June 08, 2008
Rebuilding Lake Tritonis
... City development is a natural process, and oftentimes the problem is not to get it going but to remove obstacles to it.
In many ways we would simply waste less time and money on what doesn't work:
• Cities and countries wouldn't bother trying to attract transplanted factories (the focus of most current international development). At best this would be seen as a stopgap measure, one step short of charity.
This quote sums up the spirit of an important part of Jacob's article. It made me think of all those efforts to develop the Sahara and the Arabian Desert. One particular instance that came to mind is an idea put on the table by the Tunisian government in the 1980s to create an interior sea using the chotts. The idea was never implemented for petty political reasons, so petty politics might have positive side benefits it seems. It was actually born in the head of a French military scientist in 1864’s Algeria.
François Elie Roudaire was sent to map the topography of Algeria’s desert, which by then was already a French colony. From Biskra, he discovered Chott Melrhir, a vast salt lake in the desert lying below the sea level. This is the first of a series of salt lakes going up to the Gulf of Gabes, Tunisia (which was still an Ottoman province at the time). Of this series, at least another big lake is below sea level, Chott Gharsa, Tunisia, 15 kilometers away from Chott Melhrir. Both have a combined area of 8,000 sq. kilometres, and an average depth of 24 meters. Roudaire, thinking he had found the site of Lake Tritonis (mostly believed to be Chott Eljerid today), became very enthusiastic about the idea of creating a 240km long canal from the Gulf of Gabes which would refill them into an interior sea. After considering the cost of such an enterprise – quoting this amusing 1886 New York Times article which debunked some speculation that such a project would make Europe colder and lower the sea level by a few meters, the cost was 30 million dollars, equivalent to anywhere between 650 million and 6.5 billion dollars today – the French government abandoned it.
Now, the idea of having Miami beaches in January in the Maghreb, or helping those dying cities of the south revive, is very appealing. But it takes more than romantic ideals to pull that amount of money, and one would have to justify it based on its profitability. Which is something I seriously doubt a government would do correctly, even less so a North African government (despite then Tunisian government being mostly composed of technocrats). And if the Jane Jacobs article is correct, then such a project is doomed to fail anyway.
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I am not sure that entire laissez faire in regards to city development is a smart idea as such. Obviously sheer idiocies like Egypt's new cities is a collasal waste, and government driven infrastructure investment that isn't tied up to the market is also a general waste.
That being said, major infrastructure investment and attracting hub factories by major producers (e.g. Morocco and the Renault investment; also Dubai before they went utterly bonkers) can work well. Perhaps that falls into the "unblocking" category, but that seems a bit pat to me.
On to the Tunisian angle.
Actually I think you're letting your personal dislike of the regime get in the way here. This strikes me as an interesting little idea.
Primo, I have to wonder if it would not have a positive impact on the rainfall patterns downwind, which in a drying north Saharan situation, is important.
Secundo, this strikes me as just one of the most fabulous ways to extract a huge amount of investment capital out of the Gulf as a mixed long-term infrastructure project, I can imagine toll canal situations, and new frontiers of sea-side villas to sell to themselves. Wonderful use of Emirati and Qatari desires and capital.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 8, 2008 12:24 PM
Wow. I had to chuckle at the idea that this would lower the temperature of Southern Europe. Also at this sentence towards the end: "Evaporation from this body of water would supply the aqueous vapor without which there can be no vegetation."
This was 1886, and you have to remember that back then there was this idea that as farming moved into the US Great Plains, that this would increase rainfall there. ("The Rain Follows the Plow") The Dust Bowl of the Thirties kind of killed that theory.
Which is somewhat similar of course to the idea that transplants can artificially turn a town into a city. Increases in economic activity that can be counted will of course occur, but that just reminds one of the wise words of Albert Einstein: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
Of course, as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky proved with Las Vegas, you can grow cities in the desert. Interestingly, though, Vegas's population, though small, had already doubled from 1920 to 1930 - the Flamingo was opened in 1931. Which is evidence that Las Vegas was already something more than just a sleepy desert town when the gangsters turned it into the fastest growing city in the US.
And then there's Dubai...
On preview, I see the Lounsbury has some thoughts here. Far as rainfall, that idea has long since been debunked.
For the rest, an interesting subject. Far as laissez-faire, this should be noted from the Wiki article I linked to, "A concerted effort has been made by city officials to diversify the economy from tourism by attracting light manufacturing, banking, and other commercial interests. The lack of any state individual or corporate income tax and very simple incorporation requirements have fostered the success of this effort." On the other hand, government efforts like the Hoover Dam also had some effect on Las Vegas's potential.
So, is there some town somewhere in Tunisia where the population has recently doubled where an experiment like LV or Dubai might be feasible?
