Tag Archives: Drought

Part 2: Texas Panhandle

It struck me the other day that it had been three months since this road trip – and I still had not finished this blog series. I decided to spend the time I would usually spend on my “This Week” posts generating a few more of these.  Look out “Part 3: New Mexico,” coming soon. “This Week” will return in June as “This Month”. Thanks for reading. – M


Population: 27.47 million (2015)

Largest economic industries: (1) Agriculture, [Texas has the most farms of all United States both in terms of number and acreage. Texas leads the nation in the number of cattle, usually exceeding 16 million head. Texas also leads the nation in cotton and pecan production] (2) Aeronautics [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the center of NASA, is in Houston.] (3) Defense, [Home to two of the US Army’s largest facilities, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss.] (4) Computer Technology, (5) Energy [Global leader in energy; Oil, gas, and wind.], (5) Tourism [The state tourism slogan is “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.”].


“Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.”John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

We spent the night in Shamrock, Texas, a small town off of “Old Route 66” (and very proud of it).

In the morning, the receptionist lets me mail several postcards free of charge and offers to make stronger coffee for the lobby carafe.  Texas and I were off on the right foot – never mind the fact it was freezing cold outside. (Okay, it wasn’t freezing. But it certainly was not a temperature I had anticipated when getting dressed that morning.)



As we reconvened our journey in the daylight, I was awed by the incredible texture that had been added to the environment.  Incremental chasms and cracked pieces of land broke up the endless yellow fields, revealing the deep mahogany hues underneath.



The complexity of the shadows dancing across these formations was captivating. I began to grow a bit anxious, as if afraid that one might pass by without my being able to fully experience it.


But they kept coming. Soon these miniature portraits of dramatic prose became the familiar inhabitants of the space outside my window. After an hour or so, I even managed to steal my breath back from the slim wisps of bright blue water trickling through the broken ground.


I was deeply grateful to have a driving partner. Otherwise, I may have parked along the first one I had seen and spent the day meditating on texture and color. Baby Suggs style.


The wisps of water below fields of brittle grass provide an appropriate metaphor for the current state of water in the Texas Panhandle.


Northwest Texas sits above the Southern-most portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High-Plains Aquifer. The Ogallala is the source of water for millions of people in the United States. It also provides 30% of all the water the country uses agriculture. The Ogallala extends as far North as South Dakota, providing water for eight states and can hold as much water volume as Lake Huron. More than 90% of its water is used to irrigate crops.

“It is hard to overestimate the impact that this bounty of buried water has had on American life. If you snack on popcorn or peanuts, you are probably eating Ogallala water; if you dress in cotton clothing, you are probably wearing it. … The fourteen million acres of crops spread across its flat surface account for at least one-fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest. … If the aquifer went dry, more than 20 billion worth of food and fiber would disappear immediately from the world’s markets.” – William Ashworth, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains.

Nowhere is the Ogallala Aquifer more depleted than in the Texas Panhandle (although parts of Southwest Kansas come close). Water levels have dropped more than 150 feetroughly 70% – since the 1950s. “About half the aquifer’s thickness has dried up” in some parts of Texas, according to Leonard Konikow, a hydrologist with USGS.

The five-year drought that hit the Southern US escalated the depletion rates. Municipalities in the Panhandle turned to groundwater after surface water sources began to dry up and farmers needed to pump more water to compensate for declining rainfall.

The Texas Panhandle once took most of its drinking water exclusively from Lake Meredith. As these sources dwindled in the early 2000s, residents turned underground.

Water levels in the Panhandle dropped 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013, one of the “five or ten worst drops in the district’s more than 60-year history,” according to hydrogeologist Bill Mullican.

Municipalities in the Panhandle began turning back to Lake Meredith in 2014 after unusually heavy rains filled the once-empty lake with 2.8 billion gallons a water. That may sound like a lot – but it was 4 % of Lake Meredith’s usual haul. Water experts and residents alike were torn. The region had taken six times that amount from the Ogallala in 2013. Where do you turn when there are no good options?


Other residents opposed the return to surface water because low water levels likely meant high levels of sediment. Unfortunately, a 2002 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that groundwater in the Panhandle contains high fluoride, arsenic (linked to pesticides used in cotton production), and nitrate levels and has been contaminated by abandoned oil fields. 


Lake Meredith has continued to recover, but at 24.9% of its former life, it still has a long way to go. Nonetheless, the website of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife states “that 97% of the area’s water needs are dependent upon groundwater.


https waterdatafortexas.org reservoirs individual meredith.PNG
Source: Waterdatafortexas.org


Much of the depletion in the Southern Ogallala can be tied to agricultural production. Texas produces much of the country’s wheat, corn (for grain – meat production), sorghum (for grain-meat production), hay, pecans, rice, and soybeans. The state’s number one crop, cotton, is a particularly water intensive crop. Texas also leads in beef production, another major water user, particularly when temperatures increase.




[“U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists.” – That was 1997!]

Farmers here produce food for the entire country and they use a lot of water to do it. In Ogallala Blue, William Ashworth asserts that groundwater mining “is not an accident here; it is a way of life … it is also a way of death.”


Texas is a “right to capture” state. This means that landowners have the right to pump groundwater from wells on their property, “without malice or consideration for the water supply for neighboring wells.”

This approach to water supply fails to take into account that no single well is really an individual source of water, but rather one straw in a larger common source. (In this case, it’s a common source for 97% of the water needs for the region, millions of users to the North, and the food supply for much of the nation.)

The water law system in Texas is further complicated by the division of regulating authority between nearly 100 conservation districts, each with the power to create their own set of rules.


The traditional conception of property rights and local governance that goes along with this type of system is, perhaps, what one might expect to find in Texas. When one buys a piece of land, one buys all of the resources on that land – and, in this case, under it. It is, after all, how the law interprets other resources, such as timber or oil.


Texas tax code further interprets water as a “depleted asset.”

This means, generally speaking, that as a property owner uses the water under their property, the value of their property is declining. Thus, the IRS provides a tax break pegged to the amount of water they have used that year, in order to compensate for the loss of value in their property.

The large amounts of water that one must use to qualify for the tax break likely could only have been used for economic activities. (Ie. agriculture.) The water was a tool used to produce a good which, in turn, produces a profit.

The US government (taxpayers) is (are) effectively subsidizing the water used by Texas business persons (farmers) to produce goods (food). In my opinion, this does not seem to fit into a conservative model of limited government.

It is, however, exactly how the US tax code treats oil and gas resources.

A tax break that pays higher dividends in proportion to the amount of water used is probably not encouraging conservation.



ProPublica has an excellent article explaining the tax break in more detail.  I found this excerpt particularly interesting:

Hasn’t the federal government spent billions subsidizing conservation and the protection of the West’s groundwater, in part by building dams and encouraging people to use the water in rivers instead? Why would they forfeit federal tax dollars to do the opposite?

We called the IRS, and they initially shared our doubts. Not because they cared much about groundwater (it’s a tax agency!) but because they said they were pretty sure no such deduction was legal. They pointed us to section 613 of the tax code, and it couldn’t be more explicit: For the purposes of deducting the depreciating value of minerals, the definition “does not include soil, sod, dirt, turf, water, or mosses.” Ok, who would ever have thought of deducting mosses or sod? But anyway. That left us really confused.

Right, there were, after all, those farmers in Texas who seemed to have benefited from what the IRS said was not possible.

We encouraged the IRS to check again. They did. And then they found the provision they thought didn’t exist — right there in the text for Revenue Rule 65–296. An IRS spokesperson laid out for us the specifics: “Taxpayers are entitled to a cost depletion deduction for the exhaustion of their capital investment in the ground water extracted and disposed of by them in their business of irrigation farming specifically from the Ogallala Formation.”

Seems like some follow-up questions were in order.

For sure. We asked for clarification. The IRS said it would try to explain. Most importantly, they wanted to say it wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. The deduction is only available for one small part of the country — an area that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And it should only apply if people are using water from a source that is running dry anyway.

But wait, what? You get a break when you use resources that are already in danger of vanishing?

Yes, that’s why it is what’s called a depleted asset.

Conservation is precisely what one would expect the farmers to want to do, presuming they would like to preserve their way of life in the Texas Panhandle, for themselves and for their children.




At the same time, their motivations for continuing to over-pump are understandable. It’s the same reason that further evidence of the impacts of climate change motivates apathy, rather than action.

There’s a two-year-old in the back of our minds that’s still there that we’ve learned to overrule that wants to have their one marshmallow now rather than wait for two marshmallows. Very few people on this planet want to destroy planet earth. It’s just that our other agendas get in the way of things that might have a longer time horizon. – Tima Bansal, executive director of the Network for Business Sustainability in London


…and maybe a little bit of all that “manifest destiny.”

