Category Archives: water resources

How to Poison a Population: War and Persistent Oil Pollution

Oil pollution in Syria has been a growing concern since the 2011 onset of a civil war that has taken a toll on oil infrastructure and seen rival powers compete over control of key hydrocarbon fields. In the Kurdish-held northeast, a large storage facility in the Rmeilan oil field in Hasakeh province is of particular concern, according to the Dutch peace organisation PAX. [A River of Death, pdf] Oil leaks from the Gir Zero storage facility have been suspected since at least 2014, the latest in March 2020, it said in a June report. Thousands of barrels have leaked out into creeks in the area over the past five years, threatening the health and livelihoods of people in dozens of villages….

The major Rmeilan field controlled by the Kurdish administration, located near a US airbase, has been among the Syrian Kurds’ most prized assets since regime forces withdrew early on in the war. But oil wealth comes at a heavy cost for livestock farmers
whose sheep and cows have died because they drank oil contaminated water.

Residents too suffer heavily from the pollution because  of the foul odour of gas and crude oil wafting over the area… Compounding the situation, makeshift oil refineries have cropped up across the northeast in recent years, dumping oil waste in the waterways…These informal refineries receive oil from nearby fields and process it to provide benzine, gasoline and diesel to locals.

Excerpts from Delil SouleimanBlack waters: Oil spills pollute northeast Syria creeks
by Delil Souleiman, AFP, July 23, 2020

Water Conflicts: Who Owns the Nile River

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a giant edifice that would span the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile river.  Half a century in the making, the hydro-electric dam is Africa’s largest, with a reservoir able to hold 74bn cubic metres of water, more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile. Once filled it should produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, double Ethiopia’s current power supply. Millions of people could be connected to the grid for the first time. More than an engineering project, it is a source of national pride.

For Egypt, however, it seems a source of national danger. Over 90% of the country’s 100m people live along the Nile or in its vast delta. The river, long seen as an Egyptian birthright, supplies most of their water. They fear the dam will choke it off. Pro-regime pundits, not known for their subtlety, have urged the army to blow it up….Ethiopia wants to start filling the reservoir during this summer’s rainy season. On June 26th, 2020 after another round of talks, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan pledged to reach a deal within two weeks. Ethiopia agreed not to start filling the dam during that period.

Diplomats say most of the issues are resolved. But the outstanding one is big: how to handle a drought. Egypt wants Ethiopia to promise to release certain amounts of water to top up the Nile. But Ethiopia is loth to “owe” water to downstream countries or to drain the reservoir so much that electric output suffers. It wants a broader deal between all riparian states, including those on the White Nile, which flows out of Lake Victoria down through Uganda and Sudan.

Even if talks fail and Ethiopia starts filling without a deal, Egyptians will not find their taps dry. There is enough water in the reservoir behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam to make up for any shortfall this year. But the mood in both countries is toxic. Egyptians have cast Ethiopia as a thief bent on drying up their country. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, Egypt is portrayed as a neocolonial power trampling on national sovereignty. The outcome of the talks will have political consequences in both countries, and perhaps push them to the brink of conflict—at a time when Egypt is already contemplating involvement in a war in Libya.

Ethiopia’s grand dam became a reality and a national obsession under Meles Zenawi, the longtime prime minister who ruled until 2012. His political masterstroke was asking Ethiopians to finance it through donations and the purchase of low-denomination bonds…. Most contributed voluntarily, but there was always an element of coercion. Civil servants had to donate a month’s salary at the start. Local banks and other businesses were expected to buy bonds worth millions of birr. ….

Excerpts from The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Showdown on the Nile, Economist, July 4, 2020

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Air Pollution: the Microplastics We Breath

 Scientists measured microplastics — tiny particles and fibers of plastic that can float in the air like dust — and found that over 1,000 tons a year are falling into wilderness areas and national parks in the western U.S.  Janice Brahney of Utah State University and her team identified samples of microplastics and other particulates collected over 14 months in 11 national parks and wilderness areas to create the study published in the journal Science, on June 12, 2020.  Pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in length, or microplastics, occur in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution…

The presence of microplastics in oceans and water supplies has been a matter of concern for some time, but the impact of airborne microplastics is a relatively new area of study. Though microplastics are found nearly everywhere on Earth, the sources and processes behind their ubiquitous distribution, or the “global plastic cycle,” remain vaguely understood.  Initially overlooked, recent studies have suggested that long-range atmospheric transport plays an important role in carrying microplastic pollution vast distances and to remote locations

Examination of weekly wet and monthly dry samples from 11 sites allowed the authors to estimate that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics are deposited onto protected lands in the western U.S. each year, equivalent to more than 123 million plastic water bottles.

The ubiquity of microplastics in the atmosphere has unknown consequences for humans and animals, but the research team observed sizes of particles that were within the ranges that accumulate in lung tissue. Moreover, the accumulation of plastic in the wilderness areas and national parks could well influence the ecosystems in complicated ways.

Excerpts, VICTORIA PRIESKOP, Scientists Find Tons of Microplastics Polluting National Parks, Courthouse News Service, June 11, 2020

No Clean-Up, No Justice: Ogoniland, Nigeria

The UN Environment Programme in 2011 proposed the creation of a $1 billion fund to repair the damage done by decades of crude spills in the Ogoniland area in southeastern Nigeria. However, progress has been poor and the little work that has been done is sub-standard, advocacy groups including Amnesty International reported in June 2020.  “Research reveals that there is still no clean-up, no fulfillment of ‘emergency’ measures, no transparency and no accountability for the failed efforts, neither by the oil companies nor by the Nigerian government,” the groups said.

Shell’s Nigerian unit pumped oil in Ogoniland until 1993, when the company withdrew amid increasing protests against its presence. Even though the Hague-based company no longer produces crude in the area, a joint venture operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company, or SPDC, still owns pipelines that crisscross the region.

A government agency responsible for overseeing the clean-up, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, known as Hyprep, was finally set up in 2017 after several false starts, but it’s failing to deliver. …“Hyprep is not designed, nor structured, to implement a project as complex and sizable as the Ogoniland clean-up,” the report cites UNEP as saying in 2019

Excerpt from Clean Up Oil in Nigerial Lacks Progress, Bloomberg, June 18,, 2020

Oil Spills of Sudan, Humanity for Africa, and East African Court of Justice

The East African Court of Justice delivered in June 2020 a temporary injunction order to the country’s Minister for Justice, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC), and the Dar Petroleum Operating Company. The Court approved the application by Hope for Humanity Africa (H4HA), a non-governmental organization (NGO), which sought to highlight the environmental damage caused by oil spills… The NGO contends that: “Over 47,249 of the local population in Upper Nile State and 60,000 in Unity State are at risk of being exposed to the oil pollution this is because the local population depends on the wild foods for survival, the contaminated swamps, streams and rivers waters for cooking, drinking, washing, bathing and fishing.”…

The H4HA is looking for an injunction to stop multiple companies from exporting oil from the region, including CNPC of China, Petronas of Malaysia, and Oil & Natural Gas Corp. of India (ONGC) 

Excerpts South Sudan Suspended by African Union, Barred From Exporting Oil by East African Court, https://www.youngbhartiya.com, June 24, 2020

Choking the Water: Dams, Dams and More Dams

Since Tibet is part of China, Chinese engineers have been making the most of that potential. They have built big dams not only on rivers like the Yellow and the Yangzi, which flow across China to the Pacific, but also on others, like the Brahmaputra and the Mekong, which pass through several more countries on their way to the sea.

China has every right to do so. Countries lucky enough to control the sources of big rivers often make use of the water for hydropower or irrigation before it sloshes away across a border. But If the countries nearest the source of water, like China,  suck up too much of the flow, or even simply stop silt flowing down or fish swimming up by building dams, the consequences in the lower reaches of the river can be grim: parched crops, collapsed fisheries, salty farmland.

Tension and recrimination have been the order of the day for China and its neighbours… In part, this is because a river like the Mekong does not contain enough water to go round. China has already built 11 dams across the main river (never mind its tributaries) and has plans for eight more; the downstream states have built two and are contemplating seven more. Last year, during a drought, the river ran so low that Cambodia had to turn off a big hydropower plant. Even when rainfall is normal, the altered flow and diminished siltation are causing saltwater to intrude into the Mekong delta, which is the breadbasket of Vietnam, and depleting the fish stocks that provide the only protein for millions of poor Cambodians.

China has long resisted any formal commitment to curb its construction of dams or to guarantee downstream countries a minimum allocation of water. It will not even join the Mekong River Commission, a body intended to help riparian countries resolve water-sharing disputes…

China has not signed any agreements about managing the Mekong with the other countries it flows through, so is not obliged to share a particular amount of water with them, nor even provide data on the flow or any warning about the operations of its dams. It does provide the Mekong River Commission with a trickle of information about water levels and planned releases from dams, which helps with flood-control lower down the river

Excerps from Water Torture: Hydropower in Asia, Economist, May 16, 2020; Torrent to Tickle: the Mekong, Economist, May 16, 2020

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

Left to their Own Bad Devices: the Future of Ogoni Land in Nigeria

The decades-overdue clean-up of Ogoniland, after years of oil spills from the pipelines that criss-cross the region, is finally under way. But the billion-dollar project — funded by Nigeria’s national oil company and Royal Dutch Shell — is mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement.  “We are not pleased with what is going on,” said Mike Karikpo, an attorney with Friends of the Earth International and a member of the Ogoniland team that negotiated the creation of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep), the government body running the clean-up… 

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumping out about 1.8m barrels per day. It provides roughly 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange and more than half of government revenues.  The clean-up began only the summer 2019, about a year after the first of an expected five tranches of $180m in funding was released to Hyprep. Mr Karikpo complains of a lack of transparency, alleging that planning, budgeting and awarding of contracts took place behind closed doors. Work started at the height of the rainy season, washing away much of the progress as contaminated soil collected for treatment was swept back into the environment…

Ogoniland, like the broader Niger Delta, has become more polluted and development has stalled, with little to show for the billions of dollars in crude that has been extracted. Critics have now accused Hyprep of being, like much of Nigeria’s oil sector, a vehicle for political patronage and graft. This year 16 companies were awarded contracts for the first phase of the clean-up, which — to the consternation of critics — focuses on the least contaminated parts of Ogoniland.

An investigation by the news site Premium Times found that almost all the companies were set up for other purposes, including poultry farming, car sales and construction, and had no experience of tackling oil pollution.  Meanwhile, insiders have questioned Hyprep’s capacity to handle such a massive project…

Shell and Hyprep have rejected the criticism.  Shell, which closed its Ogoniland operations in 1993, said it accepted responsibility “for spills arising from its operations”, but that some of the blame for the pollution must go to thieves who illegally tapped into pipelines and makeshift refining operations in the Delta’s creeks

Excerpts from Craft and Mismanagement Taint Nigeria’s Oil CleanUp, Financial Times, Dec. 29, 2019

When the Fish are Gone: As Bad as it Could Get in the Yangtze River

China imposed a 10-year commercial fishing ban in January 2020  on the Yangtze – the first ever for Asia’s longest river – in a bid to protect its aquatic life.  Facing dwindling fish stocks and declining biodiversity in the 6,300km (3,915-mile) river, the Chinese government decided seasonal moratoriums were not enough. The ban will be applied at 332 conservation sites along the river. It will be extended to cover the main river course and key tributaries by January 1 2021, according to a State Council notice.   Dam-building, pollution, overfishing, river transport and dredging had worsened the situation for the waterway’s aquatic species.  Fishermen using nets with smaller holes and illegal practices such as the use of explosives or electrocution have also contributed to the river’s decline

 President Xi Jinping warned that the Yangtze River had become so depleted that its biodiversity index was as bad as it could get, saying it had reached what could be described as the “no fish” level… Back in 1954, the annual catch from the Yangtze was about 427,000 tonnes, but in recent years it had been less than 100,000 tonnes.
According to an official estimate, about 280,000 fishermen in 10 provinces along the Yangtze River will be affected by the ban. Their 113,000 registered fishing boats will be grounded or destroyed. The government has allocated funds to help those affected find alternative work and provide them with welfare and retraining. To counter illegal fishing, he said river authorities would be equipped with speedboats, drones and video surveillance systems. Fishermen would also be recruited to patrol the river.

Excerpts from China bans fishing in depleted Yangtze River for 10 years to protect aquatic life, South China Morning Post, Jan. 3, 2020

Swept Under the Rug: Radioactive Dust and Brine in the Oil Industry

A salty substance called  “brine,” is  a naturally occurring waste product that gushes out of America’s oil-and-gas wells to the tune of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day. At most wells, far more brine is produced than oil or gas, as much as 10 times more. Brine collects in tanks, and workers pick it up and haul it off to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the earth

The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted — carried largely in the brine…

Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The most common isotopes are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Some brine samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was more than 8,500. “It’s ridiculous that those who haul brine are not being told what’s in their trucks,” says John Stolz, Duquesne’s environmental-center director. “And this stuff is on every corner — it is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing.

“Breathing in this stuff and ingesting it are the worst types of exposure,” Stolz continues. “You are irradiating your tissues from the inside out.” The radioactive particles fired off by radium can be blocked by the skin, but radium readily attaches to dust, making it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest. Once inside the body, its insidious effects accumulate with each exposure. It is known as a “bone seeker” because it can be incorporated into the skeleton and cause bone cancers called sarcomas. It also decays into a series of other radioactive elements, called “daughters.” The first one for radium-226 is radon, a radioactive gas and the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon has also been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.

The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. …

There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer

But a set of recent legal cases argues a direct connection to occupational exposure can be made… Pipe cleaners, welders, roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickmen, and truck drivers hauling dirty pipes and sludge all were exposed to radioactivity without their knowledge and suffered a litany of lethal cancers. An analysis program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined with up to 99 percent certainty that the cancers came from exposure to radioactivity on the job, including inhaling dust and radioactivity accumulated on the workplace floor, known as “groundshine.”

“Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides,” states a never-publicly released 1982 report by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s principal trade group, passed to Rolling Stone by a former state regulator. Rolling Stone discovered a handful of other industry reports and articles that raised concerns about liability for workers’ health. A 1950 document from Shell Oil warned of a potential connection between radioactive substances and cancer of the “bone and bone marrow.” In a 1991 paper, scientists with Chevron said, “Issues such as risk to workers or the general public…must be addressed.”

“There is no one federal agency that specifically regulates the radioactivity brought to the surface by oil-and-gas development,” an EPA representative says. In fact, thanks to a single exemption the industry received from the EPA in 1980, the streams of waste generated at oil-and-gas wells — all of which could be radioactive and hazardous to humans — are not required to be handled as hazardous waste. In 1988, the EPA assessed the exemption — called the Bentsen and Bevill amendments, part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — and claimed that “potential risk to human health and the environment were small,” even though the agency found concerning levels of lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium, and admitted that it did not assess many of the major potential risks. Instead, the report focused on the financial and regulatory burdens, determining that formally labeling the “billions of barrels of waste” as hazardous would “cause a severe economic impact on the industry.”…

There is a perception that because the radioactivity is naturally occurring it’s less harmful (the industry and regulators almost exclusively call oil-and-gas waste NORM — naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM for the “technologically enhanced” concentrations of radioactivity that accumulate in equipment like pipes and trucks.”…

In Pennsylvania, regulators revealed in 2012 that for at least six years one hauling company had been dumping brine into abandoned mine shafts. In 2014, Benedict Lupo, owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, company that hauled fracking waste, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for directing his employees to dump tens of thousands of gallons of brine into a storm drain that emptied into a creek that feeds into the Mahoning River. While large bodies of water like lakes and rivers can dilute radium, Penn State researchers have shown that in streams and creeks, radium can build up in sediment to levels that are hundreds of times more radioactive than the limit for topsoil at Superfund sites. Texas-based researcher Zac Hildenbrand has shown that brine also contains volatile organics such as the carcinogen benzene, heavy metals, and toxic levels of salt, while fracked brine contains a host of additional hazardous chemicals. “It is one of the most complex mixtures on the planet,” he says…

“There is nothing to remediate it with,” says Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist. “The high radioactivity in the soil at some of these sites will stay forever.” Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. The level of uptake into agricultural crops grown in contaminated soil is unknown because it hasn’t been adequately studied.

