Best of our wild blogs: 11 Feb 11

Sex on the web
from The annotated budak

Gifts of the Flood: mangrove seedlings on Changi!
from wild shores of singapore

Forest Biodiversity: a new booklet
from Celebrating Singapore's BioDiversity!

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Singapore Accused Of Illegal Sand Dredging Activities

JB Worldwide 4 Feb 11;

Singapore, one of the world’s most prosperous and fastest growing economies, is being accused of expanding its coastline with illegally dredged sand from neighboring states.

Singapore has been importing sand for years and its territory has increased by over 20% in the last half century, but sand imports are now threatening the regional ecosystem and harming its economy.

Singapore is one of the smallest 20 nations in the world and it is growing fast in every way, too.

A key global shipping hub, its vast port complexes have been relentlessly expanding in the sea due to land reclamation.

Professor Chou Loke Ming from the Biological Science Center of the National Institute of Singapore says, “We have been taking sand from our hills and then, when there are no more hills left, we have been dredging sand from sea beds, and now most of it is been imported from neighboring countries.”

Singapore is today the world’s largest importer of sand, literally the foundation of the tiny state’s extraordinary economic growth.

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But with other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, banning sand exports, reclaiming more land has become a difficult task for this tiny island city-state. At least legally – there are some accusations that sand smuggling is making up the shortfall.

Critics say it is a dirty business, with illegal imports of sand coming from poorer neighboring countries.

A report by an independent American watchdog, strongly rejected by the government of Singapore, says the trade causes huge environmental damage in Cambodia, feeding corruption while causing misery to ordinary people.

“The sand trade in Cambodia has been extremely damaging,” George Boden of Global Witness says. “It has the potential to have huge environmental consequences. It is also an incredibly corrupt trade. A series of complex allegations have been made about dirty land dealings.”

“None of the money is actually reaching government accounts,” he concluded.

Singapore is world-renowned for its economic success, but critics say the state needs to use its respected reputation to do more in the relation to the murky world of sand importing.

“Singapore portrays itself as a regional leader in stability and environmental protection and they need to put their money where their mouth is and make sure that their imports of sand do not fuel environmental de-aggregation and human life violations, not only in Cambodia but in all of the countries of the region,” George Boden says.

The government of Singapore, however, has firmly rebutted the Global Witness report, denying it condones sand smuggling or extraction, which breaches source countries’ laws on environmental protection. The state says that sand suppliers are private firms buying from other countries who are responsible for policing their own environmental laws.

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Tuas desalination plant: Could authorities elaborate on waiver?

Keeping abreast of green issues a must
Letter from Yeo Chow Khoon Today Online 11 Feb 11;

I REFER to the report "New Tuas desalination plant to have 'slight negative impact' on marine life" (Feb 7).

It is good to read such reports. It helps to keep Singapore citizens up to date on Government actions, to meet the ever- increasing demand for water by our growing population.

Among other things, it keeps citizens aware of the efforts made by the Government which are beneficial to us it also keeps us up to date on technological innovations that make things possible and the reassurance that environmental stewardship is always guiding our country's actions.

This is important because if people are not reminded they will not be conscious of the pressures we put on the environment. Hence, they may not act to ensure that we utilise our finite resources sustainably.

After the projected exceeding of the Effluent Discharge Standard of the National Environment Agency, by the yet-to- be-built desalination plant, it was reported that "a waiver has been agreed in principle with the NEA to permit the exceeding of these standards within the 10m mixing zone".

Could the authorities elaborate on this waiver?

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Wider testing of LED street lights on the cards

Energy saving lights provide better field of vision for drivers
Emilyn Yap Business Times 11 Feb 11;

LED street lights could be making their way to more parts of Singapore in two to three years' time, as government agencies test them out on a broader scale.

It is not just the environmentally conscious who might root for the arrival of these energy saving lights. Drivers too, could have reason to cheer as LED lights create a better field of vision at night.

Almost all roads in Singapore today are lined with high pressure sodium lamps which give off an orange hue. LED lights, however, are a closer match to sunlight.

Over in one-north, a stretch of road has become a test-bed for LED street lights. In April, JTC Corporation and a Taiwan-based firm Foxsemicon Integrated Technology (Fiti) installed new lights there to compare their performance with conventional lamps.

Results showed that at the same level of brightness, LED street lights consumed around 18 per cent less energy than conventional lights. Based on this, energy savings for that more than 200-metre road segment would come up to over $60 a month.

LED street lights might also have a longer lifespan. Fiti believes that they can work for more than 45,000 hours, while conventional street lights might last just 20,000 hours. Given that street lights in Singapore operate for around 12 hours a day, LED lights can potentially last 5.7 years more.

But one major obstacle in the adoption of LED lights is the high cost. Chris Huang, from Fiti's business development unit, estimates that the market price of a high pressure sodium lamp is around $650-700, while that of an LED lamp can go up to around $1,200.

To further explore the viability of having LED street lights in Singapore, JTC will be testing them out at another stretch of road at its upcoming CleanTech Park.

JTC has received seven proposals for the test-bed, and it will be assessing them together with the Land Transport Authority. The first round of tests should take place in the third quarter this year.

Other new estates under JTC's watch, such as Mediapolis, are potential candidates for more trials, said JTC engineering planning division director Koh Chwee.

With more rounds of tests, and as technology improves, LED street lights 'should be ready to be rolled out on a bigger scale' in another two to three years' time, he said.

