Water and Oceans
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Water and irrigation sustainability
Bruce Lankford, University of East Anglia, UK
A significant fraction of the water depleted in river basins in arid and semi-arid river basins around the world is accounted for by irrigation. This leads to various problems, including a depletion of water (with consequent fears for irrigated food production) plus difficulties in allocating scarce water to other sectors such as growing towns and cities. It seems logical that in order to address the sustainability of ‘water’ in these river basins, irrigation should be included in that challenge and calculus. Yet surprisingly, on some criteria, this is not the case. Moreover, where irrigation is being addressed, this is by a piecemeal approach that may not resolve both complications in irrigation or for water in the wider basin. How then might irrigation be the pathway to addressing the sustainability of water, and what benefits could we expect from a new approach?
The pivotal position of irrigation in food and water
Some of the contributions and impacts of irrigation on water and food are briefly listed here:
- The global area of 300 million hectares of irrigation evaporates about 6‒8 km3 per day of water globally (withdrawals for urban and domestic use are approximately a tenth of this.) The presence of irrigation depletes about 70‒80% of freshwater in most semi-arid and arid river basins (CAWMA, 2007). Moreover, about 85‒90% of this area is under gravity (canal) irrigation rather than pressurised technology such as sprinkler and drip. From these few indicators, we can see why irrigation places stress on tropical or sub-tropical river basins more than climate change, and why uneven consumption within river basins can be a source of water conflict. Temporary or long-term water shortages concern many communities and countries that share rivers: from the local scale, where irrigators attempt to close down neighbouring irrigation intakes, to the national scale where countries that share the Nile Basin attempt to table discussions on new volumetric apportionments.
- Rice, a key carbohydrate, is vital to world food security and is grown under some form of field water control (a mix of irrigation and levelled and drained water from rainfall). Just six highly populous nations (China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Philippines) that commonly eat rice daily account for nearly half the world’s population. Adding together the top 20 populous nations that eat rice, we arrive at about 60% of the global population.
- Irrigated agriculture provides about 40 per cent of the world’s food (Schultz et al., 2005). Other key foodstuffs include fruit and vegetables and increasing amounts of meat via irrigated pasture.
- Furthermore, irrigation is believed to ‘waste’ significant amounts of water that might otherwise be used to extend agricultural lands or be allocated to other uses – for example, wetlands and other environmental flows. Although there are significant misunderstandings about the science of water waste and savings (often ‘waste’ water is not ‘lost’ as it is collected for downstream use – see Lankford, 2013), most scientists agree that productivity can be significantly boosted by using water in a more careful and timely manner (Molden et al., 2010; Lankford, 2012).
Sustainability dimensions of water and irrigation
The sustainability of water and irrigation (as a combined endeavour) can be thought of in various ways:
- Supply and demand sufficiency: The viability of irrigation is at stake where water withdrawals are depleting groundwater stocks, such as found in parts of India.
- Water allocation scarcity: High irrigation water consumption can bring water shortages to other sectors, such as urban and industrial demand.
- Social sustainability: Within irrigation systems, farmers often struggle to come together to manage water collectively; water user associations don’t function as well as they might.
- Agricultural and food sustainability: Poor timing and predictability of water in irrigation systems reduce yields and often undermine a more careful programming of fertiliser, labour and soil management.
- Economic sustainability: The costs of irrigation construction and rehabilitation are often eye-wateringly expensive, at over 10,000 USD per hectare (Inocencio et al., 2007). This applies to nearly all forms of irrigation interventions (including micro-systems) once total project costs are included.
- Environmental sustainability: Within irrigation systems, difficulties in controlling soil salinity result in land lost to salinisation (as observed for example in the Lower Indus Basin and the Murray Darling Basin). External to irrigation, excessive depletion, particularly at the wrong time of year, can lead to shortfalls in environmental and ecological river flows.
- Energy sustainability: To reduce the energy requirements of irrigation and associated carbon emissions, a continuing emphasis on gravity systems rather than pressurised systems is required.
By not addressing these sustainability dimensions, we end up with many irrigation systems not performing across a range of sustainability criteria.
