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Access to safe water: Is the green revolution around the corner?

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Nature-based solutions can play an important role in improving the supply and quality of water and reducing the impact of natural disasters, according to the 2018 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report. The study, which will be presented by Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, Gilbert Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water, at the 8th World Water Forum in Brasilia (Brazil), argues that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at our disposal.

In 1986, the State of Rajasthan (India) experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. Over the following years, an NGO worked alongside local communities to set up water harvesting structures and regenerate soils and forests in the region. This led to a 30% increase in forest cover, groundwater levels rose by several metres and cropland productivity improved.

These measures are good examples of the nature-based solutions (NBS) advocated by the latest edition of the report, Nature-based Solutions for Water. It recognizes water not as an isolated element, but as an integral part of a complex natural process that involves evaporation, precipitation and the absorption of water through the soil. The presence and extent of vegetation cover across grasslands, wetlands and forests influences the water cycle and can be the focus for actions to improve the quantity and quality of available water.

“We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change. If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050. This Report proposes solutions that are based on nature to manage water better. This is a major task all of us need to accomplish together responsibly so as to avoid water related conflicts,” declared the Director-General of UNESCO.

“For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or “grey”, infrastructure to improve water management. In so doing, it has often brushed aside traditional and Indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches. Three years into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is time for us to re-examine nature-based solutions (NBS) to help achieve water management objectives”, writes Gilbert Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in the foreword of the report.

Focusing on ‘environmental engineering’

So-called ‘green’ infrastructure, as opposed to traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure, focuses on preserving the functions of ecosystems, both natural and built, and environmental engineering rather than civil engineering to improve the management of water resources. This has multiple applications in agriculture, the greatest consumer of water by far. Green infrastructure can help reduce pressures on land use while limiting pollution, soil erosion and water requirements by contributing to the development of more effective and economic irrigation systems, for example.

Thus, the System of Rice Intensification, originally introduced in Madagascar, helps restore the hydrological and ecological functioning of soils rather than using new crop varieties or chemical products. It enables savings of 25 to 50% in water requirements and 80 to 90% in seeds while raising paddy output by 25 to 50%, depending on the region in which it is implemented.

It is estimated that agricultural production could be increased by about 20% worldwide if greener water management practices were used. One study cited by the Report reviewed agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries and found that using water more efficiently combined with reductions in the use of pesticides and improvements in soil cover, increased average crop yields by 79%.

Green solutions have also shown great potential in urban areas. While vegetated walls and roof gardens are perhaps the most recognizable examples, others include measures to recycle and harvest water, water retention hollows to recharge groundwater and the protection of watersheds that supply urban areas. New York City has been protecting its three largest watersheds since the late 1990s.  Disposing of the largest unfiltered water supply in the USA, the city now saves more than US$ 300 million yearly on water treatment and maintenance costs.

Faced with an ever-increasing demand for water, countries and municipalities are showing a growing interest in green solutions. China, for example, recently initiated a project entitled “Sponge City” to improve water availability in urban settlements. By 2020, it will build 16 pilot Sponge Cities across the country. Their goal is to recycle 70% of rainwater through greater soil permeation, retention and storage, water purification and the restoration of adjacent wetlands.

The importance of wetlands

Wetlands only cover about 2.6 % of the planet but play a disproportionately large role in hydrology. They directly impact water quality by filtering toxic substances from pesticides, industrial and mining discharges.

There is evidence that wetlands alone can remove 20 to 60% of metals in water and trap 80 to 90% of sediment from runoff. Some countries have even created wetlands to treat industrial wastewater, at least partially. Over recent years, Ukraine, for example, has been experimenting artificial wetlands to filter some pharmaceutical products from wastewater.

However, ecosystems alone cannot perform to totality of water treatment functions. They cannot filter out all types toxic substances discharged into the water and their capacity has limits. There are tipping points beyond which the negative impacts of contaminant loading on an ecosystem becomes irreversible, hence the need to recognize thresholds and manage ecosystems accordingly.

Mitigating risks from natural disasters

Wetlands also act as natural barriers that soak up and capture rainwater limiting soil erosion and the impacts of certain natural disasters such as floods. With climate change, experts predict that there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

Some countries have already started taking precautions. For example, Chile announced measures to protect its coastal wetlands after the  tsunami of 2010. The State of Louisiana (USA) created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority following Hurricane Katrina (2005), whose devastating impact was magnified by the degradation of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta.

Nevertheless, the use of nature-based solutions remains marginal and almost all investments are still channelled to grey infrastructure projects. Yet, to satisfy the ever-growing demand for water, green infrastructure appears to be a promising solution complementing traditional approaches. The authors of the report therefore call for greater balance between the two, especially given that nature-based solutions are best aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015.  Coordinated by the UN World Water Assessment Programme of UNESCO, the United Nations World Water Development Report is is the fruit of collaboration between the 31 United Nations entities and 39 international partners that comprise UN-Water. Its publication coincides with World Water Day, celebrated every year on 22 March.

