Best of our wild blogs: 31 Aug 17

The Singapore Eco Film Festival is Back! Aug 31 to Sept 3

Fun Rocks @ LKCNHM
News from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

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NParks disputes arborists’ diagnosis on tembusu tree in fatal incident

NParks disputes arborists’ diagnosis on tembusu tree in fatal incident
NG SIQI KELLY Today Online 31 Aug 17;

SINGAPORE — The Botanic Gardens tembusu tree that toppled and killed a woman in February was found to have a 1.5m long “cavity” during an inspection last September, but this was deemed a misdiagnosis, said a National Parks Board representative Wednesday (Aug 30).

At the Coroner’s Inquiry into Radhika Angara’s death, NParks deputy director Elango Velautham said a cavity in the tree trunk could suggest decay, which would mean an “intrusion into (the) structural integrity” of the tree. But on this count, the inspection report had “wrongly perceived” a natural protrusion called a flute to be a cavity, he said.

Marking a twist in the inquest, Mr Velautham’s testimony contrasted with what two independent arborists had testified last month.

According to him, the tree’s roots showed it was in good health. Its root collar was well-formed and expanded outwards to form buttress roots. There was nothing to suggest any weakness, said Mr Velautham, who specialises in arboriculture and conservation.

The independent arborists had said the tree, which was more than 270 years old, had decaying roots but no visible signs that warranted more intensive checks. They said the weather conditions before, and on the day of the incident, could also have contributed to the 40m tree toppling.

In the hearing in July, arborist Derek Yap had testified that about 70 per cent of the tree trunk at its 2m point (measured from ground level) was decayed. This could have affected the tree’s structural integrity, said the private consultant with environmental impact assessment firm Camphora.

After the “cavity” — which was 1.5m long, 0.2m deep and 0.3m wide — was identified, Mr Velautham said further checks determined it to be a “flute”, a natural protrusion and a form of protection for some trees. The inspection last September was the most recent before the fatal accident, and a report in September 2015 had not identified any defect, he said.

“A cavity of that length, depth and height could not have happened over a year,” he said.

Angara’s father, Mr Krishna Angara, was in court and questioned why the initial red flag had not warranted more sophisticated investigation using diagnostic tools, instead of “(getting) another certified arborist to say it is not a cavity”.

Lawyer Chelva Rajah, who is acting for the family, questioned the absence of documentary proof showing how the misdiagnosis was determined. The initial report had identified what appeared to be a serious defect in the tree, he noted.

In response, Mr Velautham said NParks arborists had written an “internal statement” after following up on the September 2016 report. They noted the flute was “wrongly perceived” as a cavity. But the document was not produced in court Wednesday.

The court also heard that “trees of interest” such as the tembusu tree are inspected twice a year, double what international standards require. Such trees include large trees, trees in carparks and by the road, and those in areas “highly frequented” by people.

Angara, a regional digital marketing head for Asia-Pacific at MasterCard, was at an outdoor concert near the gardens’ Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage on Feb 11 when the tree toppled. The 38-year-old Indian national died from traumatic asphyxia with broken ribs at 5.17pm that day, about an hour after the tree fell on her. Her French husband Jerome Rouch-Sirech and their one-year-old twins were also injured.

Mr Rouch-Sirech and Angara’s parents and sister were in court Wednesday. The inquiry will continue on Sept 21.

Tembusu tree accident: Botanic Gardens official says there was 'no decay, no cavity'
Vanessa Paige Chelvan Channel NewsAsia 30 Aug 17;

SINGAPORE: The Tembusu tree that uprooted in February, killing one, had passed its last inspection in September 2016, though an arborist had raised concerns the 40m tall, 270-year-old tree might have a cavity.

But a second inspection by the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ deputy director Elango Velautham and his team of arborists assessed the suspected cavity to be a flute, an inquiry into the death of 38-year-old Radhika Angara was told. Ms Angara was pinned under the heritage tree when it toppled on Feb 11.

She was with her French husband and their one-year-old twins at the gardens near the Shaw Foundation Symphony stage to attend an outdoor concert when the accident happened. Ms Angara was killed when the tree fell on her, while four others, including her husband and children, were injured.

