Asia, economics, environment, geography, Health, Malaysia, population, Singapore

#Peatland and forest burning for palm oil production continues, but at what cost?

Travelling through East Kalimantan in 1987 the extent of forest clearance was immediately apparent. On the road from Balikpapan to Tenggarong most of the clear-felled areas I passed were tantamount to a tinderbox waiting for a firestorm.

Fire in logged areas was a regular occurrence in East Kalimantan and ten years after this visit, the inevitable happened. The El Nino of 1997-98 exacerbated yet another outbreak that went on to burn 25% of the province.

Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997
Air pollution over Southeast Asia in October 1997

The El Nino of 2015-16

In June the Straits Times reported that peatland fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra that blanketed South-east Asia in thick haze last year released the greatest amount of climate-changing carbon since record blazes in 1997, producing emissions higher than in the whole of the European Union.

The Nature Climate Change 4 notes that El Niño events are a prominent feature of climate variability with global climatic impacts. The 1997/98 episode, often referred to as ‘the climate event of the twentieth century’1, 2, and the 1982/83 extreme El Niño3, featured a pronounced eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool and development of atmospheric convection, and hence a huge rainfall increase, in the usually cold and dry equatorial eastern Pacific. Such a massive reorganization of atmospheric convection, which we define as an extreme El Niño, severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems4, 5, agriculture6, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide3, 7, 8, 9

Recent research on the 2015 fires reported in the Straits Times concluded that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted in the region last year, with 97 per cent originating from forest fires in Indonesia.

The results showed that regional carbon dioxide emissions from the fires were 11.3 million tonnes per day in September and October 2015, more than the 28-nation EU’s daily emissions of 8.9 million tonnes during the same period.

The researchers also said the emissions were worse than during the 1997 fires, considered the worst on record.

At that time, there was an even longer drought and widespread burning due to a stronger El Nino.

Research suggests 100,000 premature deaths

A palm oil concession in Indonesia's Riau Province
A palm oil concession in Indonesia’s Riau Province

Harvard and Columbia University researchers have used air pollution readings to calculate exposure to the toxic smoke haze that drifted across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, last year. Their research suggests 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, arising from this event.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield quotes the report from the Environmental Research Letters journal on September 19 as estimating “. . . that haze in 2015 resulted in 100,300 excess deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore,” says the report, which was published in. This was largely the result of exposure the dangerous particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5).  The report states:

A combination of El Niño and pIOD conditions in July–October 2015 led to dry conditions that exacerbated agricultural and land clearing fires in southern Sumatra and Kalimantan. The resulting dense haze persisted across much of Equatorial Asia for weeks, imposing adverse public health impacts on populations in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Using the adjoint of the GEOS-Chem global chemistry model together with health response functions, we estimate ~60 μg m−3 of population-weighted smoke PM2.5 exposure and 100 300 premature deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore due to extreme haze in 2015. These values are more than double the 25 μg m−3 of smoke PM2.5 and 37 600 premature deaths that we estimate for a similar haze event in the region in 2006. The approximate doubling of regional smoke exposure in 2015 compared to 2006 is consistent with observations of haze from both OMI AI and MODIS AOD during the two events.

Conditions are becoming worse with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) potentiating factors.



The report notes that, “Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from a number of ailments including stroke and respiratory illnesses,” one of the researchers from Harvard University, Dr Shannon Koplitz, told Fairfax Media.

Indonesians were the worst affected with an estimated 91,600 excess deaths.

Last year Indonesia’s National Disaster management Agency (BNPB) acknowledged the severity of the situation reporting that hat 43 million Indonesians were affected by the smog in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone with 503,874 reported Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI).

Based on a map appearing in Kompas, Tues 26 October, 2016

Topsfield reports Sutopo Purwo Nugroho from BNPB as claiming “There is nothing like that (91,000 premature deaths),”  and going on to say, “It is not true. The data is not valid. If there were high numbers of people dead we would have stated it in our almost daily forest fire press releases last year.”

It seems Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has misunderstood the data which pointed to premature deaths, rather than deaths in the present period.

Biggest Environmental Disaster of 21st Century

Topsfield  also quotes Erik Meijaard, an Indonesian-based honorary associate professor at the University of Queensland who says that “Indonesia’s fires are probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”.

