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

MD Staff

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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.

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Green Planet

Diving into a cleaner blue ocean in 2019

MD Staff

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When Miao Wang started diving, she was shocked at the deterioration of the ocean ecosystem around her. Now, three months after winning the Young Champions of the Earth prize for Asia and the Pacific, she has made great strides in addressing ocean protection.

“About eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, causing 15 million deaths among marine life,” she explains. “Divers, who as a group stay long enough with the ocean, witness the degradation of the ecosystem while touched by its beauty.”

Her Better Blue initiative has already forged relationships with new donors, and she has signed agreements with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the watch manufacturers Rossini and The Paradise Foundation.

As well as looking for further funding to support her projects going forward, she has trained many others to become divers and was selected to participate in a “speed incubator programme,” which trains young people in diving and collecting information about the ocean.

Wang has also developed a prototype for an education programme on sustainable consumption, which can be shared among people visiting popular cafes. Already, she has implemented the education programme in 10 cafes across Shanghai.

The cooperation among various popular cafes in Shanghai and soon other cities in China too, will advocate for providing alternatives to single-use plastic straws, and encouraging the cafes to replace their plastic cups with degradable ones.

Miao and Better Blue also attended the Xiamen Marathon – the first international marathon to join UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign – and had a stand in the exhibition hall during the week leading up to the marathon.

“We continue to focus on the most essential job of organizing ourselves internally to handle operations and logistics. We are a small team and need to constantly prioritize to ensure we can deliver on all our goals. Going forward in 2019, this is an aspect of our business that we aim to strengthen, to keep Better Blue heading in the right direction.”

“Next year, we hope to engage in more cross-border collaboration, especially with some major brands, to convey key messages about sustainable living, turning marine protection into a way of life. We also hope to inspire other people to protect the ocean too, as that is where all life begins,” she said.

“The Young Champions of the Earth prize has been a major support for Better Blue, helping us to take our mission from strength to strength.

“In addition to participating in the Professional Association of Diving Instructors annual gala and providing trainings to diving centers, Better blue will continue to work on its development strategy and financial risk management, as we look forward to a successful 2019,” she said.

UN Environment

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Lessons from China on large-scale landscape restoration

MD Staff

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Photo by Fengting Yang

In the 1980s, the hilly Qianyanzhou region in Jiangxi Province, southern China, faced severe soil erosion due to deforestation and unsustainable farming practices. Fertile red soil was being washed away causing crop yields to tumble.

But a remarkable change has taken place in the last 30 years thanks to a government-backed land-use plan which has seen the upper hills reforested, citrus orchards planted on moderate slopes, and rice paddies in valley bottoms. Within a few years, this mosaic of sustainable land use was yielding higher incomes. Biodiversity and environmental quality, as well as the microclimate, improved.

In early November 2018, the head of UN Environment’s freshwater, land and climate branch, Tim Christopherson, together with his colleague Xiaoqiong Li, visited several sites in the area to better understand how large-scale ecological restoration works.

Huimin Wang, the director of an ecological research station in Ji’an, Qianyanzhou region, briefed UN Environment on the problem and the centre’s role in restoring the landscape.

“Thirty years ago, this area was denuded of trees and vulnerable to landslides. Erosion gullies washed fertile red soil away,” says Wang.

“We set up this ecological research station to work out how best to restore the land. We brought together experts from around the world, including from the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in Germany.”

Research focused on forest structure optimization and how to improve ecosystem services from the forest; the structure and functions of forest ecology; carbon, water and nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems under climate change; and the Qianyanzhou upgrade model to be achieved by improving ecological and economic benefits in the watershed.

Another key element of the restoration process was agroforestry, supported by the local government: farmers continued to grow cash crops such as peanuts, sesame and vegetables among the restored orchards, and breed Silkie chickens (black-boned with fluffy plumage) in orchards and forest plantations. This ensured economic returns in the early stages of the project and helped improve soil fertility. As well as building dams and ponds, government agencies provided loans to households to help them get started.

Success story”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 21.9 per cent, or 206,861,000 hectares of China, was forested in 2010. In just one decade, the Qianyanzhou restoration drive has increased China’s total forest area by 74.3 million hectares. Qianyanzhou’s forest coverage has increased from 0.43 per cent to nearly 70 per cent.

Qianyanzhou restoration efforts have helped the region and the country take a big step towards implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goals 1 (No Poverty), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 8 (Good Jobs and Economic Growth), 12 (Responsible Consumption), and 15 (Life on Land), as well as the Bonn Challenge and the New York Declaration on Forests, all of which fall under UN Environment’s programme of work.

Forests are a major, requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change, thanks to their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon. Forests capture carbon dioxide at a rate equivalent to about one-third the amount released annually by burning fossil fuels. Stopping deforestation and restoring damaged forests, therefore, could provide up to 30 per cent of the climate solution.

