Best of our wild blogs: 17 Jan 18

Tips on being a responsible traveller
The Dorsal Effect

Mudskippers - Masters of the Mudflats!
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

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Dip in population density, but not in crowded feeling

Stagnation after rising for over a decade due to slower population growth and increase in land area
Joanna Seow Straits Times 16 Jan 18;

As Singapore's population growth slowed and the island increased in physical size, population density stagnated last year for the first time in more than a decade.

But though the objective measure says one thing, observers said the figures may not translate into people feeling spaces are less crowded - at least not immediately.

Population density rose between 1 per cent and 4.5 per cent annually from 2007 to 2016. But it fell slightly last year, official data shows. The average number of people per square kilometre dipped from 7,797 in 2016 to 7,796 last year.

As density is total population divided by land area, experts pointed to the recent slowdown in population growth as the main reason for the change.

"This is the result of a conscious decision by the Government to limit the number of new immigrants," said population expert and National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Jean Yeung.

Last year saw the first drop since 2003 in the number of foreigners living here. The non-resident population fell to 1.65 million, from 1.67 million in 2016. Residents - comprising Singaporeans and permanent residents - still grew, so all in all, total population increased by 0.1 per cent over the previous year.

Meanwhile, reclamation has boosted the island's size over the years. Singapore's land area grew to 719.9 sq km last year, up from 719.2 sq km the year before. A decade ago, the island's size was 700 sq km.

The stagnation in population density is likely to be a short-term phenomenon, said Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Leong Chan-Hoong. He noted that it may rise again after a few years as foreign manpower will likely be needed to supplement workers in critical service industries like healthcare as the population ages.

Among economies and countries, Singapore ranks third in density, according to the World Bank - behind Macau (20,204 people per sq km) and Monaco (19,250).

Among cities studied in a report by the Singapore think-tank Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore ranks second, after Dhaka (13,547). Hong Kong (6,553) and London (5,210) are other dense cities in that report, while Berlin (192) and Nairobi (208) occupy the other end of the spectrum.

But experts pointed out that the population density measure does not fully capture the lived experience of crowdedness in a city.

Total land area may include uninhabitable areas such as hills. Also, people's experience depends on how infrastructure and other resources are managed.

"People may still feel it is equally dense or more dense because they may be spending a big part of their time in their workplace in the central business district (CBD) or industrial areas, which feel crowded," said Dr Leong, noting how density may feel different depending on which area one is in - at home, at work or in other parts of the city.

Associate Professor Pow Choon-Piew of the NUS geography department noted that many other cities with high population density - some higher than Singapore - are located within a larger country. This means people choose to live in those cities despite the density, for the sake of other benefits.

In Singapore, however, residents cannot move out of the city if they want to get away from the crowd, he said, adding: "While the statistics may show stagnation or marginal drop, people don't feel it on the ground, especially during peak hours, when crowds congregate in train stations or on the streets."

Other indicators like green space per capita or living space per household could better reflect the sensation of crowdedness, he said.

Over the years, the Government has made moves to ease the condition. Prof Pow said this includes building parks and sky gardens in neighbourhoods and reducing golf courses to free up space. Dr Leong said that moving work hubs further out of the CBD and increasing access to MRT stations are steps in the right direction.

Another suggestion made by veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon, an adjunct professor at NUS, is to redesign the country into many "modular cities".

The idea is to build cities of 1 sq km to house 100,000 people each, with 70 such units lining the island's circumference and the centre reserved for a forested catchment area. This ensures most of the island will be green space.

Buildings would see various functions stacked atop each other, with traffic flowing underground. Within each module, Mr Tay envisions schools, entertainment, businesses and community areas all connected along a central pathway so that more people can interact daily.

"The urban areas are surrounded by a ring of farms where people can go out to take a break, and the vibrancy of each module compensates for the density," he said.

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Singapore, Malaysia to conduct joint study of Johor River to conserve Linggiu Reservoir stock

Channel NewsAsia 16 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE: Ministers and officials from both sides of the Causeway are working closely to ensure sufficient water supply from the Johor River for Malaysia and Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Jan 16).

Speaking at a joint press conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak for the eighth Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat, Mr Lee said that as Iskandar Malaysia and Johor grow, water demand will increase.

To this end, Mr Lee said the countries must implement further schemes to increase the yield of the river and the resilience of Linggiu Reservoir.

These schemes include conducting a joint hydrometric modelling study of Johor River to examine measures to conserve Linggiu Reservoir stock, he added.

Mr Lee said while Linggiu Reservoir has gradually filled up over the last year from good rainfall, and with a barrage at Kota Tinggi, “we do not know when the next prolonged dry spell will hit”. The reservoir was in the spotlight in 2016, when water levels there dropped to a historic low of 20 per cent in October that year.

Mr Najib also said on Tuesday that the management of water is "very critical not only for Singapore but also Johor".

"The demand for water in Johor will increase very very significantly, exponentially, because of Iskandar and because of rapid development in both Johor and Singapore," he said.

Echoing Mr Lee's comments, Mr Najib said: "We will commission a more detailed hydrometric study to come up with some technical proposals which we are confident will be able to increase the water supply for both Singapore and for Johor."
The leaders reaffirmed the importance of undertaking the necessary measures to ensure reliable and adequate water supply from the Johor River as provided for in the 1962 Water Agreement.

