Tag Archives: environment

Damming the Mekong River

What looked like an admittedly temporary reprieve for the swift currents and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong river is now over. In December the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, called again for approval of a potentially devastating dam at Xayaburi in northern Laos to be withheld until more is known about its effect on the lower Mekong. Apart from high up in the gorges of south-western China, the Mekong remains undammed. But now CH. Karnchang, a Thai construction giant contracted to build a $3.8 billion dam at Xayaburi has told the Bangkok Stock Exchange that dam construction officially began on March 15th, and that 5,000 workers have just been hired.

The news has triggered an angry response from riparian neighbours. The December agreement, calling for further scientific study of the environmental impacts, included Laos. Opponents of the dam argue that the Xayaburi dam will cause immense harm to ecosystems and imperil 65m South-East Asians who rely on the Mekong, the world’s biggest inland fishery, for their sustenance.  Cambodia’s water-resources minister, Lim Kean Hor, sent a strong protest letter to Laos. He called for an immediate halt to construction until an independent assessment has been completed. Japan has just agreed to fund a study on Mekong dams, under the auspices of the MRC. Vietnam strongly backs Cambodia, and has repeatedly called for no more dams to be built on the Mekong for at least ten years. The Lao government’s failure formally to notify its Mekong partners about the construction, allowing the dam to proceed under the radar, clearly undermines the credibility of the MRC’s consultation processes. (pdf) In truth, though the Mekong Agreement signed in 1995, which gave birth to the commission, requires the four nations to consult and respect neighbours’ concerns, final decisions are left to each sovereign state.

A “Save the Mekong” campaign, chiefly among Thai non-government organisations (NGOs) has been gathering force. The NGOs complain of silence from the commission’s head office, based in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The MRC appears incapable even of sending a monitoring team to the dam site.   Perhaps Cambodia will file a complaint against Laos in an international court. More likely, as Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Chiang Khong Mekong Conservation Group, suggests, local residents might have no choice but to use sit-ins and other obstructions in order to shut down the Mekong “friendship bridges” between Thailand and Laos, should the MRC fail to compel Laos to suspend the dam construction.

A dam on the Mekong: Opening the floodgates, Economist, May 5, 2012, at 43

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The Coral Triangle, biodiversity, fisheries and climate change

Stretching across six countries in Southeast Asia and Melanesia (Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor Leste), the Coral Triangle contains the richest marine ecosystems on earth. While encompassing just over 1.5% of the world’s oceans (and1% of the earth’s surface), it contains a staggering proportion of the world’s marine diversity: 76% of reef-building coral species, and 37% of coral reef fi sh species. The Coral Triangle is the epicentre for the biodiversity of not only corals and fi sh, but many other marine organisms as well….The signifi cance of the marine ecosystems lining over 132,800 km of coastline within the Coral Triangle goes far beyond their biological value or evolutionary signifi cance. Coastal ecosystems in this region are critically important for human livelihoods and communities, providing food and resources to over 100 million people. Many people in this region forage on coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, to collect their daily food and income. Commercial fi sheries provide over $3 billion per year to the six nations. These ecosystems also contribute to the maintenance of water quality along coastlines, with mangroves and seagrass beds stabilising sediments and acting as fi ltration systems as water runs from land to sea. Coral reefs provide important coastal barriers in many regions, reducing the power of waves and preventing damage to human communities and infrastructure. These functions cannot be replaced if these ecosystems are removed.

Unfortunately, coastal ecosystems throughout the Coral Triangle are being severely threatened by the activities of humans. These threats arise from two distinct sources. The first set arise from local sources such as destructive fishing practices, deteriorating water quality, over-exploitation of key marine species, and the direct devastation of coastal ecosystems through unsustainable coastal development. The second set arise from rapid anthropogenic climate change, which is caused by the build up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. These threats are escalating and ecosystems like coral reefs are already showing major changes to sea temperature and acidity. Further changes are putting the future of these important biological systems in serious doubt.

Excerpt from Executive Summary from THE CORAL TRIANGLE AND CLIMATE CHANGE, (2009)

More on the Threats and Recommendation for action (pdf)

See also Integrating Fisheries, Biodiversity, and Climate Change Objectives into Marine Protected Area Network Design in the Coral Triangle (pdf, 2012)

Amazon Rainforest versus the Bureaucracy: who’s to win?

