Does sprawl make the urban heat island effect worse?

urban heat island effect by city
urban heat island effect by city

Cleveland experiences the fourth strongest urban heat island effect in the United States. Could our sprawling development patterns be to blame? (courtesy of Debbage and Shepherd, 2015).

A few weeks ago, NASA officially announced that the record-breaking, “Godzilla” El Niño event that dominated much of our weather over the past year plus had finally come to an end.

But while the monster has returned to its hibernation deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, its impacts have already been and will continue to be felt across the United States. Around the same time that it made this announcement, NASA also revealed that April and May were the warmest such months on record in the US, meaning that every month since October 2015 has broken the existing record for that month. This eight-month streak of heat is, obviously, unprecedented. To date, the average temperature in 2016 is 1.9°F (1.08°C) above the average for the 20th century, making it a full 0.43°F (0.24°C) above the mark for the first five months of 2015.

You remember 2015, right? The warmest year on record? Well, not for long. NASA scientists are already more than 99% certain that 2016 will break that record, just as 2015 had claimed the mantle from 2014.

The impacts of 2016’s extreme heat

The extreme heat is having clear effects. It is contributing to wildfires consuming wide swathes of the West. Ozone levels are higher than normal across the country, as high temperatures foster the development of harmful, ground-level ozone more readily. So far, Greater Cleveland has already experienced six days when ozone levels exceed 70 parts per billion (ppb), the most at this point since 2012.

But the most acute impact of high temperatures heat-related mortality, a subject that I’ve written about considerably. Extreme heat is the deadliest type of disaster in the US, killing more people than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined each year. As I’ve discussed in the past, climate change is only exacerbating this issue; the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) noted that the global death toll from extreme heat rose by around 2,300% from 2000-2010, compared to the previous decade.

change in disaster deaths by decade

The change in the number of deaths, by disaster, from 1991-2000 to 2001-2010 (courtesy of WMO).

Nearly all regions have seen a spike in dangerous heat, but the risk of heat-related mortality is not distributed evenly. While an individual’s vulnerability to extreme heat is the function of a number of factors, one of these is where s/he lives. Generally speaking, those of us living in cities are at greater risk due to the so-called urban heat island (UHI) effect. I won’t go too far into the science behind the UHI effect; suffice it to say that the combination of dark surfaces, a lack of urban trees, and the production of waste heat from various sources like air conditioners increases the temperature of cities, relative to rural areas. According to the U.S. EPA, the temperature of a large city can be more than 20°F higher than surrounding rural areas under the right (or wrong?) conditions.

Last September, Forbes published an article examining the scale of the UHI in various cities throughout the US. Strikingly, it included a map (see above) stating that Cleveland has the fourth strongest UHI effect in the country. Now, if you’re one of the literally tens of people who has inexplicably read something I’ve posted on this site, you may be familiar with my general dislike of sprawl. I’ve discussed research linking it to population decline, limited social mobility, climate change, and poor air quality, among other things.

So, I wondered, could Cleveland’s strong UHI effect be the result of our development pattern? Given that sprawl affects so many important phenomena, it seems reasonable to assume it would have an effect on UHI, right? To the peer-reviewed literature! [Cue 1970s Batman transition music].

Is suburban sprawl actually linked to the urban heat island effect?

At first glance, it may seem odd to posit that suburban sprawl would play a role here; the phenomenon is called the urban heat island effect, after all. But a handful of studies strongly suggest that sprawling development patterns do, in fact, exacerbate the UHI effect.

Two of the most convincing papers come from Brian Stone, Jr., a professor at the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning and an expert on urban environmental planning and climate change.

In a 2006 study (paywalled) that he coauthored with Jon Norman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stone examined the link between land use patterns and the UHI effect in Atlanta. The researchers broke properties into groups based on four variables: extent of impervious surfaces, lawn and landscaping, tree canopy, and the number of bedrooms per residential structure. This categorization enabled them to study the magnitude of surface warming produced by property type.

Stone and Norman concluded that the size of residential lots – in other words, residential density – was closely tied to black body flux, a measure of surface warming. As one moves from the highest density lot type to the lowest density, the amount of surface heat released increased 6-fold. Other land use features closed tied to suburban and exurban development – namely large lawns – also exacerbate the UHI effect. A one unit increase in the area of a plot covered by lawn and landscaping increases the net black body flux by 0.51 units.

As the authors conclude,

The results of this analysis provide compelling evidence that the size and material composition of single-family residential parcels is significantly related to the magnitude of surface warming in the Atlanta study region. Specifically, smaller, higher density parcels were found to be associated with a lower net black body flux than larger, lower density parcels…

[The] results of this study support the hypothesis that lower density, dispersed patterns of urban residential development contribute more surface energy to regional heat island formation than do higher density, compact forms.

