Category Archives: property rights

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

The Luxury of Swimmable Waters

water pollution New Zealand, image from wikpedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpts from Cows and seep: New Zealand’s Water, Economist, Nov. 18, 2017

Jumping off the Edge into the Ocean: Hydrazine

Europe’s space agency is defending plans to launch two satellites that would drop a rocket stage likely to contain highly toxic fuel in some of the most ecologically sensitive waters of the Canadian Arctic… North Water Polynya between Baffin Island and Greenland Inuit have said those plans treat seas…as a garbage dump.

On October 13, 2017, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Sentinel 5P satellite, an environmental probe designed to monitor trace gases in the atmosphere. A second launch of a similar satellite is planned for 2018.  The second stage of both rockets are expected to splash down in water that is part of Canada’s exclusive economic zone.  Both will use Soviet-era rockets fuelled by hydrazine. The fuel is a carcinogen and causes convulsions, nervous system damage, kidney and liver failure in humans.

Hvistendahl, representative of European Space Agency, said unused fuel will be destroyed before it reaches the ocean. Re-entry temperatures are much higher than hydrazine’s boiling point, he said.  “The structural parts lose their integrity and, by melting, the destruction of the stage occurs. Six kilometres above ground the propellant components have completely burnt up.”

Michael Byers, a Canadian academic who has just published research on the launch in a top Arctic journal, questioned those assurances.  “The ESA is making lots of assumptions about what happens to the residual (fuel) in these returning rocket stages,” he said Friday in an email. “Unless they have real science that proves their assumptions, they should not be taking chances with Inuit lives and the Arctic environment.”  In his paper, published in Polar Record from Cambridge University, Byers cites extensive evidence suggesting that instead of burning, hydrazine forms fine droplets that settle on the Earth below.  Byers quotes a UN report that found “the products of combustion and non-combusted remains of fuel and oxidants falling from the height of 20–100 kilometre spread and land over thousands of square kilometres.”The rocket stage could be carrying up to a tonne of unused hydrazine as it falls, the paper says.  It will drop into the North Water Polynya, an 85,000-square-kilometre ocean that is free of ice year-round. It shelters most of the world’s narwhal, as well as about 14,000 beluga whales and 1,500 walrus, bowhead whales, polar bears, seals and tens of millions of seabirds…

In his paper, Byers points out there have been 10 such launches dropping rocket stages into the North Water Polynya over the last 15 years.  Nearly every country in the world, including Russia, has stopped using hydrazine. He said Europe launched a very similar satellite earlier this year with a rocket using a much safer fuel.

Excerpts from European satellite splashdown in Canadian Arctic probably toxic, Canadian Press, Oct. 6, 2017.

Don’t Cut that Tree!

CO2 in Earth's atmosphere if half of global-warming emissions are not absorbed] (NASA computer simulation). Image from wikipedia

A revolutionary new approach to measuring changes in forest carbon density has helped scientists determine that the tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, countering their role as a net carbon “sink.”*

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” said scientist Alessandro Baccini, the report’s lead author….Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects—from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to indigenous communities.”

Using 12 years (2003-2014) of satellite imagery, laser remote sensing technology and field measurements, Baccini and his team were able to capture losses in forest carbon from wholesale deforestation as well as from more difficult-to-measure fine-scale degradation and disturbance …from smallholder farmers removing individual trees for fuel wood. These losses can be relatively small in any one place, but added up across large areas they become considerable.

[T] he researchers discovered that tropics represent a net source of carbon to the atmosphere — about 425 teragrams of carbon annually – which is more than the annual emissions from all cars and trucks in the United States.

Excerpts from New approach to measuring forest carbon density shows tropics now emit more carbon than they capture, Woods Hole Research Institute Press Release, Sept. 28, 2017

*Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss by A. Baccini et al., Science, Sept. 28, 2017

Shriveling the Salt Lakes of the World

Mountains of the Great Salt Lake in Winter. Image from wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tying Up the Nile River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whale Wars and 2017 Armistice

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society flag. Image from wikipedia

Environmental activists are abandoning their annual anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, saying Japan’s threat to defend its fleet is too daunting.  Capt. Paul Watson, the founder of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, said Japan’s threat to dispatch its military was unprecedented.“For the first time ever, they have stated they may send their military to defend their illegal whaling activities,” Capt. Watson said in a statement Tuesday. “The Japanese whalers not only have all the resources and subsidies their government can provide, they also have the powerful political backing of a major economic superpower.”

The Japanese embassy in Canberra, Australia, didn’t immediately respond to Sea Shepherd’s announcement, but it previously accused the group of sabotage and “acts of violence which seriously endangered the safe navigation of vessels.”  Some of Sea Shepherd’s tactics include ramming whaling vessels and throwing stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese ships. In January 2010, one of Sea Shepherd’s boats sank after a collision with a whaling vessel.

The group’s decision to suspend its campaign after 12 years leaves Japan’s fleet free to resume whaling through the coming Antarctic summer without disruption. Japan’s whaling fleet reported in 2016 killing 333 minke whales, with plans to cull about 4,000 whales over the next 12 years under a quota set by the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo.

The International Whaling Commission put in place a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The next year, Japan embarked on a cull that it said was in the name of science, not commerce. Japan says it has a right to monitor whales’ impact on the fishing industry, though it also claims they are an important part of its cultural and culinary heritage.

