Inter Press Service » Asia-Pacific http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Wed, 01 Apr 2015 14:38:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Nicaragua’s Future Canal a Threat to the Environmenthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/nicaraguas-future-canal-a-threat-to-the-environment/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=nicaraguas-future-canal-a-threat-to-the-environment http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/nicaraguas-future-canal-a-threat-to-the-environment/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 07:45:01 +0000 Jose Adan Silva http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139956 Executives of the Chinese company HKDN and members of the Nicaraguan Grand Interoceanic Canal Commission, behind a large banner on Dec. 22, 2014, in the Pacific coastal town of Brito Rivas, during the ceremony marking the formal start of the gigantic project that will cut clean across the country. Credit: Mario Moncada/IPS

Executives of the Chinese company HKDN and members of the Nicaraguan Grand Interoceanic Canal Commission, behind a large banner on Dec. 22, 2014, in the Pacific coastal town of Brito Rivas, during the ceremony marking the formal start of the gigantic project that will cut clean across the country. Credit: Mario Moncada/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Mar 31 2015 (IPS)

The new interoceanic canal being built in Nicaragua has brought good and bad news for the scientific community: new species and archeological sites have been found and knowledge of the local ecosystems has grown, but the project poses a huge threat to the environment.

Preliminary reports by the British consulting firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM) revealed the existence of previously unknown species in the area of the new canal that will link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The study was commissioned by Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development (HKND Group), the Chinese company building the canal.

Among other findings, the study, “Nicaragua’s Grand Canal”, presented Nov. 20 in Nicaragua by Alberto Vega, the consultancy’s representative in the country, found two new species of amphibians in the Punta Gorda river basin along Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean coast.

The two new kinds of frogs have not yet been fully studied, said Vega, who also reported 213 newly discovered archaeological sites, and provided an assessment of the state of the environment along the future canal route.

The aim of the study was to document the main biological communities along the route and in adjacent areas, and to indicate the species and habitats in need of specific conservation measures in order to identify opportunities to prevent, mitigate and/or compensate for the canal’s potential impacts.

The 278-km waterway, which includes a 105-km stretch across Lake Cocibolca, will be up to 520 metres wide and 30 metres deep. Work began in December 2014 and the canal is expected to be completed by late 2019, at a cost of over 50 billion dollars.

The environmental impact study will be ready in late April, Telémaco Talavera, the spokesman for the presidential Nicaraguan Grand Interoceanic Canal Commission, told Tierramérica.

“The studies are carried out with cutting-edge technology by an international firm that is a leader in this area, ERM, with a team of experts from around the world who were hired to provide an exhaustive report on the environmental impact and the mitigation measures,” he said.

Three farmers study the route for the interoceanic canal on a map of Nicaragua, which the Chinese firm HKND Group presented in the southern city of Rivas during one of the meetings that the consortium has organised around the country with people who will be affected by the mega-project. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

Three farmers study the route for the interoceanic canal on a map of Nicaragua, which the Chinese firm HKND Group presented in the southern city of Rivas during one of the meetings that the consortium has organised around the country with people who will be affected by the mega-project. Credit: José Adán Silva/IPS

Víctor Campos, assistant director of the Humboldt Centre, told Tierramérica that HKND’s preliminary documents reveal that the canal will cause serious damage to the environment and poses a particular threat to Lake Cocibolca.

The 8,624-sq-km lake is the second biggest source of freshwater in Latin America, after Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo.

Campos pointed out that HKND itself has recognised that the route that was finally chosen for the canal will affect internationally protected nature reserves home to at least 40 endangered species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

The route will impact part of the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve and the Indio Maiz biological reserve, both of which form part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (CBM), where there are endangered species like scarlet and great green macaws, golden eagles, tapirs, jaguars, spider monkeys, anteaters and black lizards.

Along with the Bosawas and Wawashan reserves, Indio Maíz and Cerro Silva host 13 percent of the world’s biodiversity and approximately 90 percent of the country’s flora and fauna.

This tropical Central American country of 6.1 million people has Pacific and Caribbean coastlines and 130,000 sq km of lowlands, plains and lakes. There have been several previous attempts to use Lake Cocibolca to create a trade route between the two oceans.

The Cocibolca Group, made up of a dozen environmental organisations in Nicaragua, has warned of potential damage by excavation on indigenous land in the CBM, on the country’s southeast Caribbean coast.

One site that would be affected is Booby Cay, surrounded by coral reefs and recognised by Birdlife International as an important natural habitat of birds, sea turtles and fish.

Studies by the Cocibolca Group say that dredging with heavy machinery, the construction of ports, the removal of thousands of tons of sediment from the lake bottom, and the use of explosives to blast through rock would have an impact on the habitat of sea turtles that nest on Nicaragua’s southwest Pacific coast.

Map of Nicaragua with the six possible routes for the Grand Canal. The one that was selected was number four, marked in green. Credit: Courtesy of ERM

Map of Nicaragua with the six possible routes for the Grand Canal. The one that was selected was number four, marked in green. Credit: Courtesy of ERM

The selected route, the fourth of the six that were considered, will run into the Pacific at Brito, 130 km west of Managua. A deepwater port will be built where there is now a beach that serves as a nesting ground for sea turtles.

ERM’s Talavera rejects the “apocalyptic visions” of the environmental damage that could be caused by the new waterway. But he did acknowledge that there will be an impact, “which will be focalised and will serve to revert possible damage and the already confirmed damage caused by deforestation and pollution along the canal route.”

The route will run through nature reserves, areas included on the Ramsar Convention list of wetlands of international importance, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) biosphere reserves, and water basins.

According to Talavera, besides the national environmental authorities, HKND consulted institutions like the Ramsar Convention, UNESCO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Birdlife International, “with regard to the feasibility of mitigating and offsetting the possible impacts.”

The canal is opposed by environmental organisations and affected communities, some of which have filed a complaint with the Inter-american Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

In an IACHR hearing on Mar. 16, Mónica López, an activist with the Cocibolca Group, complained that Nicaragua had granted HKND control over the lake and its surrounding areas, including 16 watersheds and 15 protected areas, where 25 percent of the country’s rainforest is concentrated.

López told Tierramérica that construction of the canal will also lead to “the forced displacement of more than 100,000 people.”

In addition, she criticised “the granting to the Chinese company of total control over natural resources that have nothing to do with the route but which according to the HKND will be of use to the project, without regard to the rights of Nicaraguans.”

The 2013 law for the construction of the Grand Interoceanic Canal stipulates that the state must guarantee the concessionaire “access to and navigation rights to rivers, lakes, oceans and other bodies of water within Nicaragua and its territorial waters, and the right to extend, expand, dredge, divert or reduce these bodies of water.”

The state also gives up the right to sue the investors in national or international courts for any damage caused to the environment during the study, construction and operation of the waterway.

In the IACHR hearing in Washington, representatives of the government, as well as Talavera, rejected the allegations of the environmentalists, which they blamed on “political interests” while arguing that the project is “environmentally friendly”.

They also repeated the main argument for the construction of the canal: that it will give a major boost to economic growth and will enable Nicaragua, where 42 percent of the population is poor, to leave behind its status as the second-poorest country in the hemisphere, after Haiti.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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There’s No Such Thing as Equality in India’s Labour Forcehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/theres-no-such-thing-as-equality-in-indias-labour-force/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=theres-no-such-thing-as-equality-in-indias-labour-force http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/theres-no-such-thing-as-equality-in-indias-labour-force/#comments Mon, 30 Mar 2015 19:04:39 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139948 Mechanisation and the incorporation of new technologies in sectors like the construction industry means that men are the preferred candidates for certain jobs. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Mechanisation and the incorporation of new technologies in sectors like the construction industry means that men are the preferred candidates for certain jobs. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Mar 30 2015 (IPS)

It calls itself the ‘world’s largest democracy’ but the 380 million working-aged women in India might disagree with that assessment.

Recent research shows that only 125 million women of a working age are currently employed, with the number of women in the workforce declining steadily since 2004.

"It is imperative to acknowledge that we have a crisis at hand, and we [must] work towards female empowerment to help India realise its full economic potential." -- Preet Rustagi, joint director of the Institute for Human Development in New Delhi
Experts say these figures should serve as a wake-up call for Asia’s third largest economy, adding that unless this nation of 1.2 billion people begins to provide equal opportunities for women, it will miss out on vital development and poverty-reduction goals.

According to a report released earlier this month by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) rate is amongst the lowest among emerging markets and peer countries.

India’s FLFP – the share of employed women or job seekers among the working-age female population — is 33 percent, almost half of the East Asian average of 63 percent and well below the global average of around 50 percent.

The IMF’s findings amplify what has been already been identified as a disconcerting trend in India lately – the absence of a diverse and inclusive workforce.

A debate is currently raging across the country about the skewed gender balance in Indian corporate boardrooms where women hold barely five percent of seats – lower than all the other countries that comprise the BRICS group of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

A progressive new law was passed in 2013 that requires all companies listed on the national stock exchange to have at least one female board member by August 2014. However, the deadline had to be extended to April 2015 as only a few companies came forward to appoint women to these top positions.

The lack of women workers in India is a “huge missed opportunity” for the country’s economic growth, lamented IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde on a recent trip to this country of 1.2 billion people.

Gender diversity in the workplace isn’t just about political correctness; it is an economic imperative, economists say.

A study undertaken by the IMF in 2013 proves that India’s growth has been stunted by women’s exclusion from the workforce.

“Assuming the gender gap is halved by 2017 and cut to one-fourth of its 2008 value in 2027, India’s per capita income could be 10-13 percent higher than under the baseline scenario of unchanged gender inequality in 2020 and 2030, respectively,” the report stated.

Counting and accounting for women’s labour

Some say the primary explanation for the apparent ‘absence’ of working women is a dearth of national-level data on the informal sector. Since a majority of women perform mostly unpaid, domestic labour on a regular basis, their contribution to the economy does not ‘count’ when the country tallies up its records of the formal labour market.

Because women primarily perform unpaid domestic labour, they do not always ‘count’ in the country’s records of the formal economy. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Because women primarily perform unpaid domestic labour, they do not always ‘count’ in the country’s records of the formal economy. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

“A woman’s work in her own household is not counted as an economic activity, and does not get factored into the national income statistics,” explains Preet Rustagi, joint director of the Institute for Human Development in New Delhi.

“This situation is even worse than the case of services by a paid domestic help, which is at least considered an economic activity and is counted in the country’s income.”

Rustagi tells IPS that this is unfortunate, as women’s domestic duties in India cover a range of responsibilities like cooking, caring for the elderly, and rearing children, all work that is crucial to the economy and all of Indian society.

In the villages, women additionally engage in the vital task of animal husbandry, which is also excluded from enumeration, elaborates Rustagi.

Cultural norms also scupper women’s entry into the formal workforce, say analysts.

“The entrenched Indian patriarchal culture idealises women in, and restrict them to, the roles of housewives and mothers. Notions of socio-ritual superiority of a group or family can be directly linked to higher restrictions on women including their physical mobility and work outside homes,” explains Bhim Reddy, associate editor of the Indian Journal of Human Development who has researched extensively on recruitment practices in labour markets.

Reddy adds that a higher school enrolment rate, especially for women between the ages of 14 and 21, has also contributed to an asymmetrical workforce.

“A large section of females in this age group that used to be part of the work force earlier is now in schools and colleges, and this is getting reflected in a drop in the female LFPR,” elaborates Reddy.

But research by Everstone Capital, an investment management company, shows that while the number of women enrolling in college has grown manifold, it has not translated into a proportionate increase of women graduates in the workforce.

At 22 percent, the rate of India’s female graduates entering the workforce is lower than the rate of illiterate women finding jobs.

Worse, participation of Indian women in the workforce plummeted from 33.7 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 2012, according to United Nations statistics. In 2011-12, less than 20 percent of the total workers in non-agricultural sectors was women.

Surprisingly, female labour participation has been found to be particularly low even among urban, educated women — a demographic typically assumed to experience fewer social barriers.

According to government statistics, in 2009-10, the proportion of those attending to domestic duties (and therefore out of the formal labour force) was 57 percent among urban females with graduate degrees or higher, compared to just 31 percent among rural females with primary or middle school education.

Experts say the advent of mechanisation and incorporation of new technologies in agriculture and the construction industry have led to the ‘masculinisation’ (or preference for males for a certain job profile) of employment patterns.

Exploitation and harassment in the workplace have worsened the situation. India passed a new law against sexual harassment last year, under which organisations with more than 10 workers have to set up grievance committees to investigate all complaints.

However, according to a study by Jawaharlal Nehru University, less than 20 percent of employers in the capital, New Delhi, comply with the rules.

Household surveys show that a more welcoming environment would compel many stay-at-home women to take on regular work. At present, issues of transport, workplace safety and hostile attitudes result in many women opting out of full-time employment.

Apart from sensitisation campaigns, activists advocate greater investments in infrastructure, safe public transportation, better childcare facilities at work and tax breaks to lure Indian women into the workforce.

“It is imperative to acknowledge that we have a crisis at hand, and we then work towards female empowerment to help India realise its full economic potential,” says Rustagi.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Singapore Arts Fest Pushes Boundaries Beyond Traditionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/singapore-arts-fest-pushes-boundaries-beyond-tradition/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=singapore-arts-fest-pushes-boundaries-beyond-tradition http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/singapore-arts-fest-pushes-boundaries-beyond-tradition/#comments Sun, 29 Mar 2015 08:27:32 +0000 A. D. McKenzie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139929 A scene from ‘The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers’ by Singaporean artist Ong Keng Sen at the ‘Singapour en France - le festival’ arts fest, which aims to highlight the power of culture and its “ability to bring people together and to cross boundaries”. Credit A.D. McKenzie/IPS

A scene from ‘The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers’ by Singaporean artist Ong Keng Sen at the ‘Singapour en France - le festival’ arts fest, which aims to highlight the power of culture and its “ability to bring people together and to cross boundaries”. Credit A.D. McKenzie/IPS

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Mar 29 2015 (IPS)

As Singapore mourns the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the late former prime minister’s vision of a dynamic and vibrant state is being reflected in a major arts festival in France.

‘Singapour en France – le festival’ was launched Mar. 26 in Paris, against the backdrop of a massive out-pouring of grief in Lee’s homeland, following his death three days earlier.

“As Singaporeans grieve and reflect on our loss, we continue to honour Mr. Lee’s vision of establishing Singapore on the international stage,” said Rosa Daniel, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, who delivered a speech on behalf of her chief Lawrence Wong at the opening of the festival.“We used to be derided as just clean, green, safe and orderly, but dull and antiseptic. Now we have a lively city with the arts, culture, museums, art galleries, the Esplanade Theatre by the Bay, a Western orchestra, a Chinese orchestra ... And we have resident writers and artists” – Lee Kuan Yew, late former Prime Minister of Singapore

The event, which will run until Jun. 30, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Asian city state’s independence, as well as 50 years of diplomatic ties between Singapore and France. It aims to showcase the art, culture and heritage of Singapore through more than 70 activities in cities throughout France.

“We’re a young nation … but we’re bold, modern and willing to experiment,” said Daniel, adding that the festival would also highlight the power of culture and its “ability to bring people together and to cross boundaries.”

Lee himself recognised that Singapore had made its “share of mistakes” in the cultural heritage area by destroying buildings in its rush to modernise, but in his later political years he emphasised the importance of safeguarding this heritage and of having a “top-class” arts and entertainment sector.

“We used to be derided as just clean, green, safe and orderly, but dull and antiseptic,” he said in 2010. “Now we have a lively city with the arts, culture, museums, art galleries, the Esplanade Theatre by the Bay, a Western orchestra, a Chinese orchestra … And we have resident writers and artists.”

