The Guardian reports:
The human race is living beyond its means. A report backed by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries - some of them world leaders in their fields - today warns that the almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure.
The study contains what its authors call "a stark warning" for the entire world. The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.
"Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted," it says.
The report, prepared in Washington under the supervision of a board chaired by Robert Watson, the British-born chief scientist at the World Bank and a former scientific adviser to the White House, will be launched today at the Royal Society in London. It warns that:
· Because of human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel, more land has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.
· An estimated 24% of the Earth's land surface is now cultivated.
· Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers has doubled in the last 40 years. Humans now use between 40% and 50% of all available freshwater running off the land.
· At least a quarter of all fish stocks are overharvested. In some areas, the catch is now less than a hundredth of that before industrial fishing.
· Since 1980, about 35% of mangroves have been lost, 20% of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and another 20% badly degraded.
· Deforestation and other changes could increase the risks of malaria and cholera, and open the way for new and so far unknown disease to emerge.
In 1997, a team of biologists and economists tried to put a value on the "business services" provided by nature - the free pollination of crops, the air conditioning provided by wild plants, the recycling of nutrients by the oceans. They came up with an estimate of $33 trillion, almost twice the global gross national product for that year. But after what today's report, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, calls "an unprecedented period of spending Earth's natural bounty" it was time to check the accounts.
"That is what this assessment has done, and it is a sobering statement with much more red than black on the balance sheet," the scientists warn. "In many cases, it is literally a matter of living on borrowed time. By using up supplies of fresh groundwater faster than they can be recharged, for example, we are depleting assets at the expense of our children."
Flow from rivers has been reduced dramatically. For parts of the year, the Yellow River in China, the Nile in Africa and the Colorado in North America dry up before they reach the ocean. An estimated 90% of the total weight of the ocean's large predators - tuna, swordfish and sharks - has disappeared in recent years. An estimated 12% of bird species, 25% of mammals and more than 30% of all amphibians are threatened with extinction within the next century. Some of them are threatened by invaders.
The Baltic Sea is now home to 100 creatures from other parts of the world, a third of them native to the Great Lakes of America. Conversely, a third of the 170 alien species in the Great Lakes are originally from the Baltic.
Invaders can make dramatic changes: the arrival of the American comb jellyfish in the Black Sea led to the destruction of 26 commercially important stocks of fish. Global warming and climate change, could make it increasingly difficult for surviving species to adapt.
A growing proportion of the world lives in cities, exploiting advanced technology. But nature, the scientists warn, is not something to be enjoyed at the weekend. Conservation of natural spaces is not just a luxury.
"These are dangerous illusions that ignore the vast benefits of nature to the lives of 6 billion people on the planet. We may have distanced ourselves from nature, but we rely completely on the services it delivers."
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
The Guardian reports:
More and more children in Iraq do not have enough food to eat
The BBC reports:
Increasing numbers of children in Iraq do not have enough food to eat and more than a quarter are chronically undernourished, a UN report says.
Malnutrition rates in children under five have almost doubled since the US-led invasion - to nearly 8% by the end of last year, it says.
The report was prepared for the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
It also expressed concern over North Korea and Sudan's Darfur province.
Jean Ziegler, a UN specialist on hunger who prepared the report, blamed the worsening situation in Iraq on the war led by coalition forces.
The silent daily massacre by hunger is a form of murder - it must be battled and eliminated
He was addressing a meeting of the 53-nation commission, the top UN rights watchdog, which is halfway through its annual six-week session.
When Saddam Hussein was overthrown, about 4% of Iraqi children under five were going hungry; now that figure has almost doubled to 8%, his report says.
Governments must recognise their extra-territorial obligations towards the right to food and should not do anything that might undermine access to it of people living outside their borders, it says.
That point is aimed clearly at the US, but Washington, which has sent a large delegation to the Human Rights Commission, declined to respond to the charges, says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.
