Mosul Dam

The Mosul Dam is one element of Iraq’s infrastructure that has survived the war so far, but which is apparently seriously threatened. Because was built on gypsum, which dissolves in water, it threatens to fail catastrophically as the result of small initial problems. A report from the US Army Corps of Engineers warned that the dam’s failure would drown Mosul under nearly 20m of water and parts of Baghdad under 4.5m. The 2006 report explained that:

In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world. If a small problem [at] Mosul Dam occurs, failure is likely.

According to the BBC, the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has stated that the dam’s foundations could give away at any moment. The report from the Corps of Engineers states that the dam’s failure could cause 500,000 civilian deaths. General David Petraeus and the American Ambassador to Iraq have both written to the Iraqi government expressing their severe concern.

The dam is 2,100m across and contains 12 billion cubic metres of water. It generates about 320 MW of electricity. Previous attempts at addressing the gypsum issue seem to have been botched. According to the Washington Post “little of the reconstruction effort led by the U.S. Embassy has succeeded in improving the dam.” Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general reviewing the efforts has said that “[t]he expenditures of the money have yielded no benefit yet.”

Today, the Iraq government has officially stated that concerns about a possible collapse are misplaced and that the dam is constantly monitored. Ongoing actions include reducing the amount of water in the reservoir and pumping grout into the foundation (a liquefied mixture of cement and other additives). Work is meant to begin next year on wrapping the foundations in concrete to make them more secure.

Obviously, a catastrophic dam collapse is the last thing Iraq needs. Hopefully, the dam will hold until a sensible refit can be carried out, and it will not find any wayward coalition munitions or insurgent bombs helping it towards disintegration.

Index of climate posts

Fruit bar

For the last while, my aim on this blog has been both to entertain readers and to provide some discussion of all important aspects of the climate change problem. To facilitate the latter aim, I have established an index of posts on major climate change issues. Registered users of my blog can help to update it. Alternatively, people can use comments here to suggest sections that should be added or other changes.

The index currently contains all posts since I arrived in Ottawa. I should soon expand it to cover the entire span for which this blog has existed.

Problems with ethanol as a fuel

Biofuels are quite a hot topic at the moment. There is an ongoing debate about subsidies for corn ethanol in the United States, and a more general discussion about the overall merits and shortfalls of the biofuel approach. One compound that features prominently in the debate is ethanol: the two-carbon molecule familiar to martini drinkers everywhere.

Unfortunately, ethanol has a number of properties that make it unappealing as a fuel:

  1. While oil and water are famously difficult to mix, water mixes easily with ethanol. This makes it more difficult and expensive to store and transport. Pipelines are especially afflicted by this issue. Ethanol that has been blended with gasoline can seperate when it comes into contact with water.
  2. Moving through pipelines and sloshing around in storage tanks, ethanol is also prone to collect various sorts of crud and impurities. These must then be filtered out at a later stage.
  3. Ethanol is corrosive to both metals and rubber compounds. As such, it can increase the level of maintenance required in all of the machinery that comes into contact with it, as well as diminishing the lifetime of that equipment.
  4. Ethanol has a lower energy density than conventional liquid fossil fuels. That means less distance travelled for any particular volume, as well as a larger ratio of fuel weight to total weight for vehicles with a particular range.
  5. The volatility of ethanol is also problematic. The fact that it turns to gas easily (and has high vapour pressure) can be problematic in hot environments.
  6. Finally, ethanol is made in ways that have both direct and indirect negative consequences. The direct production of ethanol from corn raises food prices (affecting the poor, in particular). Corn agriculture also uses fertilizers (causing eutrophication of rivers) and pesticides. Large increases in land use for bioethanol production may also lead to deforestation, as crops that can be grown in areas presently forested (like soya in the Amazon) get displaced from existing agricultural lands.