The water level at Linggiu Reservoir directly affects the amount of water Singapore can draw from the Johor River. Under the 1962 agreement which lasts until 2061, Singapore has full and exclusive right to draw up to 250 million gallons of water daily from the Johor River at the price of 3 sen per 1,000 gallons.

Source: CNA/kk/dl

Hydrometric modelling study in the works to raise yield of Johor River: PM Lee, Najib
KENNETH CHENG Today Online 17 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE — Singapore and Malaysia will carry out a hydrometric modelling study of the Johor River, with the aim of increasing its yield and conserving supply in the Linggiu Reservoir.

The Linggiu Reservoir discharges water into the Johor River to supplement its flow, and allows Singapore to reliably draw water from the Malaysian city.

To ease traffic congestion at the Causeway, the two countries are also exploring a review of the tolls at the Second Link to make it more attractive to users, at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's suggestion.

These were among the matters discussed between Mr Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak, who is in Singapore to attend the eighth Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat.

Mr Lee noted that water demand in Johor will increase as the Iskandar Malaysia development and Johor grow.

"Although Linggiu Reservoir has gradually filled up over the last year, with good rainfall, and with a barrage at Kota Tinggi, we do not know when the next prolonged dry spell will hit," he said at a media conference with Mr Najib on Tuesday (Jan 16). "So we must implement further schemes to increase the yield of the river and the resilience of Linggiu Reservoir."

The Linggiu Reservoir is currently 63 per cent full, a spokesperson from Singapore's Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) told TODAY.

"Good" rainfall and the newly-commissioned Johor River Barrage, which began operations in August 2016, helped the Linggiu Reservoir stock to recover from a historic low of 20 per cent in October 2016 to its current level, he said.

"This has taken over a year and it will take continued good rainfall over time for the Linggiu Reservoir stock to reach healthy levels," said the spokesperson.

Hydrometric studies capture in-depth data such as water quality and flow patterns. These are then used for better planning and design of water resource projects, including reservoirs, distribution systems and irrigation networks.

Water supply, said Mr Najib, is just as critical for Johor, where water demand will rise exponentially because of rapid development and the Iskandar Malaysia project.

"There's a need for us to look into it and we'll commission a more detailed hydrometric study and come up with some technical proposals, which we are confident will increase the water supply both for Singapore and for Johor," he said.

The outcomes and recommendations of the study, which is funded by Malaysia, will be presented to a technical committee of Malaysia's Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water and Singapore's MEWR, the two Prime Ministers said in a statement later in the day.

On the congestion at the Causeway, Mr Najib noted that there are more than 300,000 crossings every day between Singapore and Johor. Congestion is particularly serious during peak hours, school holidays and festive occasions, with the wait dragging out for three or four hours at times.

There is a need for the two countries to find ways to achieve "more seamless connectivity", said the Malaysian premier.

Other topics the two Prime Ministers discussed include the challenges relating to the management of and flow of ships into both the Pasir Gudang and Tanjung Langsat ports in Johor, said Mr Najib, although he did not elaborate.

Mr Najib also put on record Malaysia's full support for Singapore as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year. Singapore's focus on the digital economy is one area in which the two countries can team up on, to promote e-commerce and e-payments, and develop Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as "smart cities", he added.

Pleased with the state of co-operation and ties between the two countries, the two leaders said the next retreat will be held in Malaysia at the end of the year.

"I am excited about the possibilities in the near future," Mr Najib said. "We look forward to receiving (Mr Lee in Malaysia) at the end of this year, provided we get the right results (at the Malaysian General Elections)."

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Singapore a potential test-bed to develop food, agritech solutions: Koh Poh Koon

Vanessa Lim Channel NewsAsia 16 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE: Singapore could potentially become a test-bed to develop exportable models for food and agriculture technology (agritech) solutions, according to Senior Minister of State for National development and Trade & Industry Koh Poh Koon on Tuesday (Jan 16).

Speaking at the 3rd annual Indoor Agriculture Conference (Ag-Con) Asia, Dr Koh said Singapore's environment can help companies expand into global markets.

"We are a well-positioned and efficient logistics hub, our stringent food safety standards also generate consumer trust and allow companies exporting from Singapore to enjoy premium quality branding," said Dr Koh.

He added that the government is also currently studying the feasibility of co-locating various food-related industries in a cluster in future.

Beyond this, Dr Koh highlighted that Singapore has also cultivated deep research and development expertise in fields such as biotech and precision engineering, which can help to speed up the development of the precision agriculture and agri-biotech sector.

"We already have players in these areas like Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, which has strong capabilities in plant sciences and farming systems," said Dr Koh, adding that Singapore's strong intellectual property framework protects research findings and innovations.

As new industries may face regulatory hurdles, Dr Koh added that government agencies will work closely with companies to overcome these challenges.

Pointing to indoor farms as an example, he said that agencies had made provisions for companies to use private industrial land to kick start operations as they needed space. In addition, account managers were also introduced to facilitate interactions between the companies and other regulatory agencies.

Source: CNA/am

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Registration for communal gardening plots in 5 more parks to open on Feb 10

Channel NewsAsia 16 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE: Those with green fingers will have more opportunities to flex them with communal gardening plots in five more parks - Bedok Town Park, Choa Chu Kang Park, Pasir Ris Park, Sengkang Riverside Park and Yishun Park.

