Feral desert donkeys are digging wells, giving water to parched wildlife


Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney, and Daniel Ramp, University of Technology SydneyIn the heart of the world’s deserts – some of the most expansive wild places left on Earth – roam herds of feral donkeys and horses. These are the descendants of a once-essential but now-obsolete labour force.

These wild animals are generally considered a threat to the natural environment, and have been the target of mass eradication and lethal control programs in Australia. However, as we show in a new research paper in Science, these animals do something amazing that has long been overlooked: they dig wells — or “ass holes”.

In fact, we found that ass holes in North America — where feral donkeys and horses are widespread — dramatically increased water availability in desert streams, particularly during the height of summer when temperatures reached near 50℃. At some sites, the wells were the only sources of water.

Feral donkeys and horses dig wells to desert groundwater.
Erick Lundgren

The wells didn’t just provide water for the donkeys and horses, but were also used by more than 57 other species, including numerous birds, other herbivores such as mule deer, and even mountain lions. (The lions are also predators of feral donkeys and horses.)

Incredibly, once the wells dried up some became nurseries for the germination and establishment of wetland trees.

Numerous species use equid wells. This includes mule deer (top left), scrub jays (middle left), javelina (bottom left), cottonwood trees (top right), and bobcats (bottom right).
Erick Lundgren

Ass holes in Australia

Our research didn’t evaluate the impact of donkey-dug wells in arid Australia. But Australia is home to most of the world’s feral donkeys, and it’s likely their wells support wildlife in similar ways.

Across the Kimberley in Western Australia, helicopter pilots regularly saw strings of wells in dry streambeds. However, these all but disappeared as mass shootings since the late 1970s have driven donkeys near local extinction. Only on Kachana Station, where the last of the Kimberley’s feral donkeys are protected, are these wells still to be found.

In Queensland, brumbies (feral horses) have been observed digging wells deeper than their own height to reach groundwater.

https://www.kachana-station.com/projects/wild-donkey-project/
Some of the last feral donkeys of the Kimberley.
Arian Wallach

Feral horses and donkeys are not alone in this ability to maintain water availability through well digging.

Other equids — including mountain zebras, Grevy’s zebras and the kulan — dig wells. African and Asian elephants dig wells, too. These wells provide resources for other animal species, including the near-threatened argali and the mysterious Gobi desert grizzly bear in Mongolia.

These animals, like most of the world’s remaining megafauna, are threatened by human hunting and habitat loss.

Other megafauna dig wells, too, including kulans in central Asia, and African elephants.
Petra Kaczensky, Richard Ruggiero

Digging wells has ancient origins

These declines are the modern continuation of an ancient pattern visible since humans left Africa during the late Pleistocene, beginning around 100,000 years ago. As our ancestors stepped foot on new lands, the largest animals disappeared, most likely from human hunting, with contributions from climate change.




Read more:
Giant marsupials once migrated across an Australian Ice Age landscape


If their modern relatives dig wells, we presume many of these extinct megafauna may have also dug wells. In Australia, for example, a pair of common wombats were recently documented digging a 4m-deep well, which was used by numerous species, such as wallabies, emus, goannas and various birds, during a severe drought. This means ancient giant wombats (Phascolonus gigas) may have dug wells across the arid interior, too.

Likewise, a diversity of equids and elephant-like proboscideans that once roamed other parts of world, may have dug wells like their surviving relatives.

Indeed, these animals have left riddles in the soils of the Earth, such as the preserved remnants of a 13,500-year-old, 2m-deep well in western North America, perhaps dug by a mammoth during an ancient drought, as a 2012 research paper proposes.




Read more:
From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world


Acting like long-lost megafauna

Feral equids are resurrecting this ancient way of life. While donkeys and horses were introduced to places like Australia, it’s clear they hold some curious resemblances to some of its great lost beasts.

Our previous research published in PNAS showed introduced megafauna actually make Australia overall more functionally similar to the ancient past, prior to widespread human-caused extinctions.

