Thursday, 28 June 2007


The speed and scale of global urbanisation is so great most countries will not be prepared for the impact it will have, the UN has warned.

Urban dwellers are due to outstrip rural population next year and a big rise in poverty, slums and pollution is feared, according to the latest UN population figures reported in today's Guardian by environment editor John Vidal. (graphic: The Guardian)

Vidal writes: "Humanity will make the historic transition from a rural to an urban species some time in the next year...The shift will be led by Africa and Asia, which are expected to add 1.6 billion people to their cities over the next 25 years.

"The speed and scale of inevitable global urbanisation is so great most countries will not be remotely prepared for the impact it will have, Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund, says. 'In human history we have never seen urban growth like this. It is unprecedented.' "

View the Guardian's new urban world graphic
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Sunday, 24 June 2007


25 June 2007: Over 160 attend STEPS Centre launch event at Portcullis House, Westminster

We live in an era of unprecedented environmental and technological flux; apocalyptic predictions of climate change-induced drought and floods, avian ‘flu and HIV/AIDS pandemics, unsafe food and scarce water supplies hit the headlines daily. Rapid change is creating new interactions between people, environment and technology, but also new problems, such as novel strains of avian ‘flu and HIV drug resistances.

Read the presentations, press release, speaker biogs and more

The STEPS Centre’s new approach to development seeks to respond to these challenges with natural and social scientists working together, instead of separately. STEPS research connects, social, technology and environment issues, rather than dividing them. It creates solutions that are adaptive to change, build resilience to uncertainty and meet the priorities of poor and marginalised people in different settings.

With £4m of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, STEPS’s five-year programme of research, with partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America, focuses on agriculture, water and health. Initial projects include investigating the effects of climate change on maize crops in Kenya, urbanisation in India and drug regulation in China and Latin America.

Professor Melissa Leach, Director of the STEPS Centre explains: “Silver bullets for poverty reduction are failing the poor and risk failing altogether. They assume one-size-fits-all solutions can be applied across a stable world. But we live in a world of dynamic change and uncertainty. The STEPS Centre aims to tackle these challenges head on, combining new theory with practical solutions that make science and technology work for the poor and environmental sustainability, building on people’s own knowledge.”

Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr, speaking at the launch, said STEPS’ work was “crucial”: “Meeting the needs of billions of people in ways compatible with a livable planet is a moral imperative but a huge challenge to our standard ways of thinking and working, in both North and South. Research which challenges assumptions underpinning failed, outmoded and unsustainable models of development is crucial to making the future work.”

Dr Ian Gibson MP, chairing the STEPS Centre launch, said: “Science makes a massive contribution to our modern world. If we are to respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century, research like the STEPS Centre’s, that makes science and technology work for poor and marginalised people, is essential. Economic development, matters of health and disease, climate change; it is hard to see where science and technology will not be a major component for poverty reduction programmes.”

James Wilsdon, head of science and innovation at think tank Demos, speaking at the launch, said STEPS fills a “vital gap”: “The global landscape for science, technology and innovation is changing at an astonishing pace. But while the frameworks we use for analysing these changes are good at asking ‘how much?’ and ‘how fast?’ they are useless at asking questions about direction – the diversity of outcomes to which all of this activity and investment could lead. So the STEPS Centre will fill a vital gap: it will be a place where these questions can be asked and answered. I’m excited by the Centre’s vision, and I hope it will shake up established thinking about the relationship between science, technology, poverty and sustainability.”

STEPS will partner Demos in the second phase of the Atlas of Ideas project, which is mapping changes in the global geography of science and innovation.

Andrew Scott, policy director at charity Practical Action, also speaking at the launch, said: “The STEPS centre will help us understand how we can make technology development work in the interests of people living in poverty, rather than pander to the wants of the affluent.”
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Watch the video of Prof. Judi Wakhungu, Executive Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies and chair of the STEPS Centre Advisory Board, set out why she is "excited to be involved" and why "the launch of STEPS Centre is opportune."
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Saturday, 23 June 2007


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

Yes, that is a real quote from the official guidebook. China’s soaring energy demands require drastic measures if supply is to keep up with the demands of the country’s increasingly affluent population. On the way back from a meeting in Wuhan, I took the opportunity to visit the infamous Three Gorges Dam, just up the Yangtze River from the city of Yi Chang, which is home to China’s largest civil engineering project since the construction of the Great Wall.

According to recent research from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China has just overtaken the USA as the country responsible for the most CO2 emissions internationally. China, traditionally reliant primarily on domestic coal for its energy, is now investing heavily in nuclear as well as renewables in order to limits contribution to global climate change.

The Three Gorges Dam is theoretically capable of delivering 18,200 MW of power, making it the largest hydro-electric power station in the world (when measured by installed capacity), and there is still room for a further 6 turbines, each of 700 MW. Hydro-electric power is usually thought of as climate-friendly, and the project calculates that it is capable of displacing energy production from coal that would yield 120 billion tons of CO2 per year.

However, recent research points to large dams as significant sources of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. According to a paper published in March 2007 dams in China are estimated to produce 1% of the country’s greenhouse gases. Comparative figures for Brazil and India are 5%.

Beyond energy, the Three Gorges Dam Project also provided benefits for shipping (providing western access for cargo ships through a five stage ship lock, see photo above) as well as flood protection (currently being significantly tested due to high rainfall in the upper Yangtze). It was with these objectives in mind that the TGD was originally proposed in 1919, however it subsequently became one of the most hotly debated political controversies of China’s recent history. The cost of the project so far has been around US$25 billion. Over the 17 years since construction began approximately 1.3 million people have been displaced. The potentially irreversible changes to ecosystems downstream are only beginning to be understood.

The Chinese government seems to have made up its mind that the project was an unbridled success, and is keen to convince visitors to the site. They have created an “ecology garden”, in which tourists may take a walk while overlooking the dam buildings, and an “ecology performance square”, where I managed to catch a spectacular show about the dam’s past and present. The finale featured supra-titles (in English) reading “Great gorges and rivers reflect an ancient Chinese philosophical idea: the unity of earth and heaven and the harmony of everything in the world”… a Chinese version of Nehru’s sentiments on the “modern temples of India”?

In my short stay it was difficult to know what to make of it all. Although not easily visible through the all-enveloping mist common at this time of year, the immense scale of the project was simply overwhelming. The concrete constructions come close to visually dominating the surrounding gorges, breaking the lines of the granite and (for the moment at least) leaving the area resembling an enormous building site.

It was hard to imagine the villages that had been engulfed by the dam, and the generations of associated culture that had been removed for reconstitution (in whatever form) elsewhere. How did their voices feature in the political controversy? I wondered what surprises might be around the corner, whether related to methane emissions, ecological impacts on fisheries and the livelihoods that depended on them, estuary erosion downstream as a result of silt retention at the dam (which might affect land around Shanghai), or the much talked-about flood threats from incoming enemy missiles. The complexities and uncertainties involved were unfathomable, but one thing remained clear: the Three Gorges Project had dramatically impacted China’s socio-techno-ecological systems at a national level, and there was no turning back.
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