#BehindTheHeadlines: With journalism in Creole, Mensagem de Lisboa is reaching new audiences

Dino d'Santiago and Karyna Gomes in conversation (Photo Credit: Rita Ansone)

In the build up to World News Day 2022, we will be going #BehindTheHeadlines to highlight stories that have had a significant social impact, and to showcase what newsrooms are doing to better tell the story of their journalism.

This story was originally published by WAN-IFRA.

Mensagem de Lisboa, which was launched last year, has made it its mission to listen to the communities it covers, while also giving a voice to those who are rarely heard.

Since December 2021, the community news site has been putting a particular focus on Lisbon’s Creole community by producing journalistic content in their languages. Some 14,000 Guineans and 25,000 Cape Verdeans live in the Lisbon area (excluding their descendants).

Recognising and honouring the Creole community

“As a hyper local news outlet, our main focus is to integrate all communities in town,” said Catarina Carvalho, founder of Mensagem de Lisboa and former editor of Portugal’s Diário de Notícias. “It’s also a story of recognising and honouring a community that has done so much for the city but has never seen any of its languages acknowledged.”

According to Carvalho, publishing professional journalistic content in Creole was an unprecedented initiative in Portuguese media, and brought Mensagem de Lisboa a lot of attention, including several appearances on TV.

“It had a huge impact, so huge that it even affected our traffic,” she said. “Many people were coming to the website to see what we were doing, even if they weren’t Creole speakers.”

Mensagem de Lisboa launched the project with the help of a grant from NewsSpectrum, and partnered with Dino d’Santiago, one of Portugal’s biggest musicians, who also runs Lisboa Criola, a cultural and journalistic project covering the Creole community in Lisbon.

Managing the editorial workflow

In order to produce content in Creole, they brought on board Karyna Gomes, a musician and journalist of Guinean and Cape Verdean descent.

Gomes takes part in editorial meetings and collaborates closely with the small team at Mensagem de Lisboa. She writes her articles in Creole, and translates them into Portuguese. Editorial staff at Mensagem de Lisboa then edit the Portuguese version of the text, and Gomes implements the changes in her original piece in Creole.

Although the NewsSpectrum grant that has financed the project runs out in March, Gomes will likely continue to cover Lisbon’s Creole community until the end of the year.

As part of her coverage, she has written about the origins and importance of Creole in Lisbon, and spoken to a wide range of different people from the community, giving visibility to a group of people whose stories are otherwise rarely told in Portuguese mainstream media.

“Mensagem’s motto is empathy through knowledge,” Carvalho said.

“We understood that this was needed in Lisbon, as there are so many little ‘Lisbons’ that don’t tend to mix. We have this integration mission, so the Creole project fits perfectly into that.”

#BehindTheHeadlines: Investigating death at a sobering station in Wrocław, Poland

25-year-old Ukrainian Dmytro Nikiforenko died in a Polish sobering station (Photo Credit: supplied).

As part of the build up to World News Day 2022, we are showcasing journalism from around the world that has had significant social impact. Here is the backstory of the investigation that won Gazeta Wyborcza reporter Jacek Harłukowicz Poland’s top prize for journalism in 2021.

This article was originally published by WAN-IFRA.

It’s 10.52 PM when Dmytro Nikiforenko, a 25-year-old man from Ukraine, stops moving. Police officers are still sitting on him, one is hitting him on the head, the other is choking him. Other participants visible on the video footage – two more officers, two employees from the sobering station* and a doctor – are just observing, joking and laughing. When they notice there’s no response from their victim, the doctor checks his pulse. The policeman who was beating him, begins CPR.

But Nikiforenko is already dead.

When Jacek Harłukowicz from Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza saw the footage, recorded by a security camera, he was shocked. He had first heard about the death of the Ukrainian in August, 2021. A police informant wrote to him: “Find out what happened on July 30th in the sobering station in Wrocław. The boy is dead. Heads must roll. If you don’t cover this case, it will be swept under the rug.”

It was a tipoff that led to Harlukowicz uncovering the truth of what happened that night. The investigation won him Poland’s Grand Press Award in the Category for News.

Jacek Harłukowicz receiving the most important journalistic prize in Poland (Photo Credit: Sławomir Kamiński).
Jacek Harłukowicz receiving the most important journalistic prize in Poland (Photo Credit: Sławomir Kamiński).

When first alerted to the story, Harłukowicz remembered a similar incident in May 2016 when police officers hit another young man with a stun gun, also in Wrocław. He died a few hours after he was beaten and strangled at the police station.

Harłukowicz began investigating, but nobody knew anything. Other journalists soon found out about the Ukrainian, but no details were given to the public. An employee from the station tried to persuade the journalists that when Nikiforenko was collected by the officers from the city bus, he was drunk, violent and aggressive. They drove him to the station, strapped him up, and after a while he began to struggle to breathe.

But that’s not what happened.

The last hours of Nikiforenko’s life were on record, captured by a security camera. Footage clearly showed that for the whole time he was calm. “The sobering station employees didn’t see anything inappropriate in the recording when I watched it with them,” said Harlukowicz. “Experienced police officers I talked to were terrified that in the 21st century, in a European country, you could be beaten to death just because you were drunk while riding a bus.”

Two years earlier, the Ukrainian Nikiforenko had travelled to Poland in search of a better life. He came from Niemirów, a small town in the Vinnytsia Oblast in central Ukraine. Nikiforenko chose Wrocław, a popular destination for Ukrainians. He had a job and a fiancée; they were planning a wedding.

“It was outstanding how the family members of Dmytro were treated: until I exposed what actually happened during the arrest, they thought that Dmytro was the one attacking the officers. It was all lies,” said Harłukowicz.

When his report was published, it took only a few hours before police officers were suspended. All the biggest newspapers and websites – both in Poland and Ukraine, e.g. Ukrainian BBC – reported on Harłukowicz’ discovery. Ukrainian ambassador Andrij Deszczyca sent a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking for special coverage of the investigation.

“Today, all the people who were responsible for the death of Dmytro – officers, employees from the station and the doctor – are facing charges,” said Harłukowicz. “But I don’t feel satisfied. Nothing will bring this young man back to life, who came to Poland looking for a better future.”

It was not the last case of police brutality in this region: two more men died in August during or shortly after interventions. Both cases are under investigation now.

Harłukowicz was awarded the most important journalistic prize in Poland – the Grand Press Award in the News category.

“It is always a difficult choice, as this category is one of the most popular,” said juror Aleksandra Sobczak when she was presenting the award. “There were a lot of entries, but we chose the most outstanding of them. I remember as one of the jury members said, that it could win in more than one category – it’s not only a great news piece, it is also an investigation, a report and a story of great social impact.”

Three police officers have been fired. They, together with two station employees, will be prosecuted for the abuse and fatal beating of Nikiforenko. The fourth officer will only face abuse charges. The doctor is accused of risking the loss of life, and three other employees of incitement and false representation of medical records.

*A sobering station is a facility designed to accommodate people who are intoxicated.

Joanna Dzikowska is a journalist and reportage editor at Gazeta Wyborcza.

Singapore’s tallest fish farm to produce 2,700 tonnes of fish a year by 2023

High-rise living is not just for humans in Singapore.

An eight-storey fish farm – the tallest in Singapore and the region – started operations in the first quarter of this year.

The opening of the new facility by homegrown fish farming company Apollo Aquaculture Group comes amid a governmental push to get farmers here to use technology to improve yields.

Singapore wants to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs with local produce by 2030 – up from less than 10 per cent today. The goal is to boost food security by improving local production, so it is more resilient to global food supply shocks.

Mr Lucky Phua, senior director for international and corporate development at Apollo Aquaculture Group, said the facility’s first phase of operations will involve farming mainly hybrid grouper and coral trout on the first three storeys of the building. The expected output is up to 1,000 tonnes of fish a year.

This is more than six times the yearly output capacity of 150 tonnes of fish from Apollo’s three-tiered pilot farm in Lim Chu Kang, said Mr Phua.

When all tanks across eight storeys are operational in 2023, the total output capacity would be 2,700 tonnes a year, he added. For context, some 4,707 tonnes of fish were produced in Singapore in 2019.

Apollo’s $65 million fish farming facility looks nothing like the “kelongs” (offshore fish farms) people here usually associate with the rearing of fish.

Painted a bright blue, it appears to be the tallest building in the rural Neo Tiew Crescent area, and would not look out of place in an industrial park elsewhere in the country.

Inside, screens on a wall in an air-conditioned control room showed camera footage of the tanks – some of which now house hybrid grouper fingerlings – while others displayed water parameters such as pH value (a measure of how acidic or basic the water is), temperature and salinity.

Farming fish on land may be more expensive, but it allows for higher productivity because of vertical expansion and also affords farmers greater control over water quality, said Mr Phua. “In the sea, water quality depends on what the currents bring. Temperature and salinity also fluctuate,” he said.

