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Thursday:  November 20, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in climate (7)

Wednesday
Aug152012

Oceans suffering from sea sickness, says study (REPORT) 

(Video: Learn just how much we owe these vast ocean habitats/Conservation International)

(HN, 8/15/12) - Seychelles and Germany have the healthiest seas of any inhabited territory, while Sierra Leone has the unhealthiest, according to a new index that says many oceans score poorly for biodiversity and as a human resource.

Topping the list with a score of 86 out of 100 was the uninhabited South Pacific territory of Jarvis Island, owned by the United States, as well as a clutch of other unpopulated Pacific Ocean islands.

The Seychelles, one of only two developing nations in the top 12, ranked fourth with a score of 73 out of 100 -- the same as that of Germany.

(PHOTO: Ocean Inquiry Project) The index was devised by researchers in the US and Canada who measured whether the world's oceans are able to provide food and recreation while also sustaining sea life.

They examined the overall condition of 171 exclusive economic zones (EEZs) - sea areas managed by coastal countries and stretching up to 200 nautical miles into the ocean.

The 171 EEZs represent 40 percent of the world's ocean, but yield the bulk of sea-derived food, recreation and means of livelihood.

Put together, the EEZs scored 60 out of 100, suggesting "substantial room for improvement", said a report in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

"Humans undoubtedly have substantial negative impacts on the ocean, and index scores are negatively correlated with coastal human population," it said.

Nearly half of the world's seven billion people live near the coast.

Developing countries in West Africa, the Middle East and Central America generally scored poorly, while richer nations in northern Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan had higher scores.

There were some notable exceptions, with developing country Suriname joining Seychelles in the top 12 while Poland and Singapore from the first world were ranked among the worst performers.

(MAP: Jarvis Island, South Pacific/Wikipedia) The lowest score of 36 went to the West African state of Sierra Leone.

The researchers measured the oceans in 10 categories including food provision, their ability to support coastal livelihoods and economies, clean water, coastal protection, artisanal fishing, carbon storage, tourism and biodiversity.

"The index is an important tool to assess where we've been and where we want to go," study co-author Benjamin Halpern, of the Center for Marine Assessment and Planning at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told AFP.

"This is the first time that we can quantitatively and directly compare and combine hugely different dimensions -- ecological, social, economic, political -- that define a healthy ocean."

He added the index only looked at how each nation managed its own EEZ, not on how they were affecting those of other countries.

 - This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post.  

Thursday
Jun282012

Rio+20 and the road ahead (PERSPECTIVE) 

(PHOTO: Protestors in Rio de Janeiro at Rio+20 last week/YnetNewsBy Antonio Patriota

Rio+20 is a landmark for the future. As more than 190 countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro last week for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, we witnessed a historic moment. The recent global crisis shows that old-fashioned views about development are misleading. It is now time to rethink the very foundations of how we consider development, wellbeing and wealth.

Over the past four decades, the world has increasingly realized that our natural resources are under serious pressure.

A growing awareness of the need to ensure sustainability has led a new generation to consider the requirements of sustainable development in its decisions to produce or consume. This is no small achievement. Rio 1992 was a major step forward. Important legal texts on key issues were adopted. These conventions ensured important progress that we must maintain and build on.

We now face a complex challenge. Protecting the environment is not enough. We need to encourage public and private decision-makers to incorporate environmental and social concerns into economic planning and growth strategies. This will require a new thinking from policymakers, experts, business people, project managers and many other public and private actors in order to plan and implement sustainable development initiatives.

From now on, a three-dimensional approach to development is crucial, one that combines social, economic and environmental concerns. Rio+20 is the launch pad for this new development model. This is why one of the main topics of Rio+20 was to build consensus around the need for "sustainable development goals". They offer a blueprint for international cooperation on sustainable development for years to come.

In order to achieve this result, Brazil decided to adopt new methods. Innovative tools for multilateral meetings were introduced, bringing national governments and global civil society together. Through an online platform, more than 1 million votes were cast, expressing views on 10 issues related to the conference. Topics ranged from energy and water to sustainable cities and food security. During four days in Rio, sharing the venue of the summit, experts, businessmen, activists and journalists engaged in live debates and streamlined the proposals that will be handed to the heads of state and government. It was so successful that the United Nations is now considering turning this initiative into a standard practice for future summits.

Rio+20 involves an assessment of the past 20 years and allows for a look into the next few decades. We are confident that this message will echo through the years, fostering new initiatives which can lead to a more sustainable future for all.

-- Antonio Patriota is minister of external relations, Brazil. The views expressed by the author are personal. This commentary originally appeared HERE in the Hindustan Times.

