Best of our wild blogs: 11 May 11

1,000 fans of the Celebrating Singapore's Biodiversity facebook page! from Celebrating Singapore's Biodiversity!

Red in eye and temper
from The annotated budak

hunting herons @ SBWR 08May2011
from sgbeachbum

By the Junk Fairway
from The annotated budak

Black-crowned night herons - nocturnal fishing with Striated herons
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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NEA builds up climate capabilities with MOU

Rebecca Liu Business Times 11 May 11;

THE National Environment Agency is moving ahead in its efforts to help Singapore build up its capabilities in climate science, beginning with the Meteorological Services division being renamed the Singapore Meteorological Service (SMS) and given an enhanced role as the national weather and climate authority.

The NEA will also be signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK Met Office, a significant step forward for the NEA as it builds up its capabilities in climate change research.

This cements a three- year collaboration between SMS and the Hadley Centre, a leader in climate prediction operated by the UK Met Office. They will jointly develop and implement climate models as well as conduct research on the tropical climate and weather systems affecting Singapore and the region.

According to NEA CEO Andrew Tan, both parties will benefit from better prediction of the El Nino and La Nina phenomena, monsoons, and tropical convective systems.

These all have 'an important bearing on the weather and climate of Singapore and the region, as well as the global climate system'.

SMS's enhanced climate science capability to produce reliable weather projections will provide vital data for agencies such as the Health Ministry and NEA to establish the correlation between climate variables and disease incidence such as dengue, heat disorder and respiratory disease.

NEA signs MOU with UK Met Office
Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 10 May 11;

SINGAPORE : The National Environment Agency (NEA) has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre to beef up its research into climate science.

The three-year collaboration will provide NEA's Meteorological Services with climate models as well as an exchange of information and scientists.

Torrential rains, floods, and rising temperatures are just some weather patterns in the region associated with climate change.

But NEA's Meteorological Services hopes that with the collaboration, it will be able to produce more reliable projections of Singapore's rainfall, temperature, wind and sea levels for different time levels - up to the year 2100.

The collaboration will also have an implication for policy making decisions in the area of climate change.

The Meteorological Services said the projections could mean safeguarding Singapore against the impact of climate change.

This is the first such collaboration for the Hadley Centre in the region.

A centre for climate science research in Singapore is also in the works.

John Hirst, chief executive of UK Met Office, said: "It is important for us to work internationally, just as it is important for Singapore to have access to the best science in the world, which I think we bring. Singapore has a fantastic science base, there are a lot of very good scientists here, and it has a genuine interest in the meteorological and climate sciences that we do together."

NEA said the collaboration will also benefit the region, as it could provide a better understanding of Southeast Asia's climate, including better predicting the El Nino and El Nina phenomena, monsoons and tropical connective systems.

NEA added that its Meteorological Services division will be renamed the Singapore Meteorological Services to reflect the wider demands as it caters to agencies within the government and private sectors.

- CNA/ck/ms

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Malaysia: Heat wave may last until September

V. Shankar Ganesh and Rozanna Latiff New Straits Times 11 May 11;

KUALA LUMPUR: The current heat wave and dry weather enveloping many parts of the country is expected to continue at least until September.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department forecasting director Saw Bun Liong said the nation was experiencing a combination of weather factors that had led to the current hot weather.

He said the annual southwest monsoon usually caused hot and dry weather but the arrival of tropical storm Aere in the Philippines and the low pressure system in the Indian Ocean were contributing to higher temperatures.

Although the heat wave may continue, Saw said the worst might be over as Aere was now moving north.

Temperatures this month reached a high of 36.2ºC last Friday, recorded in Subang while the temperature here reached 36ºC yesterday.

The hottest day in the nation was recorded on May 18, 1998, when temperatures reached 38.9ºC in Chuping, Perlis and 38ºC in Malacca.

“We will still see lower levels of rain and more dry spells in the months ahead due to the southwest monsoon season which is expected to last until September,” he told the New Straits Times yesterday.

During this season, northern peninsular states, Sabah and parts of Sarawak are expected to see lower rainfall in the next two months.

In June, Limbang and Miri are expected to see between 20 and 40 per cent below average rainfall, while slightly below average rainfall is also expected in Labuan, West Coast and the interior divisions in Sabah.

Normal rainfall is expected to resume in all states in September.

Deputy director-general of health Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman said the hot weather could cause serious problems like heat stroke, which can be fatal.

He said people most at risk were those above 40 years old as they were 10 times more at risk than younger people.

He added that children below five years were also at greater risk, as with those suffering from breathing and heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid problems.

Dr Lokman also discouraged wearing tight and thick clothing as it prevented heat from escaping through evaporation .

He said people should be on the lookout for heat exhaustion symptoms like headaches, lethargy, poor concentration, dizziness, cramps and nausea.

“It’s serious as the heat can cause dehydration, confusion and coma.” He advised people to drink plenty of water, including isotonic drinks, stay indoors, limit outdoor activities, have frequent rests, bathe or use fans to cool down, use light, loose and bright clothing and to use hats or umbrellas outdoors.

Dr Lokman also advised against consuming sweet drinks and also those with caffeine and alcohol.

He also cautioned parents on leaving children in cars with closed windows and exercising in hot weather.

Those with severe heat exhaustion should also seek immediate medical treatment at the nearest clinic or hospital.

Hot spell likely to ease next week
The Star 11 May 11;

THE rising temperature now is caused by reduced air humidity and rainfall in the region caused by tropical storm Aere in northern Philippines that blew hot air to the country, said Malaysian Meteorological Department (Met) weather forecasting director Saw Bun Liong.

Saw told Bernama that the current hot spell in the peninsula was only temporary and likely to ease next week.

He said the hot spell was, however, normal in May and the temperatures recorded were lower than during the same period in 1998.

The country has beem experiencing warm weather since May 6. The highest temperature recorded throughout the country since May 6 is 36.2°C.

The department will continue to monitor the situation continuously round the clock and will alert the National Security Council if any action needs to be taken.

Saw advised the public to avoid open burning, reduce outdoor activities and drink a lot of water.

According to information posted on the department’s website, Malaysia is now experiencing inter-monsoon season which will last until the end of the month..

During this period the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah will occasionally experience thunderstorms and heavy rain in the afternoon and fair weather over the eastern states of the peninsula.