The National Parks Board (NParks) said in a news release on Tuesday (Jan 16) that members of the public will be able to apply from 9am to 3pm on Feb 10 to rent one of 220 gardening plots in these parks.

Each plot comprises a raised planter bed measuring 2.5m by 1m and can be leased for three years at S$57 annually. Interested members of the public are required to bring their NRIC when applying for these plots, and those successful can begin growing edible and ornamental plants in May.

Registration for gardening plots in Ang Mo Kio Town Garden West and Jurong Lake Gardens West will be available by end-2018 as well, the statutory board said.

The addition of more communal gardening plots in parks across Singapore is part of a national gardening master plan announced in November last year. Under the Edible Horticulture Masterplan, the agency will introduce gardening plots in 11 parks islandwide and more than 1,000 allotment garden plots by 2019.

NParks said that to date, 400 plots have been fully subscribed by gardening enthusiasts from November to December 2017 at HortPark, Punggol Park, Clementi Woods Park and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, in addition to the initial 80 pilot plots at HortPark.

With the additional parks, the total number of allotment gardening plots would be 620, it added.

The parks were selected for their accessibility to densely-populated heartland towns, according to NParks.

Source: CNA/mz

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Malaysia: Once a clear winner, popular padi strain now a loser

The Star 16 Jan 18;

PETALING JAYA: Clearfield was a popular strain when it was introduced seven years ago.

Its efficacy and high yields – up to nine tonnes per hectare – made it a much sought-after variation.

But its popularity wavered when farmers noticed its resistance to herbicide.

Jitra-based Muhamad Rafirdaus Abu Bakar said that two years after it was introduced, farmers found that herbicide used to eliminate weedy rice was no longer effective.

From nine tonnes per hectare, the yield dropped to six.

“The weedy rice competed with Clearfield for water and fertilisers in the padi field. It then dominated the growing space.”

Muhamad Rafirdaus, who owned a hectare of padi field and rented another 13ha due to the lucrative output, found himself caught in a bind after he was unable to earn enough profit to pay the land lease, fertiliser and weedkiller to sustain the bigger field.

“Never mind a decent wage. When you average the profits across one season, it’s only about RM600 to RM700 a month,” he said.

And he said he was not alone. His friend operating under the Muda Agricultural Development Authority (Mada) in Kedah also faced a similar predicament.

Sekinchan Farm Operators Unit’s chairman Sam Fai said Sabak Bernam and Sekinchan, traditionally known as the more productive rice-growing areas in the country, were also not spared.

“The padi output from these two areas dropped from nine tonnes a hectare to five.”

Farmers, he said, were unable to get back their operating cost.

Fai said many of them were contemplating switching to more profitable crops such as oil palm.

Farmers go against the grain
eddie chua The Star 16 Jan 18;

EXCLUSIVE: PETALING JAYA: Padi farmers around the country are abandoning the supposedly “high yield’ Clearfield padi strain.
The special strain, which took seven years’ research and a grant of RM1.2mil to develop, is now a flop.

Instead of solving the problem, it amplified it, no thanks in part to greedy farmers.

Seeing its bountiful yield, they planted Clearfield more often than they were supposed to.

“The special padi plant has now cross-bred with the weedy rice or padi angin, which is considered a pest in commercial rice fields,” said Mardi’s Rice Research Centre director Dr Zainal Abidin Hassan.

“Farmers are unable to control the weedy rice from growing, making it more expensive to maintain the field,” he said.

Clearfield or CL rice cultivar was jointly developed between the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) and chemical giant BASF.

The strain takes a shorter time to grow, consumes less water and promises high productivity.

Clearfield yielded eight to nine tonnes of padi per hectare compared with other Malaysian rice strains, which could only produce slightly above five tonnes per hectare.

Dr Zainal said Clearfield should only be grown in two cycles in a year, with an interval of one planting season.

But farmers cashed in on the strain’s easier upkeep and planted beyond the recommended guidelines.

“Farmers took advantage of the high yield and grew it more times than what they were supposed to.

“As a result, the weed cross-bred with Clearfield.

“Clearfield transferred its herbicide-resistant trait to the weedy rice, making it a hybrid, resistance to the herbicide which is used at the beginning of the padi growing season to stem its growth,” said Dr Zainal.

He said that over 80% of the weed was now resistant to imidazolinone, based on Mardi’s two-year study at major rice-growing areas around the country.

He said Clearfield was supposed to have a lifespan of at least between 10 and 15 years before it outlived its usefulness.

“The effort and time spent to develop this hardy strain is now wasted,” said Dr Zainal.

He said that finding a new hardy variation to replace Clearfield would be a long and expensive affair.

“Clearfield was developed on a pre-existing technology. Despite that, it took seven years to be perfected.”

The same cross-breeding issue has also been demonstrated by a team of academics from Universiti Putra Malaysia, who carried out field tests and demonstrated how weedy rice could carry over the herbicide-resistant trait in one year.

Dr Zainal said that despite the unclear future of Clearfield, they were hoping to find a solution.

“We are carrying out experiments to modify the current two Clearfield variations to make it hardier and useful again. Only time will tell.”