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Singapore set to build its first floating oil storage

Project at Pulau Sebarok expected to start in second half
Ronnie Lim Business Times 11 Feb 11;

(SINGAPORE) Singapore is set to launch its first floating oil storage project in the second half of this year.

Apparently dubbed 'megafloat', the project is Singapore's latest answer to land-challenged Jurong Island, which does not allow for any more surface-based oil storage to be built.

Final-stage engineering for the floating terminal at Pulau Sebarok - likely to be used to store oil products and be operated by Royal Vopak - has just started, with tenders for its construction expected around June.

BT understands that this follows a tender award last month by JTC Corporation to the Jurong Consultants/British Maritime Technology Group (BMT) consortium for front-end engineering design (FEED) for the very large floating structure (VLFS).

The scarcity of land for oil storage in Jurong Island is a long-standing one, and sites there are instead earmarked for high value-add oil and chemicals process plants.

That is why JTC also recently embarked on building the $890 million first phase of Jurong Rock Cavern, comprising 1.47 million cu m of capacity, to store oil underground.

The zero availability of land for additional oil storage has led to many oil traders and terminal operators here resorting to either building or leasing space at new terminals in neighbouring Johor instead.

Vopak, already one of the biggest terminal operators in Singapore with over 2.59 million cubic metres of storage capacity, is for instance joining hands with Malaysia's Dialog to build a 5 million cu m terminal, costing RM5 billion (S$2.1 billion), in Pengerang this April.

While operatorship has apparently not been awarded yet, Vopak is the logical choice to run the 'megafloat' at Pulau Sebarok, as the VLFS site is just behind the Dutch terminal operator's existing surface tankfarm. It is one of four oil and chemical tankfarms which Vopak operates on Jurong Island, the others being at the Banyan, Penjuru and Sakra sectors.

The Jurong Consultants-BMT Group consortium is understood to be carrying out FEED for the 'megafloat' with flexibility for it to be built either from concrete or steel.

Earlier JTC studies showed that to be economical, megafloat's minimum storage capacity should be 300,000 cu m, or equal to that of a very large crude carrier. It would comprise two rectangular modules, each with 150,000 cu m of storage. Each module was earlier reported to measure 180 metres by 80 m by 15 m, although the final dimensions would eventually depend on the material used, sources said.

'Essentially, it will comprise individual floating boxes, as oil is lighter than water,' one source explained.

The consultants are expected to complete their FEED by Q1, and then prepare and call the EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) tender by mid-year. The earlier cost estimate for building the megafloat was at least $180 million, although this will ultimately depend on the material used.

On the lead time needed to build the project, sources said that if the megafloat were to be made of steel, it would depend on the availability of local shipyards, while a concrete structure would likely have to be constructed in neighbouring countries.

JTC studies on the megafloat started back in 2007, with phase one covering a preliminary conceptual design of an attached-to-land VLFS.

This then progressed to phase two - covering areas like environmental impact, marine soil investigation and sea current monitoring - which was completed last year.

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Malaysia: Matang Wildlife breeding programme on right track

The Star 10 Feb 11;

MATANG Wildlife Centre in Kuching saw the birth of a sun bear, marking a milestone for Sarawak Forestry Corp’s conservation and rehabilitation programme for the protected species.

The female cub was born last Saturday, weighing about 500g and measuring 15cm in length. It was the first cub naturally and safely delivered at the centre in the last two years.

The newborn and its mother are currently kept under tight surveillance to ensure their safety.

Sarawak Forestry managing director and chief executive Datuk Len Talif Salleh said the birth of the cub showed the success of the corporation’s breeding programme at the centre.

“We are very happy and thankful for this newborn cub as it will lead to a new generation of sun bears. It also shows that we are on the right track in protecting them from extinction,” he said in a statement yesterday.

The sun bear is a protected animal under the state’s Wild Life Protection Ordinance.

Len Talif said Matang Wildlife Centre currently has nine sun bears in its care, comprising three males and six females.

“Our rehabilitation programme is done in collaboration with volunteers and non-governmental organisations who conduct behavioural observation, enclosure enrichment and feeding. Other programmes will be implemented in the future to enable the sun bears to learn survival skills effectively,” he said.

He also said Sarawak Forestry could not work alone in conserving the state’s protected wildlife but needed the cooperation from everyone.

“We all have the responsibility to protect and care for our ecosystem. Matang Wildlife Centre plays an important role in providing care for our wildlife in order for them to survive. We will continue to set an example for the younger generation so that they will also learn to love and protect Sarawak’s legacy,” Len Talif added.

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Malaysia: Sumatran rhinos need a 'bank'

New Straits Times 10 Feb 11;

TUARAN: Time is fast running out for the Sumatran rhinoceros, but a wildlife official believes something can still be done to save this species.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Dr Laurentius Ambu said a genetic resource bank to preserve semen, egg cells, ovarian tissue and embryos would help them carry out a breeding programme in captivity.

He said natural or assisted breeding in the captive population and artificial insemination remained the only two options left to save the animal from extinction.

Since the department is pursuing the natural breeding method, it was desperate to capture them in the wild.

"We need to get a few more wild rhinos to boost the genetic diversity and our chances for successful natural breeding in captive population.

"We need to set up a cyro-preservation bank to store these valuable tissues," he said when met at the two-day Sumatran Rhino Global Management and Propagation meeting which ended yesterday.

Ambu said they had been trying to capture the wild female rhinos and since April, the department has been targeting a specific young female rhino in the wild in the hope of boosting its breeding programme.