Connecting sprawl and the UHI across cities

On its own, one study does not prove the relationship. Fortunately, Stone followed up with a 2010 paper that he co-wrote with Jeremy Hess and Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington, which studied the connection between urban sprawl and the number of extreme heat events (EHEs) in 53 cities from 1956-2005.

To measure the relationship, they took the correlation between the mean annual change in the number of EHEs from 1956-2005 and the sprawl ranking for each of the cities in 2000. Whereas the most compact cities experienced 5.6 more extreme heat days in 2005 than in 1956, that number was 14.8 for the most sprawling cities. In other words,

The most sprawling cities experienced a rate of increase in EHEs that was more than double that of the most the most compact cities…These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that urban sprawl contributes to EHE frequency.

Exploring some competing research

Now, I should note that there is other research that does not jibe with Stone’s work. Last year, Neil Debbage and Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia took another look at urban form and the urban heat island effect. Using a different measure for UHI (the difference in average rural and urban temperatures) and a different measure for urban form (an index measuring various variables of city shape, contiguity, and land uses), Debbage and Shepherd studied the degree to which city configuration affected urban heat in the 50 largest US metro areas from 2001-2010.

Contrary to Stone, Debbage and Marshall found that both more compact and more sprawling cities experience a stronger UHI effect, provided they are highly contiguous. That is, the contiguity of urban form may matter more than its composition; designing cities so that they are made up of either cul-de-sacs or skyscrapers as far as the eye can see makes them more vulnerable to extreme heat. According to the authors,

A ten percentage point increase in the spatial contiguity of high-intensity urban development, the equivalent of shifting roughly from Orlando to Seattle, was predicted to enhance a city’s average UHI intensity by 0.4°C…[In turn] a ten percentage point increase [in low-intensity urban development] was predicted to enhance a city’s annual average UHI intensity by 0.3°C. Therefore, as suggested by the bivariate analysis, both low and high-density urban land uses appear to amplify the UHI effect if they are high contiguous.

Importantly, Debbage and Marshall note that, while compact development may not solve the UHI on its own, it does provide a litany of other benefits, from improved air quality to better public health. Accordingly, urban planners may want to promote less contiguous, higher density urban development by designing networks of smaller green spaces, expanding the urban tree canopy, and installing white and green roofs throughout cities. A 2014 study by Stone and colleagues found that implementing these types of policies can offset projected increases in heat-related mortality due to climate change by anywhere from 40-99%.

Wait, so does sprawl make the UHI effect worse?

So what can we take away from all of this?

First, yes – the evidence does suggest that sprawl exacerbates urban heat islands. Low-density, suburban-style development increases the amount of impervious surfaces, which raises lowers the surface albedo of urban areas. It also increases the amount of excess waste heat that cities produce, as larger houses require more energy. And sprawl typically leads to forest clearance for development, reducing the extent of the urban tree canopy. All told, these factors increase the amount of heat cities generate, and they prevent this additional heat from dissipating rapidly at the urban fringe.

Second, the fact that sprawling development patterns are not the only type urban form that increases the UHI effect may not be as relevant as it may seem. While dense urban areas may also promote UHIs, they also make it easier to address both the causes and effects of heat-related mortality risks. Residents of dense cities produce fewer carbon emissions per capita, mitigating climate change. And the economies of scale in these dense neighborhoods increases the efficacy of mitigating extreme heat; opening a cooling station or installing shade trees are more effective in these areas, for instance.

All told, we can add the urban heat island effect to the list of social problems that sprawl makes worse. Maybe we should rename it the (sub)urban heat island effect?

The 1948 Donora Smog and the birth of air quality regulations

lunch time smog

Sixty-seven years ago today, residents of Donora, a town of around 14,000 lying along Monongahela River some 24 miles downstream of Pittsburgh, woke up to find a dense, yellow smog had blanketed the town. Donorans were accustomed to such smogs, as the town lay in a river valley ringed by hills that could reach up to 400 feet high. During the “smog season,” pollution from the industrial base of the city – including a steel mill and a zinc works – would collect in this natural depression and develop into smog until changes in meteorological conditions (shifting winds, rainfall) would dissolve the cloud.

But that didn’t happen on October 27. Or October 28, 29, or 30. Instead, a strong atmospheric inversion, which occurs when a blanket of lighter, warmer air flows in over heavier, colder air, sealed the smog in place. As this happened, emissions from the town’s factories, which included sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, and flourine gas, continued to accumulate near the surface, instead of dissipating into the atmosphere. As the days passed, this blanket of toxic smog engulfing the town continued to get thicker and more noxious.

