Africa’s Great Lakes were central to human evolution

victoria falls

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

great lakes of africa map

The Great Lakes region of Africa (courtesy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

If you’ve ever felt inexplicably drawn to Lake Erie or any of the other Great Lakes, you’re not alone. In fact, that attraction is hardwired into your genes.

Last month, two UK researchers published an article titled “Early Human Speciation, Brain Expansion and Dispersal Influenced by African Climate Pulses” in the online, open-source journal PLOS One. The piece explores a variety of close linkages between climatological variability and human evolution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It focuses, in particular, on the East Africa Rift System (EARS, for short), which is home to the bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes of Africa.

Africa’s Great Lakes region is home to several of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. The lake system includes Lakes Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi, along with several other smaller bodies of water. These lakes are the lifeblood of the region and are home not only to the world’s largest waterfall, Victoria Falls, but also to the headwaters of the Nile River.

In the article, researchers Susanne Shultz and Mark Maslin sought to determine what factors contributed to the punctuated nature of human speciation and dispersal from East Africa. They focus, in particular, upon a particularly important period for human evolution, which occurred roughly 1.9 million years ago. This period gave rise to the Homo genus and witnessed a series of major migration events from East Africa into Eurasia.

Schultz and Maslin noticed that several of these major “pulses” in human evolution corresponded closely to the appearance and disappearance of the East African Great Lakes. As a result, their research probed this connection more deeply. Their results suggest a close relationship between the growth and decline of the EARS lakes and significant steps forward in human evolution:

Larger brained African hominins colonised Eurasia during periods when extensive lakes in the EARS push them out of Africa. Taken together, this suggests that small steps in brain expansion in Africa may have been driven by regional aridity. In contrast, the great leap forward in early Homo brain size at 1.8 Ma [million years ago] was associated with the novel ecological conditions associated with the appearance and disappearance of deep-freshwater lakes long the whole length of the EARS.

As this article suggests, Africa’s Great Lakes are more than simply natural resources that serve economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological purposes. They are, quite literally, engrained in our DNA.

victoria falls

Victoria Falls lie along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Yet, tragically, these lakes and the people who depend upon them face a host of threats. The region has experienced extremely high rates of deforestation in recent decades due to unsustainable economic development, ongoing conflict, illicit logging, and dam construction. Annual rates of deforestation in the Congo River Basin doubled during the period from 2000-2005.

The ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has displaced millions, forcing many of them to encroach upon protected areas. In Africa’s oldest park, Virunga National Park, rates of illegal logging have reached 89 hectares (220 acres) per day (PDF). And the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia is drying up Lake Turkana, threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples.

Despite being home to 27% of the world’s freshwater, less than two-thirds of people in the Great Lakes region have access to improved water sources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this issue even further. The IPCC projects that the total number of Africans facing water stress will climb to 75-250 million by the 2020s and 350-600 million by the 2050s.

But you don’t need to sit by and watch these Great Lakes dry up. Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ has been working to provide access to clean water for children in Uganda for the last three years. This winter, the organization will undertake three new projects to ensure that the children at St. Bonaventure Primary School and the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage can take advantage of their human right to clean water.

Just as East Africa’s Great Lakes are a part of our DNA, so too is access to clean water and sanitation an integral part of human development. We can all take small steps to ensure that we are protecting this human right for people at home and around the world

Bringing Natural Resources to the Table: ELI, UNEP Launch New Environmental Peacebuilding Platform

sierra leone artisinal mining
sierra leone artisinal mining

Artisinal mining provides livelihoods for roughly 150,000-200,000 people in Sierra Leone (courtesy of UNEP).

I have a guest post up at the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat on environmental peacebuilding and the work that the UN Environment Programme and the Environmental Law Institute are doing in this area. [Full disclosure, I interned at ELI working on this program from late 2011-early 2013].

Here’s a snippet:

Moreover, UNEP found in 2009 that, although natural resources played a role in roughly 40 percent of all civil conflicts since 1960, new natural resource management schemes have been included in just one-quarter of peace agreements.

