Environmental Factors in the Somalia Drought

Posted August 3rd, 2011 at 11:49 am (UTC+0)
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Although much of its landscape is arid, Somalia normally has two rainy seasons a year.  So for generations, Somalia’s pastoral community has survived by herding their animals to wherever the rain has collected into puddles and streams.

Now, though, John Watkin of the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund says Somalia is suffering its worst drought in decades.

“This is now the worst drought in 60 years and the worst famine in 20 years.  This is because of a series of years where we’ve had a failure of the rains – either one or both rains each year. So that has resulted in there being no resilience whatsoever in the natural resource base. But these artifacts are of larger global trends which are significant deforestation all around the world which means that we don’t have the forest which secure the water.”

Forests help conserve water when it does rain, and play a major role in the water cycle through a process call transpiration (water in the leaves of trees is discharged back into the atmosphere).   According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a large oak tree can transpire 151,000 liters of H2O per year.  The roots of trees and shrubs also help retain soil and prevent environmental degradation (such as desertification).

Water Cycle Summary from the USGS

But forests across the globe have been shrinking, including in Africa, where the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates more than 30 million hectares of forest have been lost in the past decade.  Worldwide – there has been a net loss of more than five million hectares of forest a year, mostly due to human activity.

Bob Winterbottom at World Resources Institute says drought is part of natural ecosystems.  But increasingly, he says, human activity like logging, agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions are interfering with ecosystems.  Therefore, he says, there needs to be better management of natural resources.

“So that we can build a base for sustainable development, so when rains are restored, that they do the maximum amount of benefit for people as opposed to damage.”

Deforestation isn’t just a problem for Africa, it can affect climates and eco-systems all over the world.  So while the immediate focus must be on Somalia’s famine, both Winterbottom and Watkin say in the long term, the international community needs to address the underlying environmental issues that may have led to the humanitarian disaster.

More than 11 million people in the Horn of Africa have been affected by the drought and subsequent famine. 

One Nation’s E-Waste Can Be Another Nation’s Disaster (update)

Posted July 23rd, 2011 at 3:29 pm (UTC+0)
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I’m writing this blog on a computer that, once I hit publish, can make it instantly available to potentially millions of computer screens worldwide.   The trouble is this computer may be considered obsolete in a couple of years.  So, when it needs to be replaced, where will it go?   Possibly to Ghana or China, where low-paid workers may unsafely handle toxic substances like  Cadmium, Selenium, Lead, Lithium and Arsenic.  That’s why two U.S. Congressmen (Gene Green of Texas and Mike Thompson of California) just introduced legislation that would prohibit export of hazardous electronic waste to developing nations and promote recycling jobs in the United States.

Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network (named for the 1989 United Nations’ Basel convention) says the United States is the only developed country that has not signed a treaty on the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste, known as e-waste.

“So what we’re trying to do in the United States right now, which is really the worst perpetrator of this dumping of electronic waste globally, is to get legislation nationally which would mimic what would have happened had they ratified both the convention and the ban amendment.  This new legislation, which is going to be introduced today, will put a full ban on all hazardous electronic waste being sent to developing countries from the United States.”

When people recycle their electronics, the expectation is the reusable bits will indeed be reused.  But according to Puckett, much of it is sent to Asia and West Africa.   Workers may recycle parts of, say, a laptop.  But the process, he says,  is neither safe or environmentally friendly.

“It’s just done on the street in open burning, the cracking of monitors with hammers, burning of the circuit boards to get the solder off so they can remove the chips, throwing chips into an acid bath, flushing all the acids into a river. ..Now the data is in that there have been tremendous health impacts.  Some of the highest levels of dioxins ever recorded.  The groundwater in this area of China called Guiyu is completely shot.  Likewise in Ghana, they’re finding precursors to cancer, they’re finding high levels of lead in the blood of children, etc.”

Despite the lack of oversight, some companies are choosing to recycle responsibly through a program called e-Stewards.


To gain certification, e-Stewards cannot export hazardous electronic waste to developing nations for recycling.  They also adhere to strict standards on managing and recycling electronics for the safety of the worker and the environment.

