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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Zimbabwe govt blocks Whatsapp amid workers calls for stayaway

Zimbabwe govt blocks Whatsapp amid workers calls for stayaway

Zimbabwe police fired teargas and water cannons and beat up protesting public transport drivers, amid rising unrest against economic woes as well as President Robert Mugabe's long rule. Photo: AFP / Stringer
HARARE - The Zimbabwe government on Wednesday blocked the Whatsapp service to its citizens as the country's workers heeded calls for a stay away dubbed the" national shut down" to put pressure on the regime in power in the Southern African country for almost four decades.
One of th best things that has impacted on democracy is Twitter it gives every person a voice
— Regime Change Agenda (@maDube_)
By 07:00 am it was no longer possible to send or receive Whatsapp messages on any of the country's mobile telecommunication networks, in a move subscribers blamed on the government, which in turn blamed the social network for spreading falsehoods and inciting people to protest.
Only those using Wi-Fi had access beyond 7 am but they too were shut out by mid-morning.
nationals in Joburg say it's time for change in the country.
— malungelo booi (@malungelob)
Minister for Information, Communication Technology and Courier Services, Supa Mandiwanzira, denied any government interference in the Whatsapp service, saying government had no reason to ban or block the use of the service because of a few individuals who abused the platform.
The youthful Minister said it could have been just a network problem as he was communicating on his Whatsapp with his colleagues.
He alleged government was actually resisting demands by the mobile operators to ban the platform and others such as Viber and Skype which they felt were costing them lots of revenue.
"I as Minister and on behalf of the government have resisted these demands because we see their value to Zimbabweans. So there is no basis that I as Minister or government will work up to ban them when we are on the forefront of denying the request by operators," he said.
"We know there are elements, very few of them, who abuse the platform but they must not be allowed to spoil its very good use by the majority of citizens," he said.
However, citizens were sending text messages encouraging each other to download #TunnerBear from tunnerbear.com to be back on line, but the download was also proving to be very difficult for many.
Zimbabweans are treated like insurgents in our country and not citizens in need of protection
— Regime Change Agenda (@maDube_)
The move by the government also seemed to have come a little too late as most of the people in Harare had decided not to go to work, with those who wanted to report for duty facing serious transport problems as very few public passenger vehicles were on the road.
The few commuter omnibus operators who ignored the call to park their vehicles in solidarity with the protesters were charging fares as high as $2 per single trip instead of the normal 50 cents.
There were very few shops that opened for business in the central business district with TM Supermarkets branch along Harare Street the only open shop in down town Harare.
The main commuter omnibus rank, Copacabana, which is usually congested, was deserted as only a handful of vehicles were seen dropping off and picking up passengers.
Just in case you are wondering what Godini terminus in Bulawayo is looking like.
— Gotwe raMai Goto (@simply_tsitsi)

Zimbabwe shuts down in peaceful protest against corruption | World news | The Guardian

Zimbabwe shuts down in peaceful protest against corruption

A money transfer agency remains closed in Harare, Zimbabwe
Zimbabweans have stayed at home and foreign banks and most businesses in the capital, Harare, have shut down operations in one of the biggest – and most peaceful – stay-away actions in nearly a decade.
The national stay-away day in Zimbabwe on Wednesday, fronted by the social media movement ‪#ThisFlag, came after violent clashes between taxi drivers and police on Monday that led to the arrest of 95 people. It coincides with a strike by doctors, teachers and nurses over delayed salaries.
The southern African nation, ruled by president Robert Mugabe, has been gripped by a devastating drought, adding to high unemployment and an acute shortage of cash that has angered its citizens.

this is what Harare looks like at the moment
— Thembi Manyike (@mamakaonou)

#ThisFlag was started in April by the Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, 39, to protest against the government "for allowing corruption, injustice and poverty".
The campaign has attracted thousands of followers who have been speaking out against government excesses. The stay-away day was organised via Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Mawarire told Reuters: "We have got to a point now where everyone is saying enough is enough. The response has been outstanding ... this is what we all needed, something that we can all do together.".

POWERFUL! Zimbabweans standing together against "corruption, injustice & poverty".
— Leandri J van Vuuren (@Lean3JvV)

The state telecoms regulator Potraz said in a statement it would arrest people sending "subversive" messages that cause unrest.
In the volatile township of Mufakose, west of Harare, hundreds of youths barricaded roads to stop people from going to work, witnesses said. The police arrested a dozen people.
Local branches of Barclays and Standard Chartered shut their doors in central Harare, while clothing retailers Edgars Stores and Truworths also closed stores.
Siyaso, one of the biggest and oldest informal markets in Mbare township near central Harare, was also closed and there were few vehicles on Harare's roads. Government departments were open, while supermarkets including Pick 'n' Pay, OK Zimbabwe and Choppies reported low business.
A superviser at an OK Zimbabwe store in the central business district said: "As you can see there are very few customers here. It is not usual for a Wednesday to have these small volumes."
Local private media said Zimbabweans in other major cities had also stayed at home, with most businesses closed. Zimbabwe last witnessed a stay-away in April 2007.
Mugabe attended a scheduled meeting with his senior Zanu-PF executive during the stay-away on Wednesday. The party spokesman, Simon Khaya Moyo, declined to say whether Zanu-PF would discuss the recent protests.