Dr Zainal said while Mardi developed the strain, they did not keep track of who grew the crop.

But in recent years, through their observations and field studies in several private rice fields in Pahang and several other rice-growing states, they found that the padi angin was resistant to herbicide and farmers were abandoning the strain.

Due to greed, farmers reap what they sow – literally
The Star 16 Jan 18;

PETALING JAYA: Clearfield rice was based on technology first commercialised in the United States to combat the weed problem in rice fields.

Its success in overcoming this problem saw it widely adopted in South America and Italy.

Malaysia jumped on the bandwagon in 2003 and took seven years to perfect the pre-existing strain to suit the local environment.

Research to find the local solution was undertaken by Malaysian Agri­cul­tural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) and chemical giant BASF Malaysia.

The two new strains can outlive the herbicide used to control and eliminate weedy rice at the beginning of the padi planting season.

However, there are specific requirements and recommendations when planting the variations.

To prevent cross-breeding, Clearfield cannot be planted for more than two cycles in a season.

However, padi farmers here did not follow the above recommendations.

Three years after it was first planted, there were already signs of abuse by padi farmers.

It took two years of extensive research to confirm the findings, but by the time the result showed that it had cross-bred with weedy rice, it was already too late to reverse the adverse effects.

It was also near impossible to start from scratch again as most fields in the country had already started using Clearfield and were affected by the cross-breeding.

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Malaysia: Wildlife smugglers dump 300 birds into water to escape authorities

r.s.n.murali The Star 17 Jan 18;

MELAKA: Authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle about 300 rare and exotic birds out the country – but at a high cost.

Melaka and Negri Sembilan Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) director Maritime Captain Amran Daud said officers from its Kuala Linggi base intercepted three Indonesians in a boat about five nautical miles from Tanjung Gabang waters near Selangor at 3pm Tuesday.

He said the trio were attempting to smuggle about 300 birds, including the near-extinct Javanese chirping bird into Indonesia.

"Unfortunately, the smugglers flung the cages containing the live birds into the ocean upon seeing the MMEA vessel.

Capt Amran said the three suspects did not have identification documents and the case has been referred to the Wildlife and National Parks Department, for investigation under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

He said the wildlife smugglers are believed to have the sourced the birds from Vietnam and travelled overland through Thailand and Malaysia, to be sold in Indonesia.

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Southeast Asian plastic recyclers hope to clean up after China ban

Michael Taylor Reuters 16 Jan 18;

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Seah Kian Hoe was just 10 years old, he would jump on the back of his parent’s small truck during school holidays and help them collect scrap, going door-to-door around neighborhoods in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor.

Taking their haul back to the family yard, they would spend hours separating the glass bottles, aluminum cans, discarded newspapers and metal.

Seah now employs 350 people to help him run Heng Hiap Industries, one of Malaysia’s top five plastic recycling businesses which processes about 40,000 tonnes of waste per year from both domestic and overseas suppliers.

“Thirty five years ago, it was just scavenging - a very different era compared to now,” Seah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I wanted to get into the recycling business and do it differently.”

Heng Hiap Industries is just one of the Southeast Asian plastics recycling companies gearing up to benefit from China’s decision to ban imports of plastic waste from the start of 2018.

Before the ban, which shocked many in the industry, China was the world’s dominant importer of such waste. In 2016, it imported 7.3 million tonnes of waste plastics, valued at $3.7 billion, accounting for 56 percent of world imports.

Over the past two decades, China was keen to suck in as much plastic waste as possible, helping feed its manufacturing expansion. But policy makers took action after a string of scandals involving unscrupulous players in the waste market.

Misdemeanors included stuffing containers with mixed or toxic rubbish rather than the specific types labeled for recycling, and illegal smuggling of waste that was simply dumped in landfill.

“Plastic China”, an award-winning documentary released in late 2016, ignited further public outrage by highlighting the human and environmental costs of the under-regulated, Wild West-style recycling industry.

As part of efforts to clean up China’s environment, including promoting electric cars and cutting coal use, Beijing launched a campaign against harmful “foreign garbage” last year.

Some of the worst-hit exporters of plastic waste are based in the United States and Britain - leaving those two countries scrambling to find alternative places to take their rubbish.

“The industry was not prepared for it,” said Surendra Patawari Borad, a businessman who runs a recycling company in Belgium and the United States and chairs the plastics committee at the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR).

“I used to say about Europe and the U.S., if China gets a cold, we get a fever, and if China gets a fever, we get pneumonia,” he added.


Unable to send their plastic waste to China, Britain and the United States are now likely to increase their domestic recycling capacities in an effort to reduce exports.

But industry officials say this could take years and may still not be enough.

“If anyone has a problem selling their scrap plastic right now, they should not be complaining - they should be looking at themselves because this ... has been on the cards for quite a while,” said Damien van Leuven, founder of Vanden Global, an international plastics recycling company based in Hong Kong.

Faced with growing stockpiles of plastic waste, many British and U.S. companies are either burning some plastics for energy recovery or sending the materials to landfill, several industry researchers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Both of these methods will have a catastrophic impact on the environment, they warned.

“Do they (China) care about the global environment or only their own environment because we are land-filling perfectly good materials now because of the actions that they’re taking,” said Adina Renee Adler, senior director for international relations at the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington.

