Inter Press Service » Asia-Pacific News and Views from the Global South Mon, 20 Feb 2017 04:17:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Energy Access Builds Inclusive Economies and Resilient Communities Thu, 16 Feb 2017 11:34:56 +0000 Manipadma Jena More girls in rural Bihar, India are going to school after mini-grid-powered household lights give mothers and children two extra hours of evening work and study time. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

More girls in rural Bihar, India are going to school after mini-grid-powered household lights give mothers and children two extra hours of evening work and study time. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
NEW DELHI, Feb 16 2017 (IPS)

Jaipal Hembrum runs three one-man home enterprises – a bicycle repair shop, a tiny food stall and a tailoring unit in Kautuka, a remote village in eastern India. Sewing recycled clothes into mattresses late into the evening, the 38-year-old father of three girls says two light bulbs fed by a solar power system have changed his life.

Given the trajectory of development India is currently pursuing, energy access for its rural population could bring dramatic economic improvement. Yet 237 million people — a fifth of its 1.3 billion people, many of them in remote villages with few livelihood options — do not have any access to it.The challenge India faces is how to meet its energy requirements while also meeting its emission reduction commitment to the global climate deal.

The Delhi-based research organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) stipulates that if even half of households deemed electrified through the national power grid are not receiving the guaranteed six hours uninterrupted supply, the number of people who are electricity-poor in India totals 650 million.

In this scenario, renewable energy-based mini-grids, particularly in remote villages, are considered the best option to manage local household and commercial energy demand efficiently by generating power at the source of consumption.

This is being proven true by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Smart Power for Rural Development (SPRD) initiative in two of India’s poorest states, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where 16 and 36 percent of households respectively are electrified. In India, 55 percent rural households have energy access, often of unreliable quality.

Started in 2014, the SPRD project has helped set up close to 100 mini-grid plants, covering the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and lately, in Jharkhand too. According to Rockefeller Foundation sources, these plants are serving a customer base of around 38,000 people. Over 6,500 households are benefitting, along with 3,800 shops and businesses, and over 120 institutions, telecom towers and micro-enterprises.

Over 2014 – 2017, the Rockefeller Foundation aims to make a difference to 1,000 energy-poor villages in India, benefitting around a million rural people. For this effort, the Foundation has committed 75 million dollars, partnering and funding Smart Power India (SPI) a new entity designed to work closely with a wide range of stakeholders who help scale-up the market for off-grid energy.

Jaipal Hembrum stitches old clothes mattresses in the evening by the light of a solar-powered bulb. The 50 dollars a day he earns is kept aside for schooling and marriages of his three daughters. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Jaipal Hembrum stitches old clothes mattresses in the evening by the light of a solar-powered bulb. The 50 dollars a day he earns is kept aside for schooling and marriages of his three daughters. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

What can mini-grids can do? Plenty

A recent evaluation of the mini-grids’ impact on communities they serve in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh already show a broad range of economic, social and environmental benefits.

Entrepreneurship and new businesses have grown, with 70 percent existing micro-businesses reporting increased number of costumers after connecting to the mini-grids and 80 percent planned to expand.

Nine in 10 household users said their children’s daily study time has increased by two hours since they got the lights. Women said they had increased mobility after dark and theft cases had fallen. Use of kerosene and diesel has fallen dramatically — to virtually zero, according to Khanna.

Micro-businesses like cyber cafes, fuel stations, mobile and fan repair shops, banks, schools and hospitals are the fastest growing commercial customer section of mini-grids constructed under Smart Power India.

In Shivpura village of Uttar Pradesh, where TARA Urja, a small energy service company (ESCO), started providing reliable electricity from a 30-KW solar plant, Sandeep Jaiswal set up a water purification processor in 2015. In just over a month he was rushing 1,200 litres of water on his new mini-truck to 40 customers. TARA, also a social business incubator, has financially supported Jaiswal with 530 dollars, in return for a one-year contract to source electricity from TARA.

Smart Power India supports the development of rural micro-enterprises through loans, community engagement and partnerships with larger companies with rural value chains, for instance, city malls that source vegetables from rural farms.

India confronts a demographic youth ‘bulge’ with 64 percent in the working age group in 2020, requiring 10 million new jobs every year in the coming decade. Using green mini-grids to create rural livelihoods can also reduce urban migration.

Innovating a business model that propels construction of mini-grids

Mini-grids are a decentralized system providing a renewable energy-based electricity generator with a capacity of 10 kilowatts or more, with a target consumer group it supplies through a stand-alone distribution network.

The sustainability of private companies in the rural power supply sector depends on generating sufficient revenue long-term. To make it profitable for smaller-scale ESCOs to bring electricity to rural parts of the developing world, the Smart Power model ensures fast-growing sectors with significant energy needs such as telecom towers in rural areas, to provide steady revenue. In return, the ESCOs provide contractual guarantee of reliable power supply to the towers.

“There is an opportunity to catalyze the telecommunication and off-grid energy sectors. Currently cell phone towers in rural areas are often powered by expensive diesel generators and companies are looking for cheaper alternatives, thereby creating the possibility for a strong anchor,” says Ashvin Dayal, Managing Director, Asia, of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Telecom towers — by becoming the ‘anchor’ customers – help make ESCOs bankable. They then can expand supply into rural household lighting and local enterprises.

Government figures say 2 billion litres of diesel is annually consumed by the 350,000  existing telecom towers in India, including those in remote rural regions. The challenge India faces is how to meet its energy requirements without compromising environmental sustainability, while meeting its emission reduction commitment to the global climate deal.

Solar power cost per unit has fallen in India to 0.045 cents, which makes it increasingly feasible to shift to renewable powered mini-grids, saving substantial subsidies spent on fossil fuels. The government in 2016 decided to construct 10,000 mini-grids in the next five years of 500 megawatt (MW) capacity, but this is clearly not enough, say experts.

India has a potential for 748,990 MW of solar power. Fourteen states, including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, receive irradiance above the annual global average of 5 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day.

Around the world, approximately 1.3 billion people lack access to reliable and affordable means of electricity without which, growing their incomes, improving food security and health, educating children, accessing key information services becomes a major challenge. Energy access is critical to achieving several UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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Sri Lanka Shines Light on Public Sector Governance Wed, 15 Feb 2017 15:23:31 +0000 Amantha Perera Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Act could open new doors for the country’s media if journalists use it effectively. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Act could open new doors for the country’s media if journalists use it effectively. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 15 2017 (IPS)

Sri Lanka’s long-awaited and much-debated Right to Information (RTI) Act became law this month without much fanfare.

There was no big PR campaign on the part of the government to unveil it on Feb. 3, a day before the island’s 69th Independence celebrations. There was not even a public event, a rarity in this South Asian island, where politicians are prone not to let such opportunities pass by.

Maybe the lack of fanfare was due to a rare understanding of what RTI could do to Sri Lanka’s governing culture – like media minister Gayantha Karunathilake predicted several months ago, the act now places all elected and public officials ‘inside a glass box’ of public scrutiny.

And the requests have flooded in. Taking the lead has been actor turned politician and current deputy minister of social welfare, Rajan Ramanayake. He filed a slew of requests even before the ink dried on the new act.

“This is an act will reveal everything about politicians, without any discrimination on party affiliations,” Ramanayake said.

His RTI requests include details on the number of bar permits, sand mining permits, duty free shop permits, fuel station permits and land permits that have been offered to elected officials from parliamentarians to those at local government bodies. He said he was likely to receive the details by the third week of February.

He has also filed a request for details of all licenses given out by the government to operate TV stations and their conditions.

Most of the first batch of RTI requests have been linked to corruption within public sector, according to RTIWire, a national website that tracks the progress of the act.

“When we asked the public what information they would seek through RTI, almost a third of them referenced some form of corruption by public servants; for example, asset declarations, irregularities in tenders, salaries and perks for ministers,” RTIWire said in profiling the first ten days of the new act.

Citizens in the former conflict zone in the North and East have used the act to seek information on land acquisitions by government departments and on missing loved ones.

Media Minister Karunathilake is candid about the act’s possible ramifications on the government ,which has stepped into the second of a five-year term.

“This will open up the government structure completely for scrutiny. Usually governments will take this kind of decision at the toe end of their terms, but we have not. The act can minimize corruption.”

There has been criticism leveled at the government that the act was aimed at soothing international concerns on rights issues, especially those stemming from the administrations of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 to 2015.

The minister denied that there was any connection between the act and the government’s efforts to regain preferential tariff deals for garment exports to the European Union.

“There is no connection at all,” he said. In the next two months the EU is expected to announce whether Sri Lanka will be allowed back in to GSP+ tariff fold that it lost in 2010 due to rights-related concerns.

Opposition parties, however, say that the government is not showing the same enthusiasm it displayed in getting the act finally functioning in making sure the act is implemented efficiently.

“If they are serious, they should begin awareness campaigns without delay,” Opposition MP from the People’s Liberation Front Nalinda Jayatissa said.

To be fair, the government has a Herculean task on its hands in getting RTI information officers into all government agencies, which according to some estimates at the Media Ministry could be in the range of 40,000.

The Ministry has been training officers in the last few months, and while several thousand have taken up posts, many more remain to be filled. The government has not done itself any favours by only allocating a mere Rs 25 m (175,000 dollars) in the current budget for RTI implementation.

Close to two weeks after the act became law, the government was yet to announce the relevant officers in departments, adding confusion and creating unnecessary delays for those submitting requests. B.K.S. Ravindra, the additional secretary at the Media Ministry, said that list would soon be made available online, but did not give a date.

During the first week of the act, there was also confusion about whether police came under the act and who was the relevant officer for each station. Ravindra said that police stations indeed came within the act and that the Assistant Superintendent of Police from each district would serve as the RTI officer.

But according to RTIWire, “the Police are still in the process of appointing Information Officers. This should be complete within the next few weeks. The police force is currently participating in trainings held by the Ministry of Mass Media on Right to Information.”

There is also a dearth of awareness in rural areas on the act and how to file requests, especially in rural areas. In Arananayake, a rural village about 130km from the capital Colombo, which suffered a devastating landslide last year, villagers still living in temporary shelters had absolutely no idea that they could gain information from using the act.

The bigger test for the government will be to make sure that the RTI act does not end up a damp squib.

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Indigenous Peoples Lands Guard 80 Per Cent of World’s Biodiversity Thu, 09 Feb 2017 11:15:56 +0000 Baher Kamal In much of the Andes, soil erosion is thought to be one of the most limiting factors in crop production. Soil is vulnerable to erosion where it is exposed to moving water or wind and where conditions of topography or human use decrease the cohesion of the soil.  ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

In much of the Andes, soil erosion is thought to be one of the most limiting factors in crop production. Soil is vulnerable to erosion where it is exposed to moving water or wind and where conditions of topography or human use decrease the cohesion of the soil. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

By Baher Kamal
ROME, Feb 9 2017 (IPS)

They are more than 370 million self-identified peoples in some 70 countries around the world. In Latin America alone there are over 400 groups, each with a distinct language and culture, though the biggest concentration is in Asia and the Pacific– with an estimated 70 per cent. And their traditional lands guard over 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity.

They are the indigenous peoples.

They have rich and ancient cultures and view their social, economic, environmental and spiritual systems as interdependent. And they make valuable contributions to the world’s heritage thanks to their traditional knowledge and their understanding of ecosystem management.

“But they are also among the world’s most vulnerable, marginalized and disadvantaged groups. And they have in-depth, varied and locally rooted knowledge of the natural world, “says the Rome-based International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).

“Unfortunately, indigenous peoples too often pay a price for being different and far too frequently face discrimination,” the Fund, which hosts on Feb 10 and 13 on Rome the Global Meeting of the Indigenous People Forum in the Italian capital.

During this biennial meeting, the United Nations specialised agency will bring together representatives of Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations from across the world, as well as leaders of partner bodies to engage in a direct dialogue and improve participation of indigenous peoples in the Fund’s country programmes.

Credit: IFAD

Credit: IFAD

Over the centuries, the Indigenous peoples “have been dispossessed of their lands, territories and resources and, as a consequence, have often lost control over their own way of life. Worldwide, they account for 5 per cent of the population, but represent 15 per cent of those living in poverty.”

One of the most effective ways to enable indigenous peoples to overcome poverty, it adds, is to support their efforts to shape and direct their own destinies, and to ensure that they are the co-creators and co-managers of development initiatives.

Rights of Indigenous People

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly on Sep. 13, 2007, establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.