There was “no decay, no cavity”, Mr Velautham said on Wednesday (Aug 30). An inspection after the Tembusu had fallen confirmed that the suspected cavity was, in fact, a flute 1.5m in length, 0.2m deep and with a width of 0.3m, the inquiry heard.

He described a flute to be a “protruding structure” on a tree’s trunk formed in response to “environmental exertions” to the tree.

However, two independent arborists who testified before the inquiry last month agreed that the tree’s roots were in decay, though there were no visible signs that warranted more intensive checks. They also said weather conditions in the days before could have contributed to the toppling of the tree.

The Tembusu is “a very slow growing tree”, Mr Velautham said, and any decay would “take a very long time to … destabilise a tree”. Tembusu wood is tough and durable, and this tree in particular had outlasted two World Wars. The structural integrity of the tree could not have been compromised in the short time since its last inspection, Mr Velautham said.

The Tembusu tree in question was inspected twice a year, as are other large heritage trees, trees in carparks, and trees in areas where “the occupancy rate is high”, he said. The fact that the tree was over 200 years old did not make it “high risk” or affect the inspection schedule, the inquiry heard.

Inspections are “age independent”, and carried out “based on the assumption that all trees, big and small, pose risk”, he added.

The inquiry will resume at a later date, giving Mr Velautham time to produce certain inspection records at the request of Mr Chelva Retnam Rajah, who is representing Ms Angara’s family.
Source: CNA/jp

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Malaysia’s Forest City and the Damage Done

Sylvain Ourbis and Albert Shaw The Diplomat 30 Aug 17;

It’s a Sunday in Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia, and crowds of locals and foreigners are out for a good time in the sun. On the beach among the lounge chairs, young couples walk hand in hand, smartphone at the ready to immortalize the day with countless selfies.

Around the manicured lawns, oversized statues of crabs and sea lions are a hit with the kids; parents and grandparents are all here to witness such precious moments. In the distance, just across the narrow Tebrau Strait is Singapore.

This could be just like any other Sunday on one of the many beaches Johor is blessed with, save for two things: this long, landscaped stretch of sand didn’t exist a year ago, and it is part of the controversial, China-funded real estate project of Forest City.

Launched in 2014, the US$100 billion development is conducted by Country Garden Pacific View Sdn Bhd (BGPV), a joint venture between Guangdong-based, Hong Kong-listed Country Garden Group and local partner Esplanade Danga 88 Sdn Bhd, a company partially owned by Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor. It is one of many other projects underway in the Iskandar economic region, but by far the most ambitious.

Forest City is still at an early stage of development and reclamation work is currently ongoing. Four artificial islands will soon rise up from the waters of the Tebrau Strait, covering a total surface of 14 square kilometers and bringing Malaysia’s shoreline ever closer to Singapore.

On those islands one of the first so-called “eco-smart cities of the future” is expected to sprout, with an ambitious projection of 700,000 residents expected by 2050. A massive, futuristic sales complex was swiftly built to welcome potential investors and guide them around a scale model draped in green plastic and dotted with fancy mock-up apartments.

At the start of this year, a five-star hotel, Phoenix — part of a Country Garden-owned chain — opened its doors to accommodate overnight visitors who would want to prolong their stay on what is still, technically, a construction site, with as many as 20 cranes looming nearby.

Talking with some of the locals on the beach, we sense a deep feeling of excitement and no small amount of pride. “It is good for Johor,” Liza, 21, tells us. She and her family have come all the way from Johor Bahru, Johor’s main city, 35 km away. “The project looks so amazing. I hope it brings many jobs and many foreigners here.” Her parents and siblings smile and nod all together.

Forest City has been advertised as Johor’s bright new star, the ultimate environment-friendly escape just minutes away from Singapore. The way to go for the much-publicized Iskandar economic region to claim its rightful place among the world’s most avant garde metropolises.

However, the project has also garnered a lot of media attention of late due to its seemingly heavy reliance on mainland Chinese buyers to acquire its myriad apartments. Stricter rules on individual foreign exchange and currency use instituted by Beijing earlier this year could deter investors from getting ahold of property in Forest City. The starting price for a smallish, two-room apartment is set at around US$170,000, a price most Malaysians are unable to afford.

