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close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart II: The Aral Sea
close this folder4. Creeping environmental problems in the Aral Sea basin
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentIntroduction to the notion of creeping environmental problems
View the documentCharacteristics of CEPs
View the documentCEPs and the Aral region
View the documentConcluding comments and a call for research
View the documentAcknowledgement
View the documentReferences

Introduction to the notion of creeping environmental problems

We are constantly bombarded in our daily lives with bad news about the environment. Some of that news is about environmental problems of a global nature and some of it is about problems at the local level. Some of these problems have long lead-times before their adverse consequences become apparent, whereas others develop over relatively shorter time-frames. The list of these environment-related problems is quite long and is still growing: air pollution, acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, desertification, droughts, famines, and the accumulation of nuclear and solid waste are the results of long-term, low-grade, and slow-onset cumulative processes. These kinds of problems can be called creeping environmental problems (CEPs) as opposed to rapid-onset natural hazards, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, storm surges, riverine floods, and severe winter storms. The schematic diagrams in figures 4.1 and 4.2 illustrate some of the differences between these two types of environmental changes. Creeping environmental problems cut across academic disciplines, political ideologies, continents, and cultures.

A major feature that CEPs share is that a change in a creeping environmental problem does not make it much worse today than it was yesterday; nor is the rate or degree of change tomorrow likely to be much different from that of today. So societies (individuals as well as government bureaucrats) do not, for the most part, recognize changes severe enough to cause them to treat their environments any differently than they had on previous days. Yet incremental changes in environmental conditions accumulate over time with the eventual result that, after some perceived if not objectively defined threshold of change has been crossed, those unimportant imperceptible increments of change "suddenly" appear as major degradation. If no action is then taken, as is often the case, those incremental changes will likely continue to mount until a full-blown crisis emerges.

Fig. 4.1 Schematic of a rapid-onset natural hazard (Source: Burton and Hewett, 1974)

Fig. 4.2 Schematic of slow-onset (creeping) environmental problems (Source: Döös, 1994)

Many changes to the environment are not considered detrimental in their early stages and, if arrested early enough in the process, would not appear at all on anyone's list of environmental problems. Such changes would likely be viewed as environmental transformation and not as degradation. For example, the cutting down of a small part of a mangrove forest to create a shrimp pond would not necessarily signal a stage in the destruction of a mangrove forest ecosystem (transformation). If, however, numerous ponds were to be constructed in the same location, then the mangrove forest ecosystem and its interactions with other ecosystems would eventually cease (degradation).


At a workshop on "Adaptive Ecological Characterization," sociologist John Petterson (1995) noted the importance of thresholds in environmental change.

Ecosystems, regardless of how they are defined, must be viewed in the context of accelerated change in the dominant variable, i.e., the social, political, economic, technological, and other factors that have altered the larger environmental context of every ecosystem or subsystem. [Societal] change is not occurring in a linear fashion and, therefore, concern should be on thresholds at which irreversible consequences are initiated.

For each of the creeping environmental changes there may be identifiable thresholds beyond which continued degradation of the environment will increase the likelihood of irreversible changes in a societally favoured ecosystem. Thresholds, however, are easier to talk about than to detect. In fact, in many cases they may be identifiable only in retrospect, after they have been surpassed.

When discussing thresholds of awareness of environmental change, it is necessary to consider whose awareness we are concerned with. Levels of awareness of changes in the environment will increase as the environmental change persists and worsens. At first, for such (Caps) as deforestation and desertification, changes may be noted by individuals at the local level but may not be seen as a threat of any sort and may go unreported to local or regional authorities or to national researchers. For truly global issues such as global warming or stratospheric ozone depletion, it would likely be a scientific researcher who first noticed an incremental environmental change.

As the environmental change is believed to have intensified in time (i.e. taken on a faster rate), in space (i.e. affecting a larger surface area than expected), or in impact (i.e. adversely impinging on human activities), it may be brought to the attention of authorities by local officials and environmental researchers. At this level, such changes might capture the attention and interest of the media. A further deepening of the adverse consequences associated with the change could prompt awareness at the national policy-making level, as well as of the international media, which can internationalize awareness of what had originally been viewed as a local environmental problem. Who it is that first generates awareness of a creeping environmental change and of subsequent thresholds of awareness can vary from one region to the next and from one type of creeping environmental change to another: it could be a farmer, a scientist, a policy maker, a news reporter.

