Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Global Bermuda Triangle

Starting from the personal (many of us with tummy upsets looking for friendly food and our conversations about diets in Qatar based on food availability) I take notice with even more interest the recent news about the efficacy of various diet plans (NYT et al), US based news reports about rising food costs, Qatar rising food costs we see personally, and the recent article about the diminishing of Qatar farms (see below). However diverse the focus, all information suggests that food and its availability is a major story today. This is further reinforced by a some additional very recent news stories briefly summarized below, most of those reflected in local Qatar news and the New York Times. How much of food scarcity is due to global warming or climate change issues (droughts and floods, the mirror images of nature’s bountiful offerings) or to the increasing interest in and use of foods for fuels, a direct result of the finite nature of oil and natural gas reserves and the planet’s increasing need for fuels, remains an open question. While politicians argue about how to meet the increasing demand for fuel and argue about global warming, they are only more slowly beginning to see the direct correlation of these two natural conditions to rising food prices and rapidly increasing food shortages (leading to conflict as well as eventual starvation) around the world. Increasing energy demand, global warming and global food shortages have created a new and much more lethal Bermuda triangle that stretches across the globe rather than confining itself to a part of the northwestern Atlantic ocean.

From an article in the New York Times we read a response to a question regarding biofuels:
“No question, biofuels have contributed significantly to farm commodity price increases. The range of a plausible estimate of the share of increase due to use of farm resources for biofuels ranges from 10 or 15 percent to 50 percent or more, depending on the precise time period considered, the commodity (corn or rice or wheat), and whether one is apportioning the total impact across suggested drivers.
Factors affecting recent commodity price increases include:
1. Biofuels policy in (a) the U.S.; (b) Europe and elsewhere.

2. Supply shocks due to weather or pests.
3. Reductions in E.U. production subsidy.
4. Demand growth in China, India, and other fast-expanding poor countries.
5. Export controls in places such as Thailand, India, etc.
6. Import expansion policies and stockpiling in the Philippines, etc.
7. Oil price shocks that increase costs of farm production and distribution.
8. Mistaken speculators who will lose money.
9. Hedge funds and other financial traders who are pouring money into commodities because stocks, bonds, and real estate look so lousy; and
10. Oil price shocks that increase the demand for biofuels.
These are not all independent. For example, 1 and 10 may be hard to separate. The oil price shock may have expanded demand for biofuels given the policies, and without the policies an oil shock would not translate into a corn market shock.”

From an article entitled ‘Qatar seeks solution to food crisis,’ published in the Peninsula a few days back, by James Reinl, United Nations Correspondent, we read that

“Qatar has urged world leaders to cooperate and tackle the global rise in food prices, while affirming solidarity with the developing countries worst hit by the crisis. … Tariq Ali Faraj Al Ansari, a First Secretary at Doha's UN mission, told the General Assembly that skyrocketing food prices have reached "emergency proportions" that only "radical solutions" will overcome. The Qatari diplomat spoke during a two-day debate at the UN headquarters in New York that assessed whether slashing subsidies and lifting trade barriers would stimulate food production and help Africa's one million smallholder farmers. … "The time of easy access to food is long gone — the world is today witnessing unprecedented increases in food prices in global markets," Al Ansari told the 192-member body on Monday. "Current market analysis indicates that the trend will continue in the future. Undoubtedly this rise in food commodity prices will have detrimental affects on those living in dire poverty around the world. … In our view the crisis has multiple causes: The shortage of agricultural commodities on world markets, bad weather conditions, rising fuel prices, the considerable expansion in bio-fuel production and the newly imposed restrictions on international trade," Al Ansari told delegates.
"The state of Qatar, which continues to contribute to global development efforts, shall spare no effort to remain an affective actor in the global partnerships to find radical solutions to the global food crisis in the world," he said. Response to this came from Dr Kayan Jaff, the FAO's regional chief, who warned that only a multi-billion dollar investment in agriculture will curb soaring supermarket prices — urging governments to buy up farmland in regions like the Horn of Africa and Asia. "The GCC needs to invest several billion dollars in this initiative — that is our immediate target," said Dr Jaff. "They need to invest several billion in agriculture in neighbouring countries. It is important; it is fundamental and it is very timely." Dr Jaff said Qatar and other Gulf governments must dig deeper into their pockets if they want to effectively tackle the soaring supermarket prices being endured by their populations.