Thursday
May242012

Two Worlds, One Climate (PERSPECTIVE) 

 

(Video Modeling Climate/FrontierScientists)

By Peter Passell

Climate change, we are often told, is everyone's problem. And without a lot of help containing greenhouse gas emissions from rapidly growing emerging market countries (not to mention a host of wannabes), the prospects of avoiding disaster are small to nil. Now you tell us, retort policymakers in the have-less countries: How convenient of you to discover virtue only after two centuries of growth and unfettered carbon emissions. Since you were the ones to get us into this mess, it's your job to get us out. (The United States' what-me-worry posture on climate change does not, of course, make the West's efforts to co-opt the moral high ground any more convincing.)

This clash of wills is a bit more nuanced than that, but not much. Almost all the net growth in greenhouse gas emissions for the last two decades - and more than half the total emissions today - is coming from the developing world. What's more, most of the cheap opportunities for reducing emissions are to be found in the same countries. But as a matter of equity, it's hard to argue with "you've had your turn, now it's ours." And it's equally hard to see how the stalemate will be resolved before the world goes to hell in a plague of locusts (in some places, literally).

(PHOTO: Trucks carrying waste in China/FP)The carbon emissions stats by country are startling, and would be even more startling if we had comprehensive numbers for years since 2009.  Carbon emissions from OECD countries grew by 8% between 1990 and 2009, while emissions from the rest of the world grew by 73% (albeit from a smaller base). Breaking down the latter by country: China's emissions were up 207%, India's by 173%, Indonesia's by 165%, Vietnam's 563% (!!) and the Middle East's by 171%.

If you have any doubts about where the emissions containment opportunities lie, consider this:  In 2009, non-OECD countries generated four times as much carbon emissions per unit of GDP (at prevailing exchange rates) as OECD countries. Granted, these numbers don't look as bad if GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power rather than exchange rates. But this is one of the few instances in which GDP comparisons at international exchange rates probably make more sense, because they offer better insight into a future in which consumption patterns across countries are likely to converge; that not-so-distant day when Indians drive cars to work instead of riding bicycles, and virtually everyone who experiences winter in emerging-market countries takes the chill off with central heating.

But those focused on social justice rather than efficiency point to yet another set of numbers. While most developing countries waste fossil fuel because their heating, cooking, lighting and motorized transportation depend on older, fuel-guzzling technologies, they are still too poor to consume enough in total to leave much of a carbon footprint.  Indeed, emissions per person in non-OECD countries are just 30% that of OECD countries.

(GRAPH: Carbon cycle in the atmosphere/WikipediaBolivians, for example, emitted 1,300 kilos of CO2 per person in 2009, compared to 16,900 kilos per person in the United States. Resident of tropical Nigeria emitted a mere 266 kilos each, compared to 9,000 each in tropical Singapore. All told, those living in poor - and middle-income countries do emit more than half of all carbon emissions - but only because there are so many of them.

There's another element here that distinguishes developed from developing countries. If, as expected, climate change brings rising sea levels and more severe weather of every sort -  droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornados - the rich countries will muddle through with dykes, crops redesigned to survive drought, more air conditioning and the like. It will be expensive, but manageable, unless global warming triggers truly destabilizing changes, like the release of vast quantities of methane gas from now-frozen arctic tundra.

But the rich countries' travails may well be poor countries' damnation: the inundation of Pacific islands, catastrophic storm surges on the Bengal plain, the collapse of farm yields in semi-arid parts of Africa, and the spread of insect-vectored disease in the warmer, wetter parts. So, fair or not, poor countries have every reason to make emissions priority-one, right?

Maybe, and maybe not. The iconoclastic, Nobel Prize winning economist Tom Schelling has long argued that our interests diverge from theirs. What poor countries need most, he says, is to invest in economic growth, which will give them the income to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Roads must be paved to prevent the isolation of rural areas in heavy rains; sea walls must be built to protect coastal cities; canals must be dug to irrigate drought-prone land; emergency infrastructure must be created to minimize loss of life in weather-related disasters.

So poor countries would be foolish to divert scarce capital to emissions containment, which has only a "second-order" impact on their own welfare. Spending a dollar would, in effect, generate two cents' worth of benefits for themselves, and 98 cents' worth for the rest of the world.

(PHOTO: A climate demonstration in Oslo, Norway during 2010 global meeting/RNIf all this sounds like a recipe for righteous posturing and diplomatic delay, go to the head of the class. Environmental policymakers and pundits, who once expected to build on the foundation of the Kyoto Treaty to create a truly collective effort to contain emissions, are now thinking smaller. The European Union, for example, is going its own way, investing heavily in emissions reduction in hope that others will be shamed into following its lead.