Beyond the economic conundrum that lies ahead, it is worth pondering what impact on the local environment this megaproject will have, and already has. Twenty square kilometers in its ongoing first phase – most of it reclaimed, like the aforementioned four man-made islands – another 10 sq km in its second phase, 700,000 people by 2050: it all seems surreal, especially for a place where the most common sight today, and for the past few centuries, is of quaint fishermen’s enclaves and small jetties secluded among the mangroves. Once Forest City will have sprouted up and Iskandar reached its maturity, where will all this have gone to?

Academic observers and local environmentalists have expressed concerns about the way things are run in Forest City. According to some, the frantic pace of construction maintained so far by CGPV and its contractors could have dire consequences on the local ecosystems if left unsupervised.

“We have a potential time bomb on our hands,” warns one close observer who declined to be named. “There are ways to mitigate what has already been done and to reduce the impact of what is still to come, but you need people with credible expertise at the helm.”

It is public knowledge that earthworks for Forest City’s four artificial islands got underway in 2014 without a legally required Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA). Though a small number of the local community members were approached to fill in questionnaires at the time, many were mostly left in the dark about the start of reclamation work.

So was Singapore. It was only when the city-state voiced its concerns to the Malaysian government about the potential effects of the reclamation works that action was taken: CGPV had to temporarily backtrack and provide a DEIA, more or less in order.

Directly affected by the ongoing reclamation works is the Tanjung Kupang intertidal seagrass meadow, the largest of its kind in Malaysia. Lying just two hundred meters away from Forest City’s landscaped beach, it covers a total area of 36 square kilometers and now has to accommodate an increasingly invasive neighbor.

Experts agree that seagrass meadows are essential indicators of a shoreline’s health. When protected, they can contain some of the most diverse marine wildlife, but they are also extremely fragile ecosystems put through tremendous pressure by waterfront developments such as Forest City.

For its reclamation works, CGPV has extended a long causeway into the sea; that reclaimed causeway is now cutting across the seagrass meadow, potentially altering currents and threatening the ecosystem’s rich biodiversity.

Changes have already been felt by the local fishing community. Among those affected are Aminah and her fellow gleaners from Kampung Tanjung Kupang. Every morning at low tide, they can be seen prodding the seagrass as they tread across the shoals. They are usually able to pick up all sorts of seashells, crabs and other small molluscs that will complement their families’ meager meals. “But we find less seafood now than before,” Aminah tells us. “I used to be able to fill my bucket with conch shells and crabs, but with the causeway, I have to settle for less before the tide comes up.”

Other fishermen have complained of reduced catches and growing petrol costs due to the extra mileage incurred by the causeway and more distant fishing grounds. Following these complaints and short-lived reports from independent local media, CGPV admitted — during a community stakeholder meeting — having no knowledge of the local biodiversity when reclamation kicked off. CGPV has since revised the mapping of its reclaimed islands.

To a certain extent, the company also tries to engage with grassroots organizations, distributing compensation money to affected families and pledging its attachment to the local environment. Some reliable sources have noted, however, that compensations rarely reach those directly affected, and they fear CGPV’s damage-control actions are just a smokescreen preventing any future communication mishaps about Forest City.

To an outsider, it would seem clear that a certain atmosphere of omerta surrounds the whole Forest City project. As it is financially backed by the Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor – a well-respected, charismatic figure protected by strict laws on lèse-majesté – some villagers facing resettlement and a loss of their livelihood feel ill-at-ease in expressing their discontent. Others try to take advantage of the reclamation works by selling off sand from their own village to unscrupulous contractors, disfiguring local landscapes in the process.

“The fact that the sultan is involved financially in Forest City through a number of businesses, including sand extraction in the bay of Tanjung Ramunia, is widely known among villagers. Some of them might feel like, if the sultan is allowed to make money out of all this, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to do it too?” says a source close to the local communities.

As advertised by CGPV, it was the sultan himself who envisioned the megaproject as part of “a balanced development where the people of Johor will benefit.” The positive trickle-down effect the monarch is expecting could effectively happen, though it would take decades and the price to pay in the meantime seems like a hefty one for the local ecosystems and population.

