Madeleine Moon MP

Labour Member of Parliament for Bridgend

Environment and International Development November 2013

The ongoing crisis in Syria, developments along the South Sudan-Sudan border, as well as the latest developments regarding Bees, Barrages and Badgers in the UK are all featured in the latest edition of my Environment and International Development Newsletter.

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Madeleine Moon MP
House of Commons
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Bridgend: 01656 750 002

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Hello and welcome to the latest, redesigned version of my Environmental and International Development Newsletter. 

I would welcome any feedback, suggestions or comments you have on the new design.

Yours Sincerely,

  1. As the Crisis in Syria worsens, small signs of hope emerge
  2. After much controversy, England's Badger cull commences 
  3. Disputed region in Sudan holds controversial referendum on joining  the South
  4. European Union takes steps to halt the decline in Bee populations
  5. Latest Severn Barrage plan turned down by the Government, but smaller schemes taken up
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As the Crisis in Syria worsens, small signs of hope emerge

UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) tents in Zatari Refugee Camp in Northern Jordan. First opened in July 2012 this single refugee camp in the middle of the Jordanian desert now hosts over 140,000 refugees making it effectively Jordan's fourth largest city
The previous newsletter back in March highlighted the devastating situation in Syria as a result of the bitter civil war that had been raging at that point for two years. As difficult as it is to believe the crisis has gotten much worse since then.

The numbers speak for themselves, in the two years between the start of the conflict and the previous newsletter the number of deaths totalled 60,000 and the number of refugees 1 Million. In the past six months alone both these figures have doubled, the number of deaths is now at almost 120,000 and the number of refugees over 2 million (half of whom are children). This is to say nothing of the 5 million Syrians still inside the country but displaced and disposessed by the conflict.

In terms of the fighting, the past six months have seen a number of equally ominous developments. Bouyed by funds and fighters from islamist organistions across the Arab world the opposition to the government has become increasingly dominated by extreme Islamist groups, many of whom, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra have close ties to Al-Qaeda. While the UK and international community doesn’t want to see the Assad regime as it currently is restored to authority at the end of the war, the prospect of radical Islamic groups taking control of all or part of the country is equally troubling for the international community and only adds further to the diplomatic challenges we face.

In light of the above the challenges facing the UK and the rest of the international community in aiding the victims of this war and in bringing it to as quick and just an end as possible is daunting. Indeed in September, Antonio Guterres, Head of the UN’s Refugee Agency described the crisis as the “biggest displacement crisis of all time” and one that has led to the UN’s biggest ever appeal for international aid. The United Nations is seeking $5 Billion to cover the costs of humanitarian operations.

It gives me some pleasure to be able to say that in response to this call the UK has been at the forefront of international efforts to help those in need. As of October 2013 the UK has pledged half a billion pounds to the various charities and UN agencies working in and around Syria, making this the UK’s biggest ever international aid effort. While the government’s decision not to join a UNHCR resettlement programme to temporarily host in-country small numbers of especially vulnerable Syrians is disappointing the sheer scale of this money will be immensely helpful. Amongst other things it will provide shelter for more than 118,500 people forced out of their homes by the fighting as well as set up access to clean water for 295,000 people.
The plight of Syria’s refugee population is one I have already touched on in the past, including in a BBC Wales interview in August that you can find here
Signs of hope

More good news can also be seen recently in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ work in Syria to rid the country of its chemical weapons stockpile. The reasons why the organisation is in the country carrying out this work are by now infamous. On 31st October the Syrian government carried out a large scale artillery bombardment of the rebel held Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Rockets and artillery packed with the chemical nerve agent Sarin, a chemical 20x more deadly than cyanide are estimated to have killed up to 1700 people, many of whom were innocent civilians who came into contact with the chemicals as they were spread by the wind.

The international shock to this atrocity led the UN Security Council to unanimously pass a resolution demanding Syria work with the OPCW to destroy its weapons within a year. Despite the many challenges that faces this operation, not least the fact that the government doesn’t control all of the possible sites the OPCW teams need to visit, the mission has gotten off to a spectacle start. Having only returned to Syria on 1st October, following their initial investigation at Ghouta the organisation was able to declare on 31st October that all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons production machinery at over 21 sites has been verifiably destroyed. This is a small but significant step towards not only ridding the world of one of its biggest chemical weapons stockpiles, but also towards bringing a negotiated end to the wider war.

