Cover Image
close this bookSouthern Lights - Celebrating the Scientific Achievements of the Developing World (IDRC, 1995, 148 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentChapter 1 - A northern misconception demolished
View the documentChapter 2 - Is there really science in the south?
View the documentChapter 3 - How the south got left behind
View the documentChapter 4 - Third world achievements
View the documentChapter 5 - Marching to a different drummer
View the documentChapter 6 - Solving global problems together
View the documentChapter 7 - What needs to be done
View the documentAcronyms
View the documentBibliography
View the documentAcknowledgements

Chapter 6 - Solving global problems together

Previous chapters have illustrated how scientific and technological accomplishments in the South have sometimes benefited the North, purely by chance. The proposition put forward in this chapter is that because of the gravity and importance of certain problems that affect the population of our entire planet, these benefits can no longer be left to chance. They must be pursued deliberately, in an organized fashion, and through the collaborative efforts of both the North and South.

The Problem of Global Warming

During the summer of 1988, Canada sweltered in scorching, dry heat that destroyed crops and starved grazing cattle. Toronto baked for days under record-breaking heat in the hottest July since 1955. Great Lakes water levels sank to decade-low levels.

The heat and drought were felt in parts of the United States. And many other countries, including what was then the Soviet Union and India, experienced record-high summer temperatures (Spurgeon 1989).

Scientists had talked about the dangers of global warming for decades, and although they publicly disagreed on whether 1988’s record temperatures were evidence of this phenomenon, the scorching heat finally brought their warnings home.

For example, while reports of heat and drought were appearing in the media, more than 300 policymakers, scientists, and corporate and environmental leaders from 46 countries were gathered in Toronto at a meeting sponsored by the Canadian government. The concluding statement of The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security (McMillan et al. 1988) reads:

Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The Earth’s atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions. These changes represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe.

The changes involve what is now widely known as the “greenhouse effect”: the trapping of heat within the Earth’s atmosphere by gases resulting from human activities. These gases act like a thermal blanket on a swimming pool, which lets the sun’s rays through to the water’s surface but prevents the heat from escaping. The greenhouse gases, said the conference report, would cause the world’s climate to warm, altering rain and snowfall patterns, raising sea levels, and bringing more frequent climatic extremes such as heat and cold waves and storms. In turn, these changes would imperil human health, threaten food and water supplies, and increase political instability.

Two other atmospheric changes are associated with the greenhouse effect: depletion of the atmosphere’s ozone layer, which protects humans and plants against excessive ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and the long-range transport of air pollutants, some of which cause acid rain. Ozone depletion increases the incidence of human skin cancers and cataracts, and depresses the body’s immune response. It can also reduce the productivity of plants and harm aquatic life. Acid rain damages lakes, soils, plants, animals, forests, and fisheries and also corrodes buildings and metal structures.

In Two Decades of Achievement and Challenge, UNEP (1992) says: “Global warming will accelerate sea-level rise, modify ocean circulation and change marine ecosystems, with considerable socioeconomic consequences. Sea levels are expected to rise by 20 centimetres by 2030 and 65 centimetres by 2100, flooding low-lying islands and coastal areas. Cropland could disappear, water supplies could be contaminated and tens of millions of people could lose their homes.”

And There Came a Great Flood

In 1987, Male, capital of the Maldives, was inundated by record-high waves. The next year, the waves swamped the island of Thulhaadhoo. Few of the country’s 1 196 islands rise above 3.5 m and the majority of its people live less than 2 m above sea level. The international airport would be flooded regularly if the seas rose by only half a metre, and the staple crop, the taro root, is grown in pits dug only about 40 cm above sea level.

High tides already submerge parts of Tuvalu twice a year. Tokelau, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati are at similar risk. The Marshall Islands’ government has warned that many of its 50 000 inhabitants will be evacuated over the next few decades, and the foreign minister told the Earth Summit meeting (UNCED) that rising seas “could annihilate the Marshall Islands as effectively as a nuclear bomb” (Lean 1994).

Small Nations of the World Unite

In Nairobi in April 1994, an alliance of 36 of the world’s smallest states - “the world’s least likely power bloc” - met to combat the threat of rising seas, which could wipe at least seven island nations off the map (Lean 1994). The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was launched at the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva and includes countries from five continents, and the nonisland nations of Guyana and Belize, which are also threatened by rising sea levels.

