For Lakes and Rivers Trouble Comes From Far Away

Magazine Cover: November/December 2001

March 1, 2002 - Since humans began mining and farming on a large scale, the annual accumulation of phosphorus in the environment has almost quadrupled, causing increasingly serious problems for the world’s lakes and rivers, reports a study in the March/April edition of the World Watch magazine. According to its authors, University of Wisconsin scientists Elena Bennett and Steve Carpenter, most of this pollution originates far from the freshwater systems it affects. “That patch of algae in the pond at your feet may be affected by changes in the soil hundreds or thousands of miles away,” say the authors.

Most direct sources of phosphorus, such as sewage and outflows from specific farms, were greatly reduced by the 1990s. But runoff from surrounding and upstream lands persists. When farm runoff containing phosphorus-laden fertilizer travels downhill and enters aquatic ecosystems, it causes patches of algae to expand prolifically, ultimately stifling all life underneath. But we don’t have to wait until fish die off. “Studying phosphorus increase in soils can be an effective preventive measure,” say Bennett and Carpenter.

They suggest closer monitoring of phosphorus in upstream soils, supplemented with international markets for phosphorus runoff permits in order to curb the movement of excessive nutrients from one place to another. Their strategy would protect watersheds from being overwhelmed by excess nutrients, conserving fertilizer, stabilizing soils and improving water quality.


A small underfunded army of Siberian NGOs is waging an uphill battle against the oligarchs who are exploiting Siberia’s rich natural resources, reports Hal Kane in “Who Speaks for Siberia?” While Russia’s fledgling civil society is fighting for the rights of Siberia’s inhabitants, the entrepreneurs now in charge of Russian industry view this largest remaining undeveloped natural area outside of Antarctica as a supplier of raw materials. “Siberia remained a resource colony. When the communist government fell, only Siberia’s ownership changed hands, from the old Soviet state to the new Russian kleptocracy,” says Kane.

Local activists are organizing patrols monitoring logging and mining operations for violations of Russia’s little enforced environmental laws, pressing the land rights of indigenous peoples, and working to convince local politicians that environmental protection makes economic sense. Illegal resource extraction far outpaces legal activities—for example, the take from illegal fishing in eastern Siberia is estimated at more than triple the legal harvest. With so much money at stake, the activists face considerable and often violent opposition from the oligarchy that took over formerly state-owned enterprises.

But if the NGOs’ battle against the “ghosts from the Soviet past” is successful, it might reinvent the region radically, putting it on the intellectual map as a place of extraordinary natural and cultural richness. Siberia was populated with dissident scientists and engineers, who were shipped to the Gulag labor camps. Mobilizing this great wealth of highly educated citizens could usher in the rebirth of Siberia’s economy.


Read how Bjorn Lomborg captured the hearts of the media with his remake of the familiar argument that environmental problems will solve themselves and caught the real scientists off guard.

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  2. Matters of Scale: Looking good vs. doing good.
  3. Interview and Essay on Afghanistan.
  4. Books: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Tomorrow’s Energy. Betrayal of Trust. Mosquito.