Blaming the Swedish festival rapes on migrants isn't just wrong – it's dangerous

Blaming the Swedish festival rapes on migrants isn't just wrong – it's dangerous

A police offer at Bravalla festiva in Sweden, where five women reported having been raped.
Over last weekend, more than 50 cases of sexual assault were reported across two Swedish festivals. At one – Bravalla – five women said they had been raped and another 12 reported sexual assault, while at the other – Putte i Parken – there were a further 35 reports of assault, the youngest from a girl aged 12. In a statement on the Värmland regional police's website, the Putte i Parken assaults were attributed to "foreign young men". "There is no doubt," the statement said plainly, "about who takes these liberties".
Except it turned out that there was doubt. Within a few hours the statement had been taken down.
The police later admitted that only two of the seven men or boys arrested for the Putte i Parken incidents were from HVB homes – residential homes for young people, often refugees without parents. There's even less evidence to suggest the rapes at Bravalla were carried out by immigrants – but the two were instantly lumped together. "The wording was unfortunate," read a second statement, "and we will take that to heart."

It was too late by then, of course. The buzzwords had already been unleashed, seized and extrapolated upon until they had become the main story. Reporting from the UK, the MailOnline's news story cited authorities as identifying the perpetrators of the assaults as "young men, who are foreigners."; the Telegraph's headline warned of "reports of rapes by 'migrants'". And so an inaccurate, retracted police statement, and one victim's speculation that they were "probably immigrants" turned into fact.
However much the media (and sometimes the police, it would seem) like to suggest otherwise, the threat of rape and sexual assault at festivals does not simply come from some easily pigeonholed "other". It's wrong to lay the blame, as we do for so many of the world's problems, on a faceless foreign mass. To do so is to derail an issue that badly needs addressing. Because it's not as though these were isolated incidents, confined only to Swedish festivals where foreigners are present. Far from it.
In 2009, a woman was raped at Reading festival. In 2010, a 16-year-old boy was found guilty of attacking a 12-year-old girl at Secret Garden Party and two women were raped – in unrelated incidents – at Latitude. In 2013, two women were assaulted at Wilderness festival. Last year, a man was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman at V festival.
In the early Swedish news reports, Patricia Lorenzoni, a researcher and lecturer at Linköping University, was one of the few dissenting voices. Does she feel migrants were disproportionately blamed for crimes such as these? "Yes," she says, "and there is plenty of statistical data showing this. Racist and rightwing populist groups have for years tried to create a climate of fear around the image of the 'immigrant' rapist. What is worrying now is that this language is becoming part of more general media reporting."
If we allow this trend to continue, then we fail to examine our own culpability when it comes to rape culture. A Swedish police report on sexual assault in the country, for example, referred to the damage caused by ideas of "masculinity", as well as the normalisation of sexual harassment in schools. But these nuanced analysis and deep-rooted causes don't make for quite such exciting headlines.
To paint the perpetrators of sexual assault as some monolithic, easily identifiable group also makes it easier to continue the victim-blaming. Because it should be easy to avoid being assaulted at a festival, right? Just avoid the men who have "attacker" practically written on their foreheads. In 2010, after the attack at Reading, festival organiser Melvin Benn spoke of a plan to "inform young girls in particular about the danger of sexual predators". There was no mention of how the festival planned to deal with the sexual predators themselves. The same year, Hop Farm festival founder Vince Power said a festival was essentially a small town, "and in a town you wouldn't leave your door open". In doing so, he painted the women who'd been assaulted as victims of nothing but their own carelessness.
As long as we continue to put the onus of responsibility on the victims in this way, and paint the perpetrators as a foreign threat miring what could otherwise be some festival utopia, that door will remain open.
In a more measured statement following the weekend's attacks, Swedish police admitted that "the descriptions [of perpetrators] are diverse". There is, they said, just one common denominator: "These are all young men." However much we try and twist the narrative, there is no homogenous, easily recognisable perpetrator of violence – least of all at festivals. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we might be able to stop it from happening. 

Greenland’s three melt surges rival 2012 record

Greenland's three melt surges rival 2012 record

Greenland's 2016 melt season started fast. It maintained a brisk pace with three extreme spikes in areas of melt through June 19. On June 9, Nuuk, the capital, reached the warmest temperature ever recorded for the month of June anywhere on the island, 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit).

Overview of conditions

melt curve and area up to June 19
Figure 1a. These maps show the cumulative melt day for the Greenland Ice Sheet as of June 19, and melt day anomaly relative to the 1981 to 2010 average for 50 days leading up to June 19. Below, a chart shows the daily melt extent for the year; the 2012 melt area curve is shown for comparison.

