Bangladesh, the largest Delta in the world, has been the poster child of a scary sea level rise story ever since “An Inconvenient Truth”. There is much to be concerned about in Bangladesh, and flooding is most certainly one of the seasonal hardships Bangladesh has to put up with. Sea level rise just happens to be not one of them.
The Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers flow through the Himalaya Foredeep and end-up dumping their sediment load in the Gulf of Bengal, forming a huge delta at the ocean edge. Deltas have one common characteristic in that they are actually formed by the rivers bringing the sediment to the ocean, in this case a huge load coming off the largest and highest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas. The proto Ganges and Brahmaputra have been active for millions of years, and have been filling the fore deep, a sinking part of the crust caused by tectonic loading of the Himalaya thrust belt. The collision of the Indian Plate with the Asian Plate has resulted in a structural complex deformation of the rock layers, which in itself is a most fascinating and only partially understood process. The net result however is a pile of rocks (The Himalayas) on the north side of the Indian plate, bending this plate down under its weight. The resulting trough is almost simultaneously filled with sediment eroded from this same pile of rocks. The mechanism of deposition is mainly by fluvial processes (river sediments) and alluvial fans directly shedding off the incipient mountain range into the fore deep. The rivers have been finding their way, following the natural law of water flowing to the lowest point. In this case the bay of Bengal, where the subsidence of the earth crust is also influenced by the Arakan-Yoma foldbelt of Myanmar. The resulting depression is filled with sediments transported for more than 20 million years by the proto Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, and has possibly been an active centre of sediment deposition for more than 60 million years.
All this sounds very impressive, but what deltas in essence are is the place where a large amount of fine grained sediments are being deposited due to a significant reduction in flow rate when the river flows into a wider oceanic basin. This deposition is cyclical yet continuous in such sense that it has been a continuous process for millions of years but also very much seasonal and thus cyclical. The Himalayas are subject to monsoon rains as well as seasonal snow melt, resulting in variable yet yearly, predictable jumps in run-off, generally resulting in flooding of the “flood plains” that in the dry season are well above water level. Those flood plains are protected by modest natural levees. Natural levees are formed when a river overflows and loses its coarsest sediment first, in proximity to the main channel, thus building up natural high ridges along the main river body. These natural levees have been recognized as effective dikes by some and have occasionally been enhanced and built up by human inhabitants of flood plains (e.g. the “summer dikes” in The Netherlands). Levees are, however, seldom high and strong enough to withstand large floods, in which case they break through with resulting widespread seasonal flooding.
During flooding the fine muds in the now rapidly decelerating river (the same volume of water now flows over a much wider area and even appears to stand still for some time) are deposited and when the flood waters recede, there is a fine layer of mud left behind. This annual or rather frequent flooding allows a delta to build “up” during floods. 1 mm/year still adds up to 1 meter every 1000 years, which is approximately equivalent to the annual subsidence in the Gulf of Bengal, also known as the Patuakhali Depression.
Sea level rise and deltas
Deltas have been extensively studied for many years, partially motivated by pure self-preservation, partially because abundant oil and gas has been found in delta sediments.
One of the interesting things about deltas is that they are very dynamic and by their very nature are building up and out rather than drown and disappear.
When sea level drops, the rivers tend to by-pass their most recently built sediment wedge and incise deeper valleys in their old river beds, then dump their sediment further out into the ocean and build-up a new addition to the Delta complex. When sea level rises, the delta builds-up rather than out into the ocean and thus stays more or less balanced with sea level. When sea level rises very rapidly, and the sediment load can not keep up, the Delta will find a new equilibrium further back, where the available accommodation space balances the sediment load. The Ganges-Brahmaputra delta happens to have not only survived one of the most rapid sea level rises in geological time, post Pleistocene, but has built and built for millions of years thanks to being endowed with one of the largest sediment loads on earth. More than 16 km (vertically) of sediments derived from the Himalayas has been deposited and consistently built and maintained a delta environment. The sea encroaches where the rivers are not, due to sediment compaction; the fine muds deposited away from the main channels during seasonal floods initially hold a lot of water and over time this water is expelled. Rivers change their course when low areas become the preferred place to flow to. This constant shifting of rivers and river mouths to the lowest areas, forms the distributing process by which a delta spreads and builds. Unless sea level rise and the resulting increase in water depth and accommodation space exceeds the sediment supply, deltas will never drown. Bangladesh and the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta will be there for as long as the Himalayas deliver the gravels, sands and mud.
