Plans by upstream African nations to take more water from the Nile River could force Egyptians to rethink how they use water – an increasingly precious resource in a country with a rapidly growing population.
Egypt’s 85 million people are almost entirely dependent on the Nile for water. A 1959 water-sharing agreement between Egypt and Sudan gives Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water a year. But now countries that share the Nile River Basin are demanding a revision of the colonial-era agreement that allots the bulk of the river’s water to Egypt and Sudan and allows Cairo to veto upstream projects. Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – six of the nine countries through which the Nile runs – signed an agreement last year that seeks to allow irrigation and hydroelectric projects to go ahead without Cairo’s consent.
Ethiopia is planning a series of hydroelectric dams along the Nile. In March, it announced plans for a $4.8 billion “Grand Renaissance Dam” that would the largest hydroelectric project in Africa. Ethiopia’s dam plans would reduce Egypt’s current share by five billion cubic meters annually, says Haytham Awad, an irrigation-engineering professor at Alexandria University.
Egypt is already facing a shortfall of 10-15 billion cubic meters annually, says Maghawri Shehata, an adviser to Egypt’s water resources minister. Protests over water shortages in Egypt are nothing new, especially in the hottest summer months. Increasing population and rising temperatures are making matters worse. In October, a 16-year-old farmer was killed in a fight over water in the southern governorate of Aswan. For farmers like Hamdy Abuleinin, who was able to irrigate his 2.1 hectares of rice only after an argument over water with his neighbors, this year has been difficult. “Finding water for irrigation is becoming a daily worry for farmers here,” he says.
Around 85 percent of Egypt’s water is used in agriculture, but much simply leaks away. It loses two billion cubic meters of water to evaporation, and three billion cubic meters to grass growing on the banks of the Nile and on river islands, reports Fathi Farag, an independent water expert. Around 40 percent of the water used domestically and by industry (2.3 billion cubic meters) is lost to leaking pipes.
“If you calculate all this amount of lost water, you will discover that Egyptians are left with a fraction of what their country receives every year from the Nile,” Farag says. “This can also show why we should start to worry.”
—IRIN, 10/26; Reuters, 10/27
What’s this? Did the military-backed, government of Burma (Myanmar) respond to its citizens’ demands? In September, after a series of public protests, Burmese President Thein Sein suspended the proposed $3.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River. “Being the government elected by the people, it upholds the aspiration and wishes of the people,” Sein said in a statement ordering a halt to construction at the site.
The Myitsone project would have been the first to span the Irrawaddy, Burma’s largest river, and was a showcase project for the country’s previous military government. The president’s stop-work order is a victory for dissidents in a country with a long history of stifling opposition. Elected in 2010, Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government is filled with former generals of the military junta that ruled the country with an iron hand for the last half-century. It has faced continued criticism for ignoring public opinion. But it seems the new administration may be seeking to turn over a new leaf. “Suspending work on the dam would be the best sign so far that the new government is serious about taking popular concerns into account,” Burmese author Thant Myint-U says.
The Myitsone mega-dam is among seven dam projects planned on the Irrawaddy by China Power Investment Corporation, a state-run company. Up to 90 percent of the electricity produced by these dams will be exported to China. And as a senior official of Burma’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce pointed out: “Since the Chinese bring thousands of workers, including manual laborers, their projects do not benefit local people much.”
In developing the Myitsone dam, China Power Investment disregarded its own environmental impact report, which recommended two smaller dams instead of one. “There is no need for such a big dam,” a leaked copy of the report said. The project struck a nerve with the Burmese public because the area it would submerge – slightly larger than Singapore – contains irreplaceable biodiversity and many important cultural sites and would displace more than 10,000 people. “The Irrawaddy is the Burmese people’s heritage, lifeline and civilization,” says Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a pro-democracy newsmagazine. “Everyone feels attached to it.”