Subsequently, the South-West Monsoon is expected from June to September. The South-West Mon-soon is comparatively drier throughout the country and this is attributed to relatively stable atmospheric condition due to less intense convective development.

It was also stated that the current La Nina condition is expected to continue weakening in the coming months and the weather will be back to normal by June.

The hot spell has resulted in more people staying indoors and drinking more water and switching on the air-conditioners.

Electrical product retailers like Courts and Harvey Norman confirmed that they had recorded an increase in sale of air-conditioners in recent weeks.

Consumers are spoilt for choice as the retailers are running promotions by air-conditioner brands like Panasonic, York, Mitsubishi and LG.

A spokesman from the Seri Andalas Fire and Rescue Department in Klang said they had received instructions to monitor the Kampung Johan Setia area, which is prone to peat fires during a drought and farmers conducting open burning of jungle waste.

“We have yet to receive any complaints about fires in the area.

“But the department has recorded fewer forest fires this year compared with previous years because we have taken early preventive measures and carry out regular monitoring,” he said.

At press time, Puncak Niaga Holdings Bhd could not be contacted for comments on the water level at the dams in Sungai Langat, Klang Gates and Tasik Subang.

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First green body takes root in Malaysia

Martin Carvalho The Star 11 May 11;

PETALING JAYA: Emerging ecological consciousness has led several non-governmental organisations and individuals to form the country’s first green movement in the People’s Green Coalition.

Coordinator Dr Pa Khim Ghee said the groups and individuals met in Kuala Lumpur on April 16 to form the coalition aimed at strengthening the country’s green agenda.

“The coalition is not linked to any political party and accepts support from any individual or group,” he said yesterday.

He noted that the coalition differed from that of “green parties” in Europe and merely wanted to enhance the green political agenda in the country.

“The coalition will remain a community-based movement to render support to communities facing ecological and environmental issues,” he said.

Currently, Dr Pa said, the coalition’s focus would be to stop the Lynas rare earth processing plant in Gebeng, Pahang. He cited the recent protest by some 400 people on Mother’s Day in Kuantan as an example where the coalition had rendered its support.

He said 10 groups had joined the coalition with more expected to join in future.

The groups that have joined the coalition so far are Persatuan Penasihat Keselamatan and Kesihatan Pekerjaan Pulau Pinang, Save Malaysia! No Radioactive, Pahang Doesn’t Need Hazardous Projects (Facebook),, Sembang-sembang Forum, Coalition for Good Governance Penang, and Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement.

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Blind legless lizard species discovered in Cambodia

Victoria Gill BBC News 10 May 11;

Scientists have discovered a new species of lizard in Cambodia, which has neither eyes nor legs.

Neang Thy, a zoologist with the Ministry of Environment in Cambodia and Fauna & Flora International (FFI), found the worm-like creature while he was exploring the Cardamom Mountains.

He noticed it when he overturned a log and managed to capture and examine it.

Dr Thy and his colleagues have now confirmed that it is a species new to science.

They published their conclusion in the journal Zootaxa.

"At first I thought it was a common species," said Mr Neang, who has studied reptiles and amphibians in Cambodia for almost a decade.

But he quickly realised it was something he had not seen before.

The species has been named the Dalai Mountain blind lizard (Dibamus dalaiensis), after the mountain on which it was found.

Dr Jenny Daltry, a senior biologist with FFI, said it had taken close to a year to make sure that this strange animal was definitely a new species.

"They had to go back through all of the scientific descriptions of all other species... and look at museum specimens," she told BBC News.

"What's really exciting about this is that it's the first time a Cambodian national has discovered a new species, gathered all of the scientific evidence and published the finding."

Underground reptile

The blind reptile looks like a snake, but it is actually a lizard that has evolved to live underground - losing its legs to enable it to push through the soil by wriggling its body.

"There are actually lots of legless lizards - such as the slow worm in the UK," explained Dr Daltry.

Also, unlike snakes, this creature does not have a forked tongue.

"Most snakes only have one lung, whereas lizards have two.

"Also most lizards are able to blink and snakes can't," Dr Daltry continued. "Although this new [underground] lizard has no eyes at all."

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Illegal bear bile trade rampant in Asia

TRAFFIC 11 May 11;

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 11th May 2011—Poaching and illegal trade of bears, driven largely by the demand for bile, used in traditional medicine and folk remedies continues unabated across Asia on a large scale, a new report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has found.

Bear bile products were found on sale in Traditional Medicine outlets in all but one of the 13 countries/territories surveyed says the report entitled Pills, Powders, Vials & Flakes: The bear bile trade in Asia (PDF, 2 MB). The exception is Macao.

Products were most frequently observed in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam, where they were recorded in over half of all outlets surveyed. The most frequently encountered products were whole bear gall bladders and pills—found in half of the outlets surveyed.

TRAFFIC’s research suggests a complex and robust trade in bear products. Several of the countries/territories surveyed were either producers or consumers of bear bile products, while in some cases they acted as both.

Mainland China was the most commonly reported place of origin for these products across the region.

In Myanmar, internationally sourced gall bladders were reported to come solely from Lao PDR; in Hong Kong, in cases where the source was known, products were reported to have originated in Japan and over half of those offered for sale in the South Korea were from wild sources in Russia.

Domestic trade of bear bile is legal under strict regulation within mainland China and Japan but is illegal in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Regardless of the legality of trade within countries, international trade is not allowed.

Asiatic Black Bears (predominant in this trade) and Sun Bears are both listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which prohibits international commercial trade in the species, its parts and derivatives.

An analysis of the origin of bear bile products found in these surveys makes it clear that import and export regulations are commonly flouted demonstrating a failure to implement CITES requirements to stop illegal international bear bile trade effectively and protect bears from exploitation.

“Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES which should be the world’s most powerful tool to regulate cross-border wildlife trade,” said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and Senior Programme Officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

The study found that the vast majority of the bear farms surveyed in Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam did not have captive breeding programmes, suggesting they depend on bears captured from the wild.

“The study makes a clear case for authorities to shut down businesses selling illegal bear products and prosecute individuals caught selling, buying, transporting or keeping bears illegally,” said Foley.

“Both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed,” added Foley.

“Even legal bear bile producers are circumventing domestic and international regulations by exporting products internationally,” said Dr Jill Robinson MBE, Founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation, which rescues bears from farms in China and Viet Nam.