However, capturing them was hard with only two wild rhinos captured over the past six years in Sumatra and Sabah.

Between 1984 and 1995, only 40 Sumatran rhinos were captured for a global propagation programme but only four remained now.

He said only the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States had been successful in breeding the rhinos in captive conditions, three times between 2001 and 2007.

"It is clear that we need to do some new things (to save the Sumatran rhinos from extinction) because desperate times require desperate measures.

"One good piece of news is that the species is a stubborn lot.

"There are still Sumatran rhinos in the same protected areas which used to be strongholds in 1995. This include Danum Valley and Tabin in Sabah."

However, he cautioned that even with the best efforts by experts, prospects for the continued existence of the Sumatran rhino remained bleak.

"In the wild, populations appear to continue to decline, or at best, remain stagnant despite our best efforts at protecting the habitats as well as the rhinos," Ambu said.

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Vietnam’s Biodiversity Has Deep Roots in Earth’s Past

ScienceDaily 10 Feb 11;

On account of the very high number of animal and plant species which are mostly only found there, Southeast Asia is a global biodiversity hotspot. Despite its highly endangered terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, Vietnam makes a significant contribution to this biological diversity.

In a current publication the scientific team around Professor Madelaine Böhme, leader of the team on Terrestrial Palaeoclimatology of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology (HEP) at the University of Tübingen (Germany), demonstrates for the first time that North Vietnam was already a hotspot of biodiversity about 30 million years ago.

Kinship and evolutionary patterns

The group succeeded in recovering mammals, crocodiles, six species of turtles, around 20 fish species and 10 mussel species, snails and various plants from marine sediments as evidence of the early biodiversity. Several of the fossil animals are completely new to science and are still awaiting a precise description. Even so, the yield in knowledge has already been considerable Professor Böhme sums up the objective of her research work: "Since many of the fossil species are closely related to today's plants and animals, the findings not only provide information on living conditions during the Cenozoic, but also help us to learn more about basic evolutionary patterns and the global mechanisms within the Earth system."

The group investigated the Na Duong basin with the Rinh Chua fault in the province Lang Son, the Cao Bang basin North-West of it as well as the Hang Mon basin, not quite 300 kilometres South-Western of it, close to the Laotian frontier. All three basins lie along major dislocations which originated from powerful tectonic movements during the Eocene (c. 56-34 million years ago). The publication presents the first scientific results of the German-Vietnamese research project carried out in 2008 and 2009 in North Vietnam under the leadership of Madelaine Böhme.

A map of primeval landscape

Though the composition of the species spectrum differs within the single basins, the fossil record shows a remarkable variety of species. "These differences are very interesting and instructive for science," says Madelaine Böhme, and explains that if one is familiar with the single species, their way of life and needs, the fossils themselves tell much about their former way of life and the primeval environment. Together with geological observations, these information provide a sort of map. The results of the investigations thus sketch the primeval landscape of North Vietnam with the organisms and climatic conditions that once occurred there.

Because little is known yet about the fossil ecosystem of Vietnam, a great deal was also new to the scientists; that is why even the research team was surprised by the finds of 50 turtle shells within only ten days. They represent at least six genera. In the depositions which are millions of years old they also found tree-like ferns, fragments of tree trunks with up to five metres of length, fossil resins, different leaves and plant seeds. Beside parts of crocodiles and the remains of mammals belonging to a mouse deer and a rhinoceros the fossil report also mentions other vertebrates like small and medium-sized fish, barbel and one as yet undescribed teleost as well as catfish.

Among the finds of molluscs there was an astonishing variety of completely different freshwater mussels and snails. Above all, the composition of fish and mussel fauna points to a habitat with shallow, oxygen-rich freshwater environments. These observations are supported by several aquatic plants, found in their live positions, which normally occur in tranquil waters, Madelaine Böhme assumes that the large mussel population provided clear water through its filtering activity and hence created ideal conditions for light-dependent plants.

Except for two additional representatives of the animal group, the finds of molluscs from the Rinh Chua formation do not differ from the mollusc deposits in the Na Duong basin. However the fish fauna differs significantly: the sediments contained several species of completely different carp-fish and also one catfish. In particular the deposits of fishes suggest that once a deeper freshwater ecosystem existed here.

In the approximately 70 square kilometre Cao Bang basin both the geological results and the fossil finds indicate a primeval landscape with rivers, lakes and ponds. The fossil record for this region does not mention any mammals. Instead, there is evidence of animals which lived either in or at the edge of the water, including the remains of a gavial crocodile. Remarkable among the species-rich fish deposits is the fossil find of a giant barbel, which according to estimates, must have been up to two metres long.

"This impressive fish find, by far the largest, must be classified not only as a new species but also as a new genus," Madelaine Böhme said. The fish fauna in the Cao Bang basin was not only impressive, but above all more numerous than in the Na Duong basin. In only 100 gram of sediment, remains of more than 100 fish were discovered. Like the molluscs, the fish species here differed overall from those in the Na Duong basin.

A new clue and further pending questions

The diverse mussel fauna of the Na Duong and Cao Bang basins are still full of mysteries. The palaeontologists nevertheless consider it possible that on further investigation, the fossils recovered may not only turn out to be the oldest representatives of this animal group but also add a new clue to the discussions on the age of the basins.

