Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Saving Turtles

Wouldn’t you know it. The day I finally got around to writing about bees was actually World Turtle Day. Survivors since the age of the dinosaurs, turtles are gentle, amazing and long lived creatures with some species able to live up to two hundred years. Some can swim 35 MPH and swim very long distances [see more turtle facts here], yet like so many other creatures, they are also facing extinction as a result of human activity. Seventy per cent of the world's 350 species are endangered, including the Hawksbill, the Loggerhead and the Green.

For example, with respect to the Australian Sea Turtle, aka the Green Turtle, beaches are now getting so hot as a result of climate change, that many of their eggs no longer hatch and those that do turn into females. That gender imbalance may further limit their capacity to breed in future. As with so many other species habitat destruction is another factor - polluted water, waterfront development, people and their dogs trampling the margins of beaches where turtles lay their eggs or preventing young hatchlings from reaching the water, all contribute to their decline. They are also at risk from  factory fishing where they end up as bycatch or get caught in the nets of long line trawlers. Accidental encounters with seagoing vessels, oil spills and offshore drilling are additional concerns, together with run -off from farms and sewerage outfalls.

Plastic bags - the white death

Another major threat comes from plastic pollution, particularly those opaque plastic bags which look like jellyfish to a turtle, jellyfish being a natural part of their diet. Once these bags are ingested, they distend in the turtle’s stomach, and the turtle starves to death. Others die because they become entangled in fishing line, ropes or nets. 

It's been estimated that there are more than 100 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. Since 2002 some 127 countries have taken some action to limit the proliferation of plastic bags. Seventy four of them have banned them completely and 37 countries have introduced charges to dissuade people from using them, yet the amount of plastic in our oceans has not only not diminished, but doubled in the last twenty years. Much of this is due to exemptions for food packaging and the like. For this reason, some countries such as India and Australia are now calling on producers to take more responsibility, rather than relying solely on consumers to do the right thing.

The illegal wildlife trade

I heard recently -  it may have been on David Attenborough's doco on Pangolins, that wildlife smuggling now accounts for more dark money globally than drug smuggling and human trafficking combined. Unfortunately, turtles and tortoises are not exempt. On International Turtle Day of all days, Filipino customs officials found some 1500 turtles and tortoises abandoned at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. [One hopes that they looked on the other days as well] and only a week before Mexican authorities intercepted a shipment of 15,000 turtles of several different species bound for China. Malaysia also disrupted a  shipment of thousands of turtles last May.  Turtles are regarded as a delicacy, an aphrodisiac and as a component of traditional medicine in several Asian countries, though some animals are destined for the illegal pet trade too.

Could ending wet markets help?

 “Wet markets” have been blamed for spreading Covid 19 because of their trade in wild animals and hygiene concerns, so a ban on them could also eliminate some of this illicit trade, yet there are fears that this would simply drive it underground, thus education and encouraging changing tastes (preference for vegetarian food for example) would be better options in the long run.

 [That's not to say Westerners aren't above reproach in this regard either, given how some of our farm animals are treated]. Some argue that without such outlets, small producers would have no income, but see Projecto Tamar in Brazil which has solved this problem by employing former poachers and fishermen to protect sea turtles instead.*

As yet, there is little international protection for turtles, though some countries or states have an assortment of statutes.  All species of turtle in Australia have been protected since 1999, with very stringent penalties, though so far this has not been enough to prevent their decline. South Carolina in the USA doesn't allow commercial trapping. Florida doesn't allow wild turtles to be sold.

Apart from urging governments to take stronger action or supporting groups that do, here are some things which you can do to help turtles. Most conservation groups offer similar advice, but these mostly from a travel insurer's site are more comprehensive than most. 

  •  Don’t use plastic bags. Get involved in beach clean ups. If you see a plastic bag on the beach or in a river remove it and dispose of it safely.

