More than a week after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 4,000 people and displaced another 4 million, relief efforts remain hampered by poor roadways, congested airports, and a host of other logistical nightmares. While the Red Cross says they have more than enough emergency supplies for devastated regions, the government's slow response and a lack of infrastructure have made it difficult to quickly reach affected areas. But what dry goods have been dispersed by the national government are being frequently diverted by local politicians who waste valuable hours or even days repackaging relief items to bear their names, campaign slogans, or party colors. It all adds up to an ugly introduction to the personality-centered world of Philippine politics, one marked by feuding dynasties, rampant cronyism, and, above all, dysfunction.
The storm struck just as some of the country's uglier political practices were being exposed -- and with the spotlight on the Philippines in the aftermath of the storm, those practices have become impossible to ignore. An unfolding corruption scandal that began in July implicated 18 senators in the misuse or embezzlement of at least $25.5 million, money that had been intended for local development projects. Another exposed 97 local officials who plundered up to $20 million earmarked for relief and rehabilitation efforts following the 2009 typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which also killed thousands. Now, in Haiyan's wake, many worry that relief funds will, again, end up padding the pockets of shameless politicians. Churches and civil society groups have been quick to point out that the sheer scope of the devastation -- exacerbated by substandard housing and woefully undeveloped disaster response systems -- is evidence of endemic political pilfering.
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In October, China's massive, state-of-the-art hospital ship, the Peace Ark, completed a four-month deployment to eight countries, coordinating goodwill medical missions and running emergency response exercises with other navies. The ship is one of just a handful of floating hospitals in the world and boasts 300 beds, 20 ICUs and 8 operating theatres, treating patients in Myanmar, Djibouti and Cuba. Yet it remains berthed in Shanghai in the face of unfolding devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan.
According to the latest government figures, at least 3,361 people were killed by the storm surge that flattened parts of the Philippines last Friday, while 12,487 others were injured. Medical teams on the ground are struggling to handle the crisis, particularly as a lack of clean water and sanitation has fueled the spread of diseases like cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery and leptospirosis. In an outpouring of humanitarian assistance, Britain has sent its largest helicopter carrier, the Illustrious, to the country, loaded with medical supplies and a promise of $32 million in aid. The U.S., for its part, has dispatched two Navy ships, an aircraft carrier, 5,000 troops and is also preparing to deploy the USN Mercy, a hospital ship currently berthed in San Diego.
State media in China have urged the government to deploy Peace Ark in the wake of Haiyan, but the ship, which is well-positioned to respond quickly and effectively to disasters like this one, is unmoved.
China's underwhelming response to the developing crisis has become a point of contention in the region. Its perceived stinginess made headlines again on Thursday, when it became clear that Ikea -- the Swedish furniture company -- had donated more money to Haiyan relief efforts than the world's second largest economy. Experts attribute China's lukewarm attitude to its longstanding maritime dispute with the Philippines, as well as to the U.S. military's effective posturing in the region.
But as the death toll climbs and the crisis worsens, the Peace Ark's stillness grows more unnerving.
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The police chief who initially reported that Super Typhoon Haiyan had killed 10,000 people has been fired, according to the Philippines News Agency. Soon after Chief Supt. Elmer Soria told reporters on Saturday that "initially there are 10,000 casualties," the figure took on a life of its own. Countless media reports repeated the errant estimate, often attributing it to unnamed Philippine officials, in spite of the fact that the the country's National Disaster Risk and Management Council was reporting substantially lower numbers.
Philippine President Aquino managed to quell the rumors in an interview with Christiane Amanpour Tuesday, saying, "Ten thousand I think is too much and perhaps that was brought about by, how should I put it, being in the center of the destruction. There was emotional trauma involved in that particular estimate."
Since then, Soria has been removed from his post. Another official, Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim, propagated the false estimate, as well.
Perhaps following Aquino's example, the Philippine National Police spokesperson was quick to blame the mistake on Soria's proximity to the devastation. He told the Wall Street Journal: "We all know for one thing, Police Chief Supt. Elmer Soria has been through a lot for the past days and may be experiencing what you call ‘acute stress reaction.'"
The latest figures released by the government put the number of casualties at 2,537.
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The rapper Macklemore's body may have been at the MTV European Music Awards on Sunday. But in the wake of supertyphoon Haiyan, his heart was evidently in the Philippines... or, at least, in "the Philippians." In an unfortunately misspelled but surely well-intentioned tweet sent during the awards ceremony, the hip-hop artist informed his Twitter followers: "Over 10,000 people died as a result of the typhoon in the Philippians... If you want to help those affected go to http://nafconusa.org."
He quickly tweeted a correction, in which he implicated iPhone's autocorrect feature and his "6th grade teacher" for the spelling error. But that's beside the point. More interesting is his choice of aid organization: Not the Red Cross or UNICEF -- both of which are on the ground adminstering aid -- but NAFCON, a small alliance of grassroots Filipino groups in the U.S. that is also affiliated with a number of left-leaning, nationalist political groups in the Philippines.
While it's true that NAFCON is fervently raising funds to provide disaster relief assistance to affected communities in the Philippines, its work is occuring largely under the radar. So how did Macklemore, a rapper from Seattle, even hear about the group?
