Articles Posted in the Green News category

Week that was – March 8 2009

March 8, 2009
Posted in Green News

More than 700 delegates from government, business, labour, academia and civil society got together to discuss South Africa’s climate change policy this week in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. Designed to “translate political will and the best available scientific evidence into policy and action”, the summit was the start of a participatory process that will culminate in a policy White Paper on climate change by 2010 and a legislative, regulatory and fiscal package by 2012.

But first a draft document that will set out “slightly more than the skeleton” of a climate change policy will be produced by August This will be consulted widely and inform what South Africa takes into the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency comprised a strong theme coming out of the conference. The minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, said in a statement that “early gains can be achieved by massively up-scaling our efforts in respect of energy efficiency and renewable energy”.

But the country’s energy mix was a hotly contested issue. Coal accounts for more than 90 percent of electricity at present – but Cabinet will have the final say on whether coal’s role in the energy mix will decrease. And more technical work and a policy process that allows all views to be expressed is needed before a Cabinet decision can be made, Joanne Yawitch, a deputy director-general in the department of environmental affairs and tourism, told the media.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe said that acting now on climate change is an opportunity to overcome the global economic crisis by creating pro-poor jobs and sustainable green growth.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in South Africa, the conference heard, so there needs to be a balance between adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation needs more attention and funding.

The minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, said that the summit far exceeded expectations. “I am encouraged by the strong resolve to meet the dual challenges of adaptation and mitigation by placing sustainable development and poverty eradication at the forefront. The strong consensus on making the transition to a climate resilient and low carbon economy and society will underpin our future work.”

A report from this week’s climate change conference said that Eskom may decide to build a solar thermal baseload plant later this year. Another developing country, China is about to start building its first solar thermal power station in Beijing this month, China Daily reports. The 1.5MW experimental station is expected to generate about 2.7-million kWh of electricity a year, enough to power at least 30,000 homes. The solar tower-type station, which will comprise 100 mirrors or heliostats which will redirect the suns rays to a receiver at the top of a 100m-high tower, will cost about 100-million yuan (R150-million). China plans to generate at least 150MW of power from solar thermal power stations by 2015, the report says. Full report

South Africa could get it’s third wind farm soon. According to a report in Engineering News, a 50MW wind farm has been proposed for the Western Cape town of St Helena Bay and the environmental impact assessment, which has reportedly been delayed for a year because of investor concerns, may start this month. David Chown of Genesis Eco-Energy, a Cape Town-based company said that once the National Energy Regulator (Nersa) announces its renewable energy feed-in tariffs, which it is expected to do at the end of this month, the company will be able to raise funding for the R850-million project. The 5.2MW Darling wind farm was officially launched last year and Eskom is building a 100MW wind farm in Koekenaap. All are in the Western Cape province. Full report

A new programme has been launched by the department of water affairs and forestry that will award municipalities with “Blue Drop Status” for having drinking water of excellent quality. If a town has Blue Drop status consumers will be secure in the knowledge that wastewater is managed and discharged in a sustainable, environmentally-acceptable manner, Bua News reports. Minister Lindiwe Hendricks said at the launch of the programme this week that towns would be able to use the prestigious Blue Drop Status to market themselves to both residents and tourists. She said assessments had been completed in various towns and their status would be made known soon.

Greenpeace Africa has called on the South African government not to allow two ships carrying plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel to enter its waters as they make their way from France to Japan. The shipment of about 1.8 tonnes of MOX fuel – enough to make 225 nuclear weapons – will round the Cape of Good Hope this month on two heavily armed ships protected by specially trained British forces, the environmental group says. “MOX shipments are simply not worth the risk, they are a major terror target and pose an enormous threat to the environment of all countries en route,” says Dr Rianne Teule, nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International. [Greenpeace]

Sky picture by twoblueday licensed under a Creative Commons licence

Solar tower by chausinho licenses under a Creative Commons licence

Tap picture by chopr licensed under a Creative Commons licence

Clean water with less energy

February 4, 2009
Posted in Green News

water drop
Photograph by Snap, licensed under Creative Commons licence.

Given the state of the water supply in South Africa (which has been described as a looming crisis) and our electricity shortage, a new water desalination and purification technology that uses significantly less energy to harvest drinkable water from nonpotable sources – sea water and waste water, for instance – sounds like something worth keeping an eye on.

Developed by researchers at Yale in the United States, the system uses “a new twist on an old technology” called forward osmosis. Water naturally flows from a dilute region to one that’s more concentrated when the two solutions are separated by a semipermeable material. The new system “draws” pure water from its contaminants through the membrane to a solution of concentrated salts. This solution has been specially designed to be easy to remove with low heat treatment, which means using less energy.

