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Monday, September 30, 2013

Bold mitigation action vital even as global warming falters

After several years of work by over 800 scientists the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has presented its fifth assessment report on climate change. According to the report, warming of the climate system is unequivocal and unprecedented

The Key message is unambiguous; human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century humans cause climate change, and the burning of fossil fuels is the main reason behind a 40 percent increase in carbon-dioxide concentrations since the industrial revolution. Other findings of the latest IPCC report include: global temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century; and, sea levels are expected to rise a further 26-82 centimeters by the of the century.

But the gravity of the IPCC report has run into a significant PR headwind. The call for urgent action seems diminished by what seems to be a slowing down or a hiatus in global warming. Scrutinizing the global temperature curves between 1850 and 2012, detractors have chosen to focus on the “wiggles” toward the end of the time series. These “wiggles” have emboldened climate change deniers to claim that there has been a slowing down in global warming, which has lasted 15 years. 

A paper published in the current issue of the Nature Climate Change journal nearly all of the one hundred climate-model simulations they examined overestimated global warming over the past 20 years. The discrepancy between observed and simulated warming is more striking over the past 15 years (1998-2012) where the actual average warming trend per decade, 0.05 degrees Celsius, is more than four times smaller than the average simulated trend per decade.

To its credit, the IPCC report recognizes the hiatus and notes that global mean surface temperature exhibits substantial decadal and interannual variability. Authors of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report observe that trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. But skeptics see the hiatus as evidence that the IPCC concerns are overblown. The skeptics have also pointed to the fourth assessment by IPCC in 2007, which exaggerated the rate of melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and overstated risk of floods in the Netherlands.

As people trained in the science we do not know as much as we claim about how our planet’s climate works. Global warming, and especially its effects on our planet, is a lot more complicated than we have assumed. More importantly, because of the complex interactions and feedback there is no simple relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. This not to say that loading up our atmosphere with water vapor carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide does not trap long wavelength radiation, leading to warming of our planet.

The physical science basis of climate change is not in doubt. And just like previous IPCC reports, the fifth assessment that was released last Friday makes this even clearer. The point I want to make is that the effect of greenhouse gases on the earth’s climate is mediated by complex interactions, producing feedback, which we do not yet fully understand and are unable to model well. Hence, it is possible that our rather simplistic models will often overestimate global warming.

Science in its current state can predict accurately surface temperature increases over the course of the next decade, let alone a century. Global surface temperatures could increase by 0.5 degrees Celsius or by 4.5 degrees Celsius. The point is, the magnitude of warming as well as its impact is surrounded by significant uncertainty and simply beyond the current capability of science to determine with certainty.
Doubt and skepticism is the lifeblood of science, and at the heart of scientific discovery and innovation. But politics, policy and public opinion are predicated on the illusion of the so-called facts. Hence, uncertainty is a social anathema. But uncertainty over the magnitude of global temperature rise and the scale of associated impact must not be taken as the tranquilizing drug for inaction. Uncertainty is an essential characteristic of human induced climate change and hence the raison d'être for mitigating action.
We know enough to act to forestall dangerous warming. The critical response to global warming must be driven by moral accountability to posterity, not narrow national politics and economic calculus. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

We must hold educators more accountable

In a survey of 350,000 children from across East Africa Uwezo, an education advocacy organization revealed that one in five children in primary 7 did not have primary 2 competency levels in reading and numeracy. This means that 25 percent of school age children in East Africa cannot read, write or count well to meet minimum learning standards.

My sense has always been that Uwezo findings are probably underestimating the magnitude of the problem and the crisis is much deeper. But here are two things out of the Uwezo study that worry me sick: children from socio-economically disadvantaged households perform; and, invariably, children in public schools perform worse than children in private schools. I am sure you find this a rather obvious and expected finding.   

We all must be troubled; especially if you are a taxpayer and believe that the future of this country is inextricable bound to the potential, capability and achievement of the youth, most of who come from struggling households and attend public schools. I reckon that these kinds of kids constitute about 70 percent of the kids enrolled in our primary schools today. But the odds are stacked against these kids because less than only 20 percent of the kids who sit primary 8 examinations transition to decent county and national schools.

Poor quality education is jeopardizing the future of millions of young people in Kenya, especially those from low-income families. In our constitution, education is a fundamental human right and essential stepping stone to individual opportunity. If our society is to deliver on this constitutional obligation education must provide young people with the essential knowledge skills, attitudes they need to be productive citizens. A good education is therefore not just a privilege of the well to do. A good education is a birthright of every Kenyan child. We must to ensure that every child, regardless of their social background, attains an agreeable minimum standard of literacy and numeracy.

