The world's worst ongoing ecological disasters.

The world's worst ongoing ecological disasters.

The world's worst ongoing ecological disasters.

Global politics, economics, and ideas.
July 20 2010 2:46 PM

The World's Worst Ecological Disasters

Stopping the BP oil leak looks easy compared with these ongoing catastrophes.

While it's probably still too soon to celebrate, BP appears to finally be getting the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico under control. But many of the world's greatest environmental catastrophes continue, with no end in sight. Foreign Policy looks at the top five.

Aral Sea.
Landlocked ships in Kazakhstan where the Aral Sea used to be
Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.

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Oil spills
Going since: Around 1966

Oil spil in the Niger River Delta.
Spilled oil in the Niger River Delta

Damage done: The Deepwater Horizon incident may have been the worst oil spill in U.S. history, but it pales in comparison to the ongoing catastrophe that has afflicted Nigeria's Niger River Delta over the last five decades. As many as 546 million gallons of oil are believed to have spilled since oil exploration began in this region—the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year.

There are around 2,000 official spill sites in the region, some of them decades old.
Oil companies operating in the region blame thieves and sabotage for the majority of the spills, though local activists say aging equipment and lax safety are the cause of many of them. The number of severity of the spills may actually increase in coming years as the industry moves into more remote and difficult terrain in the delta.

It's not just the spilled oil that can be dangerous. Pipeline explosions, like in the one that killed more than 100 people outside Lagos in 2008, are increasingly frequent as well.

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Coal fires
Going since: 1962

Coal fires in China.
A Chinese worker feeds a coal-fired engine

Damage done: China's recent industrial growth depends heavily on coal—the source of 70 percent of the country's energy—a major reason why it recently became the world's largest carbon emitter. The country's mining sector is also extremely dangerous, killing as many as 13 miners every day. But nowhere is the danger of China's out-of-control coal addiction more evident than in the 62 raging underground coal fires that have burned in Inner Mongolia since the early 1960s.

Covering an area more than 3,000 miles long, China's northern coal fires are estimated to destroy as many as 20 million tons of coal per year, more than the entire annual production of Germany. According to some estimates, these fires could be the cause of up to 2 to 3 percent of the world's carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. A new initiative by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region aims to put half the fires out by 2012.

Inner Mongolia's coal fires may be the most severe, but they are hardly unique. An underground fire in Centralia, Pa., begun the same year as many of China's, is also still burning.

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