“This report, in addition to Animals Asia’s years of research, shows that the bear bile industry is engaging in illegal practices. As pressure mounts on the wild bear population, there are serious questions to be answered on the welfare and pathology of farmed bears, and the risks to human health in those who consume the contaminated bile from such sick and diseased bears,” said Robinson.


The study’s main findings are:
• Bear bile products were observed in traditional medicine outlets in 12 out of 13 Asian countries/territories surveyed
• Bear bile products were available at 50% or more of traditional medicine outlets surveyed in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Viet Nam.
• China is the most commonly reported source for bear bile products

A short presentation can be viewed at:

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Indonesian police investigating four elephant deaths

Antara 10 May 11;

Bengkulu, Sumatra (ANTARA News) - Bengkulu police are investigating the death of four wild elephants in surrounding area of PT Alno Agro Utama plantation in North Bengkulu District.

"The case is still under investigation process by Bengkulu Utara police," Head of Bengkulu Police Brig. Gen. Burhanuddin Andi in Bengkulu, Tuesday.

According to him, the initial suspicion indicated that the elephants had eaten fertilizer spread around trees in the plantation and that had lead their death.

However, the case would continue to be investigated although there is no criminal act, he said.

"I think the investigation will continue and in fact BKSDA has already had the authorities to make an investigation because it has personnel for that, and we are ready to help," the Bengkulu police chief said.

Meanwhile, Head of the Bengkulu Natural Resource Conservation Agency (BKSDA) Amon Zamora said his office is still investigating the death of the four Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus Sumatrae).

Based on the autopsy result of one of the four dead elephants, it had eaten fertilizer because there was a high content of nitrogen in its body.

"This is just a preliminary suspicion, because there is salt in fertilizer, and elephant likes it, and it could cause its death," he said.

It is not known yet whether the fertilizer had been put around tree on purpose and the elephants had later eaten them, or the wild elephants had entered the plantation`s warehouse where the fertilizer was kept, he said.

Representative of ProFauna Bengkulu Radius Nursidi has urged the BKSDA and police to investigate the demise of the elephants.

"Because almost every year there is elephant death and BKSDA has given an impression that it tries to cover it up," he said.

During the period of 2004-2007, seven elephants had died in the area. In 2009, two elephants died and one in 2010.

In total, 14 elephants have died from 2004 to 2011, and the perpetrators are never known.

"Ironically, of all those cases, one has been legally process. This has become our note and big question mark toward BKSDA and legal enforcers," he said.(*)

Editor: Heru

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Ship sails in search of sustainable tuna

Richard Black BBC News 10 May 11;

Scientists are embarking on a two-month expedition in the Pacific aimed at finding ways to reduce the damaging accidental toll of tuna fishing.

They want to find techniques that help fishermen find the abundant skipjack tuna without also catching sharks, turtles, or threatened tuna species.

The scientists will sail on board a tuna purse-seine vessel from Ecuador.

Knowledge gained on the trip will be used to develop fishing techniques or new gear that are much more selective.

This could entail fishing at different times of day, at specific depths under the waves, or by more targeted use of fish aggregating devices (FADs).

"The overall objective is to explore some potential options for reducing the mortality of bigeye tunas and other 'undesirable' species while maximising catches of skipjack," said research leader Kurt Schaefer.

"We're looking for ways in which we can learn to harvest the skipjack without impacting other species such as bigeye and yellowfin - we're not yet testing what we consider to be practical solutions," he told BBC News.

Dr Schaefer has been a research scientist with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) - one of the bodies charged with regulating tuna fishing in the open sea - for more than 30 years.

While the small, fecund skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis) forms the basis of the canned tuna industry, the bigeye (Thunnus obesus) is an endangered species in the Pacific, primarily because of fishing.

The cruise departs from Ecuador on Tuesday, using the chartered commercial fishing vessel Yolanda L.
Modern FADs

For reasons that are not entirely clear, fish and other marine creatures tend to congregate around floating objects such as logs.

Fishermen have learned to take advantage of this, deploying buoys - FADs - equipped with GPS and sonar.

When the sonar senses that fish have gathered, the buoy signals the parent vessel, which steams alongside to collect its haul.

Using a purse seine net, the boat can encircle and capture the entire shoal.

The scientists hope that understanding what makes various species move towards the FAD and then leave it again could open doors to fishing selectively.

"One of the things we're doing is behavioural studies using acoustic tags and telemetry," said Dr Schaefer.

"We'll be tagging these species, and trying to see whether there are times when you see separation eithed horizontally or vertically in the water, and whether you could use this to separate out catches.

"We'll also be looking for times of day at which the species might naturally separate - times when the skipjack, for example, might move away from the FAD."

Smaller species may be trying to shelter from predators, while bigger ones may see it as an easy source of food.

The various species may also be attracted away by different signals, such as water temperatures.

A remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) will be deployed to film fish behaviour around the FAD, and after entrapment in the purse seine net.

If different tuna species separate inside the net - some swimming high and others low, for example - that could also form the basis of a separation method.
Local knowledge

Having spent long periods at sea on fishing vessels, Kurt Schaefer believes experienced skippers may already know ways of targeting skipjack.

The scientists will analyse how well the Yolanda L's skipper is able to predict catches.

This research cruise is an initiative of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), which brings scientists together with people from the seafood industry and from environmental groups.

It is the first of a number of cruises planned for different parts of the world's oceans.

Whereas some environmental groups argue for the abandonment of FADs, the ISSF believes this is neither feasible nor desirable.

"It's the philosophy of ISSF and our partners that abandoning a fishery will not help to improve it," said ISSF president Susan Jackson, previously of food giants Del Monte and Heinz.

"We must help to improve practices that make fishing for tuna more sustainable."

The bluefin - the most talked about tuna species recently, and the most prized for sushi - is not a factor in this cruise.

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Japan disaster may delay Iceland fin whaling season

Yahoo News 10 May 11;

REYKJAVIK (AFP) – Iceland's fin whaling season may be delayed by the giant earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, the main export market for Icelandic fin whale meat, the country's only fin whaler told AFP Tuesday.

"We may be delaying the time at which our whaling boats go out to sea. We usually go at the end of June and we whale until the end of September. This year, that may change because of the situation in Japan," Kristjan Loftsson of Hvalur Hf told AFP.

"This doesn't mean we are not going to whale, we are just going to have to evaluate the situation come end of June. With commercial whaling you need customers and currently, Japan is not one," he said.

