Best of our wild blogs: 18 Jun 15

The Coral Garden of East Coast

Rare plants at reefy East Coast Park
wild shores of singapore

Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo eating caterpillar
Bird Ecology Study Group

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Rail Corridor as cycling track, suggests PM Lee

Lester Hio AsiaOne 18 Jun 15;

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested this as a use for the Rail Corridor yesterday in a Facebook post after a cycling trip in Kushiro, Japan.

After riding along a disused railroad track while on leave in Hokkaido, he concluded: "One possibility for our Rail Corridor."

The 24km former KTM railway line here, which stretches between Woodlands and Tanjong Pagar, closed in 2011 and the leafy route has since been used by walkers, runners and cyclists.

Some local cyclists yesterday welcomed the idea of a dedicated track.

"A paved track has a practical purpose - it'll be a shortcut for those in the north or west who might want to cycle into the city," said Calvin Chin, 41, president of the Mountain Bike Association Singapore.

"My request is that a part of it is left unpaved, so those who want to ride on raw, natural terrain can continue to do so."

Woon Taiwoon, co-founder of cycling group LoveCyclingSg, hopes that the land will retain its historical significance.

"I hope it won't become just another part of the PCN (park connector network)," said the 40-year-old designer. "There is a cultural history that should be preserved. Don't clean it up too much, let it keep its character. Let it be open to everyone and have paths for the elderly and children."

Other cyclists agreed that the corridor should not be limited solely to biking use as it is a unique landmark in Singapore.

Retiree Joyce Leong, 59, founder of cycling club Joyriders, asked: "What about runners? They would also like to have a place to run. A shared trail will be great for recreational cyclists, with clear dividing lines for pedestrians and cyclists."

Using the land for cycling and other recreational purposes is one of the main development goals of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

In March, the agency launched a request for proposals to develop the land into a continuous green stretch.

One of its planning and design goals is that it should be "for pedestrians and cyclists to use and enjoy".

The corridor should also "provide opportunities for walking, jogging and cycling as a form of recreation and for commuting".

Five teams made up of local and international architects were shortlisted last month to design a masterplan for the corridor.

These will be on display in a public exhibition in October and November.

Cycling through the Rail Corridor
Strait Times 27 Jun 15;

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's suggestion to use the Rail Corridor as a cycling track shows how far Singapore has travelled from the days when national progress was measured stringently by the utilitarian use of scarce land.

Of course, even in the early years of independence, land was set aside by design for green breathing spaces that would prevent an urban jungle from swallowing the rural topography of a tropical island-state.

However, there were episodic skirmishes between conservationists who were ecologically ahead of their times and economic realists who were worried that Singapore would fall behind.

In that competition, Singapore veered towards using economically promising space largely for developmental use. Economic growth trumped esoteric pleasures in the competition for resources when national survival was at stake.

It had to be so. Development might not have come about otherwise.

What has changed now is not the imperative of thinking economically but of examining how far social goods such as leisure could be factored into national calculations.

The Rail Corridor, a 24km former KTM railway line stretching between Woodlands and Tanjong Pagar, has been used since the end of train operations as a leafy route by walkers, runners and cyclists.

Parts of the corridor occupy prime land, which would result in the replenishment of state coffers if opened up for bids by commercial developers.

It is not as if Singapore disdains the extra money. Instead, what is important is the desirability of exploring an alternative option: that of turning the corridor into a cycling track which can provide an arena for relaxation, exercise, family-bonding and attachment to the environment.

It is interesting that Mr Lee was moved to suggest this option after a cycling trip on a disused railroad track in Japan. That country rose from an era of war and consequent poverty when the importance of land was invested in its financial value.

It became an economically viable country that could afford to create social space anew for the environmental expectations and tastes of its citizens. Importing the Japanese ability to view the environment in new ways would help Singapore chart its own way forward.