Key facts

• There are more than 370 million self-identified indigenous people in the world, living in at least 70 countries
• Most of the worlds' indigenous peoples live in Asia
• Indigenous peoples form about 5,000 distinct groups and occupy about 20 per cent of the earth's territory
• Although indigenous peoples make up less than 6 per cent of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world's 7,000 languages
• One of the root causes of the poverty and marginalization of indigenous peoples is loss of control over their traditional lands, territories and natural resources
• Indigenous peoples have a concept of poverty and development that reflects their own values, needs and priorities; they do not see poverty solely as the lack of income
• A growing number of indigenous peoples live in urban areas, as a result of the degradation of land, dispossession, forced evictions and lack of employment opportunities

Source: IFAD

The Declaration addresses individual and collective rights; cultural rights and identity; and rights to education, health, employment and language. And it outlaws discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them.

It also ensures their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own priorities in economic, social and cultural development. The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed on Aug. 9 every year.

Announcing the Forum, IFAD noted that it has more than 30 years of experience working with indigenous peoples. In fact, since 2003, an average of about 22 per cent of the Fund’s annual lending has supported initiatives for indigenous peoples, mainly in Asia and Latin America.

Since 2007, it has administered the Indigenous Peoples Assistance Facility (IPAF). Through small grants of up to 50,000 dollars, it supports the aspirations of indigenous peoples by funding micro-projects that strengthen their culture, identity, knowledge, natural resources, and intellectual-property and human rights.

To help translate policy commitments into action, it has established an Indigenous Peoples’ Forum that promotes a process of dialogue and consultation among indigenous peoples’ organisations, IFAD staff and member states.

The Fund empowers communities to participate fully in determining strategies for their development and to pursue their own goals and visions by strengthening grass-roots organisations and local governance.

Land is not only crucial to the survival of indigenous peoples, as it is for most poor rural people – it is central to their identities, the Fund reports. “They have a deep spiritual relationship to their ancestral territories. Moreover, when they have secure access to land, they also have a firm base from which to improve their livelihoods.”

According to this international Fund, indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems have a special role to play in the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources.

The first global meeting of the Indigenous Peoples' Forum at IFAD was held in Rome on 11-12 February 2013. ©IFAD/Giulio Napolitano

The first global meeting of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum at IFAD was held in Rome on 11-12 February 2013. ©IFAD/Giulio Napolitano

Indigenous Women’s Untapped Potential

The also named “bank of the poorest” as it provides grants and low-interest credits to the poorest rural communities, recognises indigenous women’s untapped potential as stewards of natural resources and biodiversity, as guardians of cultural diversity, and as peace brokers in conflict mitigation.

Nonetheless, it says, indigenous women are often the most disadvantaged members of their communities because of their limited access to education, assets and credit, and their exclusion from decision-making processes.

This ‘bank of the poorest’ is a specialised agency of the United Nations, which was established as an international financial institution in 1977, being one of the major outcomes of the 1974 World Food Conference, which was organised in response to the food crises of the early 1970s that primarily affected the Sahelian countries of Africa.

That world conference resolved that “an International Fund for Agricultural Development should be established immediately to finance agricultural development projects primarily for food production in the developing countries.”

One of the most important insights emerging from the Conference was that the causes of food insecurity and famine were not so much failures in food production but structural problems relating to poverty, and to the fact that the majority of the developing world’s poor populations were concentrated in rural areas.

Since its creation, IFAD invested 18.4 billion dollars to help 464 million rural poor people.

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Human Rights For Rohingya Worsening, Warns Special Rapporteur Wed, 08 Feb 2017 21:59:12 +0000 Tharanga Yakupitiyage Refugees Rohingya from Myanmar. Credit: IPS

Refugees Rohingya from Myanmar. Credit: IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

A UN Special Rapporteur has expressed grave concern over escalating violence and discrimination against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

Following a fact-finding mission, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee expressed concern over atrocities committed against the Rohingya, as well as the government’s denial of allegations.

“For the Government to continue being defensive when allegations of serious human rights violations are persistently reported, that is when the Government appears less and less credible,” she said during a press conference.

Lee added that this response is “not only counterproductive but is draining away the hope that had been sweeping the country,”

After half a century of military rule, Myanmar saw its first democratic elections when Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win. However, she faced criticism for failing to protect Myanmar’s minority groups, namely the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Myanmar’s government disputes the Rohingya people’s status as Burmese citizens and have since enacted discriminatory policies including restrictions on movement and exclusion from healthcare, rendering the majority of the group stateless and impoverished.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) previously described the Rohingya community as one of the most “excluded, persecuted, and vulnerable communities in the world.”

Violence once again reignited following attacks on border guard posts in October in Rakhine state, prompting Myanmar’s military to conduct an ongoing offensive.

According to a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), cases of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances by military and police forces have emerged since the retaliation.

In one incident, an eyewitness told OCHR that the military beat their grandparents, tied them to a tree and set them on fire. The UN office also found that more than half of the 101 women interviewed experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence, including pregnant women and pre-adolescent girls.

The attacks “seem[ed] to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity,” the report stated.

Approximately 90,000 people fled the area since the attacks with an estimated 66,000 Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh.

Lee said the government’s response to her regarding the military attacks was that it had “rightly launched a security response.” Though authorities must respond to such attacks, Lee noted that the response must be in full compliance with the rule of law and human rights.

“I saw with my own eyes the structures that were burnt down in Wa Peik, and it is hard for me to believe that these are consequent to actions taken in a hurry or haphazardly,” she stated.

OHCHR found that hundreds of Rohingya houses, villages and mosques were deliberately burned down with one eyewitness noting that only Buddhist houses in her village were left untouched.

Human Rights Watch estimates at least 1500 buildings were destroyed, further driving Rohingya from their homes.

The government has denied these allegations, telling Lee that it was villagers who had burnt down their own houses in order to lure international actors to help build better houses. Authorities also said that this was part of the Rohingya’s propaganda campaign to smear the country’s security services.

“I find it quite incredible that these desperate people are willing to burn down their houses to be without a home, potentially displaced…just to give the Government a bad name,” Lee said.

“I must remind again that these attacks took place within the context of decades of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya population,” she continued.

Those that do flee face further challenges in host nations. Bangladesh has been one of the primary hosts of displaced Rohingya, but due to population pressure and security concerns, the South Asian country has been pushing back on refugees. According to Amnesty International, Bangladeshi authorities have denied Rohingya refugees asylum and have detained and pushed hundreds back to Myanmar.

The government had also proposed a plan to relocate refugees to an island.

“We cannot just open our doors to people coming in waves,” said Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In a country of an estimated 160 million people, her government has its own share of issues to take care of.

The crisis has prompted international groups and leaders to call for actions including unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of northern Rakhine state.

Though Myanmar’s government announced the creation of a committee to investigate the situation in the border state, Human Rights Watch also urged the government to invite the UN to assist in an impartial investigation.

“Blocking access and an impartial examination of the situation will not help people who are now at grave risk,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director Brad Adams said.

In December, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also called on Asian neighbors and the international community to address the crisis.

“The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place,” Razak said while protesting violence against the Rohingya minority.

““We must defend them [Rohingya] not just because they are of the same faith but they are humans, their lives have values,” he continued.

In addition to accepting assistance from international actors, Lee encouraged the Government of Myanmar to “appeal to all communities…to be more open and understanding of each other, to respect each other instead of scapegoating others for the sake of advancing their own self-interests.”

“I stand ready to assist in the journey towards a more free and democratic Myanmar,” Lee concluded.

The Special Rapporteur is due to present her final report on her trip to the UN Human Rights Council in March.

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New, Aggressive Rust Imperils Wheat Crops in Europe, Africa, Asia Sun, 05 Feb 2017 05:30:52 +0000 IPS World Desk A woman farmer working in a wheat field in rural Nepal. Photo: FAO/Saliendra Kharel

A woman farmer working in a wheat field in rural Nepal. Photo: FAO/Saliendra Kharel

By IPS World Desk
ROME, Feb 5 2017 (IPS)

Wheat rust, a family of fungal diseases that can cause crop losses of up to 100 per cent in untreated susceptible wheat, is making further advances in Europe, Africa and Asia, according to two new studies produced by scientists in collaboration with the United Nations.

The reports, highlighted in the journal Nature following their publication by Aarhus University and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), show the emergence of new races of both yellow rust and stem rust in various regions of the world in 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) informs.

At the same time, well-known existing rust races have spread to new countries, the studies confirm, underlining the need for early detection and action to limit major damage to wheat production, particularly in the Mediterranean basin.

“These new, aggressive rust races have emerged at the same time that we’re working with international partners to help countries combat the existing ones, so we have to be swift and thorough in the way we approach this,” said FAO Plant Pathologist Fazil Dusunceli.

Wheat is a source of food and livelihoods for over 1 billion people in developing countries, according to the UN body. Northern and Eastern Africa, the Near East, and West, Central and South Asia – which are all vulnerable to rust diseases − alone account for some 37 per cent of global wheat production.

“Preliminary assessments are worrisome, but it is still unclear what the full impact of these new races will be on different wheat varieties in the affected regions,” said Dusunceli, adding that this is what research institutions across these regions will need to further investigate in the coming months.

“It’s more important than ever that specialists from international institutions and wheat producing countries work together to stop these diseases in their tracks − that involves continuous surveillance, sharing data and building emergency response plans to protect their farmers and those in neighboring countries.”

Wheat experts examine a research plot near Izmir, Turkey, affected by wheat yellow rust. Photo: FAO/Fazil Dusunceli

Wheat experts examine a research plot near Izmir, Turkey, affected by wheat yellow rust. Photo: FAO/Fazil Dusunceli

Wheat rusts spread rapidly over long distances by wind, FAO says, adding that if not detected and treated on time, they can turn a healthy looking crop, only weeks away from harvest, into a tangle of yellow leaves, black stems and shrivelled grains.

Fungicides can help to limit damage, but early detection and rapid action are crucial. So are integrated management strategies in the long run.

Mediterranean, Most Affected

On the Italian island of Sicily, a new race of the stem rust pathogen − called TTTTF − hit several thousand hectares of durum wheat in 2016, causing the largest stem rust outbreak that Europe has seen in decades, FAO reports. Experience with similar races suggests that bread wheat varieties may also be susceptible to the new strain.

In addition, farmers in the mainland Italy, Morocco and some Scandinavian countries are battling a yet-to-be-named race of yellow rust, while Ethiopia and Uzbekistan fights outbreaks of yellow rust AF2012.

FAO also notes that TTTTF is the most recently identified race of stem rust. Without proper control, researchers caution, it could soon spread over long distances along the Mediterranean basin and the Adriatic coast.

According to the UN agency, various countries across Africa, Central Asia and Europe, meanwhile, have been battling new strains of yellow rust never before been seen in their fields.

Italy, Morocco and four Scandinavian countries have seen the emergence of an entirely new, yet-to-be-named race of yellow rust. Notably, the new race was most prevalent in Morocco and Sicily, where yellow rust until recently was considered insignificant.

Preliminary analysis suggests the new race is related to a family of strains that are aggressive and better adapted to higher temperatures than most others.

Photo: FAO/Fazil Dusunceli

Photo: FAO/Fazil Dusunceli

Wheat farmers in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan, at the same time, have been fighting outbreaks of yellow rust AF2012, another race, which reared its head in both countries in 2016 and struck a major blow to Ethiopian wheat production in particular.

AF2012 was previously only found in Afghanistan, before appearing in the Horn of Africa country last year, where it affected tens of thousands of hectares of wheat, FAO adds.

To offer support, the UN body, in collaboration with its partners, is stepping up its efforts in training rust experts from affected countries to boost their ability to detect and manage these emerging wheat rust races.

As New Races Emerge, Old Ones Continue to Spread

The already established Warrior(-) race of yellow rust −which came onto scientists’ radars in Northern Europe and Turkey a few years ago − continued its aerial march in 2016 and is now widely present in Europe and West Asia, it reports.

The Digalu (TIFTTF) race of stem rust continues to devastate wheat in Ethiopia, while the most well-known race of stem rust – the highly potent Ug99 – is now present in 13 countries.

“Having spread in a northward trend from East Africa to the Middle East, Ug99 has the potential to affect many wheat varieties grown worldwide as it keeps producing new variants. Most recently, it has been detected in Egypt, one of the Middle East’s most important wheat producers.”

The findings of the Aarhus study build on training sessions conducted in 2016 in collaboration between the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Aarhus university, CIMMYT and FAO.

The training, which will be repeated this year, allows rust experts to strengthen their surveillance and management skills, coupled with surveys and collection of rust samples for tests and analysis by Aarhus University. The recently established Regional Cereal Rust Research in Izmir, Turkey, will host the training.

