By Sonya Angelica Diehn
Dams are often touted as environmentally friendly. Although they do represent a renewable source of energy, a closer look reveals that they are far from green. DW lays out the biggest environmental problems of mega-dams.
1. Dams Alter Ecosystems
Water is life — and since dams block water, that impacts life downstream, both for ecosystems and people. In the case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is being built in Ethiopia and is set to be Africa's largest source of hydroelectric power, Egypt is concerned it will receive less water for things like agriculture.
Downstream ecosystems rely not only on water, but also on sediment, both of which are held back by big dams. As solid materials build up in a manmade reservoir, downstream land becomes less fertile and riverbeds can become deeper or even erode away. Emilio Moran, a professor of geography and environment at Michigan State University in the US, described sediment loss of 30 to 40% as a result of large dams.
"Rivers carry sediment that feeds the fish, it feeds the entire vegetation along the river. So, when you stop sediment flowing freely down the streams, you have a dead river."
And ecosystems may have adapted to natural flooding, which dams take away.
Mega-dams also often have a large footprint on land upstream. Aside from displacing human communities, flooding to create a reservoir also kills plants, and leaves animals to drown or find new homes. Reservoirs can also further fragment valuable habitat and cut off migratory corridors.
2. Dams Reduce Biodiversity and Cause Extinction
Aquatic species, particularly fish, are vulnerable to the impacts of dams. Moran says the Itaipu Dam, which was constructed on the border between Paraguay and Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s, resulted in a 70 percent loss of biodiversity.
"On the Tucuruí Dam that was built in the 80s in the Amazon," he added, "there was a 60% drop in productivity of fish."
Many fish species rely on the ability to move about freely in a river, be it to seek food or return to where they were born. Migratory species are badly affected by the presence of dams. In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported a 99% drop in catches of sturgeon and paddlefish — both of which are migratory — over a period of three decades. Overfishing and river alteration were cited as major threats to the species' survival.
A 2018 study predicted that fish stocks on Asia's Mekong River could drop by 40% as a result of dam projects – with consequences not only for biodiversity, but for the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on those fish.
The stakes for biodiversity are particularly high for animals threatened with extinction. And not only for aquatic species. The Tapanuli orangutan — the Earth's rarest ape, with only 500 individuals left — could finally be pushed to the brink if a planned hydroelectric project in Sumatra, Indonesia, is completed. Dams can literally snuff out species.
3. Dams Contribute to Climate Change (and Are Affected by It)
As reservoirs fill, upstream forests are flooded, eliminating their function as carbon sinks. As the drowned vegetation decomposes, decaying plants in manmade reservoirs release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. That makes reservoirs sources of emissions — particularly those in tropical forests, where there is dense growth. It's estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from dams amount to about a billion tons annually, making it a significant global source.
And as the climate changes, more frequent and prolonged drought means dams will capture less water, resulting in lower electricity production. Countries dependent on hydropower will be especially vulnerable as temperatures keep rising.
Moran described a vicious circle, for example in Brazil, which gets 60 to 70% of its energy from hydropower: "If you wipe out half the rainforest, there will a loss of half the rainfall. And then there won't be enough water to provide the amount of power from those dams," he explained.
4. Dams Reduce Water Quality
Manmade reservoirs trap fertilizers that run into the water from surrounding land. In addition, in some developing countries, sewage flows directly into the reservoirs. This kind of pollution can result in algae blooms that suck the oxygen out of the water, making it acidic and potentially harmful to people and animals.
Still water in large manmade lakes is warm at the top and cold at the bottom, which can also affect water quality. While warm water promotes the growth of harmful algae, the cold water that is often released through turbines from the bottom of a reservoir may contain damagingly high mineral concentrations.
In some cases, water in manmade reservoirs is of such bad quality that it is not even fit to drink.
5. Dams Waste Water
Since more surface area of the water gets exposed to the sun, reservoirs result in much more evaporation than the natural flow of the river before that dam existed. It's estimated at least 7% of the total amount of freshwater needed for human activities evaporates from the world's reservoirs every year.
This effect is made worse in hot regions, Moran pointed out. "Certainly if you had a reservoir in a tropical area with high temperatures, there is going to be a lot of evaporation," he said. And big reservoirs "are, of course, evaporating constantly."
