The List

The World’s Ongoing Ecological Disasters

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.


Disaster: Oil spills

Going since: Around 1966

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.


Disaster: Coal fires

Going since: 1962

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.


Disaster: Deforestation

Going since: 1492

Damage done: Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island, as well as similar geographic and climate conditions. So why do severe storms and hurricanes -- not to mention earthquakes -- only cause horrific human tragedy on the Haitian side? One large reason is the almost complete destruction of Haiti's trees.

When explorer Christopher Columbus first landed in what was then dubbed Hispañola, around three-fourths of it was covered in trees. Today, 98 percent of its forests are gone -- one of the worst cases of deforestation in human history.

The main culprit is charcoal, by far the country's most popular fuel source, which consumes up to 30 million trees per year. The Dominican Republic has banned cutting down trees for charcoal and subsidized propane as a substitute, and the contrast can be seen in satellite photographs of the border.

Without roots to hold the soil together, hurricanes and earthquakes are much more likely to case deadly landslides. The erosion of high-quality topsoil has also devastated Haiti's agricultural sector, exacerbating its endemic poverty.

The list of challenges confronting Haiti following this year's earthquake is long and daunting, but if the country is ever going to stand a fighting chance, what it needs more than anything else is more trees.


Disaster: The shrinking of the Aral Sea

Going since: The 1960s

Damage done: Straddling the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea was once the world's fourth-largest inland water body and home to at least 20 species of fish and a thriving coastal economy in the surrounding towns. In the early 1960s, the Soviet government built more than 45 dams and 20,000 miles of canals in an effort to create a cotton industry on the desert plains of Uzbekistan, depriving the sea of its main sources.

Over the next three decades, the sea shrank to two-fifths its original size, turning fishing villages into barren desert outposts. Thanks to the high salt content in the remaining water, all 20 fish species are now extinct. Drinking water supplies in the area are dangerously low and the ground contains dangerous pesticides from the cotton farms. When the wind sweeps across the now-dry sea bed, it spreads up to 75 million tons of toxic dust and salt across Central Asia every year.

Thankfully, dams constructed in the last decade on the Kazakh side seem to be leading to a partial recovery. The Northern Aral's surface span has grown by 20 percent and fish and bird species are starting to return. The Southern Aral, however, still remains a shadow of its former self.


Disaster: The Eastern Garbage Patch

Going since: Discovered in 1997

Damage done: Somewhere between California and Hawaii lies the world's largest garbage dump -- a massive soup of plastic and debris one-and-a-half times the size of the United States and 100 feet deep. The "patch" is the product of the North Pacific Gyre, a loop of currents that picks up trash from the West Coast of the United States and East Asia and funnels it into an endless loop in the North Pacific.

Within the patch, pieces of plastic outweigh zooplankton by a factor of 6 to 1, and are often mistaken by fish and birds for food. Chemicals from the plastic can also make their way into the food chain, including fish consumed by humans.

The patch is the most widely publicized example, but this is a global problem. According to the U.N. Environment Program the world's oceans contain 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. These plastics are responsible for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.

The List

Sleaze Factor

Is there an epidemic of corruption in the world's democracies?

From Angola to Uzbekistan, Haiti to Zimbabwe, in far too many countries around the world, blatant official corruption not only goes unpunished -- it's the norm. But while we normally associate bribery, cronyism, and extortion with fragile developing states, the leaders of some of the world's most stable and prosperous democracies have recently been investigated on criminal charges. Is this a case of those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, or does it mean that we're getting better at catching powerful crooks?


The target: President Nicolas Sarkozy

The alleged crimes: Illegal cash payments

The investigation: French prosecutors recently investigated allegations that Sarkozy illegally received cash in unmarked envelopes from Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman, as a presidential candidate in 2007. According to Bettencourt's former accountant, the L'Oreal heir's financial advisor gave €150,000 to the treasurer of Sarkozy's campaign -- an allegation denied by both parties. The former treasurer, who is now labor minister, was officially cleared of wrongdoing, but opponents say the investigation by France's finance inspector was not impartial.

"L'affaire Bettencourt" is just the latest scandal to hit Sarkozy's administration, including the resignation of two junior ministers who spent thousands of dollars on cigars and Caribbean vacations, and a corruption scandal involving one of Sarkozy's closest friends and political allies who was implicated in a multimillion-dollar insider-trading scheme in 2007. But in the wake of the financial crisis and an unpopular pension-reform plan, this time the president might be fighting for his political career: On July 12, Sarkozy took the unusual step of appearing on national television to deny the charges.

