Is Palm Oil Explosion Driving Ebola Outbreak?
The growing Ebola virus outbreak not only highlights the tragedy enveloping the areas most affected but also offers a commentary on they way in which the political ecology in West Africa has allowed this disease to become established.
The narrative goes that the virus appeared spontaneously in the forest villages of Guinea in December 2013. But this is debatable given that there is evidence of antibodies the Ebola virus in human blood from Sierra Leone up to five years previously. Previously only one case of Ebola had been reported in the region, and it was the Ivory Coast strain of the virus. The strain detected in the blood samples is of the more virulent Zaire strain of Ebola, the same strain responsible for the current epidemic.
After months of very little concerted action it’s clear that the disease is now seriously in danger of spreading out of control. The global health community has declared it a crisis of international importance, which has led the host nations to implement draconian preventions strategies, tantamount in some places to martial law in terms of surveillance, quarantine, border controls and other logistical aspects of control. But this is too little, too late.
There are several mechanisms through which the virus may have emerged, and it is unlikely that this latest outbreak was spontaneous. It is poverty that drives villagers to encroach further into the forest, where they become infected with the virus when hunting and butchering wildlife, or through contact with body fluids from bats—this has been seen with Nipah, another dangerous virus associated with bats.
The likelihood of infection in this manner is compounded by inadequate rural health facilities and poor village infrastructure, compounded by the disorganized urban sprawl at the fringes of cities. The virus then spreads in a wave of fear and panic, ill-conceived intervention and logistical failures—including even insufficient food or beds for the severely ill.
Take for example the global palm oil industry, where a similar trend of deep-cutting into forests for agricultural development has breached natural barriers to the evolution and spread of specific pathogens. The effects of land grabs and the focus on certain fruit crop species leads to an Allee effect, where sudden changes in one ecological element causes the mechanisms for keeping populations—bats in this case—and viruses in equilibrium to shift, increasing the probability of spill over to alternative hosts.
This is not unheard of; the introduction of fruit tree crops in cleared forests and agricultural expansion in Malaysia was associated with the emergence of Nipah virus. Bats feeding on fruit trees infected pigs in pens, which provided a vector for the virus to humans. Another example is with vector-borne diseases such as the Japanese Encephalitis, a virus carried by wild birds which expanded its range due to growing rice and pig farming.
Chikungunya and Dengue Fever viruses exploited deforestation for secondary epidemiological cycles, which increased at the forest edge until the virus was able to adapt to secondary hosts and expand globally.
Certainly the complexity of the agro-ecological changes in West Africa warrant scrutiny. Guinea’s new agriculture is in an early stage of development, identified by the World Bank as the highest investment potential for industrial agriculture. As global markets shift—and tariffs and taxes on multinational companies are removed, farmers with small land holdings are faced with a choice: either sell off or scale up to meet the competition. Forests are one of the first casualties.
Alongside this subtle effect is the dismantling of traditional governance, violence under colonial, neo-colonial and more recent kleptocratic governments and the economic movements of people towards urbanization. Such turbulence, poverty, the influx of refugees from neighboring wars and crumbling health systems have all created an ecosystem in which the natural friction that prevents Ebola from gathering pathogenic momentum has been all but eroded.
Any international response can do little to remedy these contributing factors. In fact the response has been little more than a recognition of the complete failure of neo-liberal development strategies to contain the virus.
The “success” of the Ebola virus is fundamentally based on the sociological factors and population biology of those it infects. But the data required to test the hypothesis—detailed records about what people eat, where they go and how they interact—is presently unavailable. Instead research has focused on virus hunting, and with little success: more than 40,000 samples have not yet conclusively determined where the natural reservoir of Ebola lies. All the while, the socio-ecological factors that are critical to the spread of any disease are ignored.
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By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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