Best of our wild blogs: 18 Nov 11

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Even kingfishers migrate
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PUB rolls out flood-prevention works

Ng Puay Leng Channel NewsAsia 17 Nov 11;

SINGAPORE: National water agency PUB is carrying out drainage improvement works in about 20 locations islandwide, including Shenton Way.

This comes as the stretch encountered two flooding incidents last month, with a similar situation occurring in September.

Improvement works along the Shenton Way stretch aim to increase the speed at which rain water joins the main drainage system.

Work started about two weeks ago, but PUB said the drain is a temporary solution.

In the long term, it will widen Shenton Way's existing underground drain, from 60 centimetres, to 75 centimetres.

PUB has also installed a CCTV along the stretch, as well as along Claymore Road.

This is to monitor the flooding situation in real-time.

It said by mid-December, it would have installed 61 CCTVs islandwide.

PUB Catchment & Waterways Department assistant director Choy Wai Kwong said: "The flooding situation (along Shenton way) is not very serious.

"Actually, the flooding incident here two weeks ago only went up to 10cm, and the water receded within 10 to 15 minutes.

"The drainage system here was built in the 70s, so some areas might not be able to handle such a large volume of rain water. So we'll need to improve the drainage system here."

- CNA/wk

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Keeping Bangkok dry in future

Options are to build tunnel or dyke; or move the capital
Nirmal Ghosh Straits Times 18 Nov 11;

BANGKOK: Even before the swirling waters have receded from the streets of Bangkok, experts are working out how to prevent a repeat of Thailand's worst floods in 50 years.

Construct a huge tunnel under Bangkok from north to south. Erect a giant dyke out at sea. Move the capital city.

If there is one bright side to the massive floods that have killed more than 550 people and cost over US$5 billion (S$6.5 billion) in estimated damages, it is the huge wake-up call to finally make long-overdue investments in the city's drainage system.

'If we have to do something, we have to do it now,' said Dr Smith Dharmasaroja, a meteorologist who sits on a committee tasked with overhauling Thailand's water management system. 'Five years later, it will be too late.'

The city is also sinking, thanks to natural subsidence and the draining of underground aquifers to provide water to its population of around 10 million.

Much of Bangkok is already below sea level, and depends on its system of dykes, canals and pumps to keep dry. The city is also at risk from the south, as rising sea levels in the Gulf of Thailand steadily erodes the coast.

Experts like Dr Anond Snidvongs, a climate change scientist at Chulalongkorn University, have long warned that if nothing changes, large parts of the capital could be under water in 50 years.

Dr Smith, the meteorologist who famously predicted the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 - 17 years before it happened - has an even starker prognosis.

'I think it will take less than 50 years to lose Bangkok, maybe 15 years at the most,' he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

He blamed the floods on mismanagement, adding: 'We know exactly what is going on; we have a 50-year record of storms coming into Thailand. We have the data, but nobody takes it seriously.'

One problem is that many government departments are involved in water management, but 'they don't talk to each other', he said.

The options before the committee are far from easy.

One is to build a huge tunnel to channel flood waters from north to south under Bangkok, pushing the deluge out to sea.

Another is a 'floodway' - a sort of super canal, possibly with an expressway running above it. But land would have to be acquired for that, and because Bangkok is flat, with no slope towards the sea, the water would still have to be driven out to the Gulf.

Another option is to dredge low-lying wetlands north of the city, converting them into huge lakes that can hold large volumes of water. But Suvarnabhumi International Airport is located there.

To address the threat from the south, experts are considering a dyke out at sea that will hold back the erosion of the coastline.

Yet another option is to move the capital. But that is probably no longer possible, because Bangkok's urban infrastructure - especially in terms of transport - has improved in recent years and attracted even more people.

The most that could be done to relieve the density of the city is to move government offices to the nearby province of Nakhon Nayok - a plan that has been mooted before but, like many others, has been left sitting on the shelf.

But now, the devastating flood is pushing the government to finally find a solution - and soon.

King's advice on water management largely unheeded
Straits Times 18 Nov 11;

FEW people have thought as much about water management in Thailand as King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in his youth trained as an engineer.

But few have heeded his constant warnings.

As far back as 1971 the King flagged widespread logging in the north as a trigger for future floods.

