Saturday, July 04, 2009

Nowhere is global warming felt more acutely than in the Himalayas, where ice and snow are retreating

Melting caps
Nowhere is global warming felt more acutely than in the Himalayas, where ice and snow are retreating.

STANDING in the Himalayan valley of Langtang, Rinjin Dorje Lama remembers where he used to play as a child in the 1960s.

"When I was a kid, it was a lot longer," said Lama, pointing at the Lirung glacier surrounded by snowy peaks on Nepal's northern border with Tibet. "We used to play on the, glacier, and it came right down to the monastery, but now it's about 2km further back."

Temperatures in the Himalayas are rising by around 0.06~C annually, according to a long-term study by the Nepalese department of hydrology. The rate is far above the global average given last year by United Nations scientists, who said surface temperatures have risen by a total of 0.74C over the past 100 years.

"I don't really understand why the glacier has gone so far back, but I am told it's due to global warming," said Lama, whose weather-beaten face makes him look older than his 57 years.

Lama has witnessed other changes in the roadless valley, 60km northwest of Kathmandu, where sure-footed ponies remain the quickest form of transport. "I feel that the sun is getting stronger, and in the past there used to be a lot more snow in winter. We used to get up to 2m in the winter, and it would stay for weeks. Last winter we only had 2cm."

On top of unpredictable weather, other dangers are increasing in Nepal's mountains because of climate change. As the meltwater flows off the glacier, lakes begin to form and grow. When the pressure becomes too great, the lake walls burst and release millions of cubic tonnes of water that can wash away people, villages and arable land.

Researchers at the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have said five major glacial lake floods have hit Nepal since 1970, as well as at least two in Tibet and one in Bhutan.

Ang Tsering Sherpa, who grew up in Nepal's Everest region, has observed the growth of one glacial lake with growing concern. "A small pond first appeared close to the Imja glacier in about 1962," said Sherpa, who owns a trekking and expedition company in Kathmandu.

Last year, a research team from Japan meas- ured the Imja lake as being 1.Tkm, 900m wide and 92m deep.

"If that lake bursts, it will be like a tsunami," said Sherpa, who estimates that the Imja glacier has been retreating at a rate of 60m per year. "Imagine the damage that will be caused by a lake emptying within minutes into a well-inhabited valley. The loss of life will be huge."

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calculates there are 2,000 glacial lakes forming in Nepal and around 20 are in danger of bursting.

Mountain dwellers are seeing at first hand the effects of global warming, but the changing climate will eventually have dire consequences for a much wider section of Asia's population.

Himalayan snow and ice is a massive freshwater reserve that feeds nine of Asia's major waterways, including the Indus, Ganges and Yellow rivers.

"In the long term, water scarcity will become a big problem," said Sandeep Chamling Rai, WWF climate change officer. "There will eventually be a tipping point where the amount of water from the glaciers is hugely reduced, which will result in loss of water resources for people downstream who rely on these Himalayan-fed rivers."

The ICIMOD said in August last year that climate change posed a serious threat to essential water resources in the Himalayas, putting the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people at risk.

Back in the Langtang Valley, where around 700 people and 4,000 yaks live, Lama can only watch as the ice and snow retreat from around his home.

"I am very worried, but what can we do. We are not contributing to global warming but we feel its effects. I am scared there will be no snow and ice in these mountains within the next 15 years."- AFP

Trash is not always wasted. It can be recycled or even turned into educational exhibits.

Trash on show
Trash is not always wasted. It can be recycled or even turned into educational exhibits.

IN a waterfront industrial area near the Bridgeport line in Stratford, Connecticut, the trucks keep dumping trash and the school buses keep dumping children.

Eight-year-old Matt Carlucci is in awe as soon as he walks through the front door of The Garbage Museum, confronted immediately by a colourful, 3.7m-tall dinosaur made out of junk. "Trash-o-saurus" resembles something out of the animated movie Robots.

Pennsylvania sculptor Leo Sewell, who grew up near a dump, fashioned the 7.3m-long piece out of old "no parking" signs, cell phones, shoes, licence plates, sunglasses, plastic toys and anything else he could get his hands on. Visitors are given a list of things to find on the dinosaur, and it's no easy feat.

"It's pretty cool," Matt said during a trip with his third-grade class from Sherman, Connecticut. "All the garbage on it, how big it is and how much it weighs."