The containment part is more or less working: European emissions declined by 12% between 1990 and 2009. But the shame part isn't. China is reducing emissions per unit of GDP, mostly as a consequence of adding productive capacity that is far more energy-efficient than "legacy" capacity. But it is nonetheless widening its lead as emitter number one because the GDP is growing so rapidly. And there is no sign that the other big emerging market economies are planning to mend their emitting ways.

Must we then just accept the reality that the developing half of the global economy won't lend a hand in climate change containment? The rich countries might bully where blandishments fail, by imposing tariffs, for example, on imports that are less than green. Might, but probably won't: The United States, in particular, is in no position (geopolitical or financial) to complicate its relationships with either China or India. Besides, it's far from clear that such tariffs would meet the standards of the World Trade Organization.

(PHOTO: Drought/GreenguideA more plausible option - one that appeals in terms of both economic efficiency and social justice - would be to buy their cooperation. Europe already has in place incentives for businesses to invest in emissions-sparing activities in developing countries: For example, paying landowners in Africa to sequester carbon by growing trees on scrubland. By the same token, one could imagine western governments paying their counterparts in the tropics to lock up forest land that would otherwise give way to logging and grazing.

But the scale of such initiatives is probably limited by the inherent accounting ambiguities. How would you know, for example, that the forest wouldn't be preserved, anyway? Even more to the point, how would one verify that a government, paid to build natural-gas-fired power plants rather than coal ones, would have gone that way without the incentive?

Arguably, the most promising approach to gaining the cooperation of emerging market countries lies in innovation. It wouldn't take much persuasion to get developing countries to adopt technologies that are climate-friendlier if they are also cheaper than emissions-as-usual.

(PHOTO: Floods in Dhaka, Bangladesh/B24One could certainly imagine government-subsidized R&D that cut the cost of solar panels by 90%, or transformed the hydrogen-producing artificial leaf into a viable source of fuel.

The idea of a global grand bargain in which emerging market countries would join the west in an ambitious, cost-minimizing containment program is dead. The best hope, at least for now, is a pragmatic search for common ground, one that appeals to the angels but relies on self-interest.

A decade late and a trillion dollars short, you say? To paraphrase a former secretary of defense, you go to war with the army you've got, not the one you'd like to have.

- This Commentary originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Saturday
Mar312012

Fiji Floods Wreck Havoc: Cause Travel, Health Concerns (NEWS)

(Video: TV1, Fiji)

(HN, March 31, 2012) - One person has died and five others are missing in Fiji as sudden widespread flooding is causing havoc on the main island of Viti Levu.  Flash floods have cut highways in half and forced evacuations along the island's west coast, with some residents waiting out the rising water on rooftops.

The first victim was a woman from Lomolomo and the five missing were in a vehicle swept away by raging floodwaters along the Nadi Back Road.

Since Thursday, continuous heavy rainfall has resulted in towns, settlements and villages in the Western Division being submerged for the second time this year.  What's made the current situation different is the influx of calls for assistance from people stranded in their homes and businesses.

(PHOTO: Flooding in Nadi/FijiTimes) Workers at a Nadi resort frantically called The Fiji Times office in Lautoka after calls for assistance went unanswered for more than six hours as close to a dozen hotel staff - including a 2 year old baby - were left stranded on the property situated near Martintar in Nadi. 

The National Fire Authority said 11 evacuation centers have opened, although no figures detailing how many people were sheltering were immediately available. The country's rescue units were heavily engaged, speeding through rising floodwaters to help people tho itself asking for boats to help with the rescue efforts.  Emergency services were stretched in what has been described as the worst floods ever.

Strong winds blew roofs off of structures and heavy rains as rivers, creeks and waterways spilled as closing roads and washing away bridges and walkways.  

The worst hit villages Ba, Nadi and Rakiraki towns were overcome by surging torrents of floodwaters on Thursday night, the likes of which have never been seen before.

At 9.30am yesterday District Officer Nadi Peni Koro said his office and the Nadi Police Station were surrounded by water with swift currents making it difficult for his team to venture out and gauge the situation in the central business district area.

"Nadi Town is closed to all vehicular and foot traffic and people will not be allowed into town", he said.

In Ba, the special administrator Arun Prasad said his town had just started to recover from the January floods when the Ba River broke its banks again sending sludge, mud and sewage into the streets.

