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  • Research Topic: Natural Environment

    To add water, subtract weeds

    Thursday, December 15, 2016

    Mandela’s least known legacy may be his Working for Water programme, which employs thousands of marginalised people to clear invasive plant species, securing precious water supplies in perpetuity. 


    Having eradicated apartheid and sown the seeds of real democracy, Nelson Mandela had to confront a looming threat to the security and hope of South Africans. Weeds.

    The rampant growth of invasive alien plant species (IAPs) was choking riparian areas, draining river systems and overrunning natural ecological habitats – all in a semi-arid landscape where there was not enough water to
    go around.

    Each species in isolation – and there were over 80 species – may have seemed little more than a noxious nuisance. But together they had grown to cover 16 percent of the country’s land area, and the cumulative effect was to reduce annual streamflow by 7 percent.

    Recognising this risk, Mandela’s team began, through labour-intensive plant removal, to claw back 4 percent of this water, and make it newly available for human use. The result led to an inter-governmental, multi-million dollar national response known as the Working for Water (WfW) programme.

    This approach could also make sense in other parts of the world. Christo Marais, Chief Director of Natural Resource Management Programmes, of which the largest is WfW, urges governments to consider upstream alien plants in the water supply/demand equation. “The degradation and transformation of wetlands,riverbanks and flood plains leads to a reduced amount of water being absorbed into the natural systems and later released into the aquatic ecosystems,” he says.

    A national problem doesn’t arise overnight or by accident. European settlers had deliberately introduced many plant species over three hundred years to support dune stabilisation, woodlots, and tannin production. Acacias, wattle, pine and eucalyptus have become among the most prominent species. Under dry windy conditions, a single Australian bluegum (Eucalyptus salinga) can absorb seven hundred litres per square metre of leaf cover each day. Invaded landscapes can annually consume 300-400 millimetres (mm) more than natural grassland, cutting runoff by 3-4,000 cubic metres per hectare.

    South Africa is caught between diminishing rainfall (now 464mm/ year) and a growing population of 55 million. It cannot afford to sacrifice water to alien plants.

    Indeed, there’s less than nothing to spare. The country’s 2013 National Water Resource Strategy stresses that the country’s financially viable freshwater resources are already “fully utilised”, putting its 4,395 dams under immense pressure as agriculture and urban demand runs apace. As 8 percent of the country’s landmass produces more than half its runoff, every drop must be harnessed for productive use.

    “The water needs to be captured before we lose it,” says Marais. “We can’t allow the natural ecosystems to clog with invasive alien vegetation.” He adds that every 3-10 hectares of densely infested land, once restored to full ecological function through alien plant eradication, releases enough water to irrigate a hectare of land in perpetuity.

    After amassing two decades of proof, WfW has become a poster child for innovative, strategic, and scalable responses to invasive vegetation – augmenting supplies in water scarce regions. But Marais says this isn’t an either/or approach to water security.

    “It is important to understand that the eradication of aliens works in tandem, and supports, necessary infrastructure,” he says. “All we are doing is improving the efficiency of existing water supply systems.”

    As a supplementary service WfW can focus on water replenishment while exploring the wider social benefits of a plant-clearing public works programme.

    The WfW model has attracted foreign visits and requests for presentation worldwide. While replicated nowhere in its exact form, other public employment programmes adapt its restorative focus. China’s “Grain for Green” project rehabilitates degraded mountainous areas while Ethiopia leverages labour, policy and official support to restore watershed services. Yet any city, agency or nation seeking to adapt the WfW recipe must grasp the five ingredients that underpin it.

    First, before eradicating existing alien species, stop new arrivals. National and local policy prohibits the continued introduction of invasive plants into the natural landscape, coupled with land use incentives against their detrimental effect. Trained customs officials practice stringent control at South Africa’s ports of entry.

    Second, strategic investment can yield multiple outcomes. By working directly with land users, WfW can direct government, corporate and development funding towards the most critical areas where eradication of invasive vegetation can yield the highest water resources. In the arid, northern part of the country, the state electricity utility, Eskom, led partners to invest US$3.3 million by clearing plants in order to enhance water availability and the productive land use for communities upstream of a newly built coal-fired power station.

