Page 2 of 3

Show that you give a shit on World Toilet Day

Today, 19 November, we celebrate World Toilet Day. Together with Global Handwashing Day, that I wrote about some time ago, these two days represent the main ‘personal hygiene for health’ days celebrated annually.

Sadly, despite its importance from a health point of view, the day is also one of the most ridiculed annual observances (toilet humour rules, I guess), to such an extent that the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) has even published an ‘International stop-making-fun-of-world-toilet day!’ page.

Considering the huge health impact that basic sanitaton can make to preserving human health, this is indeed no laughing matter. According to UN figures, about 4000 children die every day as a result of a disease directly related to poor sanitation. That equates to a death almost every 20 seconds – more than the combined deaths caused by HIV AIDS, malaria and measles.

Millions of children, mainly in the developing world, rely of primitive, shared toilets for their basic sanitation requirements. And these are the ‘lucky ones’, given that millions more have no access to a toilet at all.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Given the above, global provision of basic sanitation is a key target underlying the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of ‘Reducing by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate’. It is, unfortunately, also the area where the least progress has been made, mainly because the sanitation sector is desperately under-funded (probably as a result of it being a much less ‘glamorous’ cause than HIV AIDS etc).

According to Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation, it was estimated in 2006 that almost $15 billion will be required annually to provide universal access to sanitation by 2015. By now, with the target date being so much closer, I am sure that number is much higher. Currently, 2.5 billion people still do not have access to a private toilet, and 1.1 billion people defacate in the open, with no sanitation system in place to address this pollution. That means one in three people do not have access to a private toilet, and one in seven have no access to a toilet at all. It is a humanitarian crisis touching the basic dignity of billions worldwide.

Many public, shared toilet facilities do little to facilitate basic human dignity, often being open, shared spaces with little or no privacy.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Unlike complex diseases, sanitation is a ‘simple’ problem – it is easy to solve if only enough money is made available. As such, it is one of those areas where widespread public awareness campaigning can actually make a difference, to force governments into addressing and funding the problem.  To this end, a punchy awareness campagin has been launched under the theme of ‘I give a shit, do you?’, and tweets around the topic can be tagged with the hashtag #IGiveAShit to extend its reach and potential impact.

So, show that you give a shit, and start talking about sanitation. It may be a crappy subject, but as long as it is not addressed, millions of people will continue to die unnecessary deaths, deaths that can so easily be avoided. For suggestions about how to get involved, visit the World Toilet Day action page.

To get you started, here’s a neat little YouTube video about World Toilet Day – please have a look, and share widely:


United Nations Day and the need for coordinated action

Today the United Nations celebrate two special observances – World Development Information Day and UN Day. Both of these focus in some sense on the work done by the UN since it’s establishment in 1945, with World Development Information Day focusing specifically on the sharing of development information among UN member states.

Given the dire conditions millions of people are living in, and the massive challenges facing the world in terms of getting even close to realising the Millennium Development Goals of 2015, the UN has a critical role to play around coordination of activities and initiatives across the globe and among its members.

Maternal health and child health are among the topics addressed by Millennium Development Goals set forth by the UN.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The UN is active on many fronts – peace, development, human rights, the environment and the empowerment of women and children. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The United Nations is not just a meeting place for diplomats. The United Nations is a peacekeeper disarming fighters, a health worker distributing medicine, a relief team aiding refugees, a human rights expert helping deliver justice.”

The eradication of poverty and hunger – another of the themes of the Millennium Development Goals.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In pursuing these initiatives, the UN depends on countless groups and organisations – NGOs, researchers, philanthropists, champions from the business world, religious leaders and academics. Beyond these there’s the contribution everyday citizens can make – individually, we may not be able to achieve the stretching targets set forth to better the world, but if actions are coordinated and everyone pulls in the same direction, miracles are possible.

Some damming thoughts on World Rivers Day

Since 2005, the last Sunday of September has been celebrated annually as World Rivers Day. This global celebration of the rivers around the world is aimed at highlighting the value of rivers and the importance of sustaining river health. Global activities include riverside cleanups, school projects, art exhibitions, music festivals and more.

World Rivers Day originated in Canada, where a very successful BC Rivers Day, held in British Columbia since 1980, led to the creation of Canadian Rivers Day. This eventually gave rise to World Rivers Day, launched in 2005 as part of the United Nations’ Water for Life Decade initiative.

