Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Planning to Save Civilisation?

The highly polluted waterway between two oil refineries flows directly into the ocean 10km south of Durban. To the right is the SAPREF refinery. Mondi Paper operates next to the two refineries. Between the three pollution both in the air and water has seriously affected the health of many nearby residents.

Durban, South Africa. I made a television program last year about how high-tech their dump is, you can watch that here. However, their regulatory infrastructure for emissions and industrial waste is poor at best, and maybe criminal at worst. With the capability the city has shown at their landfills, it is surprising that they are unable to enforce laws on pollution. If a city like Durban cannot change it’s dirty habits, what chance do the other developed and developing countries of the world have? The world's politicians and activists are coming here to debate just that.

This story I shot with the LA Times shows how children and babies living near the Sasol, Petro SA and Mondi plants south of the city have debilitating heart and lung problems. The sea is so polluted that hazard levels for industrial and chemical wastes exist for fifty miles south of the city. Perhaps it is fitting that the world will gather through this smokey-stinky veil in five-month’s time to discuss how we are going to save the planet.

So how are we?
I am getting excerpts from World On The Edge on my email. It’s a fascinating read by futurist and thinker Lester Brown. I just ordered the whole book, and look forward to getting in to it. This is a man that has continually mapped a changing plan for the continuation of our species, and the chances we have of making it. Far from being a “chicken little” running around shouting that the sky is falling, Brown is a level-headed realist with some great numbers and ideas about how we can make our lives easier, cleaner, more healthy and save the planet all at the same time.

His Plan B series is worth checking out if you, like me, sometimes wonder how we will fix everything that we need to. It really is a Plan B, and that is very important. My brother made shirts this year from some signs I photographed, and it says There Is No Planet B. Well thankfully there is a Plan B, and Brown’s most pressing arguments and plans really provide a snapshot of where we are in the current climate and pollution crisis and where we need to be going, with tangible things we can do to get us there.

So where are we and how are we getting there?
It is vital that governments work now on the beginnings of an agreement to ratify at the Durban Climate Conference in November to December this year. Right now the framework of a new binding agreement to reduce pollutive greenhouse gases should be taking shape, one that takes the place of the Kyoto Protocol. However, large utility companies in both the US and Europe are helping to stymie progress, hoping to keep a business-as-usual approach to regulation and reduction. Some of them wield great power within the committees and discussions taking place at a mid to high political level and the South African press reports that they are using that power to prevent early drafting of real emissions targets that can be met.

There is also much posturing by China, vilified in Copenhagen for their obstinate stance on emissions reductions, and evidence that they will use their new-found friends in Africa (where they have been investing heavily) to help push for a weak deal, or no deal at all. That this would hurt the countries of southern Africa the most seems irrelevant within the political arena..

This is all to be expected. But true courage and the possibilities of a deal are never to be completely discounted. The talks are happening this year in South Africa, a place where dreams do seem to come true sometimes. Trevor Manuel ran the National Reserve Bank and the Tax system of the country, and helped mediate the end of apartheid for the ANC. He is deemed by many to be the best man for the job of making sure that the Durban Conference is a success. He has his work cut out for him.

South Africa as flag bearer?
South Africa is not leading from the front on climate change. If the west was hoping that South Africa would adopt a hard line in favor of strong action to reduce carbon emissions, they may be in for a surprise. In the last week South Africa ended the green tariff subsidy for power that is generated without emissions, nipping a promising incentive for green energy in the bud.

Thembeka Duba, 20 She lives next to the Sappi Paper mill, about 40 km south of Durban, and blames the mill for her Asthma, where she is standing is just 500 Meters from her front door, with the paper mill in the background.

The country also seems intent on nuclear power, ignoring all the bad news out of Japan and forging ahead with plans for a second nuclear power station in the country. They are also planning on building lots of new coal-fired power stations, one of the main greenhouse gas culprits. These actions are the antithesis of the original draft of the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to provide incentives to developing countries like South Africa to evolve along a lower-carbon path, reliant and successful in implementing the new power technologies of the future.

