Thursday, October 18, 2012

UK Experiences ‘Weirdest’ Weather

The UK has just experienced its “weirdest” weather on record, scientists have confirmed.
The driest spring for over a century gave way to the wettest recorded April to June in a dramatic turnaround never documented before.
The scientists said there was no evidence of a link to manmade climate change.
But they say we must now plan for periodic swings of drought conditions and flooding.
The warning came from the Environment Agency, Met Office and Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) at a joint briefing in London.
Terry Marsh from the CEH said there was no close modern precedent for the extraordinary switch in river flows. The nearest comparison was 1903 but this year was, he said, truly remarkable.
What was also remarkable – and also fortunate – was that more people did not suffer from flooding. Indeed, one major message of the briefing was that society has been steadily increasing its resilience to floods.
Paul Mustow, head of flood management at the Environment Agency, told BBC News that 4,500 properties were flooded this year. “But if you look back to 2007 when over 55,000 properties were flooded we were relatively lucky – if lucky is the right word – for the impacts we saw this summer,” he said.
“The rainfall patterns affected different areas – and also there were periods of respite between the rain which lessened the impact.”
Fast moving
He said 53,000 properties would have been flooded this year without flood defences. In total, he said, 190,000 properties had received flood protection in recent years.
Mr Mustow claimed that flood defences repaid their investment by a factor of 8-1 but admitted that continuing to invest would be a “challenge”, after government cuts to planned projects.
But he said that new streams of joint funding from local authorities and private developers had allowed 60 schemes to happen that otherwise would not have gone ahead.
He said: “We have to get our heads round the possibility now that we’re going to have to move very quickly from drought to flood – with river levels very high and very low over a short period of time.
“We used to say we had a traditional flood season in winter – now often it’s in summer. This is an integrated problem – there’s no one thing that going to solve it. The situation is changing all the time.”
But scientists present from the Met Office and CEH said not much could be read into the weird weather. Terry Marsh from CEH said: “Rainfall charts show no compelling long-term trend – the annual precipitation table shows lots of variability.”
Sarah Jackson from the Met Office confirmed that they did not discern any pattern that suggested manmade climate change was at play in UK rainfall – although if temperatures rise as projected in future, that would lead to warmer air being able to carry more moisture to fall as rain.
She said that this year’s conditions were partly caused by a move to a negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation which would be likely to lead to more frequent cold drier winters – like the 1960s – and also wetter summers for 10-20 years.
“Longer term we will see a trend to drier summers but superimposed on that we will always see natural variability,” she said.
Whatever happens with the weather, the Environment Agency expects that more and more people will be protected from floods and droughts thanks to water sharing between farmers, water transfer between water companies, and better management of leaks and demand.
But Mr Mustow admitted that much more needed to be done to ensure that farmers didn’t increase flood risk with land drainage schemes and that developers and builders ensured that new developments allowed water to drain into the soil rather than flushing into the sewers.

Clean Water Act’s Essential Role in Restoring the Great Lakes

                                                                                              Kayaking on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio.

As the Clean Water Act celebrates its 40th anniversary, conservation leaders are asking public officials to not undermine protections which have lead to healthier water to drink; cleaner streams, rivers and lakes in which to swim, fish and play; and dramatically lower rates of natural wetland loss.
“The Clean Water Act has been instrumental in improving our environment and economy for people across the nation,” said Jan Goldman-Carter, senior manager of Wetlands and Water Resources for the National Wildlife Federation. “Unfortunately, over the last decade Clean Water Act protections have been eroding. Public officials need to restore bedrock protections that benefit our health, economy and way of life.”
For the past decade, Clean Water Act protections for wetlands, lakes and streams have been put at risk. Over the past two years, the Clean Water Act has been under relentless attack by some members of Congress. These attacks are jeopardizing drinking water for 117 million Americans and accelerating wetland losses that damage hunting, fishing and wildlife watching.
The Clean Water Act anniversary comes amidst a national commitment to restore the Great Lakes and other iconic U.S. waters. The Great Lakes have received more than $1 billion to restore habitat, clean up toxic pollutants and reduce run-off from farmsand cities.
“Great Lakes restoration projects are producing results, but there is more work to do,” said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. “At a time when the nation is making historic investments to restore the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and other U.S. waters, it does not make sense to undermine those efforts by weakening strong clean water protections.”
The Clean Water Act has been essential in the effort to restore the Great Lakes and the waters which feed it, including streams and wetlands. U.S. Congress passed the law four decades ago, as rivers were catching fire, Lake Erie was declared “dead” and fish and wildlife populations were suffering devastating impacts. Passage of the act—and subsequent infusion of federal funds to help modernize wastewater infrastructure in communities across the region and across the country—helped to dramatically improve water quality.
“Before passage of the Clean Water Act, people treated waterways like open sewers,” said Chuck Matyska, president ofWisconsin Wildlife Federation. “Now, water quality has improved. Fish populations are back. Simply, the Clean Water Act is a winner for people and wildlife.”
Clean water is especially vital to the economy in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fishing, hunting and wildlife-watching generated $36.8 billion per year in those states in 2011.
“For the first time in decades, the number of people fishing and hunting has increased,” said Kent Wood, legislative director forMichigan United Conservation Clubs. “The Clean Water Act has paved the way for healthier habitat and healthier fish and wildlife populations—and that is healthier for the economy as well. Good hunting and fishing opportunities result from abundant wildlife. Wildlife requires good habitat, and good habitat requires clean water. It is a chain. You cannot have one without the other, and it would be a mistake to undermine the progress we’re seeing by weakening the Clean Water Act.”
A recent National Wildlife Federation poll found 79 percent of sportsmen support clean water protections. Families, communities, farmers and businesses large and small depend on clean, healthy waters for their health, jobs and prosperity. The Clean Water Act is essential to keeping our drinking water safe; providing millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat across the country; ensuring abundant clean water for irrigating crops; and bolstering the robust fishery, tourism and outdoor recreation industries.
“A key part of the Clean Water Act has been to give millions of people a voice to protect and improve the waters that they depend on,” said Brian Perbix, grassroots organizer for Prairie Rivers Network. “The act has helped clean up water across the country—but there’s still more to do. Now’s not the time to chisel away at one of the most successful laws in this nation’s history.”

