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Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on

Hager Harabech elaborates in Phys.Org how Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on.

13 January 2021

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
Egypt's Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser: the building of the dam was spearheaded in the early 1950s by charismatic pan-Arabist pr
Egypt’s Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser: the building of the dam was spearheaded in the early 1950s by charismatic pan-Arabist president Gamal Abdel Nasser

Half a century since Egypt’s ground-breaking Aswan dam was inaugurated with much fanfare, harnessing the Nile for hydropower and irrigation, the giant barrier is still criticised for its human and environmental toll.

It is also a stark reminder—amid high tensions today as Addis Ababa fills its colossal Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) upstream—of just how volatile politics over the life-giving, but finite, Nile water resources can be.

The Aswan High Dam was spearheaded in the early 1950s by charismatic pan-Arabist president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Egypt, where the river provides some 97 percent of water for more than 100 million people, is the final section of the Nile’s 6,650-kilometre (4,130-mile), 10-nation journey to the Mediterranean.

For millennia, the North African country was at the mercy of the seasonal rise and fall of the river, dependent on the rainfall in nations far upstream.

But the 111-metre-high and 3.6-kilometre-wide Aswan High Dam, dwarfing the far smaller Aswan Low Dam built under British rule in 1902, crucially gave Cairo power to regulate the flow.

Water power

It was a “very important hydro-political act”, said geographer and author Habib Ayeb, a Nile expert who has taught at universities in Cairo and Paris.

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
An Egyptian 'felucca' sailing boat on the Nile at Aswan; before the dam was built, Egypt was for millennia at the mercy of the s
An Egyptian ‘felucca’ sailing boat on the Nile at Aswan; before the dam was built, Egypt was for millennia at the mercy of the seasonal rise and fall of the river

The dam was inaugurated on January 15, 1971, three months after Nasser’s death, by his successor Anwar al-Sadat.

For the first time, “an Egyptian president decided to manage the Nile within Egypt”, to develop agriculture and the economy in the country, Ayeb added.

For Egypt, an otherwise desert nation where 97 percent of the population lives along the green and fertile Nile banks, the dam revolutionised its relationship with the land.

“The dam offered a reprieve to Egyptians by giving them enough water… and protecting them from the hazards of floods, which could be absolutely catastrophic,” said Ayeb.

It also brought electricity to much of the country, a move Nasser said was key to developing the nation.

Abdel Hakim Hassanein, who overlooks the river from his home close to the dam, some 700 kilometres south of Cairo, praised its construction.

“We didn’t have electricity before, we used oil lamps,” the 68-year-old said, adding that work at the dem remains a key source of local jobs.

Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa, today uses similar arguments, saying its 145-metre (475-foot) GERD Blue Nile barrier—set to be Africa’s largest hydro-electric dam—is vital to provide power for its 110 million people.

But Egypt, with the Arab world’s largest population, sees the GERD as an existential threat.

Amid Nile dam tensions, Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
The Aswan dam created the vast Lake Nasser, which flooded the homeland of Egypt's Nubian people, forcing tens of thousands of le
The Aswan dam created the vast Lake Nasser, which flooded the homeland of Egypt’s Nubian people, forcing tens of thousands of leave
‘Belly of the desert’

In the 1960s, many Egyptians also saw the Aswan dam as a threat to their lives—in a different way.

The lake behind the dam flooded the homeland of Egypt’s Nubian people, forcing tens of thousands to leave.

“For the Nubians, the High Dam is a symbol of oppression,” said rights activist Fawzi Gayer. “It wiped out a civilisation.”

Gayer was born just after his family was relocated to a dusty town its Nubian residents call Abu Simbel “Displacement”.

“We’re talking about a community with a Nilotic identity that breathes the Nile… and we have been thrown into the belly of the desert,” said Gayer.

“The elderly died of shock.”

The Nubians’ long-running demand for a “right of return” was included in the 2014 constitution, but their lands have been swallowed by the 355-kilometre-long Lake Nasser, which stretches south into Sudan.

Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
The Ramses II Temple at the archeological site of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt; the three-millenia old temples were moved in a g
The Ramses II Temple at the archeological site of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt; the three-millenia old temples were moved in a giant rescue mission before they were drowned by rising waters in Lake Nasser

It was not only people who had to move; the waters threatened to drown the three-millenium-old Pharaonic temples at Abu Simbel, kickstarting a massive UNESCO-led rescue mission that took eight years.

The ancient complex, including giant stone carved statues, was dismantled and moved to a new location, in one of the world’s biggest archaeological rescue operations.

There were environmental consequences too.

The creation of the giant lake also upset the river’s delicate ecosystem, holding back the fertile silt deposits, causing erosion and increasing use of chemical fertilisers.

‘Political bomb’

For Ayeb, the dam also “proved to be a political bomb”.

In building Aswan, Egypt and Sudan agreed a Nile water sharing deal, but did not include any other upstream nations, including Ethiopia.

“It created the foundations for the break-up of the Nile basin as a framework for a common good,” said Ayeb.

Egypt recalls Aswan 50 years on
The colossal statues of a seated Ramses II at the entrance of Abu Simbel archaeological site, rescued from the waters of the res
The colossal statues of a seated Ramses II at the entrance of Abu Simbel archaeological site, rescued from the waters of the reservoir behind the Aswan Dam

Today, Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum are mired in long-running fractious talks over the filling and operation of the GERD dam.

But, according to Ayeb, the critical challenge for Egypt is the management of the water it gets at present.

“Even if Ethiopia stopped its dam, there wouldn’t be enough water,” he said, arguing Egypt should halt desert irrigation—where nearly half the water is lost by evaporation—and stop agricultural exports.

Ayeb believes Cairo needs a new water and agricultural policy entirely.

“Egypt must change everything,” he said.

Explore further in Looming crisis of the much decreased fresh-water supply to Egypt’s Nile delta

THE LINE, a Linear development of Smart Cities

THE LINE, a Linear development of Smart Cities

Saudi Arabia unveils THE LINE a linear development of smart cities connected without cars as reported by DesignBoom seems to be a significant step out of the fossil fuels grip on any mode of transport but only in this corner of the country.

Saudi Arabia unveils THE LINE, a linear development of smart cities connected without cars

Saudi Arabia has unveiled plans for THE LINE, a 170 kilometer (106 mile) belt of communities connected without the need for cars or roads. described as ‘a revolution in urban living’, the project has been put forward as a blueprint for how people can co-exist in harmony with the planet. THE LINE will be completely free of cars and streets, with residents given access to nature and all of their daily needs within a walking distance of five minutes. furthermore, the team behind the project says that the linear development of hyper-connected AI-enabled communities will be powered by 100% clean energy.

saudi arabia the lineall images and video courtesy of NEOM

Located in NEOM, linking the coast of the red sea with the mountains and upper valleys of the north-west of Saudi Arabia, THE LINE was announced by his royal highness Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and chairman of the NEOM company board of directors. ‘By 2050, one billion people will have to relocate due to rising CO2 emissions and sea levels,’ says his royal highness. ‘90% of people breathe polluted air. why should we sacrifice nature for the sake of development? Why should seven million people die every year because of pollution? why should we lose one million people every year due to traffic accidents? and why should we accept wasting years of our lives commuting? therefore, we need to transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one.’

saudi arabia the lineimage by gary cummins

Although walkability will define life on THE LINE, with all essential daily services within a short walk, ultra-high-speed transit and autonomous mobility solutions will make travel easier and give residents the opportunity to reclaim time to spend on health and well-being. It is expected that no journey will take longer than 20 minutes. the communities themselves will be powered by artificial intelligence and will continuously learn in order to ‘make life easier’ for both residents and businesses. It is estimated that 90% of available data will be harnessed to enhance infrastructure capabilities. from an environmental perspective, THE LINE will comprise carbon-positive urban developments powered by 100% clean energy.

