This Week in Environmental Justice

🌳🚲 This Week in Environmental Justice ⚖🌱


⚓🏝An ambitious new report by the International Focus Programme on Environmental Law and the European Law Students Association (ESLA Malta) presents a number of daring – and exciting – proposals for the future of environmental law in Malta. The report’s recommendations include recognizing the legal personality of land – (see below for current examples of this in India and New Zealand) – and the incorporation of the Human Right to Water into the legal code.


This coming week is “IFP Week,” during which ELSA Malta and the IFP are focused on raising awareness about the importance of environmental law, including the relationship between a safe and healthy environment and the realization of human rights.

🌎🚢Earthjustice filed a request to halt all funding for harborside development and freight operations near Oakland, California, to the civil rights officials at the federal departments of Transportation, Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, on the grounds that such development has violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The City and the Port of Oakland are charged with expanding operations within a consistent “pattern of neglect and systemic disregard for the health and wellbeing of West Oakland’s residents.”

The complaint, filed on behalf of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), alleges that the diesel emissions generated in and around the port have resulted in air pollution levels in the predominantly non-white communities that are 90 times higher than the state average. The population of West Oakland has experienced frequent and severe respiratory and cardiovascular issues. The life expectancy for these communities is nearly a decade less than the rest of Oakland.

“Environmentalists in Medellin, Colombia, protest high pollution levels on March 29 after the city declared an environmental emergency.” The government issued a red alert, banning heavy transport during peak hours. The cloudy rainy season has inundated Medellin’s deep valley in fatal smog. Statistics reported  suggest that the air pollution in the city has caused six times more deaths than gun violence, though it is not clear what time frame the numbers a drawing from. Epidemiologist Elkin Martinez produced a study indicating that 3,000 people died of causes related to air pollution in Medellin last year – that’s one every three hours. Photo source: Foreign Policy

🌎💦Mudslides hit Colombia and Mexico this week, with death tolls of 254 and 39 respectively. Hurricane Earl had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz on Thursday. Nonetheless, torrential rains over the weekend brought “a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours.”

+ Mocoa, the capital of the remote Putumayo province in Colombia’s Amazon basin, was struck Saturday morning while the town’s 40,000 inhabitants slept. Extremely heavy rainfall dramatically raised the levels of the Mocoa River and its tributaries. The water systems overflowed their banks, and mud and debris inundated entire neighborhoods, sweeping away homes and vehicles. At least 43 children are among the dead, with approximately 300 families displaced and many more still missing.

“Women cry over the coffin of a relative killed by a mudslide caused by heavy rains, at the cemetery in Mocoa, Colombia on April 3.” Source: Foreign Policy 

How common are landslides in Colombia?

Reasonably common, although this one was particularly deadly. South America is considered a hotspot for landslides. In November, nine people died in a landslide in El Tambo, about 90 miles from Mocoa, during a landslide that followed heavy rain; the previous month, six were killed in another near Medellin. In 2015, a mudslide in Salgar, about 60 miles southwest of Medellin, killed more than 80.

Scientists say that factors such as heavy rains, deforestation, dense human populations, and informal housing can heighten the risk of landslides. Santos has blamed climate change for contributing to the disaster in Mocoa, a view echoed by Martin Santiago, the U.N. chief for Colombia.

“Climate change is generating dynamics and we see the tremendous results in terms of intensity, frequency, and magnitude of these natural effects, as we have just seen in Mocoa,” he said.

Adriana Soto, regional director of The Nature Conservancy and a former Colombian environment minister, told Caracol Radio that she believed climate change was a factor, as well as the construction of housing near rivers, and deforestation, which reduced the landscape’s natural resilience to slippage. “When the basins are deforested, they break down. It is as if we remove the protection for avoiding landslides,” she said.

A children's bike leans against a wall covered in mud after rivers breached their banks due to torrential rains, causing flooding and widespread destruction in Carapongo Huachipa, Lima,
From last week’s mudslide in Peru: “A children’s bike leans against a wall covered in mud after rivers breached their banks due to torrential rains, causing flooding and widespread destruction in Carapongo Huachipa, Lima, Peru, on March 24, 2017.” Source: The Atlantic

Spotlight on Food and Water

💧🌡What if we changed the way we have come to think about climate change? What if we left behind the single-narrative of climate change being entirely about carbon dioxide emissions, to consider a more comprehensive approach? Such an approach would include, among other things, the impact of water management on Earth’s climatic systems.

