All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Tale of a Wetland at KDocs

leave a comment »

Last Friday KDocs screened the movie Metamorphosis: Tale of a Wetland, directed by Bryan Maltais, as part of the conference on wetlands conservation organized by the Burns Bog Conservation Society.  They invited me to be a speaker and participate in a panel.  Here is what I said (sorta – I tend to ad-lib a bit).




We don’t like wetlands, it seems. We talk about muck and ooze. We get mired.  We get swamped.  We get bogged down.  We have inflicted a lot of damage on them.  We have drained them out. We have filled them up.  We have dumped garbage over them; the largest garbage dump in the world, Fresh Kills in New York, is an artificial mountain built over a swamp.  Even here, our own Vancouver Landfill has covered up a big chunk of Burns Bog.

And we seem to fear them.  Swamps are alien. They are the out-there, the chthonian, the other.  Maybe the can be admired in their own right, as a home for weird and amazing creatures.  But they are not a place where people feel home.

Or are they?  I want to make a case that wetlands are useful to us.  They can provide us with resources, including shelter; purify our water; prevent floods; fight climate change.

Indeed, there is a paradox.   Alien as wetlands may be, we have been seeking them throughout history.  Many of our great cities are built on swamps: Paris, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Venice, Berlin, or Chicago, for instance.  Why?

Take Chicago.  The name is thought to refer to a type of wild garlic that grows in wet environments.  First nations found the location convenient for harvesting and trading, and settlers followed.  Wetlands are very productive environments, actually; think of rice and cranberries.  Wild rice, as the name implies, can be harvested sustainably from natural wetlands.  In Europe, 20,000 tonnes of reeds are harvested annually from the Danube delta – to make thatch roofs.  Here in the Lower Mainland, first nations used to harvest wapato, an aquatic tuber (also called swamp potato). 

Wetlands, in fact, provide optimum conditions for plant growth: sunshine, and of course water. Provided that fertilizing elements are present, the productivity of a wetland is higher than that of a rainforest.  This is also true of the animal resources, fish and waterfowl in particular.  These disappear when wetlands are drained.  To take one example from European history: we often learn about the heroic efforts of land reclamation of the marshlands in northern Europe along the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.  The diking and draining of the English fens, of the extensive wetlands in Brandenburg and Pomerania, to say nothing of the Netherlands, are well known and presented as the linear march of progress.  But there has always local inhabitants who saw it differently.  As late as the mid eighteenth century, Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, had to send in his army to protect the newly reclaimed lands.  The marsh dwellers who had been destroying dikes as fast as they had been built were eventually subdued and pacified with a promise of 20 hectares of farm land, but (in the words of historian David Blackbourn), “many found it difficult to trade the fish hook for the land plough.”

If wetlands provide us with food, they can also be a source of water – clean water.  Marshes have a filtering effect that has been amply demonstrated in thousands of wetlands, both natural and constructed.  I’ll just use one example – a giant one.  The Great Black Swamp was a wetland at western end of lake Erie, half of the size of the Lower Mainland.  Dan Egan writes “It was lake Erie’s kidney, a grand filtering system that turned muddy rainwater flushing off the land into crystalline flows by the time they reached the lake.  And it was replaced by a drainage organ that does quite the opposite.”  The Maumee river that drains the former swamp is now highly polluted with phosphorus, which feed blooms of blue-green algae on Lake Erie.  The 2014 bloom of a particular algae, microcystis, made the waters of west Lake Erie so toxic that the drinking water supply of the city of Toledo had to be shut off, depriving nearly half a million people of drinking and washing water for three days.

One key benefit of wetlands is flood reduction.  Again, I’ll give you one example.  In August 2011 Tropical Storm Irene battered Vermont.  Otter Creek flooded the town of Rutland, destroying homes, roads, bridges.  But the town of Middlebury, downriver, was spared.  That was because the Otter Creek Swamp Complex, located between Rutland and Middlebury, stored the floodwaters and gradually released them.  Many cities are finding that protecting wetlands is more effective, and cheaper, than building flood control infrastructure. One study valued the ecosystem service of flood prevention at $33,000 per hectare, annually.

Finally, wetlands store carbon.  Coastal eelgrass marshes are so important in this respect that the phenomenon has been given a name: blue carbon.  Blue carbon, that is, the removal of excess carbon from the atmosphere, is a key component of climate change.  Salt marshes and estuaries capture about five hundred million tonnes of carbon every year; this so-called blue carbon is enough to offset half of all the emissions from cars, trucks, ships and planes worldwide.


Written by enviropaul

October 15, 2018 at 6:28 pm

Bad air and the law

leave a comment »

For the second August in a row, air quality advisories have been declared all over Vancouver and the lower mainland.  As many people, I suffer from asthma; mild as it may be, walking around, I feel as if the streets have become steeper.

Metro Vancouver offers a utility called AirMap; data from the north Burnaby show that the problem is mostly caused by the small respirable particles (PM10 on the data) caused by forest fires, at 63 micrograms per cubic meter.  A new report shows that BC currently has the worse air in all of North America.

