Melting Himalayan glaciers: a big drop in a bucket that’s already full


Anthony Dosseto, University of Wollongong

A new report has warned that even if global warming is held at 1.5℃, we will still lose a third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region. What does that mean for rivers that flow down these mountains, and the people who depend on them?

The HKH region is home to the tallest mountains on Earth, and also to the source of rivers that sustain close to 2 billion people. These rivers supply agriculture with water and with sediments that fertilise soils in valleys and the floodplain.

Some of these rivers are hugely culturally significant. The Ganges (or Ganga), for instance, which flows for more than 2,525km from the western Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal, is personified in Hinduism as the goddess Gaṅgā.

The Ganga River at Rishikesh, as it exits the Himalayas.
Anthony Dosseto



Read more:
Warm ice in Mount Everest’s glaciers makes them more sensitive to climate change – new research


When it rains, it pours… literally

Before we get to the effect of melting glaciers on Himalayan rivers, we need to understand where they get their water.

For much of Himalayas, rain falls mostly during the monsoon active between June and September. The monsoon brings heavy rain and often causes devastating floods, such as in northern India in 2013, which forced the evacuation of more than 110,000 people.

2013 floods in Uttarakhand, India.

But the summer monsoon is not the only culprit for devastating floods. Landslides can dam the river, and when this dam bursts it can cause dramatic, unpredictable flooding. Some of those events have been linked to folk stories of floods in many cultures around the world. In the Himalayas, a study tracking the 1,000-year history of large floods showed that heavy rainfall and landslide-dam burst are the main causes.

When they melt, glaciers can also create natural dams, which can then burst and send floods down the valley. In this way, the newly forecast melting poses an acute threat.

The potential problem is worsened still further by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s prediction that the frequency of extreme rainfall events will also increase.

Come hell or high water

What will happen to Himalayan rivers when the taps are turned to high in this way? To answer this, we need to look into the past.

For tens of thousands of years, rivers have polished rocks and laid down sediments in the lower valleys of the mountain range. These sediments and rocks tell us the story of how the river behaves when the tap opens or closes.

Rock surfaces tell us where the river was carving into its bed.
Anthony Dosseto

Some experts propose that intense rain tends to trigger landslides, choking the river with sediments which are then dumped in the valleys. Others suggest that the supply of sediments to the river generally doesn’t change much even in extreme rainfall events, and that the main effect of the extra flow is that the river erodes further into its bed.

The most recent work supports the latter theory. It found that 25,000-35,000 years ago, when the monsoon was much weaker than today, sediments were filling up Himalayan valleys. But more recently (3,000-6,000 years ago), rock surfaces were exposed during a period of strong monsoon, illustrating how the river carved into its bed in response to higher rainfall.

Sediments laid down in Himalayan valleys support agriculture, but also tell us the ancient story of rivers that carried them.
Anthony Dosseto

So what does the past tell us about the future of Himalayan rivers? More frequent extreme rainfall events mean more floods, of course. But a stronger monsoon also means rivers will cut deeper into their beds, instead of fertilising Himalayan valleys and the Indo-Gangetic plain with sediments.




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Devastating Himalayan floods are made worse by an international blame game


What about glaciers melting? For as long as there are glaciers, this will increase the amount of meltwater in the rivers each spring (until 2060, according the report, after which there won’t be any meltwater to talk about). So this too will contribute to rivers carving into their beds instead of distributing sediments. It will also increase the risk of flooding from outburst of glacial lake dams.

So what is at stake? The melting glaciers? No. Given thousands or millions of years, it seems likely that they will one day return. But on a more meaningful human timescale, what is really at stake is us – our own survival. Global warming is reducing our resources, and making life more perilous along the way. The rivers of the Himalayas are just one more example.The Conversation

Anthony Dosseto, Associate Professor, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore



File 20190129 108342 171pwiv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Migrant workers break apart blocks of pressed plastic bottles at a recycling plant in Thailand.
EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL

Monique Retamal, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, University of Technology Sydney; Le Xuan Thinh; Nguyen, Anh Tuan, and Samantha Sharpe, University of Technology Sydney

Last year many Australians were surprised to learn that around half of our plastic waste collected for recycling is exported, and up to 70% was going to China. So much of the world’s plastic was being sent to China that China imposed strict conditions on further imports. The decision sent ripples around the globe, leaving most advanced economies struggling to manage vast quantities of mixed plastics and mixed paper.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


By July 2018, which is when the most recent data was available, plastic waste exports from Australia to China and Hong Kong reduced by 90%. Since then Southeast Asia has become the new destination for Australia’s recycled plastics, with 80-87% going to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Other countries have also begun to accept Australia’s plastics, including the Philippines and Myanmar.

