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UN spotlights rainwater recycling, artificial wetlands among ‘green’ solutions to global water crisis

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The Laghman River, one of Afghanistan’s many waterways, is essential to agriculture and other development in this largely rural eastern province. Photo Fardin Waezi/UNAMA

With five billion people at risk of having difficulty accessing adequate water by 2050, finding nature-based solutions, such as China’s rainwater recycling, India’s forest regeneration and Ukraine’s artificial wetlands, is becoming increasingly important, according to a United Nations report released Monday at the world’s largest water-related event in Brazil.

“We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change,” said Audrey Azoulay, head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in the foreword of the UN World Water Development Report 2018.

“If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050,” she added.

Goal 6 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in 2015 seeks to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all and, also access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.

The report notes that the global demand for water has been increasing and will continue to grow significantly over the next two decades due to population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns.

Due to climate change, wetter regions are becoming wetter, and drier regions are becoming even drier. At present, an estimated 3.6 billion people, nearly half the global population, live in areas potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8 billion to 5.7 billion by 2050.

The number of people at risk from floods is projected to rise from 1.2 billion today to around 1.6 billion in 2050, nearly 20 per cent of the world’s population. The population currently affected by land degradation, desertification and drought is estimated at 1.8 billion people, making this the worst natural disaster based on mortality and socio-economic impact relative to gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

The UNESCO Director-General said the report proposes solutions that are based on nature to manage water better.

The report notes that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at disposal.

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, the report says.

In 1986, the province of Rajasthan in India experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. Over the following years, a non-governmental organization worked alongside local communities to regenerate soils and forests in the region by setting up water harvesting structures. This led to a 30 per cent increase in forest cover, groundwater levels rose by several metres and cropland productivity improved.

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China’s trash ban lifts lid on global recycling woes but also offers opportunity

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China’s decision to ban imports of foreign waste, including some plastics, has reverberated around the world, with recycling operations in other countries struggling to deal with the new reality. But is this an opportunity wrapped in a crisis?

Some experts argue that developed nations will, at last, have to face up to the true cost of their plastic addiction instead of shipping the problem to China, which has taken nearly half the world’s waste since 1992.

This could spur much-needed investment in domestic recycling facilities as well as innovation in plastic manufacturing to make products more suited to repurposing. It could also invigorate the vociferous public campaign to change our throwaway culture.

Last year, China decided to ban imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles, citing environmental and health concerns. Essentially, it is seeking to upgrade its economy and deal more effectively with its own growing mounds of trash. The material it was importing added 10-13 per cent to its overall waste levels.

Another problem was the poor quality of waste imports, which made them more difficult to recycle and consequently hit profits for the Chinese companies involved.

The ban came into force in January and the effects are now being tallied.

In a new study, published in June in Science Advances, scientists from the University of Georgia (UGA) found that 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by China’s new policy by 2030. All that rubbish will have to go somewhere else.

The ban is already beginning to bite. The Washington Post says states such as Massachusetts and Oregon are lifting restrictions on pouring recyclable material into landfills.

AFP has reported that significant stockpiles of recyclables are piling up in the US, with some municipalities saying they will no longer collect certain materials or send them to landfills, while some recycling facilities are storing the extra waste outside or in parking lots.

“Our team has been and will be closely monitoring reports and impacts from the ban and have certainly heard that waste is accumulating within the borders of countries that have long depended on China or other countries to import their plastic waste,” said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student at UGA’s College of Engineering and lead author of the plastic waste study.

The ban has also exposed systemic weaknesses in recycling processes in the United States. The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) said in May that the ban exposed the problems caused by dirty recyclables. The introduction of single-stream recycling in the United States, which mixes paper, metal, glass and plastics — means recyclables are less pure and less valuable.

“The good news and bad news is that customer enthusiasm for recycling is strong. The public wants to recycle, but they express that enthusiasm by recycling materials that are not eligible.  A combination of ‘wishful recycling’ and insufficient enforcement of quality is proving very damaging to the industry – abysmal and volatile markets, a dirty product that is not a reliable ‘commodity’, closed plants, and programs that are hurting economically,” Marjorie Griek, the NRC’s executive director, said in a statement.

“We cannot continue to act and behave as if business as usual will offer a solution to today’s issues. We must fundamentally shift how we speak to the public, how we collect and process our recyclables, and what our end markets accept and utilize to truly recycle,” Griek said.