Some other lawmakers and organizations are also suggesting a mandatory take back program in which the makers of electronics would be responsible for end of life recycling.  Some companies like Dell Computers already have such recycling programs.  So, perhaps the hardest entity to convince about recycling electronics responsibly will be the consumer.

The Electronics Takeback Coalition says more than 80 percent of discarded electronics in the United States end up in the trash.  And, despite strict rules to the contrary, the European Commission says about two-thirds of their e-waste is going to landfills or sub-standard treatment sites outside the E.U.




Ethanol Debate

Posted July 6th, 2011 at 2:08 pm (UTC+0)
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Opponents of corn-based ethanol say it takes food off the table and puts it into our cars.  Supporters, though, say it’s cheaper for the consumer and that it helps offset carbon emissions from vehicle exhaust.  Despite the controversy, ethanol is supported by governments and industry worldwide.  The U.S. Department of Energy says at least 12 countries around the world have government or private ethanol programs, including the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, France and Kenya.  The European Union also has plans to phase in a 10 percent ethanol blend – such as what is currently found in most U.S. gas stations.

Less than 10 years ago, U.S. lawmakers helped put ethanol into gasoline-powered cars with a mandate and subsidies to keep costs down.  The U.S. Senate recently voted to end those subsidies early.  Surprisingly, an ethanol manufacturing group also says it’s time to end the ethanol subsidies.

President of Growth Energy, Jim Nussle, says consumers should be able to make a choice about what they put in their tanks.  He would like to see more flex fuel pumps at gasoline stations across the country.  A flex fuel pump would offer consumers different blends of biofuel and gasoline – including, perhaps, a 30 percent ethanol blend.

“E-15.  We were able to break through that wall with the EPA this year, so we hope E-15 will be available throughout.  But some of the mid-level blends like E-30 as an example is something that still gives the power and kind of octane, fuel mileage, etc. that many of our consumers want.  And at the same time allows them to save on price at the pump by putting in something that’s cheaper and home grown like ethanol as opposed to foreign oil such as gasoline.”

On its website, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the renewable fuel standard will help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  But according to Kate McMahon of Friends of the Earth, the process of making ethanol can be more environmentally damaging than gasoline.

“If you look at the environmental footprint in the way that we’re producing corn in this country, it’s not so grand.  Basically you have a large amount of pesticides, fertilizers being used for corn, for corn ethanol.  We have land being used to produce corn for corn ethanol.  And that’s causing eco-systems impacts whether it’s the conversion of eco-systems or it’s through the degradation that we’re finding because of agricultural practices we use to produce corn.”

One of the more serious charges against corn ethanol production is that it is responsible for rising food prices, and in some cases, food shortages around the world.  But Growth Energy’s Jim Nussle disputes that charge.

“This whole food versus fuel – it’s interesting to me.  It’s obviously people who don’t know the ethanol process who make this argument because the process of creating ethanol creates two products.  It creates ethanol, but it creates a high-protein animal feed that is basically one-third of the corn kernel that goes back into a high-protein, higher value feed than the corn kernel itself.”

Despite continued debate over its merits as an eco-friendly fuel source, energy industry observers say ethanol will likely continue to be an important part of the world’s energy portfolio.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worldwide ethanol use  increased 350 percent in the past ten years, reaching 74 billion liters in 2010.

Fish Farms

Posted June 27th, 2011 at 5:54 pm (UTC+0)
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I’ll admit it: farm-raised catfish is one of my favorite foods.  And it turns out U.S. catfish – typically farmed in the southeast – is environmentally friendly as well.  But while U.S. raised catfish rates as an “Eco-Best” on the website of the Environmental Defense Fund, a related fish farmed in Asia – called Tra or Basa – only rates as “Eco-OK,” partially because of a lack of government oversight.

More oversight in the worldwide aquaculture industry is just one of the recommendations from a new study by the WorldFish Center and Conservation International.  The study highlights the positive aspects of fish farming – or aquaculture – as a sustainable, healthy resource for food.  In short, farm-raised fish may have less of an environmental impact on the world’s oceans, rivers and streams than commercial fishing.  But it also points to some of the failings.

