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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the climate, ecology and environment topic  (Read 144642 times)
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« Reply #330 on: Mar 07, 2013, 06:56 AM »

03/06/2013 01:40 PM

The Coal Monster: Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act

By Bernhard Zand

China's power plants and factories are spewing out toxic emissions and covering the country with smog and grime. For the new leadership, protecting the neglected environment has become a question of preserving its power.

What does growth smell like? What does the biggest economic miracle of all time taste like?

In Guiyu, on the South China Sea, the smell of growth is a caustic, slightly nut-like odor emitted when a computer keyboard is placed on a hotplate. Electronic waste is processed in Guiyu, one of the most prosperous cities in Guangdong Province.

In Xintang, on the Pearl River Delta, it is the bitterly acidic gases that are released when tons of denim material are bleached, dyed and washed. Xintang is the jeans capital of the world, a source of jobs for tens of thousands of people.

In Hainan, a coal and cement town in Inner Mongolia, it is a dull cocktail of soot, chalk and desert sand. Here, growth is something you taste and touch, rather than something you smell. It crunches between your teeth when you are outside.

In Beijing, the capital of the country whose economic success has amazed the world for the last 30 years, the myriad smells and tastes of growth often include a burning odor and an unpleasant aftertaste. It's familiar to many who live in cities whose population is growing by hundreds of thousands a year and whose officials are running out of places to dump garbage.

The images that the world has seen of Beijing in recent weeks are suffocating. In the winter of 2013, the beaming city of the 2008 Summer Olympics has often looked like the setting for a film about the apocalypse. In early January, the air quality index for fine particle pollution rose to the absurd value of about 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter and, last Thursday, the value was above 500, or more than 20 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For weeks, 600 million people have lived under a layer of smog that covers an area of 1.3 million square kilometers (about 500,000 square miles) and only disappears on occasional days. This is four times the area and more than seven times the population of Germany. Doctors are reporting a rise in respiratory illnesses. In coastal Zhejiang Province, a furniture factory burned down because the air was so thick with pollution that security guards didn't notice the smoke.

A Turning Point

This is what it smells and looks like in the country that is widely regarded as the economic miracle of the globalized world.

No political event or corruption scandal of the recent past has generated as much public attention as this winter's environmental crisis. Chinese bloggers are on a rampage, and even the most loyal government newspapers are examining every aspect of the crisis and attacking those responsible for conditions in China with unprecedented ferocity. The fury over toxic air, food and drinking water marks a political turning point.

On Tuesday, China's National People's Congress convened in Beijing. It is intended as a coronation ceremony of sorts for the new president and his premier -- Xi Jinping, 59, named head of the Communist Party in November, and economist Li Keqiang, 57.

The burden of their projects is overwhelming. The new leadership wants to transform China from a primarily agrarian and industrial country into a high-tech and service nation. At the same time, it intends to boost affluence and promote urbanization in order to come to grips with the country's wealth disparity and population growth. If they achieve all of these goals, Xi and Li will leave behind a different China.

The challenge and the need to break with the past are especially evident in environmental policy. About 750,000 people die as a result of air pollution in China each year. Many of the country's rivers are so polluted that authorities do not permit residents to even touch the water, not to mention use it to irrigate fields.

Fruit and grain grown in the country's contaminated and over-fertilized soil contains massive amounts of pollutants. They also unsettle consumers in the West, who now import a large share of their tomatoes, apples and other food products from China.

Xi and Li now seem to have recognized just how serious this problem is. For months, they have invoked China's "beautiful environment," a phrase Xi used in his inaugural speech in November. "We must act," says Li -- and he clearly means it. Indeed, China's environmental policy has developed into a question of national security -- not because the government is particularly farsighted, but because its power is on the line.

The success or failure of Beijing's new leadership will likely have a ripple effect well beyond China's borders. "If Xi's dream for China's emerging middle class -- 300 million people expected to grow to 800 million by 2025 -- is just like the American Dream (a big car, a big house and Big Macs for all) then we need another planet," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in October 2012.

Poisonous Policies

China has become the world's largest CO2 polluter, emitting close to 10 billion metric tons of the greenhouse gas each year. The environment crisis is no longer a Chinese tragedy; it's a global fiasco.

"I hope the day will come when all you can see from Tiananmen Gate is a forest of tall chimneys belching out clouds of smoke," Mao Zedong said in 1949, as he gazed out at Tiananmen Square. Mao subscribed to a simple image of humanity and nature and, as with everything in his life, he was ruthless in putting it into practice. Between 1958 and 1961, he had millions of small blast furnaces built to press ahead with Chinese steel production.

The project was accompanied by the "Four Pests Campaign," in which the Chinese -- from 5-year-olds to the elderly -- were told to destroy rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows, which were allegedly harming the young People's Republic by eating grain seeds.

To kill the birds, citizens kept flushing them out until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. But then people died, perhaps in even greater numbers. Some 30 to 45 million perished in a famine, which was partly triggered by insects that would otherwise have been consumed by sparrows.

Mao's successor, the reformer Deng Xiaoping, broke with China's planned economy. He gave the leaders of individual provinces the authority they needed to develop their regions on their own. But what proved to be a blessing for the economy became an assault on China's natural environment.

Deng's principle, which helped the country advance to become the world's second-largest economy, still pretty much applies today: growth at all costs. The provinces are so conditioned to constantly report new record figures to Beijing that a colossal discrepancy emerged last June. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country's carbon dioxide emissions amounted to 7.7 billion metric tons in 2010. But when researchers from the University of Leeds added together the figures reported by the provinces, they arrived at 9.1 billion tons. It still isn't clear which of the two figures is correct, but the difference alone is more than twice Germany's annual CO2 emissions.

A Massive Environmental Nightmare
The world may be wringing its hands, and it may be dawning on the leadership in polluted Beijing that it's time to change things. But, every day, the black monster out in the country's coal belt eats its way more deeply into a landscape that, in Inner Mongolia, already looks like the surface of the moon.

Bao Que, 27, drives his 40-ton truck back and forth between the Hainan opencast mines and the Xilaifeng coking plant eight to 10 times a day. It's a torture for him, his truck and the world around him, which stinks of sulfur and ammonia. "I've been doing this for two years," he says. "My contract runs out in a year and, by that time, the truck will be worn out. Besides, no one can stand it here any longer than that."

Excavators dig into the dusty heaps piled up along the edge of the kilometer-wide coal crater. Then they fill Bao's truck. The excavator operator is still pressing down the load by slapping it with a shovel as Bao starts to pull a tarp across his dump truck. In this business, every minute and every ton counts.

The trucks have dug thigh-high grooves into the earth. Another truck overturned while Bao was in the mine. The load, 45 tons of gravel, fell to one side while the fuel, 150 liters of diesel, leaked out on the other side, where it joined the bilious green brake fluid and seeped into the earth. "It was his own fault," says Bao. "The truck was three times overloaded. Mine? No more than twice."

There are probably few places on earth where nature is abused quite as much as it is in the northern Chinese coalfields. China covers 70 percent of its energy needs with coal, consuming about as much as all other countries combined. When there is a clear view, it's possible to make out the Yellow River while flying over Inner Mongolia -- a waterway that has been reduced to a trickle after being tapped by dozens of mines, power plants and factories for cement and chemicals. In a report entitled "Thirsty Coal," the environment organization Greenpeace warned of water scarcity and an environmental disaster along the course of the Yellow River.