Mr Ziegler also said he was very concerned about the lack of food in North Korea, where there are reports that UN food aid is not being distributed fairly.
In Darfur, the continuing conflict has prevented people from planting vital crops, he said.
Overall, Mr Ziegler said he was shocked by the fact that hunger is actually increasing worldwide.
Some 17,000 children die every day from hunger-related diseases, the report claims, calling the situation a scandal in a world that is richer than ever before.
"The silent daily massacre by hunger is a form of murder," Mr Ziegler said. "It must be battled and eliminated."
The UN's Human Rights Commission's special expert on the right to food said that by last fall 7.7 per cent of children under the age of 5 in Iraq suffered from acute malnutrition.
Malnutrition, a disease which is exacerbated by the lack of clean water and adequate sanitation, is a major killer of children in poor countries. Children who survive are usually physically and mentally impaired for life, and are more vulnerable to disease.
The situation facing Iraqi youngsters is "a result of the war led by coalition forces," said Ziegler, an outspoken Swiss sociology professor and former lawmaker whose previous targets have included Swiss banks, China, Brazil and Israels treatment of Palestinians.
Overall, more than a quarter of Iraqi children don't get enough to eat, Ziegler told the 53-nation commission, which is halfway through its annual six-week session.
The U.S. delegation and other coalition countries declined to respond to his presentation, which compiled the findings of studies conducted by other specialists.
In reporting the 7.7 percent malnutrition rate for Iraqi youngsters, the Norwegian-based Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science said last November that the figure was similar to the levels witnessed in some African countries.
During the 1970s and 1980s Iraq was generally regarded as having good nutrition, but health problems only emerged when the Security Council imposed sanctions after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Ziegler did not mention the role violence is playing in the nutrition problem, something often cited by aid groups.
Last year, Carol Bellamy, head of UNICEF, said the violence hampers the delivery of adequate supplies of food.
Ziegler also cited an October 2004 U.S. study that estimated as many as 100,000 more Iraqis, most of whom are women and children, have died since the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The number is higher than those who would have normally have died, based on the death rate before the war.
"Most died as a result of the violence, but many others died as a result of the increasingly difficult living conditions, reflected in increasing child mortality levels," he said.
The authors of the U.S. study in the British-based medical journal The Lancet, who the researchers for hailed from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and the Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, conceded their data were of "limited precision."
Ziegler also told the commission he was concerned about hunger in North Korea, Palestinian areas, Sudan's conflict-ravaged Darfur region, Zimbabwe, India, Myanmar, the Philippines and Romania.
Worldwide, he said, more than 17,000 children under 5 die daily from hunger-related diseases.
"The silent daily massacre by hunger is a form of murder," Ziegler said. "It must be battled and eliminated."
Asia Times Online reports:
The United States is beefing up its military presence in Afghanistan, at the same time encircling Iran. Washington will set up nine new bases in Afghanistan in the provinces of Helmand, Herat, Nimrouz, Balkh, Khost and Paktia.
Reports also make it clear that the decision to set up new US military bases was made during Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Kabul last December. Subsequently, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accepted the Pentagon diktat. Not that Karzai had a choice: US intelligence is of the view that he will not be able to hold on to his throne beyond June unless the US Army can speed up training of a large number of Afghan army recruits and protect Kabul. Even today, the inner core of Karzai's security is run by the US State Department with personnel provided by private US contractors.
Admittedly, Afghanistan is far from stable, even after four years of US presence. Still, the establishment of a rash of bases would seem to be overkill. Indeed, according to observers, the base expansion could be part of a US global military plan calling for small but flexible bases that make it easy to ferry supplies and can be used in due time as a springboard to assert a presence far beyond Afghanistan.
Afghanistan under control?
