Monday 31 January 2011

Egyptian Military's Allegiances Tested As Protests Mount

Egypt's generals and colonels hold the key as protests continue against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian APCs in Operation Desert Shield, 1990 (IMAGE – U.S. Army)

There is near unanimous support in Egypt and abroad for the view that the Egyptian military will play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the popular protest movement that is about to enter its second week.


Wednesday 26 January 2011

OECD calls for more diversified, competitive Central Asia economies

The OECD has urged the five republics of Central Asia to diversify their economies to attract more foreign investors.

Central Asia and Caucasus political map (IMAGE – Univ. of Texas)

Economic diversification and increased competitiveness could make Central Asia a new frontier of economic opportunity for global investors, according to a new report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to be presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on 27 January 2011.


Chinese Sceptical after PM Asks Them to “Criticise Government”

China's premier tells officials to listen more to people's grievances, but critics say his remarks are just for show.

Wise man Chen Jun drafts a petition to the Emperor (IMAGE - David Schroeter)

In another bid to show the world that China has become more sensitive to public concerns and discontent, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid an unprecedented visit to the department in Beijing where aggrieved individuals can complain about official corruption.


Monday 24 January 2011

GM Crops Vital to Combat Global Hunger - UK Report

A leading UK scientist says there are no longer valid moral objections to genetically-modified crops, which are vital to prevent global hunger.

Genetically modified food (IMAGE – Illuminating 9/11)

Genetically-modified crops are vital to prevent a future global hunger crisis, the UK Government's chief scientific adviser Professor Sir John Beddington said on 24 January 2011.

Moves to block cultivation of GM crops in the developing world on ethical or moral grounds could no longer be tolerated, he added.

He was speaking in advance of the publication of his government-commissioned report which warns that urgent action is needed to avert future global hunger on a huge scale, the UK Press Association reported.

"Massive Pressure on Food Production"

The report contains a detailed analysis of the global food situation and was compiled by 400 scientists from 35 countries. It said factors including a growing global population, climate change, scarcity of water and energy were putting massive pressure on food production.

The report concluded that a billion people are hungry, another billion malnourished, and that unless action is taken, there will not be enough food for the growing population.

Climate Change "To Bring New Diseases"

Sir John, who was professor of applied population biology at Imperial College, London, until his appointment as chief scientific adviser in 2008, said on BBC Television's "Breakfast" programme on 24 January 2011 that the world would need 40% more food, 30% more water and 50% more energy by the middle of the century, at a time when climate change would start to have "serious environmental impacts" on the planet.

Climate change would result in spreading drought and a rise in salination, and was likely to bring with it new diseases, and "we need organisms that actually address that," Sir John said.

He added: "If there are genetically modified (GM) organisms that actually solve problems that we can't solve in other ways, and are shown to be safe from a human health point of view, and safe from an environmental point of view, and they can solve problems we can't solve otherwise, then we should use them."

But on BBC Radio's "Today" programme on 24 January 2011, Sir John also noted that GM crops were not the only way forward.

"GM may be the answer for certain problems," he said, such as drought areas, but in general "there is no one simple solution". Issues of waste and under-investment in agriculture also had to be dealt with.

"We are not making any more land, we have got to look for a significant and sustainable intensification of agriculture."

Moral Objections to GM Food "Untenable"

Sir John argued that ethical or moral objections to block cultivation of GM crops in the developing world were not tenable.

It was no longer acceptable to reject GM foods merely on the grounds of "scaremongering", particularly as food prices rocket and the world warms, the Daily Telegraph reported him as saying.

Dr Julian Little, chairman of the UK's Agricultural Biotechnology Council, echoed Sir John's views, The Telegraph added. "The majority of people recognise that crying wolf on this subject without one substantiated health issue is not going to work anymore," Little said.

However, Sandra Bell, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said it was too early to tell whether there were any negative health effects from eating GM food.

"Thirty years of research and development into GM has not delivered the solutions we need in terms of feeding people who are hungry and solving the problems of malnutrition," The Telegraph quoted her as saying.