Donkeys share many similar traits with extinct giant wombats, who once may have dug wells in Australian drylands.
Illustration by Oscar Sanisidro

For example, donkeys and feral horses have trait combinations (including diet, body mass, and digestive systems) that mirror those of the giant wombat. This suggests — in addition to potentially restoring well-digging capacities to arid Australia — they may also influence vegetation in similar ways.

Water is a limited resource, made even scarcer by farming, mining, climate change, and other human activities. With deserts predicted to spread, feral animals may provide unexpected gifts of life in drying lands.

Feral donkeys, horses (mapped in blue), and other existing megafauna (mapped in red) may restore digging capacities to many drylands. Non-dryland areas are mapped in grey, and the projected expansion of drylands from climate change in yellow.
Erick Lundgren/Science, Author provided

Despite these ecological benefits in desert environments, feral animals have long been denied the care, curiosity and respect native species deservedly receive. Instead, these animals are targeted by culling programs for conservation and the meat industry.

However, there are signs of change. New fields such as compassionate conservation and multispecies justice are expanding conservation’s moral world, and challenging the idea that only native species matter.The Conversation

Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, Lecturer, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney

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

5 ways fungi could change the world, from cleaning water to breaking down plastics


Shutterstock

Mitchell P. Jones, Vienna University of TechnologyFungi — a scientific goldmine? Well, that’s what a review published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology indicates. You may think mushrooms are a long chalk from the caped crusaders of sustainability. But think again.

Many of us have heard of fungi’s role in creating more sustainable leather substitutes. Amadou vegan leather crafted from fungal-fruiting bodies has been around for some 5,000 years.

More recently, mycelium leather substitutes have taken the stage. These are produced from the root-like structure mycelium, which snakes through dead wood or soil beneath mushrooms.

You might even know about how fungi help us make many fermented food and drinks such as beer, wine, bread, soy sauce and tempeh. Many popular vegan protein products, including Quorn, are just flavoured masses of fungal mycelium.

But what makes fungi so versatile? And what else can they do?

Show me foamy and flexible

Fungal growth offers a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly way to bind agricultural byproducts (such as rice hulls, wheat straw, sugarcane bagasse and molasses) into biodegradable and carbon-neutral foams.

Fungal foams are becoming increasingly popular as sustainable packaging materials; IKEA is one company that has indicated a commitment to using them.

Fungal foams can also be used in the construction industry for insulation, flooring and panelling. Research has revealed them to be strong competitors against commercial materials in terms of having effective sound and heat insulation properties.

Rigid and flexible fungal foams have several construction applications including (a) particle board and insulation cores, (b) acoustic absorbers, (c) flexible foams and (d) flooring.
Jones et al

Moreover, adding in industrial wastes such as glass fines (crushed glass bits) in these foams can improve their fire resistance.

And isolating only the mycelium can produce a more flexible and spongy foam suitable for products such as facial sponges, artificial skin, ink and dye carriers, shoe insoles, lightweight insulation lofts, cushioning, soft furnishings and textiles.




Read more:
Scientists create new building material out of fungus, rice and glass


Paper that doesn’t come from trees? No, chitin

For other products, it’s the composition of fungi that matters. Fungal filaments contain chitin: a remarkable polymer also found in crab shells and insect exoskeletons.

Chitin has a fibrous structure, similar to cellulose in wood. This means fungal fibre can be processed into sheets the same way paper is made.

When stretched, fungal papers are stronger than many plastics and not much weaker than some steels of the same thickness. We’ve yet to test its properties when subject to different forces.

Fungal paper’s strength can be substituted for rubbery flexibility by using specific fungal species, or a different part of the mushroom. The paper’s transparency can be customised in the same way.

