Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Some Thoughts on Refugee Week, June 2020

Although Refugee Week finished on the 20th, many of the videos and online events will be available until the end of the month. I’ll include one or two here, just in case. It’s never too late to share a mealrecipes or inspiring stories or to make people feel welcome.

Currently there are around 70.8 million displaced people in the world, the highest number in recorded history. Some are displaced within their own country (40.3 million) because of land degradation or conflict. We have already encountered some of those who must leave the countryside and move to cities because the land can no longer support them, or because of conflict –four million in Yemen alone, or natural disasters.  Others seek asylum in other countries because of religious or political persecution, such as the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar,  because of their race or ethnicity such as the Hazara in Afghanistan, or even because of their sexual preferences (Nigeria). 

This places great pressure on host countries, particularly if the needs of their own populations for food, work, housing or land, have not been met. This also at least partially explains growing resentment, the rise of nationalistic sentiment, the swing to far right politicians and the rise of groups such as Neo Nazis in parts of Europe. [Similar mass population movements in the 1920s and 30s also led to border closures and contributed to the start of World War II]. 

After World War Two, 11 million people were displaced, far fewer than we have now, and at the time, places like Australia were in desperate need of skilled workers. There was more than enough work to go around, for locals as well as migrants. The political landscape was very different too. With the war still fresh in people’s minds, when Japan had come perilously close to occupying Australia, the attitude of policy makers was “Populate or Perish,” or they would soon be overtaken by waves of immigrants from Asia. Although migrants faced many challenges, most were able to succeed eventually and Australia gained culturally and economically. How boring would life be without good coffee, pizza, curry and sushi? 

The times are harsher now and Covid 19 with its job losses and uncertainty has made acceptance of newcomers more difficult, but imagine having to leave behind your home and your loved ones with no idea whether you will see them again, or where you will end up. Few people would choose this life. Refugees aren’t just numbers, or more people with strange customs and clothes competing for jobs and houses and crowding public transport. Each has a very personal story which will surely break your heart.

Listen to Jamal from Pakistan talk about his gratitude but also his loneliness below.  


 Immigration detention happens when people from other countries arrive without prior approval, or they come on a tourist visa or by illegal means and then decide to stay.  People who arrive by boat or with people smugglers have been sent to offshore islands Manus, Nauru or Christmas Island until their case is proven and someone decides their fate. Unfortunately neither journalists nor other Australians are allowed to visit and thus we hear very little about them. At least all but three of the children in those circumstances have now been released so they can go to school and lead relatively normal lives. Alas, for adults, the picture is not so rosy. While some have been sent to the USA and some have been moved to onshore detention facilities or been returned to their country of origin, only 6,597 of the 27,626 refugees who came to Australia in 2016, have been recognised as asylum seekers, with 29, 590 cases still pending at the time of the 2018 -2019 report.  

Australia and no doubt other countries do first need to investigate whether people’s stories of hardship are true and whether they are of good character or criminals or terrorists, but the process can be extended almost indefinitely. Those who come by boat or without papers face the longest delays and uncertainty as Australia seeks to discourage this and especially people smuggling. For this reason it is far better to go via official channels such as the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) though queues  may also seem impossibly long.

For a success story watch the video about Dr Aameer Sultan, who received a humanitarian award for his work while in detention. 

Any Australians who haven’t seen the ABC drama “Stateless,” (trailer below) should do so now.

In limbo

More problematic is the situation of  2000 or so young women and children – from several countries, including the UK and other European nations and also Canada and Australia, who are now stranded in places like Turkey and Syria because they or their husbands decided to fight for rebel organisation ISIS, with whom Australia and other countries have been in conflict. This has been the case since the fall of Mosul, one of the Caliphate’s last strongholds. Some have had their former citizenship revoked. Other countries aren’t sure if they can trust them and don’t really want them back, but the plight of the children is a major concern, particularly if they have relatives in their country of origin.

Some 200 refugees who arrived by boat in 2013 remain on the island of Nauru

Another ongoing tragedy is the case of a Tamil family from Sri Lanka. The parents Priya and Nades, arrived separately but illegally during the peak of civil war in Sri Lanka in 2013. They married, worked hard and made a home for themselves in the country town of Biloela in central Queensland and then had two little girls. Three years later, after a predawn raid, the government sought to deport them back to Sri Lanka. Fortunately, they had made many friends in the town who were able to halt the immediate deportation, but instead of being allowed to return, the family was banished to immigration detention on Christmas Island, pending an appeal. Despite government assurances that fighting in Sri Lanka has officially ceased, persecution of and discrimination against Tamils continues. 