Tit For Tat
However, there is a game that could be getting played here. If South Africa plans all these coal fired power stations, and then does not build them, they can get emissions credits from not building them. The new systems and more importantly the companies that build the green technology alternatives would be financed by the first world’s carbon markets. South African companies, doubtless some of them owned by government and the people in government, would get free or very cheap alternative energy infrastructure. This could be a sort of blackmail that the South Africans and other countries (most obviously China again) will use to leverage out money from developed nations to pay for new clean electrical infrastructure, and also stop themselves from having to reduce their own carbon emissions.

There is also a large component of any new climate agreement that sees billions of dollars in support for countries like South Africa to "adapt" to climate change. South Africa sits in a group of countries that have the least capital and the most exposure to the catastrophes associated with climate events.

Rennee Smith, 26 stands defiantly in front of the Engen Oil Refinery in South Durban, a few blocks from her apartment where she lives with her mother and her young son Kyrone. She blames the refinery for the failure of Kyrone's lungs when he was just 6 weeks old.

Just Posturing?
It could also not be some sort of posturing or plan. Scarily the country may just be that behind and fail to see how great being a renewable energy leader in the world could be. In World On The Edge and his other books, Lester Brown tracks how investing in clean energy technology can boost a country's GDP and bring long term growth through both intellectual and regular capital inflows.

Drop into this mix my earlier blog post about "Fracking The Karoo", a new plan to extract coal bed methane from the last virgin area of the country and that in two years radioactive mine water polluted with heavy metals may reach ground level in the entire city of Johannesburg, then perhaps this land of promise is not the best place to host a meeting of this kind.

At least the delegates who attend will not be able to avert their gaze from the polluted haze of Durban every day. Maybe that will help focus their intent on the task at hand.

A view from one hotel where delegates to the next UNFCCC Conference (COP17) will stay. Pretty to look at but you would not want to swim here: Chromium, zinc, lithium, lead, arsenic, and e coli levels 1000 times the WHO standard, these are just a some of the stew of pollutants flowing into the Durban seafront.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Chemicals Be Gone: A Sustainable Answer To A Changing Climate

Daniel Kampani's field with his compost heap and his maize stalks protecting the soils where another crop will grow with the coming rains.

“With conservation agriculture, we need less rain”. Says Daniel Kampani, 48, who is farming in the hills west of Lilongwe, Malawi. He has been using fertilizer and planting his small plot next to his one bedroom house for ten years, and each year only managed to get about three hundred pounds of maize from it. Two years ago he stopped using the expensive fertilizer and started mulching the field, using last year’s maize stalks and other plant compost as fertilizer. He lay the fertilizer right across the field, sheltering it from the sun and rain. This year he managed to harvest seven hundred pounds of maize from that plot. Because of this technique, the field also needs less moisture, something that is becoming harder and harder to find.

Daniel Kampani with his wife Clara. The two stand in front of their first big peanut harvest, which is going to bring in enough money to buy more pigs and send their children to school. In the past their tobacco crop barely gave them enough cash to buy basic foods they could not grow.

A farmer like Daniel understands all too well the effects of a changing climate. “We are doing this because of climate change”, he says as he stands next to his wife, Clara who helps farm their land, “here we have had less and less rainfall every year, and when it does come, it rains very hard, but for a shorter time.”

Daniel and Clara are part of a new trend in Malawi. They are members of NASFAM, the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association. This group is seeking to change old habits among the roughly seven million smallholder farmers in this country of thirteen million people. 85% of all the farmers in the country are subsistence farmers, that means they eat pretty much everything they produce. There is only one short growing season, from December to March and after smallholders consume their produce, they struggle to get through what some call the “hunger season”. This is the three months when the rains have come but the new food has not been harvested yet.