Adjacent to Forest City – and deeply affected by its second phase extension announced in June this year – lies the Pulai River Mangrove Forest Reserve, the largest riverine mangrove system in Johor. In 2003 some 9,126 hectares of the Pulai River mangroves were designated as a Ramsar site. The Ramsar Convention, which Malaysia joined in 1995, exhorts its contracting parties to protect their wetlands deemed of international importance. However, it holds no coercive or punitive power over adherents contravening their engagements.

The Pulai River mangroves are especially important to Johor and, by extension, to Malaysia. Besides bringing socioeconomic balance to nearby fishing communities, they also fulfill essential ecosystem functions such as shoreline protection and flood prevention. However, as one academic observer points out, “the mangroves in Iskandar are now fast becoming part of the urban space. As the urbanization extends, even Ramsar sites like the Pulai River Reserve have become trapped in some sort of shifting jurisdictional limbo.”

Declassification of gazetted land for private purposes is becoming common news among the affected village communities in the area. Just north of the port of Tanjung Pelepas – Malaysia’s biggest port, which has been testing the resilience of the mangroves since its inception 20 years ago – an international building system (IBS) facility for the Forest City project, covering about 160 hectares and churning out prefabricated panels for its expanding building site, was raised directly on now former Ramsar wetlands.

Of the three upcoming golf courses promised to Forest City investors, the ground-breaking ceremony of the one designed by ex-pro Jack Nicklaus was held late June right at the heart of the Ramsar reserve, near Kampung Simpang Arang. A long two-lane access track has already been built, ripping through wide expanses of mangrove and leading to a vast no-man’s-land filled with pile drivers. The golf course is expected to be completed in late 2018.

Kampung Simpang Arang, a settlement of once-nomadic, indigenous Orang Seletar, looks bound to be relocated in the years to come, along with other nearby villages. Much less likely to find new locations are the artisanal charcoal kilns which provide villagers with a small but much-needed income. “I’ve been cutting and burning wood my whole life,” says Ibrahim, a seasoned artisan at one of the last standing charcoal factories.

“Our village is now surrounded by building projects. I don’t see the factories last much longer, especially now that they are pulling down the mangroves. Where will we get our wood from?” Standing in front of his traditional earth kilns, Ibrahim already looks like he belongs to another era, one that is bound to be buried under layers of concrete.

Also likely to be deeply affected are a number of plant and animal species, some of them already threatened, which call the mangroves home. When reached, the Ramsar Secretariat, based in Gland, Switzerland, declared it had been “informed of encroachments on Johor’s protected wetlands” and was “already working with the involved parties in order to minimize any further impact” suffered by these areas.

Like Beijing’s recent regulations on capital outflows, all this looks to be just another small pebble in CGPV’s shoe. Positive thinking remains the order of the day in Forest City and, as the well-rehearsed sales pitch goes, “The Sultan of Johor is a shareholder in this project, and you can rest assured: when the Sultan wants something done, he gets it done.”

“Projects such as Forest City are an aberration in light of the Paris agreement on climate change,” says one expert and close observer who declined to be named. “CGPV says they have it all covered: the rise of water levels, the increased emissions of carbon dioxide due to the increase in traffic, etc. But how do you counter all those effects once you have destroyed huge swaths of the one ecosystem that can help you mitigate them, and displaced its original people? Trees on balconies won’t help with shoreline erosion. Migratory birds won’t stop on your golf courses.”

For villagers like Aminah who live in fear of losing their livelihood and being forced to leave their ancestral homes, it all seems too tough a battle to wage. Realizing that change has become unavoidable, however, some proactive members of the community are now stepping up and taking initiatives in order to develop alternative sources of income. Simple aquaculture endeavors and a nascent ecotourism industry will help alleviate their burden if not in the long run, at least temporarily. Not unlike the fireflies flickering in the mangrove, hope might sometimes seem elusive – but it is there, glowing in the dark.

The authors of this piece are publishing under pseudonyms due to the sensitivities surrounding this topic.

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Malaysia: Dead green turtle found covered in oil slick in Pulau Tioman

MEI MEI CHU and ANDREW SIA The Star 30 Aug 17;

PETALING JAYA: A dead juvenile turtle was found in Pulau Tioman covered in oil suspected to be from the collision between a U.S. warship and a merchant vessel in the waters off Johor.

