Monthly Archives: December 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

The Silent Environmentalists

Serendipity Berry. Image from wikipedia

Elephant ears are leafy vegetables. African locusts are tree-borne legumes. All are standard fare in various parts of Africa. What they also have in common is that they are, from the point of view of plant breeders, orphans. They are neglected by breeders because they are not cash crops. Conversely, they are not cash crops because they are neglected by breeders.

That neglect matters. The cereals which dominate human diets—rice, wheat and maize—have had their yields and nutritional values boosted over the years by scientific breeding programmes. In the modern era of genomics, they have had their DNA scrutinised down to the level of individual base pairs, the molecular letters in which genetic information is written. They are as far removed, nutritionally, from their ancestors of as little as two centuries ago as those ancestors were from the wild plants which begat them. Orphan crops have yet to undergo such a genetic revolution.

Even for adults, a lack of calories and essential nutrients is harmful. For children it can be devastating. Poor childhood nutrition leads to stunting—inadequate bodily development, including the development of the brain. A report published by the World Health Organisation on November 16th, 2017 suggests that almost a third of Africa’s children, nearly 60m of them, are stunted. And stunted children grow into adults unable to achieve their potential. Researchers at the World Bank reckon the effects of stunting have reduced Africa’s GDP by 9-10% from what it would otherwise be.

One way to reduce stunting would be to improve the crops that Africans, particularly those in the countryside, actually eat—in other words, orphan crops. Such improvement is the purpose of two recent, interrelated projects that are now getting into their strides. Both are based in Nairobi and are conducted under the auspices of the World Agroforestry Centre, an international non-governmental research organisation. One is the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC). The other is the African Plant Breeding Academy. The AOCC’s task is to obtain complete sequences of the DNA of 101 neglected food crops

Breeding and disseminating new crops is a long-winded business, but a DNA-based approach has already shown promise. One scientist who is embracing it is Robert Mwanga of the International Potato Centre. Dr Mwanga was an early proponent of the scientific improvement of African crops. His own work, for which he was awarded the World Food prize in 2016, is on sweet potatoes. The varieties of these root-tubers that were popular in Uganda, his native land, and other parts of Africa in the mid-1980s, when he began his studies, are deficient in vitamin A. A lack of this vitamin damages children’s eyesight and opens them to infection by such things as measles. This is a disease that can kill, and, if it does not, it can cause brain damage.  Starting with Asian varieties that had more vitamin A in them, Dr Mwanga bred a dozen strains that are vitamin-A rich and have more dry matter (and thus more calorific value) than African landraces. He then led a campaign to encourage local farmers to adopt his novelties—which they did…

Julia Sibiya of the University of KwaZulu Natal, in Durban, meanwhile, is working on sorghum, another under-studied African crop. She is also working with Dr Achigan-Dako to set up MoBreed, a pan-African collaboration with the self-appointed task of improving ten orphan crops, including Kersting’s groundnut, the African custard apple and fonio, a type of millet.

Happiness Oselebe… is even more ambitious. Dr Oselebe works at Ebonyi State University in Nigeria. Not content with improving existing crops, she wants to create a new one by domesticating serendipity berries. These are wild vines that produce a protein 3,000 times as sweet as table sugar. That, she thinks, could be the starting-point not merely for something grown for local consumption, but of an industrial-scale cash crop.

Excerpts from Nutrition and Genetics in Africa, Economist, Nov 25, 2017

The Subterraneans

subway NYC

From the DARPA website:

Underground settings are becoming increasingly relevant to global security and safety. Rising populations and urbanization are requiring military and civilian first responders to perform their duties below ground in human-made tunnels, underground urban spaces [e.g. mass transit, water infrastructure] and natural cave networks. Recognizing that innovative, enhanced technologies could accelerate development of critical lifesaving capabilities, DARPA today announced its newest challenge: the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.