Apollo has developed its own recirculating aquaculture system and equipment so the water can be treated and reused.

Farming in this controlled environment also means the farm can grow fish without the need to use hormones, antibiotics or vaccinations, to prevent diseases, said Mr Phua.

Apollo’s seafood currently costs slightly more than imported varieties. For instance, its hybrid groupers usually sell for between $18 and $28 per kilogram or fish, while the coral trout is sold for between $70 and $90 per kg.

But Mr Phua said costs will come down as production goes up.

He expects the new transformation fund to cover a broader scope than a push for productivity, and hopes there will be greater efforts to increase Singaporeans’ appetite for local produce.

Dr Ritu Bhalla, senior manager at Republic Polytechnic’s Agriculture Research and Innovation Centre, said fish is most economically farmed in natural water bodies, but these options are limited here.

“Farming fish in urban settings like Apollo (is doing) may very well be the way forward for us,” she said. “Being entirely self-contained, it allows for complete control and monitoring of all growth parameters. This can bring benefits like optimised feeding regime to reduce feed, zero pollution to our local water systems, and potentially better produce quality.”

Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems like Apollo’s are more energy intensive, but are highly flexible to meet potential food supply emergencies, provided there are ready sources of fast growing fish fingerlings, she said. “In the interest of diversifying our food sources and enhancing Singapore’s food security, the slight cost premium can possibly be justified in the longer term.”

World News Day Founder: Climate change has long been a political football, but facts are sacred and cannot be bent

A record number of newsrooms across the world have joined this year’s World News Day, a global day of action to promote the importance of fact-based journalism.

This year’s focus is a singular one, climate change. Wherever you are in the world, the climate is changing. Canada, where I live, is a country perhaps best known for ice hockey and the gift of our natural bounty. We possess a third of the world’s fresh water, mountains and three oceans to our west, north and east.

Our giant Prairie farms make Canada a world leader in the production and export of crops such as lentils, beans and chickpeas. Canada exports those crops to more than 120 countries, including refugee camps in the Middle East at cost basis.

But against such luck of geography, new challenges are being thrown up.

In British Columbia, Canada’s most western province, more than 600 people died from heat related illnesses this past summer. In the town of Lytton, B.C., a temperature of 49.6C was recorded. That comes in at 121.3F. This is the highest temperature ever recorded north of 45 degrees latitude.

Newsrooms around the world recognize that the news cycle forces journalists to confront such dramatic moments. That is why more reporters are being hired to focus exclusively on the environment.

Climate change has long been a political football, to be kicked around by different viewpoints. That is as may be, but while everyone is entitled to an opinion, facts are sacred and cannot be bent.

Instead of polarisation, fact-based journalism offers something much more precious. It offers solutions. And that is the intention of World News Day – to showcase our audiences, and what journalism is doing to respond to their demands.

An inherent advantage of quality journalism is that it hears and reports from all sides, including those who deny there is any climate change taking place. Such an exchange creates a market for ideas that provide a key benefit to society’s understandings of the issues that need to be confronted.

More than policymakers so often gripped by short-term domestic challenges, journalism offers the arena for long-term approaches, and for voices, especially the young, who are so moved by their environmental concerns.

The largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history is ongoing on Vancouver Island with more than 900 people arrested as protesters, many of them in their twenties, are fighting to protect old growth forest. No trees, no future is one of their slogans. The deep-seated, emotional defence of our land is a powerful force that news pages need to keep on the front pages.

Our reader research tells us that environment coverage is as important as health reporting, even during the global Covid-19 pandemic. It is in the interests of all countries to work together to reduce emissions and support radical industrial changes that will help the entire human race.

That is why journalists in more than 460 newsrooms across six continents have joined in this year’s initiative.

Please join the discussion on this website and on social media at #WorldNewsDay and #JournalismMatters to help us help everyone to make the planet a better place.

David Walmsley is the founder of World News Day, and the editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, Canada.

Covid crisis points to climate challenge ahead

Getting to school as a boy growing up in Singapore in the 1970s could be soggy affair at times.

Tropical downpours overwhelmed drainage systems, leaving parts of the island impassable. Students braved the rains and rising waters, turning up wet and bedraggled, if they made it at all.

Thankfully, this became a thing of the past by the late 1980s. Massive flood alleviation efforts caused this story to recede from newspaper front pages, as a modern city-state emerged.

Yet, decades on, we seem to be heading back to the future.

Severe storms are now becoming more frequent.

The result: last month, pictures and videos of upscale districts in central Singapore inundated hit the headlines again, causing much consternation.

But even as the authorities rushed to unveil plans in response to the public concerns, a minister warned that as intense rainfall was becoming more common with global warming, people might have to get used to flash floods from time to time.

Rising sea levels is an existential issue for this low-lying island, about a third of which is less than 5 metres above the mean sea level. The country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has estimated that over $100 billion (Singapore dollars) might be needed over the next decades to tackle the rising tides caused by warming seas and melting ice sheets.

But Singapore is not alone. New York City declared a “flash flood emergency” earlier this month after record levels of rain in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Over 300 people were killed in China’s Henan province in August, when a year’s worth of rain fell in three days, leaving many trapped in underground train carriages and road tunnels, as water levels rose.

Devastating floods in Germany and Belgium, droughts in Brazil, heatwaves in India, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States, wild fires in California and Canada, as well as across the Mediterranean and Amazon regions  – such extreme weather events, once the stuff of movies, have been playing out across the planet this year.

Get used to it, say the climate scientists, for these are signs of what’s to come.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Hoesung Lee, summed up the grim scenario this way: “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather more frequent and severe.”

“It also shows that climate change is affecting every region on our planet,” he said, following a UN report in August, dubbed a Code Red warning for humanity and an urgent call to action.

Yet, who can blame a weary world for being distracted, with so many countries still in the grip of a rampaging virus that refuses to yield.

But, as the IPCC’s Dr Lee rightly notes, the Covid-19 pandemic is a “foretaste of what climate change could do to our society, to nature and our lives”.

“Both climate change and Covid-19 have shown us the risks of an unthinking and rapacious approach to nature and its resources.”

Lamentably, while the world’s scientists were quick to step up to the Covid-19 challenge, delivering effective vaccines, efforts to curb the outbreak have been hampered by populist politicians, global inequalities, and a pandemic of misinformation.

Divisions and delays have compounded the challenge: the virus has continued to spread, mutate, and unleash new waves of infections.

The Covid-19 experience has made plain how difficult it will be to forge a global consensus on tackling the climate crisis.

The signs of this looming challenge, and the science behind it, grow clearer by the day. But here too, politics, inequality and misinformation confound concerted action.

This is where professional newsrooms have an important role to play.

And it is why this year’s World News Day on September 28, will focus on the climate crisis.

Some 500 newsrooms from around the world will come together to tell the story of how climate change is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of communities, and how they are grappling with it.

Professional newsrooms, with resources and expertise, are best placed to tell these stories in clear, compelling and credible ways.

One of the best examples of this, in my view, is the recent BBC documentary, The Truth about Climate Change.  In it,  environmentalist David Attenborough sums up the facts and makes the case for action, in his friendly-scientist-you-can-trust way.

“In 4,500 million years, our world has gone through many natural changes. Now, it is changing once again,” he warned.

“But this time, we ourselves are contributing to those changes. We are causing the world to heat up.

“If we continue to behave as we are doing, our children and grandchildren will have to deal with potentially catastrophic changes.

“The vast forests of the Amazon could wither and burn. The oceans could turn acid, destroying much of the life they presently contain.

“The Arctic could be transformed. Its ice could melt and its most famous animals vanish forever.

“Rising tides could cast millions of people adrift. Many of our coastal cities could be flooded, and drowned.”

There is still time to act if the world is to minimise these changes, he adds. But time, that most non-renewable of resources, is running out.

Sir David, 93, has been making such pleas for some time.

Now is the time to hear him, and heed.

Warren Fernandez is Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, the leading English language news title in Singapore, and President of the World Editors Forum (WEF). 


Aotearoa New Zealand’s braided rivers are internationally significant, but they’ve been systematically strangled, and in some cases, have left behind zombie rivers. As climate change threatens to make the problems worse, some academics and scientists are re-imagining what it means to live with rivers.

By the time it started raining high in the Southern Alps, it was already too late for those downstream.

It had been raining for several days in the headwaters of the Rangitata River, between Christchurch and Timaru, by the evening of December 6, 2019. A sudden downpour overnight brought the highest river levels observed in two decades, and made it inevitable the river would burst its seams. The question was where.

Like other braided rivers in the region, the Rangitata has been heavily modified. Roads, stop banks, and farmland flank its edges; an enormous line of ponds stapled to its side, designed to capture flood waters for irrigation, resemble an artificial second river.