In my view, we do not understand the full scale of the learning crisis and have no clue about what needs to be done. At the heart of not understanding the problem is the fact that we do not competency indicators to measure and track learning outcomes. And without the data we have no evidence-base against which to hold stakeholders – teachers, government, school boards, students and parents – accountable and to guide relevant policy reform. National exam scores won’t do.

We need consensus on competencies that are important for children across the country. Such competencies must be linked to the knowledge, skills and attitudes children need to succeed in a dynamic globalized world. A focus on competency-based education calls for a radical shift away from our examination-based education, which demand nothing but mindless regurgitation from our children. In thinking about essential competencies, we must see education as critical to attaining the human ideals of peace, freedom and social justice.

Commonly known as the DeLors Report, Learning: The treasure within, a report to UNESCO of the international commission for the 21st century published in 1996 provides an essential framework for thinking about nationally relevant learning competencies. The four pillars proposed in The DeLors Report provide framework for developing objective competency indicators to measure learning across the school system; from early childhood to post-secondary level.

Here are Delors’ four pillars, with examples of measurable skills and attitudes that I think could form a basis for a competency-based education.
·      Learning to live together by developing an appreciation for others­ – their culture, religion and values on the basis of a spirit of understanding and appreciate our interdependence. This is especially critical for an ethnical divided society such as ours;
·      Learning to know by developing the ability to think and write, laying the foundation for learning throughout life, and especially developing the tools to think and solve problems rather than memorizing facts;
·      Learning to do through experiences that are based on real life problems, which fosters greater retention and application of knowledge and skills. This is radically different from traditional learning approaches, which are content-focused.
·      Learning to be by inculcating personal responsibility, developing imagination and creative expression, underscoring the central role of the arts in education.

Data from assessment based on the four competency pillars could used to refine policy and practice, leading ultimately to improvements in learning outcomes for all children while holding all stakeholders accountable to our children.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Turkana’s resources must be a boon, not a curse

Turkana County, once the poster child for destitution, could be an economic powerhouse. Hot on the heels of consequential oil discoveries, Turkana County now holds 17% of Kenya’s water resources. Major aquifers in Turkana County, Lotikipi, Lodwar, Gatome, Kachoda and Nakalae store 250 billion cubic meters of water with a recharge rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters per year.

This significant groundwater find by Radar Technologies International (RTI) is consistent with the first quantitative assessment of Africa’s groundwater published in April 2012 by Alan MacDonald of the British Geological society and colleagues from University College London. The assessment also revealed that Wajir and Mandera could have aquifer productivity of the same magnitude as Turkana. The volume of Africa’s ground water is estimated to be more than 100 times the annual renewable freshwater resources and 20 times the fresh water stored in Africa’s lakes.

The excitement around the Turkana aquifers is palpable. Hunger, drought and conflict over livestock, water and pasture have plagued Turkana and contiguous arid lands for many generations. The vast groundwater supplies in Turkana could be used as a source of irrigation for crops and pasture, or to provide water to livestock. More significantly, abundant water supplies could help bring peace and hopefully end violent conflict over resources.  

The discovery of vast groundwater resources in Turkana County is exciting but it also presents numbing challenges, most of which we are least equipped to deal with. Additional site-specific assessment of groundwater resources is needed to inform investments in pumping, reticulation systems and sustainable utilization. Moreover, groundwater is neither infinite nor invulnerable to pollution or degradation hence we need to invest in and build capability for monitoring and regular reporting to achieve an optimal balance between management and sustainable exploitation. Unregulated large-scale irrigation could trigger massive land degradation, especially because the mildly sodic soils of this arid region are prone to salinization. Sodic soils are characterized by disproportionately high concentrations of sodium. Smart management of fertilizer application will be needed to avoid nitrate contamination of water resources.

Beyond the high level excitement in Nairobi about what these aquifers mean for Kenya’s economic development, what is in this for the local Turkana pastoralist? I postulate two scenarios.

In the first scenario Turkana County becomes a hot destination for huge commercial agricultural interests driven by big money, high technology and buoyed by huge demand for high value agricultural produce like flowers, vegetables, fruits, pulses, rice, sugarcane, beef and dairy. This is preceded by high demand for land, triggering speculation and unprecedented spikes in land prices, motivating local pastoral communities to sell land. County politicians engage in rent-seeking behavior. The shift to commercial agriculture invariably alters the local cultural and socio-economic landscape, with a majority of the local people abandoning traditional livelihood strategies and moving into urban areas or finding work as unskilled laborers in the commercial farms.