As the OPCW now sets about the main task of destroying the estimated 1000 tons of chemical agents stored across Syria our attention should also turn to the peace negotiations being held in Switzerland, titled the “Geneva 2” talks. These talks, led by the members of the UN's Security Council aim to convince all parties to agree to a political not military end to the war, with, ultimately President Assad stepping down and a transitional government established. The recent unfreezing of relations between the US and Russia and the unanimous resolutions passed by the security council boded well for at least some progress in the talks. However, like with much of diplomacy, there is often one step forward followed by two steps back and the likelihood of the opposition attending the talks has all but vanished. This is partly because the secular more moderate forces the international community wants to support have grown so weak and divided, having recently suffered a string of defections. It is also partly due to the fierce opposition of the Islamist rebels, who have ordered all Syrians to boycott the talks or face being tried in a sharia court. On top of this division Assad has given no indication he is willing to step aside and is in fact consolidating his power in a number of key regions.

Just like with the previous newsletter and this one, this crisis could well deteriorate further by the time the next one comes out. This outcome isn’t set in stone, but it is worth hoping, that the success of the OPCW can be continued and that it might lead to wider progress in Geneva and finally bring a conclusion to this conflict.
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After much controversy, England's Badger cull commences 

Few environmental issues this year  have proved as controversial as the trial culling of Badgers in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset that began on 27 August and ended in part on 5 November.

On the one hand government ministers and bodies such as the National Farmers Union have argued that culling badgers is a vital measure to control what is a serious and growing problem for the country. Around 28,000 cattle had to be slaughtered in 2012 after catching the disease at a cost of £100 million.  Badgers can carry the disease and help the spread from farm to farm. The dramatic rise in their population, up 77%  to perhaps 400,000 over the past quarter century is thought to have played a significant role in the increase in the spread of the disease over the same period.

On the other hand however, opponents of the cull have questioned both the rationale behind holding a cull when the evidence is so slight, as well as the ethical rationale. A petition was signed by over 158,000 people calling on the government to abandon the plan and called for more humane methods to bring the disease under control, in particular the rapid development of vaccination and improved testing and biosecurity.  

The cull was nevertheless authorised by the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson as one of a number of measures to tackle the spread of Bovine TB across diary and beef cattle. Originally almost none existent in this country, over the past few decades, TB has become widespread across the majority of the South West and West of England and in Wales.  

The image below shows the location of new herds sustaining new breakouts of TB in 1986 & 2009


The idea of culling badger populations in an effort to tackle the disease dates back to 2008 when the previous Labour government ruled out a cull on the grounds that it would most likely, either make the spread of the disease worse or increase the spread in surrounding areas. Nevertheless in the 2010 coalition agreement the government committed to carrying out a trial.

This cull was initially intended to take place in Autumn 2012, however due to a range of concerns, such as cost and a re-estimation finding more badgers in the trial areas than first thought, this was ultimately delayed a year, with the trial eventually starting on August 27 2013.

After six weeks of open shooting by farmers the results of this trial generated yet more controversy. By 7th October it had turned out that far too few badgers had been killed than the minimum target the government had set itself.

This was significant because the 10 year long scientific study carried out before the trial had found that while a 70% reduction in the badger population could reduce the number of new breakouts of the disease by 14%,  the study also found that if too few badgers are killed the effect could be that the spread of the disease amongst badgers and cattle would actually get worse. As it turned out only 1020 badgers had been shot, less than half the target of 2081.

The cull was then extended in both areas to allow extra badgers to be shot. In Somerset, where a three week extension was granted even this second target was missed with only 90 out of a minimum target of 165 shot when the trial finally ended a final cull rate still below target of 65%. In Gloustershire the deadline was extended eight weeks, to 18 December.

In reporting the results of the Somerset trial to Parliament, Mr Patterson said that the final 65% cull rate would "deliver clear disease benefits" based on advice provided by the chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens. In response Labour’s Maria Eagle, said: "David Cameron should stop the unscientific mass culling of badgers now that Paterson's misguided policy has clearly failed. Scientists have warned all along that a botched cull is worse than no cull at all. By repeatedly moving the goalposts on his own policy, Paterson has risked the further spread of TB due to prolonged disturbance of local badger populations."

The latest situation in Wales

As the above figure highlights, Bovine TB is a significant issue here in Wales as well as England, however here the Assembly has taken a significantly different approach to the one of Westminster. Since coming to power in May 2011 the Labour government in Wales suspended a planned cull and from March 2012 has instead been running a TB vaccination programme for the Welsh Badger population.

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Disputed region in Sudan holds controversial referendum on joining  the South
On 31st October, voters in the Abyei area of Sudan voted overwhelmingly in a controversial referendum to join the newly independent country of South Sudan, almost three years after voters in the rest of the south voted to officially leave the county in July 2011.

The majority of South Sudan overwhelmingly voted to separate from the north in a referendum held in January 2011, with over 98% of votes in favour of independence. This culminated in the creation of the Republic of South Sudan as the world's newest country and 193rd member of the United Nations.