saudi arabia the line

NEOM is a region in northwest Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea being built from the ground up as a ‘living laboratory’. Eventually the location, comprising towns and cities, ports and enterprise zones, research centers, sports and entertainment venues, and tourist destinations, will be the home and workplace to more than a million residents from around the world. It is hoped that THE LINE will create 380,000 new jobs, spur economic diversification, and contribute SAR 180bn ($48bn USD) to domestic GDP by 2030. construction of THE LINE will get underway in early 2021.

saudi arabia the line
saudi arabia unveils THE LINE, a linear development of smart cities connected without cars
saudi arabia unveils THE LINE, a linear development of smart cities connected without cars
saudi arabia unveils THE LINE, a linear development of smart cities connected without cars

New cities to change African topography

New cities to change African topography

Private developers are working with governments to turn land into liveable urban areas. So let us have a look at these New cities to change African topography

New cities to change African topography

By Jason Mitchell, Jacopo Dettoni

December 27, 2020

Africa has the world’s fastest urban growth rates; by 2050, its cities will be home to an additional 950 million people, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

More than 40,000 people in Africa are expected to move into its cities every day for the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, however, African megacities such as Kinshasa, Cairo and Lagos are well known for poor planning and functioning and are already unable to accommodate their existing citizens in an orderly fashion, creating the urgent need for new cities to see the light. 

“Two-thirds of Africa’s cities are yet to be built,” according to the London-based think tank International Growth Centre (IGC). The need for modern, as well as extensive urban infrastructure in a continent known for depleted government budgets and little access to international funding naturally, creates a void that several private and land developers are already filling. 

“Africa has a fast-growing middle class and many dynamic people would prefer to live in a well-planned and well-organised city,” says Yomi Ademola, Nigeria country head for private land and property developer Rendeavour.

Decongesting

An estimated $100bn of public and private investments are planned in new city projects across the continent, according to IGC figures. Nigeria is leading the way, with five new city projects covering 25 million sq m.

Nigeria’s biggest initiatives include Eko Atlantic in Lagos (with a planned investment of up to $60bn), and Centenary City ($18.7bn) and Asokoro Island ($900m) in the capital, Abuja, according to the research company Estate Intel.

“Most African cities have not built infrastructure as quickly as their populations have grown. Our model is to decongest these crowded cities by situating our projects 20km to 30km away from city centres and building infrastructure that matches the needs of the people within and around the cities,” Mr Ademola says. “We put a great deal of emphasis on efficiency.”

Rendeavour — whose biggest investors include Stephen Jennings, the founder of Renaissance Capital, and Frank Mosier, the founder of Kazimir Partners, an emerging markets investment firm — is developing seven new cities across the continent: two in Nigeria (Alaro City and Jigna), another two in Ghana (Appolonia City and King City), and individual cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Kenya. Overall, they cover 120 million sq m in total.

“The new cities are often in high economic growth areas, close to new airports, new seaways and new highways, or located in special economic zones,” Mr Ademola says.

Governance

New cities are developed as private plots of land offering residential, industrial and commercial infrastructure, and often regulated by special rules introducing incentives to investment, like in the case of Rendeavour’s Alaro City, which has been developed within the Lekki Free Trade Zone in Nigeria’s biggest city Lagos. 

As the developer of the masterplan, Rendeavour is responsible for providing a city’s vital infrastructure so that individuals can build their homes and companies can construct and run their businesses. It also provides the infrastructure to specialist developers of schools and hospitals, and of residential, commercial, retail and industrial properties. It can also offer ‘build-to-suit’ lease agreements.

“Our utilities are regulated. We have public roads that cross through our land. So, our relationship with policy-makers is focused on creating policies that attract and enhance investment, whether this be through a special economic zone or working with governments to upgrade existing infrastructure,” Mr Ademola says.

“We do not believe completely private cities could or should emerge, because it is impractical to be an ‘island’ separate from the surrounding environment. New cities need to be integrated with their surroundings.”