+ Alternatively, Rob Jackson argues we should “forget about climate change” and promote the low-carbon economy through security, health, and employment motivators.

“Indian office-goers walk past a wall displaying a mural in Mumbai on April 3.” Source: Foreign Policy

🌅👤An unusual and innovative new way countries are protecting rivers sacred to religious and indigenous populations – granting rivers legal personhood. Three rivers, the Ganges among them, have been assigned legal “parents” to protect the water bodies.


👣 Drought-Driven Displacement in the Horn of Africa – IDMC Internal Displacement Update – Issue 14

“More than 444,000 people were displaced directly or indirectly in relation to drought in Somalia between 1 November 2016 and 24 March 2017. More than 187,000 people were displaced between 1 and 24 March. The largest movements were to Baidoa in Bay region (more than 82,000 people), Mogadishu (more than 79,000) and Gaalkacyo (as many as 24,000) (UNHCR, 24 March 2017UNHCR, 24 March 2017). More than 4,000 people, mostly women and children from Bay, Gedo and Middle Juba regions, crossed into Ethiopia in early 2017 because of drought (OCHA, 31 March 2017). Somali families told “harrowing stories of abandoning their weak cattle, of being forced to leave their homes to search for food and water”. A mother of ten from Gedo province said: “I lost ten goats. One day they just started falling and dying. I decided to move away, as I feared that my children would start falling and dying too” (Norwegian Refugee Council, 29 March 2017).
“More than 20,000 people were displaced by drought in Garissa and Turkana counties in Kenya between 1 January and 31 March. Another 5,000 people fled violence relating to cattle rustling in Baringo county during the same period, and more than 30,000 Kenyans with their cattle migrated to Uganda in search of water and grazing pastures. One hundred people who had received UNHCR support to return to Somalia arrived in Kenya’s Dadaab camp in March (OCHA, 31 March 2017).
“In South Sudan, conflict and drought contributed to displacement. “Spreading violence first led people to abandon their homes and villages, but sustained hunger with little hope of harvests to ease their suffering sent them on the long, risky walks to safety far away.”Nyawich Bangot, who fled Unity state, said: “There were so many random killings: men were killed randomly, even children were killed randomly. Our houses with our food stored inside were all destroyed, food we grew with our own hands to keep us going during the hard times” (UNHCR, 10 April 2017).”

💦 The Blackfeet Water Compact and Settlement Act will be up for a vote in the coming week in Montana. The Compact establishes the quantity of water rights officially allocated to the Tribe (approx. 1,200,000-acre feet, including wetlands) and confirms the authority and jurisdiction over water-related issues on Blackfeet Reservation. The settlement also provides $421 million in funding for water-related projects. The Blackfeet began negotiating this agreement in the 1980s.

+ The Navajo Generating Station in Arizona is set to close in 2019, raising questions and tensions regarding how its water rights will be redistributed. The coal plant draws 34,000-acre feet of water annually Lake Powell and the Colorado River watershed.  The Navajo Nation seems to have expected the water to be returned to them, while the authorities do not seem willing to confirm whether that will be the case.

🌲🚵💧Protests continued in California over Nestlé’s operations in the San Bernadino National Forest. Local activists have been challenging the Swiss corporation’s legal authority to pipe water out of the national forest without paying a fee for the water rights.

“In other words, Nestle receives millions of gallons of water that rightfully belong to the citizens of California at nothing,” (local activist and organizer Glen Thompson told USA Today.) “The water is on National Forest Service land, it belongs to all people. This is everyone in California’s water. …And an international corporation is stealing it and selling it back to us for billions.” 

Nestlé’s permit for drawing water in San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988. The company says they requested a renewal and received no word from the Forest Service. Gene Zimmerman, the forest supervisor who was in charge at the time, has since done paid consulting work for Nestlé. The Forest Service has cited lack of resources and a heavy workload when being asked about its failure to renew the requested permit.

Nestlé has recently turned down a proposal that the company be prohibited from drawing water from the national forest under certain conditions, such as the unprecedented five-year drought from which California has only begun to recover. Nestlé owns Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Ozarka, Poland Spring, Zephyrhills, Nestlé Pure Life, Perrier, San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.

Nestlé’s bottled water operations include Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Ice Mountain, Ozarka, Poland Spring, Zephyrhills, Nestlé Pure Life, Perrier, San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.

