Best of our wild blogs: 27 Mar 18

5 tips on photographing Singapore marine life
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

Ask Me Anything – AMAfeed – I’m going LIVE next week!
Mei Lin NEO

Special edition Singapore shores guidesheets!
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

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Beyond price hikes and conservation campaigns, saving water through smart showers

Conserving water is a national imperative – and how much water you consume while showering can be reduced by as much as almost 20 per cent through powerful nudges, say two experts from the NUS Business School.
Sumit Agarwal and Sing Tien Foo Channel NewsAsia 27 Mar 18;

SINGAPORE: Water is an important and scarce resource to Singapore.

In order to be less dependent on imported water, the country turned to technology such as desalination.

However, the cost of maintaining and upgrading the country’s water supply infrastructure eventually led to the Government increasing water prices in July last year.

This has shown to be effective. Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli recently revealed the 2017 price hike contributed to a drop in daily water use from an average 148 litres a day in 2016 to 143 litres for each member of a household.

For decades, water conservation has been a constant message for Singaporeans. But apart from price hikes and water conservation campaigns, are there other ways to sway behaviour at the point of consumption – especially when you take a shower?

Nudge theory and behavioural insights suggest this may be so.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School and Department of Real Estate (DRE) collaborated with PUB to lead an international research team involving us, Davin Wang from NUS, Lorenz Goette from University of Bonn, Thorsten Staake from University of Bamberg and Verena Tiefenback from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to study how households’ shower water usage behaviour can be improved for water conservation.

In Singapore, showers account for a staggering 30 per cent of an average family’s monthly water consumption. If households can change their behaviour during showers, that can yield substantial savings.


In Switzerland, researchers found one way to change behaviour is to furnish real-time feedback to users during showers on how well they were conserving water. So they equipped some households with smart shower devices that provide real-time feedback on water temperature, volume used and how well water consumption goals have been met.

The researchers found with such devices, households reduced their water usage by 22 per cent.

Would a similar intervention work in Singapore? To answer this question, some 500 households in HDB flats were fitted with a smart shower device where data regarding water consumption was recorded, giving us information about 300,000 showers over a four-month period.

They were divided into seven groups. Five groups of households were given different water conservation targets and feedback regarding the volume used.

Water conservation targets of 10, 15, 20, 25 or 35 litres per shower were given out. The 10- and 15-litre targets corresponded to ambitious targets, the 20- and 25-litre targets were moderately attainable, while the 35-litre target was considered an easy one.

Households with targets set were encouraged to try keeping their water consumption below these designated levels. During showers, besides showing the volume used, the smart meter also gave feedback on how they were performing vis-a-vis their targets.

A sixth group of households received only water temperature information with no target or feedback, while the last group received real-time feedback on water volume when showering with no feedback on how well they were conserving water.


We know a priori that on average, Singaporeans use almost 20 litres of water in a single shower that takes about five minutes.

But with some simple feedback, the savings were quite astounding. When feedback was given regarding water usage, water consumption went down on average by about 10 per cent per shower, saving each person two litres daily.

But this saving varied by the targets set.

Those who received target and volume feedback reduced their consumption the most. Households that had a moderate volume target of 15 litres set saved the most of 3.9 litres less water during a shower, resulting in a saving of about 19 per cent - somewhat similar to the 22 per cent observed in the Swiss study.

Households that had an ambitious target of 10 litres set also saved water, with 2.9 litres saved on average during a shower. This lower amount of water saved is likely in part due to the fact that showering in Singapore’s humid weather probably necessitates a minimum threshold of water.


Our study concludes that getting households to set targets and giving them feedback on their performance not only promote awareness of the need for water conservation but also result in them using less water.

Just as in the case of individuals where goal-setting and feedback are keys to performance, households behave similarly when it comes to water conservation.

Households are also like individuals in that the targets set must be within reach to motivate households to strive hard to attain them. When a target is too ambitious (below 10 litres) or too easily attainable (above 30 litres), it becomes less effective in encouraging households to save water.

With appropriate targets and feedback, households can be persuaded to be more water efficient. Their behaviour can be modified within a short span of time, and hopefully, over time, attitudes towards water conservation will also change for a more sustainable lifestyle.