Forty years later, as Thailand battles epic floods, deforestation is being blamed for the rushing flow of rain water that filled northern dams to capacity a few months ago. That, combined with a decision to hold water in the dams in anticipation of a dry season drought, led to the reservoirs swelling to capacity - forcing the release of huge volumes of water from several dams all at once.

In a 1990 speech, the King, commenting on the kingdom's frequent floods, said: 'The major cause... is the fact that we built our houses on wetlands. My point is that humans have changed nature so much from what it used to be.'

The wetland is a key absorber of water. Conversion of wetlands to other uses - especially to large urban infrastructure - reduces that capacity.

Five years later, speaking to a roomful of officials discussing drainage plans for Bangkok, he said: 'In the future, we will face more problems from sea water rising up.'

He emphasised the importance of wider canals, and pumps to propel the water out to sea.

Some of his advice was heeded; Bangkok depends on a battery of close to 200 pumping stations. But in the current crisis, all the pumps have been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are not designed for such prolonged use, and many have burned out.

Thankfully, there were no heavy storms and sudden electricity failures, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) engineer Supachai Tantikom said. Otherwise, the city would have been submerged.

But some of the King's advice was also ignored - an odd phenomenon in a country where the King is the ultimate moral authority and Thais from all walks of life hang on to his every word.

'People didn't think it was such a serious threat, I suppose,' said Dr Supachai.

Veteran meteorologist Dr Smith Dharmasaroja also said: 'People didn't believe this could happen.'

King Bhumibol is known to have been unhappy with the choice of location of the city's international airport, which took years to build and was finally commissioned in late 2008. But successive governments went ahead anyway.

In an interview in an office at the BMA, Dr Supachai pored over a map of Bangkok's drainage system and brought his palm down on an area east of the city which once was a vast wetland called Cobra Swamp and now features the sprawling Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

'It shouldn't be there,' he said.


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Sumatran tigers vanishing with the once-sacred forests

Bruce Gale Straits Times 18 Nov 11;

IT WAS a Saturday morning and five-year-old Fitria Judin was playing with her two older sisters outside their house on a plantation in Bengkulu's Kepahiang regency. Suddenly a tiger emerged from the nearby woods and attacked her. Terrified, Fitria's two siblings ran 7km to the nearest village to seek help.

Villagers later found the young victim dead, about 20m from where the attack had taken place. Her left leg was missing, believed to have been eaten by the tiger. It was not immediately clear where Fitria's parents were at the time of the attack, which took place on Nov 5.

Although tragic, the incident was not really surprising. Villagers in the province had been reporting sightings of tigers near human settlements for months. In December last year, for example, residents of a housing complex near the Kaur regency administration office woke up to the remains of three goats that had been mauled by at least two Sumatran tigers the previous night.

Tigers found wandering near human settlements are generally trapped by forest rangers and then released into more remote conservation areas. Government officials have responded to recent incidents by calling on the local population to avoid hunting deer, warning that the practice was forcing the tigers to enter residential areas to look for cattle.

However, with tiger habitats being progressively destroyed by illegal logging, the number of such encroachments is increasing. Reports of attacks on humans like the one involving Fitria also give villagers a powerful motive to hunt and kill the protected animals rather than cooperate with conservationists.

The Indonesian government estimates that more than one million hectares of forest are cleared in Indonesia every year. At this rate, conservationists argue, the Sumatran tiger could soon follow its Javanese and Balinese cousins into extinction. Only about 400 Sumatran tigers are believed to exist in the wild. The Balinese tiger became extinct in the 1950s, and the Javanese tiger in the 1970s.

Illegal logging is not the only culprit, however. Earlier this month, Interpol launched a new campaign to coordinate the global fight against tiger poaching, arguing it was imperative that the nations where tigers can still be found work together to combat wildlife crime.

Tiger poaching is rampant in Asia, where tiger parts are used in traditional medicine. The estimated 100,000 tigers that roamed Asia in 1900 have now dwindled to fewer than 3,500 across the so-called tiger-range countries. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tigers will be extinct globally by 2022 if left unprotected. Countries that constitute the global tiger range include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Named 'Project Predator', the World Bank-supported campaign was unveiled at the 80th Interpol General Assembly in Hanoi on Nov 2. The initiative seeks to provide capacity building to law enforcement agencies by strengthening their ability to work with wildlife officials using advanced investigation techniques. A press release issued by Interpol described the illegal trade as 'one of the most high-profile, destructive and urgent forms of wildlife crime'.