He said that purchasing of fin whale meat, which is also eaten in Iceland to a lesser extent, had stalled in Japan since the earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing nuclear disaster.

"The whole nation is grieving... nobody wants to do anything because of what happened," he said.

Iceland, along with Norway and Japan, uses legal loopholes to flout a 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

In a letter sent last November to Icelandic Fishing Minister Jon Bjarnason, US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke warned Iceland the United States was "deeply concerned by and strongly opposed to Iceland's increasing commercial harvest of whales, in particular endangered fin whales."

The letter said 148 fin whales were caught in 2010, up from 125 in 2009 and that prior to increasing its quotas in 2008, Iceland caught less than 10 each year.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare on Tuesday accused Loftsson's firm alone of being responsible "for killing 280 endangered fin whales in the past five years," welcoming the delay in the whaling season.

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Electric cars take off in Norway

Pierre-Henry Deshayes Yahoo News 10 May 11;

OSLO (AFP) – They speed past gas guzzlers in traffic, ignore congestion charges and get city centre parking for free. In a country whose wealth is fuelled by oil, Oslo has become the world capital of the electric car.

"There are more electric cars per capita here than in any other capital of the world," said Rune Haaland, the head of the electric car users association Norstart, standing in a city centre car park forbidden to other car users.

Almost 4,000 of the small, clean and silent vehicles are on the roads of Norway, although they are found mainly in the cities, and the number is climbing as new models come onto the market.

From the tiny, locally-made Buddy, to the sporty Tesla, which can accelerate from zero to 100 kilometres (62 miles) in less than four seconds, all sorts of electric cars have taken to the roads of the Norwegian capital.

Norway may be one of the world's top fossil fuel exporters, but it has set ambitious climate policy objectives, aiming to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2020.

"The electric car is a very important tool for that, knowing that 40 percent of our emissions come from the transport sector and 60 percent of those come from road transport," Transport Minister Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa told AFP.

According to some estimates, the country's 3,891 electric cars allow it to save over 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

To persuade drivers to switch to electric cars, Norway has introduced a string of incentive measures.

Electric cars can use bus lanes and thus bypass traffic jams, they don't have to shell out congestion charges and can park for free on municipal car parks.

New father Christian Blakseth traded his bicycle for an electric car.

"It's very advantageous to be able to park for free downtown and to escape traffic jams," the young train conductor said.

"And you don't get drowned in day-to-day spending: it's a car that is expensive to buy but cheap to use," he said.

Charging an electric car's batteries at home costs about two euros ($2.90). Norwegian petrol prices are among the highest in Europe.

With growing demand, carmakers are rushing to put out new models.

And consumers are responding with just as much enthusiasm: in the first quarter this year, an electric car, Mitsubishi's i-MiEV, topped small model car sales in Norway, ahead of all time favorites.

"We were planning to sell 400 units (cars) in Norway this year, and we are already at 700. We think we will ultimately reach 1,000," the head of Mitsubishi Norway Bernt Jessen said.

Despite technological advances, distance remains a problem for electric vehicles, however, with cars only able to go for around 150 kilometres before needing to be recharged.

And with Norway's cold winters slashing battery efficiency, optimal performance is hard to achieve.

To get around this obstacle, Norway has decided to put in place a national network of charging stands across the country allowing drivers to "fill up" their cars in about 20 minutes, just long enough to enjoy a roadside cup of coffee, compared to the seven or eight hours normally needed.

The mountain cottage, sacrosanct for Norwegians, could soon be only a few kilowatts away.

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Japan to scrap nuclear power in favour of renewables

The prime minister says Japan must 'start from scratch' and abandon its plan to obtain half its energy from atomic power
Associated Press 10 May 11;

Japan will scrap a plan to obtain half of its electricity from nuclear power and will instead promote renewable energy as a result of its nuclear crisis, the prime minister said Tuesday.

Naoto Kan said Japan needs to "start from scratch" on its long-term energy policy after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was heavily damaged by a 11 March earthquake and tsunami and began leaking radiation.

Japan's nuclear plants supplied about 30% of the country's electricity, and the government had planned to raise that to 50%.

Kan told a news conference that nuclear and fossil fuel used to be the pillars of Japanese energy policy but now it will add two more – renewable energy such as solar, wind and biomass, and an increased focus on conservation.

"We will thoroughly ensure safety for nuclear power generation and make efforts to further promote renewable energy," an area where Japan has lagged behind Europe and the US, he said.

On Monday a landmark report by the UN's climate science body, the IPCC, said that renewable energy could account for 80% of the world's energy supply by 2050 – but only if governments pursue the right policies.

Kan also said he would take a pay cut beginning in June until the Fukushima nuclear crisis is resolved to take responsibility as part of the government that has promoted nuclear energy. He didn't specify how much of a pay cut he would take.

The operator of the stricken power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), has been struggling for nearly two months to restore critical cooling systems that were knocked out by the disaster. Some 80,000 people living within a 12-mile radius of the plant were evacuated from their homes on 12 March, with many living in gymnasiums.

On Tuesday, about 100 evacuees were allowed into that exclusion zone briefly to gather belongings from their homes.

The excursion marked the first time the government has felt confident enough in the safety of the area to allow even short trips there. Residents have been pushing hard for weeks for permission to check up on their homes.

The evacuees boarded chartered government buses for the two-hour visit.

They were provided with protective suits, goggles and face masks to wear while in the zone, and were issued plastic bags to put their belongings in. They were also given dosimeters to monitor radiation levels and walkie-talkies.

All were to be screened for radiation contamination after leaving the zone.

More visits are planned, but residents fear they may never be able to return for good.

Many had been secretly sneaking back into the zone during the day, but the government – concerned over safety and the possibility of theft – began enforcing stricter roadblocks and imposing fines on 22 April.

The official visits were seen as a compromise that took both safety and the wishes of the residents into consideration.

The government and Tepco in April projected that bringing the plant to a cold shutdown could take six to nine months and residents might be able to return to resume their lives. But they admit that timing is a best-case scenario.

On Monday, another utility, Chubu Electric Power Co, agreed to shutter three reactors at a coastal power plant while it builds a seawall and improves other tsunami defenses there.

Kan requested the temporary shutdown at the Hamaoka plant amid predictions an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher could strike the central Japanese region within 30 years. The government's decision came after evaluating Japan's 54 reactors for quake and tsunami vulnerability after the 11 March disasters. The Hamaoka facility sits above a major fault line and has long been considered Japan's riskiest nuclear power plant.