The labor-intensive job of taking bales of plastic waste to be broken down, cleaned, separated into different plastic resins and finally made into pellets ready to be reshaped into new products is now expected to fall to Southeast Asian countries.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are among the Southeast Asian countries that have attracted Chinese investors in the plastics recycling sector over the past year, keen to fill the void left in China, industry officials said.

Most have yet to develop their own domestic recycling collection and public awareness about the issue, but their access to cheap labor and close proximity to China’s manufacturing industries work in their favor.


Preliminary data from the BIR, shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, showed imports of plastic waste into Southeast Asia are already rising fast.

Due partly to a ramp-up in shipments in the final quarter of last year, the BIR estimates that annual imports of plastic scrap into Malaysia jumped to 450,000-500,000 tonnes in 2017 from 288,000 tonnes in 2016.

Vietnam’s imports rose by 62 percent to 500,000-550,000 tonnes for 2017, while Thailand and Indonesia showed increases of up to 117 percent and 65 percent respectively.

The industry fears, however, that a flood of unregulated plastic waste to these countries could lead to similar problems as those experienced in China, resulting in copy-cat bans.

To avoid this, industry officials urged Southeast Asian nations to tighten health and safety regulations, so that they can properly monitor what plastics enter their countries, and stop illegal practices.

Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua wants to see companies use less plastic packaging in the longer-term, but for now, Southeast Asian governments should strengthen environmental controls to limit the spread of hazardous chemical waste and any negative impact on human health, he said.

Steve Wong, executive president of the China Scrap Plastics Association, called for stronger controls on imports, license issuance and environmental inspections of factories.

To date, the world has produced more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic, said Borad at the BIR. Only 9 percent has been recycled, while just under 80 percent has been treated as waste - sent to landfill sites or dumped in the oceans.

As awareness rises over the dangers of allowing plastic waste to end up in the sea where it poisons fish and can enter the human food chain, recycling capacity will need to grow considerably worldwide.

In Malaysia, Seah remembers how his parents were once ashamed they made a living from collecting and reusing scrap, believing it to be a profession that was not respected.

But when his recycling company received an international award for environmental leadership in 2013, it helped change their minds. Southeast Asian nations now face a similar battle to shift perceptions of the recycling industry.

“I don’t believe there is a global plastics pollution problem - there is a global plastics ignorance problem,” said Seah. “It is a substance with a lot of hidden values.”

Reporting by Michael Taylor, editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Indonesia: Researchers responding to bird's call discover species new to science

Audrey Tan Straits Times 17 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE - With its crimson head and cloak of glossy black feathers, the Rote myzomela is dressed in the colours of a flamenco dancer.

But it was not the diminutive bird's striking appearance that drew the attention of scientists from Singapore and the region. It was its call.

To the layman, the bird's call sounds like an unremarkable series of chirps. But for the researchers, it was a tell-tale sign that the Rote myzomela was a new species of honeyeater .

It was discovered on Pulau Rote, one of the southern-most islands of the Indonesian archipelago.

Ornithologist Philippe Verbelen, one of the scientists behind the discovery, said: "Most bird species have a distinctive song that is unique to that species."

Mr Verbelen, from environmental conservation group Greenpeace, worked with Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and researchers from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences on identifying the bird.

Their findings were published last month (December) in the science journal Treubia.

Even though it was only recently confirmed to be a new species, the bird was spotted by Australian ornithologist Ron Johnstone in the 1990s.

It was not clear then whether it was genetically different from other birds within the same family.

The newly-discovered Rote myzomela is closely related to more than 30 species of small, brightly-colored honeyeaters, such as the Sumba myzomela, found in Indonesia's Pulau Sumba; and the Myzomela erythrocephala, which can be found in places such as Australia.

Honeyeaters are a group of birds that feed mainly on nectar or insects.

But when Mr Verbelen visited the island in 2009 and recorded their song and call, he realised that the trill of the Rote myzomela was significantly different compared with related birds in the neighbouring Indonesian islands and in Australia.

He collected more sound recordings of the birds on subsequent trips and began to suspect that the Rote myzomela was likely to be a new species.

While it has a call that comprises a series of chirps in the same pitch, its relative, the Sumba myzomela had a more undulating warble.

The Rote myzomela was confirmed as a new species by researchers from the NUS and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, who went to Rote Island in December 2015.

Other than making acoustic analyses of the birds' calls, the scientists also noted differences in the size and plumage of the Rote myzomela compared with other birds in the same family.

The new honeyeater species is likely to be found only on Rote Island and nowhere else in the world.

But the scientists noted that its habitat faces the threat of deforestation, as with many of Indonesia's forests.

To promote the conservation of its habitat, the gave the bird the scientific nameMyzomela irianawidodoae, after Indonesia's First Lady Iriana Widodo. The paper noted that this was done to recognise "her interest in Indonesia's birdlife and her valuable stewardship and advocacy for Indonesia's natural environments".

Added Mr Verbelen: "The fact that this new bird was named after Indonesia's first lady may surely help generate more attention to the needs for forest conservation on Rote Island."

