Inter Press Service » Population http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Mon, 31 Aug 2015 07:33:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.7 Will New Sri Lankan Government Prioritize Resettlement of War-Displaced?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/will-new-sri-lankan-government-prioritize-resettlement-of-war-displaced/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=will-new-sri-lankan-government-prioritize-resettlement-of-war-displaced http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/will-new-sri-lankan-government-prioritize-resettlement-of-war-displaced/#comments Sun, 30 Aug 2015 16:43:03 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142192 Despite six years of peace, life is still hard in areas where Sri Lanka's war was at its worst, especially for internally displaced people (IDPs). Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Despite six years of peace, life is still hard in areas where Sri Lanka's war was at its worst, especially for internally displaced people (IDPs). Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Aug 30 2015 (IPS)

The new Sri Lankan government that was voted in on Aug. 17 certainly didn’t inherit as much baggage as its predecessors did during the nearly 30 years of conflict that gripped this South Asian island nation.

"Do you know how it feels to live in other people's houses for so long? You are always an outsider. I am getting old [...]. I want to die in my own house, not somewhere else." -- Siva Ariyarathnam, an IDP in northern Sri Lanka
But six years into ‘peacetime’, the second parliament of President Maithripala Sirisena will need to prioritize some of the most painful, unhealed wounds of war – among them, the fate of over 50,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), some of whom have not been home in over two decades.

Though the fighting between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009, closing a 28-year-long chapter of violence, Siva Ariyarathnam is still waiting for a government official to tell him when he can go home.

Like tens of thousands of others, Ariyarathnam fled with his family when the military took over his land in the country’s Northern Province in the 1990s as part of a strategy to defeat the LTTE, who launched an armed campaign for an independent homeland for the country’s minority Tamil population in 1983.

The outgoing government says it plans to give the land back to 50,000 people, but has not indicated when that will happen, and Ariyarathnam says he is running out of time.

“Do you know how it feels to live in other people’s houses for so long? You are always an outsider,” Ariyarathnam told IPS. “I am getting old and I want to live under my own roof with my family. I want to die in my own house, not somewhere else.”

A decades-old problem

Ariyarathnam’s tale is heard too frequently in the former war-zone, a large swath of land in the country’s north comprising the Vanni region, the Jaffna Peninsula and parts of the Eastern Province, which the LTTE ran as a de facto state after riots in 1983 drove thousands of Tamils out of the Sinhala-majority south.

During the war years, displacement was the order of the day, with both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government forcing massive population shifts that would shape ethnic- and communal-based electoral politics.

For ordinary people it meant that the notion of ‘home’ was a luxury that few could maintain.

The cost of the conflict that finally ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the Tigers by government armed forces was enormous.

By conservative accounts over 100,000 perished in the fighting, while a report by the United Nations estimates that as many as 40,000 civilians died during the last bouts of fighting between 2008 and 2009.

According to the Ministry of Resettlement, Sri Lanka’s post-war IDP returnees stood at an impressive 796,081 by the end of June.

But the same data also reveal that an additional 50,000 were still living with host families and in the Thellippali IDP Centre, unable to return to villages still under military occupation.

These militarized zones date back to the 1990s, when the army began appropriating civilian land as a means of thwarting the steadily advancing LTTE.

By 2009, the military had confiscated 11,629 acres of land in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna – located on the northern tip of the island, over 300 km from the capital, Colombo – in order to create the Palaly High Security Zone (HSZ).

This was the area Ariyarathnam and his family, like thousands of others, had once called home.

New government, new policies?

Many hoped that the war’s end would see a return to their ancestral lands, but the war-victorious government, helmed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was slow to release civilian areas, prioritizing national security and continued deployment of troops in the North over resettlement of the displaced.

A new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa’s former health minister who took power in a surprise January election, promised to accelerate land release, and turned over a 1,000-acre area from the Palaly HSZ in April.

But top officials tell IPS that genuine government efforts are stymied by the lack of public land onto which to move military camps in order to make way for returning civilians.

“The return of the IDPs is our number one priority,” Ranjini Nadarajapillai, the outgoing secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement, explained to IPS. “There is no timetable right now, everything depends on how the remaining high security zones are removed.”

The slow pace of land reform has kept IDPs mired in poverty, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), an arm of the Oslo-based Norwegian Refugee Council.

“The main reasons why there are higher poverty levels among IDPs include the lack of access to land during displacement to carry out livelihood activities, [and] the lack of compensation for lost or destroyed land and property during the war, which was acquired by the military or government as security or economic zones,” Marita Swain, an analyst with IDMC, told IPS.

An IDMC report released in July put the number of IDPs at 73,700, far higher than the government statistic. Most of them are living with host families, while 4,700 are housed in a long-term welfare center in Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

The lingering effects of the policies of the previous administration led by Rajapaksa, which prioritized infrastructure development over genuine economic growth for the war-weary population, has compounded the IDPs’ plight, according to the IDMC.

Despite the Sirisena government taking office in January, it has been hamstrung over issues like resettlement for the past eight months as it prepared to face parliamentary elections that pitted Rajapaksa-era policies against those of the new president.

Nadarajapillai of the Ministry of Resettlement said the new government is taking a different approach and reaching out to international agencies and donors to resolve the issue.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is helping the government devise a plan to resolve the IDP crisis, added Dushanthi Fernando, a UNHCR official in Colombo.

Still, these promises mean little to people like Ariyarathnam, whose displacement is now entering its third decade with no firm signs of ending anytime soon.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Europe Squabbles While Refugees Diehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/europe-squabbles-while-refugees-die/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=europe-squabbles-while-refugees-die http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/europe-squabbles-while-refugees-die/#comments Sun, 30 Aug 2015 16:06:20 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142190 North African immigrants near the Italian island of Sicily. Credit: Vito Manzari from Martina Franca (TA), Italy. Immigrati Lampedusa/CC-BY-2.0

North African immigrants near the Italian island of Sicily. Credit: Vito Manzari from Martina Franca (TA), Italy. Immigrati Lampedusa/CC-BY-2.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 30 2015 (IPS)

As tens of thousands of refugees continue to flee conflict-ridden countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, Western European governments and international humanitarian organisations are struggling to cope with a snowballing humanitarian crisis threatening to explode.

Hungary is building a fence to ward off refugees.  Slovakia says it will accept only Christian refugees, triggering a condemnation by the United Nations.

“We have to remember [refugees] are human beings. Often they have no choice but to leave their homes. And they must have unhindered access to basic human rights, in particular the right to protection and health care." -- Francesco Rocca, President of the Italian Red Cross
The crisis was further dramatized last week when the Austrians discovered an abandoned delivery truck containing the decomposing bodies of some 71 refugees, including eight women and three children, off a highway outside of Vienna.

Sweden and Germany, which have been the most receptive, have absorbed about 43 percent of all asylum seekers.

But in Germany, despite its liberal open door policy with over 44,000 Syrian refugees registered this year, there have been attacks on migrants, mostly by neo-Nazi groups.

The crisis is likely to get worse, with the United Nations predicting over 3,000 migrants streaming into Western Europe every day – some of them dying on the high seas.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says more than 2,500 refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe this year.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has come under fire for dehumanizing migrants as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”.

Harriet Harman, a British lawyer and a Labour Party leader of the opposition, shot back when she said Cameron “should remember he is talking about people and not insects” and called the use of “divisive” language a “worrying turn”.

The three countries with the largest external borders – Italy, Greece and Hungary – are facing the heaviest inflow of refugees.

The 28-member European Union (EU) remains sharply divided as to how best it should share the burden.

While Western European countries are complaining about the hundreds and thousands of refugees flooding their shores, the numbers are relatively insignificant compared to the 3.5 million Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon

The New York Times Saturday quoted Alexander Betts, a professor and director of the Refugees Studies Centre at Oxford University, as saying: “While Europe is squabbling, people are dying.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the EU is facing one of its worst crises ever, outpacing the Greek financial meltdown, which threatened to break up the Union.

In a hard-hitting statement released Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is “horrified and heartbroken” at the latest loss of lives of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean and Europe.

He pointed out that a large majority of people undertaking these arduous and dangerous journeys are refugees fleeing from places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“International law has stipulated – and states have long recognized – the right of refugees to protection and asylum.”

When considering asylum requests, he said, States cannot make distinctions based on religion or other identity – nor can they force people to return to places from which they have fled if there is a well-founded fear of persecution or attack.

“This is not only a matter of international law; it is also our duty as human beings,” the U.N. chief declared.

Meanwhile, international organisations, including the United Nations, have been calling for “humanitarian corridors” in war zones – primarily to provide food, shelter and medicine unhindered by conflicts.

Francesco Rocca, President of the Italian Red Cross, told IPS: “On our side, we ask for humanitarian corridors, respect for human dignity and respect for Geneva Conventions [governing the treatment of civilians in war zones] for reaching everyone suffering.”

Regarding people on the move – and people fleeing from these conflicts – “we have to remember they are human beings. Often they have no choice but to leave their homes. And they must have unhindered access to basic human rights, in particular the right to protection and health care,” he said.

Rocca said these people don’t want to escape; they love their homes, their teachers, their schools and their friends.

“But these are terrible stories of people who have been driven from their homes by violence in Syria, Sudan and other conflicts. For almost three years we have asked for humanitarian corridors,” but to no avail, he said.

“I strongly support the Red Cross EU Office position on migration and asylum in the EU, which clearly recommends respecting and protecting the rights of migrants whatever their legal status, respecting the dignity and rights of all migrants in border management policies, sharing responsibility in applying a Common European asylum system.”

As far as the Italian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) are concerned, he said: “We urge for a humanitarian approach to tackling the vulnerabilities of migrants, rather than focusing on their legal status.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 

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Water, Climate, Energy Intertwined with Fight Against Poverty in Central Americahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/water-climate-energy-intertwined-with-fight-against-poverty-in-central-america/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=water-climate-energy-intertwined-with-fight-against-poverty-in-central-america http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/water-climate-energy-intertwined-with-fight-against-poverty-in-central-america/#comments Thu, 27 Aug 2015 16:41:18 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142161 A Honduran peasant on his small farm. Two-thirds of rural families in Central America depend on family farming for a living. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

A Honduran peasant on his small farm. Two-thirds of rural families in Central America depend on family farming for a living. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
MANAGUA, Aug 27 2015 (IPS)

Central America’s toolbox to pull 23 million people – almost half of the population – out of poverty must include three indispensable tools: universal access to water, a sustainable power supply, and adaptation to climate change.

“These are the minimum, basic, necessary preconditions for guaranteeing survival,” Víctor Campos, assistant director of the Humboldt Centre, a leading Nicaraguan environmental think tank, told IPS.

These three tools are especially important for agriculture, the engine of the regional economy, and particularly in rural areas and indigenous territories, which have the highest levels of poverty.

Campos stressed that this is the minimum foundation for starting to work “towards addressing other issues that we must pay attention to, like education, health, or vulnerable groups; but first these conditions that guarantee minimal survival have to be in place.”

In Central America today, 48 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. And the region is facing the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which the international community will launch in September, with the concept of survival very much alive, because every day millions of people in the region struggle for clean water and food.

Everyone agreed on the vulnerability of the region and its people at the Central American meeting “United in Action for the Common Good”, held Aug. 21 in the Nicaraguan capital to assess the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs are the pillar of the agenda and will be adopted at a Sep. 25-27 summit of heads of state and government at United Nations headquarters in New York, with a 2030 deadline for compliance.

The issues of reliable, sustainable energy, availability and sustainable management of water, and urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts are included in the SDGs. But the experts taking part in the gathering in Managua stressed that in this region, the three are interlinked at all levels with the goal of reducing poverty.

“In our countries, our fight against poverty is complex,” Campos said.

This region of 48 million people, where per capita GDP is far below the global average – 3,035 dollars in Central America compared to the global 7,850 dollars – needs to come up with new paths for escaping the spiral of poverty which entraps nearly one out of two inhabitants.

Central America’s GDP improved in real terms in the last 13 years, but remains lower than the Latin American and global averages. Credit: State of the Nation

Central America’s GDP improved in real terms in the last 13 years, but remains lower than the Latin American and global averages. Credit: State of the Nation

According to the 2012 report “The Economics of Climate Change in Central America” by the U.N. Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), “reduction of and instability in the availability of water and of agricultural yields could affect labour markets, supplies and prices of basic goods, and rural migration to urban areas.”