Large commercial farms attract investments for infrastructure, especially roads, a large airport and complex reticulation infrastructure to distribute water. There is an upsurge of agricultural processing, packaging and allied services. Given that illiteracy in the region is nearly 60 percent, more skilled people from outside Turkana County hold a majority of well-paying jobs. Although Turkana County is rapidly catapulted from periphery to the center the local Turkana communities are marginalized and are not at the heart of the agribusiness bonanza. The people of Turkana openly express their discontent and resentment for “outsiders” who now dominate the thriving city of Lodwar.

In the second scenario the local communities, with support of the county government and in collaboration with the central government deliberately engage and plan the utilization of land and water resources. With the support of the County government, pastoralist form co-operatives and enter into long-term lease agreements with large commercial farmers.  A majority of these agreements explicitly require that the large commercial farmers build operate and transfer the farms to local co-operatives. These agreements include training for local communities. The County government invests in basic education and middle level colleges, including a university to support research and extension in irrigation agriculture, agribusiness and engineering. Thirty years later, large commercial profitable farms and allied businesses largely owned by the proud and pluralistic Turkana people.

Turkana’s resources must be a boon, not a curse, for the local community. We owe it to the long-suffering people of Turkana. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Large underground water reserves have been found in Turkana


RTI finds vast water reserves in drought-prone northern Kenya, cradle of mankind

Nairobi, 11 September – Large underground water reserves have been found in Turkana, one of Kenya’s driest and poorest regions. The discoveries were made by the natural resources exploration firm, Radar Technologies International, during the course of a survey of groundwater conducted for the Kenyan Government on behalf of the UN. The aquifers were detected with the WATEX System, RTI’s state-of-the-art, space-based exploration technology.

Both shallow and deep aquifers were surveyed across northern and central Turkana County in an effort to identify supplies to combat drought and water scarcity for the 2 million people living in the region.

Overall, the RTI study found that Turkana hosts a minimum reserve of 250 billion cubic meters of water, which is recharged mainly by the rainfalls of the Kenyan and Ugandan highlands at a rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters per year. This new wealth of water could boost Kenya's share of available water by 17% and alone represents nearly double the amount of water that Kenyans consume today. This groundwater raises the prospect for improving the livelihoods of the Turkana people, most of whom live in poverty and have limited access to basic services and clean water.

Two major aquifers have been recorded and proven by drilling. The large Lotikipi Basin Aquifer is estimated to store 207 billion cubic meters of water, the same volume of the nearby Lake Turkana. About the size of the US state of Rhode Island, the aquifer replenishes at a rate of 1.2 billion cubic meters a year. This paleo lake could be part of the “Land of Marvels”, the ancient sources of the Nile that were explored by Queen Hatshepsut some 3,500 years ago.

The Lodwar Basin Aquifer, is situated within a short distance of Lodwar town and Turkana’s oil reserves. It is fed by the perennial Turkwel River and has an estimated reserve of 10 billion cubic meters. RTI recorded three other large structures – Gatome, Kachoda and Nakalale – which could prove to store a combined 30 billion cubic meters once confirmed by drilling.

In addition to deep reserves, RTI also mapped 2 billion cubic meters of water passing only a few meters under the ground and easy to reach, significantly raising the prospect for local agriculture activities.

Looking ahead, RTI has recommended that all measures be taken to ensure the sustainability and viability of these newly discovered resources. RTI’s work also establishes a new basis upon which future investigations and mapping in Kenya can be based. The WATEX System detects water with its unique method of processing and interpreting remote sensing, oil industry and conventional data. The WATEX maps have a 6.25-meter surface accuracy and have been proven to locate underground water with over 94% certainty in many areas. Known for its rapid and large-scale mapping capabilities, the WATEX has been utilized in a number of countries to find water for international aid agencies and foreign governments, most recently in Ethiopia, Angola, Chad, Darfur and Afghanistan.

During the Darfur Crisis, RTI used the WATEX to find water for thousands of Sudanese refugees. Its partners have used WATEX groundwater maps to drill over 1,500 wells to help alleviate the crisis in Darfur. Today in Turkana, the maps are already being used to supply water to refugees in Kakuma.

RTI is boutique international exploration firm that provides cutting-edge intelligence on water, mineral and petroleum resources to a wide range of clients, including the United Nations, national governments and the oil and mining industries. It delivers a range of tools, such as high-precision maps, navigation devices, coaching and tailored analysis to help clients unlock the potential of the natural resources they seek to develop.

Media contacts:
Dr Alain Gachet,
Tel: +33 6 22 99 06 22, +254 739446476
Casey Walther
Tel: +1 830 358 8220; +254 708588543


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