Food Riots

The Observer newspaper on 23 January 2011 noted that Beddington's warning came in the wake of food riots in North Africa and rising global concern about mounting food prices.

"A number of very important factors are about to change our world… Its population is rising by six million every month and will reach a total of around 9,000 million by 2050. At the same time, it is estimated that by 2030 more than 60% of the population will be living in cities and will no longer be involved in growing crops or raising domestic animals…," The Observer quoted him as saying.

The paper commented that his support for GM crops would "enrage" many environmental groups, who believe it is wrong for the West to impose a technology it has developed on the Third World.

Critics of GM also believe that Third World farmers should not have to depend on foreign companies for the seeds they need for planting.

Beddington's report, "The Future of Food and Farming".
was presented on 24 January 2011 not just to the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), but also to the Department for International Development, which directs UK foreign aid.

Friday 21 January 2011

South Korean Commandos Kill Somali Pirates in Rescue Raid

South Korea says its troops' killing of Somali hijackers in a Gulf of Aden rescue raid sends a tough message to pirates.

South Korean naval exercises (IMAGE - South Korea Navy)

South Korean navy special forces stormed a hijacked cargo ship in the Arabian Sea on 21 January 2011, rescuing all 21 crew members and killing eight Somali pirates. Five pirates were captured.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap said President Lee Myung-bak had praised the operation in a nationally televised address. It quoted Lee as saying: "Our military carried out the operation perfectly under difficult circumstances. I appreciate it and send a message of encouragement."

The raid took place about 800 miles (1,300 km) off the coast of Somalia, officials in the South Korean capital Seoul said. It was the first such rescue by South Korea since it sent warships to join multinational anti-piracy patrols in the pirate-infested area in 2009.

"Strong Message to Pirates"

The rescued vessel, the 11,500-tonne Samho Jewelry, was carrying chemicals from the United Arab Emirates towards Sri Lanka when it was hijacked in the waters between Oman and India on 15 January 2011, the BBC News website recalled.

Yonhap said the South Korean destroyer Choi Young, with 300 special troops aboard, had first closed in on the Samho Jewelry on 18 January 2011, after its hijackers left the vessel to attack a Mongolian ship nearby.

The agency quoted Lt-Gen Lee Seong-ho, head of combat operations for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying: "During the operation, our forces killed some Somali pirates and all of the hostages were confirmed alive… This operation demonstrated our government's strong will that we won't tolerate illegal activities by pirates any more."

The timing of the operation was also based on intelligence that a "mother ship" was leaving a Somali port, which the South Korean forces suspected was probably transporting more pirates to the hijacked ship, Yonhap added.

General Lee told reporters that South Korea had received help from other countries, including the US, Bloomberg news agency noted.

The South Korean newspaper The Korea Herald commented on 21 January 2011 that the “successful rescue of Samho Jewelry and its crew sends a strong message to terrorists as well as pirates.” Local news media had called on the government to take “a drastic step” to discourage Somali pirates from targeting Korean-flagged ships, the paper recalled.

Four Ships Hijacked in Aden Gulf in 2011

The Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia, and the northwestern Arabian Sea are notorious danger zones for attacks by Somali pirates.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said that so far in 2011, there had been 22 incidents involving Somali pirates. As of 18 January 2011, they included four hijackings, in which a total of 86 sailors had been taken hostage.

The IMB recorded 430 attacks worldwide in 2010, up from 406 in 2009.



Thursday 20 January 2011

US And China Discuss Human Rights Despite "Differences"

President Hu Jintao concedes China has a lot to do on human rights, but stresses the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.


Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (IMAGE - Nobel Foundation)

Chinese President Hu Jintao's acknowledgement on 19 January 2011 during his state visit to the US that "a lot still needs to be done" in his country over human rights captured the headlines in Western media. But they have been played down in China's own news outlets. President Hu was speaking at a joint news conference with US President Barack Obama after talks at the White House.

Although the meeting between the two presidents was the lead story on the Chinese state-run English-language China Daily website on 20 January 2011, as well as in other official Chinese media, the paper omitted from its account President Hu's remarks on human rights during the news conference.