Credit might go to another Washington-based artist with whom he's collaborated: Geo of the Blue Scholars (A.KA. Prometheus Brown A.K.A. George Quibuyen). He's a vocalist, long time Filipino-American activist, and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy; in one song, he characterizes it as "imperial aggression." NAFCON wouldn't confirm the connection, but did say that members were grateful for the shout-out and had no hard feelings about the misspelling. Following Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, which killed about 800 people, NAFCON delivered 700 boxes of food and emergency supplies to some of the hardest hit communities in the country.
According to the most recent figures, the typhoon has killed 1,774 people since making landfall on Friday, and many expect casualties to reach as high as 10,000. Which means the Philippines will need the help... wherever it comes from.
By 1999, South Korea was already well on its way to joining the world's most advanced economies. Companies like Samsung and Hyundai were fast becoming household names and, at a little less than $10,000, the country's GDP per capita -- having taken a hit during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 -- was not far off from those of poorer Western European countries such as Malta and Greece. Overall life expectancy in South Korea was soaring.
But the country's aviation safety record was abysmal. Its national carrier, Korean Air, had a reputation as one of the worst in the business -- so bad that U.S. Department of Defense personnel were banned from taking its flights. The airline ranked among the worst in fatalities in the 1990s, with 311 over the course of the decade compared to American's 171 and United's 147. Three of Korean Air's partner airlines -- Delta, Air France, and Air Canada - refused to continue booking their passengers on its flights.
One would expect a country's aviation safety record to improve as it develops economically, since richer countries should be more committed to and capable of enforcing health and safety regulations. But according to a 2010 study, in newly rich countries like South Korea, safety in the skies does not always improve in step with GDP. (It's worth noting that Korean aviation safety has improved significantly from the bad old days; until this weekend's crash in San Francisco, South Korea's Asiana Airlines had a top-ranked, seven-star rating for safety on the website airlineratings.com, according to the Wall Street Journal).
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As Burmese President Thein Sein prepares to travel to the United States next week -- the first visit to the country by a Burmese leader in 47 years -- a potential humanitarian disaster is looming on the horizon back home.
Thein Sein's scheduled visit on May 20 has already been controversial, coming as it does after a recent surge in ethnic violence involving Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims, and other minority groups. But now many of the Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims who've been displaced by the violence and now live in temporary camps are threatened by Cyclone Mahasen, which is approaching the coast of western Burma and is expected to make landfall between Wednesday and Friday (when Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May 2008, it killed roughly 140,000 people).
In recent days, the government has come under fierce criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch for failing to move the camps to higher ground ahead of the storm. On Tuesday, a boat carrying more than 100 people seeking to escape the cyclone capsized, and 60 are still missing.
The Burmese government launched a campaign on Tuesday to begin moving tens of thousands of people to higher ground (about 70,000 displaced Rohingya and Kaman Muslims are vulnerable to the cyclone, according to Human Rights Watch), but it is still facing charges of not acting quickly enough:
"The Burmese government didn't heed the repeated warnings by governments and humanitarian aid groups to relocate displaced Muslims ahead of Burma's rainy season," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made."
Thein Sein's trip has attracted scrutiny from those who believe Western governments have acted rashly in embracing the reform-minded, quasi-civilian Burmese government without paying heed to ongoing human rights abuses in Burma. And the historic visit could grow even more controversial if Cyclone Mahasen hits the camps hard in the days that precede it.
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In the wake of a knife attack at an elementary school reportedly driven by predictions about the coming end of the world, Chinese authorities have detained dozens for spreading rumors about the coming apocalypse.
According to Xinhua, 93 people -- many of them members of a religious group called Almighty God, which promotes belief in the upcoming Dec. 21 Mayan doomsday -- have been detained as potential day of reckoning grows closer. At the same time, authorities have sought to play down any talk about the world ending, ordering media last week to "strictly vet reports on the so-called "end of the world" and "strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumors, as well as working up panicked feelings." The order appears to have been taken seriously, with newspapers publishing soothing quotes from various experts arguing that Friday will be like any other day, reports The Telegraph:
"Speaking to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Sun Xiaochun, a top professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "The event will be as destructive as when we throw an old table calendar into the rubbish can at the end of the year."
The idea that Friday will be the end of it all has gained quite a foothold in parts of China. Hebei Province farmer Liu Qiyuan, pictured above, has begun making "survival pods" out of fiberglass and steel for the event, while Business Insider reports that,
"...in Sichuan province, panic buying of candles has swept through two counties in the fear that an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on December 21 proves to be true.
"Candles are selling by the hundreds, with buyers constantly coming to the market. Many stores have run out," said Huang Zhaoli, a shopper at the Neijing Wholesale Market, to the West China City Daily newspaper."
The panicky feeling was not helped by an unnerving meteorological phenomenon last week that made it appear that the sky over parts of eastern China contained three suns.
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For many Americans, there's a sense that the United States has not fared well in the comparisons inevitably invited by the attacks that occurred on the same day in elementary schools in Newtown, Connecticut and Guangshan, China. In Newtown, 20 children were killed. In Guangshan, 22 may have lost fingers, or ears, but they survived.
"That's the difference between a knife and a gun," wrote James Fallows in the Atlantic. Writing on Salon, Mei Fong asked "what good is freedom of speech and a democratic system, when these rights can't prevent the slaughter of innocents?"
But the societal soul-searching on the Chinese side has focused more on the aftermath of the tragic attacks, and many, including some state-owned media, have voiced admiration for the humanity and compassion displayed by U.S. public officials following the attacks, as well as the transparency with which the Sandy Hook shooting has been handled.
