Category Archives: Conservation and Environment

Cows and Seep. Dairy farming is polluting New Zealand’s water – The Economist. 

NICK SMITH may be the first politician to be immortalised in horse manure. Before the recent general election, a super-sized sculpture depicting the environment minister, trousers down, squatting over a glass, was paraded through central Christchurch. It was carved from dung in protest at an alarming increase in water pollution. Data published in 2013 suggested that it was not safe for people to submerge themselves in 60% of New Zealand’s waterways. “We used to swim in these rivers,” says Sam Mahon, the artist. “Now they’ve turned to crap.”

Mr Smith’s National Party is now out of government. But the real villains behind New Zealand’s deteriorating water quality are still at large: cows. Scrub where sheep once grazed is being given over to intensive dairy farms—some of them irrigated to help the pasture grow. Some 6.6m cattle are now squeezed into the country of 4.7m people, transforming even an iconic arid grassland, the Mackenzie Basin (made famous by the “Lord of the Rings” films), into a tapestry of emerald fields.

The first concern is bovine urine, which is rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen can cause toxic algae to grow when it leaches into water. Nitrogen fertiliser, used to increase fodder yields so that more cows can be raised on less land, exacerbates the problem.

At many of the sites where the government tests the groundwater it contains too much nitrate to be safe to drink—a particular problem in New Zealand, since water in much of the country has long been considered clean enough that it is used as drinking water with only minimal treatment. In Canterbury, one of the most polluted areas, expectant mothers are told to test tap water to avoid “blue baby syndrome”, a potentially fatal ailment thought to be caused by nitrates. The poisonous blooms have killed dogs.

An even greater concern for human health comes from cow dung, which contains nasty bacteria such as E.coli. Three people died last year after a well was contaminated with another bug called campylobacter. Sheep were to blame in that case, yet cows have a proclivity for wading in rivers and their faeces often find their way into water. New Zealanders are twice as likely to fall ill from campylobacter as Britons, and three times more than Australians or Canadians.

And then there is the damage to native flora and fauna. The algal blooms suck the oxygen from rivers. Sediment washed from farmland can also choke the life out of streams. Almost three-quarters of native species of freshwater fish are under threat.

New Zealand is a rainy place, but farmers are also criticised for causing rivers to shrivel and groundwater to fall in certain overburdened spots. One recent tally suggested that just 2,000 of the thirstiest dairies suck up as much water as 60m people would—equivalent to the population of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro combined. Most is hosed on the stony Canterbury region, including the Mackenzie Basin. Earlier this year locals were forced to rescue fish and eels from puddles which formerly constituted the Selwyn river, after drought and over-exploitation caused long stretches to dry up.

Dairies are trying to clean up their act. Farmers have fenced off thousands of kilometres of rivers to prevent livestock from wading in. Some have planted trees along waterways to curb erosion; others remove animals from muddy fields during winter. Some parts of the country are using more sophisticated techniques: around Lake Taupo, the country’s biggest lake, farmers can buy and sell nitrogen allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme. A technique called “precision irrigation” may curb both water consumption and the leaching of nitrogen.

Earlier this year the National Party launched a plan to make 90% of rivers “swimmable” by 2040. Yet it ignored several recommendations of a forum of scientists and agrarians established to thrash out water policy, and removed elected officials from an environmental council in Canterbury after they attempted to curb the spread of irrigation. One of its big initiatives to improve water quality involved lowering pollution standards, making rivers look much cleaner at a stroke.

The Labour Party, now in government, had promised during the election campaign to tax irrigators and use the cash to clean up rivers. But Labour’s populist coalition partner disliked the idea, so it has been dropped. Jacinda Ardern, the new prime minister, says that she will charge companies that bottle and export local water—little more than a gesture, as they account for only a tiny share of water use.

Environmentalists argue that the national dairy herd should be cut to prevent further damage. That may not be as hard on farmers as it sounds, argues Jan Wright, a former parliamentary commissioner for the environment. She says recent growth in the industry has been relatively inefficient, denting margins. Yet the chances of change are slim. The regulations governing Fonterra, a big dairy co-operative, encourage volume more than value, says Kevin Hackwell of Forest & Bird, a pressure group. And pollutants moving through groundwater can take decades to emerge in lakes. The worst may still be to come.

The Economist 

The Example of Easter Island Shows Why Humanity Will Be Extinct Within 100 Years – Philip Perry. 

Like any other system, capitalism has its positive and negative qualities. Inarguably, it has lifted nearly a billion across the globe out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010. But as with other socioeconomic systems of the past, such as with feudalism, a time can come when revolutionary changes make such systems anachronistic. So too has capitalism’s time come, at least the kind which exploits the biosphere.

A more sophisticated system must replace it. One reason is because we are on the verge of a technological shift which will make almost all working and middle class jobs obsolete within the next 25 years or so. Currently, middle and working class families are already getting squeezed in developed countries. Their wages have remained stagnant for decades while costs have steadily risen.