    Also, research and development pays surprising dividends. For example, biological control of alien infestations may prove the most natural, safe and affordable tool. Officials annually invest US$3.5 million in the strictly managed introduction of host-specific species that drastically reduce seed production and even, in some cases, kill off the alien species.

    You also need to encourage diversified spin-offs. A strong focus on value-added enterprises from the WfW programme has germinated numerous small businesses. These convert cleared vegetation into building materials, energy sources and other economic activities. Rather than simply dispose of dead vegetation, people recycle it, even in the manufacture and distribution of school desks to the national Department of Basic Education.

    A final step is to highlight how plant eradication generates skills, income, and jobs in urban and rural areas alike. Against a national 30 percent unemployment rate, WfW forges linkages between ecosystem services and steady careers. Those benefits stand out as a double revelation. Since inception, Marais’ programme, of which WfW is part, has created more than 225,000 person-years of employment, with opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised. Indeed half of all recent WfW employment opportunities go to women, more than sixty percent are under 35 years old, and military veterans and parolees often find work through the programme.

    Even WfW proponents stress that alien-plant clearing is not a panacea for all water supply ills. Nor does it play the lead. Its importance lies in the ‘best supporting actor’ role: improving the performance of existing infrastructure. But if strategically manipulated, ecosystem service programmes like WfW can offer far wider socio-economic benefits than merely building and filling dams.

    Source: Alex Hetherington, The Source, September 2016


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    2016 Living Planet Report shows decline in world’s wildlife

    Friday, October 28, 2016

    Global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% since 1970, according to Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 2016 Living Planet Report.

    Fast Facts:

    • The report suggests that if the trend continues that decline could reach two-thirds among vertebrates by 2020.
    • Human activity, including habitat loss, wildlife trade, pollution and climate change contributed to the declines.
    • Dr Mike Barrett, head of science and policy at WWF, said: “It’s pretty clear under ‘business-as-usual’ we will see continued declines in these wildlife populations…”
    • The Living Planet Report is published every two years and aims to provide an assessment of the state of the world’s wildlife. This analysis looked at 3,700 different species of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
    • The last Living Planet report – published in 2014 – estimated that the world’s wildlife populations had halved over the last 40 years.
    • Dr Barrett said some groups of animals had fared worse than others, stating that: “We do see particularly strong declines in the freshwater environment – for freshwater species alone, the decline stands at 81% since 1970. This is related to the way water is used and taken out of fresh water systems, and also the fragmentation of freshwater systems through dam building, for example.”
    • The report also highlighted other species, such as African elephants , which have suffered huge declines in recent years with the increase in poaching, and sharks, which are threatened by overfishing.
    • The researchers conclude that vertebrate populations are declining by an average of 2% each year, and warn that if nothing is done, wildlife populations could fall by 67% (below 1970 levels) by the end of the decade.
    • Dr Robin Freeman, head of ZSL’s Indicators & Assessments Unit, said that this conclusion  “…assumes things continue as we expect. If pressures – over exploitation, illegal wildlife trade, for example – increase or worsen, then that trend may be worse…”
    • Freeman also stated that it is important to remember that “…these trends are declines in the number of animals in wildlife populations – they are not extinctions. By and large they are not vanishing, and that presents us with an opportunity to do something about it.”


    Source: BBC News: Science and Environment, Rebecca Morelle, 27/10/2016


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    Ozone hole starting to heal

    Monday, July 18, 2016

    In a new study (published in Science journal), researchers say they have found the first clear evidence that the thinning in the ozone layer above Antarctica is starting to heal.

