Disappearing Bangladesh

Rising sea levels threaten to flood low-lying delta land along the Meghna, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers, putting pressure on land and swelling economic migrants who continue to leave Bangladesh for India. Photo by Srabani Roy.  From asiafoundation.org

Rising sea levels threaten to flood low-lying delta land along the Meghna, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers, putting pressure on land and swelling economic migrants who continue to leave Bangladesh for India. Photo by Srabani Roy. From asiafoundation.org

Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to rising sea levels.  A New York Times article published today details the consequences there of a warming climate, which include increasingly intense storms and flooding from surges, along with significant land loss and inundation due to overall sea level rise.

The effects of climate change have led to a growing sense of outrage in developing nations, many of which have contributed little to the pollution that is linked to rising temperatures and sea levels but will suffer the most from the consequences.

At a climate conference in Warsaw in November, there was an emotional outpouring from countries that face existential threats, among them Bangladesh, which produces just 0.3 percent of the emissions driving climate change. Some leaders have demanded that rich countries compensate poor countries for polluting the atmosphere. A few have even said that developed countries should open their borders to climate migrants.

“It’s a matter of global justice,” said Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies and the nation’s leading climate scientist. “These migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States.”

The delta that makes up much of Bangladesh’s territory is one of the most densely populated regions of the world.  160 million people live there, on an area one-fifth the size of France and carved up by over 230 rivers and streams.  The article details the multiple vulnerabilities that are disproportionately affecting the region’s poorest residents, as well as the inadequate efforts of the government to stave off the worst effects of rising sea levels.  But Bangladesh faces a problem that can only have a global solution.

“There is no doubt that preparations within Bangladesh have been utterly inadequate, but any such preparations are bound to fail because the problem is far too big for any single government,” said Tariq A. Karim, Bangladesh’s ambassador to India. “We need a regional and, better yet, a global solution. And if we don’t get one soon, the Bangladeshi people will soon become the world’s problem, because we will not be able to keep them.”

Asia’s disproportionate vulnerability to pollution-related deaths

From the New York Times:  A tourist boat navigated through a haze in the  Guangdong Province of China this month. The country’s rapid urbanization was cited as contributing to pollution.

From the New York Times: A tourist boat navigated through a haze in the Guangdong Province of China this month. The country’s rapid urbanization was cited as contributing to pollution.

A World Health Organization report released yesterday finds that 1/3 of the 7 million pollution-related deaths worldwide in 2012 occurred in Asia.  Air pollution, the report argues, is the world’s single largest environmental health risk.  Much of this risk occurs indoors, as a result of poorly ventilated cooking fires, and disproportionately affecting poor women.  But rapid urbanization in Asia was also identified as a factor.  According to the New York Times:

The report found that those who are most vulnerable live in a wide arc of Asia stretching from Japan and China in the northeast to India in the south.

China’s sprawling cities, in particular, have contributed to an increase in air pollution.  A separate study, also released yesterday by the World Bank and the Development Research Center of China’s State Council, suggested that rapid urbanization was a major cause of pollution-related health problems in China:

Based on current trends, the study said, Chinese cities in the next decade will gobble up land equal in area to the Netherlands, leading to longer commutes, higher energy consumption and continued high levels of air pollution.   Sprawl will cost China $300 billion a year in premature deaths, birth defects and other health-related problems, the study said.

 

The world’s most vulnerable cities to natural disaster are Asian

Stormy skies over Hong Kong, from The Guardian

Stormy skies over Hong Kong, from The Guardian

The Guardian recently published a list of the world’s top ten cities at risk of natural disaster.  All are located in Asia with the exception of one, Los Angeles.  The list was compiled from a Swiss reinsurance company’s assessment of risk in 616 cities worldwide.  The primary risks are associated with earthquakes and flooding from rivers, tsunamis, typhoons, or rising sea-levels.  The top cities all suffer from a combination of these vulnerabilities.  Here’s the list:

  1. Tokyo-Yokohama region, Japan
  2. Manila, Philippines
  3. Pearl River Delta region, China
  4. Osaka-Kobe region, Japan
  5. Jakarta, Indonesia
  6. Nagoya, Japan
  7. Kolkata, India
  8. Shanghai, China
  9. Los Angeles, USA
  10. Tehran, Iran

Shigeru Ban wins Pritzker

Hualin Temporary Elementary School, designed by Shigeru Ban, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake

Hualin Temporary Elementary School, designed by Shigeru Ban, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake

Yesterday, the top prize in architecture and design, the Ptritzker, was awarded to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, largely because of his work designing temporary shelters for natural disaster victims in places like Rwanda, Turkey, India, China, New Zealand, Haiti, and of course Japan.  As reported in the New York Times:

“His buildings provide shelter, community centers and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction,” the jury said in its citation. “When tragedy strikes, he is often there from the beginning.”

Mr. Ban is credited with challenging traditional notions of domestic space and what it means to have a roof over your head. His Naked House in Saitama, Japan, features four rooms on casters within a house clad in clear corrugated plastic and surrounded by rice fields. He stepped in after the 19th-century Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand was ravaged by a 2011 earthquake, designing a transitional sanctuary fashioned mainly from cardboard tubes.

Yet, in a way, Mr. Ban also represents a kind of anti-architecture, a rejection of the aura of celebrity status pursued by many in the profession. In public remarks this month, for example, Mr. Ban took architects to task for not putting their expertise to work for a greater social good.