The country is small and has a limited amount of land, and that means Malawian farmers must make the most of it. But deeply ingrained agricultural habits have led to severe soil depletion. The people here believe that if they burn their fields in the long dry winter it will ensure a healthy crop, but this is far from the truth. Not only do the active fires throughout the country contribute to bad health and the release of noxious greenhouse gases, but the technique depletes the soils, kills healthy earthworms, and reduces crop yields dramatically. So why would people here do this?

Bumper harvests like this peanut harvest have been made possible through sustainable agricultural practices spread through NASFAM with support by Irish Aid in Malawi.

“They do not have the information that we do”, explains Daniel, “we are trying to get everyone in this area to stop this, but it is hard, it is a traditional thing. We must return humous to the soil, we must make it healthy again.” NASFAM has grouped together small farmers and gotten them to support each other in this new green revolution. As a group the farmers help each other and trade know-how. NASFAM has also helped them to diversify into peanut production, getting small buying stations out into rural areas where they can get a fair price for their produce, without having to truck it to town.

The peanuts replace tobacco as the smallholders’ cash crop, and are a great change for a diet that was very protein and vitamin poor. Legumes like peanuts help replenish nitrogen in the soil after years of maize and tobacco production and their shells make excellent fertilizer.

Irish Aid, the assistance arm of the Irish government, actively assists NASFAM with half a million euros to keep their outreach programs running. Networks of volunteers like Daniel and Clara help spread the conservation agriculture message into remote rural areas. In just a few years they have managed to lift about twenty percent of the farmers in the area out of subsistence farming and into the cash economy.

Deforestation in Malawi is acute, only eight percent of the trees are still standing, and many experts agree that the loss of forest cover contributes to local climate changes. Farmers like Daniel know this all too well, “We also need to plant trees. We need them for fuel, we need them for shade, we need them for fruit, some of them our animals can eat the leaves of in the dry season... they assist in so many ways.”

Daniel now has money to raise pigs, food in his granary, and sells his peanuts on the international fair trade market. He no longer has to worry if he will make it through the hungry season.

By planting trees, making his harvest more climate change proof, and increasing soil productivity, farmers like Daniel are uplifting poor countries and making a positive contribution to our planet. They can also teach the rest of us a few things about sustainable agriculture in a warming world at a time when agribusinesses have trying to convince everyone that the only way to combat climate change is through their fertilizers, chemicals and pesticides.

In Malawi and the rest of southern Africa there is an urgent need for projects of this type. As poor countries cry out in international forums for financing to adapt to the climate change wrought by the rich western world, it is programs like this that should be held up as an example for everyone to follow. But while countries like Ireland and the United States struggle to keep their own economies afloat, small inputs like the one keeping NASFAM running are in danger of disappearing. That would be a crisis for Malawi, and a great loss to our collective ability to adapt to the changing world around us.

Something to sing about: A women's farming group from NASFAM get together to share peanut growing secrets and support each other's new conservation farming practices.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Don't Frack With Africa

Flowers in the springtime near Karoo-Tankwa National Park. The fragile desert ecosystem, including this very area of the Karoo, is under threat from oil companies

Most people around the world, particularly in the United States, know what hydraulic fracturing is: shooting a crude and secret mixture of chemicals and water deep into a shale deposit to break up the rock and release the trapped natural gas.

The process needs millions liters of water mixed with an unknown blend of chemicals including (but not limited to) benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), diesel fuel, naphthalene (moth ball) compounds, boric acid, arsenic, poly nuclear organic hydrocarbons, and other carcinogenic and toxic compounds.

For a great primer on hydraulic fracturing (called fracking) and what it has done to rural communities across America, particularly in my home in western Colorado, see my fellow videojournalist Josh Fox present his award winning documentary Gasland. It is a must-see for anyone who cares about clean drinking water, clean air, justice, and the human story behind fracking.

To Frack or Not to Frack?

