2015 Symposium Panel III


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February 12, 2015

Written by MAAS student Fatim-Zohra El Malki

On February 12th, 2015, the third panel of the 2015 Sheikh Abdullah Kamel Symposium “An Energy Revolution? Political Ecologies of Shale Oil in the Middle East, United States, and China” discussed the human ecology and social factors of shale oil production. The panel comprised the works of Dr. Francesca de Chatel, author of Water Sheikhs and Dam Builders: Stories of People and Water in the Middle East, Dr. Karen Rignall, cultural anthropologist, currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Tim Beach, Professor of Geography and Geoscience at University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. de Chatel opened the panel with a discussion of her paper, “Vanishing Water Landscapes in the Middle East: Perceptions of Water and Scarcity in an Arid Region,” which presented the worsening situation of the current water crises in the Middle East. “Across the region, rivers are shrinking,” said de Chatel. “Water tables are dropping and aquifers are being depleted: over the space of just 50 years, the Jordan River has been reduced to 2% of its historic size and has become heavily polluted. The Ras al Ain Spring on the Syrian-Turkish border, formerly one of the largest karst springs in the world, completely dried up in 2000.” To explain the water crisis, Dr. de Chatel cited an array of inter-connected causes that have been constantly ignored and downplayed by the states concerned. Such factors have been, inter alia, the exponential increase in water demand and the over-exploitation water resources, pollution, as well as the destruction of the water landscape through uncontrolled urbanization, desertification, deforestation, and other destructive practices throughout the region. In Syria, where Dr. de Chatel worked from 2006 to 2010, water mismanagement resulted in a catastrophic deterioration of the quality of life for rural, urban and suburban communities. In Tell Banat, a village of Northern Syria, villagers started leaving their homes and migrating towards urban centers well before the drought of 2006-2007 due to poor farming conditions and depleting amounts of water. Dr. de Chatel, who linked the effects of the drought to the start of the Arab Spring, explained that 2007 brought the worst economic results in 40 years and in 2008, Syria imported meat for the first time in its history. By 2010, farmers, who were living in ad hoc tents in the suburbs and throughout the Southern governorate, had lost 90% of their income. The Syrian government’s downplaying and covering-up of the situation, explained Dr. de Chatel, is part of the long-term mismanagement that resulted in the disastrous situation in which the Syrian population is now embedded.  

Dr. Ringall discussed her paper “Land and the politics of value in unconventional gas:  What lessons can we learn from other extractive industries?”  Using case studies from the United States, Morocco, and Australia, Dr. Rignall’s presentation examined the transformation of land use and the power relationships that emerge from the processes of energy extraction. This reshaping of what Dr. Rignall calls “socio-natural relations” was best demonstrated in her analysis of a solar power project in Ouarzazate, Southern Morocco. Still under construction, the solar plant was an integral component of a broad energy plan proposed by the Moroccan government in 2012; construction began in May 2013. This project led to the acquisition of vast collective lands by the Moroccan government, thereby enabling the government to establish its authority over marginalized populations through a deliberate and organized top-down approach, which obscured social interactions. In Kentucky, shale gas extraction has had a profound impact on the relationships between energy, political authority and capitalism. Similarly, the extraction of energy resources in Kentucky has reshaped community structures and cultural landscapes, transforming people’s understandings of governmentality and land tenure, which in turn became aspects of dispossession. The socio-cultural effects enumerated by Dr. Rignall include the local populace’s feelings of disempowerment, its recurring sense of alienation from the natural gas industry, as well as the perception of living in a divided society as ‘the occupied’ at the hands of a stronger, foreign, power. Dr. Rignall, who focused on the powers and balances of extraction and the complex social functions of land, shed light on emerging issues that have yet to be addressed and regulated by the proper authorities. Such issues include: conflicts of interest between land owners and the energy industry, the diversity of jurisdictions for regulating extraction, and the removal of social control.

Dr. Beach presented an overview of the environmental impacts of shale development and insights from paleoclimatology. Echoing Dr. Gleick, who delivered the symposium keynote address, Dr. Beach insisted on the crucial need to develop risk management plans that would regulate environmental contamination and climate change. Some of the environmental challenges of fracking include the use of proppants (used to keep fissures open during hydraulic fracturing), and the emission of toxic chemicals harmful to the environment that are also responsible for causing long-term damage. Other consequences are surface water contamination and the use of tremendous amounts of water in fracking, in addition to methane leakage, an important factor in climate change and one which Dr. Beach described as “the biggest problem in the world.”

