Monthly Archives: December 2014

Dealing with the really big problems: the lessons from Bangladesh

As we move into 2015 we have to look forward to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. The conference objective will be to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate action from all the nations of the world. The media are referring to this as our last chance for unified action. We personally feel a sense of déjà vu since we’ve seen this pattern before, not for global climate change but for something equally devastating to a country and its people – floods.

Just 25 years ago the south-east Asian country of Bangladesh experienced two devastating floods which put 60 percent of the country under water for two weeks and damaged 7 million homes, including the house of the then-President, General Ershad.

Floods in Bangladesh were, and are, nothing new for a country situated next to the Bay of Bengal and lying on the world’s largest river delta, formed by three of south-east Asia’s largest rivers – the Ganges, the Brahmaputra (called the Jamuna in Bangladesh) and the Meghna. Great amounts of precipitation are swept in every year by the seasonal monsoon. In addition, Bangladesh receives huge inflows from rivers swollen by heavy rainfall in the Himalayas. The terrain is not helpful – 80 percent of the country’s surface lies within active floodplains, and three-quarters of the country lies 10 metres or less above average sea level. Average figures for flood and cyclone damage in Bangladesh include more than 5000 people killed and more than 7 million homes destroyed per year.

What was different back in 1989 was not the rainfall or the geography, but the politics. Madame Danielle Mitterrand, wife of then-president of France François Mitterrand, happened to visit Dhaka on a state visit and was shocked to witness the widespread flooding and accompanying social misery. She raised the issue with her husband who was eager to raise France’s profile in the developing world as a benefactor. This quickly raised the political profile of flood aid to Bangladesh and the issue was tabled at the G7 Conference in Paris in 1989, at which President Mitterrand spoke eloquently of the need to put an end to floods in Bangladesh.

As occasionally happens in international affairs and in real life, one thing leads to another and by 1992 eight nations had pledged support to the so-called Flood Action Plan and had dispatched teams of experts to flood-beleaguered Bangladesh to confront the huge array of technical and social problems. At the personal level this offered a priceless opportunity for one of us (SH) to work as team leader on a multinational project, and an equally great opportunity to the other (AC) to use his knowledge and experience as a Bangladeshi professional within his own country.

Although there was much agreement and bon homie around the meeting tables and in the lounges, rifts between the countries in terms of philosophies, technicalities and policies were not long in making an appearance. The home nation’s Water Development Board openly favoured the construction of massive embankments along the main rivers to contain the seasonal floodwaters and to protect the nation’s extensive agricultural lands, villages and infrastructure. This was to be financed at huge cost by the international community and was touted to have the added benefits of providing employment for huge numbers of construction workers and local professionals and businesses. Representatives for international engineering consortia hovered in the hallways of Dhaka as the prospects for lucrative project construction started to take shape.BanglaMidGraphic2

The U.S., Canada and the Netherlands took a diametrically opposite tack and rejected as futile any attempts at massive construction in a floodplain environment and efforts to control huge rivers such as the Ganges. Our geologists and hydrologists stated flatly that all that would be achieved would be to move the flooding problem from one area to another. We favoured the development of innovative ways of constructing houses and shelters, the widespread flood-proofing of infrastructure, and construction of small-scale structures such as gated embankments as measures to reduce flooding impacts. Our field studies demonstrated that construction of large embankments would create more problems than they would solve. For example, our teams of Bangladeshi biologists and social specialists collected data which showed that three-quarters of the fish caught and eaten by local villagers came from water bodies and small rivers within locally embanked areas which would be cut off from the hydrological system by embankments. We promoted more local control by communities over flood management through training, innovation, adaptation and social development. The rifts between us and the centrally-focused government agencies widened.

BanglaMidGraphicFor three years we persevered along our designated approaches with varied and variable levels of success. The Flood Action Plan used up something like $US150 million. The Water Development Board tabled plans for 3,500 kilometres of embankments, some as high as 7.5 metres, to cost an estimated $10-15 billion. But major donors weren’t playing along. They scaled the commitments down to $5 billion and then gradually abandoned the whole plan, citing the huge and unmanageable engineering, ecological and social complexities.