It seems not all fish farms are equal.   For example, U.S. farmed catfish are less demanding on the environment than their Asian cousins.  Others, like oysters, can actually help clean up the waterways by filtering pollutants.  But for every oyster, says the report, there’s another fish that consumes more resources, such as the eel.  According to the EDF, eels are an “Eco-Worst.”

The study – called “Blue Frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture” – makes some recommendations for the world’s aquaculture industry, including more government support, oversight and investment in the industry.

VOA’s Roseanne Skirble spoke with the author of the report, Stephen Hall.  You can read and hear more about it on the VOA website.


Saved From Extinction

Posted June 15th, 2011 at 11:28 am (UTC+0)
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Scimitar-horned Oryx

The Scimitar-horned Oryx no longer lives in the African desert.  It is considered extinct in the wild.   But this  lovely-looking Ungulate hasn’t been completely wiped out because they can still be found at zoos around the world.   It’s just one example of a new role that zoos have taken on:  preserving endangered  wildlife.

With its gracefully arched horns, you can see why the Oryx might be sought-after by hunters as wall trophies.  Budhan Pukazhenthi, a scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute,  believes that’s the reason for their demise:

“In a lot of traditions and cultures, hunting used to be acceptable.  Where things have gone out of control is the hunting capacity has skyrocketed.  Where traditional hunters may [have] used bow and arrow to kill or capture them, these days people use semi-automatic [weapons], where you can actually go in and spray bullets and kill a number of animals in a very short span.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 361 endangered mammals worldwide. Add in birds, fish, reptiles and other living creatures, that number rises to nearly 1200.  That’s why the work of organizations like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute – or SCBI – is so crucial.

Fortunately for the Oryx, zoos had collected some of the animals before anyone realized they were no longer in the wild.  That, says  SCBI Director Steve Monfort, means the Scimitar-horned Oryx may eventually find its way back to its natural habitat of North Africa.

“After they went extinct, these 40 founders, these individuals that were unrelated from the wild, became this incredible resource for stocking the world’s population in other breeding facilities, but also a resource for potential re-introduction,” says Monfort.


The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is located in the hilly countryside of Front Royal, Virginia, about an hour’s drive from Washington DC.   Its gated drive is not easily seen from the road, hidden by brush on either side of the entrance.  Even so, it would look no different to the driver of a passing car than any other horse or cattle farm in this part of Virginia.

Driving along a gravel road inside the compound, it’s a bit of a surprise to come upon an Asian Takin huffing and puffing near his trough of food inside a chain link fence.  Scientists at this gated “farm” research all kinds of animals, mostly endangered, from the Americas to Asia.  What the SCBI does, says Steve Monfort, is try to identify projects where they can add particular value with their expertise.

” We’re a science-based organization, so our primary role is in science and discovery and then using that to solve conservation problems.”

The emphasis here is on science, especially reproductive science.  SCBI is a state-of-the-art research facility with the ability to freeze DNA and sperm samples from endangered animals around the world.  Those microscopic samples, says Pukazhenthi, may be used for research, reproduction – or for introducing some new genes into certain populations of species.

Cheetah cubs at SCBI

“We have a number of these samples that have been frozen from various species,” he says.  “This goes back all the way to the 1980s.  And we continue to collect and bank samples.  This includes sperm, embryos, sometimes skin biopsies and also for the future, [to] start preserving some eggs that are mature eggs or  immature eggs.”

The Smithsonian’s reproductive research and collaboration with other institutions recently paid off with the births of a pair of cubs born to two different female cheetahs at the facility.  Although these incredibly fast cats are endangered, these two cubs will not be re-introduced into the wild.  But they will  help maintain the captive cheetah population in North American zoos, and allow researchers to better understand their mating habits in the wild.

The primary goal of zoos was simply at one time to entertain their visitors.   But the organizations, which once fueled the market for exotic wildlife like the Scimitar-horned Oryx, are now tasked with the duty of saving them.

Amazon Tragedy

Posted June 2nd, 2011 at 12:59 pm (UTC+0)
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South America’s Amazon rainforest is massive.  It covers portions of nine nations and five and a half million square kilometers.  It’s crucial not just for the continent, but the rest of the world as well.  Its trees and vegetation absorb carbon, and no place on Earth is as densely forested.  That makes it one heavy-duty carbon digesting machine.

