Monday, January 23, 2012

Opinion: UNEP and the Green Economy – Four Decades in Development

Environment Ministers Meeting in Nairobi Will Mark 40th Anniversary

By Achim Steiner, 
UN Under Secretary General and UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

40 years ago in the Swedish capital city of Stockholm, history was made at a UN conference on the future of humanity and the planet that would propel Kenya and its capital into the centre of international environmental affairs.
Amid rising concern over pollution over the air, the land and the seas; the growing loss of species and the dying of forests as a result of acid rain, governments agreed that a UN body charged with coordinating a global response to such challenges should be established.
Between June 1972 and the UN General Assembly that year, many countries lobbied to have this new environmental body including Mexico, India, the United States and the UK.
But in the end the Kenya won the diplomatic debate and in doing so became the first developing country to host a UN headquarters.
UNEP, as it became known, had its first headquarters in the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
Black and white photographs taken on 2 October 1973 at the inaugural celebrations show President Kenyatta, flanked by forest rangers and game wardens, waving his signature fly whisk while 43 year-old Canadian Maurice Strong, UNEP’s first Executive Director, stands to attention.
Two years later UNEP moved into its premises in Gigiri on the site of an old coffee farm where it remains to this day employing around 1130 local and international staff and acting as a hub for a strategic network of regional offices in Bangkok, Panama City, Washington DC, Geneva and Bahrain.
For many Kenyans going about their daily lives, UNEP and its work can sometimes seem remote.
It was originally set up to coordinate the rest of the UN system’s activities on environmental issues and to provide the science to member states on emerging trends in environmental change.
The emphasis on science has perhaps been among UNEP’s most important contributions that in turn has led to governments negotiating key global treaties to address emerging environmental crises.
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer—the protective shield that filters out dangerous levels of the sun’s ultra violet rays—is a case in point.
It became clear in the 1980s that certain chemicals used in products such as fridges to fire-fighting equipment were attacking the ozone layer.  By 2010, this UNEP treaty had coordinated the phase-out of over 100 of these harmful gases.
Without the Montreal Protocol, atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances could have increased tenfold by 2050 which in turn could have led to up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife and agriculture.
Bringing forward the science and convening treaty negotiations continues to this day.
Only a few months ago, governments from across the world met in Gigiri to push forward plans for a global agreement on mercury—a notorious heavy metal that damages the nervous system.
The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland was so called because hat makers once used mercury to strengthen the brims of hats and breathed in the fumes.
In the late 1980s, as the world was struggling to understand the implications of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Its scientific work has become the premier risk assessment and reference work for governments on the likely trends and impacts of global warming and the Panel’s findings played a key role in the decision to establish the UN climate convention and its emission reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.
Following the famous Earth Summit of 1992, UNEP was given more opportunities to evolve its work as an implementing agency of a new multibillion-dollar fund, the Global Environment Facility.
Kenya has been among several developing countries where maps of solar power and wind speeds have been developed that in turn are assisting the government and overseas investors to install renewable energy.
The expansion of Kenya’s geothermal electricity potential in the Great Rift Valley has been made possible in part by a UNEP-led project to bring in new, more reliable and cost effective drilling techniques.
Since 2008, the organization has been championing the Green Economy as a way of generating development and employment but in a way that keeps humanity’s footprint within ecological boundaries.
Kenya’s energy policy of the past few years is part of that transition as is its new engagement on restoring and rehabilitating its ecosystems.
Part of the Green Economy work has been to assess and communicate to governments the multi-trillion dollar services that nature provides, but which until recently have been all but invisible in national accounts of profit and loss.
Here in Kenya, UNEP has partnered with the government to assess the value of the Mau forest complex, which over the past few decades has lost some 30 per cent of its cover.
It is estimated that the services this forest generates—water for around a dozen rivers systems that for example feed the Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru; moisture for the tea industry and carbon storage—are worth in total up to $1.5 billion a year to the Kenyan economy.
These estimates have assisted in tipping the balance in favour of restoration rather than degradation of this key natural asset.
Often large UN conferences can seem to outsiders like talk fests and certainly assisting over 190 nations to agree and to cooperate can sometimes prove frustrating.
But often the real benefits, especially in respect to environmental action of what nations agree only emerge years or even decades later.
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, UNEP was asked to spearhead a partnership in order to accelerate a global phase-out of leaded petrol: Lead is especially damaging to the brain of infants and the young.
Since then around 80 developing countries including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Vanuatu and several in the Caribbean have removed lead from transport fuels and only now are the enormous benefits emerging.
Scientists calculate that improvements in IQ, reductions in cardiovascular diseases, and decline in criminality are among the annual US$2.4 trillion benefits linked to ridding the world of leaded
These economic benefits may prove to be even higher if other diseases and factors such as cancer and rising urbanization, where the impacts of lead pollution are higher, were brought into the calculations.
It is one example of how environmental measures and action also links directly to the social factors and issues of poverty, equity and livelihoods.
Kenya has benefited from hosting UNEP, but so too has UNEP benefited from being in East Africa.
The inspiration, determination, humility, humour, advice and support of someone like the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai has shaped this institution in ways that have built UNEP’s confidence to go that extra mile and eschew the status quo.
So what of the future? As environment ministers gather in Nairobi for their annual meeting of the UNEP Governing Council in February 2012, all eyes are on the follow up to the Earth Summit of 1992.
Rio+20, taking place in June, may prove to be an opportunity where the Green Economy initiative is translated into a fresh and forward-looking way of finally realizing sustainable development for seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050.
Some governments, including Kenya and Germany, are also signaling that the time has come to strengthen UNEP itself perhaps into a World Environment Organization.
40 years ago many of the challenges facing people and the planet were still theoretical today they are fast becoming reality.
The emergence of UNEP from Stockholm in 1972 was for some a surprise package—whether June 2012 will evolve the UNEP story onto a higher level, only time will tell.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Kenya and Tanzania are major ivory smuggling routes, says TRAFFIC