So I got to walk a bit slower – not the end of the world, is it?  No, it’s not, but that is because I am lucky to have only a mild case of asthma.  Ella Kissi-Debrah wasn’t so lucky.

Ella Kissi-Debrah

Ella lived along one of the busiest and most polluted roads, South Circle Road, in London, UK.  In February 2013, after one particularly bad episode of air pollution, she was taken to the hospital – where she died of respiratory failure.  She was nine years old. She is a statistic, one of the estimated 40,000 people who die every year from respiratory problems due to air pollution in the UK; worldwide, the figure is 7 million.

Stalin reportedly said “one person dies, it’s a tragedy.  One million die, that’s a statistic.”  Indeed, confronted with such numbers, we tend to shrug.  But Ella is different: she is now the face of a highly publicized (see here, here, here, or here)court case.  She brings back the human dimension – and about time, too.

Ella was a healthy baby.  It could be that the poor quality of the air where she grew up brought on the asthma.  And it is likely that an episode of extremely polluted air brought about her fatal asthma crisis.  The science is in; the link between poor air quality and asthma is considered highly probable, especially for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.  But can one prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is what killed Ella?

Ultimately, this doesn’t really matter.  A decision in this type of case depends on a “balance of probabilities”, that is, it only needs to be deemed more likely than not.  As Michael Lepage reports in the New Scientist:

The main problem [causing air pollution] is that there are lots of highly polluting diesel vehicles on the roads.  Air pollution will gradually fall as the oldest, most polluting vehicles are replaced. Yet the courts have ruled that the government must act now, regardless of cost.  Air pollution campaigners say ministers have instead taken the cynical decision that it is cheaper to continue breaking the law.

But this delay is opening up a new legal front.  The continued failure of countries to meet EU limits means government are set to be sued for damages, as in Yokkaichi [where citizens successfully sued a petrochemical plant].

The New Scientist deemed the case important enough to devote it a full editorial.  Among other things, it cites:

We have seen how powerful stories can overcome inertia on environmental issues: the growing backlash against plastic was largely driven by the TV show Blue Planet II. Palm oil, too, is in the spotlight, as its production threatens iconic orangutans.

Large, faceless numbers, particularly the statistical constructs used by health officials in relation to air pollution, are easy to ignore. The death of a young girl, less so. While Ella’s case is not the first legal action over dirty air, it could be the most important in changing public perceptions, and waking us all up to the growing toxic threat.

Indeed.  Let’s hope for a precedent, one with teeth.  Because a legal precedent paves the way for similar cases, especially where the law is based on the British system.  And I am not thinking about quality (bad as it may be today) as about water quality.  Egregious disregard for the law, when it comes to water, are rife in this country.  Pipeline politics, anyone?  How about water supply on First Nations’ reserves?  It will be interesting to follow, at any rate.

Written by enviropaul

August 14, 2018 at 3:20 pm

The Roots of Heaven: the world’s first environmental novel

leave a comment »

I was reading an article about Romain Gary in the New Statesman, when a sentence gave me pause:

Along the way, he wrote a significant œuvre in French, including what may be the world’s first ecological novel, The Roots of Heaven, which won the Goncourt Prize in 1956.

Really?  Gary was a celebrity, a controversial writer, a Lithuanian-born French diplomat jet-setting with actress Jean Seberg.  But for all his controversial public profile, and his reputation for lying, he was a winner of the most prestigious French literary award, the Prix Goncourt, not once but twice (the unprecedented second winning was awarded to Gary under a pseudonym, Emile Ajar, the august Goncourt jury having had no idea that it was one and the same person).  I had to read it for myself.

And what a beautiful, remarkable book. It’s a little Rashomon-like, the whole story being mostly told from the recollections of friends, foes and witnesses, of what they know – or think they know – about the main protagonist, Morel.  Fifty years before Captain Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd, Morel has made his calling the protection of wildlife – African elephants, to be specific.  Like his modern counterpart, Morel is moved above all by moral and ethical considerations, and doesn’t hesitate to break the law to stop the trophy hunters.  (Morel is trying to get a hunting ban enacted, whereas Watson is trying to get the whaling ban already in place enforced; different eras.  But the parallels are clear; compare the quote below about journalists with Watson’s quip that “if the oceans die, we die”)

The novel was written over sixty years ago, about a very specific place and era, colonial west Africa, yet there is something oddly contemporary and urgent about it.  Why save wild animals when there is dire poverty and disease among humans – should that not be the first priority?  Isn’t the concept of humans saving nature itself utopian, arrogant and ultimately a blasphemy?  For that matter, aren’t white Europeans saving African wildlife themselves guilty of patronizing colonialism?  Isn’t hunting itself natural for humans, a natural expression of the fundamental nature of all predators?  Replace elephants with orcas, grizzlies and salmon, replace missionaries with Indian Affairs agents, replace the African tribes with coastal BC First Nations, and the story could be set here and now.  The only key difference is that The Roots of Heaven takes place right after World War II, and all the main characters carry deep wounds to their psyche.  But, a bit like Captain Watson nowadays, the main character, Morel, is charismatic, gets help from unsuspected quarters, but he remains somehow fuzzy, hard to understand – precisely because it is so hard to fathom that someone could be so single-mindedly driven to his task.