    If you are a boating person carry a rubbish bucket with you, not only for your own rubbish, including ropes and bits of fishing line, but also any other debris you find. Make sure your boat isn't losing oil or  diesel.
  •  If you see any turtles on the beach -including hatchlings or eggs, admire them by all means, but please leave them alone. If you are near a beach where turtles are known to nest, turn the lights off at night so that they don’t become disoriented. Don't leave holes from umbrellas or sand castles on the beach when you leave because they can hinder turtles on their way to and from the sea.
  • Stay away from nesting areas flagged by rangers. Report people who appear to be harming, trapping or removing turtles or their eggs. If you really want to get up close and personal with a turtle, visit one of the many sanctuaries and rescue centres -see below, or better still, help them in some way.
  • Limit your use of chemicals because they too end up in our oceans

  • Don’t buy souvenirs or products made from turtle or turtle shell and don't buy turtles from pet shops 

Cerro, one of two Galapagos Tortoises at Perth Zoo recently celebrated his 50th birthday though he is just a teenager in turtle years. The difference between a tortoise and a turtle is that tortoises live on land whereas turtles spend most of their lives in the sea

There are many organizations working to help turtles, too many to mention here. Some such as the Turtle Conservancy which celebrated its 50th birthday on World Turtle Day, are global in scope. Others such as Australia's  Sea Turtle Foundation are more regional. Sea Turtles 991 based in Hawaii, works to save sea turtles in China and the China Sea while Brazil's Projecto Tamar, going since 1980, has so far protected and returned 8 million turtles to the sea. Others work to protect a specific species, while yet others focus on the entire marine environment, including other species. All are important so take your pick and do what you can.

STOPPRESS: Some good news re China 26/5/2020
The good news is that China is starting to tackle this problem. The Chinese Government has instituted a ban on the use of wild animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine, until the details can be worked out and at least three Chinese and two International non – profit organisations are working to have at least endangered species such as Tiger, Rhino and Pangolin parts excluded, as part of a proposal to be put before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature which has had to be postponed until January 2021 because of Covid 19.

Both within China and elsewhere, practitioners of traditional medicine are also calling for substitution with plant materials, which is both possible and more in keeping with the original philosophy of the discipline, as they believe that the use of endangered species is giving this form of medicine a bad name, just as it is gaining wider acceptance in the west. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020


World Bee Day was on May As usual I am a bit late with this. These commemorative days are coming so thick and fast it’s hard to keep up and I haven’t even finished writing about water yet. Still while special days might be great for drawing attention to an issue, that doesn’t mean we should forget about it when the day is over, so let’s pause for a moment to appreciate what bees do for us and the rest of the world and what we can do for them.

Bee worried
Bees don't just make honey. According to the UN they pollinate three quarters of the things we eat and 90% of the world’s flowering plants upon which we and many other species depend. Click here
to find out what would happen in a world without bees.

Despite this, the world has lost around 40% of its bees over the last 15 years, with the USA losing 40% of its managed hives in a single year. The main reasons are habitat loss, the use of pesticides – many countries are still using a group of agricultural chemicals containing neonicotinoids banned in the EU since 2018 because they are known to harm bees. Bees also die from disease and because of climate change which causes some plants to flower earlier or later than usual, or in new ranges beyond the reach of a particular hive.

In Australia, bushfires and drought have also wrought havoc. Beekeepers are calling for help because the loss of forest and pasture has decimated bee populations and left little food for those which remain. As if we needed yet another reason stop logging what is left of our native forests!!

What we can do for bees

Among the best things we can do to encourage bees is to plant native plants and wildflowers and to avoid pesticides. Nor do you have to live in the country. Remember bee -friendly Utrecht? Bee cities are taking off from Chicago to Melbourne, but especially in the USA where there are now 106 of them, along with 96 bee campuses.

In the countryside farmers could consider inter -planting with bee friendly species which may promote higher crop yields too. More eco -friendly farming practices and planting or retaining hedgerows could also help. Even if we must have industrial agriculture and monocultures, please leave a little corner of your property wild. Not only the bees will thank you.  Other pollinators such as butterflies and birds will appreciate it too.

Did someone say wild? I never did like mowing the gorgeous wild poppies, dandelions and mallows which spring up in my backyard. At last I have an excuse to not to do it.

Bee inspired

On a lighter note, listen to French actor Lambert Wilson read Khalil Gibran’s words about bees and pleasure or click here for more

Bee involved
Click here for seeds for bees and some activities for children

Bee Happy   

Friday, May 22, 2020

Making More Water 1 – Desalination

Turning sea water into drinking water -interior of a Reverse Osmosis desalination plant 

Image byJames Grellier / CC BY-SA (

With water demand tipped to exceed supply by 40% by 2050, many countries have been availing themselves of new technology to avert this possibility, particularly when prompted by climate change in the form of more frequent and more severe droughts, drying rivers and higher temperatures. Broadly speaking there are two major ways   – not counting conservation, in which water supplies can be scaled up. The first is desalination – that is, taking sea water or brackish water and turning it into fresh water.  The second involves making better use of waste water.  