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East China Sea oil tanker disaster: what it means for the environment

Ship was carrying 136,000 tons of oil that now threatens to pollute some of China’s most important fishing waters
Benjamin Haas The Guardian 16 Jan 18;

The Iranian oil tanker Sanchi sank off the coast of Shanghai on Sunday, after a week of burning and sending plumes of smoke hundreds of metres into the air. Only three bodies of the 32 sailors were recovered. The ship was carrying 136,000 tons, or about 1 million barrels, of oil, that now threatens to pollute some of China’s most important fishing waters.

What was Sanchi transporting?

The oil tanker was carrying condensate oil, which differs considerably from the thick black oil slicks typically associated with a spill. Instead, the colourless oil is a liquid only under certain conditions and is partially soluble in water, making it much harder to separate and detect.

How much oil leaked?

Currently, it is impossible to gauge exactly how much condensate ended up in the water. Some of it burned off and some probably evaporated, but any oil still onboard when the ship sank will slowly leak out over time and be difficult to contain.

What will the impact be on the local environment?
The condensate that leaked into the water could potentially wreak havoc on local fish spawning grounds and the Sanchi sank in the migratory path of the humpback whale, according to Greenpeace.

While there will not be black beaches covered in oil, condensate is toxic when inhaled and on the skin and is described as “toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects”.

Another concern is the fuel that was powering the Sanchi. The day after it sank, China’s State Oceanic Administration reported two oil slicks, one nearly 15km long and another about 18km long, although it is unclear if these are from the cargo or the fuel tanks.

“Given that the fuel tanks in these sorts of vessels are located close to the engine room, it is likely that the fuel tanks have remained intact since the initial collision,” said Paul Johnston, a research fellow at the University of Exeter.

“It is possible that we will see chronic low volume leakage over a period of time at the seabed. ... Impact would remain relatively local.”

What could China have done differently?
There were two competing goals in dealing with the tanker: putting out the fire in an effort to rescue the crew, or allowing as much oil as possible to burn off to limit polluting the waters. In the end, there was a mixture of both.

The National Iranian Tanker Company, the firm that operated the ship, had two ships nearby and a spokesman for the company wondered why Chinese fire fighting boats were using water to douse the flames when foam would be more effective.

While the blaze was still burning the Iranian Merchant Mariners Syndicate, an industry group, voiced frustration at the lack of progress in putting out the fire, and said it was “clear that the Chinese are not cooperating enough”.

Other criticised Chinese efforts to subdue the fire, and suggested a plan that would have assumed the entire crew had no hope of rescue.

Yu Zhirong, a former deputy of the East China Sea unit of China Marine Surveillance, told business magazine Caixin the Sanchi should have been bombed or torpedoed, causing an explosion that would burn up the remaining oil and limit the amount the seeped into the ocean.

Allowing the ship to sink was described as the “worst-case scenario”.

What happens now?

China has announced it will conduct an investigation into the incident, although there is no sense when a report will emerge and how detailed it will be. Greenpeace has called on China to assess how much oil spilled into the ocean and take “appropriate containment and clean up measures”.

Massive oil spill spreads in East China Sea, could be world's largest in decades
Andrew Freedmann Mashable Yahoo News 17 Jan 18;

What could be the largest oil spill since 1989's Exxon Valdez is unfolding in the East China Sea after a deadly and fiery collision between two vessels caused a tanker to sink. All 32 crew members are thought to have died aboard the Iranian vessel "Sanchi," which was carrying about 1 million barrels of condensate.

According to Bloomberg News, the ship was transporting hydrocarbon liquid that's a key ingredient for making petrochemicals, including jet fuel. It was headed to the port of Daesan, South Korea when it struck the transport ship "CF Crystal" off China's eastern coast.

The tanker and its associated oil slick had been on fire for days after the collision. While the fire likely killed all aboard the ship, it was seen by environmental experts as a way to minimize the broader impacts of the spill, since the flames burned off the lightweight condensate on the ocean surface.

However, the fire is now out, and the ship has sunk, raising the possibility that the harmful cargo is going directly into the sea.

The cargo is different than the crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, but if all the condensate were to leak into the ocean, it would rank as the biggest spill in decades.

Much remains unknown about the fate of the cargo, and therefore similar can be said about what the environmental impacts will be. Reports in recent days are not encouraging, since there is word of a rapidly spreading oil slick on the surface of the ocean. Citing Chinese authorities, Bloomberg reported that the spill expanded from 3.9 square miles to 52 square miles between Sunday and Monday local time.

An oil spill in the heavily trafficked East China Sea could have significant environmental repercussions. Humpback whales travel through that area, and heavily fished species such as mackerel and bluefin also spend time in that area.

“It is virtually certain that much of the condensate went into the sea in solution, and that toxic underwater hydrocarbon plume will injure marine life exposed to it,” Richard Steiner, an oil spill specialist based in Alaska, told Bloomberg. “Even the burned fraction will leave a toxic residue on the water.”

Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist, was quoted by CNN as saying the spill took place in one of the most productive fishing areas in the country, known as the Zhoushan fishing ground.

"We still need to keep an eye on how these contaminants might be carried by the ocean flow to have the impact on the fishing ground," Jun told CNN.

According to Greenpeace International, it's not clear how large this environmental disaster will be, since the amount of condensate that leaked into the water is unknown.

