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Ten tips on how humanitarian actors can protect the environment

MD Staff

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Every day humanitarian aid workers help millions of people around the world, regardless of who they are and where they are.

World Humanitarian Day, marked on 19 August, offers the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations an opportunity to celebrate the daily work of humanitarian responders worldwide and recognize their dedication to helping others, no matter how hard it may be. World Humanitarian Day also gives us pause to reflect on how to continue improving the humanitarian response to natural and man-made disasters and complex emergencies.

Among the many challenges facing humanitarian responders, environmental issues directly affect core operations.

Hazardous chemicals pose acute threats to human life and pose long-term risks to human health. Damage to natural resources and ecosystems such as forests, pasture, soil, wetlands and coral reefs also have a devastating effect on livelihoods, as people are forced to switch to less sustainable and more environmentally damaging livelihoods. Sometimes, access to scarce resources can heighten tension and lead to conflict.

Yet with expert knowledge and support, humanitarian workers are well placed to address these issues and create a better environment for the people that they serve as well as for themselves.

Ten years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 19 August as World Humanitarian Day. On the occasion of this celebration, here are ten things humanitarian actors can do to safeguard the environment and improve lives while undertaking the noble work of relief and recovery operations.

Hazardous substances: Identify all sources of acute risk (such as chemical spills from damaged infrastructure) as early as possible. Emergency assistance can be facilitated through rapid assessments and advice. Access should be restricted until the site is clean or the risk reduced.

Emergency waste management: Plan the location of emergency waste disposal sites with local authorities to avoid contamination of water sources and agricultural land, disease vectors and odours. Do not burn waste without a proper risk assessment, especially in the case of plastics. Healthcare and other forms of hazardous waste should be disposed of using appropriate methods, such as steam sterilization (autoclaves), for example.

Water use: To determine sustainable levels of water use, an early assessment of the presence, quality, quantity and recharge rate of groundwater sources should be done. Monitor groundwater extraction to ensure that the natural recharge rate is not exceeded. Raise awareness of the importance of water conservation.

Sanitation: Take care to locate latrines downstream of wells, at least 30m from groundwater sources and at least 1.5m above the water table. Fitting pit latrines with concrete slabs eliminates the need for secondary wooden slabs or supporting beams and facilitates cleaning. Consider the up- and down-stream impacts of water use and sanitation, as well as its cumulative impact on watersheds.

Energy consumption: The use of wood or charcoal for domestic energy by displaced people has a major impact on the environment and livelihoods. Promote energy saving measures, such as fuel-efficient stoves and cooking techniques, and fast-cooking foods. Consider using cleaner energy sources, such as gas and photovoltaic power.

Refugee / internally displaced people’s camps: If possible, keep camp populations below 20,000 and locate camp sites at least 15km from ecologically sensitive areas and neighbouring camps. Consider controlled harvesting sites or mud brick construction to avoid deforestation. Promote the three R’s of waste management in camps: Reduce, Re-use and Recycle.

Transport: Well-maintained vehicles and eco-friendly driving reduce air pollution and fuel consumption. Where possible, choose cleaner fuels and fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicles to minimize carbon emissions. Waste oil should be stored in plastic drums and properly disposed of or taken back to its source.

Green procurement: Smart procurement decisions are a simple way to reduce the environmental impact of humanitarian operations. Choose goods with the minimum possible packaging, especially containers that can be reused or recycled. Source materials from local or national markets to minimize travel miles and carbon emissions and always opt for recycled materials. Select suppliers with certified safe and sustainable production practices, especially for forest products, water supply, metals and plastics.

Standards, tools and guidelines: Standards, tools and guidance documents are available to assist humanitarian responders in managing environmental impacts and risks. In the absence of other guidance, the Sphere standards should be applied.

UN assistance: Humanitarian operations can be assisted on environmental issues by the Joint UN Environment & Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Environment Unit (during the emergency phase) and  UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch (during the early recovery phase).

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Climate Risks: Wildfires, Glacier Melt, Coastal Flooding … A Beautiful Antelope

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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California wildfires are again in the news as the Kincade Fire now raging risks 50,000 people, who have been evacuated.  It might come as a surprise but there have been 41,074 wildfires compared to 47,853 in 2018 for the first nine months of the year.  Blame the downslope Santa Ana winds for fanning them.  Fires can occur naturally through lightning strikes but these days some 90 percent are due to human carelessness:  discarded cigarettes, unquenched campfires and the like, all exacerbated by a warming climate.  Killing 85 people, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history seemed to have been caused by Pacific Gas and Electric power lines (although it is still under investigation), and they are suspected in the present Kincade Fire.  Wildfires do clear brush — 4.4 million acres burned off this year — ensuring a worse fire will not occur in the future.

As can be expected, such fires also place property at risk.  California, Texas and Colorado have the highest numbers of properties at risk, while Montana and Idaho are tops in percentage terms; in Montana 29 percent and in Idaho 26 percent of properties are in the danger zone.

If the west is prone to wildfires, the east has an opposite problem:  flooding.  Sea levels are rising.  The Greenland ice sheet holding enough water to raise the water line by 7 meters is melting.  Scientists estimate two-thirds of the ice loss is due to glacier calving as chunks of ice detach from the 300 odd outlet glaciers that end in the fjords.  As reported in Science magazine recently, (October 11, 2019), Helheim, a major glacier responsible for 4 percent of Greenland’s annual ice loss is being observed by a team headed by Fiamma Straneo of the Scripps Institution.