None of these islands contributes much to global warming: they burn little fossil fuel. They consider themselves, therefore, the most vulnerable to global warming yet the least responsible for it.

Before AOSIS was formed, small island states had little bargaining power among blocs of nations. Once they joined forces and controlled one-sixth of United Nations’ votes, they found themselves courted in election campaigns for the UN Security Council. AOSIS succeeded in obtaining special recognition of island nations at UNCED in 1992, and continuing pressure led to a UN Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, illustrating what joint action can accomplish.

Global warming does not threaten just small island nations. Bangladesh, with millions of inhabitants living in areas already subject to extreme heat, drought, and flooding, would suffer severely from rising sea levels. It would have to consider building extensive dikes - or moving vast numbers of people long distances from the Ganges River basin and from near the sea. Low-lying areas in other countries would also be endangered.

The Rich and Powerful Are also Threatened

Many coastal areas in well-off countries would also be threatened. In 1984, Canadian scientists started to study what would happen to certain parts of the country if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were to double during the next 50 years, as some experts expected. Two of the probable consequences they foresaw were:

- In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a 1-metre rise in sea level would inundate expensive new waterfront developments, the harbourside complex, the convention centre, and the courthouse. It would also make the main marine terminal and coastguard docks vulnerable to storm tides, flood several city streets, threaten the storm sewer system and the sewage treatment plant, and possibly leave about 225 city buildings uninhabitable.

- There would be flooding in the lower reaches of the St John River in New Brunswick, with resultant risk to residential communities, the New Brunswick Power Plant in east St John, road and rail transportation (which would isolate the city from the East), industrial facilities, and sewage and industrial waste treatment lagoons. Rich farmland along the St John River, already subject to flooding, would be further inundated.

In the United States, according to Dr Ted R. Miller of Washington’s Urban Institute, “an anticipated 1-metre rise in sea level probably will require diking and pumping or raising the land surface in many urban coastal areas, including more than half of the 20 largest metropolitan areas. The cost in Greater Miami alone could exceed $600 million over the next 100 years. Northeastern cities might have to spend billions on new water sources.”

New Hazards to Health

Rising sea levels will not be the only hazard produced by global warming. Dr Janice Longstreth of ICF Clement, a us consulting firm, told a 1988 Washington conference that climate change may produce ill effects on human health through a number of mechanisms. Heat stress will increase in some areas, particularly for people who already work in hot environments such as steel plants, dry-cleaning establishments, or bakeries. People with heart and respiratory diseases may suffer more, both from the heat and from increased pollution. Increased pollen production may worsen the plight of those with allergic diseases.

A hotter climate might entice disease-carrying insects northward, bringing diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever to Montana and Halifax, and might cause a resurgence of malaria, a problem in parts of the United States as recently as the 1930s and 1940s. Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most virulent form of malaria, has become resistant to chloroquine, the most widely used and effective antimalarial drug, and malaria is already spreading uncontrollably in parts of Africa and other tropical countries. Yellow fever could also make a comeback, said Dr Longstreth, “and we don’t have enough vaccine.”

Dr Andrew Dobson of the University of Rochester, New York, was more dramatic in his recitation of the impact of global warming on disease-causing organisms. “Sitting waiting in Central and South America is a vast army of diseases that could move into the United States,” he told the 1988 Washington conference. He called Chagas’ disease “one of the nastiest,” and as indicated in the previous chapter, carriers of the parasite that causes Chagas’ disease have already been found among us immigrants. Dobson said the assassin bug that carries the trypanosome is also present in small numbers in the United States, in opossums, armadillos, and domestic pets. Parasitic diseases of livestock, widespread in warm climates, could also spread northward and lower the animals’ productivity, Dobson said. As noted earlier, there is no cure for Chagas’ disease.

“In the health field as elsewhere, we are seeing a phenomenon of globalization,” wrote Dr Adolfo Martinez Palomo, Chairman of the Mexican Committee for Basic Health Research (Morissette 1994). “Diseases do not respect frontiers. Tourists from the North sometimes bring tropical diseases back to their countries. We have seen how cholera, a disease that used to be thought of as typically Asian, can now cross the oceans and take root in Latin America, causing a veritable epidemic in Mexico (now under control). There is nothing to guarantee that it will not reach the United States one of these days.”

The Need for Joint Effort

The North and South must attack these worldwide problems jointly. As noted in Chapter 2, developing countries cover 60% of the Earth’s land mass, and many of the observations necessary to any program of a global nature must be made there.

