Best of our wild blogs: 11 Mar 11

Exploring Lorong Kebasi
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Attracting kingfishers to suburban gardens
from Bird Ecology Study Group

New Articles on Nature in Singapore
from Raffles Museum News

Singapore’s Natural History Museum – from dream to reality
from Raffles Museum News

Are You Ready for the Green Business Revolution in Singapore?
from Green Business Times

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Soon, stricter energy standards and pollution controls in Singapore

Esther Ng Today Online 10 Mar 11;

SINGAPORE - Higher energy efficiency standards will soon kick in for the two biggest energy guzzlers in a typical household, after Parliament approved on Thursday the Environmental Protection and Management (Amendment) Bill, a legislation that will also enhance noise and air pollution controls.

The amended law enables all 0-tick - the most inefficient - air-conditioners and refrigerators as well as some 1-tick and 2-tick models to be removed, come September.

A wide range of choices will still be available in the market, but over time, with more efficient models and at lower costs, "we'll consider gradually ratcheting up" the Minimum Energy Performance Standards, Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said on Thursday.

Air-conditioners and refrigerators account for about 50 per cent of household energy consumption.

Meanwhile, residents affected by noise from construction sites will have recourse to a National Environment Agency (NEA) that now has more powers to restrict or prohibit construction work during certain hours.

The Bill also empowers the NEA's director-general to stop work on premises to prevent, cease or reduce air pollution and to require an owner or occupier to remove from his premises any material or equipment contaminated with hazardous substances.

The NEA will be allowed to recover emergency clean-up costs from polluters and to initiate prosecution against officers of errant companies, without the need for the company to first be convicted of an offence.

"This is to prevent a director from avoiding prosecution by de-registering his company before the company is convicted," said Dr Yaacob.

It is now an offence to breach the NEA's licensing conditions for any premises, and for companies to carry out industrial plant works, such as building a chemical production plant, without the NEA's clearance certificate.


Easier now to act against polluting firms
Amresh Gunasingham Straits Times 11 Mar 11;

THE National Environment Agency (NEA) can now take to task companies that pollute the environment, under amendments to the Environmental Protection and Management Act passed in Parliament yesterday.

Speaking at the second reading of the Bill, Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said a particular focus of the new law will be construction sites.

The NEA will be able to force firms working in them to stop work immediately, to cut down on excessive noise pollution.

The agency announced last year that construction work would be restricted during weekends, public holidays and on their eves starting from this September. Companies in such sites have been informed of the new requirement.

Companies can also be asked to remove equipment deemed to be contaminated by hazardous material.

For the first time, the NEA can also go after recalcitrant polluters to recover clean-up costs, for example, and prosecute officers in the companies involved who are thought to be culpable.

Previously, the company had to be convicted of an offence before individuals could be made liable. Dr Yaacob explained: 'This is to prevent a director from avoiding prosecution by deregistering his company before the company is convicted.'

The sale of air-conditioners and refrigerators which are not energy-efficient will be banned from September.

Air-conditioners and refrigerators have been targeted under the rules as they take up around half of a typical household's energy consumption. Switching from a one-tick air-conditioner model to a four-tick one, for example, can potentially save up to $350 in utility bills yearly.

The tick rating system launched in 2009 grades appliances according to their energy efficiency. The more ticks a gadget carries, the more energy-efficient it is, with four ticks being the maximum.

'Over time, as more efficient models enter the market and costs come down further, we will consider gradually ratcheting up the standards,' said Dr Yaacob.

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More Singapore firms value green approach to business

Clear public policies can provide push towards sustainability: Report
Cheryl Lim Straits Times 11 Mar 11;

ADOPTING an environmentally sustainable approach to doing business has become increasingly important to companies worldwide.

A soon-to-be-released report by KPMG has found that 62 per cent of companies surveyed have a corporate sustainability strategy, an almost 12 per cent increase from a similar 2008 survey.

Conducted in October last year, the survey polled 378 senior executives from various sectors worldwide. An executive summary of the KPMG report has been obtained by The Straits Times.

Meeting regulatory requirements was the key driver for many companies to make the switch towards becoming sustainable, said the report. Other factors include risk management, brand enhancement and meeting cost reductions.

Public policies, like taxes that favour sustainable products and services, can motivate more companies to go green.

But many businesses are hindered by a lack of awareness about how to use these existing policies to their competitive advantage, said KPMG's special global adviser on climate change and sustainability, Mr Yvo de Boer.

Mr de Boer, a former top United Nations climate-change official, said this behaviour is more common in countries such as Singapore which have economies that are vulnerable to international competition. 'I think Singapore is showing leadership in a number of areas. Water is a very clear one,' he said.

The report also pointed out that taking a greener approach to running businesses could spur companies to improve or create new products.

Mr de Boer said many energy-intensive companies are keen to reduce emissions and change the way they operate, but felt they would be able to do so only if there was an international framework that would impose the same constraints and penalties on all companies globally.

He said: '(Companies) need clarity from the government to get a clear sense of direction on where they want to go in policy terms. If the result of climate-change policy is that economic activity just moves somewhere else, then what's the point.'

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Sembcorp plant to go full steam on biomass

Straits Times 11 Mar 11;

A STEAM plant on Jurong Island powered by waste wood chips is set to be one of the first here to run wholly on plant material known as biomass.

The Sembcorp Industries plant, which will burn about 120 tonnes of wood chips a day, will supply process steam to other companies on the island. It will be ready in the second half of this year, a source familiar with the company's plans said.

Just where the wood chips will come from is not clear, but an upcoming power plant on Jurong Island, built by Tuas Power and China Huaneng Group - expected to be ready next year - will run partly on palm kernel shells and wood chips sourced from neighbouring countries.

