Tag Archives: Sustainability

A Cruise up the Yangtze River – The Three Gorges Dam

Exhausted by the long train journey from Shanghai to Yichang, we barely registered our late arrival on board the river cruiser ‘President Number Six’, except to note with relief that we had our promised balcony. We awoke to the 6.30am cheery morning call, swiftly learning the volume function of the mysterious dials under the mirror!

Another ship was moored parallel to ours – you could practically step across to their balconies, so it’s a good idea to close the outside doors if you’re on a shore excursion – but it glided off before we’d made our first coffees, revealing a stunning vista of white cliffs and dark forest. After the hectic pace of the city tour, the peaceful riverbank scenery was delightful.

The first morning on the Yangtze river, another Resilience Handbook adventure

Far from being pestered to join in the optional excursions (priced at around 290 yuan, about £30 at the exchange rate then), we weren’t even allowed on the first one, there being no English speaking guide available. We’d already planned to try and avoid this trip, hoping that it wasn’t part of a compulsory package. Although a visit to the home town of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the Warring States period, was tempting, we knew we’d need some rest before tackling the Three Gorges Dam inclusive excursion later.

Heading for the 3 Gorges Dam up the Yangtze river, the project supplies clean electricity and protects from floods, as outlined on a smaller scale in the Resilience Handbook

We were content to explore the ship and admire the view. The weather was still mild enough to enjoy sitting out on the deck, or sketching on the balcony; we began to move upriver. Our ship glided smoothly through the calm waters past ever changing views, through everyone’s stories, towards the Dam.

A shipyard on the Yangtze river; adventures broaden the mind and increase resilience, as outlined in the Resilience Handbook

Resilience Handbook author Elizabeth J Walker explores the Yangtze river

We discovered the ships always moored in parallel. Landing parties had to walk along internal gang planks through other cruise ships and over the bare decks of commercial barges before finally reaching shore.

Our group was promptly assailed by husslers, politely but insistently offering us T-shirts and maps of China. This, we learned from our guides, was the ‘maybe later’ market. The prospective vendors seemed to have some invisible boundary, and they were never a real pest. Their goods weren’t too bad either; I actually bought one of the maps, though I probably paid too much for it. Apparently you have to watch out for counterfeit money in change though.

A tour bus took us up the winding road to the Visitor Centre, thronged with Chinese tourists. We were introduced to the 3D model of the dam complex, touched briefly on souvenir shops, then ascended to the summit up four long outdoor escalators. We were lucky with weather ourselves, but an umbrella could be a handy item to bring.

escalator view 3GD

 

summit 3GD

The summit plaza itself was decorated with significant statues, murals depicting drowned cultures, and information boards. Stairs led to the viewpoint at the very top – for, of course, the view was the main attraction.

view of locks 3GD

 

Building this steel/concrete gravity dam, long planned, was finally started in 1994 and completed in 2012. The ship locks and lift were finished later; our vessel was too large to go up in the incredible ship lift itself. The dam is 1.2 kilometres across and creates a reservoir 600 kilometres long, reaching all the way to Chongqing. Its output is 22.5 megawatts; half the average UK power demand.

view of 3G dam

The landscape of the entire river was altered by this project, and over a million people had to be relocated. Many scenic features were covered by the 90 metre rise in water levels. Silt builds up in the reservoir instead of being washed downstream to fertilise the soils. Some endangered species, such as the Siberian crane and Yangtze sturgeon, may not survive the changes.

lock and earthworks view 3GD
The ship locks are in the foreground

However, having experienced the pollution caused by the coal fired power stations elsewhere, the clean air of the Three Gorges, where white mists replaced brown smogs, was a powerful argument in favour of hydropower. With the deeper channels, goods can be carried by ship instead of fleets of diesel lorries. Floods no longer threaten the densely populated Yangtze basin and the coastal towns.