So what about the flooding? The seasonal flooding is of course a direct result of the dramatic increase of run-off during monsoon and annual snow melt. The rivers are literally constricting the excessive water flow. It can not unload its water fast enough and as a result the water level rises. The levees overflow and/or break through and the floodplains in between the rivers are flooded. Water level sometimes rises by two or more meters. Sea level has nothing to do with it. One mm more or less has no influence on the massive seasonal run-off. The flooding and resulting deposition of a film of mud actually completely compensates for the estimated annual global sea level rise. The lower the flood plain, the higher the flood water column, the more silt and mud is deposited. It all evens out, hence the very uniform flat nature of delta plains.
Of course deltas can only build up so much, and are therefore always more or less in equilibrium with flood and sea level. Flooding will be a regular occurrence, for as long as there are monsoon seasons. Unless people build dikes and dams to regulate the flow, floods will happen. While dikes seem to be a good idea, it does modify the dynamics of a system that is in balance with sea level and sediment supply. The Netherlands (effectively the Rhine delta) have been building dikes for more than 1000 years and as a result many old settlements are now well below high river level. The absence of regular sediments added to the floodplain requires ever stronger and higher dikes. Sooner or later the imbalance will no longer be sustainable. Wisely, new settlements are now mostly built with adding thick layers of sand, not only to strengthen the foundation of the new housing, but with an added benefit of artificially elevating the country. Al Gore had it partially right to flag the Netherlands as being threatened to drown, not so much by rising sea level as well by having engineered a safer environment from river flooding, thus starving the flood plains of balancing sedimentation.
Deltas are formed at the boundary of rivers and oceans. The rivers that build deltas flow to low and slowly sinking parts of the crust, where large volumes of sediment are being deposited. They will always be in balance with sea level but almost by definition increase in size, if rivers are allowed to follow their course. Deltas, by their very nature are building out and up. They also tend to flood frequently and seasonally, often with disastrous effects on the inhabitants. People living in deltas should learn to swim, have a boat and generally be aware of what can happen. Sea level rise is not an issue in large deltas; they have been proven to be able to keep up with any sea level rise. Flooding disasters are seasonally the result of excessive run-off, and occasionally due to unfortunate storm surges that result in breaks through natural barriers, but this has nothing to do with sea level rise. Bangladesh will be there, even if all the ice in the world has melted, with its people still fighting floods while farming the fertile floodplains.
Four months back, Jeffrey Goldberg published a long piece in the Atlantic called “The Point of No Return,” making the Israeli case for the United States to attack Iran in Never-again terms: Iran is threatening the existence of “the Jewish people,” Israel is bound to act if the U.S. fails to, the U.S. will do a better job. The piece has stirred a lot of discussion. Goldberg has gone on national media and panels at thinktanks to promote these bellicose ideas.
But no one has pointed out that the piece makes the same argument Goldberg marshaled eight years ago for the U.S. to attack Iraq, that time with an article in the New Yorker magazine under the headline, “The Great Terror.” Iraq too was bent on the destruction of the Jewish people, and was developing a nuclear weapon to do so.
The language in the pieces is eerily similar. The last time the concentration camp Goldberg invoked was Bergen-Belsen. This time around it’s Auschwitz.
Both times the enemy is “three years” away from going nuclear. Last time:
He [August Hanning of German intelligence agency] does not equivocate. “It is our estimate that Iraq will have an atomic bomb in three years,” he said.
Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability (often understood to be the capacity to assemble more than one missile-ready nuclear device within about three months of deciding to do so).
The last time round Goldberg was flat wrong.
“The Great Terror” stated that Saddam had links to Al Qaeda, and the article was cited by both Bush and Cheney as proof of the threat posed by Iraq (Muhammad Idrees Ahmad has told me). As it turned out, Saddam Hussein didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction and didn’t attack Israel and wasn’t making a nuclear warhead or an aflatoxin/chemical/biological one and wasn’t importing canisters of mysterious nerve gases, as Goldberg had affirmed. But meantime, the U.S. was at war with Iraq, in some measure because of the bad ideas that Goldberg proliferated, and we and the Iraqis and its neighbors are still suffering the consequences.
This time around, the question is, Why is anyone listening to Goldberg? Why are prestige news organizations giving him the microphone?
But let’s compare similarities in the casus belli pieces.
In both cases, Goldberg turned Koran scholar to support his views. Last time, Saddam’s rage against the Kurds was based in part on
a chapter in the Koran that allows conquering Muslim armies to seize the spoils of their foes. It reads, in part, ‘Against them’—your enemies—‘make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah…’
Now Iran is the problem, Goldberg writes that “the depth of official Iranian hatred of Israel and Jews” can only be explained by looking to
a line of Shia Muslim thinking that views Jews as ritually contaminated, a view derived in part from the Koran’s portrayal of Jews as treasonous foes of the Prophet Muhammad.
In both cases, Goldberg alarms readers with Holocaust-tinged fears that a Muslim country is planning to wipe Jews out.
[T]he experts say, Saddam’s desire is to expel the Jews from history
That was last time. And this time—
[A] nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people.
The last time Saddam was the first leader since “the Holocaust” to use poison gas to “exterminate” women and children, and Goldberg cited an expert on Iraq with Holocaust fears.
as a child she lived in Germany, near Bergen-Belsen. “It’s tremendously influential in your early years to live near a concentration camp,” she said. In Kurdistan, she heard echoes of the German campaign to destroy the Jews.
This time around it’s the Shoah, and the camp is different, but the lesson of destruction is the same:
Many Israelis think the Iranians are building Auschwitz… “Iran represents a threat like the Shoah,” an Israeli official who spends considerable time with the prime minister told me….
“In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation.“
All the talk of annihilation from Israelis. In fact, Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf has shown here, Goldberg echoed the hysteria of one element of Israeli society to justify the idea of the U.S. going on another Middle East joyride so as to forestall the Israelis from doing so.
The views of Israeli generals and senior officials in the Defense Department on Iran are of great interest, but they should be put in the right context. There are many in Israel who don’t see Iran as an existential threat, or, more precisely, they don’t see it as a different threat than those Israel faced in the past. There are even more who think that the risk in attacking Iran is far greater then the possible benefits. Israeli Generals have a tendency for creating mass hysteria.
The seamless stoking of hysteria is the most obvious impression one gets from reading Goldberg’s two casus belli pieces in sequence: Goldberg’s paranoia exists out of time; the very same themes and lines about the destruction of Jews appear several years apart, shifted from one enemy to the other (much as the State Department 60 years ago was the anti-Semitic enemy in his book Prisoners…).
Why is Goldberg still taken so seriously? The answer has to do with the strength of the Israel lobby inside the American establishment. That is how a former Israeli soldier–Goldberg immigrated to Israel in the 80s then came back a few years later– hops from one prestige magazine to another.
Indeed, Goldberg’s core concern, which also extends seamlessly eight years from the first piece to the second one, from Iraq to Iran– is not the fear of destruction, but of Israel losing hegemonic power in the Middle East. I have held out the two most similar and important phrases in the pieces for last, the phrases that reflect this root concern:
[T]here is no disagreement that Iraq, if unchecked, will have them [nukes] soon, and a nuclear-armed Iraq would alter forever the balance of power in the Middle East”
Goldberg warned the last time. And this time:
The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me….“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area”.
Does America want to go to war to preserve Israel’s power edge in the Middle East?
A Total Failure of Neoliberalism
For a decade, Ireland was heralded by the most ardent partisans of neo-liberal capitalism as a model to be imitated. The Celtic Tiger had a higher growth rate than the European average. Tax rate on companies had been reduced to 12.5% and the rate actually paid by TNCs that had set up business there was between 3 and 4% – a CEO’s dream! Ireland’s budget deficit was nil in 2007, as was its unemployment rate in 2008. In this earthly paradise, everybody seemed to benefit. Workers had jobs (though often highly precarious), their families were busy consuming, benefiting as they were from the prevailing abundance, and both local and foreign capitalists were enjoying inordinate returns.
