Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Plastic Excess

Posted by butalidnl on 13 June 2018

The world is flooding in plastic, and people should do their best to avoid using too much plastic, especially because a lot of it ends up in the sea. This is true. However, over-zealous anti-plastic campaigners are making claims that are not true; and these could eventually water down the anti-plastic message.  Let us examine some of these:

Small pieces of plastic go up the ocean food chain, and eventually get eaten by people, harming us.
It is important to point out that plastic particles are undigestible by animals of all sizes. This means that animal bodies do not allow plastic particles to pass from the digestive tract into the blood stream. The plastic remains in the intestines, and get ejected together with other undigestibles as feces.

Small pieces of plastic do indeed get eaten by sea creatures. The vast majority of these get excreted as feces and drops to the ocean bottom. If fish eat pieces that are too big to be excreted, they get stuck in their digestive tract. If these accumulate, they will eventually make the creature sick due to lack of nutrition; they then die and sink to the ocean bottom. Fish that eat smaller fish (who could have plastic particles in their digestive tracts) will also eject the plastic as feces.
The great majority of plastic particles eaten by fish end up at the ocean bottom, one way or another.

Fish that get caught for human consumption most likely have small particles of plastic in their digestive tracts. Before being eaten, however, the intestines and other internal organs are thrown away. In case people eat fish with their intestines, the plastic there will be ejected as feces.

Chewing gum is made up of synthetic rubber, which is a form of plastic.
This is wrong in a number of ways.  First, not all gum is made from synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber is made from petroleum, and whose price depends on the oil price. When the oil price is high, synthetic rubber becomes expensive – too expensive to be used for gum.
Second, rubber is NOT plastic. Synthetic rubber is chemically the same as natural rubber. Like plastic, rubber is made up of long molecular chains. But, unlike with plastic, the molecular chains of rubber break apart naturally; they are biodegradable.

Plastic will be floating in the sea for thousands of years.
This inaccurate and deceiving. Individual pieces of plastic floating in the sea will be gone (i.e. sink to the ocean bottom) in less than ten years. Floating plastic attracts algae and other plants and animals to attach to them.  In a couple of years, they get heavy and sink to the bottom of the ocean.  The exception to this would be plastic that are extra buoyant, e.g. closed gerrycans, floats for fishnets, etc.  which may take longer than 10 years before they sink or get swallowed by a big fish or whale. But within decades, these too will be gone.
The problem is that the supply of new floating plastic is growing much faster than nature can get rid of them. If suddenly, the supply of floating plastic stops; all floating plastic will disappear in a few decades.

At current rates, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. 
This is the spectacular claim made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation during the 2018 World Economic Forum. They extrapolated data from a study by Jenna Jambeck, which made projections till 2025.
The projection is slippery because it depends a lot on what we mean by ‘fish’.  If we are comparing the number of plastic particles (no matter how small) with bony creatures swimming in the ocean, plastic pieces will outnumber fish even now.  To be more objective, perhaps we should compare their total weight. And, we should also count all marine animals as ‘fish’ – from marine mammals, fish and squid, to clams, corals, krill, copepods and zooplankton.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation uses the figure of 750 million tons of plastic in the sea by 2050 (Note that Jenna Jambeck does not agree with is extrapolation of her data.). Marine biologists estimate that total marine fauna is between 2 billion and 10.4 billion tons.  So, there will always be more fish than plastic, that is clear.

The 2050 claim does not consider the dynamic nature of the ocean. For one, there is a growing rate of plastic sinking to the ocean bottom, because of biological processes (narrated above). Of course, one can be philosophical in saying that the plastic is still in the ocean then; but we all know that what really counts is plastic that is floating in the ocean. Floating plastic promotes life that attaches to it, and flourishes around it, similarly to the effect of artificial corals; floating plastic has become part of the ecosystem.

The 2050 prediction does not consider the price of producing plastic. Plastic is a petroleum product, and the cost of producing plastic is a function of the price of oil. The current price of oil is slightly less than US$ 70 per barrel. In the future, the price will fluctuate, but will not go below the present price anymore. The reason for this is that cheap sources of oil are running out, leaving the more expensive sources. So, the price of oil will slowly increase; and by 2050, it will be significantly higher than it is today. This means that plastic will be significantly more expensive to make by that time.
More expensive plastic would mean that substitutes for plastic will become more available and relatively cheap. It also means that recycling plastic would make more commercial sense. As a result, plastic production will be reduced, and so will the runoff of plastic to the ocean.