In severe retreat since 2014, the glacier has reduced “by more than 100 meters, leaving a tell-tale ring on the rock around the fjord.”  This summer its water temperature is 0.2C above the previous high in a relentless rise.  Also the data collected will improve mathematical modeling to predict future consequences.

Coastal flooding on the East Coast has been noted by the New York Times (October 8, 2019) in a feature article,  As Sea Levels Rise, So Do Ghost Forests.  Trees in coastal areas are dying off due to frequent total incursions of saltwater.

An excellent estimate of coastal flooding on the East and Gulf coasts, Encroaching Tides, was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists a few years ago.  Sober reading, it forecasts coastal innundation over the next three decades.  It talks about adaptation to the new norms, the responsibility of Municipalities, States and the Federal Government, sea walls, economic consequences, and a retreat from heavily impacted areas.  Is anybody listening, and when they called for reducing emissions was the US listening?

When more than 190 countries signed up to almost all of the rulebook buttressing the 2015 Paris Agreement, it made the 24th International Climate Conference in Katowice, Poland (Dec 2018) a major success.  This December the 25th International Climate Conference will convene in Santiago, Chile.  A primary issue before it is how to avoid double counting i.e. counting the same emission reduction more than once.  Countries have so far failed to reach common ground on how to avoid it despite the threat to carbon markets underpinning the Paris Agreement.  Is bashing heads together in Santiago one answer? 

Meanwhile on the top of the world, inhabiting the Tibet plateau, the beautiful and majestic chiru or Tibetan antelope, once in trouble from excessive poaching and then recovering, is at risk again.  This time it is due to climate change.  It has caused excessive melt and a burst natural dam that used to surround Lake Zonag right beside their calving site.

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Satellites record second lowest Arctic sea ice extent since 1979

MD Staff

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The polar oceans are among the most rapidly changing oceans in the world. The yearly cycle of the build-up and melting of Arctic sea ice is one of the earth’s vital signs and a key climate variable monitored by scientists.

While they may be far from the world’s major population centres, changes in the polar regions have global implications: they affect the world’s climate through carbon storage and/or release, heat balance, and other environmental and ecological impacts.

One of the most visible indicators of this change is the reduction in the extent of Arctic sea ice by the end of September each year.

Since 1979, scientists have observed a decrease in the extent of Arctic sea ice in all months of the year. The September minimum extent is 36.5 per cent smaller in the period 2010–2019 than it was in the 1980s.

In a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC, 2019), scientists observed a reduction trend of 12.8 per cent (± 2.3 per cent) per decade. With 4.1 million square kilometres, the 2019 minimum arctic sea ice extent is the second lowest (after the record low of 2012) since the beginning of satellite monitoring in 1979. This rate of decline is likely (between a 66 per cent and 90 per cent probability) to be unprecedented in at least the past 1,000 years.

Arctic sea ice increases its extent during the northern hemisphere winter, reaching its maximum in March before decreasing during the summer. The extent of Arctic sea ice in 2019 was the second smallest since satellite monitoring started in 1979. This graph is updated daily and can be accessed from the UNEP World Environment Situation Room.
Graph by UNEP/GRID-Geneva, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Snow and Ice Data Center

Under a scenario of global heating of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, by the end of the 21st century, the Arctic ocean would only be ice-free in September once in every 100 years. Under a global warming scenario of 2°C, this would occur as much as one year in three, according the IPCC.

During the period monitored by satellites (1979-2019), the minimum Arctic sea ice extent in mid-September has shown a sharp decline (12.8 per cent per decade), which is likely to be unprecedented in the last 1,000 years. The summer of 2019 saw the second smallest extent of Arctic sea ice (after 2012).
Graph by UNEP/GRID-Geneva, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Loss of sea ice increases global heating. White snow reflects sunlight, whereas water absorbs it. Declining Arctic sea ice, therefore, amplifies the warming up of the Arctic. Temperatures increased by around 0.5°C per decade between 1982 and 2017, primarily due to increased absorbed solar radiation accompanying sea ice loss since 1979. This is twice as fast as the global average.

Arctic sea ice reflects the sun’s rays. As ice cover decreases, more of the sun’s rays are absorbed by the ocean, leading to further warming. While melting of sea ice does not directly contribute to sea-level rise, it contributes to the warming of the oceans, thus inducing thermal expansion.
Satellite images for 1979 and 2012 are from NASA (arrows added by UNEP/GRID-Geneva).

Thinner ice

Not only is the extent of Arctic sea ice reducing, but it is also much thinner, and scientists observe a transition to younger ice. Five-year-old sea ice has declined by about 90 per cent since 1979.

This has several impacts. It reduces the reflection of light, thus contributing to thermal expansion of the oceans. The change in Arctic sea ice extent may influence mid-latitude weather, and it may affect the regional composition of species, their spatial distribution, and the abundance of many marine species, with impacts on the structure of ecosystems.

For instance, reduced ice cover is adversely affecting the habitat of polar bears which now need to travel greater distances and swim more than previously, particularly threatening young cubs.

While the science tells us that global heating is happening, the exact impacts on fragile habitats and ecosystems are much harder to predict. 

“There is an urgent need to reduce our greenhouse gases emissions,” says Peduzzi.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

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