The recreational use of land, manifest in the idea of a cycling corridor, is a sign that a maturing economy can accommodate the second-order aspirations of citizens, those that arise after the basic demands for food, clothing and shelter have been met.

In that spirit, the cycling track could be treated as a part of Singapore's cultural heritage. Using it would be a reminder to Singaporeans, particularly the young, that Singapore as a home transcends economic imperatives, although these will continue to lie at the heart of its choices.

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Volunteers, fans earn praise for a 'clean' SEA Games

It is not just Team Singapore athletes getting kudos for their record medal haul at the Singapore SEA Games, but supporters as well, for their civic-minded behaviour of cleaning up after themselves at events.
Nur Afifah Ariffin, Channel NewsAsia 17 Jun 15;

SINGAPORE: Organisers of the 28th SEA Games launched an official video at the start of the Games, with a message to keep sporting venues clean, and it seems most supporters took heed.

Images of Myanmar fans picking up after themselves were widely shared on social media. And Team Singapore fans were armed with special plastic bags that could be used as pom poms during matches.

"Of course it's red and white in colour, so they used it as a good display of support," said ExcluSinga member Norman Abdul Samat. "And after that, they'll just use that (as a container for) rubbish and litter they'll dispose of it after the game."

The ExcluSinga group was just one of many involved in the clean-up initiative. They worked closely with The Singapore Glove Project, which has been reaching out to the public, especially during the SEA Games.

"We tied up with SINGSOC, the SEA Games organising committee, and we brainstormed on various ideas on how we can get Singaporeans and participants to clean up after themselves," said The Singapore Glove Project's Tan Ken Jin.

A little prodding helped. They stationed volunteers at the Games to cheer for Singapore. "And after the match, we basically encourage people to pick up after themselves," he said. The volunteers fanned out at various venues, such as the Jalan Besar Stadium, OCBC Aquatic Centre and National Stadium.

He said the response was "great". "It's not just me, or one or two other people, but you've got ages from the really young to the really old, and across the walks of life."

Indeed, following the exuberance of a massive after-party for the closing ceremony, dozens of volunteers stayed back, making sure every scrap of litter was picked up, and properly disposed of.


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If it's broken, here's how to fix it

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh AsiaOne 18 Jun 15;

From shaky stools to faulty radios, broken items can be fixed for free next Tuesday when you take them to the Rochor Canal stretch near Madrasah Aljunied.

But you will need to get your hands dirty, too.

FiTree, a youth group that promotes sustainable living, and students from Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah willcoach people on how to fixthings as part of a Repair For Ramadan project.

This project is among events lined up for the Malay/Muslim community's Service to the Nation Week (SNW) from June 21 to 27.

"The act of repairing your own item gives you a sense of ownership, a sense that although you're doing a small thing, it adds up to... to sustaining the earth," said FiTree member Faizah Haji Shaik Abdullah Sahib, 28.

About 20 madrasah students will spend four days with trainers from the Sustainable Living Lab to learn how to repair items ranging from fabrics to furniture so they can help at the event.

Free repair services are not the only thing on the cards in the coming week. SNW will see community organisations such as Mendaki and 4PM, and informal youth groups like the Creative Muslim Youth Kakis (CMYK) giving back to the nation.

The services include sprucing up homes of needy families and distributing Ramadan porridge to people of all races and religions.

The SG50 Kita Committee, which is coordinating the Malay/Muslim community's contributions for Singapore's golden jubilee year, announced the events last Friday.

Said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim: "It's for us to play a role in the national effort to alleviate some

of the pressures and challenges faced by low-income families."

There are plans to make SNW an annual affair, he said.

"The most important thing is to establish a tradition of our community giving back to the nation. I think this is a good start," said Dr Yaacob, who is Communications and Information Minister.

Youths helped fuel the SNW, he said, noting how organisations mobilised members and offered ideas for projects.