The Hang Mon basin, at an altitude of 920 metres, had neither fish nor aquatic mussels, with molluscs only represented by three different types of terrestrial snails, making it difficult to outline a habitat. Despite this, the absence of fish and aquatic mussels and the current evidence for primitive ungulates, as well as the evidence of mammals already cited in the literature, indicates a predominantly terrestrial habitat, perhaps traversed by rivers.

The comparison of the current fauna and flora of North Vietnam with that of the Cenozoic still raises a number of questions. One of the key regions for searching for traces of original conditions, such as the occurrence and extent of former and current freshwater organisms, is the Red River. Today it flows through North Vietnam and then into the Gulf of Tonkin, but it was already the main drainage system for Southeast Asia during the Palaeocene (65-23 million years ago) until the Neocene (23 -c. 5 million years ago).

Whereas the Hang Mon basin formed a part of the drainage system of the Red River, there are indications that the basins along the Cao Bang-Tien Yen Fault were supplied in a different way. The geological and the fossil finds raise the question for Madelaine Böhme as to whether another large river might not have existed during the Cenozoic. This, as well as studies on climate and further geological and paleontological analysis, will form part of further research work on the past habitat and ecosystem of North Vietnam.

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Malaysia: Don’t release sky lanterns, says ministry

The Star 11 Feb 11;

GEORGE TOWN: The Transport Ministry has warned that action would be taken against those who released the banned Kong Ming lanterns.

Its deputy minister Datuk Abdul Rahim Bakri said the public should stop “playing with fire” since the lanterns pose a safety risk to aircraft.

“Releasing such lanterns is a new phenomenon,” he told media after inspecting the progress of expansion work at the Penang Inter­national Airport here yesterday.

Abdul Rahim said the ministry and police could use the Civil Aviation Act 1969, Section 285 of the Penal Code and Section 5 of the Explosives Act 1957 to capture those who broke the law.

The Star had reported that the lanterns, also known as sky lanterns, could climb to a height of 1,800m.

It can be sucked into an aircraft’s engines and cause the plane to catch fire and explode in mid-air.

When contacted, Penang chief police officer Datuk Wira Ayub Yaakob said they would not hesitate to take action against those who refused to heed the warning.

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Malaysia: Drastic drop in plastic bag usage at TESCO Penang

The Star 10 Feb 11;

TESCO outlets in Penang have reduced their plastic bag distribution by 85% since the ‘Everyday is a No Free Plastic Bags Day’ campaign began this year.

Tesco Malaysia corporate and legal affairs director Azlam Shah Alias said some 50 million plastic bags had been saved since the hypermarket signed on for the state’s campaign in July 2009.

“When the four Tesco outlets in Penang started the ‘No Free Plastic Bag Day’ campaign, we implemented it from Monday to Wednesday and our plastic bag distribution dropped by 50%.

“Just by adding another four days (this year), we saw a remarkable drop of 85%.

“To date, we have saved 50 million plastic bags from going to the landfill,” he said.

Azlam was speaking at the official launch of the ‘Everyday is a No Free Plastic Bags Day’ campaign at Tesco Extra in Sungai Dua on Penang island recently.

In conjunction with the launch, the hypermarket distributed 500 reusable green bags made of recycled plastic and jute to customers.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who officiated the launching, reiterated that the state was not banning plastic bags outright.

“Those who want plastic bags can still purchase them for 20sen (each).

“Proceeds from this collection are donated to the state’s Partners Against Poverty (PAP) Fund to aid the hardcore poor,” he said.

Lim said to date, the PAP fund stood at a total of RM401,868, out of which Tesco had contributed RM115,241.

“Despite opposition from certain pro-plastic groups and opposition parties, we (the state) believe that the majority of civic-minded Penangites share our vision of transforming Penang into an international and intelligent city.

“To do this, Penang must go green,” he said, adding that co-operation from hypermarkets, supermarkets and other businesses went a long way in cutting down the estimated eight plastic bags Malaysians used weekly.

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Global Map Tracks Diseases at the Animal-Human Interface

Environment News Service 9 Feb 11;

VIENNA, Austria, February 9, 2011 (ENS) - A real-time, open-access map that tracks emerging infectious diseases moving between wildlife and people was introduced at this week's International Meeting on Emerging Diseases and Surveillance in Vienna.

From swine flu in North Carolina to anthrax in Croatia; from bird flu in Hong Kong to hantavirus in Chile - diseases that can jump from animals to humans, called zoonotic diseases, are mapped for easy reference in seven languages at uses an automated process to monitor more than 50,000 web sources an hour, such as online news aggregators like Google News, eyewitness reports, expert-reviewed online discussions, and official reports from agencies such as the World Health Organization.

The map integrates the field surveillance activities of PREDICT, a global early warning system created in 2009 to anticipate and prevent emerging infectious diseases through identification of possible pathogenic threats as part of the United States Agency for International Development's Emerging Pandemics Threats Program.

These data are combined with the results of emerging disease risk modeling by EcoHealth Alliance, which then helps implement and modify PREDICT surveillance activities at interfaces where wildlife and humans come together, such as the wildlife trade and wild animal hunting.