Given the prevailing views of the day, which suggested that air pollution was just a necessary byproduct of industrial progress, Donorans continued to go on with their lives. The high school football team played its home game that Friday; the Donora and Monongahela teams simply adjusted their tactics, with neither team throwing the ball. And the town even carried on with its Halloween festivities as planned. Workers at the steel and zinc mills continued to show up to work, despite the fact that they were producing the toxic emissions enveloping the town. The owners of the zinc works and steel mill rejected initial requests to shut down the factory as the days went by, and only agreed to cut back production on Halloween. This step occurred just as a storm blew into the area, helping to break the inversion and clear the air of the pollution.

All told, at least 20 people died during the smog, and, in the coming months, 50 more people died in the town than would have been expected under normal circumstances. But almost no one escaped the legacy of the smog, even those who did not succumb to its immediate impacts. The official epidemiological study conducted in the aftermath of the event concluded that “15.5 per cent of the total populace in the area were mildly affected; 16.8 per cent, moderately affected; and 10.4 per cent, severely affected.” The town’s overall mortality rate remained elevated for a decade or more. Relatively little changed for Donora or the country in the short-term. The town’s steel and zinc plants largely avoided being held liable, as investigators placed the blame on the extreme meteorological conditions that occurred. Whereas residents sued the steel plant for more than $4.5 million, U.S. Steel eventually settled for just $256,000, less than 6% of the damages sought.

To this day, the Donora smog remains less well-known than the Great London Smog of 1952, which, given that it affected a major metropolis, killed far more people (perhaps 12,000) and garnered considerably more attention. But Donora did lay the groundwork for air quality regulations in the United States. According to the Pittsburgh Gazette, Allegheny County regulated pollution for the first time the following year, and the passage of the 1955 U.S. Air Pollution Control Act, “the first federal legislation to recognize pollution as a problem,” can be linked to Donora (UPDATE: Per Ben Ross, author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered EnvironmentO, the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act was not the first federal bill to address air pollution. That can be traced back to the 1910 Organic Act, which created the Bureau of Mines. In fact, he noted, the 1955 act was a step backwards from the 1910 law in certain regards). The town’s museum commemorating the smog bears a sign proclaiming that “Clean Air Started Here,” while the town’s historical marker notes that “major federal clean air laws became a legacy of this environmental disaster.” Just as we think of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 as the impetus for the 1972 Clean Water Act (a story which is largely a fable), we should turn to Donora as we commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments that helped to end the legacy of these toxic smogs.

Why developed countries should back loss and damage in Paris

schoolchildren typhoon haiyan
schoolchildren typhoon haiyan

School children in the Philippines contemplate the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (courtesy of Pio Arce/Genesis Photos).

A number of critical issues remain unresolved, including whether countries should set a maximum safe threshold for carbon emissions and what protocols will be put in place to ensure that parties are transparent and accountable for their emissions reduction commitments. One of the trickiest outstanding issues is the question of loss and damage. For years, developing countries have called for developed states to compensate them for the negative effects of climate change, such as more frequent flooding and more intense droughts.

While developed countries committed to provide financing for climate mitigation and adaptation through the development of the Green Climate Fund in 2009, it is widely acknowledged that there are impacts of climate change which we can neither prevent nor prepare for. These residual effects are at the centre of the loss and damage debate.

This issue particularly came to the fore at the 2013 Warsaw Conference, which took place in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated parts of the Philippines and killed more than 6,300 people.

Yeb Sano, the Philippines lead negotiator, delivered an impassioned speech in Warsaw pushing the issue. Sano, whose hometown had been flattened by the storm, fasted throughout the conference in solidarity with Haiyan survivors. He called for parties “to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility.”

These efforts paid off, as negotiators created the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage, which created a standing committee to research the issue and advise the UNFCCC over the next two years.

At last year’s conference in Lima, negotiators reaffirmed their commitment to discuss the issue, outlined the membership of an Executive Committee, and approved a two-year work plan. But discussions remain in a preliminary phase, and many developing states remain concerned that the Paris talks may fail to address the question adequately. Small island states, in particular, view loss and damage as an existential question, as climate change may threaten their very survival.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at RTCC.

Karachi’s Heat Wave a Sign of Future Challenges to Pakistan’s Fragile Democracy

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RTX1HPUL

A man (R) cools off under a public tap, while others wait to fill their bottles, during intense hot weather in Karachi, Pakistan, June 23, 2015. A devastating heat wave has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi over the past three days, health officials said on Tuesday, as paramilitaries set up emergency medical camps in the streets (courtesy of Reuters).

