Category Archives: water resources

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

Can Gucci Save the Steppes of Mongolia?

 Essential to the identity and economy of Mongolia—more than half of the country’s 3 million people live there—the grasslands are under increasing threat from overgrazing and climate change. Multiple studies over the past decade have shown that the once lush Mongolian steppe, an expanse twice the size of Texas that is one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands, is slowly turning into a desert. An estimated 70% of all the grazing lands in the country are considered degraded to some degree…. 

The collective here of a little more than 100 families is at the center of an unusual effort, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to turn space-based maps of the grasslands into a tool for making grazing more sustainable. Supported by the world’s largest mining company and a luxury apparel giant, the pilot effort uses data gathered by NASA and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to help herders find places where the vegetation is healthy enough to sustain their voracious herds.

 Meanwhile, development, especially mining, has exponentially increased water usage. Twelve percent of rivers and 21% of lakes have dried up entirely. An increasing number of people, vehicles, and heavy equipment put additional stress on the land.  But one factor stands out: overgrazing, which, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has caused 80% of the recent decline in vegetation on the grasslands.

Mongolia is now the world’s second-largest cashmere producer, after China. Goats, which account for more than half of all grazing animals on the grasslands, can be more lucrative than other livestock, but they’re also much more destructive than the sheep they’ve replaced because they eat roots and the flowers that seed new grasses=s.

WCS’s Sustainable Cashmere project may offer part of the solution. The project, whose budget the organizers won’t disclose, is funded by mining giant Rio Tinto, which runs a massive copper mine not far away, and Kering, the French luxury apparel giant that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and other brands that need cashmere. Both aim to help offset their impact on the Mongolian environment, a requirement of Rio’s mining agreement and part of Kering’s corporate social responsibility program.

Excerpts Kathleen McLaughlin, Saving the steppes, Science, Feb. 1, 2019

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

Saving the Sea of Galilee

The water level of the Sea of Galilee, on which Jesus supposedly walked, is a national obsession in Israel. Newspapers report its rise and fall next to the weather forecast. Lately the sea, which is actually a freshwater lake, has been falling. It is now a quarter empty. Small islands have emerged above its shrinking surface. 

For the past five years Israel has experienced its worst drought in nearly a century. That has reduced the flow of the Jordan river and other streams that feed into the Sea of Galilee. Less turnover in the lake’s water is leading to increased salinity and the spread of cyanobacteria (sometimes called “blue-green algae”, despite not being algae). As the pressure from fresh water eases, it allows in more salt water from subterranean streams. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these problems, perhaps one day making the lake water undrinkable.

Israel can probably cope. For most of its history the Sea of Galilee was its largest source of drinking water. But over the past decade the country has invested heavily in desalination plants and projects that allow it to reclaim effluents and brackish water. Since 2016 well over half of the water consumed by households, farms and industry has been “man-made”. Less than 70m cubic metres of water will be pumped out of the Sea of Galilee this year for consumption, down from 400m in the past. Some 50m will go to Jordan, which is also suffering from a severe drought.

In Jun 2018e the Israeli government authorised a billion-shekel ($270m) plan to pump desalinated sea water, mostly from the Mediterranean, into the Sea of Galilee. Work on a new pipeline began last month. A freshwater lake has never been replenished in this way, but the scientists monitoring the plan believe it will work similarly to rainfall and will not harm the lake’s unique ecosystem.  By 2020 the new pipeline is expected to pump enough desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee to stabilise its level. 

Excerpts from The Sea of Galilee: Walking on Desalinated Water, Economist,  Dec. 1, 2018

Future of Green Life Depends on a Toilet

Innovator Cranfield University, U.K.: Putting down the toilet lid activates a dry flush. The motion turns a set of gears that drop feces and urine into a pan, where they are separated and either combusted into ash that can be thrown away or filtered into clean water that could be used to water plants, for instance, though not drinking. It was one of the few completely standalone toilets at the expo, able to function without links to water, sewer or electric lines.

The Innovator: Helbling Group, Switzerland: Helbling’s self-contained toilet system
Similar to other models, this toilet is a mostly self-contained system that transforms waste into clean water and a form of charcoal. But its makers, who were contracted by the Gates Foundation to develop this model, also had modern design in mind: A sleek, black-and-white prototype includes a touchpad for the flush and a container that can be detached to dump out excess water. While it doesn’t have to connect to water or sewer lines, one limit is that the model still needs electricity from an outside source

Sedron Technologies makes the Janicki Omni Processor, a small-scale waste-treatment plant that can filter wet fecal matter so thoroughly that the resulting water is not only free of bacteria and viruses but also safe for drinking. At its highest capacity the plant can manage waste for up to 500,000 people, the same range as two other plants featured at the expo. A trial has been running in Dakar, Senegal, over the past three years to identify and fix technical problems.