On February 23, according to the official Bakhter News Agency, 196 American military instructors arrived in Kabul. These instructors are scheduled to be in Afghanistan until the end of 2006. According to General H Head, commander of the US Phoenix Joint Working Force, the objective of the team is to expedite the educational and training programs of Afghan army personnel. The plan to protect Karzai and the new-found "democracy" in Afghanistan rests on the creation of a well-trained 70,000-man Afghan National Army (ANA) by the end of 2006. As of now, 20,000 ANA personnel help out 17,000-plus US troops and some 5,000-plus North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops currently based in Afghanistan.
In addition, on February 28, in a move to bring a large number of militiamen into the ANA quickly, Karzai appointed General Abdur Rashid Dostum, a regional Uzbek-Afghan warlord of disrepute, as his personal military chief of staff. The list of what is wrong with Dostum is too long for this article, but he is important to Karzai and the Pentagon.
Dostum has at least 30,000 militiamen, members of his Jumbush-e-Milli, under him. A quick change of their uniforms would increase the ANA by 30,000 at a minimal cost. Moreover, Dostum's men do not need military training (what they do need is some understanding of and respect for law and order). Another important factor that comes into play with this union is the Pentagon-Karzai plan to counter the other major north Afghan ethnic grouping, the Tajik-Afghans.
Since the presidential election took place in Afghanistan last October, Washington has conveyed repeatedly that the poison fangs of al-Qaeda have been uprooted and the Taliban is split. There was also reliable news suggesting that a section of Taliban leaders have accepted the leadership of two fellow Pashtuns, Karzai and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and are making their way into the Kabul government.
With al-Qaeda defanged and the Taliban split, one would tend to believe that the Afghan situation is well under control. But then, how does one explain that a bomb went off in the southern city of Kandahar, killing five people on March 17, the very day US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed in Kabul on her first visit to Afghanistan? And why has Karzai pushed back the dates for Afghanistan's historical parliamentary elections, originally planned for 2004, and then to May 2005, now to September 2005?
One thing that is certainly not under control, and is surely the source of many threats to the region, is opium production. During the US occupation, opium production grew at a much faster rate than Washington's, and Karzai's, enemies weakened. In 2003, US-occupied Afghanistan produced 4,200 tons of opium. In 2004, US-occupied and semi-democratic Afghanistan produced a record 4,950 tons, breaking the all-time high of 4,600 tons produced under the Taliban in the year 2000.
Though the problem is known to the world, the Pentagon refuses to deal with it. It is not the military's job to eradicate poppy fields, says the Pentagon. Indeed, it would antagonize the warlords who remain the mainstays of the Pentagon in Afghanistan, say observers.
Back on the base
When all is said and done, one cannot but wonder why the new military bases are being set up. Given that al-Qaeda is only a shadow of the past, the Taliban leaders are queuing up to join the Kabul government, and the US military is not interested in tackling the opium explosion, why are the bases needed?
A ray of light was shed on this question during the recent trip to Afghanistan by five US senators, led by John McCain. On February 22, McCain, accompanied by Senators Hillary Clinton, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham and Russ Feingold, held talks with Karzai.
After the talks, McCain, the No 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was committed to a "strategic partnership that we believe must endure for many, many years". McCain told reporters in Kabul that America's strategic partnership with Afghanistan should include "permanent bases" for US military forces. A spokesman for the Afghan president told news reporters that establishing permanent US bases required approval from the yet-to-be-created Afghan parliament.
Later, perhaps realizing that the image that Washington would like to project of Afghanistan is that of a sovereign nation, McCain's office amended his comments with a clarification: "The US will need to remain in Afghanistan to help the country rid itself of the last vestiges of Taliban and al-Qaeda." His office also indicated that what McCain meant was that the US needs to make a long-term commitment, not necessarily "permanent" bases.
On March 16, General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no decision had been reached on whether to seek permanent bases on Afghan soil. "But clearly we've developed good relationships and good partnerships in this part of the world, not only in Afghanistan," he added, also mentioning existing US bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
A military pattern
But this is mere word play. Media reports coming out of the South Asian subcontinent point to a US intent that goes beyond bringing Afghanistan under control, to playing a determining role in the vast Eurasian region. In fact, one can argue that the landing of US troops in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 was a deliberate policy to set up forward bases at the crossroads of three major areas: the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. Not only is the area energy-rich, but it is also the meeting point of three growing powers - China, India and Russia.