Karachi, the world’s second largest city by population, is emerging from the grips of a deadly heatwave. A persistent low pressure system camped over the Arabian Sea stifled ocean breezes and brought temperatures in excess of 113°F (45°C) to the city of 23 million people in June. The searing heat disrupted electricity and water service, making life nearly unbearable. All told, officials estimate the heatwave killed at least 1,200 Pakistanis, more than twice as many as have died in terrorist attacks this year.

But meteorology alone cannot explain this turn of events. Rather, as with all disasters, Karachi’s heatwave is rooted in a complex web of natural and man-made factors. “The emergency is the product of a perfect storm of meteorological, political, and religious factors,” notes The New York Times.

Karachi’s rapid growth has heightened people’s exposure and vulnerability to heat. Since 2000, Karachi’s population has doubled, making it the fastest growing megacity in the world. This population explosion has overwhelmed the capacity of local government. At least half of all Karachiites live in informal settlements, with little access to infrastructure and vital services. Unplanned expansion has also led to widespread environmental degradation. Karachi’s annual concentration of fine particulate matter is 11.7 timesWorld Health Organization standards (and more than double that of Beijing), making it the fifth most air-polluted city in the world. Karachi also faces an acute water crisis. Some of its poorest residents survive on just 10 liters per day, one-fifth of daily drinking requirements, while some estimates suggest more than 30,000 people die from water-related diseases every year.

Wide swathes of trees and other vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, limiting shade and exacerbating the urban heat island effect (the process by which urbanized areas absorb and retain solar radiation, significantly increasing local temperatures). Add to this the city’s construction boom which creates a major demand for manual labor and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims can neither eat nor drink before sundown – and you have a recipe for disaster.

To read the rest, head over to the original post at New Security Beat.

Why South Asia’s earthquakes are always India’s “fault”

muzaffarabad earthquake damage 2005
muzaffarabad earthquake damage 2005

Damages to Muzaffarabad, Pakistan after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, was at the epicenter of the magnitude 7.6 quake (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Earlier today, I read an article from The Conversation on why it is so difficult to develop early warning systems for earthquakes, like the one that hammered Nepal over the weekend. The piece included an interesting geological factoid:

Across the Himalayas there is around 20mm of convergence (shortening) every year, roughly half of the overall convergence between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The remainder is accommodated further north, in ranges such as the Tian Shan and the Tibetan Plateau. In other words, every year a person in Siberia becomes roughly 40 mm closer to a person in central India, as the Earth’s crust deforms across the broad region between them.

This reminded me of a story that I heard from Andrew MacLeod, a former United Nations official, back in 2013. MacLeod, who worked on humanitarian issues for a number of years, played an integral role in the highly regarded international response to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which killed more than 73,000 Pakistanis. Here’s how he described this episode in his memoir, A Life Half Lived:

During a particularly difficult time in early negotiations with the Pakistanis, I joked that the earthquake was all ‘India’s fault’. This gross oversimplification intended as a joke brought the desired laugh at a very tense time. Geologically speaking, the joke is true. The Indian subcontinent, by continuing to push north-eastward and under the Asian continental plate at 5 cm per year, is the cause of the region’s considerable tectonic activity. This results in many earthquakes and an on-going pushing up of the mountain ranges, making the entire terrain unstable. Regular massive landslides and geological movements give the impression that this part of the world is still being born. The magnificent geography, unstable history and the political turmoil meant that when the earthquake hit, the word ‘devastating’ could only be used as an understatement.

3 things about this anecdote:

  1. This is a particularly brilliant double entendre. Using the word “fault,” which signifies both culpability and the underlying plate tectonics, is pretty damn clever.
  2. The historical roots of earthquake vulnerability often stretch back generations. Anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith famously described the May 1970 earthquake that hit Yungay, Peru as a “500 year quake.” By this, he meant that Peru’s vulnerability to the disaster was borne from the destruction of Incan infrastructure and land use policies enacted by the Spanish conquistadors. I guess if you look at vulnerability from the perspective of geological history, the Nepal earthquake could be seen as 50 million year quake.
  3. This episode shows how, even during times of great tragedy and hardship – such as the deadliest earthquake in the history of South Asia – humor can be the most effective tool at our disposal. Needless to say, the Pakistani officials who heard the joke loved it, which helped to ease a potentially difficult relationship between a military regime and the international humanitarian community. But you need to be careful to make the right joke at the right time. On this front, MacLeod has me beaten by a mile.

A political scientist explains what influences disaster relief aid decisions

germany search & rescue nepal
germany search & rescue nepal

Relief workers from the German NGO International Search and Rescue prepare to head to Nepal with their dog Apache (courtesy of VOA News).

