Tag Archives collapse

COVID-19 | The COVID-19 pandemic and oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon: the confluence of two crises

How can we reframe the current planetary crisis to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action? The Amazon region of Ecuador, at the center of two crises—COVID-19 and a major oil spill—but also home to a long history of indigenous resistance, offers some answers.

Oil Spill Amazon

Navigating two crises

In Ecuador, the intensification of resource extraction and pollution, floods and weather disturbances have hit marginalized populations hardest. Indigenous peoples and people living in the Amazon have continuously suffered an enormous political and economic disadvantage when confronting extractive industries and allied state bodies. The vulnerability of the peoples and territory of the Ecuadorian Amazon region has been even more severely exposed during the COVID-19 lockdown period starting 16 March 2020.

On 7 April 2020, the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline System and the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline, which transport Ecuador’s oil, collapsed. The pipelines were built along the banks of the Coca River and the collapse resulted in the spillage of an enormous quantity of crude oil into its waters. The Coca river is a key artery in the regional Amazon system. It runs through three national parks that form one of the richest biodiverse areas on Earth, which has been historically preserved by the ways of life of the indigenous peoples who inhabit it.

The breakage of the pipelines impacted kilometers of rainforest riverways and tens of thousands of people. Indigenous populations living in surrounding areas are more at risk than non-indigenous populations because they rely on locally harvested food and water, which can become contaminated. Indigenous peoples find it difficult to comply with lockdown mobility restrictions since their subsistence depends on agriculture, hunting and fishing, which in turn have been severely impacted by the oil spills. The exposure to the virus due to the entry of technicians to repair the pipelines is another threat. These conditions have led the Confederation of indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) warning of an impending genocide.

The Coca river valley before the erosion. Photo credit: Luisa Andrade

Despite the constitutional mandate to provide free and high-quality public healthcare for all citizens, the Ecuadorian national health system is fraught with problems. Health coverage in the Amazon region is precarious with a lack of medical facilities, doctors, and not enough COVID-19 tests and ventilators required to treat an outbreak. While elderly and people with comorbidities have been identified globally as most vulnerable to infection, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights identifies indigenous people as a risk group. Indeed, historically, pathogens have been one of the most powerful factors in decimating indigenous peoples in South America.

Depending on how an issue is framed, different responses can be expected, including why something is considered or not a problem, who is responsible, and what needs to be done about it. Environmental problems derived from the extraction of natural resources such as oil are mainly framed as localized problems. Thus, the burden is placed onto affected communities and local and national governments, while their global and systematic character is disowned. What we aim to say with this is that while there are companies and governmental entities that are directly responsible, their actions respond to a global system that is based and sustained on extractivism.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, it is only when a crisis is understood as part of a global web of relations derived from complex power dynamics that we can imagine possibilities of globally coordinated and integrated efforts required for effective resolution. We are now living under global restrictions, which were once unimaginable, politically and economically.  The rapid adaptation of quarantine and travel restrictions reveals that when the message of ‘human life is in danger’ is embraced, societies as a whole are able to perform the collective drastic changes required in a short period of time.

For Ecuadorian grassroots organizations and scholars, the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of our interconnectedness, our collective vulnerability, and therefore our mutual obligations to our planet. The pandemic is just one aspect of the human-made planetary crisis along with biodiversity loss and climate change. We are interested in how to reframe the current planetary crisis that encompasses increasingly visible global diseases in order to find ways for decisive and life-changing collective action. We ask these questions by looking at the Amazon region of Ecuador, which is bearing the brunt of two crises: COVID-19 and environmental destruction through a major oil spill.

“In the name of development”

To understand the complexity of this human and ecological disaster, it is necessary to retrace some historical steps. On February 2, 2020, the San Rafael waterfall, the highest in Ecuador, collapsed. At that time, hydrologists warned that a phenomenon known as ‘regressive erosion’ could affect upstream infrastructure. On April 7, 2020 the Ministry of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources announced that the pipelines broke due to landslides that occurred in the San Rafael sector. Hydrologists associate the landslides with the construction and operation of the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric dam (CCSHD).