The Fish River Canyon, Namibia. Rivers are the arteries of the earth – keeping them clean, unblocked and free-flowing is critical for the health of the planet.
(© All Rights Reserved)

According to the World Rivers Day website, the two key global issues requiring attention are the decline of river fish populations and the construction of dams.

The construction of large dams in rivers can have severe environmental, economic and human impacts.

Environmentally, one of the biggest issues relate to the impact of dams on fish populations – dam walls block fish migrations and in some cases completely separate the fish’s spawning habitats from their rearing habitats, which can have disasterous effects on river fish populations. The dam walls also trap sediments, affecting physical processes and habitats downstream. The establishment of a dam also changes the upstream part of the river from a free-flowing ecosystem to a stationary reservoir habitat, affecting it chemically and physically, threatening existing fauna and flora and introducing new, invasive species. To quote the International Rivers Organisation, “Large dams have led to the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, the disappearance of birds in floodplains, huge losses of forest, wetland and farmland, erosion of coastal deltas, and many other unmitigable impacts.”

Large dams are an important source of hydropower and drinking water, but they can have negative economic impacts as well. Aside from the huge cost of building and maintaining these dams, excessive dependence on hydropower can be a risky strategy in a world where climate change can severely affect rainfall patterns, potentially leading to drought induced power blackouts. While hydropower is an important sustainable power source, and an important part of an energy-secure future, it should be included as one component in a diversified power supply regime (including wind, solar etc) to mitigate economic risk.

Finally, there is the human impact, with the World Commission on Dams estimating that the development of large dams have forced between 40 and 80 million people from their land in the past half century. This has particularly impacted the poorer countries of the world, where most of the world’s large dams are being constructed. Beyond those directly displaced by the dam reservoir, large dams affect millions of people living downstream and upstream from the dam, as availability of clean water, food sources and other natural resources have been affected. Changed ecosystems, particularly in the tropics, have also resulted in the introduction of diseases like urinary and intestinal schistosomiasis (bilharzia).

The Gariep Dam, South Africa. Dams are critical sources of energy and continuous water supply, but can also severely affect river-related ecosystems.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Considering the importance of dams in energy creation, provision of drinking water etc, a balance obviously has to be struck between the advantages and disadvantages of building dams. Perhaps the key message lies in the following recommendation from the World Commission on Dams:

“Rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems are the biological engines of the planet. They are the basis for life and the livelihoods of local communities. Dams transform landscapes and create risks of irreversible impacts. Understanding, protecting and restoring ecosystems at river basin level is essential to foster equitable human development and the welfare of all species.

Options assessment and decision-making around river development prioritises the avoidance of impacts, followed by the minimisation and mitigation of harm to the health and integrity of the river system. Avoiding impacts through good site selection and project design is a priority. Releasing tailor-made environmental flows can help maintain downstream ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.”

World Rhino Day and the atrocity of rhino poaching

Today, 22 September 2012, marks the third annual World Rhino Day. Individuals and organisations across the globe, including the WWF, will join with citizens in rhinoceros range countries in standing up against the atrocity of rhino poaching.

An extensive range of activities are planned to celebrate the event, including skydives, cycling competitions, fun walks and runs, music concerts and even sandcastle building contests, all to raise funds and awareness for the plight of these majestic animals.

An awareness bracelet, sold in South Africa to collect funds to support the fight against rhino poaching.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Rhino poaching has reached shocking levels. In South Africa, one of the worst hit countries in the world, almost 1400 rhinos have been lost since 2008, and despite attempts at curbing the problem, the numbers are increasing daily. According to the latest statistics 388 rhinos have already been killed in 2012 alone. Policing the crime is extremely difficult, as it involves patrolling vast areas of land, and dealing with criminals that are ruthless, mobile and flexible, and that can strike at any time. To stand any chance of addressing the problem, focus needs to fall on infiltrating and cracking poaching syndicates, and building up reliable informant networks. Unfortunately the challenge doesn’t stop there – there have been numerous reports of game wardens and law enforcers being part of the poaching syndicates, thus counter-acting and nullifying the efforts spent on intelligence building.

Are we the last generation who will have the privilege of seeing scenes like this in the African wild?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Continued poaching is a symptom of larger societal problems such as unemployment and poverty, and a long as these remain, and there remains a lucrative market for rhino horns, stopping the poaching is nigh impossible. Sadly there is a growing demand for rhino horn in Asia, where it is used as traditional medicine.  As Dr Morne du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa, has pointed out, “Asian and African governments must work together to disrupt trade chains and to bring wildlife criminals to justice. Demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory is threatening to destroy a large part of Africa’s natural heritage. We want to see illegal markets for these products in Asia shut down for good.”