These could be devastating. In 1998, over three thousand were killed and 15 million homes destroyed. In 1954, the floodwaters covered the entire city of Wuhan for three months; over thirty thousand people died and 18 million were displaced. The catastrophic flooding of Nanjing in 1931 claimed at least two million lives.

no thunderstorms on the summit
Great advances have been made in weather control!

The way back down was a gentler stroll down flights of stairs and through parkland, bringing us out into a charming market full of affordable souvenir trinkets. We hastened through this, back on the bus, ran the gauntlet of the map sellers and were welcomed back on board the ship with hot flannels and tea.

The ship moved off soon after we returned; there was an indefinable air of tense excitement among the crew. By the end of dinner, we were in a holding position in front of the huge lock gates; the rain considerately stopped while we waited on the deck.

I thought we’d just move to the front of the queue but, in an amazing feat of pilotage, all three large ships entered the lock together. The great doors clanged shut, and the water began to run in.

lock gates open

 

We rose surprisingly fast – ‘up’ is not a direction usually associated with ships! In less than twenty minutes, we’d emerged from our concrete chasm and could gaze out over the landscaped working areas.

waiting in the lock

 

The second lock swung open and we moved through in a tight group. It took about two hours before we emerged from the fifth lock onto a broad, placid lake. The sharp line of the dam, crested by illuminated machines, retreated into the night, and we were on our way to the Interior!

 

RSD don’t do relaxing normally, but here they were in the hands of the cruise ship agenda. So there wasn’t much advance information about the shore excursions available, some of which are included in the price, but a little research shows these are usually much the same for all the cruises, differing slightly whether you are going upriver – as we were – or down.

It was a relief to find that our cabin – like most places we stayed – had a kettle. Remember to use bottled water for hot drinks. There is often more tea supplied than coffee, so if you prefer the latter, bring some extra sachets with you.

You can visit the Dam from Yichang; it’s about a 90 minute drive. It may be possible to book an excursion which takes you up the ship lift.

Next week – The White Emperor’s City

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April Diary 2017

It’s been an early, dry Spring in most of England this year. Here in our southwest corner, the rhubarb is thin and the potatoes slow to come up. On the positive side, the slugs are discouraged and the seedlings are getting a good start. Watering them is a daily chore now.

Well watered rhubarb in a pot
Well watered rhubarb in a pot

Having failed to negotiate a supply of wheat seeds – it’s hard to buy a small handful – I planted some old gleanings I found in the seed box. They seem to be coming up, but look exactly like grass just now. If the experiment doesn’t work, I’ll dig over and plant out squashes, or grow a catch crop of cress.

We managed to subdue most of the really wild quarter of our new Resilience Allotment while the soil was still soft. To clear the established perennial weeds – couch grass, bindweed, dandelion and horsetail – we turned the matted turf over to a spade’s depth, pulling the exposed roots out by hand as we broke up the clumps. These went to the tip for recycling, as they can sprout again from fragments.

The rough bit of the allotment before digging
The rough bit is on the left
The weed roots we are removing
The weed roots we are removing

A layer of leaf mould covered with cardboard sheets was laid on the sections we dug over, topped with another layer of leaf mould. Holes were cut in the card and our vegetables planted through it, in a handful of compost. The thick mulch will discourage the weeds – though we haven’t seen the last of them – and give our plants a head start.

The leaf mould was free, from a huge pile dumped in the allotment car park. It’s not ideal; in this dry weather it starts to blow away, and I worry that the potatoes may not like it.

“Do not dig your potatoes up to see if they are growing” – a modern Zen saying!

There was an urgent need for a weed suppressant though, and the leaf mould was available in large amounts. Resilience gardening is about making use of local resources, in a very permaculture-like fashion.

It’s also about low maintenance. While I’m concentrating on the allotment, the original Resilience Garden is ticking over nicely. The leeks and purple sprouting broccoli are finishing now, the kale going to seed, and the new peas coming up. The wild garlic is getting a bit ragged, but other salad leaves are coming up fast. The remaining small piece of lawn takes me more effort to maintain than the vegetable patch does.

You can learn the basics of starting a Resilience Garden from the Handbook...the best way to learn is to try things out. Even a windowsill pot of herbs is worth doing!

An Interesting Meeting

I attended an Avalon Community Energy meeting on Monday. We were admiring the new solar panels they’d arranged to be installed at a local school. Despite the continual obstacles thrown in the path of this worthy project by central government, everyone was civil to the visiting MP.

He made a short speech, indicating more sympathy for renewables than we were accustomed to hear. He regretted that taxpayers’ money had to be spent along lines informed by good business practice; later he deplored the competitiveness between various renewables providers. If business models could run a country, politics would never have happened in the first place.

The he said something really startling. We were moving away from centralised power distribution, he said. We could be building the last generation of large power stations.

Moving towards local control of the power supply is a key pillar of resilience. As control cannot be achieved without generation, renewables represent the only way forward for resilient communities. Sourcing energy in this way also leads to a more distributed network with fantastic resilience. Emergency heating, lighting and cooking facilities could be maintained in every household! Large scale power cuts would be a thing of the past.

Moving away from centralised power generation wasn’t anywhere near the top of my ‘Realistic Things to Achieve’ list. It was just a vague pipe dream, an ‘if only people would realise the importance’ idea, facing decades of struggle even to get on the agenda!

Energy groups such as ACE need to move in from the pioneer fringes and occupy the centre ground for communities to take advantage of this unexpected trend. To seize opportunity, an organised group has to be in place, poised and ready, with a sound business plan backed by an informed community. Is there such a group in your area? If not, why not?

Take back your power.

waterwheel-1

The Resilience Handbook outlines how you can form a community group in your area. More information can be found through the links on this page.

It can be a very slow process, getting a community to work together. Encourage yourself with a resilience plan; find out more in the Handbook

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!

International Downshifting Week

This week, April 20th – 26th, is International Downshifting Week.

“InterNational Downshifting Week is a non-profit awareness campaign designed to help you slow down your pace, lean towards the green and get a better handle on the work/life balance in favour of life.

It was founded in 2003 by contented downshifter Tracey West, who believes a little downshifting can have a powerful impact on your physical health, your mental well-being, your relationships with colleagues, family and friends; it can even improve your sex life.”

Find out more here.

 

What is Resilience?

It’s not easy to explain or define ‘resilience’ even though it is becoming the new buzz word. Simply described, it is the ability to cope well with change. It can be applied to materials, ecosystems or entire planets, but here we are dealing with resilience in people, in communities and in cultures.

Resilience is a concept with depth, one that exists and develops through time, like loyalty and responsibility. It implies a knowledge of what is valuable, what must continue, where to strive to repair and regenerate, what should not be discarded.

Change can come in many forms. The fossil fuel bonanza of recent centuries has enabled people to become detached from each other and pursue their individual desires without reference to local resources or communities. As a consequence, these communities and resources are no longer available to support us through the next major change as this cheap and abundant – but not renewable – fuel begins to run out.

‘Peak oil’ is the term used to describe the point where new fossil fuel discoveries no longer compensate for the steadily decreasing production of existing oil fields and coal mines. It does not mean the end of fossil fuel. There is still time to adapt to a sustainable lifestyle, a change which will be driven by the increasing cost of energy as this source becomes more scarce.

Resilience and sustainability are closely linked. As an unsustainable practice is doomed to eventual failure, it is not a resilient practice either. Sustainability tends to start at the luxury end of the market and work downwards while resilience focusses on need and works upwards.

Sustainability asks “could you involve less air miles when choosing which food to buy?”

Resilience asks less comfortable questions such as “how much food can you access within walking distance of your home?”

Think about that last question. In what circumstances would it become important? Is your local food supply enough to sustain you and the people in your area? For how long?

You fill up your car, you drive to the supermarket, you buy food. The whole process takes hours at most. Growing food takes months, requires land, needs work. Waiting until a global situation outside your control disrupts the fragile transport network upon which we depend will be too late.

Our lifestyle is far from resilient and we need to act now to correct this. We must take control of the process of change and turn it to our advantage.