A comparison between the opulent marble building that houses the state-owned Shenhua Group in Yinchuan and the environmental agency's office in a run-down neighborhood of Wuhai, 150 kilometers away, is all it takes to know who is going to determine what happens on the upper reaches of the Yellow River for the foreseeable future.

"Our base has access to a surplus of fresh water," Shenhua, the world's largest coal company, claims on its website. The group employs 211,000 people and operates 62 mines and power plants with a total capacity of almost 43 gigawatts.

"We have 140 employees," says Du Yuming, 47, the chief administrator of the environmental protection agency in Wuhai. The work in Wuhai isn't easy, he says, and the reason is obvious. "One out of five light bulbs in Beijing is lit with electricity that we produce up here."

Too Obvious to Ignore

Chinese society is on a monumental migration that is partly caused by the predatory exploitation of nature, but that also exacerbates it. About 500 million people, as much as the entire population of the European Union, have moved from rural areas to China's cities in the last 30 years. Another 300 million, or about the population of the United States, will follow them in the next 15 years. One could pose the question of whether other governments in the world would solve this problem more effectively than China's. However, a migration of such massive proportions has never happened before in the history of mankind.

At any rate, the environmental causes and consequences of this migration are catastrophic. "Our model of urbanization has failed and needs to be fundamentally overhauled," says He Jun, an economist with the Anbound Research Center in Beijing. He is one of the country's critical voices, but he also has the ear of Wang Qishan, one of the most influential men in the new leadership, next to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

The core of the problem, He says, lies in the business model of almost all Chinese municipalities, cities and provinces: They derive their funding from taxes and, to a great extent, from the sale of land. "Because city bureaucrats profit from the sales, a large amount of land has been eaten up in the last 20 years," He says. And since the buyers of the parcels are in a hurry to recoup their investments, construction is occurring at a record pace -- while environmental regulations are ignored.

He doesn't believe that the Chinese are trying to evade responsibility for the price they are paying for decades of waste, says Ma Jun, 44, a leading environmental activist in China. Ma, who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, was more optimistic about the future when he returned to smoggy Beijing than one would expect.

The smoggy winter of 2013, he says, has created something that is usually difficult to get in China: transparency. "Until now, the leadership's basic position was to conceal the consequences of environmental pollution," says Ma. But he notes that this is no longer possible "because the scope of the pollution has become so obvious that any attempt to deny it is pointless." The US Embassy in Beijing introduced hourly air-quality testing, which had a tremendous impact, says Ma. "Now it's time to name names when it comes to the country's biggest polluters."

Of course, that alone may not suffice because China's energy giants have a strong argument on their side: This winter is one of the coldest in decades. Paradoxically, this makes life more difficult for people in southern China than in the north. In the planned economy of the 1950s, China was divided into two heating zones. Communal heating systems were only installed in the regions north of the Huai River. As a result, hundreds of millions of people in the south must now provide their own heat -- with electric heaters, if they can afford them.

For years, citizens in China's south have pushed to be placed on equal footing with those in the north. But the shock of the current winter has weakened their arguments. How can they demand more energy consumption, say critics, when the strain on the environment is already almost unbearable today?

Global Blame

In recent weeks, Europeans and Americans have noted with horror how the Chinese are poisoning themselves. Don't the images from Beijing, they ask, reinforce the impression that China's leaders have made for years at international climate negotiations? An authoritarian country that walks over corpses for the sake of growth, and that arrogantly ignores the warnings coming from the West, where emissions have been declining for years?

The contradiction beneath this perception is obvious in Hong Kong, the outpost of the First World in China. The self-confident citizens of the former British crown colony have fought with their pro-Beijing leadership for years over air quality.

Kwong Sum-yin, 29, is sitting in the offices of the environmental organization Clean Air Network (CAN), under a humming air filter attached to the ceiling. She turns around her monitor and points out the most recent annual diagram of air-quality levels in the city. "Our numbers are miserable," she says. "The air in Hong Kong is three times as polluted as it is in New York, and twice as polluted as in London."

Many Hong Kong residents, says Gloria Chang of Greenpeace, are concerned about the clouds of pollution that blow over from the Pearl River Delta in China's heavily industrial Guangdong Province. This is understandable, she notes, but it is also questionable. "Since 1997, we have moved all of our heavy and textile industry to the mainland," she says. "It's obvious that we also bear some of the responsibility for the pollution from over there."

The position Western industrialized countries take toward China is similar to Hong Kong's attitudes about the Pearl River Delta. One of the reasons the carbon dioxide emissions of leading industrialized countries have declined in recent years is that a large share of polluting production has been outsourced elsewhere -- and much of it to China.

The size of this share is one of the most complex and controversial questions in climate economics. The answer isn't just important for China's government, but also for governments, producers and consumers in the United States and Europe.

A working paper from the University of Wollongong, in Australia, attracted attention in September. The authors estimate that more than a third of China's CO2 emissions in 2007 (the most recent year for which figures are available) could be attributed to exports. In their consumption-based model, the responsibility for each ton of carbon dioxide is shared by the country in which it is emitted and those countries in which the produced goods are consumed.

Glen Peters, of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO), believes this number is too high. He and an international team of authors estimate the contribution of exports to China's carbon dioxide emissions in 2007 at no more than 25 percent. And owing to growing domestic demand, that figure may have declined since.

However, the West also benefits from this domestic demand, including German companies. China has become the most important market for German automakers, with Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche selling almost a million cars there in 2012.

Many are being driven in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, contributing to the smog. Foreign cars are even more noticeable in industrial cities, such as Hainan, Xintang and Guiyu.

Trading Pollution for Prosperity

In Guiyu, Li Qiong, 51, is sitting in front of a small electric furnace on which she is heating discarded computer circuit boards. She works quickly. Using tongs, she removes the circuit boards from a basket to her left and places them on the hotplate. Then she waits until gray smoke is produced and the silvery solder melts. She removes the circuit board from the furnace, scratches off the bits of metal and tosses the still-smoking circuit board into a basket to her right. Li is paid by the unit and earns about 5,000 yuan, or roughly €600, a month. "I have two daughters," she says. "I support both of them while they attend the university."

A few buildings away, three men hoist laundry baskets full of chopped up bits of circuit boards from one drum of water to another. The pieces of plastic become cleaner as they are moved from one drum to the next. When the workers go home at sunset, they empty the drums into the canal in front of the building.

"Our city has become prosperous," says Ye Weitang, a 69-year-old farmer. "But we can no longer use the groundwater to irrigate the sugarcane fields." It doesn't matter, though, he says, because he now irrigates his fields with water from the tap, which comes from far away. He can afford it, he says.

Wealth and filth apparently go together.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #331 on: Mar 07, 2013, 06:58 AM »

03/07/2013 10:22 AM

Encumbered Lumber: Europe Seeks Hard Line on Illegal Logging

By Jürgen Dahlkamp and Jörg Schmitt

Until recently, European companies could import illegally felled lumber with no fear of prosecution. New EU regulations are meant to take a tougher stance, but individual member states still write most of their own rules. Critics say Germany is falling short.

On January 11, a perfect blue sky framed the Safmarine Akwaba in the port of Bayonne, in the south of France. Between the blue sky and the white cranes, the 140-meter (460-foot) freighter, not yet even five years old, made for a postcard-perfect image of the shipping trade -- if only it weren't for the cargo.