Such changes will, of course, take time. As will new investment in recycling facilities to fill the gap left by China, which imported around 7 million tonnes of waste in 2016. This is even more concerning when one realises that, to date, only 9 per cent of waste has been recycled globally, with most of it ending up in landfills or in the environment, including in our seas.

Some developed countries reacted to the ban by sending their waste to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, and some Chinese recyclers have opened factories in nearby countries to cash in on this new business.

However, experts point out that some of these countries do not have the capacity to deal with the waste influx and are already considering imposing restrictions of their own. Another concern is that Asia is already home to five of the world’s top marine plastic polluters and sending more trash to countries that are ill-equipped to deal with it will simply exacerbate that problem.

Since the Chinese ban, Britain’s waste exports to Malaysia have tripled, the Financial Times has reported, with the domestic recycling industry seen to be languishing and underfunded.

Peter Skelton of the sustainability organisation WRAP, believes the government, waste management firms and local authorities can rise to the challenge.

“We’ve been reliant on export markets for a lot of our recycling and that’s got to change. In some ways, it’s a forced decision,” Skelton said. “There’s been a great response from the waste and recycling organisations … because they see the landscape has shifted,” he said.

Governments also have a role to play by investing in recycling and waste management, he added. The British government is due to publish a Waste and Resources strategy later this year.

UGA’s Brooks agrees that governments must step up by educating people about recycling and encouraging innovation.

China’s ban has also shone a spotlight on the parlous state of international regulation about plastic waste.

The UGA study argues that the International Basel Convention, which governs the export of hazardous and other waste, could be applied to plastic waste if the latter was characterized as “waste requiring special consideration”. It could then be regulated while knowledge could be shared and standards harmonised.

One potentially positive side-effect of China’s ban has been to focus attention on the need for a more sustainable circular economy, where resources like plastics will be kept in use for as long as possible. However, with oil prices relatively low, virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic — a financial obstacle that must be surmounted.

“This is definitely a complex situation financially and socially,” Brooks said. “I prefer to remain optimistic that our relationship with plastic can be improved, despite some of the financial barriers. Every person plays a role in our global use of plastic and the circular economy can be embedded in that relationship so that waste is more valuable and less likely to end up in the environment.”

European authorities appear to have recognised the value inherent in plastics. The European Commission’s Plastics Strategy, which was unveiled in January, says its drive to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity is multiplied fourfold.

For Brooks, and her co-author Jenna Jambek, an associate professor at UGA’s College of Engineering, China’s ban should serve as a wake-up call and an opportunity to improve domestic management of plastic waste and invest in technology and new initiatives.

“The bottom line is that our solutions going forward need to incorporate all stakeholders, citizens, governments and industry, both locally and internationally,” said Brooks.

UN Environment

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Climate Change Could Depress Living Standards in India

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Rising temperatures and changing monsoon rainfall patterns from climate change could cost India 2.8 percent of GDP and depress the living standards of nearly half the country’s population by 2050, a World Bank report says.

According to South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards, almost half of South Asia’s population, including India, now lives in the vulnerable areas and will suffer from declining living standards that could be attributed to falling agricultural yields, lower labor productivity or related health impacts. Some of these areas are already less developed, suffer from poor connectivity and are water stressed.

India’s average annual temperatures are expected to rise by 1.00°C to 2°C by 2050 even if preventive measures are taken along the lines of those recommended by the Paris climate change agreement of 2015. If no measures are taken average temperatures in India are predicted to increase by 1.5°C to 3°C.

The work scientifically identifies vulnerable states and districts as “hotspots” using spatial granular climate and household data analysis. The report defines hotspot as a location where changes in average temperature and precipitation will have a negative effect on living standards. These hotspots are not only necessarily higher temperature zones than the surrounding areas, but also reflect the local population’s socio-economic capacity to cope with the climatic changes.

In India today, approximately 600 million people live in locations that could either become moderate or severe hotspots by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario, the report says. States in the central, northern and north-western parts of India emerge as most vulnerable to changes in average temperature and precipitation.