On February 23, the day after McCain called for "permanent bases" in Afghanistan, a senior political analyst and chief editor of the Kabul Journal, Mohammad Hassan Wulasmal, said, "The US wants to dominate Iran, Uzbekistan and China by using Afghanistan as a military base."
Other recent developments cohere with a US Air Force strategy to expand its operational scope across Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea region - with its vital oil reserves and natural resources: Central Asia, all of Iran, the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the northern Arabian Sea up to Yemen's Socotra Islands. This may also provide the US a commanding position in relation to Pakistan, India and the western fringes of China.
The base set up at Manas outside Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan - where, according to Central Asian reports, about 3,000 US troops are based - looks to be part of the same military pattern. It embodies a major commitment to maintain not just air operations over Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, but also a robust military presence in the region well after the war.
Prior to setting up the Manas Air Base, the US paid off the Uzbek government handsomely to set up an air base in Qarshi Hanabad. Qarshi Hanabad holds about 1,500 US soldiers, and agreements have been made for the use of Tajik and Kazakh airfields for military operations. Even neutral Turkmenistan has granted permission for military overflights. Ostensibly, the leaders of these Central Asian nations are providing military facilities to the US to help them eradicate the Islamic and other sorts of terrorists that threaten their nations.
These developments, particularly setting up bases in Manas and Qarshi Hanabad, are not an attempt by the US to find an exit strategy for Afghanistan, but the opposite: establishing a military presence.
On February 28, Asia Times Online pointed out that construction work had begun on a new NATO base in Herat, western Afghanistan (US digs in deeper in Afghanistan ). Another Asia Times Online article said US officials had confirmed that they would like more military bases in the country, in addition to the use of bases in Pakistan (see The remaking of al-Qaeda , February 25).
Last December, US Army spokesman Major Mark McCann said the United States was building four military bases in Afghanistan that would only be used by the Afghan National Army. On that occasion, McCann stated, "We are building a base in Herat. It is true." McCann added that Herat was one of four bases being built; the others were in the southern province of Kandahar, the southeastern city of Gardez in Paktia province, and Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern city controlling the main route to central Afghanistan.
The US already has three operational bases inside Afghanistan; the main logistical center for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is Bagram Air Field north of Kabul - known by US military forces as "BAF". Observers point out that Bagram is not a full-fledged air base.
Other key US-run logistical centers in Afghanistan include Kandahar Air Field, or "KAF", in southern Afghanistan and Shindand Air Field in the western province of Herat. Shindand is about 100 kilometers from the border with Iran, a location that makes it controversial. Moreover, according to the US-based think-tank Global Security, Shindand is the largest air base in Afghanistan.
The US is spending US$83 million to upgrade its bases at Bagram and Kandahar. Both are being equipped with new runways. US Brigadier General Jim Hunt, the commander of US air operations in Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Kabul Monday, "We are continuously improving runways, taxiways, navigation aids, airfield lighting, billeting and other facilities to support our demanding mission."
The proximity of Shindand to Iran could give Tehran cause for concern, says Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst based in London. Beaver points out that with US ships in the Persian Gulf and Shindand sitting next to Iran, Tehran has a reason to claim that Washington is in the process of encircling Iran. But the US plays down the potential of Shindand, saying it will not remain with the US for long. Still, it has not been lost on Iranian strategists that the base in the province of Herat is a link in a formidable chain of new facilities the US is in the process of drawing around their country.