Transitioning to “Postdepletion” 

Industrial-scale extraction from the Ogallala didn’t start until after World War II.  For the Texas Panhandle, recent estimates predict depletion will occur around 2050, about a hundred years later. The Ogallala took 10,000 years to fill. Geologists estimate that it will take 6,000 years to refill naturally.

Despite these realities, residents and farmers in the Panhandle resisted efforts to impose pumping limits during the drought. They organized to create a moratorium on enforcing the new water use rules that were passed. These grassroots efforts went so far as to influence the replacement of the general manager and four out of the five board members for the water district.

Other farmers in the Texas Panhandle – and across Kansas – have begun experimenting with dryland farming methods which use only rainfall to produce crops. Several innovative technological practices are being tested in publically funded common agricultural zones. There has been funding to provide and train farmers to use technologies that allow for monitored drip irrigation.

“Agtech is the solution to the Ogallala Aquifer Crisis.” – Hydrobio

The funding of such projects is not without controversy. On one side, the tax base is reluctant to spend money on these programs while many families are struggling with the loss of economic production. On the other, many argue that these projects will not be enough to save the Ogallala and sustainable farming will still need more water than they will have.

Many of these critics are turning away from the idea of “managed depletion” and putting their hopes in an inexhaustible resource – Wind.


It might surprise you to learn that Texas has the largest installed wind capacity (20,320 MW) of any state in the country.


Farmers across the panhandle turned to wind after Texas became the second US state to pass a renewable portfolio standard in 1999. (A renewable portfolio standard is a policy which requires a certain amount of energy to come from renewables.)


Texas also invested in high-voltage power lines to connect the windy regions with its growing cities. Today, Texas has more than double the wind generation capacity of any state and has two projects set to begin construction in the Panhandle.


For farmers, the wind industry offers an opportunity to use their land for a less uncertain purpose.


Texas also has the largest wind industry workforce of any US state.


Wind speeds across the Texas Panhandle average between 7.5 and 9.5 miles per second.

Wind speed.PNG

In December of 2015, Texas set a new record for powering 40% of its electricity with wind power for 17 hours straight.



There are arguments that the federal government ought not to be picking sides in the energy market; that the US taxpayer should not be subsidizing fuel. Yet, this argument overlooks the billions of dollars in tax breaks that the federal government grants the oil and gas industries because their raw product is classed as a depleted asset. The wind cannot offer producers such subsidies.


Does the fact that it can never be depleted make it a less competitive energy source? Not in Texas.


As we neared the New Mexico border, the landscape changed once more. The yellow grass became almost white, interspersed with light greens and small shrubs. The land grew increasingly cohesive and the reddish hues of the Texas dirt softened into a dusty scarlet.



Water had left her mark and the relative difference was striking. I was hooked.

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“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

This Week (24-30.April.2017)

⛈🌴🏛 This Week in Environmental Justice ⛏⚖🐟

🌍 An Earth Day essay by Kristin Myers on why the key to poverty reduction is finding sustainable ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Elsewhere, Namati’s CEO Vivek Maru argues that the path to addressing climate change lies in empowering the individuals on the front lines.

🌊⛈A report from the Government of Myanmar ranked the country 42nd out of 171 countries that are most at risk of natural disaster events while ranking as 15th highest in the world for lack of readiness to respond to such events. The latter statistic is likely linked to Myanmar’s shortcomings in transportation infrastructure and electricity.

🌴🏛 Landmark verdict from an Indonesian court has ordered the provincial government of Central Kalimantan to review the permits of palm oil companies associated with the massive forest and peat land fires in 2015. The case was filed in 2016 by Indonesian citizens with the support of Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI).

⚖🐟A Chinese court has announced that it will accept a case brought by a fish farmer against two steel companies and local environmental authorities. Feng Jun says that the authorities have allowed the companies to operate despite falsifying environmental-impact assessment reports. Thousands of tons of toxic waste have been dumped into the Baoqiu River from these operations.


🏛🌽🍎Monsanto has been found guilty of violating the Human Right to food, health, a healthy environment, and the freedom to conduct indispensable scientific research, by the Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague. The Tribunal was convened by a global civil society commission. The judge’s legal opinion held that:

Monsanto’s activities have caused and are causing damages to the soil, water and generally to the environment, thereby reducing the productive possibilities for the production of adequate food. …

Monsanto is also interfering with the right to food by denying peasants access to means. Famers in countries that adopted GMO crops have seen their seeds choice restricted41. Non-GMO seeds are being withdrawn from the market, leading to decreased seeds choice. …

Another relevant dimension of the right to food that was exposed by the witnesses is the impact of GMO seeds on their property rights. … i.e., farmers who have not bought or used Monsanto’ seeds in their fields but which nevertheless become contaminated by GMO seeds47. 

In this connection, the Tribunal agrees that seeds patents “are in contradiction with the principle of human right to food which guarantees access to nutrition, the basic need for every human to exist.

The Tribunal also proposed the need for a ‘crime of ecocide‘ within international law.

🌍⛏ 👣Mediation talks are expected to begin next week between Kumba Iron Ore the residents of Dingleton, South Africa, a town on the Northern Cape. The mining company has asked the entire town to relocate to a town 25 km away. 25 families remain in Dingleton and are refusing to move, claiming Kumba is not complying with the International Finance Corporate Guidelines. The company is demanding over R1.6 million (US$118,613) from residents who refuse to relocate. 

+ The Ikara Community in Edo, Nigeria has brought the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NDPC) before the House of Representatives. Residents are demanding N11.736 billion (US$37,286,798) in compensation for crude oil pollution and degradation in its swampland and waterways.

💦🏔👣Spotlight on Food and Water 🐄🛰🏊

🍽☠👣 At the Food and Agriculture Organization’s UN Council session this week, the conversation centered around the dire situation of famine. FAO Director, General José Graziano da Silva addressed the opening session with a call to action for to assist those facing famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. “20 million people could starve to death in next six months.Famine does not just kill people, it contributes to social instability and also perpetuates a cycle of poverty and aid dependency that endures for decades.”

[Not to mention increasing displacement into Jordan, with the Kingdom already facing major stress on its water resources from the substantial refugee population they have already welcomed.]

Director Graziano da Silva’s full remarks:

+ In Yemen, nearly 70% of the population18.8 million people – are in need of humanitarian and protection assistance, while 17 million people are now estimated to be food insecure. The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report indicates that this number has increased by three million in nine months.

“The crisis in Yemen is not only characterized by conflict but also by natural disaster-induced large-scale displacement and complex external migration flows and mobility patterns.” – International Organization for Migration

“People queue to fill containers with water from a tank in Sana’a, Yemen.” Source: UNICEF / Algabal 2017

+ One in three households is in urgent need of food in South Sudan.

+ In Nigeria’s Borno state, 300,000 children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition in the next year.

+ More than five million people in Ethiopia are in need of food assistance.

+ A village teacher on the Kenyan coasts describes how students sometimes have only water “spiced with a pinch of salt” as a meal. The rate of malnutrition in Kenya is above emergency levels. Now the wells are pumping only salty water.

+ Although not yet “considered a trend,” the recent increase in piracy activities off the coast of Somalia may be linked to the famine threatening the country.


+ Oxfam is calling for a commitment from donor’s to fund the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan, a nationwide ceasefire, and a condemnation of all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including the appointment of an impartial commission to investigate alleged crimes. The US is among the 25 UN member states that have failed to provide more than $5 million for aid operations, far less than 50% of their “fair share,” according to Oxfam. The US is on this list for two years in a row and that is not likely to change given current budget cuts to foreign aid.

+ Save the Children reports that none of the money appealed for by the UN to provide education for Yemeni children has been delivered. Teachers have not been paid in six months. At least 1449 schools have been bombed, with more than 1660 having closed during the conflict.


💦🛰FAO also released the beta version of their new Water Productivity Open Access Portal (WaPOR). The portal monitors water productivity through open sourced remote sensing monitors to create visualized data reports on agriculture water productivity in Africa and the Middle East. Assessments and “computation-intensive caluculations”  are powered by Google Earth Engine.

🏔🌏The Barsha pump, an affordable hydro-powered pump, designed by a local engineer, is helping individuals in Nepal pump water up the Himalayan mountainsides. The engineer, Pratap Thapa, won a $500,000 grant from Securing Water for Food’s Grand Challenge for Development in 2014.

👩‍🌾🏞 India’s coping strategy for climate change will need to begin with water conservation practices in agricultural production methods. Government officials say that this is already happening and that long-term plans are in place to continue these efforts.

+ Two researchers at the UN University, Serena Caucci and Kristin Meyer, discuss the dangers that come with one common water conservation practice in many poor areas – irrigating with wastewater. The World Bank and other development organizations, are now prioritizing the introduction of education and technology to treat wastewater for irrigation. (In fact, the theme of this year’s World Water Day was wastewater.)

+ Another potential future for agriculture – using drones to increase crop yields, save water, and reduce crop damage.