Emerging Asia Hits a Wall of Water

                                                                                                   India's Sardar Sarovar Narmada Dam 

It’s often said that people are a nation’s greatest resource. That can be true, especially with their knowledge and creativity, which can supplement physical resources. But one basic must is hard to think your way around: water.

So it is that the great emerging nations of Asia–China, India, Indonesia–face a wall in their development. All are confronted with either a scarcity of moisture in key regions, or an inability to contain the water that sometimes pours and deliver it in potable form to millions for daily life. The results can be barren fields, destructive floods or sickened populations from exposure to contamination.

Usually the water problem is a natural one of scant rainfall or the absence of topographical means of collection and retention, such as mountains for snowpack or lakes and flowing rivers. Thus you can have monsoons and still be dried out. (Some challenge the notion that this is any longer “natural” by contending that man-made climate change is involved.)

However, even tropical states can be water-constrained when the public infrastructure is so poor that inundation causes bacteria to run off from sewage and other sources and spoil the vital supply. This is the case in booming Indonesia, according to a currently featured article in the country’s fine Strategic Review quarterly.

India has both natural and man-made problems. A recent feature in the licensed edition Forbes India said the country has only 4% of the “total world resource” of water but 18% of the population. It noted: “Deficient monsoons often lead to shortage of drinking and irrigation water. Groundwater is polluted due to poor land practices, atmospheric deposition of pollutants and direct discharge of sewage into water bodies.” Quite a bill of particulars. And then there is controversy when dams have ultimately been attempted.

Forbes India cited a similar predicament in China, with 7% of “resource share” and 19% of global population. The Chinese government, of course, is more proactive on this front, at least in terms of damming and other diversions intended to route precious fluid from the mountainous south to the populous north. What this is doing or will do to areas like the Tibetan Plateau is debated, and it is now difficult for many foreigners to enter that sensitive zone to investigate. China has stumbled on an attempt to dam northern Burma.

(Dams are also a growing issue in the strategic battleground of Central Asia, where the major powers are plying for mineral wealth, whose extraction also takes water.)

So, mere expenditure for mass public works–even if done honestly and efficiently, and not riddled by graft–is not necessarily an easy response to water scarcity. (Few would object to basic water containmentl and purification projects.) There is also, for most nations, the option of the vast sea, if desalination can be afforded. Countries in North Africa and the Middle East have chosen this course as a palliative. It takes a well-stocked Treasury.

A supremely logical approach is to curb waste and misallocation by pricing water. Yet, failure to do so is common, nowhere more egregiously than in India. But this is understandable: where democracy is most rampant, the interests favored by currently free or cheap common water, if numerous, will be most able to keep their booty. Moreover, some who grasp the environmental aspects of water misuse nonetheless have a mental block on invoking the market as a remedy.

So we have a fundamental problem amid rising affluence, one that software code largely cannot solve, especially if politics blocks better allocation. Indonesia should be able to marshal its abundance, given honest government. But unless science somehow can muster rain clouds, much of Asia cannot affordably get “more” of something it needs to grow–and live. At some point, if the policy riddle of unpopular allocation is not solved, this becomes a Malthusian knot. That could trump the wisdom of the “people resource” and sidetrack a very promising growth story.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Protecting and Restoring the Great Lakes

The University of Michigan and 20 other U.S. and Canadian research institutions will join forces to propose a set of long-term research and policy priorities to help protect and restore the Great Lakes and to train the next generation of scientists, attorneys, planners and policy specialists who will study them.