Paper sheets with varying transparency derived from the brown crab’s shell (C. pagurus) (column 1), fungi Daedaleopsis confragosa (column 2) and the mushroom Agaricus bisporus (column 6). Columns 3, 4 and 5 show fungal papers of varying transparencies based on mixtures of the two species.
Wan Nawawi et al

Growing fungi in mineral-rich environments results in inherent fire resistance for the fungus, as it absorbs the inflammable minerals, incorporating them into its structure. Add to this that water doesn’t wet fungal surfaces, but rolls off, and you’ve got yourself some pretty useful paper.

A clear solution to dirty water

Some might ask: what’s the point of fungal paper when we already get paper from wood? That’s where the other interesting attributes of chitin come into play — or more specifically, the attributes of its derivative, chitosan.

Chitosan is chitin that has been chemically modified through exposure to an acid or alkali. This means with a few simple steps, fungal paper can adopt a whole new range of applications.

For instance, chitosan is electrically charged and can be used to attract heavy metal ions. So what happens if you couple it with a mycelium filament network that is intricate enough to prevent solids, bacteria and even viruses (which are much smaller than bacteria) from passing through?

White-button mushroom
Fungal chitin paper derived from white-button mushrooms is an eco-friendly alternative to standard filter materials.
Shutterstock

The result is an environmentally friendly membrane with impressive water purification properties. In our research, my colleagues and I found this material to be stable, simple to make and useful for laboratory filtration.

While the technology hasn’t yet been commercialised, it holds particular promise for reducing the environmental impact of synthetic filtration materials, and providing safer drinking water where it’s not available.

Mushrooms in modern medicine

Perhaps even more interesting is chitosan’s considerable biomedical potential. Fungal materials have been used to create dressings with active wound healing properties.

Although not currently on the market, these have been proven to have antibacterial properties, stem bleeding and support cell proliferation and attachment.

Fungal enzymes can also be used to combat bacteria active in tooth decay, enhance bleaching and destroy compounds responsible for bad breath.




Read more:
Vegan leather made from mushrooms could mould the future of sustainable fashion


Then there’s the well-known role of fungi in antibiotics. Penicillin, made from the Penicillium fungi, was a scientific breakthrough that has saved millions of lives and become a staple of modern healthcare.

Many antibiotics are still produced from fungi or soil bacteria. And in an age of increasing antibiotic resistance, genome sequencing is finally enabling us to identify fungi’s untapped potential for manufacturing the antibiotics of the future.

Mushrooms mending the environment

Fungi could play a huge role in sustainability by remedying existing environmental damage.

For example, they can help clean up contaminated industrial sites through a popular technique known as mycoremediation, and can break down or absorb oils, pollutants, toxins, dyes and heavy metals.

They can also compost some synthetic plastics, such as polyurethane. In this process, the plastic is buried in regulated soil and its byproducts are digested by specific fungi as it degrades.

These incredible organisms can even help refine bio fuels. Whether or not we go as far as using fungal coffins to decompose our bodies into nutrients for plants — well, that’s a debate for another day.

But one thing is for sure: fungi have the undeniable potential to be used for a whole range of purposes we’re only beginning to grasp.

It could be the beer you drink, your next meal, antibiotics, a new faux leather bag or the packaging that delivered it to you — you never know what form the humble mushroom will take tomorrow.




Read more:
The secret life of fungi: how they use ingenious strategies to forage underground


The Conversation


Mitchell P. Jones, Postdoctoral researcher, Vienna University of Technology

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

Water markets are not perfect, but vital to the future of the Murray-Darling Basin



kaman985shu/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Water markets have come in for some bad press lately, fuelled in part by the severe drought of 2019 and resulting high water prices.

They have also been the subject of an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry, whose interim report released last year documented a range of problems with the way water markets work in the Murray-Darling Basin. The final report was handed to the treasurer last week.

While water markets are far from perfect, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has found they are vital in helping the region cope with drought and climate change, producing benefits in the order of A$117 million per year.

To make the most of water markets, we will need to keep improving the rules and systems which support them. But with few “off-the-shelf” solutions, further reform will require both perseverance and innovation.