These efforts have been part of FAO’s four-year global wheat rust program, which facilitates regional collaborations and offers support to individual countries eager to boost their surveillance capacity.

It also helps countries act swiftly to control outbreaks before they turn into epidemics and cause major damage to food security. But further research, particularly into breeding resistant varieties, and national response

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Pakistan Moves to End Impunity for Rapists Fri, 03 Feb 2017 13:06:20 +0000 Irfan Ahmed Protesters gather outside the Lahore Press Club in the capital of Pakistan's Punjab province on July 12, 2016 to demand justice for victims of sexual violence. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

Protesters gather outside the Lahore Press Club in the capital of Pakistan's Punjab province on July 12, 2016 to demand justice for victims of sexual violence. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

By Irfan Ahmed
LAHORE, Feb 3 2017 (IPS)

Amid a wave of reforms to tighten the country’s laws on honour killings and sexual assault, on Feb. 2, the Sindh Assembly passed a law making DNA testing in rape cases mandatory in the province.

It follows on the heels of a unanimous vote by Pakistan’s Parliament last October to plug gaps in the criminal justice system and boost the rate of conviction in rape cases.The conviction rate for rape in Pakistan has been less than four percent, prompting protests and legal reforms.

For long, the sole reliance on eyewitnesses and circumstantial evidence has benefitted the accused in rape cases and conviction rates have remained negligible in the country.

The new national law, called The Anti-Rape Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, also makes DNA evidence admissible, calls for verdicts in rape cases to be announced within three months, and allows filing of appeals within six months.

It also gives approval to holding of in-camera trials and use of technological aids to record testimony of victims and witnesses in order to save victims from humiliation. In the past, many victims and their families would not pursue cases for this very reason.

Another important feature of the law is that it tries to ensure protection of victims’ identity in the media. Those who violate victims’ privacy face jail terms of up to three years and fines. Mass media in the past has been criticised for disclosing names and sometimes even publishing the pictures of rape victims.

Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), told IPS that the law will require police to collect evidence from rape victims in the presence of a female officer.

She added that stringent action has also been recommended in cases of custodial rape by police officers. Furthermore, the past conduct of a rape victim and her acquaintance with the alleged rapist will not imply that the sexual act was done with the former’s consent, as it would often happen in the past.

Cases “mishandled from the very start”

Amina Bibi, an 18-year-old from Pakistan’s Punjab province, was allegedly raped by four men on Jan. 5, 2014. All the accused were granted bail. A desperate Amina set herself on fire outside a police station on Mar. 13 that year and succumbed to her burn injuries the next day.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan took up the case and sought a report from police. The report was presented Apr. 21, 2014, only to be dismissed by the court. The report claimed that Amina had not been raped – something the court was not ready to believe, especially when it could find no other reason for her suicide.

Amina’s case trained the spotlight on the plight of thousands of rape victims in Pakistan who suffer due to flaws in the criminal justice system, socio-cultural inhibitions, the negative attitudes of investigators, police failure to collect evidence and the humiliation of victims in trial courts.

According to the National Police Bureau (NPB) of Pakistan, around 3,000 cases of rape are reported every year – 3,173 cases were reported in 2012 and 3,164 in 2013. The conviction rate, however, is less than four percent, according to a report released by the NGO War Against Rape (WAR).

“One of the foremost reasons for the poor conviction rate is rape cases are mishandled from the very start,” Asad Jamal, a Lahore-based lawyer who has represented several rape victims, told IPS.

He says very few police officials know how to collect scientific evidence in rape cases or record the statements of traumatised rape victims. Citing the example of a case he is fighting right now, Jamal says the police investigator concerned even forgot to preserve the clothes that the victim was wearing at the time of the sexual assault.

In the case of Amina Bibi too, it was found that police had failed to conduct timely forensic and DNA tests. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif suspended several senior police officers and ordered the arrest of others in connection with the case.

Jamal said sometimes police insist on including the names of fake witnesses to strengthen rape cases but such practices end up benefiting the accused, especially in appellate courts. “Ideally, scientific and DNA evidence should be enough to convict an accused, but unfortunately trial courts depend a lot on eyewitnesses for primary evidence,” he says.

Jamal pointed to another reality – rape victims often belong to disadvantaged sections of society while rapists are mostly powerful people.

He says crime data indicates that girls in the 9-19 age group from lower income families are most vulnerable to rape. “That’s why the number of domestic workers subjected to rape is on the rise,” he said.

Zia Awan, founder of the Madadgar National Helpline for women and children, told IPS, “The number of rape cases reported in Pakistan is only a fraction of the actual number.”

He receives a large number of calls from women who are undecided on whether to report the case or remain silent in order to avoid humiliation and life-long stigma. The impunity of rapists and the ordeal of rape victims deter the latter from seeking justice, he says.

“The shameful attitude of society, police and lawyers towards rape victims is the biggest hurdle in securing justice,” said Faisal Siddiqui, a Karachi-based lawyer.

His own client, a rape victim, had to seek psychological treatment for two years after appearing in court for cross-examination, he says. The defence lawyer, he says, asked her about the minutest details of the assault and made her recall the traumatic incident over and over again.

Unfortunately, he says, many lawyers deliberately confuse rape victims during cross-examination in order to get relief for the accused. “They ask shameful questions which no woman can answer.”

Sources privy to rape investigations reveal that due to socio-cultural mores police usually try to put the blame on complainants and prove that rape victims are women of loose morals. Their perception is that a woman who has really been raped would not dare to report the crime out of shame and fear of public humiliation.

If the victim has had any association with the alleged rapist or has been socially active or has a ‘modern’ lifestyle, police tend to believe that her allegations are fabricated.

In the past, legal provisions in Pakistan also made this possible. Shahid Ghani, a Lahore-based lawyer, cites such a provision: “When a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character.”

He says this provision allowed for looking into a victim’s history to prove that she may not be innocent and may be sexually active.

Speaking to IPS in 2014, top police officials admitted that investigators needed to handle rape cases differently.

Inspector Amjad Naeem, master trainer at the Police Training College, Lahore, said there has to be an element of empathy in rape cases and special care must be shown by investigators in seeking information from victims.

“The victim has to be told not to change clothes, wash herself or go to the washroom before evidence is collected,” he told IPS. “In case it is necessary to go to the washroom, the urine and stool should be collected for later examination.”

Thanks to a project called Gender Responsive Policing (GRP), launched by the German development agency GIZ in collaboration with NBP, many policymakers have begun to believe that more women should join the police force and handle cases of violence against women.

Ali Mazhar, communication manager at GIZ, told IPS that a large number of policewomen have been trained under the programme to understand cases of violence against women.

Under the programme, he says, Ladies Complaint Units (LCUs) are being set up at police stations where women officers attend to women’s complainants in an environment that is free of harassment and fear.

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How a Spring Revival Scheme in India’s Sikkim Is Defeating Droughts Wed, 01 Feb 2017 13:48:07 +0000 Athar Parvaiz Women are always hit hardest by water scarcity as they have to travel longer distances to fetch water, which increases their workload and compromises their ability to perform other essential and livelihood functions. Credit: Pem Norbhu

Women are always hit hardest by water scarcity as they have to travel longer distances to fetch water, which increases their workload and compromises their ability to perform other essential and livelihood functions. Credit: Pem Norbhu

By Athar Parvaiz
GANGTOK, India, Feb 1 2017 (IPS)

Bina Sharma, a member of the Melli Dhara Gram Panchayat Unit in the southern part of India’s northeastern Himalayan state of Sikkim, is a relieved woman.

For the past three years, Sharma said, she has received hardly any complaints from villagers about water disputes.Before the village’s water crisis subsided, students of the local Nelligumpa Secondary School had to regularly take two litres of water from their homes to the school.

“Until a few years back, our springs were staying almost dry for five months from December to April. During those months I often used to get complaints from the villagers against their fellow villagers as they would fight for water,” Sharma told IPS.

People in most parts of the mountainous Sikkim, and those in other mountainous areas across the region, use spring water for their personal consumption, kitchen gardens, farms, cattle and poultry. According to Sikkim First, an economic and political journal, about 80 per cent of Sikkim’s rural households depend on springs for drinking water and irrigation.

From experts in Gangtok to laymen in the far-off villages, everyone agrees that erratic rains and frequent droughts have resulted in the drying up of springs in many parts of the state, especially in south. Some say that the problem became worse after the 2011 earthquake in Sikkim.

Many studies, including the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, have reported changes in precipitation and temperature in the Himalayan region in recent years, but the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) says there is a major need for more research on Himalayan precipitation processes, as most studies have excluded the Himalayan region due to the region’s extreme, complex topography and lack of adequate rain-gauge data.

Adapting to changes, the Sikkim way

Thankfully, Sharma said, the water security scheme of Sikkim’s rural development department for recharging the springs “seems to be working in our village” since it was started in 2012. “We get water all year round now,” she said.

According to the people and the government officials in Sikkim, hundreds of springs and the lakes in Sikkim have been drying up, especially from November to May in recent years. This has compelled the government to think of a scheme to revive the drying springs and lakes by artificially recharging the springs.

The brain behind devising this innovative scheme is Sandeep Thambe, an Indian Forest Service officer with a mechanical engineering background who has also carried out extensive research on water and environmental issues in Sikkim and is currently a professor at the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIMF), Bhopal.

Hari Maya Pradhan, a woman who lives alone in her home in Melli Dhara, said that she had decided to give up rearing poultry and cattle as a livelihood option because she had to endure so many hardships to access water. “But now I feel a lot better after the villagers worked hard and dug up the ponds [which help in recharging the springs],” Pradhan, who has two cows and a small poultry unit, told IPS.

Before the village’s water crisis subsided, students of the local Nelligumpa Secondary School had to regularly take two litres of water from their homes to the school.

“Many times we protested and were preparing to take all our students to Gangtok to stage a protest demonstration. But our woes got automatically addressed when our springs started producing water in the dry season as well,” said Norbhu Tshering, the school in-charge.

Connected to nature    

In almost all parts of Sikkim, people directly connect plastic pipes to the small springs spread above their habitations to avail the natural water supply. But in the south and western parts of Sikkim, getting water from the springs all through the season has become impossible for more than a decade.

In 2009, this prompted Tambe, who then served in the Sikkim government’s Rural Development Department, to start the Dhara Vikas (or Spring Development) programme for reviving and maintaining the drying springs and lakes particularly in southern and western parts of the state.

The scheme was later launched under the centrally sponsored Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), with technical support from other government agencies and organisations like WWF (India) and People’s Science Institute Dehradun.

According to Tambe, the core thrust of Dhara Vikas is to catch the surface runoff water and use it to recharge groundwater sources after identifying the specific recharge areas of springs accurately through scientific methods by digging staggered contour trenches and percolation pits.

“With increasing population, degrading health of watersheds and impacts of climate change, the lean period discharge of these springs is rapidly declining,” Tambe said, adding that artificial recharging has thankfully shown encouraging results.

He said that less than 15 per cent of the rainwater, as has been estimated in various studies, is able to percolate down to recharge the springs, while the remaining flows down as runoff often causing floods.

“Hence, a need was felt to enhance the contribution of that rainwater in ground water recharge, thereby contributing to rural water security,” Tambe told IPS.

Women, Tambe said, are always hit hardest by water scarcity as they have to travel longer distances to fetch water, which increases their workload and compromises their ability to perform other essential and livelihood functions. Reduced access to water, he said, also impacts health, hygiene, and sanitation.

Sarika Pradhan of Sikkim’s Rural Development Department said that 51 springs and four lakes in 20 drought-prone Gram Panchayats of Sikkim have been revived so far as the rural development department has mapped 704 springs in the village spring atlas, which provides information about all the mapped springs.

Her colleague, Subash Dhakal, said that trenches and percolation pits have been dug over an area of 637 hectares under MGNREGA for reviving these springs and lakes with an average cost of 250,000 rupees (USD 3,787) per spring.

*Research for this story was supported by a grant through The Forum of Environmental Journalists in India (FEJI) in collaboration with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) Media Fellowships in Environmental Conservation, 2016.

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Pakistani Reporters in the Crosshairs Mon, 30 Jan 2017 13:32:55 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Journalists in Peshawar protest an attack on Dawn News near the Peshawar Press Club in November 2016. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Journalists in Peshawar protest an attack on Dawn News near the Peshawar Press Club in November 2016. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Jan 30 2017 (IPS)

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas located on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border remain one of the most perilous places in the world to be a reporter, with journalists walking a razor’s edge of violence and censorship.