"A major concern is that, now that the tanker has sunk, any condensate which did not yet burn off could continue to leak underwater, disperse and break down quite quickly, significantly complicating clean up operations," the environmental advocacy organization stated in a Jan. 15 fact sheet.

Sunken Iranian tanker could cause 'irreversible' environmental damage after leaving oil slick the size of Paris
Sunken ship thought to be leaking toxic engine fuel, raising concerns for fisheries and marine wildlife
Chris Baynes The Independent 19 Jan 18;

An Iranian oil tanker that sank in flames off the east coast of China is thought to be leaking heavy bunker fuel, raising fears of an environmental disaster.

Experts warned “irreversible” damage to marine wildlife was possible after the ship sank on Saturday, leaving behind an oil slick the size of Paris.

The Sanchi had drifted ablaze for eight days after a collision with a freighter in the East China Sea, one of the worst oil ship disasters in decades.

The tanker’s crew of 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis are all believed to have died.

At the time of the crash, the Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tons – almost one million barrels – of condensate, an ultra-light, highly flammable crude oil.

The Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA) said five oil slicks with a collective area of 101sq km had been spotted on Wednesday, although they had shrunk to about a quarter of the size by the next day.

Authorities said bunker fuel, a heavy oil used in ship’s engines, was now also believed to have leaked from the vessel since it sank. The Sanchi is thought to have been carrying about 1,000 tons of bunker fuel, which is toxic to marine organisms and difficult to remove from the sea once spilled.

Experts said the scale of the environmental damage would not be clear until the volume of leaked fuel was known, but warned fisheries and marine life could be impacted for years to come.

Paul Johnson, research fellow at Greenpeace International’s Science Unit at the University of Exeter, said bunker fuel was “particularly dangerous to birds and other wildlife”, and could sometimes be fatal if encountered by whales, dolphins and porpoises.

He told The Independent: “The major impact is going to be living marine organisms that are exposed to the oil slick, which is quite a big one now. It’ll taint fish, it’ll kill fish. If cetaceans encounter it they could be at very severe risk of doing themselves some serious damage.”

Greenpeace said the ship sank in an important spawning ground for species including the hairtail, yellow croaker, chub mackerel and blue crab. The area is also on the migratory pathway of several marine mammals, such as the humpback whale, right whale and gray whale.

Babatunde Anifowose, a senior lecturer in petroleum and environmental technology at the University of Coventry, said the spill could potentially have “irreversible environmental impacts” depending on the “the state of aquatic resources prior to the oil spill”.

The mass death of fish was one worst-case scenario, Dr Anifowose said, although he stressed “this is just one of the numerous possibilities” and depended on the levels of oxygen in the waters.

“The quantity of oil spilled is key in operational response efforts and assessing the likely environmental impacts,” he added. “No two oil spill incidents can ever be the same. This oil spill case is therefore unique and would require specific assessment that depends on the baseline environmental conditions at the location.”

The SOA said it was monitoring the spill’s environment impact. Water samples taken at four of the total 22 spill sites detected so far were found to exceed petroleum substance standards.

Dr Johnson said: “There’s no such thing as a good oil spill. There’s a really strong need for monitoring activities to expand in scale so we’ve got a good picture of how the petroleum hydrocarbons are spreading in the environment, and there’s also a need for surveillance monitoring of the living marine resources there – the sorts of things people might be likely to eat.”

The Chinese transport ministry’s emergency response department said it plans to send a robot submarine, possibly followed by divers, to explore and plug holes in the ship. No timeline was given for the mission.

Depending on conditions, divers might also be able to pump oil from the vessel’s fuel tanks before they leak further and contaminate the seabed.

Authorities say the Sanchi is lying under 115m (377ft) of water in the East China Sea, about 530km (330 miles) south-east of Shanghai. Despite fears of environmental damage, the sinking is not thought likely to create oiled beaches such as those caused by the uncontrolled blowout on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The UK National Oceanography Centre, using a computer simulation model, predicted waters polluted by the sinking oil tanker could reach Japan within a month. However, it said the fate of the leaking oil was uncertain.

“It may contaminate beaches but I doubt it will be a thick slick,” said Dr Johnson.

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Australia offers cash for Great Barrier Reef rescue ideas

AFP Yahoo News 16 Jan 18;

Sydney (AFP) - Australia is calling on the world's top scientific minds to help save the Great Barrier Reef, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund research into protecting the world's largest living structure.

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed reef is reeling from significant coral bleaching due to warming sea temperatures linked to climate change.

The 2,300-kilometre (1,400-mile) site is also under pressure from farming runoff, development and predatory crown-of-thorns starfish, with experts warning it could be suffering irreparable damage.

On Tuesday, the Australian government announced a Aus$2.0 million (US$1.6 million) funding pot available to people with bright ideas on how to save the reef.

"The scale of the problem is big and big thinking is needed, but it's important to remember that solutions can come from anywhere," said Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg.

He said the money would be available to the world's "greatest scientific minds, industry and business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs".

"Solutions could focus on anything from reducing the exposure of corals to physical stressors, to boosting coral regeneration rates by cultivating reef-building coral larvae that attract other important marine species," Frydenberg added.

Up to Aus$250,000 is available for an initial feasibility stage, where researchers can test the technical and commercial viability of their proposals for up to six months.

More than one proposal is expected to be accepted at this stage, the government said.