By Ochieng’ Ogodo


Kenyan and Tanzanian ports accounted for the largest seizures of illicit ivory from Africa by the close of last year.
This happened against a backdrop of 2011 recording the largest number of large ivory seizure globally, reflecting the sharp rise in illegal ivory trade underway since 2007
Although official confirmation of the volume of ivory involved in some cases was not yet been registered, it was clear this was a dramatic increase in the number of large-scale seizures, over 800 kg in weight took place in 2011—at least 13 of them.
According to TRAFFIC-a joint programme of IUCN and WWF-this compares to six large seizures in 2010, whose total weight was just less than 10 tonnes. A conservative estimate of the seizure weight in the 13 largest seizures in 2011 puts the figure at more than 23 tonnes, a figure that probably represents some 2,500 elephants or possibly more.
The most recent case in these that came to light was of 727 ivory pieces discovered on December 21 concealed inside a container at the port of Mombasa, and was destined for Asia.
“In 23 years of compiling ivory seizure data for ETIS, this is the worst year ever for large ivory seizures—2011 has truly been a horrible year for elephants,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant expert in a press release of December 29.
If the records of hundreds of smaller ivory seizures are compiled, 2011 could pass as the worst year ever for elephants in the database.
“The escalating large ivory quantities involved in 2011 reflect both a rising demand in Asia and the increasing sophistication of the criminal gangs behind the trafficking. Most illegal shipments of African elephant ivory end up in either China or Thailand,” said Miliken
From the seizures, the smugglers appeared to have changed from using air to sea freight as in the early 2011, three of the large scale ivory seizures were at airports, but later in the year most were found in sea freight.
“The only common denominator in the trafficking is that the ivory departs Africa and arrives in Asia, but the routes are constantly changing, presumably reflecting where the smugglers gamble on being their best chance of eluding detection.”
In 2011 six of the large seizures, Malaysia was a transit country in the supply chain, a role that TRAFFIC first drew attention to in 2009.
In early December, Customs in Malaysia seized 1.4 tonnes of ivory concealed inside a shipping container from Kenya to Cambodia.
Once inside Asia, the documentation accompanying an onward shipment is changed to make it appear as a local re-export, helping to conceal its origin from Africa.
“That’s an indication of the level of sophistication enforcement officers are up against in trying to outwit the criminal masterminds behind this insidious trade,” said Milliken.  “As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning.”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