All these sources provide the data for

" works around the clock to monitor, organize, filter, visualize, and disseminate online information to more than a million users worldwide in nine languages," said Dr. John Brownstein of Harvard Medical School and co-founder of

Among the 1,461 pathogens recognized to cause diseases in humans, at least 60 percent are of animal origin, according to PREDICT. Outbreaks of these animal-to-human diseases include:

* The 1918 influenza pandemic, which was probably caused by a virus that jumped from birds, killed over 50 million people globally
* The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which moved from chimpanzees to people, and now infects more than 33 million individuals
* Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2003 from southern China "wet markets" where live wild animals are sold for food
* Outbreaks of avian influenza H5N1, or "bird flu," and the H1N1 influenza, or "swine flu"

" helps us monitor outbreaks wherever they occur so that we can target more intensive surveillance to detect emerging pathogens before they spread widely among people and animals, giving us the best chance to prevent new pandemics," said Jonna Mazet, director of the PREDICT project and the One Health Institute in the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Other PREDICT partners include EcoHealth Alliance, one of the organizations to share a $75 million dollar award from USAID with the goal of predicting and preventing the next emerging zoonotic disease.

Additional partners are Global Viral Forecasting Inc., the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Children's Hospital, Children's Hospital Boston, Yale University, ProMED and Praecipio.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo, is one of the institutions implementing PREDICT. WCS conducts research on the international illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts and the role this trade may play in the spread of infectious diseases.

It is estimated that billions of plants, wild animals, and wildlife products are legally or illegally traded for food, the pet trade, and other uses every year.

More than one billion kilograms of animal meat, known as bushmeat, is traded each year in Central Africa alone.

"Increase in logging, deforestation, and bushmeat hunting favors the transmission of new parasites to humans from gorillas and vice versa," says Endangered Species International, a nonprofit organization with offices in the United States, Switzerland and Republic of Congo.

Bushmeat is smuggled into the United States and Europe to satisfy the demands of some African cultural groups. Antelope, giraffe, elephant, bat, cane rat, gorilla or chimpanzee meat may be eaten on holidays or for reputed medicinal benefits, but the meat may carry pathogens that can infect humans.

" is a tremendous innovation in web-based tools that monitors and disseminates critical information on the emergence of pathogens to health officials around the world," said Dr. Robert Cook, executive vice president and general director of Wildlife Conservation Society's Living Institutions.

" enables the global health community and society at large to be better prepared for when the next disease emerges," he said.

Dr. Damien Joly, WCS associate director of wildlife health monitoring and epidemiology, said at the IMED meeting, "This innovative resource enables governments and allied organizations worldwide to implement a more holistic approach to detecting emerging diseases. This integrative One World-One Health approach is critical to our ability to combat new disease pathogens as they arise."

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Malaysia: Urbanites at Nature’s mercy

Lee Yen Mun The Star 11 Feb 11;

PETALING JAYA: About 8.6 million Malaysians living in urban areas will be exposed to climate hazards within the next nine years, an Asian Development Bank (ADB) study showed.

The study projected that the number of people to be affected by the unpredictable global weather change is also expected to increase with time, up to an astounding 11.9 million by 2050.

If the projection is accurate, Malaysia may see an 182.6% spike over 50 years (2000- 2050) in the number of its population placed at nature’s mercy.

Apart from coastal flooding, the report did not identify other environmental hazards that are expected to hit the country’s urban spots.

“It is important to note that the impact of climate change on these population will be influenced not just by its nature and severity, but also by the ability of those population to bring resources to adapt to that change,” the ADB said in the report entitled Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific.

The study to be released next month is aimed at enhancing regional preparedness for migration driven by changing weather patterns.

If the bad weather persists, Malaysia may also see an influx of migrants from its Asian counterparts dubbed by the report as “climate change hotspots”, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and southern Pakistan.

These five countries are currently the primary providers of most low-skilled workers to Malaysia.

“Migration in Asia and the Pacific occurs for a wide variety of reasons, which include working opportunities, armed conflict and civil unrest, diversification of incomes and most notably, the impact of climate change and natural disaster,” the report said.

It added that Asia is currently the primary source of migration to most of the world’s immigrant-receiving countries, representing about 30% of the world’s total migrant population.

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Indonesia To Boost Rice Stocks Amid Global Food Fears

Neil Chatterjee PlanetArk 10 Feb 11;

Indonesia ordered hefty rice imports on Wednesday to boost stocks by a third in the latest sign that governments concerned about rising food prices and dwindling supplies are rushing into the market and could drive inflation even higher.

Global food prices have climbed to record highs on shrinking supplies of wheat, corn, soybean and oilseeds. While rice has been less of a worry thanks to ample supplies in the top two exporters, Thailand and Vietnam, traders said other Asian governments may soon seek to boost rice stocks too.

Adding to gathering nervousness among governments over food supplies, China plans subsidies to boost grain output this year, state radio said in a report on its website.

"Maintaining a stable grain output increase has a very important meaning to managing inflation expectations, stabilizing general consumer prices, and realizing rapid and stable economic growth as well as social harmony and stability," the report said, citing a regular state council meeting held by Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday.

The impact of Cyclone Yasi in Australia has exacerbated food worries. The chairman of Australia's main sugar industry group Canegrowers said up to a quarter of the sugar cane crop in the state of Queensland may have been lost.

"Given there has been such a wide area of impact from this cyclone, we are looking at losses on the outer edges of 5 to 10 percent and close to the center of the cyclone up to 50 percent of the crop could be lost," Alf Cristaudo told Reuters in an interview.

The latest monthly grains report from the U.S. government threatened to further stoke concerns over crops being increasingly used for fuel. The U.S. Department of Agriculture slashed its forecast for corn stockpiles 9 percent, projecting the tightest supply since the Great Depression as a record amount of the crop is used to make ethanol.

Problems with Australia's wheat crop as well as lingering effects of last summer's drought in the Black Sea region have boosted the role of the United States on the export market.