It is difficult to assess how much of the effort was ultimately wasted. Certainly we achieved few tangible benefits for our months and years of measuring, observing, instructing and arguing. But we were not totally dismayed at the end. Our USAID-sponsored environmental and social team employed and trained 20 Bangladeshi professionals in a wide range of disciplines – ecology, engineering, social and earth sciences. When the Flood Action programme collapsed, the local professional team were morphed into a resource consulting group which is still very active in water management in Bangladesh.

BanglaBottomGraphicThe FAO and UNDP took a long look at the issues and admitted “to date we do not have comprehensive watershed management in Bangladesh, nor do we have effective coordination among various agencies sporadically involved in resource management.” A seminar in Dhaka in the late ’90s urged the Bangladesh government to establish a sub-regional committee with China, India, Nepal and Bhutan to “coordinate efforts to mitigate flood disasters within the Indogangetic river basin through upland watershed management.”

A quarter of a century later we’re still waiting with bated breath for something to happen. The fundamental issues have never been addressed. The governments of the region do not have the resources and are incapable of co-operating in drawing up an overall plan to manage floods. Countries and international agencies that have resources are reluctant to provide them because there is no guarantee that the programmes will be implemented as planned, and no way of making a profitable return on protecting poverty stricken workers and villagers in a country like Bangladesh.

What’s the lesson here for future international efforts to combat the impacts of global climate change? Just stark ones unfortunately. Lofty grandstanding by governments and heads of states and lots of podium-thumping promises mean little. There will be lots of plans and blueprints and consultants running every which way, lots of media coverage, lots of money going down the rat hole. But getting it done? That always comes down to the little men and women – the citizens, the community organizers, the group leaders. Will they be in Paris in December 2015?

We’re happy to concede that Pope Francis is way ahead of us on this issue. He is set to make history soon by issuing the first-ever comprehensive Vatican teachings on climate change. The document will be sent to 5000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests who will distribute it to their parishioners. It will urge 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to take action on tackling climate change. Given the sheer number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide, the pope’s call to tackle climate change could reach far more people than all governments and environmental groups combined. If a few more international leaders could take similar action we might just get a little bit further down the road.

Posted by Stan Hirst & Amin Choudhury



Epiphany 2015

Now let there be a festival where we not gather, but go out singly and in pairs and, by another way, come into stillness.

Let it be a festival for quiet thinking, for gazing past the windows with anticipation of big weather, for dreaming through an afternoon, a time with books, the radio, a festival for introverts, for what was lost this year, a solemn festival of story telling the myths of family and what time will do.

Let the excitable brain doze while a slow walk is taken amongst the snowy owls or eagles, in a field empty of angels, along a turbulent river bright with spent fish. Let it be a festival of small birds, involving their antics, of standing still in dry grasses, shivering with the humility this requires, glasses fixed on their cheerful dippings on the precipice of Now.

Let it be a festival of light, the way it spins in starwheels, drifts through snowfields, how it arcs in the borealis, sparks off a glacier, the flash of caribou passing, a ptarmigan’s wing, tail of a silver fox, the glint of sky in a peregrine’s eye.

Ah, the blue fire of crystals, this blazing world refracted, reflected, redolent in its dying, our having squandered so much on mindless comfort and joy.grunge-corner-vector-element_GyHkIaDd

Yet bring again the light of a thousand thousand sandpipers dipping suddenly to east then west.

Now let there be a festival for the shining gospels of what remains.

 – Marianne Worcester



Windermere Secondary School hosts annual Climate Change Conference

In the late sixties, Windermere Secondary School was a tough East Vancouver high school. I am proud to say that I survived! In recent years the School has become a leader in student environmental awareness and action.