Desalination - Costly Magic

Currently there are 137 countries using desalination in one form or another. Already known to the ancient Greeks, the first modern distillation plants appeared in landlocked Kuwait in 1951 to supply water for domestic users. In the 1970's, faced with shrinking aquifers and the drying of its main water source, Israel began to adopt the process in earnest. Initially these plants used thermal distillation – boiling water and capturing the steam as it condenses, a method also adopted by oil rich states such as Saudi Arabia. For most other arid regions a major barrier to wider uptake was the high cost of energy, especially after the price of oil tripled in the 1970's.

In the 1980's another severe drought prompted the use of reverse osmosis (RO), a way of physically filtering water by forcing salt water through tiny membranes which trap salt molecules and other impurities, leaving chemically pure water behind. Israel's Sorek Desal Plant built in 2013 is currently the largest in the world and produces enough water for 3.8 million people.  Having now built a number of plants using this less energy intensive process, which also produces higher yields, Israel  produces enough water not only for its own needs, but has enough to export. It has also shared its expertise with other countries and remains a leader in the field.

International Co operation -India's Minister of State for Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and Parliamentary Affairs, Shri S.S. Ahluwalia, leading a Parliamentary delegation through the Sorek Plant, June 5, 2017
Image Courtesy of Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs (GODL-India)

Too much of a good thing?
In response to the millenial drought, other water -poor regions and cities such as Perth in Western Australia (2006) and Barcelona (2009), soon followed suit, but both infrastructure and energy costs still made such facilities an expensive way to ensure water security. They also added to CO2 emissions thus indirectly contributing to global warming and future droughts. For example, the biggest RO plant outside the Middle East, the Poseidon Desal Plant built in San Diego in 2015, provides enough water for around 400,000 people, but still uses as much power as 30,000 homes. 

To avoid this problem, India developed the first solar powered village -scale RO desalination plant in 2006. However, there are other environmental concerns too. For example, unless placed deep under the surface, the water intakes can be harmful to marine species as can the highly concentrated saline brine and chemicals contained in the outflows. Some mitigation measures may be possible here. 

According to Matt Simon, science writer at Wires, having land - based settling ponds and turning the waste into a useful product, diluting the brine with sea -water before release, or releasing it at high tide or in strong currents would all ensure better dispersal. 

Sorek uses both pre and post treatment to minimise its environmental impact. The San Diego Poseidon plant is now restoring its wetlands which will help to remove pollutants before they reach the sea. With 16,000 desal plants either operating or under construction and projected growth of  9%  over the next four years, we should certainly give these measures some thought.  

In recent years advances in renewable energy, falling costs due to longer lasting membranes and the recapture of energy from the process itself, has made this technology both more affordable and less damaging. In 2019 Saudi Arabia completed the world's largest solar powered reverse osmosis facility - enough to provide water for 150,000 people, but capable of being upscaled to serve many more, at El Khafji in the north east of the country and plans to build eight more. [Sorry if that clip looks like an ad for Siemens - it's the only one which mentions completion rather than the proposal].

The next big thing 'largest in the world' appears to be the Taweelah RO plant in Abu Dhabi, which is to be completed in 2022. It will produce 200 million UK gallons of water per day and be run on 30% to 55% solar, so that water can be produced at lowest cost to date. There are few English language reports on Russia, China and other countries for that matter, but a 2011 report on China says that it had 57 projects either completed or in the pipeline, mostly for industrial purposes, but also to meet the needs of its burgeoning cities.

Could it be that we are witnessing a kind of arms race between the major powers in the provision of water? If that's the case, then I must say I much prefer it to the other kind. If it greens the world's deserts and becomes a path to peace and prosperity, rather than war and division, then I say bring it on.

Making clean water available to all

Despite such advances the cost of desalination is still prohibitive for many, especially for those who need it most, but progress is being made here too. See for example the small plant being demonstrated by Hamza Farrukh below, which can  provide clean drinking water for around 2000 people at a cost of $10K, or the one by Desolenator in the next video, which could supply a small family for $US 450. Both operate on solar panels and need no further inputs. They are also highly transportable which would make them ideal for say, refugee camps or emergencies.

These are excellent solutions for dealing with groundwater or polluted water, but what happens when wells and rivers run dry?