It’s uncertain whether construction will remain suspended for long. Ties between China and Burma run deep and both sides are invested in maintaining friendly relations. For Burma, long-burdened by Western countries’ economic sanctions for human rights abuses, China is its most important diplomatic and economic ally. And for China, Burma provides access to the Indian Ocean for its landlocked southwestern provinces. China is building gas and oil pipelines across Burma to avoid the Malacca Strait choke point.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that despite Thein Sein’s suspension order, work has not stopped on a road linking the Myitsone dam site to the Chinese border and Chinese construction crews remain at the dam site.
—BBC, 9/30; The New York Times, 10/01; The Irrawaddy, 10/17; Reuters, 10/5
Melting Himalayan glaciers and increasing crop losses due to climate change are threatening the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan – the tiny mountain kingdom in Asia that holds its citizens’ happiness sacrosanct.
Hydropower is a major economic driver in Bhutan, which sells electricity to neighboring India. Now the industry is threatened by serious water shortages as the country’s glaciers melt at a higher rate than those in other mountain ranges, according to Bhutan’s latest National Human Development Report.
Depleted glaciers will leave little water for Bhutanese hydropower, and as they melt huge amounts of water will be released that could result in devastating floods, says the report by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Secretariat and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Meanwhile, erratic weather patterns and temperature and humidity changes have resulted in a dramatic rise in pest and disease outbreaks in many crops, raising worries about domestic food production. The country’s latest crop losses were in May and June 2011 when a dry spell in Pemagatshel, one of Bhutan’s poorest districts, destroyed hundreds of acres of corn – a staple in this least-developed nation. Bhutan’s Agriculture Department Director Chencho Norbu says the country urgently needs drought-resistant varieties of rice and corn.
The national development report recommends that Bhutan increase its resilience to climate change by integrating climate policies into national poverty-reduction strategies and development plans. One quarter of Bhutan’s population lives in poverty, dependent on subsistence farming and local natural resources that are now under threat. The country needs of a big influx of climate change mitigation and adaptation funding to cope with these threats. “Resources are needed quickly given the long-term nature of adaptation initiatives and the short-term prospect of climate-related consequences,” says UNDP Assistant Administrator Ajay Chibber. “The financing requirements for climate change adaptation and mitigation are considerable for a landlocked, least developed country such as Bhutan.”
Bhutan is the only country in the world that measures its well-being by how happy its people are instead of by how much money the nation is making. With this goal in mind, the country has prioritized conservation of the environment and made a commitment to remain carbon neutral. More than 70 percent of Bhutan is covered with forests, and with an export ban on unprocessed timber it has been able to maintain itself as a net absorber of greenhouse gases.
Unfortunately, Bhutan’s efforts can’t hold back the consequences of changes in our climate that are already occurring. But the nation seems to be accepting this unhappy news with its customary grace. Pema Gyamtsho, Bhutan’s minister of agriculture and forests, had this to say when the report was released: “Alternative development pathways, such as Gross National Happiness that we are promulgating, will influence the capacity of communities … to adapt to climate change.”
—Environmental News Service, 9/9; Science and Development Network, 9/9
For centuries, sailors and explorers searched futilely for the Northwest Passage – a hoped for sea-lane that would allow ships to go northward between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Now, thanks to global warming, the dream of a northern shortcut might come true. Diminishing levels of summer ice in the Arctic have opened up new passages between Pacific and Atlantic waters across the top of the Americas, and whales are leading the exploratory efforts.
Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen and colleagues from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources recently observed a rendezvous between two satellite-tagged bowhead whales in the waters north of the Canadian mainland. The whales, one from the Alaska side and one from the Greenland side, spent 10 days in the same area before heading back to their respective home ranges.
In the past four summers, the ice has receded enough for the whales to find their way through, Heide-Jorgensen says. Scientists predict the Arctic may see ice-free summers within a decade.
Whales aren’t the only ones interested in charting new routes across the Arctic. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has announced a wave of state and private investment in expanding shipping operations along the Northern Sea Route, formerly known as the Northeast Passage, which goes from the North Sea to the Bering Strait. High energy prices are helping spur interest in the Northern Sea Route, which trims 4,000 nautical miles off the southern alternative via the Suez Canal.