🍽🌍Foreign Policy produced a photo article to capture the desperation in Somalia, where six years of drought and civil war have already killed more than a quarter-million people. The government declared a state of emergency last month after 110 people starved to death or died from drought-induced diarrhea in one 48-hour period.

“Displaced Somali children wait for food aid at a distribution center outside Mogadishu.”   Source: Foreign Policy

🔬Exciting possibilities for addressing the global food and water crisis also made the news this week. Graphene, a thin layer of latticed carbon which is both the lightest and the strongest compound that humans have discovered on Earth, may provide a key to efficient desalination technology.

Scientists at the University of Manchester have published a study in the journal Nature Nanotechnology which builds off previous findings that graphene-oxide membranes offer potential efficiencies in water filtration.

The Manchester team has found that building walls of epoxy resin around the graphene membrane allow the atoms to stay dry when underwater. Previously, membranes would absorb water when submerged, rendering the material unable to perform its intended function of catching tiny salt molecules.

This is just the beginning of experimenting with this technology. The major challenge when working with this most impressive compound continues to be scaling. Fortunately, a discovery earlier this year shows encouraging potential in this area as well.

🥗🏙Another promising approach – indoor verticle farming. The weekly podcast produced by the journal Nature discussed (@ 06:55) how diminishing groundwater resources worldwide are being impacted by food production and pressures from the international food trade system.

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of fresh water withdrawals, according to UNESCO. So the possibilities of hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic farms, each of which uses substantially less water than traditional methods, are wonderfully exciting. What model these new farms will take is still very much undetermined and will be an interesting trend to watch in the world market. One firm, known as

+ One firm, known as Urban Crops, has created a largely automated system for verticle farming, which uses hydroponics and UV-treated water recycling systems, to produce more food with approximately 5% of the water required for certain crops. (5% was a figure estimated for the production of oak leaf lettuce.) Urban Crops boosts faster plant growth with less risk of contamination using their systems, which they are planning to sell to food-production operations for a profit. Their systems can be installed just about anywhere, allowing urban communities to make use of unused buildings or otherwise forgotten spaces.

+ AeroFarms, a New Jersey-based verticle farm that has become one of the biggest names in the business, boasts the world’s largest indoor verticle farm. The owner, a former agricultural researcher, has created an aeroponic system which avoids common problems in the industry (ie. keeping the water supply nozzles clean). AeroFarms is seeking to be an economically competitive supplier of fresh and local produce.

AeroFarms’ patented aeroponic growing system. Source: AeroFarms

+ A third model offers the sale of module verticle farms for “in-home” gardening. Neofarms, a European-based start-up, is seeking to replace window herb-baskets with a fridge-freezer sized system that will allow households to grow their onw salad vegetables for “about two euros (£1.71/2.13) per week (at current) energy costs.”

“Grow what you need. Know what you eat.” Source: neoFarms

+ A common criticism of indoor farming regards the use of constant electricity, as opposed to the free energy source of the sun. These criticisms seem to overlook dramatic price reductions in solar energy costs, as well as the inaccurate pricing of water itself – which is an underpriced resource whose conservation is well worth industry disruption.

Human Rights Update

✈⚖By now, everyone has likely heard about the chemical attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, perpetrated by the Assad regime. At this time, the death toll stands at approximately 85 people, including 20 children.  The victims of the attack, nearly all of which were likely non-combatants, displayed the torturous symptoms linked to sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, according to the World Health Organization.

[Warning: High levels of subjectivity ahead.]

One boy was filmed suffocating on the ground, his chest heaving and his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Photographs show dead children lined up in rows on the floor or piled in heaps in the back of a vehicle, their clothes ripped from them by rescuers who used hoses to try to wash the chemicals from their bodies. Other images show victims foaming from their mouths or writhing on the ground as they struggle for air. Hours after the attack began, witnesses say, regime warplanes circled back over the area and dropped bombs on a clinic treating survivors.

The horror of these attacks was somewhat less surprising than the response of politicians in the U.S., many of whom seemed to be realizing the brutality of the Assad regime for the first time.

Sarin gas is a horrifying weapon of war and is banned under the Chemical Weapon Convention, as well as international customary law.  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has an informative resource regarding the history and evolution of the Convention, which may be useful in sorting out the rhetoric swirling around the recent attack.

While the U.S. was the last major power to resist the creation of a ban on chemical weapons, they did eventually sign the Convention, along with 83 other countries.