For the 2014 Climate Change Conference (‘CCC’) held in November the chosen theme was fracking. I couldn’t attend all the workshops, so I chose three that interested me:

#1 – Corporate Media, Propaganda and Climate Change, presented by Derrick O’Keefe;

#2 – Economics of Fracking, presented by Marc Lee; and

#3 – (Teachers Only): Climate Justice Is Social Justice: Resources For Schools and the Classroom presented by Ryan Cho.

BottomGraphicEach workshop was hosted by knowledgeable facilitators who expertly balanced facts, stories and visual aids in their presentations. My only complaint is that the one-hour workshops were too short. By the time the presentations were over, time had run out and there was no opportunity for attendee participation or a question and answer period. However, the afternoon session on Climate Justice was two hours long, so there was time for a few interesting participant exercises.

The day began and closed with some noted keynote speakers – Sean Devlin, Aliya Dossa, Caleb Behn, and Professor Lynne Quarmby.

Sean Devlin may be recognized as one of two environmental activists who managed to get on stage beside the Prime Minister at a business conference during the latter’s visit to Vancouver in January 2014. Sean carried a simple sign “Climate Justice Now” and, needless to say, was quickly and roughly removed and arrested, but never charged. Aliya co-founded the movement “Youth 4 Tap” which focuses on the reduction of bottled water in plastic containers and the promotion of tap water. She believes a positive mindset can help achieve one’s dreams while living sustainably. Caleb is from the Treaty 8 First Nation Territory in northeastern BC and recently graduated from the University of Victoria with a law degree. He is among the first UVic Law students to be granted the Concentration in Environmental Law and Sustainability. His story can be found in the documentary film Fractured Land. Lynne is a molecular biology professor at Simon Fraser University, and was one of those arrested at the anti-Kinder Morgan protests on Burnaby Mountain in November.

The conference was well attended by students and faculty from many Metro Vancouver high schools and, despite some technical glitches, was managed effectively by the Windermere C3 (Climate Change Conference) Committee. I was impressed by the green initiatives taken by the school (at the urging of its students) – the hall water fountains allow for traditional direct drinking from a vertical water flow as well as providing an arcing stream to fill reusable water bottles; conference participants brought their own silverware and food containers which were filled by a delectable variety of foods in the school cafeteria; waste separation and recycling containers were available everywhere.

It was intensely gratifying and inspiring to see so many young people involved in developing sustainable behaviours at school, at home, and in the community at large. They are creative and knowledgeable with the practical know-how to implement these positive changes in their lives and environment. I enjoyed reconnecting with teachers and students I met at last year’s conference, and made some new friends this year.

Well done, Windermere!

Posted by Jim Park

The crow – a bird for the times

by Stan Hirst

Some years ago the Elders, in casting about for a suitable logo to represent our image, chose the owl. They said it was a universally recognized symbol of wisdom and beloved by all, unless you happened to be a mouse. Now we’re stuck with this goggle-eyed fowl on the blue background you see over on the right. My fellow elders will likely disagree with me but I think we may have erred. We should have opted for a more adaptable, resourceful and smarter bird as an icon. We should have gone with the common or garden crow,

Consider their merits. Crows are adaptable in their choice of domicile. They typically nest in tall coniferous or deciduous trees, but readily opt for hedgerows or shrubbery as well. In urban areas they often nest on window ledges or the sides of buildings. They believe sincerely in gender equity and family support. Both sexes build the nest during a period of 1 to 2 weeks, from mid-March to mid-July, depending on latitude and elevation. Females incubate four to five eggs for 18 days, and are fed at times by the male or sometimes by offspring from the previous year.