The Amazon is home to about 10 percent of the world’s plants and animals, according to WWF International, and its  streams and rivers contain the highest number of freshwater species in the world.  Tens of thousands of indigenous people also continue to live within the Amazon.

Despite all the Amazon has to offer, it’s threatened by logging and agricultural activities.  That’s why Joao Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo fought so long to protect the Amazon and the indigenous populations that depend on it.  They were recently killed, just hours before Brazilian lawmakers approved a bill that environmentalists say would loosen restrictions on cutting rainforest trees.

The bodies of the husband and wife team were found at the Praialta-Piranheira nature reserve, where they had been working for the past 24 years.    Their commitment to protecting the world’s largest rainforest put them at odds with commercial loggers, ranchers and farmers.  The environmentalists had previously reported threats to their lives.

Just days later, another Amazon activist was killed.  Adelino Ramos was the leader of the Corumbiara Peasant Movement in the state of Rondonia.  He had also reported threats to his life before being gunned down May 27th.

So far, no arrests have been made in connection with the killings.  But Brazilian lawmakers are promising to better protect environmental activists.

Lake Chad Shrinking

Posted May 27th, 2011 at 5:58 pm (UTC+0)
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Water may be the world’s most precious resource. But in many parts of the world it is a dwindling resource.  One of the most dramatic examples of this is in Africa, where Lake Chad is now a twentieth of what it once was.

NASA has a bird’s-eye view – make that a satellite’s eye view – of the lake from 40 years ago, and a series of other photographs showing its not so gradual decline since then.

NASA Satellite Image

NASA Satellite Image

The once thriving body of water touches the shores of five countries – Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and Niger. It has always been somewhat shallow and would rise and fall with the seasons, going from a few meters to about eight during the rainy season.

However, rainfall in the region has fallen since the 1960’s and an increase in agricultural production has siphoned off much of the water from the rivers that would normally fill the lake. Local populations also blame climate change for the lake’s decline, saying it’s hotter and drier than it used to be.

The countries closest to the lake formed the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) in 1964, and there are numerous organizations trying to help save the lake from completely disappearing.  There are no easy answers, but a United Nations Environmental Program report says about 50 percent of the lake’s decline is from human water use, which includes major overgrazing in the region, as well as what it called “large and unsustainable irrigation projects.”

Man Against Mother Nature

Posted May 19th, 2011 at 3:38 pm (UTC+0)
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I grew up less than a mile from the Mississippi River in New Orleans. You could walk to the levee, which we often did, and ride horses on the flat gravel road at its peak. On one side of the levee – the side that runs along the river – is a steep slide of concrete. The other side that faces the west bank area of New Orleans, called Algiers, is made of a long grassy slope. 

New Orleans is protected from the whims of Mother Nature by this huge boundary between the river and the city.   While it is not one of the levees that broke after Hurricane Katrina (those levees protected neighborhoods from canals) a breach here would almost certainly eclipse the damage and, possibly, the loss of life attributed to Katrina. That’s why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, for the first time, opened three Mississippi floodways – one in Missouri and two in Louisiana.

In order to save more heavily populated areas like New Orleans, the water diverted from the Mississippi River went elsewhere, submerging crops and homes, and displacing hundreds of residents in Louisiana. Many in those smaller communities fear the rising waters will – like the Randy Newman song says – “wash us away.”

The song commemorates a 1927 incident in which the levee downstream from New Orleans was dynamited to keep water from inundating the city.  So, instead of the city, it swallowed up some smaller, poorer communities in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes.

Mark Twain wrote more than a 150 years ago, “the Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”

That wry observation could be said about any river  in the world whether it’s  in the United States, Africa or Asia, where parts of China’s Yangtze delta are suffering the worst drought in 50 years.  Shipping  has come to a halt in some areas, and even partially opening sluice gates at China’s huge hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam has done little to improve the situation.

