Tag Archives: Photographs

The River Thames at night

Somewhat surprisingly, I had never been on a boat on the River Thames at night until yesterday.  I remember  as a child, when London seemed to have turned its back on the river, which always seemed cold, dark, smelly and unattractive!   Over the last 50 years this has all changed, especially with the opening up of the path along the south bank of the Thames, and the transformation of the old docks into modern offices and residential areas. I had not, though, appreciated just how beautiful it was at night, with the buildings all carefully lit.  I hope that the pictures below do it some justice!  Thanks to Dominc and Caroline for making this possible for delegates at the Education World Forum!

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Thames floods at Runnymede, January 2014

I have to admit to being a bit perplexed why so much fuss is being made over the recent flooding in the UK.  Yes, of course there has been damage to property and loss of life, there have been huge waves that have reshaped our coasts, and weeks of rain have given rise to extensive floods in the first few days of 2014.  However, floods are to be expected!  Anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge about rainfall and hydrological systems should know that flood periodicity occurs, and that this can be described statistically.  Thus, we refer to the notion of a 100-year flood as being a flood amount with a 1% probability of occurring in any one year; a 500-year flood has a 0.2% chance of occurring in any one year.  Big floods are expected; we just cannot predict exactly when!  Naturally, flood plains are those areas into which rivers overflow, and historically people knew this and built their properties above the usual flood level.  Looking at the photographs of flooded parts of England, it is fascinating to see that in most cases it is the ancient churches and oldest houses that are most frequently to be seen above the rising water levels.  River management systems seek to deal with the most frequent flood levels, and the challenge is to get the balance right between protection and cost.  Thus, the expense of protecting against 1000-year floods is often prohibitive, and it is generally argued that it is much better simply to pay for repair to the damage of these extreme events.  In Britain, the Environment Agency, for example, provides detailed maps of flood risk, which specifically identifies the areas at risk of 1000 year floods (in pale blue).

Unfortunately, a long period of relatively few floods in the UK in the 195os and 1960s led planners increasingly to build on flood plains, and although the amount of building on flood plains in Scotland and Wales is now very slight, 11% of new builds in England in 2011 were still in areas at risk of 100 year floods.  Some 5.2 million houses in England, representing 23.1% of existing properties are estimated to be at risk of such floods.  This demand by ‘developers’ shows no signs of abating, and a report in 2012 indicated that planning applications were submitted to build as many as 28,000 new homes on land that officials considered to be at serious risk of flooding. It is not nature, or any failings of the Environment Agency that are to blame for the misery of our present floods, but rather the demand for housing and the greed of those who want to maximise profits from house building and other construction on flood plains!  I have to say that with respect to the recent floods it would appear that the Environment Agency has actually done a remarkably good job, and I am dismayed at how critical so many people seem to have been of the flood protection efforts made by recent governments.

Whilst such floods are obviously very sad and damaging for those affected by them, they are a good reminder that nature is actually much more powerful than we often give it credit for, and waterscapes of flooding can indeed be very striking and beautiful.  Below I capture some images taken over the last couple of days of the Thames at Runnymede – as the National Trust sign says, “The birthplace of modern democracy”!

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CHOGM 2013 Opening Ceremony

This is the third time I have been privileged to attend an Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.  As well as the formal speeches, and parading of heads of state, these occasions provide a fascinating opportunity to see how a country wishes to present itself, and I hope that the images below capture something of the essence of the opening ceremony just held in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans certainly put on a beautiful pageant, and there were thousands of young dancers lining the streets – they must have been exhausted by the time the ceremony was over!

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Seoul: cyberspace, hospitality and Seolleung

I had the privilege of being invited to participate in the recent Seoul Conference on Cyberspace, which provided me with an opportunity to visit Korea for the first time.  Although most of the three days I stayed there was spent in the COEX Convention Centre, the organisers had also arranged for some of us to go on an ‘industry tour’ which briefly took us out into the ‘countryside’ to the south of the city last Saturday.  The  hospitality of our hosts was both generous and humbling.  I post below some photos that seek to capture that hospitality, and the energy, tastes and beauty that we all experienced.