Which made the famous “red line” which former US President Obama drew “in the sand” when it came to chemical weapons use in Syria, not only understandable but logical, in terms of ensuring compliance with the international legal order in which the U.S. holds a large stake. Unfortunately, as nearly all of you also know, President Obama backed away from his line in the sand, after the Assad regime, in what was likely a test of the U.S. leader, gassed more than 1,400 people, almost 500 of which were children, outside Damascus in August 2013.

Taken in the aftermath of the August 2013 attack using chemical weapons. Source: Manu Brabo – Associated Press

Instead, the U.S. made a deal with Assad, to remain out of the Syrian conflict if he allowed for the OPCW to destroy his weapons stockpile. Russia was tasked with ensuring the Syrian regime not seek to buy or produce more chemical weapons.

It is not just Assad’s first sarin attack which makes the reaction of today’s U.S. leaders so perplexing but also the evidence that Assad has continued to use chemical weapons since the 2013 deal.

The OPCW believes that Assad has attacked large numbers of civilians with chlorine weapons, which are also banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Doctors and activists in Syria have reported a sharp increase in chemical attacks since mid-December, with the Syrian network for Human Rights having recorded nine separate strikes in 2017 alone.

The promises of U.S. and Russian officials to punish the Syrian regime for such breaches have failed to materialize.

In February, Russia once again blocked efforts at the UN Security Council to sanction military and intelligence chiefs connected to the country’s chemical-weapons programme. A similar fate doubtless awaits the latest attempt by Britain, France and America at the Security Council. Hours after the attack, the three countries demanded a resolution ordering the Syrian government to hand over all flight logs, flight plans and the names of air-force commanders to international inspectors. Russia, however, called the resolution “unacceptable.”

This is all in addition to numerous other likely war crimes and crimes against humanity which the Assad regime, along with their Iranian and Russian allies, have made “business-as-usual” in the Syrian conflict.  It is a seemingly reasonable assumption that U.S. executive and foreign policy officials have been aware of all of this while stating that they had no intention to seek Mr. Assad’s removal from power.

“If the world wanted to stop this,  they would have done so by now,” a woman who gave her name as Om Ahmed said in a telephone interview (to the Washington Post). “One more chemical attack in a town the world hasn’t heard of won’t change anything.” Then her voice cracked. “I’m sorry. My son died yesterday,” she said. “I have nothing left to say to the world.”

Somehow, the recent attack has been seen as so unique that it has made the U.S. President – maybe – change course.

Three defense officials told BuzzFeed News they cannot begin to craft a military response, if that is what Trump wants, without a clear understanding of what the president wants to see happen in Syria. Does he only want the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons? Does he want regime change? Is he seeking a negotiated settlement? Or were Trump’s comments simply rhetoric?

In other words, is it time to take the current President of the United States both seriously and literally?

Donald Trump
Source: Reuters

Unilateral U.S. response options in Syria are limited, particularly by the support the regime receives from their Russian allies.

US drone operations in Syria have expanded “in both scope and intensity” over the last six months, including the March 16th strike on a mosque complex in al-Jinah.  Drone strikes, particularly in Syria and Yemen, have been notoriously lacking in transparency and accountability. Over the past 30 months, the nonprofit research organization Airwars have estimated that US strikes have killed at least 91 civilians, with overall casualty rates likely far higher.

The drone program in Syria was initially designed to target the Khorasan Group, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the region. The US no longer refers to this group, whose core members have allegedly been killed, with seemingly little impact on the strike rate or al-Qaeda’s strength in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra has rebranded itself as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and is gaining influence in the region as Assad’s “luck” continues to rally.

All U.S. military strikes have been carried out under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress just days after the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon says the same is true of the anti-Islamic State campaign, even though the group broke with and has fought al Qaeda. In Syria, the United States makes use of an expansive definition of so-called associated forces of al Qaeda — a phrase that was not included in the AUMF, but that has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive U.S. administrations. More than 15 years after 9/11, it could now apply to thousands of fighters in the Syrian civil war, many of whom may care little about striking the West.

It would appear that now the AUMF has been contorted to apply to the Assad regime, as the administration launched an attack on the air base from which the planes carrying the sarin weapons originated, through independent executive action.

The U.S. has called the bombing of the air base near Homs as a “proportional response.” Ironically, two planes took off from the airbase and carried out air strikes on rebel-held areas in the eastern Homs countryside, the day after the U.S. strike.