FATA has been a bastion of Taliban militants since they crossed over to Pakistan and took refuge when their government was toppled in neighbouring Afghanistan by the U.S.-led Coalition forces towards the end of 2001.“Most of the 200 reporters from FATA have migrated outside their districts and do their work from safer places. We are unsafe. There’s no protection at all.” --Muhammad Ghaffar

Militants have used the area as a base to target security forces as well as journalists whom they perceive as pro-government.

Muhammad Anwar, who represents FATA-based Tribal Union of Journalists (TUJ), said that excessive violence, threats and intimidation remain a fact of life.

“There are two options with FATA’s journalists: either to face death or stay silent over what is going on there,” he said.

Hayatullah Khan was the first journalist killed, in June 2006 after being kidnapped in December 2005 in Waziristan. Since then more than 20 journalists have been killed in the seven agencies of FATA, allegedly by Taliban militants who were unhappy over their reporting.

“Taliban militants set on fire a newspaper stall when they saw news highlighting their activities. They also warned the reporters to stay away from coverage of the Taliban’s punishments of local people,” Muhammad Shakoor, a journalist from North Waziristan, told IPS.

Shakoor, who now lives in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), one of Pakistan’s four provinces, recalls how militants’ threats have prompted many journalists to flee to other parts of the country.

The situation in Swat district in KP also turned sour for journalists during the unlawful rule of the Taliban from 2007 to 2009. “Taliban militants intimidated local journalists. At least three of them were killed because they were disliked by the Taliban militants or the Pakistan Army,” Muhammad Rafiq, a local journalist, told IPS.

Reporters fear for their lives and take extreme caution while filing their stories. “We are stuck between militants and the army. We don’t know about the killers of our colleagues who have fallen in the line of their duties,” Rafiq said.

The Taliban may have disappeared as a result of military operations, but they still have the capability to target journalists, he said.

“Most of the 200 reporters from FATA have migrated outside their districts and do their work from safer places. We are unsafe. There’s no protection at all,” Muhammad Ghaffar said.

Ghaffar, who works with an Urdu newspaper in Mohmand Agency, said that it’s not only insurgents. They also face threats from the local political administration who wants them to toe the line.

“It is almost impossible to do independent reporting due to lack of protection. Journalists are surrounded by a host of problems, due to which they have to remain careful,” he said.

Journalists in Pakistan are targeted from “all sides” even as the conditions for media in the country improved slightly.

“Journalists are targeted by extremist groups, militant organisations and state organisations,” says a new report on press freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The report, released early in January, showed that Pakistan had jumped 12 spots to 147 in RSF’s in 2016 World Press Freedom Index, up from 159 in 2015 and 158 in 2014.

Pakistan stands at number two in the international index of the most dangerous places for journalists, who face harassment, kidnappings and assassinations, RSF said. During the last 10 years, more than 100 journalists have been killed in Pakistan, with almost 98 per cent belonging to FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan province.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has demanded that the government file cases or reopen old investigations into dozens of murdered journalists but there has so far been no action.

Last year, the International Federation of Journalists reported that Pakistan was amongst the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with 102 journalists and media workers having lost their lives since 2005.

The IFJ’s report said that since 2010 alone, 73 journalists and media workers have been killed — almost one journalist every month. It termed Balochistan province a ‘Cemetery for Journalists’, where 31 journalists were killed since 2007.

“The armed insurgency and sectarian violence account for a number of these killings but many of them raise suspicions of the involvement of the state’s institutions,” it said.

The killers of journalists mostly walk free, as Pakistan has so far recorded only three convictions.

Mar. 16, 2016 marked a rare occasion for journalists in Pakistan to celebrate the third verdict convicting a murderer of journalist when a district court in KP sentenced a man named Aminullah to life imprisonment for the killing of journalist Ayub Khattak on Oct. 11, 2013 for his reporting on the drug trade, in which Aminullah was involved.

In March 2016, senior journalist Hamid Mir was targeted by unknown assailants who inflicted grievous injuries. The attackers were never found.

Mir, who later received the “Most Resilient Journalist” award by International Free Press in Holland in November, said he escaped the assassination attempt but wouldn’t leave Pakistan because people stood behind him. He dedicated his award to the people of Pakistan for showing bravery against militancy and terrorism.

“The award is recognition of my sacrifices for advancement of journalism, which encourages me,” he said.

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Drought Could Cost Sri Lanka Billions Wed, 25 Jan 2017 11:00:22 +0000 Amantha Perera In Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, over 300,000 people are in need of transported safe water. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

In Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, over 300,000 people are in need of transported safe water. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Jan 25 2017 (IPS)

The warnings are stark, the instructions, for a change, clear.

Sri Lanka is heading into one of its worst droughts in recent history, and according some estimates the worst in 30 years. The reservoirs are running on empty, at 30 percent or less capacity. Only 12 percent of the island’s power generation is currently from hydropower and 85 percent comes from thermal, with a staggering 41 percent from coal.

The rains have stayed away like never before. According to a recent survey by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the government, last year’s rains were 23 percent less than the 30-year average.One of the long-term consequences that is rarely highlighted is the impact droughts have on land degradation.

Now the instructions: Use water sparingly, do not wash vehicles with pipe-borne water, do not put air conditioning below 26 C, and light bonfires in the morning if you want to protect your crops from the morning mist, a forerunner, according to local yore, of a impending drought.

“It is a very serious situation, something that we have not faced in a long time, but we are taking precautions,” said Lalith Chandarapala, the head of the Meteorological Department. It was his department that first warned of the drought when the rains failed yet again last year around September.

In fact, in 2016, there were only three days of exceptionally high rains, during mid-May, when 300 mm fell on some parts of the island. On either side of them, it was drier than usual.

The effects have been catastrophic. Of a possible 800,000 acres, only a little above 300,000 was planted with the staple rice crops during the last harvesting season due to lack of water.

“This is the lowest cultivation level experienced in Sri Lanka during the last thirty years,” the WFP-government joint survey said. It estimated that by end of December, already close to a million people were affected by the drought in 23 of the 25 districts. By the third week of January, the government’s Disaster Management Center said that over 900,000 were receiving water brought in from outside.

“Even if the country receives average rains in the months of January and February 2017, it is highly unlikely that the current drought situation will improve until March 2017,” the joint assessment warned.

Large tracts of land, like these in the Sinhapura area of Sri Lanka’s North Central Polonnaruwa Province, have been denuded by years of overuse. Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa/IPS

Large tracts of land, like these in the Sinhapura area of Sri Lanka’s North Central Polonnaruwa Province, have been denuded by years of overuse. Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa/IPS

The government has already slashed taxes on rice imports to fend off price hikes as well as shortages and decided to buy power on short-term agreements from private suppliers till the next rains. The additional power purchases are expected to cost the government Rs 50b.

It has also restricted water supply to areas where there is an acute shortage of safe water and ordered a survey of private wells. Millions of Sri Lankan households use dug wells for domestic consumption without any purview by any authority. Any move to curtail such use or to use these wells for public supplies will be a deeply unpopular move.

Apart from the short-term impacts of such frequent extreme weather events, experts also worry about the long term implications.

“Changing climate is an issue we have to deal with, our policies now have to reflect awareness as well as adaptation measures,” Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshna Yapa said.

One of these long-term consequences that is rarely highlighted is the impact droughts have on land degradation.

The United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) estimates that 45 percent of the country’s rural population was living in degrading agricultural areas at the turn of the millennium, and that within a decade that population grew by a further 20 percent.

Researchers at the UNCCD headquarters warned that “when there is drought, most of the plant cover dies, which leaves the land exposed to wind erosion, and to water erosion when the rains return. In addition, long dry spells can make it difficult for the ground to soak up the rainfall, which is the source of ground water.”

A little known fact is that land degradation has serious impact on Sri Lanka’s economy. “Land degradation may be costing Sri Lanka up to about 300 million United States dollars every year. That is approximately one percent of the country’s gross domestic product,” UNCCD said in a statement to IPS.

In rural Sri Lanka, the impact of generations of land use without proper care is clear. In the southern Hambantota District, farmers who depend on water supply for cultivation have been moving deeper into forests and reserves as water availability becomes less and less reliable in more populated areas.

In the Andaraweva area in Hambantota, about 20 km from the closest town a large banana plantation has come up within what is essentially a forest reserve. The plantation which could be as large 20 acres, gains water from a tank meant to be for wildlife nearby.

The cultivators who have obtained written permission from local government officials to use the tank water, much to chagrin of wildlife officials, use five industrial level pumps powered by small tractor motors to pump the water and send it about a1km into the plantation.

The small lake is being dried out by the over use of water, forcing wildlife officials to despair over water for animals.

“We have been abusing our water resources for so long, at least now we should be more careful with it, or we would have to be really, really sorry,” head of the Hambantota Wildlife office Ajith Gunathunga said.

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Philippines Joins Space Race Tue, 24 Jan 2017 11:33:18 +0000 Diana G Mendoza Filipino scientists and engineers with their Japanese counterparts look at the completed Diwata-1. Credit: Philippine Microsatellite Program

Filipino scientists and engineers with their Japanese counterparts look at the completed Diwata-1. Credit: Philippine Microsatellite Program

By Diana G Mendoza
MANILA, Jan 24 2017 (IPS)

The Philippines, a tiny developing country, has joined the colossal world of space technology, building its second microsatellite that it plans to launch late this year or in early 2018 — not to study other planets, but to monitor weather patterns and climate change to protect the country’s natural resources and improve disaster risk management.

Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, a wide area in the Pacific Ocean with frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that makes it the fourth most disaster-prone nation in the world, according to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the Philippines can now benefit from its first eye in the sky – a 50-kilogramme imaging and earth observation satellite while venturing, with baby steps, into space science.“Typhoon Haiyan was a big wake-up call. We thought hard about having remote sensing technology and scientific cameras and cable systems to help prepare for and mitigate devastation from disasters." --Joel Joseph Marciano, leader of PHL-Microsat

Diwata (a Filipino term for a mythological character meaning “fairy”), the first small satellite, has just completed over 4,000 orbits around the world. While it continues to circle the globe, its sister Diwata-2 is now being built.

The microsatellite was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Mar. 23, 2016 and deployed into space from the ISS’ Japanese Experiment Module, nicknamed “Kibo,” where it was housed and calibrated, on Apr. 27, 2016.

Joel Joseph Marciano, Jr., a professor of electrical and electronics engineering at the University of the Philippines (UP), said Diwata-1 is the first microsatellite built under the Development of Philippine Scientific Earth Observation Microsatellite (PHL-Microsat) Program that aims to enhance capacity in space technology through the development of microsatellite systems.

The three-year programme, which started in 2014 and with a budget of 840 million pesos (17.1 million dollars) is supported by the Philippine Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and implemented by several departments of UP.

Marciano, the programme leader of the PHL-Microsat, said the microsatellite was a result of ruminations by scientists after storm Haiyan, called Yolanda in the Philippines and the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history, flattened Tacloban City (573 kilometers southeast of Manila) and its peripheral cities and provinces on Nov. 8, 2013.

With 250-kph winds and seven-metre high storm surges, it killed more than 6,500 people, damaged more than one million homes, 33 million coconut trees, 600,000 hectares of agricultural land and more than 1,000 public structures.

“Typhoon Haiyan was a big wake-up call. We thought hard about having remote sensing technology and scientific cameras and cable systems to help prepare for and mitigate devastation from disasters,” Marciano told journalist-fellows of the recent Graciano Lopez Jaena Journalism Workshop on science journalism organized by the UP College of Mass Communications.

A man stands surrounded by the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban. Credit: Henry Donati/Department for International Development

A man stands surrounded by the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban. Credit: Henry Donati/Department for International Development

He said the Philippines is one of the 10 most biologically “mega-diverse” countries in the world, with over two million sq kms of maritime waters encompassing an important part of the “coral triangle” and thousands of species of flora and fauna. Unfortunately, it is frequented by an average of nine typhoons and 10 weaker storms that make landfall each year.

“The presence of environment sensing and earth observation technology would provide a faster turn-around of information-giving and intervention,” said Marciano, who is also director of the Advanced Science and Technology Institute of the DOST.

His colleague Gay Jane Perez, a professor of the UP Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology who is the project leader of the PHL-Micosat Remote Sensing Product Development, said one of Diwata-1’s first missions on disaster assessment were evidentiary images of the destruction caused by typhoon Haima (called Lawin in the Philippines) that struck the northern Philippines on Oct. 20, 2016.

The images, which were taken five days after the storm made landfall, provided clarity to government bodies handling the coordination of disaster relief and rehabilitation.