🐄🏊The Shenandoah Valley’s waterways in Virginia have taken on 410,198 tons of animal manure – or 13,302,607 pounds of phosphorus, according to a 2014 report by the VA Dept of Conservation and Recreation. So why are children still swimming there?

“Indian nomad youths play in the water with their herd of buffaloes as they cool off in the Tawi River on the outskirts of Jammu on April 20.” Source: Foreign Policy

🏛👣Human Rights Update💣🏥

💣👧Human Rights Watch published a report this week that suggests the use of anti-personnel mines by Houthi and Saleh forces in Yemen.  H.E. Thomas Hajnoczi, Ambassador of Austria to the UN in Geneva who presides over the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, has called for urgent action to protect the civilian population.

+ The targeting of hospitals in Yemen, along with fuel and water shortages, has led to “catastrophic consequences for healthcare.”

+ The ICRC is providing puppet shows in classrooms in Palestine’s Gaza Strip, teaching children about safe behavior around Explosive Remnants of War (ERW). Unexploded ordnances from the 2014 conflict have already caused 16 deaths and injured 97, including 48 children.

🏛 The ICRC also cosponsored the 15th annual International Humanitarian Law Moot Court in Hong Kong, China this week. This year, the question is “all about new technologies,” including drones and cyber technology, as well as the newest crime codified in the Rome Statute, the use of expanding bullets.

🔫🗣Myanmar held a three-day regional national-level dialogue in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi this week. The dialogues are a mandatory component of the national ceasefire agreement, signed late last year.

The eight NCA signatories are the Karen National Union (KNU), RCSS, Chin National Front (CNF), Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNLA-PC), All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) and Arakan Liberation Party (ALP).

Among them, only the ALP has not been allowed by the government to hold public consultations, citing the instability due to the ongoing conflict in Arakan State.

+ The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) is leading an ethnic-based political dialogue that remains at a stalemate.  The RCSS was expected to attend the regional dialogue.

Shan politicians have said that they have no specific expectations of the government-led national dialogue, as they feel it is being “rushed.” Four hundred people have been invited to the event, and the preparation time for Sunday’s dialogue is four days—in contrast to extensive pre-consultations carried out by Shan civil society groups and the RCSS.

📱👣 A new smartphone application, produced by advertising agency Grey Malaysia in partnership with UNHCR, provides an interactive window into life as a refugee. “Finding Home” recreates the OS of a smartphone and immerses the user in the personal journey of a fictionalized refugee character. (Interestingly, the character is a young Rhoyinga girl.)

The refugee story is often a deeply personal one, and difficult for people to understand. It is easy to forget that behind the statistics and the politics of any refugee crisis, are individual human beings with real stories of pain and fear, but also of hope and strength,” said Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative.

👣🌎Displacement in Rio is increasingly caused by the systemic removal of the cities poorest residents to the periphery. A new 20 minute documentary by Reuters explores the human cost of Rio’s growth by following one of these residents. (Teaser:)

🔫🚧The impact of decades of violence in Colombia on civil society, communities, and families continues to be felt in daily life, says Medicos sin Fronteras.

+ The ELN has allegedly attacked the Caño limón Coveñas pipeline in Guamalito, in the Norte de Santander department. Crude oil (it is not clear how much) has spilled into Cimitarra creek, the drinking water source for residents of the El Carmen municipality. At least 700 families will be affected by restrictions on access to water. Schools in the area have suspended classes.

+ Clashes over territorial disputes between the ELN and FARC have displaced 182 people from four villages (Guayabal, Piscindé, Isla Long and Long Lap) in the Nariño department. The situation has resulted in overcrowding and increased pressure on WASH systems in other parts of the municipality.

+ Meanwhile, the Unidad para las Victimas celebrated the paving of the main road, as part of the reparation measures promised to one Nariño municipality, La Cruz, which has been particularly impacted by guerilla violence. The event included an exhibition of female entrepreneurship.

“A Venezuelan opposition activist is backdropped by a burning barricade during a demonstration against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on April 24, 2017. Protesters rallied on Monday vowing to block Venezuela’s main roads to raise pressure on Maduro after three weeks of deadly unrest that have left 21 people dead. Riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to break up one of the first rallies in eastern Caracas early Monday while other groups were gathering elsewhere, the opposition said.” Source: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images


“This photo, taken April 27, shows people allegedly kept inside a hidden room at the Drug Enforcement Unit of the Manila Police Department’s Police Station 1 in the Tondo area of Manilla.” Source: Foreign Policy

☔☀Environmental Science, Policy, and Management🌊⚖

☔🏫A bulletin by Redhum puts the latest death toll for the “winter wave” of heavy rains and landslides in Colombia at 360. 217 harsh weather events occurred in 168 municipalities, with the departments of Putumayo, Caldas, Antioquia, Cauca, Santander, and Chocó having been most affected. 10,300 families are estimated to have been impacted. 100 people are still missing. Approximately 60 aqueducts were affected in some way and 900 homes have been destroyed.

+ In Peru, 2,500 schools have been affected by recent flooding. The Government of Peru estimates that nearly 28,000 students are receiving classes in temporary classrooms, with permanent locations expected in six months.

🌬☀The minimum coverage of summer Arctic ice has fallen by half in the last 30 years; its volume has fallen by three-quarters. Not only does has this pace led to the prediction that the Arctic will be ice-free by 2040 but it also renders the sea an actor itself in increasing global temperatures.  Arctic ice is also a crucial habitat for several subspecies of seals.


+ The latest Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) assessment coordinated by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), indicates that previous projections of global sea level rise by 2100 may be too low. This is attributed, in part, by the faster than expected melting of the Greenland ice shelf.

🛰⛈A study examining satellite records of storms across the African Sahel, found that intense storms there have tripled in frequency since the 1980’s.

⚖⛏Meanwhile, US Congressional Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz are leading the charge against the Antiquities Act. Whether a sitting president has the power to rescind a national monument established by their predecessor, appears to be an unsettled legal question. The broader question involves the rationality behind the push for development of public lands at a time when the production values are declining relative to conservation and recreation values.

+ Characteristically dis-concerned with or oblivious to legal boundaries, President Trump has vowed to “end another egregious use of government power” and “return control to the people.

+ The greatest threat to environmental management and conservation in the US may be the advancement of legislation permitting climate denial in K-12 education.

If you are in the Seattle area, please consider joining the AVEDA Artwalk for Water, May 7th at 7:00pm.  More information. 

🎉Quick Reads to Sound Smart at Parties🙋📑

  • Climate gentrification is the hottest new trend in Miami (E&E)
  • Emmanuel Macron is everything that Democrats in the US are not. (Foreign Policy)
“A Benedictine sister of the Sainte-Cecile Abbey casts her ballot at a polling station in Solesmes, France, during the first round of the French presidential election on April 23.” Source: Foreign Policy
“Activists from Amnesty International take part in a demonstration to mark the first 100 days in office of U.S. President Donald Trump outside the American Embassy in London on April 27.” Source: Foreign Policy
  • (Great Read) A moving look at a side of war most of us never consider – the fate of thousands of animals locked inside zoos of war-torn cities. (The New Yorker)
  • Homing pigeons may possess the capacity to for cumulative culture. (AAAS)
A collection of great signs from science marches around the world. (Slate)
  • Two pieces on the benefits of AI for diagnostics. (Ie: the future of healthcare, as not seen on C-Span.) (Engadget; The New Yorker)
  • A new study suggests that a single injection of an old (affordable) drug could address a leading cause of deaths linked to child births. (The Washington Post)
  • Artificial wombs have been successful in raising fetal lambs. The invention could offer new questions and possibilities for the care of premature infants. (MIT Tech Review)

About one in 10 births in the U.S. are premature, or at least three weeks before a baby’s due date. Of those, around 30,000 each year are critically preterm, or younger than 26 weeks. Babies born that early risk lung problems as well as delays in physical development and learning.

Currently, premature babies are placed inside an incubator that warms them and protects them from germs. Partridge says placing babies inside the new device, which imitates a woman’s uterus, could lower the risk of death or long-lasting problems by allowing babies to finish developing.

  • Physicists at Washington State University have created a fluid with negative mass. (BBC)
  • Last week, I included an article from Wait But Why on the promises of Elon Musk’s new venture, Neuralink. Antonio Regaldo of MIT argues that one ought not to be so quick to believe the hype. (MIT Technology Review) James Wu and Rajesh Rao also got in on the act, discussing the (many) implications of the technology. (Futurism)
  • Silicon Valley’s new flying “car.” (New York Times)

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, the Pope gave a Ted talk:

✴ And, last but not least, one long(ish) read discussing whether the days of falsifiability have gone the way of the ‘home phone.’ David Weinberger asks what machine learning means for how we practice science. Excellent/Mind blowing essay. (Backchannel)

This Week (16-23.April.2017)

🌳💦🥑This Week in Environmental Justice ⚖⚒🌿

🌎🌱⚖The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a series of meetings on human rights violations against environmental defenders in Panama this week. In what has become a familiar affair in the developing world, international and government leaders reportedly stressed that the meetings address the topic(s) they approved, rather than the structural system of development or individual development projects (ie. the Barro Blanco dam) which they are already entangled with.