Data are from the MEaSUREs Greenland Surface Melt Daily 25km EASE-Grid 2.0 data set. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center/Thomas Mote, University of Georgia
High-resolution image
2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 melt trends
Figure 1b. These maps show the melting trends for 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, with the same processing and reference period as the upper right map in Figure 1a. Each map shows the 50 days leading up to June 19.

Data are from the MEaSUREs Greenland Surface Melt Daily 25km EASE-Grid 2.0 data set. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center/Thomas Mote, University of Georgia
High-resolution image
Surface melting on Greenland's Ice Sheet proceeded at a brisk pace, with three spikes in the melt extent in late spring. At this point, the pace rivals but is slightly behind the record surface melt and runoff year of 2012 (record since 1979), although ahead of the three preceding seasons. Melting in 2016 is especially severe in southwestern Greenland, and moving beyond the 1981 to 2010 rate everywhere except the northwestern coast (northern Melville Coast). This has led to the early formation of melt ponds along the southwestern flank of the ice sheet and early run-off from the ice sheet.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The plot shows sea level equivalent mean pressure departure from the average from May 1 through June 19. The reference period is 1981 to 2010. What is the plot showing? An analysis usually goes here. Figure 2b. The plot shows temperature departure from average at the 700 millibar level (about 10,000 feet above sea level) from May 1 through June 19. The reference period is 1981 to 2010. What is the plot showing? An analysis usually goes here. ||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center/NOAA ESRL Physical Sciences Division High-resolution image
Figure 2a. The plot shows sea level equivalent mean pressure departure from the average from May 1 through June 19. The reference period is 1981 to 2010.
Figure 2b. The plot shows temperature departure from average at the 700 millibar level (about 10,000 feet above sea level) from May 1 through June 19. The reference period is 1981 to 2010.
Warmer than average conditions (1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) were seen in the northern and southern areas of the ice sheet.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center/NOAA ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image
A pattern of higher pressure over central Greenland continued the trend of southerly wind influx along the southwestern coast, consistent for the spring period. This trend was also observed in the early April spike in ice surface melt area. Temperatures were mildly warmer than average (0.5 to 2 degrees Celsius or 1 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over most of coastal Greenland but slightly below average in the interior.
Air temperatures in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit on June 9, marking the highest temperature ever recorded on the island for June. When air flows downhill, air compresses and warms. The persistent high pressure pattern in northeastern Greenland forced downsloping winds, and with a low pressure center to the south of Greenland, temperatures rose. Such conditions are responsible for record or near-record warm temperatures along western Greenland.

Jet stream meanders led to 2015 melt pattern 

Figure 3. Top figure (a) shows the air pressure pattern over Greenland and surrounding regions for July 2015, based on the altitude of 500 hectopascal pressure level (high equals high pressure). Lower right map (b) shows the net runoff as it compares to the mean value of the run-off for that region (e.g., 2 means twice as much as average; -2 means one-half of average). Lower left charts (c) show the temperature, albedo, and runoff trends since 1950. The upward trend for these three regions is related to the tendency for a persistent high pressure ridge north of Greenland, or a cut-off high. || Credit: Tedesco et al., Nature Communications|| High-resolution image
Figure 3. Top (a) air pressure pattern over Greenland and surrounding regions for July 2015, based on the altitude of the 500 hPa pressure level (high = high pressure). Lower right (b), a map of net runoff scaled by the average variability (i.e., the standard deviation of run-off for the 1981 to 2010 period) of the run-off for that region (e.g., '2' means two standard deviations above average ; -2 means two standard deviations below average). Lower left (c) a series of charts showing the trends since 1950 for temperature, albedo, and runoff, again scaled in units of standard deviation. The upward trend for these three regions is related to the tendency for a persistent high pressure ridge north of Greenland, a 'cut-off high'.

Credit: Tedesco et al., Nature Communications
High-resolution image
Wind patterns and weather control the amount of melting on Greenland, and therefore the amount of ice that is added to the sea each year by meltwater runoff. Using sophisticated climate models and past weather data that can reproduce the past conditions over the Greenland, a new study has shown that in 2015 Greenland's weather changed to favor more melting in the northern part of the island (see GT November 2015 post). In earlier years, high-pressure systems over Greenland promoted increased melting in its southwestern portion. In 2015, a persistent high-pressure ridge set up further north, over the Arctic Ocean and the northern half of the island, pulling warm air northeastward over the southern half of Greenland, and shifting the areas of frequent melting northward. Snowfall increased in the south. The high-pressure system in 2015 'detached' from the jet stream (e.g., a 'cut-off high' or 'blocking high') and became disconnected from the jet stream flow. Disconnected high or low pressure areas are more common when the meanders of the jet stream are more pronounced, pushing long loops high into the Arctic or southward into temperate areas. The exceptional 2015 summer Arctic atmospheric conditions saw a record high latitude of the jet stream flow and strong north-south winds (rather than east-west winds) in the North Atlantic and Baffin Bay areas.