In a story headlined "Anger at attack response" published Monday, the typically nationalist Global Times newspaper reported that no local officials have visited the Guangshan hospital where many of the injured children have been treated, while a report from Xinhua, noting that no village officials could be located after the attack and that the only employee to be found was playing video games has prompted widespread disdain.
Xinhua also reported that news of the attack at Guangshan, in which a man knifed 22 children in central Henan Province, was initially deleted from the website of the local party committee, and that a news conference on the attack planned by the local government for Saturday was cancelled without explanation. The China-watching site Tea Leaf Nation notes that the names of the children injured in the attack have yet to be released.
Meanwhile, Chinese internet users have watched the aftereffects of the two tragedies play out with disapproval.
"We know much about the American killer, even his family and childhood, but know little about the Chinese suspect," wrote Weibo user and writer Zheng Yuanjie.
"In an instant, information about the deadly gun attack in an American school that claimed 28 victims blanketed Chinese media," wrote economist Han Zhiguo. "On the same day, there was a campus attack in Henan province's Guangshan county, in which 22 students were injured with lacerations....you could only find information about it on Weibo. Was mainstream media's difference attitudes [toward the two incidents ] because Chinese children's lives aren't valuable?"
The perspectives generated by these same-day tragedies on contrasting societal strengths and weaknesses may be interesting to note; still, it's worth remembering that neither society's grass is looking particularly green at the moment.
H/t Tea Leaf Nation
Autocratic Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is bringing a special guest with him as he visits Latin American leaders in Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela -- his 7-year-old son, Kolya. While Lukashenko has two adult-aged sons, it is his youngest son that is most frequently in the public eye, accompanying his father for official visits -- including a recent meeting with the Pope -- and casting his father's voting ballot.
At a recent meeting with Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Lukashenko seemed to reveal his plans for Belarus's future leadership, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
"You're correct in pointing out that my kid is here alongside us. This shows that we have seriously and lastingly established the foundation for our cooperation, and that in 20 to 25 years there will be someone to take over the reins of this cooperation."
Leaders are usually a bit more coy about designating future heirs -- especially at Kolya's age -- but subtlety isn't really Lukashenko's style.
Two years ago today, British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded, causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Though BP reached an "estimated multibillion-dollar settlement" with lawyers representing individual and business plaintiffs in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Gulf Coast is strill struggling to recover from the disaster. Fish are dying, Louisiana's seafood industry is reeling, and Gulf Coast residents and cleanup workers continue to experience health problems tied to the spill.
After taking measures such as sacking then-CEO Tony Hayward, running an aggressive advertising campaign throughout the region, and settling on the multibillion-dollar payout, BP continues to shower the Gulf Coast with goodwill. According to Mike Utsler, president of BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, the company is still spending "millions of dollars" on the cleanup operation, and even offering guided tours of the recovery efforts.
Millions of dollars, of course, is just a drop in the bucket for BP, which Forbes recently called "one of the greatest corporate survival stories in history":
"Since last year BP has risen a remarkable 379 spots to 11th place in The Forbes Global 2000 survey. Key to the climb is a return to profitability in a big way. In 2010 BP took a $41 billion charge against earnings, giving shareholders their financial whipping all at once rather than dribbling it out over years. In 2011 BP reversed the previous year's $3.3 billion net loss, posting $26 billion in income, with promises of a further profit surge in the years ahead, thanks to high gasoline prices and a new slate of projects coming online."
One of the 15 new projects that BP plans to bring online by 2015 is its first post-spill well, Kaskida, located 250 miles southwest of New Orleans. If anything goes wrong, one hopes CEO Bob Dudley won't be as insensitive as his predecessor.
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The furor over the Saturday night train crash last weekend in eastern China that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 192 has left the Chinese government scrambling to control public reaction. But its efforts may be doing the ruling Communist party more harm than good. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting bits coming out about the crash:
Official reports from earlier this week said the crash was caused by a lightning strike. Today, however, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency is reporting testimony from the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau at a meeting of the central government's State Council saying that the blame lies with design flaws in the railway's signaling system. The revelation confirms questions aired publicly by a number of Chinese railway experts wondering why safety mechanisms didn't kick in after the lightning strike to avert disaster (Caixin, Wall Street Journal).
Meanwhile, five days after the crash, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally made a public appearance today in Wenzhou to address the disaster. He blamed his earlier absence on an illness, which knocked him out of action for the last eleven days. His explanation didn't sit well with a number of users of the popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, who circulated official press photos showing Wen up and about with visiting state leaders between July 18 and July 24. But the confusion may boil down to a simple reporting error; the original Xinhua report appears to have misquoted Wen in saying that he had been in the hospital, while the premier said only that he was sick and in bed.
Whatever the reason for Wen's absence, his appearance means that the central government is taking seriously the crash -- and not a moment too soon. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has come under fire from citizens, journalists, and even fellow government officials for its handling of the crisis. At a press conference on Monday, MOR spokesman Wang Yongping elicited howls from journalists with his efforts to explain why initial state reports about the cleanup were proven false (see item #13). Meanwhile, stories from the Wenzhou City News and the Beijing News describe how Wenzhou officials clashed with MOR officials over cleanup at the crash site. One local security official told the City News how he disobeyed orders on Sunday afternoon to bury the trains (translation by China-watching blog Shanghaiist):
A deep freight train rumble struck South Korea's capital as a series of landslides engulfed entire villages. Screams resounded from buildings as they were dragged down mud rivers. Drivers scrambled to their car roofs as entire portions of the highway were swept away.