An international fund to protect the Amazon forest launched by Brazil in 2008 has gotten bogged down in red tape and donors are frustrated their $466 million contributions are hardly put to use, a Norwegian official said.  The fund was designed to slow deforestation by stimulating sustainable economic alternatives to cattle ranching and farming, which have destroyed parts of the forests.  So far Brazil has only used $39 million on 23 sustainable growth projects, with another $53 million under contract.

A government official from Norway, the fund’s largest donor, told Reuters in Brasilia that his country is unhappy with Brazil’s slow pace in identifying new projects, which has raised questions about the use of the funds in Brazil, where they are managed by the state-owned National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES).  The source, who asked not to be named, said the funds contracted by the BNDES dropped by half between 2010 and 2011.  This has discouraged other potential donors from committing funds, the source said.

Conservationists say the BNDES has stymied projects with paperwork and endless meetings. Erika Nakazono, who runs a project for a social map of the communities living in the Amazon, said it took 19 months to get approval and somresearchers quit because of the delay. “The bureaucracy is very difficult. At one point I wondered whether all the effort was worth it,” Nakazono said.

The BNDES official heading the bank’s deforestation control department, Mauro Pires, admitted that the fund is not working as well as donors hoped.  “People wanted things done faster and to cover a wider range (of projects),” Pires told Reuters. He said the fund was a pioneering venture and procedures were still being worked out.  “We are working to create projects that go the heart of the deforestation problem,” he said.

By Jeferson Ribeiro, Brazil’s Amazon Fund bogs down, donors frustrated,Reuters, Jan.13, 2012

State of the World: Nuclear Waste

With more than 400 nuclear power plants in 32 countries, nuclear waste disposal is no longer an afterthought…  No nation yet has opened a permanent geological repository. But plans are well advanced in some countries, notably Finland and Sweden.  Canada plans to open a deep repository for high-level waste around 2035, though much work lies ahead, including finding a suitable site. Transferring the estimated four million spent fuel bundles into the vault will take an additional 30 years…

In the United States, the Obama administration’s recent decision to cancel the 2015 opening of a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada’s remote desert country has left jittery and angry American nuclear power producers sitting on enormous amounts of spent fuel crammed into interim storage for an indefinite additional period. The country’s 104 commercial power reactors churn out more every day. Cancellation of the project, which cost an estimated $9 billion and involved more than 20 years of research, is widely considered to have been based on political, not technical, concerns.But so was the original siting process. Washington in 1987 unilaterally deemed the waste was going to Yucca without seriously considering other potential sites. Not surprisingly, Nevada citizens have railed against the top-down plan ever since.

If the government doesn’t bow to pressure and reverse its decision, U.S. nuclear waste planners will be going back to the drawing board for what promises to be another very prolonged and expensive exercise.

The World Nuclear Association says deep geological disposal is the preferred option for several other countries, too, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Japan, Netherlands, Republic of Korea and Spain.

FINLAND: Olkiluoto, on the shore of the Gulf of Bothnia in western Finland, was chosen and excavation and construction was started in 2004 by Posiva Oy, a nuclear waste management company. The repository is named Onkalo. Scheduled to open in 2020, spent nuclear fuel packed in copper canisters will be embedded in bedrock at a depth of around 400 metres. Onkalo will be the world’s first permanent nuclear waste crypt.

FRANCE:  Almost 80 per cent of France’s energy comes from 59 nuclear power reactors…The French radioactive waste disposal agency, Andra, is designing a deep geological repository in clays at Bure in eastern France for its disposal, as well as long-lived intermediate level waste. Andra expects to apply for a construction and operating licence in 2014.

GERMANY:  In May, as the enormity of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex disaster became clearer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to phase-out nuclear power from the country’s 17 reactors by 2020.  Like France, Germany reprocesses its waste — but at reprocessing facilities in France, Russian and Britain. The reprocessed waste is then shipped back to Germany and stored in a former salt mine in the northern town of Gorleben.  In 1979, Gorleben was selected as a temporary nuclear waste site, but the government recently resumed research to make it into a permanent storage site. In November, thousands of protesters clashed with police in an unsuccessful bid to halt a Gorleben-bound train of reprocessing waste from France.

