Long Time No Sea

April 1, 2009

This case study shows that the cause of climate change is not limited to emissions of greenhouse gases; it is also highly related to our attitude and the way we treat natural resources. The Kyoto Protocol has spotted out the main causes of climate change, but reducing emission of greenhouse gases alone cannot solve the problem of global climate change. Over the past few weeks, we saw that over-exploitation of natural resources can result in important threats towards human security, potentially in the form of violent conflicts: “As the world population grows, its escalating resource needs place ever-increasing pressure on land. This creates conflicts among competing user groups, and often results in adverse impacts both to the land and to its living and non-living resources.” But over-exploitation can also lead to climate change, a truly global phenomenon.

We have discussed water scarcity two weeks ago, and we are discussing climate change this week. But did you know that  water itself can have an impact on climate change? This week, we are going to share a real story on climate change, called “Long time no sea”. The “sea” we are talking about is the Aral Sea in Central Asia, an inland sea lying between southern Kazakhstan and northwest Uzbekistan. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea has been shrinking for the last 40 years because of diversion of its two sources, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya Rivers. By 2007, the Aral Sea had declined to 10% of its original size and split into three separate lakes. Please click here to see how the size of the sea decreased from the 1960s. 


The reason for “long time no sea” was the over-pumping of water for cotton and rice production, causing the remaining water to become highly salinated. As a result, not only did the “sea’s” 24 species of freshwater fish die out, even fishing boats found themselves marooned in the middle of a desert !! The Kazakh and Uzbek had to say goodbye to their beach, harbour and fishing industry. But there is more to it.


As water plays an important role in regulating the climate system,  over-pumping has resulted in distortions in the climate: “with the reduction of the Aral Sea’s size, the surrounding climate has changed, becoming more continental with shorter, hotter, rainless summers and longer, colder, snowless winters. The growing season has been reduced to an average of 170 days a year, while dust storms rage on more than 90 days annually.” The IPCC also suggests that the drying off process and subsequent desertification and salinization of soils resulted in a temperature increase of 1.5 C within 100-150 km of the edge of the sea.  The reason behind this is that “The temperature of ocean helps regulate the amount of carbon dioxide released or absorbed into the water“. Although we may think that 1.5 C is minimal, it can cause serious impacts to the ecosystem including human lives – e.g. the dust storms which are undoubtedly threats towards human security. 


You may be wondering: “Where was the international community?”. Actually, the international community did take actions, but it was too late already: “There have been international and worldwide studies done on the Aral Sea and many different organizations and people have tried various ways to keep the flow of water directed into the Aral Sea. However, it comes down to the fact that it seems it is too late for anything to be done“.


Therefore, Human Security advocates should not limit themselves at pressuring the USA to sign up the Kyoto Protocol in the coming climate change conference; they also work to ensure that our natural resources are properly used. It undoubtedly requires collaboration within the international community. While poorer developing countries rely heavily on natural resources to produce primary commodities and maintain their living standard, they may not have enough knowledge and technology to manage their natural resources. Action should be taken as early as possible by the international community or other cases of “long time no sea’ will keep repeating, resulting in an accelerated rate of climate change…


By Tong Yui Wa Andy & Yu Wai Yan Becky

If you would like to know more about how Aral Sea is going on, you can look at this article for the recent projects to save the sea! 


11 Responses to “Long Time No Sea”

  1. jfdupre Says:

    Dear Andy and Becky,

    This is an interesting story. However, as we saw in this week’s readings, Human Security does advocate much more than the signature of the Kyoto protocol. How can Human Security advocates “concretely” ensure that “natural resources are properly used”? What is the role of Developed Countries in helping developing countries acquire “knowledge and technology to manage their natural resources”. “Poorer developing countries rely heavily on natural resources to produce primary commodities and maintain their living standard” — Do you think that developed countries are partly to blame for these disasters, by purchasing cheap goods manufactured in non-sustainable processes/environments? What are the most realistic solutions to these problems?