The Great Lakes Futures Project of the Transborder Research University Network will use a cross-disciplinary, cross-sector approach to outlining alternative Great Lakes futures through science-based scenario analysis.
"With the recent release of the revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, this is a critical time to bring together scholars and practitioners from across the region to chart a more protective future for this precious resource," said Donald Scavia, director of U-M's Graham Sustainability Institute.
The Great Lakes basin is home to more than 35 million people -- 30 percent of the Canadian population and 10 percent of the U.S. population. The economic output of the basin is one of the largest in the world (more than $4 trillion gross regional product), and the area is expected to grow by 20 million people over the next 20 years. While the basin contains more than 80 percent of the water in North America and 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water, demands from within and outside the basin are substantial and escalating.
The Great Lakes Futures Project will be led by Irena Creed of Western University, Gail Krantzberg of McMaster University, Kathryn Friedman of SUNY at Buffalo and U-M's Scavia. The project will be managed by Katrina Laurent of Western University.
This unprecedented collaboration of U.S. and Canadian academics, governments, nongovernment organizations, industry and private citizens will address questions such as "How can this water and watershed be managed?" and "What are the environmental, social, economic and political impacts of those management plans?"
The assessment will begin with development of white papers outlining critical drivers of change in the Great Lakes basin over the past 50 years and the next 50 years, including climate change, the economy, biological and chemical contaminants, invasive species, demographics and societal values, governance and geopolitics, energy and water quantity.
These papers will be developed by teams of graduate students from Canadian and U.S. universities under the mentorship of leaders in Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin research and presented at a workshop at U-M in January. The assessments will drive scenario analyses and policy briefs that will be communicated to residents and government officials in both Canada and the U.S.
The Great Lakes Futures Project will also produce scholarly and popular publications and will conduct public events with schools and community groups. In addition, it has the potential to create a binational academic forum, research collaborations and a think tank. This initiative has also laid the foundation for two major federal grant opportunities for training of highly qualified personnel who will work on improving the status of the Great Lakes.
Eighteen U.S. and Canadian universities and colleges have provided cash support to the project. They are: University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, SUNY at Buffalo, Guelph University, McMaster University, Queens University, Trent University, University of Toronto, University of Windsor, Ryerson University, Waterloo University, Western University, York University, McGill University, Seneca College, Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Trois Rivière.
Funding was also provided by the Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and Aquatic Environment, Michigan Sea Grant and New York Sea Grant.
Project officials will recruit students for the next phase of the scenario analysis this fall.
The Transborder Research University Network expands and supports cooperation among research universities in the border region of Canada and United States through collaborative/ consortial research; joint applications for external funding; cooperative academic programs; faculty and student exchanges; shared facilities, library materials and electronic resources; and joint conferences, symposia and workshops.

Green Crude: The Quest to Unlock Algae’s Energy Potential

Earlier this year, Sapphire Energy began producing oil on its 300-acre algae farm in Columbus, New Mexico. By next year, the company hopes to produce about 100 barrels a day at the “green crude farm.” (Sapphire Energy)

Tiny Columbus, New Mexico (population, 1,678) is hot, flat and uncrowded — an ideal place to launch a new green revolution in agriculture. That, in essence, is what a well-funded startup company calledSapphire Energy wants to do: It is turning a 300-acre expanse of desert scrub into the world’s largest algae farm designed to produce crude oil. Sapphire began making oil there in May, and its goal is to produce about 100 barrels a day, or 1.5 million gallons a year, of oil, once construction of the “green crude farm” is completed next year.

“We take algae, CO2, water and sunlight, and then we refine it,” says Cynthia Warner, the chief executive of Sapphire, who joined the company after working for more than 20 years at oil-company giants Amoco and BP. Algae, she says, has the potential to change the world, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and enabling almost any country to make its own oil. “This technology is so compelling — and it will make such a big difference — that, once it gets out of the gate, it will ramp up very quickly,” Warner says.

Sapphire is one of scores of companies worldwide that today are making biofuels from microalgae, albeit on a small scale, according to the Algae Biomass Organization, a trade group. Solazyme, which is arguably the industry leader, last year sold an algae-derived jet fuel to United Airlines, which used it to fly a Boeing 737-800 from Houston to Chicago — the first time a commercial jet flew using a biofuel made using algae. Synthetic Genomics, a company founded by geneticist J. Craig Venter and financed by ExxonMobil, is building an algae farm in the Imperial Valley of southern California. Other algae farms are under development in Hawaii, by Phycal, and in Karratha, Australia, by Aurora Algae, and in Florida, by Algenol. In Europe, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall and Italy’s Enel Group have been using algae, which is then made into fuel or food, to absorb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and Algae-Tec, an Australia-based company, has agreed to operate an algae-based biofuel plant in Europe to supply Lufthansa with jet fuel.

