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If only we could find a cure…

If only we could find a cure…

A significant amount of money is spent worldwide on research for cures for various medical conditions which afflict the human race. This is fairly understandable when you consider the issue on a superficial basis. There is a growing incidence of fatal cancers that claim the lives of loved ones, making research in this area very desirable. Similarly the cure for AIDS would save the lives of millions of South Africans and indeed millions of people around the globe. We could go on and on listing these scourges of mankind.

Perhaps we should not just start thinking a little out of the box, but in fact jump out of it altogether for a moment. I have a growing realisation how a single affliction is causing untold misery to the entire human race, ironically many of the wealthy as well. The materialistic nature of our modern society drives us ever on in the quest to make a buck, often sacrificing people and especially family as well as our precious environment along the way. Corporates, individuals are hell-bent on making another buck, increasing the bottom line and providing the life blood for our materialistic dreams and cravings. There is an invaluable lesson to be learned from nature, and it is the simple concept of balance. To put it in simple terms, too much of anything is bad, right? Well, apparently not.

The seemingly incurable condition known as greed, pervades our entire society from the impoverished labourer playing the lotto to the bulk of our politicians, whose heads are so deep in the trough they can barely see the light of day. I shall not mention the obvious example which is so close to home and affecting this entire town.

Imagine for a moment how the world would metamorphose if all politicians were there to fulfil their role, and not feather their own nests – the results would astound us. Imagine if businesses actually considered the impact on the environment of their money-making activities, and took responsible decisions to work within the limitations of the environment and not to plunder this non-renewable resource. Imagine if they stopped externalising the cost to the environment. Acid mine drainage is possibly the scandal of all scandals to rock this magnificent country of ours. The large mining companies raped our country, withdrew minerals from the earth and made off with stupendous profits. Where are most of them now that we are faced with this crisis of epic proportions, the financial cost of which is likely to be borne by the taxpayers?

Let me bore you no further, but suffice to say that greed is taking its toll on the fabric of our society, as more and more mothers are drawn into the workplace, fathers commute to the big smoke in pursuit of the folding stuff, and our sacred family unit continues to emulate its dysfunctional counterpart in many other parts of the world. Greed is the single largest culprit that must answer for many of the environmental ills that are coming to light, as a relatively few enlightened souls embark on their journey to share and enlighten the rest of the herd.

Chris Behrens, Chris Behrens Consulting Engineers CC – Working towards a greener tomorrow

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Water, liquid gold or limitless commodity?

Water, liquid gold or limitless commodity?

Congratulations to the powers that be for finally erecting banners in Plett informing the public that water is a scarce commodity and needs to be used wisely. Water is a finite resource, and the notion that if we haven’t enough to continue on our present path of development, unless we extract more from our primary source, the Keurbooms, should not be our first knee-jerk reaction. Our present path of development is a debate we shall refrain from exploring here. It is just like the recent focus on energy worldwide: first become more efficient with what you have, as it is ultimately essential, and even in the short term quite smart from a financial perspective as well as from an environmental angle.

The often punted misconception that we can’t tell the affluent property owners of Plett that they must provide their own rain water tanks for garden irrigation, because a) they will not accept this, and b) they will go elsewhere, or c) they can’t be bothered, has less relevance than the lack of service delivery at municipal level, and the new municipal loans which we cannot even afford to service. Increasing expenditure of funds we don’t have, as opposed to phasing in a greener way of utilizing our capped resources, seems to suggest a “more of the same / business as usual” approach rather than considering a more enlightened and appropriate solution.

Rain in Plett should bring a sense of relief to us, but I feel quite anxious as I sit and listen to the rain falling, but have difficulty in hearing it as it is drowned out by the hiss and splutter of automated irrigation systems coming on. There are clearly two standards here: locals must endure water restrictions, while our out-of-town chommies squirt out as much of the precious liquid as they like. We must not under any circumstances offend them! This is something that must be phased out, and before anyone can even start to talk to me about spending more of our rates and taxes on sourcing more water, it’s got to happen.

