Thursday, 8 November 2012

Smart cities rise from the Gulf’s deserts

With urbanization on the increase around the world, just over half of the planet’s population now live in cities. They also produce 75% of carbon emissions worldwide. As urban populations have mushroomed during the last 50 years, “smart” information and communication technologies (ICTs) have led efforts to improve the efficiency of urban systems and services.


 Masdar City, UAE

The quest for sustainable urban development has led to the loosely defined concept of the “smart city” (also called “digital” or “connected” city). Although Europe and North America led the way in the 1980s and 90s, attention is turning to Asia and the Middle East, where the concept is gaining momentum and smart cities are being built from scratch.

This article was first published in The Middle East magazine, July/August 2012 issue.

Smart cities use ICT to build new or adapt existing infrastructure, buildings and systems to make better use of energy and resources in meeting the challenges of climate change, population growth, demographic change, urbanization and resource depletion, and contribute to reducing emissions while increasing living standards.

A 2011 report from Pike Research, a US firm that analyses global clean technology markets, forecast that investment in smart city technology infrastructure would total $108 billion in the decade from 2010 to 2020.  By the end of that period, annual spending will reach nearly $16 billion, Pike Research anticipates.

Ali al-Khulaifi, market development manager at ictQATAR, the country’s telecoms regulator and technology advocate, defines a smart city as an “intelligent ecosystem employing integrated technology to provide public and private services”. They tend to be long-term projects, usually taking between 5-10 years, which require significant investments.

In the Middle East, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have earmarked more than $63 billion over the next five years for development authorities, infrastructure companies, governmental and corporate entities to develop smart city projects.

At the Arab Future Cities Summit in Doha in April 2012, participants agreed on the importance of developing smart and sustainable cities in the Arab region, given that the majority of the population in the GCC region now live in cities.

While global corporate giants such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens and Orange look for their slice of the smart city pie, commentators also see social aspects such as investment in human and social capital and participatory governance as vital elements.

The GCC countries are leading the way in implementing smart infrastructure developments in the Middle East, lavishing vast sums in investment and funding for major projects such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, Lusail in Qatar and King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia.

Qatar, which currently has the highest per capita rate of CO2 emissions in the world, is investing billions in “green” building and solar technologies in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint.

Lusail, an extension to Doha, is intended to be Qatar’s biggest green field area once it is completed over the next 15 years. Extending across 38 sq. km, the new city includes four islands and 19 multi-purpose residential, mixed use, entertainment and commercial districts. As well as 200,000 permanent residents, it will have 170,000 employees and 80,000 daily commuters.  The promoters of the project describe Lusail as the “conscience of sustainable development”.

In Saudi Arabia, the ambition of Dubai property giant Emaar is to develop its $100 billion King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) project, taking shape 100 km north of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, into one of the world's most advanced smart cities.

The KAEC website paints a picture of “seamless integration of state-of-the-art infrastructure and advanced technology with business and public services”.

KAEC will include one of the largest ports in the world. It forms part of a $400 billion plan announced by the Saudi government in 2008 to make the kingdom less dependent on the oil industry and provide jobs and housing for the 10 million Saudis under the age of 17.

But it is Masdar City, 17 km from Abu Dhabi, which stands out as the Gulf’s current landmark smart city. The aim of the developers of the $22 billion project was to create the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, with the emphasis on energy efficiency. The 36 sq. km city, designed by British architects Foster + Partners, incorporated renewable energy and clean technologies as part of its design.

There is a strong emphasis on natural cooling, with streets aligned to provide daytime shading, parks located to channel prevailing winds into the city, and traditional Arabic building principles such as wind towers. Exterior materials and windows were chosen to provide maximum cooling and reduce heat gain in buildings.

Construction began in 2008, and when it is completed in 2025 the city is expected to accommodate 40,000 residents and 50,000 daily commuters. Conventional cars have been replaced by public transport using electric pod cars.

Masdar City treats wastewater for landscaping, to reduce the need for desalination, and uses 54% less water than the average UAE city.

Its 10MW solar-power plant, the largest grid-connected plant of its kind in the Middle East, is designed to produce more electricity overall than the city consumes, with excess transferred to the national grid. By 2020, Abu Dhabi aims to generate at least 7% of its power needs from renewable sources.

Every electrical outlet in the city is monitored, and smart meters collect and continuously analyse data about power usage to provide an accurate "live" model of energy use.

Smart energy grids are vital to smart cities. They can reduce peak demand for electricity by providing information and incentives to consumers, allowing them to shift consumption to other periods.

Smart metering is key to the effective operation of smart energy grids. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the Geneva-based global standards organization for all areas of electrotechnology, maintains that without accurate measurement it is not possible to demonstrate energy efficiency improvements credibly.

