April 3, 2007

The Climate Divide

Reports From Four Fronts in the War on Warming


Over the last few decades, as scientists have intensified their study 
of the human effects on climate and of the effects of climate change 
on humans, a common theme has emerged: in both respects, the world is 
a very unequal place.

In almost every instance, the people most at risk from climate change 
live in countries that have contributed the least to the atmospheric 
buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the 
recent warming of the planet.

Those most vulnerable countries also tend to be the poorest. And the 
countries that face the least harm - and that are best equipped to 
deal with the harm they do face - tend to be the richest.

To advocates of unified action to curb greenhouse gases, this growing 
realization is not welcome news.

"The original idea was that we were all in this together, and that 
was an easier idea to sell," said Robert O. Mendelsohn, an economist 
at Yale. "But the research is not supporting that. We're not in it 

The large, industrialized countries are more resilient partly because 
of geography; they are mostly in midlatitude regions with Goldilocks 
climates - neither too hot nor too cold.

Many enjoy gifts like the thick, rich soil and generous growing 
season of the American corn belt or the forgiving weather of France 
and New Zealand.

But a bigger factor is their wealth - wealth built at least partly on 
a century or more of burning coal, oil and the other fossil fuels 
that underlie their mobile, industrial, climate-controlled way of 

The United States, where agriculture represents just 4 percent of the 
economy, can endure a climatic setback far more easily than a country 
like Malawi, where 90 percent of the population lives in rural areas 
and about 40 percent of the economy is driven by rain-fed agriculture.

As big developing countries like China and India climb out of 
poverty, they emit their own volumes of greenhouse gases; China is 
about to surpass the United States in annual emissions of carbon 

But they remain a small fraction of the total human contribution to 
the atmosphere's natural heat-holding greenhouse effect, which is 
cumulative because of the long-lived nature of carbon dioxide and 
some other heat-trapping gases. China may be a powerhouse now, but it 
has contributed less than 8 percent of the total emissions of carbon 
dioxide from energy use since 1850, while the United States is 
responsible for 29 percent and Western Europe 27 percent.

Disparities like these have prompted a growing array of officials in 
developing countries and experts on climate, environmental law and 
diplomacy to insist that the first world owes the third world a 
climate debt.

The obligation of the established greenhouse-gas emitters to help 
those most imperiled by warming derives from the longstanding legal 
concept that "the polluter pays," many experts say.

"We have an obligation to help countries prepare for the climate 
changes that we are largely responsible for," said Peter H. Gleick, 
the founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, 
Environment and Security in Berkeley, Calif. His institute has been 
tracking trends like the burst of new desalination plants in wealthy 
places running short of water.

"If you drive your car into your neighbor's living room, don't you 
owe your neighbor something?" Dr. Gleick said. "On this planet, we're 
driving the climate car into our neighbors' living room, and they 
don't have insurance and we do."

Around the world, there are abundant examples of how wealth is 
already enabling some countries to gird against climatic and coastal 
risks, while poverty, geography and history place some of the world's 
most crowded, vulnerable regions directly in harm's way.

Here are four views of the climate divide.

Prone to Drought, and All but Unable to Predict the Weather

BLANTYRE, Malawi, March 29 - Twice a day, 25-year-old Harold Nkhoma 
checks a series of gauges at the government's weather station here in 
Malawi's second-biggest city.

He skips the barometer because its light doesn't work and he can't 
read the figures. He has waited six months for new batteries.

He ignores the evaporation pan designed to show how quickly water is 
absorbed into the soil. Peeled-off paint and missing wire mesh have 
left it useless. And he bypasses the glass sphere that measures the 
duration of sunshine by burning marks on paper strips. It has been 
out of paper for four years.

His supervisor, Werani Chilenga, is disgusted. Broken equipment, 
outmoded technology, slipshod data and a sparse scattering of weather 
stations are all that his national agency can manage on a $160,000 

"We cannot even know the duration of sunshine in our country for four 
years, so how can we measure climate change?" said Mr. Chilenga, a 
meteorological engineer. "Oh, oh, it is pathetic!"

The lack of meteorological data is just one challenge as Malawi 
struggles to cope with global warming. Add to that a lack of 
irrigation; overdependence on a single crop, maize; shrinking fish 
stocks; vanishing forests; and land degradation.

Last March, Malawi, which has a population of 14 million people and 
is one of the world's poorest countries, identified $23 million worth 
of urgent measures it should take in the next three years. It 
delivered them to the United Nations program that helps poor nations 
deal with climate change.

A year later, the government is still negotiating with donors. "It is 
sad that up until now we have not gotten the monies that have been 
talked about," said Henry Chimunthu Banda, the minister of 
environmental affairs. That is not to say Malawi is standing still. 
The government is moving toward bigger grain reserves, changes in 
agricultural practices and construction of a new dam. Nine out of 10 
Malawians are subsistence farmers.

Austin Kampen, 39, is an early adapter. A nonprofit group last year 
gave him hoses and a huge bucket - a rudimentary but effective crop 
sprinkler system.

