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Patterns in environmental quality and sustainability

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Atmosphere and change – Describe the functioning of the atmospheric system in terms of the energy balance between solar and longwave radiation. Explain the changes in this balance due to external forcings (changes in solar radiation, changes in the albedo of the atmosphere and changes in the longwave radiation returned to space). Discuss the causes and environmental consequences of global climate change. (4 hours)

Soil and change – Explain the causes of soil degradation. Discuss the environmental and socio‑economic consequences of this process, together with management strategies. (4 hours)

Water and change – Identify the ways in which water is utilized at the regional scale. Examine the environmental and human factors affecting patterns and trends in physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity. Examine the factors affecting access to safe drinking water. (5 hours)

Biodiversity and change – Explain the concept and importance of biodiversity in tropical rainforests. Examine the causes and consequences of reduced biodiversity in this biome. (3 hours)

Sustainability and the environment – Define the concept of environmental sustainability. Evaluate a management strategy at a local or national scale designed to achieve environmental sustainability. (3 hours)

Atmosphere and change

There’s a delicate balancing act occurring every day all across the Earth, involving the radiation the planet receives from space and the radiation that’s reflected back out to space.

Earth is constantly bombarded with enormous amounts of radiation, primarily from the sun. This solar radiation strikes the Earth’s atmosphere in the form of visible light, plus ultraviolet (UV), infrared (IR) and other types of radiation that are invisible to the human eye.

UV radiation has a shorter wavelength and a higher energy level than visible light, while IR radiation has a longer wavelength and a weaker energy level. About 30 percent of the radiation striking Earth’s atmosphere is immediately reflected back out to space by clouds, ice, snow, sand and other reflective surfaces. The remaining 70 percent of incoming solar radiation is absorbed by the oceans, the land and the atmosphere. As they heat up, the oceans, land and atmosphere release heat in the form of IR thermal radiation, which passes out of the atmosphere and into space.

It’s this equilibrium of incoming and outgoing radiation that makes the Earth habitable, with an average temperature of about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius), according to NASA. Without this atmospheric equilibrium, Earth would be as cold and lifeless as its moon, or as blazing hot as Venus.

The atmosphere is an open energy system receiving energy from both the sun and the earth. The energy from the Earth is small however it does have an effect on urban climates (heat islands). The sun constantly emits radiant energy or insolation however only a small proportion of this solar output actually reaches the Earth. This energy is transmitted in the form of short waves due to the sun being so hot. The sun’s insolation is vital in maintaining the Earth’s climate and life support systems. In contrast to this, the cooler Earth emits long wave thermal radiation back into space.

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The greenhouse effect

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The greenhouse effect is a natural process and one that is vital to the existence of humans. Without the greenhouse effect the earth will be significantly colder and unable to support large scale life. The greenhouse effect acts as a kind of blanket. As energy is reflected or released by the earth it moves into the atmosphere where it is trapped and reflected back by a layer of greenhouses gases. The reflected energy returns to earth and is absorbed warming global temperatures. The problem of global warming is caused by humans enhancing the greenhouse effect. We are releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which is trapping an ever increasing amount of reflected or released energy which returns to earth and warms us further.

Enhanced Greenhouse Effect occurs as a result of increased quantities of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere owing to human activities and their impact on these fragile atmospheric systems.

Greenhouse gasses (GHG): Any gas that absorbs and emits radiation in the thermal infrared range. The gases include: Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur dioxide, Nitrous Oxide, water vapour and ozone.

Sources of greenhouse gases include:

  • Transport (cars and planes)
  • Animals (cow release large amounts of methane)
  • Burning fossils fuels (especially oil and coal)
  • Melting Permafrost (methane is released when permafrost melts)
  • Industry
  • Domestic use (wood fires)

 External forces

Albedo Feedback

Albedo is the fraction of Sun’s radiation reflected from a surface. The term has its origins from the Latin word albus, meaning “white”.

Albedo means how reflective a surface is. If a surface has a high albedo then more of the sun’s energy is reflected. Fresh snow has one of the world’s highest albedos, reflecting up to 95% of the sun’s energy. Darker surfaces like tarmac roads have a much lower albedo, only reflecting about 5% of the earth’s energy.

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Polar ice reflects light from the sun. As this ice begins to melt, less sunlight gets reflected into space. It is instead absorbed into the oceans and land, raising the overall temperature, and fueling further melting. This results in a positive feedback loop called ice albedo feedback, which causes the loss of the sea ice to be self-compounding. The more it disappears, the more likely it is to continue to disappear.

Deforestation can also lead to changes in the albedo. Even though dark vegetation has a low albedo, it is still higher than rock or soil. Therefore if we deforest more of the sun’s energy will be absorbed. The energy that is reflected also has a higher change of being trapped by the atmosphere because less photosynthesis will be taking place and there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere enhancing the greenhouse effect.

Sunspot activity

Solar variation refers to changes in the amount of total solar radiation. There are periodic components to these variations, the principal one being the 11-year solar cycle (or sunspot cycle).

Sunspots form on the surface of the Sun due to strong magnetic field lines coming up from within the Sun trough the solar surface and appear visibly as dark spots compared to their surroundings. These sunspots which can become many times bigger than the Earth are always dark because they are much cooler than the surrounding surface of the Sun itself. A big sunspot can have a temperature of 3700°C. This sounds like much but if we compare this with the temperature of the photosphere of the Sun which is about 5500°C, then you see that there is a considerable difference. As a matter of fact, if we could take a sunspot out of the Sun and place it into our night sky it would only be as bright as the full moon, a very big contrast with the bright Sun itself.

Sunspots are a common sight on our Sun during the years around solar maximum. Solar maximum or solar max is the period of greatest solar activity in the solar cycle of the Sun, where one solar cycle lasts about 11 years. Around solar minimum, only very few or even no sunspots can be found. Sunspots form where magnetic field lines come up from the Sun’s interior trough the solar surface meaning that every sunspot has it’s own polarity.