Relentless rains have crippled the region, with some reports placing the death toll at 67. Thousands of police officers, firefighters and soldiers are scrambling to aid victims and search for potential survivors. But in some areas, rescue missions have been stalled due to another potential disaster: landmines. Between 1999 and 2006, the South Korean military dug up mines from the Korean War on Wumyeon Mountain in southern Seoul, but ten could not be located. Residents have been warned that these land mines could have been knocked loose by floods and debris. Authorities hope that a concrete wall resting near the mountain will hold back the missing mines.
While an army official told reporters that the lost ammunition posed no real danger, as the grenades are stored in wooden boxes and the mines are detached from their fuses, similar instances have resulted in deaths in the region. In 2010, floods carried a North Korean landmine into a river close to the border. Two South Korean men, who were fishing in the area, came across the mine. One instantly died, the other was wounded. Officials reported more than 30 mines had been swept into South Korea. The Demilitarized Zone -- the two and a half miles dividing North and South Korea -- is littered with mines. Many unsuspecting villagers have come across the deadly weapons, losing arms, legs and, sometimes, their lives.
Both North and South Korea experience an annual rainy season, but this year's rains have proven to be the worst in a century. North Korea's widespread deforestation makes it even more vulnerable, with few trees to stop the powerful landslides. Aid and supplies have been distributed quickly around Seoul, but rescuers expressed concern over potential electrocution in flooded parking lots and construction sites. Over 4,500 people have been driven from their homes.
The water bombs, as some are calling the pounding rain storms, have stopped for now, but here's hoping the real explosives won't bear their ugly heads.
YANG HOE-SEONG/AFP/Getty Images; PARK JI-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images; JANG SEUNG-YOON/AFP/Getty Images; Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images; JANG SEUNG-YOON/AFP/Getty Images
The Saturday night train crash in eastern China that killed around 40 and injured around 200 (different reports give different figures) has provoked a firestorm reaction on the Chinese internet. A number of locals have accused the Chinese government of burying the trains to cover up evidence. The accusations were picked up and circulated on the Chinese microblogging site and rumor hub Sina Weibo, and even official state outlet Global Times has quoted family members of the accident victims questioning the official death toll.
Official reports have said that the crash was caused by a lightning strike. If so, it's at least the second time in the last three weeks that thunderstorms have caused malfunctions on high-speed rail trains. The first of these incidents occurred on July 10 on a train traveling the newly opened Beijing-Shanghai rail line, though a subsequent investigation from the Shanghai Oriental Post (translated here by the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project) cast doubt on this explanation.
Chinese state media outlet Xinhua says that the government has recovered the "black box" from the latest crash, so an updated report on the cause of the accident should be forthcoming. But a report from Chinese muckraking magazine Caixin argues that the accident would have been "entirely preventable" had the train's automated data collecting system been functioning properly.
Back in January, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade offered free land to Haitians displaced by their country's disastrous earthquake. The plan was eventually scaled back to free housing and today, the first group of Haitian students took him up on the offer:
The 163 students will also be offered scholarships in a nation where the campus of Senegal's largest university is frequently paralyzed by strikes because scholarships are paid late.
The students were greeted upon arrival in Dakar by dancers and traditional praise singers. Dozens of Senegalese students also held up signs that said: "Welcome to the home of your ancestors." They were led onto tour buses that drove them through the neighborhood of Almadies, the westernmost point of Africa which juts out into the Atlantic.
The bus climbed a hill overlooking the ocean, and let them out at the feet of an enormous statue pointing West in the direction where they had come from.
"Your ancestors left here by physical force," Wade told the students. "You have returned through moral force ... When the slaves embarked on the ships, this is the last piece of African earth they saw ... Dear students, it is on this point of land that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic that we have chosen to receive you," he said. "You are neither strangers nor refugees. You are members of our family."
The project has gotten mixed reviews at home, where university scholarships are often hard to come by and thousands of Senegalese try to immigrate to Europe every year in search of economic opportunity. But there is a strong case to be made that allowing Haitians to migrate, even to a country that's struggling itself, is a more effective way of helping the country than sending aid. The octagenerian Wade's offer may be a vanity project meant to cement his legacy as an international statesman, but it's a more productive one than some his others.
Indian-U.S. relations are going to be pretty important for the foreseeable future. I'd imagine, then, that implicitly threatening the victims of the Bhopal Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical) disaster of 1984 to be quiet or else isn't a very smart thing.
Apparently deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman didn't get that memo.
India's Planning Commission deputy chairman sent Froman an e-mail requesting U.S. assistance in securing a loan from the World Bank. Froman replied that he'd look into it, and then proceded to lose all common sense:
While I've got you, we are hearing a lot of noise about the Dow Chemical issue. I trust that you are monitoring it carefully... I am not familiar with all the details, but I think we want to avoid developments which put a chilling effect on our investment relationship.
In case, like Froman, you're not familiar with the details of Bhopal, 25 years ago, a large amount of methyl isocyanate leaked from the plant and spread over the city, killing at least 3,000 immediately and contributing to the deaths of approximately 25,000 more. Local journalists had repeatedly warned that the plant suffered from lax safety regulations to no avail. Birth defects, cancers, growth deficiency, and other health issues are abnormally high in the affected area.