Sarkozy's allies have denounced the allegations as a left-wing "political plot," and indeed there seem to be some large holes in the allegations made by Bettencourt's advisor. But Sarkozy's opponents will likely have little sympathy. His longtime political rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, was the subject of a five-year investigation and trial over allegations that he faked documents that linked Sarkozy to bribes while the two politicians were angling for the presidency. De Villepin was cleared of the charges -- though three of his colleagues were convicted -- and has maintained that the investigation was nothing but a political vendetta by the president.


The target: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

The alleged crimes: Corruption, organized crime

The investigation: Berlusconi claims with pride that he is "the most legally persecuted man of all time." More than 109 cases have been brought against him, ranging from nonpayment of taxes to false accounting, bribery to prostitution. By his own count, he has been subjected to more than 2,500 court hearings. But despite the best efforts of prosecutors and political opponents, the 73-year-old Berlusconi seems unlikely to ever see the inside of a jail cell or be forced to step down.

The Teflon prime minister has managed four times to pass laws granting himself immunity from prosecution, though each of which has been judged unconstitutional by the courts. For his part, Berlusconi has accused the Italian judicial system of having an ingrained left-wing bias.

The most recent legal scandal involving Berlusconi concerns his longtime friend, business partner, and political ally Marcello Dell'Utri, who has been convicted of serving as a liaison between the mafia and Italy's political elite. In the course of the trial, a convicted Mafia hit-man testified that senior Mafia leaders had boasted of their ties to Berlusconi during the 1990s.


The target: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

The alleged crimes: Bribe-taking

The investigation: With internal probes into the 2008 offensive in Gaza and the controversial boarding of a pro-Palestinian flotilla earlier this year, Israel certainly doesn't lack for high-profile investigations. But the country is riveted by the ongoing corruption investigation against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was plagued by corruption charges throughout his term. New York businessman Morris Talansky claims he gave Olmert more than $150,000 for his campaign for mayor of Jerusalem in 1997, but the money was spent on fine hotels, cigars, and watches.

Perhaps more shockingly, Olmert is accused of charging multiple nonprofit groups -- including a charity for the disabled and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial -- for the same fundraising trips. Olmert announced his resignation in 2008 and was charged with fraud a year later.

He has yet to be convicted, but investigations are ongoing. Most recently, Olmert was questioned over accusations that he accepted bribes in exchange for helping win contracts for a Jerusalem real estate developer. His administration didn't come off looking that clean either: A finance minister was investigated for embezzlement, a justice minister resigned after being convicted for sexual harassment, and President Moshe Katsav resigned amid scandal after allegations of sexual assault.

Olmert is the first Israeli head of government to be indicted on corruption charges, though current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the subject of investigations in the past. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is also under investigation for a number of crimes, including bribery, fraud, and money-laundering.


The target: Former President Chen Shui-bian

The alleged crimes: Corruption, embezzlement

The investigation: Chen was named as a suspect in a $450,000 embezzlement case within hours of stepping down as president of Taiwan in 2008 and sentenced to life imprisonment less than a year later -- an ignominious end to the political career of the once renowned human-rights-lawyer-turned-politician.

Prosecutors had long been gunning for Chen, who enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president -- his wife and son-in-law were arrested on charges of forgery and insider trading while he was still in office. Chen's political opponents also maintained that Chen faked an assassination attempt in 2004 to win voter sympathy in his reelection bid.

Chen and his wife, who was also given a life sentence, continue to appeal their convictions. Their sentences were reduced from life imprisonment to 20 years in June when the court found that less money was involved in the corruption than previously thought. The former president remains in detention as his appeal continues.

But the current administration isn't squeaky clean either: President Ma Ying-jeou, Chen's political rival, was twice tried and acquitted on corruption charges before taking office.

* A deleted section of this article implied that President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea is being investigated in connection with allegations of illegal surveillance. While several senior South Korean officials are being investigated, including several in the prime minister’s office and one in the president’s office, Lee has not been named as a suspect. FP regrets the error.

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images; ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images; SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images; Uriel Sinai/Getty Images; ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images