As the European Union accuses Hungary of shifting towards authoritarianism, a spike in emigration from the country has led many to speak of a politically motivated exodus. Others suggest that economic conditions play a role in the westward flow of brainpower that is leaving Hungary’s future uncertain.
Observers agree that ever since the conservative party Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010, the government has taken many steps to concentrate power, including by limiting the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of speech.
The government also approved a new constitution that enshrines the values of Christianity, family and patriotism, having drafted it without consulting other parties or civil society groups.
“We are thinking of leaving the country,” says Sára, a young mother in her thirties who lives in Újlipotváros, one of Budapest’s preferred districts among the liberal intelligentsia and middle classes. “My partner, my fourteen-month-old child and I are no longer considered a family under the new constitution,” she explains.
“It’s not just that we can’t pay taxes together. The feeling also makes us mad – with what right does this government say we are not a family? While the rest of Europe is enlarging the definition of family to even include homosexuals, we are going in the opposite direction.”
Many have already made the decision Sára is now considering, but the real reasons behind the emigration phenomenon remain the object of a heated political debate.
While official estimates state that 300,000 Hungarians live abroad, Gyorgy Matolcsy, governor of the Central Bank, recently spoke of half a million Hungarians leaving their homeland in recent years, which would constitute 5 percent of Hungary’s population of 10 million.
Currently about 250,000 Hungarians are registered abroad, although real numbers are likely higher because many migrants do not want authorities to know they left in order not to preclude current or future state benefits.
Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom are the preferred destinations for these immigrants. London may be home to up to 200,000 Hungarians, so many that it is popularly referred to as the second largest Hungarian city."My partner, my fourteen-month-old child and I are no longer considered a family under the new constitution."
-- Sára, a young mother
Yet unlike other countries in the post-communist region, Hungarians have traditionally resisted migrating, partly due to the strength of Hungary’s social safety net, but also for cultural reasons.
Politicians are struggling to explain why this tendency has suddenly changed. The debate has erupted around the worrisome 56 percent of students who consider leaving Hungary, a group that has often participated in international programs and can easily integrate in Western European labour markets.
“The issue has become politicised, but it is underlined by economic and structural factors,” Béla Soltész, a migration researcher at Corvinus University in Budapest, told IPS.
“There is an opposition discourse which blames the phenomenon on bad management by the government, particularly in the education sector, whereas the government pushes the view that those leaving the country are becoming unfaithful to it, putting their individualistic and materialistic needs in front of the good of the country,” Soltész says.
“Both are simplifying the issue,” he adds. “This is a 10-year phenomenon that began gradually with the opening of the European Union’s labour market. In some ways Hungary is catching up with the region.”
Although reliable data on them are lacking, many of the immigrants are well-educated opposition sympathisers with access to social media, which gives greater visibility to the “best and brightest” in the debate.
Some in this group have been affected by recent educational reforms – especially since students now have to sign contracts in order to benefit from state support as they go through their education and must pay back this support if they move abroad.
But in a country where doctors make an average of 700 euros per month, the role of high unemployment and a lack of economic and professional prospects may be more significant than political discontent.
Hungary’s gross domestic product decreased by 1.7 percent in 2012 and no growth is expected in 2013. Unemployment now exceeds 10 percent and is three times higher in the case of the younger generation.
“People with technical formation can nowadays very easily compare their salary with that of their peers in Norway, the UK or Holland, where pay can be ten times higher. And then they may blame the government for these differences,” Soltész told IPS.
While recent youth migration may be short-term, the growth in Hungarian professional networks abroad might turn it into a more permanent phenomenon in the future, Soltész warned. “The most skilled and bright are leaving and the remittances are not that high.”
“Reinsertion could be difficult because the labor market is very informally structured,” Soltész noted. “Qualifications obtained abroad are less important or understood than personal contacts.”
“And we don’t know what will happen to the people who do their whole education abroad and build their professional contacts there.”
Israel’s crippling blockade of the coastal territory of Gaza is pushing desperate young Palestinians to ever more extreme measures in the search for livelihoods, despite an agreement granting Gazans greater access to their agricultural land.
In search of work, some Gazans try to enter Israel by jumping the fence that separates it from Gaza. Others continue to be shot dead or are seriously injured by Israeli soldiers as they try to farm land bordering the fence, and still others who choose an underground path die when tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt collapse.
Yet an agreement between Hamas and Israel’s COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) following a ceasefire in November stated that Gazans would be able to access most of their agricultural land in Israel’s self-declared 300-metre buffer zone, which runs along the border, by reducing the zone to 100 metres.
The buffer zone is comprised of some of Gaza’s most fertile land in a territory desperately lacking space. Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, with more than 1.5 million people squashed into an area 41 kilometres long and six to 12 kilometres wide.
Despite the Hamas-COGAT agreement, “the situation remains volatile and unpredictable, and the farmers are extremely vulnerable,” Muhammad Suliman, from the Gaza-based human rights organisation Al Mezan, told IPS. “Palestinians continue to be shot and killed in and near the buffer zone at certain times, while at other times nothing happens.”
Meanwhile, fishermen at work within the Israeli-imposed fishing zone, which was three nautical miles until Israel announced on May 21 that it would extend the zone to six nautical miles, are also being shot at and arrested.
Forced to rely on aid
A bitter paradox is unfolding in that while Gaza’s economic desperation has been somewhat buffered by a rise in international aid and work by non-governmental organisations in the strip, unemployment has skyrocketed, and Gaza is now one of the world’s most aid-dependent territories.
“More than 85 percent of Gazans are dependent on aid to survive, while youth unemployment stands at over 55 percent,” Suliman said."Wouldn't it be better for Israel to lift its blockade and allow Gazans to be self-sufficient?"
-- Chris Gunness
“The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is going around begging the international community for donations to help Gazans survive economically,” a spokesperson for UNRWA, Chris Gunness, told IPS. “Wouldn’t it be better for Israel to lift its blockade and allow Gazans to be self-sufficient?”
“Unless the blockade is lifted and some of the world’s most entrepreneurial and business-minded people are allowed to leave Gaza in pursuit of business ventures, Gaza will remain increasingly desperate and dependent on international aid,” Gunness added.
According to Al Mezan, Israeli naval attacks on Gazan fishermen have escalated since the November ceasefire, including the sinking of six Palestinian fishing boats and damage to nine power generators and 41 lamplights used by fishermen at night during the first week of May. The Israeli navy also shot at Palestinian fishing boats in 13 separate incidents.
Al Mezan stated that last week Israelis shot with machine guns at a group of fishing boats off the coast of Beit Lahiya in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Israeli military boats arrested two men, Mahmoud Zayid, 27, and his brother Khalid, 25, from a small fishing boat, which was about 400 meters off the coast and approximately 1.5 nautical miles south of the Northern Israeli restricted zone.
In another attack on May 19, Israeli naval vessels opened fire at Palestinian fishing boats off the coast of Deir Al-Balah in the Middle Gaza district. The boats were also within the Israeli-sanctioned fishing zone, about three nautical miles from shore, when they were attacked.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian fishermen were permitted to go 20 nautical miles out to sea. Since Israel imposed the blockade in 2006, the area has been reduced to 6 nautical miles, to devastating effect. In 2006, 2,500 tonnes of sardine were caught, in comparison to 234 tonnes in 2012.
According to the international aid organisation Oxfam, such economic restrictions by Israel are pushing young Gazans to risk their lives by jumping the fence into Israel to seek employment or entering the tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Working in conjunction with Oxfam, Al Mezan reported that in the last year 101 people attempted to climb the perimeter fence, with 53 of those younger than 18. And according to Al Mezan’s Suliman, 18 Palestinians were also killed and 26 injured in the tunnels.
In one case last year, a young man, Mahmoud, and two of his friends tried to climb the fence. Mahmoud’s two friends were shot dead by Israeli soldiers while Mahmoud escaped with a bullet injury to his leg. The young man had lost his previous part-time job at a café, where he earned 4 dollars a day. Desperate to help support his large family, Mahmoud had taken the risk of entering Israel.
90 Palestinians, including 11 children and three women, were killed in the buffer zone in the last three years, and as Suliman pointed out, “while some of these were fighters killed during Israel’s military assault on Gaza last November, most of those killed were civilians.”
Hardly a day goes by without a news story on some violation of women’s rights. In recent months, appalling incidents of violence against women and girls, from Delhi to Johannesburg to Cleveland, have sparked public outrage and demands to tackle these horrific abuses.
In Bangladesh and Cambodia, the shocking loss of life by garment factory workers, many of them women, sparked global debate on how to secure safe and decent jobs in our globalised economy. In Europe, the disproportionate impact on women of austerity cuts, and the use of quotas to get more women on corporate boards continue to make headlines.
Even though women have made real gains, we are constantly reminded how far we have to go to realise equality between men and women.
World leaders recognised the pervasiveness of discrimination and violence against women and girls when they signed onto the visionary Millennium Declaration in 2000. Amongst the eight Millennium Development Goals, they included a goal to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.
With these goals set to expire in 2015, we are now in a race to achieve them. We are also in the midst a global conversation about what should replace them. It’s time for women to move from the sidelines to the centre.
In a new post-2015 development agenda, we must build on the achievements of the MDGs while avoiding their shortcomings. Everyone agrees that the goals have galvanised progress to reduce poverty and discrimination, and promote education, gender equality, health and safe drinking water and sanitation.
The goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment tracked progress on school enrolment, women’s share of paid work, and women’s participation in parliament. It triggered global attention and action. It served to hold governments accountable, mobilise much-needed resources, and stimulate new laws, policies, programmes and data.
But there are glaring omissions. Noticeably absent is any reference to ending violence against women and girls. Also missing are other fundamental issues, such as women’s right to own property and the unequal division of household and care responsibilities.
By failing to address the structural causes of discrimination and violence against women and girls, progress towards equality has been stalled. Of all the MDGs, the least progress has been made on MDG5, to reduce maternal mortality. The fact that this has been the hardest goal to reach testifies to the depth and scope of gender inequality.
To make greater progress, UN Women proposes a stand-alone goal to achieve gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment that is grounded in human rights and tackles unequal power relations. We envision three areas that require urgent action.
First, ending violence against women and girls must be a priority. From sexual violence in the camps of Haiti and Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to intimate partner shootings in the United States and elsewhere, this violence causes untold physical and psychological harm. It is one of the most pervasive human rights violations, and carries tremendous costs for individuals, families and societies.
Second, women and men need equal opportunities, resources and responsibilities to realize equality. Equal access to land and credit, natural resources, education, health services including sexual and reproductive health, decent work and equal pay needs to be addressed with renewed urgency. Policies, such as child care and parental leave, are needed to relieve working women’s double duty so women and men can enjoy equality at work and at home.
And third, women’s voices must be heard. It is time for women to participate equally in decision making in the household, the private sector and institutions of governance. Despite progress in recent years, women comprise just 20 percent of parliamentarians and 27 percent of judges. For democracy to be meaningful and inclusive, women’s voices and leadership must be amplified in all public and private spaces.
Any new development agenda must be grounded in human rights agreements that governments have already signed onto. This includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, and U.N. resolutions, including the recent agreement of the Commission on the Status of Women on eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls.
There is plenty of evidence to show that countries with a higher status of women also enjoy higher levels of social and economic performance. There is also evidence to guide countries on what works, from equitable labour market policies, to the removal of discriminatory laws and policies, to universal social protection and social services, to security and justice reforms that end impunity for violence against women and girls. The activism of the women’s movement everywhere has been critical in demanding and driving change in all of these areas.