Some of those artists travelled to France for the opening of the festival and gave a view of the changing art scene in Singapore, pushing the boundaries in a region noted for traditional values and not particularly famous for freedom of expression.

In ‘Secret Archipelago’ at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo modern art museum, visitors can view a range of experimental and contemporary work, created by Singaporeans and artists from other Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

“Their works represent a bridging of the gap between past and future and the creative tension between memory and tradition on the one hand and contemporary Western influences on the other, while bringing their own particular languages to modern art,” say the curators.

“I don’t consider myself a strong person, but art gives me a way to express myself” – AnGie seah, one of the Singaporean artists exhibiting at the ‘Singapour en France - le festival’ arts fest in Paris, March 2015. Credit A.D. McKenzie/IPS

“I don’t consider myself a strong person, but art gives me a way to express myself” – AnGie seah, one of the Singaporean artists exhibiting at the ‘Singapour en France – le festival’ arts fest in Paris, March 2015. Credit A.D. McKenzie/IPS

AnGie seah, an artist who includes performance in her work, embodies these concerns – literally – in her presentation titled ‘Howl of the Hallows’ in the Palais de Tokyo’s huge basement gallery.

Here visitors can listen to the screams of various people through a headphone while watching seah (who prefers her name to be lower-cased) perform the screams on video.

“I think the human voice is powerful and I like to use it in my art,” said the artist, who has travelled around France asking people to scream for her, and taping the results.

Her installation included “mini shrines” with pottery or terra cotta representations of body parts such as a hand, with the middle finger sticking up. The shrines give the installation a traditional yet avant-garde feel, inviting visitors to question the symbolism.

“I don’t consider myself a strong person, but art gives me a way to express myself,” seah told IPS.

Not far from her exposition, Vietnamese artists and twin brothers Le Ngoc Thanh and Le Duc Hai, who go by the name of Le Brothers, showed a long rectangle of video screens with military-clad characters in a variety of activities. They told IPS that their work is a call for peace through the depiction of war and soldiers in their self-performed films.

Describing their art further, Singaporean curator Khairuddin Hori said it dissects and questions post-war consciousness of North and South Vietnam, as the brothers “exploit their twin identity as mirror and metaphor.”

Other artists incorporated everyday items such as plates and household figurines to question identity while also re-affirming their history and culture. An artist from Malaysia said he had listened to senior citizens and used their stories to create his installation, which covered a large part of one wall.

Alongside the ‘Secret Archipelago’ exhibition, the opening of the festival included a five hour-long multi-media performance titled ‘The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers’, with sound, dance, film, fashion and photography.

Specially commissioned for the festival, this ultra-modern work by Singaporean artist Ong Keng Sen features huge video screens, music technicians and live performances in a kind of visual and acoustic cacophony that still transmits harmony.

“Real-life border crossers who have never acted before are invited to be performers in this piece,” said the creator. “Sharing their everyday stories as incredible adventures, they inhabit the installation as singing, dancing and re-performing pioneer travellers.”

The “show” is described as an artwork that “envisions communications in a not-so-distant future megapolis.”

The visitor cannot help thinking that it captures something essential about Singapore, with its multi-ethnic population, its vibrant history as a trading post and its sometimes controversial efforts to build a cohesive, economically strong nation. The show also seems to evoke the late Lee’s vision of his homeland.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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Cash-Strapped U.N. to Seek Funds for Syria at Pledging Conference in Kuwaithttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/cash-strapped-u-n-to-seek-funds-for-syria-at-pledging-conference-in-kuwait/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cash-strapped-u-n-to-seek-funds-for-syria-at-pledging-conference-in-kuwait http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/cash-strapped-u-n-to-seek-funds-for-syria-at-pledging-conference-in-kuwait/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 21:49:30 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139915 According to the United Nations, nearly two-thirds of all Syrians are now estimated to be living in extreme poverty. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/CC-BY-ND-2.0

According to the United Nations, nearly two-thirds of all Syrians are now estimated to be living in extreme poverty. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 27 2015 (IPS)

A cash-strapped United Nations, which is struggling to reach out to millions of Syrian refugees with food, medicine and shelter, is desperately in need of funds.

The current status on humanitarian aid looks bleak: an appeal for 2.9 billion dollars for Syria’s Response Plan has generated only about nine percent of funding, and Syria’s Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan’s appeal for 4.5 billion dollars is only six percent funded, according to a statement released by the Security Council Thursday.

“Today, a Syrian's life expectancy is estimated to be 20 years less than when the conflict started. Unemployment is around 58 percent, up from around 10 percent in 2010; and nearly two-thirds of all Syrians are now estimated to be living in extreme poverty." -- Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos
Still, the United Nations is hoping for a more vibrant response from the international community at a pledging conference for humanitarian aid to Syria, scheduled to take place in Kuwait next week.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the Syrian people feel increasingly abandoned by the world as they enter the fifth year of a war that has torn their country apart and claimed the lives of over 200,000 civilians.

The pledging conference, scheduled to take place Mar. 31, “is an opportunity to raise some of the resources required to maintain our life-saving work. I encourage governments to give generously,” the U.N. chief said.

According to the United Nations, the devastating five-year old military conflict in Syria has also triggered “the greatest refugee crisis in modern times.”

Over half of Syria’s pre-war population — some 12.2 million people — and the more than 3.9 million Syrian refugees arriving in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, “are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance”.

For the third consecutive year, the pledging conference is being hosted by the government of Kuwait, which has taken a significant role in alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The conference will be chaired by the U.N. secretary-general, and hosted by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

The last two pledging conferences were held in January 2013 and January 2014. The total pledged in 2013 was about 1.5 billion dollars and in 2014 about 2.4 billion dollars.

The largest contributions came from the host country, Kuwait, which pledged 300 million dollars in 2013 and 500 million dollars in 2014, which included 200 million dollars from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Kuwait, amounting to a total of 800 million dollars at both conferences.

Asked about the rate of delivery, a spokesman for the Kuwaiti Mission to the United Nations told IPS that Kuwait had delivered 100 percent of pledges to U.N. agencies, funds and programmes, plus international NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Asked about next week’s conference, he said more than 78 countries and 40 mostly international organisations are expected to participate.

U.N. Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said a very big part of Ban’s message next week would be: “As long as the crisis in Syria is not solved, you’re going to see millions of Syrians travelling to other countries in the region, and that has a tremendous effect on the livelihoods and the services and the way of life for people in all of the countries in the region.”

“So, we need to solve the problem in Syria, but we also need to give support to these countries at this time of need.”

Addressing the Security Council Thursday, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in Syria, which she described as “characterised by breathtaking levels of savagery.”

She said the secretary-general has submitted report after report highlighting the failure of the warring parties to meet their basic minimum legal obligations.

Amos pointed out indiscriminate aerial bombings, including the use of barrel bombs, car bombs, mortar attacks, unguided rockets and the use of other explosive devices in populated areas, are the hallmarks of this conflict.

“I have previously reported on the worsening socio-economic situation in the country, which has eroded the development gains made over a generation.

“Today, a Syrian’s life expectancy is estimated to be 20 years less than when the conflict started. Unemployment is around 58 percent, up from around 10 percent in 2010; and nearly two-thirds of all Syrians are now estimated to be living in extreme poverty,” she told the Council.

The inability of this Council and countries with influence over the different parties at war in Syria to agree on the elements for a political solution in the country means that the humanitarian consequences will continue to be dire for millions of Syrians, she warned.

Children are particularly badly affected with 5.6 million children now in need of assistance. Well over two million children are out of school. A quarter of Syria’s schools have been damaged, destroyed or taken over for shelter. It will take billions of dollars to repair damaged schools and restore the education system, Amos said.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Afghanistan’s Economic Recovery: A New Horizon for South-South Partnerships?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/afghanistans-economic-recovery-a-new-horizon-for-south-south-partnerships/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=afghanistans-economic-recovery-a-new-horizon-for-south-south-partnerships http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/afghanistans-economic-recovery-a-new-horizon-for-south-south-partnerships/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 14:39:08 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139889 The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has invested 1.2 billion dollars in Afghanistan for roads, railways, and airport projects. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has invested 1.2 billion dollars in Afghanistan for roads, railways, and airport projects. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 27 2015 (IPS)

First the centre of the silk route, then the epicenter of bloody conflicts, Afghanistan’s history can be charted through many diverse chapters, the most recent of which opened with the election of President Ashraf Ghani in September 2014.

Having inherited a country pockmarked with the scars of over a decade of occupation by U.S. troops – including one million unemployed youth and a flourishing opium trade – the former finance minister has entered the ring at a low point for his country.

“Our goal is to become a transit country for transport, power transmissions, gas pipelines and fiber optics.” -- Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan
Afghanistan ranks near the bottom of Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), tailed only by North Korea, Somalia and Sudan.

A full 36 percent of its population of 30.5 million people lives in poverty, while spillover pressures from war-torn neighbours like Pakistan threaten to plunge this land-locked nation back into the throes of religious extremism.

But under this sheen of distress, the seeds of Afghanistan’s future are slumbering: vast metal and mineral deposits, ample water resources and huge tracts of farmland have investors casting keen eyes from all directions.

Citing an internal Pentagon memo in 2010, the New York Times referred to Afghanistan as the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”, an essential ingredient in the production of batteries and related goods.

The country is poised to become the world’s largest producer of copper and iron in the next decade. According to some estimates, untapped mineral reserves could amount to about a trillion dollars.

Perhaps more importantly Afghanistan’s landmass represents prime geopolitical real estate, acting as the gateway between Asia and Europe. As the government begins the slow process of re-building a nation from the scraps of war, it is looking first and foremost to its immediate neighbours, for the hand of friendship and mutual economic benefit.

Regional integration 

Speaking of his development plans at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Thursday, Ghani emphasised the role that the Caucasus, as well as Pakistan and China, can play in the country’s transformation.

“In the next 25 years, Asia is going to become the world’s largest continental economy,” Ghani stressed. “What happened in the U.S. in 1869 when the continental railroad was integrated is very likely to happen in Asia in the next 25 years. Without Afghanistan, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and West Asia will not be connected.

“Our goal is to become a transit country,” he said, “for transport, power transmissions, gas pipelines and fiber optics.”

Ghani added that the bulk of what Afghanistan hopes to produce in the coming decade would be heavy stuff, requiring a robust rail network in order to create economies of scale.

“In three years, we hope to be reaching Europe within five days. So the Caspian is really becoming central to our economy […] In three years, we could have 70 percent of our imports and exports via the Caspian,” he claimed.

Roads, too, will be vital to the country’s revival, and here the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has already begun laying the groundwork. Just last month the financial institution and the Afghan government signed grant agreements worth 130 million dollars, “[To] finance a new road link that will open up an east-west trade corridor with Tajikistan and beyond.”

Thomas Panella, ADB’s country director for Afghanistan, told IPS, “ADB-funded projects in transport and energy infrastructure promote regional economic cooperation through increased connectivity. To date under the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) programme, 2.6 billion dollars have been invested in transport, trade, and energy projects, of which 15 are ongoing and 10 have been completed.

“In the transport sector,” he added, “six projects are ongoing and eight projects have been completed, including the 75-km railway project connecting Hairatan bordering Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif of Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan’s transport sector accounted for 22 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) during the U.S. occupation, a contribution driven primarily by the presence of foreign troops.

Now the sector has slumped, but financial assistance from the likes of the ADB is likely to set it back on track. At last count, on Dec. 31, 2013, the development bank had sunk 1.9 billion dollars into efforts to construct or upgrade some 1,500 km of regional and national roads, and a further 31 million to revamp four regional airports in Afghanistan, which have since seen a two-fold increase in usage.

In total, the ADB has approved 3.9 billion dollars in loans, grants, and technical assistance for Afghanistan since 2002. Panella also said the bank allocated 335.18 million dollars in Asian Development Fund (ADF) resources to Afghanistan for 2014, and 167.59 million dollars annually for 2015 and 2016.

China too has stepped up to the plate – having already acquired a stake in one of the country’s most critical copper mines and invested in the oil sector – promising 330 million dollars in aid and grants, which Ghani said he intends to use exclusively to beef up infrastructure and “improve feasibility.”

Both India and China, the former through private companies and the latter through state-owned corporations, have made “significant” contributions to the fledgling economy, Ghani said, adding that the Gulf states and Azerbaijan also form part of the ‘consortium approach’ that he has adopted as Afghanistan’s roadmap out of the doldrums.

‘A very neoliberal idea’

But in an environment that until very recently could only be described as a war economy, with a poor track record of sharing wealth equally – be it aid, or private contracts – the road through the forest of extractive initiatives and mega-infrastructure projects promises to be a bumpy one.

According to Anand Gopal, an expert on Afghan politics and award-winning author of ‘No Good Men Among the Living’, “There is a widespread notion that only a very powerful fraction of the local elite and international community benefitted from the [flow] of foreign aid.”

“If you go to look at schools,” he told IPS, “or into clinics that were funded by the international community, you can see these institutions are in a state of disrepair, you can see that local warlords have taken a cut, have even been empowered by this aid, which helped them build a base of support.”

Although the aid flow has now dried up, the system that allowed it to be siphoned off to line the pockets of strongmen and political elites will not be easily dismantled.

“The mindset here is not oriented towards communities, it’s oriented towards development of private industries and private contractors,” Gopal stated.

“When you have a state that is unable to raise its own revenue and is utterly reliant on foreign aid to make these projects viable […] the straightforward thing to do would be to nationalise natural resources and use them as a base of revenue to develop the economy, the expertise of local communities and the endogenous ability of the Afghan state to survive.”

Instead what happens is that this tremendous potential falls off into hands of contracts to the Chinese and others. “It’s a very neoliberal idea,” he added, “to privatise everything and hope that the benefits will trickle down.

“But as we’ve seen all over the world, it doesn’t trickle down. In fact, the people who are supposed to be helped aren’t the ones to get help and a lot of other people get enriched in the process.”

Indeed, attempts to stimulate growth and close the wealth gap by pouring money into the extractives sector or large-scale development – particularly in formerly conflict-ridden countries – has had disastrous consequences worldwide, from Papua New Guinea, to Colombia, to Chad.

Rather than reducing poverty and empowering local communities, mining and infrastructure projects have impoverished indigenous people, fueled gender-based violence, and paved the way for the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

A far more meaningful approach, Gopal suggested, would be to directly fund local communities in ways that don’t immediately give rise to an army of middlemen.

It remains to be seen how the country’s plans to shake off the cloak of foreign occupation and decades of instability will unfold. But it is clear that Afghanistan is fast becoming the new playground – and possibly the next battleground – of emerging players in the global economy.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Indonesian President Unyielding on Death Penaltyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/indonesian-president-unyielding-on-death-penalty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indonesian-president-unyielding-on-death-penalty http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/indonesian-president-unyielding-on-death-penalty/#comments Thu, 26 Mar 2015 00:38:53 +0000 Sandra Siagian http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139870 Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a rally on Election Day on Jul. 9, 2014, at Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta. Human rights groups have condemned the country’s seventh president for his “backwards” stance on capital punishment. Credit: Sandra Siagian/IPS

Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a rally on Election Day on Jul. 9, 2014, at Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta. Human rights groups have condemned the country’s seventh president for his “backwards” stance on capital punishment. Credit: Sandra Siagian/IPS

By Sandra Siagian
JAKARTA, Mar 26 2015 (IPS)

When Indonesia’s law and human rights minister visited one of the country’s prisons in December last year, he met a Nigerian convict on death row for drug trafficking, who performed songs for him before leaving him with a parting gift.