Meijaard wrote in The Jakarta Globe referencing the Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests which noted that:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year.
  • According to the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires have just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons.
  • The findings bring into sharp focus the importance of ending business-as-usual approaches to land management in Indonesia if the world hopes to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

While the health impacts are an obvious and continuing legacy of the rapacious forest burning there are other grave consequences.

Non-health consequence of forest clearing and burning

The impacts on endangered ecosystems and endangered animals, in particular, are well documented. Tragic as this is, particularly for animals such as the Sumatran Tiger and the Orang Utan, I’ve concentrated on less well known impacts. The WWF covers the issue of Palm Oil and Biodiversity Loss most thoroughly.

Subsidence of peatlands and their increasing vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding

Flooding in deltas and riparian lowlands is accelerated by the subsidence of peatlands.  Subsidence commonly occurs when channels are cut through peat lands as part of the clearing process. Peat dries out begins to release sequestered CO2 and shrinks. This is well documented in the Straits Times article which reminds us that unrestrained forest clearance to develop oil palm and pulpwood plantations leads to land subsidence.

The article observes that:

Millions of hectares of Indonesia’s former forest lands are slowly subsiding and could become flooded wastelands unable to grow food or timber-based products in one of the world’s most populous nations. Combined with rising sea levels, the scale of the problem becomes even more stark because much of the east coast of Sumatra is just a few metres above sea level.

It quotes Wetlands International which claims that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Sumatra’s peatlands have been drained, largely for agriculture.

Vast stretches of peatlands along Sumatra’s east coast that is mere metres about sea level. Mr Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International tells us:

These peatlands will become unproductive so that, over time, almost the entire east coast of Sumatra will consist of unproductive land that will become frequently flooded, adding that this means the livelihoods of the local communities will be jeopardised, and industrial plantations will not be possible any more.

Remediation is unlikely to be an option so the costs associated with this aspect of the palm oil industry are huge and inter-generational.

Siltation of drainage basins, mangroves and coastal waters

Clearing any land in humid environments increases run off and reduces the percolation of water into soils.  Run-off velocity in such situations also increases and without the protective forest layer erosion increases, top soil is lost and carried into water courses, streams and rivers. This in turn reduces the efficiency of channel flow, increasing flooding and also leading to increased siltation of estuaries and coastal waters.  Such siltation can disturb coastal mangroves and associated fish breeding areas.  River transport, coastal fishing and coastal navigation all suffer.

Muhammad Lukman, in research towards his PhD, has identified elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in riparian and coastal sediments.   He suggests that his findings could be evidence of the effects of widespread, long-term and intense agricultural burnings along with the many forest/peat swamp fires that have frequently occurred in the past 20 years or so.

Some estimates of cost can be made in terms of the costs of flood mitigation and control measures, losses arising from flooding of agricultural land and settled areas, and the immediate impacts on navigation and fishing

Forced closure of schools and educational institutions;

On 25 September, 2015, as haze hovered above AQI 300 in Singapore, schools and kindergartens were closed and protective N95 masks distributed. Levels of smoke haze pollution were far higher in Indonesia where schools had been closed in the previous month. In Malaysia the government announced that schools would be closed in areas with an AQI over 200. On Monday 5 October, 2015, Detik online reported that in Pekanbaru, capital of Riau Province in Sumatra, schools had been closed for more than a month owing to the smoke haze. Finally the Department of National Education Pekanbaru forced students to go to school despite the smoke haze.

Such a cyclical problem will cause significant disruption to educational services and the development of human resources, particularly in Indonesia.

Closure of airports and disruption of airline schedules.

During the burning season 2015 flights were frequently cancelled at Sultan Syarif Kasim II (SSK II) airport Pekanbaru, in Riau province with visibility down to between 300 to 600 metres in the area. Elsewhere Kuching International Airport (KIA) in Sarawak, Malaysia was closed on September 10 with visibility down to some 400 metres. In Indonesia, poor visibility due to smoke disrupted flight schedules at Pinang Kampai Airport, Riau. All of these events have direct measurable impacts.

Losses sustained by the tourism industry and other business sectors

Last year Reuters quoted Irvin Seah, DBS economist in Singapore, who said, In 1997, the level of pollution was not this severe, and noting that the tourism industry’s contribution to the economy was relatively smaller back then.

The Reuters report observes that Tourism makes up 6.4 percent of Malaysia’s economy and about 5 to 6 percent of Singapore’s and quotes an ANZ research report that says, in Singapore, Shopping, restaurants, bars and outdoor entertainment will all suffer during this hazy period.