That same cargo landed this ship on the blacklist of a British environmental organization called Global Witness on this particular January day. In its hold, the Safmarine Akwaba held 929 cubic meters (32,800 cubic feet) of tropical wood from Liberia. According to Global Witness, the buyer for this freight was Treemex, a lumber importer in the German town of Nordenham.

Tropical wood remains a lucrative business, in demand in Europe for dining room tables and hardwood floors, or to lend an air of cold power to the wood-paneled offices of corporate CEOs. If the lumber is certified to have been cultivated legally, the buyer obtains not only a visually pleasing construction material, but also a halfway clear conscience.

That wasn't true in this case, though. And importer Treemex must have known as much.

In early 2012, Liberia's forestry authorities suspended logging permits on a wide scale. It's believed that international lumber companies had fraudulently obtained many of the permits and were using them to harvest wood indiscriminately. The cargo on the Safmarine Akwaba was obtained using one of those permits.

International companies have flourished in these gray areas. There was nothing in German or European law that made importing this wood illegal. And if it really came down to it, the companies could simply insist they had trusted their suppliers when they said everything was aboveboard.

Market Saturated with Illegal Lumber

But as of this week, the rules of the game have changed. According to a new European Union regulation that came into effect on Sunday, lumber dealers are obligated to import only legally felled lumber, and they must be able to provide complete documentation of their lumber's origins.

A recent Interpol study shows just how large a market exists for illegally felled lumber. Fifteen to 30 percent of all lumber sold on the global market was either felled without a permit, or the relevant permit was forged, stolen or obtained in exchange for a bribe. In the tropical wood-producing regions of Africa, Asia and South America, it may be as much as 90 percent.

The revenue created through such illegal logging may be in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year, with the kind of profit margins otherwise seen only in the drug trade. In Liberia, for example, lumber exporters pay just $2 to $3 (€1.50 to €2.30) per cubic meter of lumber for their dubiously obtained permits -- sometimes as little as 50 cents. They can then sell the same amount of wood for $200. Even in cases where the loggers do keep their promises to build a school here or a few roads there -- roads they themselves need to transport their logs -- ultimately the lion's share of the profit remains with the companies. According to Interpol, this amount can be up to 10 times what it would be if the lumber were harvested legally.

Yet neither the loggers nor their buyers need to expend much energy worrying about getting caught. In particular, the practice of mixing legally and illegally harvested lumber together makes it more difficult to investigate these businesses.

Two weeks ago, Interpol scored a blow against the logging mafia. After months of investigations, police in 12 Latin American countries confiscated 5,000 cubic meters of lumber and arrested around 200 suspects. Still, compared to the profits this rainforest chainsaw massacre brings in, that amounts to only a small setback for the loggers.

Liberia provides a clear example of how this business works. Lumber exporters active there have certainly obtained logging permits from the government in Monrovia. Far more often, though, they took advantage of a loophole that allows private owners of forested land to engage in a small amount of logging under less strict environmental regulations. Protected by corrupt forestry officials, these corporations were able to secure the logging rights to 40 percent of Liberia's rainforest land -- a quarter of the area of the entire country -- in just three years, according to Global Witness's estimates.

European Companies Deny Wrongdoing

In August 2012, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf enacted a moratorium that suspended all such permits. At the same time, she established a fact-finding commission and halted the export of lumber obtained through these contracts. But none of this seems to have impressed the lumber industry -- certainly not Treemex in Nordenham, even though the company must have known about the export ban.

On December 30, the Safmarine Akwaba's cargo of lumber obtained through a contract with a village in southern Liberia set out for France, despite the ban. In the port city of Bayonne, a sawmill converted the logs into railroad ties. Treemex doesn't consider itself to have done anything wrong. "To our knowledge, this lumber was felled legally," reads a company statement. The accusations, the statement continues, are completely unfounded, and the company insists it is "meticulously careful to purchase only legally felled lumber."

Meanwhile a second German company has come to Global Witness's attention: B&T Wood in the northern town of Meerbeck. The company admits to having imported tropical wood from Liberia in September for use as railroad ties, but says it did so legally. Although the lumber was felled after the Liberian government implemented its export ban, the company says Liberia's supreme court examined the moratorium on October 22, and did not declare logging licenses invalid until that day. Global Witness believes the trees in question still should never have been felled because the permits used to do so violated Liberian forestry laws. The organization says the same is true in the Treemex case.

Germany 's Watered-Down Penalties

With its new regulations on imported lumber, the EU is looking to emulate the hard-line policies of the United States, which since 2008 has required complete documentation of where imported lumber came from. More crucial than the EU regulations, though, will be what each of the individual EU countries chooses to put on the books in their own laws.

In January, Germany was on the forefront of this environmental battle. A proposed law would have brought criminal prosecution against anyone found to be importing, or even attempting to import, illegally felled lumber.

But when the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, passed a law on the lumber trade last Thursday, with a majority of the governing Christian Democratic Union and its junior coalition partner the Free Democratic Party, the formerly hard line had suddenly softened. Now only those who have made particularly large profits off of illegal imports, or those who are repeat offenders, have to fear criminal prosecution and a potential one-year prison sentence. All other cases of illegal logging count as a misdemeanor and can be resolved with a monetary penalty. The opposition Social Democrats say the German government has "given in to lobbyists" and "gambled away Germany's trailblazing role." A legal opinion issued by Greenpeace concludes that the law in fact trivializes the illegal lumber trade. "Forests won't be protected this way," the organization writes.

Still, a financial penalty, even a small one, can hit hard if it also causes serious damage to a company's image. In the US, for example, guitar manufacturer Gibson bought its way out of legal action over dubious tropical wood imports for use in its fretboards by paying a penalty of $300,000. But far worse than the monetary cost was the disgrace the case caused to a company whose instruments have been used by stars such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and U2's The Edge when they play songs about the world's injustices. Those songs don't sound as authentic when played on illegally cut tropical wood.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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« Reply #332 on: Mar 07, 2013, 07:00 AM »

03/06/2013 05:45 PM

Viral Photo from Krakow: 'Suddenly the White Swans Appeared'

Polish photographer Marcin Ryczek's stunning image of swans at a Krakow riverbank went viral online recently, winning him global recognition. He tells SPIEGEL ONLINE about the moment that changed everything for him.

Many Krakow residents have long known about Marcin Ryczek. The 30-year-old photographer and graphic designer runs the website Nieznany Kraków (Unknown Krakow), a guide that features people and places from the southern Polish city's historic Kazimierz district. But after he posted a remarkable photo recently on the site's Facebook page, his name has been seen all over the world.

Ryczek shot the masterfully composed photo in late January from the Grunwaldzki Bridge, capturing a perfect, almost surreal contrast and a wealth of texture when a man dressed in black on the snowy river bank bent over to feed a bevy of swans in the dark water. Within three weeks of posting the image online it went viral, gaining his site some 10,000 new fans, he says.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Ryczek, did you come across the scene by chance?

Ryczek: Yes. I pass by this place often. On the day I took that photo, I had noticed the unusual natural contrast it presented -- the two sides separated in a straight line by the riverbank. It reminded me of the yin and yang symbol, and I began to compose the concept for the photo in my mind. Then suddenly the white swans appeared on the black background, and the black figure was on the white surface. This moment inspired me, and luckily I was able to capture it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why has it been so well-received?