U.S. Warships Fire Tomahawk Missles At Syria
“The guided-missile destroyer USS Ross fired one of the 59 cruise missiles the United States shot at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack that killed scores of civilians Tuesday.”  Source: Foreign Policy

Syria continues to raise many important questions for world leaders. Questions including (but in not limited to): What justifies unilateral action? Is there any remnant of an international responsibility to protect left in the post-Libya era? How and by whom are heads-of-state held accountable? What justifies a restructuring or review-of-mandate of the UN Security Council? And for U.S. leaders: Is the War Powers Resolution of 1973 officially irrelevant? 

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, prior to implementing President Obama’s decision to make a deal with the Assad regime in 2013, stated: “It matters if the world speaks out…and then nothing happens.” Indeed. 

✂💵Details of MONUSCO’s mandate renewal emerged this week. The UN mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo is facing sharp budget cuts, likely initiated by a decrease in US funding for the UN. MONUSCO is the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation. The cuts, which come as the DRC faces a new surge of violence in the interior of the country, include the reduction of 3,000 soldiers.

These cuts are not expected to affect the mission too dramatically, as MONUSCO is rarely fully staffed, to begin with. The reductions are more of “a bad signal at an awkward time,” as the DRC President, Joseph Kabila, holds on to office after 16 years of power. His second (and -theoretically- final) term ended last year and experts are doubting the likelihood of pending elections later this year as violence has increased in the country.

+ If things go South for President Kabila, he could always request to join former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh at his Equatorial hideaway.  Jammeh, who is currently under investigation by his successor for corruption and abuse, has become a sort of “dictator-in-residence” at the lavish Mongomo home of Equatorial Guniea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Mongomo appears to offer an escape from national and international law, as well as from the troops of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in exchange for some light farm work.

“An unverified photo shared widely on social media shows Jammeh and Obiang admiring what appears to be Jammeh’s new farm in Equatorial Guinea.” Source: Foreign Policy

⚖ 🗺Canada is stepping up its negotiations with South Africa after the key block country expressed its desire to leave the court early last year. South Africa wants the court to recognize diplomatic immunity of head-of-states, in the name of national sovereignty, arguing that failure in this area threatens its position as a “peaceful mediator” of African conflicts. On Friday, the Hague will hear South Africa’s defense for its failure to arrest President al-Bashir last year, with Canada pushing for a compromise.

+ PGA Secretary-General Dr. David Donat Cattin wants the UN Human Rights Council to recommend North Korea be referred to the ICC for the country’s “systematic attempt to eliminate individuals who are not part of the North Korean regime.”

Environmental Science and Management

🐡🐟🐠Researcher Dario Valenzano, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne, Germany, has published findings from a “first-of-its-kind study” examining the role of gut microbiomes on aging. Valenzano and his colleagues found that older fish live longer after consuming microbes from the poop of younger fish.

👥🐘Fascinating article regarding human-elephant conflict and methods of peaceful coexistence in Asia and Africa.

Quick Reads to Sound Smart at Parties

  • Two studies out of Weil Cornell Medical College and Emory Univerity use brain scans to differentiate subtypes of depression and to map responsiveness indicators for different treatments. Their findings are very early indicators that the future could hold more individualized approaches to treating depression. [Timely, given the recent spike in U.S. suicide rates.] (Vox)
Hillside community in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico on April 4. “The Crime Prevention Secretariat started the mural-painting initiative to motivate young people from communities under pressure of violence.” Source: Foreign Policy
  • The White House has informed the ABA they will not seek review of lower judicial candidates prior to nomination, a tradition started by President Eisenhower in 1952. Only George W. Bush has passed on ABA’s review. (ABA Journal)
  • The ABA gave its highest rating to Neil Gorsuch, who has been confirmed as the newest Supreme Court justice, filling the longest Supreme Court vacancy in U.S. history.  (The Atlantic)
“Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France perform at the International Skating Union World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki on April 2.” Source: Foreign Policy

…we invariably look up to people once they have made it. Not before, or in the process of, doing so. Successful people are typically well groomed, confident, charismatic — all carrying that aura of inevitability only hindsight can give. People in the process of (trying to) become successful, on the contrary, are tired, overworked, underslept, insecure, worried about a million things and, frequently, certain that they are never going it make it. Becoming the Tesla Elon Musk doesn’t work without first becoming the Elon Musk and then PayPal Elon Musk.

Finally, one long read/valuable resource: Science and technology experts describe the societal challenges that they think matter in 2017 and beyond. (BBC Future)


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