Category Archives: water resources

How to Manage Water Like Money and Fail: Australia

Australia’s Darling River…provided fresh water to farmers seeking to tame Australia’s rugged interior.  No longer. The Darling River hasn’t flowed for eight months, with long stretches completely dried up. A million fish died there in January 2019.  Kangaroos, lizards and birds became sick or died after drinking from toxic pools of stagnant water.  Australia’s water-trading market is drawing blame. The problems with the system, created more than a decade ago, have arisen as similar programs are being considered in the U.S.

Water crises are unfolding across the world as surging populations, industrial-scale farming and hotter temperatures deplete supplies.  Australia thought it had the answer: a cap-and-trade system that would create incentives to use water efficiently and effectively in the world’s driest inhabited continent. But the architects of water trading didn’t anticipate that treating water as a commodity would encourage theft and hoarding.   A report produced for a state resources regulator found the current situation on the Darling was caused by too much water being extracted from the river by a handful of big farmers. Just four license holders control 75% of the water extracted from the Barwon-Darling river system.

The national government, concerned that its water-trading experiment hasn’t turned out as intended, in August 2019 requested an inquiry by the country’s antitrust regulator into water trading.  Anticorruption authorities are investigating instances of possible fraud, water theft and deal making for water licenses. In one case, known as Watergate, a former agriculture minister allegedly oversaw the purchase of a water license at a record price from a Cayman Islands company co-founded by the current energy minister. The former agriculture minister said he was following departmental advice and had no role in determining the price or the vendor. The energy minister said he is no longer involved with the company and received no financial benefit from the deal.

Since 2007, Australia has allowed not only farmers but also investors who want to profit from trading to buy and sell water shares. The water market is now valued at some $20 billion.    But making water valuable had unintended consequences in some places. “Once you create something of real value, you should expect people to attempt to steal it and search for ways to cheat,” says Mike Young, a University of Adelaide professor. “It’s not rocket science. Manage water like money, and you are there.”  Big water users have stolen billions of liters of water from rivers and lakes, according to local media investigations and Australian officials, often by pumping it secretly and at night from remote locations that aren’t metered. A new water regulator set up in New South Wales investigated more than 300 tips of alleged water thefts in its first six months of operation.  In 2018, authorities charged a group of cotton farmers with stealing water, including one that pleaded guilty to pumping enough illegally to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools.  Another problem is that water trading gives farmers an incentive to capture more rain and floodwater, and then hoard it, typically by building storage tanks or lining dirt ditches with concrete. That enables them to collect rain before it seeps into the earth or rivers.

The subsequent water shortages, combined with trading by dedicated water funds and corporate farmers, have driven up prices. Water in Australia’s main agricultural region, the Murray-Darling river basin, now trades at about $420 per megaliter, or one million liters, compared with as low as $7 in previous years.  David Littleproud, Australia’s water-resources minister, says 14% of water licenses are now owned by investors. “Is that really the intent of what we want this market to be?” he asks. “Water is a precious commodity.”

Excerpts from Rachel Pannett , The U.S. Wants to Adopt a Cap-and-Trade Plan for Water That Isn’t Working, WSJ, Sept. 4, 2019

From Streets into Drains into Seas: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts, the most littered items in the world, are posing an intractable trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies: Throwing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers.  Regulators are taking a tougher stance on cigarette filter pollution amid concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Butts for decades have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to break down. Studies show that butts—which often wash from sidewalks into drains and then waterways—can be toxic to fish.

About 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are littered, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit whose cigarette litter prevention program is funded by the tobacco industry.  “That whole habit is so ingrained it becomes part of the ritual of taking the cigarette out of the pack, lighting it, smoking it, putting it on the ground,” said Christopher Proctor, chief scientific officer at British American Tobacco (BAT), whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel. “Changing ingrained behavior is a really difficult thing to do.”

The European Union in May adopted new rules under which members must pass laws within two years requiring tobacco companies to fund the cleanup of filter litter as part of a broader crackdown on single-use plastics. A bill proposing banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.  In response, BAT and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris International Inc. is assessing the appetite for portable ashtrays. Companies also are tapping behavioral psychologists to understand what propels smokers to litter, hoping to forestall stricter regulation…

he World Health Organization says that when filters do break down they leach out some of the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, many of which are environmentally toxic.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, The World’s Most Littered Item Comes Under Fire, WSJ, July 31, 2019

