Monthly Archives: November 2011

Nanotechnology and the Environment

Scientists working on the EC-funded research project Monacat,  are looking at how nanomaterials can remove water pollutants such as nitrates. “Nitrate reduction has been studied for decades; it’s very hard to do and it isn’t commercially viable,” says Alexei Lapkin, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Warwick, who works on Monocat.  Nitrates taken into the body through water can block oxygen transport. In severe cases this can starve tissues and organs of oxygen and lead to conditions including heart defects in babies. Nitrate levels are therefore strictly regulated, with an estimated €70bn–€320bn (£60bn –£274bn) spent every year across the EU removing nitrogen waste from water. The Monocat project has developed reactors coated with carbon nanotubes and nanofibres that could potentially remove nitrate pollutants at much lower costs. Lapkin says the most successful reactors will soon be chosen for patenting and further development.

Another European project, NanoGLOWA, is using nanotechnology to tackle global warming. The project aims to develop nanomembranes that can remove carbon dioxide from power plant emissions more efficiently than current methods. These membranes use nanomaterials to physically separate or chemically react with the carbon dioxide in flue gas streams.

As well as cleaning up fossil fuel use, nanotechnology is improving the viability of clean energy. Today, the most widespread photovoltaic solar cells are made of polycrystalline silicon and are relatively expensive, but nanotechnology is working to drive the costs of solar power down.  “It’s quicker and easier to grow a small crystal than a large one, and nanocrystals can be made in large quantities by simple chemical routes,” explains Jason Smith, leader of the Photonic Nanomaterials Group, University of Oxford. Photovoltaic cells made by “printing” nanoparticle inks are already commercially available.  “So far they have reached 17% efficiency,” says Smith. Normal polycrystalline silicon cells are about 20% efficient. “This is a pretty impressive achievement and demonstrates that nanomaterials can be almost as efficient as the standard polycrystalline silicon cells, while produced at a fraction of the cost.” An important next stage of the research will be to continue to improve the efficiency of these cheap nanoparticle cells…

“We will need at some point to replace internal combustion and diesel engines,” says Duncan Gregory, professor of inorganic materials at the University of Glasgow. “Hydrogen is an ideal fuel since one can extract a large amount of energy from it, and the process is green.”  However, storing hydrogen as a gas is both inconvenient and dangerous. “Solid-state storage, by which hydrogen is stored within a host solid, could overcome these problems, in principle making it possible to store a much higher amount of hydrogen in a relatively unreactive form,” Gregory says. He and his team have patented a nanomaterial called lithium nitride, similar in structure to carbon nanotubes and nanofibres, which may provide a way to store hydrogen safely inside a solid.

 

“It might be this material or similar that provides the breakthrough, or a completely different way of thinking,” says Gregory. “How soon this technology becomes ready depends on what the political will for change is. In these challenging economic times, real-terms government spending on research has fallen. Thankfully, energy remains a high UK research priority that will be essential, given all our environmental, economic and political concerns.”

New forms of glass that control the heat, light and glare passing through a surface are emerging. But these are based on nanotechnology procedures that, in some cases, have been around for decades.

Excerpt, Penny Sarchet, Essential matter, Guardian, Nov. 25, 2011

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Drugs War and Human Rights: the International Criminal Court

A petition signed by more than 18,000 people also asks the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Mexico’s most-wanted drugs lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.  The Mexican government has denied the accusations of crimes against humanity.  It says its security policy cannot constitute an international crime.  Human rights lawyer Netzai Sandoval filed a complaint with the ICC in the Hague, asking it to investigate the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of the security forces and drugs gangs, as well as alleged torture and rape.

“The violence in Mexico is bigger than the violence in Afghanistan, and bigger than the violence in Colombia,” Mr Sandoval told Reuters news agency.  “We want the prosecutor to tell us if war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Mexico, and if the president and other top officials are responsible”.  The office of the prosecutor said it had received the request and would study it and make a decision in due course.

The Mexican government responded to the complaint when the petition was launched in October.  “The federal government categorically rejects that security policy could be considered an international crime,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “In our country society is not victim of an authoritarian government or of systematic abuses by the armed forces,” it added. “Mexico has a rule of law under which crime and impunity are fought without exceptions”. The government also stressed its commitment to human rights and responsibility to protect its citizens from criminal violence.

