Category Archives: agriculture

How Rivers Die

Kapuas river: Indonesia

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).

A Gasfield and the Cows Next to it

Protests against fracking Western Australia

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

Niassa Reserve in Mozambique. Image from wikipedia

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

The Unquenchable Thirst

South-to-North Water Transfer Project. image from wikipedia

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 Diversiion, Economist, Apr. 7, 2018

Choked by Hyacinths: Lake Victoria

Hyacinth-choked lakeshore at Ndere Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya. Image from wikpeida

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

Target Practice on Orangutans

Captive Orangutan image from wikipedia

Estimating the number of orangutans is difficult. Researchers have to extrapolate from the number of nests observed. (The apes build new ones to sleep in each night.) A new study published in Current Biology finds that the number of orangutans on Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, declined by some 148,000 between 1999 and 2015, leaving fewer than 100,000. Within the next 30 years, another 45,000 could disappear. The decline has been steepest, naturally, in areas where the jungle has been razed to plant palm-oil trees. But it is areas that are still forested that account for most of the fall in the orangutan population. This suggests that hunting and crueller activities—carcasses have been found maimed and riddled with airgun pellets—are also taking a bloody toll, says one of the study’s authors, Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute, a research organisation in Germany…

Local officials still push for more palm-oil plantations, mines and roads. But tourism in Sumatra’s Gunung-Leuser National Park shows the value of leaving the jungle, and its inhabitants, alone. A night and two days of climbing and crawling in search of orangutans can cost a visitor around $100…Eco-tourism can benefit orangutans, too, if controlled. But tourists often get too close to the animals, risking the transmission of disease, or leave rubbish in the forest…

Excerpts from Orangutans: Money Swinging from Trees, Economost, Feb. 24, at 2018, at 30

The Balding Forests of Australia

Most deforestation takes place in poor countries. In richer places, trees tend to multiply. Australia is an unhappy exception. Land clearance is rampant along its eastern coast, as farmers take advantage of lax laws to make room for cattle to feed Asia. WWF, a charity, now ranks Australia alongside Borneo and the Congo Basin as one of the world’s 11 worst “fronts” for deforestation.

The worst damage occurs in the north-eastern state of Queensland, which has more trees left to fell than places to the south, where agriculture is more established… Its bulldozers are at present busier than they have been for a decade. They erased 395,000 hectares of forest, including huge tracts of ancient vegetation, between 2015 and 2016—the equivalent of 1,000 rugby pitches a day. As a share of its forested area, Queensland is mowing down trees twice as fast as Brazil.

Australia has lost almost half its native forest since British colonialists arrived, and much of what remains is degraded. For a time, it seemed that the clear-cutting might come to an end: in the early 2000s several state governments passed bills to reduce deforestation. But in the past decade these have been wound back in every state. Queensland’s land clearance has more than doubled since conservatives loosened its forestry law in 2013, allowing farmers to “thin” trees by up to 75% without a permit. Neighbouring New South Wales recently enacted a similar rule.

Conservationists blame powerful agricultural lobbies. These retort that controls on land clearance push up food prices and cost jobs. Family farmers lament that trees obstruct the big machinery needed to keep their land productive. … In 2014 a landowner in New South Wales murdered an environment officer who was investigating illegal bulldozing. (Authorities in the state are examining at least 300 cases of illegal tree-clearing.)

Yet clearing land eventually hurts farmers too because, without trees, soil erodes and grows saltier. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, spurring global warming, and reduces regional rainfall…. Loss of habitat has brought many species, including the koala, to the brink of extinction.

Chainsaw massacre: Deforestation in Australia, Economist, Feb. 24, 2018

Deforestation Tolerance: Amazon

Guianan savanna. Image from wikipedia

Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture 5 to 6 times as airmasses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west.  From the start, the demonstration of the hydrological cycle of the Amazon raised the question of how much deforestation would be required to cause this hydrolological cycle to degrade to the point of being unable to support rain forest ecosystems.

High levels of evaporation and transpiration that forests produce throughout the year contribute to a wetter atmospheric boundary layer than would be the case with non-forest.This surface-atmosphere coupling is more important where large-scale factors for rainfall formation are weaker, such as in central and eastern Amazonia. Near the Andes, the impact of at least modest deforestation is less dramatic because the general ascending motion of airmasses in this area induces high levels of rainfall in addition to that expected from local evaporation and transpiration.

Where might the tipping point be for deforestation-generated degradation of the hydrological cycle? The very first model to examine this question  showed that at about 40% deforestation, central, southern and eastern Amazonia would experience diminished rainfall and a lengthier dry season, predicting a shift to savanna vegetation to the east.

Moisture from the Amazon is important to rainfall and human wellbeing because it contributes to winter rainfall for parts of the La Plata basin, especially southern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay and central-eastern Argentina; in other regions, the moisture passes over the area, but does not precipitate out. Although the amount contributing to rainfall in southeastern Brazil is smaller than in other areas, even small amounts can be a welcome addition to urban reservoirs…

In recent decades, new forcing factors have impinged on the hydrological cycle: climate change and widespread use of fire to eliminate felled trees and clear weedy vegetation. Many studies show that in the absence of other contributing factors, 4° Celsius of global warming would be the tipping point to degraded savannas in most of the central, southern, and eastern Amazon. Widespread use of fire leads to drying of surrounding forest and greater vulnerability to fire in the subsequent year.