A company called Oasys has been established to commercialise the technology.

Details of Oasys’s draw solution are apparently a company secret, but it uses ammonia and carbon-dioxide gases dissolved in water in specific proportions, says a report on a Yale website. The solution then can be removed efficiently and reused.

The researchers say their system uses ten times less electrical energy than traditional desalination plants.

A pilot-scale plant to test the technology is producing one cubic meter of water per day, but Oasys aims to raise venture financing to increase output to 1,000 to 10,000 cubic metres of water a day.

The technology has a way to go before it reaches commercial scale, but it may hold hope for affordable water purification in developing countries.

Sources: Ecogeek; Yale; Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science; Water and Waste Treatment

Make a change 10: Watch that hot tap

January 29, 2009
Posted in Green tips, Lifestyle

hot taps

Here’s an interesting fact from Scientific American’s recently published Earth 3.0 magazine.

“Running hot water at a sink for five minutes uses the same amount of energy as burning a 60-watt lightbulb for 14 hours.”

I did a test at home using an electricity monitor I bought called The Owl and found that after running the hot tap for about 20 seconds, the Owl registered an increase in my household electricity usage of around 1,800 watts for 2 minutes. That means my electric geyser had switched on for 2 minutes.

Save electricity and lower your carbon footprint (electricity in South Africa is mostly generated by carbon-belching coal-fired power stations) by being mindful of the amount of hot water you use. Make sure your hot taps are switched off properly and don’t use hot water for things like washing your hands or rinsing dishes when cold water will do the job just as well.

Lettuce on the edge

January 15, 2009
Posted in Garden

thirsty lettuce

It’s been raining pretty heavily here in Joburg for the past few days, which I’m very grateful for because I nearly killed my lettuce and they need all the help they can get from Mother Nature at this point.

After a mere two days of not watering them I was horrified to find my lettuces all wilted and dead-looking. It’s been extremely hot here in Joburg, but there have often been thundershowers in the late afternoon so I kind of assumed that it would be okay to leave the watering of my veg to  nature for a few days. Big mistake.

I have been trying to nurse them back to health for the past week and some of them look almost as good as new.

survivor-lettuceBut for two particularly parched-looking plants, it was touch and go. For a few days the only evidence that they weren’t stone dead was a brave little tuft of green poking out from the middle of a soggy brown clump. The little tufts are getting bigger every day, though, so I think they’ll be okay. I’m amazed at their resilience. (The lettuce on the right is the one on the top right in the big photo a few days later)

I’ve learned my lesson: lettuces do not like to be ignored, they need to be watered every day.

I now have a rain gauge so I can get a better idea of just how much rain has actually fallen during a thundershower.

Webcam keeps an eye on flamingo chicks

December 30, 2008
Posted in Conservation


One of the first of this year’s lesser flamingo hatchlings on Kimberley’s Kamfers Dam. Photo courtesy Save the Flamingo Association

Kimberley’s Kamfers Dam now has a live streaming webcam trained on its lesser flamingos which allows researchers and the general public a rare close-up view of a flamingo breeding colony comprising thousands of birds.

The colony is now well into its second breeding season.

Last year about 9,000 chicks hatched on an S-shaped artificial island specially constructed for the birds in the middle of the dam, making it the only lesser flamingo breeding site in South Africa and one of only four on the whole continent.

This year the breeding season started much earlier than last year – the first egg was reportedly spotted at the end of October – and more chicks are expected, says the Save the Flamingo Association, an environmental non-profit organisation based in Kimberley.

The Save the Flamingo Association is trying to conserve the birds’ Kamfers Dam breeding site which is threatened by deteriorating water quality from effluent spilling from a broken sewerage works and from a proposed massive residential and commercial development on a property adjoining the wetland.

In November the Northern Cape department of tourism, environment and conservation gave the proposed Northgate development the go-ahead. The Save the Flamingo Association has lodged an appeal against this decision, it says in an entry on its Facebook site.

The water quality is the more immediate threat to both the birds and the local human residents. A recent newspaper report said that water quality tests show high levels of faecal coliform bacteria in Kamfers Dam, which poses a risk of waterborne gastroenteritis. The dam water also tested positive for Clostridium, which causes botulism in birds.

Kimberley’s ailing Homevale sewage treatment works is reported to be the source of the effluent in Kamfers Dam. But it is part of a much wider problem in the province. In September, the water affairs and forestry minister Lindiwe Hendricks said in parliament that all the sewage works in the Northern Cape were operating below acceptable standards.