Reclaiming land 

Eko Atlantic is one of the continent’s most ambitious privately developed projects, covering an area of 10 million sq m — roughly the size of Manhattan’s skyscraper district — including 5.6 million sq m of reclaimed land off Victoria Island, the leading financial district of Lagos. The total envisaged built-up area could add up to 26 million sq m, involving a total investment of up to $60bn. However, the average price of an apartment to purchase in pre-sale is $415,000, according to the portal Nigeria Property Centre — significantly outside of the budget of the average Nigerian, who earns $2200 a year.

By 2040, Eko Atlantic’s developer South Energyx, a subsidiary of the Nigeria-based Chagoury Group, expects 300,000 people to be living in the city and a further 250,000 people commuting to and from it.

The project’s original concession agreement dates back to 2006 and land started to be reclaimed in 2008. It is privately funded by South Energyx.

“Our vision has evolved from a new financial centre for Lagos to a new business centre for the city,” says Ronald Chagoury, vice-chairman of South Energyx Nigeria. “Not only do we now expect many financial institutions to locate in the city, but also multi-national and Nigerian companies seeking to set up a new head office.”

Elitist developments

However, some experts believe that new cities for the continent’s rising middle and upper classes could be a distraction for national governments, as they could channel scarce economic resources to Africa’s elites.

“Building new smart cities in the hope people will follow may be a high-risk gamble that most African governments cannot afford,” says Astrid Haas, policy director of the IGC. “A surer bet is to study where people are already moving, which means where future urbanisation is likely to happen. Laying the foundations for this urbanisation to happen in an orderly and well-managed fashion, such as delineating basic road systems and investing in basic infrastructure before settlement takes place, will go a long way to harness the potential of Africa’s urbanisation.”

Mr Chagoury, however, believes the benefits of projects like Eko Atlantic can spread across the board. 

“It is true that some of the independent property developers in Eko Atlantic have decided to construct luxury apartments, but we do not regard our city as ‘elitist’,” he says.

“Over a 25-year period, we envisage up to 2 million people living and working in the city. Other property developers plan to construct smaller apartments at a lower entry price that can be financed by low-cost mortgages. We believe Eko Atlantic has immense potential as it caters for the Nigerian market, which has the continent’s biggest economy.

“Multinationals that want to penetrate the Nigerian market must have a local head office and our city offers a good location for them.”

With thousands of people across the continent moving to urban areas daily, the need for functioning urban infrastructure has never been greater. New cities and their private developers will help meet some of that demand, provided their projects do not become wishful thinking for a limited elite. 

This article first appeared in the December/January print edition of fDi IntelligenceView a digital edition of the magazine here.

6 trends that will influence construction this year

6 trends that will influence construction this year

Welcome to the year that follows the most turbulent year that all countries and sectors of their socio-economic went through. Here is the 2021 outlook: 6 trends that will influence construction this year.

Several factors – some positive, some less so – are poised to shape the industry this year.

By Joe Bousquin

4 January 2021

6 trends that will influence construction this year
Retrieved from Jeremy Gilbert/Flickr.

Here’s some perspective to ring in the new year: “2020 bad, 2021 good.”

That’s the takeaway from construction observers looking ahead at the turn of the year, even as the bleakness of the pandemic surge and record deaths in the U.S. continue to weigh on their minds.

“My expectation is that the U.S. economy will shrink between 4% and 5% in 2020,” said Anirban Basu, chief economist at the Associated Builders and Contractors during a year-end webinar, where he also made the good-bad prognostication quoted above. “But we’re going to come back hard in 2021.”

There are reasons for hope, such as a second coronavirus vaccine being authorized for emergency use and shipped in recent weeks and the $900 billion relief package recently signed by President Trump. But the drivers of optimism among those who track construction are also more specific to the space, while encompassing fundamental shifts in markets and processes that will lead to more broad-based development activity in 2021.

Just listen to Tom Stringer, managing director for site selection and business incentives at professional services firm BDO, whose job is to find suitable development sites for corporate clients who want to build new facilities and offices.