A meeting of senior police and Customs officials from tiger-range countries is scheduled to be held in Bangkok in February next year to identify and implement a plan of action.

Whether the campaign will make much difference in Indonesia, however, remains to be seen. A recent incident in which a trader was a fined just 3 million rupiah (S$430) after being caught red-handed with a Sumatran tiger skin in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra, has cast doubt on Indonesia's commitment to conservation efforts. Reports say that the trader was planning to sell the skin for 150 million rupiah.

The judgment appears to be part of a depressing pattern. According to the WWF, at least 40 tigers are known to have been killed in Riau between 2005 and last year. But the authorities have made only five arrests in the province since 2001, and only one of these cases made it to court.

Cooperation with local populations is also critical. The plantation Fitria's family was working on, for example, was reportedly located inside a protected forest area.

Rather than wait for forest rangers, villagers have sometimes taken matters into their own hands. Two young female tigers currently living in a conservation park in Bogor, for example, have each had a paw amputated. They were caught in traps set by villagers inside palm-oil plantations. Though accused of being man-eaters, the accusations were never proven.

Greenpeace's Indonesia branch has demanded an end to all illegal logging activities. Noting that Indonesians once regarded forests as sacred, a spokesman told the Antara news agency that 'if we destroy the forests, it means we also destroy the traditions and beliefs of our ancestors'.

The tigers, along with a great deal of other Indonesian wildlife, will disappear as well.

But is anyone listening?

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A food crisis will feed instability in Asean

Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times 18 Nov 11;

THE unusually heavy floods in Thailand and other South- east Asian countries are having one major impact - a growing sense of urgency in Asean over natural calamities and possible food scarcity. Indeed, the 19th Asean Summit and related meetings in Bali this week may well have to morph into a de facto crisis meeting of regional leaders. Apart from the region's strategic, political and economic priorities, no issues can be more pressing.

Erratic weather caused probably by climate change brought about the current dire situation in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. In Thailand, the floods have severely affected rice production. Given its position as the world's largest exporter of rice, Thailand's woes are also affecting its capacity to feed the Asean region. If the situation gets out of hand, there could be repercussions on economic and political stability.

The growing sense of urgency in Asean can be detected in the group's recent official pronouncements. On Oct 12, Indonesia, as the current Asean chair, issued a special statement 'on the floods in South-east Asia', expressing concern over the deluge in some member states. But it also 'emphasised the importance of strong cooperation and coordination' and the 'need for full implementation' of two key mechanisms to deal with food emergencies.

The first mechanism is the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response or AADMER. The second is the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management, or AHA Centre. However, the message is laced with concern whether AADMER and AHA are fully ready to play their roles to tackle the looming challenges in human security, especially a possible food crisis in the region where rice is a major staple.

Significantly, five days earlier, on Oct 7, the Asean 10 signed an emergency rice reserve pact with its three North-east Asian dialogue partners - China, Japan and South Korea - also known as the Asean+3. Called the Asean Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (Apterr), the speedy signing of the rice pact underscored the growing collaboration between Asean and its North-east Asian dialogue partners. It also reflects the increasing influence of the three countries on Asean.

Asean officials say that under Apterr scheme, the 13 countries in the Asean+3 will stock 787,000 tonnes of rice to be used in the event of sudden instabilities in supplies caused by natural calamities. The phrase 'sudden instabilities' reflects the growing nervousness within the region over environmental uncertainties. Indeed, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called on Asean at the last summit in May in Jakarta to consider using the group's rice reserve not only in the event of natural disasters but also economic upheaval.

A senior Asean official has suggested that in the long term, Apterr could expand to other staple foods to help the region deal with volatility in food prices. Indonesian Vice-President Boediono has said food cooperation is to become more urgent in the coming years. The United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation has noted that the current floods have caused devastation across South-east Asia, including severe damage to padi fields.

But will floods and food shortage paradoxically bind Asean and North-east Asia closer together?

The growing regional collaboration and cohesion between the two regions within the framework of Asean+3 comes at a time of an evolving strategic landscape. Emerging is a parallel forum called the East Asia Summit (EAS). This involves not only Asean+3 but also Australia, New Zealand and India, as well as two major powers - the United States and Russia. The EAS will have meetings in Bali tomorrow. It would not be a surprise if it addresses food security as well.