The monthly utility statement that households receive shows how they performed on two distinct types of utilities – water and electricity – relative to the neighbourhood and national averages. Such feedback, though not in real time, has a social comparison dimension that may encourage water conservation practices, complementing the immediate feedback concerning one’s personal water usage.

Both these practices help to curb water wastage by keeping users informed – one via social comparison by knowing how one fares relative to others and the other through knowing how much water one is using.

The PUB statement also provides feedback such as “Well done. You have consumed less in all your utilities in the recent two months as compared to the previous two months”, much like what was furnished in our study.

One caveat however, is that while real-time feedback is ideal as we’ve shown in our study, this may not be feasible for the time being because these smart devices are not cheap.

But we can imagine a system where one day, households can link their spike in water consumption to specific activities such as car washing, and accordingly make conscious efforts to reduce the frequency or modify the way in which such water-consuming activities are carried out.

Given the speed with which the Internet of Things are benefitting households beyond our imagination, the future of getting granular real-time feedback on not only water but also utility consumption is in sight.

Sumit Agarwal is Visiting Professor at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School and Sing Tien Foo is Dean’s Chair Associate Professor at the Department of Real Estate. More about this study can be found in Kiasunomics: Stories of Singaporean Economic Behaviours co-authored with Ang Swee Hoon and Sing Tien Foo, all at NUS.

Source: CNA/sl

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Malaysia: Errant tourists disturbing marine life: Dive masters, tour companies may be penalize

KRISTY INUS New Straits Times 26 Mar 18;

KOTA KINABALU: Tour companies and dive masters in Sabah may be held accountable if tourists under their charge, are found to disturb marine life in the state.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun said the state government is considering penalising both parties, so that they could "share responsibility".

“The way some of these irresponsible tourists are handling our marine life is not good. In some countries, it can even be considered an offence.

“If we allow it to go on, this will send the wrong signal to other tourists, who might start a campaign against visiting Sabah.

“So we are seriously looking into this before the problem gets worse. I have asked Dr Jamili Nais (Sabah Parks director) to check if there are existing provisions to allow us to penalise (the culprits).

“At the same time, Sabah Parks will also ensure that tour companies and dive masters read out the dos and don’ts to their clients, before embarking on water activities (dive or snorkeling),” he said after launching the new office of Sabah Tourist Guides Association (STGA) at Lintas Square here.

Masidi was commenting on past reports where tourists were found holding turtles or touching corals.

When asked on the two-month suspension on three mountain guides who wave an opposition political party's (Parti Warisan Sabah) flag on Mount Kinabalu summit, Masidi said he agreed with Sabah Parks on the matter.

“If you are not a guide, there's no such rule (waving political party flag). But as working guides, doing so is wrong.

“The mountain guides need to respect their profession. And I agree that there should not be politics in the workplace (as mentioned by Jamili),” he stressed.

Kinabalu Park has issued the letter of suspension to the three guides until the end of May, following undated photographs of them posing with the Warisan flag had gone viral on Facebook.

Jamili added that it was not right to bring political sentiment into the workplace where tourists are involved and can stir unease among climbers, who might be supporters of other parties.

Move to stop tourists disturbing marine life
The Star 27 Mar 18;

KOTA KINABALU: Some irresponsible tourists are disturbing marine creatures in Sabah Parks and the state government wants to put a stop to this.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun said dive and tour operators might be held responsible for the tourists under them.

He said it was important for the operators to ensure that tourists at marine parks did not resort to such acts.

“I always get pictures sent to me of tourists posing with different types of sea life.

“This is very negative to us. We need to put a stop to this,” he said when opening the Sabah Tourist Guides Association office at the Lintas Square here yesterday.

Masidi added that he had asked Sabah Parks to look into current state laws over the possibility of taking action against the operators who failed to advise or brief their tourists.

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Indonesia: N. Sumatra fishermen protest over lingering use of trawls

Apriadi Gunawan The Jakarta Post 26 Mar 18;

More than 100 traditional fishermen under the Batubara Traditional Fishermen Union staged a protest at Batubara Police precinct on Monday demanding the law enforcement personnel take firm action against fishermen still using trawlers in Batubara regency, North Sumatra.

