A recent conflict in Afghanistan has drawn a highlight on the energy war, showing people how natural resources can link up with the war. In this episode of GreenBites, we will briefly look at the underground rare materials and the recent social conditions in Afghanistan, the predicted climate changes after Taliban taking the control of Afghanistan, a new way to treat the sewage which is running under the natural process, and also cover the deforestation in Indonesia these days.
The climate side of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
After the US withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban gradually took control of the country, including the capital city of Kabul last week. The horror started: people were shot in the streets, residents scrambled to the airport but many failed to flee, women and girls were forced to leave their workplaces and schools. It is heartbreaking to say the least.
Without downplaying the violence and political crisis unfolding, there is an environmental side to Afghanistan we would like to address this week. Environmentalists say that the Taliban now have access to the huge deposits of minerals in the country that are crucial to the global clean energy economy.
Afghanistan is rich in rare earth elements like copper and cobalt, but the crown jewel is lithium. The U.S. called Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”, as American geologists put the value of the country’s mineral wealth at at least US$1 trillion. We covered how countries in Asia, including China, Japan and South Korea, are pushing ahead to put more electric vehicles on the road and phase out fossil-fueled cars in previous episodes. Although China is the world’s top lithium producer, Afghanistan tightly follows and its metal is still essential for such a transition and renewable energy batteries.
Lithium is indeed an earth-shakingly important mineral. The International Energy Agency said in a report that the global demand for this mineral is projected to shoot up 40-fold above 2020 levels by 2040. Luckily in the last decade, these resources have not been exploited due to conflict, corruption and bureaucratic dysfunction in the country. But now that the Taliban is in control of these minerals, experts are unsure whether they can exploit them in the future. Some even warned that the rich minerals can potentially breed corruption and violence as the Taliban have a history of illegally tapping into the country’s minerals as a source of revenue.
Since the Taliban have been struggling to maintain basic public services in cities, they might not have enough resources to mine minerals and strike deals in the near future. But some experts say China and Russia are extending diplomatic ties with the Taliban, so China could still be motivated by rare earth and lithium mining opportunities in Afghanistan. If so, mining can create even more environmental hazards to vulnerable people , including increased risks of water scarcity, air pollution and extreme weather events related to climate change.
This could add fuel to the raging fire. Environmentally speaking, Afghanistan is already grappling with prolonged droughts that are disrupting food supply. The annual wheat harvest in the country is expected to fall by nearly half, while millions of livestock are now at risk of death.
Scientists said that global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions is contributing to extreme weather around the world. Fahad Saeed, a climate scientist at Climate Analytics, told Reuters that Afghanistan is experiencing a so-called “climate injustice”, as it has no role historically in climate change, but they are bearing the brunt of it. The United Nations identified the country as one of the hunger hotspots in the world, with one-third of the national population facing a food security crisis.
The Taliban were accused of obstructing rescue efforts earlier this month, when flash floods killed over 110 people and injured 70 in Kamidis district in Afghanistan. The Taliban said it was trying to prevent government forces infiltration to flood-hit areas, and promised relief funds of US$62,000, but it’s widely believed that they aren’t equipped to deal with the crisis.
Biomimicking cows to design better sewage systems in India
Many often mistakenly observe that cows have four stomachs, because there are four compartments that are active in digestion. Their digestive system has become a source of inspiration for a start-up in India’s Bangalore, which mimics the cow’s four-chamber stomach to decontaminate wastewater.
According to a UN report, 80% of wastewater is dumped back into the ecosystem without treatment, so this innovation can be a low-cost solution to this emerging issue that leads to poor sanitation and diseases. How exactly does it work?
This is a challenge the current wastewater treatment plants are struggling with: it’s expensive to feed oxygen to bacterias that help break down the waste, as blower motors have to be constantly used. In Bangalore, wastewater is a serious issue. The lakes in the city contain so much sewage that they even catch fire! In 2018, a blaze on the city’s largest lake burned for over 30 hours and rained down ash in the city. Certainly, it’s not the water that was on fire, but it’s a mix of domestic and industrial waste.
But now, a Bangaluru resident Tharun Kumar turned to cows. Their four stomach chambers contain bacteria that do not need oxygen to grow, or anaerobic bacteria. As grass passes through these chambers, the bacteria break it down into smaller parts eventually converting it to gas, nutrients, water, and waste.
For the anaerobic bacteria, Kumar conceived of a plant that mimics the chamber structure of the cow, and he sources the bacteria from cow dung. Without the use of blower motors, the treatment plants don’t even require electricity to operate. Instead, they rely on gravity to move wastewater across the chambers. The wastewater is then converted into gas and clear water for safe use. The company has now built about 50 treatment plants, while Kumar said the innovation has saved 280 million litres of water and 315 megawatt of electricity that can power 35 villages in India for a year.
Deforestation in Indonesia
Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest rainforest after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As is the case for many developing countries, the rainforests are at risk of deforestation as the Indonesian government continues to allocate millions of hectares of land to be developed into industrial plantations and the development of new roads. Imagine land nearly five times the size of London; that is the amount of rainforest destroyed in the past two decades in Indonesian New Guinea, home to Asia Pacific’s largest area of the intact old-growth forest!
The loss of the rainforest is mainly due to the growth of plantations, primarily oil palms, and the government’s push for infrastructure development in the region, such as the recent one, the Trans-Papua Highway project. Though some argue that deforestation might bring accessibility to remote and neglected communities, commercial interests dominating local needs can bring adverse effects — their projects can cause harm to forests, indiginous people and biodiversity.
It has destroyed the habitats of wild animals and threatened the already endangered endemic species in Papua and resulted in a negative impact on biodiversity! Not to mention that it will also produce massive greenhouse gases that intensify global warming.
Papua is the last frontier of natural forests in Southeast Asia, and it’s one of the world’s heritages because natural forests do play an important role in stabilizing the climate and preserving biodiversity. Therefore, the government needs to have a longer-term vision that strikes a balance between boosting economic development and environmental protection. One way to do would be to consult with its people, specifically Indigenous Papuans who live in areas at risk.
So why doesn’t the government give Indigenous Papuans greater autonomy to manage their forest? A study points out that some communities in remote regions in Papua have been able to protect large areas of land and forest in a near-pristine state even though government oversight has largely been absent. If degraded forests can be protected from further disruption and conversion, more than half of them will recover.
Listen to our podcast episode for more green updates for the week! Subscribe to GreenBites and our other podcasts at www.sustainableasia.co. And don’t forget to follow our social media @SustainableAsia so we can keep you up-to-date on green news.
Sustainable Asia’s podcast “GreenBites’’ is hosted by Chermaine Lee, Khoa Tran, Avery Choi and Stella Chen. Producer: Bonnie Au and Executive Producer: Marcy Trent Long Associate Producer: Rachel Li