“Not much research has been done on this,” says Bill Burgos, an environmental engineer at Penn State who co-authored a bombshell 2018 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that examined the health effects of applying oil-field brine to roads. Regulators defend the practice by pointing out that only brine from conventional wells is spread on roads, as opposed to fracked wells. But conventional-well brine can be every bit as radioactive, and Burgos’ paper found it contained not just radium, but cadmium, benzene, and arsenic, all known human carcinogens, along with lead, which can cause kidney and brain damage.

Brine as dust suppressant

Ohio, because of its geology, favorable regulations, and nearness to drilling hot spots in the Marcellus, has become a preferred location for injection wells. Pennsylvania has about a dozen wells; West Virginia has just over 50. Ohio has 225. About 95 percent of brine was disposed of through injection as of 2014. Government scientists have increasingly linked the practice to earthquakes, and the public has become more and more suspicious of the sites. Still, the relentless waste stream means new permits are issued all the time, and the industry is also hauling brine to treatment plants that attempt to remove the toxic and radioactive elements so the liquid can be used to frack new wells.

Excerpts from America’s Radioactive Secret, Rolling Stone Magazine, Jan. 21, 2020

Ethical Mining 2020

Less than half of the world’s larger miners have released safety and environmental details about their mine-waste dams, showing the mixed success of investors’ demands for greater transparency after the deadly Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil. In January, 2019, 270 people died following the collapse of a tailings dam owned by Brazil’s Vale SA. The incident prompted a coalition of investors who manage more than $13 trillion to ask 726 companies in the mining and oil-sands business to disclose information on their dams. Nearly 55% of companies hadn’t delivered as of November 2019. While some of the largest miners—including Vale, BHP , and Anglo American have disclosed their information, others have yet to do so. Investors are increasingly examining ethical issues when looking at mining.

Tailings, the waste material from extracting valuable minerals, are often held for decades behind dams that can be risky if they are poorly constructed, ill-maintained or filled with too much waste. Major failures of tailings dams have become more frequent as mining companies ramp up production to meet the world’s growing demand for commodities. Norilsk Nickel one of world’s most valuable miners with a market capitalization of roughly $43 billion, hasn’t publicly released details on its tailings dams. In 2016, heavy rainfall caused a Norilsk Nickel tailings dam in northern Russia to overflow, coloring a local river red. Miners of potash and phosphate—minerals used mainly in fertilizers—have been slow to disclose.

Another big company that has not released details is Canada-based Nutrient. Satellite images show two of the company’s six Saskatchewan mines are located a few miles from residential communities and one neighbors a bird-breeding area. A tailings pond at the company’s North Carolina phosphate mine is located next to the Pamlico River, which feeds into the state’s largest estuary.

In 2017, Israel Chemicals reported that the partial collapse of a subsidiary’s dike in Israel released 100,000 cubic meters of acidic wastewater that flowed into a nearby nature reserve. The wastewater resulted from the production of phosphate fertilizer.Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corp.is tied to what is considered one of Canada’s worst environmental catastrophes. In 2014, a British Columbia dam owned by the company burst, sending some 25 million cubic meters of mining waste pouring into a pair of glacial lakes

Large Chinese miners such as Jiangxi Copper, Zijin Mining Group Co.  and Zhongjin Gold Corp. also haven’t shared information with the investor coalition. There are 8,869 documented tailings dams, of which 16% are within about half a mile of a residential area, school or hospital, according to research led by the School of University of Science and Technology in Beijing. Karen Hudson-Edwards, a mining specialist at Britain’s University of Exeter, said the actual number in China is estimated at around 12,000 dams and there is little transparency on tailings risk in the country. There have been at least 12 serious tailings-dam accidents in China since the 1960s, with one in 2008 killing 277 people, according to the World Information Service on Energy, a Netherlands-based nonprofit.

Alistair MacDonald et al, Many Mining Companies Fail to Provide Waste-Dam Data, WSJ, Dec. 18, 2019

How to Own a Foreign Country: the Strategy of Gulf States in Egypt and Sudan

Nile has become a battleground. Countries that sit upriver and wealthy Gulf states are starting to use the Nile more than ever for water and electricity. That means less water for the 250 million-plus small farmers, herders and city dwellers in the Nile basin.  Dams funded by foreign countries including China and oil-rich neighbors like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are tapping the river to irrigate industrial farms and generate electricity. Crops grown using Nile water are increasingly shipped out of Africa to the Middle East, often to feed livestock such as dairy cows

Exporting crops to feed foreign animals while borrowing money to import wheat is “almost insane,” Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, said in an interview. “It’s exporting water, basically. We could be growing wheat and getting rid of half our import bill,” he said. Mr. Hamdok’s predecessor, dictator Omar al-Bashir, is in prison after an uprising sparked by rising prices for food….

The most dramatic change to the Nile in decades is rising in Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile originates. Ethiopia, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, turned to China to help finance the $4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to generate electricity. While the dam, located just miles from the Sudan border, won’t supply water for farms and cities, its massive reservoir will affect the flow of water.

Downstream, Egypt is worried that Ethiopia will try to quickly fill the reservoir beginning in 2020. The issue is “a matter of life and death for the nation,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said in televised remarks in 2017. “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water.” A spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a September press conference that “any move that does not respect Ethiopia’s sovereignty and its right to use the Nile dam has no acceptance.”  Sharing of the Nile’s waters has long been governed by international treaties, with Egypt claiming the vast majority. Since Ethiopia wasn’t included in those treaties, it was never provided an allotment of water. Ethiopia’s massive dam has thrown a wrench into past agreements…

Sudan is stuck in the middle. Much of the water that flows through the country is already allocated. “Sudan actually doesn’t have that much free water available,” says Harry Verhoeven, author of “Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan.”  By early 2015, Saudi Arabia doubled its investment in Sudan’s agriculture sector to $13 billion, equaling about one-third of all foreign investment in Sudanese industry….The contrast between verdant export crops watered by the Nile and parched villages was visible in the area where protests started in December 2019, during a nationwide wheat shortage.   The protesters were angry about food prices, poor job prospects, social strictures and Sudan’s moribund economy, Mr. Alsir says. “We’re surrounded by farms,” he says. “But we’re not getting any of it.

Past a rocky expanse next to the village flows a deep canal, green with weeds, dug a decade ago by a Saudi-owned company called Tala Investment Co. It runs from the Nile about 10 miles to Tala’s farm, which leases its land from the government.  Tala grows crops for export and maximizes profits using Sudan’s “cheap manpower,” the company’s website says….The alfalfa is shipped 400 miles overland to Port Sudan and then across a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Red Sea to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, then is used for animal feed….

The Aswan dam  In Egypt is primarily used to generate electricity. But a sprawling desert farm, the Toshka project to the west, taps the reservoir. That is where Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have made some of their biggest agricultural investments in Egypt in the past decade.  The strategy there is straightforward, says Turki Faisal Al Rasheed, founder of Saudi agriculture company Golden Grass Inc., which has explored purchasing farms in Egypt and Sudan. “When you talk about buying land, you’re not really buying land,” he says. “You’re buying water.”

Even with all that water dedicated to growing crops, Egypt  is rapidly outstripping its resources.  This is because he country’s population is forecast to grow 20% to 120 million by 2030, and to 150 million by 2050.  Access to water in Egypt is increasingly uncertain. The country’s annual per capita water use dipped below 24,000 cubic feet in recent years and is expected to fall below 18,000 cubic feet by 2030, a level defined as “absolute water scarcity,” according to the United Nations. The comparable figure in the U.S. is 100,000 cubic feet, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool.  Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. control about 383,000 acres of land in Egypt, an expanse nearly twice the size of New York City, according to Land Matrix. The main crops are corn, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, barley and fruit such as grapes that are exported back home.

Mr. Sisi is now looking for new places to grow food. In 2015 he launched a program to expand arable land by more than 1.5 million acres in the country, part of which will tap into the Nubian aquifer, an irreplaceable ancient store of water beneath the Sahara. Saudi and U.A.E. companies have bid for lands in the project, according to the New Egyptian Countryside Development Co., which is managing the project.  Mr. Al Rasheed, the Saudi farm owner in Egypt, says that for him and others from the Gulf, farming along the Nile is about building regional influence as much as ensuring food supplies. “Food is the ultimate power,” he says.


Excerpts from Justin Scheck &Scott Patterson, ‘Food Is the Ultimate Power’: Parched Countries Tap the Nile River Through Farms, WSJ, Nov. 25, 2019

Rivers of Crude Oil: the poisoned land of Iraq

A biological remediation pilot project seeking to enhance nature’s own ability to clear up oil spills in Iraq’s conflict-affected areas has been launched in Kirkuk, Iraq…This UNEP initiative seeks to harness naturally occurring soil bacteria as a powerful natural ally to decontaminate poisoned land.  Over three years ago in summer 2016, the residents of Qayyarah—a small town of around 25,000 people, some 60 km south of Mosul—were caught in the line of fire as so-called Islamic State fighters torched nineteen nearby oil wells. So thick were the clouds of smoke, that people could not distinguish day from night for weeks in what infamously came to be known as the “Daesh winter”.  Rivers of crude oil flowed through Qayyarah’s streets and into seasonal wadis as oil wells spewed tens of thousands of barrels of oil relentlessly for months. The specter of an even worse environmental catastrophe was heightened as the oil slick migrated to less than three kilometers from the Tigris River, Iraq’s water lifeline.

Following an epic battle to control the oil fires that took nearly a year, North Oil Company, which manages the oil fields of northern Iraq, is currently collecting an estimated 20,000 tonnes of remaining oil waste in Qayyarah into around a dozen large pits.  Progress, however, has been slow and pools of heavy viscous oil remain on the doorsteps of entire neighborhoods and households, who complain about the impacts of noxious fumes on their children’s health.

“In some places, the layer of heavy oil is two to three meters thick, and long stretches of wadi channels are now effectively tarmac roads on which cars can be driven,” observed Mohammed Dawood, head of Qayarrah oil refinery’s environmental unit. Furthermore, Environment Ministry officials expressed concern that exceptionally heavy rains and flash floods of the 2018/19 winter season washed out oil from the holding pits into the Tigris River.

While oil production restarted in Qayyarah immediately after the conflict ended in June 2017, reaching currently an estimated 40,000 barrels per day, little has been done to clean up the conflict’s toxic aftermath… The UN Environment Programme in collaboration with the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq delivered a four-day hands-on training workshop on remediation of oil spills by the use of bacteria  in September 2019. “By adding nutrients from manure, bulking agents like wood chips and water, we are simply creating the ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive and speeding up the natural process of breaking down the oil,”

Excerpts from  Microbes offer hope of cleaning up Iraq conflict’s pollution legacy, UNEP Press Release, Oct. 23, 2019

Bio-Energy and Food Security

In the effort to keep the planet from reaching dangerous temperatures, a hybrid approach called BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) has a seductive appeal. Crops suck carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, power plants burn the biomass to generate electricity, and the emissions are captured in a smokestack and pumped underground for long-term storage. Energy is generated even as CO2 is removed: an irresistible win-win. But, the United Nations’s climate panel sounded a warning about creating vast bioenergy plantations, which could jeopardize food production, water supplies, and land rights for poor farmers.

In an earlier special report in October 2018, IPCC called for holding the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 1.5°C above preindustrial conditions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It emphasized that cutting emissions won’t be enough to reach that goal. Replacing coal with renewable energy, and significantly cutting oil and natural gas, would still leave gigatons of excess carbon in the atmosphere. BECCS could remove it, computer models suggested, if several million square kilometers—an area the size of India—were devoted to energy crops.

But the 2019 IPCC report examines the consequences of deploying BECCS on that vast scale and concludes it could “greatly increase” the demand for agricultural land. The pressure on conventional crops could compromise food security, as happened in 2007 when rising U.S. corn ethanol production contributed to a spike in food prices. (In Mexico, the price of tortillas, a staple for the poor, rose 69% between 2005 and 2011.) The bioenergy plantations could also take a toll on biodiversity—as is happening in Southeast Asia, where plantations producing palm oil for biodiesel as well as food are displacing diverse tropical forest. And they could suck up scarce water, especially in drylands, where irrigation of crops might deplete local supplies, the IPCC report says.

Industrial bioenergy crops can lead to the same kinds of problems as intensive food production, such as the contamination of water from excess fertilizer. Scaling up bioenergy in developing countries can also exacerbate social problems like the loss of land by small farmers.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Bioenergy plantations could fight climate change—but threaten food crops, U.N. panel warns, Science, Aug. 8, 2019

A Huge Headache: the Radioactive Water at Fukushima

What to do with the enormous amount of radioactive  water, which grows by around 150 tons a day at Fukushima, is a thorny question, with controversy surrounding a long-standing proposal to discharge it into the sea, after extensive decontamination.  The water comes from several different sources: Some is used for cooling at the plant, which suffered a meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in March 2011.  Groundwater that seeps into the plant daily, along with rainwater, add to the problem.

A thousand, towering tanks have now replaced many of the cherry trees that once dotted the plant’s ground. Each can hold 1,200 tons, and most of them are already full.  “We will build more on the site until the end of 2020, and we think all the tanks will be full by around the summer of 2022,” said Junichi Matsumoto, an official with the unit of plant operator TEPCO in charge of dismantling the site.

TEPCO has been struggling with the problem for years, taking various measures to limit the amount of groundwater entering the site.  There is also an extensive pumping and filtration system, that each day brings up tons of newly contaminated water and filters out as many of the radioactive elements as possible.

The hangar where the decontamination system runs is designated “Zone Y” — a danger zone requiring special protections.  All those entering must wear elaborate protection: a full body suit, three layers of socks, three layers of gloves, a double cap topped by a helmet, a vest with a pocket carrying a dosimeter, a full-face respirator mask and special shoes.  Most of the outfit has to burned after use.

“The machinery filters contain radionuclides, so you have to be very protected here, just like with the buildings where the reactors are,” explained TEPCO risk communicator Katsutoshi Oyama.  TEPCO has been filtering newly contaminated water for years, but much of it needs to go through the process again because early versions of the filtration process did not fully remove some dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium 90.

The current process is more effective, removing or reducing around 60 radionuclides to levels accepted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for water being discharged.  But there is one that remains, which cannot be removed with the current technology: tritium.

Tritium is naturally present in the environment, and has also been discharged in its artificial form into the environment by the nuclear industry around the world.  There is little evidence that it causes harm to humans except in very high concentrations and the IAEA argues that properly filtered Fukushima water could be diluted with seawater and then safely released into the ocean without causing environmental problems.

But those assurances are of little comfort to many in the region, particularly Fukushima’s fishing industry which, like local farmers, has suffered from the outside perception that food from the region is unsafe.

Karyn Nishimura, At Fukushima plant, a million-ton headache: radioactive water, Japan Times, Oct. 7, 2019
 

The Fight Against Toxic Algae

Signs posted around the Grand Lake, Ohio read: “Danger: Avoid all contact with the water.”  When dangerously high levels of toxins from blue-green algae in Grand Lake, Ohiio were publicized in 2009, many residents and tourists stopped using the 13,000-acre lake in northwest Ohio. Hotel revenue and home values sank for several years as algae bloomed in the state’s largest inland lake.

Greenish water still laps at Grand Lake’s shores, but recent water samples show that the amount of algae-feeding nutrients entering the lake is down significantly. State, federal and private donations covered more than $10 million in projects aimed at improving water quality. More people are boating on the lake again. Grand Lake could now serve as an example for communities with algae problems across the nation, experts say.

Algal blooms are on the rise, from Lake Erie to the Florida Everglades. In August 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency listed algae-related beach closures or health advisories in 23 states, and it said other blooms may not have been reported. In 2010, the EPA found that 20% of 50,000 lakes surveyed had been affected by phosphorous and nitrogen pollution, which feeds algae.e  Cleaning up bodies of water choked with toxic algae has proved difficult. The project to repair Grand Lake, once one of the most polluted by algae in the nation, is one of the clearest successes. It shows cleanup is possible, but also expensive and time-consuming.