Reservoirs are also a haven for invasive plant species, and weed-covered reservoir banks can lead to evapotranspiration — or the transfer of water from the land to the atmosphere through evaporation from soil and transpiration from plants. Such evapotranspiration amounts to six times more than the evaporation from the water's surface. And there is even evidence that dams increase water use and promote water waste by creating a false sense of water security.
In the face of dwindling global freshwater resources, some question whether dams should be reconsidered.
So What Are the Alternatives?
The evidence is damning. But if mega-dams have so many harmful environmental effects, what are the alternatives? Although some green groups point to small hydropower as being more ecologically sound, Moran is skeptical. "A dam is a dam - it's blocking the fish, it's blocking the sediment."
He pointed to the need to consider not just how to maximize energy production, but also maintain ecological productivity. One option he cited is the use of in-stream turbines.
And many environment advocates agree that other renewable energies such as solar and wind can provide clean electricity at a far lower environmental cost.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Ian Urbina
About 100 miles off the coast of Thailand, three dozen Cambodian boys and men worked barefoot all day and into the night on the deck of a purse seiner fishing ship. Fifteen-foot swells climbed the sides of the vessel, clipping the crew below the knees. Ocean spray and fish innards made the floor skating-rink slippery.
Seesawing erratically from the rough seas and gale winds, the deck was an obstacle course of jagged tackle, spinning winches and tall stacks of 500-pound nets. Rain or shine, shifts ran 18 to 20 hours. At night, the crew cast their nets when the small silver fish they target — mostly jack mackerel and herring — were more reflective and easier to spot in darker waters.
This was a brutal place, one that I've spent the past several years exploring. Fishing boats on the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fleet, had for years been notorious for using so-called sea slaves, mostly migrants forced offshore by debt or duress.
Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water and much of that space is ungoverned. Human rights, labor and environmental crimes occur often and with impunity because the oceans are vast. What laws exist are difficult to enforce.
Arguably the most important factor, though, is that the global public is woefully unaware of what happens offshore. Reporting about and from this realm is rare. As a result, landlubbers have little idea of how reliant they are on the sea or the more than 50 million people who work out there.
Forced labor on fishing ships is not the only human rights concern. Hundreds of stowaways and migrants are killed at sea annually. A multibillion-dollar private security industry operates at sea, and when these mercenary forces kill, governments rarely respond because no country holds jurisdiction in international waters. Somewhere in the world, at least one ship sinks every three days, which is part of the reason that fishing is routinely ranked as among the deadliest professions.
And then there's the environmental crisis. Oil spills aren't the worst of it. Every three years, ships intentionally dump more oil and sludge into the oceans than the Exxon Valdez and BP spills combined. Acidification is damaging most of the world's coral reefs.
Most of the world's fishing grounds are depleted. Some research predicts that by 2050, the sea will contain more plastic than fish. Overfishing, often boosted by government subsidies, means smaller catches closer to shore and an industry becoming more desperate. One out of every five fish on American plates comes from pirate fishing vessels.
Recent events have reminded the world of its dependence on maritime commerce. In the Port of Los Angeles, a COVID-induced bottleneck of dozens of cargo ships left consumers with shipping delays and deckhands idling, unable to reach the shore. In the Suez Canal, one sideways-turned ship led to a $10-billion traffic jam.
Despite occasional news coverage when calamity strikes offshore, reporting from this untamed frontier is generally scarce. Many news outlets have pulled back from international reporting because it is time-consuming and expensive.
The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization, is working to fill this gap. A report we published last year with NBC News revealed the largest illegal fishing fleet ever discovered: more than 800 Chinese fishing boats operating in North Korean waters in violation of UN sanctions. These ships were accelerating the collapse of the squid stock while violently displacing local and smaller North Korean ships, with deadly consequences, as hundreds of these local fishermen were getting stranded too far from shore and dying.
But even with striking stories — about the oceans or anything else — journalism is struggling to reach younger people, who increasingly are turning to alternate sources of information from online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. And unless the public is engaged and interested, very little will change in terms of international policies or enforcement.
As much as we are devoted to the urgency of these ocean issues, it is clear that our investigations need to reach broad and new audiences to have impact. That's why we combined our traditional journalism with an experiment in using music to bring people to our work.