“He sang […] beautifully,” Yasonna Laoly, the human rights minister, tells IPS. “He first quoted from the Bible before he gave me a souvenir when I left – it was a painting, a beautiful one.”

“There are no statistics of a deterrent effect with the death penalty. Jokowi is using the death penalty […] to prove to his critics that he is firm." -- Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras)
A month ago, at one of the weekly Christian services held at his ministry in the capital, Jakarta, a pastor came up to the minister to plea for some prisoners facing the death penalty.

She brought up the Nigerian man Laoly had met last year, stressing that he had reformed, converted to Christianity and become a good person.

“She asked me, ‘Why can’t you help?’,” explains the minister, who has also received an album of songs from the Nigerian death row inmate.

“I told her that, psychologically, it bothers me, but I have to face the case,” Laoly tells IPS, adding that he “does not believe in capital punishment”.

“I spoke to the Attorney General [H.M. Prasetyo], who was with me when I visited him and he just replied: ‘This is the law of the country and we have a policy’.”

The government of this archipelago nation of 250 million people has a no-tolerance policy when it comes to drug trafficking and smuggling, and has no qualms about using the death penalty for such offenses.

Just after midnight on Jan. 18, six drug convicts were executed by firing squad, the first imposition of capital punishment since President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took office last October.

Another 10 drug convicts – citizens of Australia, France, Brazil, the Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia – are slated to be executed next, following their transfer to the island prison of Nusakambangan.

Prior to Widodo’s presidential election victory last year, capital punishment in the archipelago had declined. Four people were executed in 2013 after a five-year hiatus and no capital sentences were carried out by the state in 2014.

Still, there are currently 138 people – one-third of them foreigners – on death row, primarily for drug-related offenses. The government claims its hard-line stance has to do with the growing drug menace in Indonesia – at present, 45 percent of drugs in Southeast Asia flow through this country, making it the largest drug market in the region.

Citing statistics from the country’s National Narcotics Board (BNN), Troels Vester, country manager of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) put the number of drug users at 5.6 million this year.

Government statistics further indicate that drug abuse kills off some 40 Indonesians every day, a figure hotly disputed by local rights groups.

A street food vendor walks past a sign, warning residents against taking drugs, outside of the Russian consulate in South Jakarta. Indonesia imposes harsh penalties, including capital punishment, for drug-related crimes. Credit: Sandra Siagian/IPS

A street food vendor walks past a sign, warning residents against taking drugs, outside of the Russian consulate in South Jakarta. Indonesia imposes harsh penalties, including capital punishment, for drug-related crimes. Credit: Sandra Siagian/IPS

Officials say that rampant drug use also fuels a demand for medical and health services, putting undue pressure on the government to expend public resources on treatment and counseling, HIV testing, and anti-retroviral therapy for those people living with HIV/AIDS.

But the United Nations says that the use of the death penalty will not necessary reduce Indonesia’s drug woes, and has urged the country to stopper the practice of capital punishment in line with international law.

Earlier this month some 40 human rights groups from around the world dispatched a letter to the Indonesian president, reminding him, “Executions are against Article 28(a) of the Indonesian Constitution, which guarantees everyone’s right to life.”

The letter further stated, “They are also in breach of Indonesia’s international legal obligations under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recognises every human being’s inherent right to life.”

Such efforts have so far failed to sway the president, or stay the country’s harsh hand of justice.

Ignoring international pressure

Widodo has also rejected political bids for clemency, including entreaties from foreign governments to spare the lives of their citizens; five of the six drug convicts executed in January were foreigners.

In January, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands personally requested Widodo to pardon Dutch national Ang Kiem Soe – convicted of being involved in a scheme to produce 15,000 ecstasy pills a day – but Widodo was unmoved.

Brazil and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors from Jakarta after their nationals were executed in January, while Australia has been campaigning furiously to save two of its own citizens, with the country’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, attempting an eleventh-hour prisoner swap, which was rejected.

Widodo has met all such efforts with a simple answer: there will be “no compromise” on the issue.

Human rights advocates like Amnesty International have slammed the Indonesian president’s “backwards” stance on capital punishment, accusing him of manipulating data to support his decisions.

“He says that 40 to 50 people are dying every day from drugs, but where is that figure coming from?” asks Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), adding that the president’s actions came as a surprise as he never shared his views on capital punishment during his campaign.

“The hospitals, doctors and the health ministry aren’t giving us data. These figures are from the anti-drugs body BNN, but they have never been proven,” Azhar adds.

Other activists like Hendardi, head of the Setara Institute, believe the president is using the death penalty to protect his image and regain public support following criticism over his government’s weak performance in law enforcement.

“There are no statistics of a deterrent effect with the death penalty,” the human rights defender tells IPS. “Jokowi [a popular nickname for the president] is using the death penalty […] to prove to his critics that he is firm. I think he is trying to gain back popularity as the death penalty is still favoured among Indonesians.”

While there has been no comprehensive nationwide poll to assess public opinion on, or popular support for, capital punishment, surveys conducted by the media suggest that some 75 percent of the population is in favour of death sentences, primarily for terrorism, corruption and narcotics charges.

Death sentences are typically carried out by a firing squad comprised of 12 people, who shoot from a range of five to 10 metres. Prisoners are given the choice of standing or sitting, as well as whether to have their eyes covered by a blindfold, or their face concealed by a hood.

Inmates are generally informed of their fate just 72 hours prior to execution, a practice that has been blasted by human rights groups.

While the human rights minister admits that the death penalty may not solve all the country’s drug problems, he believes that a firm policy is the first step to preventing millions from falling “into ruin” at the hands of narcotics.

UNODC estimates that there are 110,000 heroin addicts and 1.2 million users of crystalline methamphetamine in Indonesia. But experts like Azhar feel the problem cannot be ‘executed away’. Instead, the Kontras coordinator suggests the country adopt a humane approach to law enforcement.

According to Amnesty International, some “140 countries have now abolished the death penalty. Indonesia has the opportunity to become the 141st country.” However, if the president’s resolve remains unchanged, this is unlikely to happen in the near future.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Pacific Islanders Say Climate Finance “Essential” for Paris Agreementhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/pacific-islanders-say-climate-finance-essential-for-paris-agreement/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pacific-islanders-say-climate-finance-essential-for-paris-agreement http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/pacific-islanders-say-climate-finance-essential-for-paris-agreement/#comments Tue, 24 Mar 2015 21:56:35 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139854 Natural disasters and climate change, including sea level rise, are already impacting many coastal communities in Pacific Island countries, such as the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Natural disasters and climate change, including sea level rise, are already impacting many coastal communities in Pacific Island countries, such as the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia , Mar 24 2015 (IPS)

As Pacific Islanders contemplate the scale of devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam this month across four Pacific Island states, including Vanuatu, leaders in the region are calling with renewed urgency for global action on climate finance, which they say is vital for building climate resilience and arresting development losses.

In a recent public statement, the Marshall Islands’ president, Christopher Loeak, said, “The world’s best scientists, and what we see daily with our own eyes, all tell us that without urgent and transformative action by the big polluters to reduce emissions and help us to build resilience, we are headed for a world of constant climate catastrophe.”

“Like other small vulnerable countries, we have experienced great difficulty in accessing the big multilateral funds. The Green Climate Fund must avoid the mistakes of the past and place a premium on projects that deliver direct benefits to local communities." -- Tony de Brum, minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of the Marshall Islands
Progress on the delivery of climate funding pledges by the international community could also decide outcomes at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December, they say.

“It is reassuring to see many countries, including some very generous developing countries, step forward with promises to capitalise the Green Climate Fund. But we need a much better sense of how governments plan to ramp up their climate finance over the coming years to ensure the Copenhagen promise of 100 billion dollars per year by 2020 is fulfilled,” Tony de Brum, minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, told IPS.

“Without this assurance, success in Paris will be very difficult to achieve.”

The Pacific Islands are home to about 10 million people in 22 island states and territories with 35 percent living below the poverty line. The impacts of climate change could cost the region up to 12.7 percent of annual gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of this century, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates.

The Pacific Islands contribute a negligible 0.03 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet are the first to suffer the worst impacts of global warming. Regional leaders have been vocal about the climate injustice their Small Island Developing States (SIDS) confront with industrialised nations, the largest carbon emitters, yet to implement policies that would limit global temperature rise to the threshold of two degrees Celsius.

In the Marshall Islands, where more than 52,000 people live on 34 small islands and atolls in the North Pacific, sea-level rise and natural disasters are jeopardising communities mainly concentrated on low-lying coastal areas.

“Climate disasters in the last year chewed up more than five percent of national GDP and that figure continues to rise. We are working to improve and mainstream adaptation into our national planning, but emergencies continue to set us back,” the Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minister said.

The nation experienced a severe drought in 2013 and last year massive tidal surges, which caused extensive flooding of coastal villages and left hundreds of people homeless.

“Like other small vulnerable countries, we have experienced great difficulty in accessing the big multilateral funds. The Green Climate Fund must avoid the mistakes of the past and place a premium on projects that deliver direct benefits to local communities,” de Brum continued.

Priorities in the Marshall Islands include coastal restoration and reinforcement, climate resilient infrastructure and protection of freshwater lenses.

Bilateral aid is also important with SIDS receiving the highest climate adaptation-related aid per capita from OECD countries in 2010-11. The Oceanic region received two percent of OECD provided adaptation aid, which totalled 8.8 billion dollars.

Sixty percent of OECD aid in general to the Pacific Islands comes from Australia with other major donors including New Zealand, France, the United States and Japan. But in December, the Australian government announced far-reaching cuts to the foreign aid budget of 3.7 billion dollars over the next four years, which is likely to impact climate aid in the region.

Funding aimed at developing local climate change expertise and institutional capacity is vital to safeguarding the survival and autonomy of their countries, islanders say.

“We do not need more consultants’ reports and feasibility studies. What we need is to build our local capacity to tackle the climate challenge and keep that capacity here,” de Brum emphasised.

In the tiny Central Pacific nation of Kiribati, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson expressed concern that “local capacity is limited”, a problem that is “addressed through the provision of technical assistance through consultants who just come and then leave without properly training our own people.”

Kiribati, comprising 33 low-lying atolls with a population of just over 108,000, could witness a maximum sea level rise of 0.6 metres and an increase in surface air temperature of 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2090, according to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program.

The country is experiencing higher tides every year, but can ill afford shoreline erosion with a population density in some areas of 15,000 people per square kilometre. The island of Tarawa, the location of the capital, is an average 450 metres wide with no option of moving settlements inland.

As long-term habitation is threatened, climate funding will, in the future, have to address population displacement, according to the Kiribati Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“Climate induced relocation and forced migration is inevitable for Kiribati and planning is already underway. Aid needs to put some focus on this issue, but is mostly left behind only due to the fact that it is a future need and there are more visible needs here and now.”

Ahead of talks in Paris, the Marshall Islands believes successfully tackling climate change requires working together for everyone’s survival. “If climate finance under the Paris Agreement falls off a cliff, so will our response to the climate challenge,” de Brum declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Multi-Drug Resistance Adds to Tuberculosis Epidemic in Papua New Guineahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/multi-drug-resistance-adds-to-tuberculosis-epidemic-in-papua-new-guinea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=multi-drug-resistance-adds-to-tuberculosis-epidemic-in-papua-new-guinea http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/multi-drug-resistance-adds-to-tuberculosis-epidemic-in-papua-new-guinea/#comments Mon, 23 Mar 2015 22:33:08 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139840 In Papua New Guinea, most people live in rural areas with poor access to health services, increasing the challenges of fighting infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

In Papua New Guinea, most people live in rural areas with poor access to health services, increasing the challenges of fighting infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia, Mar 23 2015 (IPS)

Rising multi-drug resistance in patients suffering from tuberculosis, a debilitating infectious lung disease which mainly impacts the developing world, has led to a public health emergency in the southwest Pacific Island state of Papua New Guinea, according to state officials.

While efforts to combat the disease worldwide have produced results, with the global death rate dropping by 45 percent since 1990, the annual number of new cases in Papua New Guinea has risen from 16,000 to 30,000 over the past five years.

“The biggest barrier for the moment is cultural beliefs about the causes of diseases [...]. The first source of help [for many patients] is witchdoctors and local remedies." -- Louis Samiak, chairman of public health at the School of Medicine and Health Services at the University of Papua New Guinea
On World Tuberculosis (TB) Day, observed on Mar. 24, the country’s health experts spoke out about the challenges they face in tackling a disease that thrives in communities struggling against hardship and inadequate access to information and basic services.

“The biggest barrier for the moment is cultural beliefs about the causes of diseases. TB is a disease with long incubation and the first source of help [for many patients] is witchdoctors and local remedies. When patients present late [at health facilities] with advanced disease, it is difficult to treat,” Louis Samiak, chairman of public health at the School of Medicine and Health Services at the University of Papua New Guinea, told IPS.

Disease symptoms include fever, chest pains, fatigue, weight loss and cough, frequently with sputum and blood, which results in the airborne spread of bacteria.

The illness transmits quickly in overcrowded impoverished settlements and in Papua New Guinea, where sanitation coverage is only 19 percent and less than half the population have access to clean water, it is the leading cause of hospital deaths.

In rural villages of Kikori District in the southern Gulf Province the TB incidence rate is an alarming 1,290 per 100,000 people, according to the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. The national prevalence is 541 cases per 100,000 people, compared to the global average of 126.

The campaign to halt the epidemic in Gulf Province is supported by the international medical non-governmental organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Operating from the main town of Kerema, MSF has since last year diagnosed an average of 50 new TB cases every month, inlcuding patients as young as 10 months.

Adults aged 15-54 years are mainly afflicted, but youth account for about 28 percent of cases in PNG, while pulmonary TB and TB meningitis contribute to malnutrition and mortality in children.

One mother took her ill six-year-old child to Kerema General Hospital in an arduous journey from her mountain village, which took three hours by boat and two by truck.

“In the beginning, the mother did not understand what TB is, why the child needs treatment every day for long periods and why she has to be away from her village. It took two months to gain her acceptance of the treatment and for her to prepare for living away from the village,” a spokesperson for MSF in Papua New Guinea recounted to IPS.

“But the child is now receiving treatment every day with signs of improvement.”

Threatening disease control efforts is increasing resistance in patients to the strong first-line drugs, isoniazid and rifampicin. Common practice of patients stopping medication as soon as they feel better and not fully completing treatment is the main cause of multi-drug resistant TB in the country, Suparat Phuanukoonnon of the Institute of Medical Research told IPS.

When treatment is interrupted, the lower level of medication consumed fails to eradicate all the bacteria, which then develop resistance in the patient’s body.

In 2013, 4.5 percent of diagnosed TB cases in the country were multi-drug resistant, a significant increase from 1.9 percent in 2010. Drug resistant TB is rising in the rural Western and Gulf Provinces and the capital, Port Moresby, where more than half the population live in squatter settlements.

The impact on development is acute, with 75 percent of people with TB worldwide of working age.

“TB can affect all or any part of the human body. It, therefore, affects the whole person and reduces their ability to be productive to society or their community,” University of Papua New Guinea’s Samiak said.

While sufferers face rising healthcare expenses, the inability to work reduces their incomes. Poverty is perpetuated in the next generation when the disease affects both parents, forcing children to withdraw from school in order to care and provide for the family.

Papua New Guinea is the most populous Pacific Island nation with a population of seven million. But there are immense logistical challenges to fighting infectious diseases in the country, with more than 85 percent living in rural areas with poor, if any, access to roads and readily available transport to urban centres and health facilities.