However, Chinese official news agency Xinhua on 20 January 2011 carried the full text of the US-Chinese joint statement, in which a whole paragraph was devoted to their joint commitment to promote human rights, despite having "significant differences" on the issue.

US-China "Tension" Over Human Rights

Asked during the news conference to justify China's human rights record, President Hu said China "faces many challenges in social and economic development. A lot still needs to be done in China on human rights," the BBC reported.

He added that China had "made enormous progress recognized in the world".

China was willing to continue a conversation about human rights on the basis of "mutual respect and non-interference in China's internal affairs", President Hu added.

At one point the Chinese president did not respond to an American reporter's question about human rights issues, saying later that difficulties in translation and technical equipment caused the error, the BBC noted.

President Obama, for his part, said differences on human rights issues were "occasionally a source of tension" between his country and China.

The Voice of America (VOA) cited President Obama as telling reporters he made clear to President Hu the US position on human rights, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and demonstration, and religion.

"Significant Differences" on Rights

In paragraph 7 of the US-Chinese joint statement issued on 19 January 2011, and published in full by China's official Xinhua news agency, the two countries "reiterated their commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, even as they continue to have significant differences on these issues.

"The United States stressed that the promotion of human rights and democracy is an important part of its foreign policy. China stressed that there should be no interference in any country's internal affairs.

"China and the United States underscored that each country and its people have the right to choose their own path, and all countries should respect each other's choice of a development model.

"Addressing differences on human rights in a spirit of equality and mutual respect, as well as promoting and protecting human rights consistent with international instruments, the two sides agreed to hold the next round of the China-U.S. Human Rights Dialogue before the third round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED)."

China's Human Rights Record

The US State Department, in its annual human rights report published in March 2010, said the Chinese government's human rights record "remained poor and worsened in some areas" during 2009. As well as repression of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Tibetan areas remained under tight government controls, and the detention and harassment of human rights activists increased.

"Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, executions without due process, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor, including prison labor," the State Department report added. The government also limited freedom of speech and controlled the internet and internet access.

UK-based Amnesty International's latest assessment said that in China, "serious human rights violations continue to be committed".

"This includes torture, execution (in which China is world leader), excessive use of force in public order policing, repression of dissent and forced repatriation of asylum seekers without recourse to a refugee determination procedure," Amnesty added.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 11 January 2011 said the Chinese government had "failed to deliver on commitments" in its first-ever National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) to protect key civil and political rights over the previous two years.

In a 67-page report, HRW set out how despite the Chinese government's progress in protection of some economic and social rights, "it has undermined many of the key goals of the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) by tightening restrictions on rights of expression, association, and assembly over the past two years."

Another US human rights NGO, Washington-based Freedom House, said on its website that "the Chinese government continued in 2009 to demonstrate high levels of insecurity and intolerance regarding citizens’ political activism and demands for human rights protection."

With the set-piece White House news conference now behind them, the Chinese president and his entourage will be relieved that his host President Obama did not mention, nor did any reporter specifically ask about, whether the two leaders had discussed the case of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident and human rights defender who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Trade Looms Large in US-China Summit

Chinese media are mostly full of praise for relations with the US, but differences over trade and human rights could come to the fore.

Chinese container ship Cosco Tenghe in South Carolina port (IMAGE - Mr. T in DC)

As Chinese President Hu Jintao began his state visit to the US on 18 January 2011, Chinese official media focused on how important Beijing regards the visit for improving the relationship between the world's leading economic superpowers.

Chinese media praised the continuing growth in bilateral trade between the two countries. They also echoed the theme that Hu's visit was intended to open what they call "a new phase in the development of Sino-US relations".

"Common Interests"

As President Barack Obama hosted a private dinner for President Hu at the White House hours after his arrival, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua (New China News Agency) noted that 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of "the rapprochement between China and the United States".

The agency said in an English-language report on 19 January 2011 that "both leaders positively assessed the progress in bilateral relations, and hoped that the visit will further promote a positive, cooperative and comprehensive Sino-US relationship".

In a reference to the Obama era, Xinhua commented that "with concerted efforts from both sides, the bilateral relations have seen significant progress in the past two years."