Ways forward: new interventions
If we accept that irrigation is complex and challenging, it is not surprising that a comprehensive policy framework should be considered. Its aim would be cautious and careful water management nested at all levels of river catchments, giving farmers a more predictable and timely supply of water against which they may also invest in seeds and fertilisers to raise yields. While many aspects of a new approach to irrigation and water sustainability could be described, key elements are:
- New postgraduate qualifications in irrigation systems management.
- New financial support for the scientific organisations involved in irrigation, e.g. International Water Management Institution (IWMI) and International Commission for Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), at global, regional and UK levels, including investments in research programmes.
- Support programmes that emphasise gravity/canal systems, constituting 85‒90 per cent of all global irrigation by area.
- Projects and programmes that promulgate ownership of systems by their users yet in close partnership with service and science providers (see next point).
- The fostering of non-governmental organisations (an irrigation equivalent of WaterAid) and of commercial stewardship of irrigation systems.
- On-going institutional reform of government irrigation bureaucracies to orient them towards service provision to water users, setting out professional expectations of government engineers.
- Success will be defined by widespread performance improvements at a cost of less than US$5,000/per hectare.
ConclusionsGiven the scale of the contribution of irrigation, its nature and its impact on surrounding areas and water supplies, society can demand that irrigation should perform better; to produce more food with less water. Yet there are worrying institutional and technological gaps that threaten to destabilise the sustainability of water and irrigation. By the two measures of postgraduate teaching and relevant research programmes on irrigation, global science has lost nearly all capacity to offer expertise in contemporary irrigation science and management – the kind of knowledge that would aim, not to develop new lands, but to sustainably and cost-effectively rehabilitate existing systems. The fruits of this work would be considerable – enhanced water security and performance; increased food production; reduced carbon emissions, and opportunities to allocate water to other sectors including the environment.
 Calculations via World Bank statistics for population. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL
CAWMA (Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture). 2007. Water for Food, Water for Life: A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. London: Earthscan, and Colombo: International Water Management Institute.
Inocencio, A., Kikuchi, M., Tonosaki, M., Maruyama, A., Merrey, D., Sally, H. and de Jong, I. 2007. ‘Costs and performance of irrigation projects: A comparison of sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.’ IWMI Research Report 109, p. 81. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute.
Lankford, B.A. 2013. Resource Efficiency Complexity and the Commons: The Paracommons and Paradoxes of Natural Resource Losses, Wastes and Wastages. Abingdon: Earthscan.
Lankford B.A. 2012. ‘Fictions, fractions, factorials, fractures and fractals: on the framing of irrigation efficiency.’ Journal of Agricultural Water Management 108, 27–38.
Molden, D., Oweis, T., Steduto, P., Bindraban, P., Hanjra, M.A., Kijne, J. 2010. ‘Improving agricultural water productivity: Between optimism and caution.’ Agricultural Water Management 97, 528‒535.
Schultz, B., Thatte, C.D. and Labhsetwar, V.K. 2005. ‘Irrigation and drainage: main contributors to global food production.’ Irrigation and Drainage 54, 263–278.
Case Study: New Life for Ocean Trash
Vast swarms of plastic trash collect in the world’s oceans. According to a United Nations report, about 10 percent of that trash consists of abandoned fishing gear: gillnets, traps, lines, and net fragments (Macfadyen, Huntington, and Cappell 2009). Marine creatures become entangled in discarded lines and trawl nets, while gillnets and traps result in what is known as “ghost fishing,” trapping and killing fish, sea turtles, birds, and dolphins. Abandoned gear alters the seafloor environment and destroys habitat, killing more creatures.
The cause is not only industrial fish harvesting. In many poor coastal regions, fishers struggle just to survive, eking out a living by fishing with no incentive to dispose of worn-out fishing gear properly. These subsistence fishers leave behind thousands of miles of fishing nets every year (Witkin 2012). Meanwhile Interface, the global carpet manufacturer with a sustainability-driven vision, needs plastic to manufacture its carpet tiles.