In my last post, I examined a handful of studies that explored the political drivers of disaster relief aid determinations. Two of these studies were from Travis Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Platteville. Unfortunately, Dr. Nelson was too busy with end of the semester tasks to get back to me before I published the original post, but he did send me a couple of thoughts last week. Below are my questions on the research and his responses.

Tim Kovach: In your 2010 article, “Rejecting the gift horse,” you argue that anocratic states are the ones most likely to reject disaster relief aid. Do you think that the Burmese government would have initially rejected international assistance after Cyclone Nargis regardless of the fact that the constitutional referendum was one week later, given its hostile relations with the West? Or was the political transition central to this decision?

Travis Nelson: Having looked at a number of these cases of aid rejection, I think the main common denominator is a fear of perceived weakness. The government of Burma/Myanmar was already weak and facing a popular revolt when Cyclone Nargis struck. Any further perceived weakness could have, from their perspective, further emboldened those efforts. India transitioned from aid recipient to aid donor not necessarily because it no longer needed aid but because it wanted to be perceived as a stronger global power. Even the Bush administration’s refusal of international aid following Hurricane Katrina seems to me to be about perception of strength (to both a domestic and international audience) more than anything else. So my read is that Burma/Myanmar rejection of aid was less about the constitutional referendum and more about these broader concerns. Although the referendum itself was, of course, a factor in these broader concerns.

Tim Kovach: I’m not sure if you have read the 2009 World Bank paper (and subsequent 2011 study) from Guenther Fink & Silvia Raedelli that argues disaster aid is nearly as politicized as official development assistance. If you have, do you have any thoughts on their argument? I know that your study does find some evidence that trade, colonial ties, and military alliances influence humanitarian aid flows, but why do you think that your results differ from some of the other literature on these points?

Travis Nelson: Although I haven’t looked at their study that carefully, I don’t think my findings are that different than those of Fink/Raedelli.  Both of us agree that humanitarian aid is ultimately a mix of political interest and humanitarian need.  Individual donor states differ on which types of “political interest” are a factor in their aid decisions.  But the fact of political interest is consistent.  The same is true of humanitarian need.  When I give presentations about humanitarian aid, I often find that audiences are deeply skeptical that humanitarian aid is about anything other than the political interest of the donor.  So I think it is notable that the data does not support this conclusion.  There is still at least some humanitarianism in humanitarian aid.


Condoms are key for promoting responsible consumption

community health worker
community health worker

A community health worker talks to women in SIerra Leone (courtesy of H4+ Partnership).

At first blush, the idea that one action to reduce conspicuous consumption could bring about a sustainable future seems far-fetched. Sustainability is all-encompassing. There is no silver bullet; we need a thousand silver BBs. But not all actions are created equally. Some are so central that, without them, we cannot hope to bring about the future we want. Ensuring that all 7 billion people have the access to and education needed to properly use condoms is one such action.

Worldwide, more than 200 million women have an unmet need for contraception. This gap has startling consequences. In 2012, at least 85 million pregnancies were unintended. If every woman who wanted to avoid pregnancy could access modern contraceptives, there would be 22 million fewer unplanned births and 15 million fewer unsafe abortions each year.

The condom is perhaps the most important tool for tackling this issue. This simple piece of latex tackles a host of problems that undermine sustainability.

First, condoms help fight the scourge of HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). More than 1.5 million people died of AIDS-related diseases in 2013, while 35 million people live with HIV/AIDS. In turn, people contract nearly 350 million cases of STIs, like gonorrhea and syphilis, each year. These preventable infections make life far more challenging and can even be deadly. One such disease, HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, which kills hundreds of thousands of women annually.

Second, condoms are vital for curbing population growth and addressing climate change. If contraceptive use increased by 14%, we could prevent 1 billion births by 2050. This step will be key for keeping global temperatures below 2ºC. Curbing population growth could, on its own, produce 16-29% of the emissions reductions we need to stave off dangerous climate change. This issue will be particularly important in the developed world, where each person’s carbon footprint is far larger. Here in the United States, where half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the average person uses 25 times more resources in his/her lifetime than one in a developing country. Clearly, condoms can reduce carbon emissions and tackle conspicuous consumption in tandem.

Third, ensuring that everyone can use condoms will increase our level of resiliency. Pregnant women and infants are uniquely vulnerable to a number of threats, like natural disasters and diseases. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women were four times more likely to die. And, because mosquitoes are attracted to pregnant women, malaria hits them especially hard. Infection during pregnancy causes 10,000 maternal and 200,000 infant deaths every year in Africa. Reproductive health, particularly contraceptive use, needs to be a centerpiece of health and disaster management planning.