In January, global food prices tracked by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization hit their highest level on record. The FAO said last week its Food Price Index rose for the seventh month in a row to reach 231 in January, the highest level since records began in 1990.

The rising prices have raised concerns over inflation, protectionism and social unrest, factors behind the 2008 food crisis, and prodded the G20 to promise action.


Indonesia's government met to discuss food security on Wednesday. Chief Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa asked state procurement agency Bulog to secure imports to gradually boost rice stockpiles to 2 million tonnes from the current 1.5 million tonnes, underlining fears shortages could cause price spikes.

Traders said other governments may also look to increase stocks despite ample supplies in Thailand and Vietnam.

Bangladesh said it was buying 200,000 tonnes of parboiled rice from Thailand in their first government-to-government deal for the grain.

The Philippines, however, held back on importing more despite a recommendation by a government panel to build stocks above a 1 million ton target.

Traders also warned of a remote chance the top two exporters, facing food inflation pressures as well, may choose to keep more supplies at home.

"Rising supply from the world's top two exporters is likely to weigh prices down. However, there could be steady demand from traditional buyers such as the Middle East, African countries and demand elsewhere in Asia that could help support prices," said Kiattisak Kallayasirivat of trading firm Novel Agritrade.

Indonesia surprised markets last month by buying nearly five times as much rice as expected, then suspended rice import duties, signaling it could look to stockpile more.

Its import plans are a turnaround from minimal purchases last year and show efforts by Southeast Asia's biggest economy to be self-sufficient in rice have not succeeded.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called on people to start planting food at home, and told the World Economic Forum in Davos the next economic war could be over the race for scarce resources, due to growing populations.

Food price inflation led the central bank to hike interest rates last week for the first time in two years, and protests over food prices were seen as a major factor in the ousting of Indonesia's autocratic President Suharto in 1998.

By contrast in the Philippines, policymakers appear not to be overly worried about rising food costs. The central bank is expected to leave policy rates unchanged at a record low on Thursday, and has said there is no evidence that commodity prices are spilling over into the broader economy.

The country may buy less than 1 million tonnes of rice this year despite a government panel recommendation for a higher purchase volume, with forecasts of a good first quarter crop, a government official said.

Early rains this year have helped rice crops and along with hefty stockpiles from previous years' imports, gives Manila -- the world's biggest buyer in recent years -- room to buy less than the record 2.45 million tonnes it purchased last year.

"We are preventing over-importation because our farmers will be disadvantaged," said agriculture secretary Proceso Alcala.

Thai rice rose to $545 per ton from last week's $540 per ton on the back of loading demand after exporters committed last month to sell 820,000 tonnes of rice to Indonesia.

Benchmark Thai 100 percent B-grade white rice prices are likely to rise to $550 a ton by the end of February and $567.5 a ton in March from around $540 a ton now, given expectations of additional orders from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, a Reuters poll shows.

Rice lagged other staple grains last year, falling 13 percent while corn and wheat surged around 50 percent. Rice prices have only gained 2 percent this year and are far below a record $1,050 a ton hit in 2008.

Still, Reuters technical analyst Wang Tao sees Thai white rice rising into a range of $630-$673 per ton over the next three months based on chart indicators.

Some traders say rice prices could drop in the coming weeks on increased supply because Vietnam is due to start harvesting its major winter-spring rice crop by end-February.

"Prices will fall in March as there are no more government deals while the Philippines has not detailed its importing plan but it may buy less than last year," one said.

Thailand is also about to start harvesting its second crop, expected to be around 9.5 million tonnes, the highest ever and well above 8.8 million tonnes last year.

(Editing by Neil Fullick and David Gregorio)

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Extreme Weather Batters The Insurance Industry

Ben Berkowitz PlanetArk 11 Feb 11;

In Chester County, South Carolina, off a dirt road in the middle of a field, insurance companies are literally unleashing a storm.

To simulate hurricane-like conditions, an industry group has built a wind tunnel big enough to accommodate nine large residential homes. Some 105 fans deliver gusts of 175 miles per hour, destroying dwellings built precisely for this purpose.

The goal is to construct homes across the country that can withstand the worst Mother Nature has to offer, which lately has been quite a lot -- not to mention tough if not impossible for insurers to predict.

"One thing we as a society don't really do anymore is build for where we live. We build for how we want to live," said Julie Rochman, chief executive of the Institute for Building and Home Safety, the industry-sponsored group behind the wind tunnel initiative. "There's a wonderful ability to be living in denial and where disaster happened a long time ago we get disaster amnesia."

It's a tough time to be in the $500 billion U.S. property insurance business. Storms are happening in places they never happened before, at intensities they have never reached before and at times of year when they didn't used to happen.

Those bizarre weather patterns damage not just homes but also insurance companies' financials. If seas rise and houses flood, insurers pay. If winds shift and buildings blow down, they also pay. If temperatures rise and crops fail, same thing.

The industry hasn't reached a consensus on what's causing weird weather.

"It's hard to really deny that global warming exists," said Karen Clark, chief executive of Boston-based Karen Clark & Co., which helps insurance companies forecast natural disasters. "You can accept that and that's fine, but that doesn't mean we can quantify the impacts."

Others in the business are reluctant to assign blame to broader trends. "Our view would be it's too early to come to a conclusion," said Liam McGee, chief executive of the Hartford Financial Services Group.

What no one disputes is that the storms the industry expects aren't happening and the ones they don't expect are hitting them hard.