According to Dr. Joseph Okori, WWF’s African Rhino Programme Manager, “Rangers are putting their lives on the line to protect these animals from poachers and traders who are motivated only by greed. We salute all those working tirelessly to secure a future for rhinos, and we call on government leaders in Vietnam and China to do their part.”

Rhino poaching is one of the truly horrific crimes against nature committed by man, and it is shocking that it is continuing at such levels in this day and age. One can only hope that somehow, somewhere authorities will be able to find a solution if there is to be any hope of these proud animals being saved for future generations.

Give Mother Earth a break on Zero Emissions Day

Care for the health and wellbeing of Mother Earth? Then today is a good day to show her how you feel – it’s Zero Emissions Day, time to take a 24 hr holiday from fossil fuel energy.

Zero Emissions Day (ZeDay) celebrates it’s 5th birthday in 2012, and this year the theme is ‘Reboot!’. As the ZeDay website says, “Shut down everything non-essential powered by fossil fuels for a day – press reset – and then start up fresh. ZeDay 2012 marks our new beginning and you can help make it happen…”

This is what we’re doing to the environment with our energy-hungry lifestyles.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The idea is simple – don’t burn oil, gas or coal and minimize your electricity use – do this for just one day. The amount of energy consumed by modern society is staggering, with more and more power-hungry devices becoming part of our daily lives – ebook readers replacing books, tablets replacing notepads, GPS devices replacing maps, smartphones replacing personal contact… The list goes on. And all these devices need to be charged and powered… And all this power needs to be generated… And the bulk of the electricity generated globally is still fossil-fuel based, with only a small percentage generated through renewable sources such as water and wind.

The purpose of ZeDay is to give the earth a ‘rest day’ – from biblical times, the idea of a day of rest at regular intervals was promoted as a good thing, and with the pace of life increasing to the point where we simply don’t slow down anymore, re-instituting the rest day concept is a very necessary. We all need a chance to shut down and reboot every now and then, and the same applies to the environment. The date of 21 September was selected to coincide with the United Nations International Day of Peace.

Take a break, and give Mother Nature a breather as well.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Realistically, completely avoiding the consumption of any fossil-fuel generated energy for 24 hours is almost unthinkable – no driving, no cooking, no hot water, no computers, no TV, radio or Internet – and people who have done it have reported the experience to be ‘profoundly transformative’. Definitely something to strive towards – even if it’s too late to do it today, seeing that the day is already halfway through, nothing stops us from celebrating our own private ZeDay on any other date. In fact, if you can achieve more than one a year, even better. Admittedly many people will never quite go this far, but even if the day just acts as a reminder that we can all do our bit to limit our energy consumption in daily life, it would already be a victory for Mother Earth.

Go one, try it – imagine how good it’ll make you feel about yourself!

(OK, I should switch off now…)

Get in on the action on World Water Monitoring Day

September 18th is World Water Monitoring Day. This day has been observed since 2003, with the aim being to increase public awareness of water quality and water quality monitoring.

Even though World Water Monitoring Day is still observed on 18 September each year, the initiative has in recent years (since 2009) been expanded to become the World Water Monitoring Challenge, a programme promoting citizen participation in monitoring local water resources around the globe. Basic, low cost water test kits can be ordered through the World Water Monitoring Challenge website, and facilities are provided for volunteers to upload their test results to a global water quality database. The parameters being tested include temperature, acidity (pH), clarity (turbidity) and dissolved oxygen (DO).

Getting schools and community groups involved in water monitoring is a practical and useful way to spread the water quality message.
(© All Rights Reserved)

One of the goals of the Challenge is to expand participation to a million people in 100 countries by 2012. This is quite a stretching target, given that 2011 saw the involvement of just over 330 000 people from 77 countries. Even if the one million target is not reached this year yet, it remains a most impressive initiative, and considering the importance of keeping our global water resources useful and healthy, something that is definitely worth supporting and promoting. Conducting water tests as a schools programme or community initiative not only helps gather valuable data, but also raises awareness among participants about water quality and how their actions can directly and indirectly impact on their local water resources.

To ensure maximum particilation, the extended World Water Monitoring Challenge now runs from March 22 (United Nations World Water Day) to December 31 each year. So there’s no excuse not to get in on the action.

Celebrating the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer

Today, 16 September, is a critically important day for this little planet of ours – it’s World Ozone Day, or to be more precise, the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.

