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Monday
09Feb

Manipulating the Landscape

Several months ago, I wrote about the manipulation of the terrain to create new landscapes.  I pointed to David Blackbourn's recent book, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (W.W. Norton, 2007), which is about how Prussia's Enlightenment philosopher-king, Frederick II, reconstructed the landscape of Prussia to ensure its growth.  I also pointed to other, perhaps less obvious, locales of landscape manufacturing in New Orleans, Dubai, and Montréal.

Recently, China has been plagued by droughts in its northern and central interior, which including the wheat-growing regions of the country.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise the dangers of drought in the major food-producing regions of a large, industrialised nation such as China.  Add the economic concerns of the day and everything becomes eerily reminscent of what happened in the United States and Canada in the early 1930s when economic depression combined with drought years on the Great Plains to cause some serious, fundamental problems in terms of food supply and the economy in both nations. 

Indeed, the BBC's China analyst, Shirong Chen, points to the emergent problems in the affected areas of China  The 20 million unemployed rural migrant workers are largely from these regions of China as well.  For those heading home, they will be met with drought and, quite likely, a poor harvest this year.  What concerns the Chinese government is the potential outcome, given that it is trying to boost consumer spending in these regions as a means of stimulating the economy.  Chen notes that social stability will be harder to maintain.

Thus, the Chinese government has a plan.  Today's People's Daily is reporting that the government has plans to divert the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to the drought-affected regions. Water from the Yangtze will be diverted north into Jiangsu Province, whilst sluices on the Yellow in Inner Mongolia will be opened there to divert water. 

Along with hopefully easing the drought, what this also shows is just how easily a modernised nation can manipulate its landscapes to ensure security and stability, at least in part.

Waterways are quite often used as a means of manipulating the landscape.  All hydro power dams are forms of this kind of manipulation.  Rivers are dammed up to create artificial, or in some cases augment natural, falls for the production of hydro-electricity.  What this leads to is massive flooding upstream from the dam.  Downstream from the dam, the water flow is drastically altered.  The effects can be devastating both up- and down- river from the dam. 

In Canada, massive hydro-electric dams tend to be built in the north, far away from the bulk of settlement (something like 90% of Canadians lived within 100km of the American border).  This is not to say that people aren't affected.  Indeed, Canada's aboriginals quite often bear the brunt of these constructions.  Quite often, the effects are devastating on aboriginal communities.  Upstream from the dam, land is flooded, communities are made to disappear.  The result is that the climate oftentimes changes in these regions due to the creation of artificial lakes and reservoirs.  These new artificial waterbodies then impact the local ecological system, including the wildlife.  Fish populations are altered.  In some cases, they congregate in these artificial reservoirs.  In other cases, they can no longer travel upstream to procreate.  This, in turn, affects the migration patterns of land-based mammals and birds of prey.  For the communities of aboriginals, not only are they quite often forced to move their communities, oftentimes to inferior locations, but their hunting and fishing patterns are drastically altered.

Downstream, the effects are usually even more devastating.  With waterflow reduced, rivers shrink.  And for communities who rely on the water for their livelihood, the effects are devastating.  With a smaller, slower flowing river, the fish population decreases.  This also has an impact on the migratory patterns of land-based mammals and birds of prey, in that they find other places to hunt.  This then impacts the hunting patterns of the aboriginal communites.  Quite often, they have to go further afield to find food.  In some cases, this also leads to a removal of their communities to newer locations.  In some cases, they may end up closer to the animals they hunt, but they quite often also end up on inferior land.  There are also climatological effects.  Smaller rivers means less water get evaporated into the clouds, which can have a deleterious effect on precipitation.  More than this, however, the rivers also lose their ability to cleanse themselves.  Strong, large, fast-flowing rivers have an amazing ability to cleanse themselves of toxins, pollutants, and other impurities.  This ability is negatively impacted by a decreased flow.  The water becomes more polluted.

This has a major impact on activities downriver, from fishing to farming, as the waterflow is reduced and the water that does flow is increasingly polluted.  But the trade off is electricity.  Electricity is one of Canada's major exports.  Indeed, the province Québec is a major supplier of electricity to all of New England and New York State. 

Thus, there are competing impulses at work here.  The food supply of the nation can be potentially compromised by polluted rivers flowing through agricultural areas and used for irrigation, to say nothing of the negative impact of dam-building on aboriginal communities further upstream.  Yet, electricity is also the fuel of industrial development and, in Canada, resource-extraction and processing, to say nothing of the production of electricity for export to the United States. 

Then there are the long-term ramifications of landscape manipulation; local climates and ecological systems are fundamentally altered.  And while this may not seem to be a major concern, the local climatological variations can lead to climate change in a wider area due to cloud movement, to say nothing of relative proximity of hydro-electric developments. 

Thus, not only are the modern landscapes of industrialised nations made, in the sense that coastlines have been literally re-shaped, but the interior landscapes of these nations are also manipulated.  Rivers are diverted, sluices are created, dams are built, canals are dug, usually to serve the ultimate purpose of industrialisation, which increases the ecomomic security of the nation.  But the costs of this manipulation are also worth considering.  Diverted waterways can also compromise the environmental security of the nation, to say nothing of its food sources.  And if history has shown us anything is that agriculture loses out to industry.  Indeed, Montréal, Canada's 2nd largest city, is built on some of the best agricultural land in North America, in the St. Lawrence River Valley.

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