Here are a few excerpts to give an idea. (I read the novel in French, and the translations are mine – clunky at times, sorry; I don’t have the published translation.  The original text is at bottom of this post.)

Morel, speaking about the elephants:

He knew full well that the herds were not threatened only by the hunters – there was also deforestation, the growth of farmed lands, progress, in other words!  But hunting, that was what was most repellent and this is where one had to start.

Romain Gary

One secondary character is the elderly but still active Danish naturalist Peer Qvist (who be called an ecologist nowadays).  In a surprisingly contemporary portrait, Qvist is described as having worked early in his career in (then Russian occupied) Finland, attempting to protect the forest from abusive logging only to be accused of being a secret Finn nationalist agent sent to deprive the Tsar of paper pulp.  Ironically, this false accusation pushed Qvist to work for Finnish liberation, as he concluded that the health of the forests and liberation were two parts of the same struggle.

In Finland, when I was fighting to preserve the forests and the Russian civil servants would patiently explain to me that paper pulp is more important than a forest…they finally understood only when there was almost no forest left.  And the whalers would explain that whale oil is necessary for the market and much more important than the whales themselves…”  Later, Qvist found himself fighting “against death camps and forced labour camps, against the hydrogen bomb and the already foreseeable menace of atomic waste slowly building up on land, in the air and at the bottom of oceans…coral reefs, erosion, soils destroyed by intensive agriculture – expelled from here, unwanted there, removed from membership from this or that institute…[he would see] the face of his friend the pastor Kai Munk, shot by the nazis because he had protected against its enemies one of the most tenacious roots that heaven had ever planted in the hearts of mankind…

A high level bureaucrat speaking:

He believed that it would suffice to bring our attention to the plight of the last elephants for us to immediately take the necessary measures that would ensure their survival.  What was most obscene is that he seemed quietly convinced that we could actually do something, that our own destiny, and that of the elephants, was in our own hands, that protecting nature was a task for human hands…he clearly was a jerk, a brutal reactionary, a rationalist…

Robert, an inmate in a nazi concentration camp, comes up with a scheme to raise morale, one that attests to the spiritual value of nature:

When you think you can’t go on anymore, do this: think of the great herds of free elephants running across Africa, hundreds and hundreds of magnificent animals, against which nothing can resist, not a wall, not a barbed wire, imagine them racing through wide open spaces, breaking and upsetting everything along their way, and as long as they are alive, nothing can stop them – freedom, in a word!  So, when you start to suffer from claustrophobia, from the barbed wires, reinforced concrete, integral materialism, just picture that, herds of elephants, in complete freedom, follow them with your eyes, hang on to them, follow their run, you’ll see, you’ll feel much better right away…

A character comments on journalists who praise

“the heroism and selflessness of this handful of men, deep in the jungle, who can prove that in the middle of the worst problems we remain capable of looking after other species, willing to protect nature…” Except that the guy who wrote this is quietly sitting on his ass, leaving to others the trouble of doing the work…and notice, to boot, that he sees in the fact that these are risking everything to defend nature a proof of selflessness; which just shows that, in this guys’ mind, there is a distinction to be made between nature and the human race, and that he has even taken the time to notice that when you defend one, you defend the other – in other words, he just hasn’t understood anything about what Morel is doing.

Let’s not forget Orsini; he would never forgive us.  All his life had been little but a long protest against his own insignificance; it must be that, of course, that led him to kill so many magnificent beasts, among the most beautiful, the most powerful of all creation.

In French, the word Ciel translates either as heaven, with its religious connotation, or simply as sky.  While heaven, the moral element, was chosen for the title translation, The Roots of the Sky also embody something else in the novel: the overwhelming presence of the African sky, untouched, unmoving, a proxy for nature herself, indifferent and unreachable.  Some of the more poetic parts of the novel can be found in Gary’s descriptions; below is my attempt at a translation.

The sky looked, as always, impossible to travel through, vaporous and luminous, obscured by all the sweats of the African soil.

[at dusk] …soon all that remained of Africa was a sky that seemed to sink, to get nearer as if to better look at you, to get a better look at the source of all this [human] noise …above the river, Minna was watching a vulture soaring in slow turns.  Every evening, the bird seemed intent on providing a signature to the sky, as if to better turn the page.

…a few trees, three huts from the fishermen’s village, a few canoes, a horizon line made fuzzy by the tall grass, the mouth of the Chari flowing into the Longone and further, towards the east, the single palm tree of Fort-Foureau, and once again the sky, immense, as an absence of someone.

Gary, Romain 1956.  Les racines du ciel.  Paris: Gallimard


Original quotes:

Le ciel était, comme toujours, infranchissable, vaporeux et lumineux, obstrué par toutes les sueurs de la terre africaine (pg 14).