“I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security, and quality,” Putin said at the International Arctic Forum in September. “States and private companies who choose the Arctic trade routes will undoubtedly reap economic advantages.” Putin says Russia will invest $1.2 billion to expand its fleet of atomic-powered icebreakers to clear the path for ships crossing the Arctic.
The receding ice has also made oil prospecting in the region more feasible. How’s that for a feedback loop? A new joint venture between Exxon and the Russian national oil company Rosneft might see up to $500 billion invested by each side. Soon, cruise ships and private vessels may also become more common sightings in the Northwest and Northeast Passages. For the time being, these northern routes have the distinct advantage of being pirate-free. But as ship traffic increases in these uncharted waters, that may be the next thing to change.
—Reuters, 9/22; RedOrbit, 9/22; The New York Times, 8/31
European scientists working to stem the spread of malaria have come up with a unique solution – breeding mosquitoes that shoot blanks.
Researchers in the United Kingdom and Italy have been able to genetically modify male Anopheles mosquitoes so that they can’t produce sperm. The bugs can still produce seminal fluid, so mating rituals go on per usual, but the fruit of the coupling are sterile eggs that don’t hatch. The researchers’ findings were published in a recent issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“If mosquitoes [don’t] produce any progeny… the number of mosquitoes in the wild will be reduced, eventually reducing the chances of malaria transmission,” says entomologist Flaminia Catteruccia, of the Imperial College in London, who coauthored the study.
photo Enrique Dans
Female mosquitoes mate only once in their lives and store their mates’ sperm, using it to fertilize their entire life’s worth of eggs. If scientists can trick them into thinking that they have successfully mated, they will continue to lay their eggs without knowing that they have not been fertilized.
Of course, genetically manipulating bugs raises troubling questions about meddling with biological processes and the potential negative impacts on surrounding ecosystems, especially insects and animals that rely on mosquitoes for food. Scientists working on these various methods hope they will help reduce disease rates without causing harm to the environment. Or at least that they will cause less harm than insecticides.
Though there are thousands of mosquito species, only a handful of them can transmit malaria, Catteruccia says. So targeting specific species – such as Anopheles gambiae, the world’s most efficient malaria vector – has the potential to reduce the spread of disease and is less likely to negatively impact local ecosystems, she says.
Malaria kills around one million people worldwide every year. In Africa alone the disease accounts for 20 percent of all childhood deaths. The disease is hard to treat in many parts of the world where the parasites have developed resistance to most malaria drugs. The only prevention methods are to control mosquito populations through eliminating breeding sites, spraying or “fogging” outdoor areas with insecticide, and using mosquito nets. None of these methods are 100 percent effective. Insecticide use, especially, has limited efficacy and can be environmentally damaging.
Scientists have been experimenting with a number of mosquito-modifying techniques in the hope of limiting the bugs’ population and disease-transmission capabilities.
In 2009, Australian researchers used a modified bacteria to cut the lifespan of mosquitoes in half. Other mosquito-limiting tactics have included modifying males to be unable to fly (and that have offspring that also cannot fly), injecting mosquitoes with bacteria that makes their offspring dengue-free, and genetically altering them so that they pass on a lethal gene to their offspring that kills them before they reach adulthood. Most of these techniques are still in various stages of testing.
—BBC News, 8/8; ABC News, 8/9, daily mail, 10/31
Bayer CropScience, one of the world’s top manufacturers of pesticides, has said it will phase out its most deadly chemicals by the end of 2012 as part of its “ongoing portfolio optimization efforts.” In other words, the company seems to have finally realized that selling dangerous poisons isn’t the best business model.
Environmental groups applauded the move, though some expressed dismay that it had taken Bayer so long to pull its most deadly brands. In 1995, Bayer’s Annual Report promised it would replace its most toxic pesticides with products of “lower toxicity” within five years. But then 2000 came and went, and Bayer was still selling many products that fell within the World Health Organization’s Class I products – the most toxic on the market.
“This is an important success for environmental organizations all over the world who have fought against these deadly pesticides for decades,” says Philipp Mimkes from the Dusseldorf-based Coalition Against Bayer Dangers. “But we must not forget that Bayer broke its original promise to withdraw all Class I products by the year 2000. Many lives could have been saved.”