A further Aus$1 million will then be made available to the best solutions at the proof of concept stage, where applicants develop and test their prototypes for up to 12 months.

Those that are successful will retain intellectual property rights and will be able to try to commercialise their innovation.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee last year decided not to place the Barrier Reef on its list of sites "in danger" despite concern over the mass coral bleaching.

The 2017 bleaching marked the second-straight year that corals have been damaged by warming sea temperatures, an unprecedented occurrence that scientists said would give the invertebrate marine creatures insufficient time to fully recover.

Coral reefs make up less than one percent of Earth's marine environment, but are home to an estimated 25 percent of ocean life, acting as nurseries for many species of fish.

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EU declares war on plastic waste

Brussels targets single-use plastics in an urgent clean-up plan that aims to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030
Daniel Boffey The Guardian 16 Jan 18;

The EU is waging war against plastic waste as part of an urgent plan to clean up Europe’s act and ensure that every piece of packaging on the continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030.

Following China’s decision to ban imports of foreign recyclable material, Brussels on Tuesday launched a plastics strategy designed to change minds in Europe, potentially tax damaging behaviour, and modernise plastics production and collection by investing €350m (£310m) in research.

Speaking to the Guardian and four other European newspapers, the vice-president of the commission, Frans Timmermans, said Brussels’ priority was to clamp down on “single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, you use it for five minutes and it takes 500 years to break down again”.

In the EU’s sights, Timmermans said, were throw-away items such as drinking straws, “lively coloured” bottles that do not degrade, coffee cups, lids and stirrers, cutlery and takeaway packaging.

The former Dutch diplomat told the Guardian: “If we don’t do anything about this, 50 years down the road we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans … we have all the seen the images, whether you watch [the BBC’s] Blue Planet, whether you watch the beaches in Asian countries after storms.

“If children knew what the effects are of using single-use plastic straws for drinking sodas, or whatever, they might reconsider and use paper straws or no straws at all.

“We are going to choke on plastic if we don’t do anything about this. How many millions of straws do we use every day across Europe? I would have people not use plastic straws any more. It only took me once to explain to my children. And now … they go looking for paper straws, or don’t use straws at all. It is an issue of mentality.”

He added: “[One] of the challenges we face is to explain to consumers that arguably some of the options in terms of the colour of bottles you can buy will be more limited than before. But I am sure that if people understand that you can’t buy that lively green bottle, it will have a different colour, but it can be recycled, people will buy into this.”

As part of its strategy, the EU will carry out an impact assessment on a variety of ways to tax the use of single use plastics, although details on potential models were notably lacking from the published strategy documents.

Last week, the budget commissioner, G√ľnther Oettinger, claimed that a levy on plastics could be one way in which Brussels could fill the €13bn hole in its budget left by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

“Let’s study this,” Timmermans said. “In a perfect world the revenues of this tax will decrease very rapidly, we have to check in an impact assessment whether this is a sustainable form of income also for the EU’s finances. I think there is a lot of support out there.”

The EU wants 55% of all plastic to be recycled by 2030 and for member states to reduce the use of bags per person from 90 a year to 40 by 2026.

An additional €100m is being made available on top of current spending to research better designs, durability and recyclability and EU member states will be put under an obligation to “monitor and reduce their marine litter”.

The commission said it will promote easy access to tap water on the streets of Europe to reduce demand for bottled water, and they will provide member states with additional guidance on how to improve the sorting and collection of recyclable plastic by consumers.

The EU’s executive is also to propose new clearer labelling for plastic packaging so consumers are clear about their recyclability, and there are plans to ban the addition of microplastics to cosmetics and personal care products, a move that has already been taken by the UK government.

New port reception facilities will seek to streamline waste management to ensure less gets dumped in the oceans under a directive already published.

“More and more it is becoming a health problem because it is degrading, going to little chips, fish are eating it and it is coming back to our dinner table,” said European Commission vice president Jyrki Katainen on Tuesday.

While the EU’s initiative was thick on pledges, and short on detail on how to force member states to act, Timmermans insisted the bloc was serious about the challenge facing them.

Every year, Europeans generate 25m tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30% is collected for recycling. Across the world, plastics make up 85% of beach litter.

Timmermans praised Theresa May for her recent strategy on plastics, despite criticism elsewhere that it lacked teeth. He noted, however, that charges on plastic bags, while “presented as a national measure” were “based on a European directive”. A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs responded that the UK had proposed the charges on bags before a EU directive had been proposed.

Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat member of the environment committee, said: “The EU strategy is far from perfect, but it’s better than what the UK government is offering. Theresa May would have you think she is the fairy godmother of plastics – but she isn’t. I will be long dead before the end of Mrs May’s strategy. I hope the oceans won’t be too.”

Timmermans nevertheless said he believed that the UK’s attitude on plastic was ahead of many member states, and that he was confident that the UK would not undercut any Brussels initiatives after Brexit.

He said: “If you saw the impact that Blue Planet had on the public opinion in the United Kingdom, immediately leading to a reaction by the British government, I think this can happen in most of our member states

“It’s urgent because of the change in the Chinese position. We can’t export these plastics any more to China. The knee-jerk reaction is that we will have to burn or bury it here. Let’s use this opportunity to show we can also recycle it here.”

Read more!