Perez said Diwata-1, which is barely the size of two suitcases stacked on top of each other and weighs only 50 kilograms, has special cameras that take images of the Philippines while in orbit. “The microsatellite has a unique ability while in a high vantage point to do research and to get information that complements ground monitoring,” she said. “We can translate this research product into more useful information.”

Its main parts include a high precision telescope for high resolution imaging that can be used for assessing the extent of damage during disasters; a wide field camera for observing large-scale weather patterns; and a space borne multispectral imager for monitoring bodies of water and vegetation.

Perez said resource inventory and assessment in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, mining and energy will be better. ”The microsatellite can observe meteorological events and weather updates such as typhoons and heavy rains and provide information essential to farmers and fisher folk that can help them adjust their planting and fishing methods amid changing climate conditions,” she said, adding that it can also monitor forest cover and protect cultural and historical sites and the Philippines territorial borders.

Currently in orbit with an altitude of over 400 km, Diwata-1 passes four times a day, with six minutes per pass, over the Philippines. It is expected to capture 3,600 images daily. Through its sensor, it sends images and data back to the Philippine Earth Data Resources and Observation (PEDRO) Center at the Subic Bay Freeport in Zambales province, 254 km north of Manila, its ground station.

Marciano and Perez are part of the PHL-Microsat program that includes Filipino scientists who assembled Diwata-1 in collaboration with Tohoku University and Hokkaido University, the UP and DOST’s partner universities. The all-Filipino team of scientists and engineers who designed and built Diwata-1 are now based in Japan.

Under the Philippines-Japan partnership, seven engineering students from UP and two science researchers from DOST were sent to Tohoku and Hokkaido universities to work on the microsatellite bus system and payload design while pursuing their advanced degrees.

With its first satellite blasting into space, the Philippines joins 70 other countries which, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as of 2015, are operating government space agencies and are capable of human spaceflight, which is the gold standard for space programmes.

Marciano said the country’s first steps into space technology development expects to boost governance through land use, local development planning, zoning generation and revenue  through tax mapping, real property administration and tourism and infrastructure planning and monitoring in transportation and development corridors.

As it assembles Diwata-2, the Philippines also hosted for the first time in its 23‐year history the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum in November last year. Already, Diwata-1 was cited by NASA’s Presidential Transition Binder as its poster child for small spacecraft technology.

The document that will be given to the new U.S. administration cited Diwata-1 as an example for small spacecraft technology that has many advantages of being small but powerful, adding the ease of deployment and low cost of building it.

With these initial strides, the PHL-Microsat hopes to motivate the Filipino youth to take an interest in the sciences and take advantage of this new era of space science. The UP is also introducing science journalism in its curriculum to train future journalists in understanding the sciences and to widen media writing and reporting on science.

Perez said the country’s space programme is incremental but it hopes to motivate more young people to take interest in it. “We are now training students to develop capabilities to arrive at something like Diwata-1 in the future, perhaps with their own creative and better designs.”

In addition, she said the Microsatellite Research and Instructional Facility is currently being established at the UP that will be the hub for the country’s inter-disciplinary research and development activities in space technology.

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Regional Solutions Key for Asia-pacific’s Transition to Sustainable Energy Fri, 20 Jan 2017 15:36:24 +0000 Dr Shamshad Akhtar Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is a Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). ]]>

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is a Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

By Dr. Shamshad Akhtar
BANGKOK, Jan 20 2017 (IPS)

The Asia-Pacific region is at a turning point in its energy trajectory. The energy solutions that have fuelled growth in the region over the past few decades are no longer compatible with the sustainable development aspirations of our nations and their people. In transitioning to a new era of sustainable energy, policymakers across the region face complex decisions. Supplies must be secure and affordable, and they must fill the energy access gap which leaves half a billion people across the region without access to electricity. At the same time mitigating the local impacts of energy generation and use will be vital in resolving problems such as the air pollution choking our cities and the global consequences of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Solutions exist, but only through regional cooperation and integration can Asia and the Pacific transition to sustainable energy in time to meet the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Goals.

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar

Countries have committed to moving towards a more diverse and low carbon energy mix through the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, fossil fuels stubbornly remain a major part of the regional energy mix, making up three-quarters of electricity generation. Unless the region’s countries work together to accelerate the incorporation of sustainable energy into their strategies, business-as-usual approaches will result in a continuation of fossil fuel use and associated impacts.

While some countries suffer from energy shortages which limit their economic and social development, others enjoy energy surpluses, such as hydropower and natural gas. Trading these resources through new cross-border power grids, drawing on renewable energy when possible, as well as gas pipeline infrastructures, can open up enormous opportunities for both economic growth and decarbonisation.

The energy technology renaissance already underway in some countries is playing a vital role in the transition. New technologies are reducing the cost of clean energy and renewable power. Smart grids and electric vehicles are rapidly gaining market share. Since 2010, the cost of solar power generation has declined by 58 percent, with the cost of wind power down by one-third. The International Renewable Energy Agency projects cost reductions of 59 percent in solar power and 12 percent in wind power within 10 years, edging below fossil fuel electricity costs in most Asia-Pacific countries. Advances in long-distance power transmission technologies enable the linking of renewable energy resource-rich areas such as the Gobi Desert, Central Asia and far eastern Russia, with distant population centers. Asia-Pacific has emerged as an engine for clean energy, both as a manufacturing center for renewable energy technologies and as the leading region for deployment, with $160 billion invested in renewables in 2015.

On the demand side, energy efficiency technologies have an important role to play in the energy transition. Better energy efficiency is a key driver in decoupling energy use and GDP growth in many economies. With 15 percent of the world’s electricity consumed by lighting, efficient LED lighting technology, which consumes up to 85 percent less energy, will make substantial savings. Energy storage technologies for vehicles and power applications have also leapt ahead, offering flexibility in power usage and balancing variable electricity generation from renewables. Here again, regional cooperation, technology transfer and south-south collaboration will play a vital role in the transition.

Despite these encouraging developments, the success of the energy transition will require sustained commitment at national and regional levels through better policies, incentives and allocation of investments. The inertia of the existing energy sector is considerable, with its long-lived assets and entrenched institutional arrangements. Regional cooperation, through sharing of policy experiences, building capacity and mobilizing finance can play a significant role in assisting countries to implement their own energy sector reforms and capture the many co-benefits. The importance of regional energy cooperation is evident in the transboundary nature of many prominent energy challenges – improving regional energy security, managing air pollution and establishing cross-border energy infrastructure. ASEAN, South Asian and Central Asian countries as well as China, Russia and Mongolia are already embracing cross-border energy connectivity. Initiatives such as the CASA 1000 and the ASEAN Power Grid will allow low carbon energy from gas, hydropower, solar or wind to be traded across borders. Long-term regional dialogue is required to further develop these complex and infrastructure-intensive initiatives.

Connecting countries, finding regional solutions and promoting regional standards and guidelines has been at the core of the work of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific for the past 70 years. We recognize the need for regional energy cooperation, and with the support of our member States established an intergovernmental Committee on Energy that will meet for the first time in Bangkok, 17-19 January. Through the Committee, countries will help to map out key regional energy solutions for the region such as accelerating uptake of renewables and energy efficiency, establishing cross-border energy connectivity, promoting regional approaches to energy security, and providing modern energy access throughout the region to ensure a sustainable energy future for all. Through regional cooperation and integration I am confident that the countries of Asia-Pacific region can transform their energy trajectories to better serve their people, the region and the planet.

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Trump Trade Strategy Unclear Thu, 19 Jan 2017 15:55:46 +0000 Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007. Anis Chowdhury, a former professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, held senior United Nations positions during 2008–2015 in New York and Bangkok. ]]> Now that Donald Trump has announced that he will take the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, an increase in  US trade protectionism is expected, possibly triggering serious trade conflicts with unpredictable consequences. Credit: IPS

Now that Donald Trump has announced that he will take the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, an increase in US trade protectionism is expected, possibly triggering serious trade conflicts with unpredictable consequences. Credit: IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

US President-elect Donald Trump has announced that he will take the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement on the first day of his presidency in January 2017. Now, it is widely expected that Trump’s presidency will increase US trade protectionism, and consequently by others in retaliation, possibly triggering serious trade conflicts with difficult to predict consequences.

After decades of denial by ‘free trade’ advocates, it is now widely agreed that many manufacturing jobs in the US have been lost to both automation and offshore relocation by US corporations. Free trade agreements (FTAs) are also being blamed for the US’s large trade deficits.

Trump trade strategy?

With the global economic slowdown of the last eight years associated by many with the slowdown of trade expansion, the surprise election of President-elect Trump has become the subject of much speculation and some dire predictions. Many are concerned that Trump has made various contrarian pronouncements on FTAs, while his appointments to trade related portfolios seem to contradict his trade rhetoric.

In early December 2016, the Wall Street Journal noted the unexpectedly high number of TPP advocates joining the Trump administration to serve in trade-related capacities. Although the hopes of some TPP advocates of a last-minute reprieve are probably misplaced, there is no indication that some amended version, perhaps with a different name, will not eventually emerge in its place.

If President-elect Trump lives up to his campaign rhetoric, other plurilateral free trade agreements will also be affected. Trump has referred to the TPP and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as disasters for the US, and has vowed to renegotiate NAFTA. His announced preference for negotiating “fair” bilateral trade deals favourable to the US has not given much comfort to prospective negotiation partners.

And while Trump’s main preoccupations have been with US manufacturing jobs and the related international trade in goods, he is also expected to promote US corporate interests more generally, e.g., on intellectual property, financial liberalization, investor rights and dispute settlement.

Already, most US FTAs include ‘non-trade issues’, many of which have raised costs to consumers, e.g., by further strengthening intellectual property monopolies typically held by powerful transnational corporations, whose chief executives seem likely to be very influential in the new administration.

Currency manipulation
During the presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Trump accused China of being a “currency manipulator”, despite market consensus that the Chinese renminbi has been reasonably aligned for some time. Under US law, evidence of currency manipulation could be grounds to impose additional tariffs on imports from a country so deemed by the Treasury Department. Aware that this could exacerbate trade conflicts, President Obama avoided pressure to do so from many Congress members, lobbyists and economists.

However, Trump can easily revise this position on some pretext or other, by taking trade or other retaliatory actions against China on the ostensible grounds of alleged currency manipulation which would contravene World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, allowing China to successfully take a case against the US to the WTO for such an illegal action.

WTO trade rules abused
Trump has also threatened to impose tariffs of as much as 45% on imports from China and Mexico! But while an across-the-board tariff hike is unlikely, as it is prohibited by the WTO, the new administration is likely to consider invoking WTO trade-remedy actions on products from China, Mexico and other countries by claiming they are being dumped or subsidized. This has already happened, e.g., with solar panels and wind turbines from China, raising the costs of renewable energy, and thus undermining the global warming mitigation effort.

To be sure, WTO trade remedy rules have long been widely abused for protectionist purposes. A country can impose high tariffs on an imported item from another country by claiming its price has been artificially depressed or subsidized by the government in order to export – or ‘dump’ – them at a price lower than the domestic price. No deterrent is imposed against the offending country even if a WTO dispute settlement panel rules that the ostensibly anti-dumping tariff-raising action was wrongly taken, even though the exporting country has lost considerable export earnings in the interim.

Furthermore, similar actions can be repeated without impunity with no threat of penalty. Such ostensible trade-remedy actions are more likely than blatant tariff walls. These may, in turn, trigger retaliatory counter-actions by aggrieved governments, potentially leading to a spiral of trade protectionism, i.e., trade warfare.

Fair trade?
It is unclear how the new administration views FTAs more generally. The President-elect’s objection to the TPP and NAFTA focuses on the goods trade, and the loss of manufacturing jobs due to cheaper imports, often brought in by the same companies which have chosen to relocate production capacities abroad, and are already mobilizing to resist actions which may jeopardize their profits.
This view does not seem to recognize that technological change, particularly with automation, has been the major source of job losses. Many jobs remaining in the US have higher skill requirements, with fewer employees producing more goods with less labour-intensive techniques.

“Fair trade” will be subject to self-serving interpretations by the governments concerned, arguably further undermining trade multilateralism. While freer trade has undoubtedly improved consumer welfare with cheaper imports, it has seen some deindustrialization in the North and industrialization in the South in recent decades with important employment consequences which have been a major source of the current discontent over globalization.

Trade growth slower
To be sure, the trade growth slowdown following the 2008 financial crisis suggests that the U-turn has already taken place after an extraordinary period of trade expansion due to much greater international specialization with the popularization of international value chains.