Let’s assume that you are given the task of quantifying the appropriate amount and quality of water to be made available to all people on this earth for sustainable living, with the further assumption that it is a finite resource, and that the most valuable/expensive water is natural, pure water or treated water. Let’s also assume for our narrow purposes that there is no norm in terms of how we utilize water. Logically, the first thing we consider is differentiating between the different uses of H2O, because it is not necessary to treat water we use for watering our garden or growing food crops, washing down the paving, washing our cars etc., that’s a waste of money, right? So our departure point for determining how much treated water we need is based on those uses which require treated water. The luxury of watering a garden (that’s right, I said LUXURY), using our most valuable water is unjustifiable, given the preceding logic, and the serious drought which we are currently experiencing.

There is more and more emphasis on going green, and contrary to popular belief, it is becoming quite fashionable, albeit fundamental to our survival (you know, fashion first, survival later). Some thought about it will reveal that we can in fact market this attribute of our town, actually enhancing the desirability of living here. If we are going to sustain Plett and the unique experience that it offers, then we have no choice, but to do the right thing environmentally, as once we have spoilt it completely, the affluent property owners of our town won’t want to be here anyway.

We can begin slowly by introducing our ratepayers to the concept of compulsory rain water tanks for garden irrigation and eventually a complete ban on municipal water for watering gardens. The main tool for marketing it is by illustrating the longer term financial and environmental benefits, and then by phasing it in over a period of say three years. A monthly allocation of the household budget for tanks and a pump where required, over a three year period rather than a once-off purchase, will lessen the burden of budgeting for the equipment, and can be offset against the increase in rates required to implement the extraction of more water from the Keurbooms and the concomitant additional costs to the ratepayer. A minimum requirement of say 10 000 litres, with a rebate for every kilolitre in excess thereof, will also provide an incentive, and assist households already under strain.

Those people who have taken action by installing rain water tanks already, will be reaping the rewards of being able to sustain their gardens by careful irrigation from their tanks (also a finite supply for judicious use only!) which will have been topped up by the recent rains. Unfortunately the quantity of rain is insufficient to get us out of the proverbial dwang, but it has brought welcome relief and greened up things a bit. The next area to target is grey water harvesting, and there are systems available for collecting, filtering and hygenically using grey water (e.g. see http://www.waterconservation.co.za/?page_id=7). Grey water should not under any circumstances just be stored for later use or poured out on to your soil, there are very stringent requirements for doing this hygenically and safely; see the link above for more information. Swimming pool backwashing is also wasteful, and it is possible to collect the backwash water under stringent conditions also set out on the website above – another simple means of more efficient water use. These are relatively affordable ways of becoming part of the solution, rather than continuing to be part of the problem!

Indigenous gardens will surely become the garden of choice, because they generally require very little irrigation, thus freeing the rain water harvested for other uses. The impact of such an approach is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in Gauteng, in excess of 50% of the monthly urban household water consumption is for garden irrigation. It will be naive at best to think that, hey presto, in three years we will have unlocked all that water, but without a degree in the sciences, it’s not hard to figure that it’s something which makes an immense improvement on the status quo, and is environmentally sound.

Sure, it’s easy to sit on the sideline and pontificate about what “we” should be doing, but it has to start somewhere, and by tabling the issue, at least it surfaces in the public domain, and hopefully will start the thought processes for people to understand that there are alternatives worth considering, which at the very least do not exacerbate an already serious situation. Going with the flow, so to speak, is always easier than swimming upstream, and I have only a little understanding of the challenges faced by municipal officials in trying to do things differently. Perhaps anything less is not starkly different to re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic, facetious as that may sound! Co-operation with efforts to conserve water may sound unattractive, but they are vastly better than running out of water – you make the choice. I appeal to all our visitors who will leave Plett in a week or two, PLEASE take care how you use our water and let’s make sure we don’t run out. It is possible if you make the effort.

Chris Behrens, Chris Behrens Consulting Engineers CC – Working towards a greener tomorrow

References: Coming Down to Earth, The Changing South African Environment by James Clarke, http://www.waterconservation.co.za/?page_id=7

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The environment, economics and the conundrum we face

The environment, economics and the conundrum we face

It is naive, simplistic and idealistic to espouse environmental and economic reform, without understanding enough about both and greed. It needs to be clearly understood here that I have no qualifications in either environmental management, psychology or economics, so please bear with me. However, I live in a society whose economic system is based on the creation of debt which fuels an ever-growing, consumer-driven economy, I live on a planet which is no longer able to sustain that system, and I have a scientifically based tertiary education which encourages the questioning of things that are broken. If you read a little and watch a bit of TV, you probably also have the idea that all is not well in paradise, and that it is in fact broken! Is it not ironic then that we also have the opportunity, being the generation facing economic collapse and environmental catastrophe, to stop, re-assess the systems which have failed us and make a new beginning?