That would have an impact on subsistence crops like maize or beans or traditional export products like coffee, which are essential in the region made up, from south to north, of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala. (U.N. agencies also include the Dominican Republic, an island nation, in the region.)

Poverty laid out in the SDGs

In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG), to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, is divided into two.

The first of the 17 SDGs is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” and the second is “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”

The sixth is “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”, the seventh is “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” and the 13th is “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

A key area is the so-called Dry Corridor, an arid strip that runs from Guatemala to Costa Rica, which according to experts has grown.

“We are modifying land use, which is associated with the climate phenomenon, and as a consequence the Dry Corridor is not limited to the Corridor anymore: we are turning the entire country into a kind of dry corridor,” Denis Meléndez, executive secretary of Nicaragua’s National Forum for Risk Management, told IPS.

The “Outlook for Food and Nutritional Security in Central America” report published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2014 says this could hinder compliance with the goal of eliminating hunger in the region.

The first of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the international community in a global summit in 2000 – now to be replaced by the SDGs – is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, cutting in half the proportion of extremely poor and hungry people by 2015, from 1990 levels.

FAO reported that the countries of Central America have come close to meeting the goal, with the proportion of hungry people being reduced from 24.5 to 13.2 percent of the total, but the percentage is still more than double the Latin American average of 6.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable people goes beyond agriculture, access to water, or sustainable energy.

According to ECLAC, two out of three inhabitants of the region live in shantytowns or slums in unsanitary conditions, where climate change will drive up the prevalence of diseases associated with poverty, such as malaria and dengue.

Nearly half of the population of Central America lives in poverty, with Honduras in the most critical situation, with a poverty rate of close to 70 percent. Credit: FAO

Nearly half of the population of Central America lives in poverty, with Honduras in the most critical situation, with a poverty rate of close to 70 percent. Credit: FAO

“Because climate change is the biggest challenge that humanity is facing at the present and in the coming decades, we have to think about adaptation not necessarily as a cross-cutting issue, but in terms of ‘what goes around, comes around’,” Francisco Soto, the head of El Salvador’s Climate Change Forum, told IPS.

This impact has been acknowledged by governments in the region, and in 2010 the Central American Integration System (SICA) described it in its Regional Climate Change Strategy as a phenomenon that would “make social challenges like poverty reduction and governance more difficult to fight.”

Experts like Andrea Rodríguez of Bolivia stressed at the meeting that every government anti-poverty project should take into account the impacts of climate change.

“If this is not taken into consideration, we won’t be able to find an effective solution, because climate change and development are like twins – they go hand in hand and have to be addressed simultaneously in order for aid and cooperation to be effective,” she told IPS.

Rodríguez, a legal adviser to the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Climate Change Programme, insisted on the need to jointly plan long-term investment in energy infrastructure and sustainable development.

“The only way to combat climate change and contribute to economic development is by leaving aside fossil fuels and looking for cleaner alternatives,” she said.

Civil society organisations grouped in the Central American Alliance for Energy Sustainability (ACCESE) propose small-scale renewable installations as a solution for meeting the growing demand for energy while at the same time empowering vulnerable communities.

In the region, 15 percent of the population does not have electricity, and up to 50 percent cook with firewood, according to figures provided by ACCESE. This portion of the population is mainly found on islands and in remote mountainous and rural areas.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Deliberate Targeting of Water Sources Worsens Misery for Millions of Syrianshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/deliberate-targeting-of-water-sources-worsens-misery-for-millions-of-syrians/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=deliberate-targeting-of-water-sources-worsens-misery-for-millions-of-syrians http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/deliberate-targeting-of-water-sources-worsens-misery-for-millions-of-syrians/#comments Wed, 26 Aug 2015 22:34:41 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142149 The conflict in Syria has destroyed much of the country’s water infrastructure, leaving five million people suffering from a critical water shortage. Credit: Bigstock

The conflict in Syria has destroyed much of the country’s water infrastructure, leaving five million people suffering from a critical water shortage. Credit: Bigstock

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 26 2015 (IPS)

Imagine having to venture out into a conflict zone in search of water because rebel groups and government forces have targeted the pipelines. Imagine walking miles in the blazing summer heat, then waiting hours at a public tap to fill up your containers. Now imagine realizing the jugs are too heavy to carry back home.

This scene, witnessed by an engineer with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is becoming all too common in embattled Syria. In this case, the child sent to fetch water was a little girl who simply sat down and cried when it became clear she wouldn’t be able to get the precious resource back to her family.

Compounded by a blistering heat wave, with temperatures touching a searing 40 degrees Celsius in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s water shortage is reaching critical levels, the United Nations said Wednesday.

In an Aug. 26 press relief, UNICEF blasted parties to the conflict for deliberately targeting the water supply, adding that it has recorded 18 intentional water cuts in Aleppo in 2015 alone.

Such a move – banned under international law – is worsening the misery of millions of war-weary civilians, with an estimated five million people enduring the impacts of long interruptions to their water supply in the past few months.

“Clean water is both a basic need and a fundamental right, in Syria as it is anywhere else,” Peter Salama, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement today. “Denying civilians access to water is a flagrant violation of the laws of war and must end.”

In some communities taps have remained dry for up to 17 consecutive days; in others, the dry spell has lasted over a month.

Often times the task of fetching water from collection points or public taps falls to children. It is not only exhausting work, but exceedingly dangerous in the conflict-ridden country. UNICEF says that three children have died in Aleppo in recent weeks while they were out in search of water.

In cities like Aleppo and Damascus, as well as the southwestern city of Dera’a, families are forced to consume water from unprotected and unregulated groundwater sources. Most likely contaminated, these sources put children at risk of water-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea.

With supply running so low and demand for water increasing by the day, water prices have shot up – by 3,000 percent in places like Aleppo – making it even harder for families to secure this life-sustaining resource.

Ground fighting and air raids have laid waste much of the country’s water infrastructure, destroying pumping stations and severing pipelines at a time when municipal workers cannot get in to make necessary repairs.

To top it off, the all-too-frequent power cuts prevent technicians and engineers from pumping water into civilian areas.

UNICEF has trucked in water for over half-a-million people, 400,000 of them in Aleppo. The agency has also rehabilitated 94 wells serving 470,000 people and distributed 300,000 litres of fuel to beef up public water distribution systems in Aleppo and Damascus, where the shortage has impacted 2.3 million and 2.5 million people respectively. In Dera’a, a quarter of a million people are also enduring the cuts.

A 40-billion-dollar funding gap is preventing UNICEF from revving up its water, hygiene and sanitation operations around Syria. To tackle the crisis in Aleppo and Damascus alone the relief agency says it urgently needs 20 million dollars – a request that is unlikely to be met given the funding shortfall gripping humanitarian operations across the U.N. system.

Overall, water availability in Syria is about half what it was before 2011, when a massive protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad quickly turned into a violent insurrection that now involves over four separate armed groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Well into its fifth year, the war shows no sign of abating.

As the U.N. marks World Water Week (Aug. 23-28) its eyes are on the warring parties in Syria who must be held accountable for using water to achieve their military and political goals.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. Chief Warns of Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Northeastern Nigeriahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-chief-warns-of-growing-humanitarian-crisis-in-northeastern-nigeria/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-chief-warns-of-growing-humanitarian-crisis-in-northeastern-nigeria http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-chief-warns-of-growing-humanitarian-crisis-in-northeastern-nigeria/#comments Wed, 26 Aug 2015 19:38:53 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142147 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets with Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets with Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 26 2015 (IPS)

With over 1.5 million displaced, 800,000 of whom are children, and continuously escalating violence in northeastern Nigeria, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the humanitarian situation as “particularly worrying” during a visit to the country.

Speaking at a press conference on Aug. 24 following a meeting with newly-elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Ban expressed concern over the “troubling” violence perpetrated by armed extremist group Boko Haram and its impact on civilians.

In an impact assessment report released in April 2015 on the conflict in Nigeria, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that in 2014 alone, more than 7,300 people have been killed at the hands of Boko Haram.

As a result of the conflict, access to health services, safe water, and sanitation is extremely limited in northeastern Nigeria. UNICEF found that less than 40 percent of health facilities are operational in the conflict-stricken region, increasing the risk of malaria, measles, and diarrhoea.

Malnutrition rates have soared in northern Nigeria, accounting for approximately 36 percent of malnourished children under five across the entire Sahel region.

UNICEF also reported that women and children are deliberately targeted and abducted in mass numbers for physical and sexual assault, slavery, and forced marriages.

Ban reiterated these findings during a dialogue on democracy, human rights, development, climate change, and countering violent extremism in Abuja on Aug. 24, marking the 500th day of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping.

“I am appealing as U.N. Secretary-General and personally as a father and grandfather. Think about your own daughters. How would you feel if your daughters and sisters were abducted by others?” said Ban while calling for the girls’ unconditional release.

Though the Chibok kidnapping was by far Boko Haram’s largest abduction, Human Rights Watch reported in its 2015 World Report on Nigeria that the extremist group has abducted more than 500 women and girls since 2009.

Amnesty International has also reported brutal “acts which constitute crimes under international law” committed by Nigerian government forces, including the abuse, torture, and extrajudicial killings of detainees. In one case, the national armed forces rounded up a group of 35 men “seemingly at random” and beat them publicly. The men were detained and returned to the community six days later, where military personnel “shot them dead, several at a time, before dumping their bodies.”

Corruption has also been a serious problem within the police force and the government. The International Crisis Group stated that the country has lost more than 400 billion dollars to large-scale corruption since independence in 1960.

“The most effective way to root out this disease is a transparent, fair, and independent process to address corruption in a comprehensive way,” said Ban in his keynote address to the dialogue.

The U.N. chief also stressed on the importance of collaboration in addressing such violent crimes and in alleviating the humanitarian situation, announcing increased humanitarian operations and the provision of training for military operations.

But he dismissed the sole use of military force, stating: “Weapons may kill terrorists. But good governance will kill terrorism.”

Since Boko Haram’s radicalization in 2009, at least 15,000 people have been killed.

The group is opposed to secular authority and seeks to implement Sharia law in northern Nigeria, where widespread poverty and marginalization may also have been contributing factors to the extremists’ rise.

According to Nigeria’s Millennium Development Goals Report, the north has the highest absolute poverty rate in the country, with approximately 66 percent of people living on less than a dollar a day, compared to 55 percent in the south.

In fact, in an April New York Times op-ed, Buhari stated that countering Boko Haram will not only require increased military operations, but also increased attention to social issues such as poverty and education.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Majority of Child Casualties in Yemen Caused by Saudi-Led Airstrikeshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/majority-of-child-casualties-in-yemen-caused-by-saudi-led-airstrikes/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=majority-of-child-casualties-in-yemen-caused-by-saudi-led-airstrikes http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/majority-of-child-casualties-in-yemen-caused-by-saudi-led-airstrikes/#comments Tue, 25 Aug 2015 23:02:09 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142134 The Tornado aircraft was developed and built by Panavia Aircraft GmbH, a tri-national consortium that includes British Aerospace (previously British Aircraft Corporation); it has played a small role in the war in Yemen. Credit: Geoff Moore/CC-BY-2.0

The Tornado aircraft was developed and built by Panavia Aircraft GmbH, a tri-national consortium that includes British Aerospace (previously British Aircraft Corporation); it has played a small role in the war in Yemen. Credit: Geoff Moore/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 25 2015 (IPS)

Of the 402 children killed in Yemen since the escalation of hostilities in March 2015, 73 percent were victims of Saudi coalition-led airstrikes, a United Nations official said Monday.

In a statement released on Aug. 24, Leila Zerrougui, the special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) for children and armed conflict, warned that children are paying a heavy price for continued fighting between Houthi rebels and a Gulf Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, bent on reinstating deposed Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Incidents documented by the U.N.’s Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting suggest that 606 kids have been severely wounded. Between Apr. 1 and Jun. 30, the number of children killed and injured more than tripled, compared to the first quarter of 2015.

Zerrougui said she was “appalled” by heavy civilian casualties in the southwestern Yemeni city of Taiz, where 34 children have died and 12 have been injured in the last three days alone.

Gulf Coalition airstrikes on Aug. 21 resulted in a civilian death of 65; 17 of the victims were children. Houthi fighters also killed 17 kids and injured 12 more while repeatedly shelling residential areas.

