The Missing Piece of The Puzzle

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The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle

By Ernst Young

Sustainability as a concept, theory, and philosophy, is one which has plagued scholars for decades in its definition and application. The requirement for something to be “sustainable” has been instrumental to the success or failure of technological introductions into new, often fragile environments. The gravity of its presence lies with its ability to revive or destroy our natural environment, and in the case of the latter can be considered a missing piece of a technological puzzle.
The word sustainability was first appeared in Edward Goldsmith’s ‘Blueprint for Survival’  in 1972. As an environmentalist, Goldsmith’s aim was to highlight the environmental impact of human activity and increasing standard of living. The word ‘sustainability’ was used in context to refer to the future of mankind.

Two years later it was used in the United States to justify a “no Growth” economy [2].The Oxford Dictionary definitions of ‘Sustainability’ are; “The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level” and “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”. From the first definition, it can be inferred that anything unable to maintain a specified condition is therefore unsustainable. However, the second, defines a goal of maintaining ecological balance by means of avoiding depletion of natural resources.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” . However, irrespective of various interpretations, present day sustainability seeks to incorporate a social, economic and environmental (including ecological) factors.

The incorporation of sustainability into any project is a delicate endeavour and has led to many projects ceasing to realise and capture their value.
In 1972, Donella H. Meadows and her co-authors depicted a very dark future for our planet in detailed in ‘The limits to growth’. In the 30-year update edition, it reiterated that a sustainable process is one which requires a feedback mechanism in order to maintain its state. A perfect example is seen in the Albedo effect’s contribution to global warming. The melting of ice caps decreases the white surfaces which reflect the sun’s rays and therefore increases the warming rate and induces more ice caps to melt. To date, no “sustainable” system can interact with its environment or products in a way which feeds its maintenance. Rather, there is constant intervention required from users. For example, a car engine regularly requires intervention in engine oil (top-up). Too often, many “sustainable” projects and systems fail due to the constant injection of capital required. This was certainly the case with the Lake Turkana fish processing plant in Kenya funded by the Norwegian government. With a whole host of issues contributing to its operation, funding proved one of the most difficult, causing the project to fail in days. This project is a reminder of the dangers of top-down planning.

For developing nations, the economic aspects of sustainability look to put a strain on their development. At a time where less is more, the precedence set by the developed countries is one which demands large quantities of energy without regard to the source (as we saw during the industrial revolution). What makes a problem difficult is the lack of precedence, tools and knowledge. However, in such regions the precedence set is totally unsustainable, the tools to proceed are unavailable and there seems to be a disparity between regional and scientific knowledge. This begs the question; how then are they expected to develop sustainably? With the adequate tools and knowledge in developing countries, it seems the transition to a more sustainable society is moving slower than had initially been anticipated. It seems development and growth are holding back sustainability in developing countries and sustainability is holding back growth in the developed. The leaders of developed countries are gripped between development and slow growth or growth and slow development.

Fast forward to 2019 and some hope for sustainability lies in the horizon. Hope in the form of global development driven initiatives such as that undertaken by the Global Programme Water (GPW) of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). This agency and its partners seek to tackle global challenges associated with the management of water resources. One outstanding development came with the iMoMo project.

The iMoMo project harnesses the recent improvement in innovative technologies to introduce new opportunities to the hydrological monitoring space. This had made it possible to bring in new agents into water monitoring whilst shifting from technical expert reliance to non-experts within communities. These initiatives use local community feedback, site and culturally specific needs as the foundations to the schemes initiated, and the result is promising.
In Tanzania, a pilot scheme aimed to curb the disruption caused by the Themi river catchment (of the Pagani river) which has faced increased pressure for drinking, livestock watering, and irrigation water. This has resulted from increased population growth seen in the area which has had knock-on effects on the ecosystem, hydro-power, and general well-being.

The outcome of this pilot has seen a turnaround in the management and use of water from the catchment both from agricultural establishments and individual dwellers. This is through the introduction of gauging sensors around the catchment to monitor flow and volume (facilitated by local people). Through the iMoMo centre, this information is distributed, along with weather forecasts and up-to-date market prices for agricultural goods to end-user subscribers through SMS messages. Not only has this seen a more feasible interaction with water around the catchment but also ensures the time and effort locals put into travelling to obtain water is not in vain (due to a dry catchment). This therefore allows parts of the catchment in a fragile condition to be left to recover while healthier ones are exploited.

The success of this has led to an expansion to the Rufiji Basin in Tanzania. The basin organization uses the iMoMo discharge technology for compliance monitoring of irrigation-water abstractions by large farms. This further helps protect tributaries sourced for agriculture (and hence may be at greatest risk). The success of this project has proved the successful uptake of any technology depends on local needs and local context. Secondly, the involvement of locals from initial consultations to service-life involvement is key to garnering support and community acceptance. Finally, an interesting element of this project sheds light on the need for valorisation of efforts. This specifically encompasses those involved in the monitoring and distribution process but highlights a required a level of trust and value for, and in the work carried out by those supporting such initiatives.

The outcomes from Tanzania highlight some pre-requisites for projects to be sustainable in the long or short-run. However, the successful implementation of a sustainable project yields rewards beyond a generation and is understandably still one of the most difficult tasks to execute on any project. However, the iterative nature of design and inspiration from history stands to provide a platform towards achieving this, building a bridge to finally finding the missing piece of the puzzle.

Ernst Young