Kan said Japan will have to compile Japan's new energy policy in a report for submission to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June. He didn't give any numerical estimates for each source of energy in the new policy.

Japan 'to review energy policy' over nuclear crisis
BBC News 10 May 11;

Japan is to reconsider plans to increase its reliance on nuclear power in the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima plant.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Japan had to start from scratch with its energy plans following the disaster.

The plant has been leaking radiation since the 11 March earthquake and subsequent tsunami damaged cooling systems to the reactors.

Operator Tepco has asked for government help to compensate those affected.

More than 80,000 local residents living within a 20km (12 mile) radius of the plant have been evacuated from their homes.

Agriculture and businesses have been hit and there is no timescale yet for allowing residents to return, although a small group were allowed inside the no-go zone briefly on Tuesday to gather belongings.

Total compensation claims are not yet known, but analysts say they may be more than $100bn (£61bn).
'Big incident'

Nuclear plants currently supply about 30% of Japan's electricity.

Addressing a news conference, Mr Kan described nuclear power as a "major pillar" of Japanese society, along with fossil fuels.

But he said other forms of energy would also be key in the future.

"The current basic energy policy envisages that over 50% of total electricity supply will come from nuclear power while more than 20% will come from renewable power in 2030," he said.

"But that basic plan needs to be reviewed now from scratch after this big incident."

"Better safety must be ensured in nuclear power while renewables need to be promoted."

He said greater focus would also be placed on ways of conserving energy, turning Japan into an "energy-saving society".

Mr Kan also said he would not take his prime minister's salary until the plant was under control and would be paid only as a member of parliament.

Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has said that it may take up to nine months to achieve a cold shut-down at the nuclear plant, which workers are struggling to stabilise.

Cooling systems were knocked out, causing fuel rods to overheat. There were subsequently explosions at four reactors operating at the time of the earthquake.

Engineers are pumping water into the reactors to cool them as they work to restore the damaged cooling systems.

Mr Kan's comments came hours after Tepco said it had presented a formal written request for assistance to Economy Minister Banri Kaieda.

In a statement, the company said it faced "an extremely severe situation" in terms of raising funds and that it needed state help so that "fair and prompt" compensation could be paid to local residents.

It has promised to restructure and executive salaries have already been reduced.

Japan's biggest power utility also faces billions of dollars in extra fuel costs to make up for reactor closures at Fukushima.

Shares in Tepco - which serves an area that accounts for 33% of Japan's economy - have plunged since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda hinted that the government would give Tepco some form of support.

"They can't be allowed to face bankruptcy," said Penn Bowers, an analyst at CLSA in Tokyo. "I think everyone understands they can't be allowed to fail."

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Australia's Booming LNG Sector Poses Carbon Conundrum

David Fogarty PlanetArk 11 May 11;

Australia's rising liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports may make for bluer skies over Chinese power plants, but back home LNG producers will pump out more carbon emissions than the coal sector.

Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels when it is burned, so energy-hungry Asian nations are snapping up stakes in LNG projects as they look to guarantee fuel supplies to meet fast-growing energy needs while weaning economies off coal and cutting emissions.

But pumping, processing and chilling the gas for transport sends more CO2 per tonne into the atmosphere in Australia than the country's coal production.

If LNG project operators are forced to pay for the full cost of those emissions under Australia's proposed carbon pricing scheme, they could face a CO2 bill equivalent to about 3 percent of LNG sales revenues. That would eat into their profit margins.

"LNG is cleaner but it's not clean," said John Connor, chief executive of the Climate Institute, an independent climate change think tank in Australia.

"It's got a role to play in the transition to cleaner fuels. But the champions of LNG are kidding themselves if they think they can wash their hands of any responsibility for emissions."

For LNG to be chilled and piped onto ships, all but a fraction of the CO2 must be stripped out and is usually vented into the atmosphere.

Australia is the world's fastest-growing LNG producer and has nearly A$200 billion ($216 billion) of projects under construction or in the pipeline, with global energy giants Chevron, Shell, Inpex and Woodside Petroleum keen to cash in on the growing appetite for energy in Asia, led by China. Australia is already China's biggest LNG supplier.

Just nine of those projects would add around 50 million tonnes per year (tpy) of emissions to the 8.4 million tpy the sector already produces, according to Reuters calculations based on data in the reports of operating companies and stakeholders.

The total is equivalent to more than ten percent of Australia's estimated total 2010 greenhouse emissions of 543 million tonnes. Total LNG emissions would be twice the 27 million tpy produced by the coal sector -- and Australia is the world's largest coal exporter. The jump in emissions could undermine government efforts to cut the nation's carbon pollution by 2020.

The latest government projections show that Australia's booming economy is on track to pump 24 percent more emissions in 2020 than it did in 2000, well above the target 5 percent cut.

For policy makers in Canberra, LNG emissions pose an additional headache as the government tries to introduce a controversial carbon pricing scheme.

Australia's projects are already among the world's most expensive per tonne of LNG produced and costs are soaring as more projects go ahead.

Developers fear a carbon cost would make their LNG exports less competitive than gas from producers paying no carbon cost.

Canberra is expected to unveil an interim carbon price of between A$15 and A$30 per tonne of emissions in the next few months for a scheme that would start in July next year.

If producers have to pay the full carbon price per tonne of LNG, the two projects already in production emitting 8.4 million tpy of CO2 per year could face an additional cost of about A$125 million to A$250 million.

Deutsche Bank estimates that Australia's annual LNG exports are currently worth around A$8.5 billion, so the $250 million cost would be 2.9 percent of LNG sales revenue.

But Australia's boom in LNG projects is helping fire economic growth, so Canberra is unlikely to risk that through imposing the full carbon cost.

Under the planned scheme, some polluting firms that export their products would likely be compensated for any loss of competitiveness by receiving free permits, cutting CO2 costs.

A previous scheme which the government failed to pass envisaged LNG paying only 50 percent of CO2 costs, and gave the industry other sweeteners.

Even a carbon price of $35 a tonne would have only a marginal impact on the sector's profitability if firms were given 60 percent of pollution permits for free, Macquarie Research said in a note written in March.


The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) says LNG projects should be exempt from any carbon price because it would penalize production of a fuel cleaner than coal.