The DARPA Subterranean or “SubT” Challenge aims to explore new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments. Teams from around the world will be invited to propose novel methods for tackling time-critical scenarios through unknown courses in mapping subsurface networks and unpredictable conditions, which are too hazardous for human first responders.

“One of the main limitations facing warfighters and emergency responders in subterranean environments is a lack of situational awareness; we often don’t know what lies beneath us,” said Timothy Chung, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO). “The DARPA Subterranean Challenge aims to provide previously unimaginable situational awareness capabilities for operations underground.”

“We’ve reached a crucial point where advances in robotics, autonomy, and even biological systems could permit us to explore and exploit underground environments that are too dangerous for humans,” said TTO Director Fred Kennedy.“Instead of avoiding caves and tunnels, we can use surrogates to map and assess their suitability for use. Through the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, we are inviting the scientific and engineering communities—as well as the public—to use their creativity and resourcefulness to come up with new technologies and concepts to make the inaccessible accessible.

Excerpts from DARPA Subterranean Challenge Aims to Revolutionize Underground Capabilities, Dec. 21, 2017

They Still Exist! Ancient Forests in Europe

450-year-old oak in Białowieża National Park, Poland. Image from wikipedia

The future of the the Bialowieza forest that straddles the frontier between Poland and Belarus pits competing visions of environmental stewardship and economic development, and of Poland’s path under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Last month the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to fine Poland for ignoring an earlier order to halt logging in parts of the forest protected under EU law—in effect, nearly all of the 60,000 hectares of it that lie in Poland. In July 2017 UNESCO, the guardian of the planet’s human and natural wonders, urged the government to end logging or risk Bialowieza’s demotion from a world heritage site to one “in danger”, causing anger in Belarus, whose half of the forest would also be affected…[T] Bialowieza’s towering oaks, hornbeams and spruces, plus the European bison and other endangered species that roam beneath their canopies, offer a unique glimpse of the continent’s ecological past…

Today Poland’s forestry service insists that it, too, is being a responsible steward. The felling being condemned by Brussels was necessary, it argues, to prevent dead trunks from collapsing onto cyclists and walkers (the EU court decision exempts cutting on safety grounds, but argues that the Poles have gone much further)…

Many local residents shrug off such worries in any case. Those with ties to the long-declining lumber industry regard rotting wood as a wasted resource. The larger number engaged in tourism fret that rows of lifeless trunks put visitors off rather than lure them. “How many people will come to see dead trees?” huffs Jerzy Sirak, the mayor of Hajnowka, a town on the western edge of the forest…

Quite a few, reckons Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who as prime minister in 1995-99 doubled the national park’s size to its current 10,500 hectares. Bialowieza’s value, he argues, lies in being a laboratory for natural processes, not a museum cabinet stacked with a preordained mix of species, much less a source of wood. Even with the recent uptick in revenues from logging, the forestry service spends a net 20m zlotys ($5.5m) a year on Bialowieza. Given low lumber prices, closing that deficit would require logging on a scale no one is willing to contemplate. Tourists, meanwhile, spend around 72m zlotys (20 million dollars) annually in the area, according to one study.

NGOs’ long-standing demand to place all of Bialowieza under full protection, as Belarus did with most of its part in 2012, faces opposition from local authorities that suspect eco-absolutism will curb growth. “We used to look to Poland as an example; now they look to us,” observes a Belarusian ecologist wryly.

PiS looks unmoved by environmental arguments. It dismisses protests by concerned scientists, NGOs and ordinary citizens—which range from signing open letters to chaining themselves to tree-harvesters—as political attacks by foreign and domestic opponents of its “Poland first” nationalism

Excerpt from Poland: Saving the Trees, Economist,  Oct. 7 2017

Top Dogs: controlling submarine cables

September 21, 2017: the completion of another trans-Atlantic cable…dubbed Marea, Spanish for “tide”, the 6,600km bundle of eight fibre-optic threads, roughly the size of a garden hose, is the highest-capacity connection across the ocean. Stretching from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Bilbao, Spain, it is capable of transferring 160 terabits of data every second, the equivalent of more than 5,000 high-resolution movies. Facebook and Microsoft each own 25% of Marea, and the rest is owned by Telxius, a telecom infrastructure firm that is controlled by Spain’s Telefónica….