“It’s not restored yet, but it’s on the road to recovery,” said Stephen Jacquemin, an associate professor of biology at Wright State University-Lake Campus in Celina.  Beginning in 2012, wetlands areas were built around the lake, which was hand dug in the 1830s. The thick stands of bulrushes and other plants have reduced phosphorous and nitrogen levels in water entering the wetlands before reaching the lake by as much as 90%, Dr. Jacquemin said.  Three wetland areas, which cost a total of about $6 million to build, are constructed as a series of interconnected pools that allow particulates to settle out and plants and microbes to remove nutrients.

Areal View of Artificial Wetlands, Great Lake Ohio

 The state’s Department of Natural Resources has also dredged the lake bottom to remove nutrient-loaded sediment, and tried to clean up one of Grand Lake’s beaches near St. Marys by building a rock jetty and installing aerators and a curtain to filter water. Recent water tests there showed levels below 6 parts per billion of the toxin microcystin, under Ohio’s threshold of 20 parts per billion for avoiding contact with water.

As Green Algae Forces Beaches to Close, Ohio Lake Offers Hope, WSJ, Sept. 18, 2019

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

How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

The Sad Mismanagement of Sand

With the global demand for sand and gravel standing at 40 to 50 billion tonnes per year, a new report by UN Environment reveals that aggregate extraction in rivers has led to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers and worsening drought occurrence.

The report Sand and sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources presents how the demand for sand has increased  three-fold over the last two decades. Further to this, damming and extraction have reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion

Sand extraction is fast becoming a transboundary issue due to sand extraction bans, international sourcing of sand for land reclamation projects and impacts of uncontrolled sand extraction beyond national borders. International trade in sand and gravel is growing due to high demand in regions without local sand and gravel resources and is forecast to rise 5.5 per cent a year with urbanization and infrastructure development trends.

Unsustainable sand extraction does not only impact the environment but can also have far-reaching social implications. Sand removal from beaches can jeopardize the development of the local tourism industry, while removing sand from rivers and mangrove forests leads to a decrease of crab populations—negatively affecting women whose livelihood depends on the collection of crabs.

Excerpts from Rising demand for sand calls for resource governance, UNEP, May 7, 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

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

Geopolitical Quintet: Legal Status of Caspian Sea

Caspian Sea…is the world’s largest body of inland water—or what some would call a rather salty lake. The confusion has fuelled disputes over its legal status for nearly 30 years, as lakes and seas fall under different international legal regimes.

The Caspian sits at a strategic spot between Europe and Asia, and contains lucrative stores of oil, gas and fish, including the caviar-producing sturgeon. The Soviet Union and Iran had a clearly defined maritime border but, after the Soviet collapse, the appearance of independent Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan muddied the waters.

On August 12th the five littoral countries at last signed an agreement the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian, says a Russian official, is to be treated as neither sea nor lake, but instead subject to a “special legal status”. While leaving some of the thorniest issues unresolved, the pact clarifies the maritime borders, enabling new oil, gas and pipeline projects to go ahead.

All five countries are to have 15 mile-wide territorial waters extending from their shores and another ten miles of exclusive fishing rights. The rest of the surface water will be common territory, but non-signatory states (e.g., the United States) may not deploy armed forces there. For Russia, this helps preserve its military dominance by retaining freedom of movement for its warships. (Russia has used the Caspian to launch missiles into Syria.)

The seabed and its resources, meanwhile, will be divided separately between the signatories. Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan already have agreements that split up the northern Caspian. Carving up the rest of the seabed will require further negotiations. The agreement also allows pipelines to be constructed with the consent only of the countries whose sectors they pass through. That might unblock a much-discussed Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan which Russia has long opposed.

Exceprts from Big Lake Small Sea: Russia’s Neighborhood, Economist, Aug. 18, 2018, at 44

How Rivers Die

Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river support somes 3m people…One reason that the water is so murky is deforestation. Since the 1970s logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Illegal gold-mining compounds the problem. Locals tear up the riverbed with diggers or blast the banks with high-pressure hoses, then sieve the mud for gold. Mercury, which the miners use to separate gold from sediment, but which is poisonous to humans and fish alike, leaks into the river.

The riverbank is punctuated with corrugated-iron towers, which emit birdsong from loudspeakers. These are designed to lure swiftlets, who make their nests with saliva. The nests of swiftlets  are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac by many Chinese.* Deane, a shop owner, built his tower last December after seeing others do the same. He sells the nests to a wholesaler for about 15m rupiah ($1,025) a kilogram…

In Kapuas Hulu, an upstream district, half the population rely on the river for drinking water. A quarter have no toilet. Even where bathrooms do exist along the river, they are often floating cubicles with a hole in the floorboards. Cows and goats, living in wooden riverside cages, also defecate straight into the Kapuas

The Kapuas passes through seven districts. Midstream ones, such as Sintang and Sanggau, earn hefty tax revenues by encouraging palm-oil plantations. But downstream districts suffer from the resulting silt, traffic and run-off without receiving any of the benefits. The same problem occurs at a village level. Mr Hadi says that fishing by sprinkling poisonous leaves on the water (the stricken fish float to the surface) is forbidden but other village heads do not enforce the rules…

A study by CIFOR on the income of villagers living near the Kapuas river found that the best-paid palm-plantation workers earned 50% more than the most successful fishermen. (Gold miners made three times as much—and spent more on education.)…But the environmental damage is plain to see. The river here is brown, clouded by silt. A study published in 2016 found that levels of phosphates in the water, from fertilisers and villagers washing themselves with soap, are highest near urban areas and palm plantations.

Down in Pontianak, the river water is darker still, occasionally brightened by oil slicks. Water bottles and instant-noodle packets cling together to form plastic islands.

Excerpts from  Indonesia’s Longest River,  Economist, Aug. 25, 2018

*According to Wikipedia: Authentic bird’s-nest soup is made from nests of some species of swiftlet.  Instead of twigs, feathers and straw, these swiftlets make their nest only from strands of their gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants. Eating swiftlet nest material is believed to help maintain skin tone, balance qi (“life energy”) and reinforce the immune system… (Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The History of Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Table).

An Epiphany Moment: useful waste-water

Fledgling companies, many backed by private equity, are rushing to help shale drillers deal with one of their trickiest problems: what to do with the vast volumes of wastewater that are a byproduct of fracking wells.

When producers blast a mix of water, sand and chemicals to release oil and gas from rock formations miles underground, they not only unlock oil and gas, but also massive quantities of briny water long buried beneath the surface. Drillers in the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas currently generate more than 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools full of this murky, salty water every day. Handling it amounts to up to 25% of a well’s lease operating expense, according to analysts.

Investors have expressed interest in this corner of the U.S. shale industry as oil production in the Permian soars to record levels. Analysts said the region could produce more than five million barrels of oil a day by 2023, more than the current daily production of Iran.

Sensing a chance for a big return, private-equity firms have invested more than $500 million into wastewater-disposal companies such as Solaris Water Midstream LLC, WaterBridge Resources LLC, Goodnight Midstream LLC and Oilfield Water Logistics LLC. There are roughly a dozen of these water-focused companies that analysts said could each be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

These companies are building pipelines to transport the wastewater and dispose of it deep underground, hoping to displace the trucks that currently do the job. Some companies have a longer-term plan: recycling the wastewater to sell it back to drillers to reuse. Most of the companies are currently private;….

Apache Corp. , one of the largest producers in the Permian, wants to reuse more water to reduce the millions of barrels it must dispose of and limit the freshwater it purchases for fracking, according to a company presentation earlier this year. Apache recycled more than 22 million barrels of water from 2013 to 2016 in just one subsection of the Permian.

Excerpts from The Next Big Bet in Fracking: Water, WSJ, Aug. 12, 2018

How Many Uranium Mines Do We Need?

At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. In 2017, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.  The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year…

In July 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation’s growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security….The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can’t compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.
“It’s been government-sponsored, government-subsidized just since the beginning. Trying to sort that out and find where there’s a free market in uranium — I find that very questionable.”-Luke Danielson, Sustainable Development Strategies Group president

The U.S. uranium mining industry is relatively young. It went through a brief golden age between about 1955 and 1980, beginning when the United States offered generous incentives to shore up its stockpiles of the nuclear weapons fuel during the Cold War….By the 1960s, the program had packed U.S. storehouses so full of uranium stockpiles that the government stopped paying the incentives. However, it left in place rules barring the use of foreign uranium until 1975, when it began to allow a growing percentage of overseas supplies into the market.  That opened the door to high-quality, low-cost supplies from Canada and Australia. By 1987, the United States was importing nearly 15 million pounds of uranium, and domestic output fell by about a third to roughly 13 million pounds.

While competition weighed on U.S. uranium production, the excitement around nuclear energy in the 1970s kept mines busy. However, the American love affair with atomic power proved short-lived. The 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked fierce backlash against nuclear energy. Seven years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned a Ukrainian city into a ghost town…

By the early 2000s, U.S. uranium production was at its lowest in a half century.  Around that time, the former Soviet state Kazakhstan was ramping up uranium mining. In just a few short years, it would become the world’s top uranium producer and the second biggest supplier to the United States.
The Central Asian nation accomplished that feat in large part by exploiting a process called “in situ leaching” (ISL) or in situ recovery  (ISR)*** increasingly being used to extract uranium.  Along with countries like Niger, Mali and Mongolia, Kazakhstan has an advantage: lax regulations that allow it to process uranium cheaply from in situ leaching, which involves pumping chemicals into uranium reserves and carries serious risks to the environment if it’s not carried out responsibly…

And then in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan created a backlash unlike anything seen since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the aftermath, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.  The U.S. nuclear renaissance has also fizzled as flagship projects have turned into costly boondoggles. The venerable Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy last year under the weight of billions of dollars in losses tied to its troubled nuclear power plant projects in Georgia and South Carolina. “There’s such a glut of inventory in the market that it’s just not profitable for some of the mines to produce, so the price has just really plummeted as a result of that,” said Sean Davis, a research analyst at IHS Markit who tracks the chemicals used in uranium mining.

Since their peak in 2007, uranium prices have crashed from nearly $140 per pound to $20-$25.

Excerpts from Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining, CNBC, Aug. 4, 2018

***”No remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions.”

A Gasfield and the Cows Next to it

High levels of a radioactive material and other contaminants have been found in water from a West Australian fracking site* but operators say it could be diluted and fed to beef cattle.  The revelations illustrate the potential risks associated with the contentious gas extraction process known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, as the Turnbull government pressures states to ease restrictions on the industry and develop their gas reserves.

The findings were contained in a report by oil and gas company Buru Energy that has not been made public. It shows the company also plans to reinject wastewater underground – a practice that has brought on seismic events when used in the United States.

Buru Energy has been exploring the potentially vast “tight gas” resources of the Kimberly region’s Canning Basin. The work was suspended when the WA government last year introduced a fracking moratorium, subject to the findings of a scientific inquiry.

In a submission to the inquiry obtained by the Lock the Gate Alliance, Buru Energy said a “relatively high concentration” of Radium-228…The samples exceeded drinking water guidelines for radionuclides. However Buru Energy said samples collected from retention ponds were below guideline levels and the water posed “no risk to humans or animals”.  Water monitoring also detected elevated levels of the chemical elements barium, boron and chloride….Buru Energy said while the water was not suitable for human consumption, the “reuse of flowback water for beef cattle may also be considered”.  The water did not meet stockwater guidelines but this could be addressed “through dilution with bore water”.

The company’s development in the Yulleroo area of the basin could lead to 80 wells operating over 20 years….The company insists its fracking fluids are non-toxic and to illustrate its safety, executive chairman Eric Streitberg drank the fluid at the company’s 2016 annual general meeting.

Excerpt from  Nicole Hasham Radioactive water reignites concerns over fracking for gas, Sydney Morning Herald, June 24, 2018

*Fracking, which involves injecting water mixed with chemicals and sand deep underground in order to fracture rock and release oil and gas, generates large amounts of wastewater. … In some cases, improper handling of this waste water has resulted in the release of radioactive fracking waste that has contaminated streams and rivers, Science Magazine, Apr 9, 2015

For Voices against Fracking in WA, Dont Frack WA

A Glimmer of Hope: protected areas

Globally, one-third of protected land is under intense pressure from road building, grazing, urbanization, and other human activities, according to a new study in the 18 May 2018 issue of Science…Nations around the world have committed to preserving biodiversity under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), through protected status designations ranging from nature reserves with strict controls on human impact to regions where people can extract natural resources in a sustainable way. This study suggests that many of these nations are failing to meet their conservation goals.

James Watson, a researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society and an author of the study, noted that 111 nations currently claim they have meet their obligations under the CBD based on the extent of their protected areas. “But if you only counted the land in protected areas that are not degraded, which play a role in conserving biodiversity, 77 of these nations don’t meet the bar. And it’s a low bar.”

Watson and a team of researchers decided to take advantage of a recently released human footprint map to look at the degradation of protected areas. “The results are quite staggering,” said Watson. “We found that 2.3 million square miles — twice the size of Alaska — was impacted by road building, grazing, logging, roads and urbanization. That is 32.8% of all protected land — the land set aside by nations for the purpose of biodiversity conservation — that] is highly degraded.”  Regions that were found to be particularly burdened by human activity include western Europe and southern Asia.

In terms of protected land that is free of any measurable human pressure, 42% could be classified as such; however, many of these areas are within remote regions of high-latitude nations, such as Russia and Canada.

Some conservation efforts have been fruitful, though. “We did see glimmers of hope,” said Watson…. (e.g., the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, and Niassa Reserve in Mozambique)

Protected areas designated after 1993 have a lower level of intense human pressure within their borders than those previously designated, the authors found. They suggest this may indicate that more recently designated areas were targeted as protected spaces because they were recognized as being under low human pressure.

Exceprts from Michelle Hampson, One-Third of World’s Protected Areas under Intense Human Pressure, American Association for the Advancement of Scicence,  May 16, 2018

An Unforgettable Type of Pollution

May 2018: The environmental damage around the site of two Royal Dutch Shell oil spills in Nigeria a decade ago has worsened significantly after years of delay to cleanup efforts, according to a report that the oil giant has been accused of trying to shield from public view.  The spills from a ruptured Shell pipeline spewed thousands of barrels of oil over parts of the Bodo fishing community in the crude-rich Niger Delta. Although the company in 2015 reached an out-of-court settlement with the local community, admitting to liability and agreeing to pay £55 million, or around $80 million at the time, in compensation, controversy around the case has remained.

A United Nations body, in a 2011 report, found extensive environmental damage around Bodo. Four years later, an assessment to prepare the cleanup found soil contamination had worsened while cleanup efforts languished and illegal refining and oil theft added to pollution in the area, according to an academic paper published last month. That has left the community facing potentially toxic pollution and “catastrophic” damage to the environment, the paper said.  The 2015 analysis was commissioned by the Bodo Mediation Initiative, a consortium established to oversee the cleanup in the area. Shell is a member of the group along with local stakeholders.

At least one of the authors urged the findings to be widely distributed because they pointed to significant health risks to the local community. Kay Holtzmann, the cleanup project’s former director, said in a letter reviewed by the Journal that Shell had denied him permission to publish the study’s results in a scientific journal.

But the academic paper* said the site survey contained new facts. The average surface soil contamination in Bodo had tripled since the original U.N. probe,the paper said. Out of 32 samples taken from the top two inches of soil in the area around Bodo, only one was within Nigeria’s legally acceptable limit for oil contamination, the paper added.

Excerpts from Pollution Worsens Around Shell Oil Spills in Nigeria, Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2018.

*Sediment Hydrocarbons in Former Mangrove Areas, Southern Ogoniland, Eastern Niger Delta, Nigeria, Apr. 2018

The Unquenchable Thirst: water mismanagement

Most of the drinking water consumed in Beijing has travelled 1,432km (895 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Orlando, Florida. Its journey begins in a remote and hilly part of central China at the Danjiangkou reservoir, on the bottom of which lies the drowned city of Junzhou. The water gushes north by canal and pipeline, crosses the Yellow river by burrowing under it, and arrives, 15 days later, in the water-treatment plants of Beijing. Two-thirds of the city’s tap water and a third of its total supply now comes from Danjiangkou.

