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Conserving Iran and Iraq’s wetlands

MD Staff

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There’s growing awareness in the Islamic Republic of Iran that wetlands are valuable and sustain livelihoods.

Ramsar, “the gem of northern Iran”, is the town that gives its name to the Ramsar Convention.

The Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It came into force more than 40 years ago.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has 24 sites designated as wetlands of international importance (Ramsar sites) out of 2,290 worldwide. Of Iran’s 24 sites about one third are under pressure or in a critical condition.

Wetlands are vital for biodiversity. Large populations of migratory birds winter there or use them on their way to and from wintering areas in Africa or the Indian sub-continent.

The Convention uses a broad definition of wetlands. It includes all lakes and rivers, underground aquifers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, and all human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs and salt pans.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been struggling to prevent its lakes and wetlands from drying up owing to extensive extraction of water by farmers for irrigation, growing extraction for non-agricultural uses, and climate change. A telltale signal of vanishing wetlands is the increased frequency  and intensity of dust storms in Iran and across the region. The adverse situation has been compounded by 14 years of drought, according to Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Sand and dust storms, the advance guard of desertification, have been identified as one of the “emerging issues of environmental concern” in UN Environment’s latest Frontiers Report.

“The anthropogenic causes of sand and dust storms include deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices as well as excessive water extraction and the modification of water bodies for irrigation and other purposes,” says the report.

In the long term, only sustainable land and water management, integrated with measures addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation, can improve the situation.

Iran is trying to deal with the problem. Its National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan, Target 18, states: “By 2030, conservation and wise use of wetlands are strengthened and the situation for at least 50 per cent of degraded wetlands is improved.”

Lake Urmia

Lake Urmia, a Ramsar site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is a vast hypersaline lake with many islands, surrounded by extensive brackish marshes, in northeastern Iran. The lake is fed by rainfall, springs and streams and subject to seasonal variation in level and salinity. The brackish marshes are an important staging area for migratory waterbirds.

Around 6.4 million people and 200 species of birds live in the Urmia basin.

The lake ecosystem supports biodiversity and provides recreation and mental health benefits, as well as water for agriculture and industry. If the lake were to dry up completely, dust storms and disaster could result.

A study between 2002-2011 in the eastern sub-basin of Lake Urmia showed that agricultural activities, the expansion of farmland, and population increases over the last three decades led to the over-exploitation of resources, causing land degradation. The lake has been in decline since 1995. By August 2011, its surface area was only 2,366 km2, according to UN Environment. It further declined to 700km2 in 2013. NASA satellite data indicate that the lake lost about 70 percent of its surface area between 2002 and 2016.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is working with development partners and local communities to improve the situation. Engineering works have helped unblock and un-silt the feeder rivers, and there has been a deliberate release of water from dams in the surrounding hills. In September 2016 the Government of Iran and the Food and Agriculture Organization launched a four-year sustainable management project for the lake.

Recent indications are that the lake is recovering. The lake surface area is now 2,300 km2 (UN Development Programme, 2017). UN Environment’s November 2017 Foresight brief focuses on the extent of this recovery and measures being put in place to ensure this is sustained.

Hawizeh Marsh

In neighbouring Iraq, the Hawizeh Marsh, which extends across the border into Iran where it is known as Haur Al-Azim, was designated as the country’s first Ramsar site in 2007. Around 20-25 per cent of this wetland is in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Part of the Mesopotamian marshland complex fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the whole region is suffering from the construction of upstream water control structures,  increasing water extraction for agriculture as well as reduced rainfall.. As a result, the Hawizeh marsh was placed on Ramsar’s register of threatened wetlands requiring priority attention.

In mid-2017, the Government of Iraq requested the Ramsar Secretariat to organize an advisory mission to the marshes to identify ways for future cooperation between Iraq and Iran as a first step towards the long-term conservation and sustainable development of the marshes, including ways to reduce the incidence of sand and dust storms.

The mission, which took place from 16 to 23 December 2017, involved  officials from  Iraq and Iran participating in workshops and conducting site visits on both sides of the border to better understand the situation. In cooperation with the Ramsar Secretariat, UN Environment is helping support the dialogue process which also includes consultations with local communities and participation of UN agencies.

Areas of agreed future cooperation include carrying out waterbird surveys,   creating a platform for exchanges of technical and scientific information on the ecology of the marshes, and joint celebration events on wetlands and water. In a quick and positive step forward, a team of Iraqi bird experts joined Iranian surveyors in conducting a midwinter waterfowl count on the Iranian side of the marshes from 23-26 January 2018. Similarly, Iranian experts plan to collaborate in the waterfowl census in Iraq in early February 2018.