Before human settlement, the river would have simply flooded, forging a new path for itself. But now it was barricaded with stop banks, its floodplain populated by people with lives and property. The river had been narrowed, giving the kinetic energy of the floodwaters little opportunity to disperse; it could only build strength as it barrelled down the plains.

When the floodwaters came, they breached the entrance to what used to be the South Branch of the river.

Long ago, the Rangitata river split in two. The Southern Branch has since dried up, and is now covered in irrigated pasture (the land between the two branches was Rangitata Island, a name which remains).

The floods revived the dead southern branch, which at its peak had more water flowing down it than the main river itself. Some of that water itself broke out, flooding state highway one and cutting off the bottom part of the country for several days. At least two more breaches in the main river added to the flooding.

Flood – Environment Canterbury: Flooding on farmland from the Rangitata river in 2019

From the ground, it would have seemed like chaos; floods of water rampaging over the plains, damaging anything in its path. But from above, a different picture was emerging. Environment Canterbury (ECan) staff were photographing the floods from the air, later stitching together the images to create a mosaic of the event.

It showed the floodwaters were following a predetermined pattern. The flood was itself a river, with twists and braids and tributaries, much like the Rangitata itself.

A zombie river, long ago buried beneath asphalt and housing and irrigators, had been revived.

Over thousands of years, the braided rivers of the Canterbury plains painstakingly sketched the landscape they now occupy.

There are more than 150 braided rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand, almost all of which are in the South Island. Their floodplains alone span around 250,000ha, more than double the size of Auckland City.

Most notable are the braided rivers that formed the Canterbury Plains, the largest area of flat land in the country: The Rakaia, the Rangitata, the Waimakariri, the Waitaki, the Ashley/Rakahuri, and the Waiau.

It is a privileged responsibility, given how few of the world’s rivers are braided. Most rivers, globally speaking, are meandering: They have a single channel, filled with water, that goes from one place to another. Think of the Waikato, the Clutha, the Avon.

Braided rivers are complicated, dynamic, destructive; they are three-dimensional, in that water also flows beneath the river, popping up as springs and wetlands which are periodically destroyed and recreated, as if the braided river system is creating its own universe.

Some say braided rivers are better seen as four-dimensional; they move across time, existing in different shapes and forms on the scale of millennia. Where a river ends now may be dozens of kilometres from where it ended centuries ago.

Several specific factors are required for a river to become braided. One is gradient: They must start at high altitude, tumbling steeply to sea-level over a short distance. They also need a constant supply of rock and sediment, which usually comes from young, rapidly eroding mountain ranges like the Southern Alps which are large enough to create their own weather.

Rain and snow strips the mountains of rock and sediment, as do the massive glaciers that emerge and recede over long time periods, cutting against the mountains, leaving more rock and sediment, all of which is swept downstream towards the coast.

Much of this rock settles on the river beds, forming shingle islands between small, twisting water channels. When it floods, the streams merge into a single channel, carrying the rock and sediment out to sea in a torrent, which is swept back towards the land by the tides to build beaches and protect against coastal flooding.

When the floodwaters recede, the river may have redesigned itself; shifted its islands, created new braids, destroyed old ones. Then the process begins anew.

Central to this process is flooding.

All rivers flood in the right conditions, but for braided rivers, floods are a defining aspect of their physical function.

Braided rivers are more complicated. They are incredibly wide, and contain a series of narrow channels that weave around mounds of rock. Where the river begins and ends is not always clear; they cut into the landscape, forming terraces, which can be indistinguishable from a traditional riverbank.

“The problem with braided rivers, like any other river, is they periodically break their banks,” says Sonny Whitelaw, manager of braided river conservation group BRaid (Braided River aid)​.

“The natural reaction is to say we’re going to put up these barricades to control the river and prevent them from flooding. And of course, the more you confine it, the more you risk flooding, because you’re trying to carry the same amount of water in a much narrower channel.”

We sometimes think of river flooding as abnormal; a departure from regular order, a river’s failure to fulfil its implied promise to neatly channel water from one place to another.

But flooding is a feature, not a bug. Floods create and destroy new habitat, and carry sediment from the mountains to the coasts. The tension comes when people, property, and infrastructure are put in the way, justifying further measures to control the river, which can themselves make the problem worse.

That was evident during the catastrophic Canterbury floods early this month, which caused widespread damage, mostly from braided river flooding.

For many, it was a lucky escape. The flooding was worst in the smaller braided rivers, namely the Ashburton and the Ashley/Rakahuri, largely because their headwaters are in the foothills, which are more influenced by northeasterly rain (the larger braided rivers, with headwaters higher in the mountains, are more influenced by traditional westerly rain).

Some, of course, were not so lucky. Lives and property were damaged; the rivers, unable to be controlled, revived their dead channels, indifferent to what had been built in the interim.

It shows when a braided river floods, even smaller ones, the consequences can be severe. It highlights a fundamental tension: Can humans and braided rivers peacefully co-exist, particularly given the expected impacts of the climate crisis, which, in some ways, will make the rivers more powerful than ever?



When the Waimakariri River north of Christchurch spilled its banks in 1868, it caused significant alarm in the city and its surrounds.

Water flooded much of Christchurch, including Cathedral Square. But the worst damage was done in Kaiapoi, on the northern bank of the river.

Waimakariri – Alden Williams: A wide section of the Waimakariri river.

As detailed by The Press: “Kaiapoi, in spite of all the protective works and cuttings constructed by the inhabitants in the hope of averting the attacks of their dreaded enemy, has, we fear, suffered terribly.”

The language used by the newspaper was instructive.

To some, the Waimakariri is a tupuna, a taonga, a provider of mahinga kai. To the settlers, it was a “dreaded enemy”, something to be protected from.

The settlers were not living with the river; they were at war with it. In some ways, they still are.

Communities have long been built along rivers. Floodplains are fertile, flat, and easy to develop; the rivers themselves can be harnessed as machines for economic growth.

“The first civilisations on our planet emerged in places like Mesopotamia – ‘between the rivers’ – so it’s not a new thing,” says Professor Gary Brierley,​ a river scientist and chair of physical geography at the University of Auckland.

“And just like those ancient civilisations fell over because practices were unsustainable, what we’re doing is unsustainable.”

The problems have become more pronounced as society has moved closer and closer to the rivers, emboldened by the idea they can be controlled.

We can build stop banks to prevent flooding, or capture floodwaters when they get too high; we can funnel rivers down a particular path, take the gravel out of the riverbed, stuff streams and tributaries back into the main channel when they break out.

But some of those practices have undoubtedly made the problem worse, and the costs have become increasingly hard to justify.

In Christchurch, efforts to protect the city from the Waimakariri River are costly. The most recent upgrade of the stop bank system cost around $40m. In 2020, insurers nationwide paid out nearly $170m in flooding-related damage (figures which include surface flooding from rain).

Between 1990 and 2012, around 12,000ha of river margin land in Canterbury was claimed by farmers, an analysis by ECan found. Some of this development has been in the riverbed itself, and has put productive land in the path of river floods and erosion.

Braided rivers have been tapped for water to irrigate farmland, and dammed to generate electricity. The flatlands cleared by the rivers have made way for quarries, housing, landfills and other infrastructure, further justifying engineering solutions to protect against floods.

We drive our cars through the gravel braids to fish introduced species like salmon and trout. Introduced predators feast on threatened native species that live in braided habitat, and exotic weeds and trees choke the river margins, further disrupting the river’s natural flow.

To manage flooding and use land for economic development, braided rivers have been narrowed significantly, which makes them more hydraulically efficient: They carry water faster, with more energy. At the same time, wetlands – a crucial buffer against flooding – have been systematically removed.

With climate change, heavy rainfall events are expected to become more severe, particularly in the headwaters of the major braided rivers. At the same time, drier conditions on the plains could increase reliance on water, particularly for farms, moving us closer to the rivers.

“We’ve got all these factors conspiring to make things more difficult for us, and where we’re at now is only going to be accentuated into the future unless we turn some of these things around,” Brierley says.

“We wanted the convenience of rivers, but at the same time, we wanted to turn our backs to them in terms of a lot of the practices that we undertook.”

Dead channels south of the Waimakariri River show its former path.

It has prompted a new way of thinking among some river scientists. As the relationship between rivers and humanity becomes more fraught, how do we co-exist?

Earlier this year, a group of New Zealand academics and scientists co-authored a piece arguing that rivers were being “strangled”, and actions were required to undo the damage.

It is a concept gaining favour internationally. Experts in the United Kingdom recently argued letting rivers run wild could significantly reduce flooding; In the United States, ageing dams are being systematically dismantled to allow rivers to flow more freely. Attempts to restore the Old Rhine River in Europe by allowing its natural functions to return have had promising results.

There are many names for this practice; rewilding, reanimation, redynamisation, integrated river management, decolonisation. In the simplest terms, it’s letting a river be a river.

