Caring for wetlands takes care of water

Today, 2 February 2013, is World Wetlands Day, the first of the big water celebrations of the year forming part of the 2013 United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation.

The 2013 theme is ‘Wetlands and water management’. The slogan is ‘Wetlands take care of water’, which succinctly positions wetlands as a key component in environmental water management programmes, and explains why taking care of wetlands form an essential component in the delivery of sustainable water management. As stated by Anada Tiega, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, “It is well recognized that access to a clean and adequate water supply is critical for human survival. Less well understood is that wetlands, as defined by Ramsar, are fundamental regulators of water regimes. Without adequate management of wetlands from the mountains to the sea there is no water of the right quality and quantity where and when it is needed.”

A wetland, dominated by wire rush and sphagnum moss, between Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau in the Southern Otago region in New Zealand. The unique wetlands in the Te Anau area were used for the 'Dead Marshes' scene in Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie.(© All Rights Reserved)
A wetland, dominated by wire rush and sphagnum moss, between Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau in the Southern Otago region in New Zealand. The unique wetlands in the Te Anau area were used for the ‘Dead Marshes’ scene in Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie.
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The role of wetlands in water management is well explained in the ‘Wetlands Take Care of Water’ information leaflet, available online in PDF format. Given the importance of wetlands in regulating water regimes, one of the worrying facts stated in the booklet is that “Impacts from changes in land use, water diversions, and infrastructure development continue to drive the degradation and loss of wetlands.” It is because of this that there is an urgent need to communicate the importance of wetlands as an essential element of water infrastructure – they are water providers, serving as water filters and purifiers. To continue supplying filtered and purified water, however, they need a continued input of water to maintain the system, and if water is dammed up or diverted for other uses, these critical components in the earth’s water system dry up and disappear. To address this within the wider water crisis facing the world’s growing population, “There is a need to place water at the heart of the green economy and to recognise that working with wetlands as water management infrastructure can be a cost-effective and sustainable way of meeting a diversity of policy, business and private objectives.”

Do you know where your nearest wetland is? And when last did you pay it a visit? Take today to appreciate these wonders of nature. Learn about them, and share your knowledge with those you know. The more people know about and understand the critical role wetlands play, the better the chances that these natural water purifiers may be maintained for future generations.

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.
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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)!

World Environment Day

Today we celebrate World Environment Day, a global event initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to promote awareness regarding global environmental issues, and to create positive environmental action. Its a day for all people to join hands and start taking action to ensure a cleaner, greener, brighter future.

The 2012 theme for World Environment Day is Green Economy: Does it include you? In the first place, this is meant to raise general awareness of the concept of the “green economy”, and secondly to promote personal involvement in activities supporting a greener future. Simply stated, the green economy is one “whose growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services” (UNEP, 2012).

The theme for World Environment Day 2012 is Green Economy: Does it include you?
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At a macro level, the green economy is about a move to more sustainable energy sources such as solar, water and wind energy, about infrastructure development promoting green buildings and clean transportation, about water and waste management, about big business investing in more sustainable business practices, and about sustainable job creation and poverty reduction.

While these are all critically important initiatives that need to be promoted and supported, it really does start with each of us, at an individual level, investing in a more environmentally aware lifestyle. Recycling household waste, doing your own composting, growing your own (organic) fruit and veges, conserving water and electricity, minimising waste, buying used products & buying bulk – these are all ways in which we can do our bit for a greener, healthier planet.

The green economy is all about preserving our natural heritage for future generations.
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For more ideas on living responsibly, this How to be Green Guide is a nice place to start.

Enjoy the world, responsibly!