"The town area, FSC and Yaladro flats are heavily under water. This is worse than the floods that happened in January," he said.

Authorities say there are serious concerns of further flooding with the onset of high tides and a forecast of rain continuing for another 24 hours.

CAUGHT UNPREPARED

A complaint by many has been that a disaster plan was not in place and business owners in the Western Division say the lack of warning by authorities could result in extensive damage.  Ratish Kamal Roy, the managing director of Bargain Box Fiji Limited, which employs close to 50 people at three different stores affected, said that had warnings been given earlier, he would have instructed staff to move merchandise to a safer area.

"The water level is significantly higher than the floods in January and this could result in a lot of damage to stock," he said.

TRAVEL HAVOC

(PHOTO: Ba town, Fiji/News.com.au) City markets and bus stations were empty as bus companies stop services and vendors were caught without any means of transport. 

On Friday, Air New Zealand cancelled flights to Fiji's only international airport, in Nadi; and an advisory by Air Pacific cancelled all domestic flights in country and diverted flights to Apia, Samoa until further notice.

CONCERN FOR HEALTH

A warning issued by the Fiji Health Ministry urged residents and tourists to take extra care of their health due  to the cold, wet weather and rising floodwaters, saying the increased moisture could lead to respiratory illnesses like Dengue fever, influenza, typhoid, and leptospirosis. 

Worries that standing water after the flooding would increase mosquitoe production and therefore disease caused authorities to advise using rubber gloves outside, and the Ministry told everyone to boil drinking water as it would likely be contaminated, and could produce diarrhea like illness.

---HUMNEWS

Tuesday
Feb282012

Four Years to Doomsday: Checking In on The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (REPORT)

(VIDEO: IlluminatiOrderNWO/YOUTUBE)

By Ross Andersen

For its fourth birthday, Svalbard will receive seeds from war-torn Syria and celebrate years of success preserving our inheritance from Neolithic times.

The world's agricultural hard drive, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, turns four years old today.

(PHOTO: The Svalbard Seed Vault/Richard Wagner) The vault was a media sensation when it first opened in 2008, but it hasn't been in the news much since. I figured it was time to check in and see how these first four years have gone. An awesome technology by any measure, the vault is a steely compound tunneled five hundred feet into an icy mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, just 600 miles from the North Pole.

It is designed to last a thousand years, and to withstand a wide range of global disasters, including climate change, nuclear war, and even an asteroid strike. Over the past four years the vault has amassed some 740,000 seed samples and eventually it may house every crop seed ever used by a human being. 

The vault stores duplicates of the holdings of local seed banks all over the world, insuring against seed loss in the event of a local or global catastrophe. It functions like a safety deposit box; samples can be accessed by their depositing seed banks, but if researchers or plant breeders wish to access the seeds, they must request samples directly from those banks. 

(PHOTO: interestinEngineering.com) Security at the facility is state of the art and fully automated---there is no full-time staff and no single person has all the codes necessary for entrance. Nor is there much traffic inside, for new seeds are only accepted a few days a year. Today's fourth anniversary will bring several new seed shipments to the vault, including an ancient grain called amaranth, a favorite of the Aztecs and Incas, and a malting barley from the Pacific Northwest called "Klages," which is used in many craft beers.

Cary Fowler is the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center.

I talked to Cary about the vault's anniversary, its importance, and the future of agriculture.

When I think about the seed vault, the first thing that stands out to me is that it's really a technology of deep time, a way of coping with the kinds of events that happen on very broad time scales.

Q:  Do you see any other technologies or institutions outside the world of agriculture as playing a similar role as yours?

Fowler:  I haven't given it a lot of thought, so I guess I would say no. We tried to design this facility to last as far as we could see into the future. We didn't actually plan this to be what some in the media have called it, which is a doomsday vault. We're not people who run around with signs saying "repent the end is near." In fact we realized that unfortunately the vault was probably going to be used sooner rather than later. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, there was a fire in the national gene bank in the Philippines and two years before that they experienced a flood, so you don't have to have some kind of global catastrophe for this thing to be useful. We're losing biodiversity right now, and it isn't necessarily because of some global catastrophe.

But of course I have to acknowledge that even though we weren't planning for doomsday, the facility is such that it would provide a lot of protection for many large catastrophes depending on where they occurred, but that wasn't the original impetus for the project.

(PHOTO: Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust/MEMPHISFLYER) Q:  You first opened for seeds in 2008, which means you've been at this for four years now. What's the most surprising thing you've learned in that time?

