International Day of Forests and Water

On the March 21st, International Day of Forests, FAO HQ will host a special celebration in recognition of ‘Forests and Water’. During the event the Land and Water Division will present ‘Forests and Water in Practice’ with examples of watershed management dealing with changes in rural production processes in a framework of market-driven agricultural development.

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Watch the webcast LIVE: Monday 21 March 2016 – 12PM CET >>

 

Oceans and ocean activism, deserve broader role in climate change discussions

Researchers argue that both ocean scientists and world leaders should pay more attention to how communities are experiencing, adapting to and even influencing changes in the world's oceans.

When President Barack Obama visited the shrinking Exit Glacier in September, he pointed to a very obvious sign of our warming planet literally at his feet.

Less visible, but perhaps more indelible, signs of changing climate lie in the oceans. A University of Washington researcher argues in the journal Science that people — including the world leaders who will gather later this month in Paris for the latest round of climate change negotiations — should pay more attention to how climate change's impacts on ocean and coastal environments affect societies around the globe.

“When people see headlines on big science findings that the oceans are acidifying, or sea levels are rising, they feel a sense of helplessness in the face of inexorable change,” said lead author and UW professor of marine and environmental affairs Edward Allison. “Yet there are many things that people can, and indeed are already, doing.”

The review paper, published Nov. 13, looks at scientific understanding of changes to the world's oceans and how people around the world are responding. These reactions include denial, planned adaptation, a search for technical fixes, and political activism to reduce emissions and tackle the root causes of climate change. The paper also looks at how projected changes in climate and ocean conditions will impact economic activities related to the oceans, to begin a discussion about the future of the human relationship with the marine environment.

“I felt that there was a gap in the research being carried out by the ocean sciences community,” Allison said. “Research hasn't really engaged with the politics of climate mitigation and adaptation in the way that scientists working on forests and agriculture have.”

“There's a lot of citizen action that can be done at a local level to prevent coastal damage,” he continued. Examples cited in the paper include planting mangroves, saving coral reefs, or preventing beach erosion by planting coconut palms. In the Pacific Northwest, shellfish growers have begun to look at how to adapt their practices to account for more acidic seawater.

On a broader scale, Allison points to this spring's “kayaktivist” protesters in Seattle's Puget Sound, where people took to non-motorized marine craft to protest plans to capitalize on melting Arctic sea ice to extract more fossil fuels from the Arctic Ocean “I think the kayaktivists send a message that the future of the oceans, when it comes to energy generation, should be in renewables rather than in fossil fuels,” Allison said. “You have this perverse situation where the melting of polar ice caps has allowed more economic exploitation of the Arctic, including for industries that contribute most to global warming.” Allison began his career in marine biology, but later moved to fisheries management and international development, a background that helps him bring an interdisciplinary perspective to marine issues. A recent paper he co-authored looked at the tradeoffs between sustainable-fish certification programs and food for local fishing communities.

Co-author Hannah Bassett, a UW master's student in marine and environmental affairs, reviewed existing literature on how climate change will affect marine industries. The impacts on most industries will be negative, she found. But a few, including research and development of new ocean technologies, may benefit. She also found that while aquaculture is often cited as a possible adaptation strategy for declining wild fish stocks, aquaculture itself is anticipated to feel some negative impacts from climate change.

The paper lays out the case for a more interdisciplinary approach to ocean research, with natural and social scientists working together to document the impact of climate change and resulting actions and to understand how oceanic peoples are experiencing, adapting and even influencing changes in the world's oceans. Shifts in the world's oceans are long-lasting, extend far beyond the coast, and touch humans on many different levels, Allison said.

“The ocean is not just a place for economic activity,” he said. “It's a place for inspiration, it's a place for enjoyment, it defines many cultures, and it's a place where we get some of our most nutritious food. What's at stake here? It's a timely moment to think about that.” More

 

Society will collapse by 2040 due to catastrophic food shortages, says Foreign Office-funded study

A scientific model supported by the [UK's] Foreign Office has suggested that society will collapse in less than three decades due to catastrophic food shortages if policies do not change.