The size of Sembcorp's investment in its biomass steam plant is not known, but it is understood the figure and plant capacity would be much smaller than that of its British power plant. The company declined to make a statement on the matter.

Completed in 2007, the Sembcorp Biomass Power Station in north-east England's Tees Valley burns some 300,000 tonnes of waste wood a year to produce about 30MW of energy.

In Singapore, at least one small steam and co-generation plant already runs on biomass, though no full-scale power plant does so yet. Bee Joo Industries, a wholly owned subsidiary of environmental services firm ecoWise, built a demonstration plant at Sungei Kadut in 2004.

The 1MW plant also produces 15 tonnes of steam an hour from horticultural and waste wood, and in 2008 was Singapore's first company approved to earn and trade carbon credits under the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism scheme.


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Raptors back to thrill again in Malaysia

Hanis Maketab New Straits Times 10 Mar 11;

KUALA LUMPUR: Bird lovers, including foreigners, are expected to flock to Tanjung Tuan tomorrow and on Sunday for Raptor Watch 2011.

Into its 12th year, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS)'s annual bird-watching festival will be held at the PNB Ilham Resort in Port Dickson.

The festival is to celebrate the return of migratory birds of prey, better known as raptors, on their journey back to their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere.

Tanjung Tuan, which has been gazetted as a forest reserve, wildlife reserve and a historical site, is an important resting spot for migrating raptors after crossing the Straits of Malacca.

Despite its status as a protected natural reserve, Tanjung Tuan is still threatened by development because it is considered a prime coastal real estate.

Raptor Watch is MNS' sustained effort to promote the conservation of the natural treasure, and has become the biggest eco-tourism event in Malaysia, attracting bird enthusiasts from Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.

MNS head of communications Andrew Sebastian told the New Straits Times: "We have been championing this cause for more than 10 years, attracting public interest and bird watchers who are all concerned about protecting Tanjung Tuan's vital forest ecosystem.

"Every year, we receive queries from those who want to participate in the festival. Today, more hotels and resorts are promoting Raptor Watch as an activity for their guests."

Events include photography lessons, guided nature walks, arts and crafts, exhibitions, a fashion show and an Amazing Race competition.

"This year we are inviting more schoolchildren and their families to participate in the activities and to promote the love for nature."

More than 73,000 raptors were recorded by MNS volunteers last year.

For more details, visit Raptor Watch at

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Indonesian Habitat Project May Be the Last Hope for Javan Rhino

Fidelis E. Satriastanti Jakarta Globe 10 Mar 11;

With about 60 Javan rhinoceroses left in the world and little scientific research available on them, prospects for the species’ survival look bleak, environmentalists have warned.

Widodo Ramono, executive director of the Indonesian Rhino Foundation (YABI), said on Tuesday that scientists and government officials were working together to prevent the species’ extinction, including assessing ways to establish new populations over the long term.

“We’re racing against time. If we don’t do anything, the situation won’t get any better,” he said.

“If we want to save the Javan rhino, then there’s no other way but to look for other suitable areas for its habitat. If we can’t find any, then we have to lock them up in zoos. But even then their survival would not be guaranteed because not all zoos are properly managed.”

The Javan rhino is one of the smallest of the rhino species and was once the most widespread of the Asian rhinos, inhabiting almost all of Java’s lowland forests.

However, its population was decimated by poaching and loss of habitat, and the only surviving population in Indonesia consists of 50 to 60 rhinos in Banten’s Ujung Kulon National Park.

To stave off the threat of extinction, the government and nongovernmental organizations funded by the International Rhino Foundation have been developing the Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area, which aims to improve the animals’ habitat at Gunung Honje, in the east of the park, and draw in more rhinos to encourage breeding.

Agus Priambudi, who heads the national park, said establishing the JRSCA would also help with crucial research into the rhino, including about its reproductive cycle, in a bid to find ways to bolster its population.

“The JRSCA has already included the government’s action plan for Javan rhinos,” he said.

“We’re targeting an increase in the rhino population to 70 or 80 individuals by 2015. After that, we’ll start developing new populations outside the national park. Our target is five to 10 populations. By 2075, we want to increase the total wild population to 1,000 individuals.”

At least two rhinos have already been spotted in the JRSCA.

Citing the successful program that increased the Indian rhino population by more than 400 percent over the past 50 years, Agus said he was optimistic the JRSCA project would also do well.

Widodo said, however, that a lot of work still needed to be done before the rhino population could be increased, including improving the quality of its habitat within the park. “It’s very simple: All living creatures need a habitat in which to survive, and if their habitat is destroyed, they won’t make it,” he said.

Threats to the Javan rhino include a lack of food, disease, poaching and its long breeding cycle of 18 to 20 months.

“The idea to save the Javan rhino depends on two actions being taken simultaneously: restoration of their habitat in the national park and preparations to accommodate new populations,” Widodo said.

“If we manage to get a good number of individuals, we can try to pick and choose individuals to start new populations. If we just have one population, then from a conservation point of view, it’s not healthy.”

Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, said breeding new populations would have to begin with a limited pool, given the small existing population.

“A desirable new population would have at least 10 animals, but we recognize that in the case of the Javan rhino, where probably no more than 48 animals remain, a smaller new population is what is realistic,” she said in an e‑mail to the Jakarta Globe. “A founder population of at least 10 is desirable but likely improbable.”

She said disease was a fairly small danger for a new population. “[But] the rhinos themselves may be at risk from disease from local cattle,” she said.

“That is definitely a concern, and so evaluating a ‘real’ second habitat would entail a thorough analysis of disease risk before proceeding.

“There is always a possibility of genetic issues within the current population, but frankly, numbers now are so small that we just have to work with what we have.”