Earth’s orbit – Milankovitch Cycle

Milankovitch Theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth’s movements upon its climate, named after Serbian civil engineer and mathematician Milutin Milanković. Milanković mathematically theorised that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth’s orbit determined climatic patterns on Earth.

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The Earth’s axis completes one full cycle of precession approximately every 26,000 years. At the same time the elliptical orbit rotates more slowly. The combined effect of the two precessions leads to a 21,000-year period between the seasons and the orbit. In addition, the angle between Earth’s rotational axis and the normal to the plane of its orbit, obliquity, moves from 22.1 degrees to 24.5 degrees and back again on a 41,000-year cycle; currently, this angle is 23.44 degrees and is decreasing.

Soil and change

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Soil Degradation: The process of soil losing its fertility and nutrients and becoming biologically dead (reducing in quality and quantity).

Soil can be degraded in different ways. The main types of soil degradation are:

Wind and water: Rain or wind blowing away topsoil and causing degradation.

Biological: The loss of humus and or plant/animal life.

Physical: The loss of soil structure or change in permeability.

Chemical: The change in the chemical composition of soil. This could be acidification, salinisation or chemical pollution or loss of nutrients.

The ‘Universal Soil Loss Equation’ (USLE)     A = R x K x LS x C x P

R = Erosivity of Soil: How vulnerable the soil is to being eroded because of rainfall. Intense rainfall or prolonged rainfall causes greater erosion. Rainfall onto bare soil causes greater erosion than onto vegetation.

K = Erodibility: How susceptible the soil is to erosion. Soils with high infiltration rates and strong structure are less vulnerable to erosion.

LS = Length Slope Factor: This is simply the length of the slope and the steepness of the slope.

C = Crop Management: This is the types of crops being grown and the farming practices. Grass and forest provide better protection than many crops. Leaving the land fallow or having prolonged periods between harvests can leave soil vulnerable.

P = Soil Conservation: The type of conservation methods used e.g. contour ploughing, terracing and shelter belts.

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The Importance of Soil (Humus and the Nitrogen Cycle)

Soil is a natural body consisting of layers (sometimes called horizons) of minerals that vary in thickness. The layers are different to their source (bedrock) in their shape, size, chemical composition and mineral content. Soil is created through processes of erosion and weathering in situ (in one place) and also by material being transported and deposited from other locations. Most soils also contain humus made from biological matter.

The fertility of soil can depend on the depth of the soil, the mineral content in the soil, the amount of humus in the soil, its drainage, structure and pH (the ideal range is normally between 6.0 and 6.8). Fertile soil is vitally important not only to support the world’s ecosystems; rainforest, savanna, etc. but also to allow the production of agricultural crops and the rearing of domesticated animals to meet human needs.

Humus: The fertile layer of soil normally found near the surface. It is made from biological matter (dead plants and animals) which have been broken down and reached a stable state. If you deforest areas and convert to farming, the size and quality of the humus layer can be reduced quickly.

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Nitrogen Cycle: The recycling of nitrogen through the ground and atmosphere. Although 78% of our atmosphere is nitrogen, in its gaseous state it is not really useful to plant life so its conversion is extremely important. Plants absorb nitrogen through their roots so it is important that nitrogen is present in soil. Nitrogen in the atmosphere is converted to ammonia in the soil through the process of nitrogen fixation. Bacteria in the soil can then convert the ammonia through the process of nitrification into nitrates which can be absorbed by plants. Nitrogen that already exists in plants and animals is recycled by decomposers (mainly fungi and bacteria). If deforestation takes place then the recycling of nitrogen in the ground stops and the soil will become less fertile.

  • Overgrazing: Allowing too much livestock to graze on a piece of land which means all the vegetation is eaten making the ground susceptible to wind and water erosion. (Lesotho starves in rich SA’s shadow – BBC article)
  • Overcultivation: If you farm land too intensively and don’t have fallow (periods of not growing anything) periods then all the nutrients in the soil get used.
  • Deforestation: Cutting down trees which not only means the land will be receiving less nutrients, but it also means it is more vulnerable to erosion because there is no interception and less stability because the root systems have been removed.
  • Overpopulation: As the world population continues to grow (now nearly 7 billion) the demand for agricultural products (crops and meat) is increasing causing more land to be deforested, overcultivated and overgrazed.
  • Fertiliser and Pesticide Use: By using fertilisers and pesticides you can artificially increase yields of crops. However, the process is unnatural and prolonged periods of use can all naturally produced nutrients to be used and local water sources to become polluted reducing the ability of land to cultivate crops and therefore making it vulnerable to chemical degradation as well as wind and water erosion.
  • HYV and GM Crops: Like with fertilisers and pesticides, it is argued that HYV and GM crops have encouraged overcultivation, diminishing natural nutrients in the soil.
  • Industrial Pollution: Chemicals, metals and other pollutants leaked from industrial processes can chemical degrade soil making it useless or dangerous for farming. Acid rain caused by pollution can also cause soil degradation.
  • Unsustainable Water Use (aquifer depletion, unsustainable irrigation): If aquifers or rivers are used unsustainably then areas can become increasingly arid as water resources are used up. A classic example of unsustainable irrigation happened in the Aral Sea.
  • Toyotarisation: This is basically the increased use of 4x4s to travel across grasslands, deserts, etc. damaging topsoil and increasing wind and water erosion.
  • Conflict: During times of war biological and chemical weapons can be used which degrade the quality of the soil. During the Vietnam War large quantities of Agent Orange were used to defoliate forests. Much of the land in Vietnam is still degraded because of this 40 years on.