The sculpture is 907kg, representing the average amount of garbage and recyclables each person in Connecticut discards each year. Like all the exhibits, Trash-o-saurus was designed with the goal of teaching how important recycling is.

The museum opened in 1993 at the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority's (CRRA) recycling centre in Stratford, "before 'green' was cool," a fact sheet says. About 32,200 people visited the museum and took part in its off-site programmes last year, a record.

"We don't know of any other museums dedicated to garbage and recycling in the country," said Paul Nonnenmacher, a spokesman for the CRRA, a quasi-public state trash agency.

The agency also operates a sister facility, The Trash Museum, in Hartford that drew more than 27,000 people last year.

"What's exciting is the kids go home and tell their parents what they can recycle," said Sotoria Montanari, the museum's education supervisor.

While the dinosaur sculpture is popular, children have just as much fun in the viewing area over the centre's sorting area, Montanari said. Trucks dump recyclables from 20 area towns, to the tune of 60,000 tonnes a year.

Huge piles of plastic bottles look made to jump into. Stacks of newspapers and cardboard fill another area. An assembly line of workers sorts the materials, which are crushed and sold as commodities to produce new products. Some buyers even make carpets and fleece jackets out of the recycled plastic, which can be turned into fibres.

Back down a flight of stairs near the dinosaur, children can play in a general store complete with a cash register, old cereal boxes and other reusable items.

An exhibit with stacked soda cans shows how making aluminum out of recycled materials creates 95% less air pollution and 97% less water pollution than mining bauxite.

Visitors can walk through the tunnel of a big, brown and plastic "composting pile" that has fake worms, bugs and pieces of fruits and vegetables sticking out of it.

Educator Robin Bennett can show you a real composting pile, and how a special kind of worm eats the garbage and converts it into what looks like dirt.

The Trash Bash activity imprisons helmet-wearing contestants behind chain- link fence doors and makes them answer questions. If the answer is wrong, others are given the green light to dump trash on them from an overhead opening.

There are also art exhibits made from reusable stuff, including a life-size mannequin made from crushed and coloured milk containers strung together with pipe cleaners. It all makes for a fun hour or two, but visitors say they also walk away with new knowledge and appreciation.

"You can see where all the garbage goes," said 10-year-old Brooke Hiatt. "You can see how and where it goes and the process of recycling stuff. I've learned that recycling is better than just wasting. If you waste, you can pollute your environment."- AP

A British-based firm insisted for years that its tanker was not to blame for poisoning thousands in West Africa

Toxic Shipment
A British-based firm insisted for years that its tanker was not to blame for poisoning thousands in West Africa. Now proof of its lethal cargo has emerged.

ON a July day in 2006, workers at the port in Amsterdam began their usual task of removing "slop" from a ship that had sailed to the Netherlands from Algeciras in Spain. As they pumped wastefrom the Probo Koala- a vessel chartered to the British-based oil trading company
Trafigura - they were expecting the usual mix of water and oil left over from the tank after it had been washed down with water.

But the workers, employed by Dutch company Amsterdam Port Services (APS), noticed the waste was different from the ordinary material they were used to dealing with. Pitch black in colour, it gave off such a vile smell that some of the workers became sick, attracting the attention of the environmental authorities.

APS refused to continue disposing of the pungent waste unless its payment was increased. Refusing to pay the extra, Trafigura decided to pump the material back on board the ship. The Probo Koala then set sail again, carrying its foul-smelling cargo to West Africa. As the ship made its way to the Ivorian port of Abidjan, a company with no previous expe- rience in waste removal obtained the licence to handle the highly toxic material - for a sum 20 times less than the amount demanded by APS in Amsterdam.

The Probo Koala docked in Abidjan on Aug 19, 2006. In darkness at least 12 hired lorries began carrying loads from the ship's 400 tonnes of waste to as many as 18 sites around the city. As the sludge was emptied out into roads and sewers, crowds starting to form, protesting at the stench, forcing truck drivers to abandon their work. Over the following
weeks, thousands of residents in Abidjan found themselves choking and coughing, some vomiting. At least 10 are said to have died from sickness.