The 2011 referendum was the result of a 2005 peace treaty between the militias of the south and the Sudanese government that brought to an end the Second Sudanese Civil war, that had by then cost over 1 million lives, and set the path for peace. In the treaty, the issue of Abyei was set aside and not included in the main referendum. While the  rest of the South has by and large separated relatively peacefully with, as yet, no out break of all out war in the region again, tensions are still high in the contentious border areas. Nowhere is this more so than in the Abyei area.
The area is hotly contested by both countries: while it is historically part of the north, the areas Dinka Ngok ethnic majority has ethnic and cultural ties to the south, but their are also a large number of nomadic Messiria people see the area as their ancestral homeland and seasonally move into and out of the area, they also speak Arabic and and so largely favour remaining with the Arab dominated North. Independence would leave them stranded on one side of an international border, threatening their entire way of life. Complicating matters further is the fact that their nomadic culture and only temporary residence in the area raises questions over whether or not they are eligible to vote at all.

In recent weeks the issue came to a head when the Dinka Ngok organised and held a referendum of their own, one that largely excluded the Messiria and that was held without the agreement of all sides. Echoing the overwhelming majorities in the earlier main referendum  99.9% of those who voted chose independence.

Despite being a largely transparent process the vote is unlikely to be recognised and if not handled carefully could threaten to escalate into a wider conflict if the area tries to force a secession and join the south without consent between all parties involved.

Solid progress may be on the horizon however, the African Union, which is working with the UN and both North and South Sudanese governments in the area has now referred the issue to the security council and has called for a referndum to be held as soon as possible. The UN has over 4000 peacekeepers in the area overseeing any eventual settlement. 

There are only around 60,000 people living in Abyei but the area and its eventual fate holds a great deal of significant for both Sudan and Africa as a whole. Long one of the most violent, turbulent countries in the world, torn apart by civil and ethnic conflicts, Sudan seems to be gradually, if far from perfectly, accepting political methods to solve conflicts. If this process can solve the issue of Abyei it will be a cause for hope for other long standing conflicts both in Sudan and in the continent as a whole.
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European Union takes steps to halt the decline in Bee populations
Although they are often a typical sight in our gardens and countryside in summer time, bees are having a particularly difficult time in recent years. Populations across the UK, Europe and the world have been suffering a significant and sustained decline. A recent study found that around one third of all honey bee colonies in the UK did not survive last winter.

Not only is this significant from an environmental point of view, ecologically and economically bees have a pivitol role in pollination. Their value to the UK's annual crop production every year is estimated to be worth between £430 and £603 million, whilst the honey industry is estimated to be worth between £26 and £38 million.

The reasons for this decline are puzzling and still not fully understood. It is thought a combination of disease, agricultural chemicals, lack of food, habitat loss and climate change are contributing to the decline.

Despite the lack of a full understanding of what is having the biggest impact on bee numbers, the severity of the problem has recently prompted the European Union to take action.

Specifically this has been to temporarily ban the use of a group of pesticides - neonicotinoids.

This ban, championed by NGOs, was passed by the European Parliament earlier in April but with far from a clear majority.

The reason for this division in Europe over the ban is because of disagreement over the scale of the impact one single element - such as pesticides - can have on population decline. It is also due to a concern that banning the relatively new neonicotinoid sprays might force farmers to instead use older more hazardous chemicals. 

This last reason has been a particular concern for the UK government and is the reason why it controversially decided to vote against the ban in the summer.

The one thing that is certain is that more needs to be done to avoid what looks like it may become a terminal collapse in a vitally important group of insects. Temporarily banning one group of chemicals wont be enough, having opposed even that limited step the UK government should now be leading the way in further understanding and supporting the invaluable natural world that surrounds us.
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Latest Severn Barrage plan turned down by the Government, but smaller schemes taken up
Hafren Power may not be the last company to propose plans to generate electricity from the tide on the Severn, but it is also far from the first. This design, from the Victorian era shows a particularly grand ambition (note the steam train line on the top).

It seems like the decades old idea of building a tidal barrage to generate renewable energy from the power of the tide that sweeps into and out of the Severn estuary is back to the drawing board.

After months of negotiations with the Westminster government, progress on building the £25 Billion, 11 mile barrage has effectively ground to a halt with no sign of the design being realised any time soon.

In September, one of the biggest supporters of the scheme, Neath MP Peter Hain, said that plans were "dead in the water" in the current Parliament, with the government showing no sign of seriously considering the proposal.

Just as one idea ends however, yet another has sprung up. This time through a collaboration between Cardiff and Bristol City Councils. Though still aiming at generating tidal energy from the Severn, the early designs and scale of this new proposal are notably different from Hafren's proposals. Most significantly rather than building a barrage across the whole width of the estuary, the idea is to build a series of smaller "lagoons". 

If the proposal is approved by both the city authorities, the serious work on possible locations for a twin tidal lagoon project that would involve building a network of hydro-turbines encased in a concrete wall at either side of the Severn. The ambitious proposal would be twice the size of a project also under consideration  in Swansea that once completed will generate power for over 100,000 homes.
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