Ellis added that while the JRSCA was not a high-risk project, trying to build new populations could be.

“Actually, establishing a second population carries far more risk, but is the only option to secure the long-term survival of the species, which could easily be wiped out if one single catastrophic event occurs in Ujung Kulon, such as a disease outbreak, volcanic eruption and resulting tsunami,” she said.

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Malaysia monitors Australian rare earth plant

(AP) Google News 10 Mar 11;

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia says it is strictly regulating a $230 million refinery being built by Australian miner Lynas Corp. Ltd. to process rare earth materials critical for the manufacture of high-tech goods, but critics said Thursday that the risk of radioactive pollution was real.

The plant under construction in central Pahang state is believed to be the first such facility outside China in decades — and aims to reduce Beijing's monopoly on the global supply of 17 rare earth metals essential for making products like flatscreen TVs, mobile phones, hybrid cars and even weaponry.

Critics worry about health and environmental risks posed by low-level radioactive waste from the site, citing bitter lessons from a rare earth plant by Mitsubishi Chemicals that is still undergoing a massive cleanup after shutting down in 1992.

The Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board gave Lynas permission to construct the facility last year but has not granted it an operation license yet.

"The board is regulating it according to international standards and even beyond. We haven't begun licensing their (operations). They will have to demonstrate how they would treat the byproducts and that would be assessed again," Raja Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan, the agency's director-general, told The Associated Press.

Lynas has defended the plant as environmentally safe with state-of-the art pollution controls.

It will refine slightly radioactive ore from its Mount Weld mine in Western Australia, which will be trucked to Fremantle and transported by container ship from there. Lynas says the refinery is expected to be operational late this year and could meet nearly a third of world demand for rare earths, excluding China.

The United States, Canada and Australia have rare earths but stopped mining them in the 1990s as lower-cost Chinese supplies became available. China has about 30 percent of rare earths deposits but accounts for 97 percent of production.

Beijing announced in 2009 that it would reduce rare-earth exports to curb environmental damage and conserve supplies. Manufacturers were alarmed when China temporarily blocked shipments to Japan last year during a dispute over islands claimed by both governments. Concerns over China's grip on rare earths has led countries on a hunt for alternative sources.

Decreasing supply and strong demand sparked a surge in rare earths prices, prompting companies in the United States and Australia to start work on developing or reopening rare earths mines.

Malaysia's last rare earth refinery in Bukit Merah in northern Perak state opened in 1985 but shuttered seven years later following protests and claims that it caused birth defects and leukemia among residents nearby. It remains one of Asia's largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.

In a statement to the AP, Lynas said the Malaysian plant "will set a precedent for leadership in environmental performance with a new global benchmark in rare earths processing."

It said the radioactive element, thorium, in its raw material from Mount Weld was 50 times lower than those in Bukit Merah. Lynas also said waste products with low levels of thorium could be converted into safe byproducts such as cement aggregate for road construction.

"In practical terms, at these levels, exposure to radiation is less than taking a flight on a commercial airline or using a mobile phone," it said.

The Australian miner said it has agreed to place funds with the Malaysian government to ensure safe management of any remaining residue once the plant stops operations, but didn't give details.

Lynas has inked an agreement to supply up to 70 percent of its output to Japan and has said the rare earths will be shipped directly to Japan, Europe and the U.S.

Opposition lawmaker Fuziah Salleh, who has lobbied against the Lynas plant since 2008, said Thursday there were fears that plant wastewater could seep into the waterbed, polluting the nearby river and sea and harming the fishing industry.

She also questioned how the project would benefit Malaysia since Lynas was granted a 12-year tax break and hiring would be limited since the plant is not labor-intensive.

"Malaysia will just become a dumping ground. We will not accept toxic waste being dumped on our shores," she said.

Gurmit Singh, who heads the Center for Environment, Technology and Development, called for an independent assessment of the radiation risks at the site.

"The government has been secretive in releasing any data about the radiation level in Bukit Merah to the public. We want accountancy and transparency," he said.

Australian firm to open Malaysian rare earths plant
(AFP) Google News 10 Mar 11;

SYDNEY — An Australian mining company said Thursday it plans to finish building a huge rare earths processing plant in Malaysia late this year, in a possible challenge to China's stranglehold on the metals.

The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Kuantan is scheduled to begin producing rare earths, which are indispensable in making many high-tech products, in the third quarter of 2011, a Lynas spokeswoman in Sydney told AFP.

"The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant is scheduled to come online in the third quarter of 2011," she said.

The facility -- which will refine raw material from Mount Weld in Western Australia -- is described by the giant firm as "the largest of its kind" and set to provide the first new source of supply of rare earths outside China.

The firm was two to four years ahead of any other producers outside China because rare earths projects take several years to develop, Matthew James, vice president of corporate and business development at Lynas, told AFP in October.

He said the project, which had been eight years in the making, had about 1.4 million tonnes of the elements at Mount Weld. The company plans to double output from the Malaysian plant to 22,000 tonnes a year by the end of 2012.

Rare earths such as super-magnet dysprosium and red-glowing europium are vital components in hard-drives and computer screens, while the metals are also pivotal in making laser missile systems, wind turbines and solar panels.

The project has however drawn criticism from Malaysian environmental groups, which said they were "appalled" the government had approved it, after a similar plant in another Malaysian state was forced to halt in 1992 due to protests.

"We do not want a repeat of what happened in Bukit Merah where the impacts are still felt until today," S.M. Mohamed Idris, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia said in a statement.

The Bukit Merah rare earths plant, which was opened in the 1980s, ceased operations in 1992 after an uproar from local residents who blamed it for a number of birth defects.

Mohamed Idris warned that the new refinery will produce huge quantities of radioactive waste, and urged the government to engage with environmental groups before going ahead with the project.