Another controversial case concerns Nauroze Anees, a Pakistani detainee, who came here on a student visa in 2007. When his Australian partner became ill, he became her full time carer and neglected his studies.  In 2011 immigration authorities cancelled his visa for non -compliance and refused him a partner visa. Admittedly Nauroze had committed some offences while homeless in 2011, but over two years ago the Australian Human Rights Commission found that his prolonged detention under the Immigration Act was ‘arbitrary’ and thus not lawful, but he still hasn't been released. Now Border Security wants the right to strip search detainees, use sniffer dogs and seize mobile phones, computers and any other article it sees fit, ostensibly to prevent criminal activity in detention centres. While there are public telephones in detention centres, this would limit the ability of detainees to communicate with lawyers or loved ones in private, as well as denying them a way to record their experience. As it is, we see little enough of what goes on in our name and there are fears that detention services which are run by private contractors are becoming more secretive and more punitive.

On economic grounds alone, we should try to keep people out of detention, especially off -shore detention. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, offshore processing costs around $1 billion a year, while being in an onshore detention facility costs around $346,000. Living in the community while their claims are assessed and provided they aren't a threat, costs one tenth of that and is better for the individual too. Not surprisingly, many asylum seekers in detention become depressed, even suicidal or develop other long term mental health problems.This seems like a terrible waste of human potential. Indefinite detention has been criticised, as has returning people to places without independent confirmation that they will be safe.

How much better would it be if people didn’t need to leave their homes at all? Instead of spending vast sums of money on keeping people out or in detention, what if we could spend this money on aid and diplomacy to prevent the mass exodus of people in the first place? Imagine if the cost of Trump’s border wall and law enforcement could be used to improve living conditions within Mexico, Central America or Venezuela.   Aid to developing countries could be contingent on their governments helping people within their borders to live in peace, even if their beliefs differ.

Just a fraction of the global arms budgets (around $1.7 trillion I heard recently) would be an even bigger boon, but as the world sinks deeper into economic recession, many countries seem to be moving in the opposite direction. The US for example, has deeply cut both its intake of immigrants as well as its foreign aid, leaving a great deficit both in humanitarian placement and support. This results in crowding and reduced rations in the refugee camps, which also lack among other things, adequate hand -washing facilities to ward off Covid 19. One way for ordinary citizens to help is to donate to UNHCR or if you specifically want to help children, to UNICEF. According to the 2018 report by the Australian Refugee Council, the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum had risen to 100,000 by 2017.  Another way to help is for communities, employers or charities to get together to sponsor individual refugees. See the Refugee Week website for details.

Lastly, a couple of words about Australia, and this is mainly for the benefit of distant authorities who think of it as a vast empty space that needs filling up. As it stands, it has little arable land and little water and can barely accommodate the current and projected populations it already has. Nor is it the easy- going, palm -fringed paradise which is often portrayed on television. Repeated references to it being a rich country also ignores vast disparities in wealth and the fact that it takes thirty years or more to pay off even a modest home.

Although it has managed to assimilate large numbers of immigrants from disparate cultures over many decades, this will not work if we try to assimilate too many people from very different cultures at once. We do not want to recreate the very problems which people are now trying to escape. Despite these reservations, Australia still ranked third among receiving nations in 2016, after the USA and Canada, and accepted almost ten times more than European countries such as Germany (1239)* or Denmark (309) and also New Zealand (404) during the same period. It's also still a only a drop in the ocean of the 1,190,000 or so who were awaiting urgent resettlement.

* There is some confusion here. The above figures come from the UNHCR, yet according to a 2016 report by the BBC, Germany accepted  476,000 refugees in 2015, mostly from Syria and there are thought to be more than a one million immigrants of various categories in Germany in that year. The UN's figures most probably refer to those who sought formal asylum under their auspices, while others await recognition or resettlement before making claims for asylum. There is also a difference between obtaining temporary protection and being allowed to remain permanently. A more recent article in the Washington Post (May, 2019) says that 1.5 million people have arrived in Germany in the past four years. However, it also states that they are now starting to benefit the German economy which is working hard to integrate them, which seems like a much better idea than simply wasting people's lives (and a great deal of money) by keeping them locked up indefinitely.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Preventing Drought and Desertification

Drought: There are many definitions of Drought, the simplest being. "A prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall, leading to shortages of water." However, drought also refers to a lack of soil moisture, causing crops to fail and surface vegetation to die.