Ryczek: The power of this photo lies in the details, which are open to many interpretations. The countless comments and discussions it has sparked on the sites where it has been published prove that. I wanted to show that even such a banal subject could be recorded in an unconventional way.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where has it been published so far?

Ryczek: It's on nearly all of the important social networks in the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Israel and many other countries. On it got some 3 million hits within 24 hours, and the Polish TV station N24 even aired it too. Actor Jared Leto and novelist Jonathan Carroll also praised the photo.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you surprised by the hype?

Ryczek: Although I was very happy with the photo, of course I couldn't have foreseen that. I am unbelievably happy about the worldwide attention. The Internet is full of photos and it's difficult to stand out with something original. My example shows that expressive power lies in simplicity.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What makes a good photo?

Ryczek: The prerequisite for a good photo is approaching people, places and daily situations with sensitivity. And being open to everything.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What has changed for you since the photo went viral?

Ryczek: The sudden fame of the photo shows that it's worth investing all our power in things that are important to us. It encourages me to know that the path I took was right. And the many positive reactions are really motivating.

Interview conducted by Ireneus Schubial and Jens Witte

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« Reply #333 on: Mar 07, 2013, 09:07 AM »

March 6, 2013

Endangered or Not, but at Least No Longer Waiting


Perhaps it does not seem cause for celebration that the Oregon spotted frog, a four-inch-long amphibian that prefers the Pacific Northwest’s dwindling marshy spots, is to be considered this year for federal protection as an endangered species.

Tell that to the frog. It has been languishing for 22 years — since 1991 — awaiting its day in the bureaucratic sun.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake has been a candidate for protection since 1982, a legless bridesmaid, never a bride. Ditto the elfin-woods warbler. Like them, the Dakota skipper butterfly, a cucumber-bodied flier that zips unusually fast (for a butterfly) over the Minnesota and Dakota prairies, is dying out as development shrinks its habitat. It nevertheless has hung on, its candidacy deferred since 1975.

Belatedly, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service is giving them all — and 258 more — a thumbs up or down for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that was among the early triumphs of the environmental movement.

It is evidence of the law’s travails that it took a federal judge to get them to this point.

Under a 2011 settlement of two lawsuits by conservation activists, the wildlife service has pledged to decide the fates of all the backlogged species by 2018. A schedule issued by the service on Feb. 8 promised to decide by September whether to add 97 species to the endangered list, including 70 covered by the lawsuit settlement.

Moreover, the service has finished preliminary work on more than 550 other potential candidates for the endangered-species list, almost all of which will be further evaluated after the backlog is erased.

“They’ve dramatically increased the number of decisions they’re making — both positive and negative decisions, but the vast majority of decisions are positive,” said Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona conservation organization that is a party to the settlement.

It is the most feverish activity on imperiled wildlife in two decades, an improbable feat amid ferocious attacks from conservative critics and in an economy with little money to spare for environmental frivolities.

The wildlife service, the steward of most of the 1,400 species on the endangered list, casts the settlement as an opportunity to get back to its mission.

“We accomplished what we wanted to do through the settlement negotiations: to really reduce the litigation so we could have more control over our priorities and focus our limited resources on the species that need attention the most,” Gary Frazer, who heads the agency’s endangered-species unit, said in an interview. “We definitely see it as a good thing.”

The hundreds of backlogged candidates have waited “an unacceptably long time” for final consideration, he said.

Skeptics might ask whether any species that can wait decades for listing was endangered to begin with. The answer, experts say, is that some aren’t; the wildlife service is likely to remove some from consideration after re-evaluation. But most of the rest are probably in declines lasting decades that would not be arrested without outside help.

“Extinction is not an event. It’s a process,” said Patrick A. Parenteau, an expert on the law at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt. Habitats slowly shrink, populations wither, inbreeding increases and a species weakens until some outside force — a storm, a fire, a dry spell — administers the coup de grâce. The Interior Department said in 1990 that 34 species had gone extinct while awaiting decisions on listing.

The reasons for the backlog vary. Past lawsuits by conservationists forced the wildlife service to spend time and money on tasks like designating protected habitats for already listed wildlife instead of considering new candidates, Mr. Frazer said. Outsiders say chronic budget shortages, past mismanagement and, most recently, politics have also added to the delays.

Under President George W. Bush, “a lot of the management of the program was taken out of the Fish and Wildlife Service and put in hands of political appointees,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and a wildlife service director under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview. One Interior Department official resigned in mid-2007 amid charges of politicizing the listing process.

Mr. Frazer, who also headed the endangered species program during Mr. Bush’s first years in office, was demoted to liaison to the United States Geological Survey from 2004 to 2008.

Conservationists say that President Obama is somewhat more supportive. But activists, not the government, are behind the law’s revival. During Mr. Bush’s presidency and early in Mr. Obama’s, the Center for Biological Diversity and a Colorado group, WildEarth Guardians, went on the offense, bombarding the wildlife agency with demands to consider hundreds of new species for endangered status.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service said it could not respond within legal time limits, the conservation groups sued to force a response, reaching the 2011 settlement after lengthy negotiations.

Should many of the 800-plus species listed in the settlement be granted federal protection, as seems most likely eventually, the endangered list could increase as much as 60 percent — and encompass more territory than ever before.

That could prompt a salvo of legal challenges to listings from businesses and conservative activists. They say that a greatly expanded endangered species list is almost certain to affect more areas and lead to more responses from affected industries.

“Once they start listing these critters, they’re going to set off reactions,” Mr. Parenteau said. “There’s no way they can insulate themselves from being challenged.”

The petroleum industry has already raised concerns about the potential listing of two species, the lesser prairie chicken and the Gunnison sage-grouse, whose habitats, stretching across the Great Plains and Southwest, have been carved up by farms, oil exploration and other development. The wildlife service is poised to decide by September whether the sage-grouse will join the endangered list and whether to declare more than 2,600 square miles of its range “critical habitat.” Such habitats can require special efforts to protect imperiled species, but large portions, including all existing developed land, are excluded.

In a November letter asking for a public hearing on the settlement, the Independent Petroleum Association of America warned that “the pure depth and breadth of these settlement agreements could harm our membership” and slow oil and gas exploration.

A spokeswoman, Julia Bell, added, however, that the industry and state governments were making voluntary conservation efforts in hopes of heading off federal action.

Developers are increasingly anxious over the possible listing of more than 400 mussels that live in rivers close to urban areas, mainly in the Southeast.

“You’re looking at a doubling of species in areas that are economically stressed” from the collapse of the housing market, Michael Mittelholzer, an assistant staff vice president at the National Association of Home Builders, said in an interview.

Developers who build near endangered species can be required by the Clean Water Act and other measures to acquire federal permits and to avoid adversely affecting imperiled wildlife. Mr. Mittelholzer said acquiring permits is lengthy and complex, and the definition of adverse impact vague.

“Put that in the context of an industry trying to show some green shoots, and it could be very difficult,” he said.

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« Reply #334 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:01 AM »

The Earth is on track to to be the hottest it’s been in 11.3 millennia

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 7, 2013 15:27 EST

The Earth is on track to becoming the hottest it has been at any time in the past 11.3 millennia, a period spanning the history of human civilization, a study published Thursday has found.

Based on fossil samples and other data collected from 73 sites around the world, scientists have been able to reconstruct the history of the planet’s temperature from the end of the last Ice Age around 11,000 years ago to the present.

They have determined that the past 10 years have been hotter than 80 percent of the last 11,300 years.