Among the events disrupted or even cancelled due to the haze were the 2015 FINA Swimming World Cup in Singapore and the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in Malaysia.

While losses in tourism and ancillary sectors can be calculated there are increased costs to businesses across the board. Developing and implementing disaster relief plans for employees is one area that is immediately obvious, then there are the issues of work days lost owing to respiratory or cardio pulmonary illnesses, disruptions to supply chains and various other schedules of usual business activity. Finally there is the matter of impacts on ventilation and air conditioning filtration systems particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Impact on global warming

This was also broached in the previous post Forest Burning and haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The precise impact of any one burning event is difficult to judge, but the immense quantities of carbon stored in the peatlands of Indonesia is cause for concern. One estimate suggests that Indonesia’s 1997 fires released 810 to 2,670 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 13 to 40 per cent of the fossil fuels emitted worldwide that year.

In a report entitled ‘Indonesian haze: Why it’s everyone’s problem’ on 18 September, 2015, CNN observed that, it’s a persistent, annual problem that disrupts lives, costs the governments of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia billions of dollars, and leaves millions of people at risk of respiratory and other diseases. The land that burns is extremely carbon rich, raising Indonesia’s contribution to climate change.

The CNN report also reminds us that in 2014 Indonesia was ranked the world’s sixth worst emitter of green house gasses.

Australia, economics, environment, Personal comment

Continuing mismanagement of #Australia’s #coastal zone: Is there any plan for future sea level rise?

So the problem continues.  When I visited Kingscliff near the border of NSW and Queensland, in April this year, I was both intrigued and dismayed at the small disaster in coastal management that was so evident. There was a road to nowhere, in the waterfront park come parking area.

Kingscliff's road to nowhere in April of 2011

Beyond the green mesh barrier was beach, well a beach of sorts.  It was certainly an area of sand and were it not for a few tell tale signs, like pieces of  road tarmac strewn across the sand and an ominous wall of rocks emerging in the distrance, it might simply have been an area of coastline, once poorly managed, now being brought back into some dynamic equilibrium by the forces of nature.

Eroded beach at Kingscliffe.

Today my brother sent me a link to the Tweed Shire Echo.  It presented a view of the same beach, now six weeks later and in an even more degraded condition.  Yet the tone was almost upbeat.  The article read:

Tweed Shire Council says it’s preparing to carry out interim works on the beachfront at Kingscliff to restore public access to the beach as the southern corner of the beach continues to erode.

Next week further sandbagging works will be undertaken to enable safe access to the beach near the Cudgen Headland Surf Club.

So the Tweed Shire Council is on the case.

The article went on to say that:

Some 300,000 cubic metres of sand would be placed on the beach and re-nourishment would continue as required in the long-term, in accordance with council’s adopted Tweed Coastline Management Plan.This sand nourishment would cover the rock wall – which is currently exposed – and this wall would only be visible after extreme weather events.

I’m inclined to wonder just what the real cost of such management strategies are, for the residents of the Tweed Shire.  Why did they build the wall in the first place?

Is the Tweed Shire seriously advancing the beach nourishment strategy as the only viable one?

It seems the mismanagement of the coastal zone continues, unabated.  I wonder if the Tweed Shire Council has any plans to deal with sea level rise?

Australia, geography, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Torres Strait

Drug resistant #tuberculosis confronting #Australia’s border security

With the emergence of the concept of a Nation State the world moved beyond tribe and clan, entering a new era in which the notion of the state rested on largely imagined and unsustainable historical constructions. Now in Europe we are witnessing the gradual end to such naive notions but in island nations such as Australia the illusion not only persists but can assume a large and unhealthy position within our domestic political agenda. Developing a sense of realism and effective border management, freed from the simplistic notions of border protection, is essential if both the political and actual health of our nation is to be sustained.

Developing the correct policy mix and response to developments in our region, rests on a clear understanding of just how Australia fits into it’s biogeographic and cultural context. None of this is simple, we’re bound to make mistakes. This post is about one such mistake, one that can still be easily avoided and one that can still be addressed with one small tweaking of our policy response.

The enthnogeographic realities of the border region
Back in August 2010 I wrote more extensively about the general issue of our borders in a post entitled Indonesia and Australia: perceptions of border security from the land that’s girt by sea. To anyone who read that post, or has reflected on the matter of Australia’s physical margins it will be clear that both biophysically and socio-culturally there is constant interaction between Australia and what surrounds us. Traditional fishers from the Indonesian archipelago continue to visit Australian waters while our border with Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a culturally arbitrary one.