+ In Chile, activists have received death threats after producing a report that avocado production in the country is draining water resources at the expense of local residents.

+ Alan Blackman of Resources For the Future, argues that granting legal rights to indigenous communities for the land they historically control can be an invaluable tool in the management of environmental problems, including deforestation and biodiversity loss.

👋🍌The Lao government has ordered the shutdown of multiple environmentally destructive Chinese banana farms. The ban will close the operations when their contracts expire and forbid new contracts. Provincial authorities must now decide how to rehabilitate the heavily polluted land – preferably in ways that provide occupations for local villagers.

+ Indigenous communities on an island in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province have succeeded in revoking a Chinese company’s mining license through the Supreme Court. The mine covered nearly half the total area of the island and was met with opposition as soon as it obtained a license in 2014. The residents of the local fishing communities report that the mining company had already damaged their environment, including clearing forest areas and destroying coral reefs, before operations had even begun.

+ Following orders to shut down gold mining operations in Maramato, Colombia, Gran Colombia Gold has filed a US$700 million lawsuit under the Colombian-Canadian free trade agreement. The government to cease its plans of flattening a mountain to create an open pit mine after the company failed to consult with local residents, in accordance with Colombian law. The court’s decision will set a big precedent in a country betting a major chunk of its economic development on mining while only selectively enforcing any regulations at all. Ensuring peace and rule of law may require market diversification.

+ Gold mining has impacted water supplies across Colombia. The international Committee of the Red Cross put out a short release on the work they have recently started in north-eastern Antioquia. [For more on other impacts of gold mining on communities in Colombia, scroll down to the Human Rights Update.]

💦🥑Spotlight on Food & Water💉☀

☀🌍🍽 Kenya, in its second year of drought, is experiencing “very late onset” of the “long rains” typical of March to May. An estimated 2.6 million people are acutely food insecure and the government is warning that this figure may reach 4 million by mid-April.

A dimension to also monitor is Kenya general elections, which the country will conduct in August 2017. While the country has experienced violence with varying impact in previous elections, there is need to continue monitoring the situation as the upcoming elections have shown signs of intense competition that could result in violent conflicts. 

+ The late rains are also worsening an already traumatic situation in Somalia. The drought has already damaged crops and livestock, increasing the possibility of famine in 2017, even if the Gu rains hit normal levels later this season. Disease outbreaks are already being reported, including measles and cholera, and have the potential spiral out of control in these environments.

As of 7 April, WHO reported a total of 43,215 cases of acute watery diarrhea (AWD)/cholera in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. These numbers are set to rise with the onset of the rainy season. For Somalia, the cumulative Case Fatality Rate (CFR) for 2017 is far above the emergency threshold of 1.0 per cent, in Middle Juba (14.1 per cent) and Bakool (5.1 per cent) regions due to increasing malnutrition and overcrowding in camps and towns. Efforts are ongoing to control a scabies outbreak in SNNP and Oromia regions in Ethiopia. The increase in the number of suspected measles cases, close to 4,000 cases mostly in Somalia, is of serious concern.

Cholera has already spread across three counties in South Sudan’s Jonglei province. This is the longest running outbreak since South Sudan’s founding in 2011.

+ Deteriorating water supplies may begin to motivate attention from business users around Africa’s Great Lakes, as the remaining water has become too polluted for profit margins. Professor Eric Odada, from the University of Nairobi, makes the case that this could finally push the private sector to begin taking water conservation and protection seriously.

☔ In Colombia, at least 2,260 people in 10 Manizales’ neighborhoods are still without gas, energy, and water services after they were suspended last week during heavy rains caused approximately 40 landslides.

A dog hopes to be rescued in a destroyed area after mudslides caused by heavy rains leading several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks into buildings and roads, in Manizales,
“A dog hopes to be rescued in a destroyed area after mudslides caused by heavy rains leading several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks into buildings and roads, in Manizales, Colombia, on April 19, 2017.” Source: The Atlantic

+ The landslides and heavy rains in Peru are now estimated to have affected approximately 1.2 million people. 120,000 households are food insecure at the national level.

💣🍽 Yemen Update:

  • Half of Yemen’s population lacks clean water, sanitation, and hygiene services
  • Seven million people are facing famine
  • 48,000 people displaced by conflict on western coast since January, with three million people displaced in the last two years
  • Incidents of gender-based violence have increased by more than 63% since the conflict escalated
  • The number of children killed in conflict increased by 70%, and nearly twice as many children were injured and recruited into the fighting, since March 2016 compared to the same period the previous year.
“A boy rides a donkey carrying plastic containers full of water in an impoverished coastal village on the outskirts of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, on April 17.” Source: Foreign Policy

👣⚒ Human Rights Update ⚖

✊🇻🇪 Photo essay in The Atlantic documents the “mother of all marches” in Venezuela this week, where thousands of protestors assembled against the Maduro administration/regime.

🌎👣⚒ Communities in the Chocó province of Colombia have been displaced by renewed violence by ELN groups, who seem to have clashed with the (supposedly disarmed) paramilitary groups present in the province. The paramilitary groups have provided networks of “security” for the mining operations in Chocó. Killings of Indigenous people have been reported in the departments of Chocó, Cauca, and Nariño, affecting the Wounan, Nasa and Awá Indigenous Peoples.

+ Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, is investigating human rights violations in the Cesar coal region of Colombia, where thousands of people have been murdered and tens of thousands driven from their land. The majority of European coal imported from Colombia comes from this region. Vattenfall is expected to present a proposal as to how energy and mining companies can compensate victims of “blood coal” and continue on with their operations.

Solar panels in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China, on April 18, 2017.
Solar panels in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China, on April 18, 2017. Source: Foreign Policy

New in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

🌎🌊Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, examined reefs in Hawaii, the Florida Keys and the U.S. Virgin Islands and found that the seafloors around these declining reefs are eroding. The study examined seafloor depths since the 1930s. “Think of the reefs as kind of natural speed bumps,” said oceanographer David Zawada, one of the study’s co-authors. “Take that away, this wave energy, more of it is going to be able to migrate in closer to shore.”

🏞 ⚖ 💰Nonnavigable U.S. waterways remain under the uncertain jurisdiction, as the Trump administration has directed the EPA to review the broadly contested “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule. While there are a number of legal and environmental challenges to the WOTUS legislation, the administration has specifically ordered the review to concern itself with consistency to “promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and respecting states’ rights.”

Residents view the first iceberg of the season as it passes the South Shore, also known as Iceberg Alley, near Ferryland Newfoundland, Canada, on April 16, 2017.
“Residents view the first iceberg of the season as it passes the South Shore, also known aIceberg Alley, near Ferryland Newfoundland, Canada, on April 16, 2017.” Source: The Atlantic

🏔⏳A team of scientists from Canadian and U.S. universities has documented the first case of large-scale river reorganization to result from human-caused climate change. The retreat of Kaskawulsh Glacier in Canada’s Yukon territory has caused a rerouting of the meltwater away from the Kluane and Yukon River. The fresh water flows are now ending up in the saline Pacific Ocean instead of the Bering Sea. The scientists claim that, although events had occurred in the planet’s geological past, this event is, to their knowledge, relatively so sudden as to be labeled “geologically instantaneous.”

❄🛰⌛ Stef Lhermitee of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands alerted NASA to a new crack in Greenland’s Petermann Glacier this week, after examining satellite images. NASA performed an airborne mission over Petermann and found the crack is in an unusual location toward the middle of the ice. The crack has the potential to intersect with a crack on the glacier’s eastern side.

Preliminary DMS image of the new rift in Greenland_s Petermann Glacier, directly beneath the NASA Operation IceBridge aircraft. Gary Hoffmann, NASA
NASA satellite image of the new crack on Greenland’s Peterman Glacier. Source: The Washington Post

+ Bloomberg published the first of a three-part series on the economic, political, and humanitarian impacts of a melting arctic. There is more at stake than meets the eye.

+ It’s not just the Northern arctic that’s melting. Two other studies were published in Nature this week discussing the discovery of an extensive network of lakes and rivers transporting liquid meltwater across Antartica. One paper discusses the possibility that one specific drainage system in question, may have stabilizing effects on the ice shelf.

+ The White House budget proposal would cut all four of NASA’s climate-related satellite missions, including the one which took the Greenland photographs.

Those missions are aimed not only at helping scientists learn more about key parts of the climate system and how global warming is changing them, but also at practical matters such as monitoring the health of the nation’s coastal waters and providing earlier warnings of drought stress in crops.