UNESCO

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2021 will be defined by the more long-term crisis facing humanity: Climate change

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Rather than low-tech and often unworkable solutions (reduced or no travel, mass vegan diets) governments are increasingly embracing technology to help us understand and influence the climate – rather than merely respond to it. This should become the norm for public authorities across the world.

China’s weather modification programme, for example, could be a lifeline for workable solutions to climate change globally. The technique, known as cloud-seeding, uses silver iodide and liquid nitrogen to thicken water droplets in the cloud, leading to increased rain or snowfall. 

The technology has been used to prevent droughts and regulate weather before major events, like in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics

The Chinese cabinet has announced that its weather modification programme will cover half the country by 2025, with the aim to revitalize rural regions, restore ecosystems, minimize losses from natural disasters and redistribute water throughout the country.  

And China’s ambitious ‘Sky River’ programme could eventually divert 5 billion cubic meters of water annually across regions, which could protect millions of people from the effects of drought and water scarcity. 

Although critics have, without evidence, described these projects as ‘weaponization of the weather’, the humanitarian and development potential is huge. 

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is truer than ever with regards to the climate. The world faces a climate-change induced water crisis, with 1.5 billion people affected globally. 

The UN predicts that at the current water usage levels, water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. 

Carbon emissions are unlikely to be eliminated in high growth economies in regions like Asia, meaning that the world must develop a way to manage emissions’ effects on the climate. 

Whilst it is true that the basic solutions of eating less meat, cycling to work and cutting back on international flights can help to curb our carbon output in the long-run, it does nothing to help those who suffer from flooding or water scarcity today. 

Ultimately, technology is an essential part of the solution.

Big Tech is leading the charge in tackling climate change through the use of Big Data and machine learning. In November 2019, a group of data scientists published a paper entitled ‘Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning’. The paper laid out 13 different applications of using machine learning to tackle the impacts of climate change. One such application was using machine-learning to predict extreme weather events. 

Such an application is already being put into action. For example, Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world; approximately 5 million people were negatively affected by flooding last year alone. In order to help combat this, Google teamed up with the Bangladesh Water Development Board and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme to develop a flood notification app that is approximately 90% accurate

The app, which is enabled by AI flooding simulation, provides the population with timely, updated, and critical information that can help users make informed decisions on the safety of their families and friends. 

The same technology has been used in both India and South Africa, and has the potential to save thousands of lives and livelihoods. It is these sorts of innovations that we must rely on to help those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. 

It is not only cloud-seeding and weather prediction technologies that will provide humanity with a route out of its biggest existential threat. Breakthrough battery technology, green hydrogen, 5G-based smart grids and carbon-negative factories are set to become commonplace in our fight against rising CO2 levels. 

As a global society, we must set our political divisions and some critics’ technophobia aside, and step forward in a spirit of international collaboration.

Similarly to how the pandemic showed the need for united global action, climate change will do the same. And just as technology and science was a key part in how the pandemic was brought under control, climate change can only be addressed through tech-based solutions.

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The solution to marine plastic pollution is plural, and plastic offsetting is one of them

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Due to growing concerns around environmental protection, businesses, individuals and governments have been looking for solutions that can be largely implemented to close the tap on plastic pollution.

In the last five years, businesses have strengthened their Sustainability Approach to acknowledge the need to take responsibility for their plastic production and consumption.

If targets have been defined and strong policies followed them to ensure high recycling rates of plastic products, a problem remains. What is the solution for low-value non-recyclable plastics?

This is where plastic offsetting enters the scene. As a derivative of the Carbon Offsetting concept, where trees are planted or protected to capture CO2 emissions, Plastic offsetting also known as Plastic Neutralization, enables companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint.

Put simply, neutralizing means funding the collection and treatment of plastic, equivalent to the plastic impact of the business. Therefore, giving it the opportunity to compensate for every ton of plastic it has produced by ensuring there is one ton less in the environment.

From linear to Circular Economy Itis also a breakthrough in our traditional model of production, the linear economy. By extending the producer responsibility (EPR), this concept allow to build the bridge that lead to the ideal model, the circular economy, where no waste remains.

This innovative solution brings with it diverse positive impact. To the environment, by protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution, reducing landfilling and CO2 emissions. A strong social impact, by local communities by empowering local communities with work and better incomes. But also businesses, by becoming more sustainable with the reduction of the plastic footprint and a strengthen corporate social responsibility.

TONTOTON, a Vietnamese company, based in Ho Chi Minh City has succeed to connect all stakeholders to create a new market for low-value non-recyclable post-consumer plastic, on the scheme of circular economy.

TONTOTON Plastic Neutralization Program

Following the idea that the informal sector achieve to collect and recycle large amount of plastic in poor waste management areas, Barak Ekshtein, director of TONTOTON decided to look closer to the problem. In fact, a study shows that ‘97% of plastic bottles were collected by informal waste pickers.