Raja Abdul Aziz Raja Adnan, the head of Malaysia's Atomic Energy Licensing Board, said Malaysia has only approved the construction of the Kuantan plant and has not yet given the green light for it to begin operations.

He said the board, one of the government agencies tasked with looking into the safety aspects of the project, will need to be satisfied that it will not lead to a major impact on the public and environment.

"We are looking from the safety point of view. We are continuously measuring the (safety) parameters and collecting samples, we will make sure they control the residue," he told AFP.

Raja Abdul Aziz said the Australian firm has proposed turning waste from processing the ore -- which is slightly radioactive -- into concrete-like objects known as tetrapods to be used to build artificial reefs and sea walls.

He said the radioactive concentration in these objects must be "dilute enough to be very similar to the environment".

World attention has shifted to Australia's nascent rare earths industry after China, which dominates global production, began restricting exports, sending shudders through major consumers Japan, Europe and the United States.

In December, the United States called on China not to use rare earths as a "trade weapon" after Japanese industry said Beijing temporarily cut off exports in 2010 amid a territorial row.

China, which produces more than 95 percent of the world's rare earths, has denied any political motivations, insisting the restrictions on exports were due to environmental concerns and the need for a more sustainable approach.

This year the Asian giant has also tightened its grip over the industry by setting tough emission limits on miners producing the lucrative metals.

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Philippines to fight invading species

Mynardo Macaraig (AFP) Google News 10 Mar 11;

MANILA — Like some bad science-fiction movie, Philippine fishermen are encountering strange alien creatures: tough, speckled fish with sharp spines that tear and rip their nets.

These suckermouth catfish from South America are just one of a growing number of foreign species that are spreading in local waterways and forests, threatening to edge out the country's indigenous plants and animals.

The catfish, locally known as "janitor fish", were originally introduced locally for aquariums but careless handling and weak controls allowed them to escape into the wild -- just like scores of other animals and plants.

These foreign species may look like cute turtles or lovely flowers but government wildlife experts warn that they are displacing native plants and animals while causing massive harm to the farming and fishing industries.

"The ecological threat of invasive species is so great, they could transform the landscape, wipe out native species and destroy the diversity of the ecosystem," said government wildlife specialist Anson Tagtag.

In the case of the suckermouth catfish, it has multiplied faster than local species while competing with them for food and building nests in mud banks, dirtying the waters.

Filipinos generally find janitor fish unpalatable so those that are caught by fishermen go to waste.

In a belated response to the threat posed by all foreign species, the government has just begun a three-year programme to find out exactly what is out there and devise strategies to contain or eradicate the problems.

The programme is not expected to work miracles but it is a promising start after decades of foreign plants and animals being brought into the country without enough safeguards.

Tagtag, who is one of the leaders of the programme, said there were about 100 alien plant and animal species known to have become a problem in the Philippines.

Many of these invaders were welcomed into the country, initially for their supposed beneficial effects or as ornamental plants or pets, he said.

Perhaps the best -- or worst -- example was the Taiwanese golden apple snail, introduced by the government in the 1970s as a possible alternative food source for farmers, he said.

Filipinos never developed a taste for the golden snail but the snail's taste for rice crops now causes millions of dollars in agricultural damage every year, Tagtag told AFP.

Other invaders, such as the water hyacinth, were brought into the country purely to decorate fishponds.

Now this floating water plant reproduces wildly, clogging water systems and preventing sunlight from reaching other aquatic vegetation.

Tagtag said that in the past there was a lack of clear rules that made it easy to bring in potentially harmful species such as American bullfrogs or the climbing "santana" vines that have flourished.

The Philippines, like its neighbours in Southeast Asia, is generally behind European countries in imposing controls on these alien species, according to Tagtag.

"We are all in the same stage. We all similarly realised just recently how serious this problem is," he said.

Some Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, have launched programmes to eradicate foreign species but the Philippines merely has poorly enforced regulations to control their entry, Tagtag said.

The danger of more such alien invaders entering the country is evident at the country's shopping malls where exotic animals are peddled in select pet stores.

"Most pet owners are not responsible owners. They tend to throw away animals when they are no longer interested, (allowing them to reproduce in the wild)," said Josefina de Leon, chief of the government's wildlife resources division.

At one pet store in Manila, huge, sharp-toothed alligator gars -- a fish that looks like an alligator -- swim inside large aquariums while pinkish African frogs hop about in a giant glass jar.

"We have to look into that. I don't know if we have authorised breeders of alligator gars," said de Leon when asked about the legality of selling the exotic North American species.

Shady pet stores are often raided and their alien species seized but they inevitably reopen with new exotic animals for sale.

"From time to time, we conduct raids of pet stores, we have charged many people and filed many cases. But we have too few people to do the job," said Primo Capistrano, head of the environment agency's regional wildlife division.

"No matter how many times you raid them, they come back."

On a national scale, with 122 small ports and 35 major piers, government agencies simply do not have the manpower and resources to prevent these alien species from being smuggled in, according to de Leon.

The environment department's programme aims to understand the scope of the invasion of alien species and formulate policies to deal with them, be it containment, control or eradication.

De Leon said they already knew that toxic weeds now contaminated the country's pasture lands, while local frogs were being over-run by invaders from North America and Taiwan.

There are also unverified reports of Chinese soft-shelled turtles being found southeast of Manila and persistent rumours that flesh-eating piranhas have been smuggled into the country.

But while there is much hope for the new campaign, De Leon warned it would fail unless the environment department had much broader support than it currently received.

"There are people who do not want to cooperate. This is not just an issue of enforcement. We have to educate the local governments, senators, the judiciary," she said.

