Sewage Treatment Project Secures Cleaner Water for 5 Chinese Villages

After undergoing booming expansions over the last three decades, urban China has recently been enjoying the fruits of its labour. But this prosperity has come at a price: the environmental deterioration that haunts many Chinese city-dwellers.

river, southwest China

River in the mountains of southwest China. (© Conservation International/photo by Chuang Xu)

Besides the now infamous haze and smog, water pollution has also emerged as an especially serious problem. Numerous measures and investments have been taken in cities to reduce pollutants, such as construction of more wastewater treatment plants and similar facilities in recent years. However, many rural areas that face the same problems are often largely overlooked, particularly around wastewater issues.

One could argue that it is not so urgent a problem there, since the major pollutants in the countryside are smaller in scale than in urban areas. However, when you consider the hundreds of millions of rural residents, the overall pollution generated can still be immense.

In the mountains of southwest China, agricultural communities situated in critical watershed areas should be able to enjoy the freshwater supply at its purest. Yet in many villages, particularly in more developed regions, countless stinky ponds and ditches have sadly become regular scenery.

As in much of rural China, for as long as anyone can recall the domestic sewage here has been discharged untreated directly into the environment. This would not have been an issue decades ago, but when modern habits and products (chemically sourced laundry detergents, cleaning agents, etc.) entered this part of the world, pollutants that are now mainstays in everyday life have become an emerging problem, reducing the quality of the water used for drinking, hygiene and other human needs.

Fortunately, some rural areas are also experiencing progress. Since 2012, CI China has conducted a sewage treatment project in five villages located on the periphery of nature reserves within the mountains of southwest China. This project has constructed a domestic sewage treatment system using a septic tank, as well as artificial wetland and soil infiltration techniques that aim to purify the wastewater before it enters the freshwater system.

sewage treatment project site in Qinggangping, China

One of the sewage treatment project sites, in Qinggangping village. (© Conservation International/photo by Chuang Xu)

By design, this system demands no external power supply and relatively few labour and monetary costs to build and maintain. However, although local people showed great enthusiasm for the idea of the project, many of them still weren’t willing to pay the additional costs of system maintenance.

A variety of measures have been taken to encourage villagers to actively help maintain this sewage system, and subsequently ensure the sustainability of our project. For instance, we have been trying to determine specific community demands that the project could help to meet in exchange for the maintenance cost. For example, helping communities pursue sustainable agricultural methods could incentivise people to support the sewage project — an approach influenced by the success of conservation agreements set up by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.

Yet material incentives cannot guarantee an endless drive for maintaining the system, as the profitability of sustainable agriculture could be subject to various unpredictable factors, such as market fluctuations and shifting weather patterns. A long-term motivation will require a larger shift in local perception and behaviour.

Therefore, as part of our project strategy, we also designed an environmental education programme for local children. Last summer, CI China and its local grassroots partner cooperated to organise summer camps for the children of these five communities, allowing them to learn about their environment in a more informal atmosphere than school.

The camps turned out to be quite a novelty for the children, who have less access to resources than urban kids. By conducting a water purification experiment, we gave a simplified demonstration of how the tanks and wetlands turn the sewage back into clean water; through a “treasure hunting” game, we inspired them to discover the beauty of those teeny-tiny things hidden in their surrounding farmland, hedges and bushes. Even we tutors gained much knowledge from these lovely children about the birds, insects and vegetation that surround us.

children attending summer camp in southwest China

Rural children attending the project’s summer camp in southwest China. (© Lan Huang)

This experience could well be a starting point for these children to understand environmental issues. As the children grow and learn more about their living environment, I am confident that they can become the drivers of positive changes taking place in their homeland. This would be one of the project’s most important legacies — one that would outlast its pipes and cement tanks.

Promising as the sewage treatment project does seem, its impact would be limited if it never extends outside these five villages. Lasting success of the project will lie in the adoption of this sewage treatment model in other regions. To our delight, our project has already attracted interest from forestry departments and many other nature reserve authorities. CI China will soon carry out a new sewage treatment project in dozens of sites within nature reserves areas in Sichuan province.

For every visit our project communities, I am always awed by the spectacular landscape, fresh breeze and limpid water flow. Often a two-hour drive takes me to a fairly pristine place with a world of difference from where I departed. Here, nature is so prosperous and yet so fragile — so susceptible to our often-destructive power.

And this is precisely why CI is here — not only for the mountains and the wildlife, but also to try to secure a watery future for all mankind. Nature needs our care.

Yan Jin is a project consultant with CI China.

To Protect Rhinos, There’s No Room for Gray Area

In mid-November, South African authorities confirmed that the number of rhinos poached in the country so far in 2014 (1,020) has exceeded the number killed in 2013 (1,004).

rhino

Human demand for rhino horn is threatening to drive the world’s remaining rhino populations to extinction. (© Rod Mast)

Later that month, the conservation world mourned the passing of Dr. Ian Player, a global conservation icon and important rhino advocate.