Reef Check Malaysia Programme manager Alvin Chelliah said the green turtle that washed ashore on Tuesday at Kampung Air Batang was completely covered in oil and is believed to have suffocated.

"It had been floating dead in the open sea in the oil slick," said Alvin, adding that the oil slicks were washed ashore as the island has been experiencing strong winds from the south west.

He said this was the third oil spill affecting Pulau Tioman this year.

Large patches of black oil were seen on the beach and tar balls - semi-solid clumps of oil - were seen drifting towards the island.

"We suspect the tar balls came from the ships," Alvin said.

Reef Check is currently with officials from the Department of Environment, Pahang Marine Park Department, Tioman Development Authority and the insurance companies representing the sunken ships collecting samples of the oil for verification.

In April, a group of divers on an excursion were covered in oil as they came in contact with tar balls while surfacing from a dive.

"We need to do something quickly to solve this recurring issue, especially the tar balls as they are found every year," Alvin said, adding that it was pertinent to identify the source of the oil.

Oil slicks had also affected other islands in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, posing a danger to corals and other marine life.

In May, it was reported that oil dumped off the waters of Pulau Redang covered some 300 meters of shoreline with a layer of thick, black oil.

Sea turtle dies in oil slick believed to be from ship collision
The Star 31 Aug 17;

KUANTAN: A sea turtle has died after being enveloped by an oil spill off Pulau Tioman, said Reef Check Malaysia programme manager Alvin Chelliah.

He said he was sent a photograph of the dead turtle covered in oil and was told that residents in the affected area have buried the carcass.

The spill was spotted near Pulau Tulai and Kampung Air Batang on Tuesday, he said.

“I suspect it is from the collision between an oil tanker and a US Navy destroyer off Johor recently.

“Strong winds and currents may have pushed the slick towards Pulau Tioman. We have informed the authorities and they will make a verification,” Alvin said.

The incident comes after the appearance of tar balls near the popular dive spot early last month.

“The tar balls were semi-solid and we could pick them up easily,” he said, adding that the oil slick posed a bigger problem.

State Environment Department director Rosli Zul has sent officers to investigate the incident while Pahang Fisheries Department director Datuk Adnan Hussain said it was gathering more information on the death of the turtle.

“Based on our records, there has not been any turtle deaths due to an oil spill since 2010,” said Adnan.

He said the turtle in the photograph appears to be about seven or eight years old but could not identify its species.

About 98% of those in Pahang waters are green sea turtles while the rest are the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles, he added.

On Aug 21, the USS John S. McCain collided with Liberian-registered Alnic MC; 10 US sailors were killed in the incident.

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Thailand: Dugong carcass sent for autopsy to know cause of death

Achara Wisetsri The Nation 30 Aug 17;

The carcass of a female dugong that weighed 200 kilograms has been sent for autopsy to determine the cause of its death, Eastern Gulf Fisheries Research and Development Centre (Rayong) veterinarian Weerapong Laowetprasit said on Wednesday.

The carcass was found floating in the sea near Koh Samet, about five nautical miles off the Muang Rayong coast, on Tuesday afternoon. The three-metre-long dugong had a wound in the abdomen area and was suspected to have died less than seven days before the discovery of the carcass.

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Floods paralyse Mumbai as India and region are hit by heaviest rains in years

More than 1,200 people have been killed in India, Nepal and Bangladesh and millions forced from their homes
Haroon Siddique and agencies The Guardian 30 Aug 17;

Heavy monsoon rains have brought Mumbai to a halt for a second day as the worst floods to strike south Asia in years continued to exact a deadly toll.

More than 1,200 people have died across India, Bangladesh and Nepal as a result of flooding. At least six people, including two toddlers, were among the victims in and around India’s financial capital.

On Wednesday, police said a 45-year-old woman and a one-year-old child, members of the same family, had died after their home in the north-eastern suburb of Vikhroli crumbled late on Tuesday, and a two-year-old girl had died in a wall collapse.

They said another three people had died after being swept away in the neighbouring city of Thane.