The UAE currently leads the smart meter market in the Middle East and North African region. A June 2012 report by Northeast Group, a Washington-based market intelligence firm, projected that MENA countries could save between $300 million and $1 billion every year by adopting smart grids to incorporate renewable energy sources, cope with rising demand and reduce energy losses on networks. The report predicted that capital spending in the MENA smart metering market would rise to $3.9 billion by 2022, with smart meters installed in 86% of homes in the Gulf.

But while conspicuous energy consumption remains a feature of Abu Dhabi, Masdar comes across more as a development project rather than an environmental one. And other regions of the world, such as Europe, are still ahead of the GCC in using real-time data systems to collect data on water and power usage and increase user awareness in environmentally friendly smart homes.

So, given the enormous financial resources of the Gulf states, why are there relatively few smart cities in development in the region?

Andrew Nusca, editor of the US-based website SmartPlanet, believes that while the Gulf states have considerable wealth, traditionally they have not been good at distributing it throughout the population or investing in public works projects that enable wealth generation. He told The Middle East: “By definition, the term ‘smart city’ denotes not just physical capital - infrastructure - but intellectual and social capital, too. That can't happen until the Gulf states begin to give their own people the tools to generate economic benefit for themselves and the state. That kind of progress takes generations to materialize, which is why we're only seeing the beginnings of this in the Middle East today.”



Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Pentagon's "shadow wars" in Africa

By Peter Feuilherade

America's new and still-evolving defence strategy is strongly focused on Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, as well as heralding a new phase of restraint in military spending. Over the next 10 years the Pentagon faces budget cuts of 487 billion dollars.

On his first visit to Japan as Pentagon chief in October 2011, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said America would remain a global economic and military power despite the cuts, and the Asia-Pacific region would be central to US national security strategy. Washington's shift in focus towards Asia is in response to China's growing military power.

But the expanding US military presence in Africa suggests that Washington is also increasingly concerned about the expansion of transnational terrorism into sub-Saharan Africa.

This article was first published in Defence Management Journal – Summer 2012 issue

U.S. and Mozambican Marines train together in Maputo - Photo: U.S. Africa Command (Africom)

US forces or advisers are active in the Horn of Africa, East and Central Africa, while in at least 10 countries in the Maghreb, the Sahel and West Africa US personnel are providing counterterrorism training and building up national armies.

Countering extremists is the top military priority for the continent, says General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command (Africom), which oversees US military operations across the continent but is based in Stuttgart, Germany.


Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the biggest US base in Africa, hosts the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, set up a decade ago to counter Al-Qaeda's growth in East Africa. "By 2003, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command were also establishing an operational presence in the Horn. Their mission was focused on killing or capturing senior members of Al-Qaeda in East Africa," recalls Sean D. Naylor, senior staff writer of the US website Army Times.

2008 saw the operational launch of Africom, responsible for US military relations with 54 African countries. With President George W. Bush facing almost unanimous opposition from African leaders to hosting it on the continent, its HQ was located in Germany instead. Africom's mission, its website notes, is to "protect and defend the national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organizations and, when directed, conduct military operations, in order to deter and defeat transnational threats and to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development." Africom typically has fewer than 5,000 troops in Africa at any time.


The US media spotlight turned briefly to Africa in 2011 when the US sent 100 military advisers, mostly Army Special Forces, to help soldiers from four Central African countries - Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic - fight the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and capture its leader Joseph Kony. But for several years, the US Air Force has been flying drones over north-east Africa and Yemen from bases in Djibouti and more recently southern Ethiopia and the Seychelles.

In combating the Somalia-based Islamic insurgent group Al-Shabaab, only a handful of US troops are involved directly, usually special forces who enter the country on clandestine missions to kill militant targets. However, America has funded 9,000 African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, and provided background support to invading  Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, all involved in military operations against Al-Shabaab.

In March 2012, the Africom chief told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that Al-Qaeda affiliates in east and north-west Africa posed the greatest security threat to the US. Noting that Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab (which has recruited and trained dozens of American citizens) had publicly formalized their long-standing merger, he described the stated intention of the leaders of these extremist groups to work more closely together as "his greatest concern".

Unholy trinity

On the other side of the continent, the US is conducting counterterrorism training and equipping armies in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. US involvement could escalate if events confirm reports that some members of Al-Qaeda's core leadership have moved to North Africa from Pakistan after suffering heavy losses in US drone attacks there.

US officials say there are "clear indications" that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is involved in trafficking arms from Libya, and that the upheavals in Libya and Tunisia have created opportunities for AQIM to establish new "safe havens". The US, along with several European countries, is concerned that AQIM and Boko Haram, the militant group from northern Nigeria formed in the 1990s, together with Al-Shabaab, are "attempting to share training and to collaborate in other ways in pursuit of their goal of attacking the US and other foreign targets", according to a September 2011 speech by General Ham. Some analysts dismiss such an alliance as unlikely, given the cultural and ethnic differences that separate the three groups.