  • Rising Temperatures: As global temperatures increase it is becoming increasingly hard for vegetation to grow thus reducing vegetation cover and increasing the risk of wind and water erosion.
  • Falling Rainfall: As the amount of rainfall reduces in some areas like the Sahel, then it is increasingly hard for vegetation to grow again making the ground more vulnerable to wind and water erosion.
  • Flash floods: Intense periods of rainfall can also cause erosion of topsoil which leads to land degradation.
  • Wind: If a region is particularly windy then the amount of wind erosion is likely to increase.
  • Topography: If land is relatively flat then it is much less vulnerable to water erosion, but maybe vulnerable to wind erosion. Alternatively hilly land is vulnerable to water erosion, but maybe protected more from wind erosion.


Problems Caused by Soil Degradation

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Desertification: The process of fertile land turning into desert. As the soil becomes more degraded and has less nutrients it cannot support vegetation and effectively turns to desert.
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Dust Storms: As soil become less stable because of the lack of vegetation it become much more vulnerable to wind erosion which can create large scale dust storms. Northern China is suffering from an increased frequency of dust storms as desertification takes place south of the Gobi Desert.

Topsoil Erosion: The top layer of the soil often referred to as the humus layers is very nutrient rich. If the nutrients in this layer begin to reduce then it can support less vegetation and this layer become vulnerable to erosion starting a downward decline in the quality of the soil and reducing its ability to regenerate.

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Reduced Crop Yields: As the soil becomes less fertile the amount of crops that it can support will reduce. The falling crop yields can lead to famine and starvation.

Conflict: With increasing soil degradation and reduction in agricultural output and available agricultural land conflict can arise over diminishing resources.

Kenya drought ‘worsens conflict’bbc 1

The drought in northern Kenya is increasing conflict between the area’s nomadic groups, as they travel further to find scarce pasture, a charity says. kenya map

“It’s not just the food crisis that is claiming lives,” said Oxfam Kenya head Gezahegn Kebede, warning of further deadly clashes unless more aid arrives.

He warned of the worst conflict in a decade. Last month, some 40 people were killed in clashes between rival groups. Some 4m Kenyans need food aid, along with a further 7m across East Africa.

The nomadic groups of northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, parts of Sudan and Somalia have a history of fighting over livestock and pasture but Oxfam says the drought is increasing tensions. Following long wars in Somalia and Sudan, weapons are relatively cheap and readily available in the area. “The number of weapons in the area is making such encounters increasingly lethal as nomadic communities now have to travel hundreds of kilometres in search of pasture – often taking them into areas controlled by other communities,” Oxfam said. “There is also growing conflict between farmers and cattle herders as livestock invade farms.” Last month’s death came when Kenyans tried to retrieve animals stolen by cross-border raiders from Ethiopia and Sudan. Kenya’s environment minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai has often warned of the link between conflict in Africa and environmental factors such as land degradation.

Sahel Case Study

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The Sahel is an area of land south of the Sahara Desert, running from Mauritania in the west, through Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Sudan and across to Ethiopian in the west. The Sahel is roughly 5,400km long and covers an area of about 3 million km2. The Sahel receives between 200mm and 600mm of rain annually. The vegetation is mainly savanna (grassland) with some areas of woodland and shrub land. The people of the Sahel are traditional semi-nomadic herders. In recent years the Sahel has been suffering from increasing soil degradation and desertification. The main reasons for increasing soil degradation are:

  • Population Growth (the population of the region is growing at about 3% a year and doubling every 20 years)
  • Deforestation (much of it caused by people collecting firewood)
  • Overgrazing (some of this is caused by loss of land to National Parks and tourist developments and commercial farms)
  • Colonialism – the creation of borders forced people more into villages making them less nomadic and placing greater pressure on the land.
  • Rising temperatures (greater evaporation) and reduced rainfall (droughts)
  • Storms – the rainfall that does take place tends to be in shorter more intense storms that can lead to water erosion.

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Desertification has caused many problems in the Sahel including:

  • Famine
  • Dust storms
  • Conflict over diminishing resources

A number of solutions have been suggested to solve the problem of soil degradation and desertification including:

  • A giant shelter break (the Green Wall) – see article to the right
  • Population control
  • Finding alternatives to firewood e.g. solar cookers
  • Improved farming techniques e.g. reduced grazing numbers

Great Green Wall to stop Sahel desertification

The wall envisioned by 11 African countries on the southern border of the Sahara, and their international partners, is aimed at limiting the desertification of the Sahel zone

The Sahel zone is the transition between the Sahara in the north and the African savannas in the south, and includes parts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

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Possible Solutions to Soil Degradation

Crop Rotation and Fallow Periods: Growing different crops each year, so different nutrients are used and to allow periods of rest (fallow periods) so that soil can regain its fertility.

Terracing and Contour Ploughing: By ploughing with the contours (shape) of the land rather than against it you not only reduce water erosion, but you also reduce the need to irrigate as much. Terraces work on the same principal; they hold water in place rather than encouraging water erosion.

Shelter Belts: Shelter belts (sometimes called wind breaks) are areas of forest or hedge that is left untouched to protect farmland from the effects of water and wind erosion. Shelter belts will often appear around the outside of fields.

Reforestation and Afforestation: By reforesting or afforesting areas you can help return land to its natural state, making it more fertile and stable, thus reducing wind and water erosion and ultimately land degradation.

Fertilisers: Although as we have already learnt fertilisers can cause overcultivation and eventual land degradation, they can also help to add nutrients back into the soil and allow continued cultivation.

Irrigation: It is possible to water areas of land that have become arid to try and the productivity of the soil. However, if water is not used sustainably then irrigation can cause water shortages and land degradation elsewhere.

Grazing Quotas: Placing limits on the number and types of animals that can graze on land, reducing the destruction of vegetation and eventual desertification.

Population Control: The main reason we are putting more pressure on the earth’s resources (including soil) is because the world’s population has reached 7 billion and is still growing rapidly. If we can control population growth then we can limit the amount of agricultural land we need and the intensity of our farming.