Tough time for research teams in Greenland

Top, melt ponds in southwestern greenland; bottom, an ice core shows an increased density of Greenland's snow
Figure 4. Top, melt ponds formed early in the 2016 season in southwestern Greenland; Bottom, a core of the upper snow layers allows MacFerrin and colleagues to observe past melt layers. Increased density of Greenland's snow is due to increased melting and re-freezing. Credit: Mike MacFerrin, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)
Greenland's variable melt affected science teams working high on the ice. "As we crossed Greenland's interior this spring, melt hounded us most of the way," said CU Boulder researcher Mike MacFerrin. "As temps soared near freezing, snow began melting on our drills, causing them to occasionally freeze solid in boreholes as we worked. One of our stuck drills required 30 gallons of boiling water, aircraft cable, and a snowmobile to finally retrieve," he said. Toward the end of their trip, the team worked through slushy days with nighttime temperatures only dropping to -1 degrees Celsius. "We got our work done, but the early-season melt tossed us curve balls along the way," he added.
MacFerrin and the rest of the NASA-funded "FirnCover" team are primarily tasked with measuring firn compaction—the rate snow slowly compresses into glacial ice—which is crucial to accurately map Greenland and Antarctica's changing masses. "The increases in high-elevation melt complicate everything we're trying to measure," MacFerrin said. "It's the biggest factor reshaping the interior of Greenland's snow and firn. Enhanced melt over the past ten to fifteen years has affected every site we visit." Computer models simulate compaction, but most of the models were not intended to capture the types of rapid changes currently observed across Greenland. "We're doing what we can to account for it, but we feel like we're barely keeping up," he said.

Further reading

To read more about the FirnCover team and their work, please visit their blog "Under the Surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet."

Mexico City chokes on its congestion problem | World news | The Guardian

Mexico City chokes on its congestion problem

Mexico City blanketed by smog on March 18, 2016.
Every morning, Adriana Carlos leaves her home on the southern fringes of Mexico City at 7am for what should be a manageable journey to her office job. Instead, her commute from the southern borough of Xochimilco takes two hours and involves three separate transfers before she reaches her office on the south-west edge of the city.
"You spend a lot of your day stuck in traffic," says Carlos, 32, who works as a sales representative. On the bright side, she says, the traffic jams give her plenty of time to catch up on her sleep.
Severe traffic congestion has long tormented Mexico City's 21 million inhabitants, but in recent months it has also turned the air toxic.
So far this year, Mexico's capital has had just 26 days with acceptable air quality levels, causing authorities to take drastic action, declaring environmental emergencies and ordering a million cars off the road.
Authorities recently changed its rules for determining which cars can travel on a given days – a programme known as Hoy no Circula, or Don't Drive Today – and overhauled its emissions-testing system to root out corruption.

traffic jam in Mexico City
Car ownership is growing steadily in Mexico City. Photograph: Miguel Tovar/ STF/LatinContent/Getty Images

The traffic controls oblige drivers whose vehicles don't meet emissions standards – around 20% of vehicles – to keep their cars off the road one day a week. (A more restrictive version ended on 1 July, allowing an estimated 600,000 vehicles back on the streets.)
But the soupy haze of pollution has not dispersed and solutions appear to be in short order.
Carlos says she would like to live closer to work, but rents in Mexico City are more expensive than in the outlying boroughs and dormitory suburbs in the state of Mexico – the sprawling conurbation that wraps around three sides of the capital.
"There's a structural problem," says Father Raúl Martínez, a Catholic priest who has a degree in urban studies. Martínez points out that the capital's fast-growing outskirts are home to newcomers from many of Mexico's more impoverished states, who arrive seeking economic opportunities in the capital of a heavily centralised country – and often end up working as maids, gardeners and construction workers far across the city.
Mexico's topography contributes to the problem: Mexico City lies in a high-altitude lakebed and is surrounded by mountains – keeping pollution trapped overhead.
The current rainy season has helped somewhat, but Martínez and many others are sceptical that the government's anti-pollution measures have made any difference.
The federal government has introduced plans allowing 2016 or newer model cars to circulate without restrictions. Critics contend the plan will only promote new car sales – something that's allegedly already happening as residents buy extra vehicles to be able to drive every day.
Air quality in Mexico City had been improving over the past two decades, but no longer. A raft of public policy choices has made owning a car cheaper, easier and more necessary, according to analysts.
Subdivisions of tax-subsidised housing have been constructed long distances from workplaces. Petrol is subsidised too – to the tune of $20bn (£15.4bn) in 2008. And elevated freeways have been built – an idea replicated in other parts of the country.
"Saying that Mexico City is now a motorised city is not inappropriate," urban planner Rodrigo Díaz wrote in the newspaper Reforma. Census statistics, he added, showed 39% of households in Mexico City owned a car in 2000. Ten years later 46.5% of households had cars.
Public transport also has been neglected as the often-saturated subway system ages and fleets of uncomfortable microbuses and combis ply the streets. Incidents of sexual assault are staggeringly high on subway lines and buses, while the middle and upper classes – and anyone able to own a car – mostly stay away.

docking stations in four downtown Mexico City for ecobici bicycles
Bike-sharing service Ecobici has 85 docking stations in four downtown Mexico City districts. Photograph: Tim Johnson/MCT/Getty Images

In the entire system, "the least-important person is the passenger", says Enrique Soto, an urban studies professor at Nation Autonomous University of Mexico.
Mexico City has pushed cycling as an option over the past decade and a bike-sharing service known as Ecobici has attracted some 120,000 users. Cycling, though, isn't for the faint of heart.
"It's great for short trips around the neighbourhood," says David Alvarez, a dentist who barely drives any more. "It's like Mad Max out there," he says.