…quelques arbres, trois cabanes d’un village de pêcheurs, quelques pirogues, une ligne d’horizon brouillée par les herbes, la bouche du Chari vers le Logone et plus loin, à l’est, le palmier solitaire de Fort-Foureau, et de nouveau le ciel immense, comme une absence de quelqu’un. (pg 35)

il ne restait bientot de l’Afrique qu’un ciel qui semblait descendre, se rapprocher comme pour mieux vous regarder, pour mieux voir d’où venait tout ce bruit…au-dessus du fleuve, Minna regardait un vautour tournoyer lentement.  Chaque soir, il semblait signer ainsi le ciel, comme pour lui permettre de tourner la page. (pg 35)

[Morel] savait bien que les troupeaux n’étaient pas menacés uniquement par les chasseurs – il y avait aussi la déforestation, l’avance des terres cultivées, le progrès quoi!  Mais la chasse était évidemment ce qu’il y avait de plus ignoble et c’est par là qu’il fallait commencer. (pg 45)

Il croyait qu’il suffirait d’attirer notre attention sur le sort des derniers grands elephants pour que nous prenions immédiatement les mesures nécessaires à garantir leur immortalité.  Ce qu’il y avait de plus révoltant, c’est qu’il paraissait tranquillement convaincu que nous y pouvions quelque chose, que nous avions notre destinée et celle des élephants entre nos propres mains, que la protection de la nature était une tache pour des mains humaines…c’était clairement un salaud, une brute ariérrée et rationaliste…pg 117

Quand vous n’en pouvez plus, faites comme moi: pensez à des troupeaux d’éléphants en liberté en train de courir à travers l’Afrique, des centaines et des centaines de bêtes magnifiques auxquelles rien ne résiste, pas un mur, pas un barbelé, qui foncent à travers de grands espaces ouverts et qui cassent tout sur leur passage, qui renversent tout et tant qu’ils sont vivants, rien ne peut les arrêter – la liberté, quoi!…donc, quand vous commencez à souffrir de claustrophobie, des barbelés, du béton armé, du matérialisme intégral, imaginez vous ça, des troupeaux d’éléphants, en pleine liberté, suivez-les du regard, accrochez-vous à eux, dans leur course, vous verrez, ça ira tout de suite mieux…(pg 188)

Pg 227 – Forsythe commenting on journalists, who vaunt “l’héroisme et le désintéressement de cette poignée d’hommes, seuls au fond de la jungle qui avaient prouvés qu’au milieu des pires difficultés qui nous assaillent, nous demeurons encore capables de nous occuper des autres espèces et de la protection de la nature…”  Ce qui n’empèche pas le gars qui a écrit ça de rester tranquillement assis sur son derrière, en laissant aux autres le soin de faire le boulot…et remarquez encore qu’il voit une preuve de désintéressement dans le fait que les hommes se décarcassent pour défendre la nature, ce qui prouve bien que dans l’esprit de ce brave, il y a une distinction digne d’être soulignée entre l’espèce humaine et la nature, et qu’il n’a pas encore eu le temps de s’apercevoir que lorsque qu’on défend l’un, l’on défend l’autre – bref, il n’a rien compris à ce que Morel faisait. (pg 227)

ll vint un temps où Peer Qvist eût à faire appel à tout son mauvais charactère pour lutter contre les camps de la mort et les camps de travail forcé, contre la bombe à hydrogène et la menace sournoise et déjà prévisible des déchets des piles atomiques lentement accumulées sur la terre, dans l’air et au fond des mers…barrières de corail, luttes contre l’érosion,  terres tuées par l’exploitation intensive – expulsé d’ici, indésirable là, radié de tel institut…Visage de son ami le pasteur Kai Munk, fusillé par les nazis parce qu’il avait défendu contre ses ennemis une des plus tenaces racines que le ciel eût jamais plantées dans le coeur des hommes…(pg 235)

“J’ai voulu faire quelque chose pour l’aider [Morel]”; “Peer Qvist, avec sa petite bible dans la main, reaffirmant…qu’il n’allait jamais renoncer a defendre toute la variete infinie des racines que le ciel avait plante dans la terre et aussi dans la profondeur des ames humaines qu’elles aggrippaient comme un pressentiment, une aspiration, un besoin de justice, de dignite, de liberte et d’amour infini.”  N’oublions pas Orsini; il ne nous le pardonnerait pas. Toute sa vie n’a été qu’une longue protestation contre son manque d’importance; c’était cela, sans doute, qui l’avait poussé à tuer tant de bêtes magnifiques, parmi les plus belles et les plus puissantes de la création. (pg 255)


Written by enviropaul

July 29, 2018 at 3:48 pm

Some disorganised thoughts about Site C

leave a comment »

I was just reading a new book on renewable energy when the sentence below caught my eye:

In Germany, the value of utilities has collapsed as renewables have begun to drive down the price of electricity. The decrease of wholesale electricity prices due to German investments in renewable energy has killed new hydroelectric projects in Switzerland.

