Category Archives: public health

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

How to Make Broken Ships Disappear: pollution

How do you make a 10,000-tonne container ship disappear? At Alang, a small town in Gujarat, on the western coast of India  is the world’s biggest ship-breaking town. Almost a third of all retired vessels—at least 200 each year—are sent to be broken up here, at over 100 different yards stretching along 10km of sand. The industry employs some 20,000 people, almost all men who migrate from the poorer states of India’s northern Hindi-speaking belt. Taxes paid by breakers generate huge sums for the state government. Yet it is a dangerous industry for its workers and a filthy one in environmental terms.

Of 744 ships that were pulled apart worldwide last year, 518 were dismantled on beaches. Only 226 were processed “off the beach” at industrial sites designed for the purpose, according to the Shipbreaking Platform, an ngo which campaigns against beach-breaking. The majority of big shipping firms use beaches, except a tiny few such as Hapag Lloyd of Germany and Boskalis of the Netherlands.

A typical operation involves a ship being beached at low tide. Once her fittings and other resaleable parts are removed, hundreds of workers with gas blowtorches clamber over the vessel’s hull, cutting it into huge steel blocks. These are then dropped onto the beach, where they are cut up again before being sold, then rerolled for use in construction.

Apart from the danger of dropping tens of tonnes of steel from a great height, the method is immensely polluting. A review in 2015 by Litehauz, a Danish marine environmental consultancy, found that in the process of scrapping a 10,000-tonne ship at least 120 tonnes of steel becomes molten and is lost in the sea. Levels of mercury and lead, as well as oil, in Alang’s water are at least 100 times higher than at other beaches. Workers must handle asbestos and dangerous chemicals. Accidents are common. Last year 14 workers died at Alang.Alang is just one of many ship-breaking centres in South Asia. Among the others are beaches in Bangladesh (where workers reportedly include children) and Pakistan. Last year the subcontinent recycled around 90% of the world’s ships by tonnage.

Ship-breaking is concentrated in the region for three reasons. Prices for scrap steel are higher than elsewhere (90% of a ship is typically steel), thanks to demand for rerolled steel for construction. Labour costs are lower than at yards in Europe, America or Turkey (workers at Alang make up to 800 rupees, or $11, per day, and usually less) and safety and environmental regulations are much weaker. Most sellers scrap their ships in South Asia because they get better prices for them.

 Shipowners, in particular Maersk, a Danish company which is the world’s biggest shipper, are preparing to comply with them…At the Baijnath Melaram shipyard a huge crane barge sits in the water next to a stretch of “impermeable” concrete. “We used to have to winch the blocks up the beach,” says Siddharth Jain, the firm’s business manager. Now, the crane lifts blocks of steel down from the ships directly to the concrete, so that they need never touch the sand. In contrast to the yards nearby, where men in simple work clothes and no safety goggles operate blowtorches, the workers scuttling around Baijnath Melaram wear boiler suits, face masks and helmets.

Blocks of steel from recycled ships

The changes are largely down to Maersk… Around 70 more are upgrading in order to meet standards set by the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, an unratified treaty on ship recycling.  Maersk’s campaign is in response to new regulations in force since December 31st 2018 that require all European-flagged vessels to be recycled at shipyards approved by Brussels. Just over a third of the world’s ships fall in this category. Maersk, whose fleet is roughly 40% European-flagged, hopes that the best yards at Alang will be able to comply with the new rules. Two Indian yards have already been audited for the European certification; 11 more have applied. “If we sustain that momentum, in five, six or seven years all of Alang could be really responsible,” says John Kornerup Bang, Maersk’s sustainability chief.

But on January 30, 2019 the eu announced that the Indian yards audited will not make the list,… Ingvild Jenssen of the Shipbreaking Platform says that even Alang’s best yards are not clean enough. She argues that Maersk’s efforts merely “greenwash” a model that needs to change completely…. Not clean enough for Europe; but too expensive to compete with breakers in Bangladesh or Pakistan which have not changed at all. If that happens, the industry in Alang—and the jobs and revenue it generates—could disappear almost as quickly as the ships it dismantles.