Mexico is a signatory to the 2002 Statute of Rome that established the ICC as the world’s first permanent international war crimes court.  The ICC investigates and tries cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity in countries that are unwilling or unable to prosecute them on their own.  Most of its cases are initiated after referral by the country involved or the UN Security Council, but the prosecutor’s office can also start investigations on its own initiative on the basis of information received from individuals or organisations.  So far, all its cases have been in Africa, but the prosecutor’s office has begun preliminary examinations in other countries including Afghanistan, Colombia, Honduras and Korea.  Correspondents say any decision to begin an investigation into alleged crimes in Mexico could take months or even years to reach.

More than 40,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since December 2006, when President Calderon began using the military to combat the drug cartels. Many of the dead are thought to be members of the gangs, killed by the security forces or in clashes with rival groups, but there have also been a growing number of civilian casualties.  Last month a report by Human Rights Watch found evidence that the Mexican police and military were involved in 24 killings and 39 disappearances in five states, as well as systematic torture.  It said few of the cases it documented were properly investigated, in part because Mexican soldiers are subject only to military courts.

Mexico activists seek ICC investigation of drugs war, BBC News, Nov. 25, 2011

Protected Conservation Areas, from words to deeds?

In Namibia, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism has earmarked an additional 15 550 square kilometres of land for conservation. The land will be brought under protected landscapes management arrangements under a new project which is designed to conserve biodiversity.  The recently launched Namibia Protected Landscape Conservations Areas Initiative  (NAM-PLACE) is a five-year project,which aims to establish protected landscape conservation areas. It also aims to ensure that land uses in areas adjacent to existing protected areas is compatible with biodiversity conservation objectives and that corridors are established to sustain the viability of wildlife populations.  The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to the tune of US$4.5 million.  NAM-PLACE will be implemented jointly by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“The NAMPLACE project is designed to lift conservation barriers and advocates for the establishment of a large scale network of protected landscapes in order to address eminent threats to habitat and species loss at a landscape level, thereby ensuring greater responsiveness to variability and seasonality aspects that are inevitable due to climate change,” says Environment Minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah.  However, setting land aside for conservation without implementing appropriate measures to manage it effectively will not safeguard biodiversity, says Nandi-Ndaitwah.  The ministry therefore continuously explores ways to improve management effectiveness through new initiatives, she said.

Namibia has gained worldwide recognition for its conservation initiatives. The country currently has 20 state-run protected areas which account for 17% of the total land area, while communal conservancies cover over 17% of the land. Private land used for conservation represents slightly over 6% of the country’s land surface.  “A growing demand to create more conservancies across the country is an indication of the Community-Based Natural Resource Management programme’s success. The success on both communal and freehold land can be attributed to incentives derived from the use of natural resources for economic, social and environmental benefits,” Nandi-Ndaitwah says.

The minister adds that despite these achievements, some vegetation types that are not represented in the national parks and the demand for other land uses are on the increase, making opportunities to proclaim more land as protected areas few.  “Furthermore, predictions indicate that some parks are likely to get drier and others wetter due to the effects of climate change. More space would therefore be needed for some species particularly the species that require vast areas to survive. Some species are likely to seek new home ranges due to climate change. In order for the country to prepare itself to these changes, new proactive initiatives to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change are needed,” says Nandi-Ndaitwah.

The NAM-PLACE project is one such initiative. The project has five demonstration sites including the Mudumu Landscape, the Waterberg Plateau, the Windhoek Green Belt landscapes, the Sossusvlei-Namib; and the Fish River Canyon landscapes in the south of the country.

Clemencia Jacobs, Namibia: More Land for Conservation, AllAfrica.com, Nov. 25, 2011

Ready for Rio 2012? Amazon Rainforest, Deforestation and Satellite Tracking

Eight South American countries pledged  to boost cooperation to protect one of the planet’s largest natural reserves from deforestation and illegal trafficking in timber and minerals.  Representatives of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela gathered in Manaus, northern Brazil, also vowed to speak with one voice at next June’s UN conference on sustainable development in Rio.

The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, is one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water.  Tuesday’s (Nov. 22, 2011) meeting involving signatories of the 1978 Amazon Cooperation Treaty (OTCA), focused on the Amazon Fund, a joint initiative launched in 2008 to combat deforestation and support conservation and sustainable development.  “The Brazilian government is committed to revitalizing the Amazon Cooperation Treaty (OTCA),” said Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota as he opened the one-day meeting. “A stronger OTCA is in the interest of member states.”  Also present were his counterparts Ricardo Patino of Ecuador, Suriname’s Winston Lackin, Venezuela’s Ricardo Maduro as well as representatives of other OTCA parties.  They reviewed agreements signed to protect the Amazon and discussed navigation rules on the Amazon river and a joint stance at next year’s Rio conference.