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Bee Deaths May Signal Wider Pollination Threat: U.N.

Alister Doyle, PlanetArk 11 Mar 11;

Mass deaths of bee colonies in many parts of the world may be part of a wider, hidden threat to wild insect pollinators vital to human food supplies, a U.N. study indicated on Thursday.

Declines in flowering plants, a spread of parasites, use of pesticides or air pollution were among more than a dozen factors behind recent collapses of bee colonies mainly in North America and Europe, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) said.

That cocktail of problems -- rather than a single cause killing bees in hives that might be easier to fix -- may also threaten wild bees and other insects vital to pollinate crops such as soybeans, potatoes or apple trees.

"It's the tip of the iceberg we're seeing with the honey bees," Peter Neumann, a lead author of the study of "global honey bee colony disorders and other threats to insect pollinators," told Reuters.

"There is not an immediate pollination disaster but the writing is on the wall," said Neumann, of the Swiss Bee Research Center. "We have to do something to ensure pollination for future generations."

The study said there were also reports of bee colony collapses in China, Egypt and Latin America.

"There are some indicators that it is becoming a global issue," he said in a telephone interview.


Bees and other pollinators such as butterflies, beetles or birds are estimated to do work worth 153 billion euros ($212.3 billion) a year to the human economy -- about 9.5 percent of the total value of human food production, it said.

Recent estimates of the contribution by managed species, mainly honey bees, range up to 57 billion euros. In the United States, over two million bee colonies are trucked around the nation to help pollination every year.

"Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees," Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, said in a statement.

"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people," he said.

The report urged a shift toward ecological farming, less dependent on insecticides and more resilient to threats such as climate change. Food prices have hit record levels and are one factor behind uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia.

UNEP said farmers could be given incentives to set aside land to "restore pollinator-friendly habitats, including key flowering plants" as part of a shift to a "Green Economy."

Neumann also urged more research into insects, noting that charismatic animals such as polar bears won most attention as victims of global warming. "Insects are usually not cute but they are the backbone of ecosystems," he said.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

UN alarmed at huge decline in bee numbers
Peter Capella Yahoo News 10 Mar 11;

GENEVA (AFP) – The UN on Thursday expressed alarm at a huge decline in bee colonies under a multiple onslaught of pests and pollution, urging an international effort to save the pollinators that are vital for food crops.

Much of the decline, ranging up to 85 percent in some areas, is taking place in the industrialised northern hemisphere due to more than a dozen factors, according to a report by the UN's environmental agency.

They include pesticides, air pollution, a lethal pinhead-sized parasite that only affects bee species in the northern hemisphere, mismanagement of the countryside, the loss of flowering plants and a decline in beekeepers in Europe.

"The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century," said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner.

"The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees," he added.

Wild bees and especially honey bee colonies from hives are regarded as the most prolific pollinators of large fields or crops.

Overall, pollinators are estimated to contribute 153 billion euros ($212 billion) worldwide or 9.5 percent of the total value of food production, especially fruit and vegetables, according to the report.

Honey bee colony declines in recent years have reached 10 to 30 percent in Europe, 30 percent in the United States,and up to 85 percent in Middle East, said scientist Peter Neumann, one of the authors of the first ever UN report on the issue.

But in South America, Africa and Australia there were no reports of high losses.

"It is a very complex issue. There are a lot of interactive factors and one country alone is not able to solve the problem, that's for sure. We need to have an international network, global approaches," added Neumann of the Swiss government's Bee Research Centre.

Some of the mechanisms behind the four-decades-old trend, which appears to have intensified in the late 1990s, are not understood. UNEP warned that the broad issue of countryside management and conservation was involved.

"The bees will get the headlines in this story," UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall told journalists.

"But in a sense they are an indicator of the wider changes that are happening in the countryside but also urban environments, in terms of whether nature can continue to provide the services as it has been doing for thousands or millions of years in the face of acute environmental change," he added.

Nonetheless, scientists have been unable so far to quantify the direct impact of bee decline on crops or plants, and Neumann insisted that some of the impact was qualitative.

Citing British research, the report estimated that pollination by managed honey bees is worth 22.8 billion to 57 billion euros in terms of crop yields, and that some fruit, seed and nut crops would decrease by more than 90 percent without them.

One key driving force behind bee destruction in Europe and North America has been a type of mite, the varroa destructor pest, which attacks bees and that beekeepers struggle to control, Neumann said.

"It's quite shocking how little we know about this essential pest of honey bees although it has caused havoc in agriculture for more than 20 years."

"African bees are tolerant, we don't know why," he added.

Meanwhile, frequent changes in land use, degradation and fragmentation of fields, trade carrying hostile species such as the Asian hornet into France or virulent fungi, chemical spraying and gardening insecticides as well as changing seasons due to climate change have added to the hostile environment for bees.

Bees Under Bombardment
UNEP 10 Mar 11;

From Chemicals to Air Pollution, New UNEP Report Points to Multiple Factors Behind Pollinator Losses

Geneva/Nairobi, 10 March 2011 - More than a dozen factors, ranging from declines in flowering plants and the use of memory-damaging insecticides to the world-wide spread of pests and air pollution, may be behind the emerging decline of bee colonies across many parts of the globe.

Scientists are warning that without profound changes to the way human-beings manage the planet, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue.

• New kinds of virulent fungal pathogens—which can be deadly to bees and other key pollinating insects—are now being detected world-wide, migrating from one region to another as a result of shipments linked to globalization and rapidly growing international trade

• Meanwhile an estimated 20,000 flowering plant species, upon which many bee species depend for food, could be lost over the coming decades unless conservation efforts are stepped up

• Increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including 'systemic insecticides' and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees. Some can, in combination, be even more potent to pollinators, a phenomenon known as the 'cocktail effect'

• Climate change, left unaddressed, may aggravate the situation, in various ways including by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns. This may in turn affect the quality and quantity of nectar supplies.