Interface and the Zoological Society of London, a conservation group, formed a partnership called Net-Works to address these environmental, economic, and social problems. They launched a pilot program in the fishing communities along Danajon Bank in the Philippines, a richly diverse and ecologically fragile area of coral barrier reefs. Through this program, local people collect, clean, and bale old fishing nets, which they sell to Net-Works. The money they generate is used to finance economic development programs in their villages. The nylon fishing nets are processed by Aquafil, a nylon producer who uses fishing nets, carpet scraps, and industrial waste to make its Econyl nylon-6 using no virgin nylon (Davis 2013). These nylon fibers are made into new carpet fiber. It is a triple-bottom-line solution within a closed-loop cycle of a technical nutrient.When used carpet tiles are recycled, nylon that can be separated from the backing material, known in the trade as “fluff,” can be reprocessed into nylon-6 and used again as carpet fiber (Davis 2013). Unlike most recycling processes, this is true recycling, not downcycling. According to the manufacturer Aquafil, nylon-6 can be reprocessed and reused indefinitely, with the same technical material properties (Aquafil Group). Some of the nylon fiber in carpet tiles remains bound with the backing material. This material, too, can be processed, but because of the backing material cannot become nylon-6, so this portion is an example of downcycling.
Net-Works performed life cycle assessments of this supply chain to determine whether shipping the nylon materials from the Philippines to Europe for processing, and then shipping the finished yarn from Europe to plants in North America or Asia, would generate enough greenhouse gas emissions to cancel out any environmental benefits. Their analysis showed that in spite of the transport, using recycled nylon from the Philippines still has 56 percent less climate impact than using virgin nylon (Davis 2013).
In other parts of the world, various groups are working to collect other marine plastic debris. Waste Free Oceans in Europe, led by the European Plastics Converters, and Upcycle the Gyres, a nonprofit organization in British Columbia, are developing what Upcycle the Gyres calls “marine plastic mining” technology, collecting floating plastic pieces and researching methods for reprocessing. In Hawaii, a partnership between Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, Kahuku Hawai’i Foundation, and plastic manufacturers Method and Envision Plastics is using debris found on Hawaiian beaches to develop a mixed-plastic resin that is being used to make dark gray “Ocean Plastic” bottles from resin numbers 2, 4, and 5 (Lawson 2012).
The declining health of the oceans is telling us that it is past time to stop producing and consuming plastic, at least in the ways we have been doing. But efforts like Net-Works and Waste Free Oceans are valuable first steps in cleaning up the messes we have made.
Aquafil Group. “The ECONYL Regeneration System.” http://www.aquafilusa.com/index.php/econyl-regeneration-system Accessed October 2, 2013.
Davis, Mikhail. “How Net-Works Fishes for a Triple Bottom Line.” GreenBiz.com, July 19, 2013. http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/07/19/how-net-works-fishes-triple-bottom-line
Interface Net-Works program. http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Products/NetWorks.aspx
Lawson, Drummond. “Commercializing the Rising Tide of Ocean Plastic.” GreenBiz.com, August 23, 2012. http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/08/23/commercializing-rising-tide-ocean-plastic
Macfadyen, Graeme, Tim Huntington, and Rod Cappell. “Abandoned, Lost or Otherwise Discarded Fishing Gear.” FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 523; UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies No. 185. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2009.
Witkin, Jim. “A Second Life for Discarded Fishing Nets.” New York Times, June 15, 2012.
Zoological Society of London. “Old Fishing Nets Make New Carpets.” June 8, 2012. http://www.zsl.org/conservation/news/old-fishing-nets-make-new-carpets,964,NS.html
Case Study: Bishan Park Kallang River Restoration
The Kallang River, the longest river in Singapore, carries water from one reservoir at the center of the island to another on the coast. As part of a flood control project typical of the 1960s and 1970s it was forced into a straight concrete drainage canal that flowed through Bishan Park and blocks of high-rise housing projects, or estates, cutting off neighborhoods from each other and from the park.
