Author Archives: Stoa

How to Kill One Million Fish: Murray-Darling

But it took a viral video posted on 8 January 2019 to drive home the ecological catastrophe that was unfolding in the Murray-Darling river system in Australia. In the footage, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold, identified as local residents, stand knee-deep among floating fish carcasses in the Darling River, near the town of Menindee. They scoff at authorities’ claims that the fish die-off is a result of the drought. Holding up an enormous, dead Murray cod, a freshwater predator he says is 100 years old, McBride says: “This has nothing to do with drought, this is a manmade disaster.” Arnold, sputtering with rage, adds: “You have to be bloody disgusted with yourselves, you politicians and cotton growers.”

Scientists say McBride probably overestimated the age of the fish. But they agree that the massive die-off was not the result of drought. “It’s about taking too much water upstream [to irrigate farms] so there is not enough for downstream users and the fish,” says Quentin Grafton, an economist specializing in water issues at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, blamed “policy failure and mismanagement” in a 19 January 2019 report, but called drought a catalyst.

Excessive water use has left river flows too low to flush nutrients from farm runoff through the system, leading to large algal blooms, researchers say. A cold snap then killed the blooms, and bacteria feeding on the dead algae sucked oxygen out of the water,   This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, the national government adopted the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, touted as a “historic” deal to ensure that enough water remained in the rivers to keep the ecosystem healthy even after farmers and households took their share.

In 2008, the federal government created the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to wrestle with the problem. In 2010, a study commissioned by the authority concluded that farmers and consumers would have to cut their use of river water by at least 3000 but preferably by 7600 gigaliters annually to ensure the health of the ecosystem. Farmers, who saw their livelihoods threatened, tossed the report into bonfires.  The final plan, adopted as national law in 2012, called for returning just 2750 gigaliters to the rivers, in part by buying water rights back from users. “It was a political compromise that has never been scientifically reviewed,” Williams says, adding that “climate change was never considered in the plan, which was a dreadful oversight.”..

Grafton says there are also suspicions of widespread water theft; up to 75% of the water taken by irrigators in the northern part of the system is not metered. Farmers are also now recapturing the runoff from irrigated fields that used to flow back into streams, and are increasing their use of ground water, leaving even less water in the system, says Mike Young, an environmental policy specialist at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

In February 2018, such issues prompted a group of 12 academics, including scientists and policy experts, to issue the Murray-Darling Declaration. It called for independent economic and scientific audits of completed and planned water recovery schemes to determine their effects on stream flows. The group, which included Williams and Grafton, also urged the creation of an independent, expert body to provide advice on basin water management. Young, who wasn’t on the declaration, wants to go further and give that body the power to manage the basin’s water, the way central banks manage a country’s money supply, using stream levels to determine weekly irrigation allocations and to set minimum flow levels for every river.

Excerpts from Dennis Normile, Massive fish die-off sparks outcry in Australia, Science, Jan. 22, 2019.

Natural Gas and Freedom

[A] tanker chartered by Cheniere Energy, an American company, left a Louisiana port this week with the first major exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas, or LNG. This shipment isn’t going to Europe, but others are expected to arrive by spring.  “Like shale gas was a game changer in the U.S., American gas exports could be a game changer for Europe,” said Maros Sefcovic, the European Union’s energy chief.

Many in Europe see U.S. entry into the market as part of a broader effort to challenge Russian domination of energy supplies and prices in this part of the world. Moscow has for years used its giant energy reserves as a strategic tool to influence former satellite countries, including Lithuania, one of the countries on the fringes of Russia that now see a chance to break away.