The evidence clearly indicates that if we hope to end violent conflict around the world, the environment must be a part of the process. As UNEP noted in its landmark report, From Conflict to Peacebuilding, “integrating environmental management and natural resources into peacebuilding…is no longer an option – it is a security imperative.”

Go read the rest and check out the rest of the great content housed on the blog.

There’s no such thing as a natural disaster

typhoon haiyan image
typhoon haiyan image

An image of Super Typhoon Haiyan as it appeared the morning of Friday, November 8, just before making landfall in the Philippines (courtesy of the Capital Weather Gang).

As we all know, Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines over the weekend. At its peak, Haiyan was perhaps the strongest tropical storm ever recorded at landfall, packing sustained winds of at least 195 mph with gusts of 235 mph. The United Nations and the Philippine Red Cross are both warning that 10,000 people may have been killed in Tacloban alone; this would make Haiyan the deadliest disaster in the history of the Philippines (though President Aquino is revising those numbers down).

I should note, however, that the true scale of a disaster is measured not in the number of dead, but in the number affected and displaced. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Haiyan affected 11.3 million people and displaced at least 673,000 Filipinos. In contrast, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed perhaps 250,000 people throughout Southern Asia but affected roughly 5 million.

The scope and scale of the devastation in the Philippines is, for lack of a better term, biblical. If you are in a position to provide support, I encourage you to make a monetary donation to the Philippine Red Cross or one of InterAction’s partner organizations working on the ground. Please donate money only. Survivors and relief organizations know what is needed, and they can source materials much more quickly and cheaply from regional sources.

As individuals and media outlets have tried to grasp the sheer scale of the devastation, they have almost unanimously referred to Haiyan as the worst natural disaster in Philippines history. The search term “Haiyan natural disaster” brings back at least 49,300,000 hits on Google, including headlines such as:

Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Disasters are complex, multifaceted, frequent, and overwhelming. We have a hard time fully grasping the nuance and complexity of each disaster – particularly one that strikes halfway across the world – so we turn to calling it a “natural” event. The term natural disaster is, in essence, a heuristic that we fall back upon in order to interpret the event.

In their landmark work, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters, Wisner, Blaikie, Davis, and Cannon term the tendency to view disasters in this light as the “myth of naturalness.” As Comfort et al put it (PDF):

A disaster is widely perceived as an event that is beyond human control; the capricious hand of fate moves against unsuspecting communities creating massive destruction and prompting victims to call for divine support as well as earthly assistance.

But a tropical storm or a tornado does not a disaster make. Rather, the risk of a disaster is a product of three variables: a natural hazard (e.g. a fault line or damaging winds), physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and socioeconomic vulnerability. To borrow liberally once more from Wisner et al:

Disasters happen when hazards hit vulnerable communities whose inherent capacity is not enough to protect itself and easily recover from its damaging effects. Disasters are the product of the social, economic and political environment.

As I tried explaining to a colleague of mine last Spring, Superstorm Sandy in DC was a hazard or an extreme weather event. Superstorm Sandy on the Jersey Shore or in Lower Manhattan was a disaster. Now, granted, most of this difference was due to the severity of the natural hazard as a result of weather dynamics. But Sandy may very well have been a disaster for someone living in a flood zone in Southwest DC (high levels of exposure) or to a homeless person without access to safe shelter from the storm (high levels of exposure and vulnerability).

Pressure and Release Model chart

The Pressure and Release Model, one way to depict the construction of disaster risk (courtesy of Wikipedia).

To their credit, a lot of journalists are starting to get it. Seth Borenstein has an excellent overview today of the social, economic, and political drivers of Haiyan.

Meteorologists point to extreme poverty and huge growth in population — much of it in vulnerable coastal areas with poor construction, including storm shelters that didn’t hold up against Haiyan.

More than 4 out of 10 Filipinos live in a storm-prone vulnerable city of more than 100,000, according to a 2012 World Bank study. The Haiyan-devastated provincial capital of Tacloban nearly tripled from about 76,000 to 221,000 in just 40 years.

About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. And 1 in 7 homes have grass roofs, according to the census office.