“Site selection tends to be a leading indicator in the economy that businesses are starting to think about capital investments, and our phones have been ringing,” Stringer said. “So if your readers are the folks on the contracting side, well, they’re about to get busy, too.”

Stringer isn’t alone. According to a post-election survey of engineering and construction executives conducted by Deloitte, 68% of respondents characterized the business outlook for the industry as somewhat or very positive.

“We do see pent-up demand sitting out there as we end out 2020 and come into 2021,” said Michelle Meisels, Deloitte’s engineering and construction practice leader.  

That widespread optimism among construction executives is grounded in the reality of several factors – some positive, some less so – that are poised to shape construction in 2021. Here are six of the top factors that will influence the industry in the new year:

Subs on the skids

The coming months and beyond could be particularly hard on subcontractors, and the contractors who will need them once projects pick up again.

“The market is just getting much more competitive for subcontractors, and therefore, sadly, some will go out of business, especially the smaller guys,” Meisels said. “General contractors may need to self-perform a lot of work they would normally sub out, and build those capabilities in house.”

That’s the road Michael Bordes, president of New York City general contractor AA Jedson Company, is already on.

He said during the pandemic, he’s had to pivot from the restaurants and gyms he built previously to focus on affordable housing projects that were still considered essential. But he’s also flipping the script and limiting his risk from subs by handling more work in house.

“We’re self-performing most of the construction tasks ourselves because the subcontractors that are out there are having a very hard time,” said Bordes, noting that affording insurance is one issue subs are struggling with. “The people we’re dealing with may not be transparent about saying we’re having trouble with assurances or we’re short on labor. If you keep it on your payroll, you at least have 95% control.”

Staying safe

Meanwhile, Bordes said he’s focused on keeping his workers safe and healthy by combating complacency and continually reinforcing mitigation strategies, which has become more challenging as the pandemic has worn on. And while he hopes his workers will sign up to get the vaccine, he says he’s not planning to force them to do so if they have reservations about taking it. 

“We know masks work. We know sanitizing on a regular basis, washing your hands and not touching your face works to not get this disease,” Bordes said. “But while we would suggest to employees that it’s important to get the vaccine, we don’t feel we can force them. Some are still cautious about what the side effects might be in the future.”

While the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, as well as a panel of construction lawyers, recently determined that employers could require workers to be vaccinated with certain exceptions, the implications of forcing workers who object to get inoculated over potential safety concerns is sure to be a challenge for contractors in 2021. 

Hiring for the surge to come

With subs being squeezed, contractors will also surely be challenged to hire enough workers, even in house, when the pent-up demand of mothballed projects are put back into the marketplace once the pandemic is brought under control. At the same time, observers say companies aren’t doing so yet, since many new projects still aren’t coming to market, given the explosion of coronavirus cases going into 2021.

“The story there is that projects are still getting pushed to the right, so companies are not hiring unless they have a job to put someone on,” said Patrick Jones, who leads the architecture, engineering and construction division at Raleigh, North Carolina-based recruiting firm Orion Talent. “They’re not just out there building bench strength.”

He says while experienced superintendents and estimators are still in high demand, companies don’t necessarily want to hire individuals they would have to train and invest in while jobs are still scarce. “We see that hiring for what I would call the entry level roles has slowed,” Jones said.

At the same time, nonresidential construction has only regained 58% of the jobs it lost since the beginning of the pandemicaccording to Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. In November, he noted, the industry’s unemployment rate was 7.3%, not seasonally adjusted, with 732,000 former construction workers idled. 

On its surface, that may indicate contractors will have

an easier time hiring coming out of the pandemic. But that’s still not likely to be the case, according to Basu.

During his economic forecast in December, Basu asked his audience of more than 1,000 participants how many intended to increase staffing in the coming year, with more than half responding affirmatively. That’s in line with the ABC’s Construction Confidence Index from November, which indicated a majority of firms intended to increase staffing in the next six months.

Given the demand for projects, along with many firms trying to hire workers whenever jobs are finally released in 2021, contractors may experience labor challenges all over again.