Earlier a Brazilian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Brazil, which has the largest tract of Amazon rainforest, was keen on “expediting the process to implement the Amazon Fund.”  The initiative has received donations of nearly $58 million (42 million euros) over the past two years, well short of the initial target of one billion dollars.  It notably seeks to improve satellite tracking of forest deforestation and environmental plans in border areas.  “Sharing forest data among Amazon countries will facilitate the adoption of coordinated policies to combat deforestation and will ensure that we are better prepared for international discussions on sustainable development,” Patriota said.

Last year the Amazon lost 7,000 square kilometers (2,702 square miles), down from the historic peak of 2003-2004, when more than 27,700 square kilometers were deforested.  Officials say Amazon logging mainly results from fires, the advance of agriculture and cattle farming as well as illegal trafficking in timber and minerals.

Ecuador is meanwhile pushing an innovative proposal to combat global warming under which it would not exploit its oil reserves in the Amazon in exchange for international compensation of $3.6 billion dollars over 12 years.

Covering an area of seven million square kilometers, the Amazon is home to 40,000 plant species, millions of animal species and some 420 indigenous tribes, including 60 who live in total isolation.  According to OTCA, 38.7 million people live in the region, roughly 11 percent of the eight Amazon countries’ population.

By Hector Velasco, Amazon countries vow to enhance conservation efforts, Agence France Presse,Nov. 23, 2011

Why the CIA Loves Somali Warlords

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US military special operations teams carried out frequent espionage and counter-terrorism missions inside Somalia starting in 2003, according to a recent series of articles in a newspaper focused on the US Army.Secret operatives who flew or swam to Somalia planted cameras and phone-tapping devices and paid local warlords to help hunt for key figures in Al Qaeda’s East African network, the reports in Army Times reveal.

Sean Naylor, a reporter for the privately owned Virginia-based newspaper, attributes the disclosures mostly to anonymous sources currently or formerly affiliated with US military or intelligence services.  For example, he quotes “an intelligence source with long experience in the Horn” indicating that although Al Qaeda’s “centre of gravity” was in Mogadishu, “there was a huge support cell split between Nairobi and Mombasa.”  Some of the clandestine missions inside Somalia yielded important results, Army Times reports.

In late 2003, CIA agents persuaded warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed to sell them about 40 surface-to-air missiles, each capable of shooting down a civilian jet liner, the newspaper recounts.  It was a weapon of this type that was fired at, but missed, an Israeli aircraft taking off from the Moi International Airport in Mombasa in 2002.  The CIA paid about $360,000 for the missiles — a sum described by a US intelligence source as “peanuts.” They were taken initially to the US military base in Djibouti and later flown out, Army Times writes.  American agents were flown into Somalia from Kenya on civilian turboprop planes loaded with miraa, the newspaper says.  “The safest flight you can be on in Somalia is the miraa flight,” a source is quoted as explaining.  The planes are said to have landed at the K50 airport, about 50 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu.  From there, CIA case officers and “shooters” from a US special operations force travelled to Mogadishu in small convoys escorted by militants loyal to one or another warlord, Naylor reports.

Devices for eavesdropping on mobile telephone conversations were seeded in several locations in the Somali capital. “The ability to listen to Al Qaeda in East Africa’s phone calls paid big dividends,” Naylor writes.  The ultimate aim of these undercover missions was to capture or kill the 20 or so most important Al Qaeda figures in Somalia, Army Times says. “But rather than use US forces to do this, the CIA’s plan would have Somali warlords capture the Al Qaeda personnel before turning them over to the US to send — or ‘render’ — them to an American ally or one of the agency’s secret prisons,” according to Naylor’s account. At least two of the targets were subsequently hit.

Saleh Ali Nabhan, described as a key Al Qaeda operative in East Africa, was killed in a 2009 raid by US Navy special forces; Aden Hashi Ayro, a leader of Al Shabaab, was among several militants who died in a US airstrike in 2008.  In southern Somalia, US intelligence agents paid local spies up to $2,000 a month, Army Times reports.  A key point of interest was a rumoured Al Qaeda training camp in Ras Kamboni, a coastal town three kilometres from the Kenya border.  But it was not until 2007 that the US became convinced that “hundreds” of fighters were indeed training in and near Ras Kamboni, the newspaper says.