We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.

We believe that the sensible course is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but also to build back a margin of safety against the Amazon tipping point, by reducing the deforested area to less than 20%, for the commonsense reason that there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it. At the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties, Brazil committed to 12 million ha of reforestation by 2030. Much or most of this reforestation should be in southern and eastern Amazonia.

Excerpts from Amazon Tipping Point  by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Sciences Advances,  Feb. 21, 2018

An Earth Bank of Codes: who owns what in the biological world

image from wikipedia

A project with the scale and sweep of the original Human Genome Project…should be to gather DNA sequences from specimens of all complex life on Earth. They decided to call it the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP).

At around the same time as this meeting, a Peruvian entrepreneur living in São Paulo, Brazil, was formulating an audacious plan of his own. Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio wanted to shift the economy of the Amazon basin away from industries such as mining, logging and ranching, and towards one based on exploiting the region’s living organisms and the biological information they embody. At least twice in the past—with the businesses of rubber-tree plantations, and of blood-pressure drugs called ACE inhibitors, which are derived from snake venom—Amazonian organisms have helped create industries worth billions of dollars. ….

For the shift he had in mind to happen, though, he reasoned that both those who live in the Amazon basin and those who govern it would have to share in the profits of this putative new economy. And one part of ensuring this happened would be to devise a way to stop a repetition of what occurred with rubber and ACE inhibitors—namely, their appropriation by foreign firms, without royalties or tax revenues accruing to the locals.

Such thinking is not unique to Mr Castilla. An international agreement called the Nagoya protocol already gives legal rights to the country of origin of exploited biological material. What is unique, or at least unusual, about Mr Castilla’s approach, though, is that he also understands how regulations intended to enforce such rights can get in the way of the research needed to turn knowledge into profit. To that end he has been putting his mind to the question of how to create an open library of the Amazon’s biological data (particularly DNA sequences) in a way that can also track who does what with those data, and automatically distribute part of any commercial value that results from such activities to the country of origin. He calls his idea the Amazon Bank of Codes.

Now, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, a Swiss ski resort, these two ideas have come together. On January 23, 2018 it was announced that the EBP will help collect the data to be stored in the code bank. The EBP’s stated goal is to sequence, within a decade, the genomes of all 1.5m known species of eukaryotes. ..That is an ambitious timetable. The first part would require deciphering more than eight genomes a day; the second almost 140; the third, about 1,000. For comparison, the number of eukaryotic genomes sequenced so far is about 2,500…

Big sequencing centres like BGI in China, the Rockefeller University’s Genomic Resource Centre in America, and the Sanger Institute in Britain, as well as a host of smaller operations, are all eager for their share of this pot. For the later, cruder, stages of the project Complete Genomics, a Californian startup bought by BGI, thinks it can bring the cost of a rough-and-ready sequence down to $100. A hand-held sequencer made by Oxford Nanopore, a British company, may be able to match that and also make the technology portable…..It is an effort in danger of running into the Nagoya protocol. Permission will have to be sought from every government whose territory is sampled. That will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Indeed, John Kress of the Smithsonian, another of the EBP’s founders, says many previous sequencing ventures have foundered on the rock of such permission. And that is why those running the EBP are so keen to recruit Mr Castilla and his code bank.

The idea of the code bank is to build a database of biological information using a blockchain. Though blockchains are best known as the technology that underpins bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, they have other uses. In particular, they can be employed to create “smart contracts” that monitor and execute themselves. To obtain access to Mr Castilla’s code bank would mean entering into such a contract, which would track how the knowledge thus tapped was subsequently used. If such use was commercial, a payment would be transferred automatically to the designated owners of the downloaded data. Mr Castilla hopes for a proof-of-principle demonstration of his platform to be ready within a few months.

In theory, smart contracts of this sort would give governments wary of biopiracy peace of mind, while also encouraging people to experiment with the data. And genomic data are, in Mr Castilla’s vision, just the start. He sees the Amazon Bank of Codes eventually encompassing all manner of biological compounds—snake venoms of the sort used to create ACE inhibitors, for example—or even behavioural characteristics like the congestion-free movement of army-ant colonies, which has inspired algorithms for co-ordinating fleets of self-driving cars. His eventual goal is to venture beyond the Amazon itself, and combine his planned repository with similar ones in other parts of the world, creating an Earth Bank of Codes.

[I]f the EBP succeeds, be able to use the evolutionary connections between genomes to devise a definitive version of the tree of eukaryotic life. That would offer biologists what the periodic table offers chemists, namely a clear framework within which to operate. Mr Castilla, for his part, would have rewritten the rules of international trade by bringing the raw material of biotechnology into an orderly pattern of ownership. If, as many suspect, biology proves to be to future industries what physics and chemistry have been to industries past, that would be a feat of lasting value.

Excerpts from Genomics, Sequencing the World, Economist, Jan. 27, 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