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Global Waste Crisis: A Rising Threat to Environment

Sultana Yesmin

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The global waste crisis has become an issue of concern worldwide in an age of climate change. The World Bank warns that global waste will increase up to 70 percent on current levels by 2050 unless urgent actions are undertaken. The international financial institution also mentions that global annual waste is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tons over the next 30 years. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) also reports, “The world produces over 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste every year, enough to fill over 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.”

The lack of solid waste management both by developed and developing nations is of the major reasons behind the increase of global waste at an alarming rate. The United States ranks first of the garbage pile only re-using 35 percent of solid waste, while the European countries produce 25 million tons of plastic waste annually remaining less than 30 percent recycled. In addition, at least 33 percent of the global waste is mismanaged through open dumping or burning where the poor and most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. It is because over 90 percent of waste openly dumped or burned in low-income countries.

The decline of recycling trade following China’s recent waste ban has triggered the concern on the waste or trash management crisis across the globe. China, the biggest worldwide importer of foreign waste, has imported around 45 percent of plastic waste since the early 1990s. However, due to environmental concerns, China has banned the import of 24 types of waste including electronic items; plastics such as PET, PVC, polyethylene, ashes, wool and cotton waste; mixed and unsorted paper; and slag from manufacture of steel since December 31, 2017. Prior to that, Beijing announced to reduce the imports of global plastic and paper waste in July 2017 at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held in Geneva. To be noted, domestic garbage has increased largely with the production of some 520,000 tons of waste every day in China alone, because of the country’s consumption-driven economy.

China’s firm position of no longer recycling the foreign waste has made far-reaching effects on the overseas exporters of waste and China-based purchasers of waste, including companies purchasing raw materials made from reprocessed waste. Most particularly, the developed countries, dependent on Chinese recycling industry to handle their excess waste, are facing challenges not only in waste trade but also waste management with efficient technology. China’s renouncement from accepting certain types of plastic and paper recycling since two years have become a matter of concern for industrial nations to find other countries to export their waste. It is because many countries, including the developed ones, lack the necessary infrastructure to process and recycle all the waste that they produce. China is the export destination of the US and the European Union (EU) trade in metals, plastics and paper. The EU sent 1.6 million tons of plastic waste only in 2016, while the rest of the world’s amount was 7.3 million. It is also becoming more complex with the shipping containers of low-quality recycling sending from the Southeast Asian countries, mainly the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia back to Europe and North America.

The widespread plastic particles and use and disposal of plastic materials across the globe are posing severe challenges to the environment, especially for the planet’s oceans. Environmental scientists say that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the sea every year. Around 70 percent of trash in the ocean is the result of single-use plastic objects and fishing gear. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission said, “If we do not change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.”

In a recent report conducted by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) titled “Ocean deoxygenation: Everyone’s problem”, the environmental experts have raised the concern that the loss of oxygen from the world’s ocean driven by climate change is causing disastrous consequences both for sea and human lives. The report shows that roughly 700 ocean areas– compared with 45 in the 1960s–across the globe are affected by low oxygen conditions caused by the constant increase of areas of water with low oxygen concentrations. Eutrophication resulted by the increased nutrient run-off from land and sewage pollution, nitrogen deposition from the burning of fossil fuels and ocean warming  have been referred to the primary causes of deoxygenation of world’s ocean.

Given these concerns, in March 2019, the United Nations’ member states agreed to significantly restrain hazardous items such as plastic bags and straws and reduce single-use plastic products by 2030. The move aims to curb the use of disposable plastic products including bags, cups, cutlery and drinking straws. Almost all the world’s countries also agreed on imposing the restriction of the shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries. Earlier, the UN member states, committed to fight plastic pollution together in an event held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN Headquarters, New York, in September 2018. The EU also unveiled plans to reduce single-use plastic, make all plastic packaging recyclable and curb micro-plastic by 2030.

The sole dependency on China, burdened with its own problematic waste, for the garbage management cannot be a solution. It is highly crucial to completely implement the pledges committed by the world’s nations at the earliest possible time. Along with the ban of several plastic products, the nations need to sort their waste better with advanced technologies.  Booming up world’s waste management industries through setting up recycling plants across the globe and raising awareness about the severe danger of plastic waste are also crucial to tackle global waste crisis.

Sultana Yesmin is a PhD Candidate at the School of Politics and International Studies (SPIS), Central China Normal University (CCNU), Hubei, China. She was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS) in China in 2015. She holds BSS and MSS in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her research interests are broadly in China Affairs, regional and sub-regional cooperation, security studies, South Asian and East Asian affairs. Email: sultanayesmindu[at]gmail.com.