Ms Faizah, an environmental engineer, said of Repair For Ramadan: "Youths can lead this charge. We need to inculcate the culture of 'repair' in the young instead of having a culture where we buy things and throw them away without a second thought."

The SG50 Kita Committee also said the Malay/Muslim community's National Day Observance ceremony will be held at ITE College Central on Aug 8.

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New facility to turn food waste, used water sludge into electricity

Currently, used water treatment plants in Singapore generate 20 to 25 per cent of their energy from biogas obtained from sludge alone, and the addition of food waste is expected to raise energy production to 50 per cent.
Loke Kok Fai Channel NewsAsia 17 Jun 15;

SINGAPORE: A newly-announced facility in Ulu Pandan will soon turn both food waste and used water sludge from water reclamation plants into electricity.

Announced on Wednesday (Jun 17) by Singapore’s national water agency PUB and renewable energy company Anaergia at the Singapore International Water Week, the demonstration facility will mix and process up to 40 tonnes of food waste from Clementi district and used water sludge from the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant daily into biogas for electricity generation.

It is estimated that the addition of food waste will raise energy production to 50 per cent of the plant's needs. Currently, used water treatment plants in Singapore generate 20 to 25 per cent of their energy from biogas obtained from sludge alone.

"This could potentially allow the used water treatment plant to achieve energy self-sufficiency," said PUB's Chief Technology Officer Harry Seah.

The National Environment Agency will conduct a district-level pilot for the collection of source-segregated food waste from the premises of educational institutions, hospitals and camps among others, for the 2,000 square metre demonstration plant, which will be completed in September 2015.

If found to be viable over the course of about a year, the technology would be implemented in future plants, such as the future TUAS Water Treatment Plant in 2024, with a goal of having up to 70 per cent of that plant's energy supplied by this process.

- CNA/av

Singapore to use food waste to boost energy creation
SIAU MING EN Today Online 18 Jun 15;

SINGAPORE — When it comes to transforming waste to electricity, the sum of the parts is indeed greater than their whole. By adding food waste to the process of turning used water sludge into electricity, twice as much power can be produced compared with the conventional method that digests only used water sludge.

Such technology will be tested at a new facility launched by national water agency PUB and clean-energy firm Anaergia today (June 17) at the Singapore International Water Week Technology and Innovation Summit. The co-digestion plant will be Singapore’s first, though the technology is already in use in America and Europe.

Currently, electricity generated by converting only used water sludge can meet about 20 to 25 per cent of a water-reclamation plant’s needs. With the technology offered by the co-digestion plant, the electricity produced may meet about 50 per cent of the plant’s needs.

Used water sludge is a by-product from treating used water. This is anaerobically digested in PUB water-reclamation plants — the process of breaking down organic materials without oxygen. The resulting biogas is used as fuel to produce electricity.

At the new co-digestion plant, wet organic fraction from food waste will be mixed into used water sludge. The thickened mixture will then be anaerobically digested. The mix can produce more biogas because of the higher calorific value in food waste, said a PUB spokesperson.

As the technology is in its testing phase, the plant will be able to treat only up to 40 tonnes per day of combined used water sludge from the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant and food waste collected from an upcoming food-waste recycling pilot in Clementi. It can produce about 6,000kW of electricity each day, said Anaergia’s chairman and chief executive officer Andrew Benedek at the launch.

In March, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu announced plans for a district-level pilot, where segregated food waste would be collected from premises such as shopping malls, schools, hospitals and office buildings for anaerobic co-digestion. Clementi was chosen for its close proximity to the water-reclamation plant.

Food waste accounts for about 10 per cent of total waste generated in Singapore, but less than 15 per cent of it is recycled. Last year, 788,600 tonnes of food waste were generated, of which only 13 per cent was recycled. The rest was incinerated — a process that also generates electricity — and then disposed of in landfills.