Then this week, we learned that a northern white rhino died of old age at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, leaving the total population of this subspecies at just five individuals left on the planet.

These tragic milestones are stark reminders of the unprecedented challenges faced by the world’s five remaining rhino species. Given all that’s at stake, I believe that a total ban on the sale of rhino horn for the foreseeable future is the best plan of action — not just for the rhinos’ survival, but also for the people whose livelihoods depend on them. Continue reading

What Happened in Lima: Are We on Track for a Global Climate Change Agreement by 2015?

I had high hopes for the United Nations climate change talks in Lima, which concluded yesterday after two weeks of negotiations.

brush fire, Australia

Brush fire in Australia. Prolonged drought (one of the many climate change impacts being felt across the globe) makes landscapes more susceptible to wildfires. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Over the last few months, we saw dozens of commitments made at the U.N. Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people in New York to demand action on climate change; a landmark agreement between the world’s two biggest emitters, the United States and China; and billions of dollars pledged to the Green Climate Fund. In addition, the New York Declaration on Forests brought together hundreds of organizations including companies, governments and civil society representatives, united behind the goal of halving deforestation by 2020.

Never before had so many diverse actors come together in solidarity to express willingness to take concrete action on addressing both the causes and impacts of climate change — and with 2014 reported to be the warmest year on record, the stakes have never been higher.

Those of us working on climate policy had hoped that this unprecedented momentum would finally translate into a coordinated effort at the global level.  Which is why the failure of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 20th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 20) to address several important issues was such a disappointment. Continue reading

Lobsters, Conflict and the ‘Invisible’ Work of Women in Coastal Ecuador

This blog is the sixth post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” blog series.

family in coastal Ecuador

A family residing near Ecuador’s Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve. Diego is a member of Artelangosta; Anabel is also actively participating to strengthen the role of women in the association. (© Juan Carlos Medina, Nazca)

The Galápagos Islands may be the site of Ecuador’s most famous marine reserve, but I think the reserve where I work is even more special.

Indeed, the Galera-San Francisco Marine Reserve on Ecuador’s western coast has more species of fish, corals, jellyfish and mollusks than the Galápagos. It also protects the largest colony of black coral in the world. And, importantly, it is home to lobster and other fish that sustain local communities.

Unfortunately, like so many other places around the world, overfishing and destructive fishing practices have wreaked havoc on local marine ecological diversity, threatening the health of the ecosystem and local livelihoods. This reserve, supported by the government and local communities, aims to reverse that trend. Continue reading

For Effective Climate Change Action, Indigenous Voices Must Be Heard

Around this time every year, dozens of indigenous leaders leave their often-remote homelands  around the globe and travel — sometimes thousands of miles — in order to attend an important meeting.

women in Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area, Guyana

A Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) team member meets with local women from the Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area in southern Guyana in 2006. CI has worked in partnership with, trained and learned from indigenous peoples for more than 25 years. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

This meeting is the U.N. climate change negotiations, a global meeting where governments, NGOs, indigenous peoples and local communities discuss issues related to climate change and make decisions that will impact how the global community responds to climate change-related threats.

Decisions made — or not made — in this forum are already having huge impacts on indigenous communities. However, the bigger the role they have in the process, the better off we all may be. Continue reading

What Does Climate Science Look Like? Here’s One Example

Patricia Alvarez measures a tree, Peru

The TEAM Network’s Patricia Alvarez conducts a vegetation survey in Peru. By aggregating TEAM’s data from sites across the planet, scientists are able to get a broad view of global trends in the health of ecosystems and species. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Right now, thousands of people from across the globe are attending the U.N. climate talks in Lima, Peru.

Many of them are representing the world’s nations as they attempt to make progress on an international climate change agreement that is due next year. But country delegation members aren’t the only attendees. Many participants are there to share their experiences and learn from others, whether the subject is building community resilience to climate change impacts or expanding scientific knowledge of how ecosystems are being affected.

Patricia Alvarez is one of those people. As a site manager for the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring (TEAM) Network, Patricia spends much of her time measuring trees in Peru’s Manú National Park. Continue reading

The Forest that Fights Climate Change

As U.N. climate change negotiations kick off in Lima, Peru this week, Will Turner explores why tropical forests are an essential part of the discussion.

Aerial view of Guyana's Essequibo River and surrounding forest

Aerial view of Guyana’s Essequibo River and surrounding forest. Guyana has one of the highest levels of forest cover of any country in the world, which contain crucial freshwater systems and help fight global climate change. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

When we think about causes of climate change, we think smokestacks and tailpipes. Google “solutions for climate change” and you might get recommendations to change your light bulbs, recycle and travel less. Yet a major driver of global warming consistently goes under the radar: the destruction of natural ecosystems, especially rainforests.

