5 Deforestation Hotspots Flying Under the Radar
In appreciation for all the benefits forests provide for us, the United Nations has announced today, March 21, be recognized as the International Day of Forests. It is a day to celebrate, among other things, the progress we have made improving forest management.
But before getting carried away with the spirit of celebration, consider this: We are still losing forests and trees much faster than they can regrow. In fact, we are losing 50 soccer fields worth of trees every minute!
Many people are working to reverse tree cover loss in the world’s largest remaining forests: the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin, tropical forests of Indonesia and the vast boreal forests of Russia and Canada. These are worthy goals, considering that just two countries—Brazil and Indonesia—still account for about half of all tropical forest loss.
But several hugely important deforestation hotspots are still flying under the radar. These forest areas don’t get the headlines or resources of the major tropical regions, but are seeing alarming trends or have lost much of their tree cover already. Below, we use the latest data from Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring and alert system, to dive deeper into some under-reported forest hotspots.
1. Paraguay: The Gran Chaco Is Being Cleared for Soy and Beef
The Gran Cacho, a semi-arid region of dry forests spread across Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, is being rapidly deforested, as large rectangular plots of forest are burned or cleared for soy fields and cattle ranches. Guyra, a Paraguayan environmental group, has estimated that 10 percent of the Chaco forests have been cleared in the last five years alone. According to University of Maryland data, Paraguay has lost almost 4 million hectares of tree cover since 2000 and ranks among the top countries in the world for percentage of tree cover lost. If left unchecked, deforestation could wipe out habitat for jaguars, maned wolves, and rare peccaries, as well as threaten a way of life for the Chaco’s embattled indigenous people.
2. Canada: Boreal Forests Are Cleared for Tar Sands Development
It is not just tropical forests that are under threat. Industrial developments associated with the Athabasca tar sands have cleared thousands of hectares of Canada’s boreal forest since the year 2000. The use of tar sands as a source of fossil fuel—and the development of the associated Keystone XL pipeline—have been hotly debated, but relatively little attention has been paid to the local impacts on Canada’s forests.
The animation above shows extensive tree cover loss near Fort McMurray as new pipelines are laid and the ground is cleared for open-pit mining. Smaller “checkerboard” patterns of tree cover loss and gain show industrial forestry on the margins of larger mining operations.
3. Malaysia: Rainforests Are Lost As Palm Oil Expands
Indonesia is now the focal point for much of the world’s concerns about deforestation. But neighboring Malaysia also shows plenty of reasons for alarm.
While the absolute area of forest lost in Indonesia is higher, Malaysia lost a staggering 4.7 million hectares of tree cover from 2000-2012—an annual loss of 1.6 percent, compared with Indonesia’s 1.0 percent. This puts Malaysia among the top 10 countries for percent tree cover lost. Expansion of oil palm plantations is one of the major drivers (especially in Sarawak) as Malaysia feeds a hungry global market.
4. Ivory Coast: National Park Loses 93 Percent of its Forest
In Africa, the forests of the Congo Basin—including those in Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo—tend to dominate the public’s attention. But the past decade has seen a spike in tree cover loss across the West African nations of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, which have rich forests and biodiversity hotspots of their own.
Marahoué National Park in the Ivory Coast is a dramatic example. A recent study in Current Biology estimated that the park lost a staggering 93 percent of its forest cover between 2002 and 2008, possibly due to the country’s civil conflict. The park had previously been a stronghold for the rare West African chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus). Now the population has been almost entirely eradicated.
5. United States: Atlanta Suburbs Replace Forests
“Deforestation” is a term rarely applied within the United States, given the highly managed nature of many U.S. forests. But urban sprawl and a growing demand for more and bigger houses have led to significant forest loss. The animation above shows forests being converted into suburbs outside of Atlanta, including a batch of new housing developments and golf courses near Acworth, Georgia. WRI has used land cover data from the U.S. Geological survey to map the region’s extensive forest loss caused by suburbanization (see visualization here).
Suburbanization is projected to clear much more of the United States’ rich southern forests in the coming years. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 12.4 million hectares (31 million acres) of southern forest will be lost to development between 1992 and 2040, an area roughly equal to the size of North Carolina. This will mean the loss of some of the most bio-diverse forests in the United States, which provide hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of timber, water purification, erosion control and recreational opportunities.
Data Makes a Difference
Why have these hotspots been relatively overlooked? Perhaps it is because we have lacked an easy way to visualize forest change at a global scale. This has now changed with the launch of Global Forest Watch and powerful new global data from the University of Maryland, Google, and other partners. Decision-makers should take heed that forests have now entered the era of big data, and there are tools at hand to address deforestation challenges that were previously hard to detect or quantify.
But we also need to act on the data. It is time for governments, businesses and NGOs to pay more attention to these overlooked hotspots, as well as other under-studied deforestation hotspots in Bolivia, Zambia, Angola, Cambodia, Argentina and Russia.
So when you observe this year’s International Day of Forests, do something to give back to forests. Go online, and start exploring Global Forest Watch’s data. You just might help uncover the next deforestation hotspot that the world needs to hear about.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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