Somali warlords who did not agree to co-operate with the US in exchange for payoffs were threatened with the possibility of air strikes, Naylor reports. That was supposedly a bluff on the part of the CIA, however.

In the first of his articles, published in Army Times on October 31, Naylor describes an operation involving about a dozen forays into Somalia to plant cameras that had been disguised to look like natural or man-made objects.  These “Cardinal” devices were put in place by special forces who travelled via small submarines to within a mile of the Somalia coast and then swam to shore through what the newspaper describes as some of the world’s most shark-infested waters.  The cameras were placed near suspected militant training sites as well as in Kismayu and other ports where foreign fighters were believed to be arriving.

The missions were opposed by then-US ambassador to Kenya Mark Bellamy as well as by the CIA station chief in the Nairobi embassy, Naylor reports.  On the other side was US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. President George W Bush was eventually persuaded to approve the missions, Naylor reports.  One of the devices was discovered in January 2004 by fishermen from Ras Kamboni, Army Times says, citing a report on a Somalia news website.  “Nothing” came out of these operations, however, says a source cited by Naylor. A “senior intelligence official” offered the same verdict: “If it were a business, it’s not making any money.”

Seven or eight years ago, “the warlords’ fear of being whacked by US air power was groundless. There were no US aircraft overhead,” Naylor writes.  He quotes a US source as saying, “We had very, very few imagery assets available — everything was still dedicated to Iraq.”  It was the lack of pilotless aircraft and a shortage of reliable local spies inside Somalia that led the US to undertake risky espionage missions that, in some cases, produced no useful information.

KEVIN KELLEY, Reports detail past CIA operations in Somalia, East African, Nov. 20, 2011

How to Criminalize a Whole Nation:the United States Supports Biometrics in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has many dubious distinctions on the international-rankings front: 10th-poorest, third-most corrupt, worst place to be a child, longest at war. To that may soon be added: most heavily fingerprinted.  Since September, Afghanistan has been the only country in the world to fingerprint and photograph all travelers who pass through Kabul International Airport, arriving and departing.

A handful of other countries fingerprint arriving foreigners, but no country has ever sought to gather biometric data on everyone who comes and goes, whatever their nationality. Nor do Afghan authorities plan to stop there: their avowed goal is to fingerprint, photograph and scan the irises of every living AfghanIt is a goal heartily endorsed by the American military, which has already gathered biometric data on two million Afghans who have been encountered by soldiers on the battlefield, or who have just applied for a job with the coalition military or its civilian contractors.

The Kabul airport program is also financed by the United States, with money and training provided by the American Embassy. Americans, like all other travelers, are subject to it.  “Some of the embassies are quite exercised about it,” one Western diplomat said. Such a program would be illegal if carried out in the home countries of most of the occupying coalition. The United States and Japan fingerprint all foreigners on arrival; South Korea plans to start doing so in January. (Brazil retaliated against the American program by fingerprinting arriving Americans only.) Officials at the American Embassy declined to comment specifically on the program; a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security denied it had anything to do with it.

Biometric data is also being gathered by the American military at all of Afghanistan’s eight major border crossings, in a program that it plans to hand over to the Afghan government at the end of this month. So far, that program gathers only random samples at border crossings, because traffic is so heavy, but since it began in April it has already added 200,000 people to the military’s biometrics database.  The military wants to use biometrics to identify known or suspected insurgents, and to prevent infiltration of military bases and Afghan security forces. “The technology removes the mask of anonymity,” said Capt. Kevin Aandahl of the Navy, a spokesman for the military’s detainee operations, which include the biometrics program.

Gathering the data does not stop at Afghanistan’s borders, however, since the military shares all of the biometrics it collects with the United States Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security through interconnected databases.  Even the civilian-run airport program collecting fingerprints and photographs feeds its information into computers at the American Embassy, as well as at the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and its intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, according to Mohammad Yaqub Rasuli, the head of the Kabul International Airport.

Mr. Rasuli acknowledges that the airport screening has had a rocky start. “We are happy with the system, but the airlines and the passengers are not that happy,” he said.  Delays of up to two hours have resulted from the screening, which takes at least three minutes per passenger. With six screening stations at most, the process becomes laborious, and so many travelers recently have been missing their flights that the airlines routinely delay takeoffs.  “Someone who is not used to this system, it can take 10 to 15 minutes each,” said Mohammed Fawad, deputy director of immigration at the airport.