Although scientists and entrepreneurs have been trying to unlock the energy potential of algae for more than three decades, they don’t yet agree on how to go about it. Some companies grow algae in ponds, others grow them in clear plastic containers, and others keep their algae away from sunlight, feeding them sugars instead. To improve the productivity of the algae, some scientists use conventional breeding and others turn to genetic engineering. “Algae is the most promising source of renewable transportation fuel that we have today,” says Steve Kay, a distinguished professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, and co-founder of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, a partnership of research institutions, business, and government.

And yet there’s plenty of reason for skepticism about algae. Scientists and entrepreneurs have been trying for decades to unlock algae’s energy potential, with mixed results. After the 1970s oil shocks, the U.S. government created an algae research program that analyzed more than 3,000 strains of the tiny organisms; the program was shut down in 1996, after the Department of Energy concluded that algal biofuels would cost too much money to compete with fossil fuels. A decade later, after President George W. Bush declared that the U.S. is “addicted to oil,” government research into algae was restarted, and venture capital flowed into dozens of algae startups. Oil companies ExxonMobil and Chevron placed bets, too.

But algae companies haven’t made much oil yet: Sapphire’s annual production target of 1.5 million gallons for 2014 compares to U.S. daily oil consumption of 18.8 million barrels. Even algae’s most enthusiastic advocates say that commercialization of algal biofuels, on a scale that that would matter to the environment or the energy industry, is at least five to 10 years away.

High costs remain the big obstacle to commercial production. The algae business has suffered from “fantastic promotions, bizarre cultivation systems, and absurd productivity projections.” says John Benemann, an industry consultant and Ph.D. biochemist who has spent more than 30 years working on algae. Even if the capital costs and operating costs of algae farms are low, and the productivity of the algae is improved, Benemann says that “algae biofuels cannot compete with fossil energy based on simple economics… The real issue is that an oil field will deplete eventually, while an algae pond would be sustainable indefinitely.” In a thorough 2010 technology assessment, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that producing oil from algae grown in ponds at scale would cost between $240 and $332 a barrel, far higher than current petroleum prices.

Perhaps more worrisome, government scientists say the environmental benefits of algae remain unproven. Writing in American Scientist, Philip T. Pienkos, Lieve Laurens and Andy Aden, all of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, say that the few life-cycle assesements of algae done so far have shown “unpromising energy returns and weak greenhouse gas benefits.” By phone, Pienkos acknowledged that, in theory, algae should produce low-carbon fuels because the CO2 emitted when the fuels are burned is absorbed from the air when algae grow. But, he says, calculating the true sustainability benefits of algae requires doing a detailed study of inputs and outputs and “that will be difficult until big algae farms are built.”

So why continue to pursue the algae dream? Because algae, even skeptics say, are remarkable little creatures that could someday realize their potential as energy producers. Algae are easy to grow, as any owner of a background swimming pool knows (and as does the U.S. National Park Service, which this month began draining the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool to remove a sea of green). Algae grow rapidly, reaching maturity in days. They absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. They thrive in fresh, saline or brackish water. And they don’t compete with food crops for land.According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, algae yield more lipids, or oil, than other biomass feedstock — as much as 30 times more per unit of land when compared to terrestrial oilseed crops like palm and soy.

What’s needed now are concentrated efforts to deploy all the tools of modern agriculture to bring down the costs of growing algae, harvesting the crop, and extracting its oil. That’s the focus of all the algae startups. In New Mexico, for example, Sapphire is trying to drive extraneous costs out of its ponds (do they need plastic liners, or will dirt do?), out of the process of removing algae and returning water to the ponds, and out of the thermo-chemical process used to separate oil from the algae. “Each step requires multi-disciplinary, multi-year R&D,” Warner says.

None of this comes cheap: Sapphire has raised $300 million from investors including venture capitalists Arch Venture Partners and Venrock, British charity The Wellcome Trust, and Cascade Investment, which manages the personal fortune of Bill Gates. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded Sapphire a $50 million grant in 2009, and the company has secured a $54.4 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Solazyme experimented with open-pond technology in the late 2000s before deciding to abandon the sun (though it kept the “sola” in its name). The company now grows its algae indoors, in big industrial fermenters in a factory in Peoria, Ill., and feeds them biomass such as sugarcane or corn stover. In an email interview, Solzayme’s CEO, Jonathan Wolfson, said, “The economics for producing oil via open ponds was simply not viable in a time frame that would work for our commercialization plans. While algae is a prolific oil producer, it is far from the most economic way to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into sugars, which is the first step in making oils.”

By engineering its algae to perform whatever task is at hand, Solazyme says it has developed for the first time in history “the ability to design oil rather than simply use what’s available in nature.” The company makes not just transportation fuels, but oils for food products including cakes, cookies and ice cream; personal care products like soaps and detergents; and chemical products like lubricants and surfactants. Serving a variety of markets enabled Solazyme to attract investment from the likes of Chevron, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, and Unilever, and to generate enough revenue so the company could go public last year. (Its current market value is about $650 million.) More important, Solazyme plans to grow its production capacity faster than its rivals — it says it will produce about 142 million gallons a year of renewable oil by 2015.