Urban Planning: Controlling growth of cities and using more brownfield sites will reduce the need to deforest areas of land. By keeping forest cover in place, the risk of land degradation should be reduced.
GM Crops: GM stands for genetically modified. GM crops can be engineered to withstand poor soil and water shortages. By growing some types of vegetation you may be able to add nutrients back to the soil. However, it might it encourage people to farm on unsuitable land causing even further land degradation.

Organic Farming: Organic farming is farming without the use of chemicals. If you farm organically you are less likely to overcultivate and reduce the soil nutrient levels, but you also not going to degrade the soil chemically.

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Water and change

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Physical Water Scarcity: Where the demand for water is greater than the supply of water. Physical water scarcity does not have to be an arid environment, because there demand for water in arid environments (deserts) is not normally low meaning that there is no shortage.

Economic Water Scarcity: Where there is water available, but for some economic reason it is not possible to fully utilise the source of water. This might because extraction or transportation costs are too high, or because the water is polluted and it is not possible to treat it.

Water Stress: When the demand for water exceeds supply during a set period of time leading to shortages.

Safe Drinking Water: Water that is safe for human consumption. The water must be free from harmful pollutants and bacteria that could make people ill.

Distribution of Water Resources

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Only about 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh and the majority of that is frozen or under the ground making it very hard to access. The reaming freshwater that is easy to access is not distributed evenly across the world. The map (right) shows that the area with the smallest water supplies are in North Africa, Southern Africa, The Middle East, South Asia and East Europe. However, it must be remembered that just because there is a shortage of water it does not necessarily mean that there is economic and physical water scarcity. This is because many areas with water shortages are very sparsely populated.

The second map(below) highlights the areas with physical and economic water shortages. Most of the northern hemisphere including North America, Europe and Russia have no water shortages. Areas with physical water scarcity include North Africa (Sahara Desert), the Middles East (Arabian Desert), Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Northern India and Northern China (Gobi Desert).

The areas with economic scarcity include Central and Southern America, Central Africa, SE Asia and Australia. It is interesting to note that according to the first map, most of these areas have an abundant supply of water, but for some reason are not able to access it properly.

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Map details global water stress

The alarming extent of water scarcity across the world is detailed in a map compiled by a leading environmental think tank. It shows two key types of scarcity; water is said to be either physically scarce or economically scarce. Economic water scarcity occurs due to a lack of investment and is characterised by poor infrastructure and unequal distribution of water. Physical scarcity occurs when the water resources cannot meet the demands of the population. Arid regions are most associated with physical water scarcity. But the IWMI says there is an alarming trend in artificially-created scarcity – even in areas where water is apparently abundant. This is largely due to overuse; agriculture uses up to 70 times more water to produce food than is used in drinking and other domestic purposes, including cooking, washing and bathing.

The results are desiccated and polluted rivers, declining groundwater and problems of allocation, in which some people win out in access to water over others.

Environment trade-off: Egypt imports more than half of its food because it does not have enough water to grow it domestically.

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And the shrunken Aral Sea remains one of the most visible examples where massive diversions of water to agriculture have caused widespread water scarcity, says the report, along with an environmental catastrophe.

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Water Poverty Index (WPI)

The WPI was developed by the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It looks at the five variables below to assess a country’s water poverty.

Resources: This looks at the amount of groundwater and surface water available per person in a country or region.
Access: This looks at the time and distance involved in citizens collecting the water e.g. does everyone having running water in their house or do they have to walk to a well.
Capacity: This looks at how the community manages and uses its water.
Use: This looks at how the water is used, is it used in industry, agriculture or for domestic use.
Environment: This looks at the sustainability of use e.g. are rivers and aquifers being used sustainably or is too much water being taken.

As can be seen from the map (below) Europe, the Americas and Australia score very well on the WPI, but many African , Middle Eastern and South Asian countries score very badly.

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Causes of Water Shortages

Water shortages can be divided into a number of categories. As mentioned above, physical water shortages is when there is not enough surface or ground water to meet the demand for it. Economic water shortages is when water exists, but for some reason it cannot be fully utilised, maybe because extraction and piping is too expensive or treatment of polluted water is too expensive and the technology does not exist.

Population Growth: As with many of the world’s resources, they are coming under increasing pressure as the world’s population grows. The world’s population now stands at about 7 billion, all of whom are placing increasing on water resources as they develop and get richer.

Pollution: As the world’s population grows so does the demand for agricultural and industrial products. Our thirst for agricultural products is increasing the use of fertilisers and pesticides which often run off into rivers and lakes or leach down to groundwater stores. Likewise our increasing demand for industrial and at times relaxed environmental regulations mean more chemicals and metals are being released into our water sources. Sewage treatment also often lags behind population growth so increasingly our rivers and lakes are being polluted by sewage.

Domestic Demand: The demand from households is not only increasing because there are more households in the world, but also because the amount of water they want is increasing with development. For example as peoples income increases and they move into permanent residences, they demand flush toilets, bath/showers, washing machines, dishwashers and green gardens, all of which use large amounts of water.

Agricultural Demand: As can be seen in the graph below, agricultural places by far the biggest demand on water. With a growing population, global warming and the movement in to less favourable agricultural regions, the demand from agriculture is only likely to increase in the future.

Industrial Demand: As the world’s population grows and becomes richer our demand for industrial products grows. Many industrial products, particular things like processing metal use huge quantities of water and place increasing demand on resources. Also mining for the raw materials used in manufacturing use large quantities of water.

Sewage: With rapid urbanisation taking place in many cities around the world, infrastructure often does not keep up with new arrivals. The growth of informal settlements without proper sewage treatment can mean that human waste is often pumped directly into water sources. However, this is not only a problem in LEDCs, in London the sewer system cannot cope and an estimated 39 million tonnes of sewage are dumped in the River Thames annually.