Water markets generate big benefits

Australia’s biggest and most active water markets are in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

Murray Darling Basin.
MDBA

Each year water right holders are assigned “allocations”: shares of water in the rivers’ major dams. These allocations can be traded across the river system, helping to get water where it is most needed.

Water markets also allow for “carryover”: where rights holders store rather than use their allocations, holding them in dams for use in future droughts.

Our research estimates that water trading and carryover generate benefits to water users in the southern Murray-Darling, of A$117 million on average per year (around 12% of the value of water rights) with even larger gains in dry years. Carryover plays a key role, accounting for around half of these benefits.

Together water trading and carryover act to smooth variability in water prices, while also slightly lowering average prices across the basin.

There’s room for improvement

One of many issues raised in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission interim report was the design of the trading rules, including limits on how much water can move between regions.

These rules are intended to reflect the physical limits of the river system, however getting them right is extremely difficult.

The rules we have are relatively blunt, such that there is potential at different times for either too much water to be traded or too little.

National Electricity Market.
AGL

One possible refinement is a shift from a rules-based system to one with more central coordination.

For example, in electricity, these problems are addressed via so-called “smart markets”: centralised computer systems which balance demand and supply across the grid in real-time.

Such an approach is unlikely to be feasible for water in the foreseeable future.

But a similar outcome could be achieved by establishing a central agency to determine inter-regional trade volumes, taking into account user demands, river constraints, seasonal conditions and environmental objectives.

While novel in Australia, the approach has parallels in the government-operated “drought water banks” that have emerged in some parts of the United States.

Some of the good ideas are our own

Another possible refinement involves water sharing rules, which specify how water allocations are determined and how they are carried over between years.

At present these rules are often complex and lacking in transparency. This can lead to a perceived disconnect between water allocations and physical water supply, creating uncertainty for users and undermining confidence in the market.

Although markets in the northern Murray-Darling Basin are generally less advanced than the south, some sophisticated water sharing systems have evolved in the north to deal with the region’s unique hydrology (highly variable river flows and small dams).

Beardmore Dam at St George in Southern Queensland, where water markets operate under a capacity sharing system.
ABARES

There is potential for the southern basin to make use of these northern innovations (known as “capacity sharing” or “continuous accounting”) to improve transparency and carryover decisions.

Don’t throw the market out with the river water

Governance failures in the water market have led to understandable frustration.

But it is important to remember how vital trading and carryover are in smoothing variations in water prices and making sure water gets where it is needed, especially during droughts.

The ACCC’s final report (due soon) will provide an opportunity to take stock and develop a roadmap for the future.


Water markets will be discussed at Today’s ABARES Outlook 2021 conference in an online panel session at 3-4pm AEDT.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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

Blind shrimps, translucent snails: the 11 mysterious new species we found in potential fracking sites



An ostracod, a small crustacean with more than 70,000 identified species.
Anna33/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jenny Davis, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Charles Darwin University

There aren’t many parts of the world where you can discover a completely new assemblage of living creatures. But after sampling underground water in a remote, arid region of northern Australia, we discovered at least 11, and probably more, new species of stygofauna.

Stygofauna are invertebrates that have evolved exclusively in underground water. A life in complete darkness means these animals are often blind, beautifully translucent and often extremely localised – rarely living anywhere else but the patch they’re found in.

The species we discovered live in a region earmarked for fracking by the Northern Territory and federal government. As with any mining activity, it’s important future gas extraction doesn’t harm groundwater habitats or the water that sustains them.

Our findings, published today, show the importance of conducting comprehensive environmental assessments before extraction projects begin. These assessments are especially critical in Australia’s north, where many plants and animals living in surface and groundwater have not yet been documented.

When the going gets tough, go underground

Stygofauna were first discovered in Western Australia in 1991. Since then, these underground, aquatic organisms have been recorded across the continent. Today, more than 400 Australian species have been formally recognised by scientists.

