Category Archives: Environment

As a river dies:

India could be facing its ‘greatest human catastrophe’ ever

25 Jul 2017 09:25AM(Updated: 25 Jul 2017 06:02PM)

As crops and farmers die, experts blame a man-made “drought of common sense” for the drying up of Southern India’s Cauvery River, once a lifeline to millions. Insight investigates.

 

Read more at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/as-a-river-dies-india-could-be-facing-its-greatest-human-9060070

INDIA: Much of the once bountiful and lush-green rice fields was reduced to a dry, yellow-brown landscape, after successive years of scanty rainfall and severe drought.

For farmer Mr Vijayakumar, 52, the rice crop was his family’s sole source of income. Hit by the double whammy of crop failure and mounting debts, he took a lonely walk to the edge of his two-acre rice field in Tamil Nadu in January this year.

There the tough, rugged man, used to the hard toil of a farmer for decades, hanged himself from a nearby tree.

“He was constantly worrying about the debts,” said his wife Vijayakumari, who is now struggling to cope with the loss of her husband and their escalating debts. “His mind was never at peace. He kept saying that there were so many debts to repay and he was worried about how his only son was going to manage all that.”

Mr Vijayakumar had borrowed from moneylenders to pay for his daughter’s wedding and for fertilisers for his crops which didn’t grow, she told the Channel NewsAsia programme Insight.

He is just one of roughly 350 farmers who have died in Tamil Nadu in recent months, according to unofficial estimates. In the past 20 years, more than 300,000 indebted farmers in India have committed suicide – many due to family debts, reported The Hindu newspaper.

PEOPLE ARE LOSING HOPE

Years of scanty and inadequate rainfall have led to the drying up of water reservoirs and village water bodies in southern India, especially the grain-growing regions of Tamil Nadu which is facing its worse drought in 140 years.

Water activist Dr Rajendra Singh said: “We have not seen a drought of this intensity before. People have lost hope in life and are committing suicide.”

“People are leaving the villages and moving to the cities… They don’t have food to eat and water to drink. There is no fodder for the livestock,” added the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Stockholm Water Prize.

Watch: A human tragedy unfolding (5:57). See the full Insight special here.

The once-mighty 800km Cauvery River, a major lifeline in southern India on which millions of farmers depend, has turned into dust tracts in several sections before it trickles down to the Bay of Bengal.

Dense forests once helped to retain water on the hill slopes, enabling slow percolation into the streams that feed the river. But widespread deforestation along the Cauvery Basin has led to soil erosion and a reduction in rainfall.

Scientist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva pointed out that the region gets only four months of rain during the monsoons, during which in ideal circumstances, the water would be naturally stored in the humus and earth of the forests.

“But if you don’t store it, the rain comes, causes a flood, and you have a drought,” she said.

“The second reason is that there is an over extraction (of water) beyond the capacity of the river. That extraction is leaving the river dry.”

SMALL RIVERS DRYING UP

Dr Shiva also blames the government’s ambitious scheme that aims to link Indian rivers by a network of reservoirs and canals, with dams diverting the flow from areas with a water surplus.

She said: “There’s this assumption that you can have bigger and bigger cities and you can divert water from hundreds and thousands of miles away.

To take all the rivers in India and divert them to the cities and industrial areas – all rivers will die.

Critics argue that damming the rivers will cause coastal erosion, deforestation and the displacement of people, and exacerbate the impact of climate change.

Dr Singh pointed out that the introduction of centralised irrigation systems and large dams have led to serious soil erosion. while the over-extraction of underground aquifers depleted the water table.

“There was no more water to be drawn from under the ground, and the water at the top flowed away with the soil, causing erosion and silting,” he said. “All the small rivers are dying.”

Bauxite mining has also wreaked havoc and contributed to a collapse of groundwater levels.

Environmental activist Mr Piyush Manush said that the rampant extraction of bauxite – from which aluminium is produced – from the Servarayan Hills has led to an environmental disaster.

Bauxite absorbs rainwater and slowly releases water into the streams. But the extraction of bauxite has left the hills bare and arid. “If the hill is undisturbed, the bauxite and other minerals inside act as a sponge to absorb water and release it slowly.

“Now, if you chop the hill for bauxite, the hill gets hardened with exposure to sunlight. And once it hardens, it loses that sponge effect,” he said.

DEBT DESPERATION AND SUICIDE

Faced with the water crisis and their crop failures, desperate farmers have turned to money lenders for loans to buy food, seeds, fertiliser and equipment.