Those factors — especially flimsy construction — were so important that a weaker storm would have still caused almost as much devastation, McNoldy said.

Andy Revkin had a similar analysis of the massive tornado that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma in May over at Dot Earth. But, unfortunately, these types of reports are the exception that proves the rule. Most media coverage falls back upon the “myth of naturalness.” Others obsess over debating whether or not we can attribute each individual disaster to climate change. The science of attribution is improving by leaps and bounds, and perhaps in a year or so, scientists will be able to tell us whether or not they can identify the specific fingerprints of a changed climate in the DNA of Haiyan.

But taking such an all-or-nothing approach to disasters is irresponsible. Every disaster is different, not all natural hazard events are disasters, and whether or not climate change acts through individual extreme events is not the point – it’s our new baseline. Instead, we need to understand that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans can and do influence all three of the disaster variables. And, as a result, the number of disasters has spiked over the last century. I’ll briefly explore how we have altered each variable below.

chart of disaster occurrence 1900-2011

The number of reported disasters increased dramatically from 1900-2011, from roughly 100 per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2007-2011 (courtesy of EM-DAT).


Population and economic growth and rapid urbanization have heightened our exposure to disasters significantly in recent years. According to the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the number of people and total GDP exposed to flood risks increased by 28% and 98% (PDF), respectively, from 1990-2007. As economies develop and individuals build fixed assets like homes and infrastructure in disaster-prone areas (e.g. floodplains), economic exposure spikes. At least 3.4 billion people are now exposed to one or more hazards, while 25 million square kilometers of land is hazard-prone.

Rapid and unplanned economic development has taken its toll on ecosystems, which provide vital sources of natural protection against disasters. For instance, despite the fact that intact mangrove forests can reduce the flow rate of tsunamis by up to 90%, at least half of all mangrove forests have disappeared globally. In the Philippines, 70% of mangroves were destroyed (PDF) from 1918-1993. This destruction has substantially increased physical exposure to disasters and reduced the natural environment’s ability to mitigate the risk.


Of the three disaster variables, vulnerability is the most closely linked to the social, economic, and political environments. By definition, some groups appear more vulnerable to disaster risks than others. Key intervening variables include class, occupation, caste, ethnicity, gender, disability, physical and psychological health, age, immigration status, and social networks. One’s ability to access the resources s/he needs to cope with and adapt to stress – their “architecture of entitlements” (paywall) – is determined by these various factors, which shape social relations, political contexts, and structures of domination.

Differential vulnerability helps to ensure that different individuals and groups weather (no pun intended) disasters better than others. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, women were three to four times more likely to die than men in affected areas. This outcome occurred for a variety of reasons. Due to cultural norms, most women wore bulky clothing that covered most of their bodies; when this got wet, it weighed them down. Women were also far less likely to be able to swim (PDF) given their social roles and religious mores.

Natural Hazards

Interestingly, even natural hazards –the most natural of the three variables – have also undergone changes due to human actions.  Global temperatures have increased 0.85°C since 1880. Since the 1970s, global average precipitation has decreased by 10cm per year, but it has increased by more than 20% in certain regions (including the Northeast and Midwestern US). Accordingly, the number of extreme events associated with climate change rose by 50% over this three decade period. There even appears to be evidence that human activities can alter seismic risks. Researchers have connected a string of earthquakes in states from Ohio to Oklahoma to the high-pressure injection of wastewater into underground wells.

While it is difficult for reporters on a deadline to analyze the social, economic, and political drivers of various disasters, it is important that we begin to inch away from the myth of naturalness. Placing the blame for every disaster on the “capricious hand” of God or nature is dangerous and irresponsible.

First, it strips robs disaster survivors of their agency. They are just poor victims suffering from Acts of God. Secondly, in places where disasters are common (like the Philippines) it allows people who are disconnected from the events to blame the victims for not moving away from the threat. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – this mindset tends to make us complacent. If we accept disasters as natural events that we cannot control, what is our incentive to invest in disaster risk reduction strategies like curbing poverty, replanting mangrove forests, or hardening critical infrastructure? What is the hook for curbing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change?