Posted by: pantom at June 8, 2008 01:12 PM
The idea that rainfall patterns are driven by combinations of bodies of water, land forms and insolation has been debunked?
Or the idea that the body that could be created would have a signficiant global impact climate impact (okay that's a straw man I just threw in for amusement value).
Let me be clear, what was in my mind was depending on local prevailing wind patterns, which I confess gleeful ignorance of, increased evaporation of the newly created inland sea, and mountainous terrain to the north (if upwind...) could produce some degree of increase rainfall in the surrounding region, improving the local microclimate.
Unless I am stunningly misinformed, that kind of interaction is fairly standard (e.g. worries about desertification and currently declining rainfalls off the Caspian and Aral sea complexes).
I can well imagine the result (if the prevailing winds are not utterly wrong) might not be worth the effort, but I should think with right wind patterns there would be a noticeable microclimate impact.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 8, 2008 01:23 PM
Yes, microclimate wise, you'd get something I suppose. Whether it would make any difference real difference? Questionable.
In winter, the differential between the water temperature of the Great Lakes and the surrounding airmass is enough to produce sometimes crazy amounts of snowfall in the immediately downwind area, and even all the way over here in North Jersey we occasionally get dustings that can be traced to some lake effect event. But I don't think that happens much in the summertime when it comes to rain.
Posted by: pantom at June 8, 2008 01:40 PM
Ah, but mate the area is a Winter rains area, I should think that depending on the prevailing winds and the elevation structure, there could be interesting effects. Could.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 8, 2008 01:49 PM
From a Wiki article on lake effect snow: "A temperature difference of 13°C between the lake temperature and 850 millibar level, or 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) above sea level, provides for absolute instability and allows vigorous heat and moisture transportation vertically."
Translated, I think that means you get lots of snow when the lake is 13°C warmer than the air.
So, the question would be whether the water volume would be great enough to keep it warm long enough into that rainy season to get that kind of differential, keeping in mind that the lake here would be considerably smaller. Might for a short time, until that differential is closed; lake effect snows drop off when the lakes freeze over.
Posted by: pantom at June 8, 2008 02:08 PM
Actually I think you're letting your personal dislike of the regime get in the way here
Nope my friend, this was actually proposed by a government my family was part of.
Personal dislike? Yes. Doesn't blind me though, it's just that I can't objectively find something useful to it - or if there's anything positive, I just can't figure out how it wouldn't happen under any other gov anyway. Exception being, the only regime that might be worse would be an actual commie one. Though this one is almost a private family owned form of it. My distate is mainly about the reign of mediocrity, there's a huge difference between the loose "liberal technocratic despotism" of the 70s and first half of the 80s, and the police/military rule of a bunch of low class illiterates that came after the coup. The latter, even in the hypothesis of good will, is simply unable to deliver incremental value.
Back to the topic: This strikes me as an interesting little idea.
I'm not dismissing it at all. Just questioning its foundations (and being open to suggestions that it actually is reasonable) and the ability of a government to implement it efficiently.
I love your idea of it being able to drain Gulf capital. As for villas, it crossed my mind too as a potential way to make it profitable, more for Euros though, Marrakesh style.
is there some town somewhere in Tunisia where the population has recently doubled where an experiment like LV or Dubai might be feasible?
Most coastal cities are very dynamic (4-5 urban areas >= 1M or so quickly growing) - everything being relative of course - which would probably develop much more quickly if there wasn't a widespread fear of ruling family's expropriations (justified or not) in the country's SMB community.
Well, I shall not argue for Ben Ali but it is always hard not to be seduced by crazy real estate ideas as a means for financing even crazier infrastructure. As in Dubai and the faux islands.
As for Pantom`s question, main hold-back for Tunisia now is the regime and its excessive rent-seeking. They are showing signs of strangling the goose.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at June 8, 2008 03:30 PM
Unlike the palm thingies, I don't think the real estate idea is crazy - see southern Spain and retired Northern Europeans... With the prices real estate reached in Spain coasts because of that, it's no longer an option for most. OTOH, there's still a huge untapped potential in the Maghreb for middle-class pensioners. Main problem on the Euro side is that of image (islamism, gender, blah blah) - though it doesn't prevent millions of tourists to go there every year, so it should be quite easy to work out, provided either gov intervention (cough) to fund region-wide advertizing in target markets or business who reached the critical size to afford it.
In the case of a potential project like the inland sea, as you said, new frontiers, huge empty areas of cheap (near-free), warm desert land, and a few nearby existing towns to provide for a the start-up infrastructure. Would it compensate? No idea. If ever considered again, it would need lying down real numbers at some point.
My God, is there anything more pleasant than listening to people who know weird things talking? Well, maybe lounging with a straw drink outside a central-Saharan beach bungalow.
Posted by: alle at June 9, 2008 02:21 AM