In celebration of the Natural Security Blog’s unofficial Asia Week, we thought it might be interesting to dig through some of the ongoing cooperative programs between the U.S. government and our allies in the East. So without further ado, let’s jump into it.
Water, water everywhere, and some's beneath our feet. For Bangladesh, knowing how to properly manage their aquifers has been a vital to the health of their people, as Arsenic has contaminated many of their wells. For example, "The World Health Organization estimates that 40-60 million people are at risk from drinking arsenic-contaminated water in Bangladesh, and that this health risk also extends into West Bengal, India and into southern Nepal."
In an effort to help Bangladesh help itself, and its neighbors, the U.S. Geological Survey has established Bangladeshi public and private partnerships, in addition to enlisting support from USAID and the State Department to offer technical assistance in mapping out the country's complicated aquifers. The heart of their strategy is to determine the full extent of the Arsenic contamination, and locating new sources of clean water for the country.
2: Resource Potential of Algae for Biodiesel Production in APEC Economies: 2009 - 2010
Biofuels have been making a boom in the market, at least sonic booms over at DOD, and their potential as a world energy source seems to only increase as new innovations in algae based biofuels make leaps and bounds. This U.S. partnership project with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) seems to have some ambitious goals for an algae fueled future. The project proposal states that it:
Seeks to use a common methodology to assess the potential amount and location of algal biomass in the APEC region that could be suitable for the production of biodiesel. Algal biomass offers the possibility of a sustainable, low GHG emissions feedstock that is widely available, grows rapidly, yields more biofuel per hectare than oil plants, contains no sulfur or other toxic substances, is highly biodegradable; does not involve destruction of natural habitats, and does not compete with food production on agricultural land. Algae could thus contribute significantly to the overall resource potential of biofuels to displace petroleum.
With the project set to wrap up later this year in Novemeber, and having not heard too much in the way of its successes, or failures for that matter, I'm interested to see what kind of headway they've made. If algae indeed proves to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels, offering both a smaller carbon and physical footprint, I might just consider letting my fish tanks go, and pull a Jed Clampett to get my hands on some algae crude, bio-gold, Texas green tea.
With President Obama’s trip to Indonesia delayed several times, and tensions there already high, I thought it might be interesting to look at the unique and emerging partnership between the United States and Indonesia in this edition of Top 5. It seems as if a strong partnership between these two countries is just beginning, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in her address at the Asia Society, February 13, 2009:
The Indonesian Government has . . . suggested the creation of a deeper partnership with the United States. This idea represents a positive approach to areas of common concern, and we are committed to working with Indonesia to pursue such a partnership with a concrete agenda.
So here we go folks. Time to look at five recent and historic partnerships between the United States and Indonesia on natural security issues. In no particular order:
1) 2009: Debt Forgiveness for Environment and Resource Protection
The U.S. provided Indonesia with $30million in debt forgiveness in exchange for efforts to conserve and preserve its own environment and natural resources. This was accomplished though an Indonesian partnership with the United States under the 1998 Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA).
2) 2008: Pirates in the Strait of Malacca
To some, it may seem that piracy, before its recent spike in Somalia, has been relatively nonexistent on the high seas since the days of The Queen Anne’s Revenge, but for those sailing through the Strait of Malacca, it’s been a modern problem for some time now. As discussed in a previous Top 5 post, the Strait of Malacca is a strategic choke point for many international energy resources. Tackling this security challenge in this region is then in the vested interest of not only countries such as Indonesia, but the United States and the entire globe. In light of this, in 2008 “the U.S. provided the Indonesian police with 15 patrol boats for use in security maintenance operations against maritime crimes,” in addition to technical assistance provided in previous years.
For today’s Top 5 list I decided to examine the most prominent energy chokepoints around the world. Since shocks to oil transit systems in any one region can affect prices worldwide, it’s good practice to know the basics of these chokepoints.
The Strait of Hormuz
Perhaps the best-known and most fretted-over chokepoint is the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The reason is simple: about 20 percent of the world's traded oil (between 16 and 17 billion barrels per day) transits this passage, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. There are also potential dangers specific to the Strait of Hormuz, namely Iran’s oft-analyzed potential to mine the strait to temporarily slow or stop freighter traffic. Caitlin Talmadge’s 2008 International Security article gave an open-source technical explanation (pdf) for how the strait could be mined, and a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence examines Iran’s overall naval strategy in the Gulf (pdf). If you’d like to earn a full certification in my proposed new international relations subfield known as “Hormuz Mining Studies,” there are yet (pdf) more analyses readily available. Many of these analyses, however, are careful to note that Iran would suffer serious economic consequences from shutting the strait down, and analysts tend to agree that an Iranian mining campaign would be an operation of last resort.
The Middle East is rightly seen as a center of global energy supplies and production, hosting several of the world’s top petroleum and natural gas giants. But, as it turns out, oil and gas—so vital to the world’s transportation and electricity—are not evenly spread around the region, and some nations are truly energy poor. With this in mind, I present the top 5 most energy-poor Middle Eastern nations. It’s important to keep in mind that lists like this are a snapshot in time, and the facts and figures themselves are fluid and dynamic. Lebanon may strike a huge oil field in next three months (not terribly likely), or Yemen’s oil may run out in 2017 (very likely, as pointed out by my CNAS colleagues [pdf]). While I consider these the top five, they are not ranked in any particular order.
Today we’re starting a semi-regular series called “Top 5.” You may be asking “Top 5 what?” We will be periodically examining some general background of the larger issues we analyze by looking at major characteristics of the things of which we speak. That might sound vague, but that’s because it is intended to be a flexible device. For example, we may take snapshots of the top 5 oil producers, top 5 reserve holders of certain minerals, top 5 provinces currently negotiating water treaties involving hydroelectric damming of Himalayan water sources, or anything else we think might be helpful to you and for our own research. And we of course welcome suggestions for top 5-style explorations that would provide useful background to any natural security topics.
With all this in mind, today I am examining the top 5 countries that export rare earth elements (REEs) to the United States. These elements—used in products ranging from catalytic converters (pdf) and mp3 players to precision-guided munitions (pdf)—are commonly grouped together because of their chemical similarities, but the name is confusing because they’re not particularly rare. I am choosing to use the term “rare earth elements” instead of “rare earth metals” or “rare earth minerals” because it is the preferred term of the National Academy of Sciences, which issued an excellent report in 2008 entitled Managing Materials for a Twenty-first Century Military. This report notes two different series of elements are often included under the banner of REEs: the lanthanide series (atomic numbers 57 to 71) and the actinide series (atomic numbers 89 to 103), along with individual elements scandium and yttrium. But not all sources (pdf) include the actinide series when talking about REEs. We will keep our focus away from the actinide series for the sake of this post, since the actinides include the radioactive elements, and radioactivity raises special complications.