We created The Outlaw Ocean Music Project, an effort to help disseminate and financially support the reporting. More than 480 musicians from over 80 countries have joined the project to make albums in their own style and in a variety of genres, each inspired by the stories. The music has been published on more than 200 digital platforms (including Apple Play, YouTube and Amazon), with the streaming revenue funding more reporting.
Several artists from Seattle, Washington including Quackson, Petey Mac, and Hello Meteor, have participated in the project and share a common goal of creating EPs that tell the often-overlooked stories of the sea.
The musicians use audio samples from the video footage captured during the reporting, integrating sound clips such as machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea. This music has had a combined reach of more than 90 million people, many of whom move from the songs to the videos and to the written reports.
The oceans are existentially important. They are the circulatory system of global commerce, as 80 percent of the world's commercial cargo is carried by ships. They are also the lungs of the globe, serving as a carbon sink helping to clean the air while also producing half of the oxygen we breathe.
But for all its importance and breathtaking beauty, the sea is also a dystopian place, home to dark inhumanities. Too big to police and under no clear international authority, immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation. The only way to better govern this offshore frontier, and to counter the human rights and environmental problems occurring out there, is to shine a continuous light on them. And for that, journalism — with an assist from music — has an urgent role to play.
Ian Urbina, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, DC, that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.
Reposted with permission from DeSmog.
By Jessica Corbett
A study published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science bolsters alarm about the role that agricultural pesticides play in what scientists have dubbed the "bugpocalypse" and led authors to call for stricter regulations across the U.S.
Researchers at the University of Maryland as well as the advocacy groups Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Center for Biological Diversity were behind what they say is "the largest, most comprehensive review of the impacts of agricultural pesticides on soil organisms ever conducted."
The study's authors warn the analyzed pesticides pose a grave danger to invertebrates that are essential for biodiversity, healthy soil, and carbon sequestration to fight the climate emergency — and U.S. regulators aren't focused on these threats.
"Below the surface of fields covered with monoculture crops of corn and soybeans, pesticides are destroying the very foundations of the web of life," said study co-author Nathan Donley, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.
"Study after study indicates the unchecked use of pesticides across hundreds of millions of acres each year is poisoning the organisms critical to maintaining healthy soils," Donley added. "Yet our regulators have been ignoring the harm to these important ecosystems for decades."
This poor #poisonedplanet: we've been drenching it with a toxic cocktail. This has to stop @SoilAssociation… https://t.co/D1F5dFlUL4— Natalie Bennett (@Natalie Bennett)1620113882.0
As the paper details, the researchers reviewed nearly 400 studies "on the effects of pesticides on non-target invertebrates that have egg, larval, or immature development in the soil," including ants, beetles, ground-nesting bees, and earthworms. They looked at 275 unique species, taxa, or combined taxa of soil organisms and 284 different pesticide active ingredients or unique mixtures.
"We found that 70.5% of tested parameters showed negative effects," the paper says, "whereas 1.4% and 28.1% of tested parameters showed positive or no significant effects from pesticide exposure, respectively."
Donley told The Guardian that "the level of harm we're seeing is much greater than I thought it would be. Soils are incredibly important. But how pesticides can harm soil invertebrates gets a lot less coverage than pollinators, mammals, and birds — it's incredibly important that changes."
"Beetles and springtails have enormous impacts on the porosity of soil and are really getting hammered, and earthworms are definitely getting hit as well," he said. "A lot of people don't know that most bees nest in the soil, so that's a major pathway of exposure for them."
Underscoring the need for sweeping changes, Donley noted that "it's not just one or two pesticides that are causing harm, the results are really very consistent across the whole class of chemical poisons."
Buglife on Twitter
This review shows that the pesticides we are applying are assaulting the fertility of the animals that live in the… https://t.co/SKJ9BoJsjI— Buglife (@Buglife)1620114731.0
Co-author Tara Cornelisse, an entomologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, concurred that "it's extremely concerning that over 70% of cases show that pesticides significantly harm soil invertebrates."
"Our results add to the evidence that pesticides are contributing to widespread declines of insects, like beneficial predaceous beetles, and pollinating solitary bees," she said in a statement. "These troubling findings add to the urgency of reining in pesticide use to save biodiversity."