By far the biggest opportunity to reduce the costs of algal fuels lies within the algae. Just as crop scientists have bred corn and wheat to improve yields, with spectacular results, the algae companies are using conventional breeding and genetic modification to develop strains of algae to grow faster, yield more oil, and repel pests.

Venter’s Synthetic Genomics is going a step further, studying natural algae in order to design, from scratch, a plant of its own. Venter was not available for an interview but he told Scientific American last year: “Everybody is looking for a naturally occurring algae that is going to be a miracle cell to save the world and, after a century of looking, people still haven’t found it. We hope we’re different.” Venter noted that genetic tools “give us a new approach: being able to rewrite the genetic code and get cells to do what we want them to do.”

For now, Synthetic Genomes is growing algae in a greenhouse in La Jolla, Calif. The company recently acquired 81 acres of land in the California desert, near a power plant that is expected to be a source of cheap CO2. Like the other algae companies, Venter’s venture is well financed. ExxonMobil has promised the company $300 million over the next decade, provided that its research and development milestones are met; other backers include BP and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Venter admits that success is by no means guaranteed, and that patience will be required to see the benefits of algae. Algae plants may grow in days, but a real algae industry will need years, if not decades, to reach maturity.

by marc

Water Scarcity Compounds India’s Food Insecurity

      A woman carries firewood in Gujarat on Aug. 6, 2012, as others rest under a tree after they migrated because of a water shortage. Reuters photo: Ahmad Masood

Since India’s independence, the mammoth task of feeding its hundreds of millions, most of whom are extremely poor, has been a major challenge to policymakers. In the coming decades, the issue of food insecurity is likely to affect almost all Indians. However, for the poorest amongst us, it could be catastrophic. India ranks 65 of 79 countries in the Global Hunger Index. This is extremely alarming.
In the past few years, uneven weather patterns combined with over exploited and depleting water resources in various parts of India have wreaked havoc on food security, particularly for small and marginal farmers, as well as the rural poor.
The recently launched Global Food Security Index (GFSI) estimates that in 2012, there are 224 million Indians, around 19 percent of the total population, who are undernourished. The same report also estimates that while the Indian government has various institutions designed to deal with the impact of inflation on food prices, it only spends 1 percent of agricultural GDP on research to build food security for the poorest. Overall, India ranked 66th on the GFSI. It is estimated that one in four of the world’s malnourished children is in India, more even than in sub-Saharan Africa.
Water insecurity, further exacerbated by climate change, is arguably the most important factor for India’s food security. India’s total water availability per capita is expected to decline to 1,240 cubic metres per person per year by 2030, perilously close to the 1,000 cubic metre benchmark set by the World Bank as ‘water scarce’.
Factors such as increasing usage, poor infrastructure, and pollution have led to a decline of water quantity and quality in India. Climate change, meanwhile, is expected to cause a two-fold impact.
One, increasing temperatures have hastened the rate of melt of the Himalayan glaciers, upon which major Indian rivers like the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra depend.
Second, the effect of climate change on monsoons in India will cause them to become more erratic, arriving earlier or later and lasting for shorter, more intense periods of time. India’s farming communities depend overwhelmingly on the monsoon, as their cropping patterns are built around it. The combined effect of climate change and over exploitation is violating the water cycle, degrading aquifers and  eroding ground water resources.
Over 50 percent of agricultural land in India depends entirely on groundwater. In North and Northeast India, where perennial rivers (rivers that have water year round, i.e. glacier fed rivers in India, such as the Ganges) sustain the agricultural land, have to deal with issues such as flooding caused by climate change impacts such as speedier glacier melt and erratic monsoons.
Meanwhile, farmers in states in West and South India, where rivers are seasonal, have to depend heavily on rapidly depleting groundwater resources.
The worst affected by this type of water-fuelled food insecurity are the small farmers of India. Estimates suggest that between 1995 and 2010, over 2,50,000 farmers in India, mostly from states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, killed themselves. Most of these farmers were drowning in vicious cycles of debt caused by failed monsoons and increasing droughts.
Responses to this crisis, including the National Action Plan on Climate Change, lay out various solutions and intended interventions, but most focus on the long term. To secure the future of India’s water resources vis-à-vis its agriculture in the future, it is important that certain steps be taken immediately. First and foremost, authorities will have to remove the mindset that water is an endless resource and the solution to water woes is simply a further development of India’s fast depleting groundwater.
Indeed, Dr. Mihir Shah, co-Founder, Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) and member of the Planning Commission of India has stated that the ‘era of further water development may be over’ and emphasized that we have to urgently introduce more efficient water management. In this regard, promotion of irrigation efficiency will be crucial in the future.
Systems such as drip irrigation and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to farmers across India will be essential. It will also be necessary to promote water conservation methods such as rain water harvesting, which has been successful in urban India, in villages as well.
At the same time, reducing inefficiencies and water wastage through conveyance losses will require governmental and NGO support in actions such as replacing faulty pipes and pumps.  Hence, India needs to invest on improving its water productivity, and any capacity to produce more food like rice with less water will be an important contribution to sustainable water and food security.
In short, India is facing a bleak future of becoming water scarce and painfully food insecure. How exactly are the country’s hundreds of millions, who depend entirely on agriculture for their livelihoods, as well as those that depend on agriculture for their food needs, to make ends meet?
Delaying this issue is simply not an option for India as this could lead to increased instability, poor human development and enhance inter-generational poverty. India needs to ensure food security through sustainable development and create resilience amongst the most vulnerable in the country: the poor.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Water, Water, Not Everywhere