Ah yes.  Site CD dam, here we go again.  This was another reminder of why the Christy Clark liberal government decided to by-pass a review by the BC Utilities commission: there is no way that the project would have got the green light. It was already clear that the project was not needed and that its costs would raise electricity rates or sink BC Hydro’s finances.  One has to wonder, though, why is it that a government that disregards its own laws and policies is not considered to commit an illegal act.

At the same time, news broke out that a hydro-electric dam under construction in Laos collapsed, leaving, at last count, 20 dead, 100 missing, and 6600 people made homeless.  Heavy rains caused fractures in the soil and stone dam.  A reminder, maybe, that Site C is built on unstable soils, especially the side slopes of the future reservoir.  The Vajont Dam in Italy saw its side walls collapse, causing a tsunami that overtopped the dam, killing over 2000 people downstream.  A few years earlier, while the dam was under construction, the Italian government had sued a journalist who had reported the safety risks associated with the project.   On the Site C worksite,

In 2017, two massive tension cracks, one 400 metres and the other 250 metres, opened in the north bank of the Peace River. The cracks delayed plans to divert the river by a year.

Get a stake in the Peace – on the Boon farm (Jeremy Simes photo)

But never mind the technology.  Just a few days ago, Alex Neve of Amnesty International wrote:

The B.C. government’s legal submissions, which are available to be read online, explicitly recognize that “construction and operation of Site C will result in adverse impact to the exercise of treaty rights.” But rather than committing to work with First Nations to ensure that those rights are protected in a meaningful and lasting way, the province is trying to persuade the court to interpret these rights so narrowly that they would render not only the treaty, but also the province’s wider human-rights obligations toward Indigenous peoples, all but meaningless.

And these various bits of news are coming, fast and furious, just I happened to be reading Sarah Cox’s new book, Breaching the Peace.  A great book and a great resource, that; I thought I was reasonably well informed about the issue, but there is so much more to learn from this book.  For instance, I was aghast at the extent to which BC Hydro, our very own crown corporation, is ready to use dirty tactics against the citizens of this very province.  The tactics have included repeatedly harassing the occupants of Camp Cloud, tracking messages on social media (breaking through privacy settings), and laying out a SLAPP suit (a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).  SLAPP suits are designed to intimidate and silence critics; they used to be banned in BC, because of the threat they represent to democracy, until recently. This particular suit threatened damage claims in the millions using deceitfully collected evidence.  The fact that is has been mounted by a crown corporation is without precedent, according to UVic expert Chris Tollefson.

I used to think, in the 80s, that big crown corporations like Hydro Quebec or BC Hydro were shining examples of nationalization done right, a set of collective jewels; and that anyone suggesting breaking them up had to be greedy right-wing radicals.  Hmm, I have learned to rethink this through.


Aklin, Michael & Johannes Urpelainen 2018. Renewables: the politics of a global energy transition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cox, Sarah 2018.  Breaching the Peace: the Site C dam and a valley’s stand against big hydro.  Vancouver: UBC Press.


Written by enviropaul

July 28, 2018 at 8:21 pm

Julia Wertz’s Tenements, Towers & Trash

with one comment

I love browsing in the “new acquisitions” section of the downtown Vancouver Public Library.  This week I borrowed a new book by Julia Wertz, Tenements, Towers & Trash: an unconventional illustrated history of New York City.

What a delight.  She has been working for the New Yorker magazine on “then & now” type feature, rendering old photos into illustrations and accompanying them with illustrations of the same spot in its current state.

There are also more conventional historical features, such as illustrated bios on journalist Nellie Bly, abortionist Madame Restell, and Typhoid Mary, or essays such as “micro-living: real estate biggest scam”, or “the great pinball prohibition”, and lots more, all quite fun.

Of greater relevance to this blog, though, is the surprising amount of material of an environmental nature.  The topics are diverse, from the six-page spread “from horses to electric cars: a history of street cleaning in New York City”, to the invention of toilet paper, Staten Island boat graveyard, the Fresh Kills landfill and 911’s impact on it, to a long spread on Bottle Beach.

This last one, subtitled “Vintage trash and horse bones”, is particularly interesting.  Bottle Beach is on Barren Island, facing Dead Horse Bay, in Brooklyn (what names!), on an island that was a centre of rendering.  Dead cattle and pigs, but mostly horses (ubiquitous in NYC before the advent of cars) were rendered into fats, soap, and glue; whatever remained of the carcasses was thrown into the water.  A fish oil processing plant and a landfill added to the mess.    Fast forward one hundred years, and the beach is now an ugly mess of trash eroded away from the old landfill, but also a collector’s paradise, since the trash is all, well, vintage.  A tree near the beach is festooned with old bottles tied there by collectors (most were lost after Hurricane Sandy went through). On the last panel Wertz portrays herself saying “it’s just so beautiful!  This disgusting heap of garbage is making me have all the feelings!”