A treaty, commonly known as The Torres Strait Treaty between Australia and PNG describes both a seabed and fisheries boundary between the two states.  It is a response to the porosity and enthnogeographic realities of the border region. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has a posted a most comprehensive website addressing this issue.

DFAT has published a map outlining the two boundaries.

Seabed and fisheries jurisdictions and the protected zone

This is no ordinary border, whatever the understanding most Australians might have this is a border that concedes in a most undeniable manner, the transitional nature of the border between Australia and PNG.  The border region includes a Protected Zone.  This is an area of the Torres Strait recognised by Australia and PNG as having special characteristics.

The Protected Zone is a recognition that Torres Strait Islanders and the coastal people of PNG need to carry on their traditional way of life. This geopolitical construct is a recognition of the realities. It permits traditional people from both countries to move freely (without passports or visas) for traditional activities in within the zone.

DFAT explains that:

Torres Strait Islanders are allowed to travel north into Papua New Guinea as far as the 9 degrees South latitude line just north of Daru. They are also allowed to visit Parama Island and the villages of Sui and Sewerimabu.

Traditional inhabitants from the nominated thirteen Papua New Guinea coastal villages are allowed to travel south into Australia as far as the 10 degrees 30 minutes South latitude line near Number One Reef.

Traditional activities under the Treaty include activities on land (such as gardening, food collection and hunting), activities on water (such as fishing for food), ceremonies or social gatherings (such as marriages) and traditional trade.

Business dealings and employment for money are not allowed as traditional activities under the Treaty.

Micro-organisms a challenge for border security
In March, 2008, Director of the Australian National University’s Masters of Applied Epidemiology Program at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Professor Paul Kelly went on record saying that:

The Torres Strait and Australia are running the risk of  a TB epidemic, particularly from the virtually untreatable multi-drug resistant (MDR) and Extensively Drug Resistant (XDR) forms 

In May of that year the Australian Medical Journal published a report stating that as early as 2006 it was known that there was a rising incidence of TB in the Torres Strait and changing TB patterns in Far North Queensland.  The report explained that there was:

Evidence of rising incidence of TB in the Torres Strait and primary transmission of MDR-TB within the Western Province of PNG suggests the potential for a major public health crisis, with the possibility of MDR-TB spreading to northern Queensland.

It called for urgent efforts to increase resourcing, to find further cases and provide appropriate treatment with follow-up for all visitors and residents living in the Torres Strait Protected Zone.

The report also explaind that while Australia has one of the lowest incident rates of tuberculosis (TB) in the world, with rates around 5–6 cases per 100,000 population the. . .  health status of Papua New Guineans is one of the lowest in the Pacific region, and TB is one of the three leading infectious diseases causing death in PNG, with an estimated mortality rate of 42 deaths per 100,000 population. The estimated annual incidence of all forms of TB in PNG is 233 cases per 100,000 population. 

The response on the ground
The Torres Strait Treaty excludes health matters as a valid reason for travel under its freedom of movement provisions, but inadequate medical services in PNG encouraged people from Western Province to travel to the Torres Strait Islands in search or medical care. Both Commonwealth and Queensland health resources seem to have been used in the filling of a PNG health services gap that could have serious consequences for Australia. In July 2008 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) 7.30 report carried a story on the growing problem. Peter McCutcheon reported that almost . . .  every day, villages from the mainland of Papua New Guinea take a short boat trip to Australia. Some live less than five kilometres away from Saibi, one of the northern most Australian islands in the Torres Strait. 

McCutcheon cited a spokesman from DFAT as saying that : “The free movement provisions of the Treaty do not … permit travel specifically for health purposes. We need to balance this carefully against humanitarian considerations and ensure that all health risks are appropriately addressed.”

A Senate Committee of inquiry
Ultimately there was a Senate Committee of inquiry into this problem.  The Committee made five recommendations, but these are some of the more important ones:

1. The committee recommends that through the Package of Measures developed by the Health Issues Committee, the Australian Government continue to support PNG initiatives to establish new, or improve existing, health facilities in Western Province so that PNG nationals no longer need to seek health care in the Torres Strait.

2. The committee recommends that the Australian Government give serious consideration to measures that would further facilitate the proposal for greater cross-border involvement by Australian health professionals in both the provision of services and capacity building on the PNG side of the border.