None of this is to say that ethanol is without advantages – nor that it will have no role in the future energy mix. I am simply laying out some of the problems that need to be overcome, or that will otherwise limit the adoption of bioethanol as fuel.

Geoengineering: wise to have a fallback option

Sailing ship graffiti

Over at RealClimate they are talking about geoengineering: that’s the intentional manipulation of the global climatic system with the intent to counteract the effects of greenhouse gasses. Generally, it consists of efforts to either reflect more solar energy back into space or enhance the activity of biological carbon sinks. It has been mentioned here before.

The fundamental problem with all geoengineering schemes (from sulfite injections to plankton tubes to giant mirrors) is that they risk creating unexpected and negative side-effects. That said, it does seem intelligent to investigate them as a last resort. Nobody knows at what point critical physical and biological systems might tip into a cycle of self-reinforcing warming. Plausible examples include permafrost melting in the Arctic, releasing methane that heats the atmosphere still more, or the large-scale burning of tropical rainforests, both producing emissions and reducing the capacity of carbon sinks. If physical or biological systems became net emitters of greenhouse gasses, cutting human emissions to zero would not be sufficient to stop warming; it would simply continue until the planet reached a new equilibrium.

Given linear projections of climate change damages, we would probably be wisest to heed the Stern Review and spend adequately on mitigation. Given the danger of strong positive feedbacks, it makes sense to develop some fallback options for use in desperate times. It seems to me that various forms of geoengineering should be among them. Let us hope they never need to be used.

A Presidential debate on science

Here is an interesting idea: holding a Presidential debate exclusively on science. Having some understanding of scientific issues is certainly essential to effective policy-making in many areas, especially medicine and the environment. A televised debate could allow voters to gain an appreciation for how strong each candidate’s understanding of science really is, when they do not have advisors to fall back upon.

That said, I doubt candidates would be keen to hold such a debate. For one thing, most of them would probably embarass themselves. For another, science has become such an acutely politicized field that such a debate may just reflect existing ideological stances.

This is being discussed on Slashdot.

Mechanism design theory

Window and shadows in Montreal

The 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz for their work on asymmetric information. One standard assumption in neoclassical economic models is that all participants in a transaction have ‘perfect information’ about the goods or services being exchanged. The field of behavioural economics is now seeking to deepen such models, so that they can better reflect the kind of dynamics that exist in real markets.

Asymmetric information is a key factor in the functioning of real markets. When you buy a used car, the person at the lot probably knows more about it than you do. The salesperson knows more about used cars in general, may have spoken with the original seller, and may have investigated this specific car. Conversely, you know more about your health risks than your health insurer (provided you live somewhere where health insurance is private). You might know, for instance, that all your relatives die of heart attacks on their 35th birthdays and that you personally drink 3L of whisky per day.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Leonid Hurwicz, Eric S. Maskin, and Roger B. Myerson for their work on mechanism design theory. The basic purpose of the theory is to deal with problems like those of assymetric information: take a situation where people would normally have an incentive to behave badly (lie, cheat, etc) and establish rules to make it no longer in their interest to do so. We might, for instance, require used car salespeople to provide some sort of guarantee, or we might allow health insurers to void the policies of individuals who lie about their health when premiums are being set.

Reading about mechanism design feels a bit like watching engineers try to create religious commandments. This section from the Wikipedia entry illustrates what I mean.

Mechanism designers commonly try to achieve the following basic outcomes: truthfulness, individual rationality, budget balance, and social welfare. However, it is impossible to guarantee optimal results for all four outcomes simultaneously in many situations.

While it does seem a bit counterintuitive to try to achieve these things through economic means, it is probably more durable than simply drilling axioms into people’s heads. That is especially true when the counterparty they are dealing with is some distant corporation; people who would never cheat someone standing right in front of them are much more willing to deceive or exploit such a distant and amorphous entity.