    Fast Facts:

    • British scientists first noticed a dramatic thinning of ozone in the stratosphere some 10 kilometres above Antarctica in the mid-1980s.
    • In 1986, US researcher Professor Susan Solomon showed that ozone was being destroyed by the presence of molecules containing chlorine and bromine that came from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
    • Thanks to the global ban on the use of CFCs in the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the situation in Antarctica has been slowly improving.
    • The scientists said that in September 2015 the hole was around 4 million sq km smaller than it was in the year 2000.
    • Several studies have shown the declining influence of CFCs, but according to the authors this new study shows the “first fingerprints of healing” and the ozone layer is actively growing again.
    • Prof Solomon and colleagues, including researchers from the University of Leeds in the UK, carried out detailed measurements of the amount of ozone in the stratosphere between 2000 and 2015.
    • They found that more than half the shrinkage was due solely to the reduction in atmospheric chlorine.
    • Prof Solomon said that “It [atmospheric chlorine] has a lifetime of about 50-100 years, so it is starting to slowly decay and the ozone will slowly …We don’t expect to see a complete recovery [of the ozone layer] until about 2050 or 2060…”
    • “This is the first convincing evidence that the healing of the Antarctic ozone hole has now started,” said Dr Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany.
    • Adding to this, Dr Rex said “Right now the state of the ozone layer is still really bad, but I find it very important that we know the Montreal Protocol is working and has an effect on the size of the hole and that is a big step forward.”

    Source: BBC News: Science and the Environment, Matt McGrath, 30/06/2016

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    Natural capital analysis shows companies how to grow business value

    Thursday, July 14, 2016

    Companies can better manage environmental risks to their businesses and identify opportunities to benefit from the transition to a low-carbon, circular economy using the insights provided by natural capital analysis, according to a new report by Trucost.

    Fast Facts:

    • Until now, companies have struggled to account for environmental impacts within financial decision making due to the different units of measurement used.
    • Natural capital valuation solves this problem by calculating the financial cost to society of environmental damage – e.g. health costs from associated with pollution.
    • Companies that want to grow need to understand the extent to which their ability to achieve revenue targets may be constrained by rising natural capital costs through regulation, social campaigns and resource shortages – and identify alternative strategies to minimise costs and increase profits.
    • By providing a standardised framework, the Protocol harmonies the many different natural capital approaches, and guides businesses towards the information that they need in order to generate, trusted, credible and actionable information around natural capital impacts and dependencies.
    • Alongside the launch of the Natural Capital Protocol, two additional sector guides on food and beverage and apparel will also be released, developed by Trucost on behalf of the Coalition. The sector guides work as extensions of the Protocol, and guide practitioners through sector-specific challenges and opportunities.
    • Dr Richard Mattison, chief executive of Trucost, said: “As a pioneer of natural capital valuation, Trucost has worked with more than 200 companies… The Natural Capital Protocol and sector guides will encourage even more companies to discover the range of benefits that result from integrating natural capital into decision making, from enhanced risk management to identifying new business opportunities.”

    Source: Trucost, 13/07/2016

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    India plans to divert water from major rivers to tackle drought

    Tuesday, May 24, 2016

    India set to divert water to deal with drought.

    Fast Facts:

    • Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti said transferring water, including from major rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, to drought-prone areas is now her government’s top priority.
    • The drought is taking place as a heat wave extends across much of India, with temperatures in excess of 40° Of India’s 29 states, nearly half were reported to have suffered from severe water crisis this dry season.
    • At least 330 million people are affected by drought in India.
    • India has faced a water crisis for years. Its ground waters have depleted to alarming levels, mainly because of unsustainable extraction for agriculture and industries.
    • The Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR) is a long-term scheme which has 30 links planned for water-transfer, 14 of them fed by Himalayan glaciers in the north of the country and 16 in peninsular India.
    • “The water crisis will be there [in the future] because of climate change but through this [inter linking of rivers] we will be able to help the people,” Ms Bharti said.
    • The government says the scheme will irrigate 35,000 hectares of land and generate 34,000 megawatts of electricity.
    • Critics say the project is not viable financially, environmentally or socially. The government has also been accused of granting environmental clearances without proper assessments.

    Source: BBC News, Navin Singh Khadka, 16/05/2016

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