3. The committee recommends that the Australian Government use the Papua New Guinea–Australia Partnership for Development to detail the assistance it is providing to PNG to improve the delivery of health services in the southern part of Western Province and to ensure that projects undertaken in this region are appropriately monitored and evaluated during implementation and after completion.

4. The committee recommends that to improve accountability and transparency of Australia’s development aid spending, AusAID’s Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) conduct an analysis of Australia’s funding in relation to Western Province in the Torres Strait region.

5. The committee recommends that the analysis mentioned in the previous recommendation also look closely at the extent and effectiveness of AusAID’s cooperation with Queensland Health and consider ways to ensure that their work in the Torres Strait region is seamless across the border and that their operations and funding complement each other.

The ABC’s new program 7.30, reported again on the issue.  Peter McCutcheon observing that the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments have decided to shut down vital tuberculosis clinics in the Torres Strait. Experts now fear that the problem could spread to the mainland.  Sadly, this wasn’t one of the Senate Committee’s recommendations.

Australia, environment

Lead Paint Protest

About 40 people wearing red took staged colorful protests on Terrigal and Avoca Beaches, this weekend.

Is the new NSW government up to the challenge of keeping our ocean clean?

Protesting against the State Government’s planned sinking of the ex-HMAS Adelaide on April 13 they were highlighting the remaIning problem of lead contamination in the on the ship.

According to the No Ship at Avoca group there is between ‘23,000 and 24,000 square metres of lead paint on the HMAS Adelaide. The estimated depth of paint is 0.12 mm which is equivalent to 0.0012 metres. Therefore there is 2.88 cubic metres of lead paint. 1 cubic metre = 1000 mL of paint. 2880 litres of lead paint. 200 Litres per barrel = 15 barrels.’ The group estimates that this amounts to a further 9 tonnes of lead based paint.

The size of the problem

The NSW Ombudsman has issued serious questions to the Government about the scuttling.

The No Ship Action Group want to know if new Premier Barry O’Farrell will allow the Ombudsman time to complete the proper process – and therefore postpone the scuttling of the old warship.

Why add to our childrens lead burden?

For more information visit the No Ship At Avoca website


#Bali and the plastic bag, a continuing issue

In January, 2011, I began exploring some of the environmental challenges facing the people of Bali.  Amongst these was the continuing and ubiquitous problem of the plastic, in particular the plastic bag in its various forms.

Although Bali became my temporary home over an 18 year period, and I still travel widely throughout Indonesia, my earliest Asian travels were in Malaysia, southern Thailand and Sumatra.  It was here in the 1970s and early 1980s I began noticing just how fast technology was changing as expanding market economies brought new products into countries that were later to experience unprecedented economic growth.  During those early travels I was amazed at the remarkable array of plastic household objects that could be found in every marketplace. Along with plastics was a massive amount of signage devoted to the promotion of domestic washing detergents.

Back then I often wondered how long the plastics would last in the tropics and how people would manage their disposal.  Widespread and increasing use of detergents also caused me concern as I remembered the devastating impact of detergents on the magnificent stands of Norfolk pines that once lined the seafront parks of Coogee, Bronte, Bondi and Manly, in 1960s Sydney.  When non-biodegradable detergents were introduced to Sydney’s Roman sewerage system, they became potent additives in humid on shore breezes quickly stripping away the waxy salt protection on the leave of 80 year old pines.  I was also conscious of the connection between excessive use of phosphate detergents and eutrophication.

With both innovations it was the intrinsic lack of biodegradability that was cause for the gravest concerns. While production of phosphate free, biodegradable detergents and more efficient plastic recycling have greatly reduced possible environmental impacts, back then these options simply weren’t on the horizon.  Today plastic recycling has become quite widespread, but the ubiquitous and largely non-degradable plastic bag still presents many environmental problems, mostly in the hydrosphere.

Dominance of cultural patterns in Bali
When I eventually visited Bali I was amazed by the sheer dominance of cultural patterns, and by its remarkable self sufficiency.  In particular, what caught my attention was the intricacy of Bali’s rice terracing and its complex irrigation and water management systems. Bali’s natural drainage is simple enough, a radial system with rivers and valleys flowing out from central mountains. Water has eroded deep narrow gorges through soft volcanic materials.

Download a large format map of Bali from the Indonesian National Survey and Mapping Coordination Body (BAKOSURTANAL).