The discussions to shape the post-2015 global development agenda offer a real opportunity to drive lasting change for women’s rights and equality. A strong global goal can push our societies to the tipping point of rejecting violence and discrimination against women and girls and unleash the potential of half the population for a more peaceful, just and prosperous world and a sustainable planet.
*Lakshmi Puri is Acting Head of UN Women and Assistant Secretary-General.
Nokuzola Bulana has a problem with leaks. The water that drips from the pipes of the toilet outside her home in Khayelitsha, a large semi-informal township on the fringes of Cape Town, South Africa goes to waste and drives up her water bill.
Bulana, a water activist, says she fixed the leaks in January but water on the floor at the base of the toilet, which is inside a stall painted with pink, yellow and purple stripes, and pooled on the ground outside the stall, shows that seepages persist.
In March, her eight-person home used over seven times the amount of water the city of Cape Town gives indigent households for free in a month. Bulana blames the leaks for this.
“We don’t mind to pay for the water we drink or cook with but now the water goes down the drain,” Bulana tells IPS when interviewed at her home. “I love the environment. I want to look after the water.”
Bulana is one of many South Africans whose wasted water contributes to the country’s yearly loss of more than a third of its water – a shortfall driven chiefly by leaks, according to a 2012 report from the South African Water Research Commission. These losses cost municipalities more than 731 million dollars annually and drive poor citizens into debt they often cannot afford to pay.
Water saving devices denounced
At about 4 pm on a Saturday afternoon, there was no water coming from the tap outside 60-year-old Lusi Daniso’s house in Khayelitsha. This is a regular occurrence, Daniso tells IPS.
She claims she gets just 20 litres of water daily – not enough for the eight people living in her home – and has to ask her neighbours for water.
Daniso’s home is one of about 84,000 in Cape Town where the city has installed water management devices (WMDs). Housed in oval boxes with blue lids, the devices are set to provide indigent residents (those with a total monthly household income of 313 dollars or less, or a property value of 20,890 dollars or under) with 10.5 kilolitres of free water per month. This allotment is broken into a 350-litre daily allowance.
The devices cut water supply once the daily limit is reached, and turn it back on the next day.
The WMDs play a key role in the city’s water management strategy and are touted as a way to deal with the 9.2 million dollars indigent households owe the city. If indigent residents choose to have a device installed, the city repairs leaks, installs the device, and cancels their outstanding water debt.
But as IPS reported previously community leaders and civil society organisations have denounced the WMDs.
The devices are going into households with low quality plumbing infrastructure, Taryn Pereira, a researcher with the non-profit Environmental Monitoring Group, based in Cape Town, tells IPS. Leaks from taps, cisterns and underground pipes result in residents not getting their daily 350 litres, she says.
Technicians fix leaks when installing the devices but repairs often don’t last and residents in poor communities don’t have the money to pay for plumbers, says Pereira.
Pereira’s research indicates that residents are not properly consulted about the devices, cut-offs due to leaks and technical problems are common, and people struggle to get help from the city when meters malfunction.
“In this city, this supposedly world-class city, many of our fellow citizens, even once they manage to get a house that they’ve been waiting a long time for on a housing list, are actually, in terms of water, worse off then when they lived in shacks,” she says.
A fragile compromise
Because of the issues with water management devices, Bulana and other residents in Makhaza, a subsection of Khayelitsha, met with city officials last year and asked for a six-month pilot programme in the subsection whereby the city will fix leaks and freeze residents’ debt without installing the devices.
“We can manage our water because we are the ones using the water,” says Bulana.
Over the past months, the city has been assessing leaks and doing education and awareness in Makhaza in preparation for fixing leaks, councillor Ernest Sonnenberg, the city’s mayoral committee member for utility services, tells IPS in an emailed response.
But that does not mean devices are off the table.
The city will review all the houses affected by the project and analyse their water use, Sonnenberg says. “If residents are unable to decrease their usage as discussed in the meeting the city will review their individual account and install a WMD if necessary.”
Nangnyi Foung reaches into the dryer, pulls out another pair of pants and places it on the ironing board. “I still have several more loads to go,” she says as the clock strikes nine p.m., marking the start of her 14th hour on the shift.
She has been on her feet in this laundromat in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai since seven in the morning and had been hoping to call it a day when two more customers walked in.
She is not in a position to turn anyone away: “I need the money. My family needs me to work,” she tells IPS, her voice tinged with desperation as she begins yet another load.
Six do-it-yourself washing machines stand like sentries at the entrance of this storefront-turned-laundromat. A flight of stairs leads to Nangnyi Foung’s living quarters, where she retires late at night only to collapse in exhaustion before waking up and beginning all over again.
Originally from the Shan State in neighbouring Myanmar (formerly Burma), Nangnyi Foung came here saddled with debt.
Fleeing persistent violence in her home country, she took out loans and paid middlemen hefty sums in order to win safe passage to Thailand, where, she had heard, employment opportunities awaited.
Ten years later Nangnyi Foung is still working to pay off her debt, awaking daily to a rigorous fourteen-hour shift of washing and ironing. Her earnings after seven days’ work without a single day off amount to little over six dollars, much of which is remitted back home.
Reaching for the steaming iron Nangnyi Foung tells IPS she saves on living expenses by sleeping in the basement of this facility. If she also had to pay for lodging she would not be able to send money home to her family of four.
Accounting for over 80 percent of Thailand’s 2.5-million-strong migrant labour force, Burmese migrants like Nangnyi Foung provide a lifeline to cash-strapped families back in Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries that is struggling to recover from decades of economic stagnation.
Today, the minimum wage in Myanmar – about 180 dollars a month – buys eight to 10 times fewer daily consumption commodities like rice, salt, sugar and cooking oil than it did twenty years ago. The average Burmese lives on less than a dollar per day.
Though Myanmar is the world’s largest exporter of teak, jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires, and boasts lucrative extractive industries such as mining, timber and power generation, very little of the country’s natural wealth trickles down to the masses: approximately 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while unemployment is at 5.4 percent.
According to a 2006 survey of migrant workers from Myanmar, conducted by the Asian Research Centre for Migration, more than two-thirds of the 600 respondents admitted to being unemployed before migrating to Thailand.
Remittances jump hurdles
While migrant workers fill crucial gaps in Thailand’s labour market, and their remittances account for five percent of Myanmar’s gross domestic product (GDP), neither government has attempted to make the flow of money between workers and their families any easier.
Despite the existence of commercial banks or official ‘Xpress Money’ outlets, most migrants prefer to use the informal remittance channel known as the “hundi” system.
These unauthorised transactions involve dealers in Thailand relaying messages to members of their network in Myanmar, who then deliver the necessary amount to the family.
Some migrants rely on friends and loved ones who travel between the neighbouring countries to act as conduits, thereby circumventing costly bank transfers.
“The banks can’t be trusted and they require a work permit, a letter of recommendation from our employer and a passport,” Nangnyi Foung says, documents very few migrants have access to.
Migrants with families in rural areas go through brokers, who deliver cash to the recipient’s doorstep, eliminating the hassle of them having to locate cash points.
According to a new report released Monday by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Asian countries dispatched over 60 million migrants into the world, “who sent almost 260 billion dollars to their families in 2012. This represented 63 percent of global flows to developing countries.”
Yet the continent seems ill equipped to deal with the influx of remittances, which benefit one in 10 Asian households.
“Although the clear majority of the region’s population lives in rural areas, 65 percent of payment locations are in urban areas,” the report found. In most Asian countries, only banks are authorised to deal with foreign currency transactions, making it difficult for poor rural communities to access funds coming in from abroad.
The report stressed the urgent need to provide remittance-receiving families with “more options” to secure and spend this money, especially since nine Asian countries currently receive remittances “exceeding 10 percent of GDP.”
The report has particularly vital policy implications for Southeast Asia, where 13 million migrants are currently living and working abroad. Thailand has become a “net importer” of migrant labour – attracting more than double the number of migrants to work in its expanding economy than it is sending abroad.
Women forfeit rights for employment
Constituting nearly 49 percent of the global population of 214 million migrant workers, women are responsible for the lion’s share of remittances flowing around the world.
Acutely aware of their families’ needs, like food, housing costs, education for children or younger siblings, and healthcare – women often endure extreme conditions in order to remit money back home.
The town of Mae Sot, located along the Thai-Myanmar border, hosts the largest number of women migrant workers in Thailand, who toil over fifteen hours a day in garment factories. In 2012, this sector netted estimated profits of 6.3 billion, while labourers who keep the industry running earned between 66 and 100 dollars per month.
Kyoko Kusakabe, associate professor of gender and development at the Asian Institute of Technology and co-author of ‘Thailand’s Hidden Workforce’, told IPS that most female migrants in Mae Sot “avoid labour strikes and forfeit their rights in favour of (continued employment).”
She says this is part of a culture that forces women to be “responsible” from a very young age, while their male counterparts have few obligations.
According to Kusakabe, this culture is reflected in remittance patterns: when the economy is booming, remittances from men increase, falling again when the economy enters a slump. Remittances from women, on the other hand, remain steady regardless of the overall economic climate, suggesting that women save more, or forego their own needs during times of economic austerity in order to preserve their family’s lifeline.
Her research found that even if women are not paid their salaries, or lose their jobs, they borrow money in order to send home, fearful that their children or parents will starve without financial support.
The U.S. Congress moved closer here Wednesday to imposing a full trade embargo against Iran and pledged its support to Israel if it felt compelled to attack Tehran’s nuclear programme in self-defence.
The Senate voted 99-0 to adopt a resolution that urged President Barack Obama to fully enforce existing economic sanctions against Iran and to “provide diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel “in its defense of its territory, people and existence”.“Attacking the president's waiver authority is a cynical attempt to weaken his hand at the negotiating table and sabotage diplomatic efforts." -- NIAC's Jamal Abdi
Washington, it said, should support Israel “in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force” if Israel “is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
The measure also re-affirmed the official policy of the administration of President Barack Obama that it would take whatever action necessary to “prevent” Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Republican-led House of Representatives unanimously approved new sanctions legislation that, if passed into law, would blacklist foreign countries or companies that fail to reduce their oil imports from Iran to virtually nil within 180 days.
The same bill would expand the current blacklisting of companies that do business with Iran’s financial sector to include those engaged in the country’s automotive and mining sectors, as well.
In perhaps its most controversial section, the bill also eliminates President Obama’s ability to waive most sanctions for national-interest or national-security reasons.
Such waiver authority, which has been routinely included in existing sanctions legislation, has been used by Obama to ensure that countries that have historically enjoyed important trade and financial relations with Tehran continue cooperating with Western-led international efforts to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear programme.
The president’s waiver authority is also considered critical to prospects for a negotiated agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia plus Germany) by which such curbs would be accepted by Tehran in return for easing sanctions.
Both moves come as the Senate Republicans unveiled yet another bill even more far-reaching than that approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee by blacklisting companies that do any trade with Iran and deprive the president of all waiver authority. Under the draft legislation, which so far lacks any Democratic co-sponsors, sanctions could be eased or lifted only by an act of Congress.
Approval of both the Senate resolution and the House bill were hailed by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the premier group of the Israel lobby here.
“The passage of this resolution is an extremely significant and timely state of solidarity with Israel and a restatement of America’s determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear quest – which endangers America, Israeli, and international security,” it said about the Senate action.
The House bill, it noted with approval, would impose a de facto commercial embargo against Iran and would “maximise the effectiveness of American economic and diplomatic efforts as Iran nears a nuclear weapons capability.”
But other observers said the latest Congressional moves marked a dangerous escalation in tensions at a critical moment.
“Congress should abstain from any more reckless threats or sanctions that push us closer to the brink of war with Iran,” Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) said of the Senate action.