Uganda's finance minister says poor rains may hit 2016/17 growth - CNBC Africa

Uganda's finance minister says poor rains may hit 2016/17 growth

Uganda's finance minister says poor rains may hit 2016/17 growth. Photo: Wikipedia.
Lower than expected rainfall in Uganda since May could lead to a drop in food production, hurting economic growth and putting upward pressure on inflation, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija said.
Uganda, which expects to start producing oil in the next four years, has an economic growth forecast of 5.5 percent for the fiscal year that started July 1.
But Kasaija told Reuters in an interview that economic growth could rise to 6 to 7 percent in the 2017/18 fiscal year, driven by higher private and public investments.
For fiscal 2016/17, he said: "The weather has not been particularly good this season so agricultural production may come down and of course it will naturally affect even our growth rate."
Speaking on Tuesday, Kasaija did not revised the forecast for 2016/17 growth from the 5.5 percent he had delivered in his budget speech last month.
Most parts of Uganda have been experiencing the dry spell.
The minister said lower harvests could drive up food prices, stoking inflation. Farming accounts for about a fifth of Uganda's annual economic output of 70 trillion shillings ($20.68 billion).
Inflation, which shot up after the currency weakened steeply last year, had stabilised at around 5 percent, allowing the central bank to start easing rates.
"Inflation we have controlled. Interest rates we are also controlling. The exchange rate has also stabilised. In fact, recently the shilling started gaining, so we are stable," the minister said.
Kasaija said construction was expected to start in 2016/17 on a new standard gauge railway to link up with a new line in Kenya that is being built to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. It will offer a faster service than the century-old narrow gauge line.
The government has already started compensating owners of land along the rail route and had secured financing for the project from China's Exim Bank. He did not provide a figure.
He rejected criticism by some analysts that the government was taking on too many loans from China at the expense of future generations.
"If you don't do your infrastructure how are you going to do business in your country?" he said. "We are borrowing to build a foundation so that when these children take over from us they have a firm base."
Overall public debt was sustainable at 32 percent of GDP, well below the set ceiling of 60 percent, giving the government room to borrow to build roads and dams for power generation, the minister said.
($1 = 3,385.0000 Ugandan shillings)
(Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Edmund Blair/Jeremy Gaunt)

Floods in China kill almost 130, wipe out crops | Reuters

Floods in China kill almost 130, wipe out crops | Reuters

Severe flooding across central and southern China over the past week has killed almost 130 people, damaged more than 1.9 million hectares of crops and led to direct economic losses of more than 38 billion yuan ($5.70 billion), state media said on Tuesday.
Premier Li Keqiang traveled on Tuesday to Anhui, one of the hardest-hit provinces, where he met residents and encouraged officials to do everything they could to protect lives and livelihoods. Li was also to visit Hunan province.
Heavy rainfall had killed 128 people across 11 provinces and regions and 42 people are missing, state news agency Xinhua reported.
More than 1.3 million people have been forced out of their homes, it said.
Weather forecasts predicted more downpours during what is traditionally China's flood season.
Xinhua said more than 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) of cropland had been damaged and another 295,000 hectares had been destroyed, resulting in direct economic losses of 38.2 billion yuan.
More than 40,000 buildings have also collapsed, it added.
It was not clear how that would affect the summer grain harvest, which was expected to reach 140 million tonnes this year.
The stormy weather also took a toll on farm animals.
In Anhui, the flooding killed some 7,100 hogs, 215 bulls and 5.14 million fowl, the China News Service reported.
In the southern province of Hunan, torrential rain and flooding had forced more than 100 trains to stop or take detours since midnight on Sunday, Xinhua reported.
In one city, about 3 tonnes of gasoline and diesel leaked from a petrol station on Monday, contaminating floodwater that flowed into a river, it said.
Water in 43 rivers in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River had exceeded warning levels and patrols were monitoring dykes, Xinhua quoted Chen Guiya, an official with the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission, as saying.
(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Addititional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

How the disunity among UN agencies is failing Syria - Al Jazeera English

How the disunity among UN agencies is failing Syria

"The UN doesn't have to change … the system isn't broken, it's simply broke."
This quote comes from the head of the United Nations' humanitarian office (OCHA). It was met with outrage by anyone who has witnessed first hand the UN relief effort in Syria. Despite the billions spent to date, the humanitarian response within Syria is beyond broken.
The United Nations and other aid agencies working out of Damascus cowered under the Syrian regime and have allowed their relief efforts to be sabotaged. As a consequence, aid, largely under the control of the regime, is now a vital component of its repression and control tactics.
There was a series of events in early 2011 that set the trajectory for the severely compromised aid programme we have in place in Syria today.