+ One industry that has and would certainly continue to benefit from such data – insurance.  Great piece in the NYT Magazine this week discussing how flood insurance has become big business on the U.S.’s eastern coast.

👾💃🏘 Another great essay in the Times Magazine addresses why we are still denying a phenomenon even as we are experiencing it. As a society, we came to think of climate change as some binary disaster. Instead, it has become more akin to an encroaching disturbance of the status quo. As a result, Mooallem argues, we are consistently adapting to this new normal through a social process of “generational environmental amnesia.”

There are, however, many subtler shifts in our awareness that can’t be as precisely demarcated. Scenarios that might sound dystopian or satirical as broad-strokes future projections unassumingly materialize as reality. Last year, melting permafrost in Siberia released a strain of anthrax, which had been sealed in a frozen reindeer carcass, sickening 100 people and killing one child. In July 2015, during the hottest month ever recorded on earth (until the following year), and the hottest day ever recorded in England (until the following summer), the Guardian newspaper had to shut down its live-blogging of the heat wave when the servers overheated. And low-lying cities around the world are experiencing increased “clear-sky flooding,” in which streets or entire neighborhoods are washed out temporarily by high tides and storm surges. Parts of Washington now experience flooding 30 days a year, a figure that has roughly quadrupled since 1960. In Wilmington, N.C., the number is 90 days. But scientists and city planners have conjured a term of art that defuses that astonishing reality: “nuisance flooding,” they call it.

Kahn calls our environmental generational amnesia “one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime,” because it obscures the magnitude of so many concrete problems. You can wind up not looking away, exactly, but zoomed in too tightly to see things for what they are. Still, the tide is always rising in the background, swallowing something. And the longer you live, the more anxiously trapped you may feel between the losses already sustained and the ones you see coming.

☣🗼🐠 BP’s operations in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil fields leaked natural gas for (at least) four days and crude oil for three days.  “There have been no injuries and no reports of harm to wildlife,” BP spokesman Brett Clanton said Saturday. It is unclear how that could be the case, given the significant amounts of methane in natural gas.

+ Oil and gas are not the only contaminants threatening Arctic waters. Garbage, including billions of small plastic pieces, is being channeled into Greenland and Barents Seas by strong ocean currents.

“A Sri Lankan resident walks through damaged homes at the site of a collapsed garbage dump in Colombo on April 16, 2017. Hopes of finding anyone alive under a collapsed mountain of garbage in Sri Lanka’s capital faded as the death toll reached 23 with another six reported missing, police said. Hundreds of soldiers, backed by heavy earth moving equipment were digging through the rubbish and the wreckage of some 145 homes that were destroyed when a side of the 300-foot (90-meter) high dump crashed on April 14.” Source: The Atlantic

Quick Reads to Sound Smart at Parties

What we know, first and foremost, is that it hardly matters what Trump says because what he says is as likely as not to have no relationship to the truth, no relationship to what he said last year during the campaign or even what he said last week. What he says bears no relationship to any consistent political or policy ideology or world-view. What he says is also likely to bear no relationship to what his top advisers or appointees have said or believe, making them unreliable interlocutors even if they agreed among themselves, which they don’t. This lack of clear policy is compounded by the fact that the president, despite his boasts to the contrary, knows very little about the topics at hand and isn’t particularly interested in learning. In other words, he’s still making it up as he goes along.

Long read – but plenty of pictures:  Tim Urban explains the awesomeness of Elon Musk’s new business venture.

This Week (03-09.April.2017)

🌳🚲 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 x.com 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)


This Week (27.March-02.April.2017) **New Concept Design**

This Week in Human Rights & the Environment🐝🍀⌛🌳

🌲🐄Talks between Paraguaguayan government representatives and indigenous Ayoreo leaders began this week, with the goal of negotiating land rights in the Paraguayan Chaco. The Ayoreo, who live the Chaco in western Paraguay, are the last uncontacted population outside of the Amazon. Their territory, which includes some of the most biodiverse lands in the country, has experienced the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

Deforestation in the Paraguayan Chaco. Source: Eye on Latin America

This destruction inspired Ayoreo leaders to contact a local organization, GAT, in 1993, and submit a formal land claim. Since then, vast swaths of the forests have continued to be destroyed, primarily by the foreign cattle industry, and a TB-like disease has been introduced into the Ayoreo population.

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) issued precautionary measures in February 2016, ordering the Paraguayan government to halt all further deforestation and to protect the Ayoreo. After the government failed to comply with that order, GAT submitted a formal request to the IACHR, that land be returned to the Ayoreo. The talks, which will include monthly meetings for one year, to be overseen by a UN official, are the result of this request.

🛳🌫🌬🏥Atmospheric chemist Qiang Zhang of Tsinghua University in Bejing led an international team in the investigation of 2007 emissions data across 13 global regions- encompassing 228 countries and linking four state-of-the-art global data models. (2007 was the last year comprehensive information was available.) Concentrating on the particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), the team found that these particles were linked to 3.45 million premature deaths worldwide.

Most notably, their research concluded that 762,400 of those premature deaths (22%) could be blamed on emissions that resulted from producing goods and services in one region that were consumed in another. International trade has effectively outsourced the human health impacts of manufacturing from importing states to those producing the goods and services.  Zhang’s team found that a total of 2.53 million deaths were attributable to production processes, including manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture.

Another 12% of premature deaths linked to PM2.5 resulted from air pollution that originated in a country other than that in which the death occurs. [It turns out air pollution is unphased by borders, immigration agents, or physical barriers. Go figure.]

In terms of non–trade-related pollution, the team found that particulate matter emitted in China can be linked to more than 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including more than 3100 in Western Europe and the United States. China’s East Asian neighbors also suffer by being downwind, with 30,900 premature deaths there traced to air pollution carried through the atmosphere. On the other hand, trade-related deaths resulted in the opposite imbalance: The consumption of Chinese-made goods in Western Europe and the United States likely caused more than 108,600 premature deaths in China.  

Zhang’s team has reportedly told news outlets that “there is some evidence that the polluting industries have tended to migrate to regions with more permissive environmental regulations…” The scientists have suggested that this evidence point to a tension between national efforts to improve air quality while attracting foreign investment and propose a tax on pollutant emissions that would be shared globally by consumers. Another possible solution proposed was to introduce improved pollution control technology in China, India, and the US.

+ The Business & Human Rights Resource Center has compiled materials on a treaty scenario that could ensure the primacy of human rights in international trade and investment policies.

⚖📜 Ten years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark 5-4 decision, MASSACHUSETTES et al. v. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY et al., ruled that the EPA has a responsibility to regulate greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act – whether or not its political appointees desired to do so.

The Supreme Court held that:

…While the statute conditions EPA action on its formation of a “judgment,” that judgment must relate to whether an air pollutant “cause[s], or contribute[s] to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” §7601(a)(1). Under the Act’s clear terms, EPA can avoid promulgating regulations only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do. It has refused to do so, offering instead a laundry list of reasons not to regulate, including the existence of voluntary Executive Branch programs providing a response to global warming and impairment of the President’s ability to negotiate with developing nations to reduce emissions.

These policy judgments have nothing to do with whether greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change and do not amount to a reasoned justification for declining to form a scientific judgment. Nor can EPA avoid its statutory obligation by noting the uncertainty surrounding various features of climate change and concluding that it would therefore be better not to regulate at this time. …

+ In “Trump v. Earth,” The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson discusses the legacy and implications of the decision, with a bit of emotional leniency toward the Obama AdministrationRobinson Meyer provides a deeper dive into the history of environmental policy in the US since the Nixon era.

Trump Budget Proposal Threatens EPA's Chesapeake Bay Clean-Up Program
Ducks swim in the Chesapeake Bay as the Sandy Point Shoal Lighthouse looms in the Distance, on March 17th in Skidmore, Maryland. “Under President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program, which focuses on reducing pollution in the bay, would be eliminated.”  Source: Foreign Policy

+ The Intercept uses the story of a rural Louisiana town to report on what the Supreme Courts tried to convey a decade ago: An increase in air pollution leads to an increase in deaths and illness, particularly for low-income, youth, and elderly populations. The EPA,  writes, was created to provide these disproportionally vulnerable communities with leverage to control their exposure to toxic pollution largely attributable to powerful chemical companies otherwise out of their reach.

+ David Wolfe at Fortune writes about the impacts of President Trump’s orders on economic competitiveness and on how the business community is responding.

What Americans need now is for their leaders to allow and facilitate this transition. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, political leaders did not attempt to squash this innovation to protect those industries producing lamps run on gas or whale oil. When Henry Ford came up with a more efficient way to manufacture cars, he was not thwarted by political leaders obsessed with protecting the horse-and-buggy industry.

+ Does the US exit from climate change leadership hand the baton to China? What impacts will that have on environmental rights and justice issues surrounding conservation? China continues to finance new coal plants in Southeast Asia, even as it shuts down its own, suggesting that the country’s recent climate change policies may have been adopted for little more than instrumental reasons.