These money lenders charge exorbitant interest rates and as debts pile up, farmers often find themselves unable to cope with the pressure. Some think that by killing themselves, they can save their families – but moneylenders don’t stop hounding the survivors.

“We still have debts that we haven’t been able to repay. None of our debts have been cancelled,” said Madam Vijayakumari.

The widow of rice farmer Ashokan, who was queuing for another bank loan for his failed crops when he collapsed and died – she believes from the stress.

Not far from her village, another rice farmer Mr Ashokan, 55, was also troubled by the same thoughts of crippling debt and destruction of crops.

He went to the bank to get another loan to buy pesticides and fertilisers, but collapsed and died while standing in line. His widow, Madam Vedhavalli, believes he died due to the stress of his crop failures.

In April, distressed and angry drought-hit farmers from Tamil Nadu took to the streets of Indian capital New Delihi to protest, demanding farm loan waivers. A few state governments have conceded, agreeing to waive their loans amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Farmers protesting, demanding waivers of their loans.

But farmers like Mr Gnanaprakasam, 59, in Samudayam village still feel threatened, with upstream states like Karnataka refusing to share Cauvery River’s water with neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Water wars broke out after Karnataka refused to comply with India’s Supreme Court ruling that it release more water, leading to violence on the streets, reported the Hindustan Times. If Karnataka doesn’t accede, Mr Gnanaprakasam said:

The districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam will transform into deserts. All the crops will be destroyed.

“Farmers and labourers will leave the village without a choice. That’s already happening now. Many farmers have lost their lives. They have died out of shock. Some have committed suicide.”

Some activist believe the plan to divert more water to the cities and industrial areas is partly to blame for the drought.

FOR NOW, A COMMUNITY SOLUTION?

Dr Singh, also known as India’s Water Man, has been fighting an uphill battle to revive water bodies and rivers in the semi-arid region of Rajasthan for more than 30 years. He has set up more than 8,000 water tanks and revived seven rivers in Rajasthan.

In Alwar district, about 200km from Delhi, he has used path-breaking water conservation techniques to bring water back to more than 1,000 villages. He believes local water preservation and community-driven water management systems are the only ways to end the “terrible disaster”.

Dr Rajendra Singh, winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Stockholm Water Prize.

He said:

The solution to this is community-driven decentralised water management. This is a solution that the government is not looking to implement. They are only looking at large dams and centralised irrigation systems – which are the main reasons for this drought.

Dr Sunita Narain, director general of the India-based research institute the Centre for Science and Environment, believes that Tamil Nadu needs to augment its water supply through a decentralised water harvesting system. This means building water tanks, and going back to the traditions of harvesting water, restoring and recharging every lake and pond in Tamil Nadu.

She also thinks that the state needs to move away from water intensive crops such as sugar cane.

“Third, make every industry and city in Tamil Nadu water-wise, so you use less water and you recharge and recharge every drop of water the Singapore way. It has to be a combination of all three,” she said.

 

For the farmers’ widows like Vijayakumari and Vedhavalli, it may be a case of too little, too late.

“Saving the Cauvery River is akin to saving the lives of the farmers,” said Ms Vedhavalli. “We are afraid to go ahead with anything now. We can’t depend on the rain for anything.

“Rain only comes occasionally. At times, when there’s too much rain, we suffer from floods. Now we are facing drought.”

Watch the Insight special on ‘India’s Dry Rivers’ here.

 
A lifeline to southern India, the mighty Cauvery River is turning into a vast sandpit.

Read more at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/as-a-river-dies-india-could-be-facing-its-greatest-human-9060070

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China’s Kubuqi Desert becoming an enviable paradise

By China’s Kubuqi Desert becoming an enviable paradise (People’s Daily Online)    17:10, July 14, 2017

Kubuqi Desert is the seventh biggest desert in China that has been transformed into an enviable environment.

Authorities in Kubuqi Desert Community in northern China’s Inner Mongolia are proud enough to tell good stories about the transformation of a once solely desert area into an enviable paradise on earth.

It was in 2016 when Wenbiao Wang, Chairman of China Elion Resources Group, assured that he would control 10,000 square kilometres desertification in five years and help 100,000 people get out of poverty which is the development affirmation and concern of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government. Since 2016, Elion Group has launched the second desertification control eco-industrial poverty alleviation plan for100, 000 people.