Fourth, the condom can be a key tool for women’s empowerment. Every day, millions of women are trapped by the issues related to unprotected sex. Giving them the ability to choose when and how they reproduce is essential to putting their destinies in their hands. Condoms can help reduce the amount of time a woman spends pregnant, curb postpartum depression, and slash maternal deaths. As the WHO noted, “Without fertility regulation, women’s rights are mere words. A woman who has no control over her fertility cannot complete her education, cannot maintain gainful employment…and has very few real choices open to her.”

Clearly, while the condom is not a sufficient tool for a sustainable future, it is a necessary one. Condoms help liberate men and women alike from illness, vulnerability, environmental harm, and a lack of choice.

Here’s how oil, population, and trade affect disaster aid flows

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Vox that examined how media coverage of certain natural disasters – or the lack thereof – can significantly affect both the likelihood of a country getting relief assistance and, if it does, the amount it receives.

I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that media coverage is the only, or even the primary factor driving disaster aid decisions; far from it. In fact, there is a fair amount of research that shows how political considerations may be the key issue dictating aid considerations.

Disaster relief is a two-way street

One important factor to consider, as I alluded to in my Vox piece, is that relief aid decisions are a two-way street. Just as donor countries determine whether or not they want to provide support, affected countries can also control whether or not they request it. Without this formal request, the United Nations cannot issue a Flash Appeal, and donor countries will have no way of getting their financial, logistical, and human resources on the ground.

So why would a country hit hard by a disaster actually refuse to accept help? In a 2010 study (gated), Travis Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, argued that, for countries transitioning from autocratic systems to more democratic ones – known as anocracies in political science parlance – “aid refusal…is at its core a political act” meant to show that the country’s leadership is able to handle the disaster recovery process on its own.

A recent example of this phenomenon happened in Burma, which I detailed in a 2013 paper (PDF). Cyclone Nargis struck the southern portion of the country in May 2008, killing more than 138,000 people. But rather than accepting offers of support from the international community, the country’s ruling military junta went to great lengths to keep the humanitarian community out. It waited several days to accept international assistance, and even then it only did so on the condition that it strictly control every aspect of the process. It took a full 3 weeks for then-leader Than Shwe to allow the international community to conduct a relief and recovery effort.

Why Burma’s leaders rejected humanitarian assistance

If you view this episode in a vacuum, the junta’s actions make no sense. Why on earth would they actively refuse support, given their clear inability to help their own people?

But, when placed in context, as Nelson argues in his study, things become clearer. Burma, which had existed on the fringes of the international community for nearly two decades at that point, had valid reasons to be wary of offers of support from Western states. These same states had spent years actively undermining and isolating the junta. Moreover, Western leaders took a number of provocative steps in the days after the cyclone that likely delayed the response effort further. The United States anchored a Navy battleship just miles off the Burmese coast, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner threatened to invoke the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as a means to forcibly initiate a response effort.

One can almost – almost – forgive the junta for fearing that Western governments might use humanitarian actions as a cover for furthering regime change. As Burma expert Andrew Selth has written, “Even paranoids have enemies.”

It’s important to point out that, in accordance with Nelson’s study, the Burmese government had recently initiated a political reform process. Nargis hit just one week before a long-anticipated referendum on the country’s new constitution, a critical part in the junta’s years-long process to slowly and partially democratize the country.

I should also note that, regardless of how irrational the junta’s fears of foreign influence may have been, they actual proved to be somewhat prophetic. Thein Sein, the country’s current president, headed up the regime’s response effort and worked closely with the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This positive interaction between Sein and his international counterparts likely hastened the country’s political transition.

The politics of disaster aid

But now we need to consider the political concerns behind the other side of the equation – donor decisions. What accounts for the fact that the US provides relief after less than 1 out of every 5 disasters?

In a 2009 working paper for the World Bank1, Guenther Fink, an international health economics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Silvia Redaelli, a senior economist at the Bank, explored these factors.

As the authors note, humanitarian aid is often seen as a different animal than official development assistance (ODA). Whereas donor countries have always attached political conditions to ODA, that rule has not applied for emergency aid. Instead, “donor governments perceive emergency aid as political unconditional.” In principle, it should be apportioned according to the greatest need.

But, as Fink and Redaelli demonstrate, donor countries have consistently failed to live up to these principles. In the study, they explore the factors driving the delivery and amount of aid after 449 rapid-onset disasters. They explored the amount of aid provided in the aftermath of these events based on information from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair’s (OCHA) Financial Tracking System. To control for political considerations, they add a number of independent variables, including population size, GDP per capita, Freedom House rankings, trade openness, the distance between donor and recipient state capitals, whether or not the recipient country exports oil, and how closely the donor and recipient country’s UN voting patterns line up.