Today, 15% of the US population is below the poverty line. If you include children under age 18, the number is 20%. All the gains in productivity over the last several decades have gone to the top one percent of income earners, while the economic prospects for the vast majority stagnated or worsened. Then there’s the environmental impact. We’re about to kick off the sixth great extinction event. and we’ll follow shortly after.

Big Think

Watercare boss concerned about Auckland stormwater. 

Auckland Council is allowing developments to occur knowing there is no adequate stormwater system and this will result in more frequent harbour spills, says Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram.

The wastewater system is designed for toilet and other household wastewater and, as much as practical, stormwater needs to be removed, Jaduram said in an email to councillor Mike Lee last year

The email highlights different views between council and its water business about how to deal with overflows from 41 sites into the Waitemata Harbour almost every time its rains.

About 99 per cent of the overflows is stormwater. Just 0.2 per cent, or two litres for every 1000 litres, comes from toilets.

“The use of detention tanks in new developments to slow down the stormwater flow when it rains “is not a sustainable solution. What is required is investment by council in proper stormwater infrastructure.” Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram.

NZ Herald 

Killer whales explain the mystery of the menopause – Robin McKie. 

Killer whales and humans would seem to have little in common. We inhabit very different ecosystems, after all. Yet the two species share one unexpected biological attribute. Females of Orcinus orca and Homo sapiens both go through the menopause.

It an extraordinary aspect of our development. In contrast to the vast majority of animals on our planet, women and female killer whales stop reproducing halfway through their lives. Only one other species – the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) – behaves this way.

The question is: why? For what reason do females of these three different species give up the critically important process of reproduction in middle age? According to Darren Croft of Exeter University, whose team has been studying killer whales for several years, there are many different theories. “Some have argued that it is an artefact that has appeared during our recent evolution and has simply persisted in our lineage,” he said. In other words, there is no specific reason for the menopause in humans. It is simply an evolutionary accident. However, Croft believes there is overwhelming evidence that the menopause is an evolved trait deep rooted in our past.

One idea to account for the deep-rooted evolution of this trait uses the concept of the “granny effect”: older females are programmed to close down their reproduction so they can devote themselves exclusively to the rearing of grandchildren. In doing so, they lose the ability to pass on their genes directly to one generation but gain because they can help the following generation to reach adulthood, thus promoting their genotype for the future, it is argued.

The Guardian

Without action on climate change, say goodbye to polar bears – Darryl Fears. 

“Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered.”

Global climate change, of course, is completely out of the control of Fish and Wildlife, a division of the Interior Department. An international effort to address the issue was signed about a year ago in Paris, but President-elect Donald Trump has questioned U.S. participation in a treaty that nearly 190 governments signed.

Trump has waffled in his perspective on climate change. When asked about the human link to climate change following his election, he said, “I think there is some connectivity. . . . It depends on how much.” He also said he would keep an open mind about the international climate accord and whether his administration will withdraw from it.

But the president-elect has also openly doubted the findings of more than 95 percent of climate scientists who say climate change is driven by human activity. In 2012, he tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created for and by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Scientists say about 19 populations make up an estimated 25,000 to 31,000 bears, including a sub population of about 3,000 that roam Alaska. Estimates of their increases and declines go up and down depending on which population is being counted.

But researchers say 80 percent of the populations will almost certainly collapse if sea ice continues to decline. Air temperatures at the top of the world are rising twice as fast as temperatures in lower latitudes, resulting in significant ice melt, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Under the effects of global warming, Alaska recorded temperatures nearly 20 degrees higher than the January average as warm air flowed north, NOAA said in an Arctic Report Card.

“We’re quite confident that absent action to address climate change, there would be very significant reduction in the range of polar bears,”

NZ Herald

TODAY ALL DUTCH TRAINS ARE POWERED 100% BY WIND ENERGY – Michiel de Gooijer. 

As from 1 January 2017 100% of Dutch trains are powered by wind energy.  The Dutch railways company NS is the world’s first railway company that gets 100% of its energy from wind turbines.

Travelling by train has been the most environmentally friendly way of transportation for a long time already. In the Netherlands they have now taken it to the next level using wind turbines to power all of its trains.

The Dutch have a long history of using wind energy to advance. They used windmills to drain land covered by water since the 17th century. 

Energy company Eneco provides NS the energy to transport 600.000 people per day. That’s 1.200.000 train trips per day without any CO2 emissions.

Brightvibes

“Gutter Holes” and “Sewer Pipes”. A New Zealand environmental crisis second to none – Chris de Freitas. 

It is an uncontroversial fact that the state of the country’s freshwater resources has for decades been moving towards ecological collapse.

Freshwater ecosystems are key features of New Zealand’s natural heritage. Plentiful precipitation feeds many hundreds of streams, more than 70 major rivers, about 770 lakes and numerous underground aquifers.

More than 700 lakes are classified as “shallow” and up to 40 per cent of these are nutrient-enriched and no longer capable of supporting fish life.

Until relatively recently, water has never been considered a scarce resource in New Zealand. Consequently, the economic and regulatory controls over its allocation and use have been neglected.

The greatest impacts, however, have not come from water use but from land use: Agriculture, Urban, Dams, Mining & Forestry. 

NZ Herald