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The slideshow captures images from the Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tombs,  the amazing music of Miji and the energy of TAL‘s Taekwondo performance at the Gala Dinner, Bongeunsa Buddhist temple, images from the conference, and some more general pictures of the Gangnam area of Seoul.

I left challenged and excited, determined to learn more about how the people of the Republic of Korea have transformed their economy and society in recent years.  Experiencing a tiny bit of Korea, makes me reflect all the more vividly on the observation that in 1960 Ghana and the Republic of Korea had the same per capita income, and I wonder all the more at the very different ‘development’ paths experienced subsequently in Africa and eastern Asia.

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Reflections on Montserrat – crafting a viable economy for 5000 people

The chance to work with the Ministry of Communication and Works on the tiny island of Monserrat in the Caribbean last week gave me a rare opportunity to reflect not only on the economic viability of many of the UK’s Overseas Territories, but also on the ways that people living in small island states cope in the aftermath of physical disasters.  Montserrat was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, leaving some 11,000 of the island’s population of 12,000 without homes.  Ten people were killed, 89 were injured, and the cost of the damage was reported to be at least $260 million.  In the years afterwards, substantial reconstruction took place, but then in 1995 the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano became active again.  The island’s capital, Plymouth, was soon buried by more than 12 metres of ash and mud, which also destroyed the airport and harbour.  The southern part of the island became uninhabitable, and a strict exclusion zone was introduced to limit future loss of life.  Then, in 1997 a pyroclastic flow passed down Mosquito Ghaut, overflowing the valley sides and killing 19 people who were in the exclusion zone.  Subsequently, there has been ongoing volcanic activity, mostly consisting of ash falls in the south of the island, but in 2009-10 further pyroclastic flows also occurred.  This double disaster had immense impact on the island’s population, with some 8,000 people choosing to leave, primarily for the UK which had granted the islanders full residency rights in 1999, and British citizenship in 2002.

Although I broadly knew about the island’s history, it is impossible to appreciate both the impact of these physical disasters, and the resilience of the people without actually visiting the island, and standing on the hillside overlooking the devastated city of Plymouth.  Having spent a couple of days with Montserratians before visiting Plymouth, and appreciating something of their warmth and generous hospitality, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness just standing on the edge of an ash filled swimming pool overlooking the devastated landscape of the island’s former capital.

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Monserratians are determined people, and those who I met were adamant about not only their British citizenship, but also their love for the island and their wish to ensure that it has a viable economy for the future.  The cost of the necessary reconstruction and development is nevertheless very, very substantial.  Much is already being done: there are plans for a new harbour; geothermal drilling is underway to see whether it could provide a source of energy for the future; and a submarine cable is to be laid to support their international digital connectivity.  However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the island can once again be self-sufficient as it was before the volcanic eruptions.  The challenge is that it is extremely difficult to identify how best this can be achieved, especially with such a small population.

From my very short visit, it is not easy to see the niche areas that the Monsterratians can build upon to regain their economic vitality.  Thinking back to the late 1970s when the Beatle’s producer George Martin created the AIR studios, Montserrat was able to attract some of the world’s most famous musicians to its green and peaceful environment.  There are still beautiful landscapes on the island, but the nature of the recording industry has changed so much that it would be difficult to imagine such an ‘adventure’ working again.  Perhaps, though, George Martin’s house (Olveston House – on Penny Lane), which now serves as a most welcoming guest house for visitors, does indicate one way forward, in that the island could carve itself out as a niche for high quality, environmentally sensitive tourism.  It is certainly beautiful, and the people most friendly.  However, its airport is tiny, with the runway only able to take very small planes, and it requires a new, much larger harbour to attract cruise ships and yachts to the island. There remains, though, the inevitable “chicken and egg” problem: visitors will not come unless there are high quality facilities on the island, and few people are willing to invest without there being strong prospects for sufficient visitor numbers to enable them to recoup their investments.

