Dealing with future drought

Here’s an opinion piece that I wrote for stuff.co.nz last week; my thoughts on how climate change and the prospect of more droughts in New Zealand’s future might reshape farming in this country, and how those changes might flow through to wider society.

For more than twenty years I have worked professionally on the ‘what ifs’ of climate change, focused mostly on what it might mean for agriculture. I’ve done this work in New Zealand, Europe, the PacificIslands and Asia. During that time I have experienced the progression from the hypothetical to real world responses. Climate change, particularly as experienced through more frequent drought and flood events, is increasingly influencing what farmers are doing in many countries. It is not clear whether this is yet the case in New Zealand although I suspect so.

With a record summer drought just behind us, and with negative and positive effects that will continue to unfold for farmers, it is relevant to ask ‘what if we get more frequent and intense droughts in the future? How might farming change and how might those changes affect wider society?’ To help guide our thinking and acting for the future it is instructive to firstly look to the past, not just in New Zealand but to other societies and civilisations that have entered periods of more frequent and intense droughts.

In the ‘The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization’, Brian Fagan explores the impact of climate shifts, including drought, on civilizations over the last 15,000 years. In his Preface he comments that “In our efforts to cushion ourselves against smaller, more frequent climate stresses, we have consistently made ourselves more vulnerable to rarer but larger catastrophes”. The story of the city of Tiwanaku is a good example. Over a period of 500 years Tiwanaku thrived near the shores of Lake Titicaca in what is now Bolivia. The city was supported by agricultural intensification that was strongly reliant on water. The onset of a climatic shift around A.D. 1100 changed everything. Annual rainfall declined by 10 to 15 percent over a prolonged period and Tiwanaku crossed a critical threshold of vulnerability. “The ability of the Tiwanaku state to adjust to the great drought was limited culturally by centuries of rapid population growth underwritten by the remarkable productivity of the raised fields. Tiwanaku’s economy was entirely dependent on this single agricultural technology, which in turn depended on abundant water. When the water failed, the entire system collapsed.”

Focusing back on present day New Zealand we have seen a strong move towards intensification of farming over the last twenty years. This was well documented under the former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in the ‘Growing for Good’ report. Two obvious examples of this intensification are the increased focus on irrigation and the huge increase in use of urea fertiliser. The lesson from Tiwanaku is that it would be unwise to simply put our faith, and a huge amount of debt for infrastructure development, in more large irrigation schemes.

This is not a matter of cockies versus townies. Agricultural intensification in New Zealand has been fuelled by our collective demand for consumer goods. We can’t criticise the negative things we see with farming without looking at our own behaviour. And that gets to the crux of what climate change requires of us all; behaviour change. Simply put we’re increasingly living beyond our means and the capacity of our land and water resources to sustain our wants.

What’s the alternative then? Since 2001 I have worked on documenting positive things farmers are doing that are relevant in terms of building resilience to climate change. This includes increasing numbers, still a minority, who are shifting to biological soil management; changes in pasture species and management with a focus on longer covers (not grazing the grass so hard) and greater rooting depth; changes in stock policies aimed at greater flexibility; a focus on greater soil moisture retention; fencing of riparian areas; on-farm water storage; planting trees for multiple benefits; fencing remnant native bush and putting them into QEII Trust covenants.

We already have the ingredients for smart, resilient, farming systems. The future vision I have for farming in New Zealand is consistent with Colin Tudge’s Campaign for Real Farming. In a New Zealand context this would involve developing a ‘Food First’ policy to ensure that the basic food needs of all within New Zealand are met for now and for a future with climate change. We then export the surplus. This would be founded on low carbon farming systems that are a functional part of, and working within the natural constraints of, local environments. There is a lot of unrealised ecological potential in this regard, which is strongly linked to unrealised economic potential.

To develop such a future we’ll all need to look at changing our behaviour. In Colin Tudge’s words “We are talking about the difference between a world that could endure effectively for ever, in peace and conviviality, and one that could be in dire straits within a few decades.”

Long time no see and the proposed dam in Hawke’s Bay

It’s been nearly two years since I posted here. Two years ago I had a period without paid work and focused my time on putting together some film clips and posting them on my YouTube channel.