“Attacking the president’s waiver authority is a cynical attempt to weaken his hand at the negotiating table and sabotage diplomatic efforts,” he added about the House bill. “If the president can’t lift sanctions in exchange for concessions, the Iranians will have little incentive to cooperate.”
The latest Congressional moves came as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear programme detailing the installation of more advanced centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium, a buildup of stockpiles of 3.5-percent and 20-percent enriched uranium, and advances in the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak.
While a number of senators made much of the latest report, suggesting that Tehran was on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, experts here said that the report offered no major surprises and that Iran’s 20-percent enriched stockpile – which could most easily be further enriched to bomb grade – remained substantially below what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September defined as Israel’s “red line”.
“The report findings underscore the urgent need to intensify negotiations with Tehran to resolve the political questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and to resolve the outstanding questions regarding the potential military dimensions of the program,” according to an analysis by the Arms Control Association (ACA) here.
“But, at the same time, the findings reinforce earlier assessments that Iran remains years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Iran has repeatedly denied that its nuclear programme is designed to develop a weapon, and, since 2007, the U.S. intelligence community has insisted that the country’s leadership has not yet decided to build one. But the progress Iran has made in building and mastering the technology would shorten the time it would need to construct a bomb if such a decision were made, according to nuclear experts.
On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, progress has been more or less frozen since the latest P5+1 meeting with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan in early April when Tehran rejected a Western offer to ease sanctions on gold and precious-metal trade and some Iranian exports in exchange for suspending 20-percent enrichment and transferring its existing 20-percent stockpile out of the country.
Most observers believe the new talks are unlikely until after Iran’s elections next month and the inauguration of a new president, despite the fact that decisions on nuclear issues are ultimately made by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Among the favoured candidates approved this week by the Guardian Council is Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who is considered by veteran Iran watchers a hard-liner who has often frustrated his P5+1 interlocutors.
Some had hoped that former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who entered the race at the last minute and has occasionally urged better relations with the West, would offer a major challenge, but his candidacy was rejected by the Council.
Another approved candidate in the race, Hasan Rowhani, served as former president Mohammed Khatami’s chief nuclear negotiator. In that post, he struck a deal to suspend enrichment with the so-called EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany). But his lack of prominence makes him an underdog in a race dominated by conservatives closely associated with Khamenei.
Whether the flurry of new threats and sanctions by Congress will affect the election – or the calculations of Khamenei himself – remains to be seen.
Even the strongest supporters of sanctions have conceded that the economic pressure they’ve exerted on the regime to date has not produced the desired result and may even have strengthened regime hardliners who are convinced that Washington’s ultimate aim is “regime change” – a conviction that is likely to be strengthened by a review of Wednesday’s Senate debate.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s recommendation to consider using edible insects as a food source to combat hunger may have particular repercussions in Colombia and Mexico, two Latin American countries that have a tradition of eating insects and a high degree of biodiversity.
Mexico has 300 edible insect species, according to a study published in May by the entomology department of Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), titled “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”.
But local researchers have identified more than 500 species in the centre, south and southeast of Mexico, a mega-biodiverse country with a poverty rate of 47 percent.
“Insects are a viable, cheap source of high quality food that could be even better than the packaged foods that are consumed at present,” researcher Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Biology Institute, told IPS.
In her view, “This country is ready for mass consumption of insects, but people need education about techniques and ways of marketing them. Protecting them is not a concern. There are no official measures,” said the expert, who has been carrying out research since the 1970s on the benefits of insects, and has reported 549 edible species.
The issue acquires an environmental dimension, particularly on International Day for Biological Diversity, celebrated this Wednesday May 22.
Eating insects or entomophagy is an indigenous tradition in Mexico, attested to by the Florentine Codex, written by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) who described the consumption of 96 species.
Some insects provide up to three times more protein, weight for weight, than beef, and their nutrient concentrations are surpassed only by fish, according to the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO).
The Mexican insect menu is made up of blood-sucking bugs, worms, beetles, butterflies, ant and fly larvae, bees, wasps and “chapulin” grasshoppers. They can be grilled, fried or served with different kinds of sauces.
In recent decades, several of these delicacies have vaulted from kitchens in poor rural homes to tables in fancy restaurants.
In Mitla, a town close to a Zapotec archaeological site of the same name in the southern state of Oaxaca, a small business uses moth larvae (Hypopta agavis) that feed on American aloe leaves to make a hot spicy salt to accompany mescal, an alcoholic drink distilled from the same aloe plant.
“We follow a homemade recipe. Grinding is done by hand and we use a hand mixer. We also package by hand,” Diana Corona, the commercial manager of the firm Gran Mitla which produces 300 kilograms of “sal de gusano” (larva salt) a month, told IPS.
It takes 300 grams of ground larvae, 300 grams of dry chili peppers and 400 grams of salt to produce one kilo.
The larvae or worms are collected from August to October and frozen to ensure continuous production, as from November to the following May harvesting is banned throughout the country.
The FAO publication says that more than 1,900 species are part of the traditional diets of at least two billion people worldwide. The favourites are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets.
Collecting and farming insects could create jobs and income, and could have industrial-scale potential, the authors say.
“That could be achieved if the insects are farmed and marketed in large quantities. But producers need to be aware that their resources are being depleted,” said Ramos-Elorduy, who is investigating the productivity of insect species that feed on maize and pumpkin, and seeking ways of increasing it.
“Collecting techniques are the same everywhere, but there is no legislation stipulating proper techniques. People do not know what they are. Besides, wages are very low,” she said.
In their research paper “Edible insects in some locations in Central Region of Mexico State: Collection techniques, sale and preparation”, Ramos-Elorduy, Andrés Juárez and José Manuel Pino warn that “this valuable food resource is in danger of disappearing, due to a variety of environmental and socio-economic problems.”
The paper, published in December, concludes that “impacts on the environment, cultural change and changes in land use are causing the consumption of insects to decrease, especially among young people.”
Corona, of Gran Mitla, agreed that measures should be taken to protect these species. “Regulations are needed for collection and marketing. Insects are part of the Mexican diet and the resource must be protected,” she said.
For the same reason, many collectors are reluctant to talk about where they find their insects and grubs, and how they capture or harvest them.
The FAO report recommends automated infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to ensure stable, reliable and safe production. It also stresses that insect biomass could be used as the raw material for animal feed.
In Colombia, a snack available from street stalls is the crunchy “hormiga culona” (Atta laevigata), a leafcutter ant species, sold toasted and salted. The origin of this and other dishes is native culture.
But “going into the rainforest for large-scale extraction of insects is a touchy issue, because they are found in wildlife habitats,” Colombian biologist and regional planner Jaime Bernal Hadad told IPS.
Colombia has a poverty rate of 33 percent, and it is the second most mega-biodiverse country on the planet, after Brazil.
“In tropical ecosystems, although there is a great diversity of species, there are only relatively few individuals per species,” said Bernal Hadad. “Large-scale extraction could lead to the extinction of species, or create environmental imbalances.
“Beetles on fallen trees in the forest help decomposition and the balance of those forests,” he said. “Wasps and bees have an important role in pollination. And while there are native groups who eat beetles and prize them highly, they are minority groups and do not create problems.”
In Bernal Hadad’s view, farming insects “is an interesting option. But other factors come into play, such as the issue of cultural acceptability and consumption.
“Of course, in Europe it may be regarded as exotic, but if we consider marginalised populations in Latin America, the issue is very different,” he said.
The fight against hunger “cannot ignore structural issues,” he said. Moreover, “it is worth asking whether the proposal could be controlled or if it would become another method of interfering with conservation, not as a result of ranching and the timber industry, but because of insects,” he said. “Then we would continue to reproduce the destruction of natural systems, without real solutions.”
With additional reporting from Helda Martínez in Bogotá.
PATH, a Seattle-based global health development organisation, is aiming to save two million lives by 2015 by jointly tackling diarrhea and pneumonia, the leading killers of children globally.
Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH, delivered the message at the ninth annual PATH Breakfast for Global Health held in Seattle on Tuesday.
“Today we placed a bold stake in the ground, with partners around the world, to save two million lives by the end of 2015,” Davis told IPS.
PATH will begin its efforts in India, Cambodia and Ethiopia, where intervention is most urgently needed and PATH has resources. While all three countries have seen their child mortality rates from diarrhea drop, India’s pneumonia death rate remains stagnant, accounting for 24 percent of deaths of children under five, the same as in 2000, according to 2013 World Health Organisation statistics.
“No parent should have to bury a child because of something we can help prevent or treat,” Davis said.
Diarrhea and pneumonia are two diseases that overwhelmingly affect children in African and Asian countries, Davis said, with diarrhea claiming around 760,000 lives a year. And while the number of children dying in Africa before the age of five has decreased, it still vastly outnumbers all other parts of the world, according to the 2013 WHO statistics.
Melinda Gates, philanthropist and founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps fund health development and vaccines world wide, spoke at the breakfast of the importance of vaccinating children as well as “appropriate” science that meets the needs of communities in the developing countries.
“[The] developing world is littered with pilot programmes,” Gates said.
As he took to the stage, Davis pointed to a tool belt around his suit jacket. A visual aid, the belt allowed Davis to show and carry some of the tools that can prevent the deaths of so many children from diarrheal disease, tools that will be used to achieve PATH’s life-saving goal.
Clean water, soap, zinc tablets for oral rehydration therapy and the rotavirus vaccine, which stops some diarrheal diseases before they start, were all included.
But it’s not just science and vaccines that can improve the lives of communities ravaged by diarrhea. Deeply held cultural traditions and ideas about the disease have to be altered as well.
Dr. Alfred Ochola, PATH’s Technical Advisor for Child Survival and Development in Kenya, spoke about educating Kenyans on how to reduce the risk of diarrhea in their communities through hygiene practices like hand washing.
But Ochola, who lost a brother and sister to a diarrhea outbreak in Kenya as a child, has found that at first, people are reluctant to embrace change.
“A big [challenge] is combatting old beliefs that diarrhea is a curse and not an infection, and that the death of a child is an inevitable part of life. ‘God will give you another one’ is a common saying in Kenya,” Ochola said.
Many people believe a child who has diarrhea is cursed, Ochola said. Vomiting and diarrhea are welcomed because it rids the body of the evil inside it, while it should be taken as a sign that something is seriously wrong.
Poverty is another challenge in combatting the diseases. Although heart disease and diabetes are becoming the new illnesses of poverty, according to Davis, diarrhea and pneumonia still adversely affect children of developing countries in Africa and Asia.
In Africa and Southeast Asia, the percentage of child deaths are higher than the global average and have not significantly decreased in 10 years. Both regions have seen child mortality from diarrhea fall from 13 percent to 11 percent of deaths from 2000 to 2010, but in Africa, the rate of death from pneumonia has actually increased, from 16 percent to 17 percent.
“Too many people lack the financial means to seek care when it’s most needed, like paying for transportation to get to a health facility far from home… We often reach women and their children too late,” Ochola said.
Ochola told the story of Jane Wamalwa, a Kenyan woman who came to understand the reasons behind making a change in long-held practices in treating and preventing diarrhea. Wamalwa lost three children to the disease, and has now become a trusted source of information on good anti-diarrhea practice in her community, Ochola said.
“It has become her calling,” he added.
Following on Nawaz Sharif’s victory in the May 11 national elections in Pakistan, many analysts are indicating cautious optimism on the prospect that the new prime minister can strengthen bilateral relations with the country’s neighbours, particularly India.