🔥 Wildfires continue to tear across the southern US this week. Thought-provoking NYT headline: Ranchers call wildfires ‘Our Hurricane Katrina.’  

“Firefighters work to put out a forest fire in Valparaíso, Chile, in a picture released on March 12.” Source: Foreign Policy

🛬⚖ International Rights Advocates is asking for support for their pending case against DynaCorp International, set to go to trial on April 3, 2017.  The trial follows a 15-year effort by IRA to hold the defense contractor accountable for the unlawful aerial spraying of Ecuadorian communities and farms during Plan Colombia.

We represent over 2,000 people who had their families injured and their farms destroyed when DynCorp unlawfully sprayed them with the chemical poison used in Plan Colombia to attempt to eradicate coca cultivation in Colombia. As part of Plan Colombia, a US military and aid initiative explicitly aimed at combatting drug cartels and left-wing insurgents in Colombian territory, DynCorp was hired to carry out aerial spraying on coca crops in Colombia – but substantial evidence shows DynCorp’s spraying had a devastating impact on food crops and negatively affected the health and mental wellbeing of Ecuadorans living in the vicinity of the spraying.

🌴💰🔫Honduran farmers are suing International Finance Corporation, the business-lending arm of the World Bank Group, via EarthRights International, for indirectly financing “death squads.” The IFC supported the Dinant Corporation, a palm oil conglomerate, during a bloody land war in which the Dinant allegedly hired “paramilitary death squads and private assassins” to push back the local farmers.

Dinant_Facebook Post5

(A): Human Rights Update

👣🌍European leaders seek to stem the flow of so-called “economic migrants” from Eritrea. Yet, as Eritrean migration is also linked to systemic human rights abuses, drought, and severe malnutrition, it is unclear that the prevention of such migration through targeted policy will be compatible with the Refugee Convention.

👎Meanwhile, President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan has reportedly begun relocating groups within the country by ethnic groups and redrawing state borders. WPR discusses the risks of genocide from this grotesque strategy of “population engineering.”

“A boy eats out of a ladle on March 10 at his home in Ngop in South Sudan’s Unity State, where 10,000 people face starvation and another million are on the brink of famine.”                      Source: Foreign Policy

⚖🗺 Great work by Stephane Ojeda, Deputy Head & Legal Advisor of the ICRC in New York, argues for the application of international humanitarian law to the terrorist and other non-state groups that are increasingly becoming inseparable from major ongoing inter- and intra- national conflicts.

🕵✈Trump has significantly broadened the CIA’s authority to conduct covert drone strikes, dramatically changing US policy towards the weapons program. The CIA and the Pentagon, the latter having held primary responsibility for drone strikes under the Obama administration, have very different cultural attitudes and standards with regards to classifying drone strike targets.

Last week marked the two-year anniversary of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention into Yemen. Source: Foreign Policy

💉🌏President Rodrigo Duterte is unphased by calls for an ICC inquiry into his brutal crackdown on drug dealers and users in the Philipines. An article from the Philipino news agency argues that events in the country lack the “widespread and systemic” targeting of a specific demographic necessary for crimes against humanity. Duterte’s anti-drug war reached 8,000 casualties this week.

⚖ ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is also concerned that war crimes are being committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence between local militias and Congolese forces have killed many civilians. Kidnappings and summary executions – including that of two UN researchers – have also been reported.

Relatives mourn over the body on an Iraqi child, killed in an airstrike targeting Islamic State (IS) group jihadists, West Mosul on March 17, 2017.  (Source: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

(B): The Latest in Environmental Policy, Science, and Management

🌾🌡Climate scientists have known for some time that the Earth’s planetary systems will translate small changes in one part of the planet’s ecosystem into a self-perpetuating cycle of change across multiple – or all – of the remaining planetary systems. Ian Johnston uses recent research out of the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research to demonstrate this phenomenon via air current circulation patterns.

🦑🐋A few great pieces on the fellow species with which we share this planet this week. The Guardian explores the peculiar minds and breathtaking sense-of-self found in cephalopods (octopuses, cuttlefish, etc.), as discussed by Harvard’s Peter Godfrey-Smith’s in his new book. Bill Gates chats about another type of odd and remarkable life form, microbes, with Ed Young, author of I Contain MultitudesUnfortunately, one of the most intelligent of our fellow lifeforms here on Earth was slaughtered en masse this week during Japan’s annual Antartic expedition.

“A baby manatee swims near its mother in the zoological park of Beauval in France on March 15.” Source: Foreign Policy

🏳🗽Politico reports on the rise of organizational self-censorship regarding such inflammatory phrases as “climate change” in U.S. Energy and State Departments.

🐤🏭Stagnant electricity demand, along with the falling cost of renewables, has Asia’s biggest economies reconsidering plans for new coal plants and closing down existing operations.

+ In Montenegro, non-profit CEE claims that the Pljevlja lignite power plant is causing respiratory damage among locals. Montenegrin Electric (EPCG) responds.

+ Environmentalists in Kenya have been issued a court hearing later this month, in which they will seek to block the installation of a 1,000 MW coal plant at Lamu, a U.N. World Heritage site. The plant is expected to impact the surrounding coral reefs and community mangrove orchards, as well as the local beach tourism industry.

+ Meanwhile, the EIA reports that less than 70,000 jobs are currently linked to coal in the US. (Apparently, the coal industry has employed fewer people than Arby’s, as early as 2014.) More than 650,000 US jobs are currently linked to renewable energy, including wind, solar, and biofuels. (Oh yeah – and a US judge has denied tribal water rights to ensure the construction of a pipeline that Duke University postdoc Mark Paul says does not make economic sense.)

Spotlight on Food and Water

+ The drought is affecting a larger swath of the country than the 2011 drought which killed 260,000 people. Humanitarian groups estimate that 6.2 million people are in danger of acute food security and looming famine.

🍔🌳MUST READ new report by the global environmental organization, Mighty Earth, analyzes the depths of the global meat supply chain. The report, cleverly titled “Mystery Meat,” found over 1 million square kilometers of Amazonian ecosystems in Brazil and Bolivia have been deforested for soy crops to produce animal feed for Burger King’s meat production operations. Covered by NYT and the Guardian, the Business & Human Rights Resource Center has acquired comments from the companies targeted in the report, which also includes Bunge, Cargill, and ADM.

Mass soybean harvesting at a farm in Campo Verde, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo Alf Ribeiro.
Mass soybean harvesting at a farm in Campo Verde, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Source: Alf Ribeiro

+ Brazil has launched a new program, SINAFLOR, aimed at tracking and preventing the flow of illegally sourced timber into the legal market.

+ Cargill and ADM had another claim against their operations dismissed this week – a twelve-year investigation into the trafficking of children working on cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. Nestle was also a named defendant in this class action lawsuit, brought by human rights organization, Mali and Global Exchange in a California federal court. A judge found that the plaintiffs could not sue over forced labor in Côte d’Ivoire because “they could not prove that there was conduct by the companies in the US linked to the wrongdoing overseas.  The plaintiffs will appeal.”

🐄🕉💵India has quietly become the world’s largest exporter of meat – but the Hindu government is worried that the industry, which is dominated by water buffalo meat, is concealing the illegal slaughter of cows. The industry has become the country’s largest generator of foreign currency. Meanwhile, Sunita Narain, Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), argues that the pastoralism practiced in India aligns the interests of meat-eaters, rural development, and environmentalists.

🌎💧Stanford has created a ranking system for accountability mechanisms regarding the transfer and use of water rights by states in the Colorado River Basin. Colorado sits at the top of the list, with Arizona on the bottom.

+ Utah and the Navajo Nation ended thirteen years of negotiations over Colorado river water rights this week, introducing legislation which recognizes tribal rights to 81,500 acre-feet of water annually. “The Navajo communities in Utah currently use only a fraction of the water allocated in the settlement.” The agreement provides over $200 million in state and federal funding for water projects in the nation and the Navajo would be able to lease the water.

The Colorado, Utah. Source: Deseret News

+ A coalition in Oregon has filed a legal challenge opposing the water rights for a proposed 30,000-head factory-farming operation near the Columbia River. If completed, the dairy would be one of the nation’s largest confined animal-feeding operations and would pose a threat to ground and surface water, air quality, and public health.

The scale of this project is stunning. Lost Valley Farm would produce more biological waste than most Oregon cities and consume more water than most factories,” said Lauren Goldberg, a staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper. “Oregonians value clean water and strong salmon runs. Factory farms like Lost Valley fly in the face of those values.

The latest challenge comes on the heels of more than 6,000 public comments filed with the state’s environmental and agriculture agencies urging denial of the facility’s proposed water pollution permit. Lost Valley Farm would produce roughly 187 million gallons of manure each year and use over 320 million gallons of water annually, raising questions about the risk of manure pollution and long-term impacts to the Umatilla Basin and Columbia River as water becomes scarcer due to drought and climate change.