Speaking to reporters, PUB chief technology officer Harry Seah said instead of incinerating food waste, more energy could be produced when food waste is first processed in a co-digestor. “We think that if we are to segregate food waste properly, segregate it first and produce biogas, then send for incineration, (we will get) more energy,” he said, adding that the co-digesting process produces 30 per cent more energy than directly incinerating food waste.

Currently under construction at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant, the co-digestion plant will be ready in September. Mr Seah added: “The result of this demonstration plant will validate the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of co-digestion implementation in Singapore, potentially reducing its carbon footprint and maximising energy production.”

If successful, the technology could be used at the coming Tuas Water Reclamation Plant and the National Environment Agency’s Integrated Waste Management Facility.

“The success of this project will provide opportunities for a water-reclamation plant like ours to generate enough energy for process use and bring us closer to achieving energy self-sufficiency for used-water treatment in Singapore,” Mr Seah added.

Food waste from Clementi to be collected for electricity project
Victor Loh AsiaOne 17 Jun 15;

The Public Utilities Board (PUB) announced today in a joint statement with Anaergia Pte Ltd the commencement of Singapore's first project to convert the organic compost into biogas using the Anaerobic bacteria, which can then be used to generate electricity.

Used water sludge from the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) will be mixed with food waste collected from the Clementi district and treated in a co-digestion demonstration facility.

This new combined treatment of used water sludge and food waste has the potential to produce more biogas due to the higher calorific value in food waste, PUB said.

The co-digestion plant can treat up to 40 tons of the water sludge and food waste concoction without requiring oxygen to produce biogas using a patented process by Anorexia.

Food waste from premises in Clementi, such as educational institutions, hospitals, and camps, will be collected by the National Environment Agency (NEA) for co-digestion at the demonstration plant. The demonstration plant is currently under construction and will be completed by September 2015.

"[The demonstration plant] will provide the opportunity for the water reclamation plants to generate more electricity for process usage," Harry Seah, Chief Technology Officer, PUB, said.

"This could potentially allow the used water treatment plant to achieve energy self-sufficiency, which is using only as much energy as the treatment process itself generates."

If successful, the process could potentially be implemented at the future Tuas Water Reclamation Plant and NEA's Integrated Waste Management Facility.

The memorandum of understanding between Anaergia and PUB signed during the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) in 2014, to explore potential research and technological collaboration, particularly in the domain of waste-to-energy.

Along with this investment, Anaergia will establish and operate its Asia Pacific Headquarters in Singapore, to serve as its base for engineering services and project management in supporting their operations in the Asia Pacific.

This project was supported with a co-funding grant from the Technology Pioneer (TechPioneer) Scheme, administered by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) on behalf of the Environment and Water Industry Programme Office (EWI).

This scheme encourages water companies to tap on Singapore to testbed cutting edge technology and commercialise it in an actual operating environment. A total of 150 projects involving the testbedding of water solutions have been facilitated at PUB's installations, and more than 20 test-bedding projects are currently on-going at PUB's facilities.

New plant mixes food waste, used water to produce energy
Audrey Tan Straits Times AsiaOne 19 Jun 15;

Singapore is exploring a new way to turn unused calories into energy, and may one day be able to convert the thousands of tonnes of food dumped here each day into valuable energy sources.

When organic material in food waste and sludge from used water react with bacteria, this produces biogas for electricity generation. And a new 2,000 sq m demonstration plant at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant will be the first in Singapore to make use of this reaction when it begins operations in September.

The co-digestion facility was launched by national water agency PUB and technology company Anaergia yesterday, the second day of the Singapore International Water Week Technology and Innovation Summit.

The PUB demonstration plant can treat up to 40 tonnes of combined food waste and used water sludge. A drop in the ocean compared with the amount of such waste produced here, but the facility will be a test-bed to see if similar processes can be rolled out elsewhere.