Bishan Park Kallang River Restoration, completed in 2011, freed the river from its concrete restraints and transformed it into a dynamic natural stream system. The river now meanders through the park; a natural riverbed with rocks, pools, and riffles slows the velocity of the water, allowing it to be cleansed by communities of plants and organisms and reducing the amount of sediment that accumulates in the reservoir downstream. The 153-acre park surrounding the river is once again the river’s floodplain, absorbing and conveying 40 percent more floodwater during heavy rains than the old concrete canal could handle (Hattam 2012). During dry weather, people living in the surrounding estates come down to the river, where gently sloping riverbanks form part of the park features. Bridges and people-friendly river crossings made of large stones connect formerly separated neighborhoods. Biological processes cleanse the water; residents often sit on boulders in the water or wade barefoot on the pebbled streambed, dangling their fingers in the water and squatting down to examine creatures living there. The park also includes a water playground, two other new playgrounds, and a community garden. Pieces of concrete removed from the old concrete channel have been recycled and used to build a look-out point known as “Recycle Hill.” Urban rivers help to reduce the heat island effect when they are not packaged in concrete (Hathway and Moore, 2011) and the Kallang River restoration cools an area of the dense city well beyond its banks (Hattam 2012).
Reed beds, flowering plants, trees, shrubs, and the varied topography of the river restoration have created a variety of microhabitats, and even though no wildlife was introduced, biodiversity in the park increased by 30 percent during the first two years (Atelier Dreiseitl 2012). Fish swim in the river. 59 species of birds, 22 species of dragonflies, and 66 species of wildflowers have been identified there (ibid.). Singapore is in the path of the Asian–Australasian Flyway (Holmes 2012), and some migratory birds are beginning to use the park for resting and even roosting.
Bishan Park has a local significance in Singapore similar to that of Central Park in New York City (Atelier Dreiseitl 2012). It is the result of a collaboration between the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Singapore’s water utility, and the National Parks Board, the first of many projects in the Republic of Singapore’s Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme, a long-term initiative to transform Singapore waters from simply drainage and water supply devices into elements of green infrastructure with places for recreation and building community. Bishan Park offers a vibrant example of what is possible in the midst of a dense city.
Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme. “Bringing Kallang River into Bishan Park.” Singapore: Public Utilities Board (PUB), 2009.
Atelier Dreiseitl. “Bishan Park and Kallang River,”1–9. Atelier Dreiseitl, March 16, 2012.
Fern, Yu Pei. “Bishan Park Reborn.” New York Times, March 11, 2012.
Hathway, Abigail and Sarah Moore. “Climate and the Opportunities to Use Sustainable Drainage Systems.” Sheffield, UK: Urban River Corridors and Sustainable Living Agendas Conference, November 18, 2011.
Hattam, Jennifer. “Urban River Restoration Transforms Singapore Park.” Treehugger, March 21, 2012.
Holmes, Damian. “Kallang River Bishan Park.” World Landscape Architecture, March 28, 2012.
Case Study: The Value of Wetlands
By Jane Turpie*
Wetlands are among the most threatened habitats globally, and in spite of a plethora of legislation to encourage their protection, they continue to be replaced or degraded by human activities. A major factor contributing to this is that their value is poorly understood. Although numerous studies exist that describe the functional values of wetlands, these tend to be for large wetland systems. Much less is understood about the role played by small wetlands at a local or regional scale. However, small wetlands can play a significant role in the improvement of water quality, and that the value of this service is high enough to warrant their protection.
Wetlands are widely understood to perform valuable functions such as flood attenuation, water purification and the provision of resources such as mangroves, reeds and fish. While it is relatively easy to describe the value of a single large wetland system, it has proven far more challenging to understand the value of small wetlands at a local scale. This requires a more accurate understanding of their capacity to deliver services and the demand for those services. Many valuation studies have been hampered by a lack of information, particularly regarding the ability of wetlands to ameliorate the quality of water passing into systems downstream.
The main water-quality constituents that wetlands influence include the loading and concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen nutrients, ammonia, and various heavy metals, as well as suspended solids and their load of sorbed compounds. As the flows of water in streams and rivers from land to ocean enter wetlands, they slow down, with the result that suspended sediments settle out of the water. Because many pollutants attach strongly to suspended matter, this process is also important for reducing these materials in downstream systems.