In December 2015, Obama’s United States Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman threatened the already difficult Doha Round of WTO trade negotiations by trying to introduce TPP issues which had been kept off the agenda from the outset of the ostensibly Development Round after the Seattle WTO ministerial walkout of 1999.

Perhaps most worryingly, there has been no indication so far that the next US administration will not undermine multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of the WTO. Trump’s much-trumpeted preference for bilateral deals favourable to the US is likely to test trade multilateralism as never before.

But President-elect Trump also has a penchant for the unpredictable, and may yet surprise the world with a new commitment to trade multilateralism to advance consumer, producer, and development interests for all.

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Pacific Islanders Call for U.S. Solidarity on Climate Change Thu, 19 Jan 2017 13:24:20 +0000 Catherine Wilson Higher tides and coastal erosion are encroaching on homes and community buildings in Siar village, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Higher tides and coastal erosion are encroaching on homes and community buildings in Siar village, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 19 2017 (IPS)

The new political power of business magnate Donald Trump, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20 as the 45th President of the United States, will have ramifications for every global region, including the Pacific Islands.

Pacific leaders who are witnessing rising seas, coastal erosion and severe natural disasters in the region are alert to the new president’s declared scepticism about climate change and the contributing factor of human activities. His proposed policy changes include cutting international climate funding and pushing ahead fossil fuel projects.“It is sad for us who rely on the United States to do the right thing and to hear the president embarking on the opposite path, which is ensuring our destruction.” -- Reverend Tafue Lusama

They say the United States’ solidarity on climate change action is vital to protecting people in developing and industrialised nations from climate-driven disasters, environmental degradation and poverty.

There are 22 Pacific Island states and territories and 35 percent of the region’s population of about 10 million people lives below the poverty line. One of the most vulnerable to climate change is the Polynesian nation of Tuvalu, home to about 10,000 people spread over nine low lying coral islands.

“Tuvalu is among the poorest in the world, it is isolated, small and low in elevation. All aspects of life, from protecting our small land to food security, from our marine resources to our traditional gardens are being impacted by climate change. All the adaptation measures that need to be put in place need international climate funding. With Trump’s intended withdrawal pathway, our survival is denied and justice is ignored,” Reverend Tafue Lusama, General Secretary of the Tuvalu Christian Church and global advocate for climate action, told IPS.

Trump’s 100-day action plan, issued during last year’s presidential campaign, claims it will tackle government corruption, accountability and waste and improve the lives of U.S. citizens who have been marginalised by globalisation and ‘special interests’ of the political elite.

But his intended actions include cancelling billions in payments to United Nations climate change programmes, aimed at assisting the most vulnerable people in developing countries, and approving energy projects, worth trillions of dollars, involving shale, oil, natural gas and coal in the United States in a bid to boost domestic jobs.

Last December, 800 scientists and energy experts worldwide wrote an open letter to the then president-elect encouraging him to remain steadfast to policies put forward during the Barack Obama administration such as reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, which in association with industrial processes accounts for 65 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and supporting renewable energy development.

“It is sad for us who rely on the United States to do the right thing and to hear the President embarking on the opposite path, which is ensuring our destruction,” Reverend Lusama added.

London-based Chatham House claims that a key success of the COP21 climate change conference in Paris in 2015 was the supportive ‘alignment’ of the United States, the second largest emitter accounting for 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Here the United States joined the High Ambition Coalition, a grouping of countries committed to rigorous climate targets, which was instrumental in driving consensus that global warming should be kept lower than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Increased global warming could be disastrous for Pacific Island states with many already facing a further rise in sea levels, extremely high daily temperatures and ocean acidification this century, reports the Pacific Climate Change Science Program.

In 2015 the region was hit by a severe El Nino climate cycle which ‘forced people to walk for days seeking sustenance…and, in some cases, to become severely weakened or die from malnutrition,’ Caritas reports. In Papua New Guinea, 2.7 million people, or 36 percent of the population, struggled with lack of food and water as prolonged drought conditions caused water sources to dry up and food crops to fail.

And a consequence of more severe natural disasters in the region is that their arc of impact can be greater.

“Kiribati is one country in the world that is very safe from any disaster….[but] during Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu [in 2015] and Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji [in 2016], the effects also reached Kiribati, which has never happened in the past,” Pelenise Alofa, National Co-ordinator of the Kiribati Climate Action Network, told IPS.

The economic toll of natural disasters is well beyond the capacity of Kiribati, a Least Developed Country with the third lowest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world in a ranking of 195 countries by the World Bank.

“It is not in a position to meet its own adaptation needs because the climate change problems are too enormous for a small country like Kiribati to have enough resources to meet the problem head on,” Alofa said.

The economic burden extends to replacing coastal buildings at risk of climate change and extreme weather, which would cost an estimated total of 22 billion dollars for 12 Pacific Island nations, claims the University of New England in Australia. The risk is very high in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, where more than 95 percent of built infrastructure is located within 500 metres of a coastline.

Recently several Pacific Island countries benefitted from the United Nations-administered Green Climate Fund (GCF), the largest multilateral climate fund dedicated to assisting developing countries cope with climate change. Three grants, ranging from 22 million to 57 million dollars, were awarded for a multiple Pacific nation renewable energy programme, to enable Vanuatu to develop climate information services and Samoa to pursue integrated flood management.

But the GCF, to which the United States, its largest benefactor, has committed 3.5 billion dollars, could suffer if Trump follows through on his promise, given that international pledges currently total 10.3 billion.

Ahead of the next United Nations climate change conference, to be chaired by Fiji in Bonn, Germany, in November, Pacific Island leaders are keen that President Trump visits the region. President Bainimarama has already invited him to Fiji and the Reverend Lusama would like him to also “visit Tuvalu to witness firsthand the proof which is so obvious to the naked eye of climate change impacts.”

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Bangladesh’s Women Journalists Rise Against the Odds Wed, 11 Jan 2017 13:44:10 +0000 Mahfuzur Rahman Wahida Zaman of United News of Bangladesh. Photo Courtesy of Wahida Zaman.

Wahida Zaman of United News of Bangladesh. Photo Courtesy of Wahida Zaman.

By Mahfuzur Rahman
DHAKA, Jan 11 2017 (IPS)

Journalism is a profession that attracts both sexes, but social taboos and hostile office climates have kept the numbers of women working in Bangladesh’s media sector dismally low. Still, a new generation of women is stepping up, with the support of their path-breaking colleagues.

According to an October 2016 report by senior female journalist Shahnaz Munni of News 24, a private TV channel in Bangladesh, women journalists in Bangladesh’s media industry account for only 5 percent in print and 25 percent in electronic media.“You have to face some obstacles, some real challenges. And they start straight from your own home." --Wahida Zaman

Braving these odds and obstacles, young female graduates are increasingly joining the profession. Wahida Zaman, for example, recently joined United News of Bangladesh (UNB), an independent wire service, as an apprentice sub-editor.

“Unlike many other classmates of mine, both male and female, I chose to study journalism by choice. Before being a journalist, I was actually a photographer. Nothing thrills me more than the thought that journalism can give me all these opportunities in one package,” Zaman told IPS.

“I can go to places, meet new people, get to know new stories — stories of both successful and unsuccessful people, and of course take lots of photographs. That’s how my dream of being a journalist started blooming.”

But, she said, being a woman and a journalist at the same time is not so easy in real life. “You have to face some obstacles, some real challenges. And they start straight from your own home,” Zaman added.

There is often resistance among family members, who want their women to be ‘safe’, she said.

“First of all you’ll have to convince your family that journalism is not a ‘risky’ profession at all for you. In our society, you’ll often get undermined for being a woman. You cannot go far because you’re a woman, you cannot move alone because you’re a woman, you cannot work at late night because you’re a woman, you cannot be brave enough to do investigative reporting because you’re a woman — and excuses keep coming.”

Nadia Sharmeen, a reporter at Ekattor TV, a private television channel in Bangladesh, came under attack in 2013 while covering a rally organised by Hefazat-e-Islam, for Ekushey Television, her previous workplace, in the capital Dhaka.

Sharmeen, who won the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2015, told the IPS that women in Bangladesh face challenges in all sectors. “Threats and intimidation have been part of this profession for women,” she said.

Hailing from Bagerhat, a remote southwestern district of Bangladesh, she said she enjoys the full support of her family in pursuing her career.

Sanchita Sharma, a news editor with Boishakhi Television, said the atmosphere for female journalists in Bangladesh is better now than at any time before and their numbers are growing — but are still not satisfactory.

Sharma said one problem is that women still focus on being news presenters rather than reporters or copy editors, which can help them get elevated to top positions.

Sanchita Sharma of Boishakhi Television. Photo Courtesy of Sanchita Sharma.

Sanchita Sharma of Boishakhi Television. Photo Courtesy of Sanchita Sharma.

Apart from social problems, a common challenge for women journalists is they have to manage both their homes and their offices. “It’s a double trouble for them,” she said.

Regarding the Bangladesh National Press Club, Sharma said the men who dominate its Executive Committee are reluctant to grant membership to women. “It’s very painful that women account for only 54 among the Club’s 1,218 members,” she said.

Echoing Sharma, Rashada Akhter Shimul, a Joint News Editor at Somoy TV, said male journalists misinterpret the successes and promotions of their female counterparts with concocted juicy stories.

She said their male bosses can be unnecessarily tough in putting their female colleagues on night shifts. “They (male bosses) can easily spare us from nightshift duty if there is no emergency, but they don’t. That’s why many promising girls are quitting the profession.”

Every profession has hazards, but in journalism this is disheartening, particularly for women. “Things are improving, but slowly,” she said.

Shimul said male bosses also undermine female journalists and ignore them when it comes to covering important and challenging news beats like that of crime and PMO (the Prime Minister’s Office).

Shahiduzzaman, Editor of News Network, a leading non-profit media support organisation of Bangladesh, said the atmosphere in Bangladesh for female journalists is still far from ideal.

Shahiduzzaman, also a Representative and Senior Adviser for South Asia with Inter Press Service (IPS), said it was the News Network that first came forward in the mid-1990s to provide journalism training to female university graduates by offering them fellowships.

He said News Network has so far provided training to nearly 300 young and upcoming women journalists with support from donors like Diakonia, Free Press, USAID, Ford Foundation, Norad, Canadian International Development Agency, The World Bank and Janata Bank, a public sector local bank. And 60 percent of them are now working in the country’s mainstream media. “Sanchita and Shimul are among them,” he mentioned.

Stressing the importance of gender equity in Bangladesh’s media industry, Shahiduzzaman said a very few of the 5 percent female journalists hold policymaking positions, which is necessary for to make far-reaching changes.

Regretting that there are hardly any female journalists at the country’s district level, the News Network editor said widespread training programmes are needed to encourage female young graduates to take up journalism as their profession.

“We can do even better if we can get support from donors as in the past,” he said.

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China’s Billion-Dollar Re-entry in Sri Lanka Met with Public Protests Mon, 09 Jan 2017 13:59:11 +0000 Amantha Perera “Over our dead bodies.” Villagers in Beragama, Sri Lanka protest to prevent government surveyors from carrying out mapping due to fears of losing their land. Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa/IPS

“Over our dead bodies.” Villagers in Beragama, Sri Lanka protest to prevent government surveyors from carrying out mapping due to fears of losing their land. Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa/IPS

By Amantha Perera
BERAGAMA, Jan 9 2017 (IPS)

Beragama is a typical Sri Lankan rural village, with lush green paddy fields interspersed by small houses and the village temple standing at the highest location. Despite being close to the island’s second international harbour and its second international airport, Beragama appears untouched by modernity.

All that is about to change. There is angst in this hamlet located in the Hambantota District about 250 km south of the capital Colombo. The fear is that a new Chinese investment topping 1.5 billion dollars could gobble up the village, along with an adjacent stretch of 15,000 acres.“We are not against investments, but we don’t want to lose our lands and homes.” -- Beragama resident Nandana Wijesinghe

The Sri Lankan government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe wants to sign a deal with a Chinese company by which the investors would gain controlling shares of the new Magampura Port and a proposed investment zone. The investment is expected to ease some of the burden of a whopping national debt of around 64 billion dollars, 8 billion of which the country owes China. Between 2016 and 2017 its debt payments are expected to in the region of 8 billion.

This is money the government desperately needs to revive a flagging economy. It was so desperate that within two years of taking power, it has turned to the very lenders that it shunned in 2015. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had followed a pro-Beijing policy even at the risk of annoying regional power India by its actions.

The new government that replaced it first tried to follow a pro-Western investment policy, even suspending Sri Lanka’s single largest investment project, the 1.5-billion-dollar Colombo Port City. However, without new investments coming in at anticipated rates, Colombo has had to seek China’s help.

