• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
home_icon-01_outline
star
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Earth.Org PAST · PRESENT · FUTURE
SHOP Support

At least five million people in central Vietnam are facing disaster as the country battles its worst floods in decades.

So far, flooding and landslides in October have killed over 100 people, and left dozens more missing. The Red Cross says in a statement, “Everywhere we look, homes, roads and infrastructure have been submerged.” 

The country has been hit severely by heavy rainfall in recent weeks, which the Red Cross attributes to the “combination of numerous weather systems – the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone combining with cold air as well as tropical storms Linfa and Nangka.”

It continues, “Tropical Storm Linfa made landfall in Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces in Central Vietnam on October 11 and brought 150 to 300 millimetres of rain. Tropical Storm Nangka made landfall on October 14 in the northern provinces of Vietnam which brought along a further 150 millimetres of rain.”

At least 712 houses have been destroyed while at least 178 000 have flooded. Food crops have been destroyed and nearly 700 000 poultry and livestock have been killed or swept away. 

The floods come as Vietnam is already dealing with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Red Cross official Christopher Rassi says, “We are seeing a deadly double disaster unfold before our eyes as these floods compound the difficulties caused by COVID-19. These floods are the last straw and will push millions of people further towards the brink of poverty.”

You might also like: Natural Disasters Have Nearly Doubled in Past 20 Years- UN

More rain is expected in the coming says, raising fears that floodwaters could rise further. 

While it is certainly difficult to pin extreme weather events such as these purely on the climate crisis, a recent UN report found that natural disasters have nearly doubled over the past 20 years, in line with increasing temperatures and rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Featured image by: Flickr

A $9.3 billion residential and tourism development has been approved within the buffer zone of the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve here in this city of 13 million, the largest urban area in Vietnam. The project was proposed by the Can Gio Tourism Urban Area Joint Stock Company, a subsidiary of Vinhomes, the real estate arm of Vingroup, the country’s largest private company. The Can Gio Tourist City would span 2,870 hectares (7,100 acres), largely on land that would be filled in along the South China Sea coast using sand.

The 75,740-hectare (187,200-acre) reserve was established in 2000 and is overseen by a local management board. Home to one of the world’s largest rehabilitated mangrove forests, it protects the area from storm surges while also acting as a “green lung” for a heavily industrialised region.

The projected completion date for the Vinhomes development is 2031, when planners expect 230,000 people will live there long-term, and about 9 million tourists will come and go annually. In comparison, just over 70,000 people currently live in Can Gio (pronounced similarly to ‘yo’), the largest of Ho Chi Minh City’s 24 districts by area.

Tourism development in Can Gio has been relatively slow, as the region can only be reached by ferry, but construction of a huge bridge linking the district to the rest of Ho Chi Minh City is expected to begin in 2022, making it easier to reach.

The response to the approval of the “tourist city,” which was first proposed in 2000 but was stalled until Vinhomes took over the project, has been largely negative. The company increased its original planned size from 821 hectares (2,030 acres) to 2,870 hectares.

In early July, 23 prominent environmentalists, academics and researchers sent a petition calling for an independent assessment of the project to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, the legislative National Assembly, and other government bodies. It is rare for Vingroup to be publicly criticised in Vietnam, as the company is known to react aggressively to such complaints.

You might also like: Rhino Poaching Has Dropped Amid COVID-19, But What Does the Future Hold For the Species?

An English-language version of the petition shared with Mongabay says the planned development “poses a serious threat on the Can Gio mangrove forest, which in turn may lead to a series of harm to the urban regions of HCMC, whose population and authority are already facing major environmental challenges such as pollution, floods and land collapses.”

The petition is now online, in both English and Vietnamese, and had been signed by more than 5,900 people at the time of writing. It adds that the project poses huge threats related to erosion, flooding and water stagnation, all of which could have serious environmental and social impacts, while also threatening the integrity of Can Gio’s unique, important mangrove ecosystem.