Soon after I started a UNDP contract in Mauritius, focused on ‘Capacity Building for Development of Climate Resilient Policies’. It was an exhausting but ultimately rewarding piece of work.

2012 proved to be my busiest year ever. I had a New Zealand contract working with kiwifruit growers and others on resilience to climate change. This was very difficult work given the unfolding effects of PSA on the kiwifruit industry and I think a general (and worrying) lack of interest in climate change. As the year progressed I had to juggle this work with two separate contracts in Samoa and another UNDP contract. For the latter I worked as part of a team completing a mid-term evaluation of the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) project.

Currently I’m working on another New Zealand project under the Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change programme; working with two colleagues from Landcare Research.

Meanwhile I’ve recently been interviewed by TV3 for an item on the planned Ruataniwha dam in Central Hawke’s Bay. Unfortunately, as happens with news items, they chose the sound bite that they wanted to use to fit the story they told. There was no room for some of my key messages which included:

1) The majority (more than 80 percent) of Hawke’s Bay is in hill country. So a dam that is designed to irrigate 25,000 ha of flat land for intensive dairy farming is not going to do anything to build security against current and future droughts in the region. In fact it could make future drought security worse. This needs more discussion than I’m giving right now.
2) The proposed dam is a solution without a clearly defined problem. There is no long-term strategy for the whole Hawke’s Bay region, taking account of climate change, which clearly identifies the key issues and critically looks at the different choices we have to address them. Again this needs more discussion.
3) There has been a complete lack of genuine community consultation throughout the whole process.

Further film progress and Jim Hansen’s visit

Over recent months I’ve played a relatively small role in helping organise part of Jim Hansen’s current trip to New Zealand. For those who don’t know him Jim Hansen is one of the world’s leading climate change scientists. Convinced by the science, and as a concerned grandfather, he has become a lot more active in recent years. In 2009 he published Storms of my Grandchildren in which he outlines both the science and what he believes we need to be doing. He says that if we want to avoid climate catastrophe then we need to begin acting immediately towards keeping all remaining fossil fuels in the ground, imposing carbon taxes at source, and planting forests around the world to help absorb the carbon dioxide already released to the atmosphere.

Planting forests are an important part of the solution. It’s a message that has been articulated through my work with farmers over the last decade. It is a message that came through strongly with the people I interviewed in 2007. The latest voice I can add is that of Pra Parinya, a Buddhist monk from Saraburi province in central Thailand. I wasn’t sure about the quality of the footage from our visit with him, but have put together another film clip that I feel very happy with.

A key message from a leading climate scientist, reinforced by the actions of a Buddhist monk over the last twenty years.

Third film clip uploaded

For the past month or so I’ve been absorbed in writing or contributing to various work proposals. Hopefully I will have some success with at least some of these. Meanwhile I have continued working on my film when time has allowed. Often I’ve had to put it aside completely. I have now managed to get another film clip completed. This one is mostly focused in the vicinity of the Mekong river in northern Thailand.

The more I work on this film the more I understand why I struggled for so long to get a story together. In at least two of the clips I’ve done so far I’ve learnt that there was more in my footage than I realised. It’s only by working on the film that a clearer sense of what is there has emerged for me. This more hands on approach to allowing the story to emerge as I go suits me very well.

Second film clip uploaded

I received some very supportive comments and positive feedback on my first clip, uploaded three weeks ago. I subsequently decided to work sequentially through my footage. This posed an immediate challenge as the next batch of film required me to think a lot more about a storyline for the clip. As a result I incorporated some narration from myself. This, along with sub-titles and a few other editing refinements, has led to a better clip than the first one.

I’m going to keep moving with this as much as time allows.  This material is as relevant as it was four years ago when it was filmed. Most importantly it needs and deserves an audience.

Film project update

Four years ago I began a film project to document grassroots perspectives on climate change. The journey that unfolded is documented on the Journal page of this website.

Some sporadic work has been done towards developing the documentary film that I original set out to do. It’s taken me a while but I’ve now got to a point where I am teaching myself to use Avid and am starting to create a series of clips to load onto my YouTube channel.

I’ll be posting links to the clips on my film project page as they are developed and uploaded.