A further hindrance is insufficient healthcare professionals with less than one doctor and 5.3 nurses per 10,000 people and a decline in the country’s health services since 2002, according to a report last year by the National Research Institute.

It found the availability of basic drugs in health clinics has fallen by 10 percent and visits from doctors dropped by 42 percent in the past decade. Despite rapid population growth, the number of patients seeking medical help per day has decreased by 19 percent.

Resources also need to be directed toward public education following a medical research institute survey of 1,034 people in the Central, Madang and Eastern Highlands Provinces, which showed the majority to be unaware of TB, its causes, and treatment.

Phuanukoonnon explained, “Prior to the Global Fund grant for TB [eradication] in PNG in 2007, it was a neglected disease in terms of political commitment and proper funding for the control programme.”

Limited health services are stretched as it is and, while TB information is available at health centres, overworked staff members still have little time for advocacy.

Any educational approach should address “how people receive and process information and believe the information enough to take action”, which requires that “health communication should be relevant to local contexts,” she continued.

Resources to assail the epidemic have been boosted, with the Global Fund announcing last month a further 18 million dollars of funding to fight TB in Papua New Guinea over the next three years.

Samiak said that financial resources could be well spent developing in-country laboratory facilities and staff training, so that TB test results are processed more efficiently and patient follow up and treatment expedited.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Women in the Philippines at the Forefront of the Health Food Movementhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/women-in-the-philippines-at-the-forefront-of-the-health-food-movement/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-in-the-philippines-at-the-forefront-of-the-health-food-movement http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/women-in-the-philippines-at-the-forefront-of-the-health-food-movement/#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 04:25:47 +0000 Diana Mendoza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139784 In the Philippines, 22 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, and 32 percent of children are stunted. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

In the Philippines, 22 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, and 32 percent of children are stunted. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

By Diana Mendoza
MANILA, Mar 20 2015 (IPS)

When Tinay Alterado’s team from ARUGAAN, an organisation of women healthcare advocates, visited Eastern Visayas, a region of the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, they noticed that the relief and rescue sites were flooded with donated milk formula, which nursing mothers were feeding to their babies in vast quantities.

Milk formula was one of the hundreds of relief items that streamed into the affected region in the aftermath of the strongest recorded storm to ever hit land.

“No one knows if GMOs are safe to eat, but there is mounting evidence that they pose dangers to human health." -- Angelina Galang, head of Consumer Rights for Safe Food (CRSF)
“We intervened because we knew from what we saw that we had to teach women how to breastfeed and how important it is for them, their babies and their families,” Alterado told IPS.

ARUGAAN, which in Filipino means to nurture or take care of someone, is a home centre organised by mostly poor, urban working mothers who care for babies up to three-and-a-half months old and advocate for healthy lifestyles, especially exclusive breastfeeding.

“We informed the women that they can and must breastfeed, and it should be for [up to] six months or even longer,” Alterado said.

Her group’s emergency response in the typhoon-affected areas took more time than planned, as they had to teach women how to induce milk from their breasts through a process called ‘lactation massage’ and how to store the milk for their babies’ next meal.

Alterado said her colleagues have doubled their efforts to spread awareness on this crucial aspect of motherhood, which is not ingrained in the country’s culture. Few people connect the act of breastfeeding with its associated economic and environmental benefits, such as reducing trash or easing a family’s financial woes.

In a country where 22 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, and 32 percent of children are stunted, women’s role in fighting hunger and malnutrition cannot be underestimated.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), “An overreliance on rice, low levels of breastfeeding and […] recurring natural hazards, connected to and amplified by […] poverty, means that children do not eat enough” in this archipelago nation of just over 100 million people.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the Philippines is devastated by an average of 20 typhoons every year that severely damage crops and farmlands, adding another layer to the thorny question of how to solve the country’s food issues.

Last year, the Philippines joined a list of some 63 developing countries to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the number of hungry people ahead of the 2015 deadline. Still, the country has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, contributing to Asia-Pacific’s dubious distinction of being home to 553 million malnourished people as of 2014.

As government officials and international development organisations struggle to come to terms with these numbers against the backdrop of impending natural disasters, women across the Philippines are already leading the way on efforts to combat hunger and ease the burden of malnutrition.

Ancient wisdom to tackle modern lifestyles

Alterado’s crusade is no different from that of Angelina Galang who heads Consumer Rights for Safe Food (CRSF), a coalition of organisations pushing for consumers’ right to know, choose, and have access to safe and healthy food.

For Galang, the struggle starts at home. When her grandchildren visit every weekend, she doesn’t serve them the usual soda, junk food or take-out pizza favored by so many young people. Instead, she gives them fruits and healthy, home-cooked snacks like boiled bananas.

She said the children didn’t like it at first but after many months, they have become used to weekend visits with their grandma that do not feature Coke and hot dogs. “Hopefully, they will learn and adopt that kind of lifestyle as they grow up,” she told IPS.

Galang said teaching the ‘fast food generation’ about the right kinds and quantities of food is a challenge, especially since many young people are taken in by corporations’ attractive marketing tactics.

But the problems do not end there. CRSF is also challenging the Philippine government to conduct better research on genetically modified crops and to label food products that are known to have genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which alter the genetic makeup of crops to enhance their appearance, nutrient content and growth.

“No one knows if GMO foods are safe to eat, but there is mounting evidence that they pose dangers to human health,” Galang asserted.

“Consumers are the guinea pigs of GMOs,” she said, adding that eight GMO crops have been approved by the Philippine government for propagation and 63 for importation.

The movement against genetically modified crops recently coalesced around the government’s attempts to plant the genetically engineered ‘golden rice’, a strand fortified with beta-carotene that the body converts to Vitamin A.

The government claimed its experiment was designed to address the country’s massive Vitamin A deficiency, which affects 1.7 million children under the age of five and roughly 500,000 pregnant and nursing mothers, according to the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Activists and concerned citizens say that GMOs will worsen hunger, kill diversification and possibly contaminate other crops. Women like Galang also contend that until long-term, comprehensive studies are done, “It is better to eat and buy local, unprocessed and organic foods.”

Educating the youth

Experts say the first step in the health food movement is to educate children on the importance of eating local and organic.

Camille Genuino, a member of the Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation based in Bacolod City, is witnessing this first hand. Her four-year-old child, who attends a daycare centre, is learning how to plant herbs and make pasta and pizza from the fresh produce harvested from their little plot.

“Educating children and exposing them to the benefits of farming is good parenting,” said Genuino, whose non-governmental advocacy group produces the nutritious Mingo powder – an instant formula that turns into a rich porridge when mixed with water – which is distributed in disaster-stricken areas.

Her child’s daycare centre is based in Quezon City, a poor, urban area located close to a waste disposal facility where residents have installed farms on their roofs so they can grow their own food. The centre conducts regular feeding programmes for 80 to 100 children in the area.

It is a humble effort in the greater scheme of things, but similar initiatives across the Philippines suggest a growing movement, led largely by women, is at the forefront of sparking changes in the food and nutrition sector.

Monina Geaga, who heads Kasarian-Kalayaan, Inc. (SARILAYA), a group of grassroots women’s organisations, believes that independent efforts to ensure a family’s nutrition can go a long way.

“People should know how to plant vegetables – like tomatoes, eggplant, pepper and string beans – in pots, and recycle containers for planting,” she said. “This would at least ensure where your food comes from because you source your meals from your own garden.”

More than 200 farmer-members of SARILAYA – mostly across Luzon, one of the three major islands in the Philippines – practice organic agriculture, believing it to be the best guarantee of their families’ health in the era of processed foods, GMOs and synthetic products.

Geaga said Filipino women, including the ones staying at home and raising their children, are at the forefront of these consumer and environment advocacy efforts.

Citing studies by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute and the University of the Philippines, she pointed out that poor families spend 70 percent more on purchasing infant formulas than other needs in the household and that youth in the 16-20 age-group consume fast food products heavy in fat, cholesterol and sodium on a daily basis.

Such statistics are not just numbers on a page – they are the reason scores of women across the Philippines are doubling up as scientists, farmers and activists so that they and their families can be a little healthier, and perhaps live a little longer.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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UNDP Unveils Blueprint for Swift, Unified Crisis Responsehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/undp-unveils-blueprint-for-swift-unified-crisis-response/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=undp-unveils-blueprint-for-swift-unified-crisis-response http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/undp-unveils-blueprint-for-swift-unified-crisis-response/#comments Thu, 19 Mar 2015 20:54:12 +0000 Ramesh Jaura http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139777 Devastation from the Mar. 1, 2011 tsunami that swept through Yotukura fishing village. Credit: Suvendrini Kakuchi/IPS

Devastation from the Mar. 1, 2011 tsunami that swept through Yotukura fishing village. Credit: Suvendrini Kakuchi/IPS

By Ramesh Jaura
SENDAI, Japan, Mar 19 2015 (IPS)

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has announced a new 10-year global plan to support country efforts to reduce the risk of disasters that kill people and destroy livelihoods. The plan was unveiled at the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction which ended on Mar. 18.

“Called ‘5-10-50’, the programme will support countries and communities to deliver better risk-informed development, and targets 50 countries over 10 years, with a focus on five critical areas: risk awareness and early warning; risk-governance and mainstreaming; preparedness; resilient recovery; and local/urban risk reduction,” UNDP Administrator Helen Clark said at a special event on Mar. 17 in Sendai, in the centre of Japan’s Tohoku region, which bore the brunt of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster."It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you can actually invest in DRR, you don’t actually have to spend so much money after the crisis to feed the population." -- Izumi Nakamitsu

The UNDP also launched a new report at Sendai, titled ‘Strengthening Disaster Risk Governance: UNDP Support during the HFA Implementation Period 2005 – 2015’.

The report is a review of UNDP support in 125 disaster-prone countries since 2005, and draws on detailed findings from a selection of 17 countries. The findings from the report are to be used in the development of the new programme.

Following are excerpts of an IPS interview in which the UNDP Assistant Administrator Izumi Nakamitsu, who heads the agency’s Crisis Response Unit, explains what this Unit in particular and the agency in general are doing to reduce disaster risk (Interview transcript by Josh Butler at IPS U.N. Bureau in New York):

IPS: What was the idea behind setting up the Crisis Response Unit, and what does it do?

Izumi Nakamitsu (IN): UNDP is obviously a development cooperation organisation. But if you look at the world, there are so many crises. We have to make sure we become, or are, a development cooperation organisation that can also respond to crises properly and fast. If you can respond quickly to crises, you can from the start put perspectives of early recovery and also resilience. We can actually become much more strategic in the way the international community can actually respond to crises.

You hear this terminology of ‘fit for purpose.’ U.N. organisations need to change with the changing environment and context. That was the reasoning behind this rather dramatic restructuring of UNDP (in October 2014). As one of the outcomes, it’s not the only one, is a new entity called the crisis response unit.

We make sure UNDP actually takes a whole of UNDP approach. The crisis response perspectives and early recovery perspectives are integrated into everything that we do in development work. Our role is to make sure that, by becoming a sort of crisis coordinator, different parts of UNDP will be responding collectively so that we actually take the whole of UNDP approach.

I should also emphasise it’s not just a natural disaster context. In fact, if you look at the number of victims of humanitarian crises, 70-80 percent are in a conflict setting. It’s much more complicated to respond to that sort of crisis.

IPS: So disaster risk reduction is one complement of your activities?

IN: Risk reduction perspective has to be integrated into everything we do. The whole development actions will have to be risk-informed. All parts of UNDP are integrating perspectives.

It’s not just my little unit that coordinates and manages a crisis response, but there’s a large team that is specifically looking at how to mainstream DRR (disaster risk reduction) perspectives into everything UNDP does. It’s not just the crisis context. It has to be part of normal development work.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you can actually invest in DRR, you don’t actually have to spend so much money after the crisis to feed the population. We think it makes sense to integrate and mainstream these DRR perspectives throughout the development process.

IPS: How does the cooperation function in this case?

IN: Obviously we have to work together. A lot of the risk reduction part is to create a national sort of legal framework on the ground in different countries. We still have very good disaster management law, for example. We have been working quite a lot; in 70-80 percent of our programme countries, UNDP has been part of preparing that legislative framework to properly invest in DRR.

But that’s only the beginning of the work. We have to then create the actual capacities at the country level, so that thIs legislation will actually have an impact in terms of DRR.

IPS: And that’s more difficult?

IN: I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. It takes time. It’s about capacity building. For that to happen, we need to have good partners on the ground that are engaged with those stakeholders.

I was meeting with the secretary general of the federation of Red Cross societies, they have huge strength, because they have national chapters, national committees, who will be implementing those things in terms of capacity building. We have been partnering with them also in terms of preparing legislation as well.

The next step is to create capacities on the ground. We’re doing a lot of that. We think it makes sense to invest in those types of activities. We can’t prevent disasters. That is not possible. But if we can minimise the risk, we can manage the impact, then probably much smaller humanitarian interventions would be required. The whole international support will probably become much more sustainable.

IPS: Disaster prone countries lack funds, they also lack technologies. These will have to come from rich and industrialised countries. Isn’t that a problem?

IN: Of course . . . Japan just pledged 4 billion USD during the conference (as a gesture of goodwill). But it’s not just about the amount of money . . .There will have to be an understanding on the part of all governments that they have to invest in building DRR frameworks. They have to invest in building resilience and ensuring that resilience. It’s not just the amount of money but how you spend it.

IPS: It’s the old debate, the effectiveness.

IN: 2015 is a critical year: especially on the eve of (the finance for development meeting in) Addis Ababa, many countries are looking at what it is that they will have to agree. Sendai is the first one.

IPS: What would you suggest developing countries should expect from Addis?

IN: Let’s hope these intergovernmental processes will produce a strong enough policy framework that will actually fully recognise that these are in fact DRR, development concerns, and will be treated as such. Also that the countries will understand, you need to actually make investments in resilience and risk reduction.

But also, for UNDP, it’s very important that policy frameworks will not just be policy frameworks working in abstract. They have to be something that can be implemented in a concrete way on the ground in a country.

We have invested 2 billion USD in the last 10 years in this area, DRR. In terms of implementation capacity, we are the one who will have to actually take those policy frameworks, look at them, and reflect them into our country programmes. Our work will probably be much more intense when these frameworks are ready.

We will have to take them and operationalise them. Those are the hopes. These are all intergovernmental processes. We’re here to support the governments and inform, in our view, what works and what doesn’t work that well. And feeding those perspectives into government delegations in the form of advice.

IPS: We are entering the minefield, where it’s a question of: what does international cooperation achieve?

IN: I think national governments also have a huge responsibility, but that’s why we work with them. We are the largest partner of those governments, especially in DRR areas. I talked about disaster management laws in different countries.

That’s a prime example of governments taking their responsibilities and then creating the capacities to make sure these legislative frameworks will actually have an impact and work with them also. (National) Governments’ responsibilities and our support, they are probably both sides of the same coin.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Watch the full interview below:

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Why Investors Should Think Twice before Investing in Coal in India – Part 2http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/why-investors-should-think-twice-before-investing-in-coal-in-india-part-2/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-investors-should-think-twice-before-investing-in-coal-in-india-part-2 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/why-investors-should-think-twice-before-investing-in-coal-in-india-part-2/#comments Thu, 19 Mar 2015 18:22:51 +0000 Chaitanya Kumar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139768 Coal mining in India. Coal-fired plants contribute 60 percent of India’s energy capacity and are a large source of the air pollution that is taking a toll on people’s health and their livelihoods. Photo credit: The Hindu

Coal mining in India. Coal-fired plants contribute 60 percent of India’s energy capacity and are a large source of the air pollution that is taking a toll on people’s health and their livelihoods. Photo credit: The Hindu

By Chaitanya Kumar
NEW DELHI, Mar 19 2015 (IPS)

In November last year, India’s power minister Piyush Goyal announced that he plans to double coal production in India by the end of this decade and, in an effort to enhance production, the Indian government has started a process of auctioning coal blocks.