The model, developed by a team at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, does not account for society reacting to escalating crises by changing global behaviour and policies.

However the model does show that our current way of life appears to be unsustainable and could have dramatic worldwide consequences.

Dr Aled Jones, the Director of the Global Sustainability Institute, told Insurge Intelligence: “We ran the model forward to the year 2040, along a business-as-usual trajectory based on ‘do-nothing’ trends — that is, without any feedback loops that would change the underlying trend.

“The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots.

“In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

The model follows a report from Lloyds of London which has evaluated the extent of the impact of a shock scenario on crop production, and has concluded that the “global food system is under chronic pressure.”

The report said: “The global food system is under chronic pressure to meet an ever-rising demand, and its vulnerability to acute disruptions is compounded by factors such as climate change, water stress, ongoing globalisation and heightening political instability. More

 

To fight desertification, let’s manage our land better

Every year, we lose 24 billion tons of fertile soil to erosion and 12 million hectares of land to desertification and drought. This threatens the lives and livelihoods of 1.5 billion people now.

In the future, desertification could displace up to 135 million people by 2045. Land degradation could also reduce global food production by up to 12% and push world food prices up by 30%. In Egypt, Ghana, Central African Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Paraguay, land degradation could cause an annual GDP loss of up to 7%.

Pressure on land resources is expected to increase as populations grow, socio-economic development happens and the climate changes. A growing population will demand more food, which means that unsuitable or especially biodiverse land will be claimed for farming and be more vulnerable to degradation. Increased fertilizer and pesticide use related to agriculture will increase nutrient loading in soils, causing eutrophication and declines in fertility over time. Climate change will also aggravate land degradation—especially in drylands, which occupy 40% of global land area, and are inhabited by some 2 billion people. Urban areas, which are located in the world’s highly fertile areas, could grow to account for more than 5% of global land by mid-century.

Unless we manage our land better, every person will rely on just .11 hectares of land for their food; down from .45 hectares in 1960.

So how do we manage land better?

It will all come down to what we do with our soil, which is the most significant natural capital for ensuring food, water, and energy security while adapting and building resilience to climate change and shocks. The soil’s nutrient cycling provides the largest contribution (51%) of the total value (USD33 trillion) of all ‘ecosystem services’ provided each year. But soil’s important function is often forgotten as the missing link in our pursuit of sustainable development.

We must invest in applicable solutions that are transformative, and can be scaled up. Climate-smart agriculture is an alternative approach to managing land sustainably whilst increasing agricultural productivity. It includes land management options that sequester carbon and enhance resilience to climate change. Proven climate-smart practices such as agroforestry, integrated soil fertility management, conservation agriculture, and improved irrigation can ensure that land is used optimally, restored and managed in a manner that maximizes ecological, economic and social benefits.

But climate-smart agriculture requires conducive policy frameworks, increased investment, and judicious policy management. Rural poverty is often a product of policies that discriminate against small landholders, forcing them off the land, creating sub-optimal land use outcomes, and long term degradation. Secure land rights are necessary for climate-smart agriculture, providing incentives for local communities to manage land more sustainably. In Rwanda, for instance, land tenure reform rapidly doubled investment in soil conservation, with even larger increases for plots managed by female farmers.

Second, there is need for increased national investment in climate smart agriculture. For technologies such as conservation agriculture that require substantial up-front investment in machinery and other inputs, schemes such as those involving payment for ecosystem services may be more effective in promoting CSA technology adoption. For technologies such as agroforestry systems, innovative finance mechanisms that help farmers bridge the period between when trees are planted, mature and generate income can be decisive.

Third, in some cases, direct public investment in landscape restoration and rehabilitation can bring about sizeable livelihood benefits and create better conditions for attracting further investments by farmers and communities. The China Loess Plateau is a well-documented success story of landscape restoration. Similar experiences are happening in Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Senegal.

Fourth, a number of improved land management technologies are knowledge-intensive, and promoting their adoption will require training. Conservation agriculture for instance entails sophisticated combinations of no-tillage, residue management, use of cover crops, and other activities and practices that many farmers have limited experience with. The knowledge base of local land management practices can also be improved through targeted capacity development programs.