Bayer executives say that over the next year they will work with national governments and farmer customers to replace chemicals in the Class I category with more modern and “environmentally friendly” pesticides. Bayer says the move is part of its broader “commitment to sustainable agriculture and global food security.” The company produces about 20 percent of pesticides sold around the world.
The World Health Organization estimates that every year at least 3 million people – and as many as 25 million people – are poisoned by pesticides, and at least 40,000 people are accidentally killed by them.
Bayer still plans to sell products that are in the WHO’s Class Ia, which means “extremely hazardous,” and Class Ib, which means “highly hazardous.” Environmentalists are now pushing Bayer to stop manufacturing the broad-spectrum herbicide glufosinate. “We welcome this long overdue move from Bayer,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture in India. “We have ample evidence to prove that we don’t need hazardous pesticides in our farming. Non-pesticidal management of crops is fast spreading in different parts of India and data shows that the incomes of farmers improve when they eliminate pesticides from their agriculture.”
When Monsanto unveiled its chemical weed-killer Roundup in 1974, it was hailed as a “once-in-a-century herbicide”: a product that could take out a broad range of weeds while also posing little acute toxicity threat to humans and other animals. Then, in the 1990s, the St. Louis-based chemical and seed company introduced strains of genetically modified crops that could withstand dousings of the chemical. “Roundup Ready” GM crops have been a bonanza for Monsanto. Today, 94 percent of the soybeans planted in the US, 73 percent of the cotton, and 72 percent of the corn were developed in Monsanto labs. The company earns about $11 billion a year selling the world’s most used herbicide.
Now the rest of us are reaping the consequences of Monsanto’s good fortune. A recent study by the US Geological Office has found significant levels of Roundup in the air and waterways in two US farm states – Iowa and Mississippi. According to USGS researcher Paul Capel, glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) was detected in every stream sample taken in Mississippi over a two-year period and in most of the air samples taken. “It is out there in significant levels; it is out there consistently,” Capel says. “So people are exposed to it through the air.”
Use of the herbicide has skyrocketed in recent decades due mostly to the popularity of Roundup Ready GM crops. The USGS says that more than 88,000 tons of glyphosate were applied in the United States in 2007, up from 11,000 tons in 1992. Yet there has been very little testing done on the presence of the chemical in the environment because detecting glyphosate is difficult and costly. “It is used so heavily and studied so little,” Capel says.
The chemical concentrations found by Capel are pretty small. But there are still fears that chronic exposure to glyphosate could result in harm to the environment and public health. Some studies have shown that glyphosate can cause birth defects in certain test animals when administered at high doses over prolonged periods. Warren Porter, a professor of environmental toxicity at University of Wisconsin, took the numbers from the USGS survey and concluded that persistent exposure could alter endocrine pathways, leading to obesity, heart problems, and diabetes. “No one has explored whether Roundup has epigenetic impacts which alter gene expression, possibly for a lifetime,” Porter says.
The new study on the occurrences of Roundup in the environment comes just as some farmers are beginning to complain that they are finding more “superweeds” that have developed a resistance to glyphosate. The unrelenting use of Roundup has led to the evolution of at least 11 weed species, in 26 states, that are resistant to glyphosate spraying. Roundup resistant weeds have invaded 14 million acres of US cropland, a number that is expected to double by 2015. The emergence of superweeds confirms the warnings environmentalists have made about chemical herbicides for years. “Now that it has kind of blown up, it’s like, ‘We told you so,’” says William G. Johnson, a weed scientist at Purdue University.
Which seems to leave us in the worst of all scenarios: surrounded by a potentially dangerous chemical that doesn’t even work as intended.
—Reuters, 9/1; Bloomberg Businessweek, 9/8
In the last couple of years environmentalists and others have blamed the natural gas rush for a rash of problems. The process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has created flammable well water, caused chemicals spills, and has contributed to minor earthquakes. Now some communities are complaining of another downside to fracking: the air and water pollution and public health risks caused by the immense amounts of sand mining needed to keep gas drillers equipped with sand.