But virtually all the climate models evaluated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict that the Earth’s atmosphere will be hotter in the coming decades than at any time since the end of the Ice Age, no matter what greenhouse gas emission scenario is used, the study found.

“We already knew that on a global scale, Earth is warmer today than it was over much of the past 2,000 years,” said Shaun Marcott, the lead author of the study, which was published in Science.

“Now we know that it is warmer than most of the past 11,300 years. This is of particular interest because the Holocene spans the entire period of human civilization,” said Marcott, who is a post-graduate researcher at Oregon State University.

The data show that temperatures cooled by 0.8 degrees Celsius over the past 5,000 years, but have been rising again in the past 100 years, particularly in the northern hemisphere where land masses and population centers are larger.

The climate models project that average global temperatures will rise by 1.1 to 6.3 degrees Celsius (2.0 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, depending on the level of C02 emissions resulting from human activities, the researchers found.

“What is most troubling is that this warming will be significantly greater than at any time during the past 11,300 years,” said Peter Clark, a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State.

The Earth’s position with respect to the Sun is the main natural factor affecting temperatures during that time, the scientists said.

“During the warmest period of the Holocene, the Earth was positioned such that Northern Hemisphere summers warmed more,” Marcott said.

“As the Earth’s orientation changed, Northern Hemisphere summers became cooler, and we should now be near the bottom of this long-term cooling trend — but obviously, we are not.”

Other studies have concluded that human activities — not natural causes — have been responsible for the warming experienced over the past 50 years.
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« Reply #335 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:02 AM »

Canada’s glaciers could shrink by a fifth by 2100

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 7, 2013 20:11 EST

A fifth of Canada’s glaciers could be gone by the end of the century, a casualty of global warming that would drive a 1.4-inch (3.5-centimeter) rise in sea levels, a study found Thursday.

“Even if we only assume moderate global warming, it is still highly likely that the ice is going to melt at an alarming rate,” lead author Jan Lenaerts said in a statement.

And “the chances of it growing back are very slim,” emphasized the meteorologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

He said the process was both irreversible and self-reinforcing — because the snow and ice in the tundra and in the waters of northern Canada currently help reflect away some of the sun’s heat.

As they disappear, a larger portion of the suns rays will be absorbed by the water and land, which will cause temperatures to soar.

If Canada’s glaciers shrink by 20 percent, as under this scenario, that would correspond to an average global temperature rise of three degrees Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit).

But the temperature jump in the glacial regions of northern Canada would be far higher: eight degrees, according to estimates by Lenaerts, who emphasized that this is not even a worst-case scenario.

Should they disappear entirely, Canada’s glaciers, the third largest ice body in the world, would cause a 7.9-inch rise in sea level.

The scientists urged policymakers to consider the prospect, noting that since 2000, the temperature in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago has risen by one to two degrees Celsius, and the volume of ice has significantly diminished.

“Most attention goes out to Greenland and Antarctica, which is understandable, because they are the two largest ice bodies in the world,” said co-author Michiel van den Broeke, also of the University of Utrecht.

“However, with this research, we want to show that the Canadian glaciers should be included in the calculations for the sea level rise.”

The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a US scientific journal.

Over the least 20 years, sea level has risen on average by more than 2.1 inches, or 0.12 inches a year.

Most of that increase has been attributed to the thermal expansion of water, with just a fifth coming from the melting of the polar ice caps, according to an international study published in November in the US journal Science.

Around two thirds of the melted ice is in Greenland, with the rest in Antarctica, according to the estimates based on satellite images from the US space agency NASA and the European Space Agency.

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« Reply #336 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:03 AM »

Beached sperm whale in Spain dies after eating large amounts of plastic

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 7, 2013 15:36 EST

A 4.5 tonne sperm whale that washed ashore in southern Spain died from ingesting large amounts of plastic sheets used in greenhouses on farms in the region, a scientist said Thursday.

The whale, which came ashore last year on a beach in Andalusia, had over 17 kilogrammes (37 pounds) of garbage blocking its stomach, including some 30 square metres (36 square yards) of plastic canvas, said Renaud de Stephanis, a marine biologist at the Donana Biological Station, which is run by the Spanish National Research Council.

“We quickly realised that it had a real greenhouse inside its stomach. We did not expect it, but it did not surprise us,” he told AFP in a telephone interview.

“There were a dozen metres of plastic rope, plastic sheeting used on the outside of greenhouses, and plastic sheeting used inside and even two flower pots.”

Over 250 marine animals including turtles, dolphins and otters, have problems because of plastic garbage that finds its way into the ocean and which can cause them to choke, de Stephanis said.

Sperm whales, which can be found throughout the Mediterranean Sea, typically feed on squid.

The whale that washed ashore in March 2012 on a beach south of Granada, not far from Almeria, was “in a state of advanced emaciation”, said de Stephanis.

“It was as if it had a rock inside its intestine, nothing could get through. There was so much plastic that it finally exploded,” he added.

Very few large mammals, including only four sperm whales, have been proven to have died because they swallowed plastic waste, de Stephanis said.

The discovery is worrying because it shows that “the sea is full of rubbish” and that waste management systems for plastic, not only in Spain, are not always effective, he said.

“These big plastics crumble and the little pieces also go inside fish. And that is what we end up eating,” said de Stephanis.
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« Reply #337 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:05 AM »

Poaching pushing South African rhino towards edge

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 8, 2013 7:39 EST

South Africa’s white rhino population will begin to decline by 2016 if the current rate of poaching continues, authorities warned on Friday, following the killing of scores of the creatures this year.

The stark warning was issued by the country’s Environment Minister Edna Molewa on the sidelines of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok.

“We think we will start to have problems around the year 2016,” she said, adding 146 rhinos have been killed illegally since the start of the year with 50 suspected poachers arrested over the same period.

Some 668 rhinos were slaughtered in 2012, a grim record that on current trends will be surpassed this year.

The white rhino population is estimated at just over 18,000 and its birth rate is higher than mortality rates, according to Fundisile Mketani, an official from the nation’s Department of the Environment.

But “with this (poaching) trend by 2016 — if we do not stop it — then we will see a decline”, he added. “We will then be in crisis.”

Rhinos are hunted for their horn, which is worth thousands of dollars in Asia where it is believed to have medicinal qualities.

They have been registered since 1977 under Appendix I of CITES, banning the trade in their parts and are one of the key species under scrutiny at the convention, along with African elephants whose numbers have been decimated over recent years.

Horns from the legal trophy hunting of white rhinos in South Africa and neighbouring Swaziland are exempt from the ban — a move some conservationists say has saved the species by encouraging game reserves to maintain large populations.

Kenya had submitted a proposal for a moratorium on the trophy trade, but withdrew it on Thursday.

Molewa “welcomed” the withdrawal of Kenya’s proposal saying it would have ended the use of trophy hunting as a “management tool that can be sustainable and beneficial to the conservation of the species”.

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« Reply #338 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:10 AM »

Record rise in CO2 emissions sounds climate change alarm

Hopes for 'safe' temperature increase within 2C fade as Hawaii station documents second-greatest emissions increase

John Vidal, Friday 8 March 2013 10.55 GMT   

The chances of the world holding temperature rises to 2C – the level of global warming considered "safe" by scientists – appear to be fading fast with US scientists reporting the second-greatest annual rise in CO2 emissions in 2012.