Gadani, Pakistan

Excerpt from HIgh by the Beach: Ship Recycling, Economist, Mar. 9, 2019

Can’t Eat This! MicroPlastics Carrying Bacteria

The hard surface of waterborne plastic provides an ideal environment for the formation of biofilm by opportunistic microbial colonisers, and could facilitate a novel means of dispersal for microorganisms across coastal and marine environments. Biofilms that colonise the so-called ‘plastisphere’ could also be a reservoir for faecal indicator organisms (FIOs), such as Escherichia coli, or pathogenic bacteria such as species of Vibrio.

Nurdles on bathing beach

A study published in March 2019 looks into five public bathing beaches and quantifies their colonisation by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Nurdles [i.e., microplastics] were heterogeneously distributed along the high tide mark at all five beaches, and each beach contained nurdles that were colonised by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Knowledge of E. coli colonisation and persistence on nurdles should now be used to inform coastal managers about the additional risks associated with plastic debris.

Abastract from Colonisation of plastic pellets (nurdles) by E. coli at public bathing beaches

A Swamp of Oil Pollution: Ogoniland

Status of Cleaning up Oil Pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria:

According to the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), the clean-up of Ogoniland is bugged with identity crisis, procedures, processes and overheads. Perception of corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, complex decision making, internal crisis of choice between Ogoni and the Niger Delta….The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011 after series of protests of oil spillage in the community that culminated to the death of Ken Sarowiwa and eight others.  The report  made recommendations to the government, the oil and gas industry and communities to begin a comprehensive cleanup of Ogoniland, restore polluted environments and put an end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination in the region…

Pollution of soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, sediments and swampland.  In 49 cases, UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 metres. At 41 sites, the hydrocarbon pollution has reached the groundwater at levels in excess of the Nigerian standards permitted by National Laws..

Excerpts from Ogoni: Cleanup Exercise by Authorities Questioned by Civil Society Groups, UNPO, Mar. 12, 2019

The Micro-Plastics Menance: Oceans

The IUCN report published in 2019 looked at primary microplastics – plastics that enter the oceans in the form of small particles, as opposed to larger plastic waste that degrades in the water – released from household and industrial products across seven geographical regions. Sources of primary microplastics include car tyres, synthetic textiles, marine coatings, road markings, personal care products, plastic pellets and city dust.  According to the report, between 15 and 31% of the estimated 9.5 m tonnes of plastic released into the oceans each year could be primary microplastics, almost two-thirds of which come from the washing of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving…Synthetic textiles are the main source of primary microplastics in Asia and tyres dominate in the Americas, Europe and Central Asia…. Synthetic clothes could be designed to shed fewer fibres, for example, and consumers can act by choosing natural fabrics over synthetic ones”

The World Health Organization is reviewing microplastics’ potential impact on human health after a study found plastic in 259 bottles of water from 11 different brands bought in nine countries. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, according to studies, but the impact on human health is unclear.Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.  Pending bills in New York and California, if successful, would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed.

Researchers also have zeroed in on how clothes are washed. Outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains.  It also found types of washing machines matter. Jackets washed in top-load washing machines shed seven times as many microfibers as front-loaders.

Excerpts from  Invisible plastic particles from textiles and tyres a major source of ocean pollution – IUCN study,Feb 2017; The Tiny Plastics in Your Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7, 2019

How Nuclear Technology Creates New Plants

Joining the FAO/IAEA coordinated research projects in the area of mutation breeding has led to the development of several barley mutant lines with improved yield and quality under Kuwait’s environmental conditions.  As arable land is limited to small areas, 95% of the country’s food and animal fodder is imported. Barley is a preferred crop for cultivation, because it is relatively drought tolerant and therefore one of the most suitable crops for an arid country like Kuwait. Having high yielding home grown crops is among the key objectives of the country’s agricultural programme to enhance food security.

Drought, salinity and diseases have historically limited staple crop productivity in Kuwait.   Mutation induction by radiation rapidly increases the genetic diversity necessary to produce new and improved varieties and is thus advantageous over traditional breeding…The best adaptable varieties were identified, and the seeds were subjected to induced mutation using gamma rays.

New mutant lines have been generated and they are now examined for drought and salinity tolerance. The selected mutant lines will be advanced, which then can be multiplied for planting. …One of the major challenges was explaining to farmers the safety of the new mutated barley lines developed. “When they heard that ‘nuclear techniques’ were used to create improved barely seeds, they got scared….

Aabha Dixit , Nuclear Technology Helps Develop New Barley Variety in Kuwait, IAEA Press Release, Feb. 18, 2019

Plastics in Seas as New Tiny Ecosystems

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem….Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7