The problem therefore does not lie in the logistics but in the price. By giving a market price to non-recyclable plastic, it allows waste collectors to collect and treat waste and thus avoid plastic pollution.

TONTOTON currently works in Southern Vietnamese Islands, Hon Son and Phu Quoc, and has already few tons of low-value plastic waste. To do so, it collaborates with local waste-pickers and thus provide them better incomes. The program focuses on preventing ocean plastic by following the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. Their activities are audited by a 3rd party control body, the internationally recognized company, Control Union.

To treat the waste, TONTOTON partners with a certified cement plant, through co-processing, to valorize waste as an alternative energy and raw material. “Our system can solve two issues. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and contains more energy than coal. Thus we can replace industrial coal consumption with non-recyclable plastic waste. The plastic will not end up in landfill or oceans, therefore reduce levels of coal consumption and thus also CO2 emissions.”, says Barak Ekshtein.

Businesses engaged in their program can claim plastic neutrality on the amount of plastic neutralized to share their sustainability efforts. Moreover, indicate it on their neutralized product by bearing the “Plastic Neutral Product” label.

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Climate Change in Vanuatu: Problems Ensue

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Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Shubham Sharma*

Vanuatu announced its intention to seek legal action against corporations and governments who have benefited from products which had caused climate change. Minister Regebvanu, in the 2018 Climate Vulnerable Summit sought to explore legal actions against companies, financial institutions and governments liable for the damages caused to Vanuatu due to climate change, either by direct to indirect actions of the said parties. Vanuatu, like other small island nations, is seeking damage claims against carbon emitters who have contributed to climate change and benefited from it. Vanuatu seeks to claim reparations for damage caused by events related to climate change such as the 2015 cyclone which wiped out an estimated 64 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP.

A case of action against global polluters isn’t novel. Climate Change litigation has its precedence, with over 1300 cases having been filed across 28 countries, where various public and private entities have petitioned the Courts for environmental action or relief. The source of the litigation comes for various multilateral treaties, such as the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and others treaties combating pollution.

For Vanuatu, one of the major obstacle, other than the likely opposition from powerful States, includes finding a suitable forum; identifying relevant substantive obligations and various challenges relating to attribution, causation and evidence before they are able to make successful climate litigation before an international body such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), scholars have argued that a path for successful litigation exists through Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ICJ Statute, where by accepting compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJa case for prevention obligations under the lex special is of the UNFCCC, human rights law or customary international law.

Strategic Public Climate Litigation, an injunctive relief solution where the aim is to influence public policy or policy decisions primarily through the attainment of injunctive relief by asserting governmental failure to account for GHG emissions associated with public projects and cases of judicial review of public regulatory action (or inaction) on climate change, has already achieved some degree of success. An example would be the Australian Conservation Foundation et al. v. Minister for Planning where there were concerns with regards to GHG emissions of a new coal mine which lead a tribunal to determine the lasting significant environmental effects of the coal mine in the future would be against the objective of the act which is to “maintenance of ecological processes” and the “future interest of all Victorians.” Another example is that of the State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, where an injunction was sought to compel the Dutch government to reduce GHG emissions, the supreme court of appeals, upheld this view and ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 level.

The second option for Vanuatu is to cast a wide net of a variety of legal theories, such as domestic tort law against carbon majors similar to the petition brought before the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which investigate the responsibility of 47 investor-owned carbon majors for human rights violations due to climate change. For this approach, the initial challenge Vanuatu faces is the lack of a national human rights institution who can bring rights violations caused by climate change. However, the lack of a human rights institution can be mitigated by Vanuatu’s independent judicial system, as it is competent to address claims for damage caused by climate change by the polluters. The major hurdle Vanuatu faces is establishing the causation between the defendants’ conduct and its result, which is to say whether the action of the defendant lead to or contributed to the disaster, and secondly, the ability to certain specific damage sorted by Vanuatu on the other, especially in cases of non-economic loss and damage.

The recent surge in climate change litigation bodes well for Vanuatu, as the establishing precedence only strengthens their claim for damages. However, Vanuatu still faces major obstacles. Firstly, a lack of an international body to address the issue. Even if a case is brought before the ICJ, it can only be against a Member State. Thus, action against private entities cannot be brought before the ICJ. Secondly, identifying the rights violated and then assessing and assigning the damage liability to individuals, entities and governments. Thirdly, if Vanuatu pursues action in domestic courts, there are issues relating to the appearance of the party to the summons and the ability of Vanuatu to enforce the judgment. As the primary means of compliance for offenders in the international area are sanctions, Vanuatu without support from larger nations wouldn’t be able to handout sanctions to force compliance. There are many problems that Vanuatu faces but they cannot sit still now, and it is time to act and make the polluters liable.

* Shubham Sharma is a graduate from NALSAR University of Law. He has worked on several research projects relating to human rights, juvenile justice, and climate change.

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