Desertification: A process whereby land becomes progressively less fertile usually as result of prolonged drought, deforestation or land degradation. Read More...

Lessons from history
Someone once told me that the Sahara Desert started because of a ship -building frenzy around the Mediterranean especially by the Romans, two thousand years ago, but I couldn’t find any further reference to that until now. Today I read on Wiki, that it was the result of the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire (beginning with the formation of the Roman Republic in 500 BC), and its insatiable demand for timber - not just for ship building, but for housing, for fuel, for heating homes and bathhouses, for the manufacture of goods such as ceramics and glass and also for mining and smelting, which led to the removal of tree cover over ever wider areas including the coastal regions of North Africa.
Agriculture which followed once the trees were gone, delivered the final blow. Until the Romans came along, the world’s population had grown only slowly and had reached only around 6 million prior to 10,000 BC with a life expectancy of 20 (Livi-Bacci: 1997)*, but the Roman Empire grew to 58.6 million and Rome itself was home to one million, a number not attained by any other city until London did so in the mid 1800’s. The Romans needed to feed this large population and soils were soon exhausted. Grazing by livestock prevented natural regeneration of vegetation, leaving bare hillsides. By the 3rd century BC rapid run off had resulted in serious erosion, the creation of unusable marshlands, the silting of harbours and serious flooding, first noted in 241 BC.
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. Some argue that climate change, internal divisions and other factors such as slash and burn agriculture also played a role, but the lessons are instructive non -the -less (see Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” 2005)** and deserve serious consideration as desertification threatens to take over more of the world’s arable land. Luckily, the Romans did not yet use electric light, cars or fossil fuels, or their demise may have come about sooner. 

How to make droughts worse
Deforestation and desertification themselves are believed to contribute to global warming, future droughts and erratic weather. Cutting down trees releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Just the loss of vegetation is believed to account for 4% of global emissions of CO2 as well as increasing wind velocity and dust storms (see below).

      Spectacular dust storm over New South Wales, Jan 2020
Warming causes more rapid evaporation from the soil and more rapid transpiration (moisture loss through leaves). With less rainwater captured by vegetation, there is less water in the ground to evaporate, make clouds and form make rain - this is particularly true of  tropical rainforest in the Amazon, the Congo and Indonesia and as the air becomes hotter and dryer, it contributes to forest fires, drought, fewer crops and ground cover and more desertification. Simply put, less vegetation means less moisture in the soil, and therefore less rainfall,  and farmers would need to clear and cultivate even more land just to produce the same a yield, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Periodic water stress already affects one third of the world’s people – in other countries it is sometimes disguised by intervening  floods, and whether we want to believe it or not, warming is now undeniable, so how can we prevent further drought and desertification? 

Drought Prevention

The above lesson about the Romans does provide some clues as to what we need to do to stop desertification and future droughts
  • Stop felling trees. Restore degraded lands and wetlands. Stop overstocking to avoid trampling and compaction.  Plant those trees. Save native seeds. Plant ground cover or cover crops. Return organic matter to the soil to keep soils porous, hence more able to absorb and retain more moisture. Keep the moisture in by mulching and shading. Experiment with more drought tolerant crops and crops that use less water.
  •  Better management of water resources. Keep irrigation to a minimum because surface water can increase erosion, and when groundwater is used, it tends to bring salts to the surface which also destroy vegetation and fertility. Use drip irrigation or sensors.  If dams must be built make them deep rather than wide, to minimise loss through evaporation. Women in rural Iran are using revenue from handcrafts to restore ancient qanats, the traditional deep wells inside hillsides used to capture floodwaters during the monsoon. Restore watersheds to delay run-off as long as possible. Terracing and contour ploughing reduce run -off and erosion. See for example what Tony Coote and Peter Andrews are doing  to drought proof land. Note also the usefulness of weeds and willows, despite what I say further down about introduced species. native vegetation would be better, but almost anything is better than nothing.