He plants a variety of maize more likely to survive shorter growing 
seasons and backs it up with cotton, vegetables, potatoes and cassava.

He still lost his entire harvest in January when the river overflowed 
after a week of nonstop rain, submerging his seven-acre field and 
leaving 75 of his neighbors homeless. Still, he said, he will manage 
to plant anew this season.

Another farmer, Jessie Kaunde, also aims for resilience. But her 
bravest effort failed.

Armed with a $68 loan, she dug two fish ponds in 1999 behind her 
house north of Blantyre. Since drought struck three years ago, they 
are nothing but giant grassy pits.

"I am really disappointed," she said.

One reason is that other farmers have planted by the river that fed 
her ponds, causing the riverbanks to cave in and disrupt the water 
flow. Such planting is illegal but enforcement is weak, said Everhart 
Nangoma, an environmental specialist formerly with CURE, a nonprofit 
group focusing partly on climate change.

"Malawi is getting ready, but we are not there," Mr. Nangoma said. 
"We are not ready at all." - SHARON LAFRANIERE

Prone to Drought, but Moving Ahead on Desalination

PERTH, Australia, March 27 - Looking out over a sparkling blue bay on 
Australia's west coast, Gary Crisp, an alchemist for the new century, 
saw an ocean of drinking water.

Behind him was an industrial park filled with tanks, pipes, screens, 
filters and chemicals for converting seawater into drinking water - 
17 percent of the water supply for this city of 1.5 million people.

As the world warms and clean water becomes a prized commodity, the 
Perth Seawater Desalination Plant is using the renewable resources of 
wind and ocean to produce it, along with a finite resource that is 
less available in many other countries: money.

The $313 million plant, among the largest in world (behind giant 
plants in Israel and the United Arab Emirates), opened in November 
and is already running at capacity, producing up to 38 million 
gallons of water a day, nearly enough to fill 100 Olympic-size 
swimming pools.

The seawater is sucked into the plant through a pipeline whose mouth 
is 200 yards offshore. Once inside, it is filtered through fine 
membranes in a complex process called reverse osmosis.

About half the water is purified and sent into the city water system 
to mingle with water from other sources. The salt remains in the 
other half, which is flushed back out to the ocean.

The plant is one of the newest in a rapid spread of desalination 
plants in countries that can afford them. Though the plants are 
expensive to build, water from them costs only $3.50 per 1,000 
gallons. They are commonplace in the Middle East, where oil pays for 
water, and Southern California is home to many smaller plants. What 
sets the Perth plant apart is not only its size but its engine - wind 

The plant is driven by power from 48 turbines in the Emu Downs Wind 
Farm, about 100 miles to the north, that can produce 80 megawatts of 
electricity a day, more than three times the needs of the plant. That 
avoids the trade-off at most desalination plants, which are powered 
by fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

"We call it alchemy - converting wind to water," said Mr. Crisp, the 
Perth plant's principal desalination engineer.

The treated water offers people here in the world's most arid 
continent "security through diversity," in the local phrase, 
complementing dams, aquifers and recycling. Water conservation could 
be a powerful tool, but few politicians dare to suggest any measures 
more aggressive than limiting the use of lawn sprinklers - a 
privation Perth's plant is helping to avoid.

Half the water used domestically in Perth goes to gardens, Mr. Crisp 
said; of the water used indoors, 30 percent goes into washing 
machines. Affluent suburbs use twice as much water as the city 
proper, he said.

Australia is suffering some of the worst droughts in its recorded 
history. Stream flows into dams in Perth have shrunk by two-thirds in 
the last 30 years, even as its population swells by more than 20,000 
people a year.

Perth is talking about building one or two more plants in the coming 
years, and similar plants are in the early stages of development in 
Sydney and the town of Tugun in Queensland.

Having proved itself, the plant will have its official opening next 
month. Standing by the sparkling blue bay, people will be invited to 
drink from small plastic bottles bearing labels that read, "Limited 
edition desalinated water from the Perth Seawater Desalination 

At Risk From Floods, and Defensless When the Rivers Rise

DHANAUR, India, March 28 -Year after year, the Baghmati river swells 
with the rains and, rushing down from the Himalayas, submerges this 
back-of-beyond village into utter ruin.

Year after year, it sweeps away cattle and goats. It sends mud houses 
collapsing back into the earth. It kills dozens of people in and 
around Dhanaur, and that's during a mild monsoon, like last year, 
when Pavan Devi's 19-year-old son, Vikas Kumar, went to a communal 
toilet in the fields and was swept away by a fast-moving stream.

In 2004, the last major flood, the death toll stood at 351 in Bihar 
state, which is home to this village and many others sitting on some 
of the most vulnerable floodplains in India.

Their vulnerability is likely to grow. Since 1950, in concert with 
global warming, monsoon rains over India have increasingly come as 
heavy downpours rather than gentle showers, Indian scientists 
reported last year. That pattern is raising the risk of sudden floods.