Destination of plastic exports from Australia between January 2017 and July 2018. Click image to zoom.
Source: UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, based on Comtrade data

But it looks like these countries may no longer deal with Australia’s detritus.

In the middle of last year Thailand and Vietnam announced restrictions on imports. Vietnam announced it would stop issuing import licences for plastic imports, as well as paper and metals, and Thailand plans to stop all imports by 2021. Malaysia has revoked some import permits and Indonesia has begun inspecting 100% of scrap import shipments.

Why are these countries restricting plastic imports?

The reason these countries are restricting plastic imports is because of serious environmental and labour issues with the way the majority of plastics are recycled. For example, in Vietnam more than half of the plastic imported into the country is sold on to “craft villages”, where it is processed informally, mainly at a household scale.

Informal processing involves washing and melting the plastic, which uses a lot of water and energy and produces a lot of smoke. The untreated water is discharged to waterways and around 20% of the plastic is unusable so it is dumped and usually burnt, creating further litter and air quality problems. Burning plastic can produce harmful air pollutants such as dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls and the wash water contains a cocktail of chemical residues, in addition to detergents used for washing.

Working conditions at these informal processors are also hazardous, with burners operating at 260-400℃. Workers have little or no protective equipment. The discharge from a whole village of household processors concentrates the air and water pollution in the local area.

Before Vietnam’s ban on imports, craft villages such as Minh Khai, outside Hanoi, had more than 900 households recycling plastic scraps, processing 650 tonnes of plastics per day. Of this, 25-30% was discarded, and 7 million litres of wastewater from washing was discharged each day without proper treatment.


Author provided

These plastic recycling villages existed before the China ban, but during 2018 the flow of plastics increased so much that households started running their operations 24 hours a day.

The rapid increase in household-level plastic recycling has been a great concern to local authorities, due to the hazardous nature of emissions to air and water. In addition, this new industry contributes to an already significant plastic litter problem in Vietnam.

Green growth or self-preservation?

A debate is now being waged in Vietnam, over whether a “green” recycling industry can be developed with better technology and regulations, or whether they must simply protect themselves from this flow of “waste”. Creating environmentally friendly plastic recycling in Vietnam will mean investment in new processing technology, enhancing supply chains, and improving the skills and training for workers in this industry.

Engineers at the Vietnam Cleaner Production Centre (which one of us, Thinh, is the director of) have been working on improving plastic processing systems to recycle water in the process, improve energy efficiency, switch to bio-based detergents and reduce impacts on workers. However, there is a long way to go to improve the vast number of these informal treatment systems.

What can we do in Australia?

While Australia’s contribution to the flow of plastics in Southeast Asia is small compared to that arriving from the United States, Japan and Europe, we estimate it still represents 50-60% of plastics collected for recycling in Australia.

Should we be sending our recyclables to countries that lack capacity to safely process it, and are already struggling to manage their own domestic waste? Should we participate in improving their industrial capacity? Or should we increase our own domestic capacity for recycling?




Read more:
A crisis too big to waste: China’s recycling ban calls for a long-term rethink in Australia


While there may be times it makes sense to export our plastics overseas where they are used for manufacturing, the plastics should be clean and uncontaminated. Processes should be in place to make sure they are recycled without causing added harm to communities and local environments.

Australia and other advanced economies need to think seriously about the future of exports, our own collection systems and our “waste” relationships with our neighbours.The Conversation

Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Le Xuan Thinh, Director, VNCPC; Nguyen, Anh Tuan, Senior researcher, Environment Science Institute, and Samantha Sharpe, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s legalisation of rhino horn trade: disaster or opportunity?


Hubert Cheung, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University, and Yifu Wang, University of Cambridge

The Chinese government will be reopening the nation’s domestic rhino horn trade, overturning a ban that has stood since 1993. An outcry since the announcement has led to the postponement of the lifting of the ban, which currently remains in place.




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The case for introducing rhinos to Australia


The directive, if instituted, would require that rhino horn be sourced sustainably from farmed animals and that its use is limited to traditional Chinese medicine, scientific and medical research, preserving antique cultural artefacts, and as educational materials.

