As Hurricane Dean rips through the Caribbean and now Mexico, commodity traders who made contrarian bets on sugar--futures contracts for the commodity are down some 20 percent this year--are licking their lips:
While there's a projected surplus of 11 million metric tons of the sweetener, bad weather may cause the global stockpile to shrink, said Greg Smith, founder of Global Commodities Ltd. in Adelaide, Australia, manager of a $210 million commodities fund.
"The risk is now mostly in the upside as wild weather season approaches,'" said Smith, who said storm damage may send sugar prices doubling to 20 cents a pound, from 9.4 cents a pound as of Aug. 17 on the Nybot. "We consume a lot of sugar both for food and now energy, while unfortunately the weather patterns are becoming more extreme.''
The storm has wrecked sugar crops in places like Belize and Martinique, and may cause damage in Mexico. Still, there's reason to be skeptical of Smith's optimism. The economies of sugar-producing countries in the Caribbean depend heavily on sugar, but they're still only a small piece of the global trade. Brazil, Thailand, and India, some of the world's largest producers, are expecting bumper crops this year. And with India looking to dump excess sugar on world markets next year, the contrarians may be in for a bitter financial harvest in 2008. So far, the futures markets look unshaken by Hurricane Dean. Prices for Caribbean rum, however, could well skyrocket. Bad news for Jimmy Buffet.
Anguished relatives of Chinese coal miners trapped in flooded shafts clashed with managers on Monday to demand information, but hopes for the 181 men faded after another day of efforts to pump the mines dry. The disaster in the eastern coastal province of Shandong is the latest to strike China's coal mines, which -- with over 2,000 people killed in the first seven months of this year along -- are the world's deadliest.
My gut feeling is that if the Chinese Communist Party is to face a serious challenge in the coming years, it will be because of something like this: a local disaster that ignites simmering tension about the inequities of China's breakneck development and official corruption. Chinese officialdom appears to be taking no chances:
Accounts in China's wholly state-owned media have been terse. On Monday, the main newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, the People's Daily, ran on its front page an Aug. 1 story about the successful rescue of 69 miners from a flooded mine in Henan province. A much shorter story on the trapped miners in Shandong ran on page 5. Television crews in Xintai were asked not to film and in turn were videotaped by security officials.
Forget "Deadliest Catch," the Discovery Channel show about the peril of being an Alaskan king crab fisherman. The most dangerous job in the world has to be mining coal in China. Last year alone, 4,746 miners were killed in China, according to state figures.
Stop and think about that for a second. That's about 1,100 more deaths than the U.S. military has incurred in five years of fighting in Iraq.
Which is why China is ecstatic over yesterday's rescue of 69 miners from a flooded coal shaft in Henan Province. The shaft, part of a 50 year-old state-owned mine, collapsed Tuesday afternoon when a torrent of more than 1 million gallons of water rushed into the mine after a rainstorm. The government said 102 miners were working at the time of the flood. Thirty-three escaped. The remaining trapped miners were kept alive thanks to hundreds of rescuers, who poured 145 gallons of milk down a 2,600-foot ventilation shaft over the course of three days while crews pumped out the mine and cleared tons of mud.
It was a death-defying escape from the jaws of "development at any cost"—and a fate denied to far too many.
UPDATE: A reader writes in, "What on earth are you doing comparing gross number of deaths of Chinese miners to the number of Americans killed in Iraq? At least give us the denominator on the Chinese miners, otherwise the comparison is meaningless."
Just so there's no misunderstanding: I wasn't dissing American servicemen and women. Nor was I comparing apples to apples or trying to make a point that a coal shaft in Shanxian is more dangerous than a pillbox in Baghdad. Neither sounds like much fun to me.
So let's set the record straight. There are about 7 million miners in China. Our in house statistician tells me that, based on back-of-the-napkin calculations, you're about 8 times more likely to die as a U.S. soldier in Iraq than as a coal miner in China. I still don't want to sign up.