In December, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a report emphasizing how vital soil organisms are to food production and battling the climate crisis — and highlighting that such creatures and the threats they face are not being paid adequate attention on a global scale.
"Soils are not only the foundation of agri-food systems and where 95% of the foods we eat is produced, but their health and biodiversity are also central to our efforts to end hunger and achieve sustainable agri-food systems," FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said at the time, pushing for increased efforts to protect the "silent, dedicated heroes" that are soil organisms.
A growing body of research has also revealed the extent of insect loss in recent decades, with a major assessment last year showing that there has been a nearly 25% decrease of land-dwelling bugs like ants, butterflies, and grasshoppers over the past 30 years. The experts behind that analysis pointed to not only pesticides but also habitat loss and light pollution.
In January, a collection of scientific papers warned that "insects are suffering from 'death by a thousand cuts,'" and called on policymakers around the world to urgently address the issue. That call followed a roadmap released the previous January by 73 scientists outlining what steps are needed to tackle the "insect apocalypse."
The roadmap's key recommendations included curbing planet-heating emissions; limiting light, water, and noise pollution; preventing the introduction of invasive and alien species; and cutting back on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
NEW STUDY: In 71% of cases, pesticides kill or harm soil invertebrates! Pesticides threaten soil organisms that are… https://t.co/ex1JbRoy4E— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@Friends of the Earth (Action))1620145520.0
"We know that farming practices such as cover cropping and composting build healthy soil ecosystems and reduce the need for pesticides in the first place," Aditi Dubey of University of Maryland, who co-authored the new study, said Tuesday. "However, our farm policies continue to prop up a pesticide-intensive food system."
"Our results highlight the need for policies that support farmers to adopt ecological farming methods that help biodiversity flourish both in the soil and above ground," Dubey declared.
While the solutions are clear, according to the researchers, the chemical industry is standing in the way.
"Pesticide companies are continually trying to greenwash their products, arguing for the use of pesticides in 'regenerative' or 'climate-smart' agriculture," said co-author Kendra Klein, a senior scientist at Friends of the Earth. "This research shatters that notion and demonstrates that pesticide reduction must be a key part of combating climate change in agriculture."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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The Biden administration told a federal judge on Monday that the Dakota Access Pipeline should be allowed to continue pumping oil despite lacking a key federal permit.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting another extensive environmental review, said it could change its mind. Early last month, the Army Corps surprised Judge James Boasberg, and outraged lawyers representing the Standing Rock Sioux, when it said it wasn't sure if the oil pipeline should be shut down.
"It's baffling," Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said in a statement. "When it comes to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Biden's Army Corps is standing in the way of justice for Standing Rock by opposing a court order to shut down this infrastructure while environmental and safety consequences are fully evaluated."
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Fire weather is coming early to California this year.
For the first time since 2014, parts of Northern California are seeing a May "red flag" fire warning due to dry and windy conditions.
"It's crazy, May and a red-flag warning," Craig Clements, San Jose State University Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center director, told The Mercury News.
Critical fire weather conditions will continue through Tuesday afternoon due to gusty north winds and dry condition… https://t.co/AqH4a8Nkpl— NWS Sacramento (@NWS Sacramento)1620048579.0
The warning coverage area extends from Redding in the north to Modesto in the south, and includes portions of the Central Valley and the state capital of Sacramento. The warning also extends to the eastern edges of the Bay Area, The Mercury News reported. The warning, first announced Sunday, is expected to last through 5 p.m. PT Tuesday afternoon.
"Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly," National Weather Service (NWS) Sacramento cautioned. "Outdoor burning is not recommended."
Temperatures on Monday and Tuesday are also predicted to be 15 degrees above average in the Bay Area and Northern California, SFGate reported.
In fact, the area has already experienced some blazes. A wildfire broke out in Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Sunday around noon. Firefighters were able to contain it to 6.7 acres by Sunday night. Small fires also ignited in the Bay Area's Solano County and Pittsburg, The Mercury News reported.
Fire season in California usually starts in summer and extends through the fall, according to The Guardian. However, the climate crisis has upended weather patterns in the state, which is now suffering from drought conditions. Much of California, including the north, is experiencing its driest wet season in more than 40 years; Sacramento experienced its driest on record in April, NWS said.