These are among the findings of a new report published today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which has brought together and analyzed the latest science on collapsing bee colonies.

The study, entitled Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators, underlines that multiple factors are at work linked with the way humans are rapidly changing the conditions and the ground rules that support life on Earth. It shows humans' large dependency on ecosystem services even for such vital sectors as food production.

It indicates that bees are early warning indicators of wider impacts on animal and plant life and that measures to boost pollinators could not only improve food security but the fate of many other economically and environmentally-important plants and animals.

The authors of the report call for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, including key flowering plants including next to crop-producing fields.

More care needs to be taken in the choice, timing and application of insecticides and other chemicals. While managed hives can be moved out of harm's way, "wild populations (of pollinators) are completely vulnerable", says the report.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees".

"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people".

Bees and the Green Economy

Next year nations gather again in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, to evolve international efforts to achieve sustainable development including through accelerating and scaling-up a transition to a low carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy.

Part of that transition should include investing and re-investing in the world's nature-based services generated by forests and freshwaters to flower meadows and coral reefs.

"Rio+20 is an opportunity to move beyond narrow definitions of wealth and to bring the often invisible, multi-trillion dollar services of nature—including pollination from insects such as bees— into national and global accounts," said Mr Steiner.

"Some countries, such as Brazil and India, have already embarked on that transformation as part of a partnership between UNEP and the World Bank. It is time to widen and embed this work across the global economy in order to tip the scales in favour of management rather than mining of the natural world and that includes the services of pollinators," he added.

The new report on bee colony disorders has been led by researchers Dr Peter Neumann of the Swiss Bee Research Centre and Dr Marie-Pierre Chauzat of the French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety. The team also included Dr Jeffrey Pettis of the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

Dr Neumann said: "The transformation of the countryside and rural areas in the past half century or so has triggered a decline in wild-living bees and other pollinators. Society is increasingly investing in 'industrial-scale' hives and managed colonies to make up the shortfall and going so far as to truck bees around to farms and fields in order to maintain our food supplies".

"This report underlines that a variety of factors are making these man-made colonies increasingly vulnerable to decline and collapse. We need to get smarter about how we manage these hives, but perhaps more importantly, we need to better manage the landscape beyond, in order to cost-effectively recover wild bee populations to far healthier and more sustainable levels," he added.

Highlights from the Report

Regional Losses

Declines in managed bee colonies date back to the mid 1960s in Europe but have accelerated since 1998, especially in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

In North America, losses of honey bee colonies since 2004 have left the continent with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the past 50 years.

Chinese bee keepers, who manage both western and eastern species of honey bees, have recently "faced several inexplicable and complex symptoms of colony losses in both species".

A quarter of beekeepers in Japan "have recently been confronted with sudden losses of their bee colonies".

In Africa, beekeepers along the Egyptian Nile have been reporting signs of 'colony collapse disorder' although to date there are no other confirmed reports from the rest of the continent.

Multiple Factors

Habitat degradation, including the loss of flowering plant species that provide food for bees, is among the key factors behind the decline of wild-living pollinators.

• An Anglo-Dutch study has found that since the 1980s, there has been a 70 per cent drop in key wild flowers among, for example, the mint, pea and perennial herb families.

Parasites and Pests, such as the well known Varroa mite which feeds on bee fluids, are also a factor.

Other parasites include the small hive beetle, which damages honeycombs, stored honey and pollen. Endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, it has spread to North America and Australia and "is now anticipated to arrive in Europe".

• Bees may also be suffering from competition by 'alien species' such as the Africanised bee in the United States and the Asian hornet which feed on European honey bees. The hornet has now colonized nearly half of France since 2004.

Air pollution may be interfering with the ability of bees to find flowering plants and thus food.

• Scents that could travel over 800 metres in the 1800s now reach less than 200 metres from a plant

Electromagnetic fields from sources such as power lines might also be changing bee behaviour. Bees are sensitive as they have small abdominal crystals that contain lead.

Herbicides and pesticides may be reducing the availability of wild flowers and plants needed for food and for the larval stages of some pollinators.

• Other impacts include poisoning of pollinators and the weakening of honey bees' immune systems

• Laboratory studies have found that some insecticides and fungicides can act together to be 1,000 times more toxic to bees

Some insecticides, including those applied to seeds and which can migrate to the entire plant as it grows, and others used to treat cats, fish, birds and rabbits, may also be taking their toll.

• Studies have shown that such chemicals can affect the sense of direction, memory and brain metabolism in bees

The management of hives may also be adding to the problem.

Some of the treatments against pests may actually be harmful to bees and a growing habit of re-using equipment and food from dead colonies might be spreading disease and chemicals to new hives.

Transporting bees from one farm to another in order to provide pollination services increasingly unavailable from nature could be an additional factor. In the United States, trucks carrying up to 20 million bees are common and each year over two million colonies travel across the continent.

• Mortality rates, following transportation, can be as much as 10 per cent of a colony

Notes to Editors

The full report, Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators, can be downloaded at:

The report is part of the UNEP Emerging Issues series, which is available at:

UNEP is host to a wide ranging partnership—The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) —which is estimating the economics of nature and the returns to communities and countries from improved management of these assets.

For more information, please visit:

The Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is one of the two major themes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 (UNCSD 2012) or Rio+20.

For more information on UNCSD 2012, please visit:

UNEP Green Economy Initiative:

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Pollution Forms an Invisible Barrier for Marine Life

ScienceDaily 9 Mar 11;

Over 50 percent of the population in the United States and over 60 percent in the world live in coastal areas. Rapidly growing human populations near the ocean have massively altered coastal water ecosystems.

