Saturday, April 25, 2020

ANZAC DAY – three songs for soldiers

Originally this solemn day was about honouring the soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who fought in the First World War. Go to any small country town and you will see elaborate war memorials which reflect the huge toll this war took on what was then a very small colony. Out of a population of  four million people, 38.7% of young males enlisted of whom almost 65% either died, were wounded or remained missing, the highest casualty rate for any country.

Since then the day has come to include all those men and women who have served in all the wars since. Usually this involves street parades and a dawn and evening service with the haunting “Last Post” being played at sunset, but this year it is being celebrated with a virtual ceremony instead.

Though I’m not in favour of war or excessive nationalism, I think we should think about and mourn the loss of lives, the sacrifices people made, the families left behind and those who were wounded or are still suffering, and so it is to them that I would like to dedicate these songs.


Part of the proceeds from the purchase of this song go towards helping veterans. If you were moved by it, you may want to make a donation to an organisation like Soldier On, which helps veterans and their families in daily life. The suicide rate for veterans is 20% higher than the national average, with more former military personnel dying than were killed in combat between 2001 and 2016. Recent calls for a Royal Commission into this have now led to an enquiry being undertaken.

Lest we forget

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Water and Agriculture - 1 Rethinking what we eat - Meat and Dairy


Happy Earth Day, Everyone!

I truly can't think of a better day to be discussing water and agriculture.

According to the World Bank, agriculture uses about 70% of the world's water, while households only average around 17% and industry 13%.  With many people already struggling to get enough to eat, the World Bank estimates that if we continue on our present course, we will need 50% more land and 15% more water by 2050. However, the world is not just becoming more crowded. As people grow more affluent as some one billion people have over the last two decades, they are also demanding a richer diet which includes more meat and dairy, the thirstiest 'crops' of all.

Some gains can be achieved by making better use of the water we have. Israel for instance, has long pioneered drip irrigation to minimise water use, and farmers in many countries including China are starting to use remote sensing – that is, using satellite data to monitor fields so that they water only precisely where needed and as much as necessary, rather than creating the excessive run -off which often occurs with conventional irrigation. Mulching, shading and growing ground cover to reduce evaporation also make a difference, but one of the biggest differences we could make is to change what we eat. 

What if we ate less Meat and Dairy

According to some reports, it takes 17 times more water to grow one kilo of beef than one kilo of corn. Vegetarian author John Robbins, quoted in John Vidal's Guardian article, says growing one pound of potatoes uses around 60 lbs. of water, wheat 108 lbs, and rice around 229 lbs, but it takes around 1,000 litres of water to make just one litre of milk (or 90 gallons of water to produce one gallon of yoghurt if you prefer) and 639 gallons to make one hamburger, not counting the water  needed to grow the grain used to feed the animals while they are producing it. Click on the link for a detailed account of what would happen if the whole world became vegetarian. Otherwise the following clip covers most of the key points.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that. Some of the land would be needed to grow alternative foods and some of these, like almonds for example, also use a lot of water. Rocky or cold regions which aren't suitable for cropping may still support some grazing, and the manure from animals could enrich soils. On the other hand, too much livestock on poor ground can lead to desertification and most lost nutrients can also be replaced by planting legumes. In some countries farm animals are not only a source of income, but also supply fuel and motive power and in some countries - Mongolia for instance, animal husbandry is not just an important part of the culture, but the very basis of it. We would also lose some animal by -products such as leather, fats for making soap and so on.

Still, on the whole, the world could feed twice as many vegetarians as meat eaters and many people, especially young people in developed countries are switching for health reasons and out of concern for the animals which are often raised in appalling conditions. Other environmental benefits would include reducing greenhouse gases by the amount currently being put out by all of the world's cars, trucks and aeroplanes, and reducing the need to keep cutting down rainforests, which not only influence the weather, but are keys to retaining biodiversity. Domesticated animals wouldn't need to be killed off. Farmers would simply raise fewer of them and gradually diversify into other crops. 

[Our household isn't quite there yet, but we have cut our meat consumption by about three quarters, both by halving portions and by having meat on only one or two days a week]. 
Coming soon "What's for Breakfast?"....

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Greening Wastelands – The Fairy Garden revisited

Not into green roofs, or can't do it at your place? Here's a way in which individuals and small communities can do more to make the most of storm water and waste ground.
During my latest officially approved walk I visited what we used to call the “Fairy Garden" until the council gave it a brutal short back and sides about five years ago. Well I'm pleased to report that it’s starting to recover quite nicely. Reeds and native plants have softened its edges. Frogs, birds, butterflies and crickets have begun to return and it is once again a little bit of nature in the city. Humans are not excluded either. There are seats, a nicely weathered picnic table, a discreet rubbish bin and signage. It was such a delight to be there today when we can’t go far afield and I take back whatever nasty things I said about the city council last time. It shows what can be achieved with a little time and effort. However, it's much more than just a pretty face.