Few people in the world are more water-conscious than California farmers.
The state leads the nation in farm revenue and produces nearly half of the domestic supply of fruits, nuts and vegetables. It also boasts nine of the top 10 producing counties in the nation, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Yet California is one of the driest states in the U.S., getting an average of just 22 inches of precipitation annually compared with more than 40 inches for states like Missouri and New York. And, with nearly 40 million people, California is also the most populous state—meaning there's a lot of competition for that precious rain and snow.
How do the farmers make do with so little water? They use technology and the state's topography to stretch existing supplies as far as they can. "If you have limited water supplies, you have to be as careful and efficient as you can with it," says Larry Schwankl, an irrigation expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
The efficiencies start at the northern end of the Central Valley, the 400-mile corridor that's home to most of the state's farmland. There, farmers along the Sacramento River use a system called flow-through, which means that the water they take but don't use flows back into the river by a network of valves and drains.
As water flows to the driest southern reaches of the valley via the California Aqueduct, many farmers use drip irrigation, microsprinklers and extensively plumbed groundwater caverns—filled with runoff from the Sierra Nevada—to maximize their water usage.
Daniel Errotabere, for instance, says his 5,200-acre farm's conversion to drip irrigation over the past five years has helped yield water savings as high as 50%—helping to cushion the blow during the most recent drought. "You can't deliver water much more efficiently than what we are doing today," Mr. Errotabere said on a recent tour of the farm near Riverdale, Calif.
The accompanying images outline how irrigation and water conservation work in California's Central valley.

Last Call At The Oasis

Although it covers 70 percent of the earth's surface, there is a very real possibility that in the near future, there won't be enough water to sustain life on the planet. This documentary illuminates the vital role water plays in our lives, exposes the defects in the current system and shows communities already struggling with its ill-effects and individuals championing revolutionary solutions. Firmly establishing the urgency of the global water crisis as the central issue facing our world this century, the film posits that we can manage this problem if we are willing to act now.

Inspired by the book "The Ripple Effect" by Alex Prud'homme, "Last Call at the Oasis," is from Participant Media, the company that brought you "Page One," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Food, Inc.," and "Waiting for Superman."

Reverse Osmosis to Rescue Water Scarcity in the Dead Sea

Engineers and scientists are expected to use Reverse Osmosis (RO) technology to merge the Dead and the Red seas under the “Two Seas Canal Project” worth 10 billion dollars.
RO, occurs when water is moved across a membrane against a concentration gradient from lower to higher concentration, under pressure to force ions, molecules and bacteria to be filtered, which is used purposely for the commercial desalination of seawater.
The project, to run in three-phases would be financed through international and multi-national institutions with counterpart funding from beneficiary countries, namely, Palestine, Jordan and Israel, would haul in 700,000 cubic metres of water into the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, a distance of 180 kilometres.
Results of feasibility studies and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) supported by the World Bank and other donors are yet to be released for concrete works to commence. 
The region is witnessing water scarcity with its main freshwater source, the River Jordan, which has kept shrinking in size and posing declines in its annual flow from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters per year to less than 30 million cubic meters annually.
With Israel, Jordan and Syria, each grabbing as much clean water as they could, it is ironically the sewage that is keeping the river alive today.
In fact, water scarcity is a disincentive to many in the agriculture and industrial sectors as well as for domestic consumption, largely due to urbanization, pollution and global warming.
Mr Batir Wardam, environment expert and researcher, said the project, though ambitious, is expected to revive the biodiversity and water scarcity in the region.
He called for use of science to distinguish between myths and reality while urging the media to lead the crusade by setting the right agenda.
General Secretary of the Ministry of Water, Mr Bassem Talfah, said the situation is scary, which demands prompt action hence the invitation to the private sector to strike partnership with to government to diversify funding and implementation of the project.
He said the sector needs higher investment portfolios resulting from higher financial outlays in production cost stating that this manifests in a financial gap of One Billion Jordanian Dinar.
Mr Khaled Irani, President of Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, said the problem of water scarcity is not only a humanitarian issue but economic as well.
“Sixty-six percent of water is imported into Jordan of which 15 percent goes into agricultural activities. We cannot wait for the commencement of this project as its prospects are overwhelming.”  
He entreated stakeholders to avoid knee-jerk reactions even as the recommendations are released and positive that the project would provide an alternative means for water in the country and beyond.
Contrarily, Dr Samir Mahmoud, media expert, said double-political commitment was needed to actualize the Two-Seas canal project as it is “haunted by political inactivity.”
“With the pace of development and disregard for timelines, the canal project will not see the light of day now, not within the next two decades,” he suggested.