Why we need 'environmental water'
Two small footnotes here regarding profligate water use. The giant mine mentioned in the previous post was given an unlimited licence to draw water for 60 years, without a full impact assessment and without regard for future conditions. As one preliminary report notes:
".. some lagoons in the floodplain will be filled less often if Adani is granted the licence, which will threaten endangered ecosystems.
"This potentially indicates an additional risk not only to the lagoon aquatic ecosystems, but also to other long-lived floodplain water-dependent ecosystems (e.g. floodplain vegetation communities, including some of-concern and endangered remnant regional ecosystems," 
Further north, Cubbie station, the largest irrigated farm in Australia at 230,000 acres, claims to only draw flood waters in flood years. However, its dams hold 480 gigalitres (184,000 Olympic Swimming Pools worth to put that in perspective). That water not seeping into the surrounding land means that it too could change the ecology of the region, by for examplelowering the water table and leaving less to flush the river and recharge aquifers. With other cotton farms in the region also taking water legally and illegally from the troubled Murray - Darling river system, they collectively create a  true “tragedy of the commons.”  
  •   Remove introduced species – rabbits, camels, brumbies and feral goats in Australia’s case, which do great damage to fragile soils and vegetation and compete with native species. However, in the case of vegetation, not before planting something else, preferably native species.

    Here an introduced weed, colloquially known as "Salvation Jane" or "Paterson's Curse" is about the only thing stopping the soil from deteriorating further under predadation by rabbits, though native species would be better

  • Dry and semi -arid lands are the most vulnerable. In some cases, it would be better to pay farmers to stop attempting to farm in such regions, since poverty forces people to over -exploit the soil and they have fewer options to recover financially or seek alternative employment. Income support of this kind has proven effective in parts of rural Brazil. In Africa alternative livelihoods are encouraged such as producing handcrafts or learning trades to enable people to reduce their dependence on the land.
  • Use local knowledge where possible. The traditional African method of mixed planting with trenches to hold water, has proven far more effective in holding back the spread of the Sahara than the great green wall of trees which has been planted, but of which a large number of trees died soon after planting.

    Sand encroaches on the old telegraph station at Eurcla on the Nullabor Plain, Australia once dune cover is gone
On the other hand -a word of caution here. In drought -prone Australia, there are frequent calls to return to Aboriginal land management. This may have been possible  while populations were small -it is estimated that there were only around  750,000 people in scattered nomadic bands at the time of white settlement in 1778), but we should perhaps consider why it remained so after 60,000 years, while populations in the rest of the world burgeoned. Hint: Australia simply cannot naturally support large numbers of people without large inputs of fertiliser and technology. Nor did our First Nations people have large scale mining and mechanised broadacre farms.

Only salt bush still thrives on this marginal land once the tree cover is gone or livetock tramples the ground (Mallee region, North Western Victoria)
  • Prepare for the next drought.  Rather than simply picking up the pieces after the latest round of drought, fires, floods, dust and hailstorms and the like, or merely reacting to the next one, the UN recommends that we start planning now to prevent and prepare for the next one.

    This involves analysing past weather patterns and droughts and taking advantage of the excellent meteorological services and technologies available which allow prediction to a high degree of probability. Ocean temperatures alone, for example, give a fairly reliable warning 3-4 months ahead, which would at least give farmers some idea about whether to plant or how much cattle they could stock without running out of feed or water. Such studies should be done at the national, regional, watershed, municipal and local level with appropriate feedback from those on the ground. Knowledge sharing, education and capacity building are also important. 

    All agencies affected - including power generation, forestry, farmers, the insurance industry, tourism and fire services should be involved and looking at things like - How much water is available? What is the fire risk? Which industries will be vulnerable? How can we overcome shortcomings? And how adequate are our emergency responses? Read more here. Learn how the Australian wine industry worth $2.78 billion a year is already making plans in response to a warming world here.
  • Oh yes, and stop Global Warming. Bring on the renewables and stop burning fossil fuels. Reduce consumption and waste. You have heard enough from me about these things. If we don’t stop doing what we've been doing, we can only expect more unrest and conflict, higher food prices, waves of immigrants, and possibly famine and hunger without even counting the economic cost, loss of productivity, or  loss of biodiversity, not to mention adding to further warming.
 It's difficult for poor people and small nations to take on more powerful actors such as bigger countries or large corporations, so here are some ways in which people are trying to adapt to conditions beyond their control. See for example what Bangladesh is doing, as well as planting  billions of trees, or what one company in South Australia is doing with seawater and solar energy to produce tomatoes all year, regardless of rainfall. (below).