This winter and spring, the reservoir was the capital’s lifeline. No rain or snow fell in Beijing between October 23rd 2017 and March 17th 2018—by far the longest drought on record. Yet the city suffered no supply disruptions, unlike Shanxi province to the west, where local governments rationed water. The central government is exultant, since the project which irrigates Beijing was built at vast cost and against some opposition.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project—to give the structure its proper name—is the most expensive infrastructure enterprise in the world. It is the largest transfer of water between river basins in history, and China’s main response to its worst environmental threat, which is (despite all the pollution) lack of water.

The route between Beijing and Danjiangkou, which lies on a tributary of the Yangzi, opened in 2014. An eastern route opened in 2013 using the ancient Grand Canal between Hangzhou and the capital. (Jaw-dropping hydrological achievements are a feature of Chinese history.) A third link is planned on the Tibetan plateau, but since that area is prone to earthquakes and landslides, it has been postponed indefinitely…

Downstream from Danjiangkou, pollution has proved intractable. By diverting water from the Yangzi, the project has made the river more sluggish. It has become less able to wash away contaminants and unable to sustain wetlands, which act as sponges and reduce flooding. To compensate for water taken from their rivers, local governments are also building dams wherever they can to divert it back again. Shaanxi province, for example, is damming the Han river to transfer water to its depleted river Wei….Worst of all, the project diverts not only water but money and attention from China’s real water problem: waste and pollution.

Excerpts from Water: Massive Diversion, Economist, Apr. 7, 2018

A Slow-Burning Tragedy

Charcoal is one of the biggest informal businesses in Africa. It is the fuel of choice for the continent’s fast-growing urban poor, who, in the absence of electricity or gas, use it to cook and heat water. According to the UN, Africa accounted for three-fifths of the world’s production in 2012—and this is the only region where the business is growing. It is, however, a slow-burning environmental disaster.

In Nyakweri forest, Kenya, the trees are ancient and rare. Samwel Naikada, a local activist, points at a blackened stump in a clearing cut by burners. It is perhaps 400 years old, he says. The effect of burning trees spreads far. During the dry season, the forest is a refuge for amorous elephants who come in from the plains nearby to breed. The trees store water, which is useful in such a parched region. It not only keeps the Mara river flowing—a draw for the tourists who provide most of the county government’s revenue. It also allows the Masai people to graze their cows and grow crops. “You cannot separate the Masai Mara and this forest,” says Mr Naikada….

Nyakweri is hardly the only forest at risk. The Mau forest, Kenya’s largest, which lies farther north in the Rift Valley, has also been hit by illegal logging. Protests against charcoal traders (!) broke out earlier this year, after rivers that usually flow throughout the dry season started to run dry. In late February a trader’s car was reportedly burned in Mwingi, in central Kenya, by a group of youngsters who demanded to see the trader’s permits. At the end of February 2018 the government announced an emergency 90-day ban on all logging, driving up retail prices of charcoal by 500%, to as much as 5,000 shillings a bag in some cities.

The problems caused by the charcoal trade have spread beyond Kenya. In southern Somalia, al-Shabab, a jihadist group, funds itself partly through the taxes it levies on the sale of charcoal (sometimes with the help of Kenyan soldiers, who take bribes for allowing the shipments out of a Somali port that Kenya controls). The logging also adds to desertification, which, in turn, causes conflict across the Sahel, an arid belt below the Sahara. It forces nomadic herders to range farther south with their animals, where they often clash with farmers over the most fertile land.

In the power vacuum of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rampant charcoal logging has destroyed huge swathes of Virunga National Park. That threatens the rare gorillas which tourists currently pay as much as $400 a day to view, even as it fuels the conflict.

In theory, charcoal burning need not be so destructive. In Kenya the burners are meant to get a licence. To do so, they have to show they are replacing the trees they are cutting down and that they are using modern kilns that convert the trees efficiently into fuel. But, admits Clement Ngoriareng, an official at the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the rules are laxly enforced. Some suspect that powerful politicians stymie efforts to police burners.

Excerpts from A Very Black Market: Illegal Charcoal, Economist, Mar. 31, 2018

Choked by Hyacinths: Lake Victoria

The report, Freshwater biodiversity in the Lake Victoria Basin (2018), assesses the global extinction risk of 651 freshwater species, including fishes, molluscs, dragonflies, crabs, shrimps and aquatic plants native to East Africa’s Lake Victoria Basin, finding that 20% of these are threatened with extinction. Of the freshwater species assessed, 204 are endemic to the Lake Victoria Basin and three-quarters (76%) of these endemics are at risk of extinction.

The African Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), for example, is declining in the Lake Victoria Basin largely due to overfishing, poor fishing practices and environmental degradation as wetlands are converted to agricultural land. The lungfish is considered a delicacy for some local communities and is an important local medicinal product, used to boost the immune system and treat alcoholism. The lungfish is also traded at market, making it important to the local economy.

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by surface area. Its catchment area includes parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. Also referred to as ‘Darwin’s Dreampond’, Lake Victoria is known for its high levels of unique biodiversity. The Lake Victoria Basin harbours immense natural resources including fisheries, forests, wetlands and rangelands….

Pollution from industrial and agricultural sources, over-harvesting of resources and land clearance are among the primary threats to biodiversity in this region. Invasive species also present an important threat to native biodiversity in the basin, affecting 31% of all species and 73% of threatened species. The purple flowered Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) was accidentally introduced to Lake Victoria from South America in the 1980s, and at its peak covered close to 10% of the lake surface in dense floating mats. These mats reduce the oxygen and nutrient availability in the water column, which negatively affects native biodiversity. Opportunities for harvesting and exploiting the Water Hyacinth, for example by using the species as fuel in bio-digesters for energy production, are under investigation.

Excerpts from Livelihoods at risk as freshwater species in Africa’s largest lake face extinction – IUCN Report, IUCN Report, Apr. 30, 2018

Nuclear Waste and Nuclear Energy, Uganda

Mukono- Residents of Kitoba village in Mukono District have opposed plans by the Uganda Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to construct a nuclear and atomic waste site in the area.  The residents fear the dump for non-functional atomic equipment, including X-rays and cancer machines, will compromise their safety.  Already, the residents at Canaan Sites are suspicious of a container that has been standing on the 11.5 acres of land acquired by the AEC in 2011.

But AEC executive secretary Deogratias Luwalira told the residents that the Energy ministry acquired the land to implement a five-year master plan.
He told the residents at Kichwa Primary School in Mpoma during a community awareness meeting on that the Energy ministry acquired the land to build AEC headquarters, staff accommodation, laboratories, atomic/nuclear storage facility, and sports fields.

“The equipment to be kept here has no safety hazards. The store will have a safety case that will be operated in a safe manner,” Mr Luwalira said.
He said radioactive wastes are currently scattered in different parts of the country and needed to be secured in one central location…

In the meantime, Uganda plans to be the first African nation to develop nuclear power, see IAEA gives node as Uganda pushes for nuclear power use (jan. 2018)

Excerpts Mukono rejects radioactive waste site, http://www.monitor.co.ug/, Apr. 10, 2018

Islands of Paradise, Sewage and Garbage

Cesspools—holes in the ground where untreated human waste is deposited—have become a crisis in Hawaii, threatening the state’s drinking water, its coral reefs and the famous beaches that are the lifeblood of its tourist economy.  Sewage from cesspools is seeping into some of Hawaii’s ocean waters, where it has been blamed for infections suffered by surfers and snorkelers. It is also entering the drinking water in part of the state, pushing nitrate levels close to the legal limit.

Hawaii has 88,000 cesspools across its eight major islands, more than any other state. Collectively, they deposit 53 million gallons of raw sewage into the ground every day, according to the state health department. More than 90% of the state’s drinking water comes from groundwater wells…

Replacing all of the state’s cesspools with alternate sewage systems would cost at least $1.75 billion, according to the health department…At one groundwater well, nitrate levels are already at 8.7 milligrams a liter; the legal limit is 10, and the Department of Health estimated that some parts of the aquifer are already over that limit. Environmentalists say they are worried about the potential effect of the water on infants, who can be killed by high levels on nitrates, which are chemicals found in fertilizer and sewage.

Many bathrooms in homes outside Honolulu still pump sewage into nearby holes in the ground.  Yet, some residents resist plans to replace cesspools, worried about expense. In January 2018, Upcountry Maui residents overwhelmed a Department of Public Health meeting, complaining about potential costs.

Excerpt from Hawaii’s Big Headache: Cesspools, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2018

The Maritime Environment Protection Authority’s (MEPA) of Sri Lanka spent millions of rupees on coastal cleanups last year — a reflection of “spending public money for public waste,” as the MEPA’s General Manager and CEO, Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara, puts it.

A large proportion of the problem is attributable to inland waste, he notes. “It is not merely what is dumped directly on the beaches, but all that flows through canals and rivers,” he says, pointing out that other triggers, including the fisheries and the tourism sector, are only secondary to inland waste which ends up on the coast. Added to the burden is the garbage which flows from India, Indonesia and Thailand, he says. The MEPA’s role in controlling pollution covers Sri Lanka’s 1640 km coastal belt and extends up to 200 nautical miles to the deep sea, the area, which, according to Dr. Pradeep Kumara, is eight times the size of Sri Lanka’s land area.

The garbage dumped in the coastal vegetation is contributing to the dengue problem…especially the fishing craft, both in use and abandoned, in which water is stagnated.”   Mitigating inland pollution is seen by MEPA authorities as the first step in realising cleaner beaches. They moot a site-specific garbage disposal system, as opposed to a ‘blanket system’. “What works for Colombo will not work for other areas,” says Dr. Pradeep Kumara.

Excerpt Sea of trash: Inland and overseas garbage washes up on Lanka’s beaches, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Feb. 11, 2018

Air, Water, Waste and Death

The UN Environment and WHO have agreed a new, wide-ranging collaboration to accelerate action to curb environmental health risks that cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year.

On January 10, 2018 in Nairobi, Mr Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, signed an agreement to step up joint actions to combat air pollution, climate change and antimicrobial resistance, as well as improve coordination on waste and chemicals management, water quality, and food and nutrition issues. The collaboration also includes joint management of the BreatheLife advocacy campaign to reduce air pollution for multiple climate, environment and health benefits

“Our health is directly related to the health of the environment we live in. Together, air, water and chemical hazards kill more than 12.6 million people a year. This must not continue,” said WHO’s Tedros.  He added: “Most of these deaths occur in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where environmental pollution takes its biggest health toll.”

Excerpts from, UN Environment and WHO agree to major collaboration on environmental health risks, Press Release, Jan. 10, 2017

Red-Dead: water crisis in the Middle East

The Dead Sea is dying. Half a century ago its hyper-salty, super-pungent waters stretched 80km from north to south. That has shrunk to just 48km at its longest point. The water level is falling by more than a meter per year. All but a trickle from its source, the Jordan River, is now used up before it reaches the sea. “It will never disappear, because it has underground supplies, but it will be like a small pond in a very big hole,” says Munqeth Mehyar of EcoPeace, an NGO.

Until the summer of 2017 Israel and Jordan, which share the sea, were trying to slow the decline. The “Red-Dead project”, as it is called, would desalinate seawater at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and pump 200m cubic metres of leftover brine into the Dead Sea each year. That would not be enough to stabilise the sea, which needs at least 800m cubic metres to stay at current levels. Still, it would help—and the project has a much more important benefit.

The World Bank defines water scarcity as less than 1,000 cubic metres per person annually. Jordan can provide less than 15% of that. The Aqaba plant would send fresh water to southern towns in both Jordan and Israel. In return for its share, Israel agreed to pump an equal amount to parched northern Jordan, where most of the population lives.

But the project was now on hold due a dispute between Jordan and Israel. On July 23rd, 2017 a Jordanian teenager delivering furniture to the Israeli embassy stabbed a security guard. The guard opened fire, killing both his assailant and an innocent bystander….

Jordan is already one of the world’s most arid countries. Climate change will make matters worse. By the end of the century, say scientists from Stanford University, Jordan could be 4°C hotter, with about a third less rain. It needs to rationalise water consumption. And Israel, which wants a stable neighbour to its east, has an interest in getting water projects back on track.

Excerpts from Jordan’s Water Crisis: Diplomatic Drought: Economist, Dec. 2, 2017

Exploiting Chaos: water management in the Middle East

A water crisis rooted in wasteful irrigation, climate change and dam-building is imperiling [the wetlands of Iraq] again.

A weakened flow into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers means that salt water from the Persian Gulf can now seep upstream into the marshes. This, coupled with farming run-off that has boosted salinity,threatens wetland wildlife, vegetation and the local Marsh Arabs who have depended on them for millennia.  The problem is partly home-made. Iraq’s irrigation methods are often wasteful, and the equipment tends to be rickety. Many farmers rely on thirsty crops such as rice. Politicians have in the past secured extra water for their upstream districts at the marshes’ expense. Reform-minded technocrats are forced to contend with deep-rooted corruption, the distracting and costly fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, and low oil prices, all of which have drained state coffers.

But other problems lie beyond Iraq’s control. For decades dams built in Syria, Turkey and Iran have swallowed up the waters of the Tigris, Euphrates and other rivers feeding the marshes. New dams due to open in Turkey, including the 1,200-megawatt Ilisu Dam, could further restrict the flow of the Tigris.

Talks over these dams have been inconclusive, partly because the Syrian and Iraqi states barely function and partly because IS has controlled swathes of the Euphrates. Turkey may be tempted to exploit its upstream position.

Climate change is taking its toll, too. Last summer temperatures of about 54°C were recorded in southern Iraq, among the hottest ever.

If only Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey would share their waters as amicably as the Danube countries do… Dam levels should be calibrated during wet and dry years to ensure steadier flows. Iraqi officials might also ponder novel solutions, he says, such as renting storage at the Ilisu Dam for use when needed. Yet stronger countries have exploited their advantages rather than seek compromise

Excerpts from Iraq’s Wetlands: Drying Up Again,  Economist,  Sept. 16, 2017

The Luxury of Swimmable Waters

Data published in 2013 suggested that it was not safe for people to submerge themselves in 60% of New Zealand’s waterways. “We used to swim in these rivers,” says Sam Mahon, the artist. “Now they’ve turned to crap… [T]he real villains behind New Zealand’s deteriorating water quality are still at large…intensive dairy farms…

The first concern is bovine urine, which is rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen can cause toxic algae to grow when it leaches into water. Nitrogen fertiliser, used to increase fodder yields so that more cows can be raised on less land, exacerbates the problem….

At many of the sites where the government tests the groundwater it contains too much nitrate to be safe to drink—a particular problem in New Zealand, since water in much of the country has long been considered clean enough that it is used as drinking water with only minimal treatment. In Canterbury, one of the most polluted areas, expectant mothers are told to test tap water to avoid “blue baby syndrome”, a potentially fatal ailment thought to be caused by nitrates. The poisonous blooms have killed dogs.

An even greater concern for human health comes from cow dung, which contains nasty bacteria such as E.coli….And then there is the damage to native flora and fauna. The algal blooms suck the oxygen from rivers. Sediment washed from farmland can also choke the life out of streams. Almost three-quarters of native species of freshwater fish are under threat.

…One recent tally suggested that just 2,000 of the thirstiest dairies suck up as much water as 60m people would—equivalent to the population of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro combined. …

Dairies are trying to clean up their act. Farmers have fenced off thousands of kilometres of rivers to prevent livestock from wading in. Some have planted trees along waterways to curb erosion; others remove animals from muddy fields during winter. Some parts of the country are using more sophisticated techniques: around Lake Taupo, the country’s biggest lake, farmers can buy and sell nitrogen allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme. A technique called “precision irrigation” may curb both water consumption and the leaching of nitrogen.

Earlier this year the National Party launched a plan to make 90% of rivers “swimmable” by 2040. Yet it ignored several recommendations of a forum of scientists and agrarians established to thrash out water policy….Environmentalists argue that the national dairy herd should be cut to prevent further damage…And pollutants moving through groundwater can take decades to emerge in lakes. The worst may still be to come.