In what the U.N. has described as wanton ‘disregard’ for the lives of civilians, the warring sides have also attacked schools, severely limiting education opportunities for children in the embattled Arab nation of 26 million people, 80 percent of whom now require emergency humanitarian assistance.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 114 schools have been destroyed and 315 damaged since March, while 360 have been converted into shelters for the displaced who number upwards of 1.5 million.

On the eve of a new school year, UNICEF believes that the on-going violence will prevent 3,600 schools from re-opening on time, “interrupting access to education for an estimated 1.8 million children.”

With 4,000 people dead and 21 million in need of food, medicines or shelter, children also face a critical shortage of health services and supplies.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams in Yemen say they have “witnessed pregnant women and children dying after arriving too late at the health centre because of petrol shortages or having to hole up for days on end while waiting for a lull in the fighting.”

MSF also faults the coalition-led bombings for civilian deaths and scores of casualties, adding that the Houthi advance on the southern city of Aden has been “equally belligerent”.

On Jul. 19, for instance, indiscriminate bombing by Houthi rebels in densely populated civilian areas resulted in 150 casualties including women, children and the elderly within just a few hours.

Of the many wounded who flooded an MSF hospital, 42 were “dead on arrival”, and several dozen bodies had to remain outside the clinic due to a lack of space, the humanitarian agency said in a Jul. 29 press release.

Appealing to all sides to spare civilians caught in the crossfire, Zerrougui said Yemen provides yet “another stark example of how conflict in the region risks creating a lost generation of children, who are physically and psychologically scarred by their experiences […].”

Ironically, despite the fact that Saudi-led airstrikes have been responsible for the vast majority of child deaths and casualties, the wealthy Gulf state pledged 274 million dollars to humanitarian relief operations in Yemen back in April, though it has yet to make good on this commitment.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Alternative Destinations Emerge as Cuba Gets Ready for Tourism Boomhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/alternative-destinations-emerge-as-cuba-gets-ready-for-tourism-boom/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=alternative-destinations-emerge-as-cuba-gets-ready-for-tourism-boom http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/alternative-destinations-emerge-as-cuba-gets-ready-for-tourism-boom/#comments Tue, 25 Aug 2015 16:28:31 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142127 Plaza del Carmen in the historic centre of the central Cuban city of Camagüey, which is seeking to join the tourist circuit for visitors interested in alternatives to sun and beach tourism. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Plaza del Carmen in the historic centre of the central Cuban city of Camagüey, which is seeking to join the tourist circuit for visitors interested in alternatives to sun and beach tourism. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
El ABRA, Cuba, Aug 25 2015 (IPS)

Along the road to the Viñales valley, travelled by thousands of tourists to Cuba, lies the home of self-taught artist Miguel Antonio Remedios, which he has turned into a sort of museum to show visitors a wooden home typical of this mountainous area in the west of the country.

“It would be a big help if (state tour operators) included this project on the tourist routes,” the 47-year-old painter told IPS in his home, which doubles as a gallery, where he has his studio and has launched the initiative “Remedios del Abra”.

His project and similar initiatives are overcoming hurdles to tap into the tourism boom in this socialist island nation, which has become fashionable since the thaw with the United States.

The U.S. government put new rules in place in January making it easier for people from that country to visit Cuba, expanding the list of categories of authorised travel to 12, including visits for educational, religious, cultural, journalistic, humanitarian or family purposes.

After that, in the first half of the year, 88,900 visitors came from the United States – 54 percent more than in the first half of 2014.

In that period, the number of foreign tourists totaled 1,136,948, which would indicate an increase from last year’s total by year-end, when the number of visitors climbs.

Viñales valley and El Abra, a mountain village in the municipality of La Palma, are places of spectacular scenery in the hills of Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río.

Offering bird-watching, hiking, and striking landscapes of mogotes or tall, dome-like limestone hills that rise abruptly from the flat plain of the valley, the province draws part of the three million foreign tourists who visit Cuba every year.

Remedios’ home is a traditional western Cuban wooden house with a palm-frond thatched roof. Above the wide gate hangs an ox yoke. In the main room inside is a long, rustic table lined with benches, a clay pitcher with fresh water, and a woodstove. The bedrooms are furnished with beds with wire mesh.

Self-taught artist Miguel Antonio Remedios in his rural home, which he has turned into a gallery, art studio and museum of a traditional western Cuban house in El Abra, a mountain village in the western province of Pinar del Río. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Self-taught artist Miguel Antonio Remedios in his rural home, which he has turned into a gallery, art studio and museum of a traditional western Cuban house in El Abra, a mountain village in the western province of Pinar del Río. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Paintings by the artist, who is registered with the government’s Cultural Goods Fund – a requirement to be able to sell his art – hang on the walls, waiting for buyers.

With the sales of his art works, which are painted in a naive style, Remedios fixed up his museum-home, where he was born and grew up, and bought the materials needed to give free painting classes to local children. He began his project in 2013. He accepts small voluntary donations from visitors.

He says that “to revive peasant traditions and promote local painters” he would like to have more support from the local authorities, in order to build a classroom, an exhibition room and a ranchón or open-walled thatch-roofed structure to hold traditional rural fiestas or festive gatherings on weekends.

Alternatives

“The development of tourist attractions other than sun and beach will depend above all on the efforts made by the provinces, and how they use their own resources and capacities,” Professor Ricardo Jorge Machado, who was an adviser on tourism to the Council of Ministers between 1980 and 1993, told IPS.

Challenges posed by Cuba’s unique character

Among Cuba’s limitations as a tourism destination, experts identify the limited nightlife, a lack of culinary variety, stores with limited supplies and a lack of personalised services.

The biggest attractions, on the other hand, are how safe the country is, and the fact that Cuba is an oasis in today’s globalised world, free of the same old stores, chain restaurants and products. There are no Coca Cola or McDonald’s billboards, or fast food restaurants, they note.

The country has begun to improve infrastructure, with new hotels, ports that can serve cruise ships, terminals for the ferries that will begin to arrive from the U.S. state of Florida in September, and the expansion of the José Martí International Airport in Havana.

The expert advises local governments not to wait for financing from the tourism ministry but to undertake their own initiatives in conjunction with the private sector and with cooperatives, using their own funds made available by the current economic decentralisation process.

In its plan for the period up to 2030, the Tourism Ministry has prioritised 100 sun-and-beach projects and only two ecological tourism initiatives.

Tourism is Cuba’s second-biggest source of revenue, after the export of professional services. In 2014 tourism brought in more than 2.7 billion dollars.

The government’s strategy appears to focus on beach resorts and high-end tourism, with the construction of controversial golf courses and the boom in cruise ship traffic, which has risen nearly two-fold from last year, according to the Transport Ministry.

For the first time, the tourism authorities recognise the country’s growing private businesses and cooperatives as indispensable partners, while they attempt to capture foreign investment.

Up to now, the best-promoted tourism areas are the capital, the beach resort of Varadero, 140 km east of Havana, and the keys to the north of the main island.

The Cuban archipelago consists of the main island and 4,195 small islands and keys, where nature is exuberant.

Even in the capital, Machado estimates that there are 90 strong tourist attractions but says that only 12 are exploited, like the El Floridita bar, where U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was a habitué, the La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant, and the Tropicana cabaret.

“Cuba should do more to vary its tourism products, putting an emphasis on elements of its public image that strengthen credibility: its health system and the safety of the country,” said the analyst. In his view, “more specialised forms of tourism, such as long-stay and health tourism, associated with older adults, should be a priority.”

He pointed out that competitors in the region, like Mexico and Colombia, are getting involved in medical tourism – including doctors trained in Cuba – but this country could offer even lower costs.

One million people from the United States travel abroad for health tourism every year.

Alternatives of this kind could generate opportunities in different parts of Cuba, because there are skilled healthcare professionals throughout the country, he said.

“It’s obvious that more and more visitors are arriving,” said Reina Ramos, a schoolteacher, walking down an avenue in central Havana, who pointed to the large numbers of tourists riding about the city in classic cars or convertibles now painted in bright colours – pink, purple or yellow – and serving as taxis.

If the U.S. Congress removes the restrictions on travelling to Cuba in the near future, as lawmakers are currently debating in Washington, the influx of visitors would set new records for the local tourism industry, posing the risk of collapse for the country’s hotels and other services.

In the meantime, villages and towns off the beaten track, with stunning landscapes or colonial-era architecture, have set their sights on tourism, but are facing difficulties creating lodgings, networks of services and even roads that would make it possible for them to share the benefits of the tourism boom.

With its cobblestone streets, spacious plazas and colonial-era houses, the historic centre of the city of Camagüey in central Cuba is drawing up its own plans for increasing the number of visitors.

“The idea is for tourists to come here as part of a circuit of colonial-era cities, similar to the one already offered by the Havana City Historian’s Office,” Camagüey city historian José Rodríguez told IPS.

He said the offices aimed at preserving the country’s heritage are designing a tour that would take visitors to Old Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Bayamo and Camagüey, whose historic centre was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site in 2008.

The Camagüey office is developing a list of high-quality tourist offerings, ranging from small charming hotels to a thriving nightlife, with a variety of cultural options for tourists and the 300,000 inhabitants of the country’s third-largest city.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Aid Agencies Launch Emergency Hotline for Displaced Iraqishttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-aid-agencies-launch-emergency-hotline-for-displaced-iraqis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-aid-agencies-launch-emergency-hotline-for-displaced-iraqis http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-aid-agencies-launch-emergency-hotline-for-displaced-iraqis/#comments Tue, 25 Aug 2015 04:58:39 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142125 Children have born the brunt of Iraq’s on-going conflict. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

Children have born the brunt of Iraq’s on-going conflict. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 25 2015 (IPS)

In the hopes of better responding to the needs of over three million displaced Iraqis, United Nations aid agencies today launched a national hotline to provide information on emergency humanitarian services like food distribution, healthcare and shelter.

The ongoing crisis in Iraq has spurred a refugee crisis of “unprecedented” proportions, with over 3.1 million forced into displacement since January 2014 alone, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

IDPs are scattered across 3,000 locations around the country, with many thousands in remote areas inaccessible by aid workers, said a joint statement released Monday by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In total, 8.2 million Iraqis – nearly 25 percent of this population of 33 million – are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Speaking to IPS over the phone from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, Kareem Elbayar, programme manager at the U.N. Office of Project Services (UNOPS), which is running the call center, explained that the new service aims to provide life-saving data on almost all relief operations being carried out by U.N. agencies and humanitarian NGOs.

Still in its pilot phase, the Erbil-based center can be reached via any Iraqi mobile phone by dialing 6999.

“We have a total of seven operators who are working a standard working day, from 8:30am to 5:30pm [Sunday through Thursday]. They speak Arabic, English and both Sorani and Badini forms of Kurdish,” Elbayar told IPS.

The number of calls that can be routed through the information hub at any given time depends on each individual user’s phone network: for instance, Korek, the main mobile phone provider in northern Iraq, has made 20 lines available.

“That means 20 people can call in at the same time, but the 21st caller will get a busy signal,” Elbayar said.

Other phone providers, however, can provide only a handful of lines at one time.

Quoting statistics from an August 2014 report by the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) network, Elbayar said mobile phone penetration in the war-ravaged country is over 90 percent, meaning “nearly every IDP has access to a cell phone” – if not their own, then one belonging to a friend or family member.

Incidentally, it was a recommendation made in the CDAC report that first planted the idea of a centralized helpline in the minds of aid agencies, made possible by financial contributions from UNHCR, the WFP, and OCHA.

Elbayar says pilot-phase funding, which touched 750,000 dollars, enabled UNOPS to procure the necessary staff and equipment to get a basic, yearlong operation underway.

It was built with “expandability in mind”, he says – the center has the capacity to hold 250 operators at a time – but additional funding will be needed to extend the initiative.

Establishing the hotline is only a first step – the harder part is getting word out about its existence.

Relief agencies are putting up flyers and stickers in camps, but 90 percent of IDPs live outside the camps in communities doing their best to protect and provide for war-weary civilians on the run, according to OCHA’s latest Humanitarian Response Plan for Iraq.

“Both the Federal Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government have offered to do a mass SMS blast to all the mobile phone holders in certain areas,” Elbayar explained, “so we hope to be able to send a message to every cell phone in Iraq with information about the call center.”

Violence and fighting linked to the territorial advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the government’s counter-insurgency operations have created a humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

The 2015 Humanitarian Response Plan estimates that close to 6.7 million people do not have access to health services, and 4.1 million of the 7.1 million people who currently require water, sanitation and hygiene services are in “dire need”.