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Green Planet

Thwarting Trump on Climate Change Denial

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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We now have the remarkable convenience of the internal combustion engine, and also its noise and chaos and emissions to energize climate change.  Burning fossil fuels has put us on planet Titanic …

The doomsday clock remains at a critical two minutes to midnight, the ‘new abnormal,’ spelling future disaster, and we will continue to be like the “Titanic, ignoring the iceberg ahead, enjoying the fine food and music,” to quote former California governor Jerry Brown.  He is now the executive chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind the clock.  This year climate change is cited as a major cause; it was the principal reason in 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when it noted, “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”  The report mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government was repudiated by President Trump:  “I do not believe it,” was his blunt response.  Mr. Trump religiously opposes climate change, believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally.  About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was quoted in Science as saying, “They’re in la-la-land.” Science has labeled the inaction, the policy breakdown of the year.

Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless as tell-tale signs of the exacerbation of weather events are already here:  Hurricanes intensify quickly, then move slowly shedding unprecedented amounts of rain.  It happened with Harvey over Houston in 2017, and with Florence over North Carolina in 2018.  That overall temperature in the oceans is breaking new records is one good reason.

The 1.5C report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us, on the safe side, a 12-year window in which to start reducing emissions, to try to achieve neutral balance by mid-century, or eventually a self-reinforcing feedback loop will lead to uncontrollable warming and a “Hothouse Earth.”  If   we cannot expect any policy initiatives from this administration, can changes in individual behaviors help?  Apparently yes, and it is within our power to address two major CO2 sources:

Carbon capture from the atmosphere is difficult and expensive.  A better alternative might be to remove it at the source.  That means at power stations and factories, and there are new processes offering hope.  However, most carbon emission comes from transportation, and it points to a future of electric cars using electricity from CO2 scrubbed power stations.  The choice of car is clearly up to us.

Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries.  Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs.  Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry.  As Bill Gates has observed if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is another way to look at it.  One can translate a kilo of different food sources into the number of car miles driven.  Lamb is definitely the worst at 91 miles followed by beef at 63.  Bad news for vegetarians, cheese comes in at 31 miles.  It is followed by pork (28), turkey (25), chicken (16), nuts (5) and lentils (2).  Imagine if dietary habits changed from beef to lentils, even once a week would make an enormous difference.  Also chicken, turkey and pork are reasonable substitutes as cutting out beef and lamb is clearly critical.  By the way, Indian food has delicious lentil recipes.

Scientists may soon have other intriguing possibilities, including lab-grown meat, that is if the current Beyond Burger type bean substitutes do not quite make the taste test.  Then there are crickets!  They happen to be an excellent source of protein offering more per pound than beef, and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison.  Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods, and it is available.  Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion.  There is also a new oil made from algae.  Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive.  With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.

Personal choices can make a huge difference, including walking whenever possible for short distances instead of driving — mostly it’s just habit.  Bicycles, tricycles and push scooters are all out there, including some with electrical power assist.

Yes, there are options available to cut back our contributions to climate change; they require changes in habits and tastes, perhaps difficult, but we will have to eventually if we are not to leave behind a raging planet for future generations.  Meanwhile, the young in Europe have been marching in their tens of thousands to draw attention to the issue, and it cannot hurt to do likewise.

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Eye in the sky: Using satellites to better manage natural resources

MD Staff

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Looking up towards the stars at night, the sky can give the impression of being empty and infinite. In reality, space is getting more and more crowded every day.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are currently 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet. Among them are two Sentinel-2 satellites, part of a space-borne mission provided by the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme. The two satellites visit the same spot on Earth every two to five days, depending on the location.

Their sensors acquire multispectral images with spatial resolution varying between 10, 20, or 60 metres, depending on the spectral band. The data produced by Sentinel satellites is freely available to the public and the volumes of data are staggering. Between Sentinel 1, 2 and 3, over 10 petabyte of new data are made available for download every year. With a single petabyte equalling 500 billion pages of standard typed text, this is Big Data worthy of its name.

The satellites are providing ever more detailed information about the state of our planet, and businesses have long ago figured out how to use this data. The European Commission estimates that the cumulative benefits of the Copernicus programme by 2020 range between US$11.4 to US$15 billion (10 to 13 billion euros). So how can we translate this wealth of information into tangible benefits for the environment at the local level?

“In Colombia, small-scale, mechanized illegal gold mining is creating environmental challenges on an unprecedented scale,” says Inga Petersen, Senior Extractives Adviser within UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch. “Excavators and dredgers used to dig up river beds for alluvial gold mining are contributing to wide-ranging deforestation and the loss of natural wetlands. Highly toxic mercury used in processing contaminates air and water and has accumulated in the food chain, posing significant threats to human health and ecosystems,” she adds.

However, mining areas are often hard to reach and keeping track of new or abandoned operations can be a challenge to local government agencies.