While entrenched interests among Pakistan’s powerful security establishment constitute one prominent obstacle to any such optimism, a more significant hindrance could be scepticism among the country’s other two neighbours – Afghanistan and Iran – over Sharif’s own past, including his dealings during his two previous stints as prime minister.
Better relations with India
For the moment, Sharif himself is attempting to stoke this optimism. During his election campaign, Sharif pledged to revive India-Pakistan relations, which soured during Pervez Musharraf’s presidency from 2001 to 2008, and during a post-election phone call Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his wish for a “new course” between the two countries.
Following through on this vow, however, will be very difficult. Pakistan has long used ethnic tensions against India, as against Afghanistan, and changing this policy will require both a new mindset and a new set of convictions.
Sayeed Salahudeen, chief of the Muttahida Jihad Council (MJC) and the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, a powerful separatist Kashmiri militia group believed to be based in Pakistan, has already warned Sharif not to abandon the “Kashmir cause” over “friendship with India”. As long as “Kashmir is under India’s occupation”, Sulahudeen continued, “the national security of Pakistan, the safety and security of its borders, and its economic stability is at stake.”
Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri militants has been an essential part of Pakistan’s approach toward India, and any attempt to end this will take time. During his election campaign, Sharif stated that the Kashmiri conflict “needs to be resolved peacefully, to the satisfaction of not only both countries but also of the Kashmiri people.”
Sharif also promised a full investigation into the Kargil conflict, the 1999 incident in which Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants infiltrated Indian side of the Line of Control, setting off a major crisis between the two nuclear powers. Sharif, who was prime minister at the time, has long claimed that Musharraf, as the military commander, had acted on his own, although another Pakistani army general insisted in January that Sharif himself was not as ignorant about the plans as he has said.
The new prime minister has also said he plans to investigate the alleged involvement of Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the 2008 Mumbai bombings, another key action that would please India but thoroughly aggravate powerful elements within the Pakistani establishment.
The India-Pakistan conflict is today deeply rooted, and governments in Pakistan, both civilian and military, have for decades viewed India as a strategic rival. Indeed, the potential “threat” from India has consistently been the army’s justification for its massive budget.
While civilian governments have generally opposed increasing military expenditures, the military-intelligence establishment continues to exert considerable influence, particularly in foreign and security policymaking. Sharif’s post-election statement that the prime minister would now be “the army chief’s boss” was an attempt to mitigate this concern, but it remains unclear whether he will be able to effectively follow through.
Sharif appears to hope that expanding economic ties between the two countries will weaken resistance to enhancing relations between the two long-time rivals. India’s economy has grown at a much more rapid pace than Pakistan’s over the past decade, and building stronger commercial ties to its giant western neighbour offers Islamabad perhaps the most direct route to getting its own economy out of the doldrums.
While Sharif has established a certain credibility regarding his desire for better relations with India, the same does not hold true for Afghanistan where the new prime minister does not enjoy much popularity.
This is due not only to his support for warring jihadi factions in 1992, but also because Pakistan under his watch became the first country to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government in 1997. In addition, Afghans have yet to forget Sharif’s attempt to impose Sharia law in 1999, the same set of decrees the Taliban brutally imposed in Afghanistan.
In his congratulatory message to Sharif, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his hope that the two countries would be able to cooperate “to root out terrorism”. However, this was viewed mostly as a formality.
“If Pakistan’s political officials want to show good faith,” an Afghan news website states, “they have to confront terrorist groups inside Pakistan that are organised by ISI.”
Indeed, concern over an uncomfortably close association between Sharif and the Taliban intensified during the candidate’s pre-election gathering in Lahore. If he won, Sharif promised, he would pull Pakistan back from the U.S.-led international “war on terror” coalition. If such a statement were not meant to “blackmail” the United States, an editorial in Afghanistan’s Hasht-e Sobh newspaper stated, it means “he is serious in what he is saying.”
In a separate interview with the Hasht-e Sobh, Mahmoud Karzai – Hamid Karzai’s brother and a possible presidential candidate for Afghanistan’s 2014 election – accused Pakistan of attempting to annex Afghanistan, the prospects for which the country “tasted during Taliban rule”.
Such rhetoric refers to an old dispute over the British-drawn boundary that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Pashtun tribal areas, though the region continues to be prone to frequent violence and remains a source of tension between the two countries. Whether Sharif can dispel such suspicions will yet another challenge he faces in improving ties with his neighbours.
Iran and Saudi Arabia
Iran, which also accumulated its share of complaints about Islamabad’s behaviour under Sharif in the 1990s, is not expected to play a primary role in Pakistan’s regional policies, barring a major event such as a military crisis or controversy around gas pipelines.
Contrary to some analyses, any Iranian scepticism regarding the new Pakistani government is not related to the Islamabad’s alleged support for Sunni insurgents in Balochistan province, on the Iranian side of the border. In fact, Iran and Pakistan have established a cooperative relationship on this front.
Rather, scepticism stems, again, from Nawaz Sharif’s support of the Taliban during the 1990s, as well as his close associations with Saudi Arabia which, among other support, gave him safe haven during the years he was exiled from Pakistan after his ouster by Musharraf in 1999.
Iran and Afghanistan almost went to war in 1998, after Taliban militants murdered Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. Because of Sharif’s support for the Taliban, as well as his close ties to Riyadh, Tehran’s chief rival in a region that has become increasingly polarised along sectarian lines, Iran’s hard-line media has reacted with concern to his return as prime minister.
Among other things, Tehran is concerned about the fate of the cross-border natural-gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan despite strong U.S. opposition. Pakistan desperately needs Iranian gas to meet its growing energy needs, and outgoing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the final construction phase of the pipeline in March.
Pakistan received 500 million dollars to start building the pipeline in its territory, running through Balochistan into Karachi, and the deal is clearly to Pakistan’s advantage.
However, if a story by one influential Pakistani newspaper is true, that deal could now find itself in jeopardy. The Dawn newspaper has reported on Sharif’s rumoured suggestions to Saudi Arabia that “he may be open to reviewing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.”
When Gabriela Blanco tells other Cubans that she works in an organic vegetable cooperative and is getting ready to study agronomy at the university, she gets surprised looks.
She is not sure where her vocation came from, but she does know that this is what she wants to do.
In Cuba, which is seeking to boost agricultural yields, there is a scarcity of young people working in the sector.
Blanco, a petite 20-year-old, dropped her math studies after two years to try her hand at the Vivero Alamar, a successful agricultural cooperative in Havana that operates as a Basic Unit of Cooperative Production.
“I began working here in September 2012; in three months they made me a member of the cooperative. I realised that I really like it and I want to stay here. The agricultural sector has lots of possibilities and many fields of investigation; it’s a very interesting and lovely experience,” she told IPS.
Mercedes Cepero, 18, has had a similar experience, although she came to this cooperative to fulfil her professional training requirement as an agronomy technician. “I’ve passed the student stage, and now I have to get trained and learn as a worker. I used to think that agronomy was just working with a hoe in the sun, but I was wrong,” she told IPS.
Cepero is also preparing for university entrance exams, which will be held this month, because she wants to be an agricultural engineer. Unlike Blanco, she was told about this career when she was in secondary school. “That was when I became interested,” she said.
Blanco thinks that the lack of interest in agricultural careers among young people is due in part to today’s society. “A lot of people see agriculture as something that is not studied, that doesn’t involve science, because it’s just planting and harvesting. Other people view work in the countryside as a lot of hard work that brings few benefits,” she said.
Twenty young people, between the ages of 17 and 30, work at the Vivero Alamar.
However, most young people leave agriculture when they find jobs that are more in line with their aspirations for better incomes and less hard work.
Cepero has little patience with the general attitude toward agricultural work: young people “are a little bit lazy, and they want everything to just fall into their lap,” she said.
According to figures provided by the national urban and suburban agriculture programme, about 70,000 young people in this country of 11.3 million are working in agriculture.
The Vivero Alamar urban farming cooperative is located in the housing project of Alamar about 15 km from downtown Havana. The housing development is home to about 100,000 people.
Research by the Centre for the Study of Youth has found that young Cubans prefer to seek jobs in the emerging economy, such as foreign companies, and reject jobs related to sanitation services, construction and agriculture.
“People view agriculture today as if it were punishment. Whoever misbehaves will go work in the fields. The children of farmers do not want to continue their parents’ work; they want to move to Havana and become doctors,” said Isis Salcines, who describes herself as a worker-of-all-trades at the coop, and who is about to graduate as an agronomist.
Shortly after beginning her university studies, Salcines decided to create a kind of vocational club at an elementary school close to the coop, dubbed “Agro-ecological Kids”. But first she conducted a couple of surveys. One asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and another asked them to complete the sentence: “When I grow up, I want to be.…” with farmer as one of the choices.
Not one of the children chose farmer. Salcines, who is the daughter of the coop’s founder and president, Miguel Ángel Salcines, set herself the goal of holding weekly sessions to teach the children about how the coop is run using agro-ecological methods, and why it is important to eat healthier.
By the time the first course was over, the “Kids” would eat every bite of vegetables they were served in tasty salads, and they knew how to work on the farm, understood the importance of producing food, and had learned about the comprehensive management of pests and diseases.
In a new survey she conducted at the end of the first workshop, 15 of the boys and girls – nearly three-quarters – marked agronomy as a possible career. “This experience was a real incentive. It made me see how it was possible for them to choose this line of work once they are grown-up,” Salcines said.
For Norma Romero, a plant protection engineer, the formula must include education from an early age and assurances for young people that they will feel recognised, motivated and encouraged to continue working in agriculture, despite any difficulties.
Good wages, a flexible schedule to allow them to study, free breakfast and lunch, work clothing and shoes, and other benefits are motivating factors, “because in agriculture there is mud, lots of sun, dust, and really hard conditions. For us it is vital for people to come and stay, especially young people,” Romero said.
As part of the recent reforms of the Cuban economy, the Education Ministry expanded in 2011 the number of agronomy specialties offered at the vocational school level and ordered a reinforcement of vocational guidance toward agriculture in the early years of primary education, in line with the characteristics and needs of each province.
Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of total employment but less than five percent of GDP because it has the lowest productivity of any sector. Last year, the country imported 1.6 billion dollars’ worth of food.
Fahima Begum rises each morning at dawn and walks two kilometres to a small pond, the nearest source of fresh water. On her way she passes the rusty old hand-pumped tube well that used to supply water to her village in Bangladesh’s arid Barind region until the water table here dropped out of reach.
Using a ragtag array of pots, she carries back as much as her frail body will allow, knowing that it will have to last her family all day.
“When I came here 27 years ago there were plenty of freshwater ponds that served as our main source of drinking and cooking water - as time passed, they all disappeared.” - Laila Banu
Susma Sen, also a resident of the Hamidpur village, located in the Chapainawabganj district, about 330 kilometres from the capital, Dhaka, echoed her neighbour’s lamentation, adding that she rations out her family’s water use for a few days to avoid making the grueling trek again the next morning.
“Finding fresh water here is like finding gold,” chimed in 52-year-old Johra Khatun, who lives in the nearby village of Gopalpur. These villagers say every drop of water they collect is precious, and used sparingly.
They are wise to be so cautious, given that this northwestern region is the most water scarce part of Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people that is bracing for severe water shortages.
Already, global warming has dealt a harsh blow to farming communities. Extremely hot temperatures, inadequate rainfall and prolonged drought have become a matter of routine in the 7,500-square-kilometre Barind region.
Average rainfall has dropped to less than 1,200 millimetres, against the national average annual rainfall of 2,300 mm, putting undue stress on a groundwater table that is accustomed to being replenished by heavy monsoon rains.