Carbon dioxide levels measured at at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii jumped by 2.67 parts per million (ppm) in 2012 to 395ppm, said Pieter Tans, who leads the greenhouse gas measurement team for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The record was an increase of 2.93ppm in 1998.

The jump comes as a study published in Science on Thursday looking at global surface temperatures for the past 1,500 years warned that "recent warming is unprecedented", prompting UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, to say that "staggering global temps show urgent need to act. Rapid climate change must be countered with accelerated action."

Tans told the Associated Press the major factor was an increase in fossil fuel use. "It's just a testament to human influence being dominant", he said. "The prospects of keeping climate change below that [two-degree goal] are fading away."
CO2 levels NOAA

Preliminary data for February 2013 show CO2 levels last month standing at their highest ever recorded at Manua Loa, a remote volcano in the Pacific. Last month they reached a record 396.80ppm with a jump of 3.26ppm parts per million between February 2012 and 2013.

Carbon dioxide levels fluctuate seasonally, with the highest levels usually observed in April. Last year the highest level at Mauna Loa was measured at 396.18ppm.

What is disturbing scientists is the the acceleration of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which are occurring in spite of attempts by governments to restrain fossil fuel emissions.

According to the observatory, the average annual rate of increase for the past 10 years has been 2.07ppm – more than double the increase in the 1960s. The average increase in CO2 levels between 1959 to the present was 1.49ppm per year.

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« Reply #339 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:13 AM »

Rare footage of snow leopard recorded in northwest China – video

Footage shows a snow leopard in the mountains of Qinghai Province, China. The images were captured on infrared cameras by wildlife photographer Matse Rangja, who has only managed to film the leopard once before in eight years. Snow leopards are rarely seen by humans and are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's red list of threatened species

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« Reply #340 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:25 AM »

Tougher trade rules to protect turtles win support of nearly 200 nations

Cites vote sees the US and China joining forces to safeguard turtles from collectors, diners and medics

Damian Carrington in Bangkok, Friday 8 March 2013 12.09 GMT   

Nearly 200 countries on Friday voted for tougher trade rules to protect dozens of species of turtles, in a day that saw the US and China joining forces for the first time ever, at an international wildlife summit in Thailand.

Millions of turtles are targeted by obsessive western collectors, seekers of tonics for long life and as food for diners across Asia.

Turtles have already been all but wiped out in the wild in east Asia, driven by the food and traditional medicine markets. Demand has grown at the same fast pace as economies have grown, especially in China, bringing millions more consumers into the market.

The new rules discussed at the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species in Bangkok have come just in time for many species, said Dr Sandra Altherr, a biologist at German wildlife group, Pro Wildlife. "Many of the turtles discussed today will be on sale tomorrow, at the world's biggest reptile fair in Germany, and fetching prices up to €10,000," she said. "Their life strategy is to live for a long time, so their reproduction is slow and they just can't stand this exploitation."

Turtles' famed longevity has been double-edged, with the animals reputed to extend life and therefore sought after for traditional medicine and prized dishes. The variety and beauty of their shells also makes them highly attractive to collectors, which drives some turtles into a death spiral as the last remaining specimens become ever more valuable.

Much of the trade is illegal, and many turtles die in transit to their market, but it continues on a massive scale due to lack of enforcement. The US told the Cites summit that the "boom-and-bust" pattern of the trade – in which traders hunt one species to near extinction before moving on to another – was spreading out from south-east Asia to the rest of the world. Turtles, also suffering the rapid loss of their habitats in rivers, lakes and coasts, are now the most endangered vertebrates in the world.

China and the US, joining forces for the first time ever at Cites, led the way in boosting protection for 30 species of freshwater box turtles, small animals used for traditional medicine and food in Asia.

The same duo also backed new restrictions on the trade of eight species of soft-shelled turtles, some of which are over a metre in length. Soft-shell turtles are considered to be the tastiest by Asian consumers, but many species are headed towards extinction in the wild. Biologists from 45 nations had backed the ban. Hundreds of millions of soft-shelled turtles are now farmed in China, but wild turtles have remained under heavy pressure.

Among the turtles benefiting from new restrictions on trade is Indonesia's Roti Island snake-necked turtle, whose population has been decimated by the pet trade. At the German reptile fair, this species is listed for sale at €2,000 per animal. But Indonesia resisted US attempts at even tougher rules, saying highlighting its rarity would only encourage collectors. "It would lead to increased hunting and more hunting in the wild," said Indonesia's delegate, adding it was attempting to reintroduce the turtle into the wild.

All international trade in this turtle has now effectively been banned, as has trade in Vietnam's very colourful Indochinese box turtle, Annam leaf turtle and big-headed turtles, the latter being found only in high mountain streams. The Burmese star tortoise, whose unfortunate beauty has driven prices to $1,500 per animal in the pet trade, is now one of the rarest in the world. It was also banned from exports.

The international trade in other turtles was not banned but regulated for the first time, ending a damaging free-for-all. The spotted turtle and Blanding's turtle gained this protection, as did the diamond back terrapin, all of which live in the US and Canada. The export of these turtles from the US has tripled in the last decade, with thousands being shipped out each year.

Japan, often seen as a block on increased protection of wildlife, made a little Cites history. For the first time for any species, it asked the world's governments to help protect the rare Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle, which has suffered from the loss of its forest habitat and the poaching for the pet trade.

"For the pet trade, this new protection is a really big help," said Altherr, noting that western pet markets were quite closely monitored. "But for food trade it may not have so much of an effect. It is very hard to control and additionally some of the turtles are very hard to tell apart."

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« Reply #341 on: Mar 11, 2013, 08:18 AM »

Indian coal power plants kill 120,000 people a year, says Greenpeace

Environmental group's report on pollution in the country warns emissions may cause 20m new asthma cases a year

John Vidal   
The Guardian, Sunday 10 March 2013 21.03 GMT   

India's breakneck pace of industrialisation is causing a public health crisis with 80-120,000 premature deaths and 20m new asthma cases a year due to air pollution from coal power plants, a Greenpeace report warns.

The first study of the health impact of India's dash for coal, conducted by a former World Bank head of pollution, says the plants cost hospitals $3.3-$4.6bn (£2.2-£3.1bn) a year — a figure certain to rise as the coal industry struggles to keep up with demand for electricity.

The Delhi and Kolkata regions were found to be the most polluted but Mumbai, western Maharashtra, Eastern Andhra Pradesh and the Chandrapur- Nagpur region in Vidarbha were all affected.

The study, which took data from 111 major power plants, says there is barely any regulation or inspection of pollution. "Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved, and millions of asthma attacks, heart attacks, hospitalisations, lost workdays and associated costs to society could be avoided, with the use of cleaner fuels, [and] stricter emission standards and the installation and use of the technologies required to achieve substantial reductions in these pollutants," said the report. "There is a conspicuous lack of regulations for power plant stack emissions. Enforcement of what standards [which] do exist, is nearly non-existent," it says.

India is the world's second largest coal burner after China, generating 210 GW of electricity a year, mostly from coal. But it is likely to become the largest if plans to generate a further 160 GW annually are approved.

"Thousands of lives can be saved every year if India tightens its emissions standards, introduces limits for pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury and institutes mandatory monitoring of emissions at plant stacks," said the report's author, Sarath Guttikunda, a former head of the World Bank's pollution division.