Finally last June employees of the plant received punishment. Local Indian managers were convicted, but received what were perceived as little more than slaps on the wrist. Campaigners have demanded Union Carbide -- including then chairman Warren Anderson -- itself be reprimanded, but no action has been forthcoming. Amnesty International called the convictions "too little, too late."
Making Froman's e-mail even more asinine, his threat wasn't even credible. Regardless of further actions taken against Dow Chemical, the U.S. is going to invest a lot of money into India for both geopolitical and economic reasons -- making Froman's message one that really should have stayed in his drafts folder.
This week's quiz question:
The world's deepest offshore oil-drilling platform sits in how many feet of water?
a) 5,280 feet (1mile) b) 6,600 feet (1.25 miles) c) 8,000 feet (1.5 miles)
Answer after the jump …
A heartwarming scene from The Red Balloon it was not: when South Korean schoolchildren launched fifty balloons into the sky on Thursday, no one stopped to oh and ah. The man who spotted the air-borne rubber fleet twenty miles outside the capital city Seoul mistook the colorful orbs for parachutes and instantly raised the alarm. A military and police investigation was quickly mounted, only to conclude that the would-be North Korean invaders were in fact the steadily deflating remains of a local school celebration.
The incident is one more laugh for international observers -- and one more sign of just how high tensions are running in South Korea in the wake of the March 26 explosion of the Cheonan. (This isn't the first false alarm on the Peninsula in recent weeks: the discovery of an abandoned diving suit on the heels of an unexplained coastal explosion set police on high alert. Thankfully -- or just embarrassingly -- investigators concluded nothing was awry.)
But for South Korean security officials, it's better safe than sorry: facing strong criticism within the country for their mishandling of the Cheonan incident, top military leaders stepped down, and remaining forces pledged to improve their level of responsiveness.
(Balloons have been the source of Korean controversy before: read about this defector's helium-powered propaganda.)
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
Of all the photos documenting the effects of the oil spill (and there are some true stunners), the images of oil-soaked pelicans are among the most arresting and disheartening. One shows an immobile bird making a futile attempt to flap its wings. Another captures a brown and slimy creature opening its beak wide in what looks unmistakably like a shriek -- the avian equivalent, perhaps, of the desperate expressions on the faces of Gulf fishermen. At least, you tell yourself, these poor pelicans get picked up, cleaned up, and sent on their way -- feathers ruffled, daily routing upended, but not all that worse for wear (oil contaminates the birds but, if properly removed, doesn't cause permanent damage).
If you've been reassuring yourself with this rosy rescue story: think again. Silvia Gaus, a German animal biologist, has spoken out to advocate a "kill, don't clean" approach to handling the damaged birds. She's been joined by a chorus of scientific and environmental experts, including spokesmen for the World Wildlife Fund, who say that the low rates of survival for the birds -- estimated by Gaus to be a mere 1 percent -- mean that life-saving attempts just aren't worth the effort. The stress experienced by birds, they say, is simply too much: most, they predict, will go on to die of kidney or liver failure.
An editor at the Anchorage Daily News offered a less scientific perspective:
"Somewhere in America today, a child is going hungry while well-meaning people go to great lengths trying to save oiled Alaska birds destined to die shortly anyway...Why? Because rescuing these birds makes some people feel better about themselves."
If you don't buy either argument (and many don't: the executive director of the International Bird Rescue and Research Center called them "completely bogus"), there are a few facts you might bear in mind about the challenges of cleaning and saving oil-contaminated birds. In order to wash a single pelican, you'll need four pairs of hands (one bird rescue expert says with horror that she'd "never wash a bird alone"), a soft baby toothbrush, a handful of q-tips, a bottle of Dawn detergent (proven through "twenty years" of research to be the most effective de-oiling product), 300 gallons of hot water, and 45 minutes of your afternoon. Now multiply that by about a thousand.
This debate is just one of many unfolding between experts of all kinds in the aftermath of the spill. But it isn't hard to imagine how this tug-of-war between optimism (think "Save the Pelicans" bumper stickers) and fatalism ("just euthanize") might start to infiltrate other dimensions of the response effort. That is, if it hasn't already.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
It's from a firm called Covalence that calculates companies' ethical reputations and, on a neat mapping tool, tracks them against the amount of attention the companies are receiving in the media. (Methodology here.) From this report, a look at how different international industries have fared over the past half-decade, as the volume of information about them has generally increased:
Not only is the oil and gas industry in the basement, but it's one of the only industries whose reputation gets actively worse the more we know about it. For the largest oil and gas companies, the relationship is even starker -- spikes in attention track closely with drops in reputation.
On one level, this is probably just a measure of the very different reasons that different industries find themselves in the headlines. (When a tech company is in the news, it's because it's launching the iPad. When an oil company is in the news, it's because it has befouled a major ecosystem for a generation.) And energy companies are often particularly bad actors on the world stage.
But I suspect it's also a testament to the degree to which both the oil industry and the global public that depends on it are more comfortable when the latter knows less about how the former does its work -- the business of energy production is rarely pretty. Which is why all the unflattering attention is important: The best case for drilling domestically in the United States, rather than somewhere like Nigeria, is that the added scrutiny that operations here receive -- from the government, the media, and environmental organizations -- makes companies behave better than they do in the Niger River Delta, where oil operations are estimated to have leaked an amount comparable to the Gulf oil spill since the 1970s, and garnered a fraction of the international outrage.