The authorities have so far succeeded in bringing 36, 000 people from poverty out of 102,000 poor people since the 18th CPC National Congress.

Zhao Yong, Vice Chief Executive Officer of Elion Group said government’s policy support, enterprise’s industrial investment, poor household’s market participation, and biological persistence improvement are the key mechanisms that have helped a lot in transforming the Desert Community.

Kubuqi Desert was a barren land with no water, electricity, or future, nearly 30 years ago. To alleviate poverty through desertification control, Elion Resources Group (ELION) has successfully afforested an area of over 6,000 square kilometres out of 18, 000 square kilometres by means of technological innovation, leading to a 95 percent decrease in sand-dust weather and an increase by six times in precipitation in Kubuqi.

Local authorities are cooperating with companies including Elion to give people opportunities to increase their income following the central government’s command.

It was in 2006 that Elion started implementing a scheme moving to house the herdsmen who were scattered across the 400 square kilometres of the Kubuqi Desert by implementing eco-migration.

Farmers were, therefore, paid 30 yuan (US$ 4.43) daily to do so, which initially proved worthwhile because of the motivation it gave, but the lack of adequate knowledge soon defeated the plan as less and less trees survived with time.

Now the about 100,000 people not only have permanent residences built for them free of charge, but they have well-paid jobs, alternative livelihoods and regular incomes of not less than 30,000 yuan (US$ 4,425.63) annually.

African journalists Give a helping hand on Tree planting in a Forest Farm

Generally, desertification and drought are two major problems that constrain the balanced global development. In China, two thirds of the territory is in the West and one third of it is desert, in which one third of China’s poor people live.

“Combating desertification by utilizing desert and to promote economic development in desert communities to bring prosperity to all the people in these areas have become an important issues for development of China’s western regions and China’s goal of common prosperity,” says Zhao Yong during the visit of African Journalists to Kubuqi Desert.

Abu Bakarr Kargbo is a Senior Staff Writer of Standard Times Newspaper in Sierra Leone and an intern at the People’s Daily Online. 

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China blazes trail for ‘clean’ nuclear power from thorium

The Chinese are running away with thorium energy, sharpening a global race for the prize of clean, cheap, and safe nuclear power. Good luck to them. They may do us all a favour.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal

Mr Jiang estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”.

Princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, is spearheading a project for China’s National Academy of Sciences with a start-up budget of $350m.

 

He has already recruited 140 PhD scientists, working full-time on thorium power at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. He will have 750 staff by 2015.

 

The aim is to break free of the archaic pressurized-water reactors fueled by uranium — originally designed for US submarines in the 1950s — opting instead for new generation of thorium reactors that produce far less toxic waste and cannot blow their top like Fukushima.

 

“China is the country to watch,” said Baroness Bryony Worthington, head of the All-Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, who visited the Shanghai operations recently with a team from Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory.

“They are really going for it, and have talented researchers. This could lead to a massive break-through.”

The thorium story is by now well-known. Enthusiasts think it could be the transforming technology needed to drive the industrial revolutions of Asia — and to avoid an almighty energy crunch as an extra two billion people climb the ladder to western lifestyles.

At the least, it could do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas — but on a bigger scale, for much longer, perhaps more cheaply, and with near zero CO2 emissions.

The Chinese are leading the charge, but they are not alone. Norway’s Thor Energy began a four-year test last month with Japan’s Toshiba-Westinghouse to see whether they could use thorium at Norway’s conventional Halden reactor in Oslo.

The Japanese are keen to go further, knowing they have to come up with something radically new to regain public trust and save their nuclear industry.

Japan’s International Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) — now led by thorium enthusiast Takashi Kamei — is researching molten salt reactors that use liquid fuel.

Is this what Premier Shinzo Abe meant when he revealed before Christmas that he planned to relaunch nuclear power in Japan with “entirely different” technology? We will find out.

The Chinese aim to beat them to it. Technology for the molten salt process already exists. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee built such a reactor in the 1960s. It was shelved by the Nixon Administration. The Pentagon needed plutonium residue from uranium to build nuclear bombs. The imperatives of the Cold War prevailed.

The thorium blueprints gathered dust in the archives until retrieved and published by former Nasa engineer Kirk Sorensen. The US largely ignored him: China did not.

Mr Jiang visited the Oak Ridge labs and obtained the designs after reading an article in the American Scientist two years ago extolling thorium. His team concluded that a molten salt reactor — if done the right way — may answer China’s prayers.