Behind the Series: Journey to Planet Earth

Posted May 16th, 2011 at 3:42 pm (UTC+0)
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It’s been nearly 20 years since the first International Earth Summit and 20 years since Marilyn and Hal Weiner were called upon to produce the summit’s opening film. They’ve been documenting environmental issues ever since through their production company Screenscope. Relaxing together on a sofa in their den, the Weiners describe how they were approached by the then-secretariat for the Earth Summit to produce the opening film. The five minute non-narrated piece, seen by more than 100 heads of state, was such a success that the secretariat suggested they do a whole series on sustainability. Because, Marilyn Weiner says, quoting Maurice Strong, “that’s what people need to hear.”

While the Wieners have produced feature films, as well as dozens of documentaries and other television series, Hal Weiner says Journey to Planet Earth gives them a sense of personal satisfaction that can not be measured in terms of dollars and cents.

“Making money is nice, but saving the environment we came to understand is a little bit more important.  So this has been our focus. And what we see are genuine programs by grassroots people all over the world, all over Africa, things are happening in South Africa, things are happening in Kenya, things are happening throughout Asia, throughout Europe, where people understand that there are problems and problems can be solved by communities and community involvement.”

Marilyn Weiner speaks animatedly about one program in particular that was begun by a farmer, who saw his once-arable land turning dry and unproductive.

“One of the things we focus on,” she says, “is in Kenya where we saw a couple that started a small NGO (non-governmental organization) that was planting grass to stop erosion – drought resistant strains of grass that could then be harvested and help the local community. And it was incredibly effective.”

The Weiner’s home is decorated with a varied collection of art and artifacts, seemingly from all over the world.  They’ve traveled to some 22 countries on five continents to film segments of their series and have seen some of the earth’s most spectacular landscapes.  But they’ve also witnessed some of the world’s worst environmental disasters like the drying of the Aral sea in Uzbekistan.  In the 1950s, the then-Soviet Union diverted the rivers that feed the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton.

“Based upon what we learned at the Aral Sea,” Hal says, “we went to Salton Sea, which is just outside of Palm Springs (California).  They’re having the same problem, right here in our own backyard.”

Marilyn describes their work as gratifying. But, she says, she is somewhat disheartened by the lack of progress in terms of solving environmental problems. That’s why the series is so important to them.

“Ultimately,” Hal says, “we want people to become better custodians of the environment and become better citizens of a world where you vote politicians in that make these important decisions.”

The Weiners have, so far, produced 13 episodes of Journey to Planet Earth.

Gulf Oil Spill Update

Posted May 1st, 2011 at 3:44 pm (UTC+0)
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A year after the massive BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, assessments of the Gulf Coast’s recovery are, for the most part, optimistic.    Lisa DiPinto is a  Southeast Region Branch Chief with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s office of Response and Restoration.

“For some areas like the shoreline, I would certainly say that for the degree of oiling that we have observed in the shoreline along the Gulf states, that I think we feel it could have been a lot worse.  And what we are seeing is a result of the fact that I think we applied dispersants.  So now what is happening in the water column and more offshore is an area that I think we are still investigating pretty hard.”

DiPinto is similarly upbeat about the fish and shrimp being caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The seafood safety testing that I have seen has indicated that everything is looking good.  You know I think it is a message that we want to put out there that the seafood testing program, which was extremely rigorous and parts of it were developed specifically for some of the constituents seen in this incident, that we have gotten good results and I think we are seeing a safe seafood system down there.”

Of course, research and testing throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast continues unabated, and DiPinto cautions that they don’t have the whole picture yet.  She says NOAA’s research will help determine where and what needs the most help in restoring the Gulf coast waters and marshland back to where it was before the oil spill.

To help aid recovery in the region, President Obama issued an executive order last October establishing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.  The White House says it will not only address the damage caused by the BP Oil Spill, but also the Gulf’s longstanding ecological decline, and begin moving toward a more resilient Gulf Coast ecosystem.


What’s Living Green?

The health of the environment is a concern to everyone, regardless of country, income or political viewpoint.  In this blog, we’ll explore all aspects of the environment – its biggest challenges and what people are doing to help resolve issues like land and water use, pollution and deforestation.  We’ll also highlight new technologies that could one day help alleviate many of the environmental problems the world is facing.  We welcome your comments and hope you’ll join in the conversation on Living Green.


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