Nearly 400 million people in India have no electricity and power outages are common. The pressure to generate power has led to tens of thousands of homes being moved to make way for mines or plants. There are complaints that the power is mostly exported to large cities and heavy industry while local people are left with pollution and toxic dumps.

Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace said: "The ongoing coal expansion is irrational and dangerous. Coal mining is destroying India's forests, tribal communities and endangered species, and now we know the pollution it emits when burned is killing thousands. Coal has failed to deliver energy security. We need a moratorium on new coal plants and ambitious policy incentives to unlock the huge potential India has in efficiency measures, wind and solar."

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« Reply #342 on: Mar 11, 2013, 08:21 AM »

Study shows bee venom can destroy HIV

By Arturo Garcia
Saturday, March 9, 2013 19:09 EDT

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri said on Friday that bee venom could be used to deliver a fatal sting to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) following the results of a new study.

According to The Huffington Post, the study demonstrated that melittin, a toxin found in the venom, can help smaller particles penetrate the protective envelope around HIV, and subsequently destroy it.

“We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” said research instructor Dr. Joshua L. Hood, one of the study’s authors, in a release. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to that. The virus has to have a protective coat, a double-layered membrane that covers the virus.”

The study by Hood and his team, published in the journal Antiviral Therapy on Thursday, said their findings indicate nanoparticles loaded with melittin have the potential to be used against HIV infections that have resisted treatment via medication, since they can be injected into a patient’s body intravenously.

University officials said the study also pointed toward the development of a vaginal gel that could stop the spread of HIV, the precursor to AIDS.

“Our hope is that in places where HIV is running rampant, people could use this gel as a preventive measure to stop the initial infection,” Hood said.

Watch Newsy Science’s report on the findings by Hood’s team, posted on Saturday, below.

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« Reply #343 on: Mar 13, 2013, 06:02 AM »

Asia-Pacfic nations face major water security crisis: development bank

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 6:59 EDT

Nearly two thirds of people in the Asia-Pacific region have no clean, piped water at home despite the region’s strong economic growth, according to a major report released on Wednesday.

Water security is a major concern for most countries in the region, but the problem is poor management and a lack of investment in infrastructure rather than short supplies, said the report released by the Asian Development Bank.

“What is lacking in Asia is good water governance,” Ranesh Vaidya, a water specialist from Nepal who helped prepare the report, told journalists at its launch at the ADB headquarters in Manila.

“There is a definite link between good governance and good water.”

Studies for the Asian Water Development Outlook report, prepared by the ADB and other research institutes, found that 37 out of 49 countries in the region had low levels of water security.

The percentage of Asia’s population with access to proper toilets had risen from 36 percent in 1990 to 58 percent in 2010, according to the report.

But that left 1.74 billion people without regular access to proper toilets, with nearly half of those still suffering “the indignity of practicing open defecation”.

It said most of those people were in South Asia.

In contrast, Southeast Asia and East Asia were described as “bright spots”, where access to proper toilets had expanded to at least 64 percent of their populations, the report said.

The report said 900 million people across the Asia-Pacific had gained access to clean, piped water from 1990 to 2010, describing this as an important achievement.

However 65 percent of people across the Asia Pacific still lived without secure household water supplies.

The situation was particularly dire in Pacific and South Asian nations where only 21 and 23 percent of their populations respectively had access to piped water.

“While the Asia-Pacific region has become an economic powerhouse, it is alarming that no developing country in the region can be considered water secure,” ADB vice president for sustainable development Bindu Lohani said.

“Countries must urgently improve water governance through inspired leadership and creative policy making.”

The report said $59 billion needed to be spent across the region to get water supplies up to standard, and another $71 billion to improve sanitation.


March 12, 2013

Rains or Not, India Is Falling Short on Drinkable Water


CHERRAPUNJI, India — Almost no place on Earth gets more rain than this small hill town. Nearly 40 feet falls every year — more than 12 times what Seattle gets. Storms often drop more than a foot a day. The monsoon is epic.

But during the dry season from November through March, many in this corner of India struggle to find water. Some are forced to walk long distances to fill jugs in springs or streams. Taps in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya State, spout water for just a few hours a day. And when it arrives, the water is often not drinkable.

That people in one of the rainiest places on the planet struggle to get potable water is emblematic of the profound water challenges that India faces. Every year, about 600,000 Indian children die because of diarrhea or pneumonia, often caused by toxic water and poor hygiene, according to Unicef.

Half of the water supply in rural areas, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, is routinely contaminated with toxic bacteria. Employment in manufacturing in India has declined in recent years, and a prime reason may be the difficulty companies face getting water.

And India’s water problems are likely to worsen. A report that McKinsey & Company helped to write predicted that India would need to double its water-generation capacity by the year 2030 to meet the demands of its surging population.

A separate analysis concluded that groundwater supplies in many of India’s cities — including Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai — are declining at such a rapid rate that they may run dry within a few years.

The water situation in Gurgaon, the new mega-city south of Delhi, became so acute last year that a judge ordered a halt to new construction until projects could prove they were using recycled water instead of groundwater.

On Feb. 28, India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, proposed providing $2.8 billion to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in the coming fiscal year, a 17 percent increase.

But water experts describe this as very little in a country where more than 100 million people scrounge for water from unimproved sources.

Some water problems stem from India’s difficult geography. Vast parts of the country are arid, and India has just 4 percent of the world’s fresh water shared among 16 percent of its people.

But the country’s struggle to provide water security to the 2.6 million residents of Meghalaya, blessed with more rain than almost any place, shows that the problems are not all environmental.

Arphisha lives in Sohrarim, a village in Meghalaya, and she must walk a mile during the dry season to the local spring, a trip she makes four to five times a day. Sometimes her husband fetches water in the morning, but mostly the task is left to her. Indeed, fetching water is mostly women’s work in India.

On a recent day, Arphisha, who has only one name, took the family laundry to the spring, which is a pipe set in a cement abutment. While her 2-year-old son, Kevinson, played nearby, Arphisha beat clothes on a cement and stone platform in front of the spring. Her home has electricity several hours a day and heat from a coal stove. But there is no running water. When it rains, she uses a barrel to capture runoff from her roof.

“It’s nice having the sunshine now, but my life is much easier during the monsoon,” she said.

Kevinson interrupted her work by bringing her an empty plastic bottle. “Water,” he said. Arphisha bent down, filled the bottle and gave it back to him. “Say, ‘Thank you,’ ” she said. “Say, ‘Thank you.’ ” When he silently drank, turned and went back to playing, Arphisha laughed and shrugged her shoulders.

In the somewhat larger town of Mawmihthied several miles away, Khrawbok, the village headman, walked nearly a mile on a goat path to point out the spring most residents visit to get drinking water. Taps in Mawmihthied have running water for two hours every morning, but the water is not fit to drink.

Khrawbok said that officials would like to provide better water, but that there was no money.

Even in India’s great cities, water problems are endemic, in part because system maintenance is nearly nonexistent. Water plants in New Delhi, for instance, generate far more water per customer than many cities in Europe, but taps in the city operate on average just three hours a day because 30 percent to 70 percent of the water is lost to leaky pipes and theft.

As a result, many residents install pumps to pull as much water out of the pipes as possible. But those pumps also suck contaminants from surrounding soil.

The collective annual costs of pumps and other such measures are three times what the city would need to maintain its water system adequately, said Smita Misra, a senior economist at the World Bank.