The Sand Industry: Opaque, Illegal, Unsustainable

Malaysia, Singapore’s biggest source for sea sand, has banned the export of the commodity, according to officials in Kuala Lumpur, a move that traders said could complicate the island-state’s ambitious expansion plans on reclaimed land.  Those plans include the development of the Tuas mega port, slated to be the world’s biggest container terminal. Singapore has increased its land area by a quarter since independence in 1965, mostly by using sand to reclaim coastal areas.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, who came to power in a shock election last year, imposed a ban on all sea sand exports on October 3, 2018… Endie Shazlie Akbar, Mahathir’s press secretary, confirmed that the government had put a stop to sand exports last year. However, he denied that it was aimed at curbing Singapore’s expansion plans, saying it was a move to clamp down on illegal sand smuggling….Two traders importing sand to Singapore, who both asked not to be named, said the commodity is becoming scarcer and driving Singapore to source sand from as far as India, which would push up costs. Shipping is the biggest single cost in acquiring sand.The traders added Singapore has been stockpiling sand in recent years which could provide a buffer against any immediate bottleneck in supplies.

The sand industry is opaque with no international price index, making it difficult to gauge the financial impact of a ban by Malaysia.  Sea sand is mostly used for land reclamation, while river sand is a core component in constructions materials like cement.

Singapore imported 59 million tonnes of sand from Malaysia in 2018, at a cost of $347 million, according to United Nations Comtrade data, which is based on information provided by individual countries’ customs offices. That accounted for 97% of Singapore’s total sand imports in the year by volume, and 95% of Malaysia’s global sand sales.The data does not distinguish between types of sand.  When Indonesia banned exports to Singapore in 2007, citing environmental concerns, it caused a “sand crisis” in the city-state that saw building activity almost come to a halt. Singapore has since bolstered its stockpiles.

Unsustainable sand dredging disrupts sediment flows and fishing grounds, destroying livelihoods and polluting water sources in some of the poorest communities in Asia.  But Singapore criticized Indonesia for allegedly using the ban as leverage in negotiations over an extradition treaty and border delineation.

River Dredging for Extraction of Sand

Excerpts from Fathin Ungku, Rozanna Latiff , Exclusive: In blow to Singapore’s expansion, Malaysia bans sea sand exports, Reuters, July 2, 2019

Not Sharing, even a Glass of Water: the Water Crisis in India

The southern city of Chennai—India’s fifth largest with a population of around 10 million—has been meeting only two-thirds of its water needs for weeks, the product of years of drought and decades of failure to manage the region’s water resources.   Residents have been scrambling around the clock to get water—spending hours chasing government tankers or paying private companies to deliver water.  Recent light rains broke a 200-day streak without rain. But the first month of India’s annual monsoon brought one-third less rain than the 50-year average, the driest June in five years, according to the India Meteorological Department.

The acute water shortage in one of India’s largest cities has been building for decades through a mix of population growth, poor planning and increasingly erratic monsoon rains….

The situation in Chennai reflects a larger water crisis spreading across India. Half the country’s population—600 million people—live in areas where water resources are highly or extremely stressed. About 100 million people living in 21 of India’s biggest cities may see their groundwater exhausted by the end of next year, according to a 2018 study by NITI Aayog, an Indian government policy think tank.  By 2030, demand for water will be double the country’s supply, the report said. And the impact will go far beyond the areas actually affected by water shortages: Almost one-third of the country’s agricultural output comes from areas most affected by water shortages…

The scarcity has led to clashes between neighbors. “No one is ready to share even a glass of water,” she said.

Excerpts from Vibhuti Agarwal and Krishna Pokhare Indians Hunt Through the Night for Water as a Megacity Runs Dry, WSJ, July 6, 2018

When Plastic Reached the Himalayas: India’s War on Single-Use Plastics

The daily plastic waste generated by the average Indian—while much lower than the average American—climbed 69% between 2015 and 2018, according to government estimates. Across the country, dumps are overflowing and drains are clogging with plastic, while cows—considered sacred—are getting sick after eating packaging….To get a grip, India has instituted some of the world’s strictest rules on single-use plastic, forcing companies to collect packaging that is often left as litter.
 

Nonrecyclable packaging is a problem globally, but particularly acute in countries with poor waste management. Many Indian households lack regular collection services so they burn trash or dump it on the side of the road. Much of the waste ends up in waterways. Of plastic found in the world’s oceans, 90% is traced to 10 rivers, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Eight of the rivers are in Asia and two flow through India.