"The development of Sino-US relations in the past two years makes it clear that in a globalized world, China, the largest developing country, and the United States, the largest developed country, have tremendous common interests and hold great responsibility of safeguarding world peace and promoting common development. This is the cornerstone of the Sino-US relations in the 21st century," Xinhua concluded.

China Fastest-Growing Market for U.S. Products

Bilateral trade is expected to exceed 380 billion dollars in 2010, and China has been the fastest-growing market for US products for nine years in a row, the Xinhua report said.

US officials, too, acknowledge the importance of the trade and economic relationship with China. US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for example, has described the Chinese market as being "of vital importance" to a continued American economic recovery.

On 17 January 2011 Chinese and US companies signed six business deals worth 574 million dollars in Houston, Texas, to kick off a four-day Beijing trade mission to the US, China's state-run English-language newspaper China Daily reported.

The deals include imports of cotton as well as solar cell development and a photovoltaic system used in power generation.

US "Gains More" From Bilateral Trade

An opinion-piece in the Chinese official Communist Party newspaper People's Daily on 17 January 2011, republished in China Daily, said China was now the second largest trade partner of the US, as well as the fastest growing market for US exports. But the US gained more from bilateral trade with China than vice versa, it argued.

"China has become a profit center for enterprises from the United States. Statistics from the Ministry of Commerce of China indicate that by the end of 2010, US companies had invested 65.22 billion dollars in more than 59,000 projects in China," the article said.

It added that according to the 2010 report of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 71 per cent of US companies in China made a profit in 2009. For 46 per cent of the companies surveyed, the profits from the Chinese market were higher than their global average.

"China's controversial trade surplus with the US doesn't mean that US interests are harmed… As for the heated debate over the valuation of the yuan, China's surplus in its trade with the US increased considerably from 2005 to 2008, during which the yuan appreciated by 21.2 per cent," the opinion-piece concluded.

"Some Rifts And Frictions"

Another Xinhua commentary, on 17 January 2011, pointed out the areas of contention that still loomed between Beijing and Washington.

"Obviously, the Sino-US relations are also bedevilled by some rifts and frictions, some in economy and trade, while others in sensitive issues touching on sovereignty, security and territorial integrity," the commentary noted.

But with both countries agreeing that "bilateral common interests are far larger than divergence, and cooperation is always the mainstream of bilateral relations," they should deal with their differences "through equal dialogue and negotiations, and intensify risk control", rather than "alienate each other because of differences," Xinhua concluded.

In similar vein, China Daily on 18 January 2011 quoted a senior official at China's Ministry of Commerce as saying that although the US continued to blame China for its massive trade deficit with the country, and had threatened to levy high duties on Chinese imports, frictions over trade could not damage the economic and trade relations between the two countries.

He Ning, director-general of the ministry's department of American and Oceanian affairs, told China Daily that "stable and healthy economic relations could translate into huge benefits for both", and the Chinese government was willing to take steps to make that happen.

Global Times, another English-language state-run Chinese paper intended for an international readership, said in an editorial on 18 January 2011 that China and the US, as the two most powerful countries in the world, should "clarify their relationship".

Recent activities by the US, including "securing military alliances with China's neighboring countries, supporting anti-China political exiles, [and] selling weapons to Taiwan," have "confused the world" as to Washington's true intentions, the Global Times commented.

Meanwhile, China-watchers are also waiting to see when during Hu's four-day visit US officials will raise the thorny issues of internet freedom in China, and the perception by many US companies that Beijing's enforcement of intellectual property rights has deteriorated in the last year.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

BBC Monitoring announces cuts in response to Spending Review

BBC Monitoring today announced spending cuts and proposed post closures in response to the decision by the Cabinet Office, following last October's HM Government Comprehensive Spending Review, to cut £3m per annum over two years from BBC Monitoring's grant of £23.2m per annum.

This follows a cut of £1.4m by the Cabinet Office in April 2010.

Announcing the cuts package to staff today, the Director of BBC Monitoring, Chris Westcott, said that: "regrettably service cuts and post closures are inevitable given the scale of the cut in funding from the Cabinet Office. We are now beginning a period of consultation with staff on our proposals."