It’s an idea that has gained favour in Aotearoa New Zealand over the last five years. It’s not limited to water scientists; a cross-disciplinary group including engineers, ecologists, and geomorphologists have made the argument for letting rivers be rivers.

It can cause questioning of standard practices within their respective disciplines

“There is often a tension between engineering and science,” says Dr Heide Friedrich,✓​ an associate professor of engineering at the University of Auckland.

“In engineering, we want to put everything in boxes – everything needs to go a certain way. Whereas in science, we understand complexity, holistic assessment, and so on.”

Engineers have played a significant role in river management. By one estimate, stop banks in Aotearoa New Zealand span around 5000km, more than double the length of the country itself. They protect many billions of dollars of assets – not to mention lives – from floods.

But the cost is not only financial. Some of the environmental consequences have not been well understood.

After modest rainfall near Franz Josef in 2016, the Waiho River breached a stopbank and took out a hotel. A few years later, the same river flooded again, destroying a bridge which cost $6m to replace.

It comes after a long period of trying to confine the river, but sediment build-up on the river-bed has increased water levels. The solution has been to build the stop banks higher, which is not financially sustainable. One option is to let the river reclaim its floodplain, which has been converted to pasture, or to move Franz Josef township entirely.

Another example, Friedrich says, is floodwater harvesting – taking water from floods that would otherwse flow out to sea to store for irrigation. It is used on the Rangitata River, where floodwaters are stored in enormous ponds beside the river.

While it may seem sensible, floods appear to have a significant role in transferring sediment, both out to sea and on the river-bed itself. Once a sediment regime is altered, it can take decades to reverse, and the impacts can be significant; sediment provides shelter to aquatic life, and builds up coastlines to protect against erosion, a growing problem with climate change.

It’s the sort of problem engineers need to grapple with, Friedrich says. Conventional systems don’t always work.

“In the past, often engineers did a lot of studies, came up with solutions and implemented them. But especially when it comes to water environments, we see there are a lot of unintended consequences,” she says.

“We need to ask critical questions of water processes before we sign off on an engineering solution. Just because there could be an engineering solution doesn’t mean we should use it.”

In one sense, the problem is simple to describe. Humans, particularly since colonial settlement, have operated under the assumption rivers are static, a strategic error that becomes harder to reverse the more time goes on.

“I think the first step is recognising we have created a problem,” says Dr Dan Hikuroa,​ an Earth systems scientist and a senior lecturer in Māori studies at the University of Auckland.

“A river has been a river mai rānō, since forever. We’ve created a problem by building on its banks or nearby, restricting it.”

Hikuroa advocates for a mixture of science and Mātauranga.

River management in Aotearoa New Zealand has been pre-occupied with a river’s component parts; setting acceptable levels for the likes of nitrogen, phosphorus and E. coli, each of which can be independently measured and controlled.

Much of the public (and political) debate about freshwater has centred on “swimmability” – whether rivers can fulfil the recreational needs of humans.

For some river scientists, mātauranga has clarified questions science has been unable to resolve. What if, instead of seeing a river as a machine to be controlled, something that can be deconstructed, we recognised its mauri and accepted it has a fundamental right to be a river?

The two forms of knowledge are not inherently in conflict, and can be complementary. It is an idea, appropriately, informed by the structure of a braided river itself: He awa whiria, two channels weaving and twisting, creating something stronger.

“If you can imagine two strands of knowledge, when you have woven them, they’ll be stronger than those individual strands were on their own,” Hikuroa says.

“Each maintains its own integrity within that new thing, whatever it is.

“It’s not just understanding the role of nitrogen, or phosphorus, or E. coli – Those are discrete pieces of information that are valuable and valid on their own, but make most sense when considered as part of that holistic system. It’s when we go right down on those small parts, as opposed to looking at the whole system, where things can go awry.”

24052021 photo Alden Williams
Water storage ponds on the banks of the Rangitata river.
File generic drone aerial

It is a view that has already moved beyond academia.

Te Awa Tupua, the law granting the Whanganui river legal personhood, recognises such values explicitly: “Te Awa Tupua is an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements,” the law says.

Similar wording is contained in Te Mana o Te Wai, the concept underlying the Government’s freshwater reforms in 2020: In its hierarchy of obligations, the health and well-being of the water comes first, ahead of human and economic needs.

A few years ago, at the Christchurch District Court, a farmer was charged with an unusual offence –building a wall in the Selwyn River.

The Selwyn River is braided over some of its length. Much of its observable span is dry, meaning the course of the river channel – particularly where it starts and ends – can be hard to determine.

What seemed like a standard prosecution would come to have significant ramifications.

The farmer acknowledged building the structure – a bund to protect his land from flooding – without permission, but disputed the claim it was in the riverbed, which would come with a harsher punishment.

He argued the wall was in the floodplain, not the riverbed itself. He was found guilty, but appealed.

The High Court sided with the farmer, as did the Court of Appeal.

It speaks to the confusing way in which rivers are defined. Under the Resource Management Act (RMA), a riverbed is: “[T]he space which the waters of the river cover at its fullest flow without overtopping its banks”.

Neither “fullest flow” nor “banks” are defined. So what does it mean?

In bringing the prosecution, ECan had interpreted it to mean where the river would flow in a one-in-20 or one-in-50 year flooding event, an argument it had successfully used before. Under this definition, a river’s floodplains would be considered part of the river.

The High Court, however, disagreed. It cited a 1905 case regarding the Hutt River, which defined a river in relation to normal seasonal flow. Under this definition, a river does not include its floodplain; it is a static channel. The court’s interpretation stands, radically changing the definition of some riverbed land.

The biggest consequences are for braided rivers, which are, technically speaking, mostly floodplain, and are clearly not static.

The regular flow of water – the channel – is a minor part of a braided river; it’s only after heavy rain, when the water swells and erodes the river’s banks, changing the river’s course, that the river operates how it should.

As other countries move further towards unstrangling their rivers, legally speaking, New Zealand’s are more strangled than ever (the Government has announced an overhaul of the RMA, but it’s unclear if the definition of a riverbed will change).

“Under the RMA, the definition of a braided river isn’t a braided river – it goes right back to this colonial attitude towards a river being just a channel,” says Sonny Whitelaw, of BRaid.

It’s part of a broader problem, she says. How do you define the position of something that constantly moves?

“The question is, what exactly is a braided river? Are we looking at a braided river as it was yesterday, or last year, or last century, or before people arrived?

“This is a conundrum we’ve got. The damn things don’t conveniently stay in one nice to find place – they’re prone, at a moment’s notice, to just sort of pickup and change location.”


If you’ve flown into Christchurch, you may have seen how this happens. Land around the braided rivers are covered in stretch marks.

They are dead channels and streams, left by the Waimakariri River as it shifted north to its current position (thousands of years earlier, the river likely flowed near Te Waihora, south of the city.)

With no intervention, the river would likely shift back, over a long enough time period. With the country’s second-largest city now in the way, protected by 100km of stop banks, that is unlikely to happen.

It is an issue across the lower stretches of every braided river, and the defining challenge for the river reanimation movement.

“We have already encroached on them too much, whether it’s from agriculture, or weeds, or our bridges and roads and wastewater treatment plants, cities, you name it,” Whitelaw says.

“I feel like I struggle with this every day. We either choose to take a holistic view and say okay, we need to withdraw, we need to enable the rivers to act more like living rivers rather than zombie rivers.

“But we need to know that we’re going to sacrifice things to do that, and the question is, who pays for it?”

Mātaraunga shows people can learn to live with rivers. When a flood damaged much of Mātata township in 2005, among the few buildings that weren’t damaged were marae.

The reason was a pūrākau, a narrative applied to the landscape. The river was said to house a taniwha in the form of a lizard, its tail flicking side to side, a sign that people should be cautious.

The story contains a basic geomorphological fact; the lower channel of the river laterally shifts after floods.

It is one reason for optimism. This is a problem that predates everyone alive today; Perhaps two forms of knowledge, braided, can help ease tensions in the long-standing war between humans and rivers.

“It comes from a way of knowing and being that sees you as part of that system, that sees waterways as ancestors, as tupuna, that says we would prefer to treat them like taonga, not as toilets,” Dan Hikuroa says about the move to reanimate rivers.

“That kind of thinking, combined with some cutting edge technical tools where we can be measuring real time E. Coli, nutrient loads, silt loads, rainfall modelling… I think there’s an approach where we can see rivers as more than just a bed, banks, and the water in it, and that’s definitely the way forward for us.”

For Gary Brierley, the river scientist, answers to some pressing questions have been there all along. It’s now time to put the solutions in place.

“A Mataraunga Māori lens is second nature to many groups across the country, and it’s frankly, the direction that we need to be going,” he says.

“To me, it’s an incredible paradox – We have a good idea from science as to where we want to be, and because of the Treaty obligations, if there’s any part of the world where it should be pretty easy to do this, to get on with it, it’s here. And yet we have fallen behind the rest of the world.”