The subterranean fauna we collected from NT aquifers, including a range of species unknown to science. A–C: Atyid shrimps, including Parisia unguis; D-F: Amphipods in Melitidae family; G: The syncarid species Brevisomabathynella sp.; H-J: members of the Candonidae family of ostracods; K: the harpacticoid species Nitokra lacustris; L: a new species of snail in the Caenogastropoda: M-N: Members of the Cyclopidae family of copepods; O: The worm species Aeolosoma sp.
GISERA, Author provided

Stygofauna are the ultimate climate change refugees. They would have inhabited surface water when inland Australia was much wetter. But as the continent started drying around 14 million years ago, they moved underground to the relatively stable environmental conditions of subterranean aquifers.




Read more:
Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source


Today, stygofauna help maintain the integrity of groundwater food webs. They mostly graze on fungal and microbial films created by organic material leaching from the surface.

In 2018, the final report of an independent inquiry called for a critical knowledge gap regarding groundwater to be filled, to ensure fracking could be done safely in the Northern Territory. We wanted to determine where stygofauna and microbial assemblages occurred, and in what numbers.

Our project started in 2019, when we carried out a pilot survey of groundwater wells (bores) in the Beetaloo Sub-basin and Roper River region. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is potentially one of the most important areas for shale gas in Australia.

What we found

The stygofauna we found range in size from centimetres to millimetres and include:

  • two new species of ostracod: small crustaceans enclosed within mussel-like shells

  • a new species of amphipod: this crustacean acts as a natural vacuum cleaner, feeding on decomposing material

  • multiple new species of copepods: tiny crustaceans which form a major component of the zooplankton in marine and freshwater systems

  • a new syncarid: another crustacean entirely restricted to groundwater habitats

  • a new snail and a new worm.

A thriving stygofauna ecosystem lies beneath the surface of northern Australia’s arid outback. We sampled water through bores to measure their presence.
Jenny Davis, Author provided

These species were living in groundwater 400 to 900 kilometres south of Darwin. We found them mostly in limestone karst habitats, which contain many channels and underground caverns.

Perhaps most exciting, we also found a relatively large, colourless, blind shrimp (Parisia unguis) previously known only from the Cutta Cutta caves near Katherine. This shrimp is an “apex” predator, feeding on other stygofauna — a rare find for these kinds of ecosystems.

A microscopic image of Parisia unguis, a freshwater shrimp.
Stefanie Oberprieler, Author provided

Protecting groundwater and the animals that live there

The Beetaloo Sub-basin in located beneath a major freshwater resource, the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer. It supplies water for domestic use, cattle stations and horticulture.

Surface water in this dry region is scarce, and it’s important natural gas development does not harm groundwater.

The stygofauna we found are not the first to potentially be affected by a resource project. Stygofauna have also been found at the Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia, approved by the federal government in 2019. More research will be required to understand risks to the stygofauna we found at the NT site.




Read more:
It’s not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine


The discovery of these new NT species has implications for all extractive industries affecting groundwater. It shows the importance of thorough assessment and monitoring before work begins, to ensure damage to groundwater and associated ecosystems is detected and mitigated.

Gas infrastructure at Beetaloo Basin
The Beetaloo Basin is part of the federal government’s gas expansion strategy.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

Where to from here

Groundwater is vital to inland Australia. Underground ecosystems must be protected – and not considered “out of sight, out of mind”.

Our study provides the direction to reduce risks to stygofauna, ensuring their ecosystems and groundwater quality is maintained.

Comprehensive environmental surveys are needed to properly document the distribution of these underground assemblages. The new stygofauna we found must also be formally recognised as a new species in science, and their DNA sequence established to support monitoring programs.

Different species of copepods from various parts of the world.
Andrei Savitsky/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Many new tools and approaches are available to support environmental assessment, monitoring and management of resource extraction projects. These include remote sensing and molecular analyses.