“I would predict that many of you will continue to suffer difficulty finding truly motivated and skilled workers,” Basu told his contractor audience. “One thing that has happened in past recessions is that many construction workers who lost their jobs left the construction industry altogether.”

Infrastructure on the agenda

On the bright side, there should be some increased infrastructure and building projects on the horizon.

This is especially true with President-elect Joe Biden pushing his Build Back Better initiative, which is envisioned as a broad spending program that could benefit contractors on multiple fronts.

“He’s looking for a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill that includes a broad definition of infrastructure, whether it’s surface transportation, aviation, waterfront, Army Corps, civil works, flood control mitigation projects, clean drinking water, renewable energy projects, K-12 public school construction or broadband,” said Jimmy Christianson, vice president of government relations at AGC. “There’s a lot in there.”

Meisels also sees opportunity for contractors under that kind of program in 2021.

“Infrastructure and public utility projects could possibly see a sharp rebound,” Meisels said. “If the administration comes through and directs funds toward that, you’d see projects that are driven by this government spending.”

Office, manufacturing, distribution projects ahead

Part of that jump-start may already be happening on the private side. Take the activity Stringer, the site selection executive, has been seeing lately.

His clients are calling and expressing interest in expanding offices in tertiary markets away from where their headquarters are in densely populated cities. But they’re also looking to build manufacturing and distribution facilities, to help alleviate some of the vulnerabilities the pandemic brought to light in the just-in-time supply chain. 

“The supply chain issues that were rampant during the start of the crisis really presented significant business opportunities for the unsexy old ways of things like inventory and building warehouses,” Stringer said. “Hopefully, we’ll never be without toilet paper again.”

Indeed, the explosion of e-commerce has caused a boom in the sector. “The most obvious change of the year has been robust development of warehouse and distribution facilities to meet the sudden rise in e-commerce,” said Robert Smietana, CEO at Chicago-based industrial developer and consultant HSA Commercial Real Estate.

For example, CRG, the real estate development and investment arm of Chicago-based Clayco, plans to identify industrial development and acquisition opportunities in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio. 

“It’s no secret that e-commerce has been a tailwind to industrial real estate over the last cycle,” said Kevin Scott, vice president of investments and developments for CRG. “But e-commerce users still represent just a fragment of the overall industrial user base. Specialized uses such as cold storage and data centers continue to grow, and we are excited about opportunities there.”

Renewed focus on the environment

Data center construction is one of two top-growth industries for Jones, the construction recruiter, to find specialty contractors. The other? Utility-scale solar.

“Big players in utility-scale solar have been on a growth pattern, and are really kind of hitting their stride in this next year,” Jones said.  “Obviously, the new administration would be beneficial to that as well.”

For example, Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Moss Construction highlights several of the utility-scale solar installations it has worked on in recent years in its portfolio, and promotes on its website that it is “helping our nation move towards a cleaner energy future.”

That growth has come as renewable energy is becoming cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels, according to sister publication Utility Dive. 

But that opportunity for contractors also illustrates the widening awareness of a broader range of companies focusing on the environment.

For example, contractor giants AECOM and Fluor said on recent conference calls they were experiencing increased interest in their environmental services practices from clients, while Jacobs announced it achieved its net zero carbon goal for its operations and business travel in 2020, with aspirations to be carbon negative by 2030. Balfour Beatty and Lendlease also recently announced carbon-cutting initiatives

“The construction industry is under tremendous pressure to improve their energy use,” said Meisels. “But I also think that construction companies that build capabilities to support green building standards and sustainable efforts by their clients are going to be positioned to thrive. You can’t not address this if you want to be a leader in this space.”

Human-made Materials now weigh as much as all Living Biomass

Human-made Materials now weigh as much as all Living Biomass

Anthropocene: human-made materials now weigh as much as all living biomass, say scientists by Jan Zalasiewicz, University of Leicester and Mark Williams, University of Leicester. Does this assertion apply to all continents, regions and countries equally? Absurd reasoning; does a square kilometre of desert land weight the same as elsewhere? Let us read and understand what is this all about.