This story, published by Stuff,  has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Morir sin impactar al medio ambiente

En tiempos de pandemia, cuando hemos escuchado hablar de más de tres millones de muertes en el mundo ocasionadas solamente por el Covid-19, es preciso comenzar a pensar en el impacto negativo que tiene los decesos de los seres humanos en el medio ambiente.

Prácticas tan generalizadas que se han vuelto costumbres y tradiciones, como la sepultura o la cremación de algún ser querido, son poco cuestionadas sobre la cantidad de emisiones de carbono y otros contaminantes que contribuyen al calentamiento global.

Recompose, una empresa funeraria “progresista” ubicada en Seattle, estado de Washington, Estados Unidos, ha creado un nuevo ritual de despedida de los seres humanos de una manera mucho más sustentable y amigable con el medio ambiente, aunque tal vez escandalosa para muchos. Su meta, es dejar atrás los procesos convencionales y contaminantes y recibir al compostaje humano, para así hacer uso de la famosa frase “tierra eres y en tierra te convertirás”.

Por ahora, Washington es el único lugar en Estados Unidos en el que se realiza este método, pues en 2019 se legalizó a nivel local la reducción orgánica natural como una opción posterior a la vida.

“Conviértete en tierra cuando mueras”, anuncia en su página de internet Recompose mientras explica el innovador proceso para dar eterno descanso a las personas que han fallecido. La empresa utiliza un proceso llamado reducción orgánica natural para transformar suavemente los restos humanos en suelo, el cual se puede utilizar para regenerar la tierra de bosques, jardines, campos, etcétera.

“Con un enfoque que es tan práctico como significativo, Recompose conecta el final de la vida con el mundo natural”, asegura.

Con el proceso de reducción orgánica se utiliza los principios de la naturaleza para devolver los cuerpos a la tierra, reteniendo carbono y mejorando la salud de nuestro entorno natural.

Resultados presentados en la reunión anual de la American Association for the Advancement of Science, de acuerdo con la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, sugieren que el compostaje, también llamado reducción orgánica natural, es una forma fácil de manejar los cadáveres en la Tierra.

Lo anterior se debe a que los cuerpos humanos son un excelente alimento para los gusanos. Al menos a esa conclusión llegaron de los experimentos pilotos del proyecto ‘Urban Death, de la Universidad Estatal de Washington, con el que se estudiaron a seis cadáveres a los que se les dejó descomponerse entre astillas de madera y otros materiales orgánicos.

En conferencia de prensa, la presentadora del proyecto, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, indicó que los seis cuerpos “fueron colocados en recipientes que contenían material vegetal y éstos fueron rotados rutinariamente para proporcionar condiciones óptimas para la descomposición”.

Bajo este proceso, tardó aproximadamente de cuatro a siete semanas en que los microbios en el material redujeron los cuerpos a esqueletos.


Descanso eterno y contaminante

De acuerdo con la empresa, las prácticas funerarias actuales dejan severas secuelas a nuestro planeta. En México, el último registro del Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (Inegi) indicó que en 2019 murieron 747 mil 784 personas; no obstante, y aunque las cifras no han sido especificadas aún, con la llegada de la pandemia, la mortalidad en México aumentó por lo que el presidente de la junta de gobierno del Inegi, Julio Santaella, estimó que en el 2020, por primera vez en la historia de nuestro país, podrían rebasar el millón de defunciones.

Lo anterior es relevante porque en México, los únicos métodos legales para despedir a un cuerpo humano son la sepultura y la cremación.

En torno a ello, Recompose asegura que la cremación es considerada agresiva para el medio ambiente porque quema combustibles fósiles y emite dióxido de carbono y partículas a la atmósfera.

Por su parte, el entierro convencional consume terrenos urbanos valiosos, contamina el suelo y contribuye al cambio climático a través de la fabricación y el transporte de ataúdes, lápidas y revestimientos de tumbas que requieren muchos recursos.

Por lo que concluye que el impacto ambiental general del entierro y la cremación convencionales es aproximadamente el mismo.

No obstante y lamentablemente, esta opción aún no es viable para todas las personas. / Foto: Sabel Roizen

Una alternativa amigable para el planeta

Por el contrario, la reducción orgánica promete ser una solución amigable con el medio ambiente. De acuerdo con Recompose, por cada persona que elige el compostaje humano en vez de un entierro o la cremación, se evita que una tonelada métrica de dióxido de carbono entre a la atmósfera.

Según señala, el compostaje humano requiere un octavo de la energía de un entierro o cremación convencional y, como una ventaja, fortalece al medio ambiente en lugar de agotarlo, lo que denomina como “salud del suelo”.

“La descomposición de la materia orgánica es un componente esencial en el ciclo que permite que la muerte de un organismo alimente la vida de otro. El suelo es la base de un ecosistema saludable. Filtra el agua, proporciona nutrientes a las plantas, retiene carbono y ayuda a regular la temperatura global”, detalla la empresa.

Aunado a ello, el suelo resultante del compostaje humano cumple con los estándares de seguridad establecidos por la Agencia de Protección Ambiental de Estados Unidos para contaminantes como los metales pesados.

En el proceso de la reducción orgánica tiene como beneficio adicional matar a los patógenos peligrosos, según el estudio de la Universidad Estatal de Washington, a lo que se le denomina como “esterilización automática”.

No obstante y lamentablemente, esta opción aún no es viable para todas las personas, pues de acuerdo con el estudio, el calor que se produce en el proceso no mata a los priones, unas proteínas mal plegadas extremadamente duraderas que pueden causar enfermedades.

Lo anterior podría significar que el compostaje “no estaría permitido para las personas que fueron diagnosticadas con encefalopatías espongiformes transmisibles (EET), como la enfermedad de Creutzfeldt-Jakob“, dijo la investigadora Carpenter-Boggs.

¿Cómo se lleva a cabo el compostaje humano?

Quizá este tema sea novedoso y desconocido para muchas personas. La empresa funeraria ha detallado que el compostaje humano se realiza a través cinco fases, en las cuales los microbios, el oxígeno y la materia vegetal se combinan para convertir los restos humanos en suelo. A continuación profundizaremos en las etapas:

  • Comienza el ciclo: la reducción orgánica natural (NOR), también conocida como compostaje humano, está impulsada por microbios beneficiosos que se presentan naturalmente en nuestros cuerpos y en el
  • La colocación: el personal de Recompose coloca el cuerpo en una “cuna” rodeado de astillas de madera, alfalfa y paja. La cuna se coloca en un recipiente Recompose y se cubre con más material vegetal.
  • El recipiente: el cuerpo y el material vegetal permanecen en el recipiente durante 30 días. Los microbios descomponen todo a nivel molecular, lo que da como resultado la formación de un suelo rico en nutrientes.
  • La tierra: cada cuerpo crea una yarda cúbica de enmienda de suelo, que se retira del recipiente y se deja curar. Una vez completado, se puede utilizar para enriquecer tierras de conservación, bosques o
  • La vida después de la muerte: el suelo creado devuelve los nutrientes de nuestros cuerpos al mundo natural. Restaura bosques, retiene carbono y nutre nueva vida.

Bells Mountain Forest.

Perdurar en un bosque

Una vez terminado el proceso en el que el cuerpo humano se integra al suelo, Recompose da la opción a la persona o a los familiares de donar el compostaje a Bells Mountain, un bosque ubicado en Washington en donde se contabilizan cerca de 700 acres.

Este bosque es un área natural protegida legalmente. Los cuidadores de la tierra utilizan el suelo donado por Recompose para apoyar la revitalización continua de los humedales, los hábitats ribereños, las plantas locales y las especies de vida silvestre vulnerables.

“Después de un siglo de abuso y abandono, las tierras despejadas azotadas por el sol y el viento quedan con suelos degradados y bosques atrofiados. El suelo que ofrece Recompose enriquecerá los campos talados en recuperación, ayudándolos a florecer una vez más”, expone la funeraria en su invitación a la donación de suelo.

Además, agrega que un suelo saludable potencia el manejo holístico de los pastizales y el desarrollo ecológico, con lo que se reduce los impactos climáticos negativos y contribuye a la regeneración de los ecosistemas naturales.

La despedida del ser querido: un ritual sumamente simbólico

La muerte sostenible a través del compostaje humano no solo es amigable con el planeta, sino que también lleva consigo una carga simbólica sumamente fuerte como la de cualquier otro ritual de despedida. Aún más allá de la idea de que nuestros cuerpos vuelven a la tierra y a la naturaleza, Recompose ha creado toda una ceremonia para marcar lo que ellos llaman el “proceso de transición” antes de llevar los cuerpos a las cunas de compostaje.

Usualmente, los familiares pueden decir el número de invitados al evento, aunque por motivos de la pandemia, actualmente todo el proceso se transmite en video.