I can report that it is now raining again in London, and the government is getting nervous that, like the Bush administration after Katrina, it may come in for criticism as the floodwaters rise. Gordon Brown's team has been enjoying a good beginning, but perceived hiccups in the official response could quickly take some of the shine off the new regime.
Fast-rising oil prices and greenhouse gas emissions have reignited the debate over nuclear power. Some claim this type of energy is clean and safe; others argue that going nuclear is not the great green hope.
On Monday, Mother Nature scored a point for the skeptics. An earthquake of magnitude 6.8 hit the coast of central Japan caused some leaks in the nuclear power plant near the city of Kashiwazaki. The Tokyo Electric Power Company told the BBC on Monday that "the small amount of radioactive material that leaked into the sea posed no environmental risk." The New York Times reports that this "small amount" was "317 gallons of water containing trace levels of radioactive materials."
This isn't the first time Japan has had problems with nukes, the BBC article notes:
The safety of Japan's nuclear installations, which supply much of Japan's power, have come under the spotlight in recent years after a string of accidents and mishaps.
But if Japan's jitters are enough to make us fret, what about Pakistan? President Musharraf's rule is not the only shaky thing in the country. Sitting right on top of the rift between the Asian continent and the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan is one of the hottest seismological spots in the world. The latest brutal evidence of this came in in October of 2005, when an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 killed more than 86,000 people.
Japan's sophisticated reactors shut down during Monday's earthquake, but I have my doubts that the same would have happened in Pakistan. Or consider Iran, where the same crowd that was responsible for Chernobyl is running the show. Are we sure nuclear energy is the best energy solution for developing countries?
Over in Anhui province, the government evacuates nearly half a million people away from the surging Huaihe River.
And in neighboring Henan, authorities worry about the health risks from an estimated TWO BILLION RATS that attacked crops near Dongting Lake. The rats had been living on islands in the lake, but rising floodwaters sent them into the surrounding 22 counties, where they have been causing all kinds of trouble.
I'm tempted to say that this is just another day in China, but even for the Middle Kingdom, this is crazy stuff. More than 66 million Chinese people have been hurt by floods this summer. And knowing what we know about the water quality in China's rivers, it's even more frightening. The brain boggles.
After several years of being buffeted by the Terrorism Tsunami and Hurricane Bush, the Middle East this week was struck by a non-metaphorical weather event: Cyclone Gonu. This latest storm, however, left only a slight imprint upon the region—evacuations and a small number of deaths and temporary port closings in Oman, and a brief uptick in the price of crude oil. Here's what Gonu looked like from above:
(Hat tip: National Geographic)
Today marks the fifteenth annual World Water Day, first designated by the United Nations in 1992. This year's theme though, "Coping with Water Scarcity," is hardly celebratory, and reflects a growing global concern about the steady drip of bad news for water supplies.
Water scarcity and its implications for global stability is one of the most critical, yet least discussed, issues of our generation. As Sandra Postel and Aaron Wolf reported in FP way back in 2001, more than fifty countries on five continents are facing severe water crises that could spiral into military conflicts. By the time the article was written, the renewable water supply per person had dropped by almost sixty percent since 1950. And it gets worse:
By 2015, nearly three billion people - 40 percent of the projected world population - are expected to live in countries that find it difficult or impossible to mobilize enough water to satisfy the food, industrial, and domestic needs of their citizens. This scarcity will translate into heightened competition for water between cities and farms, between neighboring states and provinces, and at times between nations.
Unlike with oil, there is no substitute for fresh water. Have a nice day.
If a great flood ravages the Earth in 2207, we won’t have to worry about losing the key to our food supply.
The Norwegian government is paying for the construction of a Noah's Ark that will house seeds of all the world’s food crops. The seed vault—which will hold up to 3 million seed samples—will be built 364 feet inside a mountain on a remote island near the North Pole. It would protect the seeds from apocalyptic catastrophes such as a nuclear Armageddon, an asteroid collision, and the much-feared consequences of climate change.