Population density, oil exports, and trade openness all affect aid

They find that both the number of people affected and killed increases the likelihood of aid delivery, by 10-13% and 20%, respectively. But, more than that, political factors seem to drive the decision making process. Donors are 25-30% more likely to support their former colonies, and Western countries are far more eager to support oil producers.

Interestingly, donor countries appear more apt to contribute to disaster-affected countries that are not already aligned with their political interests. Unlike with ODA, which donors seem to use to reward their allies, humanitarian aid seems to be a tool to build better political relations. As the authors note, “If the acquisition of international consensus is on donors’ political agenda, emergency aid may well be a more visible, cheaper and more flexible tool to reach such a consensus than traditional development assistance.”

These political issues also mediate the amount of aid provided. When disasters occur at least 1,000 kilometers away, aid values are halved. In contrast, politically non-aligned states see 200% more aid, while former colonies can expect to receive 5 times more.

The correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.

But Fink and Redaelli dig further into the data and find that the five major donor countries – the US, Germany, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom – are all motivated by different interests. While the US tends to support democratic regimes, Norway is actually 14% more likely to support more autocratic countries. Germany, for its part, is 66% more inclined to provide aid to neighboring states, while Japan shows an interesting affinity for densely populated countries. And, reminding us all that the sun never set on the British Empire once, former colonial bonds increase the UK’s aid probability by nearly 30%.

The study includes two additional findings. First, the US, UK, and Norway are more likely to support oil exporters by 24%, 35%, and 39%, respectively. Secondly, the authors note evidence for a “bandwagon” effect – when more of these big 5 donors contribute to the relief effort, the total number of donor countries increases significantly.

Unlike other research, the paper also explores what factors drive private disaster aid flows. Nongovernmental donors appear more inclined to support poorer countries and are 16% less likely to provide aid to countries that get high marks for trade openness. Interestingly, private donors do not seem responsive to either the number of fatalities or whether the disaster-affected country exports oil.

Ultimately, as Fink and Redaelli conclude, “While the evidence of the various biases varies significantly across countries, the correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.”

I should note that note everyone agrees with this thesis. Nelson, for his part, authored a 2012 study (gated) that found while these types of political variables do play a role in aid discussion, “humanitarian variables are consistently significant predictors of disaster aid provision.”

So while this debate may not be entirely settled, the fact remains that the international community has a long way to go before it meets the principles laid out in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and reiterated the 2011 Busan Partnership. If we hope to shift from a donor-recipient relationship to a true partnership, developed countries will need to more closely balance their underlying political considerations when apportioning disaster aid.

* Dr. Fink published a version of this paper (gated) in the May 2011 edition of the journal World Development.

Water is life, but have you ever thought about what that really means?

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.


World Water Day 2015 is coming up this Sunday, March 22. This year, in advance of this September’s UN summit to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals, World Water Day will focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

The axiom that “water is life” has become something of a cliche. But have you ever actually sat down and considered, even for a few moments, just how central water is to essentially every aspect of your life? Let’s consider a hypothetical day to demonstrate this effect, shall we?


7:00am: Your alarm clock goes off. You step out of your bed and head for the bathroom. About that bed – is it made from cotton? Well, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. It is the single largest consumer of water in the apparel industry, accounting for more than 40% of total water use. It takes more than 700 gallons to produce one t-shirt alone. Much of this impact stems from the fact that cotton is widely farmed in some of the driest areas of the world, including India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (we’ll return to this issue later).

7:05am: You step into the shower to get ready for the day. Well, this one is pretty straightforward. But do you know how much water and energy you’re using? According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. As a result, the average American family uses 40 gallons of water per day in the shower, accounting for 17% of total household water use. If we waste roughly 20% of water in each shower, as the EPA estimates, that means we are washing more than 200 billion gallons of excess water down our drains each year.

7:30am: You sit down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Each cup of coffee has a water footprint of 37 gallons, meaning it takes the equivalent of 37 gallons of water to grow, process, roast, ship, and brew your morning caffeine fix. Are you eating cereal with milk? That requires 22 gallons of water. But it’s still better than eggs, which have a water footprint of 37 gallons each. And that morning glass of orange juice is another 53 gallons.

7:50am: You head out the door and start your morning commute. Are you driving? Well, it takes roughly 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car and its four tires. How far is your commute? If you’re driving the average 12.6 miles each way in a car with average fuel economy (23.6 miles per gallon), then your gas tank is consuming 6.89 gallons of water on your way to work. Round trip, that will add up to 13.77 gallons (not to mention more than 19 pounds of carbon emissions).

Work Day

8:15am: You arrive at work and head into the building. But what is the building made of? Steel? That’s 62,000 gallons of water per ton used. Concrete? Try 1,360 gallons per ton. While the totals will vary by the type of materials used, there’s also water embedded in every window, square foot of flooring, gallon of paint on the walls, desk, chair, and trash can. Every step you take is dripping in water.