U.S. Coast Guard
In his testimony before Congress this morning, Douglas H. Brown, chief mechanic for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, recounted a dispute between a BP official and Transocean crew members that took place the day of the rig's explosion. At issue was whether BP could replace heavy drilling fluid -- typically used in the final stages of plugging oil wells -- with a lighter liquid, a substitution crew members appear to have opposed.
"The driller was outlining what would be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, 'No, we'll be having some changes to that'...The OIM, tool-pusher and driller disagreed with that, but the company man said, 'Well, this is how it's gonna be.'"
NASA via Getty Images
Independent analysis of government policy is rare and generally unwelcome in China; it's even rarer for such advice to be followed. But an exception that proves the rule is when the advice-giver has a direct line to decision-makers, and when there's serious state money to be saved.
While in southwest China recently, I caught up with Yong Yang, a rabble-rousing independent geologist who has previously faced death threats from businessmen and local officials for raising concerns about the feasibility of lucrative proposed projects.
One story he shared seems particularly poignant now, on the second anniversary of the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake.
At the time the earthquake struck on May 12, 2008, Yong was in the field conducting research when he received a mobile text message (voice-networks were down) from his son, a college student in the provincial capital of Chengdu: a big earthquake has struck Sichuan province -- go find a TV.
Yong hunkered down at a local restaurant to watch broadcast of the devastation. He had previously warned government officials about the vulnerability of certain buildings in the quake-vulnerable zone, but to no avail.
Now he knew that dams along the region's Minjiang River were in danger of collapsing, and if they did, several large hydropower stations along the river could be flooded and destroyed. He was already making arrangements to leave the next morning to conduct an investigation of the damage, but before he did he sent a text message to an influential friend who happens to be a former Vice General Secretary of the National People's Congress: turn off the hydro-power stations; watch for damage.
Usually following the advice of environmental watchdogs would cost the government money, putting the kabosh on various money-making projects. But in this case, Yong's advice concerned how to save 30 billion RMB in state investments.
And this time, his advice was followed. The next day, the government gave orders to release water from dams along the Minjiang River.
Yong meanwhile continued on to the quake-stricken region, where he and a small band of fellow scientists tried to make sense of what to do next. Predictably, not all of their subsequent suggestions about rebuilding and conservation have been followed. But when Yong has information useful to the government that Beijing doesn’t have, at least he has an in. His next project is a study of glacier melt on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau.
The NASA sattelite image above terrifyingly shows both how big the Gulf of Mexico oil slick is -- compare it to the size of New Orleans -- and how close it's getting to the Louisiana coast.
For more on the ongoing cleanup effort, see this week's FP explainer.
NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team
It's well known that America's immigration system has its problems. But the travails of 30 survivors of January's earthquake in Haiti may take the cake for complete ineptitude and inhumane treatment.
In the wake of the complete devastation of the country, the humanitarian crisis contributed to a totally chaotic environment. A group of survivors, many of whom had lost loved ones in the quake, and some of whom had been pulled from the rubble themselves, boarded a plane to Florida after given permission by U.S. marines. Aftershock quakes were feared, and the evacuation process from Port-au-Prince airport was less than orderly: obviously, the priority was on saving as many lives as possible. It's no surprise that normal visa procedures weren't followed precisely.
Upon landing, the thirty Haitians (none of whom, according to theNew York Times, have criminal histories) were taken into custody and held for deportation -- despite the fact that all deportations to Haiti were suspended in the wake of the tragedy. Two months later, they're still in jail.
The story's already a massive fail, yet it gets even worse. Some of the refugees have U.S. citizen family members, who have pleaded with the government to allow the detainees to stay with them. Yet the Haitians still remain in jail. They've received no mental health care -- I wonder, could these people be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after their entire country was wrecked by a massive earthquake, killing hundreds of thousands? -- despite offers of free treatment from local clinics. Certainly, the following doesn't make it sound that they're mentally scarred at all:
The youngest detainee, Eventz Jean-Baptiste, 18, has no parents. “He is now responsible for his two younger brothers, who are homeless and living in a tent city in Port-au-Prince,” Charu Newhouse al-Sahli, the statewide director of the advocacy center, wrote in urging his release to his aunt and uncle in Coral Springs, Fla.
Mr. Jean-Baptiste describes putting his little brother and a cousin’s baby on top of a collapsed concrete wall during the quake, as they all prayed and cried. Afterward, “we had nothing to eat or drink,” he said. “I thought if I stayed in Haiti any longer I would not survive, and my family would not survive, so I decided to try to board a plane.” No one asked him for papers until he reached Orlando, he said.
Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, gave the Times this wonderfully caring quote:
In order to mitigate the probability that Haitians may attempt to make a potentially deadly journey to the U.S., we clearly articulated that those who traveled to the U.S. illegally after Jan. 12 may be arrested, detained and placed in removal proceedings.
This shouldn't be a hard fix.