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Covid-19, Lockdown and Migratory Birds: International Perspective

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In India, especially in the northern parts, this is a period of spring. A much-favored time for the visit of migratory birds, who migrate every year along global flyways between continents in search for breeding grounds in Europe, to warmer feeding grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. But due to habitat loss, land reclamation, poaching and changes in global agricultural pattern the migratory birds have suffered significantly across the world.

However, due to COVID-19 threat humans are forced to stay inside their houses and as a result nature is reviving. Two major contributors to this revival are: lowering of pollution level, and limited human interference. Migratory birds can fly freely without human interference or threat. This article explores the protection to their life and existence was acknowledged under various international documents.

International protection for flyways

Billions of birds of the avian world migrate vast distances across the globe twice a year. Avian species migrate along mainly similar and well-established routes known as fly­ways. The idea of a structured instrument for the flyway was first suggested in the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) document of 1983. A flyway is broadly defined as the migration route of a population, species or group of species of birds, between a breeding area, through a series of staging sites (passage) and non- breeding area (wintering area).The Ramsar Convention, 1971 (Ramsar Convention) provides for the protection of many important areas for migratory waterfowl, especially in the Western Palearctic region and in North and West Africa. Most of the States falling in these regions are parties to Ramsar Convention.

The Agreement of African–Eurasian Flyway(AEWA) stretches from Canada and the Russian Federation to the southernmost tip of Africa, covering 119 range-States covering Europe, parts of Asia and Canada, the Middle East and Africa. Currently, 77 countries and the European Union are contracting party to AEWA.

The Central Asian Flyway(CAF) covers migration routes of waterbirds from the northernmost breeding grounds in the Siberia to wintering grounds in West and South Asia, the Maldives and the Indian Ocean territory. Geographically this flyway region covers thirty countries of North, Central and South Asia and Trans-Caucasus. CAF, is entirely within the Northern Hemisphere, and is the shortest flyway in the world.

The overlap between AEWA and CAF

The overlap between the area of CAF and AEWA was concluded in 1995 at The Hague. It was agreed amongst the governing bodies of these agreements that they will work together to enable the parties in taking informed decision on the implementation or extension of safeguards agreed amongst them. Sixteen out of the thirty countries encompassed by the CAF are located in the AEWA Agreement Area. For instance, during the seasonal movements within the Indian subcon­tinent, more than 300 species travel along the CAF including bar-headed goose (Anserindicus), the world’s highest altitude migrant. India’s nearly 175 spe­cies of migratory birds are using the CAF areas including Siberia, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan and Gulf countries.

Wholesome international convention on protection for migratory birds

In international law, birds are protected within the four broader framework, namelyRamsar Convention, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), 1973, Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), 1979 and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) , 1992.The CITES, multilateral treaty, with twenty-five articles which are treated as ‘Magna Carta’ for wild animals and birds by most of conservationists in the world. It accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species but only a relatively small number of migratory bird species as Appendix I contains certain birds of prey and cranes and Appendix II includes all birds of prey. The CMS, adopted in Bonn, is an intergovernmental treaty concerned with the conservation of wildlife and habi­tats under the aegis of the UNEP.The Convention is therefore applicable to almost 2,000 species of birds, nearly a quarter of all existing species. CMS a powerful instrument aims to conserve not only migratory birds but also migratory terrestrial and marine animals of wide range including fish, reptiles and even insects.CBD was adopted at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro where 189 countries were the parties. It primarily focus on habitat protection and the term ‘wildlife’ is absent from the treaty whereas CITES regulates commercial trade of wildlife if a particular species is at risk of extinction. Though CMS, 1979 covers maximum number of migratory species but CBD, 1992 is successful one which attracts maximum countries as members. Ramsar Convention is specifically to provide the protection of habitats, more particularly wetlands of international importance as waterfowl habitats.

The Bonn Convention refers to the global conservation of migratory species as far as Appendix I are concerned, and migratory species listed in Appendix II are usually of a regional scope.So far,two regional agreements are formed for conserving Asian-Eurasian Migratory Water Birds(Hague, 1995), and Albatrosses and Petrels (Canberra, 2001).There are seven non-binding memorandum of understandings (MoUs)for Conservation of Siberian Crane (1993),Slender-Billed Curlew (1994), Great Bustard (2001),Aquatic Warbler (2003), Ruddy-Headed Goose (2006),Migratory Grassland Bird (2007), High Andean Flamingos (2008) and Migratory Birds of Prey (2008) have been concluded between states parties.