Hydraulic fracturing works by taking sand, water, and a stew of chemicals (many of which haven’t been publicly disclosed by the gas companies) and blasting the mix into the ground to get at seams of methane. The natural gas boom that has overtaken communities from the dairy fields of New York to the scrublands of West Texas has also led to a kind of industrial sand rush. According to the US Geological Survey, the amount of industrial sand used in fracking operations quadrupled from 2000 to 2009, to 6.5 million metric tons. Government officials expect that number to have doubled in 2010, though final figures aren’t yet available.
Of course, all that sand has to come from somewhere – and some of the communities where it comes from aren’t so happy about that fact. In August, more than 500 residents from the town of Muenster, TX, (pop: 1,556) poured into a county meeting to comment on plans to expand a sand mine about 15 miles from town. “The majority of people who are concerned are the people that have property out there,” says Stan Endres, Muenster’s city manager.
Neighbors’ concerns center on the amount of dust that the sand mine will create, the increase in traffic, and the risk of water pollution. “There are air quality concerns, concerns about water quality, and worries about truck traffic and its effect on roads,” says Wylie Harris, a rancher whose property is less than a mile from the North Texas site where a company called EOG hopes to build a new mine.
Environmental advocates also warn about the public health threats that sand mines pose. “One of the big impacts is impact on air,” says Jessie Thomas-Blate of American Rivers. “Mining kicks up a lot of dust, and the people in the area can breathe in that dust.” If inhaled, crystalline silica, a core ingredient in so-called frac sand, is a potential carcinogen and can cause lung and other diseases.
Mining for frac sand involves removing the top layer of soil over a sandstone deposit and then using heavy equipment and large amounts of water to create especially fine grains. Thomas-Blate says that erosion caused by sand mining can fill local streams and rivers with sediment, reducing the oxygen that is needed by fish and plants.
Such risks are likely to persist for a while – at least as long as the natural gas boom continues. Energy analysts say there is a shortage of frac sand, and that has led to high prices for the material, spurring the construction of more sand mines.
“There’s a sand shortage in the US,” Mark Papa, CEO of the mining company EOG, told investors in September. “And those who have sand or have access to sand can pretty much charge what they want.”
Finally, some respite is here for threatened shark populations in the Pacific Ocean. The Republic of the Marshall Islands has established the world’s largest shark sanctuary. The Marshallese parliament unanimously passed legislation in October that bans commercial fishing of sharks in all 768,547 square miles of the island nation’s waters.
The move is crucial given that worldwide demand for shark fins, meat, liver oil, and other products has driven numerous shark populations toward extinction. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, nearly 30 percent of the world’s shark species are threatened, or near-threatened, with extinction. Some species, such as the white tip shark and the scalloped hammerhead shark, have lost 98 percent of their numbers to industrial fishing during the past 60 years.
The main driver for shark fishing is the huge demand for shark fin soup, which is a traditional Chinese delicacy. A bowl of shark fin soup can cost up to $100; a pound of shark fin can sell for more than $300. Up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the global shark fin trade, reports the Pew Environment Group, which is fostering efforts to establish shark sanctuaries. Shark-finning is a wasteful and cruel practice during which a shark’s fins are sliced off and the remainder of the animal is thrown back into the sea. Without fins, sharks bleed to death, drown, or are eaten by other species.
Because they grow slowly, come to maturity late in life, and produce few offspring, sharks are vulnerable to overfishing and populations are slow to recover once depleted. Removing sharks from ocean ecosystems can destabilize the ocean food web and lead to declines in other species, including commercially caught fish and shellfish species.
The Marshall Islands’ new law imposes a prohibition on the commercial fishing of all species of sharks as well as the sale of any sharks or shark products. Under the law, any shark caught accidentally by fishing vessels must be released. The law stipulates large monetary fines, anywhere between $25,000 and $200,000, for anyone who is found fishing for sharks or in possession of shark fins.
Efforts to protect sharks have been gathering strength across the world. Several other nations have declared shark sanctuaries, including Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, and Tokelau. Chile has banned the landing of sharks whose fins are not attached “naturally” to the animal. Mexico has ordered a shark and ray fishing ban that’s slated to go into effect next year, and Colombia – where about 2,000 sharks were killed by poachers in a marine sanctuary near its coastline in October – is waiting to implement similar laws.