Excerpts from New Zealand’s Water, Economist, Nov. 18, 2017

The Class Actions of Fukushima Fefugees

Negligence by the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. caused the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a court ruled on October 10, 2017 in the biggest class-action suit related to the March 2011 accident.

The Fukushima District Court ordered the government and Tepco to pay a total of Yen 498 million ($4.4 million) plus delinquency charges to 2,907 people who fled the radiation that was released into the air and water after a tsunami flooded the power plant, knocking out the power to the vital cooling system. It was the second time a court found the government responsible for failing to prepare adequately for the likelihood of a large tsunami wave hitting the plant.

If Japan’s government had ordered Tepco to make sure the plant was ready to withstand a tsunami wave of 15.7 meters (51.5 feet), Tepco would have made sure critical instruments were waterproof, Tuesday’s ruling said.”The accident, triggered by total loss of power, could have been avoided, ” Judge Hideki Kanazawa said.

The compensation represents a small fraction of the damages the residents had sought. They also wanted compensation for every month that radiation levels stay above normal, but the court rejected that claim. Still, with some 30 class-action lawsuits so far brought by more than 10,000 affected residents. The October 11, 2017 ruling is a sign additional compensation costs could weigh on both the government and Tepco for years to come.  Tepco has so far paid more than Yen7.6 trillion ($67 billion) in compensation to residents affected by the accident, and has been struggling to clean up the reactors — a daunting technological task that could take decades.

As of September 2017, nearly 55,000 Fukushima residents are registered as evacuees, meaning they can’t return home and haven’t settled permanently elsewhere.

The plaintiffs argued the government and Tepco failed to give adequate attention to studies that said a major tsunami could occur in the area of the plant. One 2002 study by the government’s Earthquake Research Promotion Unit said there was a 20% chance of a magnitude 8 tsunami-triggering earthquake in the area off Fukushima within 30 years. Another study by Tepco’s senior safety engineer in 2007 found there was about a 10% chance that a tsunami could breach Fukushima Daiichi’s defenses within 50 years.

The defendants said the scientific basis for such predictions was unclear, and even if the calculations were correct, the chance was too low to require immediate steps in response. The government said it wasn’t until after the accident that it gained the ability to force Tepco to take anti-flooding measures. Both argued the compensation already being paid to displaced people was adequate.

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake flooded the Fukushima Daiichi plant, knocking out auxiliary power sources that were supposed to keep the reactors’ cooling systems running. Three reactors melted down.

Excerpts from Redress Ordered In Fukushima Case, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 11, 2017

Saving Iconic Rivers: Ganges

The Ganges, arguably the lifeline of India, has its origin in the Himalayas. Once it crosses Gangotri, it flows through Haridwar collecting industrial, agricultural and human waste on its way. Before it culminates in the Bay of Bengal, it passes through various towns and villages lacking sanitation. The Government of India is rolling up its sleeves to clean the 2525 KM long-Ganga and facilitate its flow as it is the source of water for more than 40 per cent of India’s population.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is non-profit engineering organisation founded 145 years ago, the IET is one of the world’s leading professional societies for the engineering and technology community. The IET has more than 167,000 members across 150 countries. In India, the IET has over 13,000 members, eight Local Networks and focuses on Energy, Transport, Information & Communications, IoT and Education sectors.

In March 2017, a panel formed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) on IoT (Internet of Things) were invited to consult the Government of India’s National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) to discuss the ways to clean the river. According to IET, the leaders discussed and tried to identify ways to improve the water flow in Ganga, better treatment of pollutants via sewage and effluent treatment plants, need for controlling unregulated sewage, open defecation,  and handling chemical runoff from agricultural lands (fertilisers and pesticides).

The IoT technology could be used in providing real-time information of pollution status and enabling the industries and societies to find alternate means of disposal of waste.   Other technologies being used to clean up the river Unmanned robotic water surface vehicle with drones: The vehicle can be programmed to collect all the pollutant waste through its arms and offload the same. It works 24X7 and under all weather conditions. More, it can actually submerge to clean up pollutants on even the riverbed. A set of drones is used with it to collect videos of the pollutants.

Gumps- Detectors for pipeline leaks: The Guided Ultrasonic Monitoring of Pipe Systems (GUMPS) can detect oil leakages from oil pipelines that are laid across the river bed of the Ganga River. They continuously monitor pipelines and alert any impending leaks, thus preventing loss of marine life and pollution due to oil leakages.

Excerpts, Alekhya Hanumanthu ,Using technology for clean Ganga, Telangana Today, Oct. 10, 2017

Salt Lakes of the World

 

Utah Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a depth of about 14 feet—nearly half its former average since it was settled by the Mormons 170 years ago. Under a controversial engineering plan, the lake would recede even further….State engineers want to siphon off some of the river water that flows into the lake and use it for the Salt Lake City area’s booming population. Proponents say the plan, which calls for lapping up a fifth of Bear River’s current unused flow, is essential for meeting the region’s needs.

But critics note that the diversion would cause the lake to drop by almost a foot, according to state estimates, eventually exposing 30 square miles of lake bed and potentially worsening the dust storms that regularly blanket the region and ruining a fragile wetlands habitat.

The debate echoes concerns heard in many other arid parts of the world. Salt lake ecology is especially delicate and requires a certain amount of fresh water to maintain a saline balance. Brine shrimp, for instance, could die off if the water becomes too salty.

In the Middle East, diversion of the Jordan and other rivers that feed the Dead Sea has shriveled the famous body of saltwater and its once robust tourism. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to about 10% of its original size after diversions.

Critics, including environmental groups and affected businesses, say that under the new diversion plan lake-dependent businesses such as brine shrimp fishing would suffer, as would farmers whose land could be inundated upstream if existing dams are raised to retain more water. In all, the lake accounts for an estimated $1.3 billion in annual economic output, according to Utah State University, much of it from the shrimping industry, as well as mineral extraction and tourism.

The plan would also destroy wetlands along the lake shoreline that provide food and habitat for an estimated eight million birds, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group opposed to the project.

But proponents say the diversion of up to 72 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the needs of a city of one million for a year—is needed to forestall anticipated shortages for one of the fastest-growing regions in the country….“If Utah continues to grow, it’s not a matter of if but when we are going to need more water,” said state Sen. Stuart Adams, the Republican majority whip, who sponsored a bill to begin funding the estimated $1.5 billion project.

Excerpt from Utah Searches for Water Solution, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2017

Dams on Nile River

Since Ethiopia announced its plan to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it has inspired threats of sabotage from Egypt, which sits downstream and relies on the Nile for electricity, farming and drinking water. Egypt claims that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the Nile’s water based on colonial-era treaties….

By 2050 around a billion people will live in the countries through which the Nile and its tributaries flow. That alone will put enormous stress on the water supply. But according to a study by Mohamed Siam and Elfatih Eltahir of MIT, potential changes to the river’s flow, resulting from climate change, may add to the strain. Messrs Siam and Eltahir conclude that on current trends the annual flow could increase, on average, by up to 15%. That may seem like a good thing, but it could also grow more variable, by 50%. In other words, there would be more (and worse) floods and droughts.

There is, of course, uncertainty in the projections, not least because differing global climate models give different numbers. But the idea that the flow of the Nile is likely to become more variable is lent credibility, the authors argue, by the fact that trends over decades seem to agree with them, and by consideration of the effects of El Niños. 

More storage capacity will be needed to smooth out the Nile’s flow. But unlike Egypt’s large Aswan Dam, which was built with storage in mind, the new Ethiopian one is designed for electricity production. Once water starts gushing through its turbines, it is expected to produce over 6,000 megawatts of power. It is unclear, though, if the structure has the necessary flexibility to meet downstream demands in periods of prolonged drought.

The talks between the three countries, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, seem to be glossing over the potential effects of climate change. “Nowhere in the world are two such large dams on the same river operated without close co-ordination,” says another study from MIT. But so far co-operation is in short supply. The latest round of talks has been postponed. Even the methodology of impact studies is cause for wrangling.

Excerpts from: Climate Change and the Nile: Flood and Famine, Economist, Aug. 5, 2017

The Fight for the California Aquifer

Deep beneath the desert east of Los Angeles is a Southern California treasure: a massive basin filled with fresh water.

The aquifer has spurred development of the popular resort towns in the Coachella Valley, such as Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage. But it also lies underneath the reservation of a small Native American tribe that owns golf courses and casinos in the area.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians say the drinking water is partly theirs, and wants a stake in how it is used by public utilities. A yearslong legal battle over the issue could end up being taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.  The high court’s action could affect groundwater rights across the arid West, where utilities now deliver the water to tribes as another customer, along with farmers, cities and businesses.

The 480-member tribe contends the local water agencies—the Desert Water Agency and Coachella Valley Water District—have mismanaged the groundwater by allowing too much to be pumped out and by replenishing the source with untreated water from the Colorado River that they consider subpar.  The water agencies, however, say the tribe appears to be making a water grab, potentially setting a dangerous precedent where control of a municipal resource is partially ceded from a public utility.

They also say the tribe, which has built two casino resorts and two 18-hole championship-caliber golf courses on its 31,500 acres, has little experience in managing water, and could potentially sell some of it.  “They’re in the money business,” said James Cioffi, board president of the Desert Water Agency. The tribe says its only interest is in preserving the quality of the water.

Agua Caliente in 2013 took its case to federal court, winning in the first round on the issue of whether it has federal reserved rights to groundwater. That ruling was upheld in March by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The water agencies appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide whether to hear the case this fall….If it lets the lower court rulings stand, more tribes could seek groundwater rights—triggering more litigation….Other tribes have already filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Agua Caliente’s litigation, including the Spokane in Washington and Paiutes in Nevada.

Tribal rights over rivers and other surface water supplies are well established in the West, but less so when it comes to groundwater—one of the most important drinking water sources in many desert areas.

Excertp from In Palm Springs, a Fight Over Who Controls the Drinking Water, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 2, 2017

Spent Nuclear Fuel at Andreyeva Bay

Nuclear specialists say Andreyeva Bay contains the largest reserves of spent nuclear fuel in the world, in fragile conditions that have disturbed the international community for years During the Cold War period, nuclear submarines were refuelled at sea, and the spent nuclear fuel was then shipped to Andreyeva Bay, where it was placed in a special storage facility to cool off before being transported to a reprocessing plant at Mayak, in the Urals. But in the early 1980s, leaks sprung up in the storage system, causing high levels of radioactive contamination.

The facility at Andreyeva Bay was one of many top-secret installations in the Soviet Arctic. This is partly because Russia has a working nuclear submarine base on the other side of the bay at Zaozyorsk….[W]estern nations who see Moscow as a military threat are helping to fund the clean-up of the mess the Soviet military left behind. 13 countries have provided €165m in funding since 2003 for nuclear decommissioning in Russia’s north-west. There have also been a number of bilateral projects, with Britain, Norway and other countries funding a long project to help clean up Andreyeva Bay.

The Norwegian foreign minister….said the funding for the projectd was committed nearly two decades ago, when Russia was in no economic state to deal with the problems alone. He also pointed out that the Andreyeva Bay facility is only about 40 miles from the Norwegian border, making the decommissioning issue one in which Norway has long taken a strong interest.  “Nuclear challenges recognise no borders, and it is in our common interest to deal with nuclear waste now rather leaving the problems to future generations,” said the Norwegian foreign minister…

A suite of new buildings has been constructed around the area where the spent nuclear fuel caskets are kept, replacing the decaying structures that stood there previously. Work to load canisters into the giant protective casks can now be done using specially commissioned machinery.

The Rossita, a ship constructed for the task, will take the huge fuel casks to Murmansk, where they will be put on fortified trains which will proceed under armed guard on the long journey from the Arctic to the Mayak reprocessing site. At the Mayak facility, the spent fuel will be recycled and the Russians say they will turn it into fuel to be used in civilian nuclear reactors.

Specialists at the plant estimate it could take 10 years to remove all the fuel. About half of the caskets have some kind of surface damage to their containers and will be dealt with after the non-problematic batches have been removed.

Excerpts from Russia begins cleaning up the Soviets’ top-secret nuclear waste dump, Guardian, July 2, 2017

Final Development Frontier in Nepal

While India, Pakistan and China have all developed massive hydropower plants along the Himalayan mountains, Nepal’s civil war and political instability scared off investment for decades.  Now, thanks to an inclusive peace process that allowed the country’s main rebel leader to be elected prime minister twice, the focus is shifting to Nepal. Hydropower projects worth billions of dollars are in progress, with geologists and investors scouring the landscape for more.

Government surveys show Nepal’s abundant water resources can feasibly yield hydropower equal to more than 40% of U.S. output, a 40-fold increase from today. Officials project almost a third more hydropower capacity will come online this year. More than 100 projects under construction—over 40 since last year—and others in development will yield at least a tenfold increase in the next decade to 10 gigawatts of power, they say.

Nepal is ramping up its development of hydroelectric power plants in the Himalayas, but building in the region can be risky work. Photo: Brian Sokol for The Wall Street Journal  “There’s such an energy shortage that any project you build will find a market,” said Allard Nooy, CEO of InfraCo Asia, a development body funded by the U.K., Swiss and Australian governments that is financing one hydro project and seeking to develop two more.

Still, power companies don’t face an easy ride.  Among the hurdles are natural ones: earthquakes, landslides and inland tsunamis from glacial lakes as warmer temperatures prompt ice melt. Two years ago a series of massive quakes killed 9,000 people and shattered the country.

Opposition from environmental groups is another difficulty, especially for a new generation of dam projects. In the past, the World Bank and Japan’s Asian Development Bank have withdrawn support for projects amid opposition from environmental groups that say large dams can damage natural habitats like wetlands, threaten migratory fish stocks, and displace traditional farming communities.

Activists are concerned over the effects hydropower projects have on the environment and communities. Here are some of their top worries.

Displacement Dams flood valleys and in many cases require communities to abandon their land. A number of dam projects under consideration in Nepal would require whole villages to relocate.
Earthquakes A growing body of research suggests large dams can trigger quakes by adding pressure to areas near fault lines, a phenomenon known as “reservoir-induced seismicity.”
Wildlife Projects can disrupt the natural migration of fish and other river life. Environmentalists in Nepal are particularly concerned about the country’s small population of endangered Ganges River Dolphins.
Seasonal River-based hydropower projects, which are popular in Nepal, only generate electricity when water is flowing, making them less effective in the dry season. Dams can generate power in any season.

The greater stability has boosted momentum for rising investment in the Himalayas—a region dominated by Nepal, India and Bhutan that is considered the final development frontier in South Asia. Hydro energy projects are the biggest focus.  “The only resource we have, like the Arabian countries have oil, is water,” said Chhabi Gaire, project manager at the Rasuwagadhi Hydroelectric Project, a 1f11-megawatt plant under construction near China’s border.

Funding for projects is increasingly coming from Nepalese working abroad, says the Nepal Electricity Authority. Their remittances reached $6.7 billion in 2015, according to the World Bank, more than even Thai and South Korean workers abroad sent to their own countries.  Meanwhile, India’s cabinet approved $850 million in February to build a plant on Nepal’s Arun River that would export most of its energy to India. A month earlier, the Chinese-state owned China Three Gorges Company agreed to a joint venture with Nepal’s government to build a $1.6 billion hydropower plant on Nepal’s Seti River, also mainly for electricity export to India…

Workers on Nepal’s hydropower projects face sometimes deadly risks in the steep mountain valleys of the Himalayas such as landslides, falling boulders and flash floods…  [T] he 456-megawatt Upper Tamakoshi project, funded by a group of Nepal’s major banks and pension funds, is now under construction and set to open in mid-2018 with a reservoir to enable energy generation in the dry season.  It’s is also a risky project.

To the East the dangerous glacial lake Tsho Rolpa threatens to burst its banks. To the West, the Gongar river routinely spits boulders the size of two-story buildings over the valley wall. A bridge the developers built over the Gongar was swept away in a flash flood during monsoon season. Landslides triggered by quakes swept away swaths of the access road. To keep working, project developers built a steel truss bridge and drilled a new road tunnel through a collapsed valley wall.  Moreover, the project is built on such volatile terrain that the turbines and delicate transmission equipment were buried 460 feet beneath the surface.