9:07am: You check your email and start answering the flood of requests that came in since you left work yesterday. Are you using a desktop computer? It probably took around 42,000 gallons of water to produce. A laptop fares better at around 10,500 gallons, given its more compact size. But let’s not forget that you need electricity to power that computer, along with your phone, desk lamp, and the building’s HVAC system. Where you live matters, as different energy sources have different water footprints. Here in Ohio, we get roughly two-thirds of our electricity from coal, along with 15% from natural gas generation, and another 12% from nuclear power plants. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced from these three fuel sources requires 7.14 gallons, 2.99 gallons, and 1.51 gallons of water, respectively. Assuming that the average Ohio household uses 750 kWh of electricity per month, that means that your electricity use will consume 4,170 gallons per month, or nearly 140 gallons of water per day.

10:12am: You’re eventually going to need to use the restroom. The average toilet requires around 3.5 gallons per flush. And don’t forget to wash your hands, which may take up to 5 gallons per minute, depending on the faucet.

12:00pm: Lunch time. Maybe you’re a carnivore and have a hamburger; that will take a whopping 634 gallons. Or perhaps you’re eating healthy these days and opt for a salad, which has a considerably smaller footprint (31 gallons).

2:53pm: Hitting that mid-afternoon lull? You run out to the nearest coffee shop and grab a latte. All that extra milk and sugar adds water to the coffee, requiring a total of 52 gallons.


5:00pm: Finally, the work day comes to an end. Are you going straight home? If so, don’t forget about the water you’ll use on your commute. Or do you meet some coworkers for a drink afterwards? Choose carefully. That pint of beer requires 20 gallons of water. Wine fares even worse at 31 gallons.

6:00pm: Dinner time. Every pound of beef demands nearly 2,000 gallons of water. And that baked potato will add another 34 gallons per pound. Thinking about dessert? Chocolate will cost you an incredible 2,061 gallons per pound (though I doubt you’re eating that much chocolate in one sitting).

7:45pm: You head to the laundry room to do a load of laundry. That standard, top-loading washing machine will use 40-45 gallons of water per load. Efficient, front-loading machines can halve that total.

11:00pm: You brush your teeth and head to bed. Hopefully you remembered to shut off that faucet, as Americans waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year from leaking sinks, toilets, and sprinkler systems.


All told, the average American uses approximately 2,167 gallons of water per day, more than double the global average of 1,056 gallons. But because most of this water is embedded in the manufacture and transport of the products we consume, we rarely, if ever, consider the true scale of our water footprint. Instead, we tend to focus on just the amount of water we actually use each day (i.e the amount of we drink or use to shower, flush the toilet, brush our teeth etc.). This number – roughly 90-100 gallons per person, per day – is a (pun intended) drop in the bucket of our total footprint. And Americans tend to vastly underestimate even this number.

Unintended consequences

Clearly, there is a disconnect here, one that can have unintended consequences. It builds a wall of ignorance between our decisions and their downstream effects. Consider the Aral Sea, one example of how our actions can drastically alter the world around us.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to turn the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into vast fields it cotton. In the 1960s, engineers constructed a vast network of dams, canals, and irrigation ditches to divert the water of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and channel it to the world’s largest cotton plantations.

Until this point, all of the unused water in these rivers – the lifeblood of the dry region – flowed into the Aral Sea. Prior to this, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. It surface area spanned more than 25,500 square miles. Its average depth was 52 feet, though the water reached a depth of 223 feet at its lowest point. The sea supported a thriving fishing industry among the various communities located along its shore. More than 40,000 people fished its waters.

All of that changed. Once completed, this irrigation system captured more than 90% of the water flowing into the Aral. As the sea began to shrink, it grew ever shallower. This process facilitated surface evaporation, hastening the process. As the surface are constricted, the land formerly covered by several feet of water turned into a dry, salt-caked desert crust; this reflected the sun’s radiation, causing surface temperatures to rise and evaporation to speed up. Wetlands and other aquatic vegetation dried up and died. The loss of these plants allowed stronger breezes to flow across the shallower water, which exacerbated surface evaporation even further.

Today, the Aral has lost more than 90% of its original volume. NASA reported last October that the entire eastern basin of the sea is now dry for the first time in at least six centuries. The Aral has entered a death spiral, and experts project that it may disappear forever in the next few years. It is, perhaps, the worst man-made environmental catastrophe of all time.

This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. exists. Our work, including our annual World Water Day events, seeks to reconnect people with water and illustrate the essential role it plays in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully by bringing people closer to water, we can stave off the next Aral Sea-type disaster before it is too late.

How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.