Some are building the capacity to handle seaborne LNG, including Poland, which opened its first import terminal in 2015. In Bulgaria, which buys about 90% of its gas from Russia, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said last month that supplies of U.S. gas could arrive via Greek LNG facilities, “God willing.”… Deutsche Bank estimates the U.S. could catch up with Russia as Europe’s biggest gas supplier within a decade, with each nation controlling around a fifth of the market. Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas via pipeline….The U.S. will compete with Russia, Norway, U.K., Australia and others in Europe’s gas market. Germany, for example, gets half its gas and Italy a third from Russia.Low prices also mean natural gas could compete with coal and help Europe achieve its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions .In Lithuania, officials have accused Moscow of engaging in a campaign of espionage and cyberwarfare to keep its share of the lucrative energy market….

Bulgarian officials allege Russia bankrolled a wave of street protests in 2012 that forced the government to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration. In 2014, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then-head of NATO, told reporters that Russia was covertly funding European environmental organizations to campaign against shale gas to help maintain dependence on Russian gas.

Until 2014, Gazprom owned 37% of Lithuania’s national gas company, Lietuvos Dujos, and dominated its boardroom, said current and former officials.“There was no negotiation about gas prices,” said Jaroslav Neverovic, Lithuania’s energy minister from 2012 to 2014. He said Gazprom would send Lietuvos Dujos a list of gas prices, which the board automatically approved..  In 2015,  [though] Lithuania began receiving Norwegian LNG, reducing Gazprom’s gas monopoly to a market share of less than 80%. In the months before the terminal opened, Gazprom lowered Lithuanian gas prices by 23% and it remained cheaper than Norwegian gas. Still, Lithuania plans to increase its purchase of Norwegian gas this year. The U.S. is next….

Klaipeda’s mayor, Mr. Grubliauskas, said during a recent interview at his office, decorated with photographs of U.S. naval drills in the port: “U.S. LNG is more than just about gas. It’s about freedom.”

Excerpts With U.S. Gas, Europe Seeks Escape From Russia’s Energy Grip, WSJ, Feb. 26, 2016

HyperSonic Gliders: Arms Race at the Speed of Sound

Hypersonics are like missiles that travel at over five times the speed of sound, but are able to manoeuvre in mid-flight, making them much harder to track and intercept than traditional projectiles.  France is the fourth of the five permanent UN Security Council members to join the so-called “stealth by speed” contest, after China, Russia and the United States.  “We have decided to issue a contract for a hypersonic glider”–V-MaX (Experimental Manoeuvering Vehicle)–that can travel at over 6,000 kilometres per hour, Defence Minister Florence Parly said last week, promising a test flight by the end of 2021.

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned Western military analysts – and many in Russia – by unveiling plans for a new arsenal of hypersonic weapons which he said would render missile defence systems obsolete….A few months later US President Donald Trump threatened to walk away from a key arms control treaty with Moscow.

Hypersonic gliders would be carried to the end of the earth’s atmosphere by a launch vehicle and would then “glide” back to a target on the ground. “The goal is high-speed manoeuvrability. That’s how it differs from a ballistic trajectory,” the French government’s defence procurement and technology agency (DGA) said.  “Once the initial speed is reached, we can play with speed and altitude to move up and down, to the left and to the right, creating a trajectory that is more difficult to intercept,” it said…

In December 2018, the Kremlin touted the capabilities of its new hypersonic glider, aptly named “Avanguard”.  The Kremlin said that in tests, the intercontinental projectile reached 27 times the speed of sound – 33,000 kilometres per hour, or Mach 27.  “At this speed, not a single intercepter missile can shoot it down,” Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov boasted.  China has also reportedly carried out several successful tests since 2014 of a glider that can reach speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

Excerpts from Race for ‘hypersonic’ weapons heats up as France joins fray, Agence France Presse, Jan. 29, 2019

Shut-out, Cut-off and Suicidal: Aliens v. America

The United States leads the world in punishing corruption, money-laundering and sanctions violations. In the past decade it has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. The diplomatic row over Huawei, a Chinese telecoms-equipment firm, centres on the legitimacy of America’s extraterritorial reach.