And directly related to Qatar is the article, again from the Peninsula, about abandoned farms.

A fast-depleting water table and the challenges posed by desertification are shrinking arable land in Qatar. Rapid deterioration in the quality of water has resulted in agriculturists abandoning several farms located adjacent to the coastal strip. This has followed the overexploitation of resources in the country.
A recently- published document by the UN says the groundwater reservoir in Qatar has declined by 25 percent in the 12 years covered by the study period. Over the years, a major share of the tapped ground water is being used for irrigating farms.
A decrease in the available water for irrigation has now led to deterioration and desertification of the farms.
Qatar has an estimated 28,000 hectares of arable land. A recent document released by Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) said farmers were forced to abandon 293 out of a total of 1,285 registered farms in Qatar due to the overexploitation of groundwater.
"Overexploitation has resulted in increasing salinity levels in groundwater due to salt water intrusions, from 71 to160 per cent. The overuse of groundwater has resulted in the disappearance of many springs," the document said.
The UN document says: "The accumulated groundwater deficit calculated during the period 1972-1995 reached 994 million cubic metres (MCM), more than one-third of the 1977 estimate of total groundwater reserves in the country (2,500 MCM). Consequently, groundwater levels have dropped up to 0.5-1.10 metres per year and the quality of water deteriorates due to seawater ingress and to the intrusion of saline water from deeper aquifers. The estimated safe yield of the aquifer, based on the calculated average natural recharge over the last 20 years, is of the order of 35 MCM/ yr."
Considering the current trends towards an ever-increasing amount of groundwater exploitation, it is estimated that the remaining groundwater reserves will be severely depleted within 10 years.
Consequently, agriculture will face a crisis, hit by an acute shortage of adequate water for irrigation purposes.

The photo that follows was published with this article – I had hoped to see a photo of one of the remaining farms that I have yet to photograph myself.

Since I put these thoughts together a few days ago, there has been the dispiriting news of the collapse of the Doha round of talks on global agricultural trade. [Interesting that these are another instance of Qatar sponsored talks.] As Victor Davis Hanson writes in an op-ed piece in the NYT today,

“The latest round of global agricultural trade negotiations that began seven years ago in Doha, Qatar, collapsed in acrimony this week in Geneva. While India and China are getting the blame for refusing to reduce import tariffs and farm subsidies, you can assume that trade officials in Europe and the United States are breathing a sigh of relief that they aren’t going to have to limit their own protectionism.” He continues “what is different this time is a backdrop of soaring food prices that makes all past assumptions seem ossified. It also makes the world’s poorest people even more vulnerable when trade bureaucrats in both the wealthy West and rising East make vapid arguments.”

Also today Paul Krugman writes about the latest round of charge and counter-charges in the discussion of off-shore drilling in the U.S. and the relationship to the environment that are part of the current political dialogue. He uses this to further discus potential damage from climate change citing the work of an economist.

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

These articles today convince me even more of the criticality and interdependence of these three key issues: global warming; energy demands and resources; and food resources and the potential for serious starvation in the near future. We may see terrorist aggression (aka warfare) invoked in the name of religion today – an age-old idea – but the potential for serious aggression waged for basic supplies of food and energy – also an age-old rationale for war – may not be far off.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Qatar v Kansas

I recently returned to the States for a combination home and education leave and was greeted by some wonderful thunderstorms reminding me how much I love them and how much I miss them here in Qatar. I can remember standing on the screened porch as a child, my nose pressed to the screen the better to see the lightening and hear the thunder. Moving to New York City as an adult only reinforced my love of these natural phenomena. Caught one Saturday as I walked in mid-town, I sought refuge in one of small public lobbies open to the street. From here I could hear the thunder roll up and down the caverns created by the dense mass of tall buildings, see the lightening as well as reflections off the vast glass walls that the windows offer. I was in my own heaven for 15-30 minutes as the storm echoed around Manhattan and I stayed dry but totally engaged.

Now having returned from leave I was struck afresh by the small but clear signs that I’m not in Kansas anymore, as we often say. Although many Americans think of Kansas as undifferentiated, it is far more differentiated than Qatar. With 213,097 sq km in Kansas vs 11,439 in Qatar (slightly smaller than Connecticut), with the highest point of elevation at 1232 m v 30 m in Qatar, with over 50,000 streams (none in Q.) and with a population of 2.7 mil.ion v .9 million, they are connected oddly enough by the extensive beds of prehistoric ocean fossils that lie in chalk beds. And this appears a much harder feat for Kansas than the peninsula of Qatar.