Early bilateral treaties for migratory birds

Although the first treaty on the protection of birds was signed as early as 1902 in Convention for the Protection of Birds Useful to Agriculture at Paris, migra­tory species were not specifically until the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds was concluded in 1916 between the United Kingdom (acting for Canada) and the United States. They concluded other treaties with Japan, Australia, China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR now Russia). India has a sole bilateral treaty with USSR on Protection of Migratory Birds (1984) where both parties agreed that special protection measures are desirable to preserve endan­gered species and subspecies, promote joint research programs and establish bird sanctuaries and endeavor to preserve and improve the natural environment of migratory birds.

From the perusal of above-mentioned international instruments, it is explanatory that migratory birds are subject of international protection. Meanwhile in the light of forthcoming World Migratory Bird Day it is important to realize their rights. For environmentalists these are good times, as their voices are heard, for all the efforts they made to the world to realize the importance of living in harmony with nature, is finally understood. However, humans have short memory and there is a good possibility that the lesson could very well be unlearned soon.

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Coronaviruses: Are they here to stay?

MD Staff

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In recent decades, zoonotic diseases–those transferred from animals to humans–have gained international attention. Ebola, avian influenza (or bird flu), H1N1 flu virus (or swine flu), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, the Zika virus­–and now, the novel coronavirus COVID-19–have all either caused or threatened to cause major pandemics, with thousands of deaths and billions in economic losses.

Researchers have yet to identify the exact point at which the SARS-CoV-2 virus was transferred from animals to humans and presented itself in the form of COVID-19. However, one thing is clear: COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic.

In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) flagged a worldwide increase in zoonotic epidemics as an issue of concern. Specifically, it pointed out that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic and that these zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems.

Human activity and ecosystems

According to the UNEP Frontiers report, zoonoses are opportunistic and thrive where there are changes in the environment, changes in animal or human hosts, or changes in the pathogen, itself.

In the last century, a combination of population growth and reduction in ecosystems and biodiversity has culminated in unprecedented opportunities for pathogens to pass between animals and people. On average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months, the report says.

Changes in the environment

Human activities have resulted in major changes in the environment.  By altering land use–for settlement, agriculture, logging, extractive or other industries and their associated infrastructure–humans fragment and encroach into animal habitats.  They destroy the natural buffer zones that would normally separate humans from animals, and create opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people.

Climate change­­–primarily the result of greenhouse gas emissions–exacerbates the situation. Changes in temperature, humidity and seasonality directly affect the survival of microbes in the environment; and evidence suggests that disease epidemics will become more frequent, as the climate continues to change.  Rapid climate change is challenging to those with fewer resources for responding quickly, leaving them more vulnerable and amplifying their risk of harm from the spread of zoonotic disease.

Changes in pathogen hosts

Changes in human and animal populations that serve as hosts for certain pathogens are also often the effects of human activities.  They may be related to migration, urbanization, changing dietary preferences, trade demands, and travel.

In many developing countries, economic growth and demographic shifts from rural to urban areas have stimulated consumer demand for dairy and meat products in cities.  This has led to the expansion of cropland and more intense livestock farming near and around cities, increasing opportunities for exposure. 

Livestock often serve as an epidemiological bridge between wildlife and human infections, such as in the case of avian influenza.  Pathogens first circulated in wild birds infected domestic poultry, and were then passed to humans.

Proximity to different species though wet markets or consumption of wild animals can also facilitate animal to human transmission.  Early cases of SARS were associated with contact to caged civet cats, being sold in wet markets; and some cases of Ebola in Central Africa are believed to have been transferred from animal to human hosts when infected gorilla meat was consumed.

Incubation–the time between human infection and the time when that human presents signs of infection–may last days or weeks; but millions of people, under normal circumstances, travel every day, from one country to another, in just hours.  A disease that originates in one country can quickly spread to others, regardless of the distances between them.  This is particularly visible in the rapid spread of COVID-19, which affected almost every country in the world within three months of the first reported case.

Changes in pathogens

Pathogens change genetically (mutation) as they evolve which allows them to exploit new hosts and survive in new environments.  One example of this is the emerging resistance of pathogens to antimicrobial drugs–such as antibiotics, antifungals, antiretrovirals and antimalarials–often resulting from the misuse of the drugs, either by people or in veterinary medicine. 

