Tag Archives: climate change

Beginner’s Mind

When I first arrive in a new country, my brain works on overtime trying to figure everything out. It takes unfamiliar villages, streets, apartments, situations and compares them to any and all other places that I have lived and experiences that I have had, trying to make things familiar in a place where nothing is.

Mangoes for days! I started my time in Mauritius living in Péreybère, a tourist haven for Mauritians and Europeans. Everything felt new and exciting. Mangoes were falling from the sky. Buying produce was a thrilling practice of language skills. I struggled to determine street and development patterns and if there were village centers or just endless circles of coastal roads.

It was peaceful, quiet, and confusing in Péreybère. When I first arrived, the apartment building of 16 units had three occupied. I knew little to nothing about how Mauritians live. I did not know if it was normal to have concrete palaces surrounded by overgrown forests and electric razor wire, apartments decorated with 3D artwork and fake (but somehow wilted) flowers, mongooses, packs of wandering dogs and cows, streets that abruptly devolve into dirt pathways, trees full of yellow weaver birds and their intricate basket-like nests, walls covered in gecko poop, a turquoise ocean that seemed as calm as a bathtub.

Alex compared a recent meeting to a Wes Anderson movie and this seemed to put everything in perspective. Mauritius feels vivid, distinctive, slightly absurd and full of capers, characters and staged scenery. It is never really explained why we are meeting at a cave, or in the basement of a parking garage. The Chairman of the District Council did not answer any of my questions but served delicious tea and spoke at length about his time in China. It took six employees to help with the purchase of a bicycle. Our stoic security guard in Péreybère always responded to the question “how are you?” with “I am still alive.” Cell phone towers are poorly disguised as the tallest and most awkward looking palm trees on the island.

These first few months of my grant period were challenging. I felt very isolated. I wanted to give up a few times, after starting on countless ideas and plans that I just could not get rolling. I have never done community organizing around a topic as nebulous as climate change, and in a place that I know so little about with so little support. I get overwhelmed.

The hardest part is the moments when there is nothing I can do. When the holidays have gone on for a month and I have read all of the articles that I can read and reached out to everyone who will respond during the celebrations. These were the times when the apartment in the empty vacation land of Péreybère felt particularly remote.

Things are changing now. Alex and I moved to Triolet, a place where people live and not just vacation. There is a resident rooster, or what sounds like 50 of them, that make their presence known at all hours. We can walk onto the balcony and pick mangoes.Rooster/Demon Groups of people occupy a few logs at the street intersection, in front of the football field, to talk, pass the time, observe passersby and yell jovially to neighbors. We live with the best family in the country who teaches us about shortcuts to the store and fruit vendors and how to cook incredible Mauritian food. There is a two year old who teaches us Creole, French and the importance of bonbons. It feels more like a home.

I am also beginning to like the the challenge and realize how much I believe in the research. Learning about the perceptions of people experiencing the localized burden of climate change is important. Puzzling through the cultural barriers and tools that can be used to engage people in this discussion is humbling and enlightening.

Plus, I have met some great people during the challenge of getting the project going. People who not only met with me to discuss my research, but have spent their whole day showing Alex and I around their villages and favorite places. Most recently, we explored some caves with someone IMG_2026who had grown up playing hide and seek in the extensive network. We went snorkeling in mangroves, with a fisherman to catch octopi, to a beach at night to look for over-hunted crabs. Others have invited us into their homes to meet their families and share meals. I have met some amazing young people who are creating inspiring projects in Mauritius. They are filling gaps in green building, conservation and recycling with sheer willpower and most without payment.

Sometimes my critical eye goes too far and fails to recognize the beauty of this ‘beginners mind’ aspect of being a foreigner in a new place. There is a lot of beauty and relief that comes with admitting you know nothing. Simply allowing yourself to absorb and learn without all of the judgements that come with trying to fit observations into familiar compartments. It feels important to be okay with not knowing for awhile and being open to the possibilities of how this opportunity can unfold.

Is it Climate Change?

Everyone wants to talk about the flash floods. The rains have always been fairly torrential. The water has always come on pretty quickly. But these were different.

In March of 2013, 11 people were killed in a flash flood in the capital city of Port Louis when 152 mm (6.1in) of rain fell in less than an hour. When the rain started, offices closed. People went to parking garages to retrieve vehicles and, tragically, found themselves stuck. Others left their offices and were trapped in flooded underground tunnels. Many went to the bus terminal, though no buses were running. The radio stations had no information. No one seemed to have information.