The head of the group, Syawaluddin Pane, said the fishermen were growing restless with those using fishing trawlers and vessels equipped with cantrang (seine nets) in the North Sumatra waters.

“We have protested so many times, but fishing activities using trawls remains here, instead of decreasing,” he said during the protest on Monday, adding that the fishermen would take the matter into their own hands if the authorities ignored their protests.

The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry had issued two regulations in 2015 and 2016 banning the use of trawlers along with cantrang, considered as an unsustainable fishing method, as of Jan. 1.

However, the restriction plan was met with a string of protests from fishermen claiming that the policy would affect their income. Minister Susi Pudjiastuti then decided on Jan. 17 that it would still allow fishermen living on the north coast of Java to use the fishing equipment while gradually moving to more sustainable fishing equipment. No exact date of the total ban has been imposed.

Syawaluddin urged Susi to back up her words while meeting traditional fishermen at Sialang Buah Beach, Sedang Bedagai regency, in December. He claimed that at the meeting, Susi aimed to clear North Sumatra waters from the use of destructive fishing equipment by January.

“Up to present, the government’s promise has not been manifested,” he added.

Batubara deputy Police chief Sr. Comr. M. Hutabarat said the police would coordinate with related parties to settle the issue in response to the protests.

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Plastics in oceans are mounting, but evidence on harm is surprisingly weak

The Conversation 26 Mar 18;

Plastics in the world’s oceans are set to treble in the next ten years, according to a new UK government report. They are also contributing to a rubbish heap in the Pacific Ocean that is as big as France. These are the latest instalments of one of the most prominent environmental concerns of recent years.

It’s not surprising this has become a cause célèbre. Unlike many other human pollutants in the environment, plastic debris is very visible. Images of birds or fish entangled in plastic are highly emotive – as is the idea that we could be harming ourselves by eating seafood containing tiny pieces of the stuff.

To be sure, this is a big problem. Plastics degrade the environment and we are certainly finding them in increasingly large quantities in our seas and oceans. This may indeed harm marine life and their ecosystems, but when you look closely at the evidence, it turns out that we are far less sure than it might appear.

Plastic paranoia?

There are important gaps in our understanding about plastics. It’s not unreasonable for people to fill these with speculation to some extent – funding for research is limited and we cannot wait for scientific research to provide complete answers before taking action. On the other hand, unsupported speculation can lead to scarce resources being misdirected when they could be better spent on other environmental issues.

Certainly we produce large amounts of plastics each year. They continually end up as waste in the environment, and the polymers they comprise decompose extremely slowly. Large particles fragment into smaller pieces known as microplastics – technically 5mm in diameter or less. These are now recognised as one of the most prevalent human-made pollutants in marine environments across the world.

Microplastics could be accumulating in some places to levels that somehow compromise ecosystems. Deep-sea regions are a likely candidate, for example, though they are also the areas where we have the least information about quantities and effects. We need to do more work to say with confidence whether this is a serious problem.

On the question of how much damage microplastics cause to marine life, we certainly know these particles are readily transported throughout our seas and oceans and there is considerable evidence that organisms ingest them. However, the polymers that make up plastics are of minimal toxicity to marine life.

The question is whether they may cause harm in other ways. It could be that organisms absorb these particles and they accumulate in internal tissues, though it’s not clear whether or not that might be harmful to them. Microplastics may also accumulate in the gut and potentially interfere with processes like nutrient uptake or the passage of waste – or they may just be expelled without any negative effects.

A few studies have shown microplastics being absorbed by marine life in very small amounts, but other studies have found the opposite. We don’t even know whether very small nanoplastics with diameters of less than 1,000 nanometres can be absorbed. The studies that do exist on nanoparticles suggest that such absorption is minimal. In short, the jury is still out on absorption.

If microplastics are not appreciably absorbed, their potential to accumulate in tissues and cause problems is very low. It would also mean they can’t be passed on in any significant way to a predator who eats that organism. If so, it puts microplastics in a different category to toxic substances that end up in the food chain after accumulating in the internal tissues of fish – mercury, say.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that plastic particles are readily released from the gut of organisms without negative effects – and note that researchers have tended to test for concentrations in considerably higher amounts than are found in the environment.