Here in South Africa this year a debate has been raging across the country's last pristine environment, the Karoo Desert. An unlikely alliance of farmers, civil society organizations, foreign royalty and local environmental activists managed in April to get Mineral Resources Minister Joyce Shabangu to call for a moratorium on all shale gas exploration while her office conducts a comprehensive study on the process.

The players are the typical mixture of well-funded oil companies. Shell is the most high profile, but US based Falcon Oil and Gas and South Africa's Sasol have also been granted concessions to explore. As it stands today, no one has fracked yet, but in a recent public meeting with farmers Shell's hired representative Tisha Greyling of Golder Associates said, "If its not Shell, it will be someone else".

This sense of complete dominance is scary, even more so for someone like me, who has followed the fight to prevent more than three thousand gas wells being drilled in Garfield County where the Colorado River runs. If well-funded Americans could not keep these corporations out of their own back yards what chance do Africans have on a continent where money always talks the loudest? But there is a growing worldwide anger at these companies and a gathering wealth of information which is starting to wake consumers up to the destruction being done in their name. See Fracking Hell, The Untold Story on LinkTV here.

The Karoo Desert of South Africa is an ancient ecosystem with a vast and poorly understood groundwater system. Without knowing everything about how this water system works, it is impossible to say with any certainty that fracking there would be safe. Shell's proposed prospecting area includes about 100000km² of South Africa's arid heartland, and they have suggested they will blast seawater into the wells with the toxic slurry because the millions of liters of fresh water needed for the process would be too difficult to find in the desert.

The entire area subsists only on sub-surface water. There are no rivers, so almost every drop for drinking, irrigation and livestock is pulled up out of the ground. There is also the very real danger of radioactive pollution, since much of the Karoo has uranium in the ground. The long term impact of shooting toxic sludge into the ground is completely unknown, and any suggestions to the contrary are not based on facts writes researcher Glen Ashton.

South African billionaire mining magnate Johann Rupert and Princess Irene of the Netherlands both own farms in the region and have joined forces to fight Shell's plan to frack in the Karoo. Much of the area that Shell has been granted is private land, but the mineral rights are held by the government. This gives the company carte blanche to plow roads into ecologically sensitive areas, commandeer land from private owners, and even sink gas wells in areas that are currently protected. One site in their concession is next to the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, the SALT, at Sutherland. That the government would grant these concessions to the detriment of such national landmarks does not bode well for any suggested oversight they claim they would have once drilling commences.

The Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT), the biggest one in the southern hemisphere. The area around the telescope, known for it's clear skies and starry nights, may soon become polluted by gas wells.

Get the Frack out of the Karoo
Nevertheless it is not impossible to foresee rational thought finally turning the tide against these companies. The Karoo is just big oil's latest battleground, but everywhere in the world communities and governments are waking up to the potential and real dangers of fracking. Last week an earthquake in Blackpool England brought a stop to fracking there. Across America from a local to a national level the impunity that oil and gas companies have operated under is being gradually eroded away. If communities and powerful individuals around the world stand up together, the Karoo fight for people's basic rights may just end up being the industry's Waterloo.

Get Involved

There are lots of ways to get involved, and even if you aren't in South Africa, this is a worldwide fight.

Sign the petition on the Petition Site here..

Have you experienced fracking? Been a victim of gas exploration and production activities? Then the Minister should hear directly from you.
Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mineral Resources of the Republic of South Africa
Private Bag X463
Pretoria 0001

Write to Shell, tell them you won't buy their products, ever, because of their activities in the Karoo. Then take your business elsewhere. Here is their address:
Shell headquarters
Carel van Bylandtlaan 16,
2596 HR The Hague, The Netherlands
Postal address:
PO box 162, 2501 AN The Hague, The Netherlands
Tel. +31 70 377 9111
Or email them here:

Marginal farmlands like this in South Africa's Eastern Cape are totally dependent upon irrigation from groundwater supplies, and the most sensitive to Fracking.