There's just one more thing which I would like to add. Would those countries which are presently preserving their own forests or claiming to be carbon neutral or close to it, but which are doing so by transferring their ecological footprint or manufacturing to countries which are exempt from carbon accounting, please stop doing so.  I won’t name names, but you know who you are. You are not doing us, yourselves, the rest of the world or future generations any favours.  

*Livi- Bacci, M. (1997) “A Concise History of World Population Second Edition” Blackwell Publishers, Malden USA
**Diamond, J.  (2005) "Collapse - how Societies choose to fail or survive" Penguin, London

Monday, June 15, 2020

Making More Water 2 -Water reclamation and reuse

Disaster in the making?

Conflicts over water use are already happening and Australia has already had a taste of what the  future holds. Recently  Adani 's Carmichael coalmine - the largest in Australia, was granted a licence to take 12.5 billion litres of water from the the Suttor River in the Burdekin Basin by the Queensland government, despite already being granted unlimited access to ground water from Australia's Great Artesian Basin for 60 years,  over the objections of farmers and farming communities in our arid interior,who rely on the Artesian Basin as their primary and most reliable source of water. As yet no comprehensive studies on the extent of the Basin have been done, though wells already have to be drilled deeper and deeper.
At the same time, in NSW, on the already very stressed Murray -Darling Basin, a massive 270 km long pipeline is being built to transfer water from it to the town of  Broken Hill. Half this water will also be allocated to mining, while towns and farms along the river itself are deprived of water and farmers are being forced off the land because they cannot compete with large corporations in a commodified water market, where the right to water is not determined by need or the desirability of the end product, but by how much you can pay.  

Since both the Murray –Darling and the Artesian Basin span several states and serve half the country, these scenarios highlight the need for water to be a national responsibility which should not be left up to individual states. We should not only be monitoring quality and quantity far more closely, but also sequestering water for human use and looking at future demand, before offering it to the highest bidder. 

Nor are we the only country facing such dilemmas. China is building 500 km pipelines to divert water from the Yellow River in the south to service Beijing in the country’s arid north, and in Chile the world’s largest mine, BHP’s Escondida is building two pipelines to transfer water from its coastal mines uphill to the Atacama desert - the driest place in the world and 3200m above sea level, because it can no longer take water from the artesian basin beneath it after clashes with other users during severe drought in 2016. Tensions are also apparent between countries over water rights, for example between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Tigris- Euphrates basin, between Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine over the Jordan River and between Egypt and other countries along the Nile. As populations grow and the world grows warmer, how can we meet our future needs without further conflict?

Could reusing waste water be the answer?

Thanks to the miracle of reverse osmosis, mentioned  in connection with desalination, many countries and at least 35 cities are now using recycled water to supplement their supplies.  Israel leads the charge by recycling 90% of its waste water, though other countries such as the USA, Mexico and China lead by volume. While Israel reserves its scarce fresh water supplies for drinking and uses its recycled water primarily for agriculture and to recharge aquifers to prevent salt water intrusion, Singapore, which recycles 55% via its New Water program (see below), uses it primarily for industrial and cooling purposes, although it is clean enough for domestic use, thanks to rigorous treatment and testing.

The tyranny of distance

Given that Australia's  black coal industry alone - mining and power generation, uses as much water as the entire city of Sydney with a population of five million, it would certainly be excellent to be able to use recycled water for high demand activities such as mining, crops such as cotton and timber, fire –fighting and the like,  and to leave our drinking water for human consumption as Israel does, but the high cost of dual systems or trucking or piping it from urban areas where it is generated to where it is needed, makes it prohibitively expensive unless we’re talking about compact countries such as Singapore,  Belgium or South Korea. Unfortunately most of the water used in mining is consumed and cannot be recycled.

On the other hand, you do have to wonder about the economics of building a 270 km pipeline at a cost of $500 million to Broken Hill on the one hand, while Sydney alone spent around $6 billion in the 1980s to pipe its waste water (around 1000 Olympic swimming pools worth a day) into the sea.