Coupled with the auctions is the disinvestment of Coal India Limited (CIL), the world’s largest coal mining company, and both actions can provide short-term reprieve to India’s energy and fiscal deficit woes.

However, there are four reasons why investors and the government should be wary of investing in coal for the long run (10-15 years).

The first stems from the fact that it is rapidly becoming clear to big business and governments around the world that a large proportion of coal and other fossil fuels should be left in the ground. The second is that coal consumption is declining in many parts of the world, with economics increasingly in favour of alternate sources of energy, such as wind and solar.“A systematic effort is now under way to dilute environmental, land and forest laws … The latest land ordinance passed by the [Indian] government has done away with two key pillars of the process of land acquisition: social impact assessment and community consent”

Reasons three and four have to do with growing resistance from tribal and grassroots communities, and the fact that India will be forced to take some form of action as air pollution becomes increasingly dangerous.

Despite its plans for coal production, the Indian government has been giving the right indicators on its pursuit of renewable energy, but this ambition – though welcome – is being counterbalanced by the country’s continued lust for more coal.

Call it an addiction that is hard to let go or sustained pressure from big corporations and their existing investments in coal, the Indian government has turned its eye on the vast domestic reserves in the country.

Growing resistance from tribal and grassroots communities

A systematic effort is now under way to dilute environmental, land and forest laws in the country. The latest land ordinance passed by the government has done away with two key pillars of the process of land acquisition: social impact assessment and community consent. The ordinance is facing stiff resistance from opposition parties and the general masses of India.

Any project, either private or under a public private partnership (PPP), previously required the consent of 80 percent of the community that the project impacted but no such consent is now required.

Social impact assessments that factors in effects on the environment and human health, among others, were mandatory for projects and while such assessments were shoddy in the past, doing away with them completely sets a poor precedent for industrial practices and gives even less of a reason for companies to clean up their acts.

A lack of social impact assessment also adds to the ambiguity that exists in offering the right compensation as part of the rehabilitation and resettlement plan embedded in the land ordinance.

In the context of coal, the efforts of the government to re-allocate 204 coal blocks and begin mining will be met by stiff resistance from impacted communities. “There is a fear that we will witness greater state violence on people as they begin resisting projects that have immediate impacts on their lives and livelihoods”, says Sreedhar, a former geologist who now runs a network of activists called Mines, Minerals & People.

The Mahan coal block, forcefully pursued by the Essar company, is a case in point where local communities have been resisting open cast mining for several years. The mine is located in what is one of the last remaining tracts of dense forests in central India. Mahan has subsequently been withdrawn from the auctions, a victory celebrated by the local communities.

Foreign investors are especially wary of pumping money into projects that can see resistance from local communities. The high profile cases bauxite mining plans by British resources giant Vedanta in ‘sacred’ hills in eastern India and the plans of South Korea’s POSCO steel-making multinational to open a plant in the eastern state of Odisha have become strong deterrents for big money to enter India.

While the government’s efforts at allaying fears may work, there is a difference in rhetoric and on-the-ground reality because it will not be easy to simply wish away people’s concerns.

Visible resistance has taken shape in the state of Chhattisgarh where twenty tribal gram sabhas in the Hasdeo Arand coal field area of the state passed a formal resolution under the forest rights act against coal mining in their traditional forest land.

“There has to be an assessment of India’s energy needs alongside an evaluation of the forests that we stand to lose from coal mining. Allocation of coal blocks in dense forests is imprudent,” says Alok Shukla, an activist from Chhattisgarh who is mobilising tribal communities to uphold their forest rights.

These struggles might only intensify as government efforts are aggressively under way to further dilute tribal rights and open up inviolate forests for coal mining.

Air pollution is becoming hazardous and India will be forced to act

As the pressure to act on air pollution builds, India will have to enforce strict emission norms on coal plants and their operators. Installing flue-gas desulphurisation scrubbers should be mandatory on any new plant that is set to operate in coming years. These devices are very effective in limiting dangerous pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere but come at a heavy cost for investors and coal power generators. 

But why would the government work towards increasing operational costs for power plants in the pipeline? Here’s why – air pollution is killing Indians every year and is now the fifth largest contributor of deaths in the country. The fact that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India is a cause for great alarm. A study has indicated that one in three children have shown a reduction in lung function in Delhi.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) report, which makes this claim, advises that fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre. Delhi tops the list at 153 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre and it is only getting worse.

In Delhi, for instance, coal roughly contributes 30 percent of recorded air pollution (particulate matter) and the numbers are higher in the coal clusters of the country. Coal-fired plants contribute 60 percent of India’s energy capacity and are a large source of the air pollution that is taking a toll on people’s health and their livelihoods.

A recent report on coal pollution in India by Urban Emissions and Conservation Action Trust reveals a shocking statistic – in another 15 years between 186,500 and 229,500 people may die premature deaths annually as a result of a spike in air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants.

In dealing with air pollution, curbing the effects of harmful pollutants like nitrous and sulphur oxides from coal power plants is critical and there is growing pressure on the central government to introduce strict emission standards. India is the only major coal-powered nation that does not have any concentration standards for these pollutants, a requirement that should soon be in place.

Both domestic and international pressure can move India to clean up its air. The government cannot afford to have an ‘airpocalypse’ on its hands.

All is not well with the coal industry in India  

Undaunted, Narendra Taneja, energy cell convenor of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has claimed that coal and gas will remain the mainstay of the country’s economy for the next 50-60 years.

The impossibility of this claim becomes apparent when we look at the actual reserves of extractable coal. Only one-fifth of the coal reserves of CIL are extractable and if the ambitious doubling of domestic production happens, the known reserves are expected to last for less than two decades.

Coal mines that expire before the lifetime of new coal plants scream for greater economic prudence from investors.

India’s ambitious renewable energy expansion plans need to be complemented by a phase-out plan of coal. The world needs stronger political leadership from India as it tries to tackle the twin challenges of poverty and climate change.

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Unseen and Unheard: Afghan Baloch People Speak Uphttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/unseen-and-unheard-afghan-baloch-people-speak-up/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=unseen-and-unheard-afghan-baloch-people-speak-up http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/unseen-and-unheard-afghan-baloch-people-speak-up/#comments Wed, 18 Mar 2015 22:08:47 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139744 Baloch youngsters ride their motorbikes along the dry bed of the Helmand River. The total lack of economic and social opportunities pushes them to illegally migrate to neighbouring Iran, seeking a better life. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Baloch youngsters ride their motorbikes along the dry bed of the Helmand River. The total lack of economic and social opportunities pushes them to illegally migrate to neighbouring Iran, seeking a better life. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
ZARANJ, Afghanistan, Mar 18 2015 (IPS)

Balochistan, divided by the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a vast swathe of land the size of France. It boasts enormous deposits of gas, gold and copper, untapped sources of oil and uranium, as well as a thousand kilometres of coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite the wealth under their sandals, the Baloch people inhabit the most underdeveloped regions of their respective countries; Afghanistan is no exception.

“Against all odds, our national identity is [growing]. We just need the rest of the world to know about us.” -- Baloch intellectual and historian Abdul Sattar Purdely
Often overlooked, the Afghan Baloch count as just one among the many groups that make up the colourful ethnic mosaic of Afghanistan. And like the Pashtuns, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, they have also seen their land divided by the arbitrary boundaries in Central Asia.

Baloch historian and intellectual Abdul Sattar Purdely tells IPS there are “about two million of us in Afghanistan, but only those living in the southern provinces of Nimroz and Helmand speak Balochi.”

In his late sixties, this former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992) is today a professor, writer, and a leading advocate for the preservation of the Baloch language and culture in Afghanistan.

In coordination with the Afghan Ministry of Education, Purdely has written textbooks in Balochi that go as far as the 8th grade, which are already being used in three schools.

The Baloch in Afghanistan make up just a tiny portion of a people scattered throughout the Iranian Plateau, but they are united by the experience of religious, linguistic and ethnic persecution in a region increasingly marked by Islamic extremism.

A shepherd and his family walk their cattle in Zaranj, capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. In the absence of comprehensive census data, the Baloch intellectual Abdul Sattar Purdely tells IPS that Afghan Balochs number about two million, though not all speak the Balochi language. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A shepherd and his family walk their sheep in Zaranj, capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. In the absence of comprehensive census data, the Baloch intellectual Abdul Sattar Purdely tells IPS that Afghan Balochs number about two million, though not all speak the Balochi language. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The Baloch people, who hail from the Iranian plateau, have settled for centuries alongside the banks of the Helmand River in Afghanistan. But severe droughts and the excessive use of the river’s water for opium cultivation in Nimroz have lead to the collapse of agriculture in the province, affecting scores of Baloch families. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The Baloch people, who hail from the Iranian plateau, have settled for centuries alongside the banks of the Helmand River in Afghanistan. But severe droughts and the excessive use of the river’s water for opium cultivation in Nimroz have lead to the collapse of agriculture in the province, affecting scores of Baloch families. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The majority of the Baloch people are Sunni Muslims but their moderate vision of Islam has turned them into victims of growing Islamic extremism in the region. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The majority of the Baloch people are Sunni Muslims but their moderate vision of Islam has turned them into victims of growing Islamic extremism in the region. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The neglected village of Haji Abdurrahman, in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, is a hub for Afghan and Pakistani Baloch people, the latter seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Dozens of families struggle to survive in this cluster of mud houses without electricity or running water.

The neglected village of Haji Abdurrahman, in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, is a hub for Afghan and Pakistani Baloch people, the latter seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Dozens of families struggle to survive in this cluster of mud houses without electricity or running water.

Baloch youngsters ride their motorbikes along the dry bed of the Helmand River. The total lack of economic and social opportunities pushes them to illegally migrate to neighbouring Iran, seeking a better life. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Baloch youngsters ride their motorbikes along the dry bed of the Helmand River. The total lack of economic and social opportunities pushes them to illegally migrate to neighbouring Iran, seeking a better life. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A Baloch teenager poses next to his portrait inside his house in Nasirabad, another mud-hut village in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province. Like the majority of the local population, he is also illiterate. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A Baloch teenager poses next to his portrait inside his house in Nasirabad, another mud-hut village in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province. Like the majority of the local population, he is also illiterate. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

In Pakistan, for instance, the Baloch people have long weathered a crackdown against what the government calls an insurgency, while “Tehran is constantly trying to quell any Baloch initiative in Nimroz [a province in southwest Afghanistan] as they consider it a potential threat to their security,” according to Mir Mohamad Baloch, a political and cultural activist.

This Afghan-born Baloch tells IPS that an independent Balochistan is a “life dream” for him – but under current political conditions in the region, this dream is a long way from reality.

Currently, Zaranj hosts the only TV programme in Balochi in Afghanistan for one hour a day between five and six pm. Although the first TV channel in Balochi was set up in 1978 preceding the printing of the community’s first books and newspapers, the fall of the Communist government led to a sharp cultural decline in Afghanistan.

Historically a nomadic group, the Baloch people have endured years of brutal repression for their moderate vision of Islam. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, even issued a fatwa, an Islamic edict, against the people of Nimroz, calling for the ethnic cleansing of the Baloch and Shia population.

“Against all odds, our national identity is [growing] bigger despite the ongoing chaos in the country,” proclaims Abdul Sattar Purdely from his office in downtown Kabul. “We just need the rest of the world to know about us.”

A Baloch family from the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar stand for a photograph. While millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan over the past four decades, Pakistani Balochs are taking the opposite route, fleeing to Afghanistan to avoid repression by the Pakistani government. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A Baloch family from the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar stand for a photograph. While millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan over the past four decades, Pakistani Balochs are taking the opposite route, fleeing to Afghanistan to avoid repression by the Pakistani government. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

 

This Pakistani Baloch elder and his two sons are today hiding in Afghanistan. Rights groups have criticised the Pakistan government’s crackdown on the Baloch people. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

This Pakistani Baloch elder and his two sons are today hiding in Afghanistan. Rights groups have criticised the Pakistan government’s crackdown on the Baloch people. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Baloch fighters from the Balochistan Liberation Army crouch at an undisclosed location along the Afghan-Pakistan border. There are several Baloch insurgent groups fighting for independence in Pakistan. Some of their fighters often cross the border to evacuate the wounded and treat them in Afghan hospitals. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Baloch fighters from the Balochistan Liberation Army crouch at an undisclosed location along the Afghan-Pakistan border. There are several Baloch insurgent groups fighting for independence in Pakistan. Some of their fighters often cross the border to evacuate the wounded and treat them in Afghan hospitals. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Karim and Sharif Baloch, both of them from Pakistan, show the portraits of their lost brother and father at their current residence in Zaranj. They tell IPS their relatives were killed in 2011 during a Pakistani military operation. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Karim and Sharif Baloch, both of them from Pakistan, show the portraits of their lost brother and father at their current residence in Zaranj. They tell IPS their relatives were killed in 2011 during a Pakistani military operation. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A truck travels down a lost road in Nimroz, the only Afghan province where the Baloch minority form a majority. In the country’s remote southwest, Nimroz shares a 500-kilometre border with both Iran and Pakistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A truck travels down a lost road in Nimroz, the only Afghan province where the Baloch minority form a majority. In the country’s remote southwest, Nimroz shares a 500-kilometre border with both Iran and Pakistan. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A truck pauses at the Afghan-Iranian border in Zaranj, the administrative capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. Pakistani writer Amhed Rashid tells IPS this province is a smuggling hub through which heroin goes out and weapons come in. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

A truck pauses at the Afghan-Iranian border in Zaranj, the administrative capital of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. Pakistani writer Amhed Rashid tells IPS this province is a smuggling hub through which heroin goes out and weapons come in. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Key to Preventing Disasters Lies in Understanding Themhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/key-to-preventing-disasters-lies-in-understanding-them/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=key-to-preventing-disasters-lies-in-understanding-them http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/key-to-preventing-disasters-lies-in-understanding-them/#comments Wed, 18 Mar 2015 20:56:30 +0000 Ramesh Jaura http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139742 Flooding is declared a natural disaster Jan. 12, 2011 in Brisbane, Australia. Credit: Bigstock

Flooding is declared a natural disaster Jan. 12, 2011 in Brisbane, Australia. Credit: Bigstock

By Ramesh Jaura
SENDAI, Japan, Mar 18 2015 (IPS)

The Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction concluded on Wednesday after a long drawn-out round of final negotiations, with representatives of 187 U.N. member states finally agreeing on what is being described as a far-reaching new framework for the next 15 years: 2015-2030.

But whether the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) heralds the dawn of a new era – fulfilling U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s expectation on the opening day of the conference on Mar. 14 that “sustainability starts in Sendai” – remains to be seen."I think we can all understand the disaster superficially, but that’s not really what will reduce the risk in future. What will reduce risk is if we understand the risks, and not just one risk, but several risks working together to really undermine society." -- Margareta Wahlström

Margareta Wahlström, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), has emphasised that the new framework “opens a major new chapter in sustainable development as it outlines clear targets and priorities for action which will lead to a substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health”.

But she warned on Wednesday that implementation of the new framework “will require strong commitment and political leadership and will be vital to the achievement of future agreements on sustainable development goals [in September] and climate later this year [in December in Paris]”.