The Nikkei Asia Review reports that 138 million cubic meters (4.9 billion cubic feet) of sand would be needed to reclaim land for the project. Some media reports have said this sand would be dredged from the nearby Mekong Delta, which is already facing serious subsidence due to sand mining and a loss of sediment caused by upstream dams. None of the activists contacted for this story would speak on the record, even anonymously, for fear of retaliation from Vingroup or the police. One environmentalist said they had been repeatedly harassed by the police for their outspoken criticism of the project on Facebook.

Vocal activists can face serious consequences for their actions here. In 2017, an environmental blogger known as Mother Mushroom was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state” following a major environmental disaster. She was eventually released early and now lives in exile in Houston.

Vingroup did not respond to requests for comment on the project.

While detailed plans of Can Gio Tourist City aren’t public, one satellite rendering shared widely on social media shows a huge stretch of land, including a large artificial lake, tacked on to the southern end of Can Gio, where the district meets the East Sea, as the South China Sea is known here.

This means there would not be construction within the heavily restricted core area of the mangrove biosphere reserve.

However, it is a delicate ecosystem.

Mangroves in general are highly sensitive to changes in hydrology and sedimentation,” said Marie Arnaud, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham who has conducted extensive research on Can Gio. “For example, if you decrease sediment supply, then you might have erosion of the mangrove’s land, which can cause mangrove loss. It has been observed in many parts of the world, mostly due to upstream sand mining, but it has also been observed from areas which have been dredged.”

The Vinhomes development would be downstream from the mangroves, but it is not clear where the sand used to reclaim land will come from. Adding thousands of hectares of land just a few miles from the reserve will have an impact.

“If they dredge sand to create land or build, they’ll hurt the sedimentation and the hydrology of the mangroves,” Arnaud said. “Then, those buildings are static, while normally this area is quite dynamic. This means that there will be sand accumulation in some spots, but also places where the soil will be eroded because the dynamic is moving.”

Some supporters of the plan have noted that it will not be located within the mangrove reserve’s core, but Marc Goichot, WWF freshwater lead for Asia Pacific, says this doesn’t mean it makes sense.

“If it’s closer to the coast, it’s not necessarily better because again, it’s dynamic,” he said. “If the area is a marsh or partially or completely on the water, then they’re going to dredge material out from the riverbed, which will starve the coast of its replacement sediment and put at risk the entire existing system.”

He went on: “Even if they bring material in from far away, which they probably won’t because it would be expensive, then you’re burying the area and changing the ecosystem completely, and the dynamic of currents and the movement of nutrients.”

This would impact fisheries and aquatic life in the area. The huge number of people that the Can Gio Tourist City would attract, meanwhile, will also create problems.

“This might induce pressure on local fish, crabs and bivalves,” Arnaud said. “People from [central] Ho Chi Minh City like to go to Can Gio to eat seafood because it’s cheaper, but if so many come it might really decrease the density of the fauna. And if people are not sensible, you’ll have a lot of plastic pollution, and possibly sewage runoff as well.”

Then there is the placement of the development, directly on the coast.

“This project will be high-risk,” Arnaud added. “With climate change, you have storms that are becoming more frequent and stronger, you have sea level rise, and this touristic spot will be at the front of all of this.”

Featured image by: Flickr

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Tim Rist, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

 

Vietnam has banned the import and trade of wildlife, dead or alive, as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The move comes as part of efforts to reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19, and has been applauded by conservationists.

The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, issued a directive halting the trading of wild species, as well as products like eggs, organs or body parts. It also calls for tougher punishment against people involved in illegal hunting, killing or advertising of wild animals. 