Children have been among the hardest hit, with scores of kids injured, abused, traumatized or on the verge of starving. Almost three million children and adolescents affected by the conflict have been cut off from schools.

Fifty percent of displaced people are urgently in need of shelter, and 700,000 are languishing in makeshift tents or abandoned buildings.

In June OCHA reported, “A large part of Iraq’s cereal belt is now directly under the control of armed groups. Infrastructure has been destroyed and crop production significantly reduced.”

As a result, some 4.4 million people require emergency food assistance. Many are malnourished and tens of thousands skip at least one meal daily, while too many people often go an entire day without anything at all to eat.

Whether or not the helpline will significantly reduce the woes of the displaced in the long term remains to be seen, as aid agencies grapple with major funding shortfalls and the number of people in need shows no sign of declining.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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UAE Wins Hearts and Minds at World Exhibition in Milanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/uae-wins-hearts-and-minds-at-world-exhibition-in-milan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=uae-wins-hearts-and-minds-at-world-exhibition-in-milan http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/uae-wins-hearts-and-minds-at-world-exhibition-in-milan/#comments Fri, 21 Aug 2015 21:44:36 +0000 Jaya Ramachandran http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142091 Courtesy of UAE Expo Milano 2015.

Courtesy of UAE Expo Milano 2015.

By Jaya Ramachandran
MILAN, Aug 21 2015 (IPS)

She only turned nine last June. But Mahra Mustafa has become a celebrity at the Expo Milan. She stars as Sara in ‘The Family Tree’, a short film on the UAE’s heritage being screened at the United Arab Emirates pavilion. Sara is in fact the face of young, dynamic and innovative Emirates.

Thousands of Italians and foreign visitors, who throng the UAE pavilion day in and day out, are enchanted by the 12-metre tall sinuous rippled walls that provide an unforgettable experience and give an idea of what the Emirates would offer during the Dubai Expo in 2020.“People get mesmerised with how the UAE has grown from facing challenges like lack of water, coping with heat, humidity, lack of natural resources and still managed to create beautiful cities and communities.” -- Nawal Al Hosany

The Dubai Expo from Oct 20, 2020 through Apr 10, 2021, will launch the UAE’s Golden Jubilee celebration and “serve as a springboard from which to inaugurate a progressive and sustainable vision for the coming decades”, according to information posted on its website.

The organisers proudly announce: “This will be the first time that a World Expo is staged in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region.”

While Expo Milan from May 1 to Oct 31 is focussing on ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, Dubai’s World Expo will have ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ as its theme, echoing the powerful spirit of partnership and co-operation that has driven the UAE’s success in pioneering new paths of development and innovation, the organisers say.

“Through this theme, Expo 2020 Dubai will serve as a catalyst, connecting minds from around the world and inspiring participants to mobilise around shared challenges during a World Expo of unprecedented global scope,” the organisers add.

As compared to Expo Milan, which expects to welcome 20 million visitors during six months, Expo 2020 Dubai awaits 25 million visits, 70 per cent from abroad – if only to feel and experience Sara’s ‘The Family Tree’.

“People got so excited seeing movies on Dubai, the feedback we got was that people want to visit before Expo 2020,” ‘The National’, UAE’s English-language publication, quoted Amal Al Kuwaiti, a contract engineer with the Abu Dhabi Distribution Company who worked as a volunteer at the UAE pavilion in Milan.

The architects worked closely with the UAE’s National Media Council to create the pavilion and connect it to the Milan theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, notes The National.

“Many were surprised to see the country with not much water, how people searched for food. Then suddenly they see videos of the Burj Khalifa (a skyscraper in Dubai) and they are thrilled. Even people who have been to Dubai long ago want to see the changes,” he added.

“People get mesmerised with how the UAE has grown from facing challenges like lack of water, coping with heat, humidity, lack of natural resources and still managed to create beautiful cities and communities,” Nawal Al Hosany, director of sustainability at Masdar, told The National newspaper. He was involved in building the UAE pavilion.

Describing the highlights of the ‘The Family Tree’, the Gulf News writes: Sara is transported back in time, during the generation of her grandparents. Sara gets to live and witness what life was like before modernisation and development in the area, living in the harsh desert conditions, facing many challenges such as finding food and water, and dealing with sandstorms and wild animals.

“The movie’s special effects, story, and professional direction is on par with any Hollywood major production,” claims the Gulf News with some justification.

It is not only the film but also Sara’s rap song that ties in to the Milan Expo theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life: “We have land and food and energy/The sun, the sand and the big blue sea/The people, the animals/I’m beginning to see/Are all interconnected like a tapestry . . .”

The song is for sale on iTunes and the proceeds are going to victims of Nepal’s earthquakes.

When the film The Family Tree ends, visitors are invited to switch to an interactive  ‘Future Talk’, with the presentation being delivered by Sara. The main message of the talk is to encourage people to live their lives in a more sustainable and energy-friendly manner, so that we can have a better future in feeding the planet.

The UAE pavilion also highlights the importance of date palms, a major component of Emirati culture and tradition. The exhibition, ‘The Secret Life of Date Palms’, informs about the date palm features, its form, fruit, hydration, metamorphosis, shade and shadow. As part of the exhibition visitors also get to experience and see the date palms for themselves, with an oasis garden and date palm trees present at the pavilion.

Walking along the sinuous rippled walls, visitors pass by 12 media cubes. These refer to 12 challenges the UAE faces in respect of land, energy, water and food. Then follow the 12 media cubes with 12 solutions. One of the challenges the Emirates face is that it barely gets any rain, and so the solution in providing clean drinking water to its population is through new methods of desalinated seawater using renewable energy.

The media cubes also offer visitors an insight into the UAE and its culture, with five short Discovery films about the UAE. ‘Flavors of the Emirates’ is a short film about the traditional and cultural foods of the UAE.

Another short film, “Helping Feed the Planet”, touches on the UAE’s generous contribution in giving aid to 140 countries around the world, with the short movie going to Ethiopia where schoolchildren are provided with healthy food thanks to a programme funded and organised by Dubai Cares.

Emiratis acting as volunteers and ambassadors at the pavilion are also present to help guide and further explain the culture and history of the UAE, making the tour as interactive as possible for visitors.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Q&A: MDG Victories Take Spotlight at South-South Awardshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/qa-mdg-victories-take-spotlight-at-south-south-awards/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=qa-mdg-victories-take-spotlight-at-south-south-awards http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/qa-mdg-victories-take-spotlight-at-south-south-awards/#comments Fri, 21 Aug 2015 14:53:55 +0000 Nora Happel http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142079

Nora Happel interviews H.E. Alexandru Cujba, Secretary-General of the South-South Steering Committee for Sustainable Development (SS-SCSD) and Director-General of the International Organization for South-South Cooperation (IOSSC).

By Nora Happel
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 21 2015 (IPS)

Next month, the South-South Awards will be taking place for the fifth time, honouring the achievements and contributions of heads of state and government, as well as representatives from the private sector and civil society in promoting sustainable development in the Global South.

Alexandru Cujba. Credit: South-South Steering Committee for Sustainable Development (SS-SCSD)

Alexandru Cujba. Credit: South-South Steering Committee for Sustainable Development (SS-SCSD)

2015 is a special year in many respects, with the U.N. celebrating its 70th anniversary and U.N. member states concluding their work on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and preparing for the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The South-South Awards, on Sep. 26, are going to be held in support of these major events that will shape the new development agenda for the next 15 years.

The South-South Awards are perhaps the most prominent example of the many development programmes designed and implemented by the International Organization for South-South Cooperation (IOSSC) to support U.N. development efforts, exchange knowledge and best practices in the area of South-South Cooperation and Triangular Cooperation and build partnerships between governments from developing countries and private sector companies.

Launched in 2010 during the 16th session of the United Nations High-level Committee on South-South Cooperation against the backdrop of chronic under-coverage of the Global South, IOSSC has started with the news programme “South-South News” and since moved into project development to expand its practice areas into the fields of business development and social development.

Last year, the organisation launched the South-South Steering Committee for Sustainable Development (SS-SCSD), an umbrella structure supporting its different activities and also, in particular, the South-South Awards.

In an interview with IPS, SS-SCSD Secretary-General and IOSSC Director-General H.E. Alexander Cujba, former Permanent Representative of Moldova to the United Nations and former Vice-President of the U.N. General Assembly, shared some insights on the 2015 South-South Awards."We tried to highlight both major achievements and also some particular, not necessarily big achievements... but that are considerable for those small and least developed countries that are struggling with their development."

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: This year, the MDGs will be replaced by the SDGs. This process has been reflected in the theme for the 2015 South-South Awards, which is “From MDGs to SDGs: Supporting poverty reduction, education, and humanitarian efforts.”

Will the 2015 South-South Awards be different from previous ones due to the important events happening this year such as the adoption of the SDGs, first of all, but also for instance the 70th anniversary of the U.N.?

A: This is the fifth year that we organise the South-South Awards and I would say that this year will be both a continuation of our previous ceremonies as well as a different event because, as you rightly mention, we conclude the MDGs and we are moving to a new agenda, the post-2015 development agenda.

So while previously we were recognising achievements of the member states in specific areas that were linked to specific MDGs, this year we want to emphasise the achievements of member states in implementing all eight MDGs.

Of course, results differ and not only results of the different countries and regions, but also results in different MDGs. I think that undoubtedly, MDG no. 1, combating poverty and hunger, was a major MDG. So therefore, this year, we partner with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and our traditional supporter, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in order to emphasise the achievements of U.N. member states and developing countries specifically with regard to MDG no. 1.

Apart from that, we also use this opportunity – because it is the 70th anniversary of the U.N. – to highlight the role that the U.N. had over the last 70 years not only in the area of preserving peace and security but also in promoting development. At a time when many scholars, politicians, experts discuss the creation and the need for the United Nations in 1945, we see that now the U.N. has to bring a new impulse to the development of member states, not only preserving security and peace, but also supporting the sustainable development of its member states.

Q: What are the main objectives of the South-South Awards? Can you tell me about some of the results of previous South-South Awards?

A: Working with different missions here at the U.N., we learn that small countries, particularly least developed countries, have their own positive results and achievements that frequently are not known except by the diplomatic world, except by the U.N.

Therefore, in previous years, we wanted to highlight specifically these small but extremely important results for those developing countries. That’s why every year we were working with our co-organisers in order to identify the best practices and achievements of those developing states in different specific areas.

This year, however, we want to emphasise the overall implementation of the MDGs. It is a good opportunity for us to highlight the congregation of efforts in order to achieve those noble goals that were adopted in 2000.

Q: How are the winners of the South-South Awards selected and which criteria have been most relevant this year in choosing the winners?

A: We have learned from other awards that were presented by different U.N. agencies. They have some specific criteria that are linked to the work, mission and goals of the U.N. agencies and structures that co-organise the respective events.

In our case we want to emphasise the results of the implementation of the MDGs but also the positive examples of South-South and Triangular Cooperation. As countries from different continents differ by size, resources and achievements, it is hard to compare the results achieved by these different countries.

On the other hand, we put emphasis on both the difference and unity of these countries. As I said, sometimes we don’t know what was achieved in for example Lesotho or Costa Rica or Tajikistan, Sri Lanka and many other countries around the world. So therefore we use the database and the statistics of major U.N. organisations.

This year we used in particular the MDG report that was prepared by the U.N. Secretariat and especially the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). We used the Food Insecurity Report of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and other related agencies and of course we referred to the report of the Secretary-General on the work of the Organisation.

We tried to highlight both major achievements and also some particular, not necessarily big achievements by number of population raised from hunger or by number of children going to school, but that are considerable for those small and least developed countries that are struggling with their development.

Q: Which guests do you expect this year?

A: The South-South Awards ceremony is traditionally organised prior to the General Debate of the U.N. General Assembly. We invite heads of delegations that attend the General Debate and also the heads of the diplomatic missions, permanent missions to the U.N. and consulates in New York.

Amongst our participants are also high-level officials from the U.N. and from inter-governmental organisations that are part of the U.N. system. We also have CEOs of major corporations that are collaborating and working in the developing world. We have celebrities and civil society leaders. Our mission is to bring together all stakeholders that are part of development.

Right now, we have received confirmation from numerous heads of state and government that are coming to New York to attend the Summit on the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the General Debate. This year, we will therefore have a very diverse high-level participation with a total of around 800 guests expected.

Q: What are your hopes and expectations for the 2015 South-South Awards?