The association says it urgently needs funds to (a) conduct water quality analyses, (b) undertake legal action, (c) maintain the flamingo breeding island, and (c) ensure that Kamfers Dam and the adjoining properties are conserved.

The Save the Flamingo Association has set up an online donation system for anyone interested in contributing towards their work at Kamfers Dam.

Meanwhile, the lesser flamingos at another breeding colony, this time on Tanzania’s Lake Natron, have become the stars of a new Walt Disney film entitled The Crimson Wing – Mystery of the Flamingos.

The more than a million flamingos that gather on the shores of the huge soda lake, create an extraordinary natural spectacle, yet few people visit the area, says Birdlife International. According to filmmaker Matthew Aeberhard, “More people have walked on the moon than have been out on the mudflats where the flamingos have their breeding colonies”.

But, according to BirdLife International, a proposed soda ash plant at Lake Natron and the associated infrastructure may displace and scatter the lesser flamingos.

“They [Natron’s flamingos] could be very heavily impacted by minor developments,” Aeberhard said. “A company starts mining here and the water level may change, the salt balance may change”.

BirdLife International is leading a “Think Pink” campaign to conserve Lake Natron.

News briefs

December 19, 2008
Posted in Green News

  • BOTTLE STOPPERS: Students at Britain’s Leeds University have voted to ban bottled still water from all their bars, cafes and shops. More than 30,000 pounds in profits reportedly will be lost from the sale of around 20,000 bottles of water a year to students by the university union’s outlets. “It’s a measure of concern about the environment, putting sustainability before profit,” Tom Salmon of Leeds University Union told the Guardian. Bottled water will be replaced by water fountains and “affordable, reusable water bottles”, and a campaign will promote tap water. [Source: Guardian] (Thank you to Anna on Twitter for the link)
  • BUY EVERY MOUNTAIN: Capetonians were shocked to discover this week that Hout Bay’s landmark Sentinel mountain, which has been described as one of Cape Town’s most photographed features, has been put up for sale for a mere R12-million. Many people had been under the impression that the mountain was part of a national park. The fact that it is privately owned raises concerns that the mountain may be developed – Hout Bay is a very popular, upmarket, residential suburb. South African National Parks has apparently made “several offers” to buy the Sentinel, but they have been rejected. Any attempts to develop the land are likely to be met by fierce resistance from environmentalists. The estate agent involved in the sale was quoted as saying: “It’s quite unusual for a mountain to be up for sale. Whoever buys it will probably do so to be able to say: ‘I own that mountain’.” [Source: IOL]
  • POWERING DOWN: The government has retrofitted 4,000 buildings with energy-saving equipment, saving R56-million a year in electricity costs, the deputy president, Baleka Mbete, told an energy saving conference earlier this month. It aims to eventually make every government facility energy efficient. Ms Mbete urged ordinary South Africans not to waste power. She also warned that Eskom will be carrying out routine maintenance to its infrastructure in January. This time last year rolling blackouts cost the economy billions of rands. [Source: BuaNews]
  • SHORING UP: The Netherlands is spending  billions of dollars on reinforcing its dykes amid  fears of flooding from rising sea levels as a result of climate change. Two-thirds of the country  lies below sea level. It is also investing in augmenting its fresh water supplies. [Source: AFP via TerraDaily]

A case of shooting the messenger?

December 2, 2008
Posted in Green News

Water with a dense growth of algae. (Pic courtesy DWAF National Eutrophication Monitoring Programme)

THE fiasco at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) over the suspension of one of its senior researchers, Dr Anthony Turton is a public relations disaster for the national science council.

Dr Turton, an internationally respected scientist, was suspended for insubordination shortly after being told, at the last minute, that he could not deliver the keynote address on water quality at the CSIR’s Science Real and Relevant conference in Pretoria.

Dr Turton was to give the talk, entitled “Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond”, on Tuesday November 14, but was told the day before, that it had been pulled from the conference. He told the Cape Times:

“I was told it had been pulled, and I was instructed not to be on the premises. I was given three different reasons by three different people.”

There has been much speculation in the media that the paper was withdrawn in an attempt to gag Turton and “shield the government and [the CSIR] from criticism”. According to one report, Turton’s presentation was withdrawn partly because it was potentially offensive to “members of the liberation movement”.

It has all been said before
Last Thursday, at a media conference, Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, the CSIR’s president and CEO, denied that the CSIR had tried to gag Dr Turton. “There was nothing profound in the [research] paper, it has all been said before by scientists and even parliamentarians,” he said.

The CSIR said it wasn’t Dr Turton’s report Dr Sibisi had a problem with, it was his slide presentation and, in particular, images he had used in it that were “inappropriate”, such as of a “necklacing” (an execution using a burning tyre).