Over time, there is a possibility that both diplomatic tracks - Asean+3 and EAS - will emerge to help Asean deal with its growing challenges on the human security front, such as floods and food shortages.

The larger question is one of regional stability. There are very good reasons why Asean is concerned about food security. Rice can be politically sensitive.

Writing online in The Diplomat, a young Filipino political leader, Mr Mong Palatino, observed that rice has the potential to spark an uprising. The precedent cited was Vietnam, when hungry peasants demanding food, rice and independence led the 1945 revolution. Mr Palatino also quoted a leaked security report in the Philippines - denied by the government - warning against possible violent social protests if the government failed to prevent a rice supply crisis this year.

Asean leaders are fully aware of the 'Tunisia effect'. Earlier this year, Tunisia saw a food crisis conspiring with politics to trigger the 'Arab Spring' of revolts that spread quickly across North Africa and the Middle East. South-east Asia is far from being another theatre for such an extreme scenario. But the Asean Summit this week is a timely platform to plan for ways to pre-empt a possible 'South-east Asian Spring'.

The writer is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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EU Biofuel Target Seen Driving Species Loss: Study

Charlie Dunmore PlanetArk 17 Nov 11;

A European Union target to promote the use of biofuels will accelerate global species loss because it encourages the conversion of pasture, savanna and forests into new cropland, EU scientists have warned.

The finding raises fresh doubts over the benefits of biofuels, which were once seen as the most effective way of cutting road transport emissions, but whose environmental credentials have increasingly been called into question.

The scale of species loss in areas converted into new cropland could be more than 80 percent, the scientists from the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) said in a newly published report.

"This result shows that the extensive use of bioenergy crops will increase the rate in loss of biodiversity," the report said.

One of the report's authors stressed that the finding was based on a preliminary analysis of the issue and that more research was needed to accurately quantify the likely impact on biodiversity caused by the EU's biofuel mandate.

"This is only a very rough estimation... but at least it raises the issue, and sends a warning that this should be taken into consideration," the JRC's Luisa Marelli told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"If we had found that only 10 percent of biodiversity would be affected, then that would be a very low number considering all the uncertainties, but the number is much higher," she said.


The JRC report was based on the findings of another study on the land use impacts of the EU's biofuel target, prepared for the Commission by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

IFPRI calculated that the EU target would lead to a global increase in cropland of more than 17,000 square km -- about half the area of the Netherlands -- primarily in Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa and former Soviet Union countries.

Environmental campaigners warn that cropland conversion in biodiversity hot spots such as Brazil's cerrado -- or savanna -- could increase the pressure on endangered species including the giant anteater and maned wolf.

"The world faces two major environmental disasters -- climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Biofuels, once thought of as a solution, are contributing to making both these crises worse," said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Modeling exercises carried out by IFPRI and others have also suggested that the land use impacts of the EU target -- both direct and indirect -- could wipe out most of the predicted emissions saving from biofuels.

But such models are intrinsically uncertain, and biofuel producers and other critics have argued that the scientific uncertainties are still too great to use them as the basis for changes to EU policy.

An internal debate is currently raging within the Commission on how to account for land use changes in biofuels legislation, which sets a mandatory EU-wide goal for increasing the share of biofuels in road transport to about 10 percent by 2020.

The Commission was not immediately available for comment.

(Editing by Anthony Barker)

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Get ready for climate change, says UN panel

Marlowe Hood AFP Yahoo News 16 Nov 11;

The toll from ever-more intense floods, drought, and heatwaves will crescendo this century unless humanity anticipates the onslaught, according to a UN report set to be unveiled on Friday.

In an 800-page assessment, the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says global warming will magnify the frequence and force of extreme weather events, and defences must be prepared now to avoid worse misery in the future.

"The character and severity of impacts ... depends not only on the extremes themselves but also on vulnerability and exposure," notes a draft "summary for policymakers" obtained by AFP.

The 20-page document is being vetting this week at a meeting of the 194-nation body in Kampala, Uganda.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon drove home the "be prepared" message at a climate forum in Dhaka on Monday.

"Natural hazards need not cause human catastrophe," he said. "There are many cost-effective remedies that communities and countries can take to reduce the impact of extreme weather events."

Poor countries with scant margin for manoeuvre will be hit first and hardest.

But the 2003 heatwave that killed 70,000 in Europe and Hurricane Katrina's flooding of New Orleans are deadly reminders that rich countries must brace for impacts too.