Certainly, questions do remain. Perhaps of greatest importance is whether specific shapes of microplastics – fibres, for example – present particular difficulties for waste moving through the guts of some organisms.

All aboard

Another concern is around toxic substances like DDT or hexachlorobenzene sticking to microplastics and potentially ending up in places they wouldn’t otherwise reach. Scientists have already found considerable evidence of this. Some people are alarmed that these substances could end up being ingested by marine organisms and harming them as a result.

Yet most studies have shown that toxicants associated with plastics are either at concentrations too low to be toxic – or that the substances stick too strongly to the plastics to be released into organisms and cause problems.

In one study, the levels of toxic substances in the tissues of marine birds were actually lower when they had ingested plastics. The investigators suggested the toxic substances already present within the bird tissues were sticking to the plastics and being removed. If so, toxic substances attached to plastics might be less of a concern for toxicity to marine organisms than is feared.

Then there are microplastics and the human food chain. We were intrigued by this possibility and conducted an experiment to check. While we cooked in our kitchens, we left open petri dishes with sticky tape to collect dust fallout in the surrounding air.

We compared the amounts of plastic fibres in this dust with the quantities we found in mussels collected around the Scottish coast. The results suggest that while a regular UK consumer might ingest 100 plastic particles a year from eating mussels, their average exposure to plastic particles during meals from household dust is well over 10,000 per year.

In sum, the evidence about the dangers of plastics and microplastics in the marine environment is far from conclusive. There are important gaps in scientists’ knowledge that need filled, particularly where plastic particles are likely to accumulate in large amounts over long periods and how this potentially affects ecosystems.

We must avoid undue speculation and overstating risks, and instead engage with the actual evidence. Otherwise it will detract from our ability to manage plastic pollution in the most effective way and have a clear sense of the right priorities.


Ted Henry
Professor of Environmental Toxicology, Heriot-Watt University

Ana Catarino
NERC Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University

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New 'green list' highlights the positives in nature conservation

IUCN says the measure is a bit like the flipside to the World Heritage In Danger list
Michael Slezak The Guardian 23 Mar 18;

News about conservation often seems like an endless battle to merely slow the decline of nature.

Each year, lists such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list and the Unesco list of World Heritage In Danger grow, as more and more plants and animals inch closer to extinction and protected areas are degraded.

But a new list being developed by the IUCN aims to highlight positive steps being taken around the world to protect nature.

“It’s a bit like the flipside to the World Heritage In Danger list,” says University of Queensland’s Marc Hockings – the global lead on the green list for the IUCN.

Hockings says he came up with the idea of a green list about 10 years ago, as a way of setting a standard for how protected areas should be managed. The IUCN green list of protected and conserved areas is meant to celebrate successfully protected areas, and help other protected areas lift their standards by showcasing successful examples.

Since the once-a-decade World Parks Congress in 2004, the international conservation community recognised that while the world was increasing the amount of land and water that was formally protected, there was relatively little data about whether any management practices were in place to actually protect those areas.

As a result, the Aichi targets for 2020, of having 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the world’s oceans inside protected areas are very nearly met, but there has been little evidence that much of this is being effectively protected.

In 2014, the World Parks Congress was told that the management of only 30% of parks had been assessed, and of those, less than a quarter had been found to be effectively managed.

Hockings says the criteria developed for adding sites to the green list will, for the first time, allow the IUCN to comprehensively measure the extent to which actual protections are being put in place in those areas designated as formally protected.

During the pilot stage, Hockings says they found the assessment process helped several sites improve their management.

The pilot stage of the green list is now complete, and the IUCN is working with park management agencies to assess areas for inclusion.

They will be assessed against four pillars: good governance, design, effective management and conservation outcomes.

In each country, a team of experts known as the Eagl (Expert Assessment Group – green list) will assess parks that want to be on the list.

The IUCN collaborated with WWF-Australia to assemble the eight-member Australian Eagl, which held its inaugural meeting in Brisbane in February and will soon invite and consider nominations for inclusion on the green list.

The group includes park managers from NSW and Queensland, who are expected to submit several protected areas for inclusion in the green list.