According to unpublished data disclosed exclusively to IPS, excessive extraction of groundwater by 8,000 electric irrigation water pumps in the last three decades has also contributed to alarming levels of water scarcity in Barind, which produces 60 percent of the country’s most important crop: rice.
The two rivers that once supported life and livelihoods here – the Jamuna and the Mahananda – have slowed almost to a trickle. Massive dams in India that siphon off huge amounts of water during the dry season have led to heavy siltation of these cross-border rivers. In Bangladesh, extreme silt deposits have resulted in island-like formations across rivers that locals call “chars”.
Sardar Mohammad Shah-Newaz, director of the Institute of Water Modeling, a leading research body operating under the aegis of the ministry of water resources, told IPS, “Our latest studies indicate that… if the water levels of the two rivers drop any lower, the groundwater level will further decline, thus forcing the region into an acute water crisis.”
Nachole, a sub-district of Chapainawabganj, is one of the worst affected parts of the region, experiencing average annual rainfall of less than 1,000 millimetres in 2011 and 2012.
With a population of roughly 120,000 people, many of whom earn between 38 and 50 dollars a month, Nachole is teetering on the brink of disaster: about one-third of the 17,500 families who live here have no access to safe, clean drinking water.
Walking through the villages of Nachole, one is confronted with the dismal sight of dried out ponds, barren farmland, and withering crops. Though such scenes have become almost mundane, some residents still recall a time when these lands were lush and yielded plenty of food for the region’s 50,000 farmers.
Fifty-five-year-old Laila Banu tells IPS, “When I came here 27 years ago there were plenty of freshwater ponds that served as our main source of drinking and cooking water… as time passed, they all disappeared.”
The government responded by constructing some 5,000 tube wells here, drilling 200 or 230 feet into the earth to reach fresh water, compared to the average 30 to 50-foot-deep wells in the rest of the country.
“About 35 percent of those wells are now out of order,” Sakhawat Hossain, superintendent engineer of the department of public health and engineering (DPHE), told IPS.
“This significantly reduces access to safe drinking water in the area, particularly in the summer months.”
Now, organisations like the Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA), responsible for installing hundreds of tube wells in the region, are realising that long-term agricultural productivity cannot be achieved by pumping more water out of the earth but by restoring the delicate ecosystems that act as natural conservation and security systems.
“Our aim is to increase agriculture productivity by promoting biodiversity or encouraging farmers to use alternative crops,” BMDA Project Director Dr. Abul Kasem told IPS.
BMDA Chairman Mohammad Nurul Islam told IPS that in order to “overcome the challenges of…climate change, we strongly encourage farmers to grow crops that require less water, like wheat, maize, pulses, tomatoes, potatoes and other cereals.”
He is optimistic about initiatives like the government’s policy on biodiversity that promotes “crop diversification, which maximises use of farmland and increases farmers’ profit margins.”
Instead of relying on income from a single yield every season, as is the case with crops like rice, farmers with an array of crops can secure an income up to three times a year, he added. This amounts to roughly 300 dollars more every year for smallholders.
Farmers like Rafiq Hasan, who owns just two hectares of land in the Naogaon district, are starting to reap the benefits of this method, though he admits there are “more risks involved,” particularly with crops like potatoes that require cold storage facilities to preserve the surplus.
Ranjan Kumar Das, a small farmer in Chapainawabganj who now plants chickpeas and maize alongside his rice, says he has noticed enhanced soil fertility as a result of crop rotation.
The national biodiversity policy also called for the construction of canals that crisscross this vast landscape, alongside of which trees have been planted in the hopes that their complex root systems will improve the soil’s water retention capacity and ward off desertification.
The global fight against HIV/AIDS has seen recent hard-won breakthroughs, including the discovery of the genetic hiding place of the virus by doctors in Australia, a 50-percent drop in new infections across 25 low- and middle-income countries, and an increase of 63 percent in the number of people with access to HIV medication.
But ending stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV has proved more resistant, particularly so for those who are part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ) community."Right now we are on the brink of reaching the response’s full potential to save lives." -- Michel Sidibé
Since its inception in 1995, UNAIDS has been a leader in strengthening the response to HIV/AIDS, as well as providing access to health care and assistance to those living with the virus and in working with grassroots communities to help them reduce their vulnerabilities.
With May 17 marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IPS spoke with Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, about how discrimination affects efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, how that fight is moving forward, and the post-2015 development agenda.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: What is the impact of criminalisation of homosexuality on the policies UNAIDS is implementing?
A: UNAIDS is seeking to advance the vision of Zero new HIV infections, Zero discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths. To get there, we need to have universal access HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.
Some of the populations most highly affected by HIV are gay men and other men who have sex with men, as well as transgender people. If criminalised, there is virtually no way they can access the HIV information, commodities and services they need to avoid HIV infection and to stay alive and healthy if HIV positive. Nor can they mobilise their communities and support each other to avoid risky behaviour.
Furthermore, criminalisation of homosexuality is both driven by discrimination and leads to discrimination. Many gay men living with HIV face double discrimination – for being gay and for living with HIV. We will never reach the goal of zero discrimination as long as homosexuality is criminalised.
Q: With 76 countries still criminalising homosexuality, how do you plan to reach out to LGBT communities in those countries? And worldwide?
A: It is very difficult to reach LGBT communities in these countries. However, at the same time, in such places, HIV has often been an important entry point, sometimes the only entry point, for the health and human rights of LGBT people.
While laws criminalise, the public health sector has often understood how important it is to reach these populations. They have estimated their population’s size, done epidemiological studies, included them in national AIDS responses and have implemented tailored programmes. We support them to do so, regularly convening leaders of the LGBT community with government to work together on strategies to respond to HIV.
We also ask our staff to work with the ministry of justice and with police to enable these public health responses even where homosexuality is criminalised. We need a great expansion of programmes, greater protection of rights and attention to the new and younger generation of LGBT people who need access to HIV services.
Q: Do you have a specific campaign focused on the LGBT community?
A: We do not have a specific campaign, but we are working on the HIV-related rights and needs of the LGBT community from many angles. In terms of financing the AIDS response, we are asking countries to be much smarter in their HIV investments, in particular, to put resources and programmes towards populations highly affected by HIV.
In terms of access to health services, we are seeking to expand HIV prevention and treatment to all people in need and know that many LGBT people are not getting access to these services. We hope to improve their access through promoting more user-friendly health services as well as greater outreach programmes to their communities.
In terms of human rights, we promote the fact that they, like all people, have human rights. Like the U.N. secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights, we call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, as well as for their rights to non-discrimination, freedom from violence, health and participation and inclusion.
Q: What is the UNAIDS agenda for the post-2015 new development goals?
A: UNAIDS remains firmly committed to supporting countries to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment care and support. This means ensuring that everyone in need has access to HIV services without stigma and without discrimination.
Although there has been much progress in ensuring that even the most marginalised in society have access there is still a lot of work to do. To end stigma and discrimination around HIV we work with a broad range of partners including, community based organisations, faith-based organisations, political leaders, scientific committees, law enforcement bodies and many other groups.
Our response focuses on expanding the evidence base and increasing political engagement; engaging stakeholders to invest in programmes to reduce stigma and discrimination and increase access to justice; strengthening technical support for addressing punitive laws, practices, stigma and discrimination and strengthening support to civil society.
Q: There have been some breakthroughs in medical research on HIV and AIDS in recent months. Can we hope for a world free of AIDS in a few generations?
A: HIV has been one of the defining issues of our time and I strongly believe that we can end the AIDS epidemic. Right now we are on the brink of reaching the response’s full potential to save lives – so now more than ever countries need to commit to action and look to a future without AIDS.
Chile’s position as the world’s top producer of copper is not under threat, but the country faces the challenge of transforming its copper mining industry into social capital for the long term, and addressing high energy costs, which have grown seven-fold over the last decade, experts told IPS.
“The country’s comparative advantages, in contrast to its production indicators, are somewhat threatened by the upsurge in prices, especially for electricity and supplies,” said Rodrigo Balbontín, an analyst at the Centro de Estudios del Cobre y la Minería (CESCO – Centre for Copper and Mining Studies).
With 36 percent of the global market and 28 percent of known copper reserves, Chile remains in the lead as the world’s top producer of copper, which was nationalised in 1971 by then socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973). Copper accounts for 45 percent of the country’s exports and provides one-third of government revenue.
In 2012 the country produced 5.5 million tonnes of copper, three percent more than in the previous year, according to the Chilean Copper Commission (COCHILCO).
The National Copper Corporation (CODELCO), the state mining company, contributed 7.52 billion dollars to state revenues in 2012, maintaining copper as Chile’s chief product. CODELCO regulates the sector, which includes transnational operators like Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, the British-based Anglo American and Xstrata, based in Switzerland.
Bernardo Reyes, head of the mining engineering department at the University of Santiago, told IPS that Chile’s copper reserves “guarantee about 80 more years of production, but the deposits are being exhausted, and if CODELCO does not make the necessary investments, production will decline, which is its prime concern.”
Accordingly, CODELCO plans to inject 27 billion dollars in the period 2013-2020, mainly to increase production and improve copper grades, the measure of the metal’s purity. In the immediate term, it plans to increase extraction to 6.3 million tonnes in 2015.
North of the Chilean border, the world’s second producer, Peru, is planning to double its 2012 production by 2016. Output in 2012 was 141 percent higher than in 2011, reaching three million tonnes. From 2016 to 2021 Peru forecasts stable copper production at six million tonnes a year.
Balbontín said the other big copper producers, particularly Peru and China, will gradually approach Chile’s production figures “because they have more potential for growth,” but Chile’s supremacy is not at risk.
He added that Peru, rather than a threat, represents “the possibility of a strategic alliance, in which there could be an exchange of knowledge, experience and professionals.”
The United States, the other large producer in the Americas, is not a threat either, Balbontín said. “Not only in the case of copper, but in that of other materials, the United States produces for its own internal consumption,” he said.
In the experts’ view, another baseless threat to which frequent reference is made, with ulterior motives, is the alleged high cost of labour in Chile.
Reyes said that mining workers’ wages are lower in Chile than in the United States, and he dismissed the idea that they might eventually be a hindrance to investment.
Cristián Cuevas, the president of the Confederation of Subcontracted CODELCO Workers, said this was a “fictitious debate” and “unacceptable blackmail” on the part of investors in the sector.
“To think that mining industry workers are a privileged elite is to not understand anything. I would like to send the investors to experience for themselves the reality of more than 70 percent of the workers I represent, their working conditions, their living conditions, and the impact the industry has on mining towns,” he said.
The experts agreed that the chief real challenge, in contrast, is high infrastructure and energy costs, which make production more expensive, largely because of difficulties in securing access to water.
“The cost of energy in Chile has risen approximately seven-fold in 10 years, and that has a big effect on production costs,” said Reyes.
Electrolytic refining of copper consumes huge amounts of electricity.
Reyes added that water shortage in Chile’s northern desert, where the principal copper deposits are located, has forced mining companies to get their water supply from the sea.
Water from the ocean must be desalinated and transported to 800 metres above sea level. “Pumping water up into the Andes requires a great deal of infrastructure as well as energy resources,” he said.
CESCO’s Balbontín said the issue of electricity supply is related to the geographical features of the location of the copper deposits, the concentration of the energy market, and an energy mix that, in the case of the Great North Interconnected System, is based on coal and diesel fuel.
He emphasised that another very important issue to analyse is “converting the exploitation of a natural resource into long-term social capital, because copper is non-renewable, we all know that.” Copper profits should be used to build up complementary productive industries so that “we are not just left with the revenue and jobs provided by the copper industry,” he added.
However, he forecast an increase in copper production and consumption worldwide over the next decade, and stable prices that will not drop below the level of two dollars a pound, as they did in the mid-1990s.