My favourite may be the one-pager entitled “In the Drink”.  I’ve reproduced it below.  And no, we don’t have copepods in Metro water (but yes, they’d be kosher if there was any).  Between UV and ozone disinfection, and secondary chlorination, the poor little critters don’t stand a chance.  A shame, maybe?

More illustrations, and info about the artist, can be found here, here, or here.

Written by enviropaul

June 24, 2018 at 10:12 am

Israel and its environment: sun and city

leave a comment »

Tel Aviv and its beach

I mentioned in an earlier post about Israel that I found there a confusing mix of inspiring initiatives and baffling, self-destructive policies.  That post was about water, where the paradox is most evident; this post is about how energy and urban development policies play out in Tel Aviv.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Ibn Gabirol, a large commercial avenue.  On every roof you can see hot water tanks connected to solar collectors.  This didn’t surprise me; they are the result of a policy that dates from the 60s, that requires every household to have its own solar hot water unit.  The energy savings are substantial, but I was a bit puzzled; there were no photovoltaic cells to be seen anywhere.  (These are now so efficient that it is cheaper to heat up water using the electricity from a PV unit than from a thermal collector.)  I asked Amitai, our tech-savvy host.  He sighed.  He said it was absurd, but not only are there no subsidies but the national electricity company won’t allow individual homeowners to connect to the grid.

Hot water on the roofs (not my photo!)

This, in a high-tech country that has developed remarkable large solar farms in the Negev desert.  There not only field-size arrays of conventional PVs, but also some pioneering concentrating solar systems that produce electricity overnight (I missed being able to visit one of them by a few months, dang).  Still, for all that, renewable energy represents less than 2% of all the electricity generated.  Amitai explained that the company is afraid that rapid adoption of solar would threaten the large investments in coal and gas plants.  I saw some rooftop PVs here and there, but only on institutional buildings.  (This may be changing, though; the country is considering re-introducing a Feed-In Tariff for rooftop PV.)

The old power plant by the beach

The same goes for wind energy.  According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, there are only two wind farms in the country, for only 6 MW, barely 1% of the solar PV capacity.  A recent project in the Golan Heights has been canceled.  Local environmentalists opposed it, because it threatened a local species of buzzard; but the decision ultimately came down to the Air Force, afraid of being impeded in what is still technically a war zone.

This is a paradox: in a country that has created the conditions for industrial creativity to thrive (Israel is now a by-word for start-ups), energy management is top-down and stifles creativity.  Whether it is because electricity is a mature industry, or because it has inherited the leaden bureaucracy that originally characterised the new nation, hard to say.  But the same heavy-handedness is shown in its treatment of Palestinians, where it takes a downright scary, punitive tone.  For instance, Israeli authorities confiscated a PV system in the Palestinian village of Jubbet Ahd Dhib, in the West Bank south of Bethlehem, because the villagers “did not get the proper permit”.   Best of luck getting the permit.

Ah, let’s get back to happier topics, such as Ibn Gabirol Avenue in Tel Aviv.  This is a street full of cafes, restaurants and independent retail stores.  This is where I discovered the rather unique way used by the locals to get around: electric power on two wheels.  There is an extensive bike path network in the city, facilitated by the fact that sidewalks on streets like Ibn Gabirol are quite wide.  A great many people of all ages use these paths (watch when crossing a street!).  The majority, though, do not use their leg power; rather, what seemed most common are electric bikes.  Almost as common are little scooters.  Far from being kids’ toys, these powerful little contraptions are used by everyone from businessmen in suit and ties, shoppers, to couples that fit snugly on the small foot platform.  I was entertained watching them go by while nursing a drink in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops that line the sidewalks.  There were also the occasional cargo bike, tricycle, even a motorized unicycle that looked like a stripped-down Segway.  It’s a high-tech place.








Of course, Tel Aviv is ideal for bike (and scooter) commuting: it’s mostly flat, and mostly sunny.  But I suspect that there is another incentive at work.  Every Shabbat, from sundown on Friday and most of Saturday, there is no public transit.  None.  No buses, whether local or intercity.  No trains, either, despite the nice new network along the coast.  And the subway under construction won’t run either.  Most Telavivi resent the situation, and blame Jerusalem for this predicament.  But try as they may, there is no way to move the government to reverse a law passed long ago to appease the religious parties.  This law is more than an annoyance; it has severe economic consequences such as delaying vital infrastructure projects (there can be no construction on Shabbat).  And, of course, it negatively affects Israel’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But to get back to Ibn Gabirol – the avenue has something else to offer, a characteristic that, to my knowledge, is unique in the world but totally unappreciated.  It has a unique set of arcades that are nearly fully continuous for over the two kilometers of length between City Hall and the Yarkon River.  Despite the traffic on the busy six-lane avenue, the arcades make for a very inviting pedestrian experience.   Restaurants and cafes spill out on the sidewalk under the arcade overhang (we spent a good deal of time just chilling out at many of them), and protect you from the sun (and the occasional rain – even from hail, which we experienced once!).