He said merging the two seas would have an environmental catastrophe for Jordan, especially for occupying the lowest bit of the project.
Dr Mahmoud explained that Jordan’s location with increased salinity could be a bouquet for destabilization of the ecology in relation to marine life and culture of the Dead Sea.

Nigeria: Flood - Danger Looms in Lagos

Dr. Akintola Omigbodun is an expert in flood management. In this interview, he says the floods ravaging many states in Nigeria are avoidable. Omigbodun, who fielded questions from Vanguard editors during a visit to the media house, last week, also deplores the Ministry of Water Resources' handling of the crisis and warns that there are grave dangers ahead for Lagos and Ogun states should the water in Oyan Dam not be properly managed.
You are an expert on environmental issues, particularly flooding. What got the flooding story in Nigeria started and was it avoidable?
There is a dam across the River Benue in Cameroon called Lagdo Dam. This dam is about 40meters high. Its storage capacity is about half of what is found in Kainji Lake Dam. And at full flow, if equipment was installed in it, it could possibly generate 700 megawatts of electricity. But the equipment is limited and is only generating about 20 megawatts.
They are also supposed to have an irrigation scheme in that dam. The result is that the dam is storing a huge amount of water and is not being used for any purpose. In the event of so much rainfall like what we have now, the people around the dam would become terrified that it might be overtopped. So the authorities release additional water from the dam.
What we get now is a lot more than what we would get. If there was no dam, the water will continue to flow day in day out. But when you put a dam, you are controlling the flow of water; when you now suddenly release the water because you are afraid your dam will overtop, then it will result to releasing much water. The Lagdo Dam has been flooding every year, just that this year is exceptional. Communities in Cameroon are also flooded. There is a town called Garua; every year, that place is flooded. But in order to save Nigeria, the Cameroonian government should lower their operational level, otherwise, every year, most Nigerian communities will continue to be flooded.
Can we know more about this operational level that you want the Cameroonian authorities to lower?
What really happened was that they opened the gate of their dam. The actual water released from that dam from 1992 to 2002 showed that they opened a number of gates at higher percentages. Floods are associated with rainfall, water courses, streams, rivers, dams and reservoirs where water behind dams are stored. Rainfall is natural while dams and their reservoirs are hand made and are therefore subject to human control. Dam owners and operators are expected to exercise control over the water behind their dams such that in years of heavy rainfall and for singular rainfall events, water passing through the dams does not damage infrastructure or create floods. Earthquakes are natural events and, when they occur in certain regions, there is considerable damage to buildings and other social infrastructure. However, in some areas such as Tokyo in Japan, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the United States, buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes. Damage from natural occurrences can be limited through appropriate human action. For example, the Netherlands has over two-thirds of its economy and half its population below sea level. The Netherlands has about 350km of coastline on the North Sea and major rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt passing through on their way to the North Sea. The Netherlands has an active coastal and river flood management programme to keep the country flood-proof and maintain its prosperity.
Our experience in Nigeria suggests that dam operators should prepare for heavy rainfall within the next 20 years and for singular rainfall events leading to exceptional floods within the next 35years.
Is there a nexus between the Dam in Cameroon, and the River Benue and the flooding of the Oyan Dam?
There is no physical connection. What we have is operational connection. They (Cameroon) are storing a lot of water in the lake and they are not doing much with it. And when the water is much, they release it and the released water causes flooding.
If they release it in small quantity, it would not have effect, but when they release the water in large quantity, it results to flooding. The Osun River is not in any way connected to the Ogun River or the Niger. That tells you that there is no physical connection. I am hoping that government will live up to expectations. I have personally involved the Ministry of Environment and I must say that I am disappointed with their level of involvement in the crisis. They are just being arrogant.
The Minister of Water Resources has not lived up to expectation and I have met with the Director of Water Resources and I could not get him to do anything. I have also written to the Attorney General of the Federation on the Oyan Dam, so that they can do something about it. We must understand that the dams are designed to have spillways and the spillways guide the release of water. The people are suffering as a result of the flooding and government has to rise to the challenges posed by the flood.
We have River Ogun which starts in Oyo North. And there is a dam in Iseyin. That dam is about 47meters high. There is also a tributary of the Ogun River which also has a dam.
At the moment, the Okere Dam is not gated. There is no gate and water flows over. The dam is supposed to provide irrigation and also generate power. What is important is that the dam is supposed to provide water for Iseyin and environs. Following the non-utilisation of the dam for various purposes, there is huge storage of water. All the things that caused the flooding in Lagos and Ogun are under the control of Ogun River Basin Authority. They should manage the dams in such a way that we do not have flood in the areas of their mandate. We are about to be flooded again like what happened in 2010 and 2011.