Mr Jiang says China’s energy shortage is becoming “scary” and will soon pose a threat to national security. It is no secret what he means. Escalating disputes with with India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and above all Japan, are quickly becoming the biggest threat to world peace. It is a resource race compounded by a geo-strategic struggle, with echoes of the 1930s.

His mission is to do something about China’s Achilles Heel very fast. The Shanghai team plans to build a tiny 2 MW plant using liquid flouride fuel by the end of the decade, before scaling up to commercially viable size over the 2020s. It is also working on a pebble-back reactor.

He estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”. So does the world. The radioactive mineral is scattered across Britain. The Americans have buried tonnes of it, a hazardous by-product of rare earth metal mining.

China is already building 26 conventional reactors by 2015, with a further 51 planned, and 120 in the pipeline, but these have all the known drawbacks, and rely on imported uranium.

The beauty of thorium is that you cannot have a Fukushima disaster. Professor Robert Cywinksi from Huddersfield University, who anchor’s the UK’s thorium research network ThorEA, said the metal must be bombarded with neutrons to drive the process. “There is no chain reaction. Fission dies the moment you switch off the photon beam,” he said.

His team is working on an accelerator driven subcritical reactor. “Peope are beginning to realize that uranium isn’t sustainable. We’re going to have to breed new nuclear fuel. If we are going to the trouble of breeding, we could start to use thorium instead, without introducing plutonium into the cycle,” he said.

Thorium has its flaws. The metallurgy is complex. It is “fertile” but not fissile, and has to be converted in Uranium 233. Claims by the International Atomic Energy Institute in 2005 that it has “intrinsic resistance” to proliferation but have since been qualified. It could be used as feedstock for bombs, though not easily.

Yet it leaves far less toxic residue. Most of the mineral is used up in the fission process, while uranium reactors use up just 0.7pc. It can even burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium and hazardous waste.

Cambridge scientists published a tantalising study in the Annals of Nuclear Energy in February showing that it is possible to “achieve near complete transuranic waste incineration” by throwing the old residue into the reactor with thorium.

In other words, it can help clean up the mess left by a half a century of nuclear weapons and uranium reactors, instead of transporting it at great cost to be encased in concrete and buried for milennia. It is why some `greens’ such as Baroness Worthington — a former Friends of the Earth activist — are embracing thorium. Though there are other reasons.

The thorium molten salt process takes place at atmospheric pressures. It does not require the vast domes of conventional reactors, so costly, and such an eyesore.

You could build pint-size plants largely below ground, less obtrusive than a shopping mall, powering a small town the size of Tunbridge Wells or Colchester. There would be shorter transmission lines, less leakage, and less risk of black-outs. The elegance is irresistible.

Mr Sorensen says his group Flibe Energy is exploring 250 MW reactors that could be tailor-made to power a single steel plant. Imagine the benefits for China, which drives is collosal steel industry — 40pc of the world’s total — with high-polluting coking coal, much of it shipped from distant mines in lorries.

Mr Sorensen said his molten salt design could not cause a meltdown because it never reaches a high enough temperature to melt the nickel-alloy vessel.

If there is an emergency, a plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. “The reactor saves itself,” he said.

Major players in the nuclear industry have had a vested interest in blocking thorium. They have huge sunk costs in the old technology, and they have bent the ear of cash-strapped ministers.

The hesitance of governments is understandable, but the costs are going to hit whatever they do. The overrun fiasco of Areva’s Olkilouto reactor in Finland is not pretty either, and the UK’s new reactor plans for Hinkley tempt fate as well.

China’s dash for thorium is now changing the game. Britain has begun to hedge its bets. Chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington said in September that the benefits of thorium are “often overstated” but conceded “theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk”.

He noted rising global interest. “It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle research.” A bit lame for a country that once pioneered nuclear physics, but better than nothing.

Xu Hongjie, the director of the Shanghai project, says the US Energy Department has begun to take a close interest in China’s plans and is now seeking “collaberation”. He is also talking to the Russians. The Indians are kicking their thorium programme into higher gear.

You can view it as a technology race or a joint venture in the common interest. It hardly matters which. If the Chinese can crack thorium, the world will need less oil, coal, and gas than feared. Wind turbines will vanish from our landscape. There will less risk of a global energy crunch, less risk of resource wars, and less risk of a climate tipping point.

Who can object to that?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/9784044/China-blazes-trail-for-clean-nuclear-power-from-thorium.html

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