“While copper prices have fallen significantly, this must be seen in the context of a scenario of bumper prices spanning many decades,” he said.
“The copper market today is being driven by the greatest migration in the history of humanity, which is the rural-urban migration in China, where 500 million people are becoming consumers of electric cables, buildings, food processors, cars, and so on,” he said.
He dismissed the idea that in the medium term there could be a return to the copper prices seen in 2011, which reached an average of 3.99 dollars a pound, the highest since 1966.
“But neither does it mean that the ‘super cycle’ is over and that now we will go back to the situation that prevailed in the 1990s. In the medium term that is not likely to happen,” which means will continue to be the main source of Chile’s wealth, Balbontín said.
With the disqualification of former president and current chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by a vetting body, the Guardian Council, Iran’s presidential campaign is opening with many in the country in a state of shock.
Although the eight qualified candidates offer somewhat of a choice given their different approaches to the economy and foreign policy, the disqualification of Rafsanjani has once again raised the spectre that the conservative establishment intends to manipulate the electoral process in such a way that only a conservative candidate will win when voters cast their ballots Jun. 14.
Rafsanjan’s candidacy, which received solid support from former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, had created hope among a section of the Iranian population — unhappy with the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — that a real contest over the direction of the country was possible.
In his first statement after declaring his candidacy, Rafsanjani had made clear that returning the country towards “moderation” and away from the “extremism” that had taken hold in both domestic and foreign policy was his objective.
His stature and name recognition had immediately catapulted him as the most formidable candidate against the conservative establishment.
The possibility that the Guardian Council would disqualify a man who is the appointed chair of the Expediency Council and an elected member of the Clerical Council of Experts was deemed unfathomable to many.
In the words of conservative MP Ali Mottahari, who had pleaded with Rafsanjani to register as a candidate, “if Hashemi is disqualified, the foundations of the revolution and the whole system of the Islamic Republic will be questioned.”
Rafsanjani’s unexpected disqualification poses a challenge for his supporters, who include centrists, reformists and even some middle-of-the-road conservatives such as Mottahari: who, if anyone, will they now support in the election?
The slate of approved candidates includes two individuals — former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani and former first vice president Mohammadreza Aref — who hold mostly similar views to Rafsanjani.
In fact, both had said that they would withdraw if Rafsanjani’s candidacy was approved. But neither is as well known as the former president and they will now have to compete against each other in attracting likeminded voters.
Rowhani has chosen to run as an independent, while Aref is running as a reformist. While Rafsanjani’s candidacy had energised and unified the reformists and centrists, the campaign of these two lesser known candidates may be cause for disunity and/or voter apathy.
A third candidate, Mohammad Gharazi — who may also have centrist tendencies — is even less known throughout the country.
He served first as the minister of petroleum and then post, telegraph, and telephone in the cabinet of then-prime minister Mir Hossein Mussavi — now under house arrest after his 2009 presidential bid — and then in Rafsanjani’s cabinet when he served as president.
But since 1997, Ghazari has not held public office. Furthermore, no one really knows his views or why he was qualified when several other ministers with more recent experience were not.
Reformist supporters, already distraught over the previous contested election and continued incarceration of candidates they voted for in 2009, may see Rafsanjani’s disqualification as yet another sign that their vote will not count.
Apathy or abstention in protest among supporters is now a real issue for the centrists and reformists. This challenge may — and only may — be overcome if one of the candidates agrees to withdraw in favour of the other and the popular former reformist president Khatami throws his support behind the unified candidate in the same way he did with the candidacy of Rafsanjani.
But even this may not be enough. The reality is that the low name recognition of both candidates limits the impact of such political manoeuvring and coalition-building by the reformists, especially if the conservative-controlled security establishment makes campaigning and the spread of information difficult. Already Aftab News, a website affiliated with Rowhani, has been blocked.
This leaves the competition among the other five candidates who come from the conservative bloc. One, former presidential candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, is also running as an independent and is both the most likely to last until Election Day and the least likely to garner many votes.
It is the competition among the other four conservative candidates — Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, former Parliamentary Speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel, and current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili — that will in all likelihood determine the fate of the election.
If Rafsanjani had been qualified, there would have been an urge for unity among these candidates since, without such unity, the former president could have received the 50 percent plus one necessary to win in the first round.
Now, however, the same forces that had prevented the conservative candidates from rallying behind one candidate remain in play.
Polls published by various Iranian news agencies, although not very reliable, uniformly suggest that Qalibaf is the most popular conservative candidate because of his management of the Tehran megapolis and the vast improvement in the delivery of services he has overseen there.
But Qalibaf’s relative popularity has not yet been sufficient to convince other candidates to unite behind him. This may eventually happen after televised presidential debates if he does well in them and if Velayati and Haddad Adel drop out in his favour since, from the beginning, the three of them had agreed that eventually the most popular should stand on Election Day.
But there is no guarantee that this will happen. Velayati in particular has ambitions of his own and has implied that Leader Ali Khameni’s preference should be given at least as much weight as polls, giving rise to speculation that he is the Leader’s preferred candidate despite clear signs that he has not been able to create much excitement even among conservative voters.
Convincing the hard-line candidate Jalili to drop out in favour of Qalibaf will be even harder.
In fact, from now until Election Day there will probably be as much pressure on Qalibaf to drop out in favour of Jalili as the other way around in the hope that a unified conservative candidate can win in the first round, avoiding the risk of either Rowhani or Aref making it to the second round where the top two candidates will have to compete on Jun. 21.
Jalili is the least experienced — and well known — of all the conservative candidates and, in a campaign in which economy is the number one issue by far, there are real concerns regarding whether he is experienced enough to manage Iran’s deep economic problems.
But his late entry in the presidential race, minutes after Rafsanjani entered it, has also given rise to speculation that he, instead of Velayati, may be the Leader’s preferred choice.
What is not a subject of speculation is the fact that Jalili takes the hardest line of all the candidates.
His campaign slogan of “hope, justice, and resistance” suggests that he is the most likely to continue current policies, although perhaps with less bombast and populist flair than the current president.
As such, Jalili stands apart from the other seven candidates who will campaign on the need for both change and competent leadership.
Jalili jumped into the race at the last minute as a hard-line counter to Rafsanjani’s call for moderation. Ironically, with the latter’s disqualification, he now stands alone as the candidate whom others will try to mobilise voters against.
Amid warnings that Kenya’s agricultural water use is surpassing sustainable levels and adversely affecting food security, biodiversity researchers say that agrobiodiversity should be considered as a vital tool to combat this.
“In order to feed the nation, the country must explore agrobiodiversity, specifically (the growing of) vegetables and fruits, which have been neglected in favour of maize,” Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a professor of horticulture at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, told IPS.
As climate change continues to wreak havoc on rainfall patterns, resulting in intermittent prolonged dry spells across this East African nation, vegetables present the best alternative to maize because they do not require large amounts of water.
The 2012/2013 Kenya country brief by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that the “October to December ‘short-rains’ season performed poorly … (and) a series of dry spells also caused poor germination … leading to wilting and drying out of crops.”
According to the United States Agency for International Development Kenya, this nation is “classified among the most water scarce countries in the world.” And government statistics indicate that 13 million Kenyans lack access to improved water supply.
“In Kenya, and by extension Africa, desertification and water scarcity are a major threat to agriculture and to pastoralist communities. Strategies such as irrigation, water harvesting and conservation, and tree planting must be revamped,” Nashon Tado, of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Horn of Africa and Yemen office, told IPS.
The Ministry of Agriculture says that at least 70 percent of Kenya’s agricultural production comes from smallholder farmers who farm on two to five acres of land. Of Kenya’s 42 million people, eight million households are involved in agriculture, with five million depending directly on it for their livelihoods.
But Kenya’s Food Security Outlook 2013, released on May 15 by the U.N. World Food Programme, confirmed that embracing other crops besides maize was improving food security here.
“Improved availability of green vegetables, green maize and legumes from early June through July is expected to diversify diets and sustain food consumption,” the report stated.
It makes sense that Kenyans should explore biodiversity. Kenya has ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, the globally negotiated agreement committed to sustainable use of biodiversity. Consequently, agrobiodiversity is being touted as a solution to the biting water stresses facing Kenya.
“This year’s International Biodiversity Day’s theme is Water and Biodiversity and is very significant as the country tries to find innovative techniques and strategies to maximise water usage,” Naomi Chepkorir, an agricultural extension officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, in Kenya’s bread basket, Rift Valley province, told IPS.
Indigenous vegetables and fruits are easy to manage, can withstand high and unpredictable temperatures, and are known to have high nutritional value and contain high concentrates of micronutrients, including iron.
“Take the spider plant and African nightshade, which are found in parts of Western and Nyanza provinces, as well as across East Africa. They are known to be nutritious, medicinal and are very rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, anti-oxidants and fibre,” Abukutsa-Onyango said.
The spider plant is known to have high levels of beta-carotene, calcium, protein, magnesium, iron and vitamin C. The plant is also high in antioxidants, which may help prevent diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Chepkorir said that generally vegetables have a shorter life cycle compared to other crops. They grow in a few weeks and require very little irrigation, hence allowing smallholder farmers to reap the benefits of their harvest earlier than they would if they planted a crop like maize – which takes up to three to four months to mature.
Abukutsa-Onyango agreed, adding that indigenous vegetables are able to adapt to climate change because they mature faster. She gave the example of the spider plant and the variety of amaranth that is indigenous to Africa, which can be harvested within three weeks of planting. She added that the slenderleaf ice plant could also withstand water deficit conditions.
Abukutsa-Onyango added that growing a diversity of indigenous vegetables and fruits “would not only address food security, but also nutrition and health security.
“People should eat a balanced diet, and currently Kenyans are consuming inadequate amounts of vegetables and fruits leading to an upsurge of diet-related diseases,” she said.
Good nutrition and healthy diets are important aspects in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight ambitious goals, adopted by all U.N. member states in 2000, aim to curb poverty, disease and gender inequality.
According to the MDG Report 2010 “nutrition has long been seriously overlooked and underemphasised by donors and developing countries, despite good nutrition being a key enabler to meet almost every MDG.”
Yvonne Onyango, a nutritionist in Nairobi, explained: “If a child is not well fed in its first 1,000 days, its growth is affected and the damage is irreversible. The child will never rise to the potential that other children who are well nourished do.”
Government statistics show that about 35 percent of Kenyan children suffer from malnutrition, including iron deficiency anaemia.
But water is a significant aspect of food security and management of this resource requires cooperation from many levels, according to Phillip Muthee, from Kenya’s Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA).
KEPSA is the umbrella body of organised business associations, ranging from big to small enterprises in the country.
“When water is managed and shared cooperatively, it supports livelihoods, food security and the economy,” Muthee told IPS.
Muthee feared that Kenya’s new devolved system of government could lead to potential new conflicts around the provision of and access to water. Kenya is now implementing the new system, which allows for decisions affecting Kenya’s 47 counties to be taken at grassroots, as opposed to national, level.
“For instance, the government has already committed to make about one million hectares of land irrigable. But conflict may arise between the national and county governments regarding whose responsibility it is to ensure that this is done,” Muthee said.
He worried that if this happened “water will not reach the people at the grassroots level who need it, not just to feed themselves, but to feed the nation.”
Staring out at his golden wheat field with satisfaction, 50-year old Alamgir Akbar says with a sigh of relief: “We’ve had a good crop this season.”
The farmer has waited a long time to utter those words. A resident of a small rural community on the outskirts of the Ucchali village in the Soan Valley, a 737-square-metre expanse of farmland in the Khushab district of Pakistan’s Punjab province, he has spent five years battling the impacts of a prolonged drought.