Plastic in the ocean is mainly a problem for humans, not nature.  We are bothered by litter on the beaches and when we swim at sea. ‘Cute’ animals e.g. whales wash up onshore with plastic in their stomachs. Plastic will hinder our ships in various ways. Later, plastic will become a growing part of the catch by fishing vessels. And perhaps, most important, plastic floating in the ocean is an enormous waste of resources; if they are recycled, we would save having to use petroleum to make plastic.

Campaigns to lessen plastic production should emphasize real problems for humans that result from lots of plastic floating in the oceans.  They should also point out that plastic dumping is wasting valuable resources; and that recycling plastic saves resources and lessens the amount of greenhouse gas produced.





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Posted by butalidnl on 18 March 2015

Today, 18 March 2015, is the election day for Netherlands’ ‘Waterschappen’ (Water Authorities). Waterschappen are elected bodies that administer water works in a given area of the country. The Netherlands is divided into 24 waterschappen (the country also has 16 provinces). The boundaries of the waterschappen are based on water drainage areas; they often cross provincial lines.

It seems that only the Netherlands and Belgium have elected waterschappen, which demonstrates the importance these countries give to water management. Waterschappen are the Netherlands’ oldest democratic institution; the first waterschap was formed in Utrecht in the year 1122. Waterschappen manage the many dikes, polders (reclaimed areas), canals, locks and other flood control infrastructure; as well as water purification and distribution, and some aspects of water transportation. Through the centuries, they have been good in fulfilling their tasks.

Historically, the Dutch had a lot more waterschappen than today. As late as 1850. there were 3500 of them. This is because they were formed to manage relatively small areas e.g. polders (reclaimed areas) where water had to be managed closely, at least in the past. Over the years, the waterschappen merged with each other, eventually resulting in the 24 waterschappen today.

During the 1500s, the King Philip II (of Spain) moved to abolish the waterschappen and centralize administration. The Dutch were horrified, fearing that their dikes etc will not be maintained properly, and they will fall victims of floods. This was a contributing factor in the Dutch revolt , which eventually led to their independence from Spain.

There are frequent discussions over the continued relevance of waterschappen. Every now and then, political parties would propose to abolish them. But, so far, none of these proposals have succeeded. This is probably because waterschappen continue to be relevant. Global warming has only increased threats like sea-level rise and floods.
Besides, it does not make sense to ‘fix’ something that has functioned so well through the centuries.

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Living with Supertyphoons

Posted by butalidnl on 10 January 2015

The Philippines has to accept the fact that a supertyphoon will hit the country every year, sometime between November and mid-December. It also has to prepare for it.

In the last 4 years, a supertyphoon has hit the country:
2011 – Sendong – December 15 -17
2012 – Pablo      – December 2 – 9
2013 – Yolanda – November 7 – 8
2014 – Ruby      – December 6 – 10

We might also count Ondoy (September 23-30, 2009) as a supertyphoon. It didn’t have supertyphoon winds, but dumped lots of rain. It did come rather early.

This is unlikely to be a coincidence, or a case of bad luck. There is a reason why supertyphoons happen at this time. It has something to do with the huge amount of heat stored in the Pacific Ocean. In the earlier part of the rainy season, typhoons form in the Pacific Ocean, but they mostly skirt the Philippines, and some of them hit northern Luzon.  Towards the end of the year, a high pressure area forms over China, which is also the source of the amihan (the northwest monsoon).  But there is still heat left over in the Pacific which could still form storms. A typhoon would then form just north of the equator (typhoons forming south of the equator go southwards) using this reservoir of heat. The combination of this excess heat, the low lattitude in which the storm starts, and the amihan blowing from China, combine to form this typhoon.. The typhoon then heads west northwest towards the Philippines; rapidly gains strength, and becomes a supertyphoon. The amihan winds prevents it from heading north, and thus it makes its way to Samar or Mindanao.
Ruby hit too far north and moved too slow over the country when compared to the other supertyphoons. This meant that the amihan winds, and Luzon’s mountains (e.g. Sierra Madre) were able to slow it down and promptly degrade it..

Global Warming
Supertyphoons form because of excess heat that is left in the Western Pacific at the end of the year. This area is warmer than it used to be.
The excess heat theory may also explain why Typhoon Ruby was not as strong as expected. Scientists have noted an El Nino effect in 2014, which usually means that the Eastern Pacific (i.e. US west coast and western Latin America) will get more rain, while the Western Pacific less rain, because currents bring heat eastwards.  If this is the case, there was less excess heat to power up Typhoon Ruby, as compared to previous years. It also means that when the El Nino effect wears out, our supertyphoons may get to be as strong as Yolanda was.

But there seemed to have been some excess heat left over in the area just southeast of Mindanao even after Ruby, And this gave birth to Typhoon Seniang, which hit the country on 29 to 31 December 2014. While Seniang was a weak tropical storm (with maximum winds of 95 kilometers per hour), it brought a lot of rains, And it was deadlier than Supertyphoon Ruby; Seniang killed 65 people, while Ruby 19.

Adjustments Needed
All this means that the national government, LGUs, NGOs, even businesses need to prepare for this end-of-year supertyphoon. All of the Visayas and most of Mindanao can potentially be hit by these supertyphoons. Buildings should be made to withstand winds exceeding 300 kilometers/hour.  Of particular importance would be evacuation centers (sports stadiums, schools, churches), relief command centers (often these would be city halls), and food storage buildings. These should all be sturdy, and located away from areas vulnerable to floods, storm surges and landslides. While it may take years to strengthen all residential housing, building codes should already be upgraded.

The national government should give more powers to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) by including typhoon rehabilitation work in its tasks, in addition to typhoon mitigation. This was the recommendation of Senator Ping Lacson, head of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) which was tasked to coordinate the rehabilitation work for typhoon Yolanda. Lacson suggests to fold in OPARR’s tasks into an expanded NDRRMC. This makes sense especially with the insight that supertyphoons are going to be a regular occurence.

Other adjustments should be made e.g. ‘rescheduling’ the harvest season so that it ends in October, strictly banning buildings in vulnerable areas, and upgrading LGU disaster response capabilities. Laws should be passed allowing LGUs to commandeer food stocks and other supplies in case of disaster, and to order mandatory evacuation of vulnerable areas in case a supertyphoon approaches.

There would be another supertyphoon that will hit the country in November-December 2015. While we cannot prevent it, we can prepare for it as well as we can.

Posted in environment, Philippines | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Raising Farmer Incomes through Farm Machinery

Posted by butalidnl on 6 August 2014

It sounds simple: provide farmers with machines that will increase their yields, and their incomes will rise, lifting them out of poverty. Unfortunately,  it is a bit more complicated than that. There are several reasons why the Philippine government and most NGOs are reluctant to provide farmers with large-scale farm machinery.

One problem, it seems, is that it is difficult for farmers to properly manage high-capacity machines. High-capacity machines like tractors require a high level of organizational efficiency and discipline. Since a tractor could plow large swaths of land (up to 300 hectares), there would inevitably be a mad scramble for its services; and cooperatives could not service all requests.  Ensuring that qualified people operate the machine at all times is also difficult. Also, if the tractor is given (for free) to a cooperative, the cooperative will tend to charge too low prices for its use; leading to problems in financing repairs and eventual replacement.
In other countries, cooperatives mostly bungled the management of farm machinery.

Alternatively, the government could take direct charge of the machines (as was the case in the Soviet Union). This solution was often quite unsatisfactory; it led to enormous bureaucratic bottlenecks and massive corruption.

Then, there is the reluctance to displace farm workers who would otherwise do the work. On close examination, this is only partly true: machines (e.g. tractors) would mostly replace draft animals like the carabao. Moreover, the logic of ‘providing employment’ is illusory. If agricultural development is held back by the lack of machines, farmer incomes would stagnate and even decrease, resulting in many farms being left idle. And this results in less work for farm workers. On the other hand, farm machinery would need workers to operate and service them; and the increased production as a result of the machines will stimulate farmers to bring more land into production. Increased farmer incomes would lead to other agricultural activities e.g. vegetable growing, poultry raising,  which are quite labor intensive.

International NGOs have another problem with mechanization – machines are seen as polluters, producers of greenhouse gases. Carabaos are seen as more ‘green’. It is true that machines do use diesel or gasoline, and emit carbon dioxide; but the carabao also emits methane when it farts.

These considerations has led to an unsatisfactory compromise: the goverment and NGOs give farmers lower-capacity farm machinery, like hand-tractors and threshers. These machines increase productivity a bit, and result in some additional lands being tilled. This choice does not displace labor; and farmer associations and cooperatives can manage these machines. The main benefit will be that more lands could be tilled and more palay harvested (which is the Philippine government’s main aim); but the productivity per hectare (which more directly affect farmer income) does not improve significantly.
On the environmental angle, though, the policy is not good: a tractor can do the work of 5 hand-tractors; but 5 hand-tractors use more diesel than one tractor.

In contrast, some corporations are directly addressing the need for farm mechanization. Their strategy is is to contract land from farmers, and then use large scale machinery and modern production methods to reap abundant harvests. In terms of increasing productivity, this formula is a big success. In terms of raising farmers incomes, though, it is much less spectacular.
A big advantage is that farmers are assured a steady income independent of the uncertainties of the crop cycle. But on the other hand, the rent that the corporations pay to the farmers will most likely remain the same over the years – not raising in step with the increase in harvest, or with inflation. Also, the control over the land effectively passes on to the corporation.

PAIS (Pasali Agricultural Innovations and Services) is a social business active in Region 12, and in particular the town of Palimbang, in Sultan Kudarat province. It proposes yet another approach: provide the services of large-scale agricultural machines, while it teaches farmers improved techniques of planting rice, and organizes them into clusters/associations/cooperatives.  PAIS calls this its Farm Machinery Pool (FMP) project. As a social business, PAIS does not need to make a profit for private shareholders, and recycles all its profits into expansion and social services. The PAIS FMP will provide services of Tractors, Planters and Harvesters – which, in combination, will significantly increase harvests and lessen production costs. Its rates will be relatively low, and the services will be gradually expanded to service more and more farmers. And, the farmers will retain control over their land; which means that they will benefit directly from the increased harvests.
At present, PAIS installs water systems in highland areas all over Mindanao. It will launch with its Farm Machinery Pool in the last quarter of 2014. PAIS is the social business arm of Pasali; its NGO sister organization is the PPF (Pasali Philippines Foundation).
See also: Pasali: Bringing Peace and Lifting Families out of Poverty




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A Look into the Future

Posted by butalidnl on 14 April 2012

Predicting how things will be like in the future is fun. You can let your imagination run wild and nobody could tell you whether you got it right or not. At the same time, it is tricky; a lot of things forecast before hadn’t come true – take the idea of the personal helicopter, or elaborate space colonization by the year 2000.

It was about 30 years ago that I arrived in the Netherlands (from the Philippines). I find it interesting to note the changes that have happened in those 30 years. Big things have happened: the end of the Cold War and Apartheid, the eradication of smallpox, the Internet and the Web, e-Books, digital cameras. At the same time, some other big things have not happened: manned space exploration, ubiquitous robots, Middle East peace, the ‘paperless office’ (not yet, at least).

I will try to predict things 30 years into the future (or 2042), which is as long as I can hope to live (though I think that I won’t live that long). Perhaps I could still see the changes that I predicted.
So, here goes.

Some Guiding Principles
The Future is Already Here. One thing about predicting 30 years in the future is that a lot of things then will be based on things that have already been discovered or invented today. After all, the basic discoveries for the internet were already made in the 1980s, even the 1970s. Fax machines were around since the 1930s. It takes about 20 to 30 years before a new discovery is fully developed. In the near future, this pattern will surely continue. Really new things that will be discovered in the next 10 years or more will be part of a longer-term future – i.e. beyond 30 years.

More People, More Comfort. Doomsayers who say that the people in the future will be less comfortable because of overpopulation will be proven wrong. While there will be more people in the world, they will be living longer and better than we now do. A lot of this improvement in well-being will be due to the better lives of many people in the Third World. But people in developed countries will also see their lives improved.

No Radical Changes in People’s Preferences and Habits. Social inertia is strong; ingrained habits will most likely prevail.
Many people will still hold elaborate weddings. National identities will remain. The food that people eat will generally look the same as what they eat today. People will continue to ride automobiles.

What will the Future look like, then?
Food. The world’s population will increase by at least 50% (from 7 to 10 billion). But there will be a need to increase food production by more than 50% since many people are underfed today. The Earth can sustain this population if we eat more sensibly.

The pattern of meat consumption will be different.The reason is that some kinds of meat are produced with more grain than others – this grain/meat ratio is known as the FGR (Feed Grain Ratio). Beef will be too expensive to be eaten daily by ordinary people. People will generally eat meat with lower FGRs than beef (which is 8). Pork’s FGR is 4, chicken’s between 2 & 3, FGR  for fish (i.e. the vegetarian kinds of fish) is 2. It is likely that the per capita consumption of vegetables will be significantly higher than today. A lot of ‘vegetarian meat’ will be produced from soya, mongo and other beans.

Food will be grown not only in rural areas; a lot of it will be grown in plots in urban areas (mostly vegetables and fruits). There will be a lot more fish grown in fish farms, compared to the present practice of ‘hunting’ for fish. People will NOT be eating insects (except where these are now already local delicacies).

Transportation. Personal vehicles will be small and electric. Rental services will cater to people’s need for bigger vehicles. Some vehicles will be powered by petroleum products: especially ships, airplanes, earth movers and trucks, but these will be mostly hybrid. Intercity transportation will be often done by Maglev, at least in the richer countries. High speed Maglev will replace a lot of short commuter plane links. Smart highways will guide cars through special lanes, making it possible for them to safely cruise at high speeds (200 kilometers/hour or more).

Energy. There will be a lot of energy generated; more than enough to keep people living comfortably. G4 nuclear plants (which use up 95% of the nuclear fuel, instead of the 5% that present G3 plants consume) will supply some countries with cheap electricity. For most of the rest, there will geothermal, tidal, wind, hydro and solar energy. Fossil fuel power plants will mostly be de-commissioned.Temporary surplus energy will be stored in various ways to even out the electricity supply across the day.

Solar energy will boom. The yield of silicon solar panels will have increased from the current 16% to 40% (present prototypes with improved silicon panels already have a yield of 30%, while those with Gallium Arsenide already routinely exceed 35%, so the technological jump will not be much). Electricity from fossil fuels (including coal) will be too expensive, especially since environmental costs will be fully factored in. Petroleum will be used for some vehicles (mostly heavy duty and offroad) and for making plastics and other chemicals. Solar panels will adorn every rooftop, except those used to plant food. Some walls will be made of special solar panels. The newer solar panels will be integrated into the building materials, so thye won’t look at all like today’s solar panels.

The energy needed for lighting, heating and transportation will be much less than today. Energy loss in transmission will be less, since much of the electricity will be generated close to the user.

The problem of global warming will shift from greenhouse gases to the heat dissipated with the use of all the energy.

Space Travel. Space exploration or colonization will continue at the same more-or-less leisurely pace as today. Earth-bound considerations will continue to put limits to how much is spent in space. There will have been one or two manned missions to Mars, but no permanent bases. There will be people living on the moon, but this will be more like the present Antarctic scientific camps. There will be a number of space stations in low-Earth orbit.

Life Expectancy. Major diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and even AIDS will be greatly reduced, affecting a shrinking percentage of the population. In developed countries, the treatment of degenerative diseases will be more successful.

The obesity epidemic of today will be a thing of the past. Perhaps 5% of the people may still be classified as obese; but increased prices of food, more exercise and better therapy (medication and surgery) will result in  decreasing numbers of obese people.

Cancer will still be around, but for most cases, treatment would make it more of a chronic, rather than a deadly, disease.

Death from accidents (especially vehicular and work-related) will be low and steadily decreasing, as traffic authorities and companies institute more stringent safety measures. Large-scale industrial pollution will be lower, lessening deaths from chemical exposure. The most hazardous tasks (e.g. underground mining) will be increasingly robotized.

Worldwide average life espectancy at birth may reach the late 70s (in 2010, it was 67.2 years); lots of people will live to their 90s (and be relatively healthier than now).

Computers/IT. There will be a range of devices for all kinds of needs: wristband, handheld, slate, notebook, desktop, wall, company network and super computers. People will have a wide range of options for keeping information in the ‘cloud’ or in their machines. A person’s devices will more efficiently share information with each other, in various ways and extents.

Information will be available for a fee – people will make micro-payments to access this. At the same time, more information will be shared for free. All of human knowledge will  be available on the internet. Devices can all communicate with each other, The choice will include: text, audio, full audio-visual, data.

A lot of ‘office work’ will be done partly at home, as with school work. Work and study will be combined with regular (a number of times a week) face-to-face sessions. ‘Traditional’ offices and schools will still constitute the majority, and those will employ the latest IT tools.

E-books will be widespread. Almost all books will be in e-book format. Paper books will be quite expensive in comparison, and will be bought by special book enthusiasts or as gifts.
E-paper will be used for posters/signs at stores, and maybe even on billboards.

All-round robots will still be experimental. But there will be a lot of special purpose bots. Examples would be restaurant bus bots, automatic vehicles (for use as taxis within cities), cleaning bots and smaller industrial bots.

Politics. There will be more nation-states than there are today. At the same time, many of these will be grouped into supra-national entities e.g. EU, ASEAN, Ecowas, Mercosur which would assume many functions which today belong to nation-states.

There will be peace between Israelis and Arabs – but the form could vary from a unitary Arab-Israeli state, to Israel as Jewish state at peace with its neighbours. North and South Korea will reunite. There will be no more dictators ala Gaddafi or Lukashenko anymore. However, there will probably be some ‘failed democracy’ (like present-day Russia).

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