The association, the industry's main body, says it is an irony that LNG's emission-intensive production in Australia should be taxed, when the wider global benefits of displacing dirtier coal in Chinese or Indian power plants should be lauded.

LNG is cleaner than coal over its full life cycle - counting emissions from producing, processing, transporting and burning.

Studies by Carnegie Mellon University, Australia's state-backed research body the CSIRO, consultancy WorleyParsons and others, show that LNG releases about 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than black coal.

Under a global carbon pricing scheme, its lower lifecycle emissions would give LNG a competitive edge over coal.

"Aggressive global action on climate change will clearly be good for LNG," said Tim Jordan, a carbon analyst for Deutsche Bank in Sydney. "If it's a cleaner fuel than coal over its life cycle, then a carbon price applied globally, whether direct or implicit, will be a positive for it."

But Australia's quandary in how to price carbon emissions under a domestic rather than global scheme is illustrative of how difficult it is for governments to exact a fair cost on national soil for cross-border energy flows.

"The global climate policy framework makes countries responsible for emissions within their borders," said Jordan. "If an LNG project emits carbon in Australia, then Australia is responsible for that carbon - end of story."

(Editing by Simon Webb)

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Protests after Chile backs giant dams in Patagonia's valleys

Activists fear ecological haven will be destroyed but government says project is vital for economic growth
Rory Carroll 10 May 11;

Chilean authorities have approved a £1.8bn plan to dam two rivers in Patagonia for hydroelectricity, triggering angry protests and claims that swathes of pristine wilderness will be destroyed.

The HidroAysén project envisages five dams to tap the Baker and Pascua rivers, an isolated area of fjords and valleys, and generate 2.75 gigawatts of power for Chile's booming economy.

The government has championed the dams as vital to poverty alleviation and economic growth, but public opinion has split, with many saying the project is unnecessary and will devastate an ecological haven.

Police arrested dozens of protesters and clashed with hundreds more in Coihaique, a Patagonian city where on Monday a government-appointed commission voted 11 to one in favour of the dams after a three-year environmental review.

The commissioners were kept indoors for their own safety as people threw rocks and battled police with water cannon and tear gas. Similar scenes unfolded in the capital, Santiago.

The Patagonia Without Dams advocacy group accused the commissioners of conflicts of interest and said the project was "destructive and illegal". It said the dams would flood at least 5,600 hectares of rare forest ecosystems, river valleys and farmland.

"We are outraged. We are calling on President [Sebastián] Piñera to overturn this decision and protect Patagonia," said Patricio Rodrigo, the group's executive secretary. Critics say the project would also drown the habitat of the endangered southern huemul deer, a national symbol.

An Ipsos poll said 61% of Chileans opposed the dams. The polarisation offered a sharp contrast to the nation's feelgood glow after last year's rescue of 31 trapped miners, an operation which boosted the conservative president's ratings.

The environment minister, María Ignacia Benítez, denied the commission's findings were a stitch-up in favour of energy corporations and banks which would profit from the project. The "very demanding" investigation adhered to laws and took into account the environmental impact, she told Radio Agricultura.

HidroAysén argued that the dams would provide cheap and clean electricity in comparison to oil and coal. Chile recently approved three coal plants, including the biggest one in Latin America.

The interior minister, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, told reporters: "The most important thing is that our country needs to grow, to progress, and for this we need energy."

Some analysts say Chile will need to triple its energy capacity in the next 15 years to feed fast-growing industries and cities. Though rich in copper and other minerals, the country imports 97% of its fossil fuels and relies mainly on hydropower for electricity, leaving it vulnerable to oil shocks and drought.

The council of ministers is expected to nod through the proposed dams but activists hope to win key concessions in the environmental impact assessment for the next phase of the project: 1,200-mile transmission lines, estimated to cost £2.3bn, to bring electricity from Patagonia to Santiago.

That review, due in December, could sharply restrict the number of lines or alternatively open Patagonia to multiple lines, roads and possibly more dams.

Much of the controversy hinges on whether Chile has viable alternative means to boost power capacity. With nuclear power widely considered anathema, some tout the Atacama desert as a source of immense solar thermal production, especially given its relative proximity to mines and industry.

"Numerous studies have shown that Chile can sustainably and safely meet its energy needs through increased investments in non-conventional renewable energy and energy efficiency, with less environmental, social and economic costs than HidroAysén," said Berklee Lowrey-Evans, of the International Rivers group.

However Maria Isabel Gonzalez, former head of Chile's National Energy Commission, rebuked foreign critics of the plan. "Chile is still a poor country, with 2.5 million poor people, and to overcome poverty we need energy, and for that reason we need to develop our own resources," she told AP. "It would be very selfish on the part of the rich countries to say, 'Look how they're destroying these uninhabited pristine areas.'"

Dam project spells disaster in Chile's Patagonia: critics
Miguel Sanchez Yahoo News 11 May 11;

SANTIAGO (AFP) – Approval to build five dams in Chile's Patagonia region will flood nearly 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) and do irreversible damage to one of the world's last virgin territories, environmentalists warned Tuesday.

A regional environmental panel approved the HidroAysen project on Monday, as thousands of protesters took to the streets to picket the massive construction effort.

The two-billion-euro ($2.9 billion) project involves the construction of five hydroelectric power stations, two along the Baker River and three on the Pascua River, in an area some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles south of Santiago).

Expected to take 50 years to build, the project would generate 2.75 gigawatts of electricity -- or 20 percent of current capacity -- to help meet Chile's energy needs, which are expected to increase 80 percent by 2025.

Environmentalists are preparing a legal battle to fight the project, scheduled to begin in 2014 in the wet and green mountainous region.

If the project goes ahead, Chile's southern Patagonia region would be "unavailable for use for 40 to 60 years, and then abandoned, leaving it an environmental disaster," Greenpeace's Chile director, Matias Asun, told AFP.

Flora and fauna studies underestimated the impact of the project at a microscopic level and on mammals like Chilean deer and protected native bird species, Asun charged.

The Pascua and Baker rivers are the largest in Chile, with crystal waters fed by thousand-year old glaciers.

The project also includes construction of more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of high-tension transmission lines and pylons that will carry electricity across nine regions of the South American country.

The path of the transmission lines has not yet been set, but it will not be a straight line, explains HidroAysen's executive director, Daniel Fernandez, adding that parts of the line will be underwater to avoid national parks and scenic areas.