    • andytong Says:

      Dear J-F,

      Yes, you are right. As we can see, most depletion of resources in developing countries is done by developed countries. Because developed countries have better urban planning and outsource their production department to less developed for looser rules and cheaper cost. As the sequence, the problems created by production processes were gone to those developing countries. The main buyers of the products are the developed too, like coffee bean and coca. The real situation tells us, if to impose an environmental-friendly policy in specific developing country. The production would simply move away and choose other countries as new site. So to deal with it, a world-wide adopted comprehensive framework/ policy is always needed to take control this behavior, as well as a “great authority” need to monitor it – how difficult the task it is.

      However, we can only blame a half to the developed countries. Some misbehavior like improper farming method and over-depletion of resources are needed to be responsible by local people. Poor countries should still work on something to deal with climate change but not only rich countries’ responsibility, which rich countries should help those poor countries in this issue and not shifting their production lines elsewhere. This includes a change in norm and thought that realizes we are living in a global village so we have to help each other. It is very difficult and a really long time process….

      In fact besides state-actors of developed countries and developing countries, NGOs and private sector should also have their roles. So we might need to consider responsibilies among different sectors in order to achieve a further step in alleviating climate change.

      Andy & Becky

  2. Weldon Says:

    Thanks Andy and Becky,

    I found this blog very interesting and definitely opened my eyes to climate issues that I may not have thought about before.

    I believe the issue of Human Security and Climate change though one in the same are contradicting forces. If we are to say that we want to guarantee freedom from want to all people we must provide for them. However the issue at hand is that the commerce/economics of people are slowly destructing the very resources we need to survive. The agricultural industry of the area will flourish by utilizing that Aral sea but because of over use we have destroyed the very resource we need and have possibly created even more environmental concerns. So my question is what must be done to balance these demands between protecting our environment and protecting peoples needs.

    Another example similar to this would be the deforestation in Borneo/Indonesia. It has created a massive haze around the are and have also decreased the vegetation level but have increased agricultural land. What must be done to preserve both needs?

    • andytong Says:


      Thanks for your comment! We think you have raised a very good point that we face many contradicting forces when implementing human security. For example, if a country wants to alleviate her poverty and raise the living standard of her citizens, she needs to clear forest and open up new land for urban development; she needs to pump water underground or from the river and lead to the drying up of water sources – those will lead to a change in local even sometimes global climate. Then we can see a dilemma, seems in order to alleviate poverty, a state needs to compromise the natural environment for the goal. Environment or GDP?

      It is a difficult task to satisfy the both and even to strive a balance of protecting environment and protecting people needs. Especially in developing countries like India, while most people live in poverty, it is “nonsense” for them to think of cutting fewer trees for the global climate by paying the cost of unemployment and starvation. If we put a restriction on the amount of fuel wood they can chop, it will undoubted cause negative impacts to their livelihoods. That’s something like “we even cannot see a hope of my next generation, how come I need to work for my unseen next next genetation”. Hence, so far, the target states to work on climate change are mainly developed countries (like the Kyoto). Developing countries now are not strictly required to do so unless they have reached a certain level of development. Development and conservation have to be done simultaneously. The term “sustainable development” in Agenda 21 is indeed referring to both “ecological sustainability” & “development”.

      The question is now how the balance between environment and meeting human needs can be reached. Our opinion is that it requires the collaboration of the international communities (UN, WB, IMF, MDCs, INGOs etc). Actions are done (humanitarian aids; education; share of technologies) with the aim of diversifying their economies which in turn reducing their reliance on natural resources. Also, a stable environment has to be established for development to take place so it has been found that poverty has always been the main cause of over-exploitation of natural resources.