The site on Spitsbergen, one of Norway’s Svalbard islands, was chosen because of the long-term stability that it will provide. Designers modeled the worst-case scenario for climate change 200 years in the future and determined that the seed vault would still remain above water if the ice sheets of Greenland and the North and South Poles all melted. The surrounding permafrost will protect the precious seeds if the refrigeration system malfunctions.
My only question is: If humans get wiped out in a global catastrophe, who would take the seeds out of the vault?
POLLS TELL US that Americans want to be less involved in Iraq and more involved in Darfur. It's not hard to understand why. For the American public, and many of its leaders, Iraq is a tainted war without good guys. Darfur, by contrast, is a chance to save the helpless. In our minds, Iraq and Darfur seem to fit into neat categories: One is a botched war, the other is a humanitarian crisis.
The ugly truth is that in both cases, thousands of innocent civilians are suffering. Bosco highlights a recent finding by the United Nations that over 34,000 Iraqis died in 2006 (here's the pdf of the report itself). He could have added that another 471,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since last February's Samarra shrine bombing. The death toll for Darfur has become a political football, but the U.S. State Department's most recent estimate is that 200,000 people have been killed by the violence since it began in 2003, and over 2 million people have been displaced. But Bosco's not trying to play the numbers game. Rather, he's trying to grab Americans swayed by moral arguments over Darfur, and shake them into asking themselves whether the United States can still save lives in Iraq:
It's natural that Americans would yearn for a simpler and clearer conflict than Iraq to showcase their humanitarian impulses. But our concern for Darfur must not become a moral salve that allows us to abandon Iraq to its spasm of violence. There may be no blameless factions in Iraq, but there are thousands of ordinary victims. Unless it is clear that we are doing no good, we owe them more.
If Bosco wanted to make the case that Iraq is actually more important to American interests than Darfur, he could have, but I think he would reject that kind of cold, amoral calculus. Is one person's life more valuable than another's? Yet, while it's not clear to me that the U.S. military is doing "no good" in Iraq, absent a more realistic regional strategy from the White House, what little it is accomplishing by staying is probably not worth the costs.
COVINGTON, La. - Sixteen months after being rescued as a frozen embryo from a hospital flooded by Hurricane Katrina, Noah Benton Markham entered the world Tuesday morning and was greeted by his cheering family.
The 8 pound, 6½-ounce boy was born by Caesarean section at 7:23 a.m. CST at St. Tammany Hospital. He was in good shape, doctors said.
Before the procedure Rebekah and Glen Markham had decided that if their baby was a boy, he would be named after the biblical builder of the Ark. A girl would have been Hannah Mae — Hannah means "God has favored us."
When Katrina slammed New Orleans, Louisiana's governor had already put into motion a plan to rescue of a number of frozen embryos being stored in a local fertility treatment center.
The embryos were carried out by a team of troopers and policemen in four large liquid nitrogen containers, each of which held many separate vials. After a long wade into the flooded building, juggling power outages and an entire city in lock down, they brought the embryos to safety. Noah's the happy result of their foresight.
Apparently, everyone in Germany is terrified of a rare hurricane set to wreak havoc today:
Germany's DWD meteorogical service said the storm "Kyrill" could generate winds of up to 180 km/h (112 mph) in high and exposed areas and as much as 130 km/h in lower-lying regions.
"What's unusual about this storm is that it will affect the whole country and not just certain zones," said Christoph Hartmann, a spokesman for the DWD in Offenbach.
For you German buffs out there, the word of the day is windgeschwindigkeit. I don't think the German wind industry will see a boost from this, however.