The day was officially proclaimed as one of the United Nations’ International Observances in 1994, falling under the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. The date was specifically selected to commemorate the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer on 16 September 1987, marking this year as the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol.

So why is the preservation of the ozone so important? I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated than my basic understanding of the subject, but in essence the ozone in the stratosphere plays a critical role in absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Furthermore ozone in the lower atmosphere also plays a role in removing pollutants from the air.

Not a pretty picture.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now as we humans are prone to do, many of our actions are not all that considerate of the health of the earth, and can be very detrimental to the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol aimed to identify and address substances and actions that contribute to the depletion of the ozone in the atmosphere, and is one of the great examples of international cooperation towards a global good. As an outcome of the Protocol, the phasing out of the use of ozone depleting substances is helping protect the ozone layer for generations to come. The international awareness created through the Montreal Protocol has also contributed to a greater appreciation and awareness of the effects of climate change on the earth.

To help create continued awareness, UNEP’s OzonAction Programme has developed a Public Service Announcement (PSA) video, in 6 UN languages, for global broadcasting and viral distribution.  The English announcement is embedded below, while links to the Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish announcements can be found here.


For more information, the UN website provides some very interesting general background on ozone preservation, as well as information of some ozone depleting substances in different industry sectors.

Protecting our atmosphere (and environment) for generations to come.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In celebration of World Ozone Day, take a minute today to appreciate the ozone layer and how it contributes to the world and the environment as we know it. Not only does it protect us humans from life threatening cancer-causing UVB radiation, but it is also critical for plant health, marine ecosystems and terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemical cycles.

The theme of this year’s event is “Protecting our atmosphere for generations to come” – surely a cause well worth supporting and celebrating.

Greenpeace and the international environmental debate

Today we commemorate the founding of the well-known international non-governmental, environmental organisation, Greenpeace.

Greenpeace grew out of the anti-nuclear protests in Vancouver, Canada in the early Seventies. On this day, 41 years ago in 1971, protesters boarded a chartered ship, which they christened ‘Greenpeace’, to protest the nuclear tests conducted by the US in Alaska. The name of the ship became associated with the protesters, and the Greenpeace organisation developed out of this protest. While its founding was not very formal, and many individuals were involved in the early days, a number of people have been singled out by Greenpeace itself as being influential in its establishment. These include long-haired, beardy journalist Bob Hunter, former entrepreneur David McTaggart and long-time activist couple Dorothy and Irving Stowe.

Over time the organisation spread to several countries, and their activities have expanded from anti-nuclear protests to campaigning on a wide range of environmental issues including climate change, deforestation, toxic pollution and agriculture.

Whether or not you agree with the sentiments expressed by environmental activists, you have to appreciate the important role they play in the environmental debate.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Greenpeace has been described as the most visible environmental organisation in the world. As such, they play an extremely important role in keeping sensitive environmental issues in the public eye, and influencing both the public and private sectors to limit negative impact on the earth and its people. They certainly don’t shy away from controversy, adopting a decidedly in-your-face stance against companies, organisations and activities they consider dangerous or detrimental to the environment. It is no surprise then, that Greenpeace has been on the receiving end of more than their share of lawsuits for reputational damage and lost profits.  At a more shady level, some of Greenpeace’s enemies have also been reported to adopting rather unsavoury tactics, including spying, phone tapping, death threats, violence and even terrorism against the organisation.

Greenpeace has been validly criticised for their sometimes fundamentalist and anti-science stance, with critics citing unfortunate cases where invaluable scientific research have been destroyed through their activities.

That said, Greenpeace, and other organisations of their ilk, continue to play a critical role in the international environmental debate, and considering the multinational industrial giants they are up against, they probably need all the support they can get.

Happy birthday, Greenpeace – keep ’em honest…

Tires, rubber, burnouts and environmental disasters

Fancy a burnout? A donut, perhaps?

No, I’m no street racer, not even much of a petrol-head. I’ve just got rubber and tires on my mind, since today back in 1900 is the day that the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was founded. Even through Firestone cannot lay claim to inventing rubber tires (that honour goes to John Boyd Dunlop for the first pneumatic tire, and to Charles Goodyear for the vulcanisation of natural rubber), they were one of the early pioneers in tire production. Along with Goodyear, they were the largest automotive tire suppliers in the US for the best part of the 20th century.

The company was sold to the Japanese Bridgestone Corporation in 1988.