Climate Change: Climate change is impacting the availability of water in many ways. Global warming maybe releasing freshwater from glaciers and ice shelves,but unfortunately much of it is running directly into the oceans. The subsequent rising sea levels are threatening many coastal freshwater wetlands as well as increasing the risk of saltwater intrusion into aquifers. Warmer temperatures are increasing the amount of evaporation from rivers and surfaces stores.

Political: In many countries or regions, water sources are shared e.g. the River Nile flows through eleven countries. At times some countries control large percentages of the shared resource, leading to shortages for other countries. Follow the link and read how Egypt and the Sudan control the majority of the Nile’s water.

Mismanagement: If water is not used sustainably or inappropriately then water shortages can occur. One of the most famous examples is the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is located on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Water was taken from the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert and grow cotton. Unfortunately so much water was needed to grow cotton in the desert that no water reached the Aral Sea and it began to dry up, causing huge water shortages.

Groundwater Depletion: If water is used unsustainably i.e. more is taken out than is being recharged then aquifers can suffer from salinisation and saltwater intrusion. If you increase the concentration of water it can become too salty for human use. Also if you drain aquifers near coastal areas, then they can become full of saltwater, again making them useless.

Energy Production: Although HEP is the most obvious form of energy that uses water, this water is released into rivers once it has passed through the dam. Other types of energy that uses large amount of water for cooling e.g. coal and Nuclear Power may pollute water or see it evaporated removing it from local use.

Problems Caused by Water Shortages and Water Pollution

Drought: If there is economic or physical water scarcity and water stress exists then drought can occur. Drought is below average supply of water over a prolonged period. Because drought is below average supply of water, even relatively wet country’s like the UK can suffer from drought.

Crop Failure: If there is a shortage of water and farmers cannot irrigate their crops then they begin to die.

Livestock Deaths: If livestock don’t have enough water to drink they will begin to die.

Famine: If cops are failing and livestock are dying then people will become undernourished and suffer from famine.

Groundwater Depletion (subsidence and saltwater intrusion): If aquifers begin to dry up or are used unsustainably, then the ground above can subside (collapse) or the aquifer can suffer from salinisation or saltwater intrusion. Subsidence is a problem common in parts of Mexico City.

Conflict: If there is a limited supply of water and water resources are shared conflict can arise. Many of the on-going border disputes between Israel and Palestine are blamed on water shortages.

Refugees: If there is drought and famine then people are forced to relocate or face death. Unfortunately many of the countries that suffer from drought and famine have poor neighbours so refugees will be arriving in countries that are least able to cope.

Disease: Dirty water can attract mosquitoes which can increase diseases like dengue and malaria. Dirty water can also cause the spread of diseases like hepatitis A and typhoid as well things like diarrhoea.
Eutrophication: Run-off from farms containing fertiliser can lead to eutrophication. Eutrophication is the excess growth of algae causing water to not oxygenate properly or receive enough light. This can cause plants and animals to suffocate and die.

Biodiversity Loss: Dirty water and eutrophication can cause loss of biodiversity in wetland environments, but also just like humans can die of thirst and starvation, so can plants and animals. Big animals like elephants which require large amounts of water often die in African droughts.

 Lake Biwa, Japan

Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan, covering an area of 670km2. It is located on the island of Honshu, north east of the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.

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After the end of World War II, Japan demilitarised and concentrated on rebuilding its economy and population. Between 1945 and 2010 Japan’s population grew from 72 million to 128 million. Japan’s economy was regarded as an economic miracle, growing at 10% a year in the 1960’s and 5% a year in the 1970’s. Japanese companies like Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Sony and Toshiba started to grow rapidly. The area around Lake Biwa became one of the most densely populated and most industrialised in the country. Osaka on its own contains about 2.7 million people. As well as population and industrial growth, agriculture needed to grow rapidly to meet growing demand for food.

The rapid growth meant that a lot of land reclamation took place around Lake Biwa in order to accommodate new factories, growing cities and to create new farmland. During this period of economic growth, the economy was more important than environment so household, industrial and agricultural waste was allowed to run-off into the lake. These pollutants caused a series of problems including:

  • In the 1960’s agricultural chemical poisoned and killed aquatic life
  • In the 1970’s heavy metals poisoned and killed aquatic life
  • Also in the 1970’s agricultural fertilisers caused eutrophication to take place.

Eutrophication is an ecosystems response to large quantities of phosphates and nitrates being added. In Lake Biwa it caused rapid growth of algae, which prevented sunlight from reaching the lake and prevented proper oxygenation. This caused widespread death of aquatic plants and animals.

There have been a number of responses to the pollution including:

  • 1960’s – “Direction for Safe Use of Agricultural Chemicals” – this meant that chemicals could not be used within 6km of the lake.
  • 1969 – “Pollution Control Ordinance” – introduction of strict effluent controls
  • 1970’s – Japanese housewives started an organisation to eliminate synthetic detergents.
  • 1979 – “Ordinance Relating to the Prevention of Eutrophication in Lake Biwa”

In reality for much of the time that Lake Biwa was being polluted, economic growth was much more important and it was not until the economy started to grow, people had secure jobs, growing incomes and increased leisure time, did people start thinking about the environment.

The other 3 episodes can be found on YouTube.

Solutions to Ending Water Stress

There are many solutions to improving the both the quality of the water (reducing pollution) and the amount of water available to people, agriculture and industry. Below are some solutions starting with four short videos on how Japan has tried to reduce pollution and eutrophication in some of its water sources.

Watch the above YouTube clips – Japan’s pollution experience.

Virtual Water

Many products (agricultural and industrial) use large amounts of water to produce. For example it is estimated that 4500 litres are needed to produce just one beef steak. It has therefore been suggested that arid countries should specialise in producing products that need less water, while countries with an access of water should produce products that need a lot of water to produce. The products could then be traded between each other, so instead of water been traded, products with large amounts of water used in their production are being traded – this is virtual water.