Such ultra-fast fibre networks are needed to keep up with the torrent of data flowing around the world. In 2016 traffic reached 3,544 terabits per second, roughly double the figure in 2014, according to TeleGeography, a market-research firm. And demand for international bandwidth is growing by 45% annually. Much traffic still comes from internet users, but a large and growing share is generated by big internet and cloud-computing companies syncing data across their networks of data centres around the world.

These firms used to lease all of their bandwidth from carriers such as BT and Level 3. But now they need so much network capacity that it makes more sense to lay their own dedicated pipes, particularly on long routes between their data centres. The Submarine Telecoms Forum, an industry body, reckons that 100,000km of submarine cable was laid in 2016, up from just 16,000km in 2015. TeleGeography predicts that a total of $9.2bn will be spent on such cable projects between 2016 and 2018, five times as much as in the previous three years.

Owning a private subsea fibre-optic network has several advantages, including more bandwidth, lower costs, and reduced delay, or “latency”. Having access to multiple cables on different routes also provides redundancy. If a cable is severed—by fishing nets, sharks, or an earthquake, among other things—traffic can be rerouted to another line. Most important, however, owning cables gives companies greater say over how their data traffic is managed and how equipment is upgraded. “The motivation is not so much saving money. It’s more about control,” says Julian Rawle, a submarine cable-industry expert…

“Within the next 20 years,” predicts Mr Rawle, “the whole concept of the telecom carrier as the provider of the network is going to disappear.”

Excerpts from Internet Infrastructure: Pipe Dreams, Economist, Oct. 7, 2017

The Other Nuclear Korea

Artist’s concept of Shin-Kori Units 5 and 6.

The building of two South Korean nuclear reactors stopped suddenly in July 2017, after Moon Jae-in, the country’s left-leaning anti-nuclear president, ordered a pause to the project to give a citizen-jury time to consider its merits. …On October 20, 2017, after the jury endorsed the construction of the two reactors, Shin Kori 5 and 6….Mr Moon had pledged to scrap before he was elected in May. In June, however, he said he wanted to “generate a social consensus” by delegating the final decision to a 471-strong jury picked by a polling company. Its members were given a month to study materials prepared by scientists and activists before debating the project for three days. In the final vote, 60% backed the new reactors, although more than half of them said South Korea should reduce its overall reliance on nuclear energy. Only 10% said the nuclear industry should grow…

Anti-nuclear campaigners have voiced louder concerns since the Fukushima disaster in neighbouring Japan in 2011 and a 5.8 magnitude earthquake last year in the southern city of Gyeongju, close to some of South Korea’s 24 reactors. A corruption scandal in the industry and the revelation in 2012 that some safety certificates for reactor parts were forged amplified their doubts.

But the jury was probably swayed by economic arguments. Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, the state-run company in charge of the Shin Kori project, claimed it had already spent 1.6trn won ($1.4bn) on the reactors, which were 30% complete. South Korea is the world’s second biggest importer of liquefied natural gas and its fourth largest importer of coal. Hydroelectric and renewable energy provides only 6% of its electricity. So nuclear, which accounts for 27% of its electricity supply, helps to guard against volatile import prices, says Kerry-Anne Shanks of Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy. “Nuclear plants are expensive to build but they’re cheap to run,” she says. The industry also argued that axing the reactors would threaten deals to export nuclear technology…[Owning of nuclear technology makes South Korea a Threshold Nuclear Weapons State.]

Excerpts from Energy in South Korea: People Power, Economist, Oct.28, 2017

Exploiting Chaos: water management in the Middle East

Ilisu Dam. Image from wikipedia

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