Excerpts from In the Himalayas, a New Power Rises: Water, Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2017

 

Waterbird Habitats Lacking

The spring of 2017 50 million waterbirds will move from their winter homes in South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Russia, Mongolia, northern China, the Korean peninsula, Japan and even Alaska. They rely on intertidal flats teeming with nourishing molluscs, worms and crustaceans, as well as plants, to supply the food that fuels their journeys.  Of the eight big flyways, the East Asian-Australasian is also the one displaying the sharpest decline in the number of birds. Of its 155-odd waterbird species, at least 24 are now globally threatened. They include the diminutive spoon-billed sandpiper, a wader whose numbers are down to fewer than 200 pairs.

Transiting one of the world’s most dynamic industrial regions is clearly taking a toll. Asia’s migratory waterbirds face immense pressures, from hunting, pollution, ingested plastic and competition from aquaculture. But the biggest disaster is the destruction of coastal way-stations. Since 1950 China has lost over half its coastal wetlands to “reclamation”. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Yellow Sea, into which the Yellow River flows, has lost over 35% of intertidal habitat since the early 1980s. An especially destructive moment was the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, for which a lot of heavy industry was moved from the capital to the coast.

Xianji Wen, who works for the WWF, describes the Yellow Sea as a “bottleneck” for the whole flyway: so many waders pass through it that the loss of habitat there is particularly consequential. Four-fifths of Asia’s red knots, having wintered in Australasia, stop on their way north at one spot, Luannan, east of Beijing. The bar-tailed godwit flies non-stop from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea—over 6,000km. After recovering there, the species flies non-stop again to its breeding grounds in the extreme north of Russia.  Populations of both species have crashed by over a third, probably because of coastal development…..

There is a silver lining, however. The vast middle class created by the region’s breakneck growth is becoming interested in conservation…In China several hundred birdwatchers gather for the spring migration by the Yellow Sea near the North Korean border. And Mr Wen says that local governments in China increasingly take pride in the acclaim they win for conservation schemes—several work with the WWF. In 2016 China and New Zealand even signed an agreement—an “air bridge” between the two countries—to protect the habitat of the bar-tailed godwits, whose annual departure, Maori mythology holds, is for the homeland of the ancestors who first colonised New Zealand.

South Korea’s conservation movement is feeble. But the government of North Korea, by failing to develop the country, has inadvertently preserved a greater share of valuable waterbird habitats. It recently agreed to designate one as a protected site under the “Ramsar” international convention on wetlands….

Excerpt from Canaries in the Coal Fumes, Economist, Apr. 22, 2017

Coke as a Scapegoat

A potent blend of pride, economic nationalism and mounting concern over water security have the world’s two biggest cola brands in a bind in southern India.  Shopkeepers in drought-hit Kerala state decided on March 15, 2017 to promote local brands over Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. beverages after counterparts in neighboring Tamil Nadu boycotted the multinational drinks. While retail groups claim the companies are siphoning off groundwater and selling products tainted with pesticides, academics and analysts say the soda giants have become scapegoats for a water crisis that’s become mired in politics and patriotism.

India is one of the most water-challenged nations, and fights over water have erupted between users periodically for decades. Failed monsoon rains over as many as the past three years in some states have parched rivers and dams, forcing farmers, manufacturers and municipal water suppliers to rely more on wells to meet their needs. Problem is, those too are drying up, and that’s hurting farmers, India’s economic mainstay.

“The root cause for the boycott isn’t the multinational companies, but the enduring fight between industrial users and farmers, especially in several drought-hit states,” said P.L. Beena, an associate professor with the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.  On top of that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to companies to “make in India” has given rise to a pro-India push — and, in some cases, an anti-foreigner backlash — that’s supporting local brands….

The latest action means drinks from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which together have a 96 percent hold on India’s $4.9 billion soda market, will be kept off the shelves of more than 1 million shops.  Vendors would rather lose business than sell the products, said A. M. Vikrama Raja, president of a retailers’ association in Tamil Nadu with about 1.5 million members. The boycott started March 1, 2017 a day before the Madras High Court dismissed a petition seeking a ban on the American soda-makers drawing water from the local Thamirabarani river.

“Instead of foreign sodas, we will promote local beverages,” said T. Naseeruddin, president of a retailers’ group that says it has more than 700,000 retailers in Kerala, which is facing its worst drought in 115 years.

The group stopped short of joining the boycott in Tamil Nadu after a meeting Wednesday with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, a spokesman said. Instead, retailers will pursue “sensitization against multinational products” via a state-level conference, and seek a policy response from the state government.  India has at least 50 local drink brands, which are typically 20 percent cheaper than the global cola brands, brokerage Kotak Securities Ltd. said in a Feb. 23 report.  Manpasand Beverages Ltd., based in Vadodara, Gujarat state’s cultural capital, is “aggressively expanding its reach in Tamil Nadu to take advantage of the ongoing cola ban,”….

Excerpts from PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Fight Patriotism in Parched Indian State, Bloomberg Business Week, Mar. 15, 2017

Illegal Refineries in Nigeria

Nigeria’s military said on April 13, 2017 that it had destroyed 13 illegal refineries in the restive Niger Delta oil hub, in an operation in which two soldiers died in clashes with “sea robbers”.  Military authorities say there are hundreds of illegal refineries in the region, which process stolen crude from oil company pipelines.  The Nigerian government said last week that it plans to legalise illicit refineries as part of an attempt to bring peace to the production heartland of crude oil, but it is unclear when it will put the plan into action.  Major Abubakar Abdullahi, a military spokesman, said troops “discovered and destroyed 13 illegal refineries” on April 12, 2017 while on patrol in the Iyalama Adama axis of Rivers state. The two soldiers were killed in the Ijawkiri general area, in Rivers state, he said.Makeshift refineries, usually hidden in oil-soaked clearings, support tens of thousands of people locally.

Nigeria’s navy chief has said that 181 illegal refineries were destroyed in 2016, 748 suspects were arrested, and crude oil and diesel worth 420 billion naira ($1.3 billion) was confiscated. The military shut down around 50 bush refineries in the first few weeks of 2017.

Nigeria’s military destroys 13 illegal oil refineries, Reuters, Apr. 13, 2017

Rivers as Legal Persons

The new law that declares the Whanganui river, New Zealand’s third-longest, a legal person, in the sense that it can own property, incur debts and petition the courts, is not unprecedented. Te Urewera, an area of forested hills in the north-east that used to be a national park, became a person for legal purposes in 2014….

The law, which was approved on March 15th, 2017 stems from disputes over the Treaty of Waitangi, by which New Zealand’s indigenous Maori ceded sovereignty to British colonialists in 1840. The treaty was supposed to have protected Maori rights and property; it was observed mainly in the breach. In recent years the government has tried to negotiate settlements for breaches of the treaty with different Maori iwi, or tribes. For the Whanganui iwi, the idea of the river as a person is nothing new. The iwi professes a deep spiritual connection to the Whanganui: as a local proverb has it, “I am the river and the river is me.” The law acknowledges the river as a “living whole”, rather than trying to carve it up, putting to rest an ownership dispute that has dragged on for 140 years. When it was passed, members of the iwi in the gallery of parliament broke into a ten-minute song of celebration.

In practice, two guardians will act for the river, one appointed by the government and one by the iwi. Mr Finlayson, the minister in charge of negotiations tied to the Treaty of Waitangi, hopes the change will help bring those who do environmental damage to the river to book. Under the settlement the government will also pay the iwi NZ$80m ($56m) as compensation for past abuses and set up a fund of NZ$30m to enhance the “health and well-being” of the river. It is one of 82 deals that aim to remedy breaches of the treaty, including one with the Tuhoe iwi that made Te Urewera into a person.

Days after the law passed, an Indian court declared two of the biggest and most sacred rivers in India, the Ganges and Yamuna, to be people too. Making explicit reference to the Whanganui settlement, the court assigned legal “parents” to protect and conserve their waters. Local lawyers think the ruling might help fight severe pollution: the rivers’ defenders will no longer have to prove that discharges into them harm anyone, since any sullying of the waters will now be a crime against the river itself. There is no doubt that of the 1.3bn-odd people in India, the Ganges and the Yamuna are among the most downtrodden.

Excerpts from Hydrological Jurisprudence: Try me River, Economist, Mar. 25, 2017

See also Do Trees have Standing? by Christopher Stone

Debt and Coal: China-Mongolia friendship

Mongolia recently reached a new deal to sell coal to China, helping it boost its faltering economy and start repaying billions of dollars it owes Wall Street lenders.  Under the landmark agreement completed late 2016, Mongolia’s state-owned mining company will sell coal to China at roughly double the previously agreed-upon rate.  The deal follows a devastating four-year period when Mongolian miners exported coal to China at deeply-discounted prices, sometimes for as little as 11% of the global benchmark price, undercutting Mongolia’s economic growth. Mongolia agreed to those punitive terms to get the loan from China and has been struggling to repay it.

The new export agreement will help Mongolia pay its mounting debt, including bonds held by BlackRock Inc., Fidelity Investments, UBS Global Asset Management and other global investors that bought the debt for its double-digit yields, according to bond investors.

But the export deal has a downside for Mongolia: It effectively transfers much coal production from China, which is bent on cleaning up its environment, to its poorer neighbor…  Trucks carrying coal are backed up for nearly 40 miles at Mongolia’s southern border with China, in what some analysts call the world’s largest traffic jam…Yet Mongolia seems willing to make that trade-off, with coal prices soaring since China has begun cutting production, analysts say. Market prices for the type of coal produced in Mongolia, which is used in steel- and iron-making operations, skyrocketed 200% in 2016 to $225 a ton.

Mongolia is also in talks with some Asian firms to develop its Tavan Tolgoi coal reserves, analysts say. The Gobi desert site is one of the world’s largest untapped coal mines, with more than six billion tons of coal deposits.

Excerpts from the New China-Mongolia Mining Deal: Economic Windfall or Environmental Threat?, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 21, 2017

Dams and Drought: the Amazon

The São Luiz do Tapajós (SLT) project… would dam one of the last big unobstructed tributaries of the Amazon. The project would provide about a third of the hydropower that Brazil plans for the forthcoming decade, but it would also flood 376 square km (145 square miles) of land where the Munduruku hunt, fish and farm. “The Tapajós valley is our supermarket, our church, our office, our school, our home, our life,” explained Mr Kabá.

The tussle over the Tapajós dam is part of a bigger fight about Brazil’s energy future. SLT is an example of a new sort of hydropower project, which floods a smaller area than traditional dams and therefore ought to cause less disruption and environmental damage. The massive Itaipu dam on the border with Paraguay inundated an area nearly four times as large. But critics of hydropower say “run of river” projects like SLT, which use a river’s natural flow to turn turbines, do not work as well as advertised. Though less destructive than conventional dams, which require bigger reservoirs, they still provoke opposition from people like the Munduruku. Other energy sources, such as gas and wind, are becoming more competitive. Brazil has “an opportunity” to rethink its energy policies, says Paulo Pedrosa, an energy official.

Hydropower has long been Brazil’s main way of generating electricity. Most forecasts suggest it will remain so. The government intends to build more than 30 dams in the Amazon over the next three decades. 

Climate change may worsen the problem. Some climate models predict that river flows in large parts of the Amazon will fall by 30% in coming decades. Deforestation is delaying the onset of the rainy season in some areas by six days a decade, according to research published in Global Change Biology, a journal.   Drought can be expensive. In 2014 power from conventional dams dipped because of a dry spell, forcing electricity companies to buy from gas- and coal-powered generators at high spot prices. The risk of such fluctuations rises with run-of-river dams. Carlos Nobre, a former chief of research at the ministry of science, technology and innovation, thinks more frequent droughts will make future hydropower projects in the Amazon unprofitable.

Brazil’s potential for solar and wind energy is among the highest in the world. The government has promoted them with lavish tax breaks. In the blustery north-east, wind power overtook hydropower this year; wind turbines now generate 36% of the region’s electricity, up from 22% in 2015. The Energy Research Company, a firm linked to the energy ministry, expects renewable generating capacity apart from hydropower to double by 2024.

Generators fuelled by natural gas have been hurt by the subsidies lavished on renewable energy. But, though less climate-friendly than hydropower, they are beginning to compete with it as a source of steady baseload electricity. Brazil now produces gas in abundance as a by-product of pumping oil from its offshore wells. Its marginal cost of production is nearly zero. The future of baseload energy is “hydro-thermal”, rather than hydro alone, says Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Infrastructure Centre, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro.

Excerpts from Dams in the Amazon: Not in my valley, Economist,  Nov. 5, 2016

Owning and Trading Water

Rights regimes that are well designed and implemented are among the most effective tools for distributing water fairly and sustainably. Under one such system, Australian states began reforming water management in 1994. Few others have followed, though attempts at reform in Chile and Yemen have met with varying degrees of success.

To create tradable water rights, Australia first drew up a baseline for water use, taking into consideration past commercial, social and environmental needs. Next, old water rights were replaced with shares that granted holders (usually landowners) a proportion of any annual allocations. Clever formulae take account of the seniority of pre-existing rights. Different classes of shares determine who gets what and when to balance the competing claims of upstream farmers and downstream urbanites. After that a regulatory board makes sure that all users get as much as they are entitled to.

Allocations made to shareholders are tradable, but those receiving them can also store them for the future. This prevents any sudden wasting of water at the end of each year and encourages thrift during a drought. Issuing shares in perpetuity ensures that a holder can have more water only if someone else is prepared to have less. A centralised register holds everything together. Two markets for trading have been created: one in which shares are exchanged, and another for allocations of water in a given year. The idea is not a new one. In places such as Oman, aflaj systems involve villages trading in shares and in minutes of water flow.

Such regime change originally met strong resistance from farmers and other big users in Australia. But trading allocations reaped enormous rewards for shareholders. During the first decade of reform the annual internal rate of return from owning a water right was over 15%; those who held water shares saw the value of their rights double every five or so years. But following this example elsewhere will be tough. Even rich countries will struggle to unbundle rights that have accumulated over decades.

Excerpt from Liquidity Crisis, Economist, Nov. 5, 2016, at 17

Ogoni versus Royal Dutch Shell

The widow of a Nigerian activist is planning to sue Royal Dutch Shell in the Dutch courts alleging the oil company was complicit in the execution of her husband by the Nigerian military in 1995, court documents filed in the United States/Esther Kiobel has filed an application in New York to secure documents from Shell’s US lawyers, which she could use in the Dutch action.

The filings with the US District Court for the Southern District Court of New York said she planned to begin the action before the end of the year.“Ms. Kiobel will demonstrate that Shell encouraged, facilitated, and conspired with the Nigerian government to commit human rights violations against the Ogoni people,” a memorandum in the application filed last week said.
Kiobel previously took her lawsuit to the United States but the US Supreme Court ruled in 2013 the case could not be heard because the alleged activities took place outside the country.

In 2009 prior to that ruling Shell had agreed in the United States to pay $15.5 million to settle lawsuits related to other activists executed at the same time as Barinem Kiobel, including author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.    [three separate lawsuits were brought by the family of Ken Saro-Wiwa].

The Nigerian military cracked down heavily on local opposition to oil production by a Shell joint venture in the Niger Delta in the early 1990s. Kiobel alleges that Shell provided support to the military in its crackdown.  A Dutch court ruled in December that Shell may be sued in the Netherlands for oil spills at its subsidiary in Nigeria, although it did not say Shell was responsible..