This April was the driest April on record for Sacramento with no rain falling. This brought warm days with us seein… https://t.co/So9DYOIn8U— NWS Sacramento (@NWS Sacramento)1619993039.0
The dry conditions exacerbate fires for two reasons, according to The Mercury News. There is no water to put out early flames, and dry weather speeds up the process of curing. Curing occurs when vegetation dries out to the point where its moisture content is impacted by the dryness of the atmosphere, not the soil.
"In a better scenario, we wouldn't be dealing with this until the traditional fire season in the fall," NWS Meteorologist Gerry Diaz told The Mercury News.
All of this follows 2020's devastating fire season, when a record 4.1 million acres burned in California alone. It is too soon to speculate whether 2021's season will be as bad or worse, even though it's off to an earlier start, according to SFGate. State fire-fighting agency Cal Fire has so far responded to more than 1,354 wildfires since Jan. 1, 2021, with 2,219 total acres burned. By this time last year, Cal Fire had responded to 814 blazes burning 1,056 acres.
"The dry conditions and the very poor fuel moisture recovery over the last six or eight months and the lack of rain we've had and also the continued drought have put us in a position where our fuel moistures are very dry and we're experiencing conditions that we would normally experience later in the summer in June and July and it's only the beginning of May," Cal Fire Spokesperson Cecile Juliette told SFGate.
While this week's warning focused on the north, Southern California has not been spared early fire conditions. A blaze near San Diego has so far burned 5,100 acres and forced about 500 people to evacuate, according to The Guardian. It is now 55 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
During a bird evolution study on the island of Borneo in May of 2016, a research team discovered an owl that hadn't been seen in the wild since 1892. Quickly grabbing their cameras, the researchers captured the first-ever photos of the rare bird, identifying it as the rare Bornean subspecies of the Rajah scops owl, native to southeast Asia.
At the time of its re-discovery, the elusive owl was roosting just a meter above the ground. "It was a pretty rapid progression of emotions when I first saw the owl — absolute shock and excitement that we'd found this mythical bird, then pure anxiety that I had to document it as fast as I could," Andy Boyce, an avian ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, told the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
The island of Borneo, which is divided politically among Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, is a hotspot for biodiversity — home to orangutans, clouded leopards and pygmy elephants, according to the UN Environment Programme. It's also home to the Otus brookii brookii, one of the two sub-species and "far more elusive" Rajah scops owls, according to the Global Wildlife Conservation. The other sub-species, Otus brookii solokensis, is found in Sumatra and is well documented.
Researchers were able to identify the owl based on its distinct characteristics, such as its orange irises, small ear tufts and speckled brown and black crown, the GWC reported. But to their surprise, the researchers found that the feather colors and patterns of the O. brookii brookii varied from its Sumatran counterpart, meaning that the two owls may actually be entirely different species.
If the owl is endemic to only Borneo and is its own species, conservation action is more likely, Boyce explained. But researchers haven't been able to find the owl since and reckon its one-time sighting could mean its numbers are low in the wild.
"Unfortunately, we are only good at conserving what we know and what we name," Boyce said, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. "Our sole sighting during this intensive study confirms this owl lives in mature montane forests, likely above or below the survey area… To protect this bird, we need a firm understanding of its habitat and ecology."
Only half of Bornean forest cover remains today, the UN Environment Programme reported. As climate change, deforestation and expansion of palm oil continue to threaten the owl's habitat, researchers, with almost no data of the owl's vocalizations, distribution, breeding biology and population size, are running out of time to shine a light on the mysterious species.
Additional studies on the owl "could have important conservation implications," yet its rarity makes these studies "impossible," the researchers wrote in their findings, published last week in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. Finding another individual or population is necessary to learn more about the Bornean Rajah scops owl and protect them from increasing climate-related threats.
John Mittermeier, director of threatened species outreach at the American Bird Conservancy, said the important thing about rediscovering lost birds "is the excitement and interest they generate," according to the GWC. "The idea that there's a mysterious species out there that no one can find at the moment should be a call to action for birdwatchers in the area, and it's a way of getting people excited to search new areas and help make discoveries."
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