The first step to addressing the rise in disasters worldwide is to admit that disasters aren’t natural. They’re manmade. Maybe if we do that we can get off our asses and do something about them.

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

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

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

Upcoming conference presentations

I will be presenting at two upcoming conferences for DC-area graduate students later this month.

March 22, I will present my paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap: On the Factors Contributing to Civil War Recurrence, at the 2nd annual Graduate Student Research Conference at George Mason University.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

Map of the affected areas & epicenter of the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Courtesy of the BBC.

The following Tuesday, March 26, I will present initial details from my current research project, Where DDR Meets DRR, at the Graduate Research Symposium, sponsored by the Journal of International Service and the AU SIS Graduate Student Council.

My presentation will focus the theoretical framework that I have developed, which explains a set of potential pathways linking disasters to conflict in conflict-affected states. Additionally, I will present preliminary evidence of the conflict dynamics of the international response effort to the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake. This work will form the basis of the capstone research for my Master’s program.

I will upload the Powerpoints for each presentation to this site after I have completed them.

Climate change will reduce labor productivity, increase inequality

Last week, an article came out in the journal Nature Climate Change (Climate Central also has a good summary of it) that discussed the likely effects of climate change on labor productivity. The authors examined the effects of heat stress during peak heat stress months in tropical and mid-latitude regions.

They concluded:

We estimate that environmental heat stress has reduced labour capacity to 90% in peak months over the past few decades. ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to 80% in peak months by 2050. Under the highest scenario considered (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5), ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to less than 40% by 2200 in peak months, with most tropical and mid-latitudes experiencing extreme climatological heat stress.

Individual labor capacity during minimum & maximum heat stress months. (Courtesy of Dunne, Stouffer, and John 2013)

Individual labor capacity during minimum & maximum heat stress months. (Courtesy of Dunne, Stouffer, and John 2013)


While these findings are new, they mirror earlier work on the effects of climate-related extreme temperatures on income and production. In their 2008 paper (PDF) “Climate Shocks and Economic Growth:Evidence from the Last Half Century,” Dell, Jones, and Olken studied temperature and precipitation data from 1950-2003 in order to determine the effects of extreme temperature and precipitation on a country’s economic performance.

Their results suggested that each 1◦C increase in average temperatures in any given year tends to reduce economic output by 1.1%; however, this effect only appeared in low-income countries. Using this historical relationship, they projected the long-term effects of global warming on economic output in poor countries, based on mid-range climate projections through the end of the century. In the key paragraph of paper (page 23), they note:

“With a 10-year adaptation horizon, the median growth rate among poor countries appears 0.6 percentage points lower through 2099 compared to the case of no warming. Extrapolated over 100 years, this implies that the median poor country’s income will be about 50% lower than it would be had there been no climate change.”


The authors found no similar effect for high-income countries, suggesting that climate change will further exacerbate global economic inequality significantly. The central cause for this result is the differing natures of the economies in high- and low-income states. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounted for 26.2% of GDP for low-income countries from 2008-2010. For high-income countries, this number was just 1.3%.

Economies in low-income countries are heavily dependent on natural resources, particularly agriculture, implying that workers in these areas are directly susceptible to direct effects of higher temperatures and changes in precipitation. The negative effects will stretch beyond just agriculture, however. Climate change will likely negatively effect forestry and fisheries, among other sectors. In the least developed countries (LDCs), revenues derived from natural resources account for 20.3% of GDP. The most developed countries – the 27 members of the OECD – derive just 1.5% of their GDP from resource rents.

Climate change will emerge as an environmental justice issue and will continue to threaten the fragile human and economic development of the world’s poor. Low-income states will suffer the most from climate change, despite the fact that they have done the least to contribute to it. LCDs emitted just 0.25 metric tons of CO2 annually from 2007-2009; high-income states, in contrast, accounted for 11.97 tons of CO2 emissions during this period – nearly 48 times higher.

Clearly, climate change will have major economic and development impacts. But its most serious, perverse impact will be moral.