The announcement has been welcomed by conservation groups, who have previously accused the government of being complacent in the fight against the trade of endangered species. In February, 14 conservation organisations in Vietnam sent a joint letter warning the government that ‘new viruses will continue to move from wildlife to people while illegal wildlife trade and wildlife consumptions continue’. This sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, who released a report warning that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

You might also like: How to Prevent the Next Pandemic

Vietnam is one of Asia’s biggest consumers of wildlife products, and the wildlife trade is thought to be a billion-dollar industry. The most frequently smuggled animal goods include tiger parts, rhino horn and pangolins. Animals are also bought as pets of status symbols. 

There is also a flourishing online wildlife trade, where images of species are posted on Facebook and YouTube. 

Steven Galster, chairman of the anti-trafficking group Freeland, says, “Vietnam is to be congratulated for recognising that COVID-19 and other pandemics are linked to the wildlife trade. This trade must be banned as a matter of international and public health security.” 

However, some warn that the ban is not far-reaching enough. Nguyen Van Thai, director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, says that the directive ‘is insufficient as some uses of wildlife such as medicinal use or wild animals being kept as pets are not covered’. Others warn that enforcement across the country’s borders may pose a challenge. 

The global wildlife trade has come under great scrutiny following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated at a market in Wuhan, China, where animals such as snakes, beavers and badgers were sold. The Chinese government has since banned the wildlife trade and has placed a temporary ban on such markets. 

Featured image by: Wolf Gordon Clifton / Animal People, Inc.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, popularly known as CITES, is a rare animal: an international environmental treaty with teeth. It regulates the global trade in some of the world’s most threatened species, with the power to ban it when needed.

Now, 45 years after it came into force, CITES appears to be having its moment of reckoning as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The convention is ratified by almost all countries of the world, including the U.S. and China, and is binding. Even the Paris climate agreement is not enforceable.

In March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, questions flew thick and fast about the novel coronavirus’s link to the wildlife trade. While conservation groups jumped at the chance to highlight the relationship between pandemics and wildlife exploitation, the CITES Secretariat, responsible for coordinating the work of its parties, appeared to distance itself from the crisis. “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate,” it said in a statement, “and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19.”

This sparked outrage and invited scrutiny. “What the statement actually said is that they don’t care. They don’t care about what is happening in the world; they think it’s none of their business,” said Vera Weber, president of the Switzerland-based NGO Franz Weber Foundation. “And it says they can’t do anything about it, which is not true because trade, be it legal or illegal, is fueling these pandemics.”

Can CITES as it exists today help ward off the next pandemic, many conservationists are wondering. It should be part of the solution, many believe.

“CITES has enjoyed keeping its rather narrow focus,” John Scanlon, who served as CITES secretary-general from 2010 to 2018, told Mongabay. He said that means it doesn’t directly address non-trade issues like climate impacts, invasive species or animal welfare. “It has tended to want to stick to the sustainability issues,” said Scanlon, who now consults for the NGO African Parks.

That narrow focus is a blessing, according to some experts. Protecting threatened species from being decimated by the international wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is a monumental undertaking. And the multilateral treaty has recorded some hard-won successes, most notably the banning of trade in elephant ivory in 1990. In the decade preceding the ban, over 50,000 African elephants were hunted down every year for their tusks.

However, the ban has had limited success in stifling the illegal ivory trade. CITES relies on national governments to enforce its edicts, and without their consistent and sustained cooperation, many CITES regulations fail to achieve their objectives.

You might also like: How COVID-19 Threatens to Collapse the Ecotourism Sector

CITES
African grey elephants

Some see a by-the-book reading of its mandate as a failing in the face of the coronavirus disaster. “The secretariat tends to forget that CITES cannot only be characterized as a trade agreement, but it is also part of international environmental law,” Weber said.

Many experts, including Weber, favor expanding the agreement, rather than replacing or sidelining it.

“It seems that CITES, as it stands, has become obsolete. It needs to be renewed. It needs to be modernized. It needs to be taken into the 21st century,” she said. “We can’t go on talking about trading in endangered species, when we have such big biodiversity loss in the world. This loss of biodiversity and loss of habitats are also causing pandemics such as COVID-19.”