The country's four water reclamation plants, including the one in Ulu Pandan, are already producing biogas from sludge, which supplies up to one quarter of each plant's electricity needs. By combining used water sludge with food waste, the amount of biogas produced can be doubled due to the higher calorific value in food waste, PUB said.

Said Anaergia chairman and chief executive Andrew Benedek: "The idea is to take waste from a waste water plant and turn that into energy, and extend it further by adding food waste, and doing so efficiently, so you can turn a waste water plant into a sustainable plant, energy-wise."

The plant will run for a year and a half before the authorities decide if the technology can be used at the future Tuas Water Reclamation Plant and the National Environment Agency's (NEA) Integrated Waste Management Facility, which are located together, when the facility is ready in 2024.

PUB's chief technology officer, Mr Harry Seah, noted that if the effort was successful, Anaergia's patented technology could supply at least 50 per cent of the future plant's electricity demand.

The hope is that the plant could eventually achieve energy self-sufficiency, using only as much energy as the treatment process itself generates.

The technology harnesses anaerobic digestion, a biological process that breaks down organic materials without oxygen, to produce biogas.

Food accounts for one-tenth of all waste produced here. About 788,600 tonnes of food was thrown away last year, slightly less than the 796,000 tonnes in 2013, but still much more than the 606,100 tonnes in 2009. Only 13 per cent of last year's food waste was recycled.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan noted at the summit opening on Tuesday that as Singapore lacks a significant agricultural sector and as a lot of energy is wasted in food incineration, the best way forward was to recover the energy from food and use it to recycle used water.

"This project is significant, because it... potentially increases the yield of water from our recycling plants."

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Indonesia: In APRIL’s No-Deforestation Pledge, Promises of Hope and of Pitfalls

Daniel Waldroop Jakarta Globe 17 Jun 15;

Forest cleared by one of Asia Pulp and Paper’s suppliers in Riau in this Feb. 28, 2012, file photo released by Greenpeace. (EPA Photo/Kemal Jufri)

Jakarta. Two weeks ago, paper and pulp giant Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings, or APRIL, made an announcement that sent shockwaves through Indonesia’s environmental circles: It pledged to immediately stop all deforestation and to enact a policy of protecting one hectare of land for every hectare it develops.

Just 10 years ago, this kind of agreement would have been unimaginable, but the industry has changed rapidly under pressure from a combination of environmental watchdog groups, initiatives by the central government, and the public’s growing concern about deforestation.

Tony Wenas, the president director of Riau Andalan Pulp & Paper (RAPP), APRIL’s main subsidiary, tells the Jakarta Globe that the decision annlounced on June 3 has been in the works for a long time.

“Back in 2002 we introduced the wood legality system. In 2005 we applied the high conservation values assessment over our plantation. In 2014, we launched the sustainable forest management policy, where we committed to 1:1 conservation to development. And now we’ve fast-forwarded,” he says.

“It’s a journey,” Tony adds. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

APRIL has joined a number of large paper companies in making these pledges. One of its largest competitors, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), announced a similar pledge almost three years ago. Today almost 80 percent of Indonesia’s pulp and paper manufacturers have agreed to end deforestation.

The change has been a long time coming. In 2003, Greenpeace launched an aggressive and public campaign against paper producers, focusing on APP. But rather than go after them directly, Greenpeace focused on their customers, major companies like Mattel Toys. For the price of doing business with APP, Mattel found its headquarters draped with a large banner featuring the iconic Barbie doll being dumped by Ken because he doesn’t “date girls who are into deforestation.”

Greenpeace kept the campaign going for a whole decade, targeting more than 100 APP clients to shame them into ending their contracts. In 2013, APP announced that it would no longer contribute to deforestation.

RAPP’s Tony readily admits the role that NGOs like Greenpeace have played.

“The input from the civil society, we listen to that. And we like to be accommodating as well,” he says.

But there are other forces at play that led to APRIL’s commitment. “If produced sustainably,” Tony says, “our product will be better received worldwide. There will be more trust.”

