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    Alex has been consulting to many of South Africa’s blue-chip companies for the past five years, using innovative thinking to help them reduce their impact on the environment and enhance their bottom line. He is also a founding member of Carbon Calculated, a carbon management consultancy, and is also the creator of Carbon Known, a carbon management software solution.
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  • Posts Tagged ‘Plant’

    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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    SA needs to consider new forms of power generation

    Thursday, January 15, 2015

    Renewable energies of the 2010s are just not advanced enough to play any dominant role in the national energy supply. But like computers and cellphones, renewable technologies are changing and recently there have been a number of important events across the globe that may change the status quo.

    Fast Facts:

    • Early last month South Africa’s largest solar plant – Jasper – came online and connected to the national grid with a total capacity of 96 megawatts (MW). This is a fraction of the 4 800MW that will be supplied by the Medupi coal power station, but where Medupi will cost R105-billion and take 11 years to construct, Jasper cost only R2.9-billion and took 11 months to complete.
    • In addition, Jasper’s energy inputs come free of charge from the sun and require no administration.
    • Jasper was soon followed by the opening of the Topaz power station in California – the world’s largest solar power plant producing 550MW and taking about two years to construct.
    • A drawback is that solar power is only generated when the sun is shining, making it inconsistent and unreliable.
    • Lawrence Berkeley laboratories are at advanced stages of developing a magnesium-ion battery to replace the lithium-ion standard and double the density of energy storage at a lower cost.
    • A Tunisian company, Saphon Energy, has produced a wind turbine that does not make use of blades and captures 80% of the wind’s energy rather than the 30% that current technologies do.

    Source: Cape Times | Pierre Heistein | 4/12/2014



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    Vale chemical spill sparks riots and $20-30m cost

    Friday, June 6, 2014

    Rioters have torched vehicles, equipment and buildings at Vale’s nickel mine in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia as anger boiled over about a chemical spill in a river.

    Fast Facts:

    • The $6-billion (+/− R64-billion) Vale plant at Goro in southern New Caledonia was closed earlier this month after about 100,000 litres of acid-tainted effluent leaked, killing about 1,000 fish and sparking renewed protests at the mine site.
    • The Vale plant has a production target of 60,000 tonnes of nickel at full capacity, compared with global supply of about 2-million tonnes. But it has been beset by problems in recent years, including several chemical spills and violent protests.
    • Tension between the local population and Vale escalated over the weekend with young protesters frustrated at the latest spill by the Brazilian-based giant and a lack of response from indigenous Kanak chiefs.
    • Damage to the mining site was estimated at $20m-$30m (+/− R21m-R31m), including the destruction of perhaps a third of the truck fleet.
    • Nickel mining is a key industry in New Caledonia, which holds as much as a quarter of the world’s known reserves. Vale’s plant is the second-largest employer in the southern province, with about 3,500 employees and contractors.
    • New Caledonia’s southern provincial government ordered an immediate halt to operations after the spill this month and started legal proceedings under its environmental code.
    • The local government said it would not lift the production suspension until safety procedures were revised, an oversight committee was reinstated and an independent expert’s report was completed.
    • Vale is the world’s second-biggest nickel producer.
    • The mine employs high-pressure technology and acids to leach nickel from abundant tropical laterite ores.

    Source: Business Day (28/05/2014)

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    Germany’s energy revolution on verge of collapse

    Friday, May 23, 2014

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Energiewende” policy aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2020, mostly by closing coal-fired power plants and boosting renewable energy. Yet in 2013, coal burning soared to its highest level for more than 20 years.

    Fast Facts:

    • Merkel is also shutting down Germany’s nuclear power plants, its largest source of low-carbon energy. This means emissions, which had fallen by 27% by 2011, are now on the rise.
    • “The Energiewende is moving emissions in the wrong direction,” says Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado in Boulder. He calculates that Germany will have to more than double renewables’ contribution to energy from 17 to 38% to reach the 40% target.
    • The problem is made worse by a continued slump in the price of European Union permits to emit CO2, which act as a tax on dirty fuels like coal. The low cost has allowed coal plants to restart.

    Source: New Scientist (22/01/2014)

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    New fynbos species discovered

    A new species of fynbos has been identified in the Robberg Coastal Corridor, a 16km strip of land between Robberg and Harkerville on the Western Cape’s Garden Route.

    The plant, which bears mauve flowers, is called Psoralea vanberkelae after plant expert Nicky van Berkel.

    Its status as a unique species has been confirmed by the University of Cape Town.

    Source: Business Day (21/05/2014)

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