Single-Serve Pouches

In emerging markets, products like shampoo and detergent are often sold in single-serve pouches similar to the ketchup packets that come with an order of fries. The resilient “multilayer” pouches protect against extreme temperatures and contamination, and, most important, are affordable for poor consumers. Single-serve packets make up over 80% of shampoo sales in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Euromonitor….This type of packaging combines different types of plastic with materials like aluminum. That makes it nonrecyclable and of no interest to India’s waste pickers who trawl through trash looking for recyclables to sell.  Three years ago, India’s government said it would ban multilayer packaging by 2018, setting off alarm bells through the industry…

A consortium—including Nestlé, Pepsi and Mentos-maker Perfetti Van Melle SpA—tried for months to develop a recyclable alternative. After little success, they decided on a different approach.  Through street plays and workshops, the companies trained 1,500 waste pickers across eight cities to identify and collect multilayer packaging, paying them for what they brought in.  The pilot program amassed 680 metric tons of material in three months. In March 2018, New Delhi changed the law to allow the sale of multilayer packaging. The caveat is that companies must collect back the equivalent volume of what they sell and find other uses for it, like sending it to cement plants as fuel…

Despite such efforts, some government officials have accused companies of moving too slowly. E. Ravendiran of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board says companies only swung into action after being threatened with bans or having to pay a deposit on multilayer packaging sold. Executives say the target of collecting 100% of multilayer plastic by 2020 is unrealistic and that details on how the rule will be implemented are scarce.

Hassan, a former waste picker who manages a small team of waste collectors in Bangalore, says pickers aren’t financially motivated to bend down hundreds of times to collect a kilogram of multilayer plastic from piles of mixed waste or just off the street. Saahas pays him 27 rupees (around 39 U.S. cents) for one kilogram of plastic bottles, compared with just 4 rupees for one kilogram of multilayer packaging, which is much harder to collect.

Excerpts,  Saabira Chaudhu India Saddles Consumer-Goods Makers With Fixing Plastic Trash Problem, WSJ, July 5, 2019

Free-For-All: Gold Mining and the Polluted Rivers of Central African Republic

Four Chinese-run gold mines should be closed in the Central African Republic because of pollution threatening public health, a parliamentary panel said in a report published on July 14, 2019.  “Ecological disaster,” “polluted river,” “public health threatened,” were some of the phrases used in the report.  “Gold mining by the Chinese firms at Bozoum is not profitable for the state and harmful to the population and the environment,” the commission found after its investigation into mining in the northern town.  “The nature of the ecological disaster discovered onsite justifies the immediate, unconditional halt to these activities,” the report found.

Members of the commission spent four days in Bozoum a month ago in response to “multiple complaints from the population.”  There, they found a badly polluted River Ouham, shorn of several aquatic species following the excavation of its riverbed.  They discovered that a rising death rate in fishing villages as well as shrinking access to clean drinking water.

The investigators also voiced fears that the country’s “resources are being squandered with the complicity of certain ministry of mines officials.”  The CAR is rich in natural resources but riven by conflict which has forced around one in four of its 4.5 million population to flee their homes. Under those circumstances, exploitation of the country’s natural resources is difficult to monitor effectively given that the state only has partial control of its own territory.

Central African Republic Report Cites Ecological Disaster in Calling for Closing of 4 Chinese Gold MInes, Agence France Presse,  July 14, 2019

Keep it in Your Backyard Please! The Revolution against Recyclable Plastics

There is no point collecting recyclable waste unless someone is willing to buy it and actually do the recycling. Until late 2017 China was the world’s biggest importer of scrap by far.  All this came to a halt when the Chinese government banned the import of all but the purest scrap material in 2017, killing a trade worth $24bn a year. Waste dealers in the rich world had to scramble to find new buyers. South-East Asia soon emerged as the pre-eminent destination for foreign waste. Unfortunately, the region’s recycling industry is much smaller than China’s; its processing plants were quickly overwhelmed. Plastics from America and Europe have piled up in landfills. Lots of toxic rubbish has simply been torched.

South-East Asian governments are not pleased. They have begun to ban or crimp imports themselves, abruptly diminishing a booming business. On May 28th, 2919 Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, complaining that “garbage [was] being traded under the pretext of recycling”, announced that her government would be sending back 3,000 tonnes of foreign plastic. Much of it was of poor quality, she noted, and hence unrecyclable.  Thailand plans to ban plastic-waste imports by 2021. Vietnam’s government has similar ideas. Kate O’Neill of the University of California, Berkeley, reckons these bans are motivated not only by environmental concerns but also by pride: Asia does not want to be the world’s dumping ground.  Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, recently threatened to go to war with Canada if it did not take back a shipment of plastic scrap. Canada agreed to take it away…

Excerpts from South-East Asian countries are banning imports of waste for recycling, Economist, June 15, 2019