The new framework outlines seven global targets and four priorities.

The global targets to be achieved over the next 15 years are: “a substantial reduction in global disaster mortality; a substantial reduction in numbers of affected people; a reduction in economic losses in relation to global GDP; substantial reduction in disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, including health and education facilities; an increase in the number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies by 2020; enhanced international cooperation; and increased access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments.”

The four priorities for action are focussed on a better understanding of risk, strengthened disaster risk governance and more investment. A final priority calls for more effective disaster preparedness and embedding the ‘build back better’ principle into recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Following are excerpts of an IPS interview with UNISDR head Margareta Wahlström on Mar. 16 during which she explained the nitty-gritty of DRR. (Interview transcript by Josh Butler at IPS U.N. Bureau in New York.):

IPS: Do you think this conference would come out with solutions to reduce disaster risk?

Margareta Wahlström (MW): The conference and the collective experience has got all the solutions. That’s not really our problem. Our problem is to make a convincing argument for applying the knowledge we already have. It has to do with individuals, with society, with business, et cetera. Not to make it an oversimplified agenda, because it’s quite complex.

If you really want to reduce risks sustainably, you have to look at many different sectors, and not individually, but they have to work together. I can see myself, I can hear, there has been a lot of progress over this 10 years.

One of the critical thresholds to cross is moving from the disaster to the risk understanding. I think we can all understand the disaster superficially, but that’s not really what will reduce the risk in future. What will reduce risk is if we understand the risks, and not just one risk, but several risks working together to really undermine society.

That’s what this conference is about. As much as it is about negotiating a document, now laying the ground for work in the coming decades, it is also about people learning very rapidly from each other, allowing themselves to be inspired.

IPS: An important issue is resilience. The poor and vulnerable have always shown resilience. But what we need to strengthen their resilience is money (finance for development) and technology. Do you see these two things happening as a result of this conference?

MW: Not only because of the conference. If anything, the conference will up the priorities, increase the understanding of the necessary integration of planning. In any case, historical experience shows the most critical foundation stone for resilience is social development and economic development. People need to be healthy, well educated, have choices, have jobs. With that follows, of course, in a way, new risks, as we know. Lifestyle risks.

I think the technology is there. The issue of technology is more its availability, that can be an issue of money but it can also an issue of capacity on how to use technology. Which, for many countries and individuals, is really an issue. We need to look at ourselves. The evolution of technology is faster than people’s ability to use it.

Financial resources to acquire it can definitely be a limitation, but an even bigger limitation in many cases is capacity. If you think of money in terms of government’s own investments, which is the most critical one, I think we will see that increasing, as the understanding of what it is you do when you build for resilience, that means risk sensitive infrastructure, risk sensitive agriculture, water management systems. It’s not a standalone issue.

I think we will see an increase in investment. Investment for individuals, for the social side of resilience, in particular the focus on the most poor people, will require a more clear cut decision of policy direction, which can very probably be helped by the agreement later in this year hopefully on the post-2015 universal development agenda. That will, at best, help to put the focus on what needs to be done to continue the very strong focus on poverty reduction.

IPS: Do you think the issue of ODA (official development assistance) has any relevance these days?

MW: In terms of its size and scale, probably not, compared to foreign direct investments, private sector growth. But of course it’s got an enormous important symbolic value, and political value, as a concrete expression of solidarity.

Nevertheless to be very, very fair, still there are a number of countries that depend a lot on ODA, 30-40 percent of their GDP is still based on ODA in one form or the other. Which is probably not that healthy in terms of their policy choices at the end of the day, but that is the current economic reality. Really the need for economic development, the type of investments that stimulate countries’ own economic growth, people’s growth, need to remain a very critical priority.

That’s why I think you see, both in the SDGs discussion and this discussion, such a strong emphasis on the national resource base as the foundation, including for international cooperation.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Watch the full interview below:

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Why Investors Should Think Twice before Investing in Coal in India – Part 1http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/why-investors-should-think-twice-before-investing-in-coal-in-india-part-1/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-investors-should-think-twice-before-investing-in-coal-in-india-part-1 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/why-investors-should-think-twice-before-investing-in-coal-in-india-part-1/#comments Wed, 18 Mar 2015 11:47:44 +0000 Chaitanya Kumar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139724 Indian coal workers. India announced in November last year that it plans to double coal production to a whopping 1 billion tonnes per annum before the end of this decade, a feat that is going to be highly improbable to pull off. Photo credit: Jaipal Singh/EPA

Indian coal workers. India announced in November last year that it plans to double coal production to a whopping 1 billion tonnes per annum before the end of this decade, a feat that is going to be highly improbable to pull off. Photo credit: Jaipal Singh/EPA

By Chaitanya Kumar
NEW DELHI, Mar 18 2015 (IPS)

India’s Government under Narendra Modi is in overdrive mode to please businesses and investments in the country. The much aggrandised ‘Make in India’ campaign launched in September 2014 is a clarion call for spurring investments into manufacturing and services in India and all eyes have turned to the power sector which is expected to undergo dramatic shifts.

Piyush Goyal, India’s power minister, announced in November last year that he plans to double coal production in India to a whopping 1 billion tonnes per annum before the end of this decade, a feat that is going to be highly improbable to pull off.

In an effort to enhance production, the Indian government has started a process of auctioning coal blocks, which were de-allocated by the country’s Supreme Court as a result of the coal scam that hit the country in 2012 (and resulted in notional losses of 30 billion dollars to India’s exchequer).

With domestic miners already having shown an aggressive interest in bidding at the first auction last month, a total of 204 coal blocks are set to be auctioned over the next 12 months. The first 32 auctioned blocks have yielded more than 35 billion dollars, exceeding the nominal losses from the coal scam.“[Indian] Prime Minister Modi has made it clear that he does not intend to give into … pressure [to take further action on climate change and rethink its energy options] from any nation but he also cannot afford the ignominy of being singled out as a country that is blocking progressive climate action in Paris”

Coupled with the auctions is the disinvestment of Coal India Limited (CIL), the world’s largest coal mining company. A 10 percent stake sale in early February resulted in a mixed bag response. Another state owned firm, LIC India, lapped up 50 percent of the stocks alongside a couple of international investment funds and a few Indian firms. The move generated 3.6 billion dollars in revenues for the government.

The auctions and the disinvestment of CIL can provide short-term reprieve to India’s energy and fiscal deficit woes, but there are four reasons why investors and the government should be really wary of investing in coal for the long run (10-15 years). The following are the first two.

Unburnable carbon

The reality that a large proportion of coal and other fossil fuels should be left in the ground is rapidly becoming clear to big business and governments around the world. By signing on to a global agreement that pledges to limit the rise in the earth’s surface temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, India along with other major carbon emitters have effectively signalled the imminent decline in the use of fossil fuels in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

To achieve this much needed and agreed upon limit on temperature rise, 82 percent of known global coal reserves should remain unextracted. This roughly translates into 66 percent of known coal reserves in India and China that should be left in the ground, according to a study published in the reputed journal Nature.

These stranded assets, or unburnable carbon, is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body that informs climate policy around the world, also highlighted in its recent report on climate change mitigation.

This new reality is unravelling quicker than expected and gaining credence from the most unlikely of places. Even the International Energy Agency (IEA), which has faced consistent criticism in underplaying the role of renewable energy in favour of nuclear and fossil fuels, stated recently that “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 degrees C goal”.

IEA’s Chief Economist Fatih Birol warned that “we need to change our way of consuming energy within the next three or four years,” because, otherwise, “in 2017, all of the emissions that allow us to stay under 2°C will be locked in.”

Coal is fast losing the rug under its feet. Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said of divestment: “We support divestment as it sends a signal to companies, especially coal companies, that the age of ‘burn what you like, when you like’ cannot continue.

This proposition will be contested fiercely by the Indian government as much as by any fossil fuel company, but as nations – under pressure – prepare to deliver a strong global climate agreement at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, long-term investments in coal in this rapidly growing economy will stand on very thin ice.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama’s statements during his recent visit to India suggest diplomatic pressure on India to take further action on climate change and rethink its energy options for the immediate future.

Prime Minister Modi has made it clear that he does not intend to give into such pressure from any nation but he also cannot afford the ignominy of being singled out as a country that is blocking progressive climate action in Paris.

Thermal coal reaches retirement age – it’s time for renewable energy

A new report from Goldman Sachs starts with this gem of a sentence:  “Just as a worker celebrating their 65th birthday can settle into a more sedate lifestyle while they look back on past achievements, we argue that thermal coal has reached its retirement age.”

The latest data reveal that coal consumption is declining in many parts of the world, including across Europe as a whole, the United States and now, surprisingly, even China registered a small but historic decline in its coal consumption last year. The retirement of dirty coal plants in developed economies is set to cement this trend in the coming few years.

The most recent blow comes from the world’s largest sovereign fund, as Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), worth 850 billion dollars, announced that it had dumped 40 major coal mining companies from its portfolio on environmental and climate grounds.

Besides the climate concern, economics is increasingly in favour of alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar.

In 2014, we saw a precipitous drop in the cost of solar energy in India. Bidding prices came down as low as 6.5 rupees a unit, a 61 percent drop over the last three years, compared with the average unit price of conventional energy like coal at around 5.5 rupees a unit.

Coupled with dramatic drops in costs of solar equipment such as panels, alongside operational, capital and maintenance costs, the path is clearly open for solar to achieve grid parity by 2017.

Meanwhile, onshore wind has in fact become the cheapest way to generate electricity in the world, laying the claims of cheap coal to rest. A report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental research organisation, has laid bare the facts.

According to the report, the levelised cost of energy or LCOE (that is, all costs considered except externalities like subsidies or environmental impacts) for solar and wind already makes them highly competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity.

The oft cited issues of high capital costs and intermittency notwithstanding, prices of small-scale residential rooftop solar systems also dropped in the range of 40-65 percent between 2008 and 2014 in Europe and the United States.

What does this mean for coal in India? If the above numbers are any measure of the future of the energy sector, heavy investments in coal beyond this decade would be economic suicide.

Coal plants once established have a lifetime of at least 30 years and given the market volatility for coal, owing to rising costs of mining and uncertain fuel supply agreements, greater prices for end consumers is inevitable.

Many pundits in India appreciate this reality and the government has given the right indicators on its pursuit of renewable energy. With a target of 165 GW, India has set an ambitious goal of adding 60 percent to its total current capacity from just solar and wind by 2022.

Edited by Phil Harris    

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Women Turn Drought into a Lesson on Sustainabilityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/women-turn-drought-into-a-lesson-on-sustainability/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-turn-drought-into-a-lesson-on-sustainability http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/women-turn-drought-into-a-lesson-on-sustainability/#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 19:35:16 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139719 Women in Pakistan fare worse than all their neighbours in terms of resilience to climate change. Credit: Ali Mansoor/IPS

Women in Pakistan fare worse than all their neighbours in terms of resilience to climate change. Credit: Ali Mansoor/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Mar 17 2015 (IPS)

When a group of women in the remote village of Sadhuraks in Pakistan’s Thar Desert, some 800 km from the port city of Karachi, were asked if they would want to be born a woman in their next life, the answer from each was a resounding ‘no’.

They have every reason to be unhappy with their gender, mostly because of the unequal division of labour between men and women in this vast and arid region that forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan.

"South Asian countries need to realise the tremendous capacity for leadership women have in planning for and responding to disasters." -- David Line, managing editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit
“A woman’s work is never done,” one woman says.

“She works in the fields as well as the home, fetches water, eats less,” adds another.

Others say women are compelled to perform manual labour even while pregnant, and some lament they cannot take care of themselves, with so many others to look after.

While this mantra rings true for millions of impoverished women around the world, it takes on a whole new meaning in Tharparkar, one of 23 districts that comprise Pakistan’s Sindh Province, which has been ranked by the World Food Programme (WFP) as the most food insecure region of the country.

But a scheme to include women in adaptation and mitigation efforts is gaining ground in this drought-struck region, where the simple act of moving from one day to the next has become a life-and-death struggle for many.

Over 500 infant deaths were reported last year, the third consecutive drought year for the region. Malnutrition and hunger are rampant, while thousands of families cannot find water.

In its 2013 report, the State of Food Security, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) listed Tharparkar as the region with the country’s highest caloric deficit, a by-product of what it labels a “chronic” food crisis, prompted by climate change.

Of the 1.5 million people spread out over 2,300 villages in an area spanning 22,000 square km, the women are bearing the brunt of this slow and recurring disaster.

Tanveer Arif who heads the NGO Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE) tells IPS that women not only have to look after the children, they are also forced to fill a labour gap caused by an exodus of men migrating to urban areas in search of jobs.

With their husbands gone, women must also tend to the livestock, fetch water from distant sources when their household wells run dry, care for the elderly, and keep up the tradition of subsistence farming – a near impossible task in a drought-prone region that is primed to become hotter and drier by 2030, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

The promise of harder times ahead has been a wakeup call for local communities and policymakers alike that building resilience is the only defense against a rising death toll.

Women here are painfully aware that they need to learn how to store surplus food, identify drought-resilient crops and wean themselves off agriculture as a sole means of survival, thinking that has been borne out in recent studies on the region.

Conservation brings empowerment

The answer presented itself in the form of a small, thorny tree called the mukul myrrh, which produces a gum resin that is widely used for a range of cosmetic and medicinal purposes, known here as guggal.

Until recently, the plant was close to extinction, and sparked conservation efforts to keep the species alive in the face of ruthless extraction – 40 kg of the gum resin fetches anything from 196 to 392 dollars.

Today, those very efforts are doubling up as adaptation and resiliency strategies among the women of Tharparkar.

Women often bare the brunt of natural disasters since they are responsible for the upkeep of the household and the wellbeing of their families. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Women often bare the brunt of natural disasters since they are responsible for the upkeep of the household and the wellbeing of their families. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

It began in 2013, when SCOPE launched a project with support from the Scottish government to involve women in conservation. Today, some 2,000 women across Tharparkar are growing guggal gum trees; it has brought nutrition, a better income and food security to all their families.

“For the first time in so many years, we did not migrate […] in search of a livelihood,” 35-year-old Resham Wirdho, a mother of seven, tells IPS over the phone from Sadhuraks.

She says her family gets 100 rupees (about 0.98 dollars) from the NGO for every plant she raises successfully. With 500 plants on her one-acre plot of land, she makes about 49 dollars each month. Combining this with her husband’s earnings of about 68 dollars a month as a farmhand, they no longer have to worry where the next meal will come from.

They used some of their excess income to plant crops in their backyard. “This year for the first time, instead of feeding my children dried vegetables, I fed them fresh ones,” she says enthusiastically.

For the past year, they have not had to buy groceries on credit from the village store. They are also able to send the eldest of their seven kids to college.

Women in Pakistan’s drought-struck Tharparkar District are shouldering the burden of a long dry spell that is wreaking havoc across the desert region. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Women in Pakistan’s drought-struck Tharparkar District are shouldering the burden of a long dry spell that is wreaking havoc across the desert region. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Wirdho says it is a gift that keeps on giving. In the next three years, each of the trees they planted will fetch at least five dollars, amounting to net earnings of 2,450 dollars – a princely sum for families in this area who typically earn between 78 and 98 dollars monthly.

And finally, the balance of power between Wirdho and her husband is shifting. “He is more respectful and not only helps me water and take care of the plants, but with the housework as well – something he never did before,” she confesses.

Lessons from Pakistan for South Asia

The success of a single scheme in a Pakistani desert holds seeds of knowledge for the entire region, where experts have long been pushing for a gendered approach to sustainable development.