How it looked in 2015 after the council had cut down the trees

The native plants need little attention and tolerate drought and flood better than most. Apart from improving air quality in the city by trapping pollutants, generating oxygen and absorbing CO2, they also help to cool it. With buildings and roads absorbing more heat, cities are often up to five degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. The vegetation not only slows the rapid flow of water – and we have had some serious flooding in the city in recent times, but prevents our sewerage system from being overwhelmed and stops our topsoil washing off into the sea.

Even the fairies are back -a little older than last time, but just as lovely

Well, I’ve been thinking…..  Our local school already does this nice thing where each year First Graders grow acorns from a tree at the school and at the end of the year, when Sixth Graders leave to go to High School, they are given a well -established tree as a reminder of their Primary School Years. What if all schools taught children not only to grow trees but planted them as well? How lovely would that be.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Why we need Green Roofs ......

Green roofs improve the urban environment – so why don't all buildings have them?

[This article is republished with kind permission from The Conversation – see below*]

Michael Hardman, University of Salford and Nick Davies, University of Salford

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17% each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.


              An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox.
              Michael Hardman, Author provided

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation. 

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.



Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.The Conversation

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

More About Water... 2 – Protecting our liquid assets

Yes, you could buy a low flow shower -head and only shower once a week and thus reduce your personal consumption, but while the latter may encourage social distancing, it will barely make a dent in water consumption while populations continue to grow and become increasingly urbanised. This is particularly so if wealth and expectations keep rising and people start wanting swimming pools, green playing fields and golf courses and an ever increasing range of appliances such as washing machines dishwashers and air conditioners, which not only consume vast amounts of water themselves in manufacture and use, but demand electricity consumption as well. Power demand will in turn require water impoundments in the case of hydro -electric schemes or water consumption in the form of cooling towers for nuclear power stations or settling ponds and the like in case of coal fired ones, not to mention water consumed in related mining.

Protecting Water Sources and Watercourses
To even hope to meet future water needs, we must first of all protect our watersheds and wetlands to ensure maximum water retention and protection from pollution. In developed countries this usually means that there are stringent planning controls and environmental regulations to prevent building or industrial development occurring within catchments or upriver. While walking and some recreational pursuits such as fishing are allowed, tree cover is left to filter the water.
Harnessing Flood Waters

Secondly, we must attempt to capture more of our flood waters, especially as hundred -year floods become more frequent and costly. While tree planting and the creation of artificial wetlands will slow flood waters down and allow more water to be absorbed by soils, cities can do much more. “Green roofs” which are popular in Hong Kong, not only absorb 60 -100% of run –off, but improve air quality, cool the city, provide fresh produce and add beauty to the densely settled city.  The City of Utrecht, previously mentioned in connection with its bee -friendly bus shelters, is now planning to do the same thing with its roofs and they have been catching on all over the world.

Thirdly, we must prevent pollutants reaching our waterways. Once upon a time when urban populations were much smaller, “dilution was the solution to pollution” and all waste, particularly human waste was simply dumped into rivers.  As populations have grown, this is no longer acceptable. Not only does eutrophication result, making it toxic to fish and other aquatic life, livestock and humans, but there is the risk of disease resulting from an excess of pathogens and parasites. When polluted rivers reach the sea, they create vast dead zones where marine life can no longer flourish and livelihoods from fishing, fish farming and oyster production are lost.  Seepage from latrines and septic tanks can also find its way into rivers and ground water to create similar health problems. 

Preventing Contamination

Despite the UN working very hard over several decades to provide water and sanitation to the world’s poorest people and 60% of the world's population now being connected to some type of sewage system, 80 – 95% of the population still does not have secondary sewerage treatment and this is estimated to be responsible for around 800,000 deaths  a year.  Death and disease from industrial sources can likewise come via surface or ground water and should be segregated by impervious barriers if it is not possible to decontaminate them.  Recycling and sewerage works can have many positive benefits which I’ll write about more fully in a later chapter.  In the absence of such facilities, the next best thing is to use wetlands – natural or manmade, or mangroves to filter the water before it reaches lakes or rivers. New Zealand, which had a major problem with rapid deterioration of its rivers after it switched to more dairy farming rather than sheep grazing - more abstraction, more effluent and then more algal blooms, has now created depots along the highway for the dumping of livestock effluent which is then presumably reprocessed or returned to the soil, rather than being allowed to flow into rivers unchecked. 

Minimising Evaporation

Lastly, we must ensure that as little water as possible evaporates. Large bodies of water such as hydro -electric schemes lose a good proportion of their contents to evaporation. Smaller, deeper dams help to avoid this as does covering them in some way.  With help from the Italian Agency for Co -operation and Development, Egypt has managed to achieve a double win for the environment by installing solar panels over its irrigation channels, thereby reducing evaporation while generating low cost renewable electricity to operate the pumps needed to pump water to the surface.  Of course it goes without saying that irrigation channels and pipes must be maintained in good repair to prevent leakages from that source. 

More on water and agriculture shortly....