Both AQIM and separatist Tuareg insurgents in northern Mali opposed to the Malian government received sophisticated weapons from Libya in 2011, allowing Tuareg rebels to resume armed operations inside Mali in January 2012.

In March, a group of Malian junior officers angered by the lack of government support to help the army fight the rebels seized control in a coup, before agreeing to the return of civilian rule in mid-April. At the time of writing, rebel groups remained in control of northern Mali, their ranks reportedly swelled by foreign Islamist militants. The whole country was also mired in a regional humanitarian crisis, with over 1.4 million Malians in need of emergency food assistance, according to EU estimates.

The New York Times recently described Mali as "an impoverished desert nation, an important American ally against the regional Al-Qaeda franchise". Mounting insecurity there, and fears that destabilization could spread to Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel region, suggest that the American military mission in Mali is likely to have its work cut out combating regional terrorism.

The US will share similar concerns to France, which has warned that the seizure of northern Mali by Tuareg separatists, in a loose alliance with Islamic militants, could turn the region into an AQIM stronghold.

Oil rush

US military operations in Africa face a range of difficulties, including a lack of bases and international agreements on flight paths, limited communications and the reluctance of many African countries to have any significant US force within their borders. One option for3the US is increasing the use of sea-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

As the Pentagon cuts back on traditional military operations in the post-Iraq and Afghan war era and after defence budget cuts kick in, it will rely increasingly on smaller elite units to carry out targeted operations. US special operations forces (SOF) will expand to maintain a continuous presence around the globe. SOF will "begin to return to its roots as expert trainers of counter-terrorism forces in other countries", with a large portion of the worldwide SOF presence focusing on Africa and the Pacific, according to Pentagon officials.

However, public opinion and legislators in the US are concerned about the costs of military forays into Africa at a time of budget cuts, while the deployment of advisers has prompted comparisons with the escalation of US involvement in South Vietnam in the 1960s.

In Africa, the growing US presence is regarded with some suspicion too. "After the Libyan case of 2011 (the imposition of the no-fly zone) some African leaders, intellectuals and policy makers are advocating for change in the way international organizations or individual states intervene in African political crises. Some issues that make Africans suspicious about US involvement include the increased deployments of special forces, trainers and military contractors by the Pentagon, and the political objectives behind some of the interventions," Dr Petrus De Kock, Senior Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told Defence Management Journal.

America's critics, meanwhile, see Africa becoming a battleground where the US and its European allies are jostling for access to the continent's strategic oil and mineral resources with China, which has been striking commercial deals with governments across Africa for decades.

The last few years have seen significant new oil and natural gas discoveries reported across East Africa, from the Horn of Africa in the northeast, down to Tanzania and Mozambique in the south, and inland in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo around Lake Albert.

As Africom chief General Ham said in March 2012: "With six of the world's fastest growing economies in the past decade, combined with democratic gains made in a number of African nations in 2011, Africa's strategic importance to the United States will continue to grow."

For all parties involved, the stakes are high and rising.

RAF warplanes keep 2012 Cosford Air Show crowds on their feet

Despite recent job cuts in the UK's armed forces, the RAF brings the past and the present together and puts on a great display at the 2012 Cosford air show on Sunday 17 June.

This story was first published on

Avro Lancaster bomber at Cosford - Photo: Peter Feuilherade

Frontline Royal Air Force (RAF) jets that recently saw service in Afghanistan and Libya as well as historic and iconic aircraft from earlier conflicts were in action again at the Cosford Air Show this week. The annual display, which was seen by some 40,000 people this year, is the biggest in the West Midlands and one of only three RAF officially endorsed shows.

The highlights included high speed displays by an RAF 6th Squadron Eurofighter Typhoon and two Tornado attack aircraft. Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s and Tornados both served in operations over Libya in 2011, and Tornados are currently deployed in Afghanistan to carry out reconnaissance missions and provide close air support for Coalition troops on the ground.

A fly-past by an Avro Lancaster bomber and a Spitfire from the Battle of Britain Memorial flight evoked thoughts of the UK’s aviation heritage, as spectators remembered all the RAF personnel who had served in previous conflicts, particularly World War Two.

As well as a display by the ever-popular Red Arrows aerobatics team, the Cosford air show was also one of the last chances to see a flypast by an RAF Vickers VC10 tanker/transport before the aircraft’s imminent retirement from service. In March 2013 the RAF will stop operating its VC10 fleet, which was first deployed in 1966.

Red Arrows at Cosford - Photo: Peter Feuilherade

But as RAF staff at Cosford celebrated the 2012 air show’s success, they also reflected sombrely on the impact of the latest round of redundancies in the UK armed forces announced just a few days previously.