One of the most extensive human stressors is the discharge of chemicals and pollutants into the ocean. In the Southern California Bight, more than 60 sewage and urban runoff sources discharge over 1 billion gallons of liquid on a dry day with the two largest sources of contaminants being sewage from municipal treatment plants and urban runoff from highly modified river basins.

These discharges transport large loads of known and unknown contaminants including heavy metals, chlorinated hydrocarbons, petroleum hydrocarbons, nutrients, and bacteria, that have shown to be toxic to marine life, including both adult and larval (early development) stages. Most marine organisms such as sea stars (starfish) do not move among locations as adults; instead juveniles swim in the plankton before settling onto the sea floor and growing into a sedentary adult. Despite the known toxicity of terrestrial discharge, no one had investigated if it is limiting dispersal of marine larvae between populations along urban coastal areas.

Researchers at UH Mānoa's Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) examined the genetic structure of a common, non-harvested sea star using a spatially explicit model to test whether the largest sewage discharge and urban runoff sources were affecting the genetic structure of this species. They found that these large pollution sources are not only increasing genetic differentiation between populations (presumably by limiting the dispersal of larvae between them) but also decreasing the genetic diversity of populations closest to them. In short, human beings are directly affecting the ecological and evolutionary trajectory of a species that is relatively free of any direct human impacts.

UH Mānoa PhD student Jon Puritz led the investigation, and when asked about the recent discovery said, "This study changes the scale at which we thought human beings can affect non-harvested marine species. These results have the potential to change the way anthropogenic factors are incorporated into marine reserve design and ecosystem-based management." Co-author and HIMB assistant researcher Dr. Rob Toonen added, "This species was previously shown to have well-connected populations from Southern California to Southern Canada, but now we see that these urban runoff plumes in the Los Angeles area are a more significant hurdle for the microscopic larvae to cross than the remainder of the Pacific coast of the U.S."

The full research report by Puritz and Toonen is published in the online journal Nature Communications.

Journal Reference:

1. Jonathan B. Puritz, Robert J. Toonen. Coastal pollution limits pelagic larval dispersal. Nature Communications, 2011; 2: 226 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1238

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Drought in Thailand sparks water fight

Farmers depending on irrigation unhappy over water management
Nirmal Ghosh Straits Times 11 Mar 11;

BANGKOK: The early onset of seasonal summer drought this year has sparked quarrels between farmers in northern Thailand, again highlighting the critical issue of water management in the region.

Provincial officials this week found themselves besieged by angry farmers who have regularly confronted each other - in some cases at gunpoint - to demand more water from the local canal system.

Reports say 12 northern provinces have been hit by the drought.

Chiang Mai's governor, Mr Panadda Diskul, is scheduled to meet the farmers on Monday to work out a solution to the problem.

'Farmers living in the same district have been fighting over water supply, and in many cases, they have pointed guns at one another,' Mr Jamras Lumma, the leader of a farmers' network in the north, was quoted as saying by The Nation newspaper yesterday.

Roughly half of Thailand's agricultural land is irrigated. The fights typically erupt between farmers living downstream from water sources, when farmers upstream use the bulk of the water.

Parts of Chiang Mai and Nan provinces in the north have been declared 'disaster zones', making them eligible for extra funding for relief measures. The country's fleet of cloud-seeding planes to bring rains began operations over the two provinces last week.

Meanwhile to the east, controversy continues to rage over the Pak Mun Dam - with locals insisting that its sluice gates should be permanently opened for five years, to allow uninterrupted water flow. The gates are currently closed for eight months a year.

Some 1,000 people from the province of Ubon Ratchathani protested outside the prime minister's office in Bangkok earlier this week to press their demand, but left empty-handed when the Cabinet postponed a decision on the issue for 45 days. The Cabinet, which consulted experts, said the issues were too complex for a quick decision on how long the sluice gates should be kept open.

There are fears, for example, that allowing the water to flow freely would result in an overall reduction of water level in the river and associated reservoirs - an argument the protesting locals reject.

Also, government agencies have disagreed on the drought forecast.

The Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department has warned that 5.5 million people in 26 provinces, mostly in the north and north-east, are vulnerable to drought conditions.

The department recently advised farmers in 23 provinces in the basin of the Chao Phraya River to refrain from growing a second crop of rice as a precaution.

But the Irrigation Department has said the climatic La Nina effect will bring rain in March and April. And it said that water level in reservoirs is at around 62 per cent which is normal, and would last through the dry season.

The Pak Mun Dam - commissioned in 1994 and subject of the demands by protesters in Bangkok - has spawned several adverse effects for locals.

Thousands were initially displaced by the dam and the reservoir.

And according to a World Commission on Dams study, the project underperformed in both power generation and irrigation, and triggered a decline in fish catch in the Mun River.

The dam continues to be symbolic of the controversies surrounding water management in the region.

'There is no clear policy,' said Dr Anond Snidvong, director of Sea Start, a climate change research unit and think-tank.

'And policy alone also won't solve all the problems. We need to put more value on water. Value doesn't mean a cost, it is an attitude.'

Experts have been urging the Thai government to step up rain and flood-water harvesting. Parts of northern and central Thailand were inundated with flood water in October and November last year, killing more than 230 people.

The government is currently reviewing its water policy.

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Indonesia cool on climate mitigation schemes

The Jakarta Post 10 Mar 11;

JAKARTA: Programs aimed at empowering people in developing countries to adapt to climate change have not drawn much interest from the government because they focus more on mitigation, a report says.

The “Climate Finance” report by the Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi) is to be officially published on Sunday.