Fowler:  Things have moved a lot faster than I expected. I think most people thought that the day we opened we would have every seed that we wanted or needed, or that it would come shortly thereafter, but those of us in the field know that that's not the way it happens. The seed banks themselves are typically not sitting on such large quantities of seeds that they can just immediately divide them and send them up to the vault in Norway. Even though it's for safety purposes, they still have to multiply the seeds and clean them and package them up and send them, and that takes time, and so it's been a nice surprise to see how quickly things are moving.

The other surprise is that we've had no bad surprises. When you plan something this  complicated you figure something is going to go wrong. During these past four years we've had seeds come from all over the world and it's been a gigantic coordination process to try to get seed boxes from all of these locations, a lot of which are in developing countries---Africa, Asia and Latin America---and to try to get them up to Oslo and then up to Svalbard on roughly the same day, so you don't have them sitting out on some tarmac in the hot sun. It's also surprising that we haven't lost a single box of seeds in transit. It's a miracle.

Q:  Where does the seed vault rank on the list of agricultural innovations, from the first crude stone sickles to the more sophisticated technologies of industrial farming?

(PHOTO: Inside the Svalbard Seed Vault stacks/WIRED) Fowler:  It's hard to say. What we hope to do is to provide robust and secure conservation for what's left of agricultural diversity. This is the inheritance of the Neolithic times and our time and everything in between, and so I guess I see it as a library, a library of life, that gives the history and culture of agriculture and protects it, but it's also a resource for the future. And so I'm not sure where it ranks, but I do think it's extremely important given the challenges that agriculture is facing right now, but it's not in and of itself a solution to those problems and it's not the only thing we should be doing.

Q:  As you see it what are the biggest challenges agriculture is facing right now?

Fowler:  Climate change is obviously the big one, but there are others; water availability is a big problem, so is nutrient availability, particularly phosphorous. And all of this is in the context of growing demand, both from increased population and from development pressures. As people get wealthier they tend to gravitate towards more meat-based diets, and it requires a lot more agricultural crop production to produce that meat. So we have all of those things happening and at the same time we don't have huge increases in agricultural investments, and so in a way we're really behind the game in terms of producing new crop varieties that are going to be adapted to these conditions. We need our crops to produce more on less land, with less water and less nutrients, and in a changing climate. Any one of those problems could be extremely daunting, but we're facing all of them at the same time. 

Q:  Are there scenarios you can envision that would render the earth's environments entirely inhospitable to seeds?

(PHOTO: Journalists waiting outside the Svalbard Seed Vault/The Atlantic) Fowler:  No. If the projections are correct it's certainly going to get more inhospitable, but not entirely inhospitable. The issues that I mentioned before---nutrient and water availability and climate change---are going to cause some fairly radical readjustments in agriculture if you look down the road any distance. And that's one of the things that differentiates us, the people involved in the seed vault from others, we do tend to have a long view of what's going to happen and we're trying to plan for that.

We expect that agriculture would even survive something like an asteroid strike; after all, plants survived the last one. What we're really trying to do up in Svalbard is preserve options. We're not saying that we have a crystal ball and that we know what's going to happen and we know what's needed, but we do know that the diversity we have represents an immense number of untapped options, and what we're trying to do is keep all of those options. I think it was Paul Ehrlich who said "the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts," and that's what we're trying to do.

Q:  Earlier you mentioned that these seeds represent an inheritance from Neolithic Age, and it got me thinking about a different sort of inheritance. At the seed vault do you also store the intellectual and cultural capital of agriculture?

Fowler:  In a sense we do. We don't have archives at the seed vault, but we do have a record of what is there, and even though in a sense the seed vault is a kind of safety backup for existing seed banks and their collections, you could also look at it the opposite way, which is to say that the seed banks that contribute to the seed vault are actually performing backup for the seed vault. There is redundancy in our system. Everything that's in Svalbard can be found somewhere else, and that somewhere else is the main manager of that particular portion of diversity, and those institutions maintain extensive databases that describe everything they know about the traits and characteristics of every single sample. We link back to those and in that sense we have a very good record.

(PHOTO: Tunnel leading into the Seed Vault/Seed Trust) Also, at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, we're working with some other partners to put together a large international database called Genesys which will essentially unite all of these seed banks around the world so that researchers or plant experts who, for instance, may want to take a look at the whole diversity of rice or wheat can go onto one website and see what's available and where it is and how to get samples of it and things like that. A lot of that information, characteristics and the history and so forth, is missing in some of the seed samples, but for the samples that do have it, it's quite valuable and we try to maintain it.

Q:  Why is it that Norway was chosen for this project? Is it just the geography or is there something particular about Scandinavian culture reflected in the seed vault?