Shark-finning is banned in the US and shark fins cannot be imported into the country without the associated carcass. Several US states – including Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and, most recently, California – have banned the sale and possession of shark fins.
—ENS, 10/7; Fishing News, 10/21
It’s time we found an interplanetary version of “Iron Eyes Cody,” the teary-eyed actor who made littering a social stigma through a 1970s television commercial campaign. Buzz Aldrin, maybe? Or Neil Armstrong? Because the problem of space litter is getting out of control. According to a new report by the National Research Council, the amount of debris orbiting Earth has reached a “tipping point” and threatens to cause collisions in outer space.
For years NASA and other space agencies have warned about the growing amount of clutter in Earth’s orbit – spent rocket bodies, discarded satellites, and thousands of other pieces of junk, all hurtling around the planet at up to 17,500 miles per hour. The problem is getting worse. The number of orbital debris items tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network grew from 9,949 in December 2006 to 16,094 in July 2011. About 20 percent of the increase came from a 2007 episode during which China blew up a defunct weather satellite as part of an anti-satellite missile test. Thousands of new pieces of space junk were created in 2009 when a working Iridium communications satellite smashed into an out-of-commission Russian satellite.
As the amount of space junk increases, so do the chances that similar collisions will occur, jeopardizing the approximately 1,000 operational satellites orbiting the planet, as well as the International Space Station and space missions. “The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts,” says Donald Kessler, a former NASA staffer and chair of the study team.
Resolving the problem is going to be difficult. International rules governing space prohibit nations from salvaging or otherwise collecting other nations’ space objects. There are few mechanisms to do so, anyway. The most plausible proposal involves deploying sails on satellites and rockets that would unfurl at the end of missions and drag the spacecraft out of orbit. But that would only resolve the issue of future space debris and do nothing to address all the junk already up there.
The problem of space debris, according to a National Research Council report, “is similar to a host of other environmental problems and public concerns characterized by possibly significant differences between the short- and long-run damage accruing to society.” The report cites greenhouse gas emissions as an example.
That comparison is a little too precise. All of the extra CO2 in the atmosphere has cooled down the thermosphere and, combined with low levels of solar activity, has shrunk the atmosphere. That’s lowering the drag on orbital objects that normally pulls debris from the sky, leaving leftover materials in space longer.
So it turns out the junk down here is worsening the problem of the junk up there in the stars. It’s enough to make one tear up.
—BBC 9/2; Reuters, 9/7
Following a crackdown on protesters that deeply embarrassed the administration of President Evo Morales, the Bolivian government has abandoned plans to build a road through an Indigenous reserve in the Amazon.
Protesters marched 310 miles from the Amazon to La Paz in September to show their opposition to the road, which they said would destroy vast areas of rainforest and open their land to illegal settlers. The peaceful march turned violent when riot police attacked protesters about halfway to La Paz.
The crackdown from an administration that has long linked itself to environmentalism, the poor, and Indigenous rights (Morales himself is Aymara), led several top government officials to resign in solidarity with the protesters. It also led Morales to ask for “forgiveness” from the Bolivian public for the police response, although he denied giving any order for police to break up the march. Following the public backlash, Morales initially stated the road would be put on hold and offered talks with the protesters. Then, in October, he announced the road would not go through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park.
The road would have been funded and built by Brazil, which is eager for another east-west route across South America. Critics of the road had charged it would have done little to help ordinary Bolivians, but Morales argued it would bring additional infrastructure and economic development to the country.
Indigenous people in the reserve said they had not been consulted on the road project and feared encroachment by settlers if the road was built. In the Amazon, roads often bring deforestation.
This is the second time in less than a year that Morales has backtracked under popular pressure. The last time, just after Christmas 2010, he was dubbed the “Gasolinazo” when he tried to almost double petroleum prices. Back then, like this time, he said he was “governing by obeying the people.”
—Mongabay, 10/23; BBC, 10/21
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