwamba narrates the stories of the family, the land and the fishing beaches on the grand lake. She talks of barren soils and scarlet rivers. She recalls the recent floods and counts her losses; the crops, the livestock and her son s hut. “And now the drought, one more week without rain and, my toil will amount to nothing, no harvest”.

“Mama Mwamba’s voice falters, she looks at her grandchildren and folds her arms across her chest in self-comfort. “And now the children are sickly and out of school. School is free but I cannot afford the uniform and besides, the teachers say the children are too tired to learn. It is all about food”, I cannot grow enough to feed all of them.”

Mama Mwamba recalls her youthful years as a fish trader, when fish was plentiful. “Then things changed, first the Nile Perch at all the, then the big boats and now the water hyacinth”, she continues, my late daughters-in-law would go for months to remote fish cities and after two years and without much money, they came back home, too ill”. “ In the last three years I buried all my three sons and their wives”.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Techn-Fix for Africa ?

African countries require not an Asian-type green revolution but at a transformation catalyzed by ideas, attitudes and institutions. This must include, but not be limited to, a high and sustained public and private investment in science and technology led innovation.

Africa is no Asia or Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s. And the solution is not as simple as making available high yielding varieties of rice, wheat or corn. A multitude of factors, acting singly or in combination make the alleviation of acute and chronic food shortages in Africa profoundly more complex than in Asia and Latin America.

At the heart of this complex interplay of factors include a wide diversity of farming and food systems, a testament to the dizzying variety of socio-cultural, ecological and climatic conditions. Other critical factors range from range from weak and accountable civic and political institutions, a lack of sound scientific and technological infrastructure, inadequate road and railway network, weak input and supply chains.

There are no easy technical fixes. Action is required at several levels. And Africa must find its own solutions.


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