With just 12,000 acres of irrigated farmland and only saltwater lakes dotting the landscape, the Valley, which borders the hills of Punjab’s famous Salt Range, is not ideal for practicing agriculture.
Residents traditionally relied on rainwater to recharge their roughly 3,000 community wells, but half a decade of drought in the 1990s brought farming to a standstill and pitched the region’s 150,000 residents into the vortex of poverty.
Farmers here operate smallholdings of no more than five hectares, cultivating crops like cauliflower on flat land as well as terraces and selling the produce in Punjab’s big cities like Lahore, Faisalabad, Sargodha and Gujrat.
Before the drought hit, a farmer could typically earn a net profit of 600 to 800 dollars in a 75-day cropping period, but lost a considerable amount of this income on hiring trucks to transport goods to urban markets.
As the rains became increasingly infrequent, farmers were forced to bore tube wells, some as deep as 200 or 300 feet. This new system required investments in turbines to pump out the water, which in turn generated huge energy costs, as the 26-horsepower machines guzzled gallon after gallon of diesel.
Unable to afford the necessary investments, farmers turned to relatives for loans and sold their animals or other assets to continue farming.
When villagers began to chop down trees for fuel it sparked a process of deforestation, which then “accelerated the rate of soil erosion” and increased the risk of prolonged drought, Gulbaz Afaqi, director of the Soan Valley Development Programme (SVDP), told IPS.
Yields dropped, and farmers like Akbar began to despair.
Bringing back water
Driving down the mud track to Ucchali, the tranquil and almost picture-perfect pastoral scene is marred by solar panels.
But what outsiders see as an eyesore, villagers see as an angel of mercy. Owned and operated collectively by 12 families, these three-kilowatt panels are helping to pump water – and new life – into the farmers’ fields.
The landscape is once again alive with patches of cauliflower, coriander, chillies and potatoes as a pilot project spearheaded by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) begins to bear fruit.
Working with 112 partner organisations in more than 90,000 settlements spread across 120 districts in Pakistan, the fund aims to help this country of 170 million meet the targets defined in the Millennium Development Goals before the 2015 deadline.
Armed with donations from the government, international agencies and corporate entities, the PPAF embarked on a nationwide programme of drought mitigation and disaster management in 2003, which quickly identified the Soan Valley as “one of the areas that needed our attention,” PPAF spokesperson Zaffar Pervez Sabri told IPS.
Determined to avoid the worst-case scenario of locals being forced to sell their livestock or migrate from the Valley, the PPAF developed a “water balance model” to manage and conserve remaining resources and address the impacts of climate change, according to Sabri.
To date, the fund has enabled the construction of 124 irrigation pipes feeding over 8,000 acres of farmland; 60 rainwater harvesting ponds, each about the size of an acre; five delay action dams that collect surface water and are ideal for the Valley’s pitted landscape; 40 check dams, which help to prevent erosion; and 12 natural resource management schemes, benefitting over 100,000 people.
Villagers themselves raised the money for the solar panels that pump the water, giving community members a sense of ownership over the project. “We collected 6,000 dollars from the village, and the fund provided the other 6,000,” Afaqi said. By eliminating the need for diesel pumps, the panels have enabled farm communities to save over 2,000 dollars annually.
Villagers also replaced traditional open channel irrigation networks with the more efficient pipe irrigation system to avoid “huge losses and water evaporation in unpaved water courses,” said Afaqi, adding, “The PVC pipes facilitate even distribution of water into the field.”
Mohammad Ismail, an engineer working with the SVDP, told IPS that pipe irrigation is especially useful on slopes where surface water would otherwise run off.
A 50-percent increase in crop yields after this transition nudged farmers into accepting other, more comprehensive changes in their lives, such as new crops and cropping patterns.
Following the SVDP’s advice, farmers gave up cultivating cauliflower, a water-intensive crop that needs to be watered 16 times in 75 days, in favour of potatoes, “which need to be irrigated only eight times,” a local farmer named Sher Khan told IPS.
Potatoes have become a major cash crop in the area, with 46 percent of irrigated land dedicated solely to their production.
In addition, farmers grow chillies in the summer, wheat in the winter and practice year-round horticulture with nectarines and peaches.
The water scheme has made farming viable once more – with just a single acre of land, according to Afaqi, the average farmer can earn a monthly profit of 1,200 dollars on potatoes, 1,500 dollars on coriander and between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars on wheat.
“With an initial investment of about 1.3 million dollars, combined with technical assistance from the PPAF and hard work by the farming communities, we have created a new economy that generates over six million dollars annually,” said Afaqi.
The programme has also spawned interest in local water conservation efforts, including bi-monthly monitoring of ground water resources at 40 different locations, he added.
Reports from quarterly inspections suggest the groundwater table is improving. Regular monitoring also serves as a kind of early-warning system, by alerting farmers about decreasing water tables ahead of cropping cycles.
For farmers like Akbar, the project has literally helped him and his large extended family – spread between 12 homes in Ucchali – achieve their modest dreams.
“All our children go to school,” he says, pride written all over his face as he conducts a brief tour of his humble brick home. The small, attached toilet at the back symbolises huge progress: “It means we no longer have to go out into the fields to relieve ourselves,” he said with a smile.
The lack of economic diversification throughout sub-Saharan Africa means that despite South Africa’s pledges to help Nigeria make the automotive sector the West African nation’s flagship industrial target, it may be difficult to do so, experts say.
Earlier this month, South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies announced the initiative during a visit here by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
It is a move that is seen as an important milestone in inter-African industrial cooperation. However, Peter Draper, a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs, questioned whether this collaboration would develop into economic integration.
“The real question is whether such cooperation could ultimately evolve into meaningful, broader, economic integration rather than the network of mostly hollow shells that currently masquerade as free trade agreements,” he told IPS.
“I think that Nigeria and the Southern African Customs Union should negotiate a complementary Free Trade Area agreement to promote closer economic relations – as the complementarities are strong, and it would bring the two countries closer together politically.”
Draper said that the African Union (AU) has already developed a number of initiatives for specific sectors, but more needs to be done.
“Actually there are quite a few sectoral policies covering, inter alia, energy, communications, transport, and various other integration initiatives. The problem remains implementation, not a lack of plans,” he said.
He said that it seemed to be commonly accepted that the AU’s role was to develop and coordinate implementation of a continental “master plan” that integrates these various initiatives.
“I think there is a role for a broader continental perspective, but I prefer the notion of ‘subsidiarity’ – pioneered in the European Union – where implementation is left to the lowest possible level of government.”
Draper said that the cooperation between South Africa and Nigeria could be an important mentoring initiative for South Africa.
“South Africa has been (involved in) auto industry policy development since the mid-1920s and has a lot of experience to draw on and share,” he explained.
“It reminds me of cooperation in Latin America, which historically evolved through sectors, involving the auto industry particularly. The European Community (which became the EU) also started out through a network of sectoral collaboration – iron and steel in particular.”
Minister Davies told the Business Day newspaper that discussions on automotive cooperation with Nigeria were still at an early stage.
But while some manufacturers, such as Nissan, might be willing to set up plants in Nigeria, others are more cautious.
Bodo Donauer, the managing director of BMW South Africa, said that in his group “production follows the market” and he does not currently envisage a BMW plant being established in Nigeria.
“Local production plants make it easier to access and develop new markets with long-term growth potential. Having a local plant also makes the company a ‘local player’ and boosts acceptance of the products locally and underscores our good corporate citizen approach,” he said.
“The success of this strategy has been proven by positive sales trends since the ramp-up of production plants, for example in the Unites States, in China, in the United Kingdom and, of course, in South Africa.”
He said that around 20 percent of BMWs produced at the Rosslyn plant near Pretoria are sold on the local market in South Africa “with more than 80 percent exported to markets around the world, including one percent to certain markets in the rest of Africa.”
“Given the current size of the new premium car market in the rest of Africa, we believe the BMW Group is well-placed with its current global production network to meet any additional demand in markets like Nigeria without the necessity for additional production locations,” he said.
Peggy Droidskie, an advisor to the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that the initiative between South Africa and Nigeria was very welcome, as regional integration in Africa remains high on the development agenda.
“Nigeria is a large market, and it is closer to Europe. This proximity to Europe implies that it would be logical for European connections to be used.
“The fact that South Africa is preferred (as a partner for Nigeria) indicates that South Africa is very competitive and can accommodate the requirements of Nigeria. It also provides South African manufacturers with an additional footprint in Africa,” she said.
Droidskie predicted that some manufacturers who currently operate in South Africa would become interested in setting up in Nigeria.
“Agreements of this nature are driven by politicians,” she noted. “The politicians believe that the agreements that they enter into benefit the private sector, which is often, but not always, the case.”
She said that South African vehicle manufacturers are already exporting a significant number of vehicles to Nigeria.
“Last year, the number was nearly 15,000. Nigeria is therefore currently a lucrative market for South African vehicle manufacturers. It is therefore very likely that the manufacturers will take advantage and come to the party.”
And she predicted that this cooperation could expand to other industrial sectors.
“If the profile of Nigeria’s imports is taken into account, there is considerable room for an increase in South African exports to Nigeria. For instance, there is room for greater trade in electrical and electronic equipment and machinery.
“With the development of the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement between the three regional economic blocs in sub-Saharan Africa, there is considerable potential for cooperation to expand to other countries and to other sectors.”
U.S. officials Tuesday formally unveiled the government’s first comprehensive strategy aimed at integrating water into all U.S. development funding and programmes, a step long urged by advocates and development experts.
Civil society groups are expressing excitement over the scope and strength of the new strategy, dubbing it a “major advance”. But many are also calling on lawmakers to ensure that, during the coming implementation phase, U.S. aid is targeted primarily at the poorest communities in developing and middle-income countries.
“Achieving water security for regions, nations, and individuals is one of the greatest development challenges confronting the world today,” the new Water and Development Strategy, released Tuesday by USAID, the country’s main foreign aid arm, states. “By its nature, as a basic and essential resource, water considerations cut across nearly every aspect of USAID programming.”
Yet because of this cross-cutting nature – the new document covers both the human and agricultural uses of water – the new strategy was a very long time coming, requiring input and agreement from a vast number of government agencies and stakeholders.
“It is kind of astounding that this is the U.S. government’s first such strategy, though it is something that many groups have long been advocating for,” Alanna Imbach, media officer with WaterAid America, a global advocacy and implementing group, told IPS.
“For many years in development work, water, sanitation and hygiene have been a bit forgotten. Instead, significant focus has been placed on education, maternal health and nutrition, overlooking the fact that water and sanitation are foundational building blocks for all of those other elements. So it’s now urgent that we get this right first and then the others will fall into place.”
Indeed, the ongoing impact of these issues remains incredibly wide. In developing countries, some 5,000 children are estimated to die every day from water-borne diseases, overwhelmingly from diarrhoea due to bad drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene.
Every year, around 2.5 billion such cases are recorded among young children alone, and the knock-on effects are vast.
“We know that every dollar we invest in clean water and basic sanitation yields eight dollars in benefits,” Dick Durbin, a U.S. senator who has championed related legislation, said Tuesday at the public unveiling of the new strategy. “People are healthier, kids stay in school, food is safer, AIDS drugs and other critical health treatments are able to work.”
In fact, international recognition of this centrality has led to some initial global success: the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the proportion of those without access to clean drinking water was met in 2010, five years early.
Yet another MDG to similarly cut the number of those without access to basic sanitation remains outstanding, and the United Nations says the world will not likely achieve this goal by 2015. According to USAID, some 40 percent of the world continues to use unsafe toilets – when they have toilets at all.