Montreal Sous Bois Hostel: WiFi and bedbugs included

The Sous Bois hostel in Montreal is quite a lively place. In some ways, it is an unusually good establishment. The atmosphere is positive, there is free wireless internet, the location is good, and the facilities are fairly well maintained. One nice touch is providing a big bowl of earplugs (a necessity in almost any hostel).

The biggest problem with the Sous Bois, in my experience, is the bedding. The bunks consist of squeaky air mattresses and the sheets they provide are awfully scanty for Montreal in winter. It is a good thing I ended up sleeping in my shoes, trousers, and jacket, since I woke up with my hands and ankles covered in small, itchy insect bites. All told, I have about 100 of them, after two nights in the place. Lots of other ex-guests mention the bugs, which demonstrates the importance of researching low-cost accommodations, rather than choosing one that appears high on Google and has a nice webpage. The lack of secure storage facilities is also a problem.

This definitely wasn’t the worst hostel I have stayed in (the Hosteling International places across from St. Mark’s Square in Venice and on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City share that dishonour), but it isn’t one I would be quick to stay in again.

[Update: 29 October 2007] This afternoon I spoke with Fred Bouchard, a manager at the Sous Bois Hostel. He seemed suspiciously familiar with bedbugs: asking me whether the bites were clustered in lines (as bedbug bites are) and then telling me that the hostel policy was to refund the cost of your stay (within two weeks) and to pay for any bite-related medications prescribed by a doctor. He told me to see a doctor immediately and that I need to either immerse everything I had with me in boiling water or put it through the dryer on high for at least half an hour. Once it gets cold enough, I will freeze the suit-carrying luggage that is presently in garbage bag quarantine for at least three days.

It seems pretty clear that this hostel is well aware of their infestation. That probably explains the minimal sheets and the air mattresses, as well as the ease with which the staff recall their bedbug policies. Once I find the right phone number within the City of Montreal bureaucracy, I will file a report with the public health authorities. In some cases, bedbugs can carry hepatitis; also, infestations that people bring home could easily cost thousands of dollars to clear up. As such, it seems reasonable that the city authorities would be concerned that this place is still operating in such a dodgy manner.

[Update: 31 October 2007] The hostel refunded me for my stay. One person contacted me through one of the hosteling webpages to tell me that they gave her a refund too, after she found their non-paying guests snacking on her.

‘Enduring Freedom’ and Afghanistan

Montreal graffiti

Last night, I got into a brief conversation about the Taliban. It reminded me of a statement quoted at a Strategic Studies Group meeting I attended in Oxford:

People are being very careful not to be against the Taliban and ‘keep the balance’ so that they will not be punished for helping foreigners when the Taliban return.

-Police commander, Kandahar

This idea raises an important question about longevity. If the Taliban can outlast any deployment NATO will be able to maintain, it becomes essential to produce a government that will be able to hold its own against them in the long term. Otherwise, we are just delaying the transition back to Taliban rule. While I am definitely not an expert on the military or political situation in Afghanistan, it does not seem like the present Karzai government has that kind of capability, in the absence of direct military support from NATO.

The question thus becomes what, if anything, NATO can do to produce a (preferably democratic) Afghan government capable of enduring after their withdrawal. If that does not prove possible, the question becomes what we are hoping to achieve in Afghanistan, and whether any lasting good will result for the population as the result of the initial displacement of the Tabliban and the Al Qaeda elements they were supporting.

Francophone drizzle

So far, Montreal is proving disappointingly soggy – so much so that I fear for my laptop whenever I venture out of cafes. All of today has been marked with persistent drizzle and punctuated by proper downpours at regular intervals. Last night involved some good fireworks, scores of people tramping around the Old Town in Halloween costumes, extensive conversation with people in the hostel, and a very late night introduction to the actual game of dominoes (rather than the practice of knocking them down sequentially).

For now, I am off to seek something both non-inundative and interesting to do for the evening. Quite possibly, I will make my way over to the Plateau, near Mont Royal itself.