The arcades are nothing fancy; they are created because first floor of the buildings that line the street extend over half of the sidewalk, supported by columns.  The buildings are otherwise quite non-descript and utilitarian, built as low-rise apartment buildings that were originally quite affordable.   There are clones of these buildings all over the city; what is unique about Ibn Gabirol is the continuity, which create this continuous, arcade-like safe space shared by pedestrians and café tables (the bike lanes are on the other side of the columns).

We were visiting Tel Aviv when the Toronto van attack that killed ten pedestrians took place.  I couldn’t help but notice that such an attack could not have happened on Ibn Gabirol.  The space under the overhangs (the arcades, so to speak) is protected by the concrete columns that hold up the building overhangs.  But further, on the outer side of the sidewalk is a row of obstacles between the street and the bike lane; the row of trees is not a surprise, but the space between them is taken up either by solid bike racks as well as sets of facing chairs bolted onto the sidewalk.  These amenities are well used; the bike racks were mostly full, and on many of the chairs were people occupied in a lively conversation.

But this was not meant for protection; Tel Aviv is full of public spaces and public amenities such as these chairs: little parklets, spaces for kids, and well-used fitness equipment, to say nothing of all the beaches and waterfront boardwalk, all publicly accessible.  This was certainly a pleasant surprise to see in a country with a right-wing government that seem to have little patience for community-minded initiatives.

A woman we met (a lefty artist who grew up in a kibbutz) told us:  yes Ibn Gabirol is great, a wonderful and unique design!  But it was never copied, and she was at a loss to explain why.  So I still can’t figure out this country.  I’ll leave you with a few photos of Ibn Gabirol (and a video, not taken by me).  Including one that features a major flaw in the bike lane design – a metaphor for the country, maybe?

A cafe under the “arcade”

An overview of Ibn Gabirol











Well, the vendor booth was there first…



A good view of the continuous sheltered path under the overhangs








Written by enviropaul

June 10, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Israel and its environment: water

with one comment

Tel Aviv

I spent a couple of weeks recently in Israel, a purely touristic trip.  But of course, I can’t just let go of my interest in the environment; here are some of my disorganised thoughts about what I saw.

I say disorganised, because the environmental record, like the whole of the country, is a bit of a paradox: how can a country so progressive in its culture, a country that could be a ray of hope for the whole middle east, adopt policies reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, apartheid, and an Iran-like theocracy?  And the environmental record is no different: amazingly good in some cases, weirdly and unexpectedly bad in others.

Israel is, of course, world renowned for its water conservation initiatives.  This is not something you see as a tourist; all you know is that the tap water tastes good, is completely safe, and is abundant.  But I knew where that water was coming from; before leaving, I made sure to read Seth Siegel’s 2015 book Let There Be Water: Israel’s solution for a water starved world.  According to Seagel, water saving technologies as diverse as the dual flush toilet and the drip irrigation system were all developed in Israel – including sewage recycling, using membrane filtration technology (after standard treatment).

So I knew that what I was drinking was recycled sewage; and somehow, knowing that, instead of producing an ick reflex, made me feel strangely smug.  Hey, watch me flush guilt-free; it won’t pollute, it won’t make someone sick, it won’t even waste water – it’s coming back, closing the cycle, and fully clean.

The membrane filtration is the same technology that is used for ocean water desalination, which is also used and was pioneered in Israel.  But filtering treated sewage, as opposed to filtering sea water, uses much less energy.  And that remains true even though Israel’s sewage is ironically the saltiest in the world (due to the extensive use of salt and brines in classic kosher cooking).

You don’t see any of that as a tourist, but you see some of the results: in Tel-Aviv, the beaches are clean and full of swimmers, surfboarders, and small-craft sailors.   And yet, the city struggles with periodic coliform contamination of its beaches.  This is because the cycle is not, despite all intentions, fully closed.  The sewers that bring wastewater to the treatment plants also convey rain water; and during major storms, they get overwhelmed and overflow (they is little storage capacity in the network).

Still, the pollution numbers are not all that different from, say, English Bay in Vancouver.  But you’ll find in Tel Aviv something you don’t find in Vancouver:  an app that tells you exactly where the pollution is, what beaches are closed and why.  This is typical for this computer start-up mecca.

Since I mention the sewers, I can’t resist posting this little video about the artwork on manhole covers.  You get the real relaxed, California-like vibe that permeates the city, so different from Jerusalem – and notice the bike paths, they are everywhere.

As a tourist, you can also stroll along the Yarkon River that bisects the city, along a wonderful linear park across Tel Aviv itself and extends into the suburb of Ramat Gan.  The park is used by cyclists and joggers as well as kayakers, or by anyone looking for an oasis of shade. Despite being Israel’s second longest river after the Jordan, the Yarkon is less than 30 km in length; Israel is a small country. It used to be an open sewer; but after an extensive clean-up program, the small stream was declared fit to swim in 2011. This was a very pleasant surprise; during an earlier visit (in 1980) I remembered this part of the city as distinctly unpleasant.  Hard to believe that as recently as 1997, four athletes died and sixty were acutely sick after accidentally falling in the river; this was the result of a severe fugal infection contracted from aspiration of the polluted waters.  At the time, some of the smaller towns along the Yarkon didn’t even have a sewage treatment system; that the river is now clean, a mere twenty years later, shows how fast the progress was.