Fortunately, things have moved on since then. Sydney Water's  latest report says that it is harvesting storm water and recycling waste water to a small extent for firefighting, parks and gardens, cooling towers in commercial buildings as well as some industrial purposes. Though still a small part of its operations it has found that recycling is cost effective. It also has plans for drought response as well as integrated water management and land use planning. The latter includes cooling strategies and an organic waste strategy. According to the proposal, this should not cost more than "business as usual."[Let's hope that it isn't all derailed by the current mining activity beneath one of its main reservoirs, which is now being debated in the NSW parliament].


A brief look at Sydney's storm water management strategy which not only provides water which can be recycled either for industry or environmental benefits, but also reduces flood risks

There is no excuse in urban areas for industry not to make greater use of this water, especially if it is  available at a lower price as in Sydney. Sydney already sells 100% of its recovered bio -solids for agricultural purposes, to offset the cost of water treatment. It is also possible to recover minerals such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Where councils do not have the customer base to recycle on a large scale, individual industries may want to do it for themselves. We have already seen some of the closed loop systems employed by the textile industry which not only create enormous cost savings but prevent a great deal of pollution. India is rapidly becoming a leader in this field. Other examples come from the very thirsty paper making industry (see an Indian example below) and surprisingly, the brewing industry, which also uses copious quantities of water. Click here for an example in the fish processing industry in Ecuador, which seeks to minimise the cost of importing expensive fresh water.

Even when beyond the means of a single company,  several  could band together in an  eco - industrial park to take advantage of the various flows or to jointly fund treatment, especially if the industries themselves ensure that they have environmentally friendly inputs. Newer uses include cooling for large data centres such Google's in Belgium or Georgia (USA).

Other potential gains from treatment and reuse include power generation, heating and cooling – see for example Canada’s 2010 Winter Olympic Village which uses waste water for heating and hot water and achieves Carbon Neutral status.

Recycling might work in big cities  but what about the country towns which are running out of water but don't have a large customer base ?
In rural areas, smaller decentralised recycling plants, such as those made by the Fluence Corporation could ensure a constant reliable water supply, whether in drought or not. Although we have had rain in most parts of Australia, it will take several years before reservoirs reach their full capacity. What if recycled water from Broken Hill or other towns along the river, was sent to the mines instead of the mine depriving them of their drinking water? As yet, only two facilities in Australia treat water to drinking water standard and one of those is in mothballs for the present. However, even secondary or tertiary treatment may reduce pressure on water supplies and allow organic matter to be returned to the soil rather than the river. Minimally treated water could be used in cooling towers for coal fired power stations for example, while higher levels could allow recharge into groundwater or for environmental purposes such as maintaining river flows. However, even with the rigorous standards applied in Singapore, it would still require much more public education and trust in local authorities before Australians accept recycled water for domestic use and why should they be forced to pay more fore treatment because their drinking water has been allocated to other users?

Designing for the future

While dual piping is costly in existing facilities, there is no reason not to be planning for it in new buildings and subdivisions. South Korea is a leader in this field.  Listen to Tony Wong talking about better urban design for the future.Why not incorporate stormwater capture for landscaping and urban lawns? Nor would I have any objection to using used wash water - from showers or the laundry, for flushing toilets. In fact, speaking of flushing toilets, as cities grow and water scarcity becomes more common, shouldn’t we be designing toilets which don’t use as much water? The water closet has served us well for a century and a half, but what about a vacuum system, such as we have on planes, or using run – off from roofs for this?  We are after all, not using horses and buggies any more either, though they were popular at the time.

Sorry folks, this post is way too long, but I have had a bee in my bonnet about this topic for a while now and with the UN Day to Combating Drought and Desertification coming up on the 17th. it's surely  a good time to mention it.   

Tuesday, June 09, 2020


“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

Today is World Ocean Day, but I’m not going to write much about this. You know the problems – plastics, warming, bleaching reefs, chemical, fertiliser and sewage pollution, oil spills, rising sea levels already threatening small islands but in the longer term also threatening many of the world’s most populous cities, unsustainable fishing practices and acidification. The last named may need a little more clarification. So far the ocean has generously absorbed the vast majority of the world’s excess carbon dioxide, but as is does so it becomes more acidic. This dissolves coral, the shells of molluscs and the bones of other fish which in turn diminishes the food supply for higher order predators and creates further negative feedback loops. 