The rains have led to flooding in a broad arc stretching across the Himalayan foothills in Bangladesh, Nepal and India, causing landslides, damaging roads and electric towers and washing away tens of thousands of homes and vast swaths of farmland.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says the fourth significant floods this year have affected more than 7.4 million people in Bangladesh, damaging or destroying more than 697,000 houses.

They have killed 514 in India’s eastern state of Bihar, where 17.1 million have been affected, disaster management officials have been quoted as saying. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, about 2.5 million have been affected and the death toll stood at 109 on Tuesday, according to the Straits Times. The IFRC said landslides in Nepal had killed more than 100 people.

The IFRC – working with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and the Nepal Red Cross – has launched appeals to support almost 200,000 vulnerable people with immediate relief and long-term help with water and sanitation, health and shelter.

Streets in Mumbai have turned into rivers and people waded through waist-deep waters. On Tuesday, the city received about 12.7cm (5ins) of rain, paralysing public transport and leaving thousands of commuters stranded in their offices overnight.

Poor visibility and flooding also forced airport authorities to divert some flights while most were delayed by up to an hour.

The National Disaster Response Force has launched a rescue mission with police to evacuate people from low-lying areas but operations were thwarted by the continuous rain.

“The heavy rains, flooding, are delaying our rescue work. Even we are stranded,” said Amitesh Kumar, the joint police commissioner in Mumbai.

Images and video posted on social media showed the extent of the flooding.

Rainwater swamped the King Edward Memorial hospital in central Mumbai, forcing doctors to vacate the paediatric ward.

“We are worried about infections … the rain water is circulating rubbish that is now entering parts of the emergency ward,” said Ashutosh Desai, a doctor in the 1,800-bed hospital.

Although Mumbai is trying to build itself into a global financial hub, parts of the city struggle to cope during annual monsoon rains.

Floods in 2005 killed more than 500 people in the city. The majority of deaths occurred in shanty town slums, home to more than half of Mumbai’s population.

The meteorological department warned that the rains would continue for the next 24 hours.

Unabated construction on flood plains and coastal areas, as well as storm-water drains and waterways clogged by plastic garbage, have made the city increasingly vulnerable to storms.

Snehal Tagade, a senior official in Mumbai’s disaster management unit, said 150 teams were being deployed to help the population in low-lying residential areas.

Low-lying parts of the city with a population of more than 20 million people experience flooding almost every year but large-scale flooding of this magnitude has not been seen in recent years.

“We are mapping all the flooding zones to launch a project to build emergency shelters to make evacuation easy,” said Tagade.

Many businesses asked employees to leave early in expectation of worsening traffic jams. Rains and a high tide in the western coastal city threaten to overload an ageing drainage system.

Several companies have arranged for food and resting facilities for employees stuck in offices. Temples and other Ganesh pandals have been offering food and water to people stranded on streets.

People on social media have been offering help to strangers who have been stuck at various locations.

The education minister has asked all schools and colleges in the city to remain shut on Wednesday.

The flooding led to some power outages in parts of the city and the municipal corporation warned of more such cuts if water levels continued to rise.

A spokeswoman for Mumbai international airport said flights in and out of the airport, India’s second busiest, were delayed while some had had to be diverted.

Severe Flooding in South Asia Has Caused More Than 1,200 Deaths This Summer
Kevin Lui Time 30 Aug 17;

Severe flooding across South Asia has caused at least 1,200 deaths this summer, aid workers say, with huge swaths of the region still inundated as monsoon rains continue.

The death toll continues to rise amid concerns that disease and food insecurity could claim even more lives, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Most recorded deaths were in India, but many also died in neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal.

A spokesperson for the IFRC tells TIME that nearly a million houses have been damaged or destroyed in the three most affected countries. The U.N. estimates that more than 41 million people have been affected by the downpour. The monsoon season typically lasts from June to September.

Poor areas of Nepal have been particularly hard-hit; more than 210,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed by floods or landslides, and 143 people have died. In Bangladesh, roughly 8.6 million were affected, 142 died and enormous areas of farmland suffered damage, the IFRC said.

About a third of the country has been submerged by this year’s rains, according to the New York Times.