Cities are prone to peril as well: In 2005, 37 inches of rain in 24 
hours crippled the country's commercial capital, Mumbai, killing 400 

The picture here in this destitute, crowded corner shows how 
ill-equipped India remains in dealing with that looming danger, 
despite its newfound prosperity. Nationwide, about 20 million acres 
of land are affected by floods each year, according to the 
government; they affect 4.2 million Indians each year on average, 
according to Columbia University.

Here in Dhanaur, for nearly three months of monsoon, everyone lives 
at the water's mercy. The well-off save their firewood and food 
grains for the annual disaster. The poor beg and borrow to eat, and 
they camp out on higher ground in tents made of cement bags.

They bathe and defecate in the floodwater. They drink from it, too. 
Who can afford to boil it before drinking, a father of six named Hira 
Majhi asked. With prices more than doubling during the rainy season, 
there is never enough money for cooking fuel, and hand pumps are 
routinely submerged. Last year, after his 4-year-old son contracted 
black fever, a deadly disease endemic here, Mr. Majhi rowed for an 
hour, in a homemade canoe made of water hyacinth leaves. No 
government ambulances ply here.

The most vulnerable to these annual floods are those who sit lowest 
on the pecking order. Mr. Majhi, for instance, belongs to a low caste 
group so poor for so long that they are commonly known as musahars, 
or the rat-eaters. He is landless. He works on other people's fields, 
usually only during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Because the 
land remains under water for so long, there is only one harvest each 
year. Floods and droughts hit families like his the hardest of all.

The measures taken by the government to adapt to the annual floods 
are rudimentary at best. Some parts of the road have been built with 
conduits underneath to let water pass, but the road itself is pocked 
with gaping craters, and locals say it is usually impassable for 
weeks at a time during the rains. No embankments have been built; 
construction upstream was suspended 30 years ago, though it is 
scheduled to resume later this year. Enterprising villagers have 
built bamboo bridges.

Last year, for the first time, the government put an early warning 
system into effect. Local officials went around with a bullhorn, on 
cycle-pulled rickshaws, warning of imminent floods. But there were no 
shelters to go to, except the local village school, where there was 
no drinking water or latrines.

In mid-March, the Baghmati rose up during an unexpectedly early 
spring flood. In less than a day, it wreaked havoc.

Sunil Kumar, one of the more well-to-do farmers here, lost three 
acres of wheat, a third of his annual income. He walked across his 
own soggy field and then across his neighbor's, examining patches of 
barley and mustard and peas - all waterlogged and ruined.

"It is our misfortune living here," he said. "There is no system of 
water control." - SOMINI SENGUPTA

At Risk From Floods, but Looking Ahead With Floating Houses

MAASBOMMEL, the Netherlands, March 29 - Anne van der Molen lives on 
the edge of the River Maas, by definition an insecure spot in a 
country constantly trying to keep water at bay. But she is ready for 
the next flood.

Excited, even. "We haven't floated," she said of her house, "but 
we're looking forward to floating."

Her two-bedroom, two-story house, which cost about $420,000, is not a 
houseboat, and not a floating house of the sort common across the 
world. It is amphibious: resting on land but built to rise with the 
water level. It sits on a hollow concrete foundation and is attached 
to six iron posts sunk into the lake bottom. Should the river swell, 
as it often does in the rain, the house will float up as much as 18 
feet, held in place by two horizontal mooring posts that connect it 
to the neighboring house, and then float back down as the water 

It is part of a new experiment in living. The 46 houses here are 
meant to address two issues at the heart of the housing debate in 
this low-lying, densely populated country, said Steven de Boer, a 
concept developer at Dura Vermeer, the company that developed the 
project. These are lack of space for new housing to meet a growing 
demand and the need to anticipate relentlessly rising sea levels and 
a heightened chance of flooding rains because of climate change.

Worries about water levels are not a hypothetical issue here in this 
village in Gelderland province, southeast of Amsterdam. In 1995, the 
Maas and other rivers overflowed their banks and breached the dikes, 
forcing 250,000 people to evacuate their homes. Now the dikes are 
higher, but with a possible sea-level rise of several feet within a 
century or so, much more is needed.

"All the universities are united in one big program with the 
government; we have a team of some 500 people working on 
climate-proofing the Netherlands," said Pier Vellinga, a professor of 
climate change at the University of Amsterdam. "Whatever happens - 
Greenland melting or tropical storms surging on the Atlantic - we are 
here to stay. That is becoming our national slogan."

That means developing new guidelines for building in flood-prone 
areas, introducing insurance for those who live in exposed places, 
building higher dikes and exploring ways for farmers to adapt to a 
new agricultural landscape.

For private firms, it means experimenting with new housing, as Dura 
Vermeer is doing here in Maasbommel. The company has also built a 
floating greenhouse near the Hague and, along with other firms, has 
received government approval to try other kinds of housing in 15 
areas in the country at risk for flooding. Other proposals - for 
entire floating cities, for instance - are still preliminary, but are 
being talked about seriously as a possible way forward.

In Maasbommel, Mrs. van de Molen loves the feeling of almost being 
part of the river.

"Dutch people have always had to fight against the water," she said. 
"This is another way of thinking about it. This is a way to enjoy the 
water, to work with it instead of against it." - SARAH LYALL