Crows are omnivorous and eat whatever is available—insects, spiders, snails, fish, snakes, eggs, nestling birds, cultivated fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The crow population in the B.C. Lower Mainland has increased over the past 40 years as burgeoning human populations and urbanization have reduced forest cover, creating open foraging areas and generating food sources such as garbage that crows have been adept at exploiting. We too might have to adapt similar foraging habits here in B.C. as our productive land base is progressively depleted by subdivisions, highways, hydroelectric dams and drought.

hungrycrowCrows are gregarious – surely a useful trait in these trying times. They roost communally during the non-breeding season for the same reason many other birds do—to avoid predation and to share information about food resources. As winter moves in the birds form large roosts when they congregate at sunset. The birds disperse from their roosting areas early in the morning and follow each other to traditional foraging sites. Generally, the larger the roosts the greater the dispersal distances during the day. Feeding and roosting sites may be many kilometres apart.

Crows are regular in their habits, just like elders. They typically commute along regular flight paths, stopping at traditional feeding and staging sites along the way, where they usually vocalize loudly and noticeably. Large roosts usually number in the hundreds or even thousands, but can reach truly huge numbers, e.g. up to 2 million birds in the mid-western U.S.

Ornithologists speculate that roosting crows return to the same tree night after night, possibly even to the same branch. Some studies have shown that crows who occupy superior positions in the group hierarchy are more likely to take sleeping spots in the higher branches. That alone would seem a good indicator of intelligence.

Intelligent they certainly are. Crows are ranked amongst tool-using wild creatures, along with parrots, finches, monkeys and chimpanzees, and have been observed to use twigs to dig worms and insects out of holes. They are commonly observed to post sentries at foraging sites to alert feeding crows of danger.

Crow intelligence has been tested on the university campus in Seattle. Researchers donned masks and then captured and tagged a group of resident crows. They released the birds and checked their reactions on subsequent days when they wore the same masks and, alternatively, when they walked about maskless and when wearing a different set of masks. The results were somewhat in excess of what the researchers expected. Tagged crows would not react to people clad in unfamiliar masks, but they scolded and dive-bombed researchers wearing the same masks as the people who had initially captured and tagged them. Not only that, untagged crows in the neighbourhood rapidly caught on and joined in the dive-bombing.

This all confirmed what had been seen in other behavioural studies on crows, i.e. they communicate with one another in an advanced fashion. Its a contentious point whether crows actually employ what could be called “language”, but they do obviously communicate information to one another. Some researchers have surmised that different crow populations might have different ‘accents’. Its a common belief in the American mid-west that crows will modify their daily or seasonal movement patterns to avoid farms or localities where other crows have been killed in the past. The avoidance response has been reported as persisting amongst subsequent generations of crows. Attractive idea, although at this point one might ask for a little more evidence.

One of the B.C. Lower Mainland’s most remarkable natural ornithological spectacles is still occasionally to be seen in Burnaby. Pre-roosting crows gather in the evening in their thousands around Still Creek near Willingdon and Lougheed. The site serves as a central location from which the crows can radiate out to feed around the Lower Mainland, flying as far afield as the North Shore and Richmond.

A sense of the sacred

I’m getting to that part of my life where I’m spending great chunks of time in clearing out the memorabilia of a lifetime.  Some unkind people refer to it as junk.  A baboon skull, a lion’s tooth, a wooden hornbill in  a nest, a brass ship’s clock from a freighter which ran aground in the Bay of Bengal. That’s what the shopkeeper in Chandpur told me it was.

And photographs. Reams and reams of photographs. Some in albums, a few in chintzy frames, lots of them still stuffed into paper envelopes, some still in use as markers in books I’ve never read. Cartons full of 35mm slides – the projector gave up the ghost ten years ago. Yet more pictures in the form of digital images on hard drives, compact discs and even floppy disks.

Some images have people in them – people I knew, people I worked with. Grinning faces, serious faces, faces of people long forgotten and some of people not with us any more. Most of the images show scenery – trees, mountains, streams, grainy shots of wild creatures peering through dense brush, roads vanishing over faraway ridges.