BBC Monitoring proposes to cut £3m per annum from its costs by closing 72 posts – about 16%. 18 new posts would be created.

Notes to Editors

BBC Monitoring supplies news, information, and comment gathered from open mass media sources around the world.

Under the terms of the new BBC Licence Fee Agreement, BBC Monitoring will be funded by the licence fee from FY 13/14. Until then, the Agreement states that "The Government will continue to fund BBC Monitoring at CSR-agreed levels for 2011/12 and 2012/13".

It operates around the clock to monitor more than 3,000 radio, TV, press, internet and news agency sources. It then selects vital information; translating it into English from up to 100 languages from 150 countries, and delivering it online for immediacy and ease of access.

This extensive and growing range of sources enables BBC Monitoring to provide distinctive, authoritative and reliable information and analysis to its Stakeholders (the Cabinet Office and agencies, the Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and BBC World Service) and customers including media organisations, universities, governments, embassies, multinational companies and charities around the world.

BBC Press Office

Monday 17 January 2011

Governments need to plan for "cyber shocks", OECD warns

Governments must plan to withstand the growing threat of cyber warfare, the OECD warns in a new report.

U.S. soldiers on “virtual missions” (IMAGE – U.S. Army)

Governments and policymakers should have detailed plans in place to withstand and recover from a wide range of unwanted cyber events, both accidental and deliberate, according to a study on cyber security published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

However, very few single cyber-related events had the capacity to cause global catastrophe, said the report's authors, London School of Economics professor Peter Sommer and Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute, cited by the Computer Weekly website on 17 January 2011.

The study found it was highly unlikely there would ever be "a pure cyber war fought solely in cyberspace" with equivalent effects to recent wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans or the Middle East.

But it said there were significant and growing risks of "localised misery and loss as a result of compromised computer and telecommunications services". Reliable internet and other computer facilities were essential in recovering from large-scale disasters, the report added.

Risk of "Combined Cyber Events"

The report took the view that very few single "cyber events" could cause a global shock. Possible examples included a successful attack on one of the technical protocols on which the Internet depends, or a large solar flare wiping out key communications components such as satellites.

But it added that a combination of events such as coordinated cyber attacks, or a cyber incident occurring during a disaster of another kind, should be a serious concern for policy makers.

"In that eventuality, 'perfect storm' conditions could exist," Reuters news agency on 17 January 2011 quoted Prof Sommer as saying.

Internet Hacking "Not Cyber War"

The OECD report described a true cyber war as "an event with the characteristics of conventional war but fought exclusively in cyberspace," Reuters added.

"We don't help ourselves using 'cyber war' to describe espionage or hacktivist blockading or defacing of websites, as recently seen in reaction to WikiLeaks, nor is it helpful to group trivially avoidable incidents like routine viruses and frauds with determined attempts to disrupt critical national infrastructure," Sommer said, as cited by Reuters.

His co-author Brown added: "We think a largely military approach to cyber security is a mistake… That said, cyber weaponry in all its forms will play a key role alongside more conventional and psychological attacks by nation states in future warfare."

UK, USA Guard against Online Attacks

The OECD report concluded that cyber weaponry would be "increasingly deployed and with increasing effect by ideological activists of all persuasions and interests."

But as The New York Times noted on 17 January 2011, the study also argued that "doomsayers have greatly exaggerated the power of belligerents to wreak havoc in cyberspace", and it was unlikely that their attacks "could create problems like those caused by a global pandemic or the recent financial crisis, let alone an actual shooting war".

The UK newspaper The Guardian said on 17 January 2011 that the report came at a time of "heightened awareness of online attacks", following hacking protests against companies caught up in the WikiLeaks controversy.

The United States was preparing for cyber conflict and had launched its own military cyber command. The UK in October 2010 had rated cyber attacks as one of the top external threats, promising to spend an extra 650 million pounds (one billion US dollars) on the issue, The Guardian recalled.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Huge Fall in Agriculture's Share of Global Aid - Report


Vietnam village communal farm (IMAGE – Peter Feuilherade)

Agriculture's share of global development aid has fallen to a quarter of what it was 25 years ago, the Washington-based research organization Worldwatch said in a report published on 12 January 2011.