“We are not against investments, but we don’t want to lose our lands and homes,” Beragama resident Nandana Wijesinghe told IPS.

The villagers charge that the Chinese want the most fertile land, and the areas close to the port. “Why don’t they take land that is shrub? There is plenty of that,” Wijesinghe said.

When word trickled down that the village was being eyed by the investors and the government was moving to close the deal, the villagers began gathering at the temple. There they decided that they would not part with their land. This was in mid-November.

When surveyors arrived at the village to begin mapping, the villagers stopped them. “We have asked for top government officials from Colombo to come and explain the situation to us. Till then we will not allow any of this,” S. Chandima, another villager, told IPS while others crowded around survey department officials.

Top government officials in the district say that as of the end of last year, there was still no decision on which land would be handed over in a 99-year lease. “Right now we have instruction to do surveys, nothing else. We have no information on what land will be handed over,” said S H Karunarathne, the District Secretary for Hambantota.

Still, protests have been held in Hambantota against the handover, and the tempo is slowly building. A worrying factor for the government is that Hambantota is Rajapaksa’s home turf. He channeled multi-billion-dollar investments here, including the port, the airport (which now serves one flight a day at its peak performance), an international cricket stadium now used for wedding receptions and an international convention center that remains shut.

The multi-million-dollar Mattala International Airport, inaugurated in 2013, now serves just one flight per day at best. The Sri Lankan government has been searching for ways to make it a profitable venture. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The multi-million-dollar Mattala International Airport, inaugurated in 2013, now serves just one flight per day at best. The Sri Lankan government has been searching for ways to make it a profitable venture. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Rajapaksa, who was the bulwark in getting Chinese investments into Sri Lanka between 2009 and 2014, has said he is opposed to the land handover.

“These are people’s agricultural lands. We are not against Chinese or Indians or Americans coming here for investment. But we are against the land being given to them and the privatisation they are doing,” he recently told Colombo-based foreign correspondents. He added that he had in fact discussed the issue with Chinese authorities during his recent visit to the country.

During the same meeting Rajapaksa said that he planed to topple the current administration in 2017. Once the undisputed strongman in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa enjoyed unparallel popularity, especially among the majority Sinhala community, after he led the military effort to end three decades of civil war. Despite his defeat two years ago, he has, however, remained a relevant leader to his core support group in the last two years and in the last six months has become more politically active.

He has so far not taken part in any of the anti-Chinese protests in Hambantota, but his eldest son and heir apparent Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa has participated in one public protest in Hambantota. Any groundswell of anti-government protests in this southern region could potentially be helmed by Rajapaksa at any time.

The government has already postponed the handover ceremony once, till late January. But Malik Samarawickrama, Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade, has confirmed that deal will go through by the end of the month.

The postponement did not dowse the embers in Hambantota. The opposite happened when the prime minister and the Chinese ambassador came there to inaugurate the industrial zone, and clashes broke out between police and a group of protestors including Buddhist monks opposing the project. The inauguration did take place despite the water canons and the teargas that was flying around — not a good omen for what is to come in the future.

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Lessons from the Demise of the TPP Thu, 05 Jan 2017 14:23:32 +0000 Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007. Anis Chowdhury, a former professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, held senior United Nations positions during 2008–2015 in New York and Bangkok. ]]> Rrealistic macroeconomic modelling  has suggested that almost 800,000 jobs could be lost over a decade. Already, many US manufacturing jobs have been lost to US corporations’ automation and relocation abroad. Credit: IPS

Rrealistic macroeconomic modelling has suggested that almost 800,000 jobs could be lost over a decade. Already, many US manufacturing jobs have been lost to US corporations’ automation and relocation abroad. Credit: IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Jan 5 2017 (IPS)

President-elect Donald Trump has promised that he will take the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) on the first day of his presidency. The TPP may now be dead, thanks to Trump and opposition by all major US presidential candidates. With its imminent demise almost certain, it is important to draw on some lessons before it is buried.

Fraudulent free trade agreement
The TPP is fraudulent as a free trade agreement, offering very little in terms of additional growth due to trade liberalization, contrary to media hype. To be sure, the TPP had little to do with trade. The US already has free trade agreements, of the bilateral or regional variety, with six of the 11 other countries in the pact. All twelve members also belong to the World Trade Organization (WTO) which concluded the single largest trade agreement ever, more than two decades ago in Marrakech – contrary to the TPPA’s claim to that status. Trade barriers with the remaining five countries were already very low in most cases, so there is little room left for further trade liberalization in the TPPA, except in the case of Vietnam, owing to the war until 1975 and its legacy of punitive legislation.

The most convenient computable general equilibrium (CGE) trade model used for trade projections makes unrealistic assumptions, including those about the consequences of trade liberalization. For instance, such trade modelling exercises typically presume full employment as well as unchanging trade and fiscal balances. Our colleagues’ more realistic macroeconomic modelling suggested that almost 800,000 jobs would be lost over a decade after implementation, with almost half a million from the US alone. There would also be downward pressure on wages, in turn exacerbating inequalities at the national level.

Already, many US manufacturing jobs have been lost to US corporations’ automation and relocation abroad. Thus, while most politically influential US corporations would do well from the TPP due to strengthened intellectual property rights (IPRs) and investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, US workers would generally not. It is now generally believed these outcomes contributed to the backlash against such globalization in the votes for Brexit and Trump.

Non-trade measures

According to the Peterson Institute of International Economics (PIIE), the US think-tank known for cheerleading economic liberalization and globalization, the purported TPPA gains would mainly come from additional investments, especially foreign direct investments, due to enhanced investor rights. However, these claims have been disputed by most other analysts, including two US government agencies, i.e., the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and the US International Trade Commission (ITC).

Much of the additional value of trade would come from ‘non-trade issues’. Strengthening intellectual property (IP) monopolies, typically held by powerful transnational corporations, would raise the value of trade through higher trading prices, not more goods and services. Thus, strengthened IPRs leading to higher prices for medicines are of particular concern.

The TPP would reinforce and extend patents, copyrights and related intellectual property protections. Such protectionism raises the price of protected items, such as pharmaceutical drugs. In a 2015 case, Martin Skrelly raised the price of a drug he had bought the rights to by 6000% from USD12.50 to USD750! As there is no US law against such ‘price-gouging’, the US Attorney General could only prosecute him for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme.

“Medecins Sans Frontieres” warned that the agreement would go down in history as the worst “cause of needless suffering and death” in developing countries. In fact, contrary to the claim that stronger IPRs would enhance research and development, there has been no evidence of increased research or new medicines in recent decades for this reason.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) is also supposed to go up thanks to the TPPA’s ISDS provisions. For instance, foreign companies would be able to sue TPP governments for ostensible loss of profits, including potential future profits, due to changes in national regulation or policies even if in the national or public interest.

ISDS would be enforced through ostensibly independent tribunals. This extrajudicial system would supercede national laws and judiciaries, with secret rulings not bound by precedent or subject to appeal.

Thus, rather than trade promotion, the main purpose of the TPPA has been to internationally promote more corporate-friendly rules under US leadership. The 6350 page deal was negotiated by various working groups where representatives of major, mainly US corporations were able to drive the agenda and advance their interests. The final push to seek congressional support for the TPPA despite strong opposition from the major presidential candidates made clear that the main US rationale and motive were geo-political, to minimize China’s growing influence.

The decision by the Obama administration to push ahead with the TPP may well have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency as she came across as insincere in belatedly opposing the agreement which she had previously praised and advocated. Trade was a major issue in swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where concerned voters overwhelmingly opted for Trump.

The problem now is that while the Obama administration undermined trade multilateralism by its unwillingness to honour the compromise which initiated the Doha Development Round, Trump’s preference for bilateral agreements benefiting the US is unlikely to provide the boost to multilateralism so badly needed now. Unless the US and the EU embrace the spirit of compromise which started this round of trade negotiations, the WTO and multilateralism more generally may never recover from the setbacks of the last decade and a half.

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PKSF and IPS to Partner on Communicating for Positive Change Wed, 04 Jan 2017 17:27:50 +0000 Mahfuzur Rahman The MOU between PKSF and IPS was signed by Dr. Md. Jashim Uddin, Deputy Managing Director, PKSF and Farhana Haque Rahman, Director General, IPS. The Chairman of PKSF Dr. Kholiquzzaman, managing Director Md. Abdul Karim, Deputy Managing Director Md. Fazlul Kader were also present during the signing. Credit: IPS

The MOU between PKSF and IPS was signed by Dr. Md. Jashim Uddin, Deputy Managing Director, PKSF and Farhana Haque Rahman, Director General, IPS. The Chairman of PKSF Dr. Kholiquzzaman, managing Director Md. Abdul Karim, Deputy Managing Director Md. Fazlul Kader were also present during the signing. Credit: IPS

By Mahfuzur Rahman
DHAKA, Jan 4 2017 (IPS)

The Palli Karma Sayahak Foundation (PKSF), a public sector apex development body in Bangladesh, and Inter Press Service (IPS), the international news agency focused on development issues, have teamed up to raise public awareness globally about PKSF’s best practices and provide vital information to decision-makers.

The PKSF and IPS signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in this regard at PKSF’s Dhaka Headquarters on Jan. 3.

IPS Director General Farhana Haque Rahman and PKSF Deputy Managing Director Dr. Md Jashim Uddin signed the deal on behalf of their respective organisations.

Set up in 1990 by the Bangladesh government as a not-for-profit organisation, the PKSF now works with over 200 partner organisations (POs) across Bangladesh in all upazilas (sub-districts) of the country, serving over 10 million families (45-50 million people), with its people-focused, multidimensional integrated approach to poverty eradication and sustainable development.

According to PKSF Chairman Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, several countries and organisations are now showing interest in learning about the new PKSF approach as they meet their goals with success.

Credit, he says, is now provided from PKSF as part of a package that also includes skills training, access to technologies, and marketing assistance, as the PKSF made a retreat from its initial microcredit approach.

Having a life-cycle approach that starts with conception of a child and completing with old age,
intervening at all stages of life, the PKS model is drawing international attention.

Some African countries also want to replicate it, Kholiquzzaman says.

The key objectives the PKSF-IPS MoU are to build the capacity of journalists, including those in the IPS team, to analyse and report more effectively on the activities of PKSF carried out in accordance with its mandate, and enhance the capacity of women journalists, up to 60 annually, enabling them to report on gender-related issues as well as socio-economic aspects, including empowerment of women.

img_1739There are issues where journalists need to be well-informed to analyse, understand and file meaningful stories. Raising the level of understanding on issues like development and equality is critically important so that journalists can to do justice to their reports. Balanced reporting will only be possible when one can conceptualise and contextualize these.

When it comes to the issues relating to women and their development and empowerment, female journalists need to be encouraged to write about their own issues as they have clearer understanding of what’s most relevant to report. To make that happen, it is necessary to enhance their capacity as well through providing training.

Under the MoU, IPS will organise media field visits for firsthand news gathering and reporting. PKSF will facilitate rapid access to critical sources of information for timely news production.

Under the agreement, IPS will serve as PKSF’s international media partner at international, regional and national seminars and workshops.

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Battle Lines Drawn Over Indian Mega Mine Fri, 30 Dec 2016 10:27:09 +0000 Stephen de Tarczynski Murrawah Johnson, 21, of the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council, is among those standing in the way of the huge Carmichael coal mine project in Australia's Queensland state. Photo courtesy of Murrawah Johnson.

Murrawah Johnson, 21, of the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council, is among those standing in the way of the huge Carmichael coal mine project in Australia's Queensland state. Photo courtesy of Murrawah Johnson.

By Stephen de Tarczynski
MELBOURNE, Dec 30 2016 (IPS)

Among those leading the fight against the massive Indian-owned Carmichael coal project in Australia’s Queensland state is 21-year-old Murrawah Johnson of the Wangan and Jagalingou aboriginal people, the traditional owners of the land where the proposed mine is to be located.

“Our people are the unique people from that country,” says Murrawah, whose name means ‘rainbow’ in the indigenous Gubbi Gubbi language. “That is who we are in our identity, in our culture, in our song and in our dance,” she adds.The mine’s estimated average annual carbon emissions of 79 million tonnes are three times those of New Delhi, six times those of Amsterdam and double Tokyo’s average annual emissions.

The Wangan and Jagalingou, numbering up to 500 people, regard the Carmichael coal mine as a threat to their very existence and have repeatedly rejected the advances of Adani Mining, the company behind the project. The traditional owners argue the mine would destroy their land, which “means that our story is then destroyed. And we as a people and our identity, as well,” Murrawah, a spokesperson for her people’s Family Council, told IPS.