Deploying the necessary tools and methods will help ensure development in northern Australia is sustainable. It will also inform efforts to protect groundwater habitats and stygofauna across the continent.




Read more:
Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


The Conversation


Jenny Davis, Professor, Research Institute for Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Research associate, Charles Darwin University

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

14 billion litres of untreated wastewater is created each day in developing countries, but we don’t know where it all goes



Shutterstock

Jacqueline Thomas, University of Sydney

To limit the spread of disease and reduce environmental pollution, human waste (excreta) needs to be safely contained and effectively treated. Yet 4.2 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lack access to safe sanitation.

In developing countries, each person produces, on average, six litres of toilet wastewater each day. Based on the number of people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, that equates to nearly 14 billion litres of untreated faecally contaminated wastewater created each day. That’s the same as 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This untreated wastewater directly contributes to increased diarrhoeal diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever and rotavirus. Diseases such as these are responsible for 297,000 deaths per year of children under five years old, or 800 children every day.

The highest rates of diarrhoea-attributable child deaths are experienced by the poorest communities in countries including Afghanistan, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given the global scale of this problem, it’s surprising sanitation practitioners still don’t know where exactly all the human excreta flows or leaches to, due to absent or unreliable data.

Poor sanitation to worsen under climate change

Inadequate sanitation is not only a human health issue, it’s also bad for the environment. An estimated 80% of wastewater from developed and developing countries flows untreated into environments around the world.

If an excess of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous) are released into the environment from untreated wastewater, it can foul natural ecosystems and disrupt aquatic life.




Read more:
Australia’s pristine beaches have a poo problem


This is especially the case for coral reefs. Many of the worlds most diverse coral reefs are located in tropical developing countries.

And overwhelmingly, developing countries have very limited human excreta management, leading to large quantities of raw wastewater being released directly onto coral reefs. In countries with high populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, this is particularly evident.

A coral reef underwater, with clown fish swimming by.
Sewage discharges in proximity to sensitive coral reefs, particularly in the tropics.
Shutterstock

The damage raw wastewater inflicts on corals is severe. Raw wastewater carries solids, endocrine disrupters (chemicals that interfere with hormones), inorganic nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens directly to corals. This stunts coral growth, causes more coral diseases and reduces their reproduction rates.

The challenges of climate change will exacerbate our sanitation crisis, as increased rain and flooding will inundate sanitation systems and cause them to overflow. Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable, because of the compounding impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent, extreme tropical cyclones.

Meanwhile, increased drought and severe water scarcity in other parts of the world will render some sanitation systems, such as sewer systems, inoperable. One example is the mismanagement of government-operated water supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe leading to the failure of the sewerage system and placing millions at risk of waterborne diseases.

Even in more developed countries like Australia, increased frequency of extreme weather events and disasters, including bushfires, will damage some sanitation infrastructure beyond repair.

Global targets to improve sanitation

Improving clean water and sanitation have clear global targets. Goal 6 of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals is to, by 2030, achieve adequate and equitable sanitation for all and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater.

A man emptying a pit latrine in urban Tanzania
A man emptyies a pit latrine in urban Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

Achieving this target will be difficult, given there is an absence of reliable data on the exact numbers of sanitation systems that are safely managed or not, particularly in developing countries.

Individual studies in countries such as Tanzania provide small amounts of information on whether some sanitation systems are safely managed. But these studies are not yet at the size needed to extrapolate to national scales.




Read more:
When bushfires meet old septic tanks, a disease outbreak is only a matter of time


So what’s behind this lack of data?

A big reason behind the missing data is the large range of sanitation systems and their complex classifications.

For example, in developing countries, most people are serviced by on-site sanitation such as septic tanks (a concrete tank) or pit latrines (hole dug into the ground). But a lack of adherence to construction standards in nearly all developing countries, means most septic tanks are not built to standard and do not safely contain or treat faecal sludge.