RUSSIA: Used fuel from 27 reactors is reprocessed for plutonium. Four geological disposal facilities are planned to begin operation in 2025-2030.

INDIA: Spent fuel from 14 reactors is stored in pools, then reprocessed. A geological repository is planned but not sited.

SWEDEN: Forsmark, on the east coast of Uppland and site of a nuclear power plant, has been chosen, When open in 2023, it is to safely hold spent fuel 500 metres underground for 100,000 years.

SWITZERLAND: The country had been reprocessing its high-level waste abroad in France and Britain, but enacted a 10-year reprocessing moratorium in 2006. Spent fuel is now kept at the country’s five reactor sites.  Two sites are under investigation as possible locations for two national waste repositories, one for low- and medium-level waste and one for spent fuel.  In June, meanwhile, the country resolved not to replace any reactors and phase-out nuclear power by 2034.

BRITAIN: Used fuel from its 31 reactors is reprocessed and the vitrified waste is stored above ground for 50 years.  In 2003, the government established the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to investigate options for a long-term management approach. In 2008, the committee recommended deep geological disposal, which the government endorsed.

Excerpts, By Ian MacLeod, The global nuclear waste race,The Ottawa Citizen December 20, 2011

Chevron’s Oil Spills in Amazon, destroying the paper trail

A new document reveals that Chevron officials ordered the destruction of key documents as part of a broad scheme to hide the extent of the company’s pollution in Ecuador’s Amazon, says Amazon Defense Coalition.  A company memorandum from Ecuador dated July 1972 ordered that all reports related to oil spills “are to be removed from the Field and Division offices and destroyed.” From 1964 to 1990, Chevron operated a large concession in Ecuador’s Amazon region that included an extensive network of pipelines, wells and separation stations.

Chevron operated in Ecuador under the Texaco brand. In February, an Ecuador court found Chevron liable for dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon, decimating indigenous groups and causing a spike in cancer rates. Damages in the case, which is under appeal in Ecuador, were set at $18 billion. The extent and environmental impact of the disaster dwarfs the size of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to experts.

The memo ordering the destruction of documents was written by R.C. Shields, at the time the director of production in Latin America for Texaco and Chairman of the company’s Ecuador subsidiary. The memo directs Chevron personnel to report only oil spills that are “major events” which are defined as those that “attract the attention of press and/or regulatory authorities.”  The directive also orders that no reports are to be kept on a “routine basis.”  The Shields memo emerged via discovery in U.S. federal court.

Texaco reportedly caused hundreds of oil spills in Ecuador, many of which were “remediated” by setting them on fire, according to the book Amazon Crude, which was published in 1989 and which documented Texaco’s substandard operational practices. The company also has admitted to pouring sludge from the waste pits along dirt roads.

The Shields memo ordering the destruction of documents infuriated members of the legal team representing 30,000 Amazon residents who are suing the oil giant.  This memo is a vivid illustration of the culture of deceit that characterizes Chevron’s destruction of Ecuador’s Amazon over a period of decades,” said Pablo Fajardo, the lead Ecuadorian lawyer. “Deception remains the operating principle for Chevron in Ecuador even today as the company continues to flout its legal obligations to remediate toxic pollution that threatens thousands of innocent lives.”

Karen Hinton, the U.S. spokesperson for the Ecuadorians, said the memo was part of a “pattern of corrupt activities” by the company that include a fraudulent remediation in the 1990s, the fabrication of scientific evidence, attempted entrapment of a trial judge and threats to put judges in jail if they didn’t rule in the company’s favor.  “Chevron acted like the Mafia in Ecuador,” she added. “This repugnant memo is just a small piece of the company’s scheme to defraud Ecuador’s government and its people.”

Chevron’s Ecuador Fraud Highlighted In Memo Ordering Destruction of Documents Related to Contamination, Says Amazon Defense Coalition, PR NewsWire, Dec. 14, 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

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