I’m drawn to some of the images. Here’s one of the World War I beaumont hamelMemorial at Beaumont Hamel in Picardy, showing the famous statue of a caribou facing the plain where 660 Newfoundlanders died on 1 July 1916. Here’s another (well-composed if I may say so) of St. Peter’s Basilica glowing brilliantly white against a slate blue Roman autumn sky. A 35 mm slide from three decades ago shows the massive white hemisphere of the Boudnath stupa in Nepal with its four sets of Buddha eyes and multiple streams of prayer flags. My wife is shown in one more recent image, looking very small next to an 800-year old Douglas Fir in Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island.  And here is a black and white print, taken nearly a half-century ago, of an even older tree – a 1700 year old baobab at Modjadjiskloof, South Africa.

Why do these particular images of such diverse places and localities have a special attraction?  I believe it has to do with them evoking a sense of the sacred.

I recall sitting on the stone wall at Beaumont Hamel, looking at the peaceful and beautiful French countryside and reflecting that the place once witnessed the death of millions.  There is surely something sacred about a place where so many ordinary people gave up their lives nearly a century ago for what they believed to be a noble cause, however vague and elusive it may all seem to us today.

BoudhnathSacred typically implies an association with holiness. Traditionally that has been associated with perceptions of divinity, but it can also denote a high level of spiritual respect. Places and structures such as Boudnath and St Peter’s are perceived as sacred since they are centres for spiritual purposes such as meditation and worship, and they are associated with individuals regarded as  holy. The great stupa at Boudnath is at least 600 years old, possibly as old as 1400 years, and is a massive representation of a Buddhist mandala, with 13 rings from the base to the pinnacle symbolizing the path to enlightenment. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pass by every year, all of them attesting to the sacredness of the place.

I recall a visit to St. Peter’s and a long time pieta4spent in taking in the splendour of the art and architecture. I confess I am no Catholic, so why would a view of Michelangelo’s Pietà  give me an emotional jolt? The German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940 while trying to escape the Nazis, explained in his classic The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that magnificent art has a unique existence at the place where it happens to be. A viewer can sense “a direct and timeless link with the creator, a knowledge of the piece as embedded in a meaningful tradition, an aura felt by virtue of the viewer’s proximity to such all extraordinary, almost other­worldly object”

Is sacred a  valid descriptor for natural places?  The world’s indigenous peoples all believe so. Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), Mato Tipila (Devil’s Tower), Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kailash, Sagirmitha/ Chomolongma (Mt Everest), Lake Titicaca, Lake Baikal, the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers are just a few of the sacred natural sites  that include some of the most iconic places on Earth.  According to UNESCO the total number is huge, uncounted and, in a sense, uncountable. In these places nature and humanity meet, and people’s deeper motives and aspirations are expressed through what is called  “the sacred” .  Many of  these places are virtually ignored, some receive pilgrims by the million, and others are the closely guarded secrets of their custodians.  People of faith or religion, or of no particular faith, find inspiration in these places, and they resonate across a wide spectrum of humanity.

There are  many thousands of distinct belief systems around the globe and links with the conservation of land and water occur in every one of them. Sacred natural sites represent, for many, the areas where nature, connection to the greater universe, and collective or individual recollections come together in meaningful ways. For some, sacred natural sites are the abode of deities, nature spirits and ancestors, or are associated with hermits, prophets, saints and visionary spiritual leaders. Some sites are feared, many are benign. For the religious they can be areas for ceremony and contemplation, prayer and meditation. For those of no particular faith they inspire awe and induce a sense of well-being.

DSC_0893Up on the North Shore of Vancouver lies Hunter Park, wedged in between great strips of suburban homes. Hastings Creek flows through the park on its way downhill to join Lynn Creek and then onward to the Burrard Inlet. Two centuries ago the Coast Salish people wandered through here, and just 120 years ago one of the largest known Douglas firs was felled not far from here. Now its all just an urbanized fragment of coastal rain forest, with huge cedars and hemlocks and 120-year old red alders. No steelhead or chinook any more, but coho and cutthroat  still make it up the crystal-clear gurgling creek. Remnant of past greatness it may be, but the park is just 300 metres from my house. That’s sacred enough for me.


posted by Stan Hirst