A hole in the ground, lined with two bricks, and a blue bucket beside it
A typical pit latrine in rural Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A common example seen with septic tank construction is there are a lot of incentives to build “non-standard” septic tanks that are much cheaper. From my current research in rural Fiji, I’ve seen reduced tank sizes and the use of alternative materials (old plastic water tanks) to save space and money in material costs.

These don’t allow for adequate containment or treatment. Instead, excreta can leach freely into the surrounding environment.

A white pipe juts out of a blue plastic tank and into the ground.
A ‘non-standard’ septic tank, which uses plastic, in Fiji.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A standard septic tank is designed to be desludged periodically, where the settled solids at the bottom of the tanks are removed by large vacuum trucks and disposed of safely. So, having a non-standard septic tank is further incentivised as the lack of sealed chambers reduces the accumulation of sludge, delaying costly emptying fees.

Another key challenge with data collection is how to determine if the sanitation infrastructure if functioning correctly. Even if the original design was built to a quality standard, in many circumstances there are significant deficiencies in operational and maintenance activities that lead to the system not working properly.




Read more:
Sewerage systems can’t cope with more extreme weather



What’s more, terminology is a constant point of confusion. Households — when surveyed for UN’s Sustainable Development Goal data collection on sanitation — will say they do have a septic tank. But in reality, they’re unaware they have a non-standard septic tank functioning as a leach-pit, and not safely treating or containing their excreta.

Fixing the problem

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires nationally representative data sets. The following important questions must be answered, at national scales in developing countries:

  • for every toilet, where does the excreta go? Is it safely contained, treated on site, or transported for treatment?

  • if the excreta is not contained or treated properly after it leaves the toilet, then how far does it travel through the ground or waterways?

  • when excreta is removed from the pit or septic tank of a full on-site latrine, where is it taken? Is it dumped in the environment or safely treated?

  • are sewer systems intact and connected to functioning wastewater treatment plants that releases effluent (treated waste) of a safe quality?

Presently, the sanitation data collection tools the UN uses for its Sustainable Development Goals don’t answer in full these critical questions. More robust surveys and sampling programs need to be designed, along with resource allocation for government sanitation departments for a more thorough data collection strategy.

And importantly, we need a co-ordinated investment in sustainable sanitation solutions from all stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and the private sector. This is essential to both protect the health of our own species and all other living things.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Where does my poo go when I flush the toilet? Does it go into the ocean?


The Conversation


Jacqueline Thomas, Lecturer in Environmental and Humanitarian Engineering, University of Sydney

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

Photos from the field: these magnificent whales are adapting to warming water, but how much can they take?



Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

Olaf Meynecke, Griffith University

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


The start of November marks the end of the whale season in the Southern Hemisphere. As summer approaches, whales that were breeding along the east and west coasts of Australia, Africa and South America will now swim further south to feed around Antarctica.

This annual cycle of whales coming and going has taken place for at least 10,000 years. But rising ocean temperatures from climate change are challenging this process, and my colleagues and I have already seen signs that humpback whales are changing their feeding, migration and breeding patterns to adapt.




Read more:
Genome and satellite technology reveal recovery rates and impacts of climate change on southern right whales


As krill stocks decline and ocean circulation is set to change more drastically, climate change remains an unprecedented threat to whales. The challenge now is to forecast what will happen next to better protect them.

Losing krill is the biggest threat

I’m part of an international team of researchers trying to learn what the next 100 years might look like for humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere, and how they’ll adapt to changing ocean conditions.

Whales depend on recurring environmental conditions and oceanographic features, such as temperature, circulation, changing seasons and biogeochemical (nutrient) cycles. In particular, these features influence the availability of krill in the Southern Ocean, their biggest food source.

Whales are particularly sensitive to this because they need enormous amounts of food to develop sufficient fat reserves to migrate, give birth and nurse a calf, as they don’t eat during this time.

