Connecting waters of life

I rarely blog, but occasionally an experience compels me to record it. Last weekend was a great example of a small project which had a disproportionate impact. In my business life, I frame the work I do in terms of inputs, outputs and outcomes.  This was a small input with a great outcome!

My partner and I returned from our travels about 10 days ago to our Spanish home on the River Guadiaro in Sotogrande. One of the first things we noticed was that the river mouth had been closed by a sandbar thrown up by strong waves. Over the last decades, this has been a recurring problem exacerbated, I believe, by the building of a major marina nearby; and the decision to change the exit point of the river into the sea when the river bank was developed. For at least 20 years, legal battles have been fought over whose responsibility it is to protect the estuary and its wildlife. For a while, the local San Roque council paid for diggers to open the blocked river mouth, but they have recently passed responsibility to the regional government – meanwhile leaving the river closed off – thus turning the estuary water green and suffocating marine life.


Last week, the fish started dying – particularly sea bass which need the tidal seawater flush to make the estuary habitable for them. In the evenings, we also saw dozens of shoals of fish on the surface; we could not establish why, but this is not normal when the river is open. As the days went by, it became distressing to see the worsening situation. By Friday night, I decided to act.

At 9.30 on Saturday morning, I took a spade and a pick and started digging to create a channel from the river to the sea. I was a bit self-conscious and was very aware of bemused dog-walkers and others pausing to work out what I was doing. The smell of dead fish, incidentally, was a great motivator to complete the task; and, as I worked, I became acutely aware of more fish gasping their last gasps in the river behind me.

The sun was coming up and I began to feel that the digging was enjoyable – perhaps even therapeutic – in enabling me to finally do something rather than simply observe.
After an hour, the trench was clearly visible and my objective obvious. A man called Carlos called from the bank offering to help. My Spanish is minimal as was his English, but no words were needed as we dug further. Similarly, another man, Juan, arrived shortly after and put aside his metal-detector to join us (can it be pure chance that my two sons are called Charles and Jonnie – the English versions of my two collaborators, Carlos and Juan?)  By 11.30, we had a clear line to the sea, but needed a break. I left my shovel, pick and gloves hoping that others would pick up from there.

By the time I came back around 1 pm, a young man had dug out the final stretch to enable a small stream of river water to run to the sea. There was now real interest from onlookers and many joined in to deepen the channel and to start rescuing dying fish and transferring them to the sea (it was miraculous to see how virtually dead fish were revitalised within seconds of arriving in the sea).

It was clear from this moment on that Mother Nature (or the law of physics for the more scientifically inclined) was beginning to seize the opportunity we had created. The channel widened as the accumulated estuary water (a metre higher than normal) was turning the stream into a torrent. We could see hundreds of fish circling on the river side desperate to get out to sea; and, surprisingly, as many on the sea side desperate to get in. A fisherman explained that these were mullet returning to the river to breed.

As the flow increased and widened the channel further, individual and groups of fish tried to swim up to the river.

My sense of joy and triumph when the first fish made it is hard to express. As was the sense of wonder as nearly dead fish came back to life so quickly. As the hours went by fish were heading in both directions. And the force of the water had created a widening and deepening channel.

As darkness fell the channel had become a raging torrent as the estuary waters finally broke through at scale.

Early on Sunday morning – 24 hours after the first digging began – the estuary water had dropped by over a metre. Billions of litres had flowed out during the night. By 11 in the morning, the river and sea levels were almost equal as the last of the estuary waters drained out. During the afternoon, the tide was rising and gradually refilling the estuary with sea water. By late afternoon, fish life in the river looked normal; seagulls were returning; and cormorants were diving again.

Today, Monday, it is hard to believe how small human interventions could be so transformative. It is also hard to believe that the enterprise which develops and promotes Sotogrande (with the river and its estuary as a key selling point) has allowed this situation to develop; in the past they have denied responsibility for keeping the river open. It is likely that they have no legal responsibility for the river, but the moral obligation is undeniable. On Saturday, about 10 man hours of work with a shovel and a pick sorted the problem – at least for now. So this is not a problem requiring massive investment.

I intend writing to the CEO of Sotogrande SA to offer help in finding a practical, cost effective way of ensuring that the river is never closed again for more than 24 hours. Any readers who would like to support this approach, please let me know.
Finally, as I was working, various people spontaneously observed that the original exit of the river to the sea was a few hundred meters to the west of the current man-made channel. This is confirmed by my own research which uses aerial pictures before Sotogrande was developed: they show this river and the next river along the coast create a natural sandbar where the river meets the sea, but break through to the west as the river and sea currents come into balance. An obvious potential solution is to dig an opening to the original exit point. This would have a number of other advantages including giving access to a new stretch of beach from the eastern bank. (See pictures below). I will raise this possibility too in my communications with Sotogrande SA. Again, any support or help would be appreciated.
















First days in Greece

Our ferry from Venice brought us to Igoumenitsa – a few miles from Kalami Beach, our first Greek campsite.  In spite of mixed weather – wetter and colder than the locals remembered for late April – we were happy to relax and enjoy the beach in the sun and the motorhome’s undefloor heating in the rain.


