November 19, 2017

A question of climate

Book review: Climate and Development. Edited by Asit K. Biswas, Natural Resources and the Environment Series, Volume 13. Tycooly, Dublin, 1984.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 14 No. 5/6, June/July 1984.

This is a short book (146 pages) containing five chapters. Two are by the editor, Asit Biswas, one being on “Climate and Development”, the other on “Climate and Water Resources”. H. E. Landsberg of the University of Maryland contributes a chapter on “Climate and Health”, and India’s well known authority on agriculture, M. S. Swaminathan, now of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, writes on “Climate and Agriculture”. The final chapter – “The Effects of Climate Fluctuations on Human Populations, A Case Study of Mesopotamian Society” – is by Douglas Jackson and Harvey Gould of Clark University, Massachusetts.

The theme of the first chapter by Biswas is that it is much harder for countries in the tropics to develop than it is for countries in temperate areas – the reason being that climatic, biotic and soil conditions in the tropics make it very difficult to achieve an agricultural surplus.

Biswas has already written on this theme, notably in a book edited by himself and his wife Margaret Biswas and published by John Wiley In 1977. In the present book, Biswas points to the failure of development policies in the Third World. He writes,

“The euphoria of the past has given place to despondency, confusion and stalemate. The developers are still there, and so are the development theorists and planners. But they all concede that development is not as easy as they thought it to be and that there is no panacea for underdevelopment. It is realised that the road to development is tortuous: that development is not economic growth alone, and that many of the issues which were debated in the past, were not the real issues when seen In the light of the problems being faced by the less developed countries today.”

Few things illustrate the failure of development policies better than the extent to which once agriculturally self-sufficient Third World countries have now become totally dependent on western food imports. The point is well made by Biswas:

“Developing countries, in aggregate, were net exporters of grain in the 1950s. At the end of the First Development Decade, the surplus situation had turned into a net deficit. Developing countries as a whole imported 42 million tonnes of grain in 1970, and this further increased to 80 million tonnes by 1979. Estimates of total grain import needs by the end of the Third Development Decade in 1990 currently range from 125 to 150 million tonnes.”

Biswas goes on to quote Maurice J. Williams, Executive Director of the World Food Council who refers to

“the inadequate rate of increase in food and agricultural production in the developing countries, the continuing rise in their food imports, the deterioration in their food self-sufficiency and the lack of evidence of any reduction in the incidence of hunger and malnutrition. . .”

Much of this failure can be attributed to the application of agricultural methods which have been developed in temperate areas and which are totally unsuited to the tropics. Examples Include the deep ploughing of rice paddies in Java and Burma; the ludicrous 3.25 million acre groundnut scheme in Tanzania which had to be abandoned because the soil was unsuitable for the cultivation of ground-nuts; broiler production in the Gambia; and the cultivation of marginal lands “which should never have been farmed” in many African, Asian and Latin American countries.

Among those climatic features which make tropical countries so unsuited to western-type agriculture are the unevenness of the distribution of rainfall during the year; the unpredictability of rainfall (many famines have occurred as a result of the failure of the monsoon rains to start at the right time); the high kinetic energy of the tropical rainstorms which favours soil erosion; the vulnerability of the soil to wind-erosion during the hot dry season; and particularly high kinetic energy cover at the end of the dry season which leaves the soil unprotected during the rainy season.

Another problem is the poverty of micro-organismic life in the soil.

“High temperatures, long periods of drought, intense ultraviolet radiation and particularly high kinetic energy rainfall, which destroys the granular structure of the soil, decrease the activity of soil micro-organisms so that there is little possibility in open land for the stable organic content of the soil to build up: indeed there is a tendency for it to be destroyed.”

This means that the organic content of tropical soils tends to be low which makes them still more vulnerable to erosion. A further problem is the vast biological diversity of ecosystems in the tropics. This means that the number of potential pests is high and pest control is thereby very much more difficult than in temperate areas. Biswas nonetheless believes that development can take place in the tropics, indeed he seems to regard it as very necessary, although he does not tell us how the problems he describes are to be overcome.

Landsberg’s chapter on “Climate and Health” is a little academic and difficult to read. The first part seems to be concerned with the effect of temperature itself on the human metabolism and on disease. The section dealing with infectious diseases is perhaps the most interesting.

Swaminathan’s chapter, “Climate and Agriculture”, describes the effects of drought and other climatic hazards on tropical agriculture. He also lists the different crop varieties which have been developed by the International Rice Research Institute for cultivation in the tropics. He considers these to be superior to traditional varieties.

All in all, this is a very useful book, the chapters written by Asit Biswas being the most interesting. The theme of the first Biswas article is of critical importance in determining future development policies in the Third World.

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