“A number of countries have offered money for adaptation schemes but the government has shown less enthusiasm for it,” Teguh Surya from Walhi said at a discussion at The Jakarta Post on Wednesday. One of the reasons was the system channelling adaptation money went directly to the people while mitigation programs only offered more debt to he government, he added.

He said Indonesia had failed to propose a candidate to run for the committee on adaptation schemes under the international framework of climate change. This also indicated the government’s reluctance to implement adaptation programs.

According to the report, the global debt acquired due to climate change programs has reached US$2.3 billion. The figure included loans issued by France, Japan, the World Bank and the Climate Investment Fund scheme between 2008-2010.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) plans to provide $600 million in new loans between 2011-2013.

“The climate change issue has been a ‘new window’ to market debt schemes to Indonesia,” Walhi head Berry Furqon said.

Walhi proposed that the government impose carbon taxes on companies operating in Indonesia that produced carbon emissions.

“The companies, such as palm oil plantations and coal, oil and gas firms could be the targets of carbon taxes and the money could be used to help individuals cope with climate change,” the research paper said. — JP

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Blue Carbon: An Oceanic Opportunity to Fight Climate Change

Mangroves, salt marshes and sea grasses soak up to five times more carbon than tropical forests, making their conservation critical
Robynne Boyd Scientific American 10 Mar 11;

Mangroves are tangled orchards of spindly shrubs that thrive in the interface between land and sea. They bloom in muddy soil where the water is briny and shallow, and the air muggy. Salt marshes and sea grasses also flourish in these brackish hinterlands. Worldwide, these coastal habitats are recognized for their natural beauty and ability to filter pollution, house fish nurseries and buffer shorelines against storms.

Less known is their ability to sequester vast amounts of carbon—up to five times that stored in tropical forests. Dubbed "blue carbon" because of their littoral environment, these previously undervalued coastal carbon sinks are beginning to gain attention from the climate and conservation communities.

Because they hold so much carbon, destroying them can release substantial amounts of CO2. People around the world wreck coastal habitats through aquaculture, agriculture, timber extraction and real estate development. To date, human encroachment has destroyed more than 35 percent of mangroves, 30 percent of sea grass meadows and 20 percent of salt marshes.

Stopping such destruction could therefore become an important element in confronting climate change. "Blue carbon is a source of emissions that hasn't been addressed by the climate community and therefore creates an opportunity to reduce emissions," says Roger Ullman, executive director of the Linden Trust for Conservation in New York City, which promotes the use of conservation finance and environmental markets. "These fabulous ecosystems…don't cover a very large expanse of territory, yet still provide enormously important services to humanity and are being destroyed three or four times faster than the rate of tropical forests."

Emissions from wetlands destruction

Case in point is California's Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, explains Dan Laffoley, marine vice chairman of the World Commission on Protected Areas at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Over the last 100 years, 1,800 square kilometers of wetlands were drained, emitting two gigatons of CO2 that had been accruing in the plants and soils for thousands of years. Between 10 million and 15 million tons of CO2 continues to be released from the Sacramento Delta each year, an amount equivalent to around 3 percent of California's total greenhouse gas emissions.

At the global scale, coastal wetland destruction could account for 1 to 3 percent of industrial emissions; a number that will increase along with coastal wetland destruction. "In 2011 we have a reason why mud is important," Laffoley says.

Even so, almost all coastal and marine system research and exploration is about a decade behind its terrestrial counterpart. People have focused on understanding the surrounding lands, rather than the unseen animals, plants and processes below the ocean's surface, explains Emily Pidgeon, director of the Marine Climate Change Program for Conservation International. The ocean is more dynamic and its systems generally more complicated to access and understand than land-based ecosystems, such as forests.

Take remote sensing, for example. Most approaches, including satellite-based systems, cannot see underwater. So whereas these methods very effectively provide data that enable scientists to estimate the amount of carbon in forests, they cannot get the equivalent information on the carbon load of sea grasses or other submerged marine ecosystems, especially in sediment where most of the CO2 in blue carbon systems is stored. Instead, scientists are required to go to sites and dig up meters of the sediment to measure how much carbon it holds—a thankless task, to be sure.

"Mangroves are as unsexy as you get, since you ride a boat through them and get covered in mosquitoes," Pidgeon says.

Green cash for blue carbon

Getting local communities to save their mangroves will depend on economics. Land managers, farmers and other developers often opt to control these watery landscapes, thereby transforming them into income-generating acreage, such as a shrimp farm or rice paddy. The carbon markets, with their carbon credits selling between $15 to $20 per ton, could offer an alternative. The fees would encourage land conservation, which would prevent the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and the markets would reward them for mitigating climate change.

Whereas many of these programs are at least three to five years in the future, the preliminary economics looks like it could work, especially in certain cases to preserve these fragile ecosystems, such as avoiding the conversion of mangroves to shrimp farms in the Indo-Pacific region.

Still, the main hope for conserving these coastal habitats lies in a combination of economics and science. The first step is recognizing the importance of coastal carbon pools as a significant tool for climate mitigation, says Stephen Crooks, a wetlands expert who is climate change program manager of ESA PWA, a San Francisco–based environmental consulting and engineering firm.

Even without carbon markets nations have obligations to manage their greenhouse gas emissions, which means that the carbon in these coastal habitats can be tallied in national accounts as a way of contributing to their management of global greenhouse emissions. This would be especially helpful in the Coral Triangle (an oceanic area between Southeast Asia and northern Australia that encompasses Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) as well as Bangladesh, Indonesia and China, where coastal habitats are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Companies could also start volunteering to launch socially and environmentally friendly coastal habitat projects in the name of climate protection.

The final prong would be the creation of international carbon markets. As Crooks puts it: "One day the biggest bang for your buck may come from conservation."

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