Forests, it turns out, are heavy hitters in atmospheric cycles. Through photosynthesis and respiration, trees and other plants take in and release gigatons of carbon annually. Earth’s forests are literally made of carbon, a dominant component of everything from branches, foliage and roots to leaf litter, soils and peat deposits. Spread that over millions of square kilometers and one can begin to comprehend this astonishing fact: The Earth’s remaining forests contain about 860 billion tons of carbon — more than the entire atmosphere.

But there’s a catch: Forests only store that carbon while they’re standing. Continue reading

How Nature Inspires and Transforms Us All

This is the ninth blog in CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

man holding toad, Choco, Colombia

A man holds a previously undescribed species of toad in the department of Choco, Colombia. (© Robin Moore/ iLCP)

A furtive rustling sound first drew me to the pile of dead leaves. Then I spotted it. A long, snuffling nose emerged into the crisp air, soon followed by an impossible array of bi-colored spikes seemingly exploding in every direction. I watched, transfixed, as this curious beast continued to push through the underbrush, searching for worms and insects.

How could such a striking and unusual creature be wandering through my urban backyard outside London?

My first encounter with a hedgehog as a young boy remains indelibly imprinted on my mind more than 30 years later. The power of nature to transform us, infusing all of our senses, becomes evident through these vivid, lasting connections. For example, while I can’t recall much from the age of three, I can still clearly feel the joy and wonder that jolted me when I discovered a salamander hiding beneath a rotting log.

The diversity of life on Earth influences us in profound ways — perhaps none more so than a flower, as Lupita Nyong’o eloquently explains in Flower, Conservation International’s latest Nature Is Speaking film.

As Flower says, it feeds people. In fact, flowering plants produce the vast majority of food we eat, like fruits, grains, beans and potatoes, and they provide the world’s poor with 90% of their basic needs.

Continue reading

3 Reasons to Be Thankful for Coral Reefs

Vibrant coral reef with red fan coral and anthius, in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

A vibrant coral reef in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

When the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving tomorrow, we will sit down and give thanks for our family, our friends and the very meal we eat.

Thanks should also be given to all that nature provides for people: clean air, fresh water and food. Every ecosystem on Earth provides one or more of these essential elements for life, including coral reefs — one of the most productive but threatened ecosystems.

Coral reefs are more than “just rocks,” as my colleague Laure Katz explained last month. They’re immense constructions built by an intricate assembly of living things. They grow slowly but steadily into vibrant oases in the proverbial desert the ocean can sometimes be.

In the more than 100 countries where they’re found, coral reefs provide food, jobs, protection from storms and cultural treasures. A 1997 study of the ecosystem services provided by reefs estimated their annual global value at US$ 375 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that estimate would be over $550 billion today.

Globally, one in six people lives within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of a coral reefbut no matter where you live, here are three reasons to be thankful for coral. Continue reading

How a Filipina Activist Fights for Human Rights at the U.N.

Earlier this year, CI board member and human rights activist Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was appointed as the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the Human Rights Council President. She is the first woman and the first person from a developing country to hold this three-year position. Vicky attended the World Parks Congress this past week in Sydney, Australia. Today on Human Nature, she explains what brought her to this point.

Indigenous peoples in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, Panalingaan, Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Lynn Tang)

Indigenous peoples in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape in Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Lynn Tang)

I began teaching myself about human rights during the 1970s, when the Philippines was under martial law. I was actively engaged in the struggle against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Indigenous communities like mine were challenged by plans to build mega-hydroelectric dams, militarization, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of our leaders and activists.

In order to fight back, I needed to understand what our human rights as indigenous peoples are and where we could bring our grievances for redress.

After attending a number of training courses, I established several institutions that provided trainings on human rights to indigenous communities, lawyers and paralegal workers. The latest one is Tebtebba (Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education), based in the Philippines and which provides capacity building and advocacy activities at national, regional and global levels. Tebtebba also convenes the Global Indigenous Peoples Partnership on Climate Change, Forests and Sustainable Development, composed of indigenous organizations, communities and networks in 14 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Measuring the growth of a newly planted mangrove in Silonay, Philippines. (© Nandini Narayanan)

Over the years, I have become more involved with the U.N. processes that play integral roles in determining and implementing numerous international human rights, environment and development conventions, standards, policies and programs that impact the lives of indigenous peoples. I was actively engaged in the drafting, negotiations and adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was eventually adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, when I was Chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

My colleagues in Tebtebba and I also actively engaged with the Convention on Biological Diversity and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to ensure recognition of the UNDRIP. Together with others, we pushed for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the processes of these bodies. Continue reading