      To combat climate change, all the parties in the world have their roles to play no matter MDCs or LDCs. Kyoto Protocol has categorized China as developing countries. However, it has now become the biggest emitter of GHGs in the world, surpassing U.S.A. So we think that sustainability and development has to be balanced by all the states. The LDCs do have the need to develop but it does not imply that they can ignore the sustainability issue like the case of China now. The MDCs do have the need to conserve more but it does not implies that they can ignore the development issue as they play an important role in uprooting poverty in LDCs.

      Andy & Becky

  3. Tiffany Lam Says:

    Thanks for your interesting blog post, Andy and Becky. I also find the questions asked by my fellow blog commentors insightful and though provoking.

    I do, however, have the follow question to add:

    While it is apparent that climate change is a human security concern, we’re currently at a stage where international agreements on collective actions on the environment had repeatedly failed (e.g. Kyoto Protocol’s exclusiveness and ratifying members’ failure to meet emission targets come to mind)

    Most environmental problems, however far-reaching they can be in the long run, stem from regional issues (e.g. how the drying up of Aral sea is only perceptably influencing nearby climate) On the global negotiation table, it is hard for the international community to prioritize environmental concerns– and “ensure that our natural resources are properly used”– when many of the issues don’t even concern them immediately.

    Would you agree that the current framework for solving the environmental threat is inadequate to ease the situation? Would new breakthroughs in environmental crisis management (e.g. development of new technologies more friendly to the environment) be a better way to go for the future? And if so, what do you recommend?

    • andytong Says:

      Dear Tiffany,

      Thanks for your comments and your question. Our answer, certainly, the current framework for solving the environmental threat is inadequate to ease the situation. Not only Kyoto Protocol failed to control the largest CO2 emitters like US, the burden of coping with climate change has all gone to the shoulder of rich countries and states like China (even Hong Kong!) are not restricted to lower CO2 emission. So what is the result is many developed countries have not being doing well in reducing carbon emissions. The reason behind may be that “why I have to do something while others just hold their hands”

      Now many MNCs from MDCs have moved the production line to developing countries so as to “escape” from the restriction. However, it is nothing more than transferring the emission to other places. The transnational problem of global climate change still persists. The problem of global climate change should be combated by the world including both developed and less developed countries which may carry different roles in the process.

      Although everyone regards Kyoto Protocol as insufficient and ineffective. But we think we should better not to blame the Kyoto Protocol so much as this is still the first significant attempt by the community of nations to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that are changing global climate – it is a good start. The biggest concern how may be how to ensure that US ratifies Kyoto Protocol or the participation of all states which is also a difficult one. However, we are optimistic towards the future of our Earth. As what we can observe last Saturday, the world has engaged in a global action which involves dimming/turning off lights for an hour. The ideologies brought by us have been under transformation. With the global climate change being concerned by more and more of us, we believe that the states must have to respond to our needs, our needs for global human security. Also, we find that many breakthroughs of environmental management have emerged in recent years like the concept of ecological footprint, carbon footprint, carbon capturing, carbon trading etc. As a result, Kyoto Protocol may not be really efficient and adequate but it has set a good platform of synergizing force among the world to tackle climate change and in turn achieve global human security.

      Andy & Becky

  4. wufiona Says:

    Andy and Becky,

    Thank you for your post. The topic of “long time no sea” definitely draws my attention. It echoes with the disappearing glacier in British Columbia mentioned in the introductory video. Not just “long time no sea”, but also “long time no glacier”, “long time no forest”, “long time no species” all pop up in my mind.

    I could not agree more that sustaining the environment is very difficult when countries, especially developing countries, depends heavily on natural resources to advance economically. The short term benefits overweigh the long term sustainability. So the current task yet to be solved is how to strike a balance between the two? Moreover, it is also in hot debate that is it fair for the developing countries to receive such constraints to protect the planet which was exploited mostly by developed countries? How would you account this issue?