Nearly everyone that I have spoke to about climate change in Mauritius mentions the floods. Rightly so. It is a huge, climatic disaster. It is something tangible and terrible to point to and say “that is climate change.” But it is more than that. It is what happens when the changing climate meets our development choices.

Port Louis is a coastal city surrounded by largely deforested mountains. When it rains, the water drains along the quickest path toward the sea. In Mauritius, like many places, new development means impervious surfaces. To develop that new, modern look while cutting down on costs, you don’t plant trees, you don’t landscape, you create a huge slab of asphalt and top it with a huge boxy concrete building. With these conditions, drainage is going to be a problem.

Water always finds the path of least resistance. In a natural setting, flash floods occur when the soil is too dry to absorb water or over-saturated. The runoff collects in gullies and streams and joins to form a fast flowing front of water and debris. In urban areas, this path is usually pavement, and instead of gullies and streams, the water is funneled by walls and buildings. There is so little soil and permeable surfaces that nearly all of the precipitation is swept into the quickly overburdened stormwater and sewage systems. The high intensity rainfall that is frequently experienced in Mauritius causes flooding when the city sewage system and drainage canals do not have the necessary capacity to drain away the amounts of rain that are falling. The results are tragic.

Another impact of the type of development occurring in Port Louis is the urban heat island effect. This is an impact of urban development that is felt in the increased temperatures in major cities around the world and is simplistically explained in our material choices. The concrete and asphalt that make up our cities store heat energy much more effectively than the surrounding natural environment. The temperature increase that is expected in Mauritius will be more dramatic in these areas without green spaces and shade.

Climate change is a broad, complicated, all-encompassing issue. You can talk about everything from agriculture to tidal patterns under the auspices of climate change. But lets simplify the conversation. We can talk about real, doable solutions to some of the problems we are seeing. We have choices.

The interventions do not need to be huge. They do need to be handled with long-term plans. Here is what I propose: requirements for permeable surfaces and plant coverage with new developments; green roofs and/or reflective roofs and the building codes and incentives to replace and create them; replacing as much non-porous surfaces with green space as possible; expanding areas of parkland where the flooding occurs for the purpose of water diversion; gutters, canals, and drainage that can handle the water flow; no-build areas along sensitive coastal areas and natural flood plains; and more trees.

The results of these actions would be less stormwater runoff, leading to less flooding. The same actions that create permeable surfaces and reduce the urban heat island effect could also create amazing green spaces in vacant areas, along streets, and on rooftops. Even the drainage areas could be something of an attraction. Think of canals, perhaps with public artwork, shady spaces, and pathways to enjoy the area when the weather is more promising.

I am slowly realizing that all of the climate change adaptation actions are actions that we should be taking whether you frame it as climate change or not. Nature-based solutions, like planting mangroves, forests, and coral restoration projects, create a more sustainable environment and ecosystem. Development-based solutions create a more pleasant living environment with less pollution.

We do not seem to be able to get mitigation under control. We can barely wrap our heads around sea level rise, drought, or a myriad of other lurking impacts. But planning our cities and developments for a future with more pleasant surroundings and fewer disasters may be something that we can do.

New Realities

I arrived here in Mauritius with few expectations and a big plan: to do research on climate change resilience on this small island nation. I hopped off of a plane, pleaded with immigration, and then found myself in the semi-functioning car of a fellow Fulbrighter heading North.

My initial impressions of the island are a blur of sugar cane fields, mountains that look like a child’s art project, and traffic jams of belching trucks. The Northern end of the island, where I am living now, seemed a sort of serene sugar-cane/beach paradise interspersed with sprawling, western-style malls. I noticed that the extinct Dodo appears as some sort of tourist emblem emblazoned on restaurants, hotels, and brightly colored t-shirts. It became apparent that concrete is the building material of choice, though there is no shortage of sheet metal accoutrements. I heard people speak Mauritian Creole, a lovely blend of French, English, and Asian and African languages.

The history of this serene locale is unique. Mauritius is considered a developing economy. It is apparently developing quite successfully and is frequently referred to (or compared with) Singapore. It is a relatively stable (elections are happening now so I’ll keep you posted!) small island nation. The population is well educated and there is a high level of information and communication systems. (For a more detailed look at the country, read this blog). And last but not least, Mauritius is an active voice in the international climate change community.