Lee Celano/Getty Images
Chile was rocked by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake early this morning, and reports are still dribbling out about its effects, including the tragic deaths so far of at least 85 people. There's still much we don't know -- particularly about what's going on in Concepcion, the country's second-largest city, which was the closest major town to the quake's epicenter. Some Flickr users, such as condeorloff, have already started uploading photos of damaged buildings some 200 miles away in Santiago, the capital. So Concepcion must be pretty bad. There have also been numerous aftershocks, and warnings about tsunamis threatening the coastline.
But one thing is already clear: Chile was well prepared for this disaster, having been struck by 13 large earthquakes since 1973. The biggest seismic event in recorded history was in Chile, a 9.5-magnitude quake in 1960. While the death toll will inevitably go up, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage are likely, the country seems very resilient.
Comparisons to Haiti, whose earthquake was much smaller but several orders of magnitude more deadly, are inevitable. But not only was Chile far better prepared, it is also a vastly more developed country, one that just joined the OECD and has a highly competent government, so it's no surprise that it would be able to weather this disaster relatively calmly. Would the United States?
UPDATE: Reuters is now reporting that the death toll has climbed past 300. There are also reports of extensive damage in Concepcion and Talcahuano, a port town that was hit by the tsunami. I've seen no reports of looting -- nor would I expect to -- but folks did try to take advantage advantage of the chaos:
At least 269 prisoners took advantage of the quake to escape from a prison about 250 miles (450 km) south of Santiago, police said. Twenty-eight of the inmates were captured and three shot.
Bloomberg reports that some 1.5 million home were destroyed, and some 2 million Chileans affected, by the quake. I'm not sure how they arrive at those estimates so quickly, but suffice it to say that this was a major tragedy and that it will take months, if not years, for Chile to recover.
UPDATE2: The death toll is now past 700. More here.
MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images
Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira, referring to an incident where CNN medical expert Sanjay Gupta actually began treating patients in Haiti, asks, "Are reporters with backgrounds in medicine being show-offs when they simultaneously report on a disaster and administer care?"
A somewhat convoluted CNN.com writeup of the incident reveals that Gupta -- after a team of Beligan doctors and nurses left a field hospital due to security fears -- "monitored patients' vital signs, administered painkillers and continued intravenous drips. He stabilized three new patients in critical condition."
"I confess that when I saw the CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta caring for a baby in Haiti, dealing with the child's head wound, I cringed," Shapira writes. "I thought he had an ulterior motive, that he was trying to boost CNN's flagging ratings by sending a message to audiences back home: CNN tells great stories, but CNN also saves lives!" Reporters aren't supposed to get involved in the narratives they cover, but Shapira concludes, that in this case Gupta did the right thing by intervening.
Gupta's story reminded me of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who committed suicide in 1994, only a year after taking this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a Sudanese girl suffering from malnutrition as a vulture patiently awaits her demise:
Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. "He was depressed afterward," Silva recalls. "He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter."
The haunting image made Carter a global celebrity, but it also raised uncomfortable questions about whether he should have helped the girl rather than simply watching her die. To be sure, Carter had plenty of emotional and financial problems, and he drank and used drugs excessively. But's it's not hard to imagine that his world-famous photo left him wracked with guilt, contributing to his suicidal state of mind. In his rambling final note, he wrote, "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners."
That's why I can't blame Gupta for helping out when he did. On the one hand, he crossed a journalistic line and became part of the story. On the other hand, he probably saved a few Haitians' lives. Imagine how he'd feel if he had to report on CNN that he'd stay there to watch them die that night?
As Mark Goldberg writes for the Daily Beast, Haiti just can't catch a break. The country, which has been through years of war and upheaval, and remains woefully poor, yesterday was hit with a massive earthquake which has caused critical damage to its major city and capital, Port-au-Prince. Casualties are expected to be massive, and as many as 3 of the country's 9 million citizens are without basic services. What makes it all sadder is that things had, just recently, seemed to be looking up.
Around 800,000 tourists traveled to Haiti last year -- a sizeable number for a small nation. But 500,000 of them never ventured further than Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's heavily guarded man-made enclave on the northern shore of the island; therefore, they did little good for Haiti's economy. (Royal Caribbean apparently installs most of its own staff in Labadee, seen above, meaning fewer Haitians hired.)
Haitians as well as U.N. staff on the island were battling the country's image as a failing state, a murder and kidnapping capital. Its safety statistics are in fact in line with or lower than those in other Caribbean nations, after spiking in 2004 during the Aristide crisis.
Just last week, Comfort Inn announced it was planning on building a small hotel on the island. It would have been the only major international chain to have an outpost on Haiti. Additionally, via Tyler Cowen, Haiti was just one of two Caribbean countries expected to have GDP growth in 2010, of around 2.5 percent.
Image via RobinH00d on Flickr
Very troubling reports out of Haiti this morning. The earthquake struck near the country's main population center, Port-au-Prince, and its surrounding suburbs and slums. Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour, the first lady, said much of Port-au-Prince is destroyed. Cell phone service is available on just one of the major networks; the other remains out, as do landlines and electricity. Hospitals, including the Doctors Without Borders surgical center and many other medical facilities, and essential-service plants were severely damaged in the quake.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls it a "humanitarian emergency," and countries around the world are racing to deploy emergency aid to the estimated 3 million impacted by the quake -- a 7.0 on the Richter scale, with 13 serious aftershocks (the largest of which was a 5.8).