Nine hundred posts are being cut from the RAF, as well as 2,900 from the Army and 300 from the Royal Navy. The job losses are part of the largest personnel cutbacks for more than two decades. Those affected include members of all three services with experience of fighting in two Gulf Wars, peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Online is a game changer for amusement machines

Gaming goes for the personal touch


By Peter Feuilherade

First published in the Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission magazine and website e-tech in June 2012

While the irresistible global rise of online entertainment is bringing rapid change to the market for commercial amusement machines, businesses are also readjusting to the combined pressures of economic recession and regulatory change. A number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) prepare International Standards for the systems and devices used in amusement machines found in public places. These make a significant contribution to an industry with a global value projected to exceed USD 110 billion in 2016.

Multiple machines to meet multiple needs

Amusement machines are electro-mechanical appliances found in public places. They include gaming machines, arcade video games, driving simulators, laser shooting appliances, pinball machines, "kiddie rides" and billiard tables.

Modern pay-to-play machines are no longer confined to amusement arcades. Increasingly they are found in bars, clubs, hotels and sports centres as well as being available for domestic and corporate entertainment hire.

Electronic gaming is a globally popular pastime for many people. Electronic games can be defined as interactive games that are played on arcade machines, consoles, computers and mobile devices such as phones and tablets.

Video-based multiplayer digital terminals with touchscreen technology offer combinations of fun games, card games and skill games. The market for "skill with prizes" machines is one of the fastest growing.

There are also gaming machines without prizes, score game and touch-screen machines, video games, driving simulators, pinball machines and laser simulated systems for shooting and other sports such as basketball, golf and archery. Electronic machines offer sports such as billiards, darts and football or air hockey.

Games played in amusement arcades have been steadily losing their appeal since the appearance of home consoles in the mid-1980s started the trend towards more personalized gaming.

IEC work ensures safety

Several IEC TCs and SCs develop standards for the components used in amusement machines.

IEC TC 61: Safety of household and similar electrical appliances, plays a central role. It prepares product standards and safety requirements for electrical appliances primarily for household purposes, but also for other equipment and appliances in similar fields in which there is no dedicated IEC technical committee. Its responsibilities include drawing up specific requirements for the safety of electric commercial amusement machines whose rated voltage does not exceed 250 V for single-phase and 480 V for other appliances.

The usual safety standards for household electrical appliances apply to amusement machines. They include requirements and test criteria to cover hazards such as electric shock; thermal hazards (burns, overheated surrounds, insulation); mechanical hazards (cutting, crushing, explosion); appliances that catch fire owing to internal faults; radiation and toxicity (non-ionizing radiation and poisonous gases).

The growing use of electronic circuits (including programmable elements) for the provision of safety related functions and to enable remote control and remote servicing of electrical appliances through telecommunications networks is leading to improvements in design, construction and safety.

Cost is a major factor

The traditional arcade cabinets have been superseded by HD flat screen gaming platforms and simulator-style cockpit units that can cost from USD 10 000 to 25 000 or more. Many arcade owners are unwilling to invest such large sums in buying the latest top-range video arcade game machine that may only have a shelf life of a few seasons – not long enough to pay off its cost.

As the electronic content of amusement machines expands, other IEC TCs and SCs play a role in developing standards relevant to the industry, such as for the sensors used in amusement machines, the motion sensors in arcade video games and safety and overload sensors in kiddie rides.

IEC International Standards that cover sensors and their operation include the IEC 61508 series, Functional Safety, developed by SC 65A: Industrial-process measurement, control and automation, and IEC 61757, Fibre optic sensors, developed by SC 86C: Fibre optic systems and active devices. TC 76: Optical radiation safety and laser equipment and TC 47: Semiconductor devices, also deal with sensors used in amusement machines.

Not only has the home market for video games taken over, but consumers are now moving online as the costs of consoles and handheld gaming devices continue to rise, while downloading has become more accessible. The mobile market, particularly in terms of smartphones, has become a growth area for games.

Whither the pinball machine…

US firms dominated pinball machine manufacturing in the 1950 70s, when the popularity of this entertainment was at its peak. Now there are only a few US manufacturers in the global market, while some Chinese companies make generic pinball machines, largely for domestic sales and export to markets outside the US. Since the 1980s, pinball has become electronic, digitized and licensed. Modern pinball machines combine video graphics with mechanical action, often based on licensed themes associated with popular video games, films and toys.

Children first…


Coin-operated amusement rides for small children, known as kiddie rides, are usually located in amusement parks, shopping centres, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. Most rides include sounds and music, sometimes with adjustable volume control; some feature flashing lights, pedals and buttons. Modern rides may have a solid state audio playback device similar to flash-based MP3 players.