In India, the flooding has affected more than 30 million people, while the financial capital Mumbai is reportedly paralyzed by the waters. The Times reports that schools were shut Tuesday and transportation ground to a near standstill.

IFRC spokesperson Antony Balmain tells TIME that the flooding has heightened the risk of diarrhea, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and other diseases.

Monsoon season regularly ravishes the Indian subcontinent. In 2014, hundreds died when the coastal Indian city of Chennai saw its heaviest rains in a century. This summer has brought more rain to Mumbai than any other year since 2005, the Times reports, when it was devastated by downpour that killed more than 1,000 people across the state of Maharashtra.

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Satellite photos reveal how Mumbai killed its rivers and mangrove forests to risk epic floods

Devjyot Ghoshal Quartz India 30 Aug 17;

It’s almost a ritual: At least on one day every year, the heavens above Mumbai open up, and the metropolis of some 20 million below is inundated.

The resultant outrage, inconvenience, and suffering are something of a tradition, with successive governments getting pilloried for their lack of preparedness despite the regularity with which the monsoon paralyses India’s financial capital. Some things never change.

The latest act was on Aug. 29, when Mumbai ground to a near-complete halt once again after parts of the city received 298 mm of rain within a nine-hour period. Five people have died so far, and more rain is expected.

The city’s inability to weather such downpours is a result of a combination of the failure to improve its drainage system and the unbridled development that has stymied the region’s natural capacity to absorb heavy rainfall.

The latter, in particular, has mostly been overlooked. As journalist Darryl D’Monte noted in
Mumbai’s major nullahs form a vein-like network that can extend for an astounding 300 km. These could have functioned effectively to drain water out of the city. But this is a natural legacy that the city authorities have abused, with the reckless sanctioning of building after building, in brazen collusion with builders and venal bureaucrats. By indiscriminately dumping waste in open drains, citizens have also contributed to choking them.

To better understand the impact of the decades of haphazard development, Quartz pulled out some satellite maps of Mumbai from 1988 and 2017:

Mumbai is essentially a peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea. Since the 1980s, when a little over eight million called it home, the city’s population has more than doubled. That’s led to rapid urbanisation of the surrounding areas, as well as encroachment of the mangroves on the city’s edges.

A close examination of mangroves around the Thane (the finger of water on the right) and Malad creeks (the green patch on the left) reveal how the city has expanded. Mangrove forests, found at the intersection of land and sea, are natural and vital flood barriers, especially as storms become more erratic and severe due to climate change.

More proof of their destruction is available further north of Mumbai, where the area around the Manori creek (on the left) has been massively encroached upon. Mangroves at the mouth of the Desai Khadi river (bottom, right), too, have met with a similar fate, with areas being extensively built upon in the last 30 years.

Then, there’s the Mithi river, the thread of blue at the centre of the image, right under the X-shaped runways of the Mumbai airport. It originates in the hills around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and travels nearly 18 kilometres to drain into the sea. Mithi is Mumbai’s natural storm drain, particularly during heavy rains. Over the years, though, it has become a veritable sewer, choked with domestic and industrial waste. The wetlands along the river (immediately south of the airport), too, have disappeared since the late 1980s.

It’s a story of maximum destruction in the Maximum City.

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Jackie Chan joins fight to save endangered pangolin

BBC 30 Aug 17;

Martial arts superstar Jackie Chan is taking part in a campaign against consuming endangered pangolins, as Malaysia takes steps to ban the hunting of the animal.

The Rush Hour star appears in a video where he trains a trio of pangolins to use kung fu to defend themselves, while urging viewers against eating pangolin meat or using their scales for traditional medicine, Taiwan News reports.

The "Kung Fu Pangolin" campaign, headed by the WildAid organisation, will also appear on billboards in China and Vietnam, the two largest pangolin consuming nations in the Asia region.

Pointing out how previous campaigns against shark fins and rhino horn have been successful, WildAid chief Peter Knights had high hopes for the pangolin campaign. "Jackie reaches a vast audience across Asia and there are clear signs these campaigns have had an impact and attitudes are changing," he said.