“Ultimately, we’d like to see many Australian parks on the green list,” Hockings said.

WWF-Australia Indigenous engagement specialist Cliff Cobbo has been appointed to the Eagl, while WWF-Australia conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor will help manage Eagl business. Hockings said WWF’s contribution was an enormous help, since the IUCN did not have paid staff in Australia.

“Green list parks have to ensure full engagement of Traditional Owners in planning and management,” Cobbo said.

“The green list should give a strong impetus for park agencies to bring Traditional Owners into the tent. This is happening in many places in Australia, but we hope to make it the norm,” he said.

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Land decay to displace tens of millions, global survey warns

Mariëtte Le Roux AFP Yahoo News 27 Mar 18;

Medellín (Colombia) (AFP) - Land degradation will unleash a mass migration of at least 50 million people by 2050 -- as many as 700 million unless humans stop depleting the life-giving resource, more than 100 scientists warned Monday

Already, land decay caused by unsustainable farming, mining, pollution, and city expansion is undermining the well-being of some 3.2 billion people -- 40 percent of the global population, they said in the first comprehensive assessment of land health.

Land depletion threatens food security for all Earth's citizens, and access to clean water and breathable air regulated by the soil and the plants that grow on it.

The condition of land is "critical," alerted the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

"We've converted large amounts of our forests, we've converted large amounts of our grasslands, we've lost 87 percent of our wetlands... we've really changed our land surface in the last several hundred years," IPBES chairman Robert Watson said.

"Land degradation, loss of productivity of those soils and those vegetations will force people to move. It will be no longer viable to live on those lands," he told AFP.

The lowest number of 50 million migrants is a best case scenario.

It assumes "we've really tried hard to have sustainable agricultural practices, sustainable forestry, we've tried to minimize climate change," Watson explained.

The high projection is based on a "business-as-usual" approach in which rampant global warming wreaks havoc with the land -- fueling desertification and drought.

- Last frontier -

By 2050, said the analysis, land degradation and climate change will reduce crop yields by 10 percent globally -- up to half in some regions.

The report covers the entirety of Earth's land, as well as the lakes and rivers it supports.

It estimated that land degradation cost the equivalent of 10 percent of global economic output in 2010.

"Every five percent loss of gross domestic product... is associated with a 12 percent increase in the likelihood of violent conflict," warned the report.

Already, in dryland areas, years of extremely low rainfall see an estimated 45 percent rise in violent conflict.

The main drivers of land degradation, said the assessment, were "high-consumption lifestyles" in rich countries, and rising demand for products in developing ones, fuelled by income and population growth.

Less than a quarter of land has managed to escape "substantial impacts" of human activity -- primarily because it is found in inhospitable parts of the world -- too cold, too high, too dry, or too wet for humans to live in.

Even this small repository is projected to shrink to less than 10 percent in just 30 years' time.

"People are pushing into those frontiers," Bob Scholes of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, a co-author of the paper, told AFP.

Global warming permits people to move into the icy, subarctic Boreal region, for example, while technology now allows us to pump water from deep aquifers in the extreme desert.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than a third of the Earth's land surface.

This means not only a loss of soil, but also populations of wild plants and animals, and forests that suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

"Biodiversity loss is projected to reach 38-46 percent by 2050," said the report, warning that Earth is in the beginnings of a sixth mass extinction -- the first since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The IPBES assessment took global experts three years to compile, analyzing all the available scientific data.

- Climate change -

The report identified land degradation as a major contributor to climate change, and vice versa.

Deforestation alone contributes about 10 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

And by releasing carbon once locked in the soil, land decay was responsible for global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year between 2000 and 2009.

"Without urgent action, further losses of 36 gigatons of carbon from soils -- especially from sub-Saharan Africa -- is projected by 2050," the scientists warned.

This is equal to about 20 years of global transport emissions.

In 30 years from now, an estimated four billion people -- about 40 percent of the projected population -- will live in arid and semi-arid areas with low agriculture productivity, said the report.

Today, the number is just over three billion.

The assessment "is a wakeup call for us all," said Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which requested the report.

"It shows the alarming scale of transformation that humankind has imposed on the land."