Fowler:  I think it's both. There are a lot of reasons for that particular location. One of them was historical; the Nordic countries, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, were storing backup copies of some of their seeds in an abandoned mine shaft up there, so there was a precedent.

But apart from that, Norway is special. Historically there have been a number of controversies around these genetic resources, questions of ownership and access and so forth, and I think Norway was at the top of the list in terms of the countries that everyone in the room trusted. They didn't have a commercial seed industry so there was no sense of a conflict of interest or of a private interest being involved. Norway is just an unusually generous and collaborative country. When I headed the committee that undertook the feasibility study for the seed vault, and when we presented it to the government, their attitude was "if this is a valuable natural resource and Norway is the place to safeguard it, how can we say no?" And they jumped right in and built the facility at their cost.

(PHOTO: An artists rendering of the vault/interestinengineering.com) Q:  Some of your methods make it clear that terrorism is a special concern for the Seed Vault. I know that new seed shipments are screened with an airport x-ray scanner to make sure that none contain bombs. Is that because you see terrorism as just one of the many contingencies that could occur over the next thousand years, or do think the Vault might be a likely target for terrorism?

Fowler:  I don't think it's a likely target, but of course one can never know. No political or religious group is against what we're doing so I don't think it's a target in that sense. When the vault was being built we performed a security assessment in order to assess the likelihood of it being a target, or the likelihood of it being under any kind of threat, and the Norwegian government deemed the threat to be extremely low. But, at the same time we thought that if we're going to go to all the trouble to build this place in the middle of a mountain in the Arctic then we might as well go the whole distance, and we think that increases the trust and confidence in what we're doing, the fact that we have thought through all of these contingencies even though we don't think many of these things are ever going to happen.

I remember when we were constructing the facility and I was talking to the local Governor in Svalbard who's responsible for security on the island, and he said to me "Cary, if anyone so much as writes graffiti on this thing we'll know who it is." After all it's just a small village there, and really what's neat is that the villagers are remarkably proud and protective of the vault. They know it's there, and they're proud of it and that gives us an extra security blanket out there because the locals see everything that's going on---walking around up there I've had any number of people stop me and say "we're protecting that vault of yours."

Q:  I know that you have some interesting seed shipments coming in association with the anniversary. Are you particularly excited about any of them?

(MAP: Svalbard and Jan Mayen/MAPQUEST) Fowler:  Two of them, actually. There is a very important, very historic dwarfing wheat variety coming from the United States. The short stature of modern varieties of wheat is very important, because it allows the wheat to carry more grain on the top without falling over. That's a huge event in agricultural history that we'll be able to preserve.

The other one we haven't publicized too much, because we didn't want to draw too much attention to what is a very sensitive situation---we're getting a large shipment in from ICARDA, an international agricultural research center in Syria. It's not a Syrian government organization, it's an international center and it's completely independent from the government. Obviously, there are a lot of troubles in that country right now and that center, ICARDA, has been safety duplicating its material all along, as a good professional team will do, but the fact that this shipment is coming up right now in some ways points to the utility and value of the seed vault. One would not expect a seed bank, even in Syria, to be a target, but unfortunately  there is a recent precedent: seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed or severely damaged over the course of the wars there, not because they were blown up or anything but because in the context of chaos and the breakdown of law and order, people have come in and looted them. So we're pretty happy to have that collection at the vault.

Q:  There seems to be a real cultural fascination with the vault. Have you had many interesting visitors in the four years it's been up and running?

Fowler:  Oh yeah. The surprising thing about the visitors is how many artists we've had come up and try to take a look at it. I get the sense that the seed vault must be the subject of many different art projects. Now it's not a tourist attraction; we don't just open it up for people all the time. In fact there's no permanent staff there; we only go up to put the seeds in a couple of times a year. We do have a lot of monitoring there with people in the local community going up to check on it daily, but we monitor the facility remotely and they aren't authorized to take anyone in.

(PHOTO: Svalbard Seed Vaault view/SSV) But, given enough advance notice and enough time to see who a person is and if there's a real interest in them seeing it, we do have visitors there. We've had a number of political leaders, including Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. I think the most interesting tour, and it's one I gave myself, was to former President Jimmy Carter and a group that he brought along, which included Madeleine Albright and a few others. I have a lot of admiration for him after having done that tour. Carter is famous for being a peanut farmer in Georgia, but not a lot of people know that his farm was devoted not just to producing peanuts but for producing peanuts for seed, so he knew the seed business very well. As I was giving the tour people in his group were asking all of these questions, and he was answering half of them.