In fact, models predict declines in krill from climate change could lead to local extinctions of whales by 2100. This includes Pacific populations of blue, fin and southern right whales, as well as fin and humpback whales in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.




Read more:
Climate change threatens Antarctic krill and the sea life that depends on it


Still, when it comes to their migration and breeding cycles, recent studies have shown humpback whales can adapt with changes in ocean temperature and circulation at a remarkable level.

Whales can adapt to warming water, but at what cost?

In a long term study from the Northern Hemisphere, scientists found the arrival of humpback whales in some feeding grounds shifted by one day per year over a 27-year period in response to small fluctuations in ocean temperatures.

This led to a one-month shift in arrival time, but a big concern is whether they can continue to time their arrival with their prey in the future when the water gets warmer still.

Likewise, in breeding grounds near Hawaii, the number of mother and calf humpback whale sightings dropped by more than 75% between 2013 and 2018. This coincided with persistent warming in the Alaskan feeding grounds these whales had migrated from.

Collecting humpback whale exhale (“whale snot”)

But humpback whales shifting their distribution and behaviour can cause unexpected human encounters, and cause new challenges that weren’t an issue previously.

Research from earlier this year found humpback whales switched to fish as their main prey when the sea surface temperature in the California current system increased in a heatwave. This has been leading to record numbers of entanglements with gear from coastal fisheries.




Read more:
I measure whales with drones to find out if they’re fat enough to breed


And between 2013 and 2016, we documented hundreds of newborn humpback whales in subtropical and temperate shallow bays on the east coast of Australia, 1,000 kilometres further south from their traditional breeding areas off the Great Barrier Reef.

However, since these aren’t designated calving areas, the newborns aren’t well protected from getting tangled in shark nets or colliding with jet skis or cruise ships.

Protecting whales

The Whales and Climate Program is the largest project of its kind, combining hundreds of thousands of humpback whale sightings and advanced modelling techniques. Our aim is to advance whale conservation in response to climate change, and learn how it threatens their recovery after decades of over-exploitation by the whaling industry.

Each whale season between June and October, I sail out to the open ocean. This means I have unique opportunities to see and engage with whales, especially during the breeding season. The following photos show some of our breathtaking encounters, and can remind us of our marine ecosystem’s fragile beauty.

A humpback whale fin

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided
Breaching humpback whale in front of buildings

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

During one of our boat-based surveys on the Gold Coast, we encountered this acrobatic humpback whale calf, shown in the photos above. We counted 254 breaches in two hours, making it the record holder of most breaches in our 10 years of observation.

To check on whales’ health, we collect and study the air they exhale through their blow hole (“whale snot”), and measure their size at different times of the year. The photo above shows me tagging a whale with CATs suction cup tags, to collect data on short term changes in their movement patterns.

Close up of a humpback whale's mouth

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

In regions where the whales adapt to ocean changes and, as such, move closer to shore for feeding and shift their breeding grounds, there’s a higher risk of entanglements and other human encounters. This is particularly concerning when they travel outside protected areas.

A newborn humpback whale resting on its mum's head

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

Look closely and you can see a newborn humpback, just one to three days old, resting on its mother’s head.

In the first days of life, baby humpback whales sink easily and aren’t able to stay on the water surface for long. They need their mothers’ support to stay on the surface to breathe.

Once they’ve gained enough fat from the mothers milk they become positively buoyant (meaning they can float), making it easier for them to breathe.

Photo of a whale underwater

Olaf Meynecke, Author provided

A final note — during one of our land-based whale surveys this year, a keen whale watcher approached us, and we helped him find the whales with our binoculars. I will never forget the joy in his face when he spotted them.

It’s a joy I hope many future generations can experience. To ensure this, we need to understand how we can best protect whales in a changing climate.




Read more:
Photos from the field: capturing the grandeur and heartbreak of Tasmania’s giant trees


The Conversation


Olaf Meynecke, Research Fellow in Marine Science, Griffith University

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