Watch this space for updates. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel and you’ll receive a message with every new film clip that I upload.

Further reflections from Thailand: Learning to live with uncertainty

In my last post I talked about transformational change and referred to my Agri-Nature Foundation friends as a living example of this. It sounds radical and some may think painful. It’s only radical if you don’t feel some attunement to the principles of Buddhist belief, or in fact the core principles of all religions. These principles are about care for our earth and all forms of life. And there is only pain if you struggle with uncertainty and change.

One of the main themes for my time in Thailand was uncertainty. I gave a talk, as provocateur, at a session on uncertainty at the adaptation forum. Prior to giving the talk Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa shared with me a Thai Buddhist saying:

Certainty is Uncertainty

This whole question of uncertainty and responding to rapid change came up throughout the remainder of my time in Thailand. Sometimes it was the source of banter as I travelled with Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa.

First stop in this post of my post-forum experiences in Thailand is my favourite hotel. There are many good things about this boutique hotel. Most of all the genuine commitment of the owners shines through from use of recycled materials in the bedrooms, the funky artwork, the organic breakfasts, and their rooftop garden. Otherwise ugly concrete buildings can be transformed into urban oases with the right mindset.

The rooftop garden at Phranakorn Nornlen hotel provides ingredients for their organic breakfasts
The rooftop garden at Phranakorn Nornlen hotel provides ingredients for their organic breakfasts

On Saturday 23 October I was collected from Phranakorn Nornlen and we travelled to the Agri-Nature Learning Centre at Maab Ueang, in Chonburi Province. There was a group of about 50 people there on the final day of a 5-day training course. I was asked to speak to them. Inevitably the topic was about our uncertain future with climate change. I talked for a while and then answered their questions. We stayed at Maab Ueang for the next two days, for the initial part of a 5-day workshop on dhamic health. Unfortunately all of the seminars were in Thai (I was the only non-Thai speaker there) and so I missed a lot of the detail. But for two days I experienced a cleansing diet and experienced some other aspects of their programme. I also had the opportunity to talk to participants, prompted by concerns I raised with Ajarn Yak about the plastic waste I noticed as we did rubbish collection duties. This led to me talking to people about the linkages between planetary health and human health, using plastic as an example. The specific examples I gave were the pollution of our oceans and the health effects of Bisphenol A, which is commonly found in drink bottles.

The dhamic health workshop was focused on personal health, but we had an opportunity to talk about connections between personal and planetary health
The dhamic health workshop was focused on personal health, but we had an opportunity to talk about connections between personal and planetary health

Transformational change starts within, with recognition that each of us is both the source of many of the problems we have, and the solution. So long as we treat the problems in the world as external to ourselves we will continue to view external incremental changes as the solution. In many cases these incremental changes simply add to the problems. When we begin to recognise that change starts within we’re on the path to transformation. What we tend to do as humans is use as many external props as possible to eliminate uncertainty in our lives and give us what we perceive as security. This is most evident through consumer behaviour. Simplifying our lives and learning to live with uncertainty are key steps in the process of internalising change and bringing about transformation.

Just when I was settling in to the health programme at Maab Ueang I was told that we were leaving. This happened within the space of an hour. I barely had time to pack my bag. We headed to a nearby town and a restaurant by the river. The cleansing diet came to a rapid end. As the evening progressed there were flashes of lightning in the sky. Despite forewarnings of impending rain we sat there until the thunder was overhead and the rain came pouring down. There was more thunder and lightning the next morning with a flooded street outside the hotel where we stayed.

Local flooding after an early morning thunderstorm, in a week when Thailand experienced serious flooding
Local flooding after an early morning thunderstorm, in a week when Thailand experienced serious flooding

I ought to mention that preceding my arrival in Thailand there had been heavy rains in northern Thailand. This resulted in flooding in 38 provinces with 104 deaths. Throughout my time in Thailand there was constant talk that Bangkok was under threat. Soon after my departure there was further flooding in southern Thailand.

On Tuesday 26 October we were met by Khun Duangdao, a former Agri-Nature Foundation trainee. She is developing the Dheva Resort on the Bang Pakong river, about 45km from Bangkok. This is going to be a new eco-resort with biogas, solar and wind energy, organic gardens and rice fields, a diverse forest, waste recycling. This is one example of the widening influence of Ajarn Yak’s work.