Extreme brutality

The Syrian uprising was a few weeks old, and already the extreme brutality the Syrian regime deployed to suppress innocent demonstrators was becoming clearer by the day.
Daraa, the restive southern city that spawned the first demonstrations, was under lockdown by security forces.
At the time, as I was the director of the UN agency responsible for half a million Palestine refugees living in Syria, this was of enormous concern to me given the large number of staff and refugees caught up in the security closure.

Looking back, the lockdown was mild compared with the sieges now in place that affect, at times to the point of starvation, nearly a million people across Syria.
In Homs, some locals greeting the delegation were shot dead just after the UN vehicles drove past - this incident was one of the thousands captured on YouTube footage.
As the first significant challenge posed by the uprising, the heads of the various UN agencies were faced with a clear choice; to band together as one United Nations and demand access to the area or to allow ourselves to be divided by the regime.
An operation was prepared to provide essential medicines to patients with chronic conditions and other critical services.
Crucially, with only a couple of exceptions, the vast majority of UN agencies kept their heads down, allowing the regime to silence any critique of its outrageous behaviour.
The heads of agencies allowed the regime to block the distribution of aid and stood by while those agencies that dared challenge them were punished with the threat of expulsion or other tactics of intimidation.

Silencing of the UN

As the months rolled on, the silencing of the UN intensified. Another moment in August 2011 - after failing to secure permission for a human rights delegation to Syria, a delegation of OCHA representatives was assembled along with the heads of UN agencies to tour the country.
A Syrian fighter aims his weapon as he takes up a defensive position in the Idlib countryside [Reuters]
The basis of the delegation was perverse given that Syria was in the midst of a human rights crisis rather than a significant humanitarian situation which would come later.
Not aware of the nuances of the UN system, the local population came out in their thousands to demand action from the delegation on a range of issues including disappearances and torture of family members and more general calls for democracy.
In Homs, some locals greeting the delegation were shot dead just after the UN vehicles drove past. This incident was one of the thousands captured on YouTube footage.
While acknowledging the consequences of the deadlock in the Security Council, the UN agencies were too quick to play along with this charade.

As with later delegations, nothing was achieved by this roadshow except allowing the good offices of the UN to be sidetracked and ultimately compromised by the Syrian regime.
The consequence of these early moments of weakness has contributed to the systematic failure of the UN-led response. Rather than basing its response on need, it has developed into a billion-dollar response programme that is largely controlled by the regime and its proxies.

Simplistic view

Why has this been able to happen? A consistent argument in defence of the silence has been that the work would be jeopardised or potentially closed down if a more robust position was enforced.
Again UN agencies banding together with a clear policy of "one for all and all for one" would provide a compelling presence. Would the regime really be willing to see a multibillion-dollar operation close down?
We now have a UN system that is at the mercy of a discredited regime, with little or no control over what aid goes where and to whom.
Instead we now have a UN system that is at the mercy of a discredited regime, with little or no control over what aid goes where and to whom.
After leaving the UN I was involved in the development of a multi-million-dollar cross-border response for Save the Children out of Turkey and other surrounding countries.
For years these operations were seen almost as a direct competition by the Damascus-centred response, despite the Security Council resolutions that called for the UN to provide aid across the country.
We are left with a fragmented and disjointed collection of interventions. A fair share of the chaos that we see across the humanitarian community can be traced to our early failures in 2011.
For those outside the UN system, there is a simplistic view that the UN operates as a single powerful entity during conflict and disasters. In fact, in a situation such as Syria there are often 10 or more UN agencies operating with different mandates (sadly often in competition with one another) all with a different director.  Under this system global leadership is absent. Security Council recommendations can be ignored or undermined by different agencies.
At the country level, leadership in the UN system has been a systematic failure for decades.
This situation is deplorable. There needs to be a United Nations that can develop and implement immediate and critical decisions that focus on saving lives, not careers or the competing interests of different UN agencies.
Roger Hearn is the former head of UNRWA in Syria.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera
Politics Middle East Syrian Refugees ISIS Syria's Civil War