America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. It can do this because of its privileged role in the world economy. Companies that refuse to yield to its global jurisdiction can find themselves shut out of its giant domestic market, or cut off from using the dollar payments system and by extension from using mainstream banks. For most big companies that would be suicidal.

But as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems.  First, the process is disturbingly improvised and opaque. Cases rarely go to court and, when they are settled instead, executives are hit with gagging orders. Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. Imagine if China fined Amazon $5bn and jailed its executives for conducting business in Africa that did not break American law, but did offend Chinese rules and was discussed on WeChat.

Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 bnp Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. In April ZTE, a Chinese tech firm with 80,000 employees, was banned by the Trump administration from dealing with American firms; it almost went out of business. The ban has since been reversed, underlining the impression that the rules are being applied on the hoof.

Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. As our investigation this week explains, a protracted bribery probe into Alstom, a French champion, helped push it into the arms of General Electric, an American industrial icon. American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the doj for its role in the 1mdb scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules.

America has much to be proud of as a corruption-fighter. But, for its own good as well as that of others, it needs to find an approach that is more transparent, more proportionate and more respectful of borders. If it does not, its escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar and to develop global payments systems that bypass Uncle Sam…. Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

Excerpts from Tackling Corruption: Judge Dread, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019

The Space Rat Race

India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth’s orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier…New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China’s activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.  Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

China’s success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.  In the back of Indian and Japanese officials’ minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In December 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.  There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.  Japan and India had a combined 132 — 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.

Excerpts fromNUPUR SHAW India and Japan awaken to risks of superpower space race, Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 8, 2019

How to Discover an Illegal Logger

Tropical forests nearly the size of India are set to be destroyed by 2050 if current trends continue causing species loss, displacement and a major increase in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.  Prior to the launch of the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) alerts, researchers would have to manually track images of logging in specific areas.

The new process, developed by scientists at the University of Maryland and Google, uses an algorithm to analyze weekly updates of satellite images and sends automatic notifications about new logging activity.”This is a game changer,” said Matt Finer from the Amazon Conservation Association, an environmental group.

His organization tracks illegal logging in Peru, sending images of deforestation to policymakers, environmentalists and government officials to try and protect the Amazon rainforest.  In the past, he would rely on tips from local people about encroachment by loggers, then look at older satellite images to try and corroborate the claims.

“With this new data we can focus on getting actionable information to policy makers,” Finer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.  “We have seen how powerful these images can be,” he said, citing a case where his group brought pictures of illegal gold miners cutting down trees to the Peruvian government, who then removed the miners.

Excerpt from  CHRIS ARSENAULT, New satellite program aims to cut down illegal logging in real time, Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016

Caring for the Third Pole

The Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains [the Himalayas], often termed the Third Pole, contain more ice than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctic. This region is also the source of the nine largest rivers in Asia, providing fresh water, food, and other ecosystem services to more than 1.5 billion people…In recent decades, air temperature at the Third Pole has warmed significantly faster than the global average…Meanwhile, intensive anthropogenic activities, such as overgrazing, deforestation, urbanization, and expansion of infrastructure projects such as construction of roads, dams, and electrical grids, are causing widespread landcover changes within the region.

Together, these changes are altering the Third Pole’s biogeochemical cycles and pushing the fragile ecosystem toward degradation and possible collapse, which would cause irreversible harm on a regional and global scale. To avoid this, all nations must meet the standards laid out in the Paris Agreement. At the regional level, we strongly urge the relevant nations (including Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tajikistan) to cooperate in addressing these impending threats through systematic changes to management policies. Rapid and unprecedented coordination will be necessary, including a regional cooperation treaty and formation of a cross-border biodiversity conservation plan for the Third Pole region. Meanwhile, any infrastructure projects undertaken must be environmentally sustainable, and a practicable grazing management policy should be adopted.

Excerpts from Jie Liu, Protect Third Pole’s Fragile Ecosystem, Science,  Dec. 21, 2018