A: We hope that we will be able to emphasise the achievements, big and small, but important for the developing countries in implementing the MDGs and moving towards a new post-2015 development agenda. We want these lessons to be shared as widely as possible and be transferred to other countries.

We have all these good examples. We now have to learn from those positive experiences of developing and least developed states. I sincerely hope that our participants will have a good experience, enjoy the awards and that we will be able to continue our cooperation and our mission which is to bring together different stakeholders with the goal of supporting developing states and development initiatives.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

 

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U.N. Remains Helpless Watching Rising Deaths of Children in War Zoneshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-remains-helpless-watching-rising-deaths-of-children-in-war-zones/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-remains-helpless-watching-rising-deaths-of-children-in-war-zones http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-remains-helpless-watching-rising-deaths-of-children-in-war-zones/#comments Thu, 20 Aug 2015 19:44:23 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142076 Children residing at a Protection of Civilians (POC) site run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) perform at a special cultural event in Juba March 27, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Children residing at a Protection of Civilians (POC) site run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) perform at a special cultural event in Juba March 27, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 20 2015 (IPS)

The rising death toll of civilians, specifically women and children, in ongoing military conflicts is generating strong messages of condemnation from international institutions and human rights organisations – with the United Nations remaining helpless as killings keep multiplying.

The worst offenders are warring parties in “the world’s five most conflicted countries”, namely Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), and most horrifically, Yemen, where civilian casualties have been rising almost by the hour.According to UNICEF, there have not been this many child refugees since the end of the Second World War.

The 1949 Geneva Convention, which governs the basic rules of war, has also continued to be violated in conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Gaza, Nigeria, Myanmar, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), among other military hotspots.

The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, says some 230 million children grow up caught in the middle of conflicts, involving both governments and “terror groups” such as Boko Haram, Islamic State (IS), and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

According to a new report by UNICEF, one of the worst cases is Yemen where an average of eight children are being killed or maimed every day.

The study, titled Yemen: Childhood Under Threat, says nearly 400 children have been killed and over 600 others injured since the violence escalated about four months ago.

In the conflict in Gaza last year, according to U.N. statistics, more than 2,100 were killed, including 1,462 civilians. And the civilian killings included 495 children and 253 women compared with the death toll of 72 Israelis, including seven civilians.

Addressing the Security Council during an open debate on children and armed conflict last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there was “a moral imperative and a legal obligation” to protect children — and they should “never be jeopardized by national interests.”

He said 2014 was one of the worst years in recent memory for children in countries devastated by military conflicts.

The conflict in Yemen is a particular tragedy for children, says UNICEF Representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis. “Children are being killed by bombs or bullets and those that survive face the growing threat of disease and malnutrition. This cannot be allowed to continue,” he added.

As devastating as the conflict is for the lives of children right now, says the UNICEF report, “it will have terrifying consequences for their future.”

Across the country, nearly 10 million children – 80 per cent of the country’s under-18 population – are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. More than 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes, the report said.

The New York office of the Tokyo-based Arigatou International, which has taken a lead role in protecting children at the grassroots level, is hosting a forum on “Religious Ideals and Reality: Responsibility of Leadership to Prevent Violence against Children,” in Geneva next week.

The forum is being co-hosted by ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), a global network dedicated to protecting children.

Rebeca Rios-Kohn, director of the Arigatou International New York Office, told IPS interfaith dialogue can play a critical role in bringing about behavioural change in areas of the world affected by armed conflicts.

“Religious leaders who have strong moral authority and credibility can influence positive change,” she added.

She pointed out the example of “corridors of peace” promoted by UNICEF which allowed vaccination of children to take place in conflict areas.

“However, while this is an important and tragic issue which receives great attention by the media, we must not forget that the issue of violence is global and affects many more children within the home, school and community, as well as orphanages, detention centres and other institutions where children are residing.”

Also, she said, the phenomenon of online exploitation of children, which will be addressed at the Forum, is a huge problem that has the attention of experts including Interpol due to its growing magnitude and the fact that the perpetrators can get away with it so easily.

“In other words, the work that we are doing focuses more on the broader dimensions of the problem,” she noted.

“We collaborate closely with the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), another Arigatou Initiative that is led from Nairobi.”

Together, she said, the initiatives draw on the religious teachings and values of all major religions and on the power of prayer, meditation and diverse forms of worship to mobilise concrete actions for children.

Jo Becker, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, points out that children’s education has also suffered, as armed forces or groups damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 schools around the globe last year.

The most affected schools were in Palestine, where Israeli airstrikes and shelling damaged or destroyed 543 schools in Gaza, and Nigeria, where the Islamist armed group Boko Haram carried out attacks on 338 schools, including the abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno, in April 2014.

The result: hundreds of thousands of children are denied an education, she said.

According to UNICEF, there have not been this many child refugees since the end of the Second World War.

Meanwhile, the UNICEF report outlines the different dimensions of the crisis facing children in Yemen including:

At least 398 children killed and 605 injured as a result since the conflict escalated in March.

Children recruited or used in the conflict has more than doubled – from 156 in 2014 to 377 so far verified in 2015; 15.2 million people lack access to basic health care, with 900 health facilities closed since March 26; and 1.8 million children are likely to suffer from some form of malnutrition by the end of the year.

Additionally, 20.4 million people are in need of assistance to establish or maintain access to safe water and sanitation due to fuel shortages, infrastructure damage and insecurity, and nearly 3,600 schools have closed down, affecting over 1.8 million children.

Over the past six months, the children’s agency has provided psychological support to help over 150,000 children cope with the horrors of the conflict. Some 280,000 people have learnt how to avoid injury from unexploded ordnances and mines.

Yet despite the tremendous needs, UNICEF says its response remains grossly underfunded.

With only 16 per cent of the agency’s funding appeal of 182.6 million dollars met so far, “Yemen is one of the most under-funded of the different emergencies UNICEF is currently responding to around the world.”

“We urgently need funds so we can reach children in desperate need,” said Harneis. “We cannot stand by and let children suffer the consequences of a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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U.N. Official Says Human Suffering in Yemen ‘Almost Incomprehensible’http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-official-says-human-suffering-in-yemen-almost-incomprehensible/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-official-says-human-suffering-in-yemen-almost-incomprehensible http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-official-says-human-suffering-in-yemen-almost-incomprehensible/#comments Thu, 20 Aug 2015 19:16:13 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142073 The 15-member Security Council discusses the security situation in Yemen on Aug. 20, 2015, at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The 15-member Security Council discusses the security situation in Yemen on Aug. 20, 2015, at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 20 2015 (IPS)

With a staggering four in five Yemenis now in need of immediate humanitarian aid, 1.5 million people displaced and a death toll that has surpassed 4,000 in just five months, a United Nations official told the Security Council Wednesday that the scale of human suffering is “almost incomprehensible”.

Briefing the 15-member body upon his return from the embattled Arab nation on Aug. 19, Under-Secretary-General for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien stressed that the civilian population is bearing the brunt of the conflict and warned that unless warring parties came to the negotiating table there would soon be “nothing left to fight for”.

An August assessment report by Save the Children-Yemen on the humanitarian situation in the country of 26 million noted that over 21 million people, or 80 percent of the population, require urgent relief in the form of food, fuel, medicines, sanitation and shelter.

The health sector is on the verge of collapse, and the threat of famine looms large, with an estimated 12 million people facing “critical levels of food insecurity”, the organisation said.

In a sign of what O’Brien denounced as a blatant “disregard for human life” by all sides in the conflict, children have paid a heavy price for the fighting: 400 kids have lost their lives, while 600 of the estimated 22,000 wounded are children.

Aid groups say Monday’s bombing of the Houthi rebel-controlled Red Sea port by Saudi military jets has greatly worsened the risk of continued suffering, since the port served as the main entry point for shipments of humanitarian supplies.

In a statement published shortly after the airstrikes, Edward Santiago, Save the Children’s Country Director for Yemen, said, “We don’t yet know the full extent of the damage at Hodeida but we can’t lose a day; time is running out for Yemen’s children who are already at risk of starvation, disease, and abuse.”

He said there are already 5.9 million children going hungry, 624,000 displaced and about 7.3 million sick and wounded kids who are not receiving medical attention.

Even as civilians’ needs multiply, funding for the humanitarian response remains slow.

U.N. agencies say they have only received 282 million dollars for the response plan, just 18 percent of the 1.6-billion-dollar sum requested. Even if Saudi Arabia makes good on its pledge of 274 million dollars it will only bring funding up to 33 percent of the total required to adequately meet the crisis.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said Wednesday its operations, too, are “grossly underfunded”; the agency has received just 16 percent of an urgent 182.6-million-dollar funding appeal.

The scale and rapid escalation of the conflict has much of the international community stunned. President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, said after a three-day visit to Yemen earlier this month that he was “appalled” by the situation for civilians, which is “nothing short of catastrophic”.

Having witnessed the destruction first-hand he added in a press interview on Aug. 19, “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.”

O’Brien described the southern port city of Aden as a “shattered” metropolis, “where unexploded ordnance litter the streets and buildings”; while the city of Sana’a is pock-marked with craters left by airstrikes.

While humanitarian groups struggle to provide life-saving supplies, human rights watchdogs say the combination of Saudi-coalition-led airstrikes from above and fighting between pro- and anti Houthi armed groups on the ground have put civilians in an impossible situation.

A new Amnesty International report documenting what the organisation calls a “gruesome and bloody trail of death and destruction” suggests that unlawful attacks by all parties may amount to war crimes.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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The Future Tastes Like Chocolate for Rural Salvadoran Womenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/the-future-tastes-like-chocolate-for-some-rural-salvadoran-women/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-future-tastes-like-chocolate-for-some-rural-salvadoran-women http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/the-future-tastes-like-chocolate-for-some-rural-salvadoran-women/#comments Thu, 20 Aug 2015 17:30:36 +0000 Edgardo Ayala http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142066 The hands of Idalia Ramón care for the cacao beans produced in the town of Caluco in western El Salvador. She and a group of women transform the beans into hand-made chocolate, in an ecological process that is taking off in this Central American country thanks to the national project Alianza Cacao, aimed at reviving the cultivation of cacao and improving the future of 10,000 small farming families. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

The hands of Idalia Ramón care for the cacao beans produced in the town of Caluco in western El Salvador. She and a group of women transform the beans into hand-made chocolate, in an ecological process that is taking off in this Central American country thanks to the national project Alianza Cacao, aimed at reviving the cultivation of cacao and improving the future of 10,000 small farming families. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
CALUCO/MERCEDES UMAÑA, El Salvador, Aug 20 2015 (IPS)

Idalia Ramón and 10 other rural Salvadoran women take portions of the freshly ground chocolate paste, weigh it, and make chocolates in the shapes of stars, rectangles or bells before packaging them for sale.

“This is a completely new source of work for us, we didn’t know anything about cacao or chocolate,” Ramón tells IPS. Before this, the 38-year-old widow was barely able to support her three children – ages 11, 13 and 15 – selling corn tortillas, a staple of the Central American and Mexican diet.

She is one of the women taking part in chocolate production in Caluco, a town of 10,000 in the department or province of Sonsonate in western El Salvador, in the context of a project that forms part of a national effort to revive cacao production.

“Now I have extra income; we can see the advantages that cacao brings to our communities,” she said.“On one hand this is about reviving the age-old cultivation of a product that is rooted in our culture, and on the other it’s about boosting economic and social development in our communities.” -- María de los Ángeles Escobar

She and the rest of the women work at what they call the “processing centre”, which they put a lot of work into setting up. Here they turn the cacao beans into hand-made organic chocolates.

Since December, the effort to revive cacao production has taken shape in the Alianza Cacao El Salvador cacao alliance, which has brought together cooperatives and farmers from different regions, including these women who have become experts in making artisan chocolate.

The paste that comes out of the grinder is given different shapes, most frequently round bars. Dissolved in boiling water, the chocolate is used to make one of El Salvador’s favorite beverages.

Over the next five years, the Alianza Cacao aims to generate incomes for 10,000 cacao growing families in 87 of the country’s 262 municipalities, with 10,000 hectares planted in the crop. The idea is to generate some 27,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“The project is helping us to overcome the difficult economic situation, and to increase our production, thus improving incomes,” another local farmer, 33-year-old María Alas, tells IPS as she deftly forms hand-made chocolates in different shapes.

The Alianza Cacao has received 25 million dollars – 20 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S.-based Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the rest from local sources.