Adani Mining is a subsidiary of the Adani Group, an Indian multinational with operations in India, Indonesia and Australia cutting across resources, logistics, energy, agribusiness and real estate. In March, the company announced its first foray into the defence industry.

Adani’s Carmichael project envisions a 40km long, 10km wide mine consisting of six open-cut pits and five underground operating for up to sixty years. The company intends to transport the coal to India to aid in that country’s electricity needs. According to the International Energy Agency, 244 million Indians – 19 percent of the population – are without access to electricity.

Should the project go ahead, it would be the largest coal operation here – Australia is already a major coal producing and exporting nation – and among the biggest in the world, producing some 60 million tonnes of thermal coal annually at peak capacity.

But at a time when global warming is a significant threat to humanity, the Carmichael mine is generating substantial opposition. Since the project was announced in 2010, there have been more than ten appeals and judicial processes against the mine.

Shani Tager, a campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, is adamant that the coal that Adani wants to dig up must remain in the ground. “It’s a massive amount of coal that they’re talking about exporting, which will be burnt and used and make the problem of global warming even worse,” she says.

Coal-fired power plants emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, a gas that traps heat within the Earth’s atmosphere and which plays an important role in the phenomenon of human-induced climate change.

According to a 2015 report by The Australia Institute, a local think tank, Adani’s project would release more carbon into the atmosphere than many major cities and even countries.

The report states that the mine’s estimated average annual carbon emissions of 79 million tonnes are three times those of New Delhi, six times those of Amsterdam and double Tokyo’s average annual emissions. It would surpass Sri Lanka’s annual emissions and be similar to both Austria’s and Malaysia’s.

Despite these alarming figures, both the Australian and Queensland state governments are backing Adani’s Carmichael mine. There has been widespread speculation here that the federal government will provide support via a AUD one- billion loan (722 million U.S. dollars).

The Queensland government, anticipating a boost to jobs, the regional economy and to its own coffers as a result of royalties, announced in October that it was giving the project “critical infrastructure” status in order to fast-track its approvals.

“This Government is serious about having the Adani mine in operation. We want this to happen,” Anthony Lynham, state minister for mines, told local media at the time.

In early December, Adani received what the state government describes as the project’s “final major” approval: Adani’s rail line to the port of Abbot Point, from where the coal will be shipped to India.

In 2011, Adani signed a 99-year lease on the Abbot Point coal terminal, which sits immediately adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Australia’s iconic reef is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem and among the most diverse and richest natural ecosystems on Earth.

In November, scientists from Queensland’s James Cook University confirmed the worst-ever die-off of corals in the reef, following a mass coral bleaching event earlier in the year. Heat stress due to high sea temperatures is the main cause of coral bleaching, with bleaching events expected to be more frequent and severe as the world’s climate warms up.

Adani plans to significantly expand the Abbot Point terminal in order to ship larger amounts of coal. This means dredging up the sea floor right next to the Great Barrier Reef.

“The Carmichael coal mine will have a domino effect of bad impacts on the reef, from driving the need for port expansion and more dredging and dumping to increasing the risk of shipping accidents on the reef,” says Cherry Muddle from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

The reef’s tourism industry provides some 65,000 jobs, with numerous operators also speaking out against both the Carmichael mine and the Abbot Point expansion in recent times.

Despite Minister Lynham’s assurances that “200 stringent conditions placed on this project through its court processes” will protect the reef, others remain extremely concerned.

“Adani has a really worrying track record of environmental destruction, human rights abuses, corruption and tax evasion,” says Adam Black from GetUp, a movement which campaigns on a range of progressive issues.

Among the accusations leveled at Adani operations in India in a 2015 report by Environmental Justice Australia are the destruction of mangroves; failure to prevent salt water intrusion into groundwater; bribery and illegal iron ore exports; using political connections to purchase land cheaply; and obtaining illegal tax deductions.

Adani’s CEO in Australia, Jeyakumar Janakaraj, was in charge of a Zambian copper mine owned by Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) when, in 2010, the mine discharged dangerous contaminants into the Kafue River. Found guilty, the company was fined around AUD 4,000 (2,900 U.S. dollars).

Some 1800 Zambians have since taken KCM and its UK-based parent company, Vedanta Resources, to the High Court in London, alleging they were made sick and their farmland destroyed over a ten-year period from 2004. Janakaraj was with KCM from 2008 to 2013.

Now, with Adani hoping to break ground on its Carmichael coal project in mid-2017, opponents are prepared to continue their hitherto successful campaign of dissuading potential financiers from backing the AUD 16-22 billion project (11.5-15.8 billion U.S.).

“If they can’t get the money, they can’t build the mine,” says Murrawah Johnson.

The Wangan and Jagalingou recently set up what they call a “legal line of defence” against Adani and the Queensland government, consisting of four more legal challenges, with plans to take the matter to the High Court if needs be.

They have also been in contact with the United Nations for some time.

For Murrawah, this battle is about maintaining connection with both the past and the future. “I refuse to be the broken link in that chain,” she says.

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Managing Bangladesh’s Dwindling Water Resources Wed, 28 Dec 2016 18:50:00 +0000 Mahfuzur Rahman Women collecting water from a deep tube well in Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh. Credit: A.S.M. Shafiqur Rahman/IPS

Women collecting water from a deep tube well in Chapainawabganj, Bangladesh. Credit: A.S.M. Shafiqur Rahman/IPS

By Mahfuzur Rahman
DHAKA, Dec 28 2016 (IPS)

Experts at Bangladesh’s National Water Convention 2016 in Dhaka urged the sustainable management and conservation of water as the country braces for a water crisis due to wastage, river pollution, declining groundwater tables and intrusion of salinity.

Bangladesh’s Water Resources Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud told the event there is no alternative to protecting the country’s water bodies and rivers to ensure sustainable management of water resources as envisaged in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.

A United Nations initiative, the SDGs are a set of 17 aspirational “Global Goals” with 169 targets relating to poverty and hunger, the environment and other core issues related to sustainable human development.

“We have many rivers and canals but all are being encroached on, limiting the water conservation scope…we must protect these water bodies to conserve water,” he told the inaugural session of the conference in the capital.

The Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), a public sector apex body, Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad (BUP), a non-profit organisation devoted to the promotion of basic as well as action research on socioeconomic development, and NGO Forum, the apex networking and service delivery body of NGOs, jointly organized the Dec. 27-28 two-day convention titled Water Convention 2016: Sustainable Water Regime in Bangladesh: Availability, Management and Access’.

Minister Mahmud said Bangladesh receives huge amounts of water during the rainy season but 80 percent of it ultimately washes down into the Bay of Bengal, while 20 percent remains available for the rest of the year.

“If this water can be stored, Bangladesh is unlikely to face water scarcity during the dry season,” he said.

Mahmud noted that Bangladesh began investing in flood control and irrigation in the 1970s, and river management in the early 1980s, marking a retreat from its previous approach. “Now the extensive focus is there on river management,” he added.

About the prevailing water challenges, Mahmud said, “To meet our water demand, we’re extracting groundwater, triggering an arsenic problem here…but water availability and its management is very important. We’re polluting water every day because we’re not aware of it.”

According to documents provided at the workshop, some 36 million people are at risk of arsenic exposure in Bangladesh’s 61 districts with excessive arsenic-contaminated water.

Mahmud also said recurring floods and riverbank erosion and declining water flow in trans-boundary rivers cause a huge drop in the water level of the country’s drought-prone zones.

Addressing the event, PKSF chairman Prof. Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad said it is important for Bangladesh to focus on water management to achieve the SDGs as there is also a link between poverty and water availability.

Stressing the importance of having a coordinated water management policy in place, Dr. Kholiquzzaman said Bangladesh can best utilise its river routes as those are cheap for goods and passenger transportation.

The prominent economist said poor people are most affected when there is a water crisis as it decimates crops.

Depicting a dismal global scenario of water availability, he mentioned that the earth’s total water volume is about 1,386 cubic kilometres in diameter, of which only 2.5 percent is freshwater.

“But only 0.76 percent of the total water volume which is freshwater is useable since over 68 percent freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers,” he added.

According to him, the per capita availability of water in Bangladesh is 7,568 cubic metres and just 150-200 cubic metres in its neighbouring countries.

“So the question may arise why Bangladesh faces a scarcity of water. It’s because the country has a plenty of water during monsoon, but a very little water during dry season,” he said.

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Quality Water for All a Life and Death Issue in Bangladesh Tue, 27 Dec 2016 23:29:37 +0000 Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad. Photo Courtesy of PKSF

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad. Photo Courtesy of PKSF

By Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad
DHAKA, Dec 27 2016 (IPS)

There is no exaggerating how crucial water is for human survival, particularly in countries like Bangladesh, which is crisscrossed by rivers. The level of water in a river here directly affects the lifestyles and livelihoods of the people living on its two sides, so much so that rivers and water bodies of varied sizes are an inseparable part of Bengali culture and heritage.

Several hundred rivers and their tributaries flow through the country. However, some of the rivers — often called the lifelines of Bangladesh — are dying, inflicting prolonged suffering on the people. For example, the 309-kilometer Teesta flows through northern Bangladesh and drains an area of 12,540 square kilometres on its way from the Himalayas to Fulchhari of Gaibandha in Bangladesh where it meets the Jamuna.While a dearth of water plagues the people of northern Bangladesh, the middle and southern parts of the country reels from the abundance of it.

The river, which can be up to 2.5 kilometres wide, is reduced to a width of about 70 metres during the winter and is even narrower or completely dry at some places during the very dry season (March and April). This leaves fishermen without work and farmers in acute need of water for irrigation.

While a dearth of water plagues the people of northern Bangladesh, particularly during winter, the middle and southern parts of the country reels from the abundance of it, particularly during the monsoon. Also, salinity ingress in the surface and groundwater in the coastal region has reached such a state that not even grass can grow in some areas and people face an acute shortage of drinking water.

Someone said that a third world war may be fought over water. And it indeed is turning out to be a serious issue, not only in Bangladesh but also worldwide. In any case, quality water access on the one hand and devastation caused by flooding on the other are the hallmarks of water being the cause of large-scale suffering of people in many parts of the world. Water-related natural disasters have occurred in the past, but are increasing in recent times in terms of both frequency and extent of the devastations caused.

The reasons behind various water sector problems include a growing population, fast expanding economic activity, spreading water pollution, and the consequences of climate change.

In Bangladesh, as a matter of fact, the average annual per capita availability of water is robust — 7,568 cubic meters per capita, around five times higher than that in India. However, the highly uneven seasonal and spatial distribution of available water in Bangladesh poses serious problems. Adequate water access for drinking or for other purposes by certain groups of large numbers of people and in certain areas of the country is becoming increasingly serious.

Another set of problems related to the water sector arises as Bangladesh is at the bottom of three major rivers systems—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. A particular feature in this context is severe water scarcity in certain parts of Bangladesh in the dry season, Jan. 1 to May 31, particularly in March and April, due to low-flows through transboundary rivers as a result of excessive upstream abstraction. Also, floods in Bangladesh mostly originate upstream. Hence, regional cooperation in water management is an important issue.

Increasing salinity in water in coastal areas, arsenic contamination of water, and water pollution caused by human actions are becoming increasingly serious problems. Devastating floods and prolonged droughts also affect various areas of the country from time to time.

Clean, accessible water for all is the sixth among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. The Sheikh Hasina-led Government of Bangladesh is working relentlessly to achieve the goals well before the 2030 deadline. The country already has necessary policies to save the rivers and other water-bodies and to ensure even distribution of quality water.

What the country now needs is stricter enforcement of the policies and relevant laws, and more effective efforts from both government and non-government actors in realising the goal of ensuring accessibility to quality water for all.

Against such a backdrop, the National Water Convention 2016 is being held in Dhaka on Dec. 28-29, 2016. Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) — the government-established apex development agency of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad — a non-profit research organization, and NGO Forum for Public Health are organising the event.

Through 13 sessions participated by experts, scholars, government high-ups and sector-related actors, the Convention will review the state of affairs in respect of various key water sector issues and to reflect on: where we stand regarding those issues, how people’s perspectives can be brought to bear on water policies and water actions, how the increasing water difficulties and problems can be more effectively addressed, how coordination among various stakeholders, particularly between the Government and others can be strengthened, and, overall, how the best possible water regime can be forged under the prevailing circumstances.

Ensuring accessibility to quality water for all is a must for sustainable development. And this has to be ensured before it is too late.

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