Kenya : Air pollution killing millions - Standard Digital News

Air pollution killing millions

urban air pollution

Increasing outdoor air pollution may lead to nine million premature deaths worldwide, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has warned.
In a report released last month, OECD warns that air pollution could also lead to an annual economic cost of about $2.6 trillion by 2060.
The report comes at a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 98 per cent of cities in low and middle income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.
This report also warns that more work days will be lost due to sicknesses caused by outdoor air pollution.
Simon Upton, OECD's environment secretary said: "The number of lives cut short by air pollution is already terrible and the potential rise in the next few decades is terrifying."
But air pollution will not only affect the health of people but crop yields as well.
Kenya's atmospheric emissions keep rising mainly due to more motor vehicles being registered. In 2014 alone, Kenya registered 218,057 vehicles majority of which are concentrated in urban areas.
Kenya will most likely not be left behind when the effects strike even with the Environmental Management and Coordination (Air Quality) Regulations Act, 2014.
Despite the law being clear, there is still wanton pollution that has kept increasing over the years even as the National Environment Management Authority strives hard to put its foot down on those flouting these laws.
While these laws look good on paper, a casual view along our roads, in industrial zones, garbage disposal sites reveal that their enforcement is still weak.
Vehicles spewing plumes of smoke is still commonplace as well as garbage being burnt in non-recommended areas.
WHO states: "More than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits. While all regions of the world are affected, populations in low-income cities are the most impacted."
Upton said, "If this is not motivation enough to act, this report shows there will also be a heavy economic cost to not taking action."
The Kenya Economic survey of 2011 found that one in four deaths is linked to respiratory diseases.
Between 2006 and 2010, upper respiratory tract infections in Kenya increased from 22 per cent to 26 per cent of the national disease burden and some of the causes that were indicated as having contributed to this included poor air quality due to pollution from mainly the energy and transport sectors. 

Bahrain accused of launching cyber war on protest village | Middle East Eye

Bahrain accused of launching cyber war on protest village

Bahrain has been accused of shutting down internet and mobile coverage in a village beset by anti-government protests, while automated Twitter accounts bombard a popular local hashtag with sectarian, anti-Shia content. 
The latest round of demonstrations in Diraz began on 20 June when Bahrain's government stripped the country's highest ranking Shia cleric and Dirza resident, Sheikh Isa Qassim, of his citizenship. 
Bahraini authorities quickly set up checkpoints around the village, refusing entry to those attempting to enter. The heavy police presence in Diraz also comes amid a wider crackdown that has seen human rights defenders jailed and al-Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition group in Bahrain, banned.
Within three days of Qassim's citizenship being revoked, Dirazis began reporting that internet and mobile phone services in their village were "slow, usually unusable" at night. Customers of the three main internet firms in Diraz – Batelco, Zain and Viva – all reported significantly slowed or nonexistent connections since 23 June.
Ali, a student who lives in the village centre, told Middle East Eye: "Every night, we face internet disruptions and disconnections. First the whole signal is disconnected for a few seconds, then the signal is back but there is not cellular data, no 3G, no 4G.
"My service provider is Batelco, there isn't 3G. My home Wifi is provided by Zain, it has the exact same problem. In fact, it's worse. It takes longer to come back [after it's disconnected]."
Ali said internet "comes back for less than a minute every two or three hours," but that phone calls work normally "with slight disruptions". But the vast majority of communication in Bahrain – including phone calls and messaging – is done via applications that use data.
Ali said the internet and cell data services are cut at 7.30pm every night as people begin to gather for prayers and Iftar outside Qassim's home, then returns after morning prayer at about 3am when protesters begin to disperse. 
More than a dozen other residents reported similar service disruptions on Batelco, Zain, and Viva, despite no visible change in the cell towers in Diraz. All said everyone they knew in Diraz had been unable to use the internet properly since 23 June.
Many in the village think their internet has been slowed to prevent them from posting pictures and videos of the ongoing demonstrations, which outsiders are no longer allowed to attend.
Activists' posts on Twitter have slowed to a crawl; the hashtags "Diraz", "Duraz" and "al-Diraz" in Arabic, which for five years have been critical to monitoring and documenting violations by security forces during protests, have been largely absent of content posted locally. 
Instead, the hashtags have been dominated by accounts pushing out random, anti-Shia and sectarian commentary and videos – usually the same three videos. The content rarely has any direct connection to Diraz.

Attack of the 'bots'?

Marc Owen Jones, a fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Tuebingen University in Germany and member of the advocacy group Bahrain Watch, said that many of the accounts flooding the Diraz hashtags with hate speech were probably automated Twitter "bots". 
In a report published last month, Jones found that apparently automated accounts tweeted thousands of sectarian comments per day on the #Bahrain hashtag. As recently as 23 June, more than half of the tweets on the #Bahrain hashtag came from automated accounts.
Jones confirmed the #Diraz hashtag activity was different than previous disruptions. "Today [July 2] 84 percent of tweets with the Diraz hashtag are probably from automated bots tweeting sectarianism. That's about 7,400 out of 8,900 tweets."
Translation: Video of the Safavid terrorists #Bahrain #Scholar #Leader #Ayatollah_Qasim #Diraz #Bahrain #Shut_down_of_al-Wefaq_group
The apparent bot accounts began tweeting the Diraz hashtag one day after Qassim's citizenship was stripped and less than 24 hours after thousands of Bahrainis gathered in Diraz to support him.
After two weeks of being largely unable to report what's happening inside Diraz, villagers said the connectivity shortages are an attempt to limit protests.
Ali said: "The main two goals are to stop our news getting out, and our pictures showing the amount of people still gathered. It's also a collective punishment, to limit participation in the protests."