Reporters at the airport have on several occasions witnessed immigration officers just waving through some passengers as crowds backed up; others were allowed to skip their thumbprints to speed things along. One man had his hand fingerprinted upside down, with nails facing the scanner.  “It is some sort of cultural deficiency,” Mr. Rasuli said. “After six months, everyone will be happy with it.” The next step will be a national identity card with biometric data on every citizen, he said. “A lot of our problems will be solved with this.”….

The military has done somewhat better with its program, according to Col. Fred Washington, director of the United States Army’s biometrics task force. Since 2007, when biometric collection began in Afghanistan, biometrics have been used to identify 3,000 suspects on either Watch List 1 or Watch List 2, the American military’s two most serious classifications for possible insurgents or terrorists. In many cases, fingerprints found on bomb remains have identified the bomb maker, he said.  “People are accepting it because they know it’s making their country secure,” Colonel Washington said.

Mohammad Musa Mahmoodi, executive director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said, “Given the circumstances in Afghanistan, fighting terrorism and insurgency, government can take measures to protect its citizens.” “To be honest, we’ve got more important problems to worry about,” he said.  Civil liberties groups abroad are more concerned. “The situation in Afghanistan is unprecedented, but I worry that we could move into that situation in the United States without even realizing we’re doing it,” said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

There have been some signs of Afghan sensitivities as well. A military-financed program to gather biometric data in the city of Kandahar in 2010, during the push to control insurgency there, was so unpopular that President Hamid Karzai promised local elders to have it canceled, which it was, according to Zalmai Ayoubi, a spokesman for the governor in Kandahar Province.  And the Afghan government has yet to pass legislation providing for the biometric screening of the entire population that it has announced it plans to carry out for the national identity card.

As a result, the military has not conducted wholesale sweeps of communities to gather biometrics, Colonel Washington said, although in just the past year 12,000 soldiers have been trained to use the B.A.T. — the Biometric Automated Toolset. “We can’t go door to door,” he said.  The Commander’s Guide to Biometrics in Afghanistan, however, encourages documenting as many Afghans as possible.  “Every person who lives within an operational area should be identified and fully biometrically enrolled with facial photos, iris scans, and all 10 fingerprints (if present),” the guide says. (That was apparently a reference to Afghanistan’s many amputees.)  While the B.A.T. equipment is portable, it is not always easy to use, and the results can sometimes be unpredictable.

A reporter from The New York Times, an American of Norwegian rather than Afghan extraction, voluntarily submitted to a test screening with the B.A.T. system. After his fingerprints and iris scans were entered into the B.A.T.’s armored laptop, an unexpected “hit” popped up on the screen, along with the photograph of a heavily bearded Afghan.  The “hit” identified the reporter as “Haji Daro Shar Mohammed,” who is on terrorist Watch List 4, with this note: “Deny Access, Do Not Hire, Subject Poses a Threat.”

By ROD NORDLAND, Afghanistan Has Big Plans for Biometric Data, NY Times,Nov. 19, 2011

 

 

Climate Change, Water Security and the Himalayas

Four Himalayan nations facing the threat of weather changes have agreed to collaborate on ways to adapt to climate change after a two-day summit in Bhutan.  India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan were part of the Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas held in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu on Saturday. They agreed to cooperate on energy, water, food and biodiversity issues.  “The success of our initiative will not only have direct and immediate benefits for our own people, but we could be setting a worthy precedent for other countries that share similar conditions,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lyonchhoen Jigmi Y. Thinley said according to a press statement released late Saturday.

Pakistan, China and Afghanistan were absent from the summit but organizers downplayed that, saying that the summit was focused on securing ecosystems, endangered species,and food and water sources for only the Himalayas’ eastern part.  The summit called for action amid the international community’s inability to agree on limiting greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global climate change. The next round of U.N. climate talks begin in Durban, South Africa Nov. 28, but the expectations of any breakthrough there are limited.

As part of the declaration the four nations agreed to work together to increase access to “affordable and reliable” clean energy resources and technology through a regional knowledge sharing mechanism, a press statement from the World Wildlife Fund said.

The most contentious part of the talks dealt with water security, according to the WWF release, but the four nations did agree to work together on ecosystem and disaster management, sharing their knowledge in water use efficiency.  Regional tensions have long prevented Himalayan cooperation, including basic research in the world’s largest block of glaciers outside the polar regions, and accounting for 40 percent of the world’s fresh water.  There was also consensus on food security and securing livelihoods and the deal covers way to adapt and improve food production and help vulnerable communities get better access to nutritious food.

4 Himalayan nations agree to work together to help each other adapt to climate change, Associated Press, Nov. 20, 2011