Location of the most relevant events generated by the regressive erosion phenomenon of the Coca River. Infographic credit: Luisa Andrade

According to Carolina Bernal, PhD in Geomorphology and Hydrosedimentology, the CCSHD caused a serious imbalance in the transport of sediments and water through the river flow which produced a  regressive erosion phenomenon which was responsible for causing sinkholes along the banks of the river. One of these sinkholes broke the oil pipelines. This risk had been mentioned in the earlier preliminary environmental impact study of the hydroelectric project.

CCSHD was inaugurated as part of Ecuador’s hydraulic mission during the presidency of Rafael Correa. The dam, like other hydroelectric projects carried out during his mandate, was politically legitimatized as “provider of clean energy and ‘good living’ for Ecuadorians and the world”. The rhetoric concerning the sustainable energy transition to renewable sources in the national energy matrix has been notably inconsistent with the dam’s high impacts on people and the environment.

The socio-environmental impacts associated with CCSHD and the oil spill were foreseen by the scientific community and civil society who were dismissed as “antidevelopmentalists” by Correa’s government. Some anticipated that the dam would a be major disruption of downstream sediment for the Napo River and would require extensive road-building and line construction in the primary forest. Others have questioned the true purpose of the dam, arguing that it was not about sustainable development for local people, but rather to provide electricity to the oil fields.

One of several sinkholes caused by the regressive erosion of the Coca River. The sinkhole captured in this picture is close to the town of San Luis. Photo credit: Carlos Sanchez (August 2020)

Going beyond business as usual

Even if the world is still embroiled in the COVID-19 pandemic, the responses to this crisis have revealed stark unequal, racial, and geopolitical differences. The indigenous populations affected by the spill and the pandemic have denounced the failure of the state to attend to these two emergencies. The many commentators on the current changes in the social and economic constellation of the world are urging for the re-evaluation of our way of life and the possibility of a radical change. For Ecuadorian indigenous organizations and the environmental justice movement, the pandemic and the environmental crises call for a radical rethinking of economic growth and our current model of development.

Scholars like Maurie Cohen see COVID-19 as “a public health emergency and a real-time experiment in downsizing the consumer economy”. Accordingly, the outbreak could potentially contribute to a sustainable consumption transition. For Phoebe Everingham and Natasha Chassagne the crisis is an opportunity to challenge the atomized individualism that underlies overconsumption. For them, Buen Vivir, a central concept to Ecuador’s development planning, drawn from the historical experience of indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature, is a post-pandemic alternative for moving away from capitalist growth and re-imagining a new form of traveling and tourism.

We cannot return to ‘a normal’ that ignores the global environmental crisis which led to the inequitable and polluted societies that enabled the spread of COVID-19. The extractive vision of the living world is endangering humanity’s very existence. Is there space for a greater appreciation of the complexity of these intertwined crises? When will we see, as Bayo Akomalafe states, “Earth’s interconnected geological and political processes”?.

The extractive environmental activities that underpin capitalist development and a planetary-mass consumption culture are jeopardizing the very existence of humanity. Though environmental disasters have decimated and violated the rights of indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon for years, they continue to resist. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, groups of Amazonian indigenous organizations promoted a model of autonomous governance of the Amazon region of Ecuador and Peru through the “Sacred Basins Territories of Life” initiative.

The proposal has been developed by an alliance of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Ecuador and Peru to forge a new post-carbon, post-extractive model by leaving fossil fuels and mineral resources underground, retaining around 3.8 billion metric tons of carbon, to protect our planet and the well-being of future generations. The proposal would cover around 30 million hectares of land between Ecuador and Peru, home to almost 500,000 indigenous people of 20 different nationalities. Can these counter-hegemonic proposals which claim the interconnectivity of all species in this world be critically revisited in the times of the pandemic?

COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. This ‘portal to a new era’, as Arundhati Roy proclaimed, offers us a chance to question deeply our social and economic relations. Perhaps this could be the moment in history where we also can finally reframe localized environmental disasters as global concerns and act accordingly. This is the opportunity to politically and socially rethink how to transition to a different kind of development that acknowledges and changes the damaging way global lifestyles directly impact the indigenous peoples and natures of the world.

This blog article was first published on Undisciplined Environments.

About the authors:

Jacqueline Gaybor is a Research Associate at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, in The Hague and lecturer at Erasmus University College in Rotterdam. Email: gaybortobar@iss.nl.

Wendy HarcourtWendy Harcourt is a Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University, in The Hague. She is a member of the Editorial Collective of Undisciplined Environments. Email: harcourt@iss.nl.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

The positive effects of systemic collapse — lessons for Cape Town by Lize Swartz

16177487_1348685531818526_4418355730312549822_oAbout the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD Researcher at the ISS and blog manager of the ISS Blog. Her research focuses on the link between civic action and change in social-ecological systems, and she has conducted fieldwork in three South African towns to closely study citizen responses to the collapse of local water supply systems.

Across the world, newsreaders recently started catching on to arguably one of the most pressing challenges in South Africa: The looming collapse of Cape Town’s water supply system. The Cape Town government and residents over the past few years have taken numerous steps to slow the gradual emptying of dams supplying this city, but ‘Day Zero’ is now a real possibility1. While news media show the uncertainty and fear surrounding Day Zero, ongoing research about similar ‘water crises’ in South Africa shows that systemic collapse can also beget positive outcomes.

The dreaded ‘Day Zero’

Long before the issue of water scarcity is now reaching its peak, water restrictions were imposed in Cape Town, South Africa in an attempt to save water in dry summer periods until the next rains would come. The Western Cape, one of South Africa’s nine provinces situated in the south west of the country, had experienced below-normal rainfall for years, to an extent that residents could witness the difference in the matter of a decade. Moreover, Cape Town’s population increased by 1 million people in just a decade, increasing the demand for water2.

It hence should not have come as a surprise that this African city that houses over 4 million people would eventually face water scarcity. Over recent years, however, the dry period started stretching into the winter and beyond, and predictions for dry future decades became a present reality. The inability to balance decreasing water supply with an ever-increasing demand has resulted therein that dams supplying the city have now reached such a low level that policy-makers have become cognisant of the very real possibility of municipal water supplies running out. The city has taken extensive measures to halt the sysem’s collapse, but current efforts seem to have been in vain3. Much uncertainty surrounds ‘Day Zero’, and what happens after this moment cannot be predicted. However, ongoing research of similar systemic collapse in three other South African towns can potentially provide some lessons – and hope.

Crises: An opportunity for change

Over the last two years, I have been studying civic action in three South African towns following the collapse of their municipal water supply systems. The processes of collapse and restoration were studied from a systems perspective. Systems theory sees the world as comprising countless social-ecological systems that are closely linked to their environments in which change occurs. Hence, I talk about Cape Town’s water in terms of a local water supply system.

From a systems perspective, static water management paradigms may lead to systemic collapse and eventual reorganization. The good news is that this collapse can force necessary change need for the system to function better in the future. The theory describes moments in the adaptive cycles of ecological systems where opportunity for novelty and innovation can emerge. This usually follows after systemic collapse. Hence, while one of the possible outcomes of systemic collapse is the failure of a system to return to ‘normal’, through this it can change to something new altogether, possibly becoming an enhanced version of its former self. A new normal may be created, and both the state and citizens can play a part in achieving this.