En el momento de la instalación, es posible observar las vasijas blancas, plantas y una imagen proyectada del bosque de Bells Mountain. Todo ello rodea al cuerpo de la persona fallecida, el cual estará a la vista, acostado en la cuna y envuelto en una tela natural.

“La participación es opcional y puede verse y sentirse diferente para cada persona o familia. Algunas personas deciden tener un espacio para compartir recuerdos, mientras que otras usan este tiempo para aprender sobre la transformación de su persona en tierra”, expresa la empresa.

“Una colocación puede ser hermosa y completa”, asegura, y se pueden incluir velas encendidas, la compañía de un líder religioso u orador, la presentación de imágenes, lecturas, música, entre otras cosas más.


Este artículo fue compartido como parte del World News Day 2021, una campaña global que destaca el papel fundamental del periodismo basado en hechos a la hora de proveer noticias e información fiables al servicio de la humanidad. 

In Lisbon, yellow is the new green — and there’s no harm in that

In Lisbon, a city in southern Europe and the capital of Portugal, lawns are being replaced by meadows. In the summer, there’s no green in sight; only yellow. And that’s a good thing. In one of the city’s largest parks, Bela Vista Park, six million litres of water are saved each year.

Bela Vista Park, Lisbon


Man in pic: Rui Simão, head of the Lisbon City Council’s (CML) Green Space Maintenance and Requalification Department

A green city, full of well-watered and neatly trimmed lawns – the image we have come to associate with the quality of what is green in the city may be all wrong. Lawns come at a heavy price: costs and environmental consequences. Maintaining lawns requires intense water use, a scarce resource in a southern country, the proper management of which is particularly important in dry months, such as summer in the Portuguese capital.

In Lisbon, the concept of a green city is being challenged, even as regards the perception of the colour itself. Meadows are replacing lawns. Is the green in the city really green? Perhaps you need to readjust your vision and to rethink: perhaps “green” isn’t exactly “green”, in the ecological and sustainable sense of the word. In urban climate action, the colour green isn’t always the answer. The obsession with perfectly trimmed lawns may be interesting in temperate climates like that in the UK, but it’s not a healthy expectation for a septentrional city that strives to be sustainable today and prepared for a future affected by climate change.

Lisbon’s largest park is yellowing

The Bela Vista Park is a large urban park located in the eastern part of the city, recently won over from wastelands. Here, lawns are yielding. It’s summer and temperatures rise above 30ºC. Where once there was grass, today there are two fields of biodiverse dry meadow. Yellow dominates.

In autumn and winter green abounds. In spring we are gifted with a multi-coloured splendour. An explanation is provided on vertical signage, lest passers-by think the park is neglected. It isn’t. It’s just like that. A biodiverse dry meadow – a renaturalised space populated by “native species from our flora, adapted to our climate and that have a natural life cycle,” says Rui Simão, head of the Lisbon City Council’s (CML) Green Space Maintenance and Requalification Department.

They don’t need irrigation, they help hold water in the soil, and they attract insects that help control pests. They sprung up in 2020, the year in which Lisbon was named European Green Capital. These natural structures were first experimented with in 2012 in the Monsanto Green Corridor, behind the Palace of Justice.

A multi-coloured strategy

“The strategy is not only green, it’s also brown,” says Rui Simão. The biological cycle of dry meadows follows the seasons. “Seeds are produced in the summer. They then fall to the ground, start growing and then germinate in the spring.” These new green plants “bloom and then produce more seeds”, closing the cycle. 

In Bela Vista Park alone 20,000 sq.m – or 2 hectares – of water-hungry lawn was replaced with meadows. This resulted in an annual saving of 6,000 m3 – 6 million litres – of water, enough to fill two Olympic-size pools and with one million litres to spare, according to the International Swimming Federation (FINA).

The initiative is part of Life Lungs, a project led by Lisbon to adapt to climate change with EU funding, in partnership with the Spanish city of Málaga.

The threat of climate change in Lisbon 

“We are experiencing the effects of climate change and we must take action to effect change. Our green spaces, especially in the Mediterranean area, are bearing the brunt. Unfortunately, we live in an area that is gradually becoming a semi-arid climate. And we have to adapt,” says Rui.

According to C40 data, the major threats for Lisbon are linked to its location: 

The worsening of the magnitude of strong/gale-force winds;

Increased intense rain, both in frequency and magnitude;

High temperatures, the effects of which are made worse by decreased precipitation;

Cold waves, which are high-risk to an increasingly vulnerable elderly population;

Increase in mean sea level and extreme precipitation events, with ever growing land use, increasing the risk of flooding in Lisbon.

Despite being a quiet and peaceful city, there’s much to do: in terms of carbon emissions per capita, Lisbon ranks above London, Madrid, Rome and Paris, for example. A Climate Action Plan is in the process of being approved to prepare the city for these changes: by 2030, it must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, compared to 2002. By 2018, these emissions had already been reduced by 40%. The city, however, city aims to be carbon neutral by 2040, ten years ahead of the target set by the European continent. By 2030, an estimated €4 billion is expected to be invested.

Other actions include the Lisbon General Drainage Plan – a flood drainage network aimed at reducing the impact of floods in the city, the construction of which will cost an estimated €180 million – and a delay in the creation of the Low Emissions Zone (LEZ; or ZER in Portuguese) in Lisbon’s historic centre, aimed at reducing traffic by 40,000 cars a day and 60,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. 

Sow and then leave it to nature

Meadows are just one facet of the climate change adaptation plan. Since they are new meadows, the green isn’t artificial. It’s green when nature wants it to be green. “That’s what a dry meadow is. It doesn’t require irrigation maintenance. It doesn’t need scheduled irrigation to keep it greener for longer. It’s a perfectly adjusted meadow suited to our flora and climate,” clarifies Rui. The meadows are created by removing weeds and introducing native species, clovers and grasses, “using our flora and especially leguminous plants, because they provide the soil with nitrogen”. They are trimmed “two or three times a year, at the most”. Other than that, nature runs its course. 

Urban sheep used to cut grasses

Urban sheep instead of mowers

Something else is also being tried, using sheep to cut the grasses. A flock of about 20 sheep, watched over by shepherds, is left grazing in the meadows for three or four months, enclosed in a mobile electric fence. The animals help manage vegetation “and they trample the soil with their hooves”, thus mixing organic matter from their manure into the soil, Rui explains.

It’s expensive, and was criticised by the opposing party, but the outcome is positive. “We have to take into account everything that is involved.” These “20-odd” sheep help control the meadow, so just imagine what could be done with bigger flocks, he suggested. The hope is that the sheep can again help maintain these spaces “between 2022 and 2023”, explains Inês Freire, Director of Life Lungs.

“The first cuts enable other smaller plants that are sometimes overpowered by bigger ones to grow and have a chance to flourish and get stronger,” points out Rui Simão. “This helps ensure seed production without having to find other ways to produce them,” in order words, without the need for manual labour, or machines, to sow seeds.

Meadows also aren’t all the same: not many people notice, but they have water retention basins, a pit of sorts where excess water can be stored instead of running off into and flooding streets and land. They also promote rainwater infiltration. These basins, some larger than others, are hidden in gardens, like at the Bela Vista Park, Campo Grande Garden and Ribeirinho Oriente Waterfront Park, and only become visible after intense rainfall, forming lakes on the surface.

At the Bela Vista Park, before the current retention basin, there was a lake for artificial water catchment. “This is unthinkable,” stresses Rui Simão. “It’s a huge cost.” With a retention basin, there’s still a lake, but it only fills up when it rains. 

As part of the project around 52,000 trees and shrubs have already been planted, of an expected total of 240,000. Planned plantings include 4,000 trees being planted in the city’s neighbourhoods to help cool streets and provide shade, to reduce heat island effects. Planting will resume in October, in the parishes of Arroios, Campolide and Benfica.

Ladybirds control pests

At the Bela Vista Park, doing away with irrigation saw different colours emerge throughout the year, but the benefits of dry meadows aren’t only water-related. “These meadows are amazing: they generate life, they allow life to control itself.” They attract “new insects, pollinators,” such as bees. They also attract “pest controllers”, such as ladybirds, “an important predator of various insect pests that appear on trees”.

Basically, we need to change our mindset. There is more to what meets the eye, “besides an unkempt plant” or “nicely trimmed lawn”. Ladybirds help control scale insects and aphids that feed on the sap of plants and whose droppings are sticky and very high in sugars, “pure sugar” that falls from trees onto city streets and sticks to the ground.

But even nature needs a helping hand, some “positive input for trees and vegetation”. Without it, “trees start falling, breaking and dying”. If we don’t take action to balance the scales, “we won’t have a healthy and balanced green structure: the city and its plants are under pressure from pollution, from the water-resistant canopy”, explains Rui.

In other words, in Lisbon, yellow is the new green. 