But as far as visitors go generally, when people go to the vault they seem to get very emotional; people feel something in there, and maybe it's because they're standing in the room with the greatest amount of biodiversity in the world, and the rich human history associated with that, people can feel that something important is happening. It has a big impact on people when they see it. 

----This piece originally appeared on The Atlantic 2.28.12

Monday
Jan242011

2011 is Year of the Bat - Crucial Pollinators (Perspective)

By Dr. Merlin D. Tuttle

(HN, January 24, 2011) - Were you aware that bats are key pollinators in many parts of the world? Pollination is a vital ecosystem service without which many of our key industries such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals would collapse or incur heavy costs for artificial substitution. TEEB has found that in some estimates, over 75% of the worlds crop plants, as well as many plants that are source species for pharmaceuticals, rely on pollination by animal vectors.Bats provide a wide range of ecosystem services which benefit mankind from insect deterrent to bat guano fertilizer. CREDIT: Merlin Tuttle

Furthermore, for 87 out of 115 leading global crops (representing up to 35% of the global food supply), fruit or seed numbers or quality were increased through animal pollination. Bats also provide a wide range of ecosystem services which benefit mankind from insect deterrent to bat guano fertilizer.

Bat Pollinators: Tequila and the Tree of Life

More than 1,200 species of bats comprise nearly a quarter of all mammals, and their ecological services are essential to human economies and the health of whole ecosystems worldwide. Without bats, costly crop pests would increase, forcing greater reliance on dangerous pesticides. We could also lose some of our favorite foods and beverages and suffer the consequences of greatly diminished biodiversity.

Many of our most important foods come from bat-dependent plants. These include bananas, plantain, breadfruit, peaches, mangos, dates, figs, cashews and many more. In fact, in an average tropical food market, approximately 70 percent of the fruit sold comes from trees or shrubs that rely heavily on bats in the wild. Some such as the famous durian, still rely on bat pollinators even in commercial orchards. This king of Asian fruits sells for a billion dollars annually, but could be lost without healthy populations of its bat pollinators.

In East Africa nectar feeding bats are essential to fruit production of the Baobab tree, sometimes referred to as the African Tree of Life due to the exceptional variety of wildlife that depend on it for food and shelter. Recently, it has additionally become known as the Vitamin Tree. Baobab fruits contain six times as much vitamin C as oranges, twice as much calcium as milk, are rich in other vitamins and antioxidants and may soon become a billion dollar a year crop.

In deserts, from the southwestern United States to southern Peru, more than 100 species of cactus and agave plants rely on bats for pollination. Giant, columnar cactus plants, such as the famous saguaro and organ pipe, are heavily relied on for food and shelter by a wide variety of birds and mammals, and agaves are extremely useful in erosion control, as ornamentals and as the source of all tequila liquor. The world's thirsty Margarita drinkers can definitely raise a glass in praise of bats.

Bats: Nature's natural pesticide

Bats also provide an essential ecosystem service known as "biological control." Natural pests and diseases are usually regulated by a wide range of predators and parasites. TEEB has found that agricultural pests cause significant economic losses worldwide. Globally, more than 40% of food production is being lost to insect pests, plant pathogens, and weeds, despite the application of more than 3 billion kilograms of pesticides to crops, plus other means of control. Natural control of pests is to date one of the most effective means of dealing with these threats. Bats are essential predators which keep many damaging insects from destroying crops.

The colony of 20 million free-tailed bats that lives in Bracken Cave near San Antonio, Texas, for example, consumes 200 tons of insects nightly, predominantly crop pests such as corn earworm and armyworm moths. Just one of these bats can catch enough moths in one night's feeding to prevent 50,000 or more eggs from being laid, resulting in local cotton growers saving close to a million dollars annually in reduced need for pesticides.

A single mouse-eared bat (widespread in Europe and North America) can capture 1,000 or more mosquito-sized insects in just one hour. A colony of 150 big brown bats, a number that could live in a backyard bat house, can capture enough cucumber beetles in a summer to prevent them from laying 33 million eggs that would otherwise hatch into corn rootworms, a billion-dollar-a -year pest in the United States.

In many locations, bats can be easily attracted to bat houses to help protect gardens and organic farms. Outstanding success has been reported from Oregon to Georgia in the United States, probably because many of our worst insect pests listen for bat echolocation signals and flee areas where bats are heard. A pecan grower in Georgia reports having become entirely organic since he attracted thousands of bats to extra large bat houses in his orchard. So the next time you think organic, think "bats."