Systemic collapse: Not all bad news

My research shows that in each of the towns the municipal water supply had run out after dams and rivers were drained. None of the municipalities had a plan in place for after ‘Day Zero’. But each town found their own way of dealing with the crisis. One town set up functional water collection points. Others resorted to ‘water shedding’4. Throughout, citizens led the process of restoring the water system, also adapting their water use practices or securing their own water supply in whichever means available to them. All three towns somehow managed the collapse and carried on until water could be restored to the taps.

Drained to the dregs: In one of the studied towns, the last available water was drained manually from a reserve dam (see pumps on left of photo) before the taps spluttered and ran dry in June 2016. The town then survived without water in taps for around six weeks. Photo: Lize Swartz

While the data analysis phase is in its early stages, my study tentatively shows that some citizens through civic action have played a crucial role in managing the collapse by adapting their own water use practices and by becoming water distributors themselves in the period following collapse. As in Cape Town, in the three towns the government’s lagging response and trial-by-error approach to dealing with the problem also characterised the periods before and after these water supply systems collapsed. The bad news is that governance practices in the three towns do not seem to have been adapted on the long run.

While this is bad news, particularly because drought and climate change discourses allow the state to absolve itself from blame, herein lies the hope: Citizens learned and could apply the lessons to their interactions with the water systems. Much novelty emerged not only in the way people made sense of their relationship with water and in their adaptive practices, but also in social relationships and in their conceptualisation of their identity as citizens and their own power. 

While, evidently, governance practices founded on certain beliefs regarding water availability need to change, this new realisation of the role of citizens as water users in contributing to change, and the value of civic action in shaping new futures, is an essential starting point. It can help to address the problematic issue of technocratic ‘fixes’ and the empty discourses on ‘participation’ that I argue led to the increased vulnerability of systems that ultimately resulted in their collapse.

While the extent and type of change brought about may not be enough to protect the water systems from future shocks, particularly due to partial instead of system-wide adaptation, small changes are an essential starting point for better aligning water demand with water supply, to change how systems work without changing their core function, in this case supplying water. Hence, the study shows the importance of citizens in leading change to a new, adaptive water governance paradigm characterised by flexibility.

While some residents of one South African town had to survive from whatever the water they could carry, cooperation instead of conflict seemed to characterise interactions in the town. Photo: Lize Swartz.

Lessons for Cape Town

What exactly can the city learn from smaller towns? Some preliminary insights point to the inevitability of change following systemic collapse, and the ability to shape the type of change that would ensue. The trend in (near-)collapses of water systems across South Africa clearly indicates that something must change. And the space for civic leadership presents itself in this moment of crisis. Such moments of crisis invite reflexivity and create opportunities for novelty of thought and practice – and therefore for change, be it political or systemic. Learn from the collapse and apply the lessons to the water system to improve its resilience and sustainability. Learn to collaborate and to work together – this will be crucial in the period going forward. It is up to Capetonian policy-makers, residents and industries to collectively harness this opportunity to tailor the system to better function in the context of a changing landscape and deteriorating governance. It is also up to Captonian residents to then hold the state accountable across all levels, and to demand its adherence to its self-assigned mandate of ensuring sound water governance and sustainable water use.

1Day Zero, the day when municipal taps are turned off, is currently expected on 21 April 2018.
3From 1 February 2018, potable water use will be limited to 50 litres per person per day. However, despite increasingly severe water restrictions, only 39% of residents are using less than the specified limit. While the city is in the process of augementing its water resources – something residents feel it should have done years ago – water demand is clearly not being managed well.
4 While this term, referring to the intermittent provision of water at certain times of the day, may be known in South Africa, it is likely less known outside of the country. The phrase has its origins in the term ‘load shedding’, referring to the intermittent provision of electricity in the country due to an ongoing energy crisis that is comparable to the national water crisis in many aspects. 
MAIN PHOTO: In one of the towns, citizens become water suppliers by providing water to the public on a daily basis.
DISCLAIMER: None of the findings in this study are final or binding.