Excerpts from Shell faces possible Dutch lawsuit over Nigerian activist’s execution, Reuters, Oct. 18, 2016

Oil Barrels Spilled in Amazon: Peru

It’s been a bad year for Peru’s Amazon – 2016 has seen seven oil spills there so far. And it’s only September. Most of these occurred across the Northern Peruvian Pipeline, in operation since 1977, which transports crude from the Peruvian Amazon to the Pacific Coast along 854 kilometers (530 miles) and is under the control of state-owned Petroperu. After the first two spills leaked around 3,000 barrels, in January and February 2016, the pipeline was shuttered for repairs. However, five additional oil spills have happened since then.According to Peru’s environment regulator OEFA, at least five oil spills were due to poor pipeline conditions, and illegal use of it after the closure. However, the oil company is blaming the latest two spills on vandalism by locals.,,

[M]ore than 190 oil spills have been recorded in Peru since 1997, according to Peru’s energy and mining agency. But the situation appears to have worsened since the beginning of 2016. After the two oil spills leaked 3,000 barrels – polluting nearby rivers and destroying the livelihood of locals – protests against pipeline’s poor conditions in February 2016 forced its shutdown.

When a third oil spill occurred in June 2016 – of 600 barrels – then-Minister of Environment, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, accused Petroperu of pumping crude illegally through the pipeline. The president of Petroperu was ousted, and a $3.5-million (around 3-million-euro) fine was levied.

But the disaster continued: During August and September 2016, four additional oil spills were recorded in the area. The last two occurred while thousands of indigenous people were demonstrating for withdrawal of the oil companies. According to the Peruvian government, Petroperu is responsible for at least five of the seven oil spills – the company has already been penalized more than $7 million. Petroperu continues to insist, however, that the oil spills were a result of extreme weather or vandalism by the locals.

The amount of oil spilled 2016 in the Peruvian Amazon – less than 10,000 barrels in seven spills – is a relatively small amount, compared for instance to the 650,000 barrels of oil that have fouls parts of the Amazon of Ecuador since the 1960s.

Repeated oil spills threaten Peru’s Amazon, DW.com, Oct. 2, 2016

Water Scarcity: the case of Tasmania

Australia is the world’s driest continent. Climate change is expected to make its droughts even more frequent. The country is still paying for years of overexploitation of its biggest river system, the Murray-Darling basin. The federal government in Canberra is spending A$3.2 billion ($2.2 billion) buying up and cancelling farmers’ water entitlements in a bid to reduce salinity and repair other environmental damage stretching back a century.

While mainland farmers are being paid to give up water, those in wetter Tasmania are being enticed to buy more. The island state accounts for just 1% of Australia’s land mass and 2% of its population. Yet it receives 13% of the country’s rainfall. Tasmania may be blessed with water, but most of it falls in the mountains of the west, making it useless to farmers elsewhere.

So the island has embarked on a project to capture more water for its drier east and north, shifting it through pipes to these regions’ farms. Almost 800 farmers have already bought into ten irrigation schemes that are up and running. They will allow farmers to do more than graze sheep and cattle; they will be able to grow fruit and vegetables, including more of Tasmania’s exotic stuff: cherries, grapes for the island’s increasingly fashionable wines and even poppies (the island is a big opium supplier for legitimate pharmaceuticals).

If another five planned schemes involving 200 farmers go ahead, Tasmania’s investment in shifting its water around the island will be almost A$1 billion. The federal and Tasmanian governments are putting up some of the money. But that comes with conditions. Farmers and other investors must first agree to meet at least two-thirds of the costs of each irrigation project before governments commit the rest….

Tasmania’s new water market has already been kind to one of its biggest investors. David Williams, a Melbourne banker, owns no Tasmanian farms. But he put A$10m into two central Tasmania irrigation schemes after local farmers had bought in. Mr Williams likens the arrival of reliable water in such regions to technological change: “I punted that it would change the way land is used.” He calculates that trading his water entitlement with farmers in both schemes could turn his investment into A$16m….

Among the foreign tourists coming to sample Tasmanian Riesling, oysters and marbled beef are plenty of Chinese. When China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited Hobart in late 2014, he sent signals that China wanted more seafood, beef and other costlier food exports from Tasmania.

Excerpts from Tasmania charts a new course: Water into wine, Economist, Feb. 11, 2016

Water Scarcity in West Bank and Gaza

[M]ost of Israel’s water is artificially produced. About a third comes from desalination plants that are among the world’s most advanced. Farmers rely on reclaimed water for irrigation. Israel recycles 86% of its wastewater, the highest level anywhere; Spain, the next best, reuses around 20%.

West Bank: None of these high-tech solutions helps the Palestinians [in the West Bank,] though, because they are not connected to Israel’s water grid. They rely on the so-called “mountain aquifer”, which lies beneath land Israel occupied in 1967. The 1995 Oslo Accords stipulated that 80% of the water from the aquifer would go to Israel, with the rest allocated to the Palestinians. The agreement, meant to be a five-year interim measure, will soon celebrate its 21st birthday. During that time the Palestinian population in the West Bank has nearly doubled, to almost 3m. The allocation has not kept pace.

The settler population has doubled too, and they face their own shortages. In Ariel, a city of 19,000 adjacent to Salfit, residents experienced several brief outages this month. Smaller settlements in the area, which are not hooked up to the national grid, have dealt with longer droughts. Palestinians have suffered far more, however. On average they get 73 litres per day, less than the 100-litre minimum recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The situation is even worse in Gaza, which relies almost entirely on a fast-shrinking coastal aquifer; what remains is polluted from years of untreated sewage and agricultural run-off. The stuff that comes out of Gazan taps is already brackish and salty. UN experts think that aquifer will be irreversibly damaged by 2020.

Israel’s water authority sells the Palestinians 64m cubic metres of water each year. It says they cause their own shortages, because up to a third of the West Bank’s water supply leaks out of rusting Palestinian pipes. A joint water committee is supposed to resolve these issues, but it has not met for five years…

Water in the West Bank: Nor yet a drop to drink, Economist, July 30, 2016, at 38

Water Shortage Mekong Basin

2016: Drought is plaguing much of mainland South-East Asia, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Thailand’s shortages are the worst for two decades,  Vietnam has been hit as hard as any. The Mekong basin is home to one-fifth of the population. It produces about half of the country’s rice. The government says the amount available for export in the three months to June will be 11% less than originally forecast. Drought in the country’s Central Highlands has affected a third of coffee plantations there and now endangers the region’s supply of drinking water. These woes are weighing on the economy. Growth in the first quarter slowed by half a percent year-on-year to 5.5%.

The immediate cause is El Niño…People living near the Mekong say there is another problem: hydroelectric dams built in China near the head of the river that are holding up its flow. Since March China has loosened some of the dam gates, ostensibly as a favour to its neighbours. But locals say the effect on water levels has been measly. The episode has only heightened fears that China (with which Vietnam has an enormous trade deficit and an intense territorial dispute) can use water flow to hold the country to ransom.

The dams are certainly stripping the Mekong of essential sediment. But many of Vietnam’s water woes are self-inflicted. In the delta, for example, a booming population has built more than 1m wells since the 1960s. These have made saline contamination worse, and are also causing subsidence. In 2014 an American study found that the delta, which mostly lies less than two metres above sea level, could be nearly a metre lower by 2050.

A related problem is the ruling Communist Party’s obsession with maximising rice production. Straining to hit absurd targets—inspired by memories of post-war food shortages—the government has pushed delta farmers to produce three rice crops per year.

This policy has caused the poisoning of paddies with pesticides and has discouraged farming of more profitable, less thirsty crops. It has also prompted the building of a massive network of dykes, canals and sluice gates, which spread pollution from fertilisers and pesticides and restrict the flow of sediment. Koos Neefjes, a climate-change expert in Hanoi, the capital, reckons all this infrastructure has done more to harm the delta than China’s dams.

Fixing this will mean taking on powerful state-owned rice traders and exporters, who benefit from intensive production.

Excerpts Vietnam’s drying delta: Salt of the earth, Economist, Apr. 30, 2016, at 37

Defenses Against the Sea: Bangladesh

Facing the bleak prospect of millions of its citizens being displaced in coming years due to storms and sea level rise caused by climate change, Bangladesh is building up existing coastal embankments in a bid to protect coastal lands and people. On November 2015, the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) signed a deal with the Chinese firm First Engineering Bureau of Henan Water Conservancy to start work on the Coastal Embankment Improvement Project-1… And as per the agreement, the Chinese firm is helping rebuild four polders in two coastal districts – Khulna and Bagerhat.

Bangladesh is a low-lying delta, making it one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. The coastal region adjoining the Bay of Bengal is characterised by a vast network of active tidal rivers. The strength of the tides and the flatness of the delta causes the tides to influence river processes a long way upstream in the southern estuaries. And climate change has intensified the tides in recent years.

“We will repair all 139 coastal polders considering the climate-induced changes presumed to take place by 2050 to protect coastal people from recurrent climatic disasters like cyclone and storm surge,” Water Resources Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud told IPS.  He said the water development board is currently working to rebuild 17 coastal embankments in its first phase, and the remaining polders will be repaired gradually.

The Coastal Embankment Improvement Project Phase-1 (CEIP-1) involving 400 million dollars to rebuild 17 polders in six coastal districts – Khulna, Satkhira, Begerhat, Pirojpur, Barguna and Patuakhali. The height of 200-kilometre-long embankments will be increased by one to two metres and 58 regulators will be set up in the first phase.

Since the 1960s, Bangladesh built 139 polders to protect about 1.2 million hectares of land from seawater…

Excerpts from Rafiqul Islam , Raising Walls Against the Sea, IPS News Service, May 12, 2016

Water: the White Gold

Considered as the “white gold” –as opposed to the “black gold”—oil, water scarcity has become one of the major concerns of Bahrain in spite of the fact that it has a high Human Development Index and was recognized by the World Bank as a high-income economy.  It’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita amounts to 29,140 US Dollars. And it is home to the headquarters for the United States Naval Forces Central Command/United States Fifth Fleet.

All the above does not suffice to make Bahrainis happy. In fact, their country leads the list of 14 out of the 33 countries most likely to be water-stressed in 2040 –all of them situated in the Middle East– including nine considered extremely highly stressed according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).  After Bahrain comes Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Other Middle East Arab countries more or less share with Bahrain this front line position of water-stressed states. These are Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. All of them hold a very close second position in the region’ s water-stress ranking. The total represents two thirds of the 22 Arab countries. Not that the remaining Arab states are water-safe. Not at all: Mauritania, in the far Maghreb West, and Egypt, at the opposite end, are already under heavy threat as well.

The whole region, already arguably the least water-secure in the world, draws heavily on groundwater and desalinated sea water, and faces exceptional water-related challenges for the foreseeable future, says the WRI’s report: Ranking the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries in 2040. The report’s authors Andrew Maddocks, Robert Samuel Young and Paul Reig foresee that world’s demand for water, including of course the Middle East, is likely to surge in the next few decades…This comes at a time when the Arab region has not taken advantage of its water resources of about 340 billion cubic meters, using only 50 per cent. The rest is lost and wasted.

Regarding the North of Africa, the Egyptian Ministry for Environment has recently admitted that large extensions of the country’s Northern area of the Nile Delta, which represents the most important and extensive agricultural region in Egypt, is already heavily exposed to two dangerous effects: salinasation and flooding. This is due to the rise of the Mediterranean Sea water levels and the land depression.

The impact of global warming and growing heat waves is particularly worrying the Egyptian authorities as it might reduce the flow of the Nile water in up to 80 per cent according to latest estimates

Excerpts from Baher Kamal, Climate Change and the Middle East (II), No Water in the Kingdom of the Two Seas—Nor Elsewhere, IPS, Apr. 18, 2016

Miners v. Indigenous Peoples: Canada

In 1849 the First Nation of Ojibways, a Canadian indigenous group, fired a cannon into a copper mine that had gone ahead without their approval.These days Canada’s aboriginal groups use public pressure, backed by legal action, to protect their lands against exploitation by outsiders. In February 2016 the government of British Columbia reached agreement with forest companies, environmental groups and 26 First Nations communities to protect from logging an area on the Pacific coast larger than Belgium—newly dubbed the Great Bear Rainforest. The deal, which allows logging and mining in areas aboriginals have agreed to, is the culmination of a long public-relations campaign (choosing the Kermode bear as its mascot was a masterstroke). It would have got nowhere without centuries of treaty-making and decades of case law to back it up….

The federal aboriginal affairs agency is party to 554 proceedings involving such rights (not all of which concern resource firms). That does not include disputes between aboriginal groups and firms. Projects as diverse as seismic testing for mineral deposits in Arctic waters and fracking in the west face challenges. Until 1951 such lawsuits were barred. They are expensive and can drag on for years; the outcome is never assured. The Tsilhqot’in, who filed suit in 1998 against logging on their ancestral lands in British Columbia, finally won in 2014 and now have title to 1,750 square km (1,100 square miles). But the Innu of Ekuanitshit in Quebec last year lost their bid to stop the Muskrat Falls hydropower project, which they say will affect caribou herds.

Some big projects are caught in legal limbo. The Northern Gateway pipeline, which is to bring crude oil from Alberta to Canada’s west coast, has been stalled for more than a decade, largely because of opposition from First Nations groups along its route, some of them parties to the Great Bear agreement. The Pacific Northwest liquefied natural gas project, backed by Petronas, a Malaysian state-owned firm, has offered C$1 billion ($726m) in benefits over 40 years to the Lax Kw’alaams nation of northern British Columbia. That has not allayed fears that the project would destroy salmon fisheries.

When such disputes are unresolved, the price can be high. The Northern Gateway pipeline would add C$300 billion to Canada’s GDP over 30 years.

Miners and aboriginals in Canada: I’ll see you in court, Economist, Feb. 6, 2016 at 33

Herbicides: safer than table salt

It’s been a tough year for glyphosate, the world’s most popular weedkiller. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, declared that glyphosate—the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup products—was probably carcinogenic to humans. In the months since, multiple lawsuits have been filed blaming the chemical for causing cancer and birth defects. In February, testing found traces of glyphosate in German beer and organic panty liners sold in France. Other tests have found chemical residue in British bread, as well as in the urine of people across Europe. In early March, the European Union put off a vote to renew a 15-year license for glyphosate after several member states balked.

Monsanto famously advertised Roundup, which was introduced in 1974, as safer than table salt. In 1996 the company stopped making the table salt claim after complaints from New York state….. In September 2016 state officials in California proposed adding the herbicide to a list of known carcinogens. The FDA said in February 2016 that it would begin testing for glyphosate residue in food in the U.S. The results aren’t yet available. The Environmental Protection Agency has been reviewing its use since 2009. The agency, which in 1985 temporarily classified glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic,” was supposed to wrap up sometime last year; it now says a draft of its decision should be available for public comment sometime this year.

The herbicide industry has mounted an aggressive campaign to discredit the cancer finding and to convince regulators—and the public—that the herbicide should remain in use. …

Glyphosate works by blocking the production of certain amino acids that a plant needs to grow, and it’s nonselective, meaning it kills most plants. It began to dominate the herbicide market only after Monsanto genetically engineered crops to survive it, marketing them under its Roundup Ready brand. Global sales of glyphosate were about $7.8 billion in 2014, 30 percent of the herbicide market, according to Cropnosis, a market-research firm. Monsanto’s dominance of the glyphosate market has declined since the chemical went off patent in 2000. Some weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, triggering the need for other weedkillers. Nonetheless, Roundup remains the primary money-maker for Monsanto’s agricultural productivity segment, which brought in 32 percent of its revenue in fiscal 2015.

A rejection of glyphosate by either the U.S. or Europe would have “massive” ramifications on farming and food production, says Jason Miner, an analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. “You could quickly take us two decades back in terms of farm yields,” he says. “The world doesn’t have capacity to produce all the alternatives.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Could Get Whacked by European Regulators, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Mar. 10, 2016

Nothing Outlasts the Fukushima Disaster

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moves to reopen Japanese nuclear plants that were all shut after the disaster on March 11, 2011, a distrustful public is pushing back. A court on March 9, 2016ordered Kansai Electric Power Co. to halt two of the four reactors that have been restarted, saying the utility had failed to show the public they were safe. The utility called the ruling “unacceptable” and said it would appeal….However, near the ruined Fukushima reactors……Growing swaths of land are covered with black bags full of slightly radioactive soil.