“The study of global change has got to be done on a worldwide basis,” said Roger Revelle, a pioneer of global warming studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “but the scientific effort is very uneven [in the Third World].”

Because the scientific communities there often do not have the human, institutional, or financial capabilities to carry out the necessary research, USAID set up a Program in Science and Technology Cooperation to solicit proposals for collaborative projects to investigate global climate change in developing countries. These projects, at the same time, help build the capacity of Third World science to contribute to such research (USAID 1992).

For example, in an Indian study of monsoons, which control the region’s agricultural cycle, Gyan Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur collaborates with T.N. Krishnamurti of Florida State University. In an African study, John Halfman and Thomas Johnson of Duke University in the United States, assisted by Kenyan graduate student Patrick Ng’ang’a, observe core samples from the bottom of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya to read a rainfall record of thousands of years. Through computer and chemical analysis of the sediments, they found evidence that may link African rainfall with the El Nino-Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean, off South America. These findings may help determine whether long-term climatic change is occurring in sub-Saharan East Africa.

More Power for the South

Although gathering data on global change is important, it is absolutely essential that the South actively cooperates in reducing global warming gases.

“By 2010 the share of total energy consumption accounted for by the rich countries will have fallen below 50% for the first time in the industrial era,” says The Economist of 18 June 1994, quoting the latest International Energy Agency scenario for world energy. “The growth in energy consumption in developing countries between 2000 and 2010 will be greater than today’s consumption in Western Europe. By 2010 their emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming, will be almost as big as those of the whole world in 1970.”

The World Energy Council, based in London, England, forecasts under a high-growth scenario that world energy demand, dominated by Latin America and Asia, will triple over the next 30 years, while in North America it will rise by only 13%. By 2020, energy use in the developing countries will account for as much as 60% of the world total, compared with 30% in the OECD.

Reducing Greenhouse Gases

Third World countries are skeptical about pronouncements by the developed world that call for them to reduce energy consumption to control greenhouse gas emissions. It is the North - not the South - that has caused most of the global warming problem through the voracious consumption of energy. Why, the South asks, should we be made to curtail our development to solve a situation we did not create?

Although logic is on their side, global warming will affect the South even more than the North, so both should take steps to minimize the effects. For developing countries to cooperate in reducing production of greenhouse gases, the North must offer them the technology for more environmentally friendly energy-production methods. It must also offer financial support for research applicable to the needs of developing countries, and encourage collaborative programs. The countries of the South will not curtail their own development for what they see as the self-interest of the North, unless there are benefits for them, as well as for the industrialized world.

Disasters Affect Us All

When major natural disasters occur, the interests of North and South coincide. These disasters kill more than 1 million people every decade and leave countless others homeless, reported the Secretariat of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), during the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in 1994 (UN 1994). More than 90% of these victims are in developing countries.

Economic losses from natural disasters are on the rise, retarding economic growth in both the North and South. The global cost of disasters rose from $44 billion in 1991 to 560 billion in 1992, and early estimates of the losses from the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake ranged between $15 and $30 billion. Since 1990, insurance payouts in the United States from natural disasters have quadrupled those made during the 1980s. And payments made in the 1980s quadrupled those of the previous decade.

IDNSR’s objective is to reduce, through concerted international action, the loss of life, property damage, and social and economic disruption caused by these disasters. Closer cooperation is needed between all parts of society, nationally, locally, and internationally, says the Secretariat.

The earthquake on 30 September 1993 in Maharashtra State in India, killed 11 000 people. A volcanic eruption in Colombia in 1985, took 22 000 lives. A 1970 tropical cyclone, combined with high tide and heavy rainfall, left more than 300 000 dead and 1.3 million homeless in Bangladesh.

Changing Old Attitudes

“We would like to modify the present and traditional emphasis on disaster relief and to stress, instead, disaster prevention and mitigation,” says Dr Olavi Elo, the Finnish physician who heads IDNDR. “Scientific and engineering progress in the past decade or so - satellite data gathering, greater understanding of weather phenomena, the behaviour of the Earth’s crust and plate tectonics - has made this a realistic possibility. But the technologies have to be given to the developing world where the toll in human lives is rising sharply. People need to be trained in disaster preparedness, new building construction must be earthquake-resistant, early warning systems should be generalized, countries have to assess risks and produce hazard maps.”