The project will require more than 5,000 workers who will be living in the remote area of Aysen for more than 10 years, effectively doubling the population of the region. possible to counteract the impact of this project on tourism and the area arounThe area attracts thousands of visitors a year.

"It will be virtually imd Cochrane, whose population will double to 4,000 inhabitants," said Green Party president Alejandro San Martin.

The project is a joint venture between the Spanish company Endesa -- controlled by the Italian firm Enel -- and the Chilean company Colbun, and is expected to generate 2.75 gigawatts of electricity, about 20 percent of Chile's current capacity. Chile's energy needs are expected to increase by 80 percent by 2025.

Its supporters say the project is vital for the future of Chile, whose economy is expected to grow at a 6 percent annual rate over the coming years, led by the mining sector and the boom in copper prices. Chile produces about a third of the world's supply of copper.

"We need cheap energy, and today, Chile is paying for the wrong decisions of the past -- double the cost of energy compared with the rest of Latin America," said Chilean cabinet minister Cristian Larroulet.

HidroAysen opponents note that the big mining companies are all in the north of the country, and say they don't understand why the south must "sacrifice" to feed demand in the mining sector. Other energy sources, like wind and solar, are also available, though they are more expensive, opponents say.

Chile approves massive hydroelectric project
Yahoo News 10 May 11;

SANTIAGO (AFP) – A controversial $3.2 billion hydroelectric project billed as key to satisfying Chile's growing energy needs but potentially an environmental concern, got a green light Monday.

A regional environmental panel in the cool and wet south of the South American country approved the massive HidroAysen project as thousands of protesters took to the streets to picket against it.

The two-billion-euro project entails the construction of five hydroelectric power stations, two along the Baker River and three on the Pascua River, in an area some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles south of Santiago).

Expected to take 50 years to build, it would generate 2.75 gigawatts of electricity -- or 20 percent of current capacity -- to help meet Chile's energy needs, which are expected to increase 80 percent by 2025.

Approval by the regional environmental panel had been widely expected despite stiff opposition from green activists seeking to protect the Patagonia region.

Thousands took to the streets around the country to protest against the project, and in the capital Santiago police used water hoses and tear gas to disperse around a thousand protesters and said they arrested about a dozen people.

Other demonstrations were reported in Valdivia and Temuco in the south and Valparaiso in the west, where police also intervened to disperse the crowds.

The paths used for some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of power cables and towers are still subject to a separate environmental review and could require another $4 billion dollars in investment.

A coalition called "Chilean Patagonia Without Dams" contends the project is unnecessary and would endanger pristine forests in a region that includes widely admired glaciers and lakes.

Opponents claim it will sully wilderness areas of Patagonia, flooding some 5,900 hectares (14,000 acres).

They argue that the energy would be used mainly for the mining sector, that the environmental review has been inadequate, and that Chile should pursue less damaging energy sources such as solar and wind.

An opinion poll in April showed 61 percent of Chileans opposed the project.

But the consortium of Chile's Endesa and the Spanish firm Colbun SA has launched its own public relations effort, claiming the project would produce clean, renewable energy and reduce demand for imported fossil fuels.

President Sebastian Pinera said Chile, where economic growth is estimated at 6.5 percent and electricity is rationed, has few alternatives, especially with nuclear power being reconsidered in the wake of the disaster in Japan.

"If HidroAysen is approved it would be 100 percent in compliance with environmental legislation," Pinera said over the weekend. "If we don't have hydroelectric energy, there will be more coal-fired power plants."

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China's Huadian To Build Nu River Hydro Plant By 2015: Report

David Stanway PlanetArk 11 May 11;

The Huadian Corp will go ahead with controversial plans to dam the Nu River in southwest China as it strives to raise its total hydro capacity by 10 gigawatts before the end of 2015, the official China Daily reported on Tuesday.

The report said the company, one of China's big five state-owned utilities, plans to raise its total hydroelectric capacity to 26 gigawatts by the end of 2015, up from 15.38 GW at the end of last year and accounting for 8 percent of the national total, the report said.

As well as the Nu River, located in southwest China's Yunnan province and also known as the Salween, the company is currently drawing up plans to build dams on the Jinsha River, the upstream section of the Yangtze.

The Nu is one the country's few remaining undeveloped rivers and has been regarded as a cause celebre by Chinese environmentalists.

Plans to dam the river have been on hold since 2003 amid concerns about the fragile local environment as well as the impact on downstream communities, including those in Myanmar and Thailand.

The head of Yunnan's Communist Party, Bai Enpei, told Reuters in March that no dams and reservoirs would be constructed on the river until feasibility studies have been completed and approved.

China is now planning to build 140 GW of new hydropower capacity in the next five years as part of its efforts to raise the proportion of non-fossil fuel energy to 15 percent of its total energy mix by 2020, up from around 8 percent now.

The total potential hydroelectric capacity of the Nu River is estimated to stand at around 42 gigawatts, but geologists have warned that large-scale dams and reservoirs could add to earthquake risks in the region and cause havoc to local ecosystems.

(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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Growing number of mega-fires may contribute to global warming

FAO calls for wildfire emissions monitoring and comprehensive fire management strategies
FAO 10 May 11;

10 May 2011, Rome/Sun City - Whilst changing climatic conditions may be exacerbating the growing number of mega-fires round the world, these fires may also themselves be a contributing factor to global warming, said FAO in a report presented today at the 5th International Wildland Fire Conference in Sun City, South Africa.

The agency called upon countries to implement more comprehensive fire management strategies and improve the monitoring of wildfire carbon gas emissions that cause global warming.

"Mega-fires are mainly caused by humans and are likely exacerbated by climate change, but now we suspect they may also in themselves represent a vicious circle that is speeding up global warming," said Pieter van Lierop, FAO Forestry Officer. "With an increasing incidence in the frequency and size of mega-fires along with weather projections indicating hotter and drier fire seasons, the issue is becoming urgent," he said.

Recent examples of mega-fires include the 2009 Black Saturday conflagration in Australia which killed 173 people and incinerated many towns, and record-setting wildfires in Russia last year, where 62 people were killed and around 2.3 million hectares burned as a result of over 32 000 fires.

The report, entitled "Findings and Implications from a Coarse-Scale Global Assessment of Recent Selected Mega-Fires", studies recent fires in Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Greece, Russia, and the United States.