With 2015 poised to be a watershed year – including several scheduled international conferences on climate change, many believe the time is ripe to reduce women’s vulnerability by including them in planning and policies.

Such a move is badly needed in South Asia, home to 1.6 billion people, where women comprise the majority of the roughly 660 million people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day. They also account for 50 percent of the agricultural labour force, thus are susceptible to changes in climate and ecosystems.

The region is highly prone to natural disasters, and with the population projected to hit 2.2 billion by 2050 experts fear the outcome of even minor natural disasters on the most vulnerable sectors of society, such as the women.

A recent report by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU), ‘The South Asia Women’s Resilience Index’, concluded, “South Asian countries largely fail to consider the rights of women to be included in their disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience-building efforts.”

Using Japan – with a per capita relief budget 200 times that of India, Pakistan or Bangladesh – as a benchmark, the index measured women’s vulnerability to natural calamities, economic shifts and conflict.

A bold indictment of women’s voices going unheard, the report put Pakistan last on the index, lower than Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

On all four categories considered by the EIU in measuring women’s resiliency – economic, infrastructural, institutional and social – Pakistan scored near the bottom. On indicators such as relief budgets and women’s access to employment and finance, it lagged behind all its neighbours.

According to David Line, managing editor of The Economist Intelligence Unit, “South Asian countries need to realise the tremendous capacity for leadership women have in planning for and responding to disasters. They are at the ‘front line’ and have intimate knowledge of their communities. Wider recognition of this could greatly reduce disaster risk and improve the resilience of these communities.”

And if further proof is needed, just talk to the women of Tharparkar.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Sendai Conference Stresses Importance of Women’s Leadershiphttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/sendai-conference-stresses-importance-of-womens-leadership/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sendai-conference-stresses-importance-of-womens-leadership http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/sendai-conference-stresses-importance-of-womens-leadership/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 19:59:01 +0000 Jamshed Baruah and Katsuhiro Asagiri http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139690 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says boosting women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction would be a key element of the country’s new programme of international support. Credit: Jamshed Baruah/IPS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says boosting women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction would be a key element of the country’s new programme of international support. Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri/IPS

By Jamshed Baruah and Katsuhiro Asagiri
SENDAI, Japan, Mar 16 2015 (IPS)

Women play a critical role in reducing disaster risk and planning and decision-making during and after disasters strike, according to senior United Nations, government and civil society representatives.

In fact, efforts at reducing risks can never be fully effective or sustainable if the needs and voices of women are ignored, they agreed.WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin underscored that the “global reset” that began on Mar. 14 in Sendai must include steps to place women at the centre of disaster risk reduction efforts.

Even at risk of their own health and well-being, women are most heavily impacted but often overcome immense obstacles to lead response efforts and provide care and support to those hit hard by disasters, said participants in a high-level multi-stakeholder Partnership Dialogue during the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan, from Mar. 14 to 18.

Participants in the conference’s first of several intergovernmental high-level partnership dialogues, on ‘Mobilizing Women’s Leadership in Disaster Risk Reduction’, included the heads of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

In an interview with IPS, UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said the Sendai Conference offers “a new opportunity for the world to galvanise around a common disaster risk reduction agenda and commit to collective actions that put women at its centre”.

The fact that serious gaps remain in the area is not for lack of guidance and tools on relevant gender-based approaches and best practices. What is needed is requisite political will to make sure that women’s voices were enhanced and participation ensured. All such efforts must bolster women’s rights, included sexual and reproductive health rights, he said.

Osotimehin pleaded for key actions at all levels, and stressed that dedicated resources are lacking and as such, money must be devoted to disaster risk reduction and women must be empowered to play a real role in that area.

He pointed out that sustained and sustainable disaster risk reduction requires an accountability framework with indicators and targets to measure progress and ensure that national and local actors move towards implementation.

A physician and public health expert, before Osotimehin became UNFPA chief in January 2011 in the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, he was Director-General of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of AIDS, which coordinates HIV and AIDS work in a country of about 180 million people.

WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin underscored that the “global reset” that began on Mar. 14 in Sendai must include steps to place women at the centre of disaster risk reduction efforts.

As several other speakers and heads of governments also emphasised in several other fora, Cousin said the WCDRR is the first of a crucial series of U.N.-backed conferences and meetings set for 2015 respectively on development financing, sustainable development and climate change, all aimed at ensuring a safer and more prosperous world for all.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe echoed similar sentiments in a keynote address. He said that Japan had long understood the importance of enhancing the voice, visibility and participation of women.

For example, if a disaster struck during the middle of the day, most of the people at home would be women so their perspective is essential “absolutely essential for restoring devastated”.

“’No matter how much the ground shakes, we will remain calm in our hearts,’” said Prime Minister Abe, quoting the powerful words of women in one of the districts he had visited in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and pledging Japan’s ongoing strong commitment to ensuring all women played a greater role in disaster risk reduction.

Abe announced that boosting women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction would be a key element of the country’s new programme of international support.

He said: “Today I announced Japan’s new cooperation initiative for disaster risk reduction. Under this initiative, over the next four years, Japan will train 40,000 officials and people in local regions around the world as leaders who will play key roles in disaster risk reduction and reconstruction.

“One of the major projects that will be undertaken through this initiative is the launch of the Training to Promote Leadership by Women in Disaster Risk Reduction. Furthermore, at the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo to be held this summer, one of the themes will be ‘Women and Disaster Risk Reduction’.”

Abe said, “We are launching concrete projects in nations around the world” and would build on existing efforts to promote women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction in such partner countries as Fiji, Solomon Islands, and other Pacific island nations.

“We have dispatched experts in the field of community disaster risk reduction to conduct training focusing on women over a three-year period … Now these women have become leaders and are carrying on their own activities to spread knowledge about disaster risk reduction to other women in their communities,” he said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry in Need of a Makeoverhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/indonesias-palm-oil-industry-in-need-of-a-makeover/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=indonesias-palm-oil-industry-in-need-of-a-makeover http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/indonesias-palm-oil-industry-in-need-of-a-makeover/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 16:50:33 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139681 Maridiana Deren, an environmental activist based in Kalimantan, Indonesia, says that palm oil companies are destroying indigenous peoples’ ancient way of life. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Maridiana Deren, an environmental activist based in Kalimantan, Indonesia, says that palm oil companies are destroying indigenous peoples’ ancient way of life. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
BALI, Indonesia, Mar 16 2015 (IPS)

Over the past three decades, 50 percent of the 544,150 square kilometres that comprise Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, has been taken over by the palm oil industry.

“It will expand until it pushes us all into the ocean,” prophesies Mina Setra, deputy secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), who has fought for years to preserve an ancient way of life from being bulldozed to make way for mono-crop plantations.

“The people who have lived off the land for generations become criminals because they want to preserve their way of life." -- Mina Setra, deputy secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN)
For her, the business of producing the oil, a favourite of consumers around the world, needs to fall in line with the principles of sustainability. On its current growth spurt, the industry threatens to undermine local economies, indigenous communities and Indonesia’s delicate network of biodiversity.

Consumption of palm oil has risen steadily at seven percent per annum over the last 20 years, according to new data from a report published by the Dublin-based consultancy Research and Markets.

Globally, more people consume palm oil than soybean oil, and Indonesia is the largest producer of the stuff, churning out 31 million tonnes of palm oil in 2014. Malaysia and Indonesia together account for 85 percent of palm oil produced globally each year.

While output is predicted to be lower in 2015, the industry continues to expand rapidly, swallowing up millions of hectares of forestland to make space for palm plantations.

Indonesian government officials and industrialists insist that the sector boosts employment, and benefits local communities, but people like Setra disagree, arguing instead that the highly unsustainable business model is wreaking havoc on the environment and indigenous people, who number between 50 and 70 million in a country with a population of 249 million.

Busting the myth of equality and employment

A recent study by the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) found that the main benefactors of the palm oil industry are the big investors and companies that control 80 percent of the global palm oil trade.

The report found, “[The] palm oil sector has added little real value to the Indonesian economy. The average contribution of estate crops, including oil palm and rubber, to GDP [gross domestic product] was only 2.2 percent per year […].”

On the other hand, “food production is the main source of rural employment and income, engaging two-thirds of the rural workforce, or some 61 million people. Oil palm production only occupies the eighth rank in rural employment, engaging some 1.4 million people.”

About half of those engaged in palm oil production are smallholders, earning higher wages than their counterparts employed by palm oil companies (about 75 dollars a month compared to 57 dollars a month).

According to the World Wildlife Fund in the last three-and-a-half decades Indonesia and Malaysia lost a combination of 3.5 million hectares of forest to palm oil plantations. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

According to the World Wildlife Fund in the last three-and-a-half decades Indonesia and Malaysia lost a combination of 3.5 million hectares of forest to palm oil plantations. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The industry witnessed a 15-percent drop in profits last year, but this year profits are expected to rise, with prices settling between 500 and 600 dollars per tonne. Still, many producers in Indonesia and Malaysia openly advocate lower wages to keep profit levels high.

Experts also believe the sector does a poor job of redirecting profits into the communities because of a model that relies on eating up land and falling back on a system of patronage.

“This patronage system serves as the basic structure for the production, marketing, and distribution of palm oil. It connects significant actors in order to facilitate their businesses through legitimate mechanisms such as palm oil consortia, which usually consist of local strongmen, senior bureaucrats, and influential businessmen with close links to top national leaders,” the RRI report concluded.

Grassroots activists like Setra say that industrialists are also skilled at manipulating legal loopholes to continue expanding their plantations.

For instance, the Indonesian government has imposed a moratorium on land clearing for new plantations, a bid to appease scientists, Western nations and citizens concerned about the gobbling up of rainforests for monocultures.

However, the ban only applies to new licenses, not existing ones, allowing companies with longstanding licenses to violate the law without question.

Even when the central government cracks down, activists say, companies use local connections with powerful politicians to undercut regulations.

“It is a vicious system that feeds on itself,” the indigenous activist tells IPS.

Unjust, unsustainable

According to Bryson Ogden, RRI’s private sector analyst, “The structure of the industry is such that it leaves out local communities.”

“The biggest losers in this process were locals who lost their lands and livelihoods but have not been incorporated in the new economy on advantageous terms,” the RRI report said. “Indigenous peoples, subsistence farmers, and women were the most vulnerable groups, as well as smallholders owning and managing their own oil palm plots.”

But when locals try to take a stand for their rights, such campaigns result in the alienation of whole communities or, worse, the criminalisation of their activities.

In July 2014, a protestor was shot dead by police in south Kalimantan while taking part in a protest against palm oil expansion. Another such killing was reported on Feb. 28 in Jambi, located on the east coast of the island of Sumatra.

“The people who have lived off the land for generations become criminals because they want to preserve their way of life,” Setra laments.

She believes that as long as there is global demand for the oil without an accompanying international campaign to highlight the product’s impact on local people, companies are unlikely to change their mode of operation.

Others say the problem is a lack of data. Scott Poynton, founder of The Forest Trust (TFT), an international environmental NGO, tells IPS that there is inadequate information on the socio-economic impacts of oil operations.

He says the focus on deforestation – in Indonesia and elsewhere – is a result of the tireless work of NGOs dedicated to the issue, combined with “easy-to-use tools like the World Resource Institute’s Global Forest Watch”, a mapping system that allow people to quickly and cheaply identify deforestation.

He says similar resources must be made available to those like Setra – grassroots leaders on the ground, who are able to monitor and report on social degradation caused by the palm oil sector.

As the United Nations and its member states move closer to finalising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the international community’s blueprint for development and poverty-reduction in the coming decades – Indonesia and the palm oil sector will be forced to reckon with the unsustainable nature of the mono-crop corporate model, and move towards a practice of inclusivity.

One of the primary topics informing the knowledge platform on the SDGs is the promise of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP), defined as “the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources […] so as not to jeopardize the needs of further generations.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund in the last three-and-a-half decades Indonesia and Malaysia lost a combination of 3.5 million hectares of forest to palm oil plantations.

Statistics like these suggest that nothing short of sweeping changes will be required to put indigenous people like Setra at the centre of the debate, and build a sustainable future for palm oil production.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Cyclone Pam Prompts Action for Vanuatu at Sendai Conferencehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/cyclone-pam-prompts-action-for-vanuatu-at-sendai-conference/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cyclone-pam-prompts-action-for-vanuatu-at-sendai-conference http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/cyclone-pam-prompts-action-for-vanuatu-at-sendai-conference/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 08:46:09 +0000 Jamshed Baruah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139669 View of the Third World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendau, Japan. Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale told delegates he was attending because the Pacific island, hit by Cyclone Pam in early March, “wants to see a strong new framework on disaster risk reduction which will support us in tackling the drivers of disaster risk such as climate change". Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri/IPS

View of the Third World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendau, Japan. Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale told delegates he was attending because the Pacific island, hit by Cyclone Pam in early March, “wants to see a strong new framework on disaster risk reduction which will support us in tackling the drivers of disaster risk such as climate change". Credit: Katsuhiro Asagiri/IPS

By Jamshed Baruah
SENDAI, Japan , Mar 16 2015 (IPS)

Cyclone Pam has not only caused unprecedented damages to the Pacific island of Vanuatu but also lent urgency to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s plea that disaster risk reduction is in “everybody’s interest”.

“Sustainability starts in Sendai,” Ban declared at the opening of the Third World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), the largest-ever high-level meeting on the theme, which kicked off on Mar. 14 in Sendai, the centre of Japan’s Tohoku region, which bore the brunt of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

The conference is expected to conclude with the adoption on Mar. 18, when WCDRR is scheduled to close, of a new agreement on disaster risk reduction, which will provide guidance on how to reduce mortality and economic losses from disasters.“Disaster risk reduction advances progress on sustainable development and climate change [which] is intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas” – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

“This is the first stop on our journey to a new future to put our people of the world and this world onto a sustainable path,” Ban told government leaders and civil society representatives from around the world.

“Disaster risk reduction advances progress on sustainable development and climate change,” Ban said, adding that “climate change is intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas.”

Experts consider climate change as the cause for the increasingly unpredictable pattern of cyclonic activity affecting Vanuatu in recent years.

“I speak to you today with a heart that is so heavy,” said Vanuatu’s President Baldwin Lonsdale addressing the opening session, visibly fighting back his tears. “I stand to ask you to give a lending hand in responding to this calamity that has struck us.”

This is indeed a major calamity for the Pacific island nation. Every year it loses six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to disasters. “This cyclone is a huge setback for the country’s development. It will have severe impacts for all sectors of economic activity including tourism, agriculture and manufacturing,” said Lonsdale.

“The country is already threatened by coastal erosion and rising sea levels, in addition to five active volcanos and earthquakes. This is why I am attending this conference and why Vanuatu wants to see a strong new framework on disaster risk reduction which will support us in tackling the drivers of disaster risk such as climate change.”

As Vanuata reeled under the impact of the cyclone, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of japan pledged four billion dollars in disaster prevention aid, mainly for developing countries.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an initiative on Mar. 15 to scale up community and civic action on resilience, the so-called ‘One Billion Coalition for Resilience’.

The IFRC has committed itself to mobilising its network of 189 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and 17 million volunteers around the world to increase different services that link disaster preparedness, emergency response and longer term recovery needs of local communities.

The Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, commended the IFRC’s efforts to galvanise actions toward making communities more resilient.

“We need to scale up our collective efforts to make sure that hazards don’t become disasters, and we will only be able to achieve this by building alliances at every level,” she said. ”Only in partnership can we contribute to transforming the lives of the most vulnerable people and support their efforts in building stronger communities.”