In 2010 an estimated 5.3 to14 million tons of plastic entered the ocean from coastal communities alone posing a major threat to marine life including animals such as turtles, seals, shorebirds and penguins. According to UNESCO statistics it kills over a million of them a year. With production set to double over the next ten years, recycling and picking up, noble as they are, are simply not going to be enough, especially if our recycling continues to be secretly shipped to poorer countries with insufficient capacity to deal with it
Enough with the plastic! We must work harder to stop them, including microbeads released from clothing and toiletries and the break up of plastic products

How Climate Change threatens the marine environment

On the subject of feedback loops, with ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melting six times faster than in the 1990s, it isn’t so much the 17 extra centimetres of sea level rise we can expect by 2100 which are the problem, though some coastal cities such as Bangkok, Miami and Venice are already experiencing some effects, but rather the increasing number of storm surges and extreme weather events which will impact many more of them and the millions of people who live there. 

Warming and melting of sea ice means more dark surfaces, which absorb more heat instead of reflecting it and cause faster melting and thus further warming. It also allows warm water species to move south to invade cold Antarctic waters along with new diseases and pests. The same process also affects farmed fish leading to greater use of antibiotics, lower yields and greater antibiotic resistance, which not only affects the fish, but also other species including humans. Another effect of warming is the thawing of permafrost which has been blamed for the collapse of oil tanks in Siberia, thus causing the largest oil spill in Russian history. There are fears that more of the same will further destabilise the ground and structures upon it as well as releasing methane, a greenhouse gas up to to 104 times as potent as C02 which dissipates more quickly but is nonetheless likely to contribute to further warming.

These are just some of the threats known and unknown which are emerging as the earth and the oceans grow warmer, yet as Virginijus Sinkevičius EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said in his opening address on Earth Day, we keep on ".. sawing off the branch on which we sit.”

Things we need to do 

We already covered most of these on Turtle Day or Environment Day so I won't nag long here - get rid of the plastics, stop polluting etc, stop burning fossil fuels, stop creating badly designed cities that necessitate car use, avoid travel, excessive shipping, re -examine tourism, go slow, and stop having international conferences where people have to fly in in their private jets. (At least with this year's Oceans Conference it is all happening online). With respect to oceans we should add another one.  Buy only sustainably -caught fish - that is, no gill nets or factory fishing. Ask your fish monger or maître d' about the origin of your fish or read the label on your tin and if you catch your own, abide by catch and size limits, to protect endangered species and future breeding potential. This also applies to sharks, particularly the Hammerhead, in Australia's case, but also those taken for live finning. [Around 170 species of shark call Australia home, many of them not found anywhere else and only a few of which pose a danger to humans].  

I can't vouch for the authenticity of the label or contents, but this is what you should look out for

We should also be creating more marine reserves to protect remaining fish stocks. Instead, the US government is dismantling them and offering 90% of its coastline up for exploration. It is also seeking to remove references to climate change from government documents and revoke other forms of environmental protection. Meanwhile Russia and China have refused to agree to the creation of a Marine Sanctuary in eastern Antarctic waters for the eighth time, even as fishing fleets converge upon it. In better news, I have just heard that a new Marine Park has just been declared in the Limmen Bight in the Northern Territory.

Looking forward

This does not mean that we should give up. Much smaller and more vulnerable countries than ours aren't looking backwards and heavily subsidising fossil fuels, but are restoring degraded forests and mangroves, or building infrastructure to protect themselves from future weather events and are developing alternative livelihoods and more resilient crops to protect themselves against changes in climate. See Tanzania (below) for example, with its new seawall to prevent coastal erosion and inundation, or Djibouti  restoring natural systems to protect against erosion and desertification or  Rwanda which is also restoring degraded lands, using modern weather forecasting technology and educating its people about climate change and sustainable livelihoods.  Read more here…
The UN believes that such activities have the potential to provide millions of jobs and “lift billions out of poverty”  as well as mitigating future risks and preventing further destruction of the environment upon which we all depend. 

For most of humanity's existence the ocean has seemed so boundless, restless perhaps or peaceful and not a little dangerous, but always a source of mystery and an endless supply of food. While it continues to be a source of awe and mystery  the more we explore- a German Australian research team has just discovered 17 new species of carnivorous sponge, we are also discovering that even the ocean has its limits. As Jacques Cousteau put it:
 “For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”