And beyond a certain threshold, the report cautions, all efforts to adapt may be overwhelmed unless the underlying carbon emissions that drive global warming are held in check.

Three years in the making, the special report -- based on thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles -- is the IPCC's first dedicated probe of the nexus of climate change and extreme weather events.

It is also the first time the panel has woven climate science and risk management into a single analysis.

Since the IPCC issued its inaugural assessment in 1990, "historically distinct research communities" have worked independently and produced separate reports.

That segregation was probably a mistake, experts on both sides of the divide told AFP.

"Disaster specialists have a world of experience that should be an essential baseline for adaptation to future climate change," said Tom Downing, head of the Global Climate Adaptation Partnership in Oxford and a veteran of the IPCC process.

"It is encouraging to see the IPCC take forward this integration in a groundbreaking assessment."

"One of the key take-home messages of this report is the emphasis on exposure and vulnerability," agreed Will Steffen, head of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute.

"Science is only part of the puzzle here. The others have to do with people's resilience and adaptability."

Neville Nicholls, a professor at Monash University in Melborne and a lead author of the pure-science chapter on how climate change affects weather, said the collaboration "strengthened us both."

"It has made the scientists focus a lot more on what the risk community really needs, and the disaster risk community have a better idea of what we can -- and can't -- give them," he said by phone.

The change in tack follows several reputation-damaging mistakes uncovered in the IPCC's landmark Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

Most of the errors, including a wildly inaccurate estimate of the pace of glacier melt-off in the Himalayas, stem in part from poor coordination between these communities, IPCC scientists acknowledge.

The new, solution-oriented report, identifies relatively easy and cheap "low-regret" actions such as early warning systems in areas likely to be hit by deadly heatwaves or flooding.

Improved building codes and forecasting capacity could likewise help save lives in cyclone-prone regions.

But the longer such measures are put off the more costly or ineffective they become, it cautions.

Many adaptation schemes have already been put in place, especially at the local level.

Newly-planted mangrove forests in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar help break the destructive force of cyclones jacked up by warmer and rising seas. And new heat-resistant strains of corn, rice and beans could save thousands of lives.

More than 350 million worldwide people face a "perfect storm" of conditions for potential food disaster, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Sometimes there may be not "options" at all -- citizens of several small island states face permanent relocation due to rising seas, the report said.

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La Nina returns, but weaker impact seen: UN weather agency

AFP Yahoo News 18 Nov 11;

The UN weather agency said on Thursday that La Nina, a phenomenon linked to flooding and drought, had re-emerged in the tropical Pacific since August but its impact is expected to be weaker this time.

"This La Nina is expected to persist through the end of this year and into early 2012, possibly strengthening to moderate intensity," said the World Meteorological Organisation in a statement.

"However, it is likely to be considerably weaker than the recent episode that was linked to flooding and drought in different parts of the world."

La Nina is characterized by unusually cool ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific.

It is the opposite of El Nino, which is marked by unusually warm ocean surface temperatures.

Both factor in the fluctuations of the world's climate.

In late 2008 La Nina was blamed for icy conditions that claimed dozens of lives across Europe.

The weather phenomenon can also bring about strong rainfall in Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia, as well as drought in South America.

The current La Nina follows closely behind the moderate to strong one that started in September 2010 and ended with neutral conditions established in May this year, the WMO said.

"Historical precedents and the latest outputs from forecast models suggest that peak intensity of this La Nina will be reached in late 2011 or early 2012, and that it is very unlikely to reach conditions as strong as those of the 2010-11 La Nina event," the statement said.

La Nina Weak For Now But Likely To Strengthen: WMO
Stephanie Nebehay PlanetArk 18 Nov 11;

La Nina, a weather phenomenon usually linked to heavy rains and flooding in the Asia-Pacific and South America and drought in Africa, has re-emerged and is likely to persist into early 2012, the World Meterological Organization (WMO) said on Thursday.

However, it is "very unlikely" to reach conditions as strong as those of the 2010-2011 La Nina event that ended in May, the United Nations agency said.

"This La Nina is expected to persist through the end of this year and into early 2012, possibly strengthening to moderate intensity," the WMO said in a statement.

El Nino, its opposite weather phenomenon which warms the Pacific, has been ruled out as occurring before April 2012, according to the agency whose assessment is based on input from climate prediction centers and experts around the world.

(Editing by Keiron Henderson)

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