Water-quality amelioration functions of wetlands benefit both the ecology and human users in downstream systems. For example, preventing contamination of downstream areas may protect fisheries from harmful pollutants or reduce the impact on human health, such as from the extensive growth of algae or aquatic macrophytes in response to nutrient loading. Reduced sediment loads may reduce the frequency of dredging needed to prolong the lifespan of downstream impoundment.The cleaning power of small wetlands in the Cape
There are large numbers of small wetlands in the Fynbos Biome of the Western Cape, South Africa, but their function and value has hitherto been unknown. As a result, many of these wetlands have been degraded or lost due to farming practices and other land use changes. A study assessed the contribution of these wetlands to water quality across 100 subcatchment areas which differed in terms of land use and the proportional area of wetlands. The value of wetlands in the study area was estimated to be around USD 1913 ± 1651per hectare per year, with a total value of USD 43.7 million. These findings suggest that wetlands should be given considerably more attention in land use planning and regulation. If current trends are allowed to persist, then in-stream water quality problems already being experienced over much of South Africa will be exacerbated. Given the potentially high value of wetlands, particularly in stressed catchments, efforts should be made to regulate their protection, and where possible to incentivize this.
Barbier, E.B. 1993. Sustainable Use of Wetlands: Valuing Tropical Wetland Benefits—Economic Methodologies and Applications. The Geographical Journal 159: 22–32.
Batty, L.C., L. Atkin, and D.A.C. Manning. 2005. Assessment of the Ecological Potential of Mine-Water Treatment Wetlands Using a Baseline Survey of Macroinvertebrate Communities. Environmental Pollution 138: 412–19.
Bergstrom, J.C., and J.R. Stoll. 1993. Value Estimator Models for Wetlands-Based Recreational Use Values. Land Economics 69: 132–37.
Emerton, L., L. Iyango, P. Luwum, and A. Malinga. 1999. The Present Economic Value of Nakivubo Urban Wetland. Uganda. Kampala, Uganda: IUCN.
James, R.F. 1991. ―Wetland Valuation: Guidelines and Techniques.‖ PHPA/AWB Sumatra Wetland Project Report, no.31. Bogor Indonesia: Asian Wetland Bureau.
Jordan, T.E., D.F. Whigham, K.H. Hofmockel, and M.A. Pittek. 2003. Nutrient and Sediment Removal by a Restored Wetland Receiving Agricultural Runoff. Journal of Environmental Quality 32: 1534–47
Turpie, J.K., Day, E., Ross-Gillespie, V. & Louw, A. 2010 ―Estimation of the water quality amelioration value of wetlands: a case study of the Western Cape, South Africa‖ Working Paper Series, Environmental Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Pearce, D.W., and R.K. Turner. 1990. Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment. Hertfordshire, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Peltier, E.F., S.M. Webb, and J.-F. Gaillard. 2003. Zinc and Lead Sequestration in an Impacted Wetland System. Advances in Environmental Research 8: 103–112
Thullen, J.S., J.J. Sartoris, and S.M. Nelson. 2005. Managing Vegetation in Surface-Flow Wastewater-Treatment Wetlands for Optimal Treatment Performance. Ecological Engineering 25: 583–93.
* Director, Anchor Environmental Consultants and Deputy Director, Environmental Economics Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town
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- ‘Plenty of fish in the sea?’
Submitted by: Anthony Richardson, RMIT University, Australia
DescriptionThis is a case study around overfishing (of the orange roughy) designed to demonstrate both/either the Tragedy of the Commons or the nature of complex (wicked) problems and the lack of a clear solution.
StepsFirst, put students in four groups and outline the context of the issue (using the images on ‘orange_roughy_context.docx’) and ask each group to examine one of the four pieces of information about the issue:
- Info about the orange roughy (lifecycle and behaviour)
- The UN convention on fishing
- The importance of the orange roughy fishing industry (to NZ)
- Legal concerns
This then becomes a jigsaw reading, where one student from each group is moved into a new group and must then outline their facet of the complex issue to the rest of their new group.