Another visual mentioned by the CSIR was of a child with a birth defect with the statement that she lived in an area affected by mining waste. This made a “strong inference from a single data point”. According to the CSIR, this “showed poor links between cause and effect”.

Previously, Dr Turton had told the media that he had offered to make changes to his paper, but that this was turned down. The CSIR said that there wasn’t time to make the necessary changes. (See Sunday Times Q&A with Dr Sibisi)

Inappropriate statements to the media
According to the CSIR, the reason why Dr Turton was then suspended from his position in the council’s natural resources and environment unit was because he had made “inappropriate statements to the media” and had brought the council into disrepute.

But it seems that Dr Turton did not go to the media originally with the story that his presentation had been pulled from the conference. This was done by an environmental activist who was concerned that it was an attempt to suppress the information in Dr Turton’s report about the looming water crisis in South Africa. The paper had reportedly been circulated to scientists, NGOs and others about two months before the conference.

Surely to withdraw Dr Turton’s presentation from the conference at the last minute and then ban him from the premises is a drastic step to take against a senior researcher. And, it is no way to treat a respected scientist. It’s little wonder that Dr Turton has been trying to defend his reputation as a scientist in the media.

In an interview he did that’s posted on (to view click on image above), Dr Turton says that it was never his intention to bring the CSIR into disrepute and that he, in fact, holds the organisation in the highest regard.

The issue even reached Parliament, where the National Council of Provinces (Parliament’s second chamber) voted on Friday in favour of Dr Turton’s reinstatement to the CSIR, according to the Cape Times.

Widespread support
Dr Turton has had widespread support in the media. A petition calling for him to be reinstated in his position, initiated by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, a local NGO, has been doing the rounds, reportedly gathering “hundreds of signatures”. And the Cape Times has reported that a US environmental scientist has said that he is drafting an international petition of scientists and researchers in support of Dr Turton.

There have also been calls for the CSIR to hold an urgent internal inquiry into what one article described as the “incoherent and authoritarian behaviour” of elements of its own management. The South African National Editors’ Forum said that it suspected the CSIR’s action against Turton was motivated by political considerations and it also called for an independent inquiry.

Last week Dr Turton extended an olive branch to the CSIR. He said he didn’t like being in the limelight and wanted to get back to work as “a humble scientist”. But the CSIR obviously did not take up Dr Turton’s offer because at the weekend there were reports that he has asked his lawyers to “seek an amicable termination of his employment relationship”.

This is bad news indeed. Surely the CSIR cannot afford to lose one of its top scientists where there is already a severe shortage of qualified people working on the country’s water issues. It needs to attract – and keep – the best scientists in the country. After the dramas of the past fortnight, will it be able to do that?

Here are some of the main points in Dr Turton’s paper, “Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond”.

  • South Africa has no more surplus water. The country receives an average of 497mm/year of rain, compared to a global average of 860mm/yr. And 98 percent of the water capacity has already by allocated. There is very little surplus. Water scarcity is a fundamental constraint on development and social wellbeing.
  • South Africa has lost its dilution capacity which means that pollutants and effluent streams will need to be treated to ever-higher standards before being discharged into communal waters or deposited in landfills.
  • All South Africa’s cities and major centres of economic development are on watershed divides, rather than near rivers, lakes or the seashore as is the global norm. This means that major engineering and technology are needed to move water to these centres, and liquid waste effluent from the cities degrades the water quality.
  • South Africa has a history of violence and disrespect for human rights, and the country’s science is embedded in this legacy. Water scarcity could lead to social conflict. Turton used images of this year’s xenophobic attacks to illustrate the violence that might happen if one day water becomes scarce enough to fight over.
  • South Africa lacks the scientific, engineering and technical capacity to deal with looming water problems.

On this Turton wrote:

“…we have mobilized masses of Technical Ingenuity to move water from distant river basins and mine minerals from ever greater depths. But these have caused second-order problems – the so-called revenge effects – such as loss of ecological integrity in aquatic systems arising from inter-basin transfers and increased levels of pollution from radionuclides, heavy metals and sulphates arising from mining.”

This Technical Ingenuity has helped us develop our national economy despite water and energy constraints. But now we have new challenges, says Turton. The demand for technical ingenuity now far outweighs the supply and this affects the country’s ability to solve pressing scientific problems.

  • The CSIR’s funding model, which now relies on private contracts more then government funding, has had a “catastrophic effect on our national [scientific, engineering and technical] capacity”.

He adds:

“Significantly, we cannot import those technical solutions because, in the case of microcystin as an example, there are few other places in the world where there are similar levels of toxin in the national water resources (China is an exception), so there is simply no need in most countries to solve this specific problem with the same urgency that we are confronted by.”