Many demand-side interventions can strategically break the adoption barriers associated with climate-smart practices. These include: providing farmers with improved weather forecasting, weather-indexed crop insurance, and measures to reduce production variability such as drought-tolerant crops, deep-rooted crops, and irrigation. These should be combined with supply-side measures such as lowering trade barriers to increase national and regional market size, improving road and rail infrastructure to lower transport costs, and improving market information systems to increase farmers’ access to markets.

Lastly, public support is as crucial as the amount of support to fully realize the productivity, adaptation, and mitigation benefits in agriculture. Public support that focuses on research, investments in improved land management, and land tenure rather than on input support is generally more effective, benefits more farmers, and is more sustainable in the long run.

Actions to reduce the negative impacts of land degradation and desertification must indeed go hand in hand with interventions that eradicate poverty and address inequality. Without them, we will not end poverty and boost shared prosperity. More

 

WARNING: Handle With Care!

Our oceans are home to the discarded munitions of wars past!

In 1987, hundreds of dead dolphins washed up onto the shores of Virginia and New Jersey. Following an investigation, one marine-mammal expert stated that the dolphins showed wounds that resembled chemical burns. It is now believed that these dolphins were exposed to chemical weapons that had been discarded in the ocean. Since World War I, the oceans have been the dumping ground of enormous quantities of captured, damaged, and obsolete chemical, biological, conventional and radiological munitions.

In many cases, these munitions are resting quietly at the bottom of our oceans. However, in other places, these discarded munitions are causing a myriad of problems. There are risks to both humans and marine ecosystems. Let’s first take a look at the some of the potential risks to humans – explosive or chemically dangerous munitions washing up on beaches, munitions being disturbed/activated by fishing vessels, and the leakage of deadly chemicals into the water contaminating the water and the fish that digest these toxins. As the casings on some of these munitions erode and others detonate, poisonous materials are entering the food chain via plankton.

So, what is being done? In 2004, a Canadian by the name of Terrence Long founded a non-profit organization called the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM). Today, the IDUM is an internationally recognized body where all stakeholders (diplomats, government departments including external affairs, environmental protection and fishery departments, industry, fishermen, salvage divers, oil and gas, militaries and others) can come together in an open and transparent forum to discuss underwater munitions, seek solutions, and promote international teamwork on their issues related to underwater munitions.

In many cases, these munitions are resting quietly at the bottom of our oceans. However, in other places, these discarded munitions are causing a myriad of problems. There are risks to both humans and marine ecosystems. Let’s first take a look at the some of the potential risks to humans – explosive or chemically dangerous munitions washing up on beaches, munitions being disturbed/activated by fishing vessels, and the leakage of deadly chemicals into the water contaminating the water and the fish that digest these toxins. As the casings on some of these munitions erode and others detonate, poisonous materials are entering the food chain via plankton.

So, what is being done? In 2004, a Canadian by the name of Terrence Long founded a non-profit organization called the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM). Today, the IDUM is an internationally recognized body where all stakeholders (diplomats, government departments including external affairs, environmental protection and fishery departments, industry, fishermen, salvage divers, oil and gas, militaries and others) can come together in an open and transparent forum to discuss underwater munitions, seek solutions, and promote international teamwork on their issues related to underwater munitions.

In most cases, once an underwater munition has been removed, the problem is removed. That being said, the removal of these munitions can be incredibly dangerous and must be conducted by specialized teams trained in the handling of explosives and hazardous materials. In 2013, tourists visiting the Assateague Island National Seashore, a U.S. National Park on the Maryland coast discovered an unexploded ordnance on the beach. Fortunately they reported the find and the beach was closed while an Army bomb squad exploded the World War II-era munitions.

Between 1941 and 2003, the U.S. Navy occupied about 2/3rds of an Island in Puerto Rico called Vieques. The land was used both as a naval ammunition depot and for live training exercises. Operations included not only the storage and processing of supplies, but also the disposal of wastes and munitions of all types. As of 2004, the EPA had listed the presence of contaminants, such as mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, napalm, and depleted uranium, as well as unexploded ordnance and remnants of exploded ordnance.