To support the mapping of new and abandoned sites and identify opportunities for restoration, UN Environment is collaborating with the University of Liège, in Belgium, to leverage Sentinel-2 data for local-level decision-making and early warning.

Funded by the European Commission (DG Grow) and EIT RawMaterials, the RawMatCop CopX project (Geospatial mining transparency through Copernicus and MapX) is analysing changes on land and water bodies, focusing specifically on mining ponds created on riverbeds. These ponds offer clues regarding the status of the mining activities.

Detecting and analysing these clues with the use of Earth Observation requires machine learning and image processing techniques in challenging, highly clouded areas. These techniques are key to understanding the dynamics in the mining area and to potentially automate the search to cover larger areas and track changes over time.

Testing this innovative underlying methodology started in 2018 in the Bajo Cauca region in the Antioquia department. The project is being implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Colombia, including the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development as well as other UN agencies and strategic partners. Once established, CopX aims for the analysis to be applied at a larger scale and even offer the potential to establish an early warning system which can be adopted by the government to tackle illegal gold mining and monitor the implementation of restoration strategies.

However, translating big data into actionable insights is only a part of the solution. Making this data available to the relevant policymakers at the local and national level in a format which is accessible to non-experts is a critical step to enable evidence-based decision-making.

With this in mind, the project will use MapX, an online, open-source geospatial platform backed by the neutrality of the United Nations, to make the results available in easy-to-understand maps. The platform uses summary story maps, such as this one, to outline the interlinkages between the environment, conflict and natural resources.

“Whilst MapX can host sensitive datasets in private projects, MapX’s mission is to increase global environmental transparency by making the best available data widely accessible. Access to information is especially important in places like Colombia, where the environment features prominently in the 2016 peace agreement,” says Petersen.

In addition to featuring the outcomes of the project, MapX provides a comprehensive data catalogue, including data on the environment, the socio-economic context and conflict interlinkages. Combined with a suite of analytical and visualization tools, platform users can easily analyse, contextualize and visualize interactions between different data layers to increase awareness and inform decisions. Data, maps, narrative and multimedia files can then be summarized in interactive story maps to help tell the story hidden in the data.

UN Environment

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Air pollution is choking Bangkok, but a solution is in reach

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

A recent spell of especially soupy air has Bangkok scrambling to disperse dangerous pollutants and protect residents against dire health impacts.

The government has reacted quickly, clamping down on heavily polluting vehicles, deploying police and military to inspect factories and incinerators, shutting schools to protect children, and even deploying cloud-seeding planes to force rain and clear the air.

According to Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment’s Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste, and Air Quality, it’s a good start.

“The government has to take decisive action to enforce pollution regulations, and they are on the right track so far, deploying efforts such as strict enforcement of emission controls. We know they are also looking at more urgent measures and UN Environment is working closely with the government on longer-term solutions,” she said.

“While solutions like cloud seeding may provide temporary relief for larger particulates, it does not, however, help reduce PM2.5,” she warns. “After these interim measures, the next logical step is to shut down the most polluting factory. That may mean accepting some economic damage in the short term, but protecting public health must be the utmost priority. Beyond factories, the government can move urgently to replace soot-spewing public buses and boats running on diesel fuel with versions that are less polluting.”

Air pollution in Bangkok arises from a mix of factors. Traffic, construction and factory emissions are the main reasons, but at this time of the year, burning of waste and crop residues is also a major source. There isn’t just one culprit for the recent bout of air pollution, but it has been exacerbated by weather conditions that have not allowed the pollutants to disperse.

Bangkok and other areas in Thailand already experience regular air pollution. The prolonged period of unhealthy air in Bangkok is not unique to the city nor the country: 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population—some 4 billion people—are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.

The current countermeasures are a short-term solution to this problem because, as Nagatani-Yoshida points out, “Factories can’t be closed forever. People need to get around. Ultimately, if people want to breathe clean air, numerous measures must be taken to tackle pollution.”

UN Environment recently published guidance on reducing air pollution. Some 25 measures could reduce premature mortality in the region by one third and see one billion people living in Asia breathing clean air.

“We hope country, provincial and city governments across the region, including Bangkok, look at these recommendations and implement them urgently,” said Nagatani-Yoshida.

UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are already working with the Thailand Pollution Control Department, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, and other agencies to implement some of these clean air measures and substantially reduce PM2.5 levels.

In particular, UN Environment is collaborating with the Pollution Control Department to leapfrog from Euro IV vehicle emission standards to Euro VI, which are currently the strictest standards in place.

Collaboration will also focus on helping shift 2–3 wheelers in Bangkok from gasoline to electric and retrofitting the numerous boats and ferries used for public transportation in the canal-connected city.

There is no time to waste. The faster the government moves to clamp down on emitters and back clean alternatives, the sooner Bangkok and the rest of the country can start to breathe again.

UN Environment

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