New plant discovered in Fiji

 Press Release

Gland, Switzerland, 19 January 2012 – A new flowering plant belonging to the Medinilla plant group has been discovered in the highlands of Matasawalevu village, on the island of Kadavu in Fiji. The plant was found during a biodiversity assessment of the Nakasaleka district carried out as part of IUCN’s Water and Nature Initiative (WANI).
There are around 193 known species of Medinilla, occurring in Madagascar, Africa, South Asia and the Pacific Islands. Of the 193 species, 11 can only be found in Fiji. One of them is the Tagimoucia flower, Medinilla waterhousei, the floral emblem of Fiji.
IUCN’s WANI works with local communities to help them better manage water resources on Kadavu island. The team was monitoring the degradation of the river basin in the area when the new plant was discovered.
“The discovery of this previously unknown species of plant gives us a sense of just how fragile nature can be,” says Dr Milika Sobey, Water and Wetlands Programme Coordinator at IUCN’s Oceania Regional Office. “The fact that it was found during work on a watershed management project is one more lesson in how important it is that nature is included in the priorities for water management.”
“Through the Water and Nature Initiative IUCN has shown in more than 30 countries worldwide that by working with local people and partners, it is possible to put in place sustainable solutions that meet the water needs of both people and nature,” says Dr Mark Smith, Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme.
The species was found on the border of grassland and primary forest. This location makes it highly vulnerable to bush fires that are common in the area.
“We only managed to find one plant of this kind,” says  Mr Marika Tuiwawa, of the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Applied Science, IUCN member and partner in the WANI project, who discovered the species. “Commercial agricultural activities and uncontrolled bush fires are the main threats to this species. A simple fire could destroy it in a matter of minutes.”
The plant’s common name has not been confirmed yet but the name Medinilla matasawalevu has been suggested to illustrate its location.
“The fact that only one plant of this kind was found so far and that it occurs in such a vulnerable place should set alarm bells ringing,” says Dr Jane Smart, Global Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group. “The challenge now is to protect the new species and raise awareness of its importance among local communities, to secure its long term future.”
Work is currently underway to confirm the exact classification of the new species, for which DNA research may be carried out

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Alien Crayfish a threat to Africa's unique endemic aqauatic animals species