Immediately back in Qatar I discovered that my telecommunication access via DSL was down more often than up, an enormous hardship as well as a disruption for work from home. I am not alone and have heard that the person who understands this technology best is on holiday leave, presumably out of the country.

Purchasing an office chair for home today, I was asked if I wanted it fixed. Although I have learned that fixed means assembled, I still recoil slightly thinking first that I am buying a new object that shouldn’t need fixing and then that I am not buying an animal that needs spaying. Daily news in the Qatar English papers demonstrate I’m not at home as well: from pictures of a decimated Mercedes Benz on the road to Al Khor, itself a lovely village 30-35 minutes north of Doha when travelling at speed limits of 120 kmh, to headlines that proclaim that “Obama raised a whopping $52m in June” and add that this is more than “double the haul” of John McCain, or suggest that “Kirkuk row queers pitch for electoral law,” to reports of the Qatar prison, some excerpts quoted here.

Life at the Central Prison is good. Inmates here should have no complaints with four meals every day, air-conditioned rooms, indoor games for leisure, soft and soothing music at bed-time.

The multi-cuisine daily menu of the prisoners is planned by a team of nutritionists. They make sure that the prisoners, belonging to different nationalities, get their traditional food. During weekends, the inmates can expect a wider spread of the menu. …
Qatar's Central Prison is also unique in many other ways. The convicts are free to meet their spouses once a week. The jail authorities provide a private room for that. But the meeting should not be prolonged more than two hours. Both male and female jails have this facility.
The prisoners can make a maximum of three telephone calls per week. Free telephone cards are provided to those who want to make international calls. …
The cells are connected to centralised air-conditioner system. One spacious cell is being shared by four convicts. Those who are facing psychological disorders are confined into a single cell. All the cells have attached bath. Each block has a separate mosque, in addition to a common mosque. …
During the visit we found a group of convicts busy in variety of creative works ranging from painting to making traditional Arab handicrafts. The well-decorated traditional wooden chests are often exported to neighbouring countries.

In the States you see at best lip service to the acute problems of refugees created by turmoil in the mid-east, most recently by U.S. actions in the Iraq war. Here in the mid-East it’s a bit different as the recent discussion at a three-day conference in Doha showed. In the U.S. while there are groups concerned about this rising tide of refuges specifically in and from the mid-East, more attention is paid, it appears, to illegal immigrants and their impact on the U.S. A three-day workshop titled "Refugees in the Arab countries - General responsibilities and practices" was inaugurated here at Doha Sheraton yesterday.

"A majority of the refugees living in the region have fled from war ravaged Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan," said Radhouane Nouicer, Director of UNHCR Bureau in Middle East and North Africa.
Almost all Arab countries are hosting refugees, including GCC countries as people from war torn countries are living and working in GCC. Countries hosting refugee have been urged to deal with the influx with humanitarian approach at the same time taking care to maintain their own security concerns.
"Jordan and Syria are doing very well in this regard," said Nouicer. "These host countries have ensured that the refugees are accorded their fundamental rights like freedom of movement, education, health and housing."

Finally, today we see a lengthy discussion of the recent inter-faith conference in Madrid organized by King Abudulah of Saudia Arabia. The New York Times had a brief paragraph announcing plans for the conference 5 days ago.

From The Peninsula
MADRID • Islamic, Christian and Jewish leaders yesterday called for an international agreement to combat terrorism, at the end of a landmark Saudi-organised conference.
The representatives of the world’s great monotheistic religions also appealed for a special session of the UN General Assembly to promote dialogue and prevent “a clash of civilizations.”
“Terrorism is a universal phenomenon that requires unified international efforts to combat it in a serious, responsible and just way,” participants at the three-day World Conference on Dialogue said in a final communique.
“This demands an international agreement on defining terrorism, addressing its root causes and achieving justice and stability in the world.”
They called for more “ways of enhancing understanding and cooperation among people despite differences in their origins, colours and languages,” and a “rejection of extremism and terrorism.”
Around 200 participants attended the gathering in Madrid, organised by the Makkah-based Muslim World League from an initiative by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and aimed at bringing the world’s great monotheistic faiths closer together.

In all, it is quickly clear that I am in another world and I begin to plan my next forays into other countries.