The implications are profound for consumers as well as insurers. If hundred-year storms are now at risk of happening every 40 years or every three, it is difficult to know how much property insurance should cost.

The last couple of months underscore just how much climate seems to be changing. Queensland state in Australia has suffered a virtual apocalypse -- flooding in December, flooding in January and tropical cyclones in February that inundated at least 30,000 homes and crippled the local coal industry.

Meanwhile in the United States, snow fell on Christmas Day in a number of southern cities for the first time since at least the 1880s. Los Angeles got six months' worth of rain in three weeks, causing some of the worst flooding in the state's history. The New York metropolitan area had an unprecedented blizzard the day after Christmas and a month later got almost the same, breaking historical records.

Private weather service AccuWeather, in a blog entry on its website two days before the Christmas blizzard in New York, asked its forecasters for their take on the sophisticated, expensive new computer models used to predict the path and behavior of the storm.

The forecasters' collective answer, according to the blog: "None of them are right."

Worldwide, insurers suffered at least $36 billion in catastrophe losses in 2010, according to Swiss Re -- the fourth-highest total of the last decade, and the highest if years with major hurricane landfalls are excluded.

But this year, as with last year and the year before, what insurers are seeing is the unexpected. That means both storms going where they're not supposed to as well as a spate of totally unexpected losses at entirely unpredicted times of year.

"Some people believe that is because weather patterns have changed. I happen to be in that camp," said Tom Wilson, the chairman and chief executive of Allstate, the largest publicly traded property insurer in the country. "I just don't think it should happen three years in a row."

One of the biggest problems for insurers is that they have to insure increasingly valuable properties in risky areas that, by and large, are not being built with disaster risk in mind. That in and of itself is driving their risk up dramatically.

When an insurer writes a policy for a property, it takes various factors into account, such as the property's location, its age, the propensity of the region it's in to be affected by weather events and the potential cost of replacing the property if it is damaged or destroyed.

Those criteria have largely stayed the same over the years, but what changed is the value of the properties to be insured and the volume of them. People around the world love beachfront houses and developers love selling them.

In most places, no one stopped to think whether building the houses was a good idea, or whether there were appropriate building codes in place, or how many billions of dollars would be at stake if a major hurricane blew through.

"Even if the baseline of activity from a natural hazards point of view stays constant, the level of losses you're going to see will certainly be increasing commensurate to the increases in economic activity and national wealth," said Bill Keogh, the president of Eqecat, another major global risk modeler.

Most people in the business of predicting risk agree with Keogh that the changes in the environment matter less now than the changes in the "built environment" -- the size, value and type of buildings being put in high-risk areas like Florida's coastal zone and geologically unstable areas of California.

Stringent building codes would overcome much of those risks, but such things either do not exist or are not strictly enforced in many parts of the world, and even in the United States they are a state-by-state patchwork. In many cases, it takes a disaster for them to be updated to reflect modern demands.

The lack of data on how homes survive disasters drove IBHS, the industry-sponsored research center, to create the South Carolina wind tunnel late last year to test how building codes and materials hold up under extreme duress. Nestled on a 90-acre plot abutted by cow pastures and hay fields, the site is located on a rural, two-lane country road.

"There has been research on wind damage to structures for several decades, but we as an industry hit a brick wall in not being able to do full scale testing," said Anne Cope, the center's director of research.

The wind tunnel has enough space to hold up to nine 2,300-square-foot (210-square-meter) homes. When fully operational, the center can test hurricane force winds, mixed with up to 8 inches of water per hour of simulated rain.

For heavily wooded areas, the tunnel has a fire pit, where hot embers can be sucked into the wind currents, simulating how wild fires spread from house to house.

Cope said the aim, in part, is to become the building code analog for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the group whose crash videos have become ubiquitous since it was founded in Arlington, Virginia in 1959.

"The goal is we open some people's eyes to construction standards," Cope said.


Weird weather has undermined many of the insurance industry's assumptions.

Some in the modeling business say the best they can do is to give their clients scenarios to pick from based on the client's own belief about the evolution of the climate.

"The uncertainties are so large that a lot of our clients focus on the uncertainty they can handle and manage to, which is today's risk," said Peter Dailey, director of atmospheric science at AIR Worldwide.

Dailey's firm, for example, offers a model of sea-surface temperatures -- sea temperatures being one of the most important factors in hurricane formation -- and an alternate model that assumes temperatures are warmer than usual.

Warm seas are hurricane fuel, so those who believe in global warming can plan accordingly. Other modelers agree that what is changing is not the mathematics behind modeling, but the willingness of clients to accept their conclusions.

"There's a lot of science involved and there's a lot of uncertainty involved. To the extent the models produce credible results, people use them. To the extent the models produce results that might not be consistent with peoples' view of risk, they might not use them," Eqecat's Keogh said.

But ultimately, no model, no matter how good, can really tell an insurer exactly what a storm means for its business. "We shouldn't kid ourselves that just capturing a better hurricane windfield gets you a better answer in terms of losses," said Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer of Risk Management Solutions.


There is enough confusion about changes in the environment that in 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidelines for public companies on climate change risk and how and when they have to disclose their exposure to investors.

From an accounting perspective, though, they may have to start caring much more about the future than they do now if a series of changes to industry requirements go into effect.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board and the International Accounting Standards Board are working on a unified global standard for insurance contract accounting. While there are still major differences between the two sides, most expect them to come to some agreement that would take effect in the next five or so years.