The quake also reportedly severely damaged the five-story U.N. mission headquarters in Port-au-Prince. As of this morning, there are reports of five U.N. staff dead and more than one hundred missing, many presumed dead, as the quake struck during the workday. Hedi Annabi, the U.N. Haiti chief, a Tunisian, is feared dead. The hotel in which much of the U.N. staff lived was also destroyed.
Update: I've seen this misreported in a few places, so just to clarify. The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief on Haiti, Alain Le Roy, is safe and speaking with the press. The U.N.'s mission chief, Hedi Annabi, has died.
Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images
It was reported last week that attacks on and kidnappings of aid workers in Chad have caused six aid organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, to suspend operations there. Undeterred, this morning the top U.N. official in Chad announced "positive signs on the horizon," predicting increased peace and stabilization in the country.
This isn't the first time violence has driven away aid groups: in May, 2008, the head of the Eastern Chad mission of British aid organization Save the Children was shot and killed. At first, the organization announced that it would continue working in the country, but five months after the killing ultimately decided to leave.
At this point, the situation doesn't seem that dire with regards to the ICRC: In an interview, Bernard Barrett, an ICRC spokesman, said, "We're not pulling out totally. We're suspending some activities -- we're maintaining life-saving services, particularly medical services." The organization's other work in Chad ranges from water sanitation projects to animal vaccinations; hardly trivial work, particularly given the persistent lack of food security. As far as resuming these activities, Barrett reports a wait-and-see scenario. "Once we've obtained the release of our delegate who was kidnapped, at that point we'll be able to ascertain the security situation," he says.
Chad is a country in dire need of help. Last May, Doctors Without Borders led the effort to combat an outbreak of meningitis, immunizing 7.5 million people in the region. DWB is another organization that has been driven to suspend operations in Chad because of the recent violence. It's terrible to contemplate how many deaths might have resulted from the 65,000 cases of infection in and around Chad had DWB left just six months earlier.
The violence that has hindered desperately needed assistance ultimately stems from poor governance, said Richard Downie in an interview with FP. According to Downie, a fellow with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Until you have credible political parties and some sort of civil society developing, it's hard to see the long-term prospects of Chad looking bright."
That sort of civil society seems a ways off. Chad ranks 173 out of the 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, just three spots up from Afghanistan. And the country's heavily oil-dependent economy has only reinforced the political maladies that accompany "the devil's excrement."
It's tough to avoid Downie's conclusion: "I don't see a long-term solution to what's going on in Chad at the moment without much more engagement from the international community."
Photo: FRANCESCO FONTEMAGGI/AFP/Getty Images
Near Geneva, Switzerland sits a 27-kilometer particle accelerator, the largest the world has ever seen. When it is finally switched on and makes it past the warm-up stages, it will create conditions that haven't existed since the beginning of the universe. This, naturally, scares the bejesus out of people, some taking it to the courts to stop its activation. Foreign Policy reported one group's fears:
"There is a real possibility of creating destructive theoretical anomalies such as miniature black holes, strangelets and deSitter space transitions. These events have the potential to fundamentally alter matter and destroy our planet." -Walter Wagner, LHCDefense.org
The Large Haldron Collider (LHC) at the CERN Lab has yet to reach full operation, but it will later this year. That is, unless something crazy happens...like, for instance, a CERN researcher being arrested for suspected links to al-Qaeda!
This is pretty scary to begin with, but even scarier is the fact that the man's brother was also arrested; he works at the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The suspect has been linked to the Algerian chapter of
al-Qaeda, and suggested targets in France. After being under surveillance for
18 months, the French decided to bring him down, luckily before the
LHC was turned on.
CERN says the suspect was never involved with any elements that could be used for terrorist purposes; he mainly worked on data analysis.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and his her office released two reports on violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, citing "possible war crimes and crimes against humanity" by the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a rebel group formerly led by Laurent Nkunda and backed by the government of Rwanda.
Talk about your diplomatic understatement. The crimes involved dozens of killings and rapes. But for those following the DRC this statement has to seem kind of weak. There have been all sorts of atrocities in Eastern Congo for years, and the only questions really are which militia was guilty in which case. Possible? The U.N. head of mission in the DRC called the attacks war crimes immediately after they happened.
Reuters reporters shrewdly dig into the problematic fact that while Nkunda was later arrested by Rwandan forces, it was his lieutenant, Jean Bosco Ntaganda (shown above), nicknamed "The Terminator" who was commanding the CNDP forces at the time of the November killings. Guess where he is?
Ntaganda, who is being sought by the International Criminal Court on separate war crimes charges, wasintegrated into Congo's army in January along with other members of the Tutsi-dominated CNDP..."We know he is there. We are aware of it. He was integrated. He wasgiven a role. And according to our partners, he does not play a role inthe operations that MONUC is supporting," said Kevin Kennedy, MONUC's head of communications.
"But it isn't our job to investigate the role of Bosco Ntaganda in the (army)," he told journalists in Kinshasa.
One other question for other Congo watchers out there. Doesn't a lot of focus seem to be just on the CNDP, when the Hutu FDLR militia has been committing terrible massacres for years? In fact, wasn't a key reason--along with grabbing minerals--for Rwandan support of Nkunda that he was protecting Congolese Tutsis from the marauding FDLR, many of whom were genocidaires? Maybe I've just missed it or Nkunda made such a good media character. Is the FDLR getting as much U.N. heat?
Update: This post originally mistook the gender and misspelled the name of U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem, or Navi, Pillay.
LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images
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