Wednesday, January 9, 2013

We Caanan Do It

You’ve seen the news – 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States. Scientists at the National Climatic Data Center say that over time, the full degree difference in average annual temperatures over the previous record will begin to redefine what is seen as normal weather conditions for America.

I’ll admit, I’m looking forward to the projected weekend temperatures in DC, said to be reaching the low sixties. In January. But mild winter temperatures are no tradeoff for deadly, violent storms, flooding, and the soon-to-come water wars.

I saw evidence of the impending water wars when I worked in Lebanon in 2011. Desertification is creeping into the fertile Bekaa Valley, where much of Lebanon’s agricultural production takes place. In many places, Hezbollah has diverted water from Christian farmers to irrigate its own crops, leaving some villages desperate for a new source to keep their farms alive. Foreign aid projects have tried to address these problems by building reservoirs and irrigation systems, but many of these projects are wrought with problems typical of too many aid programs: bureaucratic gridlock, corruption, and mismanagement among them. Others are simply technical issues: in many parts of the Bekaa, as is true of most of Lebanon, electricity is too unreliable or the water table is too low for standard irrigation systems. Lebanon is a country crippled by a dysfunctional government whose politicians have paid lip service to the environmental problems that threaten the fragile stability of a land with seventeen armed religious sects and various international interlopers from all ends of the earth. Anything that adds to the tension could cause the country to blow up. Literally.

Sounds like a problem in the making, doesn’t it?

I had the good fortune of visiting a farm in a small Christian village in the Bekaa, where chickens prowled the grounds and electricity was out half a day. A USAID funded reservoir served the village and the surrounding farms, but water was a constant worry. The town of Baalbek, with its massive Roman temples and its Hezbollah flag-lined streets, could be seen across the flat fields of the valley, a contradiction as all things in Lebanon are. Government corruption, Israeli bombs, and a lack of civil society organization has kept Lebanon from making any serious advances toward solving its electricity issues since the end of the 15 year civil war in 1990, but one group of engineers had taken matters into their own hands. They had installed a solar-wind power hybrid system on the farm that provided the village with 24-hour electricity. Juxtaposed beneath this ultra-modern system was an ancient Roman winery they had discovered while digging to install the cables from the turbine to the house. The Romans had made great technological advances in their time, building aquifers and roads that made large farms possible. I wondered what they’d think about having the technology to solve a problem like water or electricity (if they could imagine it!) but not using it because of politics.

One of the engineers on the project also gave workshops on photovoltaic systems that local farmers could use in agricultural practices. Beyond that he wanted to install solar-wind power hybrid irrigation systems across the valley that would address the issues of the deep water table and the costs of diesel that prevented most farmers from running other irrigation systems, a seemingly simple solution to the growing water crisis and the persistent electricity shortages in the country. Alas! Financial impediments and a lack of political will – from the Lebanese and from foreign aid agencies – has kept the solution from becoming a reality despite its potential to alleviate tension between Hezbollah and the Christian farmers. Instead, resentment grows where crops should be.

Scientists have theorized that the original inhabitants of Lebanon, the Phoenicians, were wiped out because their economic pursuits – shipbuilding and purple dye – destroyed their environment. They logged the famed cedars of Lebanon, used for ships, until those left were too high in the mountains to reach for further logging, and they overfished the murex of the Mediterranean, killing the dye industry. The resulting economic decline made them vulnerable to invaders, and eventually the Phoenicians ceased to exist as a people.

What we face now has far more catastrophic consequences for all of humanity. It’s time we find the political will to slow the rising temperatures. Cut emissions. Phase out coal. Commit to solar and wind power. Eat local. These aren’t a political agenda, they are steps to ensure we survive as a species. We took a step in the right direction by extending the wind power tax credit. But there is so much more to do.

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