Advocates say it is critical that the new USAID strategy will attempt simultaneously to tackle both water and sanitation-related issues. Setting out a plan for the next five years, the aim is to provide at least 10 million people with “sustainable access” to an improved water supply and six million people with access to improved sanitation during that period.
Notably, the plan puts into action new USAID guidance to emphasise local ownership and sustainability of U.S.-funded aid projects, while offering greatly expanded flexibility on how that funding is to be used.
“What’s great about this strategy is that it opens up space for creative programming in water development,” Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People, a humanitarian group, told IPS. “It’s a huge step forward.”
The United States already has in place one piece of legislation requiring that water and sanitation be a central priority for U.S. foreign funding, known as the Water for the Poor Act, passed in 2005. Further, that law also requires that water and sanitation-related aid be centred on countries that have the least access to those services, with the aim of having the greatest possible impact on other development goals.
Yet policymakers have never followed up to define an implementation plan for this goal, as mandated by the Water for the Poor Act. And while the new USAID strategy is not that implementation plan, observers are now planning to push lawmakers to ensure that the new strategy is closely aligned with the objectives of the 2005 legislation.
Indeed, the strategy itself stipulates that USAID will advance programmes “consistent” with that law, “including establishing criteria to designate high priority countries for increased investments”.
Yet much of the language in the strategy also contextualises water within a fast-strengthening narrative of national security, in line with a major report last year from the U.S. intelligence community that identified water security as a primary threat to U.S. interests in coming decades.
As such, the strategy mandates focusing new water and sanitation emphasis on countries for three reasons, one of which is “strategic considerations”.
“My concern is what the balance is going to be here – I’d like to see the vast majority of these funds going to countries and communities where water and sanitation access levels are under 75 percent, rather than to those countries where significant access already exists,” John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, a Washington advocacy group on issues of water and sanitation, told IPS.
“Plus, you can’t forget about the poor communities in middle-income countries. The new strategy can be very pro-poor, depending on how one interprets it, but these are issues on which we need to continue to work with USAID.”
WaterAid’s Imbach has similar concerns, warning that the strategy currently allows for a “fair proportion of funds” to go to countries of strategic importance. She says her office is now looking to Congressional leaders to ensure accountability to the poor.
One such opportunity could be quickly approaching, with lawmakers preparing to re-introduce a bill called the Water for the World Act, an earlier version of which was defeated in 2010. That legislation would “offer an opportunity to ensure that those most in need are benefiting from U.S.-funded water and sanitation funding,” Imbach says.
The Water for the World Act could be re-introduced as early as next month.
Everyone knows water is life. Far too few understand the role of trees, plants and other living things in ensuring we have clean, fresh water.
This dangerous ignorance results in destruction of wetlands that once cleaned water and prevented destructive and costly flooding, scientists and activists warn."We have accelerated major processes like erosion, applied massive quantities of nitrogen that leaks from soil to ground and surface waters and, sometimes, literally siphoned all water from rivers." -- GWSP's Anik Bhaduri
Around the world, politicians and others in power have made and continue to make decisions based on short-term economic interests without considering the long-term impact on the natural environment, said Anik Bhaduri, executive officer of the Global Water System Project (GWSP), a research institute based in Bonn, Germany.
“Humans are changing the character of the world water system in significant ways with inadequate knowledge of the system and the consequences of changes being imposed,” Bhaduri told IPS.
The list of human impacts on the world’s water – of which only 0.03percent is available as freshwater – is long and the scale of those impacts daunting.
“We have accelerated major processes like erosion, applied massive quantities of nitrogen that leaks from soil to ground and surface waters and, sometimes, literally siphoned all water from rivers, emptying them for human uses before they reach the ocean,” Bhaduri said.
On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years, which distorts the natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted over millennia. Two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking due to pumping out groundwater, oil and gas. Some deltas are falling at a rate four times faster than global sea level is rising.
More than 65 percent of the world’s rivers are in trouble, according to one study published in Nature in 2010. Those findings were very “conservative” since there was not enough data to assess impacts of climate change, pharmaceutical compounds, mining wastes and water transfers, Charles Vörösmarty of the City University of New York previously told IPS.
Recently, China’s First National Census of Water discovered they’d lost more than 28,000 rivers compared to just 20 years ago. Most experts blame the loss on massive overuse and engineering projects to shift water from one region to another.
“We treat symptoms of environmental abuse rather than underlying causes…by throwing concrete, pipes, pumps, and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half-trillion dollars a year,” said Vörösmarty, who is also co-chair and a founding member of the GWSP.
As these problems continue to mount, the public is largely unaware of this reality or its growing costs, he said in a release.
Protecting and investing in natural infrastructure is far cheaper than concrete and pipes, representing the smarter solution to water security. This approach also benefits tourism, recreation and cultural benefits, improved resilience and biodiversity conservation.
World experts are meeting in Bonn, Germany this week to consolidate this understanding and offer policy makers solutions to prevent ongoing damage to the global water system.
The Water in the Anthropocene conference will also make recommendations on how decision makers can adapt to the multiple challenges of growing water use, declining ecosystems and climate change.
The public and policy makers are not aware of these huge water challenges, said water expert Janos Bogardi, senior advisor to GWSP. Education aside, there is an overwhelming need to have well-defined global water quantity and quality standards that meet the needs of people, agriculture and healthy ecosystems.
The upcoming U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are expected to include “water security”, which is huge step forward, Bogardi told IPS.
“Defining these interrelated needs is huge challenge for scientists and politicians alike,” he said.
Reasonable daily water use to meet sanitary needs and drinking is 40 to 80 litres, but U.S. per capita daily use is over 300 litres, while Germany is 120 litres. In urban Hungary, where water is relatively expensive, consumption is 80 litres/day.
But how much water does nature need?
GWSP scientists’ best guess at this point is that taking 30 percent to 40 percent of a renewable freshwater resource constitutes “extreme” water stress which could tip an ecosystem into collapse. This can be mitigated if water is returned and recycled in good quality. Mining fossil groundwater resources is by definition non-sustainable.
“We have to be careful that the water security goal is truly sustainable for ecosystems,” Bogardi said.
It is not clear that the Sustainable Development Goal on water will “simultaneously optimise water security for humans as well as for nature”, said Vörösmarty.
“The water sciences community stands ready to take on this challenge. Are the the decision makers?” he asked.
“The people are the only thing that matters,” says agronomist Miguel Ángel Salcines, who then goes on to list a series of other “secondary” factors that have turned Vivero Alamar, an urban farm on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, into a rare success story in the country’s depressed agricultural sector.
“We offer flexible hours, relatively high wages, and professional upgrading, among other benefits that make the cooperative an attractive option. This is how we attract high quality human resources, who are crucial today in order to produce more organic food,” said Salcines, the president of Vivero Alamar, where production has been chemical-free since 2000.
The cooperative’s recipe for success also includes transparent accounting, equitable profit sharing, interest-free loans for the workers, free lunches, and support for women workers with young children or others in their care: they are allowed to arrive up to an hour later than the official beginning of the work day, at seven in the morning, Salcines told Tierramérica*.
Human capital played a decisive role in raising production at this urban agriculture venture, founded in 1997 on an initial 800 square metres of land in the community of Alamar, around 15 kilometres east of downtown Havana. This is why Salcines believes that the key to achieving food security in Cuba lies in agricultural workers with a “vocation” for farming, as well as training.
In 2012, world food prices skyrocketed as a result of poor crop yields in various centres of agricultural production, such as the United States. The Caribbean countries, which are net food importers, suffered the greatest impact in the region, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
Less than five percent of the population of Cuba suffers from malnutrition, but the country was forced to spend over 1.633 billion dollars on food imports last year, an unsustainable expenditure for an economy in crisis for more than 20 years, specialists say.
Reducing this massive expenditure by raising domestic food production remains a challenge for the government of President Raúl Castro. In fact, in the first quarter of this year, the National Office of Statistics and Information reported a 7.8 percent decrease in agricultural production other than sugar cane.
“There is a big demand that needs to be met, which is why we are able to sell everything we grow,” said Salcines, one of the founders of the cooperative, which now covers a total of 10.14 hectares and produces more than 230 different crop varieties (primarily garden vegetables, as well as some fruits, grains and tubers) in greenhouses and open fields.
In the midst of a generally inefficient agricultural sector, Vivero Alamar has achieved consistent growth for more than 15 years, thanks to the constant upgrading of its organic farming methods, which have even earned the praise of the director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, who visited the cooperative earlier this month.
In 2012, they produced 400 tons of vegetables, 5.5 tons of medicinal and “spiritual” plants (used in religious rituals), 2.6 tons of dried herbs and spices, and 350 tons of worm manure.
They also produced 30,000 ornamental plant and fruit tree seedlings and three million vegetable seedlings, some for their own planting needs, others for sale to other farmers, reported Salcines.
Fresh vegetables, especially lettuce, are the products most sought after by the local residents in Alamar, who have begun to learn in recent years – like people in the rest of the country – about the benefits of including more greens in the traditional Cuban diet of rice, beans, “viandas” (starchy tubers and plantain) and pork.
“The first time we planted cauliflower, in 2000, it all got left in the fields, because nobody knew what it was,” plant health engineer Norma Romero told Tierramérica. In her view, one of the most important contributions made by the more than 33,000 urban and suburban farms in Cuba has been the expansion of access to and consumption of vegetables.
Thanks to a new initiative at Vivero Alamar, recipes for the preparation of different vegetables and mushrooms accompany the lists of products available at the cooperative’s sales outlet, as part of its business and educational strategy. The shelves also stock pickled vegetables, fruit preserves and garlic paste, produced through its own small industry sideline.
Although organic produce can be prohibitively costly in other countries, the organic fruits and vegetables sold by Vivero Alamar are actually priced lower than those produced with agrochemicals and sold in private farmers markets, where the prices are set in accordance with supply and demand.
“The affordable prices are the biggest attraction. A head of lettuce costs four Cuban pesos (five cents of a dollar) here, and everywhere else they charge 10 pesos,” regular customer Sonia Ricardo told Tierramérica. “The vegetables here are fresh, they have no pesticides, and the service is really fast,” she added.
Despite these low prices, the cooperative is able to earn good profits, production chief Gonzálo González assured Tierramérica. Eighty-five percent of its products are sold directly to the population, and the rest go to restaurants like La Bodeguita del Medio, a major tourist attraction in Havana.
Since it first started out with just five people, Vivero Alamar has progressively moved towards a closed-loop farming system that reduces waste and environmental damage.
“We try to buy as few inputs from outside as possible,” explained González, which is what led to “the idea of producing our own manure and various bio-pesticides and fertilisers.”
Vivero Alamar raises bulls to obtain manure, has set up “worm bins” to produce earthworm castings, another organic fertiliser, and breeds mycorrhizal fungi (which attach themselves to the roots of plants and promote their growth) as well as insects and microorganisms that can boost crop yields naturally. The cooperative has also established links with 17 scientific centres for the incorporation of new organic farming techniques and products.
Today, the 195 people who work here are striving to raise production by 40 percent to reach the farm’s full potential output, and have also expanded into raising rabbits and sheep, in order to include meat in its sales to the public and improve protein consumption among the neighbouring population, some 30,000 people.
The staff is made up of 175 cooperative members and 20 employees, and boasts a high overall level of education, with 92 university graduates and 42 technical college graduates. Women currently account for only 46 of the 195 workers.
“A farm can do much more than produce food,” commented Salcines, as he watched a group of foreign tourists who had booked a guided tour and organic lunch at Vivero Alamar.
* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.