Last month, FP published The Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2006. Today, the French NGO Doctors Without Borders posted its own list of what was overlooked last year, only from a humanitarian angle. Their list includes the plight of Somalians, refugees fleeing the Central African Republic, victims of tuberculosis, the effects of malnutrition, and those fleeing violence in Colombia, which has more internally displaced people than any country in the world except Sudan. Check out the NGO's website to see what you can do to help.
Humans are often at the mercy of Mother Nature, but, in some cases, we may be unfairly shifting the blame. Christian D. Klose, a researcher at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has identified more than 200 earthquakes, most in the last 60 years, that were caused by humans.
Most of the man-made quakes Klose tagged were triggered by coal mining, the construction of reservoirs, and drilling for oil and gas. These aren't tiny tremors, either. The biggest quake in Australia's history - causing 13 deaths and $3.5 billion in damage - was triggered by mining. And a trio of man-made quakes rocked an Uzbekistan gas field in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of which clocked in at 7.3 on the Richter scale.
What's shocking about Klose's list of quakes is their size. Previously, most quakes attributed to human factors had been relatively small tremors. But these bigger quakes can be especially dangerous because they may occur in inactive areas where people aren't prepared for them. Perhaps everyone should be learning the earthquake drill in grade school.
When John Edwards showed up at Orelia Tyler's door on Wednesday in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, she was surprised. Tyler had asked local students for help spreading a mound of dirt in her backyard. Instead, she got a few dozen out-of-town reporters, some national news vans, a gaggle of children, and one presidential aspirant. Edwards returned to her front yard the next morning (with cameras in tow) to announce his candidacy for the White House.
Ms. Tyler was grateful for the help—the dirt mound became, in the end, something resembling a backyard—but many New Orleanians aren't so happy to serve as a backdrop for John Edwards's political ambitions. I've been down in New Orleans visiting family this week. Residents who are even aware of the Edwards announcement see yet another politician swooping in, finishing a photo-op in the poor Ninth Ward, and moving on. Reaction on the Times-Picayune website is mixed, but many readers used words like "grandstanding," "fake," and "opportunist."
Any news about New Orleans sheds light on this city's stalling recovery effort, and that's a good thing. But I can't help but feel that Edwards's choice of venue was about himself more than it was about the Big Easy. His spokesman said that New Orleans epitomizes the "two Americas" theme that Edwards invokes frequently in his speeches. Yes, New Orleans's struggle is a story about poverty—but it's also about corruption, inept bureaucracy at all levels, chronic underfunding, and the dangers of inertia. And there are plenty of other places in the U.S. where poverty is just as acute.
As for Ms. Tyler, her fixed-up house and backyard shouldn't make you think that New Orleans is back on its feet. Filling the blocks surrounding her home are empty shells of gutted houses. Further south, the Lower Ninth is a wasteland of houses waiting to be bulldozed, some of them mere foundations. Other devastated neighborhoods never even make the news, but they're almost as bad. Ms. Tyler's house, one of the few inhabitable houses in the vicinity, is thus both a hopeful sign and an inaccurate picture of the larger story.
It's a sadly typical story: Nearly 2 years after the Asian tsunami struck, aid to countries like Sri Lanka is being handicapped by undelivered funds. The numbers are more shocking than usual, however:
Pledges by countries are falling far below the mark:
The International Crisis Group has been issuing monthly reports tracking the escalation or dissolution of conflicts around the world for the past 40 months. So, it's extremely sad to report that, with the month ending yesterday, November 2006 is the worst month for conflict since ICG first began issuing reports in 2002. Iraq experienced its worst sectarian violence since the U.S. invaded in 2003. The Lebanese government is on increasingly shaky ground. The peace deal in Sudan has been seriously threatened by new slaughter, and fighting in Darfur is spilling over into Chad and the Central African Republic. The president and prime minister are fighting in Cote d'Ivoire. A coup is on the horizon in Fiji. And there are problems brewing in Azerbaijan, Burundi, Colombia, non-Kashmiri India, and Tonga. (Not that there isn't a little bit of a silver lining in this grim world: Maoist rebels and the Nepalese government finally signed a peace deal after 10 years of war.) Here's hoping that December will see better days.