The episode is now the centre of a civil suit being played out at the high court in London. Of the 100,000 Ivorians said to have fallen sick, 30,000 are suing the oil trading firm Trafigura in Britain. Company bosses repeatedly insisted at the time the Probo Koala had only routinely discharged ordinary slops.
Yet three years on, after a series of legal developments, lawyers for the victims say they are now able to paint a completely different picture of what really happened. Documents have emerged saying that about two tonnes of highly poisonous hydrogen sulphide was indeed present in a sample of what was a potentially lethal sulphur and caustic soda cocktail.
Asked to comment about the potential toxicity of such a mix, John Hoskins, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, told BBC: "If you dropped this in Trafalgar Square, you would have people being sick for several miles around and that would involve millions of people. It's not very hard to imagine that if a pregnant woman was poisoned her body reacts by aborting the foetus. There will be long-term effects. These things are chronically damaging and, once you've damaged your lungs, kidneys, that damage will not recover."

Waste exports
It is alleged that what Trafigura was really doing was very far from routine: that the company was trying to transform consignments of cheap and dirty petroleum, heavily contaminated with sulphur, into something more profitable. Trafigura employees were trying to remove sulphur from the so-called "coker gasoline", it is claimed, by adding highly-corrosive caustic soda and a catalyst. This process leaves the improved petroleum in a top layer and a toxic sludge underneath.

Lawyer Martyn Day, acting for the claimants, says the oil traders first tried the chemical process on land in early 2006 at the Tunisian port of La Skirra. "The resulting waste and toxic gases caused significant health problems leading to the port authorities banning them," he said. Day says the firm next tried the "highly unusual and dangerous step" of carrying out do-it-yourself refining in a tanker at sea off the coast of Gibraltar. They tried to dispose of the resultant toxic waste in Amsterdam and "unsuccessfully attempted to pass it off as ordinary waste".

When they were asked to pay extra by the Dutch disposal firm, Trafigura admits it pumped the waste back on board and subsequently took it down the West African coast where it could be disposed of at a fraction of the cost, hiring a local contractor to take it away.

Day says a final Trafigura attempt to continue its desulphuring operations in Norway, using a different ship, led to a tank explosion "causing a sulphur gas cloud to affect hundreds in the local population".

An analysis of the sample obtained from the Amsterdam authorities shows that, despite all Trafigura's denials, it did contain large quantities of sulphur compounds and poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas. These were by-products of desulphurisation attempts, not ordinary tank washings.


Trafigura director Claude Dauphin found himself temporarily jailed alongside two company executives when he went out to the Ivory Coast in an attempt to handle the durriping crisis.

He was only released when the company paid more than E100mil (RM554mil) to the African government for clean-up costs and individual compensation, although it continued to deny any link between the payment and his release.

A local contractor and a port official were convicted and jailed in Abidjan for their part in the dumping. Trafigura faces possible pros- ecution in Amsterdam for illegally exporting toxic waste. But the company also faces the massive group litigation from Day. The trial is due to open in October in London.

In a significant legal move last year, Trafigura agreed to compensate claimants if they could prove a link between their illness and exposure to the waste, a cause-and-effect relationship which they continue to strenuously deny. The firm said it would only pay up to anyone who could prove to legal standards that the toxic waste directly caused their medical condition.

Day, for the claimants, says this move has the effect of excluding from the courtroom all the history of the voyage of the Probo Koala. He claims that Trafigura has followed up its move by attempts to induce claimants to change their stories.

Witness statements allege that Simon Nurney, a partner in Trafigura"s solicitors, Macfarlanes, interviewed a lead claimant who had been flown business class to a luxury hotel in Morocco, and was later offered money to retract his evidence. The high court has, as a result, banned Trafigura from further contact with witnesses.

In a statement on May 13, Macfarlanes admitted Nurney had met the witness but denied any wrongdoing. "At no time has anyone from Macfarlanes or Trafigura's legal team, our client or their agents acted improperly or offered any inducements whatsoever to any witnesses or claimants."

Trafigura's has claimed that further publicising these allegations would put the lives of their local employees in danger, hence court hearings have been held in secret because of allegations of intimidation.

The privately-owned oil trading group claims to be one of the biggest in the world, with claimed revenues of US$73bil (RM262bil) and undisclosed share ownership. It was set up offshore in 1993.

Trafigura managers worked until then for Marc Rich, the oil trader who became notorious for South African and Iranian sanctionsbusting. Rich was a fugitive from US justice for alleged tax evasion and trading with Iran, but was pardoned by President Bill Clinton. -Guardian Newspaper Service