As of 2014, the Navy has spent about $220 million since 2003, to investigate and clean contaminated lands on Vieques. For the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015 Congress appropriated $17 million for the cleanup of Vieques. While it is fantastic that there is forward momentum on the clean-up up this particular area, the effects are showing themselves in many very visible ways. The cancer rate in Vieques is 27% higher than mainland Puerto Rico and the infant mortality rate is much higher than other areas in Puerto Rico. These staggering numbers have turned Vieques into the poster child example of this issue. Unfortunately, the subject of underwater munitions isn’t sexy and doesn’t get the attention that is needs and deserves.

Things YOU can do to make a difference! Educate yourself on this issue, research where you live and locations you make be visiting, talk to others about this issue so more people know, write to your government representatives to let them know you care about this issue, and if possible, make a donation to organizations like the IDUM so they can advocate for all of us. Underwater munitions might be “out of sight” but they have the capacity to make a huge impact on your health and the health of our future generations. More

Thanks to the Marine & Oceanic Sustainability Foundation (MOSF) for collaborating with IDUM and who wrote and posted this blog.

 

 

Turning Ethiopia’s desert green

A generation ago Ethiopia’s Tigray province was stricken by a famine that shocked the world. Today, as Chris Haslam reports, local people are using ancient techniques to turn part of the desert green.

People performing their 20 days of compulsory community labour

In the pink-streaked twilight, a river of humanity is flowing across Tigray’s dusty Hawzien plain. This cracked and desiccated landscape, in Ethiopia’s far north, occupies a dark corner of the global collective memory. Thirty years ago, not far from here, the BBC’s Michael Buerk first alerted us to a biblical famine he described as “the closest thing to hell on earth”.

Then Bob Geldof wrote Do They Know It’s Christmas? – a curious question to ask of perhaps the world’s most devoutly Christian people – and thereafter the name Tigray became synonymous with refugees, Western aid and misery. The Tigrayan people were depicted as exemplars of passive suffering, dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the planet just to get through the day without dying.

But here, outside the village of Abr’ha Weatsbaha, I’m seeing a different version. From all directions, streams of people are trickling into that human river. You hear them before you see them – some chatting excitedly, others singing hymns – as they converge on a viciously steep valley at the edge of the plain. They were summoned before dawn by horns, an Old Testament echo calling every able-bodied man and woman over 18 years of age to report for the first of 20 days of compulsory community labour. Their job, quite simply, is to tame the desert.

“This is how the Axumite kings got stuff done 2,000 years ago,” says my guide Zablon Beyene. “With the same tools, too.

By 10 in the morning, some 3,000 people have turned up. Using picks, shovels, iron bars and their bare hands, they will turn these treacherous slopes into neat staircases of rock-walled terraces that will trap the annual rains, forcing the water to percolate into the soil rather than running off in devastating, ground-ripping flash floods.

“Sisters are doing it for themselves,” says Kidane, a pick-wielding Amazon whose arched eyebrow suggests I might want to put down my camera and do some actual work. Brothers, too: from strapping, sweat-shiny youths to Ephraim, a legless old man who clearly ignored the bit about being able-bodied and sits on his stumps, rolling rocks downhill to the terrace builders.

Overseeing this extraordinary effort is 58-year-old Aba Hawi, Abr’ha Weatsbaha’s community leader. Short, pot-bellied and bearded, he darts from one side of the valley to the other, barking orders into his mobile phone, slapping backs and showing the youngsters the proper way to split half-ton boulders. Rumour has it that Aba Hawi once took up arms to fight for Tigrayan independence, but these days he prefers to describe himself as “just a farmer”.