Next, these new groups (possibly on a big piece of butcher’s paper) map the background issues, outline the stakeholders and then offer possible ways of approaching the solution. It’s crucial to ask students to be aware at this stage of the activity of what cultural or philosophical attitudes/constructs they are using to approach the issue; e.g. nation states can/cannot divide up the ocean; ‘there will always be more fish in the ocean,’ etc.
Finally, have each group report to the whole class outlining both their analysis of the issue (background and stakeholders) and their possible approach to addressing the issue.
Recommended Routledge Books
Free Journal Articles
- Stephanie Buechler, ‘Gender, water, and climate change in Sonora, Mexico: implications for policies and programmes on agricultural income-generation’ Gender & Development
- Shlomi Dinar (2012), ‘The Geographical Dimensions of Hydro-politics: International Freshwater in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia’
- Cassandra M. Brooks ‘Competing values on the Antarctic high seas: CCAMLR and the challenge of marine-protected areas’
- Narain, Vishal, 2014, ‘Whose land? Whose water? Water rights, equity and justice in a peri-urban context, Local Environment (forthcoming)
- Water Scarcity
Very informative slide show presented by FAOWater. No voice-over, so they can be used as background slides.
- The growing fears of water scarcity: Fact or fiction
This is a 2013 television interview in which Peter Lochery of CARE International explains why water scarcity is a growing problem globally. Lochery is a water engineer with over 30 years of experience internationally.
- How Will Water Scarcity Change the World? Steven Solomon
Author Steven Solomon presents a challenging view of the global, social and political consequences of growing water scarcity.
- Pacific Garbage Dump
This is a 2008 television report on the so-called vortex of garbage gathering in particular parts of the Pacific Ocean. Although the size and scope of floating islands of trash in the Pacific have sometimes been exaggerated, this report shows that plastic trash in the ocean is a major and growing environmental threat.
- Overfishing: The consequences
This is a powerful short video on the dangers presented by overfishing globally.
- Overfishing: Revolution World Issue
A well-presented and informative account of the dangers of overfishing in the world's oceans.
- NOAA Ocean Today Video: Marine Protected Areas
This is a very short but informative presentation on marine protected areas in America.
- Save Our Seas: A short film on marine conservation zones
This is a compelling 2013 film on the importance of marine conservation zones in UK waters.
- Marine Reserves for Taiwan
This is an excellent case study on the dangers of overfishing and the need for new forms of protection. Presented by Greenpeace.
- Marine Protected Areas: A Success Story
An educational video produced by University of California TV.
- The Hydrologic and Carbon Cycles
A fast-moving but informative account of the ecological cycles of water and carbon.
- The Water Cycle
An excellent presentation from the US National Science Foundation (2013) on the importance of water and the hydrological cycle.
Blogs and Websites
- GWP was formed in 1996 as a global network aimed at improving the governance and management of water resources worldwide
Global Water Project www.gwp.org
- WSP is an international agency that is funded by a wide range of organisations including the World Bank. It aims to improve water security and sanitation for poor communities and it is working in 25 different countries
Water and Sanitation Program www.wsp.org
- Established in 1966, the US-based Water Research Foundation seeks to facilitate water research projects. The website provides access to a wide range of resources
Water Research Foundation www.waterrf.org
- This website provides a directory of water websites presented alphabetically. While the emphasis is on organisations working in the USA, the list contains a range of organisations operating elsewhere in the world
Water Web www.waterweb.org
- NAOAA is the agency charged with protecting American coastal and marine resources. Its website contains information about the world's oceans and marine resources, including information about marine protected areas
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (USA) http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/
- This is the website of the US-based non-government organisation that offers expertise in a wide range of areas, including water management and marine protected areas
Conservation International www.conservation.org
- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization provides access to good information about world poverty from the perspectives of food and water shortages
UN Food and Agriculture Organization http://www.fao.org/home/en/
- Blog of the California-based Pacific Institute, with a focus on finding real-world solutions to problems such as water shortages
Pacific Institute http://pacinst.org/blog/
- Blog from CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE)