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Do Migratory Birds Connect our World: Analyzing from the Perspective of Collective Legal Response

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Authors: Prakash Sharma and Partha Pratim Mitra

On May 09, the world celebrated the World Migratory Bird Day in order to raise awareness of migratory birds and the importance of international cooperation to conserve them. For the year 2020 the theme is “Birds Connect our World”. It is organized by a collaborative partnership among two United Nations treaties i.e. the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), and the Colorado based non-profit organization, Environment for the Americas (EFTA).

Importance

Migratory Birds play an important role by conserving and restoring the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that support the natural cycles that are essential for the survival and well-being of migratory birds. Over the years, migratory birds are facing severe existential threat. Factors like loss of habitat, climate change, poisoning, power lines, and illegal killing have contributed immensely to the threat. It is realized that individual State effort wouldn’t bring desired results, however, sincere collective actions from all nation-states, across the world, has the potential to better protect migratory birds and the habitats they need to survive and thrive.

In this regard, CMS brings together the nation-states through which migratory animals pass, the Range States, and lays the legal foundation for internationally coordinated conservation measures throughout a migratory range. Migratory species threatened with extinction are listed on Appendix-Iand those migratory species that need or would significantly benefit from international co-operation are listed in Appendix-II of the Convention. Listing generally leads to concerted actions in different national jurisdictions in which a species range. Actions may include cooperation among range countries, harmonization in policies etc. through regional agreements. CMS has working groups specializing in various fauna families, and a scientific council that advises research-based solutions for conservation.

Endangered and Threatened Bird Species

At least 1,317 bird species have been recorded in India against around 10,000 species found worldwide. Of the 1,317 species recorded in India, 72 are endemic to the country. According to an assessment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2018, a total of 100 species of Indian birds are classified as ‘threatened’. Of these, 17 are categorized as ‘critically endangered’, 20 as ‘endangered’, and 63 as ‘vulnerable’.Besides these threatened species, there are several other species that are marked by sparse population size and restricted range and are generally considered rare by conservationists.

COP-13, India: Relevance

The conservation of wildlife and habitats has long been part of the cultural ethos of India.In February 2020the 13thsession of the Conference of the Partiesto the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals(COP-13) was held in Gandhinagar, India. The COP-13 had the theme titled “Migratory species connect the planet and together we welcome them home”. The COP-13resulted in the adoption of seven new species including migratory birds like Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican, Little Bustard, Antipodean Albatross to Appendix-I of the CMS. In this regard, the Government of India also issued a special stamp edition featuring the Great Indian Bustard as the mascot of COP-13.

COP-13 was the largest ever in the history of the Convention, with 2,550 people attending including 263 delegates representing 82 Parties, 11 delegates from 5 non-Party countries, 50 representatives from United Nations agencies, 70 representatives of international NGOs, 127 representatives of national NGOs and over 100 members of both national and international media.COP13 adopted the Gandhinagar Declaration, which calls for integration of migratory species and the concept of ‘ecological connectivity’ in the new framework (to be adopted at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in October).Interestingly, COP-13 is perhaps the first COP ever inaugurated by the Head of Government of the host-country.

Convention on Migratory Species and its Agreements and MoUs

The CMS was initially signed by 21 nation-states in Bonn, Germany on 1979 and came into force in November, 1983. Presently, CMS has 130 nation-states as its Party while several other nation-states, although not Party to the CMS are Party to one or more of the agreements and/or have signed one or more of the Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs). The CMS was mainly drafted by Francoise Burhenne-Guilmin who later became head of IUCN’s Environmental Law Commission. CMS is species specific and covers terrestrial, marine and avian migratory species. According to Philippe Sands and Jacqueline Peel migratory species can be classified into four general categories; (1) Marine species which breed on the shores of coastal states but migrate to sea during adult life, e.g. seals, sea turtles, anadromous fish; (2) Highly migratory marine species which travel between exclusive economic zones and high seas e.g. tuna or whales; (3) Territorial species with a well-established migration pattern e.g. birds; and (4) Territorial or marine species which live in border areas and regularly cross jurisdiction boundaries e.g. gorillas or elephants.

Interestingly, however, the CMS itself does not apply any direct measures, but directs the “range states” to make ancillary agreements. So far six regional agreements and seven non-binding MoUs have been convened on various migratory species, like AEWA, 1995whichis an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to the conservation of migratory water birds including 255 species of birds ecologically dependent on wetlands for at least part of their annual cycle and their habitats across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Likewise, the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), 2001 was made to recognize the need for international cooperation for marine migratory species like Albatrosses and Petrels.