Quick Reads to Sound Smart at Parties

“An installation protesting the death penalty stands outside the General Board of Church and Society near the U.S. Supreme Court on March 15 in Washington.” Source: Foreign Policy
Photos of the luxurious interior of Blue Origin’s spaceship. Source: Mashable
“A man walks past graffiti depicting a protester throwing a petrol bomb on March 17 in Athens, Greece.” Source: Foreign Policy

That’s it! 

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

Part 1: Oklahoma

This piece is the first of a series of posts that chronicle our cross-country road trip from Pennsylvania to Washington, in February 2017. I have started in Oklahoma as it was where we were when the idea to conduct such research occurred to me.  I may return to the earlier states at a later time.

I decided to use our trip to build my understanding of domestic environmental policies, management strategies, and challenges. Primarily, my research is centered around my favorite topic – water.

“In many ways, the history of Oklahoma is a story of water. Our geography is drawn by rivers and streams. And our cultural legacy is informed by drought.” – Andrew Knittle, NewsOK


Population: 3.878 million (2014)

Strongest economic industries: (1) Energy [Oil, gas, & wind]; (2) Info & Finance [Data centers for ADP, Google, and IBM]; (3) Transportation & Distribution [Access points to Mississipi & Arkansas River systems]; (4) Agriculture & Bioscience [$6.7 billion bioscience contribution]; (5) Aerospace & Defense [Home of Tinker Air Force Base]

Fun fact: Oklahoma was the state with the cheapest gas ($1.89) of the thirteen we drove through on our trip.

OK1 (2)


Most state borders are difficult to discern in the landscape; a reminder that the physical world sets its own boundaries with mountains, rivers, deserts, or – drought. Not long after crossing the border into Oklahoma, the colors began to grow increasingly subdued; gentle tans and faded yellows with fiery red shadows stretched into endless blue skies. These colors forced patience; gentle inhales and exhales, letting the observer fall peacefully into the soothing rhythm of rolling plains.


Just as one becomes comfortable amidst the dry grass, the landscape rewards the patient onlooker with a sudden piercing blue lake surrounded by a ring of bright green grass and the occasional cow. These lakes and reservoirs break up the landscape that lines US 44 through the state. Each time we passed one, I never failed to feel surprised and excited by the sudden contrast of hue and energy. Oklahoma’s color palette is a striking illustration of the role of water in ecosystems.

OK6 (2)


The New Face of Drought

Although short reoccurring drought seasons have long been a typical experience in Oklahoma’s ecosystems, these cycles have changed dramatically in recent years. The state experienced an extended drought from 2010-2015 when either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions covered nearly the entire state.  The state suffered an estimated $2 billion in economic losses by 2012, according to researchers at Oklahoma State University.  


Oklahoma barely had a chance to recover from the five-year drought before the fall rainy season failed to appear in 2016. Drought took hold again this winter.

By the time we passed through the state in February 2017, the state was experiencing record high temperatures in a month typically known for harsh winter conditions. 95% of the state was actively experiencing drought conditions and the entire state was under a national fire advisory for the first time in history. Only a week before, 19,800 gallons of water had been dropped from Blackhawk helicopters on a wildfire that had engulfed the city of Edmond. Last December, seven fires conflagrated in a single afternoon just North of Oklahoma City (OKC).

[Temperatures for February peaked at 99F, against the historical monthly average high of 55F.]

On paper, Oklahoma has a water surplus. But the state’s water resources are distributed disproportionately, with the majority lying at the foot of the mountain ranges in the southeast. The most populated cities, OKC and Tulsa, are located in the northeast and central regions of the state.


The normally water-rich southeast has been hit the hardest by the fall and winter drought conditions. Atoka Lake, one southeastern reservoir, was 14 feet below normal in January; another in McCurtain County, was 10 feet down.  The trees in this part of the state are accustomed to wet conditions and are susceptible to drought; even more so considering they have yet had the opportunity to fully recover from the 2010-2015 drought. Widespread decline in the forests of the southeast would impact the region’s soil, encouraging erosion and decreasing the ability of the land to hold water.

For the first time in recorded history, cities in southeastern Oklahoma are on “Stage 1” water restrictions that limit the days which residents may water lawns or outdoor plants.

The reservoirs in the southeast have bigger problems than outdoor watering, however.

Oklahoma City pipes water from several reservoirs in the region to supplement the water needs of its growing metropolitan population.  Oklahoma City and Tulsa each reach outside their own city limits to acquire water for the roughly 500,000 homes and businesses they each supply. Oklahoma City has fewer surface water resources (and 200,000 more people), creating a greater dependence on other regions.

Oklahoma City has pumped water from Atoka Lake for years. Consistent mismanagement of the lake’s water has impacted surrounding communities and serves as a symbol for others threatened by attempts to sell their own water. The communities who live adjacent to the reservoirs depend on the water not only for drinking and agriculture but also for tourism.

Atoka Lake 2017
Atoka Lake, January 2017. Source: State Impact

Canon Lake is another reservoir on which Oklahoma City draws. In 2013, the city of Canton, population 625, lost an entire tourism season due to Oklahoma City’s pumping operations. Canton depends on its tourist economy, which doubles the town’s population during peak periods.  That same year, OKC requested 30,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Hefner, where boats were grounded in record low water levels. Oklahoma decided to use water from Canton Lake (10 billion gallons, to be exact) to stabilize Lake Hefner. Canton Lake sat 13 feet below normal levels for nearly all of 2013.

lake-hefner-Jan 2013
Lake Hefner, January 2013 – Lowest levels in 66 years.  Source: State Impact

Kathy Carlson, Army Corps of Engineers project engineer at Canton Lake, said it could take two years for the lake to fully recover. Meanwhile, the following spring Hefner Lake received so much water OKC had to release water to prevent flooding.

Residents and business owners of other communities have fought for their water bodies to gain scenic river status, which would protect them for recreational use.

Lake Hefner 2013
Lake in south-central Oklahoma, February 2013. Source

Communities living in the southeast still remember giving up their land during the first reservoir bomb, believing they were promoting the greater good of their community, managing flooding and promoting tourism. For many of these communities, the rights to the water they stored have been consistently contested – including attempts to sell the water out of state.

Waurika Lake, January 2015. Source: State Impact

The communities around Sardis Lake have suffered due simply to the uncertainty about who will use the water in their lake. The investment for tourism development the residents expected when the reservoir was built has been limited due to consistent legal and financial battles that have taken place since construction.

The state first tried to sell Sardis water to two different North Texas utilities in 1990 and 2000, after the federal government made clear that they would not be footing the bill. Each time these sales were put on hold by the state legislature.

Oklahoma City presented a plan to pipe water from Sardis to Atoka, then use the existing Atoka pipeline to pump the water into the city limits. OKC began negotiating the water rights with then-state Treasurer Scott Meacham. Oklahoma’s purchase of the water would be used to pay off the state’s bill for the reservoir.

The state finalized the deal despite disputes by the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations that they held the water rights to these resources. OKC  submitted water use permits to the OWRB for 90% of the lake.  OWRB approved the transfer of storage rights to OKC in June 2010 and the tribes responded by filing a lawsuit against the city, the governor, and the OWRB in federal court.

The tribal nations asserted that they controlled the water resources that fell on their sovereign territory and that they must be part of any negotiations to sell the water.  The case is complicated because only the US Congress has jurisdiction over tribal affairs.

OKC vs. Tribes

“Water is all about power and control and money.” – Moore, Chairman of the Oklahoma House of Representatives States’ Rights Committee

While the state has been allocating water rights since statehood – over 100 years – the tribes claim that that the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which established the Choctaw Nation, asserts their authority of the resources on their territory. The tribes are arguing that this includes water resources.

Indian territory
19th-century map of present day Oklahoma. Source: Wikiwand

The state argued that the tribes’ decision to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War and through subsequent statehood disbanded the tribal nations – and their rights to water – even though this was never codified with legislation.

Tribal experts in Oklahoma believe the tribes are speaking up now because dwindling numbers have increased their ability to distribute of resources and strengthened their political leverage.

The lawsuit stretched out over five years, intensifying animosities between groups within Oklahoma, and – some claim – causing political vengeance tactics, including delaying the appointment of Southeastern members onto the OWRB. The appointment of a member from the Southeast is required by Senate Bill 965, passed in 2013. Prior to this bill, the state’s water regulator was not required to, and often did not, include a representative from the state’s most water-rich region.

Settling the Case Against OKC

The lawsuit was settled in early August 2016, ultimately clearing a path for Oklahoma City to pump water from Sardis Lake, while placing limits on how much water can be removed without disrupting tourism. The agreement also created a framework for out-of-state water sales or transfers from the Southeastern and South-central regions of Oklahoma.