Dr Juan A. Madrid, of the Centro de Investigacion Cientifica y Educacion Superior in Ensenada, Mexico, said in an interview at ICTP in Trieste, Italy, where he was attending a workshop for Third World countries on earthquake prediction: “Phenomena connected with the Earth have nothing to do with political boundaries. An earthquake in Baja California will affect the people in the United States, just as an earthquake in the United States will affect people in Baja California. So we have to cooperate fully. If we have something useful to scientists in the North we’ll give it to them, and if we consider they have something that could be useful to us, we’ll ask for it. We have had very good cooperation. Very recently, we reached an agreement with the us Geological Survey (USGS) for exchanging [sensor data] virtually in real time. We also have direct access to the files of the USGS by Internet and to the California Institute of Technology. We will expand this collaboration in future.”

Dr Keilis Borok, a director of Moscow’s International Institute for Earthquake Prediction Theory and Mathematical Geophysics, who has since 1983 directed the ICTP workshops, agreed on the need for North-South collaboration.

“There are areas where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on [seismological] observation networks, yet earthquakes have occurred unpredicted,” he said in an interview. “So this is not a problem of the Third World or the First World or the Second World, it is a problem [that requires] new basic research.... We need to train the leaders [and to have] joint teams. The [Third World] potential is very strong. In a way [the scientists of the South] are not so handicapped by tradition. If you look at a strong research team in the North, [you will find that] it’s often led by people from the Third World.”

Dr Borok stressed the need for more basic research worldwide in earthquake prediction. I interviewed him in November 1993; 2 months later, on 17 January 1994, a major earthquake shook Los Angeles. Damage was estimated at $13 billion. Scientists had detected no warning, despite their extensive sensing networks. Exactly 1 year later, the Kobe earthquake struck Japan, with a loss of close to 5400 lives. There was no warning, and it had been commonly supposed that this area was relatively safe from such disasters.

“A perfectly candid appraisal would be that efforts to try to do short-term earthquake prediction have not yet proved to be successful,” Robert Hamilton, a seismologist at USGS, told the Boston Globe.

North-South Collaboration Already Exists

The major body involved in promoting scientific collaboration internationally is the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). It involves scientists from more than 130 nations, and many of its constituent bodies are concerned directly with issues involving the global environment (ICSU 1993). The international research programs organized by ICSU are designed to provide policymakers with the best available scientific knowledge for setting strategies for sustainable development.

The Earth’s physical climate system is studied by the World Climate Research Program, which seeks to determine to what extent climate can be predicted and how human activities affect climate. Other international studies deal with the physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the entire Earth system, the Earth’s life systems, its peoples and their environment, the oceans, the hydrological cycle, the terrestrial ecology, and the Earth’s atmosphere. As described by ICSU (1993):

The world’s nations are increasingly interdependent. They participate in a global economy, with information, technology, and culture flowing almost as freely as the air. Even more important, they share a common global environment. Coal burned in one country may influence the climate of all; a species lost in one region is available to none.

Thus, all nations have vital interests in global change, and they also have much to contribute to the common understanding of the Earth system. Satellites can scan the globe but much of the information needed by researchers and policy makers can be obtained only at the Earth’s surface. Laboratories, data banks, and computers produce impressive analyses but local observations and insights bring the analyses to life. Moreover, only studies focused on regional and local conditions can adequately assess the real implications for human society of environmental changes on a global scale.

Dr M.G.K. Menon cites the measurement of the greenhouse gas methane as an example of the importance of input from the South. “[Methane quantities were] wrongly estimated in what I would call Western or Northern calculations,” he explained by telephone from New Delhi. “They were greatly overstated in the earlier assessments which were based on extrapolation of data from the tundra - the very high Northern latitudes - into the tropics.”

Depending as it does on many local factors, the quantity of methane produced is best assessed by those familiar with Third World conditions because they live and work there, Professor Menon suggested. The same applies to other global problems such as deforestation or the maintenance of biodiversity.

ICSU’s activities increasingly involve the scientific communities of both the North and South. During recent years, the organization estimates that approximately half the scientific activities it supports directly involve developing countries.

Networking Around the World

One way in which international science increasingly works is through science and technology networks. One example is the African Network of Natural Product Chemists for Eastern and Central Africa (NAPRECA), with headquarters in Addis Ababa. Affiliated with Unesco and run by researchers, it promotes research in substances derived from living organisms, disseminates information, holds training sessions, seminars and workshops, and conducts a researcher exchange (NAPRECA 1992).