Either way, his tireless leadership has brought a miraculous transformation to this sun-blasted land. In just a decade, entire mountains have been terraced. Once you had to dig 50ft (15m) down to find water. Now it’s just 10ft, and 94 acres (38 hectares) of former desert have been transformed into fertile fields. Families are now reaping three harvests a year from fields of corn, chillis, onions and potatoes. Free-range grazing for sheep, goats and cattle has been banned, allowing new forests of eucalyptus and acacias to take root, and Aba Hawi is particularly keen to show me what he’s done with the deep flash-flood canyons that rive the plain.

We take a long, hot hike to a vast pool of cool, green water held back by a huge hand-built dam. “We’ve built 85 of these check-dams so far,” says Aba Hawi, “and you can see how they work. These mini-reservoirs fill up during the rains and are fed by groundwater in times of drought. Now, every farmer has a well.” He tosses a handful of dust into the wind. “Ten years ago, that was our land.” Then he points at a shimmering blue flash in the reeds. “Now look: we’ve got malachite kingfishers living in the desert.”

But success brings its own problems. Abr’ha Weatsbaha is now facing an immigration problem as people from neighbouring valleys clamour for their share of Aba Hawi’s oasis.

“They shouldn’t need to come here,” he says. “Every district in Tigray is supposed to be using compulsory community labour for terracing but, well…” he shrugs with just a tad of false modesty… “not all community leaders are so, er, committed.”

And as fear of starvation fades, Aba Hawi faces new demands.

“People want electricity now,” he sighs.

I’m interested in his views of where God comes into all this. After all, this valley was once the physical definition of the term “Godforsaken.”

Aba Hawi disagrees. “God was here when the land was bad,” he says. “And he’s still here. But God will only help those who help themselves.” More

 

The Guardian view on food security: if the dreamers lose, we face a nightmare

By the time nations once again get round a table in Paris in December to discuss climate change, hunger should be on the menu. Researchers have just warned that a new and aggressive strain of yellow rust fungus is now a threat to Britain’s wheat harvest.

Another team has calculated that average yields of wheat per field, which only two decades ago were rising rapidly, are now down 2.5%, and barley by 3.8%. In each case, the scientists identify climate change as a contributing factor. Global warming has barely begun but climate scientists have been warning about the consequences for food security for 30 years.

The two latest bits of research into wheat yields are not isolated indicators of tomorrow’s troubles. The big heat has yet to arrive. It will be catastrophic. Another group has studied the consequences for harvests of extremes of heat and calculated that for each 1C notch in the thermometer, global wheat yields could fall by 6%. Some latitudes will benefit, but overall, world harvests could fall. This is very bad news: wheat is one of the world’s staples, and the world’s largest source of vegetable protein. There are other factors at play in the fields. Within a decade, 2.9 billion people in 48 nations will experience chronic water scarcity, another research team warns.

Agriculture consumes 70% of the world water supplies and action is needed “to pre-empt looming conflicts born of desperation”. Separately, US geologists have used historical analyses to work out what modern agriculture does to topsoil. When European settlers took the plough to the American heartlands, erosion accelerated one hundred-fold. At peak, an inch of soil was lost every 25 years. Before the Europeans, wind and water erosion took 2,500 years to remove the same thin layer. Because of erosion, overgrazing and drought, the planet’s farmland is being degraded at a catastrophic rate. An estimated 10m hectares are now abandoned each year; something the size of a family farm every minute. And as the food supply is threatened, demand will accelerate. There will be many more hungry people at the table.

In the last year, researchers re-examined UN population projections and decided that the global numbers may not peak at 9 billion. By 2100, the world could be home to 12 billion and still rising. By 2100, according to business-as-usual climate projections, temperatures will have risen by 4C and sea levels by a metre or so. So land that is ever less productive will be expected to deliver vastly more food at ever greater cost in fossil fuel energy to feed increasingly conflict-torn nation states.

Solutions exist but none are easy. All will require a generous adjustment between the haves and the have-nots and sustained global cooperation. That sounds like a dream, but the alternative is a nightmare. The enduring lesson of history is that drought and famine feed conflict, and conflict breeds more privation, and despair. Come December, each aspect of the climate challenge will have become more pressing, and more complex. Everything should be on the table in Paris except perhaps, symbolically, lunch. More