Getting countries to agree on enforceable treaties is an arduous process that takes years. The Paris climate accord came on the back of over twenty years of climate talks and at least four years of purposeful negotiations. The urgency created by the pandemic may not generate enough political will to produce a new agreement.

CITES covers around 35,000 species of plants and animals whose survival experts believe may be threatened by international trade. The convention classifies them into three categories or appendices, each subject to increasingly restrictive trade regulations based on the risk that global trade poses to their populations in the wild. Though large, the treaty covers only a fraction of the 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth.

The convention does not regulate trade in many of the animals known to pose a health risk to humans.

Horseshoe bats, a family of bats considered to be a potential reservoir for the virus that causes SARS and a possible host species for the novel coronavirus, are not listed in CITES. Neither is the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the intermediary species from which the SARS coronavirus may have jumped to humans.

What has made it difficult for groups to get behind calls for change is the gaping hole at the center of the COVID-19 chronicle. We still do not know how the novel coronavirus, called SARS–CoV-2, jumped from animals to humans. This is likely to remain a mystery for months, if not years. It may remain a mystery forever. Even today, no one is quite sure how the Ebola virus slid from wild animals into human populations. Scientists have discounted as baseless the idea that the novel coronavirus was engineered in a lab or accidentally released from a lab.

Currently, most experts believe the spillover happened when someone foraging for food or involved in trading live wild animals came in contact with an animal carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus or an ancestor of the virus. This animal may have been a bat or an intermediary host. There are suggestions that the virus jumped to humans from pangolins. This has led to more questions for CITES. While it may not regulate trade in horseshoe bats or palm civets, pangolins enjoy the highest level of protection under the convention. Trade in all eight species of these threatened mammals is illegal. These scaly anteaters are considered the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions that go beyond the international illegal wildlife trade. The virus could have entered human communities through legal or illegal trade in wild animals.  Pangolins are found not just in Africa but also in South Asia and Southeast Asia, including in China.  A recent paper noted similarities between the coronavirus infecting humans and one found in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), native to Southeast Asia. The virus could have emerged from and been transported by animals captured domestically or transported from other countries.

The uncertainty has allowed some policymakers and agencies to resist calls for change to environmental policies. For others, however, it means they need to cast a broader net.

“Any environmental treaty has to be a living instrument because it needs to keep adapting and responding to threats to the species that the treaty deals with,” said Shruti Suresh, a lawyer with the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “The existing CITES framework can be applied to tackle public health concerns associated with wildlife trade, for example, through initiatives to close domestic markets and eliminate demand.”

Another possible approach would be to craft a new agreement to address trade in species that pose a threat to human health. But some experts note that such a treaty could be duplicative of CITES, and that might make the regulatory framework more cumbersome. “[What] we are suggesting is that the CITES treaty essentially be amended to support the regulation of trade in wild animals that affects humans,” said Dan Ashe from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a U.S.-based NGO. “We have an existing mechanism for enforcement, that seems to us to be an order of magnitude more available as opposed to building a brand new international enforceable agreement.”

But amending CITES may not be enough to address the issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, even those related to wildlife exploitation.

Apart from being expanded, there is a pressing need to strengthen CITES and reinforce the architecture of global environmental law in which it is embedded, experts say.

The treaty does not tackle wildlife crime, per se, and does not apply to environmental transgressions that occur within national boundaries. It lays down regulations for the import, export and re-export of certain wildlife and wildlife products, which have to be enforced by the countries that are signatories to the convention. Countries have their own laws that deal with crimes like poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing.

Domestic crimes fuel the transnational illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife products — everything from live animals and animal parts, to precious timber. Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative illegal trades in the world, rivaling in value the trade in drugs, weapons, and human traffic.  But it is often not treated as a serious crime by many countries.

Because of the complexity of the global trade in wildlife, CITES collaborates with organizations like INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

“At the moment we have this sort of mishmash system,” Scanlon said. “the implications of these wildlife crimes are so great, we need to focus the international community’s attention on it, and the attention of the criminal justice system on it.”