The Yarkon River in Tel Aviv

On the bus between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I was amazed by how the scenery had changed in nearly 40 years.  Israel is famous for having “made the desert bloom” – or rather, for having planted tree seedlings over land that was dry and damaged.  What looked like a distant green fuzz all these years ago now looks like a deep green forest.  I was pretty speechless looking at this forest that wasn’t there before, and that went on for over an hour.  This forest, along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor, is the most famous: six million trees were planted in 1951, one for each of victims of the Holocaust.  And this forest, remarkable as it is, is only one of many such plantings.  The largest, the Yatir forest north-east of Beersheeva, is truly amazing, a biodiverse assemblage of drought resistant species that has rolled back the desert despite an average yearly precipitation of less than 300 mm (this is only about 20% of Vancouver’s).  This was accomplished in part by cleverly modifying the landscape; small embankments slow surface runoff and ensure that rainfall recharges the groundwater.  (Basically, Israeli water managers have done the equivalent of what beavers do: small dams everywhere, making the land work like a sponge.  This is not a new technology; archaeologists have discovered abandoned water impoundments that date from the Byzantine era, but the modern scope is unprecedented.)

Salt concretions on the Dead Sea shore

But this feeling of elation was a bit dashed when I arrived at the Dead Sea, a few days later.   I knew that the Dead Sea had been receding (after all, it is one the main topics of Canadian environmental writer Alanna Mitchell’s book Dancing at the Dead Sea) but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.  I had stayed at the Ein Gedi oasis, in a little youth hostel near the shoreline; next to it was a fancier spa (that I couldn’t afford) and a few other facilities for tourists that come for the beneficial effects of the Dead Sea mud.  All these facilities are now abandoned ruins; the sea is now too far below, having dropped by about a meter every year since 1970.  The road itself has been rerouted; sinkholes have appeared at random (including under the old road) because the groundwater is now so low.  The sea level is dropping because the waters lost to evaporation are no longer made up by the flow from the Jordan River, which is fully diverted for irrigation in Israel and Jordan.  And the sinkholes are largely due to pumping of groundwater by a local water bottling company.

Well, at least the wilderness around Ein Gedi, and the two small canyons that have year-round flow, are now protected into an ecological reserve.  Silver lining.

But there are plans afoot to replenish the dead sea.  Israel and Jordan may cooperate on a large project to bring waters from the Red Sea, at sea level, into the Dead Sea, which has the lowest elevation in the world, 430m below sea level.  This drop could be used to generate electricity, and the electricity produced would power a desalination plant, boosting the amount of water available for irrigation to both countries.  And the brine could be dumped into the Dead Sea, raising its level with few environmental impacts (the Dead Sea has little life in it, hence its name, and its salinity is about the same as that of the brine rejected by a desal plant).   This may raise the sea to its original level, saving the few shoreline marshes that were used by migrating waterfowl.  This is not without risk, though; apart from the obvious issues of cost, the chemistry of the Dead Sea waters is quite unique and different from sea water; the proportion of bromine ions is much higher (which supposedly account for its therapeutic properties) than that of sea water brine.  What the consequences would be for the mineral extraction industry at the south end of the sea are unclear.

Problems in Israel, environmental or otherwise, are never simple.  According to 2009 statistics, 1.9 billion cubic meters of water are consumed yearly, half of that for irrigation, leaving a comfortable 137 liters per day per person for domestic consumption.  But of that total, only a very small fraction (about 5%) is available for Jordan and the Palestinian territories, combined.  Lack of water in the occupied territories may be the biggest aggravation faced by the Palestinians, making any prospects for peace ever more elusive between water-rich Israel and its parched, desperate neighbour.

I spoke to an engineer, an Jewish immigrant from Russia who was able to leave after the communist regime fell.  Needless to say, he had seen his share of strife and absurd political decisions.   He explained to me that Israeli politics are essentially reactive; nothing happens, nothing gets done until there is a clear emergency.  He pointed to the country’s water politics; there had been little investment in techniques such as desalination,membrane filtration, and groundwater recharge until the country nearly ran out of water – then things moved quickly, and “the problem was fixed.”  This was in response to my question about the environmental situation, not the occupied territory politics, but I expect the answer would not have been that dissimilar.  He was fairly cynical about politics, shrugged his shoulders a lot in a disabused fashion.  But he was not pessimistic; he said that the country seems to eventually always muddle its way through to a solution to its problems.  Here’s to hope for the long run.


Books mentioned:

Siegel, Seth 2015.  Let there be water: Israel’s solution for a water-starved world. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Mitchell, Alanna 2004.  Dancing at the Dead Sea: tracking the world’s environmental hotspots.  Toronto: Key Porter.

Written by enviropaul

June 3, 2018 at 6:01 pm