Shindand is not Tehran's only worry. In Pakistan, the Pervez Musharraf government has allowed the commercial airport at Jacobabad, about 420km north of Karachi and 420km southeast of Kandahar, as one of three Pakistani bases used by US and allied forces to support their campaign in Afghanistan. The other bases are at Dalbandin and Pasni. Under the terms of an agreement with Pakistan, the allied forces can use these bases for search and rescue missions, but are not permitted to use them to stage attacks on Taliban targets. Both Jacobabad and Pasni bases have been sealed off and a five-kilometer cordon set up around the bases by Pakistani security forces.
Reports of increased US operations in Pakistan go back to March 2004, when two air bases - Dalbandin and Shahbaz - in Pakistan were the focus for extensive movements to provide logistical support for Special Forces and intelligence operations. Shahbaz Air Base near Jacobabad appeared to be the key to the United States' 2004 spring offensive. At Jacobabad, C-17 transports were reportedly involved in the daily deliveries of supplies. A report in the Pakistani newspaper the Daily Times on March 10, 2004, claimed that the air base was under US control, with an inner ring of facilities off limits to Pakistan's military.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Another postal facility was closed Tuesday as concern spread over the detection of anthrax in two pieces of mail at military mailrooms. Hundreds of workers were offered antibiotics as a precaution, though no unusual health problems were reported.
The AP reports:
Officials said the mail in question had been irradiated, so any anthrax in them was inert when they triggered alarms at the Pentagon mail facility and another nearby facility that handles military mail.
Environmental testing was being conducted on the two military mail facilities and on a third postal facility in the District of Columbia, which was closed Tuesday because it may have handled the mail that went to the two military mailrooms.
Antibiotics were offered to some 200 workers at the D.C. facility and to workers at the military mailrooms. Hospitals were told to be on the lookout for symptoms like respiratory problems, rashes or flu-like symptoms that could signal exposure to anthrax, which can be used as a biological weapon.
"This is a prudent course of action. I don't think there's cause for alarm or panic or undue worry," said Dr. Gregg Pane, director of the city's Department of Health. "We've also mobilized our strategic national stockpile so we have enough antibiotics available should the need arise."
Also on Tuesday, a hazardous materials team was called to a building occupied by the Internal Revenue Service after a report of a powdery substance found in a letter. IRS officials said in a statement later that "initial tests were negative for chemical or biological substances."
At the Pentagon, officials on Tuesday corrected inaccurate information about when mailroom sensors were triggered over the possible presence of anthrax.
Spokesman Glenn Flood said the mail that tested positive for anthrax passed through the Pentagon's mail handling facility on Thursday, not Monday, as he previously said. The test results on the mail did not come back until Monday.
Anthrax was confirmed in two items of mail at the two military mail facilities. The Pentagon's mail delivery site, which is separate from the main Pentagon building, was evacuated and shut down Monday remained closed, along with a nearby satellite facility in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Officials disclosed no information about the origins of the two pieces of mail.
About 175 people work at the Pentagon's mail facility, and an additional 100 may have been in contact with deliveries for the Pentagon, officials said.
Follow-up tests were being conducted at the U.S. Army Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., officials said. They would take two to three days to complete.
Anthrax can be spread through the air or by skin contact. Officials noted that sometimes anthrax sensors can give false-positive results.
In October 2001, someone sent anthrax in letters through the mail to media and government offices in Washington, Florida and elsewhere, raising fears of bioterrorism. Five people were killed and 17 more sickened. Those cases have never been solved.
Saturday, March 5, 2005
The world's major oil companies are dusting off their Baghdad Rolodexes as Iraq's political factions move closer to forming a new government.
The AP reports:
Through 15 years of conflict and sanctions, major oil companies never lost sight of Iraq's massive reserves -- the world's second-largest after Saudi Arabia. Efforts to form the nation's first elected government in more than half a century are making the prospect of major contracts more tantalizingly real, even if that government could still be more than a year away.
The Shi'ite alliance that won a slim majority in January's Iraqi election held talks yesterday with Kurdish parties, with both sides saying a deal was close. The new parliament is set to convene for the first time tomorrow.