'Worse than the Chinese firewall'

Rob Frieden, a professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State University, said that the Bahraini government should be wary of what he called a "sledgehammer to kill a flea" approach to censorship.
"What these people are describing – targeting this village and weakening their internet – is called throttling. It's dangerous because it doesn't just affect communicating about protests, but also about health, commerce and emergencies. It's a very poorly calibrated response and punishment of that community."
Bahrainis in other villages told Middle East Eye that the lack of connectivity inside Diraz had affecting their ability to communicate with relatives. One man living in Janabiyah explained, "I moved away but my grandfather is in Diraz. I can't get in, he can't get out, and now he can't call."
It's also affecting students' ability to complete homework assignments, and business owners who use the Internet to manage operations. One shop in Diraz posted a sign on its window that read: "An announcement to our valued customers: We do not have the card payment service in the evenings because there is no network."
Such acts by government are not unprecedented. In January 2011, Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian government shut down internet connections as calls for protests mounted on social media networks.
Later that year, public transport authorities in San Francisco, California shut down mobile-internet and phone services ahead of a planned demonstration to protest against the killing of a black man.
However, Frieden said Bahrain's apparent multi-week attack on communications in Diraz, coupled with the physical barriers restricting access to the village, was rare.
"In some ways, it's worse than the Chinese firewall, which uses filtering to prevent access to and from specific websites. What Bahrain could easily have done is to prevent access to Twitter or Facebook sites – as opposed to throttling of connectivity."
Nevertheless, activists inside Diraz, such as Ali, are persisting in their attempts to contact the wider world.
In a text message received at 9.30am Bahrain time, Ali wrote: "I would like to note that these answers were sent at 8.37am. But due to the data disconnections it wasn't delivered."
Neither Zain, Batelco, Viva nor the Ministry of Interior has returned requests for comment.

UNHCR - Risking all to escape Central America's killer street gangs

Risking all to escape Central America's killer street gangs

A raft crosses the Suchiate River, which divides Guatemala from Mexico, in Chiapas, Mexico. It is a key transit point for Central Americans fleeing gang violence.  © UNHCR/Markel Redondo
MEXICO CITY, Mexico (UNHCR) – As a police officer in El Salvador, Carolina* worked in a unit protecting kidnap victims and murder witnesses, so they could help bring the perpetrators to justice. Then the thugs turned on her.
Members of a powerful street gang tracked her down at work and at home and threatened to kill her. Driven to move house several times, she was left with the constant fear that she would be murdered when she ventured out into the street.
"I liked my job because I liked protecting other people," she says. "But I was also afraid that every time I went to work, I would leave my children and didn't know if I was coming back."
Working for the police, she had seen first-hand how the gangs abduct, threaten, extort and kill family members, and frequently reach out to recruit their children – often when they are still in school.
When gang members began harassing her 13-year-old son, Juan,* Carolina now felt they had no option but to leave. Without travel documents, Carolina stumped up US$2,000 to pay smugglers to take them to Mexico, where they were held in migration detention centres while their asylum claim was processed.
"Every time I went to work, I would leave my children and didn't know if I was coming back."
Now in a family shelter, she is among tens of thousands of men, women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fleeing surging violence at the hands of murderous street gangs, in what has become Central America's biggest refugee crisis since more than a million people fled civil wars there in the 1980s.
With a sweep of criminal activities that also include drug dealing, human trafficking, prostitution and robbery, the gangs' reach now extends throughout the three so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America and beyond.
Those running for their lives range from professionals like Carolina, in El Salvador, to single mother-of-five Rosario, from neighbouring Honduras, who fled to Mexico with her terrified children after gang members burned their house down
"We took several buses to reach the border and then crossed the river – swimming, walking and carrying the small children – between Guatemala and Mexico at night," she recalls. "I was terrified that the children would be swept away or be drowned."
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, believes that more needs to be done regionally to protect vulnerable people like Carolina, Rosario and their families as they flee persecution and worsening violence in the Northern Triangle nations.
"Refugees find themselves victims of smugglers and traffickers, exposed to abuses along the road."
"As avenues for safe passage to seek asylum diminish in this region, they find themselves victims of smugglers and traffickers, exposed to abuses along the road, and their needs are often left without adequate response," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
Grandi is meeting this week with regional partners at a roundtable in Costa Rica to hammer out a concerted response to the crisis.
"This is a protection crisis which requires broader regional coordination to ensure timely and solutions-oriented responses," he added.
The need for a common response is also brought into focus by the gamut of people driven from their homes by persecution by the gangs, known as "maras" in Central America. While Carolina and Rosario fled El Salvador and Honduras, the same street gangs are also harassing people in neighbouring Guatemala – among them Karla*, a transgender woman in her forties.
Already struggling to pay a weekly extortion payment, or "war tax," of 200 quetzales (US$26), Karla sought refuge over the border in Mexico after the mara doubled its demand to 400 quetzales (US$52) a week, a sum she could not pay.
"Here in Mexico I feel respected and safe and thankful for the support from UNHCR," she said.
*Names changed for protection reasons.