Four of the women who make chocolate in the community processing centre in Caluco, a town in western El Salvador, check the paste that comes out of the grinder before making organic chocolate bars and chocolates of different shapes. They are part of the Alianza Cacao project which is aimed at reviving the production of cacao, once a key element of this country’s history, culture and economy, but which was abandoned. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Four of the women who make chocolate in the community processing centre in Caluco, a town in western El Salvador, check the paste that comes out of the grinder before making organic chocolate bars and chocolates of different shapes. They are part of the Alianza Cacao project which is aimed at reviving the production of cacao, once a key element of this country’s history, culture and economy, but which was abandoned. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

In the pre-Columbian era, cacao beans were used as currency in Central America and southern Mexico, and later they were used to pay tribute to the Spanish crown.

Although cacao plantations practically disappeared in modern-day El Salvador due to pest and disease outbreaks, hot chocolate remained a popular traditional drink, and for that purpose cacao was imported from neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua.

“On one hand this is about reviving the age-old cultivation of a product that is rooted in our culture, and on the other it’s about boosting economic and social development in our communities,” María de los Ángeles Escobar, director of the Casa de la Cultura or cultural centre in Caluco, told IPS.

The idea emerged as an alternative to mitigate the impact of coffee rust or roya, caused by the hemileia vastatrix fungus, which has affected 21 percent of coffee plants in the country, according to official estimates, and has reduced rural employment and incomes.

In El Salvador, 38 percent of the population of 6.2 million lives in rural areas. And according to the World Bank, 36 percent of rural inhabitants were living in poverty in 2013. This vulnerability was aggravated by the impact of coffee rust and the effects on corn and bean production of drought caused by El Niño – a cyclical climate phenomenon that affects weather patterns around the world – which has hurt 400,000 small farmers.

Caluco and four other municipalities in Sonsonate – areas in western El Salvador with a large indigenous presence – have joined the project: San Antonio del Monte, Nahuilingo, Izalco and Nahuizalco.

Farmers in the five municipalities – including the women interviewed in Caluco – set up the Asociación Cooperativa de Producción Agropecuaria Cacao Los Izalcos cacao cooperative, in order to join forces at each stage of the production chain.

Cacao growers, mainly women, during a training session on how to make organic fertiliser to enrich the soil on their land in San Simón, a village in the municipality of Mercedes Umaña in the eastern Salvadoran department of Usulután. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Cacao growers, mainly women, during a training session on how to make organic fertiliser to enrich the soil on their land in San Simón, a village in the municipality of Mercedes Umaña in the eastern Salvadoran department of Usulután. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

The cooperative has 111 hectares of cacao trees. Because they need shade to grow, the farmers plant them alongside fruit and timber trees.

In the first few months after it was formed, the Alianza Cacao focused on growing seedlings in nurseries that the members began to plant on their farms. The trees start to bear fruit when they are three or four years old.

But in Caluco local farmers are already making chocolate, because there were cacao producers in the municipality, who used locally-grown cacao along with imported beans to produce chocolate. In fact, Caluco was historically inhabited by Pilpil indigenous people, whose cacao was famous in colonial times.

“We hope that next year our production level will be higher; output today is low, because things are just getting started,” the vice president of the Asociación Cooperativa de Producción Agropecuaria Cacao Los Izalcos cooperative, Raquel Santos, tells IPS.

When the cooperative’s production peaks, it hopes to produce 500 kg a month of cacao, Artiga said.

Although for now the chocolate they produce is all hand-made, the members of the cooperative plan in the future to make chocolate bars on a more industrial scale. But that will depend on their initial success.

Since the cooperative was founded, the aim has been for women’s participation to be decisive in the local development of cacao production.

The Caluco Local Cacao Committee is made up of 29 male farmers and 25 women who process the beans and produce chocolate. They have a nursery and have built the first collection centre for locally produced cacao.

In the nursery, students from the local school are taught planting techniques and the importance of cacao in their history, culture and, now, economy.

Miriam Bermúdez, one of the rural women who joined the project to grow cacao in San Simón, a village in the eastern Salvadoran municipality of Mercedes Umaña, outside the Vivero La Colmena, the nursery where the 25,000 cacao seedlings to be planted on 25 hectares belonging to the participants in the initiative are grown. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Miriam Bermúdez, one of the rural women who joined the project to grow cacao in San Simón, a village in the eastern Salvadoran municipality of Mercedes Umaña, outside the Vivero La Colmena, the nursery where the 25,000 cacao seedlings to be planted on 25 hectares belonging to the participants in the initiative are grown. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

On the other side of the country, in the eastern department of Usulután, 52-year-old Miriam Bermúdez is one of the most enthusiastic participants in the Vivero La Colmena community nursery project. She managed to convince other people in her home village, San Simón in the municipality of Mercedes Umaña, to join the Alianza Cacao.

“I used to drink chocolate without even knowing what tree it came from. But now I have learned a lot about the production process,” Bermúdez tells IPS during a break in the training that she and a group of men and women farmers are receiving about producing organic fertiliser.

The pesticide-free fertiliser will nourish the soil where the cacao trees are planted.

There are 25,000 seedlings in the nursery, enough to cover 25 hectares of land on local farms with cacao trees. The project also has an irrigation system, to avoid the effects of periodic drought.

While the seedlings grow big enough to plant, the farmers of Mercedes Umaña are deciding which fruit and timber trees to grow alongside the cacao trees for shade. These trees will also generate incomes, or already do so in some cases.

Bermúdez, on her .7 hectare-farm, has planted plantain and banana trees, as well as a variety of vegetables, to boost her food security.

“When the vegetable truck comes by I never buy anything because I get everything I need from my garden,” she says proudly.

Her 16-year-old granddaughter Esmeralda Bermúdez has decided to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and participates actively in the different tasks involved in cacao production in her community.

“I really like learning new things, like preparing the soil or making organic compost,” she told IPS after the training session.

In Usulután, besides the municipality of Mercedes Umaña, cacao production has extended to the towns of Jiquilisco, San Dionisio, Jucuarán, Jucuapa, California, Alegría, Berlín and Nueva Granada. In each municipality there is a nursery of cacao tree seedlings run by 25 families.

That is another important component of the Alianza Cacao: the final product has to be high-quality and organic, because the goal is to promote sustainable development. Planting cacao trees is an ecological activity in and of itself, because it creates forests, when the cacao trees are full-grown.

“It’s very important for the farmers to know that their plantations can be managed ecologically, for the good of the environment, and also because the product fetches a better price,” Griselda Alvarenga, an adviser to the project, tells IPS.

This article forms part of a reporting series conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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U.N. Relief Agency Pledges to Open Schools ‘On Time’ for Half a Million Palestinian Refugeeshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-relief-agency-pledges-to-open-schools-on-time-for-half-a-million-palestinian-refugees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-relief-agency-pledges-to-open-schools-on-time-for-half-a-million-palestinian-refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-relief-agency-pledges-to-open-schools-on-time-for-half-a-million-palestinian-refugees/#comments Wed, 19 Aug 2015 21:19:16 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142054 Schoolgirls play with each other in Gaza. Scores of Palestinian children and refugees are dependent on the international humanitarian community for their education needs. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

Schoolgirls play with each other in Gaza. Scores of Palestinian children and refugees are dependent on the international humanitarian community for their education needs. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 19 2015 (IPS)

Overcoming a serious funding shortfall, and caught between numerous regional conflicts, the United Nation’s humanitarian agency for Palestinian refugees announced on Aug. 19 that it would nevertheless open schools on time for the roughly half-a-million children who rely on the international community for their education.

In a statement released today, the cash-strapped U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) promised to start the school year on schedule, allowing over 500,000 kids in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to return to their classrooms between Aug. 24 and Sept. 13.

Established in 1949 to address the needs of some five million Palestinian refugees, UNRWA runs 685 schools across Gaza, the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries.

“It is on the benches and behind the desks of UNRWA classrooms that millions of Palestine refugees, deprived for so long of a just and lasting solution, have built the capabilities and shaped the determination that enabled them to become actors of their own destinies,” the agency said in a press release issued Wednesday.

For months both UNRWA and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have stressed the importance of uninterrupted schooling for Palestinian refugees, and warned of the risks of allowing a generation of young people to be forgotten.

Congratulating UNRWA on its tireless efforts, Ban said in a statement Wednesday, “This achievement cannot be underestimated at a time of rising extremism in one of the world’s most unstable regions”, adding: “[For Palestine refugees] education is a passport to dignity. We must stand by them and the agency that serves them.”

Ban thanked member states for their contributions to UNRWA’s coffers, which include a 19-million-dollar contribution from Saudi Arabia and 15 million dollars each from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

To date, the agency has received contributions amounting to 78.9 billion dollars, or just over 75 percent of the 101-million-dollar deficit. The money will go towards fulfilling UNRWA’s mandate of providing health care, relief and social services, camp improvement and education.

Numerous obstacles stand between Palestinian children and their classrooms. In documenting some of these challenges, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) lists such issues as military incursions; demolitions of schools buildings; restrictions on movement or limited access to school premises; and damage and destruction of school property.

A 2013 UNICEF report entitled Education Under Occupation revealed that 38 schools serving approximately 3,000 children in Area C of the West Bank and East Jerusalem “have been issued either verbal and/or written stop-work or demolition orders by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA).”

In the 2011-2012 period, UNICEF recorded 63 instances of “denial of access” to education in the Occupied Territories, which affected over 34,000 Palestinian students.

During the seven-week-long conflict in Gaza last summer some 327 schools were partially or completely obliterated, according to a 2015 UNICEF update, stripping thousands of kids of their only protective environment.

The situation is even more precarious for Palestinian refugees, who are often closer to the frontlines of conflict and thereby face greater risks in their quest to gain a decent education.

For instance in the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, home to an estimated 16,000 Palestinians, all 28 schools have been closed and the only education opportunities exist in the form of informal classes conducted by volunteer teachers in 10 “safe spaces”, according to a report by the Guardian.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: The Writing on the Western Wallhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/opinion-the-writing-on-the-western-wall/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-writing-on-the-western-wall http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/opinion-the-writing-on-the-western-wall/#comments Wed, 19 Aug 2015 17:40:57 +0000 Joseph Chamie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142045 Western wall in Jerusalem at night. Credit: Wayne McLean/cc by 2.0

Western wall in Jerusalem at night. Credit: Wayne McLean/cc by 2.0

By Joseph Chamie
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 19 2015 (IPS)

The writing on the Western Wall is evident to most Israelis: “דמוגרפיה היא גורל” or “demography is destiny”. Those unwilling to acknowledge the prophetic message are either deceiving themselves or simply ignoring it in order to avoid facing the implications of demography for Israel’s future.

In order to be both a Jewish and democratic state, Israel has adhered to a clear demographic principle:  maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority. During the first few decades following its establishment in 1948, the proportions Jewish among the several million Israelis remained at record highs of nearly 90 percent (Figure 1).In the immediate aftermath of the two-state solution’s formal demise, Israel will try to avoid facing demographic realities and maintain an untenable status quo.

Since then, even with the large-scale Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Jewish proportion in Israel, while still a sizeable majority, has declined steadily. Today the proportion Jewish among the Israeli population of more than eight million is at an historic low of 75 percent.

Although the country’s Jewish majority will likely continue to decline slightly over the next 20 years, it is expected to remain over 70 percent according to official Israeli population projections. Those projections, however, assume that no significant numbers of non-Jews outside pre-1967 Israel are granted Israeli citizenship. If this assumption is relaxed, very different demographic futures emerge for Israel.

The Israeli population, for example, could be combined with the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to form a single state with universal suffrage, in other words the one-state solution. While the expanded nation would continue to be democratic in principle, it would no longer be a Jewish state because the majority of the enlarged Israeli population would no longer be Jewish.

Source: Israel Central Bureaus of Statistics and United Nations Population Division

Source: Israel Central Bureaus of Statistics and United Nations Population Division

A more likely possibility perhaps would be for the Palestinians in the West Bank to be granted Israeli citizenship. At least during the first couple of decades of such a scenario, Jewish Israelis would retain their majority, being slightly above half of the total population.

However, after several decades, Jewish Israelis would likely turn out to be the minority due to higher rates of demographic growth among their non-Jewish compatriots. Here again, an expanded Israel enfranchising large numbers of non-Jews would continue to be a democracy but would eventually cease to be a predominantly Jewish state.