In October 2008, a couple of days before the Belgian government bailed out the big “Belgian” banks Fortis and Dexia with taxpayers’ money, Bruno Colmant, head of the Brussels stock exchange and professor of economics, published an op-ed in Le Soir, the French-language daily newspaper of record, stating that Belgium imperatively had to follow the Irish example and further deregulate its financial system. According to Colmant, Belgium needed to change the legal and institutional framework so as to become a platform for international capital, just like Ireland. A few short weeks later the Celtic Tiger was crying mercy.
In Ireland, financial deregulation had triggered a boom in loans to households (household indebtedness had reached 190% of GDP on the eve of the crisis), particularly in real estate, a factor that helped boost the island’s economy (the building industry, financial activities, etc.). The banking sector had experienced exponential growth with the establishment of many foreign companies and the increase in Irish banks’ assets. Real estate and stock market bubbles started forming. The total amount of stockmarket capitalizations, bond issues, and bank assets was fourteen times bigger than the country’s GDP.
What could not possibly happen in such a fairytale world then happened: in September-October 2008 the card castle collapsed and the real estate and financial bubbles burst. Companies closed down or left the country, unemployment rose from 0% in 2008 to 14% in early 2010. The number of families unable to repay their creditors swiftly increased too. The whole Irish banking system teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and a panic-stricken government blindly guaranteed bank deposits for EU480 billion (that is, about three times an Irish GDP of 168 billion). It nationalized the Allied Irish Bank, the main source of financing for real estate loans, with a transfusion of EU48.5 billion (about 30% of GDP).
Exports slowed down. State revenues declined. The budget deficit rose from 14% of GDP in 2009 to 32% in 2010 (more than half of this due to the massive support given to the banks: 46 billion in equity and 31 billion in purchases of toxic assets).
At the end of 2010 the European bail-out plan with IMF participation amounted to EU85 billion in loans (including 22.5 billion from the IMF) and it is already clear that it will not be enough. In exchange, a radical cure was enforced upon the Celtic Tiger in the form of a drastic austerity plan that heavily affects households’ purchasing power, with a resultant decrease in consumption, in public expenditure on welfare, in civil servants’ salaries, in infrastructure investments (to facilitate debt repayment), and in tax revenues. On the social level, the principal measures of the austerity plan are nothing short of disastrous:
- suppression of 24,750 positions in the civil service (8% of the workforce, which would mean 350,000 positions in France);
- newly recruited employees will earn 10% less;
- reduction of social transfers resulting in lower family and unemployment allowances, a significant reduction in the health budget, a freeze on retirement pensions;
- a rise in taxes, to be borne mostly by the majority of the population, already a victim of the crisis: notably a VAT increase from 21% to 23% in 2014; creation of a real estate tax (affecting half of the households that were formerly tax-exempt);
- a EU1 reduction in the minimum hourly wage (from EU8.65 to 7.65, or 11% less).
The rates for loans to Ireland are very high: 5.7% for the IMF loan and 6.05% for “EU” loans. These loans will be used to repay banks and other financial bodies that buy bonds on the Irish debt, borrowing money from the European Central Bank at a rate of 1% – another windfall for private financiers. According to AFP, IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn claimed that it would work, though of course “it would be difficult because it is hard for people who will have to make sacrifices for the sake of budget austerity”.
Both in the streets and in parliament, opposition has been very determined. The Dail, or lower house of parliament, voted the 85 billion rescue plan by a mere 81 to 75. Far from relinquishing its neo-liberal orientation, the IMF declared that among Ireland’s priorities it is counting on the adoption of reforms to do away with structural obstacles to business, so as to support competitiveness in the coming years. “Socialist” Dominique Strauss-Kahn said he was convinced that a new government after the elections in early 2011 would not change anything: “I’m confident that even if the opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, are criticizing the government and the programme [...], they understand the need to implement the programme.”
In short, the economic and financial liberalization aimed at attracting foreign investments and transnational financial companies has utterly failed. To add insult to the damage the population must bear as a result of such a policy, the IMF and the Irish government are persevering in the neo-liberal orientation of the past two decades and, under pressure from international finance, are subjecting the population to a structural adjustment programme similar to those imposed on Third World countries for the past three decades. Yet these decades should show what must not be done, and why it is high time to enforce a radically different logic that benefits people and not private money.
Translated by Christine Pagnoulle in collaboration with Judith Harris.