The highest standards of safety are of the utmost importance in the design and construction of kiddie rides as children do not receive adequate prior training in the rides’ use. This involves looking for child-specific mechanical and other hazards that could result from operation of the appliances, such as crushing as a result of pinch points that may be encountered on the rides.

Precautions commonly found include a button that allows the ride to be paused, safety sensors that detect if anything obstructs the ride's movement and which cause it to stop, overload sensors that stop the ride if the weight limit is exceeded, and a slow start/stop action so that younger riders are not alarmed.

To ensure these machines are safe, TC 61 published IEC 60335-2-82, Household and similar electrical appliances - Safety, which deals specifically with Particular requirements for amusement machines and personal service machines.

Global but fragmented markets

In the words of the Euroslot World Market Report 2011-12, there is no "global" market for gaming and amusements, but rather "a motley assembly of national markets" shaped by national or regional characteristics. The economic downturn, however, is affecting nearly every corner of the industry, especially traditional parts of the amusement sector which are already in slow decline because of the rise of e gaming.

The industry, as well as the manufacturers of amusement machines and associated products, have to contend not only with "the many commercial advantages of using the internet as a platform for gambling and entertainment, but also with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones as the means of delivery", says the report's editor Barnaby Page.

A September 2011 report by US-based BCC Research put the global total value of the electronic gaming industry in 2011 at around USD 69,9 billion for games and software, hardware and accessories and services. The report forecast that the total would rise to USD 111,8 billion in 2016.

Italy is Europe’s biggest gaming market, with video lottery terminals (VLTs), Amusement Machines with Prizes (AWPs), casinos and online poker all creating vast profits for licence holders and increased revenue for the government. Since the regulation of VLTs in 2010 to bring in revenue for the Italian government's rebuilding efforts following the Abruzzo earthquake, VLTs have been at the forefront of a gaming revolution, with prizes of up to EUR 500 000 on offer.

In Germany, there is great concern about the threat posed by the first state legislation on amusement arcades, which manufacturers, distributors and arcade operators say will have ruinous consequences. Nevertheless, the coin-operated amusement devices market is projected to exceed USD 1,6 billion in Germany by 2015. AWPs represent the most popular coin-operated devices. New installations, however, are declining for Amusement Devices without Prizes, especially for score game and pinball devices, which have both dropped in popularity.

In the USA, coin-operated amusement devices were the staple of video arcades in the 1970s and 1980s. The growing popularity and advancing technology of home gaming systems has now led to the almost total demise of large arcades targeted at young customers. They have been replaced by family entertainment centres, offering casual dining facilities coupled with large game rooms geared to a range of ages, including younger and older children and adults, and gambling operations, including casinos, horse racing tracks and, in some states, slot machines which compete with casinos. Slot machines have become so popular that they provide 70% to 75% of casino revenues.

Asia has become the largest gambling region in the world, overtaking Europe and North America. Most of the profits are derived from casino operations, which are set to provide a lucrative export opportunity for manufacturers of the relevant kinds of amusement machines. The UK company, Global Betting and Gaming Consultants (GBGC), predicts that by 2015, Asia's casinos will account for 48% of the global market, thanks to continuing growth in Macau and Singapore as well as new operations in the Philippines and Vietnam.

PWC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) broadly concurs, predicting that by 2015, Asia Pacific will account for 43,4% of global spending on casino gaming, with the US accounting for 40,1%. This is on top of rising spending on online gaming. The big question is whether online gaming revenues will add to existing offline revenues, or will cannibalize them.

The popularity of gambling, and the spread of online betting, has been accompanied by a fall in demand across most of Asia for electronic coin-operated amusement centres and arcade-type amusement machines. In India, for example, this sector was estimated to be worth less than USD 200 million in 2011..

The future

More than 40 years have passed since the launch of the first coin-operated video game in 1971. Now the video game sector has evolved into a popular and diverse market that has outgrown its original amusement trade confines. The collapse of the traditional arcade business in many countries has sidelined video amusement machines to the role of generators of secondary revenue for larger entertainment complexes, especially in the US.

But manufacturers of amusement machines and video lottery terminals can still look forward to expanding markets in Asia, where casino gaming is set for huge growth as the affluent middle classes seek new forms of entertainment.

The newest innovations in video-based multiplayer digital terminals combine features of computer gaming, such as dynamic playing fields and gaming levels, with the social interaction and palpable playing pieces of conventional multiplayer board games, such as pawns and dice. This has led to a number of partnerships between electronics companies and games vendors and developers.

Manufacturers of these products cite the tangible and visual interaction among users, including the option to incorporate social networking elements, as one of their main features. More intuitive amusement machines offering greater "gestural experiences" are also in development.