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With the growing shortage of freshwater, attempts have been made to desalinate seawater more efficiently. Traditionally the process has involved the evaporation of water to remove salt (thermal desalination), but increasingly reverse osmosis is being used to forces water through semi-permeable membrane to remove salts. Although the second process uses less energy, both are energy intensive and require high levels of technology so have been criticised and have not been widely adopted yet.

Conservation Methods and Water Charities

Residents and water users can be educated about basic conservation methods which can reduce water wastage. Basic conservation methods may include:

  • Half flush toilets
  • Showering instead of bathing (as long as the shower is short)
  • Watering the garden at dusk to prevent evaporation
  • Recycling grey water (shower water, etc).
  • Collecting rainwater to use on the garden.
  • Using appropriate plants for the climate
  • Using drip irrigation rather than sprinklers

Charities are also helping many LEDCs with the provision of water. One of the most famous charities helping to reduce water shortages is WaterAid. Charities can do an number of things to improve the provision of water including:

  • Building wells to access groundwater
  • Building toilets to reduce sewage and pollution
  • Teaching appropriate farming techniques
  • Reducing irrigation leakages
  • Low cost schemes to filter and clean water.
  • Education on how to conserve water.

Other Possible Solutions

Irrigation Projects: Countries that have regional shortages of water or variable rainfall can use irrigation systems to redistribute water and water the land. The largest and most famous irrigation project been undertaken is Libya’s man-made river scheme which aims to turn parts of the desert green. The water is being accessed from under the ground and redistributed around the country.

Reduced Leakage: Leakage is a huge problem, especially in countries with old pipe networks. One water company in the UK is estimated to lose 295 million litres a day (the equivalent of 120 Olympic size swimming pools). In the UK there are targets for water companies to reduce leakages; unfortunately many companies are currently missing these targets.

Dam Construction: Dams are controversial because they can bring many disadvantages as well as advantages but if they are built sustainably they can create artificial stores that can collect water in rainy seasons and distribute during drier periods.

Water Metering: Charging people per unit of water used, rather than charging a flat fee can drastically reduce wastage and make people consider how and when they use water.

Construction of Wells: Many countries cannot afford to have piped water to every residence so wells become important in accessing groundwater supplies. As long as wells are used sustainably they can be a vital source of water in many LEDCs and arid countries.

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International Cooperation: When water is shared, it is necessary to have sustainable policies to reduce the tragedy of the commons, when all countries or regions take water for their needs and forget about the overall impacts. The countries along the Nile are trying to create such agreements, but Egypt is hostile to any plans to redistribute.

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Biodiversity and change



Biodiversity: The variety of life on Earth, its biological diversity is commonly referred to as biodiversity. The number of species of plants, animals, and microorganisms, the enormous diversity of genes in these species, the different biomes on the planet, such as deserts, rainforests and coral reefs are all part of a biologically diverse Earth.

Biodiversity is important because it boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, no matter how small, all have an important role to play. For example, a larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops; greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms; and healthy ecosystems can better withstand and recover from a variety of disasters.

Fragile environment: one that lacks resilience to a change in conditions. Many ecosystems are vulnerable to change, the cause of which can include human activity, the introduction of foreign species and natural events such as flooding or drought. Natural environments include arid and semi arid areas, mountain areas, polar locations,freshwater and inter tidal wetlands, rainforests and coral reefs. Many are regional in scale and cross national boundaries.

Human activity has had a major impact on biodiversity. In some cases whole species have been wiped out (e.g. the dodo on Mauritius).

The ecological footprint represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea that is required to regenerate the resources a human population uses and to absorb the resultant waste. WWF, a leading conservation body has estimated that each human being requires 2.2 ha of the earth’s surface to support their needs, but only has 1.8 ha per person. In other words resources are being used faster than they are being produced.

Conservation: this is the preservation of the natural environment. Wildlife conservation is the practice of protecting wild plant and animal species and their habitats. The goal of wildlife conservation is to ensure that nature will be around for future generations to enjoy and also to recognize the importance of wildlife and wilderness for humans and other species alike.

Sustainable management: the management of resources in such a way that the ability of the system to replace itself is greater than the level of exploitation.

Sustainable development: development of resources that is long lasting and does not cause damage to the environment thereby compromising its use by future generations.

Exploitation: the act of using resources or act of treating people unfairly in order to benefit from their efforts or labour.

Tropical rainforest

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Tropical rainforests are among the world’s most important ecosystems for they role they play in sustaining life on the planet. From the Amazon to the Congo, every rainforest has a unique assemblage of plants, animals, and people.

Tropical rainforests are mainly located between the tropics. The Amazon rainforest in South America is the largest rainforest in the world, but there are also large areas of rainforest in the Congo Basin, SE Asia, Central America, Southern India and Northern Australia. Tropical rainforests cover about 7% of the earth’s surface. There typical climate are daily temperatures between 20c and 45c and annual rainfall of 125cm to 650cm. Rainforests tend to be very humid and experience thunderstorms in late afternoon. Rates of deforestation vary widely and even with the use of satellite images are hard to accurate clearly. Estimates claim about 1 and half acres are cleared every second which accounts for the area twice the size of Florida every year. Scientists believe that in 40 years all major rainforests may have disappeared.


DLD 3 whemap

Tropical rainforests are located in a band around the equator (Zero degrees latitude), mostly in the area between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5° N latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° S latitude). This 3,000 mile (4800 km) wide band is called the “tropics.”


DLD 4 rainforestlayers

Rainforests are characterized by a unique vegetative structure consisting of several vertical layers (see diagram above).

The canopy refers to the dense ceiling of leaves and tree branches formed by closely spaced forest trees. The upper canopy is 100-130 feet above the forest floor, penetrated by scattered emergent trees, 130 feet or higher, that make up the level known as the overstory. Below the canopy ceiling are multiple leaf and branch levels known collectively as the understory. The lowest part of the understory, 5-20 feet (1.5-6 meters) above the floor, is known as the shrub layer, made up of shrubby plants and tree saplings.