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (The UN-REDD Programme) was launched in 2008 and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and UN Environment.

UN Environment

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Plastic recycling: An underperforming sector ripe for a remake

MD Staff

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While there is no silver-bullet solution to the toxic tide of plastic surging into our oceans, recycling must form part of the answer. The problem, many experts say, is that current processes are not fit for purpose.

The world produces around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. To date, only 9 per cent of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled, and only 14 per cent is collected for recycling now.

The reasons are complex. Not all plastic can be recycled and a lack of public awareness means plastic collections are often contaminated. This can increase the cost of recycling.

In the United States, for example, the introduction of single-stream recycling—where recyclables are not separated in household collections—led to a huge surge in recycling rates, but as plastics became more complex, people started placing the wrong things in their bins. Waste Management, the largest processor of residential recycling in North America, says that one in every four items in recycling bins today is not recyclable.

“Chemicals added to plastic polymers, products made of mixed materials and food packaging contaminated with food waste make recycling difficult and costly,” wrote the authors of UN Environment’s The State of Plastics report.

The need to rethink recycling became more apparent when China, which has imported nearly half the world’s waste since 1992, stopped taking foreign plastic waste this year. China’s decision exposed weaknesses in recycling facilities in many other countries.

There are financial reasons for the shortfalls. Depending on the oil price, it is often cheaper to make virgin plastic while the market for recycled plastic is notoriously volatile, making investors reluctant to commit to the sector.

For years, activists have argued that packaging producers and retailers should pay more to cover the cost of dealing with their waste. While many brands have committed to using more recycled plastic, the pressure is growing for them to do more.

In Britain, the government is said to be planning to charge supermarkets, retailers and major drinks brands tens of millions of pounds more towards the cost of recycling. The strategy would include plans to increase contributions from retailers and producers from an average of about 70 million pounds a year to between 500 million pounds and 1 billion pounds a year. There are also plans to include smaller producers.

The European Commission unveiled a Plastics Strategy in January, saying that its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity was multiplied fourfold. The European Union recycles less than 30 per cent of its 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and half of that used to be sent to China.

As part of its strategy, the European Union will develop new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increase demand. It wants to see improved and scaled up recycling facilities and a more standardized system for the separate collection and sorting of waste.

UN Environment, which started its Clean Seas campaign in 2017 to push for the elimination of unnecessary single-use plastics, also supports the implementation of integrated waste management systems through its International Environmental Technology Centre in Japan.

There is clearly a need to support waste management strategies in poorer countries, where municipal authorities often do not have the capacity to implement suitable policies. Some of these countries are also among the biggest marine polluters: 90 per cent of the plastic in our oceans comes from just 10 rivers, with eight of those in Asia.

Some of the industry’s top players have spotted the gaps. In October, waste management company Veolia and consumer goods giant Unilever said they would work together to invest in new technologies to increase recycling and move towards a circular economy.

The three-year partnership will focus, at first, on India and Indonesia where the firms will work to scale up waste collection and recycling infrastructure.

Circulate Capital, an investment management firm dedicated to preventing ocean plastic, said in October that it expected US$90 million in funding from some of the world’s leading consumer good groups and chemical companies, including PepsiCo, P&G, Dow and Coca-Cola.

Created in collaboration with Closed Loop Partners and the Ocean Conservancy, Circulate Capital aims to demonstrate the value of investing in waste management and recycling in South and Southeast Asia. It uses philanthropic and public funds, as well as technical assistance, to support and develop public and nonprofit entities to implement new approaches and build capacity that can support large institutional capital commitments.

“We have recognized that financing is a key barrier—as people always want to know ‘who is going to pay for it?’ By removing capital for infrastructure and operators as a barrier, we believe we can accelerate solutions to policy, education, supply chains and more,” said Rob Kaplan, the founder and CEO of Circulate Capital.

Big name corporations are not the only players. In many developing economies, recycling is carried out by millions of waste pickers, often women, children, the elderly and the unemployed. They may be on the frontline of sustainability but their own lives are often marred by unhealthy working conditions, lack of rights and social stigma.

The World Bank said in its What a Waste 2.0 report that when waste pickers are properly supported and organized, informal recycling can create employment, improve local industrial competitiveness, reduce poverty and decrease municipal spending.

Citizens also have a role to play but education and information are essential. The World Bank cites the example of Jamaica, where environmental wardens, employed by the National Solid Waste Management Authority, teach their neighbours about environmentally friendly disposal of waste. The communities involved collect plastic bottles and remove plastic litter from shared spaces and drains. They then sell the collected bottles to recyclers.

“There is no silver bullet to solving ocean plastic and scaling global recycling—investing in public education without infrastructure won’t achieve results, and vice versa,” said Circulate Capital’s Kaplan. “It is a systems challenge that requires systems solutions.”

UN Environment

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