After suffering one of its worst droughts in a decade, the Horn of Africa is now the victim of heavy rains and severe flooding. The United Nations estimates that about 1.8 million people across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea are currently affected by the worst flooding in half a century. Bridges and roads have been destroyed, making access for international aid and assistance much more difficult. At least 80 people have already died from the flooding, and the conditions are sure to have devastating effects on homes, livelihoods, and the spread of infectious disease. Plus, the worst isn't over yet. The rains are expected to last a few more weeks.
NASA is developing plans to land an astronaut on an asteroid in case there's a future collision-course-with-Earth scenario in the near future. But NASA's Chris McKay, speaking in an interview with Space.com, doesn't inspire much confidence as to our goals.
The public wants us to have mastered the problem of dealing with asteroids. So being able to have astronauts go out there and sort of poke one with a stick would be scientifically valuable as well as demonstrate human capabilities."
The furor over leaks from the National Intelligence Estimate on the war on terror--and the Bush administration's desire to keep much of the report's status classified--is topic A in Washington these days. But there's another hot report (excuse the pun) that's getting much less attention amid the infighting. According to a report by Jim Giles in the journal Nature (subscription only), the Bush administration is blocking a study that describes the positive correlation between global warming and stronger hurricane activity.
The report, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was supposed to be released in May, but was deemed too "technical" for public consumption by the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA. I can think of a few cities in Florida and Louisiana that would probably disagree. Given the administration's noted skepticism of the dangers of global warming, as well as the perception of an inadequate response to the devastating Hurricane Katrina, the blocking of this report at the very least sends the wrong message.
Seed Magazine is reporting that the NOAA has not taken an official stance on the issue. We'll follow this case to see what happens if and when it does.
Ever wonder what happened to all the foreign donations given to the United States in the aftermath of Katrina? It's not good news. It turns out that, like so much of the federal response to the crisis, the largest influx of foreign assistance to the US in memory was met with foot-dragging and clumsy bureaucracy. None of the donated funds has actually made its way to evacuees.
Some of the donated funds were stuck in a non-interest bearing account for nearly six months - so long that they lost value due to inflation. Back in March, the State Department finally agreed to give a portion of the funds to the Department of Education. When I contacted the DoE recently to find out how they'd put the foreign donations to good use, I was shocked to learn that the money hadn't yet been spent.
Today, the DoE announced that it plans to spend $60 million donated by foreign governments - about half the total received by the federal government - to help rebuild schools on the Gulf Coast. To that, I say kudos; it's money much-needed. But why so late? Why did DoE sit on the funds for so long? Shouldn't those schools have been rebuilt in time for this school year?
Shortly after 9/11, the newly-established Department of Homeland Security developed Ready.gov, a Web site devoted to educating Americans on disaster and attack preparedness. The result, even after a recent update and overhaul, leaves a lot to be desired. So the Federation of American Scientists put together a new site, ReallyReady, highlighting not just DHS faults in advice and design (including generic advice, repetitive details, and incorrect information), but also synthesizing the information that is useful and accurate in a new easy-to-navigate, reader-friendly format.
What's even better about the whole project is that, whereas the DHS spent millions of taxpayer dollars and took five months to put the Web site into operation, the new ReallyReady site was completed in nine weeks by a 20-year-old FAS intern for the price of the site domain name.
I know it isn't good to laugh about such a serious topic, but when I saw the graphic on Ready.gov suggesting that when a nuclear bomb goes off a hundred feet away you might want to protect yourself by walking around the corner, I just couldn't help myself," said Ivan Oelrich, Vice President of Strategic Security at FAS. "After three years and millions of dollars, taxpayers should expect a better website from the Department of Homeland Security."
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