This story, originally published by Mensagem de Lisboa, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Surviving the Sundarbans: Tales of the Delta’s Climate Refugees

(Video Editor & Animator: Rahul Sanpui)

A plastic sheet tethered under a banyan tree is what Prashanto Mondol, his wife and two young daughters call home. Prashanto, a resident of Ghoramara Island in the Sundarban delta of West Bengal, was once a self-sufficient farmer. As cyclone Yass ravaged the eastern coast of India on 26 May 2020, it took with it Prashanto’s home, all his money and rice grains that could’ve fed his family for the next year. It also took with it, a part of Ghoramara, an island now a fraction of its actual size, as rising sea levels and calamitic weather events frequented the Sundarbans over the last few years.

Ghoramara and Mousuni, another island in the Sundarbans delta, is slated to go underwater in the next 6 years or even sooner. Research by climate scientists that dates back to the 1980s have predicted that if climate change continues unabated, then soon, all of Sundarbans will be underwater. And like, Prashanto, about 4.5 million people living in the delta, will be soon be homeless, with no mitigation plan in sight.

The Sinking Islands Of Sundarbans

The Sundarbans delta – formed by the confluence of the Ganga, Bharamputra and Meghna rivers, as they flow into the Bay of Bengal – is spread over 40,000 hectares across India and Bangladesh.

Of this, about 10,00 acres form the Sundarbans Forest, the largest mangrove habitation in the world. In 1987, the Sundarbans was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The delta consists of 200 islands of which 54 are inhabited.

The mangroves in the Sundarbans act as key balance between humans and nature. The roots of the mangrove trees hold on to the soil, preventing it from being washed away by tides. The mangrove cover also acts as an ecological barrier that breaks strong cyclonic winds and storms.

However, rampant deforestation, faulty planning and land-use patterns have destroyed the mangrove cover of the Sundarbans. At the same time, global warming caused by climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of calamitic cyclonic events. Since cyclone Aila in 2009, the Sundarbans has been hit by devastating cyclones one after the other.

The area has dealt with 13 of the 23 most devastating cyclones in the world.

A 2007 study by Jadavpur University said that just in the last 30 years, the Sundarbans have shrunk by 80 square kilometers.

While at the time it seemed like abstract statistics, weather events in the past years have proved otherwise. For the people of the Sundarbans, doomsday is here and it is real.

In Ghoramara, A Tale of Loss & Despair

The Quint visited Ghoramara and Mousuni about a month after cyclone Yass. Even then, the residents of both these islands, depended entirely of charity for food and even drinking water.

Ghormara once had a population of 40,000 people. Now, it houses just about 2,000 people, most of whom are on their way out.

The only way to get to both these islands is by ferries, which are timed according to high tide and weather conditions.

As we get off our ferry and onto Ghoramara, it looks like one has stepped into an apocalypse. A man, who looked like he was in his 40s, and a not in the best mental state, caught hold of us soon after, unable to control his emotions. He showed us sacks of rice grains that had been abandoned by those in Ghoramara.

The stinking rice sacks still contain the blackened rice that was destroyed as Yass hit the island and broke embankments, submerging everything.

It was this man who led us to Proshanto.

Proshanto’s family has been living in Ghoramara for three generations. He tells us how his ancestors accumulated 50 bighas of land over the years. Now, he has a little over 7 bighas left. The water has consumed all else.

“I can see that Ghoramara is shrinking”, he tells us.

Prashanto also says that nature, once their best friend, has changed over the years.

“We didn’t realise that Yass would be this bad”, says Proshanto. “We thought it’d bypass the area.”

“We were prepared for a small quall, but soon we saw that the water had breached the village boundary. Soon, everything was submerged. We didn’t even have time to reach the shelter. There was a temple on the way. We climbed atop a tree next to it and tied our goats to the roof of the temple. We spent the night on top of the tree.” – Prashanto Mondol, resident of Ghoramara

Like most residents of Ghoramara, Proshanto is trying to salvage what is left of his belongings. The plan is to now look for a job in a state like Kerala where most young men from the Sundarbans go in search of work.

“I will have to go find work somewhere. Obviously staying here is not an option. I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe a hawker or a daily-wage labourer. I have two small kids. I don’t know what to do about them or their education. I don’t know to get the money to settle elsewhere. I really can’t think of anyway to get out of this situation”, rues Proshanto.

Hotels For The Homeless In Mousuni

The island of Mousuni is more populated than Ghoramara. It is also a popular tourist location in the Sundarbans. However, since cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans in 2020, the pristine beaches of Mousuni have been deserted.

When the seas were friendlier, makeshift huts along the beaches served as hotels for tourists, promising to give them the “rustic Sundarbans experience”.

Now, these huts lie destroyed and empty, but still serve a purpose. They give refuge to the homeless in Mousuni after cyclones like Yass.

Sheikh Shah Alam, who we met during our visit to Mousuni, is one such person.

Alam, like Proshanto, has two daughters. The eldest of them is in class 12. During Yass, all her books were washed away and her school doubled up as a refugee camp. When Alam and his family got back to where his hut used to be once the cyclone abated, they found nothing but rubble.

“We have no option but to live next to the broken embankments now. No one can live here like humans. We have to live like animals, scavengers.” – Sheikh Shah Alam, resident of Mousuni

Alam points out an interesting trend from all the times him and his family have endured cyclones. While evacuation are done, he says, rehabilitation is very shoddy and never a part of the plan.

“No one will understand the plight of not having a home. We stay in one place for a few days, then another for a few days. People turn us away saying go back to your land. The schools we seek shelter in ask us to go away once the weather becomes clearer. But where do I go? There’s nothing to go back to”, says Alam.

“Cyclone Amphan ruined our home last year. We repaired it. Now its gone again”, he adds.

Sinking Sagar

As the islands in the Sundarbans were devastated by one cyclone after the other, a crucial policy question emerged. Where do the homeless go?

The answer, until now, was the Sagar Island.

Sagar is located higher from the sea than the other islands of the Sundarbans and has more jobs, better roads and a bustling economy. It also houses the famous Gangasagar Mela, a pligrimage festival that sees lakhs of devotees attend each year.

Those from Ghoramara, Mousuni and other such islands of the Sundarbans, once rendered homeless, move to Sagar. While some use their last chunk of wealth to make the move, others are rehabiliated by the government.

However, housing this refugee crisis has been expensive for Sagar, putting undue pressure on its land and resources. Since 2011, the population of Sagar has increased 20 percent and the island, in general, has suddenly become more vulnerable to natural calamities. After Yass, it was there for all to see – Sagar is sinking too.

This realisation has hit those like Sahadeb most.

Sahadeb was earlier a resident of Lohachura, an island in the Sundarbans which sank in 2006. It was the first human inhabited island in the world to go underwater. Sahadeb shifted to Sagar in 1977 after everything Lohachura was lost to the water.

Now Yass has destroyed Sahadeb’s second home too.

“We owned 55 bighas of land in Lohachura. Slowly, the river took everything. When we came here in 1977, we did odd jobs to make ends meet. We had a few years of happiness after we finally built our home. Now it’s all gone”, says Sahadeb, as he breaks down.

“Only God knows where we can go. If we can get some help, it will be great. Else, we are on our own. We have to survive. We are at the mercy of nature. We live with it. We will accept whatever good or bad it has to offer.” – Sahadeb, resident of Sagar

This story, originally published by The Quint, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.


China’s carbon neutral goal needs a lot of heavy lifting by industries

Airlines, shipping, buildings materials, chemicals and power producers, the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, are expected to do the heaviest lifting over the next four decades for China to meet its carbon neutral goal by 2060.

Nine of every 10 vehicles on China’s roads will have to run on non-fossil fuel, while half of the aircraft fly on green hydrogen and 90 per cent of heavy industries will need to be retrofitted with carbon capture facilities to put the nation on track to cut carbon emission by 75 to 85 per cent, leaving the residual amount to be offset by removals, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

“Some of the technologies required, such as carbon capture and storage and [emission-free] hydrogen fuel are not [commercially] ready yet,” said Thomas Palme, who leads BCG’s social impact practice in China, adding that it can only be possible “with concerted effort and investment.”

The challenges underscore the technological and financial hurdles that must be overcome for China to deliver on President Xi Jinping’s surprise pledge in Septemberbefore the United Nations. If all the pieces can come together, the result could be a giant leap in technological capability for China to the top of global competitiveness, as the world grapples with strategies and policies to deal with climate change, one of the gravest problems to confront humanity.

Smoke belching from a coal-fuelled power station near Datong, in China’s Shanxi province on November 19, 2015. Shanxi, the largest coal-producing region in China, frequently ranks top among provinces with the worst air pollution. Photo: AFP

China’s coal and gas-fired power plants are responsible for almost half of the nation’s carbon dioxide emission, while heavy industries – including the world’s largest capacity for steel, aluminium, petrochemicals and cement – contribute one-third, BCG said.