The current Israeli government does not envisage the establishment of a Palestinian state any time in the foreseeable future. Although some Israeli politicians have called for the creation of a separate Palestinian state in the occupied territories, key Israeli government officials and their pivotal supporters believe that it would be collective suicide for Israel to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state. They prefer to annex West Bank land, or Judea and Samaria using their terminology, which some contend is already the de facto case.

In addition, a majority of the Israeli public view reaching a peace agreement with a two-state solution as a pipedream and many are opposed to a two-state solution. Any support voiced by Israelis for a two-state solution invariably evaporates when the details of a possible peace agreement are spelled out, such as the sharing of Jerusalem, removing Israeli settlements or returning to some pre-1967 borders.

Also, more than 120 government-approved Israeli settlements and 100 unofficial ones have been established in the West Bank. The growing Israeli settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is estimated at approximately 750,000. In the West Bank alone, the number of settlers has more than doubled since 1995 to about 400,000.

It appears highly unlikely that Israel will be able to withdraw its Jewish settlers from the occupied land as it did in 2005 when it withdrew with some difficulty about 9,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Despite the government’s opposition, public resistance and the ever-expanding demographic facts on the occupied ground, the two-state solution continues to be kept on life support largely through the sponsorship, funds and hopes of the international community, in particular the United States and its Western allies.

The ostensible reason for keeping this all-but-dead diplomatic path alive is to avoid confronting the inevitable alternatives to the failed attempts to establish a separate Palestinian state.

Soon, however, the two-state solution will be given its formal funeral, especially as peace talks have collapsed and the Israeli occupation is approaching its 50th anniversary. When this happens, the options remaining for the Israelis will be limited and difficult with the one-state solution with its eventual Palestinian majority loudly knocking at Israel’s front doorstep.

In the immediate aftermath of the two-state solution’s formal demise, Israel will try to avoid facing demographic realities and maintain an untenable status quo. The Israeli government will likely continue to enforce its costly and troubling occupation and control over millions of Palestinians, expand and increase Jewish settlements and consolidate its presence and authority throughout Jerusalem. However, those and related acts will in all likelihood only exacerbate an already vexing and volatile situation.

Attempts to preserve the status quo will lead to the numerous Jewish settlements becoming increasingly entrenched and entangled in the West Bank. The living conditions and disposition of the Palestinians in the occupied territories will worsen and their human rights concerns can be expected to rise to the top of the international community’s political agenda.

Israeli administrative decisions, Knesset bills and judicial pronouncements can neither dismiss nor repeal the laws of demography. No doubt some will choose to challenge the numbers and their significance, contending that under any foreseeable demographic circumstances Israel will remain a democratic and Jewish nation.

Inevitably, however, and likely sooner rather than later the Israeli government will be obliged to acknowledge the writing on the Western Wall and address demography’s decisive implications for the future of Israel.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Native Protest Camp in Argentine Capital Fights for Land and Visibilityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/native-protest-camp-in-argentine-capital-fights-for-land-and-visibility/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=native-protest-camp-in-argentine-capital-fights-for-land-and-visibility http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/native-protest-camp-in-argentine-capital-fights-for-land-and-visibility/#comments Wed, 19 Aug 2015 17:00:27 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142044 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/native-protest-camp-in-argentine-capital-fights-for-land-and-visibility/feed/ 0 Humanitarian Response in Afghanistan Falters in the Face of Intensifying Conflicthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/humanitarian-response-in-afghanistan-falters-in-the-face-of-intensifying-conflict/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=humanitarian-response-in-afghanistan-falters-in-the-face-of-intensifying-conflict http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/humanitarian-response-in-afghanistan-falters-in-the-face-of-intensifying-conflict/#comments Tue, 18 Aug 2015 23:40:58 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142041 This little boy, an Afghan refugee, eats a piece of candy outside his family’s makeshift tent. Credit: DVIDSHUB/CC-BY-2.0

This little boy, an Afghan refugee, eats a piece of candy outside his family’s makeshift tent. Credit: DVIDSHUB/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 18 2015 (IPS)

As the number of civilians impacted by the intensifying conflict in Afghanistan rises along with the fighting, humanitarian agencies are struggling to meet the needs of the wounded, hungry and displaced.

The first half of 2015 has seen “record high levels” of civilian casualties, the United Nations relief agency said Tuesday, with civilian deaths touching 1,592 and total non-combatant casualties standing at over 4,900 – a one-percent increase compared to the number of casualties in the same period in 2014.

Fresh fighting in the provinces of Helmand, Kunduz, Faryab and Nangarhar are indicative of the geographic spread of the conflict, while tensions and sporadic clashes all across the central regions are forcing huge numbers of civilians from their homes.

An estimated 103,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in 2015 alone, including from locations hitherto untouched by forced population movements including Badakshan, Sar-i-Pul, Baghlan, Takhar and Badgis, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its mid-year review released on Aug. 18.

Clashes between the Taliban and other armed opposition groups are becoming more frequent, and the fragmentation of these groups only means that both the complexity and geographic extent of the conflict will continue to worsen.

Having received only 195 million dollars, or 48 percent of its 406 million-dollar funding requirement as of July, the U.N.’s humanitarian response plan is faltering.

Funding for every single relief “cluster” identified by OCHA is failing to keep pace with civilians’ needs. So far, the U.N. has received only 3.5 million dollars of the required 40 million dollars for provision of emergency housing, while funding for food security and health are falling short by 56 million and 29 millions dollars respectively.

Far more refugees have returned to the country, primarily from Pakistan, in the first half of 2015 compared to the same period last year, with 43,695 returnees as of July 2015 compared to 9,323 in 2014.

OCHA noted, “Overall return and deportee rates of undocumented Afghans from Iran and Pakistan stand at 319,818 people. At the same time, over 73,000 undocumented Afghans returned from Pakistan, which is on average six times higher per day than in 2014.”

U.N. officials say they need at least 89 million dollars to adequately meet the needs of refugees, but so far only 22.5 million dollars have been pledged.

As is always the case, providing adequate water and sanitation facilities is one of the top priorities of the humanitarian plan in order to prevent the outbreak of disease, but though the U.N. has put forward a figure of 25 million dollars for this purpose, only 15 million dollars are currently available.

“An increase in people requiring humanitarian assistance coupled with insufficient funding for food security agencies, particularly WFP [the World Food Programme], means that programmes for conflict IDPs, vulnerable returnees, refugees and malnourished children are all seriously under-resourced and in some cases have been terminated,” the report revealed.

Data on affected populations are believed to be incomplete owing largely to inaccessibility of the most heavily embattled regions, prompting U.N. officials to warn that the real number of people in need of critical, lifesaving services and supplies could be even higher than current estimates.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that civilian casualties in the first six months of 2015 saw an increase of 43 percent compared to the same period in 2014.

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U.N. Marks Humanitarian Day Battling Its Worst Refugee Crisishttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-marks-humanitarian-day-battling-its-worst-refugee-crisis/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-marks-humanitarian-day-battling-its-worst-refugee-crisis http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/u-n-marks-humanitarian-day-battling-its-worst-refugee-crisis/#comments Tue, 18 Aug 2015 20:42:44 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142034 Portrait of a man inside the "27 February" Saharawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria. 24 June 2010. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

Portrait of a man inside the "27 February" Saharawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria. 24 June 2010. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 18 2015 (IPS)

The United Nations is commemorating World Humanitarian Day with “inspiring” human interest stories of survival – even as the world body describes the current refugee crisis as the worst for almost a quarter of a century.

The campaign, mostly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is expected to flood social media feeds with stories of both resilience and hope from around the world, along with a musical concert in New York.“Some donors have been very generous and their support is crucial and deeply valued, but it's simply not enough to meet the growing needs.” -- Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam

“It’s true we live in a moment in history where there’s never been a greater need for humanitarian aid since the United Nations was founded,” says U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

“And every day, I talk about people and I use numbers, and the numbers are numbing, right — 10,000, 50,000,” he laments.

But as U.N. statistics go, the numbers are even more alarming than meets the eye: more than 4.0 million Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon (not including the hundreds who are dying in mid-ocean every week as they try to reach Europe and escape the horrors of war at home).

And more troubling, at least an additional 7.6 million people have been displaced within Syria – all of them in need of humanitarian assistance—and over 220,000 have been killed in a military conflict now on its fifth year.

The U.N.’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said “with nearly 60 million people forcibly displaced around the world, we face a crisis on a scale not seen in generations.”

In early August, O’Brien decided to release some 70 million dollars from a U.N. reserve fund called the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) – primarily for chronically underfunded aid operations.

Besides Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, the humanitarian crisis has also impacted heavily on Sudan, South Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Chad, the Central African Republic, Myanmar and Bangladesh, among others.

Noah Gottschalk, Senior Policy Advisor for Humanitarian Response at Oxfam International, told IPS the international humanitarian system created decades ago has saved countless lives but today, the humanitarian system is “overwhelmed and underfunded” at a time when natural hazards are projected to increase in both frequency and severity at the same time as the world must respond to unprecedented protracted crises like the conflict in Syria.

“Some donors have been very generous and their support is crucial and deeply valued, but it’s simply not enough to meet the growing needs,” he said.

The United Nations and the greater humanitarian system, he pointed out, needs to be reformed to be more efficient and to better respond to needs by supporting local leadership and capacity and funding programmes that help communities reduce the impact of disasters before emergencies occur.

Meanwhile, the #ShareHumanity social media campaign, currently underway, hopes to build momentum towards the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled to take place in Istanbul next May.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this year’s World Humanitarian Day campaign, beginning Aug. 19, reflects a world where humanitarian needs are far outstripping the aid community’s capacity to help the millions of people affected by natural disasters, conflict, hunger and disease.

Oxfam’s Gottschalk told IPS World Humanitarian Day is an important opportunity to stop and honour the brave women and men who work tirelessly around the world every day to save lives in incredibly difficult circumstances.

He said local humanitarian workers are often the first to respond when a crisis hits and rarely get the recognition, and most importantly, the support they deserve to lead responses in their own countries.

Oxfam has been making a strong push for mandatory contributions from U.N. Member States to fund humanitarian responses, which it says, will provide a more consistent and robust funding stream.

More of that funding should flow directly to the local level, and be allocated more transparently so that donors can track impact and local communities can follow the aid and hold their leaders accountable and demand results, he noted.

Gottschalk said millions of people around the world depend on the global humanitarian system, and this is in no small part due to the committed and compassionate people who are struggling to make the system work despite declining resources and increasing need.

These reforms will make the system more effective and better equip these dedicated humanitarians to save lives and ease suffering, he declared.

The ongoing military conflicts have also claimed the lives of hundreds of health workers, says the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva.

In 2014 alone, WHO said it received reports of 372 attacks in 32 countries on health workers, resulting in 603 deaths and 958 injuries, while similar incidents have been recorded this year.

“WHO is committed to saving lives and reducing suffering in times of crisis. Attacks against health care workers and facilities are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law,” said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in a statement released to mark World Humanitarian Day.

She said health workers have an obligation to treat the sick and injured without discrimination. “ All parties to conflict must respect that obligation,” she declared.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Kashmir: Where a Pilgrimage Threatens a Delicate Ecosystemhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/kashmir-where-a-pilgrimage-threatens-a-delicate-ecosystem/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=kashmir-where-a-pilgrimage-threatens-a-delicate-ecosystem http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/kashmir-where-a-pilgrimage-threatens-a-delicate-ecosystem/#comments Mon, 17 Aug 2015 15:52:30 +0000 Athar Parvaiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142013 Plastic bags and bottles comprise a major part of the rubbish that clogs this delicate mountain ecosystem when scores of Hindu devotees flock to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir to worship a representation of the god Shiva. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Plastic bags and bottles comprise a major part of the rubbish that clogs this delicate mountain ecosystem when scores of Hindu devotees flock to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir to worship a representation of the god Shiva. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

By Athar Parvaiz
PAHALGAM, India, Aug 17 2015 (IPS)

As he struggled to find a section of the stream clean enough to rinse off his muddy shoes, Mohan Kumar, a Hindu pilgrim on his way to the holy Amarnath shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir, gazed with despair over the filth that lay thick on the landscape.

“I fail to understand how our journey of faith can reconcile with all this filth." -- Mohan Kumar, a Hindu pilgrim on his way to the holy Amarnath shrine in Kashmir
What should have been a well-maintained track leading to one of the world’s most visited religious sites was instead clogged with human excrement and plastic waste, much of it contaminating the stream that runs alongside the path.