The idea for the network originated in 1984, with a group of African chemists who were struck by the contrast between the intense worldwide interest in natural products and the poor state of development of science in Africa.

“The network was founded out of the sheer realization that scientists of today cannot effectively function in isolation from each other,” states NAPRECA’S 1984 - 1992 yearbook (NAPRECA 1992). “The problem of isolation is even more serious in the Third World countries.”

Another networking organization is the International Organization for Chemical Science in Development. Created in Paris in 1981, this nongovernmental body serves as a framework for collaboration between scientists in the Third World and in industrialized countries, on topics relating directly to development. Subjects currently under study include synthetic chemical approaches to regulation of male fertility, treatment of tropical diseases, and applications of agrochemistry.

The working group on male fertility regulation involves laboratories in Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, Thailand, the United States, and Venezuela. Sixteen laboratories in 13 countries are involved in the tropical disease research, and five Latin American laboratories are involved in the agrochemistry project.

Getting on the Information Highway

Gaining access to current information is a major difficulty for scientists in the Third World. Even in the best-equipped health-related libraries in Africa, the most recent book and periodical acquisitions date from the early 1970s.

Fortunately, the availability of modern electronic communications technology, and networks based on it, are improving the situation. One network, HealthNet, is supported by IDRC and other agencies and allows users with a personal computer to communicate worldwide by satellite. This means that health professionals in developing countries who use the network have access not only to the major libraries in the North, but also to the professional staffs of leading medical institutions for consultation.

The Info-Med network adds another dimension - CD-ROM data bases that store enormous amounts of information on a single CD-sized disk and a subscription to MedLine, which provides access to full-text articles, abstracts, and bibliographic references. Zambia’s health professionals have access to all three networks thanks to the us Health Foundation and the AAAS (Levy 1993). Even doctors located in district hospitals and research centres can have literature searches done for them.

The Third World Network

The Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) collaborates with and hosts the Third World Network of Scientific Organizations (TWNSO). The latter includes 26 ministries of science and technology, 39 science academies, 42 science councils, and 20 other organizations from 69 developing countries. TWNSO was created in 1988 to further the South’s involvement in global science projects, among other goals. Chapters in the United Kingdom and United States link TWNSO with industrialized countries’ scientific institutions.

TWAS is studying 14 proposals from countries in the South to upgrade national centres of excellence into an International Network of Centres of Sustainable Development (Hassan 1994). The Consortium of International Earth Science Information Network has promised to support the network in its understanding of global change through its archives and telecommunications technology.

Regional Potential Is Emerging

New opportunities for North-South collaboration are increasing. For example, the us journal Science devoted a special issue to East Asia in October 1993, which revealed “an explosive growth of which many Western scientists may be unaware.” The work of scientists in this area makes it apparent that they “have the talent and energy to do world-class science,” says the journal’s editorial. In contrast to lack of governmental support in the past, “a highly intelligent and purposeful effort is now being made in almost every country in that area to support basic and applied research,” the editorial continues.

The journal points to “the great opportunities for exchange of ideas and personnel between Western and Asian universities,” and Chang-Lin Tien, Chancellor of the University of California in Berkeley, and the first Asian American to lead a major us university, urges collaboration between the two sides. “It will not be long before the East Asian scientists will be highly visible contributors to international meetings and will be more frequent participants in international exchanges of speakers and laboratories,” says the editorial.

Western Hemisphere Collaboration

In 1975, a meeting sponsored by the AAAS in Recife, Brazil, set the stage for establishing the Interciencia Association to promote collaboration between scientific communities in the United States and Latin America. In December 1993, leaders from AAAS and from 11 countries’ scientific organizations (including Canada) followed up with a Western Hemisphere Collaboration Initiative. The Initiative calls for improving scientific training and facilities in the region.

Recommendations included strengthening regional networking among institutions of science, expanding joint research projects throughout the hemisphere and between industry and academia; and working with governments to put science and technology on the political agenda.

According to AAAS President-elect Francisco J. Ayala: “The formation of a scientific bloc in the Western Hemisphere would speed up the region’s economic recovery.”

Making the Best of a Good Thing

These few examples illustrate that North-South collaboration is already underway - and that it can be profitable to all concerned. What remains is to build on existing networks and add new methods of collaboration in the worldwide effort to adapt to global change. Before the North and South can fully profit from such collaboration, however, the human and institutional capacities of the South must be greatly enhanced. The next chapter shows how this can be accomplished.