All of these machines, which drive an industry with a global value expected to grow by nearly 60% between 2011 and 2016, rely on the work of several IEC TCs and their standards.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Electric bikes gaining ground worldwide


VeloSolex e-bicycle

Sales of electric cycles are soaring in Asia and several European markets, with consumers attracted by the cheaper purchase and maintenance costs, absence of exhaust emissions and the reduced noise associated with these energy-efficient modes of transport in comparison with petrol-driven alternatives.
While most electric bicycles (e-bikes), scooters and motorcycles sold globally are used for short-distance daily commuting, other uses include deliveries of post, food orders or other goods, meter reading, police and security patrols, and transport around large sites such as airports, warehouses, factories and hotel complexes. Purchases by leisure customers in Europe and North America are on the rise too.

Tuk Tuk - Made in Holland

Born in the USA - Brutus 2 electric motorcycle prototype

Read the full text of my April 2012 article on e-tech, the website of the International Electrotechnical Commission in Geneva.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Blists Hill, Ironbridge - a reminder of our industrial heritage

March 2012 marked the centenary of the closure of the Blists Hill blast furnaces, which are today iconic ruins at the heart of the award-winning Ironbridge Gorge Museum, showcasing the relics of the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

I am now a volunteer guide at Blists Hill Victorian Town, and this is the story of these remarkable structures and the seismic impact of the shutdown on the local community back in March 1912:

This story was published in the Shropshire Star on 28 March 2012

The Blast Furnaces in the late 1890s (Photo: Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)

It was 100 years ago this week that the Madeley Wood Company shut down its three blast furnaces at Blists Hill for the last time, after eight decades of iron production at the site.

Now part of the Blists Hill Victorian Town museum, the remains of the furnaces are one of the most defining features of the Ironbridge Gorge, and a major industrial monument.

When they were closed in 1912, several hundred men lost their livelihood, causing major disruption to the local community. The closure happened during a five-week national coal mining strike in support of a minimum wage for miners, adding to the atmosphere of industrial unrest and social discontent. Across Shropshire, hundreds of workers in other industries, such as gasworks and railways, were temporarily out of work because of coal shortages. Weeks of wintry weather added discomfort to their economic distress.

"In consequence of the Blists Hill Furnaces having been blown out, upwards of 200 workmen have been thrown out of employment," the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News reported at the time. Alderman A. B. Dyas, speaking at a public meeting in Madeley on 25th March 1912, said he was "sorry for the poor people thrown out of work through the blowing out of the furnaces, and he could see nothing but the workhouse staring them in the face".

The furnaces produced iron for 80 years after they were built between 1832 and 1844. The Madeley Wood Company, formed in 1756, had previously operated the two Bedlam blast furnaces alongside the River Severn, a mile west of Blists Hill. The company was run by the Anstice family, influential in the history of the Gorge, and held mineral leases in Madeley Parish.

By the 18th century, the mining of clay, coal and iron ore was well established at Blists Hill. The missing ingredient required for iron-making - limestone – was widely available nearby, with deposits at Lincoln Hill near Coalbrookdale, and further afield at Wellington and Wenlock Edge.

The completion of the Shropshire Canal and the building of the Hay Inclined Plane in the early 1790s provided a means of bringing in limestone and transporting finished goods from Blists Hill. But it was not until four decades later that the Madeley Wood Company built the first blast furnace there in 1832, adding another two in 1840 and 1844.

Originally the furnaces were conical structures, made of refractory brick clad with wrought iron plates, and stood about 50 feet high, on brick and stone bases. Huge blowing engines on either side blasted air into the furnaces. The original engine house, to the north of the furnaces, was demolished around 1873, when the engine house that visitors see today was constructed. The south engine house dates from 1840. 

The Blast Furnaces in February 2012
Each engine blasted 12,500 cubic feet of air (the size of a large detached house) every minute into the furnace, supplying oxygen to the fuel and making it burn with an intense heat. The coke (produced by baking coal at high temperatures), iron ore and limestone were transformed into molten iron and a mix of waste products, or slag. Most of the iron was poured into a large central trench with smaller trenches running off it, resembling a sow and her piglets – hence the term "pig iron" – while the rest was cast on site to make pots and pans.

In their heyday the furnaces would have run continuously day and night, stopping only for repairs or lack of demand. Iron continued to be produced at Blists Hill until 1912, although by then the industry in Shropshire was in decline as steel production had taken over since the 1880s.

A few years after the furnaces were taken out of service, the First World War broke out and Blists Hill lay derelict for decades. In the 1960s, the slag from the furnaces was used as hard core for building Britain's first motorways. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum carried out major repairs on the site in the 1970s and again in 1993.
Today, although only the bases of the furnaces remain, they continue to impress visitors to Blists Hill, and are a striking reminder of the Gorge's rich industrial heritage.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Refugee Tides Surge Across Arab World

The Arab Spring - or Arab Awakening, as many in the Arab world prefer to call it - resulted in massive movements of refugees and displaced people across the Middle East and North Africa. More than a million people, most of them foreign workers, fled Libya after the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi’s rule broke out in February 2011.