Mauritius is already seeing many impacts of climate change and is faced with a frightening future of increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones, sea level rise, coastal erosion, spread of vector-borne infectious diseases such as chikungunya and dengue, drought and rising air and sea surface temperatures. The particularly pressing vulnerabilities that Mauritius is facing has created more awareness around climate change, and the discussion has recently shifted from mitigation and prevention to adaptation strategies. This is a country where climate change is not just a theory to be debated. It is a reality that is being lived and felt. Decisions need to be made around how to save coasts, habitats, properties, and people.

At the governmental level, Mauritius started preparing for climate-related issues much earlier than many countries. Climate change has been on the agenda for 20 + years… so what has been done?

Seemingly a lot! If you ever lack lengthy and slightly drab reading materials, Google “Mauritius and Climate Change”. The Mauritian government created Maurice Ile Durable (MID), an office under the Prime Minister that is in charge of sustainability initiatives, that is implementing 140+ climate change projects of varying degrees of applicability (“deer ranching”, for instance, is questionable in my opinion).

They are very top heavy though. It seems that very little money filters down to the community or organizational levels. A very small portion of MID funding has gone to organizations outside of the government and MID projects appear to be very centralized and predominantly focused upon energy.  There are initiatives focused on “sensitization”, a term I had not heard used until reaching Mauritius. Sensitization campaigns are akin to education campaigns and this seems to be the extent of community engagement in government climate change projects.

This leads to my research. What I want to look into is what is happening at the community and at the individual levels? How are people experiencing, engaging with and living with climate change? How are they addressing it?

By looking into these questions I am working to find areas of resilience: innovative projects, early adopters (or early adapters!), nature-based solutions. Maybe in seeking these answers, I can also help to identify links between the problems in one community and the solutions that were discovered in another. Or create links between the issues people are facing and the organizations that work on these issues.

Overall, this first phase of the project has been slow. I have been trying to reach out to government officials and organizations during elections and the holiday season. When I talk to Mauritians about this they tell me to wait until January. They have been saying this since mid-November. The best tactic, inspired by my tenacious German roommate, is to just show up, smile, and hope people want to talk to you.

This was the strategy for the Climate Change Information Center in the capital. The Center is a government office that is open to the public whose purpose is to be a clearing house for climate change information in the country. We apparently arrived during lunch and most of the office was empty. I feel like I am always arriving during some sort of break period though. I am told that you really need to catch government workers during the productive hours of 10 am to 12 pm Tuesday through Thursday. All other days and times are a gamble.

So we arrived at the wrong time, but the employees who were there were very kind in pointing out their shelves of reports, informational posters, and walking us through their online system. When I asked about other organizations working on climate change, I got blank stares and, with further prompting, a printed list of government offices. If the Climate Change Information Center doesn’t know who else is working on climate change, who does?

This is symptomatic of what I keep finding through all of this networking and research: that the work being done here seems to happen in silos. Organizations and government offices are isolated in their work. They steal ideas, are extremely secretive, compete for funding, and can be pretty ruthless when they talk about one another. One of the most absurd examples is from an NGO on the west coast seeking information from an NGO in the east who is working on the exact same thing but not sharing information because they “have not published their results yet.” I have also heard of several instances where mapping data and models were needed and were unavailable, particularly relating to areas that are vulnerable to landslides and floods. It is stated in many reports that this information exists, but is being held from dissemination for reasons that are unclear.

Another key observation that has come up in this first month in Mauritius is the stories that are emerging around climate change. I have heard countless stories about beach erosion, coral bleaching and reef destruction, and the recovery efforts being done in these areas. And there is collaboration happening in these areas, giving hope to the idea of creating resilience. Schools get involved, hotels provide office space, fishermen volunteer to help monitor reef restoration work, or communities show up at an NGO’s meeting just to learn more about sea turtles. It gives power to the idea that organizations and community groups are more effective in reaching the public and generating a true participatory element in their projects.

After only a month in Mauritius, I cannot pretend to understand the intricacies and complications of the work being done here. What is clear to me though is that climate change resilience does not come from creating silos, stealing ideas, hoarding research or fiercely competing for funding while losing site of your goal: helping people.