Bat Fertilizer

Bats are also the primary energy producers for many cave ecosystems. Guano deposits beneath their roosts provide energy that sustains thousands of unique life forms, from bacteria and fungi to arthropods and small vertebrates. These organisms are often endemic to a single cave or cave system, but provide a potential treasure trove of biodiversity needed for solving human problems, from production of new antibiotics and gasohol to improved detergents and waste detoxification.

Additionally, extraction of bat guano for fertilizer provides an invaluable renewable resource for whole communities in developing countries from Asia and Africa to Latin America. For example, due to this eco-service of bats, Thailand's Khao Chong Pran Cave has become a major source of income for the local community, as well as a unique tourist attraction. Careful protection and harvest management have allowed annual guano sales to increase from $10,000 to $135,000. Bat guano is big business.

From Terror to Tourist Attraction

As people learn to appreciate bats, these fascinating animals are paving the way for popular tourist attractions. When 1.5 million free-tailed bats began moving into crevices beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas, health officials warned that they were rabid and dangerous, and local people wanted the bats eradicated. However, through the educational efforts of Bat Conservation International, fears were calmed, and in more than 30 years, not a single person has been harmed. The bats consume roughly 15 tons of insects nightly and attract 12 million tourist dollars each summer, clearly demonstrating the value of bats to our environment and economies.

Year of the Bat 2011-2012

Unfortunately, many people in other locations around the world still misunderstand, fear and persecute bats at great harm to themselves. Too many have heard only of vampires and disease, both of which have been greatly exaggerated by sensational media stories.

Needlessly fearful humans, in Latin America, have mistakenly destroyed thousands, even millions of highly beneficial bats at a time by sealing, burning or poisoning roosts, especially in caves, and many more bats have been lost through simple neglect of their conservation needs.

Ironically, even the common vampire bat of Latin America has proven useful. A new drug, Desmoteplase developed from research on vampire saliva, appears to greatly improve treatment of stroke victims, a potentially enormous contribution to human wellbeing. Who would have thought that a bat - and a vampire, at that - could help save countless lives?

Year of the Bat (2011-2012) celebrations will highlight bat values and needs, providing unique introductions to these incredibly fascinating animals that unfortunately rank among our planet's least understood and most rapidly declining and endangered animals. But as more people learn about and account for the ecosystem services provided by bats, greater conservation efforts will be made to ensure the survival of these fascinating and essential creatures.

For more information:

Year of the Bat 2011 - 2012 is a global campaign to promote conservation, research and education about the world's only flying mammals. Year of the Bat is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and EUROBATS, as well as numerous partner organizations around the world.

The writer is Honorary Ambassador for the Year of the Bat campaign.

Thursday
Nov252010

60% of Africans City Dwellers by 2050 - UN (News Brief)

(HN, November 25, 2010) - Incredible urban growth and population migration will swell the size of major African cities - in some cases tripling their size over the next 40 years.

According to a new report by UN Habitat, The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequality and Urban Land Markets, urbanization is occurring faster on the African continent than anywhere else, and that by 2030, the Africa will no longer be predominantly rural.Traffic is worsening in many African cities due to urban migration. CREDIT: Michael Bociurkiw/HUMNEWS

“No African government can afford to ignore the ongoing rapid urban transition taking place across the continent. Cities must become priority areas for public policies, with hugely increased investments to build adequate governance capacities, equitable services delivery, affordable housing provision and better wealth distribution,” said Joan Clos, the Executive Director of UN-HABITAT.

The report also found that:

- By 2015, Lagos will be Africa's largest city with 12.4 million people - overtaking Cairo (however Cairo is said to have an unofficial population as high as 17 million at times)

Luanda has recently surpassed Alexandria and is now Africa’s fourth largest agglomeration. It is projected to grow to more than 8 million by 2040.

- Africa's population will be 1.23 billion by 2050

- Slum dwellers in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia decreased to 11.8 million in 2010, from 20.8 million in 1990.Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Is one of the largest slums with more than a million residents struggling with limited access to basic services. CREDIT: UN Habitat

- Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is becoming the fastest-growing city in Africa: its population will almost double over the next decade.

70 per cent of all African urban population growth will be in smaller cities and those with populations of less than half a million.

- Projected proportional growth for the 2010−2020 for some cities defies belief: Ouagadougou’s (Burkina Faso) population is expected to soar by no less than 81 per cent, from 1.9 million in 2010 to 3.4 million in 2020.

The report also noted that, since many large cities (such as Lagos and Alexandria) are situated by the sea, climate change and coastal flooding may erode their size.

- HUMNEWS staff, UN