There are several subjectively based thresholds that could be identified for creeping environmental problems: a first threshold relates to awareness of an environmental change that has not yet been considered a problem; a second threshold relates to awareness that a previously undetected environmental change has become a problem; a third threshold relates to the realization that the problem has reached a crisis stage; and a fourth one relates to a threshold that leads to concerted action to cope with the problem. With regard to the CO2 issue, the scientific community has chosen a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels of the pre-industrial era (about AD 1750) as an arbitrary indicator of a threshold. A doubling, however, is of no particular scientific significance. No major changes in the atmosphere are expected to occur once that level of atmospheric CO2 has been reached. Thus, it is a quantitative threshold that has been arbitrarily designated. Because these problems derive from slow-onset, low-grade, long-term, and cumulative environmental changes, it is not easy to identify universally accepted objective quantitative indicators of thresholds.

Steps of awareness

Threshold 1: Awareness of change

Agricultural people are busy with their daily routines and in most parts of the world that translates to human activities directly related to food production. Preoccupied with day-to-day efforts to eke out a living from the land, these people are likely to notice small changes in their environment. Those small changes are not considered to be an immediate problem, or perhaps even a problem at all. They are viewed as a modification or transformation of nature. In fact, such changes might at first be viewed as a precondition in the drive toward an improved quality of life for local inhabitants. Short-term benefits seem to override any concern about potential long-term implications of such small, seemingly benign, environmental changes. The rates of such change are not seen by anyone as threatening to human activities or to the long-term productivity of the environment. They may also be viewed as easily reversible.

Threshold 2: Awareness of a CEP

The recognition by an individual or a group that an environmental change has become a problem suggests that another threshold has been crossed. Not all observers will likely agree that a problem has emerged. Case histories of other CEPs, such as global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion, underscore that scientific uncertainties that surround an issue can be highlighted in such a way as to raise questions about whether the environment has changed significantly and, if so, whether that change had become a societal problem requiring action. This raises issues of risk acceptance, risk avoidance, and risk-making, with different elements in a society exhibiting one of these predispositions toward risk. The existence of opposing views notwithstanding, a threshold of awareness has been crossed that prompts the attention of decision makers at the regional or national levels of government.

Threshold 3: Crisis awareness

Usually, a "whistle blower" or a champion to lead the call for combating the CEP emerges when that problem reaches a crisis level. A crisis can be defined as a crossroad or critical turning point. It has also been defined as a critical decision point (e.g. short time to act, high threat, high cost of inaction).

In the risk assessment literature related to environmental issues (e.g. Kahneman et al., 1982), the notion of "dread risk" or "dread factor" has been used. A dread factor refers to a more ominous situation than crisis, in that it relates to a situation with a perceived lack of control, or with imminent catastrophic potential, or with fatal consequences. Crisis does not equate to dread. Resorting to the citing of a dread risk is a tactic that can backfire if the alleged dread status of the CEP is shown to be unsupported by facts. In generating societal belief that a critical threshold has been crossed and that a CEP demands immediate attention, the media (national and international) are often instrumental.

Threshold 4: Awareness of the need to act

Awareness of a crisis, however, often fails to translate directly into societal responses. By now the local community has likely become overwhelmed by the CEP and its local impacts. Only the national or international community can help them to cope with the CEP. However, as is often the case, given the degree of scientific and economic controversy (i.e. uncertainties) that usually surrounds CEPs, policy makers can choose to delay the enactment of coping policy responses. Thus, the last of the thresholds focuses on action, taken domestically or internationally.

Threshold 5: Action

What does it mean to "take action" on a creeping environmental problem? Although there is a wide range of possible actions that could be taken in the name of seeking to resolve a CEP, meaningful actions can be identified in objective terms for each CEP. Those actions would need to be defined in terms of the goals to be achieved by particular actions: slow down the rate of a creeping environmental change; arrest the progression of the change; reverse the direction of the change; restore the ecosystem. Actions taken at the lowest level of effectiveness (i.e. slow down the rate of the adverse change) can be challenged as ineffective by those who want to confront the problem more aggressively. Thus, responses to questions such as "have policy makers taken action" to combat desertification or deforestation or global warming will not necessarily be in agreement, because varying levels of actions in response to a CEP could be taken.

In sum, we need to identify thresholds and to recognize that they would likely vary from one region to another, even for the same type of environmental degradation. What is that threshold of awareness and of crisis? When is the appropriate time to act on a creeping environmental change (Glantz, 1994)? Before applying the notion of CEP to the Aral Sea basin, a close scrutiny of a variety of known CEPs could be instructive in identifying objective ways to recognize thresholds before they appear.