Standing at over 3,800 metres above sea level, the 40-metre-high Amarnath cave houses a stalagmite that is believed to be a representation of the god Shiva. For two months each year, between July and August, over half-a-million devotees make the perilous five-day trek, known as the Amarnath Yatra, to pay homage to one of the supreme deities of the Hindu pantheon.

But in their rush to reach sacred ground the devotees leave behind a sorry sight: piles of trash that blot the scenic views of the foothills and valleys of Jammu and Kashmir, a mountainous Himalayan state of exceptional natural beauty.

“I fail to understand how our journey of faith can reconcile with all this filth along the track,” Kumar told IPS. “I have come for a spiritual journey, but what I see along the way disgusts me. If this vandalism continues for another few years, it will mean an end to the pilgrimage.”

Ten metric tons of trash a day

He is not the only one with strong concerns about the future of this delicate ecosystem.

A steep rise in the number of visitors to the shrine in recent years also has environmental experts and public health officials on edge: government data indicate that the number of worshippers has sharply increased from 4,500 in 1950 to 650,000 in 2012, while tourist arrivals shot up from 15,000 in 1950 to two million in 2012.

The logistics involved in the yatra place a huge burden on the authorities. For the duration of the pilgrimage, which lasts 60 days, 7,000 security personnel are deployed on the mountain, along with 1,500 ponies and as many men for carrying worshippers and their belongings.

“Based on these numbers our modest estimates suggest that [at an average] a minimum of 10,000 people visit the Amarnath cave every day,” an official of the Pollution Control Board (PCB) of Srinagar told IPS on the condition of anonymity.

“An average person generates about a kilogram of waste everyday; this means that 10 metric tons of waste are left behind every day for 60 days.”

Despite a government ban on polythene use in the state, much of the debris left behind by the pilgrims, or yatris as they are called, comprises plastic bags and bottles.

Furthermore, according to Riyaz Ahmed Lone, an environmentalist who heads the Pahalgam Peoples’ Welfare Organisation (PPWO), the garbage disposal and sanitation facilities provided by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) are inadequate to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of devotees, who are forced to defecate in the open on the mountainside.

Added to the mix of plastic and human feces is gotka (chewing tobacco) and the excrement of ponies and donkeys, all of which eventually gets washed away into nearby streams that feed into the Lidder and Sindh rivers.

Other PCB officials who did not wish to be named told IPS that at least half a dozen fully functional Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) need to be set up to facilitate the proper functioning of several hundred toilets that serve the tourists and worshippers.

Currently there are only two STPs, which, environmental activists say, do not function properly, allowing effluent to flow untreated into larger water bodies.

These rivers subsequently provide water to roughly two million people throughout Kashmir, explained Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Earth Sciences Department at Kashmir University.

Kashmir’s Public Health Engineering (PHE) Chief Ghulam Mohammad Bhat added that 85 percent of the state’s drinking water needs are met by surface water sources in the mountains.

“But, it is a common knowledge that we have no healthy arrangements for sanitation here,” he told IPS.

“Not only the waste from open defecation areas, but also the sewer systems [from tourist hotels] are connecting with our rivers and contaminating our water bodies,” Bhat stressed.

An official at his office added that if people could see “what kind of water we treat at our treatment plants, they would not drink even a drop of it.”

According to India’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS), Jammu & Kashmir ranks 23rd rank on a list of 30 states surveyed, with only 41.7 percent sanitation coverage as per the 2011 census.

Human waste left behind by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during the Amarnath Yatra in Indian-administered Kashmir flow untreated into nearby rivers. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Human waste left behind by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during the Amarnath Yatra in Indian-administered Kashmir flow untreated into nearby rivers. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Limiting arrivals and beefing up logistics

Lone told IPS that activists and experts “want the organizers to ensure environmental protection and proper regulation of the pilgrimage, by reducing the number of pilgrims to the permissible limit as per the carrying capacity of the fragile mountain ecology on a single day.”

Until the late 1990s, official data reveals, the pilgrimage had never crossed the 100,000 mark. Noted Indian human rights activist Gautam Navlakha says that the numbers started multiplying only after the establishment of the SASB in 2002 – an all-Hindu body with no representation from the majority Muslim population.

A few years after its formation, Navlakha says, the SASB extended the pilgrimage from 30 to 60 days, a move that is still mired in controversy, with environmental activists arguing strongly against the longer duration.

Pointing to tough restrictions on the number of pilgrims allowed into ecologically fragile zones like Mansarovar in Tibet and Gomukh – the snout of the Gangotri Glacier that forms the source of the Ganges River – in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Navlakha has called for similar rules to govern the Amarnath Yatra.

Quoting the landmark 1996 Nitish Sengupta Committee report, he told IPS, “Along with the regulation of the total number of pilgrims to about 100,000, we could lay down a ceiling of 3,000 pilgrims permitted to travel in a single day.”

Nearly two decades after the report was released, these recommendations have been wantonly disregarded. Figures on the 2015 Yatra available on the SASB website indicate that the daily average between Jul. 2 and Aug. 13 far exceeded 3,000, with Jul. 6 alone witnessing over 20,000 worshippers on the mountains.

A May 2015 study on sustainable tourism in Kashmir published in the journal Elsevier revealed that the tourist flow in July for Pahalgam alone was almost fourfold the Tourism Carrying Capacity (TCC) of the mountain.

Shakil Qalandar, a member of the Kashmir Centre for Development and Social Studies (KCDS), said that civil society would continue to press for necessary restrictions on the number of pilgrims to better reflect the area’s carrying capacity until their demands are met.

“We have formally presented this demand to the government saying we are in full support of an ecologically-friendly pilgrimage for our Hindu brethren,” Qalandar told IPS.

The environmental implications of not dealing with the situation are enormous.

Hindu religious scholar and social activist Swami Agnivesh has even suggested that the growing number of pilgrims might have been the catalyst for the devastating floods that swept Kashmir in September 2014, resulting in a death toll of 600 and incurring economic losses of some 18 billion dollars.

According to an assessment report prepared by Kashmir’s Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing (DEERS) after the September 2014 floods, ecological degradation across the state is a major catalyst of natural disasters.

The study revealed that since 1992 Kashmir has lost 10 percent of its forest cover as tourism infrastructure encroached into wooded areas. It added that in the last century, the state’s total extent of water bodies plummeted from 356 square km in 1911 to just 158 square km in 2011.

Dealing with the challenges of sustainable religious tourism has been a concern all over the globe with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimating that 300 to 330 million tourists visit the world’s key religious sites every year.

Kashmir is in a unique position to set a global example, but it will have to overcome numerous political hurdles and religious sensitivities in order to do so.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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The U.N. at 70: Leading the Global Agenda on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – Part Twohttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/the-u-n-at-70-leading-the-global-agenda-on-womens-rights-and-gender-equality-part-two/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-u-n-at-70-leading-the-global-agenda-on-womens-rights-and-gender-equality-part-two http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/08/the-u-n-at-70-leading-the-global-agenda-on-womens-rights-and-gender-equality-part-two/#comments Mon, 17 Aug 2015 13:25:15 +0000 Lakshmi Puri http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=142009 Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of U.N. Women. Credit: U.N. Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Lakshmi Puri
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 17 2015 (IPS)

The efforts of the United Nations and the global women’s movement to promote the women’s rights agenda and make it a top international priority saw its culmination in the creation of U.N. Women, by the General Assembly in 2010.

UN Women is the first – and only – composite entity of the U.N. system, with a universal mandate to promote the rights of women through the trinity of normative support, operational programmes and U.N. system coordination and accountability lead and promotion.This is a pivotal moment for the gender equality project of humankind.

It also supports the building of a strong knowledge hub – with data, evidence and good practices contributing to positive gains but also highlighting challenges and gaps that require urgent redressal.

UN Women has given a strong impetus to ensuring that progressive gender equality and women’s empowerment norms and standards are evolved internationally and that they are clearly mainstreamed and prioritised as key beneficiaries and enablers of the U.N.’s sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, humanitarian action, climate change action and World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) + 10 agendas.

In fact, since its creation five years ago, there has been an unprecedented focus and prioritisation of gender equality and women’s empowerment in all normative processes and outcomes.

With the substantive and intellectual backstopping, vigorous advocacy, strategic mobilisation and partnerships with member states and civil society, U.N. Women has contributed to the reigniting of political will for the full, effective and accelerated implementation of Beijing Platform commitments as was done in the Political Declaration adopted at 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women; a remarkable, transformative and comprehensive integration and prioritisation of gender equality in the Rio + 20 outcome and in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal and gender sensitive targets in other key Goals and elements.

Additionally, there was also a commitment to both gender mainstreaming and targeted and transformative actions and investments in the formulation and implementation of financial, economic, social and environmental policies at all levels in the recently-concluded Addis Accord and Action Agenda on  Financing For Development.

Also we secured a commitment to significantly increased investment to close the gender gap and resource gap and a pledge to strengthen support to gender equality mechanisms and institutions at the global, regional and national levels. We now are striving to do the same normative alchemy with the Climate Change Treaty in December 2015.

Equally exhilarating and impactful has been the advocacy journey of U.N. Women. It  supports and advocates for gender equality, women’s empowerment and the rights of women globally, in all regions and countries, with governments, with civil society and the private sector, with the media and with citizens – women and girls, men and boys everywhere including through its highly successful and innovative Campaigns such as UNiTE to End Violence against Women / orange your neighbourhood, Planet 50/50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality and the HeforShe campaign which have reached out to over a billion people worldwide .

UN Women also works with countries to help translate international norms and standards into concrete actions and impact at national level and to achieve real change in the lives of women and girls in over 90 countries. It is in the process of developing Key Flagship Programs to scale up and drive impact on the ground in priority areas of economic empowerment, participation and leadership in decision making and governance, and ending violence against women.

Ending the chronic underinvestment in women and girls empowerment programs and projects and mobilising transformative financing of gender equality commitments made is also a big and urgent priority.

We have and will continue to support women and girls in the context of humanitarian crisis like the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the earthquake relief and response in Nepal and worked in over 22 conflict and post conflict countries to advance women’s security, voice, participation and leadership in the continuum from peace-making, peace building to development.

UN Women’s role in getting each and every part of the U.N. system including the MFIs and the WTO to deliver bigger, better and in transformative ways for gender equality through our coordination role has been commended by all. Already 62 U.N. entities, specialised agencies and departments have reported for the third year on their UN-SWAP progress and the next frontier is to SWAP the field.

Much has been achieved globally on women’s right from education, to employment and leadership, including at the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has appointed more senior women than all the other Secretary-Generals combined.

Yet, despite the great deal of progress that has been made in the past 70 years in promoting the rights of women –persistent challenges remain and new ones have come up and to date no country in the world has achieved gender equality.

The majority of the world’s poor are women and they remain disempowered and marginalised. Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Women and girls are denied their basic right to make decisions on their sexuality and reproductive life and at the current rate of progress, it would take nearly another 80 years to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment everywhere, and for women and girls to have equal access to opportunities and resources everywhere.

The world cannot wait another century. Women and girls have already waited two millennia. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and all other normative commitments in the United Nations will remain ‘ink on paper’ without transformative financing in scale and scope, without the data, monitoring and follow up and review and without effective accountability mechanisms in this area.

As we move forward, the United Nations must continue to work with all partners to hold Member States accountable for their international commitments to advance and achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in all sectors and in every respect.

UN Women is readying itself to be Fit For Purpose but must also be Financed For Purpose in order to contribute and support the achievement of the Goals and targets for women and girls across the new Development Agenda.

This is a pivotal moment for the gender equality project of humankind. In order to achieve irreversible and sustained progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment for all women and girls – no matter where and in what circumstances they live and what age they are, we must all step up our actions and investment to realise the promise of “Transforming our World ” for them latest by 2030. It is a matter of justice, of recognising their equal humanity and of enabling the realisation of their fundamental freedoms and rights.

As the U.N. turns 70 and the entire international development  and  security community faces many policy priorities – from poverty eradication, conflict resolution, to addressing climate change and increasing inequalities within and between countries – it is heartening that all constituents of the U.N. – member states, the Secretariat and the civil society – recognise that no progress can be made in any of them without addressing women’s needs and interests and without women and girls as participants and leaders of change.

By prioritising gender equality in everything they pledge to not only as an article of faith but an operational necessity, they signal that upholding women’s rights will not only make the economy, polity and society work for women but create a prosperous economy, a just and peaceful society and a more sustainable planet.

Part One can be read here.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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