With an average age of less than 13 years – out of a typical useful lifespan of 40 years – the use of some power plants could be extended even as climate policies clamp down on emissions.

Aviation has relatively low carbon impact compared to energy generation. SCMP Graphics

This is particularly important since 60 per cent of the world’s coal-fired plants could still be operating in 2050, as could 40 per cent of steel mills – mostly in China – unless they retire early, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris. That is not viable, as the cost of installing carbon capture facilities would triple the price of coal-fired power, said HSBC’s head of Asia utilities research Evan Li, citing data by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Ohio.

Change is on the way, as authorities in XinjiangQinghai, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia have mandated that 5 to 20 per cent of the total capacity of solar farms must comprise energy storage, which would enhance the intermittent energy’s competitiveness against coal-fired power, said Frank Haugwitz, founder of Asia Europe Clean Energy (Solar) Advisory.

Solar power will surpass wind energy by the end of this month as China’s third-biggest source of electricity by capacity, and the rate of installing solar farms in the next five years will “much exceed” the pace in the previous five years, renewable energy officials said on Thursday.
Chinese firefighters evacuating residents during a flash flood at Pingxiang in eastern China’s Jiangxi province on 12 April 2006. Torrential rains and typhoons killed over 1,300 people in China in 2005 and destroyed 1.22 million buildings, causing direct economic loss of 155.8 billion yuan (US$19 billion). Photo: AFP

The prospect of shutting down mass coal-fired power plants could present a policy dilemma between climate change and economic stability. China’s banks could see their default ratio on loans to the coal-fired power sector surge from 3 per cent to over 20 per cent within a decade, according to a scenario analysis by Centre for Green Finance Development, Tsinghua National Institute of Financial Research.

Climate transition bonds are needed to fund the acquisition of coal-fired power companies in China, with clearly defined plans to inject renewable energy projects into them to gradually retire the plants within a set period, said the research centre’s director Ma Jun, who is also chairman of Hong Kong Green Finance Association.
This would avoid bankruptcies that spill over to bad loans and social risks, he said, adding that talks are ongoing in Shanxi, China’s largest coal producing region, to facilitate such bonds.
Compared to industry and power generation, transport is a smaller segment of total emissions. SCMP Graphics

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) – the capture of carbon dioxide from the emission source, or directly from the atmosphere – has been in use for 45 years, according to the consultancy Global CCS Institute in Melbourne. In the United States, large-scale CCUS projects involve injecting carbon dioxide into oil wells to enhance output.

The technology has been tested in China for about a decade, pioneered by coal mining giant Shenhua Group, now renamed as China Energy Investment Corporation. Carbon dioxide collected from coal-to-oil conversion projects in Inner Mongolia is trucked and injected into sealed underground caverns for permanent storage.

PetroChina has also been collecting carbon dioxide from a natural gas processing plant and injecting it into its Jilin oilfield since 2018.

PetroChina’s facilities in Jilin on May 24,2004. Photo Reuters

Retrofitting CCUS will have a greater chance of success for power plants and industrial facilities that are young, efficient and located near places with opportunities to store or use carbon dioxide, IEA said. When CCUS can be commercially viable in China is unclear, as details of the national mandatory carbon dioxide emission quota – critical for putting a market price on emissions – have not been announced.

“China has some successful CCUS pilots, but their applications have been rather restricted, the volumes rather limited and [they are] commercially uncompetitive,” said Yang Fuqiang, China programme senior adviser on climate and energy, at The Natural Resources Defence Council in New York.

The technology must be deployed in large scale to reach carbon neutrality, IEA said.

“Reaching net zero [carbon emission] will be virtually impossible without CCUS,” IEA said in September. “Alongside electrification, hydrogen and sustainable bioenergy, CCUS will need to play a major role.”

CCUS may be ready for industrial application by 2030 in China, with a cost reduction of between 40 per cent and 50 per cent by 2040, according to a technology development road map by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) last year.

“Hurdles to faster CCUS deployment in China include the lack of a legal and policy framework, limited market stimulus and inadequate subsidies,” the IEA said. “Public understanding and awareness is relatively low.”

Global pandemic conditions have reduced emissions by aviation by around half. SCMP Graphics

“Green” hydrogen, the other key technology for fighting climate change, has made significant progress towards commercial deployment due to a drastic fall in renewable energy cost. Production of this virtually emission-free fuel involves using renewable electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

The world’s first wind-generated green hydrogen power project, scheduled for commission in January, may be expanded into a large plant for deployment around 2025, according to Siemens Gamesa, the dominant European turbines producer.

Hydrogen and ammonia are touted as the mainstay clean fuel to replace coal, diesel, petrol, bunker and jet fuel in a few decades, with potential applications in heavy industries such as iron and steel, chemicals and glass.

China’s carbon footprint is trending up. SCMP Graphics

“The pathway to emission-free electricity is wind and solar, and the pathway to emission-free everything else is green hydrogen produced from wind and solar,” said Alex Tancock, co-founder and managing director of InterContinental Energy, one of the growing list of developers pushing for hydrogen projects.

A consortium led by InterContinental proposed a US$36 billion solar and wind-powered hydrogen production project aimed at East Asia. Located in the Pilbara Desert in Western Australia state on a site six times the size of Hong Kong, it comprises 26 gigawatts of wind and solar farms, 2.3 times Hong Kong’s power generating capacity.

The consortium is in talks with Asian buyers of hydrogen and ammonia, including power and shipping firms, besides technology, energy, and asset management companies for investments by 2025 for construction to start.

Global hydrogen production could surge sevenfold by 2070 from last year’s 75 million tonnes, IEA said.

A computer-generated image of three prototypes of zero-emission hydrogen-powered aircraft made by Airbus. Photo: AIRBUS / AFP

Direct use of hydrogen by ships and vehicles may take up 30 per cent of demand in 2070, while synthetic aircraft fuel will account for 20 per cent. Liquid hydrogen can be used for short-haul flights, while synthetic fuel can be used in existing jet engines, Tancock said.

Airbus revealed three concepts in September for the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft, with modified gas turbine engines that use hydrogen instead of jet fuel, which could enter service by 2035.

Transport accounted for 9 per cent of China’s estimated carbon emission of 11.7 billion tonnes last year, BCG said.

Commercial aviation accounts for 2 to 3 per cent of global carbon emission, according to the International Air Travel Association (Iata), the industry guild. It has committed to cap members’ carbon emissions this year, and halve them by 2050 from 2005 levels.

An Airbus A380, the largest commercial aircraft in service, with 555 seats in standard configurations, taking off from the Toulouse-Blagnc Airport in southern France for delivery to China Southern Airlines on 14 October 2011. Photo: EPA

China has included domestic aviation among eight sectors to be subjected to carbon emission caps and quotas trading.

Domestic flights grew 7.5 per cent to 83 billion tonne-kilometre last year, while the entire industry’s carbon emission per tonne-km fell 16 per cent from 2005, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Some 74.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emission could potentially be subject to a cap-and-trade regime.

China Southern Airlines, the nation’s largest fleet operator, said its 2019 carbon emission grew 6.4 per cent to 28.6 million tonnes. The Guangzhou-based carrier tested a 10 per cent blended bio-jet fuel made with sugar cane in a flight last year, emitting 73 per cent less carbon dioxide than conventional jet kerosene.

The CMA CGM Group’s container ship Jacques Saade at the Shanghai Jiangnan-Changxing Shipyard in September 2019. With the capacity to carry 23,000 TEUs of containers, this is the world’s largest ship to be powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). Photo: Handout

The shipping industry is also looking to hydrogen, although huge research and development investments will be needed before this can become commercially viable, according to London-based International Chamber of Shipping.

“After a long history of wind, coal and oil-fuelled ships, a fourth propulsion revolution is needed if shipping is to decarbonise completely … an entirely new generation of fuels and propulsion systems will need to be developed,” it said in a report last month.

The task facing the industry is daunting. Long-term growth in maritime trade means even if the average carbon emission by the entire global fleet is slashed by 90 per cent, it would only cut the industry’s carbon emission by half by 2050, the chamber said. The global vessel fleet – consuming 4 per cent of oil output and contributing 2 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions – must be retrofitted, while new fuel supply networks must be developed if hydrogen and ammonia are to be adopted, it added.

The shipping industry proposed a levy on marine fuel sales to provide US$5 billion over 10 years for research to turn the “propulsion revolution” into reality, the chamber said.

For InterContinental, exporting ammonia to China is more viable, due to the high costs needed to ship hydrogen at minus 253 degrees Celsius, if the project takes off.

“I would expect China to have a big industry producing hydrogen, unlike Japan and South Korea which have little resources and would have to import,” Tancock said. “Projects like ours will supplement China’s production by providing lower-cost green alternatives like green ammonia.”

Additional reporting by Iris Ouyang and Echo Xie.

This story, originally published by South China Morning Post, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.