One of the major changes in the new regime would force insurers to estimate their future liabilities from catastrophe losses each reporting period. In other words, an insurer would have to make its most educated guess each quarter what catastrophes it expects to face, how bad they will be and how much they will cost the company.

A senior industry accountant posited the scenario of an insurer that is hours away from reporting its quarterly results when it hears that a tropical depression has formed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Under the new rules, that company might have to rip up its results and re-do its entire reserves to account for the damages it thinks it might incur if that depression becomes a hurricane and makes land.

Making those estimates will require, at least to some degree, the right perspective on how bad the climate change really is and what the future may bring.

"People are coming around on their own... if you look up to the poles, something's happening. I think people can only ignore it for so long," said Carl Hedde, a senior vice president at reinsurer Munich Re Americas who runs the group's catastrophe management and risk accumulation business.

Figuring out how to price for it is another matter. Insurers and reinsurers in the property and casualty sector are awash in excess capital, lulled into the financial equivalent of a false sense of security by years of limited catastrophe losses. That does not mean, however, that they can start ignoring disaster risk.

"They only have to price over the next 12 months but they certainly take a long-term view for their firms' survival and continued prosperity," said Jay Votta, a principal in the insurance practice at consultancy Ernst & Young.

Reinsurance brokerage Guy Carpenter estimates a $50 billion loss, roughly the same as Katrina, would immediately stop the decline in rates for at least one year. An event causing losses three times that amount would instantly reverse the market, forcing rates higher and creating abundant business opportunities for those reinsurers who could survive.

Some insurers are turning to catastrophe bonds, also known as cat bonds or more formally as insurance-linked securities, to mitigate some of their risk.

One executive who has been in the weather business virtually since its inception said using financial instruments to hedge weather risks makes sense given an inherent inability to accurately say with absolute certainty what the climate will do.

"People don't give enough weight to uncertainty and they feel they have to predict," said Martin Malinow, chief executive of New York-based Galileo Weather Risk Management Advisors LLC. "Nobody has God's distribution."


While the industry argues over what's happening and how it's changing and whether there's anything left to be done, the people on the ground are the ones feeling the effects, in ways large and small.

Orange County, Texas was a tired place in September 2008 when Hurricane Ike blew through. The hardscrabble region on the Louisiana border was already rattled from a false-alarm storm evacuation two weeks earlier, and the memory of harboring Hurricane Katrina evacuees in church gymnasiums in 2005 was still fresh.

That Ike ended up being the third-costliest Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the United States was bad enough for Orange County. What made it worse was the flooding, which is one of the most difficult disaster perils to insure in the United States.

The water went where it wasn't supposed to go -- flooding houses that sat outside of expected flood zones and turning living rooms into ramshackle swimming pools.

Nobody in the county of 85,000 people had ever seen anything like it, and nobody was ready for it.

"Many, many houses got flooded that weren't in the flood plain. They had no flood insurance," said Darby Byrd, the retired president of the Orange Savings Bank, the privately held institution with more than $300 million in assets that is a fixture in the county.

Some of his neighbors and clients had to tear their houses down all the way to the studs and let them dry in the fall air before they could rebuild. The lucky ones saved their walls -- or at least the top halves, after cutting away everything from the floor about five feet up.

"We had never had a storm that was positioned in the ideal place to have that much of a negative effect on us," Byrd said.

He and his staff had to set up shop with a data-processing vendor in Houston and shuttle back and forth to Orange County to get the bank reopened, which it did almost a week after the storm.

"An interesting thing when there's no power, cash is king," he said. "You would not believe how much cash we dispersed, we had to pull strings to get cash delivered from the Federal Reserve Bank of Houston."

In total some 3,000 homes were flooded in Orange County, with the water anywhere from six inches to five feet deep. The last emergency housing trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency just left town last summer, almost two years after the storm that caused $20 billion in losses nationwide.

In the wake of the storm, relatively little changed about the way Byrd's bank did business with its customers.

Where the change came was in their insurance coverage -- they took more of it and paid a higher deductible for the privilege.

(Additional reporting by Joe Rauch in Chester County, South Carolina; Editing by Jim Impoco and Claudia Parsons)

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South Korea may delay carbon trading system: official

Yahoo News 10 Feb 11;

SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea may not set up a carbon credit system by 2013 as planned because it needs more time to create a viable formula for reducing emissions without hurting growth, a top official said Thursday.

"There is a need to carefully examine what kind of side effects a carbon trading system will have and see if it can be effective in reducing emissions levels," Knowledge Economy Minister Choi Joong-Kyung told reporters.

Carbon credit systems require companies to reduce greenhouse emissions levels or buy the rights to release gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

South Korea's economy is highly energy intensive due to its reliance on manufacturing.

The country has set an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by four percent by 2020 from the 2005 level.

The move, however, has raised concerns that it would only benefit business rivals like China or prompt energy-intensive firms to relocate overseas.

Choi said the government needed more time to set up a viable formula capable of coping with speculation, technological advances and individual market conditions.

He said it was necessary to examine in detail individual industries to reflect future growth prospects and possible technology advances.

The South's business community has said that adopting a fully fledged carbon exchange market could lead to a drop in international competitiveness and higher costs.

"If a certain industry is already going downhill, setting emissions limits and giving credit that can be sold make little sense, while imposing strict standards on sectors that are growing at a fast pace can have adverse repercussions," Choi said.

Introducing a carbon exchange market was part of broader efforts to improve energy efficiency, cut back on energy use and shift to renewable energy resources, he added.

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