Apparently realising the need of the hour, top insurers from around the world have called on governments to step up global efforts to build resilience against natural disasters, highlighting that average economic losses from disasters in the last decade have amounted to around 190 billion dollars annually, while average insured losses were at about 60 billion dollars.

A ‘United for Disaster Resilience Statement’ was released Mar. 14 by top insurance companies, members of the UNEP Finance Initiatives’ Principles for Sustainable Insurance (PSI), the largest collaborative initiative between the United Nations and the insurance industry. PSI is backed by insurers representing about 15 percent of the world’s premium volume and nine trillion dollars in assets under its management.

The statement urges governments to adopt the U.N. Post-2015 Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, emphasising that the insurance industry is well placed to understand the economic and social impact of disasters given that its core business is to understand, manage and carry risk.

Lauding the initiative, Achim Steiner, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “The vision and initiative demonstrated by the insurance industry – from the launch of the landmark Principles for Sustainable Insurance at the Rio+20 conference to the strong, united commitments made here in Sendai – provide inspiration and a way forward.”

Another PSI initiative launched in Sendai called on individual insurance organisations to help implement the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction by making voluntary, specific, measurable and time-bound commitments.

The voluntary commitments will follow the global framework afforded by the four Principles for Sustainable Insurance, and will show concrete actions that build disaster resilience, and promote economic, social and environmental sustainability.

These commitments will be aggregated and promoted en route to a major UNEP and insurance industry event in May this year, which will be hosted by the global reinsurer, Swiss Re.

The commitments will also be promoted by the PSI at the Global Insurance Forum of the International Insurance Society in New York in June. The forum will include a dedicated day at the U.N. headquarters for insurance industry leaders and U.N. officials to address sustainable development challenges and opportunities, from climate change and disaster risk, to financial inclusion and ageing populations.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Canada’s Waste Still Rotting in a Philippine Porthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/canadas-waste-still-rotting-in-a-philippine-port/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=canadas-waste-still-rotting-in-a-philippine-port http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/canadas-waste-still-rotting-in-a-philippine-port/#comments Sun, 15 Mar 2015 14:47:44 +0000 Diana Mendoza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139666 Filipinos march along the streets of the Makati Business District, demanding the immediate re-exportation of the 50 Canadian container vans filled with hazardous wastes currently festering in Manila’s port. Credit: Courtesy Diana Mendoza

Filipinos march along the streets of the Makati Business District, demanding the immediate re-exportation of the 50 Canadian container vans filled with hazardous wastes currently festering in Manila’s port. Credit: Courtesy Diana Mendoza

By Diana Mendoza
MANILA, Mar 15 2015 (IPS)

Filipino Catholic priest and activist Reverend Father Robert Reyes, dubbed by media as the “running priest”, joined a protest of environmental and public health activists last week by running along the streets of the Makati Business District, the Philippines’ financial capital, to urge the government to immediately re-export the 50 Canadian containers filled with hazardous wastes that have been in the Port of Manila for 600 days now.

Along with the groups BAN Toxics, Ecowaste Coalition and Greenpeace, Reyes staged BasuRUN, a name derived from the Filipino word ‘basura’, which means trash or waste.

“We need to send a clear signal to the rest of the world that the Philippines is not a dumping ground for Canada’s [or any other country’s] toxic waste.” -- Antonio La Vina, dean of the Ateneo School of Government
“These toxic wastes are the worst forms of expressing friendship between our two countries,” said the politically active and socially conscious Reyes.

Although praised by activists but criticised by the Filipino Catholic bishops, Reyes’ latest run, which ended across the Canadian Embassy located in the financial district, added another voice to the call for Canada to take responsibility for its “overstaying” toxic shipment in the Philippines.

“Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is an embarrassment to the civic-minded and environmentally conscious Canadians,” said Reyes. “We know this is not the real Canada. We urge Prime Minister Harper to take immediate action. Take back your illegal waste shipment now,” he stressed.

In June 2013, the Philippine Bureau of Customs (BOC) seized 50 container vans carrying various hazardous household waste and toxic materials imported from Canada, with the consignee Chronic Plastics, Inc., declaring the shipment as “assorted scrap plastic materials for recycling”.

When questioned by activists, Canada said that it does not have any legal capacity to compel the Canada-based private corporation to re-export the shipment.

Richard Gutierrez, executive director of BAN Toxics, told IPS the shipment should be re-exported in accordance with the Basel Convention, an international treaty signed in 1982 with 182 parties as of 2015 that regulates toxic waste shipments.

The Basel Convention prohibits illegal toxic waste trade and requires the exporting country, in this case Canada, to take back illegally seized shipments and pay the costs for the return.

Both Canada and the Philippines are parties to the Basel Convention, but Canada has yet to respond to calls for the re-exportation of the shipment under its obligation under international law.

“Canada’s refusal to take back the illegal shipment is a blatant violation of its obligation under Basel,” Gutierrez added. “Toxic waste trade is also not simply an issue of trade or business among private individuals or companies. At its very core is the respect for human dignity. It is about protecting the right to life and health. Dumping of toxic waste is anathema to human rights.”

He said the importation also violates a number of local laws such as the Administrative Order 28 (Interim Guidelines for the Importation of Recyclable Materials Containing Hazardous Substances) of the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000.

BAN Toxics said the Philippine government is spending at least 144,000 pesos (about 3,000 dollars) a day for the loss of income from storage space and an additional 87 million pesos (about 1.9 million dollars) in demurrage costs to the ship’s owners.

Other activist groups in the struggle include Mother Earth Foundation, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and ‘Ang Nars’, a party-list group of Filipino nurses who staged protests last year.

Harmful to health, environment, dignity

Abigail Aguilar, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace, expressed shock that the waste is still festering in a Filipino port after nearly two years.

“How the Canadian government finds the dignity to let this linger on for more than 600 days is despicable and sickening. It is best that it takes it back and not let the Filipinos suffer. [That] is the moral thing to do,” Aguilar told IPS.

Baskut Tuncak, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights and toxic wastes, has called out to rich countries to respect human rights by ceasing the export of garbage and toxic wastes to poorer countries.

“The international transfer of toxic wastes to developing countries has repeatedly violated the human rights of people who are often in most vulnerable situations, and contravened the principles of equality and non-discrimination,” the rapporteur said earlier this year.

Tuncak said that without the correct precautions, the transfer of toxic waste is harmful to the environment and to the health of human beings, adding, “Unbridled toxic waste trade often takes place to exploit differences in the cost of labour and enforcement of laws including environmental protection.”

A 2010 study published by the U.S.-government supported scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) revealed that chemical pollutants from toxic waste sites in India, the Philippines, and Indonesia “put over eight million persons at risk [of] disease, disability, and early deaths from exposure to industrial contaminants in 2010, creating a loss of 828,722 years of good health,” identified in the study as disability-adjusted life years.

The study said that the wastes in question contained an assortment of “toxic metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.”

A 2014 study by Ban Toxics and the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government said toxic wastes from other countries have exposed Filipinos to a number of health and environmental risks, such as hazardous e-waste and medical and clinic garbage that include a toxic brew of mercury, lead, cadmium, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs).

Antonio La Vina, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said, “We need to send a clear signal to the rest of the world that the Philippines is not a dumping ground for Canada’s [or any other country’s] toxic waste.”

He said the Canadian waste is but a symptom of a bigger problem, namely: as long as the Philippines dodges ratification of the Basel Ban Amendment, which prohibits the importation of hazardous waste from developed to lesser developed countries, it will continue to be viewed and treated as a dumping ground.

The shipment currently sitting in Manila’s port was initially described as recyclable material, but Greenpeace reports that the containers are also holding hospital waste, used adult diapers, and sanitary napkins.

Leachate from these containers, or liquid that has percolated through a solid, threaten the surrounding environment, posing great risk to human health in the area. Manila currently has a population of 1.6 million people.

An open petition on Change.org urging the Canadian government to assume full responsibility of the waste shipment already has 25,000 signatures and expects more.

According to the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics database (UN Comtrade), 4.7 million tons of hazardous waste were shipped by developed to lesser developed countries between 1998 and 2008.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Meet the 10 Women Who Will Stop at Nothinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/meet-the-10-women-who-will-stop-at-nothing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=meet-the-10-women-who-will-stop-at-nothing http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/meet-the-10-women-who-will-stop-at-nothing/#comments Fri, 13 Mar 2015 22:07:30 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139652 Seven of the ten recipients of the 2015 U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award pose together with Richard Stengel, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Seven of the ten recipients of the 2015 U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award pose together with Richard Stengel, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 13 2015 (IPS)

On Apr. 6, 2013, Nadia Sharmeen, a crime reporter, was assigned to cover a rally organised by Hefazat-e-Islam, an association of fundamentalist Islamic groups in Bangladesh whose demands included a call to revoke the proposed National Women Development Policy.

When Sharmeen arrived, she directed her cameraman to get a shot of the crowd and proceeded to interview some of the attendees.

“They beat me, they took all my valuables. They threw me to the ground four or five times. They tried to tear off my dress. They wanted to kill me – that was their main goal.” – Nadia Sharmeen, a Bangladeshi journalist attacked by a mob of 60 men while covering a rally by the fundamentalist group Hefazat-e-Islam in 2013
“Suddenly a man came up and asked why I was here as a woman,” she tells IPS. “I told him I was not here as a woman, I was here as a journalist. But he did not accept this and started shouting at me to leave.”

The man’s verbal aggressions quickly drew the attention of a large crowd, and before she knew what was happening, a group of 50 or 60 men were attacking her.

“They beat me, they took all my valuables. They threw me to the ground four or five times. They tried to tear off my dress. They wanted to kill me – that was their main goal,” Sharmeen recounts.

Eventually, her colleagues braved the angry mob and managed to get her to the safety of a hospital. But the damage was done; her injuries left her bed-ridden for five months, and in need of multiple surgeries.

Forsaken by her employer, who refused to pay for her medical treatment and finally forced her to resign, Sharmeen got through the ordeal with nothing but her own strength and the unwavering support of her family.

Today, she is one of 10 women recognised by the U.S. Secretary of State for outstanding courage in their pursuit of peace and equality, and is currently touring the country as a recipient of the 2015 International Women of Courage (IWOC) award.

Speaking to IPS on the sidelines of an event held at the New York City Foreign Press Center Friday, Sharmeen says she considers herself “lucky”. She had a family who stood by her, and did not suffer permanent brain damage despite being kicked repeatedly in the head by scores of angry men.

Given the realities on the ground in the country, her analysis is not far from the truth: thousands of Bangladeshi women live in the shadow of violence, which manifests itself in countless ways. In 2011, for instance, 330 women were killed in dowry-related violence. In total, some 66 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married before their 18th birthdays.

Nadia Sharmeen, a Bangladeshi journalist. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Nadia Sharmeen, a Bangladeshi journalist. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Other forms of discrimination – such as a 57-percent employment rate for women compared to 88 percent for men – also ensure that women systematically get the raw end of the deal.

According to some data, inequality of the sexes begins at birth, with a female child mortality rate of 20 deaths per 1,000 live births outstripping a male mortality rate of 16 deaths per 100 live births.

In a country where gender bias is finely woven into the social fabric, it is not easy for women to get back up after being beaten down. But that is exactly what Sharmeen did.

Sparking hope across Asia

This year, five of the 10 IWOC honorees hailed from Asia, where women comprise half of the region’s population of four billion.

Their struggles represent the diversity of challenges faced by women across Asia and the Pacific, where patriarchal laws and attitudes run deep.

Sayaka Osakabe, for instance, has spent the last several years fighting a form of discrimination that is perhaps more prominent in Japan than any other country in the region – ‘Matahara’ or maternal harassment, the practice of applying tremendous social on pressure on women to “choose” between having a child or having a career.

Quoting statistics from the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, Osakabe tells IPS that one out of four women are subject to maternal harassment, while 60 percent of all working women generally resign after the birth of their first child.

Osakabe herself faced harassment from her employers during two successive pregnancies, both of which ended in miscarriages because she was denied maternity leave.

On one occasion, her employer went so far as to turn up at her doorstep and inform her that she should not expect to renew her contract because she was causing “so much trouble” in her workplace.

Sayaka Osakabe is the founder of Matahara Net, an organisation that fights against the practice of maternal harassment in Japan. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida

Sayaka Osakabe is the founder of Matahara Net, an organisation that fights against the practice of maternal harassment in Japan. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida

Determined not to accept such blatant discrimination, she has focused all her efforts on fighting Matahara, in the hopes that others will not suffer the same fate she did. She founded the organisation Matahara Net, which in less than a year has reached out to over 100 women facing maternal harassment.

Her struggle sparked government action, including the first-ever court ruling that demotions or dismissals due to pregnancy are, in principle, illegal.

It has been a hard-won victory. Osakabe tells IPS she faced “tremendous backlash” from many corners of society, including from women.

“Housewives and high-career women – two groups forced to choose between their jobs or having babies – are the ones who target me the most,” she says.

In a country where women account for one in three people living below the poverty line, and comprise 63 percent of those holding jobs that pay less than 38 percent of a full-time worker’s salary, ‘matahara’ threatens to widen an already gaping gender gap.

By 2060, Japan’s population is projected to shrink to two-thirds of its current 127 million people, and officials are worried about the future workforce – yet society continues to demonise women who want both a family and an income, Osakabe says.

Life or death choices

Other award winners, like Burmese activist May Sabe Phyu, face a different set of challenges. Phyu is active in the movement to bring justice and dignity to ethnic and religious minorities, specifically to the internally displaced people (IDPs) in her native Kachin State, where civil conflict has driven over 120,000 people from their homes since 2011 alone.

In a country that has is becoming increasingly intolerant of minorities, she works against a bloody backdrop: just two months ago, Burmese soldiers raped and killed two Kachin women working as volunteer schoolteachers in a remote village in the Shan state.

Phyu herself has received threats and faces constant harassment and legal charges, but she forges on.

As a co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network and the Kachin Women Peace Network, she advocates tirelessly for the rights of displaced women and children who are most vulnerable to violence in makeshift camps. She also heads Gender Equality Now, an umbrella group of over 90 organisations collectively advocating for women’s rights.

None of these accolades have corroded her humility.

“When I heard I had been selected for this award I asked myself, ‘Do I really deserve this?’” she tells IPS, adding that many other women have shown even greater courage than she in times of adversity.

She speaks of her friend, also a Kachin woman, who first enlightened her of the plight of the IDPs and gender discrimination.

“She is my symbol of courage and whenever I’m feeling down I just look at her, listen to her, and her voice and her anchorage brings me fresh strength,” Phyu says.

May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network in Burma, has been advocating for the rights of IDPs in Kachin State since 2011. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida

May Sabe Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network in Burma, has been advocating for the rights of IDPs in Kachin State since 2011. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida

The remaining honorees from Asia include Niloofar Rahmani, the first female Air Force Pilot in Afghanistan’s history, and Tabassum Adnan, a resident of the formerly Taliban-controlled Swat Valley who survived 20 years of physical and mental abuse before going on to lead the first-ever women’s only Jirga (council) dedicated to issues such as acid attacks, honour killings and ‘swara’ – the practice of exchanging a woman to settle disputes or compensate for crimes.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are deadly places for women at the best of times, with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reporting more than 3,000 cases of violence against women during a six-month period in 2012 and Pakistan police records stating that some 160 women suffered acid attacks in 2014, though NGOs say the number is much higher.

In both countries, choosing to fight back is often a matter of life or death, but such a calculation has not deterred these women from walking the path to freedom.

Other award winners include activists and journalists from Bolivia, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Kosovo and Syria.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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