Category Archives: public health

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

Lead and Mercury in the Seas

image from wikipedia

The levels of lead and mercury in the sea reduce noticeably following concrete actions to limit their release, recent research at the IAEA using nuclear techniques has shown. The banning of leaded petrol and the closure of a mercury discharging plant have led to decreases in pollution levels over 10-15 years.

This is the case for lead, which when consumed by fish which is in turn eaten by people, can cause damage to the human nervous system and internal organs. Many different activities such as mining or smelting in metallurgy and the burning of coal as well as lead’s use in batteries, paint, ceramics and other everyday items can release it into the environment. The biggest source of lead pollution in the last century was related to the use of leaded petrol.

As part of efforts to develop new methods to determine the source and levels of lead pollution, researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories analysed sediments from the Baltic Sea and the Caribbean Sea. In mapping the pollution history in a sediment core from the Baltic coast of Germany, researchers could clearly observe that within 10 to 15 years of phasing out lead in petrol by 1996, lead pollution levels in the sea had decreased..

In addition, IAEA researchers have successfully developed methods to use lead isotope ratios to determine the source of lead pollution and assess whether it is naturally present or the result of anthropogenic activities, since natural and anthropogenic lead sources will show different isotopic fingerprints and isotope compositions….

IAEA scientists’ analysis of a dated sediment core in a Caribbean bay shows total mercury (Hg) levels rapidly decreased after the closure of a discharging plant…Mercury was used in an alkali plant there as a catalyser, and in the 1970s, high concentrations were found in water, sediments and marine organisms as a result of discharges from the plant.  Years later, after the plant had been closed, IAEA researchers showed, by analysing sediment core taken from the bay, that levels of total mercury had started to decrease.  While remnants of this pollution are still buried in the sediment, acute toxicity has been greatly reduced.

Excerpts from World Oceans Day 2018: Regulating Lead and Mercury Releases has Decreased Marine Pollution, IAEA Press Release, June 8, 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

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

A Slow-Burning Tragedy

image from Universal Somali TV

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

A Nuclear Titanic? the First Floating Nuclear Plant

Akademik Lomonosov, image rosatom

A massive floating nuclear power plant is now making its way toward its final destination at an Arctic port (April 30, 2018)… It’s the first nuclear power plant of its kind, Russian officials say.  Called the Akademik Lomonosov, the floating power plant is being towed at a creeping pace out of St. Petersburg, where it was built over the last nine years. It will eventually be brought northward, to Murmansk – where its two nuclear reactors will be loaded with nuclear fuel and started up in the fall of 2018.

From there, the power plant will be pulled to a mooring berth in the Arctic port of Pevek, in far northeast Russia. There, it will be wired into the infrastructure so it can replace an existing nuclear power installment on land.  Critics of the plan include Greenpeace, which recently warned of a “Chernobyl on ice if Russia’s plans to create a fleet of floating nuclear power stations result in a catastrophe.

Russian officials say the mandate of the Akademik Lomonoso is to supply energy to remote industrial plants and port cities, and to offshore gas and oil platforms.  “The nuclear power plant has two KLT-40S reactor units that can generate up to 70 MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during its normal operation,” Rosatom said. “This is enough to keep the activity of the town populated with 100,000 people.”

It will take more than a year for the power plant to reach its new home port. The original plan had called for fueling the floating plant before it began that journey, at the shipyard in central St. Petersburg – but that was scuttled in the summer of 2017, after concerns were raised both in Russia and in countries along the power plant’s route through the Baltic Sea and north to the Arctic. Rosatom says it hopes the floating nuclear power plant will be online in 2019.

Excerpts from Russia Launches Floating Nuclear Power Plant; It’s Headed To The Arctic, NPR, Apr. 30, 2018