Similarly, the MoU concerning conservation measures for the Siberian Crane, 1993 was entered to protect Siberian Cranes. The MoU concerning conservation measures for the Slender-Billed Curlew, 1994 was formed with an aim to safeguard the Slender-Billed Curlew. The MoU on the conservation and management of the Great Bustard, 2001 was also made to correct the continuous decline of the Great Bustard and degradation or fragmentation of suitable habitats and hunting pressure in Middle-European States etc

Migratory Bird Treaties:From 1916 onwards

Prior to the multilateral international conventions, migratory bird treaties (MBTs) were main instruments for bird protection. The United States of America(USA) is pioneer in entering into the treaty regime of ‘nation-state conservation policy’. Perhaps, the thought was to successfully strengthen the domestic laws and thereafter facilitate the international cooperation for avian conservation. The 1916,The United States signs a treaty with Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada, then part of the British Empire)to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds. In order to implement the treaty, the USA Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 1918 and replaced the Weeks-McLean Act, 1913.The said treaty is known to be one of the oldest sources of international environmental law.Later, USA signed a treaty similar to the one entered between Great Britain with Mexico in 1936 for the protection (through laws and regulations) of migratory birds in their movements across the two signatory nation-states.USA signed treaty with Japan in 1972 for protection of migratory birds except if an open season has been established. Likewise, USA entered treaty with Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1976 to improve cooperation between the contracting parties as the conservation of migratory birds passing between their territories.

The success of MBTs to facilitate, encourage, and justify expensive and often low-priority bird conservation and research facilities rubbed onto other nation-states. For instance, Japan in 1973 signed a treaty with USSR to promote cooperation in the conservation of birds migrating between the contracting parties’ territories and of endangered species of birds. In 1974, Australia signed an identical treaty (the one entered between Japan and USSR) with Japan. In 1981, Japan entered an agreement with Peoples Republic of China (PRC) for the prohibition of the taking of birds listed in an appendix to the treaty, establishment of bird sanctuaries, and for the exchange of research results. This bilateral migratory bird agreement has been instrumental in building research capacity in PRC for the study of migratory birds.

There are certain little known yet significant MBTs, for example, the 1984 agreement between India and USSR, which is applicable to species of birds for which there is a positive evidence of migration between the two countries and also to species or sub-species common to both countries and listed in the appendix attached with the agreement. Both nations agreed to promote joint research programs and establish bird sanctuaries and endeavour to preserve and improve the natural environment of migratory birds. Another, treaty entered between Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation in 1994 (is the only bilateral treaty entered in 1990s)was on mutual cooperation for taking measures for the management and protection of migratory birds and their habitat and the prevention of the extinction of certain birds. It recognized that many species of birds migrate between and seasonally live in both countries and that certain species of birds are in danger of extinction.

Though, the merits of MBTs are mostly limited to migratory bird species and is limited between the nation-states party to such treaties. Nevertheless, from the perusal of above-discussed MBTs, it is argued that MBTs are still a beneficial tool since multinational treaties tend to be inflexible, cumbersome, and politically driven. They act as a useful tool for international wildlife conservation (even after the emergence of multinational treaties like CMS). At the same time, it would be much too simplistic to conclude that any one category or model of MBT is better than any other, In fact MBTs have starting to form a network of international conservation efforts.

Concluding remarks

The last flocks of passenger pigeons were reported in 1888, the last confirmed sighting occurred in 1900, and the last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914 in Cincinnati zoo.In 1850 Alexander Wilson, an ornithol­ogist,watched migrating flock of passenger pigeons and wrote that their passing had darkened the sky for more than 30 minutes(containing 2 billion birds spread over 384 km long and 1.6 km wide, in the sky). Both passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) were most dramatic bird extinction ever recorded. Both were the victim of human consumption. Even thereafter, the human desire did not stop, birds which were frequently around 10 years ago, have become rare and in certain cases extinct. In the times, when most of the world’s population is under some form of restricted movement due to the COVID-19, this theme “Birds Connect Our World” carries a particular relevance and poignance. The need of hour is multiple efforts, for instance, during recently concluded COP-13, the Indian Prime Minister pledged to focus on the conservation of migratory birds along the Central Asian Flyway, announced the establishment of an institutional research facility for the conservation of migratory birds and marine turtles, and confirmed efforts to reduce pollution from micro-plastic and single-use plastic etc. It is desired that human-beings collectively act to prevent the destruction of birds. This would demand adherence of stringent domestic laws, and measures that conserve and protect their habitats and their flyways.

* Partha Pratim Mitra has written a book titled, Birds, Wetlands and the Law: Indian and International Perspectives (Thomson Reuters, 2019).

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Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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