By Ochieng’ Ogodo
A ‘weird’ alien fish that eats fish eggs and fingerlings is beginning to cause worry across Africa. It is feared that the Red Claw Crayfish, also known as the  Louisiana Crayfish with  much less edible meat-native to the United States of America and is one of the species from the northern hemisphere-is becoming a threat to unique endemic species of aquatic animals in  lakes and other water bodies.
It is not known exactly when the first Louisiana Crayfish were imported to Africa but it is thought in the 1970s both into Kenya and South Africa.
Geoffrey Howard, Global Coordinator for Invasive Species, Invasive Species Initiative, IUCN Species Programme, said the Red Claw Crayfish was imported to South Africa as an aquaculture species for specialty food supply. It was brought to Lake Naivasha in Kenya to breed up and send the crayfish to Scandinavia where native freshwater crayfish had been wiped out by a disease brought to Europe by the same Louisiana Crayfish much earlier.
In Kenya, they were also brought to the dams around Nairobi, Kiambu and Limuru to rid them of the freshwater snails that are the vectors for bilharzia.
But the Red Claw Crayfish, which is bigger and more aggressive and so more dangerous, can kill and eat the native freshwater crabs, other crustaceans and many forms of aquatic life according to Howard.
It can reduce fishable fish population
“By eating fish eggs and fingerlings, said Howard, “they can reduce the populations of fishable fish and so affect fisheries.  By removing animals and plants from wetlands they can upset the balance of ecosystems and reduce valuable ecosystem functions.”
But of greatest importance to conservationists and those interested in biodiversity is their threat to unique endemic species of aquatic animals in three eastern Africa Great lakes of Malawi, Tanganyika and Victoria where there are hundreds, probably thousands, of species found nowhere else. 
 If the crayfish gets into the lakes and become invasive, they could remove many of the unique species forever.
They are not native to Africa and have no natural enemies or competitors to keep their populations in check.  They are omnivorous and can eat small fish, fish eggs, other crustacea, molluscs and water plants.  They also burrow into the edges of dams, rivers and lakes to make nests and can destroy the dam infrastructure or the banks of rivers and lakes. The burrowing behaviour can cause water canals to leak and earth dams to collapse.
Unlike most aquatic animals, said Howard, the freshwater crayfish can stay out of water for many hours at a time, especially at night and on wet days.  Thus they are not restricted to the catchments of any particular water bodies and can walk across dry land for many kilometers. 
“Walking” fish
“They can also walk and swim upstream in rivers that feed lakes and can even more easily move downstream in rivers and streams.  In addition, they have been moved by people using them as fishing bait and possibly for food and those collecting specimens for aquariums,” he said. 
In these ways the crayfish have become widespread although it is not possible to be precise how far because there has never been any funding in Africa to detect and map their spread. 
In Kenya, for instance, they are now quite widely distributed in the Lake Victoria Basin, in the Naivasha Basin and its feeder rivers; in the Ewaso Ngiro (north) Basin and in many water bodies and wetlands around the wetter areas of the country. 
They are also in Rwanda, Uganda, along the Nile and especially common in Egypt; and in the Zambezi basin.  Seychelles and Mauritius are no exception and are also wild in some parts of South Africa.
Said Howard, “No statistics because they are rarely seen or recognized as a threat.  But they have certainly affected the fishery in Naivasha.”
Whereas it is possible to control (eradicate) crayfish from very small water bodies by trapping and possibly poisoning, research is developing hormonal and pheromonal methods but these are not yet available to us.  Mechanical barriers can be used to stop their spread – but only if we know their precise distribution. That is the problem at present.
Arne Witt, invasive-species coordinator for CABI said, with no host specific natural enemies (predators, parasites and/or diseases) it to proliferate - as a result it can build up populations rapidly to the detriment of indigenous plant and animal species.
“ It has the ability to feed on green plants, animals including aquatic invertebrates, especially insect larvae, amphibians, plant detritus, plankton, periphyton and benthos – it has been held responsible for the disappearance of many aquatic plant species from specific systems especially floating-leaves and submerged native species,” he said
Louisiana Crayfish has the ability to change or switch diets based on the availability of food items and as such has an impact on the ecological functioning of any water body. It can also change water quality affecting habitats for native aquatic fauna and flora.
Whereas some people have benefited from catching and eating or selling the crayfish, it is a bit of a boom and bust venture as crayfish can build up numbers quickly and then the populations can collapse once they have eaten themselves out of house and home and no industry can sustain itself on an irregular supply of a natural resource according to Arne.
Need for control
It obviously reduces the amount of prey items available for other organisms such as fish and birds. “It destroys the whole ecological balance in systems – all life on this planet is dependent on diversity – if we were to become dependent on one resource we could put ourselves at immense risk.” 
Arne said there is not much that can be done in water bodies where it currently exists but in long term a host specific disease may be found to reduce abundance. In the short term we may consider enhancing or facilitating the capture of this crayfish on a regular basis in order to reduce numbers. Removing water hyacinth and other aquatic weeds from water bodies such as Lake Naivasha may also expose them to higher levels of predation by birds. We also need to ensure that people stop moving them around – this should be made illegal and punishable by law.
It poses a significant threat to the ecological integrity of our water bodies.