To better understand the pressing need for more monitoring, supervision and increased regulation of hydraulic fracturing, Dr. Beach discussed the geological cycle involving the interaction between the component sub-cycles of tectonic, hydrologic, rock, and the biological cycling of elements. The geological cycle sees cyclical weather changes that vary between periods of extreme humidity followed by severe droughts. During the geological cycle, periods of drought have led to the extinction of whole civilizations, such as the Maya in the Yucatan. The study of the rapid disintegration of this Mesoamerican civilization provides valuable information on climate change and, in fact, shows strong parallels with the current situation of climate change. Dr. Beach reiterated the need for industries to follow a softer ecologic path that would decrease the carbon footprint, and for governing structures to monitor and regulate extractions.

Panelist Bios

Dr. Fida Adely

Dr. Fida Adely is an Associate Professor and the holder of the Clovis and Hala Salaam Maksoud Chair in Arab Studies at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.  Dr. Adely is a cultural anthropologist whose research interests include education, women and development, and gender and labor in the Arab world. She has conducted field research in Jordan for over a decade. She is the author of Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith & Progress (University of Chicago, 2012) as well as several articles on women, education and development in the Middle East. Dr. Adely was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, as well as a Lecturer at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).  She received her PhD from Columbia University in 2007.

Dr. Francesca de Chatel

Dr. Francesca de Chatel, Born in Amsterdam and raised in Brussels, Francesca de Châtel trained as an architect and journalist in the UK. Her fascination with water and the Middle East started when she travelled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2001, exploring the historical, cultural and political value of water in this arid region. Following extensive travel and research between 2001 and 2005, Dr. de Chatel published a non-fiction general audience book, Water Sheikhs and Dam Builders, Stories of People and Water in the Middle East in 2007. Dr. de Chatel lived in Damascus from 2006 until 2010, where she worked as the managing editor and editor-in-chief of Syria Today, an independent English-language current affairs magazine. During this period she continued to write about different aspects of water and scarcity in Syria and in the region. As an editor and project manager, she has worked on a range of water-related publications and projects. Her editorial approach is strongly focused on translating the complexity of the Middle East water question into formats that are accessible and appealing to a wide audience of non-experts. Dr. de Chatel is currently based in Amsterdam. She recently obtained her doctoral degree and continues to work as an editor, researcher and writer with a focus on water in the Mediterranean Basin.

Dr. Karen Rignall

Dr. Karen Rignall is a cultural anthropologist, currently completing a post-doctoral fellowship in the Agricultural Economics department at the University of Kentucky. She will become an assistant professor in the Community and Leadership Development Department at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment in the fall of 2015. Dr. Rignall's research addresses agrarian transformation, land tenure, and environmental change, especially in the oasis valleys of southeast Morocco. Her ethnographic fieldwork traces shifting agroecologies and the collective dimensions of land conflict to interrogate the complexities of property and economy in the context of environmental change and immersion in global labor markets. Recent research explores the transformation of landscapes and land tenure through a renewable energy program in pre-Saharan Morocco, comparing solar power and extractive mining in terms of their effects on livelihoods, the creation of value in land, state territorialization projects, and collective mobilization.

Dr. Tim Beach

Dr. Tim Beach is a Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. He was formerly Cinco Hermanos Chair and Professor of Geography and Geoscience at Georgetown University, Director of Georgetown’s Program in Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA), and Head of its Center for the Environment. Dr. Beach He has conducted field research with hundreds of students on geomorphology and geoarchaeology in the Corn Belt of the United States, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Syria, Turkey, Iceland, and Germany funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, USAID, and Georgetown University. These sixty plus field seasons have been the bases for more than eighty peer-reviewed publications and hundreds of scientific presentations and many keynote addresses around the world. His research focuses on soil and agricultural systems, geomorphology, water, environmental change, and geoarchaeology. He was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and awarded Guggenheim and Dumbarton Oaks Fellowships, the G.K. Gilbert Award in Geomorphology in 2010 (along with his co-author), Georgetown University’s only Distinguished Research Award in 2010, and Georgetown's School of Foreign Service's only Faculty of the Year for Teaching Excellence in 2014.