“India is lagging far behind the rest of the world in providing water and sanitation both to its rural and urban populations,” Ms. Misra said. “Not one city in India provides water on an all-day, everyday basis.”

And even as towns and cities increase water supplies, most fail to build the far more expensive infrastructure to treat sewage. So as families connect their homes to new water lines and build toilets, many flush the resulting untreated sewage into the nearest creek, making many of the less sophisticated water systems that much more dangerous.

“As drinking water reaches more households, all the resulting sewage has become a huge problem,” said Tatiana Gallego-Lizon, a principal urban development specialist at the Asian Development Bank.

In Meghalaya, efforts to improve the area’s water supply have been stymied by bickering among competing government agencies, said John F. Kharshiing, chairman of the Grand Council of Chiefs of Meghalaya. In one infamous example, the state built a pump near a river to bring water to towns at higher elevations.

“But they didn’t realize that the pump would be underwater during the monsoon,” Mr. Kharshiing said. “So it shorted out that first year, and it’s never been used since.”

Sruthi Gottipati contributed reporting from Meghalaya State, India.
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« Reply #344 on: Mar 13, 2013, 06:05 AM »

India farmers think big but grow micro to enrich their soil

Agriculture in Karnataka is enjoying a spurt in productivity as farmers rejuvenate the soil using micronutrients

Mark Tran in Bengaluru
Wednesday 13 March 2013 07.00 GMT     

Bursting at the seams, choked with traffic, luxury towers under construction advertising helipads … Bengaluru, India's IT capital, basks in the limelight in the south-west state of Karnataka. Yet the agricultural sector is also attracting attention for a spurt in productivity following a period of stagnation.

Since 2009, India's eighth largest state, with a population of 61 million people, has pursued an agricultural programme called Bhoo Chetana, or soil rejuvenation, that has seen productivity shoot up by 20-50%, according to state officials. The gross value of crop production increased by $130m (£87.5m) in 2011. Its achievements have been recognised by the central government and attracted the interest of the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh and, further afield, the Philippines.

Such gains are particularly striking as Karnataka's mostly smallholder farmers – who typically farm 1-1.5 hectares (2.4-3.7 acres) – depend heavily on monsoon rains, which have become increasingly erratic due to climate change. Such "marginal" farms in India comprise 62% of all holdings and occupy 17% of farmed land. Karnataka, where 56% of the state's workforce is in farming, has the second largest area (5m hectares) under rain-fed agriculture after Rajasthan.

Some areas in Karnataka have suffered drought in six of the past 10 years. Growth in the farm sector in the past three years could hold lessons for other dryland areas – 80% of the cultivable area in the world depends on rain-fed agriculture.

The name Bhoo Chetana was coined by Suhas Wani, principal scientist at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) based in Hyderabad. Icrisat specialises in so-called orphan crops such as chickpeas and pigeon peas for dry regions. His is one of 15 centres under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Bhoo Chetana's genesis came through a chance encounter between Wani and Karnataka's minister of agriculture, Umesh Katti, in 2003. Katti had expressed interest in Wani's work in water conservation for farming as he was looking for ways to revive Karnataka's farm sector, which had stagnated after droughts, when he learned of Bhoo Chetana. So, with determination for change at Karnataka's top political levels, and the scientific knowhow, the programme was born.

The rationale is that farmers can increase productivity and income through the judicious use of micronutrients, such as zinc, boron and sulphur, while simultaneously reducing the use of fertilisers, such as nitrogen and potash, that contaminate ground water – one of the unintended consequences of the green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

"In the first year we took samples from six districts, by the third year we had samples from all 30 [Karnataka districts]," Wani, who has spent most of his working life at Icrisat, says. "By the end, we had 95,000 soil samples of about 2kg from selected villages, which were analysed in our labs. It's the first time soil sampling has been done on this scale in a developing country."

The farmers collected the samples, encouraging grassroots participation from the start. Once the samples were examined, Wani and his colleagues recommended how much fertiliser and micronutrients to use for different areas in different districts.

"If we found the soil in one area has enough potash, there is no need to apply it, as it will end up in the water. The farmer saves money as well, while increasing yield through the use of micronutrients," Wani says.

Having the information is one thing, getting it to farmers is another. To spread the word, Karnataka hired, on a seasonal basis, "farmer facilitators" from within communities rather than outsiders, on the assumption that villagers were more likely to listen to their peers than strangers.

These 10,000 facilitators, each covering about 500 hectares, are the link between the state authority and its farmers. They are backed up by a logistical effort as the state prepositions seeds of chickpea, finger millet, maize and groundnut ready for planting, as well as fertiliser and micronutrients. Noticeboards have been erected in villages outlining the quantities of fertilisers and micronutrients to use.

Ravi Kakiyayya, who also grows coconut – this part of Karnataka is covered in coconut plantations – did not know about micronutrients until Bhoo Chetana. From the district of Hassan, a three-hour drive from Bengaluru, Kakiyayya was reluctant and it took five meetings with a facilitator before he started using micronutrients on his maize. But after boosting his yield and making an extra 9,000 rupees (£108) last year, he is a convert.

"It was the information from the facilitator that made me change my mind. I also reduced my spending on fertiliser by 50% because prices have doubled," he says. "Now I want to grow potato and banana."

The facilitator who persuaded him is Geetha Vasanth Kumar. The mother of two says she made an extra 10,000 rupees using Bhoo Chetana techniques. Of the 500 farmers she talked to, she succeeded in persuading three-quarters of them. For her work, which typically lasts six months, Kumar was paid 150 rupees (£1.80) a day. Facilitators also spread the word on techniques such as vermicompost (made from earthworms feeding on organic matter) as an alternative to chemical fertilisers.

Bhoo Chetana receives support in state subsidies. The farmer pays only half of the price of the micronutrients, with the state government picking up the rest. State officials insist there are no plans to withdraw subsidies, but some question whether smallholder farmers will continue using micronutrients if subsidies are withdrawn. The state spends a fifth of its budget on agriculture.

Some farmers say that although their yields have increased, they remain at the mercy of middlemen who charge high interest rates on fertilisers and micronutrients. Farmers are locked into selling their produce to middlemen in return for loans.

"We are not getting the price that we see advertised on TV or in the newspaper," one farmer, who paid 4% interest a month for fertiliser loans, says. He does not want his son to become a farmer but to work for the state's agricultural department, a reminder that life for smallholder farmers is a grind.

Others say the state government should be pushing for more organic farming. Karnataka has identified 100 hectares for organic villages, but this is a separate programme from Bhoo Chetana. For KP Suresha, executive director of the Green Foundation, a group in Karnataka that promotes traditional seed varieties, this is a missed opportunity.

A critic of the green revolution and its reliance on fertilisers, Suresha says: "100 hectares set aside for organic farming looks great compared to other states, but it is still not a lot and it is not part of Bhoo Chetana. Still, Bhoo Chetana is a remarkable initiative although it could do with more integration with watershed management and organic farming."

For SV Ranganath, the top civil servant in Karnataka, Bhoo Chetana has been a "game changer", transforming what was the state's achilles' heel into a sector growing at 5-7.8% compound rate.

"60% of our people are in farming. If we can make an impact in agriculture, we can definitely make an impact on inclusive growth," he says in the legislative building, Vidhana Soudha. "The challenge is: can we have this rate of growth over the next 20 years? Can we get to the point where a rural family of five will be able to make 200,000 rupees? Because that is the need of the hour."

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