Activists say scientific whaling is aimed at circumventing the 1986 ban.Last month, Japan’s Parliament passed a series of laws allowing for the protection of commercial whaling fleets. The International Court of Justice ruled against Japan in a scientific-whaling case in 2014.  Australia’s government condemned Japan’s new whaling laws in July 2017 saying they weren’t consistent with the 2014 ruling. Tokyo has withdrawn from the court’s jurisdiction with regard to whaling cases…

Capt. Watson said Sea Shepherd would resume anti-whaling efforts in the future, not only against the Japanese, but also in opposition to Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic whaling. “This is what we have been doing for 40 years,” he said.

Excerpts from  Foes of Whaling End Campaign, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 30, 2017

Longing for Lithium

Salar de Atacama. image from wikipedia

Lithium is a coveted commodity. Lithium-ion batteries store energy that powers mobile phones, electric cars and electricity grids (when attached to wind turbines and photovoltaic cells). Joe Lowry, an expert on the lightest metal, expects demand to nearly triple by 2025. Supply is lagging, which has pushed up the price. Annual contract prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide doubled in 2017, according to Industrial Minerals, a journal. That is attracting investors to the “lithium triangle” that overlays Argentina, Bolivia and Chile .  The region holds 54% of the world’s “lithium resources”, an initial indication of potential supply before assessing proven reserves.

Chile dominated the world lithium markets for decades. The Atacama salt flat has the largest and highest-quality proven reserves. The desert’s blazing sun, scarce rainfall and mineral-rich brines make Chile’s production costs the world’s lowest. Allied to this is the region’s most benign investment climate. Chile is far ahead in rankings of ease of doing business, levels of corruption, and the quality of its bureaucracy and courts (see charts). Its lithium deposits are close to Antofagasta and other Chilean ports;

But growth has flattened, allowing Australia to threaten Chile’s position as the world’s top producer…Laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s classify lithium as a “strategic” material on the ground that it can be used in future nuclear-fusion power plants. There is little prospect that Chile will soon build one of these, but controls on lithium production remain as a way of protecting the desert’s fragile ecosystem.

Just two companies, Chile’s SQM and Albemarle of the United States, are allowed to extract brine under leases that were signed in the 1980s. In addition, they are subject to quotas on the lithium they can produce from the brine, which also yields other minerals….Ending the metal’s strategic status and getting rid of quotas would make still more sense. So would improving Chile’s institutions and infrastructure. 

Argentina: Under the constitution, provinces, not the federal government, own the country’s minerals. Mining firms had to find their way through a confusion of provincial rules and regulations. “It was like the Tower of Babel,” says Daniel Meilán, the country’s current mining secretary. I Argentina’s newish president, Mauricio Macri, has tried to unblock investment, including that in lithium….  The federal government is trying to harmonise provincial regulations. It has hammered out agreement on a standard royalty (3% of revenue, plus 1.5% to improve local infrastructure)…

These advances have started to unfreeze investment in lithium. In 2016 the sector attracted $1.5bn; production rose by nearly 60%….

Under the left-wing government led by President Evo Morales since 2006, Bolivia has pulled out of numerous bilateral investment treaties, denying investors access to international arbitration. His government has nationalised parts of the oil and gas industries, along with the biggest telecoms company and most of the electricity sector.  The government keeps an even tighter grip on lithium than it does on gas, its biggest export. YPFB, the state-owned natural-gas company, at least enters into joint ventures with private-sector firms. Since 2010 the right to extract lithium brine has been reserved for the state. Private firms can now do no more than gaze longingly upon the Uyuni salt flat near Potosí, the largest in the world…

Like Chile, Bolivia hopes to form partnerships with private firms to make value-added products, including batteries and electric cars, through a new lithium enterprise, Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos. But the government’s insistence on keeping a controlling stake is discouraging potential investors. In 2016 Bolivia sold 25 tonnes of lithium carbonate to China, pocketing a princely $208,000.

The white gold rush: The lithium triangle, Economist, June 17, 2017

Policing the Amazon Jungle

Transamazon Highway, image from wikipedia

The small town of Apui sits at the new frontline of Brazil’s fight against advancing deforestation…  The home of 21,000 people in southern Amazonas state was long protected by its remote location from illegal loggers, ranchers and farmers who clear the forest.  Now those who would destroy the jungle are moving in from bordering states, following the Transamazon Highway, which is little more than a red-dirt track in this part of the rainforest.

First come the loggers, who illegally extract valued lumber sold in far-off cities. The cattle ranchers follow, burning the forest to clear land and plant green pasture that rapidly grows in the tropical heat and rain. After the pasture is worn out, soy farmers arrive, planting grain on immense tracts of land…

Roughly 7,989 square kilometres (3,085 square miles) of forest were destroyed in 2016, a 29 percent increase from the previous year and up from a low of 4,571 square kilometers in 2012, according to the PRODES satellite monitoring system.

Then there are the fires.  Apui ranked first in the country for forest fires in the first week of August 2017, according to the ministry.

At their best the environmental agents can slow but not stop the destruction. They raid illegal logging camps, levy large fines that are rarely collected and confiscate chainsaws to temporarily impede the cutting.  Costa acknowledges that the roughly 1,300 environmental field agents who police a jungle area the size of western Europe have a difficult task, at the very least.

Excerpt from Brazil’s agents of the Amazon fighting loggers, fires to stop deforestation, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2017

To Each its Water: the fight for the California aquifer

Palm springs pool. Image from wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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