Although wet rice agriculture and dry upland farming developed over the preceding thousand years or so, cultivation and irrigation were engineered in such a way that erosion and top soil loss was minimised. Bali’s rivers ran clean.

Pekerisan River, Gunung Kawi, Tampaksiring, Bali

Beyond the natural movement of water, human intervention created a complex hierarchy of dams, irrigation channels and tunnels. Fed by spring water, supplemented by rainfall an extrardinarily complex and orderly irrigation system was developed.  American anthropologist, J Stephen Lansing, described the orderly set of arrangements, that are still in operation as  ‘order as it arises from below’.

The major natural source of water on the island is from a series of crater lakes. Each one of these has one major temple known as a Pura Ulun Danau from where advice on likely supplies of water, and appropriate times for planting, is received. In essence irrigation decision making arises from the deliberations of numerous democratic irrigation societies, drawing their understanding and approach to management from a series of water temples and irrigation priests set at different levels within drainage system and all connected historically and ritually, with the appropriate Pura Ulun Danau. Such involution in the understanding, process and technology of irrigation is most effective while practices remain largely unchanged. A helpful but brief explanation of this system can be found in the following video, The Goddess and the Computer.

While the initial construction of this system probably required the leadership of a politically hierarchical structure, such as a Raja and court, subsequent operation doesn’t reflect such hierarchy and like so many other aspects of Balinese life shows significant refinement and order withing a long established tradition.  Most disruption occurs in such systems, when innovation is imposed on the system, either by political master, or the market place.  Lansing notes that this happened, under Indonesia’s ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1970s.  He argues that this didn’t lead to increased yields but rather to a collapse of rice production.

For more on Lansing’s theories check the video ‘A Thousand Years in Bali‘.

Challenges to irrigation and drainage systems
Change can also be the result of the operation of the ‘free’ market. In Bali the introduction of plastics, with the growth of ‘modernism’ and tourism, has presented challenges to irrigation and drainage systems.  Traditionally the packaging was made from banana leaves, woven split bamboo or young coconut palm leaves.  Traditionally packaging was biodegradable.  Modern packaging employs large amounts of PVC.  The plastic bag and PVC plastic packaging has been both an unsightly and an environmentally disruptive addition to the Balinese irrigation and drainage systems.

In rivers and water courses plastic is a significant impediment intercepting and deflecting natural flows, interfering with soil biology and presenting a long term problem that is resistant to the natural processes of decomposition.

Plastic mixed with leaf litter in Penestanan, Bali

Plastics also make their way down rivers and are eventually carried into surrounding seas.

Plastic garbage spilling into a gully, Kedewatan

Once in the ocean plastics can have a major impact on marine animals, particularly dolphins and turtles.

While more than 70% of Indonesia’s plastics manufacturing plants are in Java and a mere 3% in Bali, the tourism driven boom economy of Bali ensures that a disproportionate amount of plastic is consumed on this small island. (For further detail see Plastic Packaging Manufacturing in Indonesia: Indonesia Industry Report and Market Research)

Tourism driven development in Bali initially out stripped the capacity of the provincial and local government to to respond with effective recycling strategies. Despite the big problem that plastic presents, there is some hope. People are beginning to recognise the importance of plastic recycling. Plastic recycling depots have now been established and teams of poorer workers from Java have begun to collect certain types of plastic from villages, roads sides and irrigation channels for recycling. These freelance plastic collectors, rather uncharitably dubbed pemulung and held in some suspicion by villagers, perform a useful function.

Creative initiatives have been promoted to draw public attention to the problem. Some school children, for example, have created artworks and sculptures from plastic as a way of drawing attention to the problem. In one community plastic has been recycled into plastic bricks that have been used to construct a huge plastic pyramid to draw attention to the problem.

Local government has also begun stepping up to the challenge of garbage collection. This municipal garbage truck was photographed as it collected garbage along Jl Bisma, in Ubud.

Municipal garbage truck, Ubud, Bali.

Educating the broader society
In modern Balinese society, just like modern Australian society, there is a need to understand the processes operating in the environment. It is easy to overlook the important forces in nature that help to keep out environment in balance. Traditionally Balinese people have held spiritual notions of the recycling process. Bhoma, child of Vishnu and Ibu Pertiwi (mother earth) has performed the magical task of transformation.