The framework includes a five-person commission appointed by state and tribal governments to evaluate such proposals and make recommendations to the state legislature. The tribes of the Southeast also received a seat on this board and, therein, control over decisions made about their water resources.

Tribal leaders of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations told State Impact that they “got exactly what they wanted: A seat at the table when governments are considering important issues that affect water in southeastern Oklahoma.”

The tribal nations will also get to appoint one of the two members of a technical committee that will develop scientific models for water rights allocation and project planning. The agreement specified that any money earned through the out-of-state water sales must be used to for future water infrastructure updates, with projects in the tribal nations receiving priority.

Finally, the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations will drop all claims of ownership and control in southeast Oklahoma. [That is a big deal – they had a solid legal case.] The pipeline from Sardis Lake is scheduled to begin construction in 2018 and currently has a price tag in around $1 billion.

US Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) included the agreement provisions in the 2016 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) – a major, bi-partisan bill to fund water projects all over the country – to make sure congressional approval happened as soon as possible.

WRDA was signed by President Obama in December 2016. The bill also included a plan to rehabilitate Tulsa’s levee system and to prevent the deauthorization of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which links Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico.

Not the last of Oklahoma’s water worries…

Robert Kerr made a bold prediction in 1973 while serving as Oklahoma’s senior U.S. Senator. Even as the oil boom took hold across the state, he predicted that water, not oil, would become the state’s most valuable commodity. The federal government had just begun to build the more than 100 water reservoirs across Oklahoma, that residents continue to depend upon.

Gary McManus, the state climatologist, has told local NPR reporters that Oklahoma experienced climate patterns similar to those in recent years, during a period known today as “the Dust Bowl.”

Dust Bowl: a section of the Great Plains of the United States that extended over southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico during the 1930s. Photo: Abandoned farmstead in Oklahoma in 1937. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

McManus believes that data indicates the La Niña phenomenon influenced the absence of the fall 2016 rainy season. He has said that ocean temperature patterns are currently experiencing oscillations that resemble those in 2010 – at the start of the last five-year drought.

Planning for drought

State water authorities say there is potential to build 68 new reservoirs. New reservoir construction in Oklahoma dramatically decreased after the 1986 WRDA bill, which mandated cost sharing between states, cities, and local authorities. Oklahoma’s last existing reservoir was built in 1997.

Reservoirs are expensive to build. A single reservoir can cost between $120 million and $190 million to build, according to Ed Rossman with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa office.

There are other obstacles to reservoir construction, including displacement of entire communities and destruction of endangered species habitats. Property rights and environmental externalities are taken more seriously now than they were during the 1970s. New construction would likely spark more drawn-out legal battles.

Lake along Route 44

Oklahoma’s third comprehensive water plan was signed into law in 2012. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s Comprehensive Water Plan (CWP) and the Water for 2060 Act provide an outline of the state’s water plans for the next several decades. The full CWP is available here and includes much needed updates to water infrastructure. The CWP also calls for the establishment of regional water authorities to oversee water management and includes several different plans for alternative climate change scenarios. The Water for 2060 Act centers around a goal to consume now more freshwater in 2060 than the state consumed in 2012.  The state’s population is projected to grow by 50% of 2012 numbers by 2075.

The OWRB estimated in 2010 that the state needs roughly $38 billion to meet drinking water infrastructure needs and $43 billion for wastewater infrastructure over the next 50 years.

Current financing programs are not on track to meet the state’s needs for infrastructure funding and one of the key mechanisms Oklahoma was counting on to meet these needs, the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (Federal SRF), is on the chopping block under their very own Scott Pruitt.

Implementation legislation for both bills are still moving through the state legislature and many have been delayed by current legal cases over water resource rights. There is also political opposition to these plans.

But new water infrastructure is a must. Many of Oklahoma’s towns and cities are using pipes, pumps, and treatment equipment installed in the 1930s – and many have begun to fail. For example, in November 2012, water service ceased for 1,300 of the residents of the small town of Konawa for four days. The city still faces millions of dollars in repairs. In addition, the distribution of the state’s population has changed, requiring brand new drinking and wastewater projects.

Oklahoma’s resources predictions also depend on no dramatic changes to groundwater aquifers, on which the state’s lakes depend. The state is cautious to depend to heavily on fragile groundwater systems as a major source of supply. The Arbuckle Simson aquifer, in south central Oklahoma, is not replenished by other streams and could take hundreds of years to recharge.

Mining in Aquifers

Another industry in Oklahoma that impacts large amounts of water is probably less well-known – rock mining. Particularly, limestone. Oklahoma has limestone so good, it is used in toothpaste. Companies from across the country and around the world take advantage of the state’s high quality rocks and loose regulatory network.

A majority of the companies operating in Oklahoma are based in Texas, where the Dallas-Fort Worth area needs the rock for its growing urban areas. Texas companies also produce around one fifth of the US’s supply of concrete mix.

Today, Oklahoma is increasingly concerned that there are only 10-15 years of quarry production left in the existing mines. The have begun installing and planning new mines, including about a dozen near the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer. Arbuckle-Simpson is probably the state’s most sensitive water resource.

Mining also requires moving large amounts of water. The area surrounding the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer is dotted with abandoned quarries that have filled with crystal clear groundwater that is, ironically, in the way. These holes need to remain dry during the mining process.

Oklahoma has relatively few regulations regarding mining in aquifers and no severance taxes. There is no limit on how deep into the aquifer the companies can mine. As far as how much water mining operations will need to relocate or how much they have relocated in the past, operators don’t have to account for that either.

The state has introduced new legislation that will prevent operators from dumping the water into old mining pits or out on the groun. The OWRB has been tasked with creating specific rules to ensure this water is not wasted. These rules, however, have not yet been worked out.


Oklahoma’s major water concern is that demand is largest when supply is lowest, and drought only exacerbates this imbalance. The state’s farmland is almost entirely dependent on rainfall, so agriculture production has been directly impacted by the drought.

Cow-hauler at truck stop along Highway 44

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued disaster declarations which make available low-interest loans to farmers in the entire state of Oklahoma in 2013.  The OWRB expects that crop irrigation will generate the largest increases in water demand over the next 50 years.

Natural Gas

As pressing as Oklahoma’s water troubles are, the most recognizable environmental story in the state’s relationship with natural gas. Oklahoma has gained national attention for the impact of natural gas drilling on earthquake activity inside the state. Prior to 2008, Oklahoma had 2-5 earthquakes that were magnitude 3 or greater each year. By 2014, Oklahoma had more big earthquakes than California. And in 2015, the state experienced roughly 900 such earthquakes.

Natural gas production also uses a substantial amount of water – ranging from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water per well. The water used ends up highly contaminated and must be restored. Usually, it is injected into the ground. This is called wastewater injection.

Scientists from U.S. Geological Survey have found evidence that the increase is due to wastewater injection, which is used in both conventional drilling and fracking. Five Thirty-Eight has put together a great piece on this research and addresses why natural gas production has had such a major impact on Oklahoma, while other, more intensely drilled states, such as North Dakota, have not experienced similar consequences. [In short, “Oklahoma is positively lousy with fault lines.”]

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Natural gas refinery along Route 44


The Pawnee nation filed a lawsuit against several oil and gas companies in the final week of February, not long after we had made it home to Washington state. The Pawnee are accusing the companies of operating waste water injection sites which triggered a record high 5.8 magnitude earthquake in September 2016 and caused extensive damage to century-old tribal infrastructure. The case will be brought in front of the tribe’s district court. This is the first “quake-related” lawsuit filed in a tribal court.

Late in 2016, federal and state regulators expanded and modified emergency orders limiting oil and gas activity at the 67 disposal wells near the fault line that produced the 5.8 magnitude earthquake.

It is worth questioning the rational of using such large amounts of water resources to produce a less valuable resource, particularly when wind energy is cheaper for Oklahoma to produce.

Along with the inequitable distribution of water resources, our drive across Route 44 provided consistent examples of significant economic inequality in Oklahoma. Driving through Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the contrasts in wealth within individual neighborhoods reminded me more of riding through La Paz than any other US city I had visited. In Oklahoma City, walled off compounds rose beside blocks of crumbling single-story homes. Gated properties were surrounded by visual barriers, if not walls, then high fences or dense vegetation. As we hit the raised portion of the highway, I caught glimpses of several gorgeous homes, surrounded by lush gardens and bright green lawns – likely watered with resources from Atoka or Canon reservoirs.


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Income distribution in Oklahoma’s two largest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Source: Data USA


Unfortunately, it was impossible to capture this in a photograph driving beneath the somewhat ominous walls and I missed the opportunity on the highway. However, I have found these awesome graphics from Data USA, that depict wealth distribution inside Tulsa and OKC. The depth of the inequality seems to, at least, suggest, that Oklahoma’s natural gas boom has hardly served the state as a whole.  One can imagine the impacts of such inequality in monitoring an even more precious resource – water – under the same philosophies.