Syrian refugees in Turkey, 2011 - Photo: The Guardian

There have been mass movements elsewhere in the region too. The unrest in Syria has driven refugees to seek sanctuary in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, itself host to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees for the past eight years.  

And according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 287,000 people fleeing the worsening drought and decades of conflict in Somalia have escaped to neighbouring countries, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to 950,000, while another 1.5 million are internally displaced.

Kassala in eastern Sudan is home to the country's largest concentration of refugees, numbering more than 86,000. As the UNHCR recalls, "many had fled fighting over the past half century between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but the majority were born in Sudan's camps, where they share the ethnicity, language and religion of their host community."

And following the rebellion in the Darfur region in western Sudan in 2003, almost a decade later an estimated 200,000 refugees from Darfur are still languishing in refugee camps in the desert in eastern Chad. According to UN agencies, 83,000 Chadian migrant workers returned from Libya in 2011, and Chad continues to host refugees from the Central African Republic as well as its own internally displaced persons (IDPs) resulting from internal conflict.

In Egypt, where tens of thousands of African refugees live, the UNHCR is assisting more than 41,000 documented refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom arrived from Sudan during two decades of civil war and, since 2003, from Darfur.

Israel, according to the New York-based agency The Media Line, is home to some 27,000 refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, and Israeli officials estimate that in the first nine months of 2011, about 36,000 Africans crossed the border from Egypt into Israel illegally, some 2,000 of them in August alone.

In January 2012 the Israeli Knesset passed a bill, promoted by the Netanyahu government, that would make refugees and asylum seekers who lack residency status liable to automatic detention without trial for up to three years. Organizations including Amnesty International have condemned the move as a violation of human rights.

"Since 2005, approximately 45,000 people have entered Israel via the Egyptian border to seek asylum, the majority of them Eritreans and Sudanese. For the past few years, Israel has barred Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers outright from having their refugee claims heard, in blatant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention," according to Amnesty.

There are also much longer established refugee populations across the Middle East and North Africa. Almost 5 million Palestinian refugees are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. And for more than three decades, refugee camps in Tindouf in southwestern Algeria have been home to an estimated 165,000 Sahrawis, the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, who arrived after the Moroccan occupation of their territory in 1976.

The displacement of people within and across borders as a result of the upheavals of 2011 has hit national economies, undermined regional stability and provoked fears in some European countries that large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers would flood to their shores.


In Syria, the crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops intensified since pro-democracy protests began in April 2011, leading anti-government protesters to step up the use of force, notably by the Free Syrian Army. One consequence has been a steady flow of Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers into southern Turkey, with smaller numbers crossing into Lebanon and Jordan. Those fleeing include whole families as well as defecting soldiers who refused to shoot protesting civilians. According to the Turkish and Lebanese governments, more than 25,000 people fled Syria in 2011, though many have since returned.

By December 2011, there were about 10,000 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. The number of registered refugees peaked at nearly 20,000 in late summer 2011, according to Turkish officials, but fell as families left the camps, some of them to stay with local Turkish families with whom they shared kinship ties. Most of those registered were in camps in the southern province of Hatay, to which Syria has a long-standing territorial claim which it had shelved in recent years as relations between the two countries warmed. But in 2011 relations deteriorated over Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters. Turkey became one of the most vocal critics of Assad’s rule, and hosts the Syrian National Council, a broad-based opposition coalition formed in September 2011.

Around 5,500 refugees have fled their homes in Syria to border towns in Jordan. While Jordan has not offered asylum to Syrians, authorities near the northern border were providing emergency medical attention and shelter to displaced Syrians, "with preparations in place for any potential large-scale humanitarian crisis," the Jordan Times reported on 28 November.

Although they have been made welcome because of the long-existing tribal and family ties that predate and transcend the common border, the continued presence of displaced Syrians poses problems for many Jordanians whose livelihood depends on cross-border border trade with Syria.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jordan’s national resources have also been strained by an influx of Iraqi refugees, who now comprise 15 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, some of the estimated one million Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria since 2003 have returned to Iraq. In mid-January 2012, more than 5,200 Syrian refugees were registered in northern Lebanon with the UNHCR and Lebanese relief bodies.

According to Israeli press reports, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) has prepared for extreme scenarios in which Syrians fleeing turmoil at home could even try to storm the border with Israel and seek political asylum, as they have done on Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan.