The world's three biggest integrated oil companies -- BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos. -- recently struck cooperation or training deals with Iraq. France's Total SA regularly invites Iraqi engineers to Paris for training.
"It's a way to maintain contact and get the oil officials to know about them," said former Iraqi Oil Minister Issam Chalabi, who fled Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991.
Speaking from Jordan, where he works as a consultant, Mr. Chalabi said some 20 companies have offered Iraq's interim government training for oil personnel, free geological studies or other technical assistance.
The oil powerhouses stayed on the sidelines as oil-services companies such as Halliburton Co. were awarded billions of dollars in contracts to renovate Iraqi pipelines and other infrastructure. The U.S.-led postwar administration and the provisional government that followed lacked the democratic or legal legitimacy to approve full-blown production deals, which typically guarantee companies a share of oil extracted from fields they invest in.
Such long-term contracts may still have to wait until after the framing of a new constitution and a second round of elections slated for the end of this year, and perhaps even until the adoption of a new energy law.
Iraq's crude is badly needed to fund the country's reconstruction and to feed surging global demand. Iraq is exempt from OPEC's quota system to aid its reconstruction.
With proven reserves of 112 billion barrels, but current production of just 2 million per day, "Iraq has more oil fields that have been discovered, but not developed, than any other country in the world," Mr. Chalabi said.
If rapid improvements are made to Iraq's damaged oil infrastructure, Mr. Chalabi sees the potential to triple output to 6 million barrels per day within about five years.
Yesterday, Saudi Arabia's support of a 2 percent increase to OPEC's output target failed to calm oil markets, though it appeared to reflect growing concern within the cartel about the effect high prices could have on the global economy.
Even if the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries raised its daily production ceiling by 500,000 barrels, the impact on actual supplies would be muted because member nations -- eager to maximize profits with crude futures trading near $55 a barrel -- are already overshooting the existing quota by about 700,000 barrels.
The price for light, sweet crude for April delivery fell early yesterday, but then reversed course, rising 52 cents to $54.95 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude rose 56 cents to settle at $53.66 per barrel on London's International Petroleum Exchange.
The high cost of oil has led to surging prices for heating oil, diesel, jet fuel and unleaded gasoline, which in the United States averages $2 a gallon, or 26 cents higher than a year ago.
While they wait for Iraq's new government to form, the world's oil leaders are lining up contracts.
Britain's BP agreed last month to analyze Iraqi oil ministry data on the Rumailah oil field near the southern city of Basra, in the zone patrolled by British forces. Such studies are vital when preparing to start new drilling operations.
Exxon Mobil Corp. has an agreement covering technical assistance, training and potential studies, while Royal Dutch/Shell won a contract in January to carry out study work on Kirkuk, a major oil field in the north.
Total SA, which negotiated production contracts for two Iraqi oil fields in the early 1990s but never signed them, argues that its 80 years of experience in Iraq could be crucial. Total was founded by a group of investors who took over the French government's 24 percent stake in Iraq Petroleum.
Former oil company geologist Ibrahim Mohammed, who works as a London consultant in contact with Iraqi officials, says Baghdad oil ministry staff expects the major U.S. companies to win the lion's share of contracts.
"Among people who are high up in the ministry of oil and the national Iraqi oil company," the feeling is that "the new government is going to be influenced by the United States," he said.
That perspective may have been a factor in OAO Lukoil's decision in September to team up with ConocoPhillips Co. as it evaluates the 68.5 percent stake in the large West Qurna oil field that Lukoil negotiated with Saddam's Iraq.
Lukoil is based in Russia, which also opposed the war. The company is granting ConocoPhillips, based in Houston, a 17.5 percent stake in the southern oil field -- giving the project a solid U.S. connection. ConocoPhillips, which holds a 10 percent stake in Lukoil, declined to further discuss the deal or comment on reports that post-Saddam administrators have canceled Lukoil's production rights.