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How Growing Drugs Damages the Environment
By Tim Schauenberg
Whether they smoked a joint on the couch or sniffed a line in a club, some 269 million people around the world indulged in drugs in 2018, according to the United Nations.
Cocaine production is at record levels, opium has been on an upward trend for the past decade, the market for synthetic drugs is growing in the Netherlands and some countries are legalizing cannabis. In short, business is booming.
It is no secret that drug trafficking and cartel wars cost human lives but so far there has been little focus on how this global trade impacts the environment.
Cannabis Vs. Potatoes: Which Has a Bigger Carbon Footprint?
With 192 million users in 2018, cannabis is by far the most popular drug worldwide — excluding alcohol and tobacco.
Efforts to legalize marijuana are continuing to gather pace in the United States, where the drug has already become a billion-dollar market. But cultivating the plants in greenhouses, with optimum light, ventilation and temperature, guzzles an enormous amount of resources.
According to estimates, cannabis production in the U.S. already accounts for around 1% of the country's total energy consumption.
"Within a single year, approximately 16.5 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted in the United States as the result of indoor cannabis production, equivalent to the annual emissions of 3 million cars," according to a report by the University of California, Davis.
That means that a single joint has a similar carbon footprint to about 6.6 pounds of potatoes.
Cannabis Plants Add to Water Stress
Cannabis is also an extremely thirsty plant, needing twice as much water as tomatoes or grapes.
About 70% of the cannabis consumed across the country is grown in California. Such large-scale cultivation of a crop that requires up to 6 gallons of water per day per plant has only intensified the region's water shortages during dry seasons.
Scientists from the Californian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife estimate that illegal outdoor cultivation has lowered the water level in some flowing streams by up to a quarter.
Clearing Forests to Plant Coca
The ecological footprint of the world's 19 million cocaine users is particularly apparent in Latin America. According to the United Nations, Colombia had the potential to produce 1,120 tons of pure cocaine in 2018 — a record crop for the South American country.
Since 2001, about 741,000,000 acres of forest have been cleared for the cultivation of coca — the plant that produces cocaine.
Following a temporary decline, "we can see actually the same peak of coca that we were watching 20 years ago," Paulo Sandoval, a geographer at the University of Oregon, told DW.
Sandoval's latest satellite data shows that around 123,000 acres of coca are currently being cultivated in Colombia's Amazon region alone — about half of it in nature reserves that are home to a rich diversity of species.
But the plantations he surveyed account for only 20% of the total cultivated area.
Colombia's Approach 'Harms' the Environment
Until now, the Colombian government has relied on a strategy of eradication in its fight against coca cultivation. As part of its campaign, aircraft sprayed plantations with the highly concentrated herbicide glyphosate. This method effectively destroyed many coca plantations, but it also damaged neighboring forests and farmland.
Elizabeth Tellman, a geographer at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York, says this approach harms rather than helps the environment. And once the fields are destroyed, the cartels simply clear more forests elsewhere and plant new coca crops.
"We do know that it [the destruction of cultivated areas] has not only had no effect (...) it's been really counterproductive," she told DW in an interview.
Coca leaves aren't just grown in the jungle; they're also processed into cocaine in secret laboratories there. This process requires highly toxic chemicals such as ammonia, acetone and hydrochloric acid. Scientists estimate that several million liters of these substances end up in soils and rivers each year. There are now few aquatic plants or animals living in those contaminated waters, according to a 2015 EU report.
MDMA, Ecstasy and Co.
So-called party drugs — from pills to a line of powder in a nightclub bathroom — have grown in popularity in recent years.
The Netherlands and Belgium are hotspots for synthetic drugs. The production of a kilo of pure MDMA, the main substance in ecstasy, results in 10 kilos (22 pounds) of toxic waste — or 30 kilos (66 pounds) in the case of amphetamines. This might include sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acids and acetone, substances that would normally have to be disposed of as hazardous waste using protective suits.
The Dutch Water Research Institute (KWR) estimates that in 2017, around 7,000 tons of these substances were either dumped somewhere in drums or leaked into the ground and rivers. "That's unbelievable," says Eric Emke, a scientist at the KWR.
A report aired by Dutch public broadcaster NOS showed just how abrasive these liquids can be. In it, a scientist immerses a chicken leg in a yellow sodium hydroxide solution. After two days, the meat has completely dissolved, leaving just the bone behind.
Emke says the waste is sometimes dumped into containers used to collect cattle excrement, becoming mixed with the dung that is spread on corn crops.
"And so five years ago, they discovered amphetamine and ecstasy residues in corn lice."
Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia, says Thailand, Laos and Myanmar have also become a hub for "industrial scale" global synthetic drug production in recent years.
"The spillover damage to groundwater and habitats is severe, and frankly it is nothing short of an ecological and public health disaster," he said.
Groundwater Sinking in Afghanistan
Around 337,000 football fields, or 23 times the size of Paris — that's the amount of land that was used to cultivate opium worldwide in 2019, according to the UN. The main producers are Myanmar, Mexico and Afghanistan — which accounts for 84% of global cultivation.
Poppy fields spread mainly across the country's southwest in areas where, until the 1990s, there was nothing but arid desert. Today, some 1.4 million people live there, making a living from cultivating opium and agriculture. That's all possible thanks to more than 50,000 solar-powered water pumps that have greened the desert. But that is not as green as it sounds.
A report by socio-economist David Mansfield found that the region's groundwater is sinking by 9.8 feet per year. Wells as deep as 426 feet are now being drilled to find water.
"Each year, more people are arriving in the desert and installing solar deep wells. There are local fears that there will fast become a time when agricultural production will no longer be viable."
The poppy farmers also use chemical fertilizers and strong pesticides to control weeds. Groundwater tests have shown that nitrate levels are significantly higher than what is deemed safe. This can increase the risk of blue-baby syndrome, which leads to heart defects and death in newborns.
Mansfield warns that if water in the region does eventually run out, it will likely force large numbers of people from their homes, sparking a rural exodus.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.