Ecosystems integrity and human health

Ecosystems are inherently resilient and adaptable and, by supporting diverse species, they help to regulate diseases.  The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate. Human action, however, has modified wildlife population structures and reduced biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, producing conditions that favour particular hosts, vectors and/or pathogens.

For example, genetic diversity provides a natural source of disease resistance among animal populations; whereas intensive livestock rearing often produces genetic similarities within herds and flocks, making them susceptible to pathogen spillover from wild animals.

Similarly, biodiverse areas enable disease-transmitting vectors to feed on a larger variety of hosts, some of which are less effective pathogen reservoirs.  Conversely, when pathogens occur in less biodiverse areas, transmission can be amplified, as has been shown in the case of West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease. 

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen has observed that, “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.”

What can be done

Addressing zoonotic disease emergence requires addressing its root cause–primarily, the impact of human activities on ecosystems.

This means recognizing the close relationships between human, animal and environmental health.  It means increased monitoring of human and wildlife health in landscapes that are at the beginning of transformation process to develop baselines, improve understanding and preparedness for potential outbreaks, and inform development to minimize risks to both humans and nature.   And it calls for collaborative, multisectoral, transdisciplinary and international efforts, as encapsulated by the One Health approach.

With a global population nearing 10 billion, Andersen is emphatic that 2020 is “a year when we will have to fundamentally re-shape our relationship with nature.”

UNEP, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and hundreds of partners across the planet are launching a 10-year effort to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. Known as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, this globally-coordinated response to the loss and degradation of habitats will focus on building political will and capacity to restore humankind’s relation with nature. It will be a direct response to the call from science, as articulated in the Special Report on Climate Change and Land of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to the decisions taken by all UN Member States in the Rio Conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. UNEP is also working with world leaders to develop a new and ambitious Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and bringing emerging issues (such as zoonotics) to the attention of decision makers.

As the world responds to and recovers from the current pandemic, it will need a robust plan for protecting nature, so that nature can protect humanity.

UN Environment

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Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and almost all of the USA is in varying levels of lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself.  Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead  and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.    

Then there is man-induced climate change.  The Antarctic hit a record 64.9F (18.3C) last month surpassing the previous high of 63.5F (17.5C) set in 2015.  Three days later on February 9th, the same measuring research station experienced an astounding 69.35F (20.75C) (livescience.com).  Perhaps it is to be expected when we are pumping CO2 to record levels in the atmosphere.  Current measurements are 413 ppm (Feb., 2020), a rise of 100ppm over 1950 figures (climate.nasa.gov/evidence/). 

Global warming is also blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat.  Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals. 

One bright note is a stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist.  Millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. 

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas.  The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019).  Scientists now expect an extra 17mm (6.7 inch) rise in sea levels above current projections by 2100, and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs (Greenland and Antarctica Ice Melt — BBC).   But that is small potatoes in comparison with the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. 

This massive glacier has retreated 5 km (about 3 miles) in the last 22 years reports a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters (Science Daily, March 23, 2020).  From 1979 to 2017, it has lost a cumulative 268 billion tons.  Of particular concern to researchers is the ground surface underneath which renders the glacier more susceptible to global-warming collapse.  This vast ice sheet has the potential by itself to raise sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet).

While global warming is causing a speedup of many ocean currents, an anomaly is the consequence of Greenland ice melt reaching the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current.  Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking salt water (Science, Feb. 7, 2020, p.612) weakening the current — its  beneficence accounting for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extending as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden

At the same time, an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data, indicates an acceleration in currents, particularly in the tropics and the Southern Ocean (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020).  Global warming is the likely cause spurring ocean winds to speed currents, although proof awaits more data collection.  A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels paints a picture of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities (National Geographic, Oct, 15, 2019) that have been popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops.  A recent paper (Science February 7, 2020, p.626) reports widespread decline in bumble bee populations in North America and Europe.  Warming temperature is the likely culprit.  A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumble bees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline.  The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable — if not disastrous — but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide.  A halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to a shocking 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (January 22, 2020).  While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America.  The significance of the new research is its global scope.

In Thailand, for example, the ground nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect.  But sadly, the number of species recorded keep plummeting on most continents.  The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s.  Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300.  What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. 

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops.  Now butterflies are also under threat.  The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns.  They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion.  These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west  and 225 million in the east.  Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further this year to a little over 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability.  As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic.  If  it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people.  Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2.  The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.      

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity.  Could it even be just the initial onslaught?  Now that is a frightening thought. 

Authors’ Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org

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