Our deficiencies have always driven us, even among our distant ancestors, back in the last Ice Age. Having neither the speed and strength to hunt large prey nor sharp teeth and claws to tear flesh, we improvised spears, flint knives, scrapers. Lacking a thick pelt, we took the fur of other animals. As the ice receded, we devised more means of survival and comfort – stone dwellings, ploughs, wheeled vehicles. All these inventions allowed small oases of civilisation to be wrested from a natural wilderness that seemed endless.

The idea of a natural world that dwarfed humanity and its creations long persisted, even into modern times – only to run, lately, into concerns that climate was changing, and species were dying through our actions. How could that be, with us so small, and nature so large?

Now a new study in Nature by a team of scientists from the Weizman Institute in Israel upends that perspective. Our constructions have now – indeed, spookily, just this year – attained the same mass as that of all living organisms on Earth. The human enterprise is growing fast, too, while nature keeps shrinking. The science-fiction scenario of an engineered planet is already here.

It seems a simple comparison, and yet is fiendishly difficult in practice. But this team has practice in dealing with such impossible challenges. A couple of years ago they worked out the first part of the equation, the mass of all life on Earth – including that of all the fish in the sea, microbes in the soil, trees on land, birds in the air and much more besides. Earth’s biosphere now weighs a little less than 1.2 trillion tonnes (of dry mass, not counting water), trees on land making up most of it. It was something like double that before humans started clearing forests – and it is still diminishing.

Human-made Materials now weigh as much as all Living Biomass
Two large tree trunks in a forest
Heavyweights. Andreas C. Fischer / shutterstock

Now, the team has delved into the statistics of industrial production and mass flows of all kinds, and reconstructed the growth, from the beginning of the 20th century, of what they call “anthropogenic mass”. This is all the things we build – houses, cars, roads, aeroplanes and myriad other things. The pattern they found was strikingly different. The stuff we build totted up to something like 35 billion tonnes in the year 1900, rising to be roughly double that by the middle of the 20th century. Then, that burst of prosperity after the second world war, termed the Great Acceleration, and our stuff increased several-fold to a little over half a trillion tonnes by the end of the century. In the past 20 years it has doubled again, to be equivalent to, this year, the mass of all living things. In coming years, the living world will be far outweighed – threefold by 2040, they say, if current trends hold.

Human-made Materials now weigh as much as all Living Biomass
A concrete highway bridge viewed from below.
Most of the weight is in concrete. Lijphoto / shutterstock

What is this stuff that we make? It is now of extraordinary, and exploding, diversity. The number of “technospecies” now far exceeds the estimated 9 million biological species on Earth, and counting them exceeds even the formidable calculating powers of this team. But our stuff can be broken down into ingredients, of which concrete and aggregates take a gargantuan share – about four-fifths. Then come bricks, asphalt and metals. On this scale, plastics are a minor ingredient – and yet their mass is still greater, now, than that of all animals on Earth.

It’s a revealing, meticulous study, and nicely clear about what the measurements include and exclude. They do not include, for instance, the rock and earth bulldozed and landscaped as foundations for our constructions, nor all of the waste rock generated in mining the ingredients: currently, nearly a third of a trillion tonnes of such material is shifted each year. Add in the Earth material that we use and abuse in other ways, in ploughing farmland, and letting sediment pile up behind dams, and humans have cumulatively used and discarded some 30 trillion tonnes of Earth’s various resources.

Whichever way that you cut the cake, the team’s final point in its groundbreaking study hits home, and chimes with that of another recent analysis we both worked on. Since the mid-20th century, the Earth has been set on a new, human-driven trajectory – one that is leaving the stable conditions of the Holocene Epoch, and is entering the uncertain, and rapidly changing, new world of the Anthropocene. The weight of evidence, here, seems unarguable.

Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology, University of Leicester and Mark Williams, Professor of Palaeobiology, University of Leicester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.