The hardest parts of the cleanup haven’t even begun. Tepco, as Tokyo Electric is known, has yet to draw up plans for removing highly radioactive nuclear fuel that melted through steel containment vessels and now sits at the bottom of three Fukushima reactors.The company estimates that the nearly $20 billion job of decommissioning the plant could take another three or four decades. That is not counting damages and cleanup costs expected to reach some $100 billion or more, including about $50 billion paid to evacuees. Legal wrangling over the disaster continues. In February 2016, three former Tepco executives were charged with professional negligence.

Tepco also is working to reduce a total 400 tons of rain and groundwater that breach the plant’s defenses daily, becoming contaminated and requiring treatment and storage. But a wall of frozen earth meant to reduce the flow has run into resistance from regulators.On large parts of the site, workers can now walk around without full-face shields or hazmat suits, using simple surgical masks for protection.Fukushima was once a prized post for elite engineers and technicians in Japan’s nuclear heyday. Now, unskilled laborers make up the bulk of a workforce of about 6,000 workers, down from a peak of 7,450 in 2014. “There’s a constant stream of people who can’t find work elsewhere,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a Communist city councilman in Iwaki, about 30 miles away. “They drift and collect in Fukushima.”…

Looking ahead, the biggest issue remains the reactors. No one knows exactly where the molten nuclear debris sits or how to clean it. Humans couldn’t survive a journey inside the containment vessels, so Tepco hopes to use robots guided by computer simulations and video images. But two attempts had to be abandoned after the robots got tripped up on rubble.“The nature of debris may depend on when the nuclear fuel and concrete reacted,” said Pascal Piluso, an official of France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. “We are talking about extremely varied and complex debris.”….A government panel recently questioned Tepco’s ability to tackle the daunting task of decommissioning while seeking profit for its shareholders. The disaster nearly pushed the company to bankruptcy, prompting the government to buoy it with ¥1 trillion ($9 billion  (really????) in public money and pledge government grants and guarantees to help Tepco compensate victims.”…

Excerpts  from Fukushima Still Rattles Japan, Five Years After Nuclear Disaster, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 8, 2016

Trees Worth More Than Gold

To protect incense trees, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trading in agarwood. But Hong Kong does not single out those who destroy or damage the trees for harsh treatment. If an incense tree is on government-managed land, the maximum sentence for cutting it down is the same as it is for felling any other kind of tree on such property: a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,210) and a year in prison.  Such penalties do little to deter thieves from mainland China, who are encouraged by growing demand for exotic medicines among members of the mainland’s fast-growing middle class. Professor C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong reckons that in 2013 high-grade agarwood was worth $1,600 a gram on the black market. That is more than gold. According to Mr Jim, Hong Kong may be the “last refuge” of the tree, so it has become a “honeypot” for tree-snatchers.

Most of the thieves work for criminal gangs based across the border in mainland China. In recent years a relaxation of restrictions on travel from the mainland to Hong Kong has made their work easier. They often pretend to be hikers, sometimes camping out for weeks while gathering the timber. A local NGO has produced a map showing about 200 sites from which it says around 500 trees were stolen in the past year.

Very few incense trees form agarwood, so they are often destroyed indiscriminately. On Lamma, a plaque marks a spot where three young trees were uprooted. A short scramble up a steep slope reveals a gorier scene: splintered woodchips are all that remain of an aged tree. Mr Yeung, the beekeeper, says “hunters” felled and butchered it in situ. As supplies diminish, the gangs are becoming more desperate. Thieves are raiding private gardens; some residents have begun organising patrols to frighten the thieves away. Alarms and monitoring cameras are being installed.

Excerpts from Trees in Hong Kong: Fragrant Arbour, Economist, Feb. 22, 2016, at 37

Fishermen + Farmers Against Shell

Tens of thousands of Nigerian fishermen and farmers are suing multinational oil giant Shell in two new lawsuits filed on March 2, 2016 in a British High Court, alleging that decades of uncleaned oil spills have destroyed their lives.  London law firm Leigh Day & Co. is representing them after winning an unprecedented $83.5 million in damages from Shell in a landmark ruling by the same court last year. Shell originally offered villagers $50,000.

In a statement on March 2, 2016 before the trial opened, Shell blamed sabotage and oil theft for the ongoing pollution and noted it had halted oil production in 1993 in Ogoniland, the area where the two communities are located in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern Niger Delta.  Shell said it will challenge the jurisdiction of the British court.

The Ogoni are among the most traumatized of millions of Nigerians suffering oil pollution since the late 1950s….

Excerpts from  MICHELLE FAUL, Nigerians sue Shell in UK court for oil spills contamination, Associated Press, Mar. 2, 2016

Hot Nuclear Waste Deep in the Earth

The federal government plans to spend $80 million ( assessing whether its hottest nuclear waste can be stored in 3-mile-deep holes, a project that could provide an alternative strategy to a Nevada repository plan that was halted in 2010.  The five-year borehole project was tentatively slated to start later this year on state-owned land in rural North Dakota, but it has already been met with opposition from state and local leaders who want more time to review whether the plan poses any public danger…The Department of Energy wants to conduct its work just south of the Canadian border on 20 acres near Rugby, North Dakota — in part because it’s in a rural area not prone to earthquakes — but is prepared to look elsewhere if a deal can’t be reached. Some sites in West Texas and New Mexico have expressed interest in becoming interim sites for above-ground nuclear waste storage, but it’s not clear if they would be considered for borehole technology.

Project leaders say the research will require months of drilling deep into the earth but will not involve any nuclear waste. Instead, dummy canisters without radioactive material would be used in the project’s third and final phase.  The research team will look at deep rock to check its water permeability, stability, geothermal characteristics and seismic activity — a central concern with burying the hot radioactive waste deep underground….

If the technology proves successful and the government moves forward with deep borehole disposal, there must be no fracking-related injection wells in the vicinity…which some research has linked to seismic activity.

Currently, high-level radioactive waste — both from government sources and utilities’ nuclear power plants — is without a final burial site. The waste at power plants is stored on site in pools of water or in heavily fortified casks, while the government’s waste remains at its research labs.

But the 16,000-foot-deep boreholes could be used for high-level radioactive waste from the department’s decades of nuclear work originally slated to go to Yucca, including nearly 2,000 canisters of cesium and strontium now being stored in water at the department’s Hanford Site in Washington state.

Excerpts from , Feds seek borehole test for potential hot nuke waste burial, Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2016

Foreign Nuclear Waste: the benefits

The storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel from other countries is likely to deliver substantial economic benefits for South Australia, a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle has found.  On Monday, the South Australian royal commission released its tentative findings, which backed nuclear fuel storage and left the door open to further uranium mining and processing but came down against the use of nuclear power for electricity generation.

The findings said a nuclear storage and disposal facility would be commercially viable and South Australia could store nuclear waste as early as the late 2020s. It suggested the state set up a sovereign wealth fund “to accumulate and equitably share the profits from the storage and disposal of waste”.  The royal commission noted the main hazard from developing an industry storing other countries’ used fuel rods was emission of radiation into the natural environment, including that particles emitting radiation could be inhaled or ingested by humans and other organisms.  But it said Finland and Sweden had both developed safe facilities for long-term disposal of nuclear waste. Risks could be mitigated by storing waste in solid form in geologically stable areas, and several layers of packaging and containers to prevent waste contaminating groundwater.  South Australia was suitable because of its low levels of seismic activity, arid environment in many parts of the state, stable political structure and frameworks for securing long-term agreement with landowners and the community.

The draft findings were that nuclear waste storage and disposal could generate $5bn a year for the first 30 years of operation and about $2bn a year until waste receipts conclude. This would result in $51bn profit over the life of the project, it said.  The report predicted nuclear storage would create approximately 1,500 full-time jobs during a construction period of about 25 years, peaking at 4,500, and leaving more than 600 jobs once operations begin.

The report also said expansion of uranium mining could be economically beneficial but “it is not the most significant opportunity”.  The royal commission said uranium processing could not be developed in the next decade as a standalone industry as the market was already oversupplied and uncertain, but uranium leasing, which links uranium processing with its eventual return for disposal, is more likely to be commercially attractive….

Federal minister for resources and energy Josh Frydenberg …the federal government’s proposed national nuclear waste facility would only store low and intermediate level waste. “It cannot and will not be built to store radioactive waste generated overseas or high level waste,” he said.

Excerpts Paul Karp,  Inquiry backs plan to store world’s nuclear waste in outback Australia, Guardian, Feb. 14, 2016

Underwater Robots against Pollution

Subcultron is a swarm of at least 120 self-directing, underwater robots being developed by scientists in six countries to monitor Venice’s polluted waterways and transmit environmental data to government officials.The robots, shaped like fish, mussels, and lily pads to mimic the species’ hydrodynamics, carry sensors to monitor water conditions like temperature and chemical composition…The swarm communicates via the Internet-capable lily pads…
The robots use lithium ion batteries and solar cells for power. (Yes, enough sunlight gets through.)Some of the robots carry cameras. Others have electrodes that allow them to “see” by measuring objects crossing the electric fields they generate.Using wireless signals, human monitors can take over from the swarm’s AI software if something goes wrong. The European Commission has granted the project €4 million ($4.4 million).
Thomas Schmickl, the inventor, …..plans to build robot swarms that can monitor the oceans or even faraway moons that have water.

Excerpts from Innovation Subcultron, Bloomberg Business Week, Jan. 28, 2016

Eco-Peace for the Middle East?

EcoPeace, a joint Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian NGO thinks it just might. In December it presented an ambitious, if far from fully developed, $30 billion plan to build a number of desalination plants on the Mediterranean shore of Israel and the Gaza Strip. At the same time, large areas in Jordan’s eastern desert would host a 200 square km (75 square mile) solar-energy plant, which would provide power for desalination (and for Jordan) in exchange for water from the coast. “A new peaceful economy can be built in our region around water and energy” says Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s Israeli director. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are already entitled to 120 million cubic meters of water a year from the Jordan river and West Bank aquifers but this is not enough to meet demand, particularly in Jordan, which regularly suffers from shortages….

The main drawback to making fresh water from the sea is that it takes lots of energy. Around 25% of Jordan’s electricity and 10% of Israel’s goes on treating and transporting water. Using power from the sun could fill a sizeable gap, and make Palestinians less dependent on Israeli power. Renewables supply just 2% of Israel’s electricity needs, but the government is committed to increasing that share to 17% by 2030. Jordan, which has long relied on oil supplies from Arab benefactors, is striving for 10% by 2020.,,, Over the past 40 years there has been a series of plans to build a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal that would have irrigated the Jordan Valley and generated power, none of which have been built.

Beyond many logistical and financial obstacles, the plan’s boosters also have to navigate a political minefield.

Excerpts from Utilities in the Middle East: Sun and Sea, Economist, Jan. 16, 2016, at 54

Dams on Nile: winners and losers

Egyptian politicians discussed sabotaging the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2013, they naturally assumed it was a private meeting. But amid all the scheming, and with a big chuckle, Muhammad Morsi, then president, informed his colleagues that their discussion was being broadcast live on a state-owned television channel.

Embarrassment apart, it was already no secret that Egypt wanted to stop the largest hydroelectric project in Africa. When Ethiopia completes construction of the dam in 2017, it will stand 170 metres tall (550 feet) and 1.8km (1.1 miles) wide. Its reservoir will be able to hold more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile, the tributary on which it sits. And it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than double Ethiopia’s current measly output, which leaves three out of four people in the dark…

This boon for Ethiopia is the bane of Egypt, which for millennia has seen the Nile as a lifeline snaking across its vast desert. The river still provides nearly all of Egypt’s water. Egypt claims two-thirds of that flow based on a treaty it signed with Sudan in 1959. But even that is no longer enough to satisfy the growing population and sustain thirsty crops. Annual water supply per person has fallen by well over half since 1970. The UN warns of a looming crisis. Officials in Egypt, while loth to fix leaky pipes, moan that the dam will leave them high and dry.,,

Only recently has the Egyptian government adopted a more conciliatory tone. In March of last year Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Mr Morsi in a coup, joined Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister, and Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, to sign a declaration that tacitly blesses construction of the dam so long as there is no “significant harm” to downstream countries. The agreement was affirmed in December. 2015, when the three countries settled on two French firms to study the dam’s potential impact. The impact studies were meant to be completed last year, but bickering over the division of labour, and the withdrawal of one firm, caused delays. Many Egyptians believe that Ethiopia is stalling so that the dam becomes a fait accompli. Already half-finished, experts worry that it may be too late to correct any problems. Representatives of the three countries are now meeting to discuss “technical” issues. The contracts for studying the dam are not yet signed.

A sense of mistrust hangs over the dam’s ultimate use. Ethiopia insists that it will produce only power and that the water pushing its turbines (less some evaporation during storage) will ultimately come out the other side. But Egypt fears it will also be used for irrigation, cutting downstream supply.  …A more reasonable concern is over the dam’s large reservoir. If filled too quickly, it would for a time significantly reduce Egypt’s water supply and affect the electricity-generating capacity of its own Aswan Dam. But the Ethiopian government faces pressure to see a quick return on its investment. The project, which is mostly self-funded, costs $4.8 billion….

A potential wild card in the negotiations is Sudan, which long sided with Egypt in opposition to the dam, some 20km from its border. But as the potential benefits to Sudan have become clear, it has backed Ethiopia…Short on energy itself, Sudan will receive some of the power produced by the dam. By stabilising the Nile’s flow, it will also allow Sudan to prevent flooding, consume more water and increase agricultural output (once old farming methods are updated). Currently much of the country’s allocation of water under the 1959 treaty is actually consumed by Egyptians…

The Renaissance Dam is merely the latest test of countries’ willingness to share water. There may soon be more difficulties. Ethiopia plans to build other dams on the river, which could further affect downstream supply. Sudan has promised foreign investors an abundance of water for irrigation…

Sharing the Nile, Economist, January 16, 2016, at 49

Anadarko Fined for Gulf of Mexico Spill

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. was ordered to pay almost $160 million for its role as part-owner of the doomed Gulf of Mexico well that in 2010 caused the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.  The fine was the last big uncertainty hanging over Anadarko from the disaster. The order on November 30, 2015  comes after the government told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans that the company should be fined more than $1 billion for its role in the well’s blowout, which killed 11 people and spewed oil for almost three months. Anadarko, which had a 25 percent stake in the Macondo well, argued it shouldn’t be required to pay fines simply because it owned part of the well, as the accident wasn’t its fault. In 2014, The Woodlands, Texas-based company set aside $90 million for the case when it offered to settle for that amount.

Barbier said the fine reflected his finding that Anadarko didn’t have a role in causing the spill. Under the law, he could have imposed as much as $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled, or about $3.5 billion.  The fine is “only 4.5 percent of the maximum penalty, and therefore on the low end of the spectrum,” Barbier said in his order. “The court finds this amount strikes the appropriate balance between Anadarko’s lack of culpability and the extreme seriousness of this spill.”

Barbier rejected Anadarko’s argument that a heavy penalty could cause minority partners to seek a larger role in offshore operations, which might complicate safety and drilling decisions. “A penalty of this size might encourage non-operators to avoid investing with careless operators,” he said.  The company said it’s pleased the penalty is less than what the government sought and that it’s reviewing whether to file an appeal. “While we respect the court’s decision, we continue to believe that penalizing a non-operator for events beyond its control is inconsistent with the intent of the Clean Water Act,” Anadarko said in a statement posted on its website.

David Berg, a Houston attorney who has tracked the oil spill litigation and often sues polluters on behalf of municipalities, said given the damage from the spill, the fine is “not a slap on the wrist; it’s a tongue kiss from the judge.”  David Uhlmann, former head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes unit, said the fine is “too small to be an effective deterrent.” It “will not have a significant effect on a company worth approximately $30 billion,” said Uhlmann, now a University of Michigan law professor.

The professor said Anadarko wasn’t a silent partner in its dealings with BP Plc, which owned 65 percent of the well.  “Anadarko urged BP to continue drilling deeper, even when BP wanted to stop,” he said. “Yet the judge refused to consider evidence of Anadarko’s risky behavior, which may explain the small size of Anadarko’s fine.”

Excerpt from Anadarko Ordered to Pay $159.5 Million for 2010 Gulf Spill, Bloomberg Business, Nov. 30, 2015