Ajarn Yak with Khun Duangdao (far right) and Khun Wipa at the site of Dheva resort
Ajarn Yak with Khun Duangdao (far right) and Khun Wipa at the site of Dheva resort

After a crazy trip into Bangkok on Tuesday afternoon, to a TV studio to talk about the flood situation, we finally ended up at a place called Ancient City.  More about this soon.  Next morning we were on the road again, at least a 3-hour trip to Chanthaburi Province to the Pong Raed Agri-Nature Learning Centre. The main facilitator here, and now a key member of the network, is Ajarn Teera. Ajarn Teera used to be a chemical farmer, but has completely changed. At the Pong Raed Learning Centre they have gained a lot of experience working with youth, including young trouble-makers. Because of their experience with youth they were hosting a 5-day training session that was about to begin, sponsored by AIS the largest telecommunications company in Thailand. We were there for Ajarn Yak to talk to the participants, and I was also invited to talk for a while.

New arrivals for a 5-day training course representing three schools from the Chao Phraya watershed
New arrivals for a 5-day training course representing three schools from the Chao Phraya watershed

Earlier this year AIS approached the Agri-Nature Foundation about sponsoring a project with schools. The result was that 50-60 schools from the Chao Phraya watershed submitted projects on how they would initiate action to improve the river. The Chao Phraya is the most significant river in Thailand, flowing through many historically significant cities including Bangkok and with a watershed that covers 35 percent of Thailand. From the project submissions 25 schools were invited to send four students and one teacher for a 5-day training session at the Chumphon Cabana Agri-Nature Learning Centre. Each school brought their projects, were taught about the principles and practice of the Sufficiency Economy, and subsequently refined their projects. This training was held in mid October, just before I arrived in Thailand. As a result three schools were selected for a more intensive 5-day programme at the Pong Raed Learning Centre. This time each school was represented by 50 people including students, teachers, school council members and community leaders. The goal for each is to further develop a project that they will take back and action within their communities. The Agri-Nature Foundation will follow through to make sure this is happening.

It was a late return to Ancient City where we were staying. My final day was spent resting at Ancient City and learning something about this amazing place. Ancient City was established by the grandfather of Khun Pan (Kantorn Tongtiw) the current owner. His vision was to preserve the history of Siam, the former Kingdom, for future generations and to develop a living educational resource. Using his own wealth he bought 500 rai (80 hectares) of land on the outskirts of Bangkok, very close to the Gulf of Siam. The land is in the shape of modern day Thailand. He began buying traditional buildings from around Thailand and relocating them to this site. In some cases he built replicas, including the showpiece Sanphet Prasat Palace. The original palace was destroyed by the Burmese invasion and destruction of Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Ancient City has 500 staff and has 500,000 visitors each year. Schools from throughout Thailand come there for school camps. Khun Pan is not simply carrying on his grandfather’s vision. He is building on it. He is yet another member of the Agri-Nature network and is currently developing nine learning stations around Ancient City to educate people about the Sufficiency Economy.

The Agri-Nature Learning Centre at Ancient City
The Agri-Nature Learning Centre at Ancient City
Gardening at Ancient City
Gardening at Ancient City

Getting back to the themes of transformational change and uncertainty, my second trip to Thailand this year has further enriched my understanding of the Sufficiency Economy. I know that I miss a lot with my lack of comprehension of Thai language, but I have still learned a lot. The Sufficiency Economy brings together old wisdom and contemporary knowledge. It encourages individual responsibility and action, and peaceful co-existence amongst humans and with our earth. In Thailand there are a growing number of people who want to be actively engaged in transformational change. Political, health and environmental crises are motivations for change and the Agri-Nature Foundation is providing practical solutions.

Ajarn Yak steering the boat at Ancient City. If the boat is representative of knowledge then Ajarn Yak certainly has a very good sense of how to steer things in the right direction in terms of putting knowledge into action
Ajarn Yak steering the boat at Ancient City. If the boat is representative of knowledge then Ajarn Yak certainly has a very good sense of how to steer things in the right direction in terms of putting knowledge into action