Israel's military chief Lt-Gen Benny Gantz said in January 2012 that Israel was making contingency plans in the event that President Bashar al-ASsad was ousted from power, and the possibility that refugees from his minority Alawite sect would flee into the Golan Heights (which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war).


When conflict erupted in Libya, the country was home to between 1.5 million and 2.5 million foreign nationals, many of them refugees, although the authorities treated them as irregular migrants. According to the UNHCR, in February 2011 there were around 8,000 registered refugees and approximately 3,000 asylum seekers in Libya who had come from countries including Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.

As the unrest spread during the summer, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within Libya itself, while over a million men, women and children escaped to neighbouring countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Algeria.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 people had been internally displaced in Libya at the height of the conflict, before some began to return home after Gaddafi was ousted from Tripoli in August. OCHA said it had "serious protection concerns" for about 50,000 internally displaced people from minority groups, owing to direct threats to their physical security as well as social discrimination.

Humanitarian organisations were also concerned about the situation of third-country nationals, including migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, who had become more vulnerable to violence and human rights violations since the outbreak of the conflict, OCHA added.

"Sub-Saharan Africans, especially those from Niger, Chad and Sudan, were targeted by both sides after it became known that some sub-Saharan Africans had worked as mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime," the UNHCR noted.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva, said the crisis in Libya had primarily been one of migration, and not a refugee crisis.

"Overwhelmingly, the hundreds of thousands of people who fled Libya were migrant workers, employed mostly in the informal sector or in some cases contract workers from South Asia," he told The Middle East.

The ripple effects of the Libyan crisis hit countries south of Libya hard as well, Chauzy added: "At the moment there is very little focus on the impact on about 100,000 Chadians who have returned to Chad since the Libyan uprising started, and maybe 80-90,000 citizens of Niger who have returned to their country. Those returning migrants are going home empty-handed, with very little employment opportunities, and families who formerly relied on remittances from these migrants are now going without. Vast areas of Chad and Niger are also currently facing food insecurity. The lifeline that these former workers in Libya provided has been cut."

At the end of November, the IOM noted that "despite the end of hostilities in Libya which have seen more than 764,000 migrants flee the country, including more than 200,000 Africans," many migrants still wanting to leave Libya required assistance. Stranded African migrants still faced arbitrary detention, harassment and persecution, while the lack of diplomatic representation for many African nationalities made it difficult to verify their citizenship and issue travel documents, the organization added.

According to the governments of Egypt and Tunisia, over 200,000 Egyptians and 82,000 Tunisians have returned to their respective home countries as a result of the conflict in Libya, "in most cases, losing their sole source of income," the IOM said in January 2012.

Impact on Arab world and beyond

There has been scaremongering in some European countries, with anti-immigration parties seeking to make political capital by talking about the trickle of illegal migration from North Africa possibly escalating into a tsunami.

Amnesty International in September said European countries had "shamefully" failed to help about 5,000 mainly African refugees living in grim conditions at the Saloum border post and Choucha camp on Libya’s frontiers with Egypt and Tunisia respectively, who would face persecution or conflict if returned to their own countries.

Nicolas Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, said: "This failure is particularly glaring given that some European countries, by participating in NATO operations in Libya, have been party to the very conflict that has been one of the main causes of the involuntary movement of people."

By October 2011, only seven EU countries had pledged to resettle refugees, along with Norway, the US, Canada and Australia.

A spokesman for the British Department for International Development said in response to the Amnesty report that the UK had been one of the first governments to provide humanitarian support to those affected by the conflict in Libya. "However, we are under no international obligation to bring asylum seekers or refugees to the UK from Libya and do not believe it would be desirable to do so. In our view humanitarian and refugee issues are best dealt with in the region of origin, or by asylum seekers claiming protection in the first safe country they reach," he added.

Boats each carrying hundreds of illegal immigrants, who have made long and perilous journeys not just from Africa but as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan, continue to arrive regularly on Italy's southern coasts.

IOM spokesman Chauzy said that there was no denying that substantial numbers of people had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa - about 53,000 by late September, including about 26,000 from Tunisia, and others from Libya. But he said this could not be compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who had crossed from Libya into Egypt and Tunisia.

"The European response when the crisis began was a knee-jerk reaction aimed at controlling the potential flows of illegal migrants from Tunisia and Libya. Little has been done in the way of providing alternatives, especially for young Tunisians who want to emigrate – that would involve entering into new partnerships with governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and Libya when it stabilises, to create wealth and job opportunities in those countries," Chauzy said.

However, there is no accurate record of how many hundreds or thousands of would-be migrants drown when their small, overloaded craft sink off the shores of southern Europe.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Arab world, the prospects of more refugees from Syria being dispersed across the region, and of Yemenis fleeing the conflict in their country to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have heightened fears of growing humanitarian crises that would lead to prolonged destabilization across the region.