In fact, Tony believes the changes could boost profits.

“Because we invest in the environment and people, at the end of the day, we’ll be balanced, or with even more value,” he says.

And that’s enough for APRIL’s shareholders, whom Tony says are supportive of the company’s environmental commitment.

‘If they fail, we hit them’

The government too, has played its part. In his 2014 presidential election campaign, Joko Widodo called for greater oversight of the forestry industry, telling reporters that “if we have good, tough law enforcement, then it can be resolved.”

Last month, President Joko extended his predecessor’s moratorium on forest-clearing, although he declined to strengthen the regulation to include the roughly 48.5 million hectares currently without protection.

But APRIL’s commitment hasn’t satisfied everyone.

Nirarta Koni, director of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Indonesia, applauds APRIL’s pledge, but says there’s more work to be done.

“A pledge is just a pledge if there’s no other parties who watch that and make sure they’re doing their job,” he says.

Teguh Surya of Greenpeace Indonesia agrees that the fight against deforestation has shifted from shaming paper companies to supporting them.

“They put on the table a strong commitment. Why don’t we give them the space to change and monitor together and ensure together? If they fail, we hit them. That’s the new paradigm of the campaign now,” he tells the Globe.

Tony defends APRIL’s commitment and says that he welcomes the scrutiny.

“We didn’t want to commit what we couldn’t commit. We are walking the talk. We’re asking their help. Please help us monitor. Please come with us to the fields to see how people are harvesting things,” he says.

The one map

Even with close collaboration between the private sector and watchdog groups, challenges for Indonesia’s environment remain.

Since the rapid decentralization post-1998, land ownership in paper-producing areas like Kalimantan has been fraught with conflict. The local and central governments, business interests and locals all vie for control of land.

And for local farmers and indigenous peoples outgunned by large corporations, the results can be disastrous. Several thousand disputes between locals and businesses over land ownership fester for lack of a way to mitigate them. Without even a standardized map to track ownership, resolutions are rare.

Koni of the WRI has proposed a solution. His institute has launched the “One Map Initiative,” which aims to create a single record for all stakeholders to use.

“We will use the map as a way to communicate among stakeholders. If everyone has their own map, there will be conflict,” he says.

And right now, that’s the unfortunate reality.

“The forestry ministry has their own map,” Tony says. “The mining ministry has their own map. The agrarian office has their own map. And the local government has their own map.”

“One hundred percent people in this country, across backgrounds, across institutions, agree with the one map,” says Greenpeace’s Surya. “The question is, what is the one map?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. Though Joko promised to deliver to deliver a single map for all of Indonesia, it hasn’t materialized yet.

Amicable solutions

But even with a standardized map, Koni thinks further reform will be needed. He envisions a setting in which all stakeholders in land use disputes can work collaboratively.

“We need good communication and a forum where everyone could come and could be scrutinized by others,” he says, and where the results “would be positive for everyone.”

Koni believes the idea of conditional amnesty is crucial; disputes will be resolved if the admission of past transgressions doesn’t lead to lawsuits.

“If a company had a complaint from locals that they had grabbed their land and [planted] oil palms there, the solution could be that the company admits that they were wrong because the data at that time was wrong. The locals would say that they wouldn’t make a claim in court, but get to keep the palm oil,” he said.

His inspiration for such a forum comes from an unlikely place: post-apartheid South Africa.

“After apartheid came down in South Africa, they had a new system whereby the people can be pardoned if they give back the land,” he says.

Tony agrees with the sentiment.

“The best solution is amicable, not based on court decisions,” he says. “We’ve never brought any disputes to the court. The local communities have, but not on our side. It’s all been based on discussion and negotiation.”

But Surya maintains that such agreements shouldn’t leave out the justice system.

“Even if the company has already committed to shift their business to be green, it doesn’t give the privilege to be free from the law,” he says.