Tire burnouts can be spectacular, but certainly doesn’t help in terms of scrap tire pollution.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Given the number of tires produced and sold internationally, the environmental challenges of dealing with scrap tires are quite significant. In the US alone, about 285 million scrap tires are generated every year. Tires dumped in a landfill is a fire hazard – tire fires can burn for months, creating serious air and soil pollution. They can also liquify under high temperatures, releasing hydrocarbons and other harmful contaminants into the ground. Shredded tire pieces are likely to leach even more, due to the increased surface area on the shredded pieces.

The durability of scrap tires do make it suitable for certain recycling applications. Shredded tires, or tire derived aggregate (TDA), can be used as backfill for retaining walls and as vibration damping for railway lines. Ground and crumbed rubber, also known as size-reduced rubber, can be used in paving as well as in moldable products such as flooring, decking, tiles and rubber bricks. These applications, however, only consume a small percentage of the total tire waste produced annually.

The use of tires has also been suggested in the construction of artificial reefs, but the sensibility of this is questionable, with the Osborne Reef, for example, turning into a multi-million dollar environmental nightmare.

Despite all the attempts at solving the problem of scrap tire waste, it remains an environmental nightmare, and the best ‘solution’ probably involves addressing the problem at it’s source – reducing the number of scrap tires produced annually.  Small things such as driving sensibly to preserve tire life, carpooling, use of public transport, walking and cycling instead of driving – these may appear arbitrary, but are things we can all do, and while it won’t make the problem go away, it can make a difference in the long run.

Artificially green – celebrating the synthesis of chlorophyll

Today seems to be one of those ordinary days in history – at a cursory glance, nothing seriously bad happened, but nothing too exciting either.

Well, I am no chemist, but the fact that chlorophyll A was for the first time synthesised in a laboratory on this day back in 1960, is probably pretty exciting. Its chlorophyll, after all – the abundant green stuff which allows plants to absorb energy from light, and through the process of photosynthesis, fuel much of our planet.

The organic chemist responsible for this achievement was Robert Burns Woodward, from the Converse Memorial Laboratory at Harvard University. For this, and his other work in the field of organic synthesis, Woodward was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Chlorophyll – fuelling our planet.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Talking about synthesized chlorophyll and photosynthesis, I read an interesting 2011 Economist blog post, Babbage Science and Technology, about work being done around artificial photosynthesis and the creation of the “artificial leaf”. The science-fiction style scenario envisaged from this is a world where roofs of city buildings etc can be covered with “artificial trees” replicating the photosynthesis process to create hydrocarbon fuel directly from sunlight. These “forests” could help offset the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and create an unlimited supply of fuel for transport – a magical concept.

In the USA, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in research laboratories in California etc working, in the words of President Obama, on “developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars”.

The potential energy produced by the sun is vast – apparently the energy from the sun hitting the earth in a single hour, exceeds all the energy consumed by humans in an entire year! Imagine if a significant portion of that energy could be harvested in a commercially viable manner. Currently solar energy (in the form of sustainable biomass) provide less that 1.5% of our energy needs, with solar panels contributing less than 0.1%.

Current solar power generators suffer from the fact that the supply of sunlight is not constant, and energy has to be stored in batteries – a wasteful process. What scientists are working on (and what chlorophyll has been quietly doing for millions of years), is to turn the sunlight directly into chemical fuel – a potentially huge paradigm shift in the harvesting of solar energy.

While scientists have already been able to efficiently create fuel from sunlight in laboratory conditions, the problem is that it cannot yet be done at an economically viable cost. The technology is also highly fragile, nowhere near the robustness required for continuous commercial implementation.

So they are looking at nature for inspiration, and more specifically chlorophyll. In the words of Babbage, “chlorophyll acts as a catalyst that drives the oxidation-reduction reaction between carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates and oxygen. In the pursuit of the artificial leaf, then, the main task is to find catalysts that can mimic the intricate dance of electron transfers that chlorophyll makes possible.”

Amazing research is being conducted on this topic, creating and studying different light absorbers, chemical catalysts and membranes to support these. And interestingly, it appears one of the wild cards in this research race is a small research group from Massey University down here in New Zealand. A research team at the university’s Nanomaterials Research Centre, led by Wayne Campbell, has produced a porphyrin dye that works with solar cells based on titanium dioxide. In the lab, these cells are reported to generate electricity 10 times more economically than conventional photovoltaic panels.

I have been unable to find any information on the current status of this research (much of the published results are about 5 years old), but potentially, these porphyrin dyes can become an economically viable catalyst for producing solar fuel for cars and electricity for homes.

It’s exciting stuff, and potentially huge for a greener future (even if some of the green may be artificial)!