On the more quirky side, any country has to turn to its strengths and opportunities.  The volcano itself is a source of interest to visitors on the neighbouring islands, with air tours regularly bringing people from Antigua to visit.  It seems a shame that Montserrat itself currently benefits relatively little from such initiatives, and it must be possible for innovative initiatives to be developed that could enable Montserratians to reap dividends from such opportunities.  For film makers wishing to produce films in apocalyptic settings, the old capital of Plymouth on Montserrat would make an ideal – albeit highly risky – setting!  The island is also known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, not only because of its lush vegetation, but also because it was settled by Irish immigrants from St. Kitts.  The potential for its Irish heritage to be marketed much more strongly, could also foster enhanced tourism from Éire.  Some of the bays in the north of the island would also make ideal facilities for luxury yacht marinas, and their development could offer a very different kind of destination for those sailing the Caribbean.  Finally, the ultimate strength of any country is its people, and there is no doubt that better connectivity to the Internet will enable those who wish to stay on the island and build economic activity around the provision of digital services will  be able to do so much more effectively once the new cable is completed.  Already, one software company (Lavabits) is developing its business there, and with an educated population, well-connected to the diaspora living in the UK, there has to be further potential for the islanders to use the Internet, not only to attract tourism, but also to build a new digitally-based economy in Monsterrat.

It was a real privilege to spend time on the island.  I admire the resilience, fortitude and determination of those whom I met, and I greatly appreciated their warmth and generosity.

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Valuing the impact of wind turbines on rural landscapes: Conca de Barberà

I have been lucky enough to spend a few days walking in the Conca de Barberà county, or comarca, in Catalunya, and was very surprised – and indeed saddened – to see the visual impact of large numbers of wind turbines almost wherever one looked.  The selection of images below gives an indication of the scale of the issue:

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Whilst it was a cloudy day, and the images do not do full justice to the visual impact, especially around the small village of Flores, these pictures do convey something of the dramatic change they have made to the landscape.  Moreover, standing next to them one can also most definitely appreciate the noise impact they have – no longer are these hilltops a place of silent reflection, tempered only by the song of birds and the occasional dog barking in the villages nearby!

This raises very real questions about how landscapes are valued, and the politics of energy.  There have been many attempts to place a ‘value’ on landscape change, but these have mostly focused on somehow trying to calculate an economic cost of the change, often in terms of the loss of income.  Thus, if an area has previously gained an income from tourism, and the landscape change means that this is reduced, then it is clearly possible to estimate such a loss.  Other measures draw on the amount that people would actually pay not to have a change imposed on a landscape.  However, it is actually extremely difficult to place any kind of economic value on the emotional impact of a landscape change.  This area of Catalunya is at the heart of the Ruta del Cister, the triangle of Cistercian monasteries that were built there from the 12th century onwards.  The impact of the wind turbines has completely transformed the peace and tranquility of the landscapes, in a way that no simple economic measure can ever grasp.  Although some people might  think that these human feats of engineering have an attraction of their own, representing progress that no medieval Cistercian nun or monk could ever imagine, I find the juxtaposition of these two cultures concerning and depressing.

Reflecting on this dramatic transformation, I started to think further about the two kinds of power that this transformation represents.  On the one hand, the wind turbines represent the physical power of a new means of producing electricity.  However, each turbine actually only produces relatively little power. Estimates vary hugely, but as a general figure it is often argued that one turbine can produce enough energy for around 500 households a year – depending on the efficiency at which they function.  All the turbines in the images above therefore produce really rather little electricity, but at a very significant change to the landscape.  This transaction reflects a second kind of power, political power, since it illustrates yet another way through which a largely urban population exploits rural areas for their own interests.  This despoliation of the landscape is nothing other than a means through which the urban bourgeoisie seeks to maintain its ever increasing patterns of consumption.

Surely it would be much ‘fairer’ for the environmental cost to be paid by those living in urban areas, by for example constructing new styles of energy efficient housing and taxing air conditioners, rather than destroying the rural landscapes that they rarely visit, either physically or in their imaginations!


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Wildlife in Costa Rica

Staying with friends in Costa Rica provided a wonderful opportunity to spend  Sunday exploring something of the landscapes and wildlife of the country.  The photos below, mainly from the Carara National Park on the Pacific coast, provide an interesting comparison with those that I took recently in the tropical rain forests of southern Sri Lanka.  At least we avoided the leeches this time!

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