The report, which cost about $1 million (810,000 euros) to prepare, is meant to inform government policy-making.

It was approved by government envoys at a week-long meeting of the 129-member IPBES in Medellin.

Land degradation threatens human wellbeing, major report warns
More than 3.2bn people are already affected and the problem will worsen without rapid action, driving migration and conflict
Jonathan Watts The Guardian 26 Mar 18;

Land degradation is undermining the wellbeing of two-fifths of humanity, raising the risks of migration and conflict, according to the most comprehensive global assessment of the problem to date.

The UN-backed report underscores the urgent need for consumers, companies and governments to rein in excessive consumption – particularly of beef – and for farmers to draw back from conversions of forests and wetlands, according to the authors.

With more than 3.2 billion people affected, this is already one of the world’s biggest environmental problems and it will worsen without rapid remedial action, according to Robert Scholes, co-chair of the assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “As the land base decreases and populations rise, this problem will get greater and harder to solve,” he said.

The IPBES study, launched in Medellín on Monday after approval by 129 national governments and three years of work by more than 100 scientists, aims to provide a global knowledge base about a threat that is less well-known than climate change and biodiversity loss, but closely connected to both and already having a major economic and social impact.

The growing sense of alarm was apparent last year when scientists warned fertile soil was being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, largely due to unsustainable agricultural practices.

The new assessment goes further by looking at vegetation loss, forest clearance, wetland drainage, grassland conversion, urban sprawl and pollution, as well as how these changes affect human health, wealth and happiness.

Drawing on more than 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources, the authors estimate land degradation costs more than 10% of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and agricultural productivity. They say it can raise the risks of flooding, landslides and diseases such as Ebola and the Marburg virus.

There are also geopolitical implications. The authors cite evidence of a strong association between land degradation, migration and instability. In dryland regions, years of extremely low rainfall have been associated with an up to 45% rise in violent conflict. Depending on the actions taken by governments to address climate change and the decline in soil quality, the authors estimate between 50 to 700 million people could be driven from their homes by 2050. The worst affected areas are likely to be the dry fringes of southern Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.

To counter this, the authors call for coordination among ministries to encourage sustainable production and for the elimination of agricultural subsidies that promote land degradation. They urge consumers to reduce waste and be more thoughtful about what they eat. Vegetables have a much lower impact on land than beef. Farmers are encouraged to raise productivity rather than clear more land. Companies and governments are advised to accelerate efforts to rehabilitate land. There have been several successful projects on China’s Loess plateau, in the Sahel and in South Africa.

The economic case for land restoration is strong, according to the report, which says benefits (such as jobs and business spending) are 10 times higher than costs, and up to three times higher than price of inaction. But in most regions, remedial work is overdue. National governments are not living up to a global commitment to neutral land degradation by 2030.

Participants compared the rundown of land to the 2008 financial crisis. “Back then, people borrowed more money than they could repay. Now we are borrowing from nature at a rate that is many times higher than the world can sustain. The day of reckoning will come,” said Christian Steel, director of Sabima, a Norwegian biodiversity NGO. In Europe, he said, the industrialisation of forest and agriculture is degrading the land. “We are also importing more food and, by doing so, displacing the impact of our consumption. We are fooling ourselves. Disaster doesn’t hit suddenly like in a Hollywood movie. It is already happening gradually.”

Action has been held back by a lack of awareness of the problem and the often wide gulf between consumers and producers. The report notes that many of those who benefit from over-exploitation of natural resources are among the least affected by the direct negative impacts of land degradation and therefore have the least incentive to take action.

“This is extremely urgent,” said another of the co-chairs, Luca Montanarella. “If we don’t change lifestyles, consumption habits and the way we use land, then sooner or later we are going to destroy this planet. Looking for another one is not an option.”

The land degradation assessment is the latest in a recent suite of global studies that highlight the deterioration of humanity’s home. In 2016, IPBES highlighted the demise of the planet’s pollinators, which are vital for agricultural production. On Friday, it released a global biodiversity study that warned human destruction of nature is rapidly eroding provision of food, water and security to billions of people.

Separately, the United Nations last week released a global water study that forecast more than half of the human population could struggle to secure supplies for drinking, cooking and sanitation for at least one month a year by 2050 as a result of pollution, climate change and rising demand.