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The heavy vegetation of the canopy effectively screens light from the forest floor, and in a true (primary) equatorial rainforest, there is little “jungle-like” ground growth to impede movement. Ground vegetation in primary forest is minimal and usually consists mainly of lianas (vines) and tree seedlings.

Why are the forests so important?

Click on the link (below).

Info Why are Rainforests Important

Methods of Protecting Rainforests and Biodiversity

Guyana Rainforest Sale

Guyana located in NW South America is home to some of the world’s last reaming virgin rainforest. The Guyanese government has pledged that it wants to protect this rainforest, but it’s also very poor and could benefits from its exploitation (logging and mining). Therefore the Guyanese government has proposed a schemes where sections of the rainforest are sold to investors and countries who want to commit themselves to sustainability and carbon neutrality.
One million acres of Guyanese rainforest is up for sale.


As the amount of carbon trading increases and national and international regulations become stricter, countries and companies will increasingly look for ways of reducing their net carbon emissions. Because it is not possible to reduce all carbon emissions to zero, by buying sections of rainforest, it gives countries and companies a chance to reduce net emissions to zero because rainforests are carbon sequesters.

Carbon sequestration: The capture and storage of carbon.

Rainforest National Parks (The Tumucumaque National Park)

The Tumucumaque National Park is located in the Amazon Rainforest in NW Brazil. It was declared a National Park on 23rd August 2002. It is the world’s biggest tropical rainforest national park covering an area of 38,874km2. If you include the Guianan Amazonian National Park in French Guiana the protected area covers 59,174km2. The area is very sparsely populated, but rich in biodiversity including rare animals like jaguars and tapirs.

The natural environment is fairly impassable with waterfalls, raging rivers and giant outcrops. As well as known species, it is expected to contain many yet undiscovered species. Although Brazil’s national parks are protected by law many still suffer from illegal logging, mining and hunting. The government department in charge of protecting the parks are underfunded and don’t even have adequate vehicles to survey the park. However, because the park was designated in conjunction with the WWF, it is hoped that it will receive international funding.


National Parks are very important in attempts to protect biodiversity and indigenous groups, but they can also give rainforests an economic value through tourism. If you kill and animal or fell a tree you only receive money for it once. However, if you can encourage tourists to view the animals and vegetation you can create on-going income.

Outline the causes and consequences of a reduction in biodiversity in the tropical rainforest (7)

Evaluate one or more strategies aimed at managing the loss of biodiversity in a rainforest biome. (7)

Sustainability and the environment

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Sustainable Development: Meeting the needs of today’s population without compromising the needs of future generations. Today sustainable development is usually considered to include environmental, social and economic sustainability (see definitions below). If development includes social, economic and environmental aspects then it is considered to be sustainable development.

Stewardship: The act of overseeing the protection of something e.g. rainforests.

Conservation: The act of preserving and protecting something.

Environment: The things that surround you. In Geography when we talk about the environment we normally mean the natural things that surround you e.g. trees, rivers, mountains and lakes.

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Environmental Sustainability Economic Sustainability Social Sustainability
Definition: Improvements in the standard of living that do not cause long-term damage to the environment that impact future generations. Definition: Development that includes everyone, where everyone has the right of economic improvement. The development should be long-term and devoid of corruption and burdening debt. Definition: Development that is inclusive and ensures an improvement in the standard of living for all. It should incorporate everyone and ensure equal access to healthcare, education, resources, etc. while respecting individual cultures.
What does it include:

  • Protecting biodiversity
  • Stopping human caused climate change
  • Elimination of acid rain
  • Elimination of damage to ozone layer
  • Reduction of pollution (air, water, noise, etc.)
  • Management of resources e.g. fish, water


What does it include:

  • Access to finance
  • No corruption (kleptocratic governments)
  • No absolute poverty
  • No extortion
  • No nepotism
  • Debt removal?


What does it include:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Health and safety at work
  • Access to clean water and sanitation
  • Access to needs i.e. water, food, shelter, clothing
  • Access to education
  • Access to health care
  • Equality between sexes, religions, etc.
  • Right to vote
  • Access to justice
  • Safety – no threat from crime
  • Respect of cultures

Environmental Sustainability

SDG 15

Sustainable Development Goal 15 (SDG)

Sustainable Development Goals

The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) and the Environmental Performance Index (EPI)

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The ESI was developed by Yale University and was published between 1999 and 2005. It tracked 21 measure of environmental sustainability including pollution levels and resource management. However, in 2005 it was decided to replace ESI with EPI. The EPI rather than comparing sustainability strategies of different countries looked at outcome orientated indicators. The EPI places Iceland at the top of its index and Sierra Leone at the bottom.


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UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme

UNEP coordinates the UN’s environmental programmes and aims to assist developing countries with environmental issues. It was founded in June 1972 and has its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. UNEP’s six main priorities are listed below. One of the most pressing is climate change and to help in the battle it established the IPCC in 1988.

UNEP’s six priorities are:

  • Climate Change
  • Disasters and Conflict
  • Ecosystem Management
  • Environmental Governance
  • Harmful Substances
  • Resource Efficiency

CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

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CITES entered force on the 1st July 1975. Its aim was to ensure that the international trade in wild plants and animals did not endanger their existence. Participation in CITES is voluntary, but once participation is agreed upon it is legally binding and countries need to adapt their national laws accordingly. About 5,000 animals and 28,000 plants are protected under CITES. Protected flora and fauna are listed under one of three appendices depending on their level of threat. CITES hold meetings roughly every three years to discuss the protection ob new plants and animals.

