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geography informing politics; a project retrospective in the mediterranean

I have recently revisited a project completed more than 20 years ago; a Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis of the Mediterranean Basin conducted as a consultant for the World Bank.  In the early 90’s the Bank was intrigued to see if geographic information could help inform a region – wide environmental investment program. I have attached copies of a couple of the maps and notes created for the project here Environmental Program for the Mediterranean; geographic snapshot .

It came as no surprise 20+ years ago to my colleagues and me that GIS analysis reinforced the Med region, particularly the Southern and Eastern parts of the basin, as an area experiencing environmental and demographic stress. To quote Bob Dylan, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blows.”  However, it’s still a bit unnerving to browse a 20 year old geographic snapshot of the region in view of what has unfolded subsequently. For those of us geo – graphically oriented there’s something considerably more powerful about a map delineating, for example, a region with a high population growth rate, water shortages and limited arable land, than merely reading a table tucked into a report. Somehow the geopolitical train wreck of the Southern/Eastern Med just appears so much more tangible when arrayed across the page. Mind you, we had incomplete data in 1991, and our analysis wasn’t all that sophisticated. Also, the geographic limits of the study to the Mediterranean basin left out key areas; Syria and Iraq for examples, don’t figure.

But the takeaway remains that this was a region under stress for a variety of factors; politics being the immediate expression of geography and economics, and the maps showed that pretty decisively. While it would be grandiose to think that wider dissemination of geographic information at 20 years ago would have made a difference in a part of the world that has been so historically fraught, perhaps a lesson here is to pay closer attention to what geography is telling us now about emerging situations in other parts of the world. Climate driven impacts certainly come to mind.

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