Excerpts  from Flush With Ideas: Bill Gates Pursues the Toilet of the Future, WSJ, Nov. 9, 2018


The Water Barons of Australia

Australia has one of the world’s most sophisticated water-trading systems, and officials in other water-challenged places—notably California and China—are drawing on its experience to manage what the World Bank has called world’s “most precious resource.”  The system here, set up after a catastrophic drought in the 2000s saw the country’s most important river system almost run dry, aims to make sure each gallon of river water goes to higher-value activities.

But the return of severe drought to an area of eastern Australia more than twice the size of Texas is testing the system…Putting a price on water is politically unacceptable in many countries, where access to lakes and rivers is considered a basic right and water is often allocated under administrative rules instead of by markets.

Many water markets that do exist only allow landowners to buy and sell water rights. Australia since 2007 has allowed anyone to trade water parcels, putting supply under the influence of market forces in a system now valued at about $21 billion. Water may be freely bought and sold by irrigators, farmers, water brokers or investors through four exchanges—H2OX, Waterfind, Water Exchange and Ruralco—which allow real-time pricing…

As Australia rewrote the rules of its water market over the last decade to deal with its own drought crises, many farmers chose to sell their water licenses and rely on one-off purchases to keep farming.  The tactic worked until winter rains failed to arrive this year, turning fertile areas into dust bowls. Where a megaliter of water in June last year, before the drought took hold, cost around 3,000 Australian dollars (U.S. $2,166), the price is now closer to A$5,000, according to Aither Water, an advisory firm. The high cost has left smaller farmers praying for rain…

Australia’s drought is splitting agriculture-producing regions into those who have water and those who don’t.  Large investors—including Canadian and U.S. funds—bought high-price water licenses to set up agribusiness ventures in profitable almonds, cotton and citrus, with an eye to growing Asian markets. Others have set up dedicated water investment funds, with prices at the highest levels seen since the drought last decade.

In a country where boom-and-bust cycles, through drought and flood, have historically made water a political flashpoint, some rural Australian lawmakers and farmers want the government to divert water to help parched farms…In August 2018, Victoria state auctioned 20 gigaliters of water that had been earmarked for the environment, putting it on the market for dairy and fruit regions around Cohuna…Some water traders and environmentalists criticized the move as political interference—and said it risked undermining the water market by giving priority to farmers and disrupting forward trades and planning by other irrigators….Euan Friday, a water manager for farm and water investment company Kilter Rural, said the market is doing what it is supposed to do, and warned that the country’s fragile rivers—much smaller than the major rivers of North America—would be facing a dire situation without it. Supported by Australian pension funds, Kilter Rural has invested $130 million in buying water rights and redeveloping farmland.

Excerpt from Australia Model Water Market Struggles with Drought, WSJ, Nov. 8, 2018

Flowering the Sahara

The installation of large-scale wind and solar power generation facilities in the Sahara could cause more local rainfall, particularly in the neighboring Sahel region. This effect,  could increase coverage by vegetation, creating a positive feedback that would further increase rainfall.

Wind and solar farms offer a major pathway to clean, renewable energies. However, these farms would significantly change land surface properties, and, if sufficiently large, the farms may lead to unintended climate consequences. In this study, we used a climate model with dynamic vegetation to show that large-scale installations of wind and solar farms covering the Sahara lead to a local temperature increase and more than a twofold precipitation increase, especially in the Sahel, through increased surface friction and reduced albedo. The resulting increase in vegetation further enhances precipitation, creating a positive albedo–precipitation–vegetation feedback that contributes ~80% of the precipitation increase for wind farms…

This highlights that, in addition to avoiding anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and the resulting warming, wind and solar energy could have other unexpected beneficial climate impacts when deployed at a large scale in the Sahara, where conditions are especially favorable for these impacts. Efforts to build such large-scale wind and solar farms for electricity generation may still face many technological (e.g., transmission, efficiency), socioeconomic (e.g., cost, politics), and environmental challenges, but this goal has become increasingly achievable and cost-effective

Exceprts from Yan Li, Climate model shows large-scale wind and solar farms in the Sahara increase rain and vegetation, Science, Sept. 7, 2018