I have had experience of the floods along the River Ogun in Ogun State and Lagos State in 2007, 2010 and 2011. The flood path is over 27km long and is up to 4km wide in places. The flood level in 2010 was 0.5m higher than the level of 2007. The River Ogun system has two major dams, the Okere Gorge Dam on the River Ogun at Okere Village 28km north east of Iseyin in Oyo State and the Oyan Dam located about 20km northwest of Abeokuta on the River Oyan, a tributary of the River Ogun.
The Okere Gorge Dam is ungated while the Oyan Dam is gated. The Federal Ministry of Water Resources has been asked to direct that the freeboard in the reservoir behind Oyan Dam should be increased by 4meters as an interim measure pending appropriate studies and a construction programme along the River Ogun from Oyan Dam to Lagos flood plains. Put simply, the floods now taking place yearly at Isheri North, the Lagos wetlands communities and parts of Ogun State and the River Oyan Dam were not built on the River Oyan respectively, floods will occur in the Lagos flood plains within the intervals of 10years and 25years.
With the construction of both dams, floods should no longer occur in the Lagos flood plains if both dams are being operated in accordance with their designs. In the exceptional situation, floods may occur once in 50 years.
For the months of August, September, October for years 1992 to 2002, it was only in August 1993 that there was water release. Presently, exceptional release of water takes place yearly in August, September and October. This was observed in 2007, 20010 and 2011. A greater part of the area covered by flood water in 2007 qualified to be included in the disaster area as opposed to the flood plains of the River Ogun. For example, a newspaper published on Friday, November 4, 2011 that the Itowolo Community Primary School Ikorodu started experiencing flood in 2007. The report indicated that the community was founded over 200 years ago and the community never experienced flood until 2007. Further, when the school was established 30years previously, there was no sign that the school would be affected by water.
Why does flood incidence wreaks so much havoc in the face of the existence of River Basin Authorities? Does it mean that the River Basins are no longer working?
The law establishing River Basin Development Authorities all over Nigeria, which is the River Basins Development Authorities, RBDAs, Act Chapter R9 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, required RBDAs to control floods in their areas of operations. Under section 4(1) of this Act, part of the functions of the RBDAs is to undertake comprehensive development of both surface and underground water resources for multi-purpose use with particular emphasis on the provision of irrigation infrastructure and the control of floods and erosion and for watershed management. The river basin is also established to construct, operate and maintain dams, dykes, wells, boreholes, irrigation and drainage systems, and other works necessary for the achievement of the authority's functions and handover to be cultivated under irrigation scheme to the farmers.
However, they have not been performing their functions well. Even though the Ogun River Basin Authority is responsible for what we are experiencing here in Lagos, we are not taking them to court because of my not pleasant experiences in Nigeria's judicial system. The truth is that the flood in Lagos and some parts of Ogun State is entirely avoidable.
It is regrettable that the river basins are not working. For example, when I met the General Manager of Sokoto River Basin Authority, he told me that he only had three qualified staff to work with. Why should the government continue to award new contracts to build new dams, when they have not properly managed the ones they have?
Some have attributed this flooding disaster to climate change. Do you in anyway see climate change as a factor?
We should not be talking of climate change and sea level rise as the cause of the flooding because they are measurable. What the New York City panel on climate change said was that the figures of rainfall analysis from 1970 to 2000 indicated that rainfall and snow will only be ten percent different from 1970 to 2000. The rainfall in 1991 for Abeokuta and Iseyin in 1990 was higher than what we have today. People who are doing research on climate change have come up that there are variations in the rate of rainfall in West Africa. That implies that there are years of low rainfall and years of high rainfall change have variables that are measurable. What is needed to be done in the case of Oyan Dam is to lower the operational level by 4 meters.
What can be done proactively to forestall further damages by flood?
The best thing is for the government to perform its functions. I don't think the government is deaf to newspaper publications, even if they are deaf to letters, because I have written in the past and present on how to avoid the present damages that the flood is unleashing all over the country. What we are saying is that they should take correct measures so that we don't experience this kind of disaster again, because the chances of occurring again are real. The water we are seeing in the Niger Delta is River Niger and Benue water, because there is exceptional rainfall in Kainji and Lagdo Dams.
They were forced to release water. In River Benue, for instance, they wait for the water to be so much high before they release it. Government should realise that they are losing economically to the flooding. It affects our GDP and well-being.
My message is that the losses we are encountering as a result of the flood is avoidable. Definitely the flood would unleash food crisis on the nation, because farmers would lose their crops to the flood. We experienced a similar thing in Sokoto in 2010 when the Goronyo Dam wreaked havoc. The same thing will happen as a result of this year's disaster, especially for those that planted by the river side.