“I’m not saying I’m against building monuments, but I’m thinking we can work more for the public,” he said in London at Ecobuild, an annual conference on sustainable design. “Architects are not building temporary housing because we are too busy building for the privileged people.”

Catastrophe and Aesthetics: The Arts after Fukushima – Columbia Symposium

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture  is hosting a symposium on ‘Catastrophe and Aesthetics: The Arts after Fukushima” on Monday, March 31st, 2014.  See the symposium flyer here:  http://www.keenecenter.org/download_files/symposium_poster_web.pdf.  The symposium will feature new work in Japanese visual art, literature, theater, and media responding to the triple catastrophe of March 11, 2011.

China’s nuclear winter

a nice day for a picnic in Beijing

apocalypse?  or just another day in Beijing?

An article in The Guardian reports on He Dongxian’s research on the effects of China’s air pollution on plant growth, in which she claims that should the country’s chronic smog persist, Chinese agriculture will suffer conditions “somewhat similar to a nuclear winter,” severely stunting agricultural production and threatening the country’s food security.  This comes on top of a series of other alarming reports on the severe impacts of pollution in China on health and economic well being.  Earlier this month, for example, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed in a report that Beijing’s pollution made the city almost “uninhabitable for human beings“.  Emergency measure are being taken, schools are being closed, factories shut down, use of cars restricted. People are starting to sue their local environmental protection bureaus for not upholding China’s pollution regulations.  In perhaps the first lawsuit of its kind, Shijiazhuang resident Li Guixin claimed that, “Besides the threat to our health, we’ve also suffered economic losses, and these losses should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes, it is a beneficiary.”

Recently, Xi Jinping was seen strolling through a Beijing neighborhood, deliberately not wearing a face-mask, just to prove how breathable the air was.  And recently local environmental officials have been swimming in local rivers just to prove to people that they’re not deadly.  But on the internet, people tend to be less convinced.  Xi’s stroll through  Beijing was roundly mocked – given the general belief on the streets that China’s leaders breath highly filtered and purified air within their leadership compound at Zhongnanhai.  Xi’s health can afford a few minutes unmasked out in the putrid air of the Beijing streets.  For most people who must breath that air on a daily basis, though, the health consequences are serious and seemingly growing worse by the day.

The cultural biography of catastrophic events

Namazu being sentenced by the god Kashima after the 1855 Edo earthquake. From http://historyofgeology.fieldofscience.com/2011/03/historic-earthquakes-in-japan.html

Namazu being sentenced by the god Kashima after the 1855 Edo earthquake.
From http://historyofgeology.fieldofscience.com/2011/03/historic-earthquakes-in-japan.html

In his 2013 Presidential Address to the Association for Asian Studies, Theodore Bestor – Professor of Anthropology and Japanese Studies at Harvard – suggested that catastrophes have their own ‘cultural biographies.’  The term comes from the work of Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff.  In the classic 1986 volume, The Social Life of Things, they developed a framework for understanding objects of exchange – that is, commodities – as having cultural biographies that change as those objects enter different social and cultural milieu.  Cultural, social and historical contexts, in other words, condition the meaning, value, and use of objects, and as objects ‘travel’ from one context to another, they change and accumulate ‘biographies.’  Our understanding of those objects must therefore take account of these dynamic biographies, rather than assuming objects are simply imbued with inherent qualities that remain the same throughout the ‘lifespan’ of that object.

Bestor applies this approach to helps us think about catastrophes as cultural events with their own biographical trajectories.  He suggests that the framework of looking at the cultural biographies of objects be extended to include categories of events, “in terms of trajectories of meaning that adhere to objects as they move across time:  from being anticipated (or unexpected), to being realized, to being consumed (or experienced), to being celebrated (or grieved), to being recalled or memorialized, and to be embellished in the retelling.”  He illustrates this approach by examining the cultural familiarity with earthquakes in Japan.

Bestor points out that Japanese folklore, for example, has long held that earthquakes are caused by the restless catfish (namazu), and woodblock prints of catfish being subdued became popular during the late Tokugawa, particularly after that 1855 earthquake that devastated Edo.  Japan’s landscape is full of cultural markings that memorialize and record past catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and these events, over time, become central to myth making, constructions of local knowledge ecosystems, senses of place, and collective ideas of value, community, and morality.

Namazu and Kashima

Namazu and Kashima

Catastrophes also reveal often mundane and hidden aspects of everyday culture that otherwise might go unnoticed.  Bestor discusses the common convenience store (konbini), which emerged as a “critical institution” in communities devastated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.  The convenience store was “important not only for food and drink, but for its point of connection to the myriad national networks – financial, postal, journalistic, commercial – that constitute contemporary Japanese life.  This tiny and close-to-makeshift konbini was the portal for survivors to participate in national life.”  He also mentions the various “granularities” of rubble clean-up – different sorts of piles of waste and wreckage, the recycling of disaster.  Bestor recalls sitting on a dock in the fishing village of Niranohama:

A pile of shattered ceramics, carefully culled to be ceramics and glassware, was sitting on a fishing pier for a hamlet… Someone sorted all this, so that the only remaining pile of debris was this site that could only suggest memories of past domesticity: smashed tea cups, broken serving bowls, fragments of kitchen sinks, drinking glasses reduced to shards.  All this, carefully collected and piled together, for what?  I couldn’t ask.

Bestor closes with the observation that catastrophic events “draw our attention to the longue durée that provides the context within which the event makes some kind of sense – or at least suggests paths of causation and significance that we may not have previously considered.  And thus the ‘event’ begins or resumes its trajectory as something with a cultural biography.”

namazu-print