  • A lack of investment in operation, maintenance and skilled human capacity will result in the collapse of the country’s water infrastructure.
  • A significant proportion of South Africa has no civil engineering professional support in a local authority, particularly in rural areas.
  • There are more certified professional engineers nearing retirement than there are entering the profession. There is a gap in the age group 35 to 49, which is the group most affected by affirmative action employment rules – many of these engineers have left the country.
  • Incentives are not in place to attract and retain qualified engineers to research councils, national and provincial governments.

Particular water quality challenges

  • Acid mine drainage – SA has a legacy of heavy metal and radionuclide contamination in rivers flowing out of most gold mining areas, wrote Turton. Coal mining also causes AMD. South Africa has never done a high-confidence study of off-mine populations to determine what the impact has been from chronic exposure to heavy metals and radionculides, he wrote.
  • Eutrophication – South Africa is faced with levels of eutrophication that are “almost unprecedented globally”, wrote Turton.

Eutrophication can result in excessive growth in algae (cyanobateria, or blue-green algae) and aquatic weeds (such as water hyacinth).

The load of microcystins in our water, which are produced by cyanobacteria, is “among the highest in the world”, says Turton. We need to know if microcystins are causing human health problems, specifically in communities that are immune-compromised (such as HIV).

  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals in our water supply are a growing problem in South Africa. Our dilution loss means that EDCs are being recycled without being removed.
  • As are partially metabolised medication – “we are gong to be seeing higher levels of antiretrovirals in our rivers, which by implication means that these complex chemical compounds will be entering the human population over time, either through the drinking water stream or via produce that has been irrigated with contaminated water. “Nowhere else in the world is there a coincidence of loss of dilution and high levels of ARV use as in this country.”
  • We also need to understand the exact linkages between climate change and cyanobacteria and whether climate change will nudge any of our aquatic ecosystmems into catastrophic collapse.

Cool gadgets for eco-friendly people

October 8, 2008
Posted in Lifestyle, Renewable energy

Here’s proof that environmentally friendly gadgets don’t have to be home-made and held together with duct tape. The three below are clever, simple, look good and use renewable energy.

Swiss-based company Sakku produces solar bags with an integrated ultra-light and flexible solar panel that allows you to charge your cell phone, MP3 Player or GPS tracker with solar energy. The bags come in three models: Sakku.traveller, which is made out of recycled sail cloth from boats sailing on Swiss lakes; Sakku.worker, which has a cushioned compartment for laptops and comes in black cordura with an extra-large belt; and Sakku.buddy, which uses recycled sun shutters. Best of all these bags are available in South Africa from Tashi Solar. The bags are available either with or without a battery which stores energy so you can charge your appliance when you need to. The bags start at R3,352.00. Read more

Safe to swim? Durban puts water quality info online

August 5, 2008
Posted in Green News

North Beach © eThekwini Municipality

Earlier this year, four of Durban’s beaches lost their Blue Flag status because of unacceptable faecal pollution readings. But the eThekwini Municipality appears to be working to reassure beach bunnies who may be worried about whether the beaches are safe for swimming. Water quality information at 26 beaches is now available on the municipality’s website.

The water at these beaches is tested weekly for Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Enterococcus, which are both indicators of faecal contamination, and the results are posted on the site along with a comment on whether the results are poor, moderate, good or excellent.

Beaches with excellent water quality are marked with a happy little fish logo, which appears next to 17 of the 26 beaches listed. Read more

Do you have to have dishwasher hands to be green?

March 27, 2008
Posted in Lifestyle

dishwasher.jpgThere have been ads on TV lately promoting dishwashers as more energy efficient than hand washing – I took that information with a pinch of salt, coming from the appliance manufacturers as it did. But something on the Friends of the Earth website has made me take another look at the issue.

It says that research verified by the University of Bonn puts the average household water usage at 60 litres for two or three hand washes a day, while a new dishwasher typically uses 12 litres per wash. Assuming that middle-class South Africans use about the same amount of water to wash up as Europeans. This would seem to be a significant water saving.

The environmental group does point out that

What this doesn’t take into account, however, is the total energy used to manufacture the dishwasher, the transport costs and raw materials used or hand-washing habits.

You’d need to use your dishwasher’s eco-setting, of course. And, alas, environment-friendly plant-based products to use in dishwashers just don’t seem to be available in South Africa. Perhaps this is a gap in the market someone will step in to soon, though. But just maybe you don’t need to be elbow-deep in dishwater to be green after all.

For more information about dishwashers and water usage, FOE points to

keep looking »