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Future ‘ocean cities’ need green engineering above and below the waterline

Artificial islands can cause huge environmental issues for coastlines. The Forest City Project
The Conversation 26 Mar 18;

Population growth has seen skylines creep ever higher and entire cities rise from ocean depths. The latest “ocean city” is the Chinese-developed Forest City project. By 2045, four artificial islands in Malaysia will cover 14km² of ocean (an area larger than 10,000 Olympic swimming pools), and support 700,000 residents.

Often overlooked, however, is the damage that artificial islands can cause to vital seafloor ecosystems. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If proper planning and science are integrated, we can develop the design strategies that will help build the “blue-green” ocean cities of tomorrow.

Ever growing numbers of human-made structures are occupying our oceans. Cities built on artificial islands in the ocean are providing a solution for urban planners trying to manage the population squeeze.

And yet, so-called “ocean sprawl” dates as far back as Ancient Egypt. Over the past few centuries, artificial islands have been built through land reclamation. Land reclamation is the process of creating new land from existing water bodies.

The Netherlands, for instance, has been draining lakes and expanding its coastline to fight the advance of the sea since the 1500s. The Dutch actually built one of the first and largest artificial islands, which is now home to some 400,000 people. Japan’s third-busiest airport, the Kansai International Airport, was built on an artificial island in 1994. China has also been building into the oceans, reclaiming more than 13,000km² of seafloor and an estimated 65% of tidal habitat since the 1950s.

Using Google maps, we were able to identify more than 450 artificial islands around the world, including the famous Palm Islands of Dubai. These are often celebrated as engineering marvels, but at what cost to the marine environment?

We can’t ignore what lies beneath
Marine habitats have always been essential for human life in coastal regions. They provide food, building and crafting materials, and less-known services such as coastal protection, nutrient cycling and pollution filtration.

The creation of artificial islands causes large changes to the seabed by permanently smothering local habitats. In many parts of the world, existing habitats provide the foundation for artificial island construction. For instance, artificial islands in the tropics are often built directly on top of coral reefs. This leads to considerable destruction of already threatened ecosystems.

Land reclamation also impacts nearby habitats that are particularly sensitive to murky waters, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. In Singapore, land reclamation is associated with coral reef decline due to sedimentation and resulting light reductions. Singapore has lost nearly 45% of the country’s intertidal reef flats and almost 40% of intertidal mudflats.

When the ecological, economic, and social value of marine habitats are considered, artificial islands and ocean sprawl seem to be indulgences that we cannot afford. The effects would be akin to the suburban sprawl of the 20th century. To avoid this cost, we need to address the complexities of the underwater world in urban planning and development.

“Blue urbanism”

In his book Blue Urbanism, Timothy Beatley calls for urban planners to consider and value ocean ecosystems. He argues that we need to recognise the psychological value of human connections to blue space, and extend green practices on land into marine environments. While some artificial island developments such as the Forest City project are touted as “eco-cities”, more could be done both to minimise impacts below the waterline and integrate underwater environments into city life.

Why not combine a “Forest City” with the principles of a “Sponge City”? While native plantings in a forest city could help to reduce air pollution, sponge cities seek to “absorb” and reuse rainwater, thus reducing pollution entering the oceans through stormwater runoff. Around artificial islands, developers could also embrace the water filtration powerhouse of the oceans: active oyster reefs.

The location of future constructions should also be carefully evaluated to ensure the preservation of important marine habitats. Artificial islands have the potential to create fragmented seascapes, but with careful spatial planning and smart designs, they could create corridors for some climate migrants or those threatened species most at risk from habitat loss.

Designs based on ecological principles can reduce the impacts of artificial islands on natural habitats. However, applications of “blue-green” infrastructure remain largely untested at large scales. New designs, building strategies and spatial planning that integrate seascapes and landscapes are an opportunity for both “smarter” cities and experimentation for the development of successful blue-green technologies.