With Bhoma as the force of of transformation there was no need to understand the micro-ecological processes involved in the decay of leaves and food scraps, or the way soils are formed. These things were Niskala, all part of the unseen and magical work of the gods. As the god of recycling this was primarily Bhoma’s responsiblty. Provided humans played their part, acting in harmony with nature, then natural processes remained intact and unimpeded, so all remained in equilibrium and Bhoma was free to carry out his work skimming across the earth and transforms rubbish into the food of life.

One of Bhomas many faces

Neglecting the important natural recycling that goes on in all environments and over burdening this natural recycling with non-biodegradable products can leads to unexpected consequences. Bhoma’s powers are limited, he may be the God of recycling but he doesn’t know much about 20th century products like plastic, agricultural chemicals and aluminium. How he’ll manage climate change and global warming, as the 21st century progresses is in the laps of the gods.

The best management strategies will probably be found in continuing education of people.

Australia, environment, geography

New Year #2011 at #Coogee: more on the #coastal zone

Sydney’s coastal rock platforms are a sensitive indicator of coastal zone environmental health. Despite successive waves of settlers pillaging this zone over the past 220 years low tides often reveal startling environmental richness and diversity remaining just beyond the easy grasp of human predators.

This summer solstice the full moon brought extremely low tides to coastal Sydney, similar conditions prevailed on the full moon of the winter solstice. For me these are particularly beautiful times.

The Bogey Hole on Coogee's northern headland - Giles Baths

Swimming at Giles baths today, that’s the bogey hole at the northern end of Coogee beach, conditions on the low tide were ideal. Here amongst the steady stream tourists, kids from Sydney’s inner west and the usual mixture of mixture of locals and former locals, such as myself, I enjoyed a reflective half hour. It’s not an ideal place for lap swimming, it’s uneven and bottom and variable depth make it more of a place for relaxation and exploration.

Said to be a men’s place in traditional Aboriginal culture, it has several flat straight edged boulders lying on the bottom. At low tide these make excellent seats. I like to take up a position and just soak though the cooler ocean temperatures of recent weeks have made long relaxing session more challenging.

Leaning forward and stilling the water’s movement with my hands, I can gazed down into the rock pool and watching countless small fish, mainly mado and weed whiting with the occasional small toad fish, swimming around my legs. Further down Sea urchins were just visible beneath overhanging rocks.

Sitting at water level and scanning the surrounding rocks revealed more sedentary inter-tidal life; Cunjevoi and seas squirts around the lower low tidal zone then barnacles, limpets and finally dense communities of blue periwinkles clustered together in a long wait for the next king tide. In the stillness of the sheltered bogey hole there was little apparent activity on the rocks save the occasional Cunjevoi squirt and timid rock crabs scurrying along moist crevices.

Pied Cormorant


Sometimes small stingrays find there way into the pool, but today there was an altogether different attraction. A small pied cormorant was busily fishing amongst bathers. Apparently oblivious to the comings and goings of people it dived repeatedly, sometimes surfacing to swallow a mado, before diving again for more. When it had its fill it simply swam to as large rock, scampered up, stretched out its wings, shook of the excess moisture and after a few minutes in the sun, flew off to some other place.

For more on Sydney’s coastal zone visit Ricks Underwater Blog.

environment, geography, history

#Swimming in Sewage: Australia’s Coastline, a few more comments

As an island continent, with a land mass of about 7,692,030 km² Australia has a vast coastline, off shore islands included it’s about 59 736 kms

Most Australians, some 85%, live within 50 kilometres of the coast. I grew up by the sea, about 3 minutes away. From an early age I was aware of its beauty and moods but also the neglectful attitude that many Australians demonstrate towards it. I’ll write more about this in the future.

Sydney, like so many other coastal cities, has used the ocean to dispose of wastes since it became a city 150 years ago.(From: Sharon Beder “Sydney Sewage and the South Pacific)

Swimming amongst fatty sewage from the Bondi and Malabar outfalls, is still a vivid childhood memory. Now this problem has been ‘solved’ by discharging the sewage further out to sea. Unfortunately this is principally a case of out of sight out of mind. Sydney, to a large measure, still uses the ancient Roman approach to sewage management by dumping it into the South Pacific. We even have sewage overflow outlets that dump it into estuarine areas when it rains a lot.

Dumping stuff into the oceans has been a global issue for some time now. It’s not only Australian’s that do it. Despite this the South Pacific, or that part of it known as the Tasman Sea, is a constant source of interest for me.

Coogee's Wedding Cake Island and a rare break on the South Point