Whatever the future holds, Koni thinks Indonesia needs to act quickly.

“A year of two ago we didn’t have this kind of pledge. We didn’t have this kind of commitment from the private sector. If we don’t use this opportunity, we’ll lose it,” he says.

It’s a sentiment reflected by Surya. For him, the fight for a greener Indonesia continues.

“We have to keep moving. We only have Indonesia. They have money and international people. They only have their business here. But for me and for my generation, whatever Indonesia’s situation, I’ll stay here,” he says.

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The Earth's Evaporating Aquifers

Robinson Meyer The Atlantic Yahoo News 18 Jun 15;

Many—if not most—of the Earth’s aquifers are in trouble.

That’s the finding of a group of NASA scientists, who published their study of global groundwater this week in the journal Water Resources Research. Water levels in 21 of the world’s 37 largest known aquifers, they report, are trending negative.

The study is the first major accounting of groundwater change over time on the planetary scale. It was accomplished, not with wells or surveys, but with satellites.

Groundwater reserves are one of the environmental phenomena that’s hardest to conceptualize. Droughts are systemic and complex, sure, but a curious person can always go stand in a reservoir and see where the water is supposed to be. Dry lawns and fallow fields present another view on to what a drought is. But aquifers remain hidden, hard to measure, hard even to imagine: What does it mean that, beneath much of the United States, there are invisible seas full of drinkable freshwater? How can we think usefully about both their vastness and their finitude?

Already, 2 billion people worldwide rely on groundwater for daily use. That will have slosh over effects: A 2012 study reported that water from aquifers, moved to the surface by human activity like farming and mining, would constitute 25 percent of sea level rise before 2050, and possibly even more after that. Relocated groundwater, by that paper’s estimate, would be the third-most significant cause of sea level rise this century, after the melting ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland.

In the study released on Tuesday, researchers found that eight aquifers—particularly those in arid climates—were dangerously overstressed. Eleven major aquifers were “negatively recharging,” meaning people were pumping water out of them much faster than they were putting it in. “The water table is dropping all over the world,” Jay Famiglietti, a water researcher at NASA and one of the authors of the study, told The Washington Post. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”

This study notably only allowed scientists to measure how aquifers were changing, not how big they are. But its methods seem to offer significant improvements on previous techniques.

Earlier groundwater research occurred by a sort of census. Government or independent researchers collect data about how people are accessing an aquifier—how deep they’re drilling, how much water they’re pumping, and how quickly they’re extracting it. They then combine this figure with other calculations about the size and depth of the aquifier to arrive at an estimate of its health.

The satellites in the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment—nicknamed GRACE—works by a different method: It observes the mass of water beneath the ground. The two satellites in GRACE chase each other across orbit, measuring their distance from each other. When they pass over something with more gravity—like a continent—the front satellite accelerates away from its partner. By measuring these accelerations, scientists can measure and estimate the planet’s gravity and heaviest regions. They can then estimate the presence of large, massy agglomerations—such as the underwater seas that are aquifers—that can’t otherwise be observed.

The two GRACE satellites launched in 2002, and their own methods have improved over time. Last year, NASA researchers found they could better measure groundwater by comparing GRACE’s findings to irrigation records, rather than by estimating the amount of water in the soil from climate records.

GRACE’s findings sometimes differed wildly from those on the ground. The study’s authors say that the aquifer beneath California’s Central Valley is in better shape than statistics would indicate. The aquifer beneath Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, appears to be in considerably worse shape, losing water at least three times as quickly as statistics would estimate, the study says.

The sum of all these findings is that we’ll soon have to start treating and monitoring global groundwater with the same precision we track aboveground reservoirs. And last week, California took its first serious steps in that regard, issuing major regulations limiting how farmers could use water from the Central Valley aquifer. The mandate remains to treat groundwater—hard as it is to imagine—as the finite resource that it is.

Read The Earth's Evaporating Aquifers on

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