Crackdown on poaching

The new campaign arrives as one Malaysian state takes urgent moves to outlaw the hunting of the animal.
The government of Sabah, on the northern part of Borneo, is to rush through moves to make pangolins a "totally protected" species, The Malay Mail newspaper says.

Once approved by the state's Cabinet, hunting the animal will carry a mandatory prison sentence of up to five years. Last month, officials seized eight tonnes of pangolin scales at a port in Sabah.

The move comes after warnings that continued poaching poses an existential threat not only to pangolins, but to the biodiversity of the region, the Clean Malaysia environmental news website says.

"If these illegal hunting activities are not checked, the population of the protected and endangered wildlife species in the state will shrink in no time," Rahimatsah Amat of the Sabah Environmental Trust said.

Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, and over a million have been poached from the wild in the last ten years, WildAid says. The meat is considered a delicacy, while the scales are thought to have properties in traditional Chinese medicine.

When attacked, the animals roll into a ball and use their scales for defence. While this might be fine against natural predators, it makes it easy for poachers to catch these shy, nocturnal animals.

Reporting by Alistair Coleman

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Murky data on water pollution puts health at risk in Asia - researchers

Thin Lei Win Reuters 30 Aug 17;

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Mongolia, herders living outside the capital Ulaanbaatar, near the Tuul River, fear deteriorating water quality is making their livestock sick.

In Indonesia, shrimp farmers in Serang who rely on the Ciujung River have seen their catches fall, and some have developed skin problems.

In south-central Thailand, villagers near the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, home to petrochemical plants, oil refineries and coal-fired power stations, worry that their water is heavily polluted.

Concerned about their health, these communities sought clarification and information from their governments about pollutants being released into the environment, overall water quality, the risks of using such water, and information on the companies thought to be responsible.

In each case, they were thwarted, despite their countries having extensive legislation on citizens’ right to information, including environmental data, said a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a U.S.-based think tank.

Villagers faced obstacles - from having to pay to access documents, to lacking an internet connection for online information, and needing to understand and use freedom of information laws, the report said.

Sometimes, the data was unavailable publicly or presented in a language communities could not understand.

When information was released, it was often poor, technical and did not meet local people’s demands, said the report issued on Wednesday.

“Access to information is really the foundation for any kind of meaningful public participation or accountability in environmental decision-making,” Elizabeth Moses, the report’s co-author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Thailand and Mongolia, people who request information are asked to come to the environment ministry to pick it up, even though some live hours away and do not have the money or time to travel, added the WRI specialist in water governance.

Thai agencies may also refuse to release environmental information that is classified as secret.

As a result, millions of people in Indonesia, Mongolia and Thailand could be drinking unsafe water with long-term repercussions for their health and livelihoods, Moses said.

These problems reflect the struggles experienced by rural communities across the developing world who want information regarding clean water, she added.


Globally, over 80 percent of all wastewater is discharged without treatment and contaminated water is a root cause of death, disease and disability, particularly in developing countries, according to the United Nations.

“For the world’s poorest people, access to clean water means fewer outbreaks of deadly diseases, less time spent away from the classroom by children collecting water, and greater economic opportunities for women,” said the WRI report.

Pollution also hampers economic progress. Inaction to tackle air and water pollution costs some countries the equivalent of 4 percent of GDP or more a year, the World Bank has said.

While all three countries the WRI report focuses on have comprehensive laws to disclose information, many do not indicate how information is to be made available or comprehensible to affected communities, the report said.

The Indonesian and Thai environment ministries did not respond to Thomson Reuters Foundation requests for comment.

Erdenebulgan Luvsandorj, director of the water resources division at Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, said anyone who wished to obtain water pollution data from the ministry or its laboratory was free to do so.

The ministry will soon seek parliamentary approval for amendments to tighten up implementation of a 2012 law on fees for water pollution, he added. Local media say regulation has been too vague to effectively punish polluters.

The WRI report urged the three governments to set up national systems to collect and publish environmental information.

“Until local communities have the ability and the means to access the information they need, then these lofty goals around transparency are really not being fulfilled,” said Moses.

There have been some improvements, she noted.

For example, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry adopted a regulation in 2015 to expand the number of environmental documents it would proactively disclose, but it has yet to be fully implemented, she said.

Reporting by Thin Lei Win, Editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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