The Authors

Katherine Dafforn
Senior Research Associate in Marine Ecology, UNSW

Ana Bugnot
Research Associate, UNSW

Eliza Heery
Research Fellow in Marine Ecology, National University of Singapore

Mariana Mayer-Pinto
Senior Research Associate in marine ecology, UNSW

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Greens take on China's infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia

Tougher environmental compliance facing Chinese companies at home and abroad
MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Nikkei Asian Review 26 Mar 18;

BANGKOK -- Rural communities in Thailand have been challenging Chinese companies with street protests, court petitions, and occasionally sorcery, to block environmentally-damaging projects in their back yards -- and their call to action is being taken up across mainland Southeast Asia.

Grassroots activists in the northern province of Chiang Rai have successfully lobbied the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), a state power utility, to suspend its decision to purchase electricity from a controversial hydropower dam proposed by China's Datong Corporation on the Lao side of the Mekong river, Southeast Asia's longest body of water.

Villagers have rallied against the feared impact of the Pak Beng dam on both sides of the huge river. "Local communities sent a letter to EGAT questioning its power-purchasing agreement," said Piaporn Detees, the Thailand campaign director for International Rivers, a global environmental group. "They said the Pak Beng dam will affect their lives, and they also have a case against the dam in the Supreme Court."

Two other Chinese ventures face similar uncertainties. China Communications Construction Company Second Harbor Consultants has been forced to put its plans to blast stretches of the Mekong on hold. It had won a contract to clear islands and reefs to create channels for 500-ton cargo ships connecting China and Laos.

Beijing has a five-year action plan to open up the Mekong, which has its headwaters in China, as a waterway. Discussions between Thai diplomats and their Chinese counterparts led to the suspension of the project for now. Bangkok reportedly took note of the hostile groundswell.

China's state-owned China Ming Ta Potash Corporation is meanwhile pressing ahead with plans to exploit rich potash deposits in Sakhon Nakhon, a northeastern province, despite opposition from local communities. "If this project goes ahead, it would completely change our way of life, turning us from farmers to jobless people," said Satanon Chuenta, a local resident who heads the Wanon Niwat Environmental Conservation Group. "How can we grow plants and make money from farming if this mine is right behind our houses?"

Thailand's military government has weighed in, dispatching soldiers to suppress the potash mine's opponents. Last week, troops showed up on a bare patch of ground to stop a group of middle-aged women from staging a ceremony to lay a curse on the company. Undeterred, locals plan to petition the military government.

Local communities have already had some success battling major investments. In February, the government gave in to angry protesters in Krabi, a southern province famed for its beaches and resorts, where a coal-fired power station was planned. Siri Jiraphanpong, the energy minister, agreed to review likely environmental and health impacts.

A consortium led by China's Power Construction Corporation and Italian-Thai Development had won the contract to build the 800 megawatt facility. It is a serious setback given that this was the first major infrastructure project awarded to a Chinese construction company in Thailand --but not the first such glitch in Southeast Asia. In 2011, President Thein Sein of Myanmar suspended the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project. It was the largest of a cascade of dams in the upper waters of the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's largest river.

Thein Sein's freezing of one of China's biggest investments in his country was partly prompted by local environmental concerns and came just as the military-ruled country was opening up to political reform. Six years on, it remains a diplomatic sore between the two countries.

Similar pressures on two other Chinese investments in Myanmar, a dam on the Salween river and a controversial copper mine, have also caused friction. Myanmar's civilian government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, faces pressure from ethnic minorities to halt the Mong Ton dam planned for Shan State in order to protect a pristine wilderness area.

Chinese money has poured into numerous enterprises in the five lower Mekong countries, ranging from hydropower and energy to logistics, manufacturing, and mining. This effort to promote mutual economic development is being pushed back by local groups who fear environmental degradation, but they are not out of step with legislation being introduced in China. A more reformist tone was set by President Xi Jingping whose speech at last year's 19th party congress raised some green issues.

Leading Thai business consultants expect Chinese investors to take note. "I have witnessed environmental protection go from a nuisance to one of the top priorities in China over just a few years," Joe Horn-Phathanothai, chief executive of Strategy361, a Bangkok-based investment consultancy for Thai and Chinese companies, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The Chinese investors in the Pak Beng dam took heed of the changing winds, and hosted two public consultations in Chiang Rai -- but these failed to allay the concerns of locals.

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