Major causes of mega-fires

Nearly all of the mega-fires studied under this assessment were started by people. Often fires are deliberately set in order to clear land for agricultural or development purposes. Drought was implicated in all but one of the mega-fires examined. Hot, dry and windy conditions accompanied all of the wildfires studied in the report. In tropical forests, mega-fires are principally fueled by dried-out woody debris left behind from logging and land clearing for plantations and crop production.

Balanced wildfire protection strategies needed

Although drought is often blamed for the uncontrolled spread of mega-fires, Florida and Western Australia offer two examples where, despite the prolonged presence of severe drought, wildfire costs, losses, and damages seem much lower than elsewhere. These programs reflect more balanced prevention, mitigation, and suppression approaches.

In Florida, the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Florida own approximately 800 000 hectares. On average each year, both agencies burn between 10 and 20 percent of their forests in a controlled way. Controlled fires occur on a two- to four-year rotation and cost between $10-30 per hectare. In forests left untreated, wildfire suppression costs can often exceed many hundreds, even thousands of dollars per hectare, not counting the additional losses and damages that may be involved.

In southwest Western Australia, the Department of Environment and Conservation protects an estate of approximately 2.5 million hectares. It routinely uses controlled fires to treat approximately 8-9 percent of their holdings and aim for 70-90 percent burn coverage. Wildfire costs, losses, and damages have been much reduced since the controlled burning program began.

In some areas, community-based fire management initiatives are underway. These models, jointly run by private and public landowners, reconcile competing interests, and provide for safer and more resilient fire-prone forests at landscape scales.

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La Niña and global warming blamed as torrential rains swamp Colombia

Hundreds die and thousands are made homeless as record-level rainfall and floods affect three-quarters of the country
Marie Delcas Guardian Weekly 10 May 11;

It has never rained so much in Colombia. "Over the past 10 months we have registered five or six times more rainfall than usual," says weather specialist Ricardo Lozano. Torrential rain and flooding have affected more than three-quarters of the country. The most recent Red Cross bulletin reports 425 fatalities and 3 million disaster victims.

With 12,000 homes destroyed and 356,000 damaged, thousands of people have had to move out, taking refuge in temporary shelters. More than 1m hectares of land are underwater. "But the disaster prevention system worked," Lozano adds, saving between 5,000 and 10,000 lives.

Colombia is known for its heavy rain and apparent lack of seasons, but this year the downpour has been almost continuous. The mountains are sodden, so runoff flows down the slopes to fill rivers, which flood the plains and coastal areas. Mudslides have damaged the precarious road system. At 2,500 metres above sea level even the vast Sabana plain, on which the capital Bogotá is built, is partly flooded. Food prices are going up and the drainage system is completely saturated, with the risk of a dengue epidemic.

This is mainly the fault of La Niña, a cyclical weather system. "It used to occur once every five to six years, but it is increasingly frequent and severe due to global warming," says Lozano. The current spell of bad weather is expected to last another two months.

The authorities are also culprits. "They have allowed corrupt politicians, cattle breeders, mining companies, logging firms, drug traffickers and property developers to destroy woods and wetlands, and wreck river basins," says the economist Roberto Arango. "They have tolerated rampant social inequality, so the poorest people must live in hazardous areas."

This story originally appeared in Le Monde

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Arctic Nations Eye Future Of World's Last Frontier

Andrew Quinn PlanetArk 11 May 11;

Leaders of Arctic nations gather in Greenland this week to chart future cooperation as global warming sets off a race for oil, mineral, fishing and shipping opportunities in the world's fragile final frontier.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will join foreign ministers from seven other Arctic states in Greenland's tiny capital of Nuuk -- population 15,000 -- on Thursday for an Arctic Council meeting on the next steps for a region where warming temperatures are creating huge new challenges and unlocking untapped resources.

The council includes the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, which handles foreign affairs for Greenland, as well as groups representing indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic most directly affected as ice and snow retreat.

"It's an important gathering, but also a symbol of some of the big challenges that the Arctic faces," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told a Washington think-tank audience on Monday, noting that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would accompany Clinton to Nuuk.

"There are very core interests that are at stake in the Arctic, but it is an opportunity to find new patterns of cooperation," he said.

Evidence is mounting of climatic transformation in the Arctic, where temperatures are already at their highest levels than at any time in the past 2,000 years and are rising much faster than elsewhere in the world.

Oil companies are alert to the potential of the Arctic, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may hold 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves.

Among oil majors eyeing the Arctic are Royal Dutch Shell Plc, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Norway's Statoil and Russia's state-controlled oil group Rosneft.

Global shipping, too, is adapting to the new conditions. Previously icebound routes such as the Northern Sea Route past Russia and the Northwest Passage along Canada have become increasingly navigable -- cutting transport time but raising questions about how the region will be managed.


The council will discuss a plan to divide search-and-rescue responsibility across the Arctic region, a step closely watched by shipping lines and oil firms seeking to expand operations.

It will also debate guidelines for admitting observer delegations to the council, which could see non-Arctic powers such as China get a seat at the table, and may discuss where the Arctic Council should base its secretariat.

U.S. officials say they are also pushing for a broader initiative on oil and gas activity in the region, including how to deal with potentially disastrous oil spills.

"I think that there will be explicit discussion in Nuuk with the Arctic Council nations about how to take the next step and cooperatively address some of the important offshore oil and gas issues," Deputy U.S. Interior Secretary David Hayes told a news briefing.

Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said the council was moving to strengthen its governance role that could allow it to take action on weighty issues.

"We all are realizing that human and commercial activity are really going to significantly increase as polar ice recedes. We don't have sufficient infrastructure to keep up with this increasing activity," she said.

Environmental activists say the Arctic challenges require much more aggressive action on everything from fishing quotas to international standards for oil and gas development in a pristine, delicate region.

"There's a short window of opportunity to get out in front of it and protect important and vulnerable ecosystems before industries get entrenched," said Lisa Speer, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's international oceans program in New York.

The Arctic Council is often criticized as being ineffective, partly because it can only act unanimously.

Speer said piecemeal decisions on observer states and the council secretariat threatened to obscure the broader threats -- both natural and man-made -- to the Arctic's environment that the Arctic Council needs to tackle quickly.

"These are bureaucratic questions. They are important but it is sort of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," she said. "We are looking at this huge crisis and the response is a lot of inside baseball."

(Editing by Laura MacInnis)

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