Management strategy: Namibia’s community conservancies

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Management strategies in Namibia

Namibia in south-west Africa is a sparsely populated country with a dry climate. Around 2.1 million people live below the international poverty line ($1.25 day). Environmental sustainability is a significant issue in this landscape, the government is trying to tackle this issue and reduce poverty at the same time.

The Community Conservancy project is seen as a successful model of community-based natural resource management with an improving record for wildlife numbers and poverty reduction. The project gives rural communities unprecedented management and use rights over wildlife which have created new incentives and developed economic opportunities in tourism.

Programme began in 1996 – by 2007 it had expanded to 50 registered conservancies which covers 11.9 million hectares. Obvious signs of success is the significant increase in the numbers of wildlife in the conservancies after decades of decline. In the north-west elephant numbers more than doubled between 1982 and 2000.

The improvement results from a decline in illegal hunting and poaching due to the economic value that conservancy communities now place on healthy wildlife populations.

Benefits from the new economic activities include:

  • contracts with tourist companies
  • selling hunting concessions
  • managing campsites
  • selling wildlife to game ranches
  • selling crafts

The diversification of economic activities has increased employment opportunities where few existed and raised incomes.

Support from and between different institutions has been important to the development of the programme. The institutions (NGOs, Legal Aid, Tourism Association, Rural Peoples Institute etc) bring  experience and skills which help conservancies to develop. This enables good practice in one area to be adapted to another.

Although poverty remains high in Namibia the programme has resulted in substantial progress, with income raising year on year.

An important aspect of development has been the involvement of women – employment. Jobs include: game guards, natural resource monitors, working in tourism – hotels and game lodges.

Scaling-up resources management

Following the success of the conservancies the Namibian government has extended the concept to community forests.

Community forests in Namibia

Establishing a community forest is similar to the process of forming a conservancy. This is an example of the scaling-up process from one natural resource system to another.

Many Namibia’s are poor and its important that they have a greater say in how forest resources are managed, and share the benefits of properly managed forest resources.

The community forest system has improved the livelihoods of local people based on the empowerment of local communities with forest use rights. They earn money by marketing forest products such as timber and firewood, poles, wild fruits, thatching grass, tourism, honey, wildlife, woven baskets and other crafts.


Sipadan Marine Park (sustainable tourism)

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Sipadan is a small oceanic island located in the Celebes Sea off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia. It was formed by coral growth on the top of an extinct volcano. The island rise 600 metres from the seabed, Sipadan is at the centre of one of the riches marine habitats in the world. The surrounding ecosystems contains over 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of type of coral. Because of its unique and diverse ecosystem, Sipadan became a popular mecca (an extremely popular destination) for divers – because of its popularity a number of hotels were built on the island. However, because of its popularity the island did suffer some environmental damage. Noise and light pollution disturbed nesting turtles and water pollution and litter harmed bird and sea life.

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Because of the environmental damage the Malaysian government decided that it needed to develop the tourism industry around Sipadan more sustainably. In 1993 the island became a bird sanctuary and in 2004 the government forced the closure of all hotels on the island. A quota was also set on the number of divers allowed to visit Sipadan each day. The total permissible number of divers is 120 a day, with no night diving allowed. Permits to dive have to be applied for in advance. In 2005 the island was proposed as a National Marine Park and the government is now aiming for UNESCO world heritage status. Research has suggested that the number of turtles have increased since protection measures were put in place.

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The development of sustainable tourism on Sipadan is important because:

  • It will preserve the biodiversity of the island and surrounding ecosystem
  • It will create long term income from tourism. If Sipadan was over-dived or over-fished then its biodiversity and therefore attractiveness would reduce and tourists would decline.
  • Tourism is a growing industry and without proper management, the island will come under increasing pressure
  • It is following international guidelines set out on sustainable tourism at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992

The Amur Leopard

The Amur leopard is one of the rarest animals in the world. It is estimated that only about 30-35 individuals survive in the wild. The Amur leopard is now only found in the mountainous areas of Russia’s far east. The Amur leopard has become threatened because of poaching (hunting), deforestation (habitat loss), inbreeding and development projects like railways and gas/oil pipelines. Another endangered animal, the Siberian tiger is also found in similar locations. Over recent years, 13 international and Russian NGOs have joined together to make the Amur leopard and tiger alliance (ALTA). They have developed a comprehensive conservation programme:

  • Anti-poaching methods
  • Forest fire-fighting to reduce habitat loss
  • Compensation for farmers who have lost livestock
  • Public awareness schemes
  • Protected areas

There are also zoo breeding programmes where there are an estimated 300 Amur leopards. There are plans to try and reintroduce some of these animals to the wild.

Bluefin Tuna (a conservation failure?)

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The Bluefin tuna is now a critically endangered species. The Atlantic Bluefin tuna which can reach weights of 450kg is primarily found in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean – it is now extinct in the Caspian and Black Sea. Other species exist in the Pacific and around Australia. The Bluefin tuna is a prized fish and is extremely popular in Japan. Because of its popularity it has been heavily overfished. Estimates calculate that the species has declined by 72% in the Eastern Atlantic and 82% in the Western Atlantic. Because of its rapid decline a recommendation was made the CITES to ban the fishing and international trade of Bluefin tuna. Unfortunately many EU countries abstained from the vote so the proposed ban did not pass.

The Bluefin tuna industry is estimated to be worth up to $7.2 billion, with a single fish selling for $396,700 in 2011. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has attempted to set limits on the amount of Bluefin tuna that is allowed to be caught. Their scientists claim that 7,500 tonnes is a sustainable limit, but it is estimated that upwards of 60,000 tonnes are still caught annually. In support of conservation Greenpeace have put Bluefin tuna on their red list. Further attempts of an international ban will be made through CITES, but if Japanese objections and European abstentions continue, a ban is unlikely. Aquaculturalists have made recent attempts at rearing Bluefin tuna commercially to try and reduce the demand for wild tuna.



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