    • andytong Says:


      Thanks for your questions. It’s true that for under-developed countries to choose short term benefits for opening up new land or urban development, rather than concerning the sustainable use of natural resources. Of course for us, we must think they should strive a balance between the both and harm the environment as little as they can. Although it may sounds “unfair” to them to have such limitation as no-one tells the developed countries to concerning the environment fifty years before, we should not forget that climate change is a global human security issue which require the whole world to solve. The balance between “sustainability” and “development” must have to be reached by all including the LDCs.

      To be workable, the international bodies can help them with a “better way to deplete resources” and to urge foreign investment company and enterprises to adopt it. Although we think every individual, every state should have their roles to cope with climate change, the responsibilities and actual actions can be different. While MDCs can help LDCs in technology and capital, LDCs should pay more attention on education and willing to regard sustainability and global warming as their nation concerns. To alter the situation in LDCs, merely LDCs cannot do many things but require to co-operation of different states and parties like NGOs and authorities, as we know that MDCs usually have influential power in LDCs because of the huge investment like from the MNCs. Do not forget that some MNCs lfrom the MDCs like Nike have outsourced ALL of its production to less developed countries.

      Andy & Becky

  5. lkmkatrina Says:

    Thank you for your interesting post.

    While this story illustrates how the depletion of natural resources changing the micro-climate of the area, I believe this is a realistic case happening in many developing countries and all of these have added up to contribute to changing the global climate generally.

    It seems to me that while developed nations are environmentally friendly and conscious in protecting the environment in their own countries, they are exporting their industrial demand to developing countries just as they trade emission budgets with developing countries to get the emission target reached under the framework of Kyoto Protocol. This kind of mindset does not help the world much in the threat of climate change. So what is your opinion as how to steer the rich and the poorer nations to cooperate much more effectively in this issue?

    – Katrina

    • andytong Says:

      Dear Katrina,

      Thanks for your comment, you have raised a good question that how to steer the rich and the poorer nations to cooperate much more effectively without pushing consequences to poor countries. This is a question worth thinking but it’s a very difficult one. The first thing need to consider is the question of burden-sharing. The reason why many rich countries do not want to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is because seems all burdens has gone to their shoulders, they should responsible for most of the expenditure and developing countries no need to work on it. This seems “unfair” to developed countries. So to encourage rich countries to participate in dealing with climate change, we suggested a well developed system/framework is always needed to clearly define the roles of LDCs and MDCs, in a fair basis. Even LDCs are poor, they cannot totally escape from the responsibilities like the Kyoto one; even MDCs are rich, they cannot bear all expenditure and cost. We think the CO2 emission by capita is a better one to decide what extent a state need to do with global warming. Besides in national scale, it’s essential to encourage the private enterprises to take some responsibilities. To cope with global environment crises, it only becomes effective with the co-operation of different sectors. Rather than MDCs and LDCs, private sectors are also important roles. Indeed the rise of the concept of corporate social responsibility is response to the need of private enterprise to play a role in combating climate change. It is undoubtedly necessary. What a country can do may include adoption of green technology for buildings, vehicles, factories; designing the urbanization process in a green manner; promoting educations; conducting researches etc. It cannot intervene the market as a free one. As a result, the private enterprises have to take the initiative to do so.

      Andy & Becky

  6. benitozenil Says:

    Hi andy and Becky, It was really interesting to view your points of view in this matter.
    Now, what abou the resulting threats on human security after this situations -“long time no sea” & other similar situations e.g. forrest, lakes, deserts, etc-, I mean, obviously the lack of natural resources will affect in short-time run all the sectors that depends on these natural resources, economic, social, health, etc. but in long-term, what issues will raise? I think it could be more complete if you set a “scenario” of what might happen in long term, does migration process will start? the economic activities depending on this natural resourcer will re-adapt?, will change? what about the social impact, probably there are 5,6,7 or more time generations living in areas on Asia, not what will happen to them? could this begin a military conflicts to protect or to gain the rest of the natural resources in the area?
    I know, there are several question, but it could help to picture a possible or “what if” scenario?
    Hovewer, I actually enjoy this reading. Thanks

    Luis Benito

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