According to the report’s analysis, by 2050 Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are predicted to be the top two climate hotspot states and are likely to experience a decline of more than 9 percent in their living standards, followed by Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Seven out of the top 10 most-affected hotspot districts will belong to the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

“These weather changes will result in lower per capita consumption levels that could further increase poverty and inequality in one of the poorest regions of the world, South Asia,” says report author Muthukumara Mani, a Lead Economist in the South Asia Region of the World Bank. “Identifying hotspots will help policymakers in finding specific locations and household types where the resources are needed the most to address the rising risk to living standards.”

The report provides options to prioritize investments and strategies to build local resilience to climate change. To offset the negative economic impact in India, for example, the analysis suggests enhancing educational attainment, reducing water stress, and improving job opportunities in the nonagricultural sectors. The analysis predicts that a 30 percent improvement on these measures could halt the decline in living standards by almost 1 percent from -2.8 percent to -1.9 percent.

Muthukumara Mani adds:Development is indeed the best adaptation strategy, since it is associated with improved infrastructure, market-oriented reforms, enhanced human capabilities, and a stronger institutional capacity to respond to the increasing threat of climate change and natural disasters.

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Rising sea-levels: How to stop a city from sinking

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photo: UN Environment

When William Buco, father of five, moved to Dar-es-Salaam thirty years ago the coastline was unrecognizable to today. He could sit on the beaches and picnic with his friends. Coconut sellers came by with fresh harvests, and newly married couples posed for wedding photographs with the oceanic backdrop. Then the tide turned, and all this began to change.

Sea-levels rose and eroded the coastline. The tunnel of trees that once flanked the coastal road died from salt poisoning and rotted by the roadside. Businesses corroded along with the coastline – there were no more residents around to sell to.

“The sea waves were very violent and the water could not be managed,” explained Buco, 75, a local engineer and grandfather. “It was the lower-class people who were really affected. Their future was damaged. Opportunities were lost.”

The World Bank estimates that climate change will hit East Africa hard, forcing more than 10 million people to flee their homes by 2050.

The coastal metropolis of Dar-es-Salaam is at risk. Five million residents, many of them poor, are living in a low-lying city surrounded by an ever-rising sea.

But it’s not just the seawater. Intense rainfall in Dar-es-Salaam is flooding entire neighborhoods each year. Water accumulates in the flat city, eroding the foundations of buildings. Even when residents expend all efforts keeping homes dry – sometimes permanently cementing the bottom-half of their front doors – the stagnant water erodes the outer walls and causes them to flake away.

The situation was so stark that one man, Chacha, left his business to become an Environment Officer and protect his city from flooding. Pointing to a house submerged in water, he explained: “This area is not safe for people living here. If there’s heavy rain, the toilets are also flooding. It’s easy for people to get infectious diseases like cholera, diarrhea, typhoid and other things like that.”

UN Environment was alerted to the needs of Tanzanian coastal communities. In collaboration with United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), they began building extensive seawalls along Tanzania’s coast, including over 2,400m of defense structures. The walls stop the shores from disintegrating and are scattered with scenic viewpoints for residents to enjoy.

Further inland, a network of drainage systems was carved-out to channel floodwaters to the ocean. Even before the project was finished there was already a major sea-change for the local communities.

Economic activity is now recovering on the city’s coastlines. Traders in fruits and nuts are returning. “Now opportunities are back again,” said Buco. “We can make this a place of opportunities for people to sell, people to buy, people to relax.”

The drainage systems have given reprieve to the waterlogged residential zones. Environment officer Chacha said: “We have to figure out how to take this water back to the sea. That’s why the construction of this drainage system is very important for people living in this area.”

Seawalls have now been constructed in seven sites along Tanzania’s coast, owing to the financial support from the Adaptation Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, and the Government of Tanzania.

On World Environment Day, the Tanzanian Vice-President Samia Suluhu gave a speech to celebrate the completion of the seawall: “Through the construction of these walls in the various parts of the country, we see the importance of the project. Kisiwa Panza [northern Tanzania] was sinking but now the residents are living well and in peace.”

In combination with the seawall, UN Environment restored vast areas of mangrove and coral habitats, both of which act as natural barriers against wave surges. This formed part of a strategy that seeks to build resilience to climate change by improving natural ecosystems.

Dar-es-Salaam – literally meaning ‘house of peace’ – is on the frontier of the fight against climate change. The building of these seawalls, along with the ecological restoration, has bought the city another 50 years of protection from rising seas, helping the metropolis to remain true to both its name and its nature.

UN Environment

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