Set up near the beach and in blissful solitude..


Sarah braving the chilly but crystal clear water….



Cosy inside…and delicious food.


Wild herbs everywhere…


And touching roadside memorials


Connecting islands of life

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”   [Attributed to Goethe]

I am a great believer in serendipity – especially since I read the Goethe quote above nearly 40 years ago.  With every major change in career direction over the last 40 years, surprising – seemingly chance – events dramatically shifted my ability to accelerate the new journey I had begun.  My latest career development is no exception.

In 1992, I attended the UN Earth Summit in Rio and returned home confident that we had finally committed to a more sustainable and equitable future for current and future generations (see my 1992 lo-tech video report here).  At that time, I had four young children.  20 years later – now with four young grandchildren – I flew away from the Rio+20 UN conference as pessimistic as I had been optimistic a generation before: on virtually every indicator, my generation has pushed the environmental needles in the wrong direction.  Last year, five months after my return from Rio+20 – on my 63rd birthday – I realised that I had spent exactly 40 years ‘serving’ my companies, my staff and my clients.  2013, I concluded, would be different: my time would be given rather than sold; and it would focus on micro rather macro change where I could directly help shift the needle positively and measurably.

Standing apart from the general disappointments of Rio+20 were two positive highlights.  The first was the emergence as a major discussion theme of the need to properly value natural capital – measuring, managing and internalising the economic contributions of biodiversity and ecosystem services.  Triggers for this were the publication of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report; and the ground-breaking leadership of Puma under its Chairman, Jochen Zeitz, in publishing a P&L which internalised the ‘hidden’ environmental costs of its business operations.  The second was a meeting with Cynthia Ong, a dynamic woman from Sabah, Borneo who briefed me on various projects she is stewarding in Sabah; these combine to set a goal of ‘transitioning to a diversified, equitable, green economy’ by 2025.  She asked whether I could find time to advise on the project during 2013.

In July, I visited Sabah and have, since then, invested time to support this ambition.  In the process, serendipity has been in overdrive – with extraordinary connections being made both with new and old contacts.  Having not, I am embarrassed to admit, been able to point to Sabah on a map when it was mentioned in Rio, I have since discovered many direct connections with Sabah from friends and colleagues to clients such as Nestlé and Shell and to my academic network in Oxford (world leaders in forestry and biodiversity research with major projects centred on Sabah).  During my visit I had meetings with the senior management of the Sabah Forestry Department and offered to explore ways in which the value of their extraordinary natural capital could bring environmental, social and economic benefits to Sabah – to help them through the ‘economic famine which is following the de-forestation feast’, to quote Sabah’s charismatic Director of Forestry.  I have been asked to share my thoughts and recommendations as a keynote speaker at the Heart of Borneo conference in Sabah in early November.

On Saturday morning, I read an article by Simon Barnes (Times Sports Editor, but with a weekly column on wildlife and a World Land Trust Council member).  Under the headline ‘Let’s buy the orang-utan a slice of Paradise’, he describes an ambitious project of the World Land Trust (WLT) to raise £1 million by 16 October.  My goal is to help achieve that by my 64th birthday next Monday.  My best birthday present would be to take to next month’s Heart of Borneo conference the news that the WLT’s project had succeeded in raising the funds to bridge between islands of pristine rainforest through newly purchased and protected ‘corridors’ of forest.  This would permanently reconnect wildlife whose future is otherwise jeopardised by human erosion of their natural habitats.  Until 16 October, WLT benefactors have committed to match fund any donations.

I realise that everyone receiving this has equally important causes to support and I apologise for making yet another appeal to your conscience.  Follow the World Land Trust link below, however, if you are interested in the campaign.  And if you are not inclined to make a donation, you may still feel it is worth sharing my email with your own contacts.  The protection and enhancement of Sabah’s natural capital is not only a gift to their ecosystems and wildlife, but a gift to all of us and to succeeding generations.

Thank you for any help you can give.

Click the following links to learn more about Sabah and the WLT corridor project:

Sabah at the heart of the World Land Trust

Sabah Forever at the heart of its people

Sabah at the heart of tropical rainforest research

And finally, Sabah for the fun at heart (with apologies to Lennon & McCartney). Adapted from ‘When I’m Sixty Four’.

Now I’m Sixty Four

As I get older losing my flair,
Many years along,
Could you still be giving me a helping hand,
Birthday greetings, parcel of land?

As I’ve been out to Sabah this year
Will you help this cause,
Will you still read me, will you still heed me,
Now I’m sixty-four?

oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oooo
You are older too, (ha ha ha ha ha)
And if you say the word,
You could help them too.

You could be handy sending a note
As some friends have done.
You can save an orang from your fireside
Sunday morning give for a guide.

Buying some forest, spreading the word,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still read me, will you still heed me,
Now I’m sixty-four?

Send them an email, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Working Away.

Give them your answer, fill in a form
Yours for evermore
Will you please read me, will you please heed me,
Now I’m sixty-four?