Scanlon said he favored raising the profile of wildlife crimes by adding a protocol under the U. N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which currently focuses primarily on human trafficking and the illegal arms trade. Suresh agreed that this would be a positive step. “It would shine a spotlight on wildlife crime as organized crime, not just something that is about legal and illegal trade, which is the lens that CITES tends to use.” It could ensure better coordination and support from enforcement agencies in countries, she said.

The responsibility to bring about change, however, will ultimately rest with the nations that are party to these agreements. There is a growing sense that difficult decisions need to be made and implemented soon, and CITES may be a place to start.

“The decision-making authorities under the CITES are the world governments that have signed up to it. If we want this issue to be front and center and addressed we don’t have to wait for the CITES secretariat,” Suresh said. “The parties need to be bringing this issue front and center [at] the next CITES meeting whether that’s EU, Asian states, African states or China itself.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Malavika Vyawahare, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

A study has found that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amounts of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries in 2019 despite China experiencing higher-than-average water levels upstream. 

US-based research company, Eyes on Earth, conducted a ‘Wetness Index’ observational study, which looked at the wet season period from May to October and found that the severe lack of water in the Lower Mekong during the wet season of 2019 was largely influenced by the restriction of water flowing from the upper Mekong during that time.

China disputed the findings, saying that there was low rainfall during last year’s monsoon season on its portion of the 4 350km river.

However, satellite imagery of surface wetness in China’s Yunnan province, through which the Upper Mekong flows, suggest the region in 2019 actually had slightly above-average combined rainfall and snowmelt during the May to October wet season. 

You might also like: Fukushima’s Shift to Renewable Energy Sets An Example for the Rest of Japan

Mekong River, China: the Conflict

Last year’s drought, which saw the Lower Mekong at its lowest levels in more than 50 years, devastated farmers and fisherman and saw the river recede to expose sandbanks along some stretches, with some parts drying up entirely when fishing should have been plentiful. At one gauge in Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, such low water levels had never been recorded before. 

Alan Basist, co-author of the report, and his colleague studied this gauge over a 28-year period and calculated that dams in China had held back more than 410 feet of river height. 

The river supports 60 million people as it flows past Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and through Cambodia and Vietnam. Beijing’s control of the upstream Mekong provides as much as 70% of the downstream water in the dry season. 

“If the Chinese are stating that they were not contributing to the drought, the data does not support that position,” stated Basist. “There was a huge volume of water that was being held back in China”, Basist added. 

Adding to the downstream woes were sudden releases of water from China, which often came unannounced and drowned crops that had been planted near the banks because of the drought. Local fisheries have complained that their catches have faced a very steep decline, while agriculture harvests are stagnant as a result of the persistent droughts and unpredictable floods.

Studies by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organisation that works with governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the river, further predicts that the decrease of local agricultural production will result in these countries being over-dependent on China for food imports, ‘making them even more vulnerable to Chinese influence’. 

In February, the Chinese foreign minister had asserted to regional foreign ministers that China was suffering from the drought as well. He added that even in the unprecedented times of the coronavirus outbreak, the government was being magnanimous in sending water downstream’. Basist, however, refutes this claim.

“You look at our mapping, and it’s bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red from an extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia,” he said. “China can regulate this river flow through dams and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing”. 

He adds, “The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress. There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China.” 

Today, the Chinese section of the river in the southwest of the nation has 11 damns, which produce more power than the region needs. These water reserves in China are swelling, as dam reservoirs fill with the glacial melt that has fed into the River for thousands of years.

Basist says, “Glaciers are bank accounts of water but with climate change they’re melting fast. The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”

Since China doesn’t have any formal water treaties with countries in the lower Mekong regions, cooperation between the countries is poor. The Mekong River Commission works with the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, but China is noticeably absent.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

SUBSCRIBE
Instagram @earthorg Follow Us