Not having said much to establish my credentials, this then is my departure point, but it is enough of a fundamental understanding of economics and the environment to bring home our reality. We, the fleas that inhabit the dog that sustains, are systematically destroying it at an ever increasing pace, making the fundamental mistake of believing that technology and politicians will save us. Sadly, politics generally attracts stupid and greedy individuals who seek to enrich themselves by plundering the coffers of public money –

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The environment and economics… in that order please!

The environment and economics… in that order please!

Watching a recent documentary on “People & Power” on Aljazeera, made the obvious, yet largely ignored concept of the environment and then the economy, really sink in. Our consumer-driven, debt-based world economy has been conceived on the back of the theory that the economy comes first and then the environment. The economy is a subset of the environment, not the converse. Even if there are renewable alternatives, the commercial interests of companies continue to take precedent over the environment, literally killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg!

The topic of the documentary was the striking, and somewhat extreme example of “mountain top removal” for the open cast mining of coal in the Coal River Mountains in West Virginia in the US, which highlights this insane concept. The process is essentially based on blasting the surface of the land, stripping it away to expose a seam of coal a metre or two thick. The coal is removed and eventually finds its way into power stations and industrial applications. The coal is burned, and then it is gone, releasing “cheap” energy which contributes to global warming, and carbon into the atmosphere – cheap only if you externalize or ignore the cost to the environment.

Now, the landscape, along with many eco-systems which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, has been destroyed for a once-off burn of the coal. The large holes excavated are filled with the blasted overburden, changing the landscape forever. The region in question is magnificent countryside, comprising a series of ridges and valleys covered with trees and shrubs which is being systematically ravaged by this questionable process. Aerial photos (see Google Earth reference below) are the best means of appreciating the devastation, and the scant regard for the value of this once pristine part of the USA.

There is vehement opposition to these activities by a concerned group of locals who have formed an action group, and they have not only pointed out the destruction which is taking place, but have produced a study which makes it clear that the mountain ridges offer the perfect site for the erection of wind turbines, which will produce ongoing renewable energy for many years to come, as opposed to the once-off burn of coal with all of its environmental negatives. The company in question naturally declined an interview, highlighting their awareness that they are in the wrong, even if the activities are legal.

Sure, the turbines are not pretty, but they beat the trashed landscape which will not recover and will certainly not produce another joule of energy and little oxygen. Unfortunately, the company which has bought the rights to mine the coal does not quite see it like this – this has a familiar ring to it, not so?

More recent studies by leading scientists on the rate of temperature increase on our planet now indicate that assumptions made around the impact of sea temperature on global warming, were significantly underestimated. In fact we are becoming warmer a lot quicker than first calculated, and even if we all stop now with the environmentally destructive practices which predominate worldwide in the name of growing our economy, the sheer momentum created by defecating in our own backyard for so long, will continue for around 30 years! This could be the legacy we leave our children if we don’t seize both the challenge and the opportunity to turn it around. It is our generation which has the last chance to preserve our incredibly beautiful life support system.

References: Aljazeera, People & Power; M-net, Carte Blanche; The Stern Review (Google search or Wikipedia)
Google Earth: Coal Mountains, West Virginia

Chris Behrens, Chris Behrens Consulting Engineers CC – Working towards a greener tomorrow

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Litter, re-cycling and your environment…

Litter, re-cycling and your environment…

In line with the current trend for professionals to maintain their professional registration through CPD or Continued Professional Development, I less than eagerly, attended a recent seminar on, brace yourselves: Litter removal from Stormwater. This is not a subject which had me champing at the bit, but it was local, cheap and earned me one CPD point of five required for the year. In fairness to the presenter, Prof. Armitage from UCT, he shared some enlightening information which was presented with a good dose of humour by someone who knows his subject well. I am not about to bore you with the full contents of the seminar, but rather to highlight an aspect or two which is relevant to every one of us as consumers. It’s hard to admit this, but yes brethren, I confess –

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