The announcement has been widely condemned. The United Nations Environmental Program called it “alarming”. But done carefully and correctly, and with necessary international consultation, it doesn’t have to add to the threat to rhinos. Indeed, it could even support rhino conservation.

A legal trade of rhino horns, as seen here, could ensure income goes to legitimate conservation efforts as opposed to criminals.
Paul Fleet/Shutterstock

Rhino horns regrow and can be sustainably and humanely harvested from live animals. Those arguing for legalisation say that a well-regulated trade could be a source of funding for expensive rhino conservation. It could also help reduce poverty and support development around protected areas.

A legal trade could also provide an alternative supply of horns, where income goes to legitimate conservation and development efforts, rather than to criminals, which is currently the case.

Rhino horn for medicinal use

The directive from Beijing stipulates that rhino horn for medicinal use must come from rhinos bred specifically outside of zoos (such as at dedicated horn-farming facilities). The ground-up horn powder would then be certified under a scheme developed by a coalition of Chinese regulatory agencies.

These agencies should draw from China’s experience regulating the medicinal use of pangolin scales to make sure poached horn does not infiltrate the legal marketplace. Though strictly controlled since 2008, illegal pangolin products continue to be seized frequently throughout China.

According to the directive, the medicinal use of rhino horn will be restricted to treating urgent, serious and rare diseases. This is consistent with what traditional Chinese medicine practitioners see as the appropriate application of rhino horn. Strict guides for clinical application will be needed to prevent misuse and overuse, particularly given the length of time that rhino horn has been unavailable to law-abiding clinicians.

Existing rhino horn stocks

Beyond medicine, the directive stipulates that people who already own horns will be able to declare their stocks. The government will then issue identification and certification records. After this, the horns must be sealed and stored safely, and not traded under any circumstances, barring gift-giving and inheritance.

This part of the directive is particularly concerning, as such a scheme will be complex, potentially giving owners of poached rhino horns smuggled into China a get-out-of-jail-free card. Lessons should be learned from the ivory trade in Hong Kong, where poached ivory has been laundered into legal stocks thanks to inadequate record-keeping and lax enforcement.

This section of the directive also raises concerns about the development of a socially accepted practice of gifting rhino horn akin to that of Vietnam. There, rhino horn has been found to be given as a gift for terminally ill family members and in business settings, where horns are offered as bribes to government officials. Strict enforcement will essential if China is to make sure illegal trading under the guise of gifts is not to spread.

China will have to work with countries where the rhinos live in Asia and Africa.
Kevin Folk/Unsplash

Working with China

China will have to work with countries where rhinos live, including range states in both Asia and in Africa, as well as other rhino conservation stakeholders around the world. Swaziland and South Africa have previously proposed legalising the international trade in horn as a mechanism to fund and bolster conservation efforts.

Domestic trade in horn is legal in South Africa, and China and South Africa will have to coordinate to make sure their domestic marketplaces support rhino conservation and don’t enable transnational laundering and trade.

Beijing’s decision has certainly attracted immediate and fierce criticism from some conservation and animal welfare organisations. This criticism is exacerbated by different moral perspectives. Some people see the sale and consumption of rhino horn to fund conservation as morally repulsive. For others, it is legitimate and pragmatic.

Whichever side of the debate you stand on, the priority should be conservation outcomes and making sure that China’s newly legalised domestic horn trade strengthens rather than dangerously undermines rhino protection efforts. Rhino conservationists will need to find common ground with Beijing. This requires an appreciation of different cultural and moral values, and the use of evidence on how to minimise risks to rhino under the directive.

Responding to the widespread criticism, Chinese officials clarified that the implementation of the directive will be postponed. The government has also launched a short-term enforcement drive against illegal trading of rhino horn, which will run until the end of the year.

While heightened enforcement actions are welcome, it indicates that China can do much more to tackle illegal wildlife trade. China must strictly enforce its own regulations once its domestic horn trade has been opened.




Read more:
The northern white rhino should not be brought back to life


Postponing implementation gives Beijing time to develop a detailed and robust set of regulations. Now is the time for rhino range states, conservation scientists and concerned groups around the world to work with Beijing so that the impending domestic horn trade in China can be a positive for rhino conservation.The Conversation

Hubert Cheung, PhD Candidate in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University, and Yifu Wang, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.