While investment in agricultural development by governments, international lenders and foundations has escalated in recent years, it is still nowhere near what is needed to help the 925 million people who are undernourished, Worldwatch said in its report entitled "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet".

It found that "since the mid-1980s when agricultural funding was at its height, agriculture's share of global development aid has fallen from over 16 per cent to just 4 per cent today."

Worldwatch warned that with the world population approaching seven billion people, and an increase of up to 40 per cent expected by 2050, governments needed to take "urgent action".

Agriculture "In Trouble"

Worldwatch said there had to be a revolution in investment in food and water to reverse a "frightening" long-term depletion of stocks, the French news agency AFP reported on 12 January 2011.

"Agriculture as we know it today is in trouble," the institute's report added.

Agriculture employed more than one billion people worldwide, but it was the biggest consumer of ever-scarcer water and a huge producer of greenhouse gas emissions.

Although agriculture accounted for one trillion dollars of the global economy, it was also responsible for 70 per cent of water withdrawals and 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, much of that from developing countries.

Worldwatch said small farmers who dominate the industry would be the key to maintaining food supplies for the world's estimated one billion hungry people.

Producing More Food "Not The Answer"

According to Worldwatch, studies have shown that increasing food production is not having an impact in reducing hunger in the world.

"From 1980 to 2009, the production of barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum and wheat increased by nearly 55 per cent," the report said. But "hunger also increased and countries' food self-sufficiency declined in that same period."

"The international community has been neglecting entire segments of the food system in its efforts to reduce hunger and poverty," said Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet project. "The solutions won't necessarily come from producing more food, but from changing what children eat in schools, how foods are processed and marketed, and what sorts of food businesses we are investing in."

Developing countries needed investment to make them less dependent on food imports and international markets. They should put more emphasis on small-scale and less intensive farming, the report added.

Serving locally grown crops to schoolchildren, for example, had proved effective in reducing hunger and poverty in many African nations, Worldwatch said.

Moreover, "roughly 40 per cent of the food currently produced worldwide is wasted before it is consumed, creating large opportunities for farmers and households to save both money and resources by reducing this waste," according to Brian Halweil, Nourishing the Planet co-director.

Agricultural Aid to Africa "Minuscule"

Drought-hit East Africa   (IMAGE – NASA)

Focusing on data for Africa, Worldwatch cited statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showing that in 2008, 1.7 billion dollars were given in official development assistance to support agricultural projects in Africa. It described this as "a minuscule amount given the vital return on investment", and predicted that given the current global economic conditions, investments were not likely to increase in the coming year.

"Much of the more recently pledged funding has yet to be raised, and existing funding is not being targeted efficiently to reach the poor farmers of Africa," Worldwatch's report noted.

Looking at sub-Saharan Africa, where almost 240 million of the world’s 925 million hungry people live, Worldwatch advocated building up soil and water (not just donating seeds for planting), using existing food more effectively, and thinking about the global climate impact of growing food, Reuters news agency reported.

"African farmers could remove 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next 50 years, primarily by planting trees among crops and stewarding nearby forests," warding off "disastrous climate change," the report said.

The State of the World 2011 report is accompanied by other informational material including briefing documents, summaries, an innovations database, videos, and podcasts, all of which are available at


Wednesday 12 January 2011

Technology the answer to global population growth?

Kenya's biggest slum - Kibera in Nairobi (IMAGE – Tom Maruko)

The UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) warned in a report published on 12 January 2011 that billions of people could face hunger, thirst and slum conditions as the world hurtles towards population overload by the end of the 21st century.

The report, entitled "Population: One planet, too many people?", was compiled with input from more than 70 engineers around the world, and is the first of its kind by the profession.

It warns that the earth’s resources face being swamped as the global population, currently 6.9 billion people, swells by an extra 2.5 billion by the end of this century.

But it says the problems posed by the population explosion could be solved with existing technology, and sets out a series of "engineering development goals".

Mega-Cities and Water Wars

The IMechE report predicts that soaring urbanisation will lead to the number of "mega-cities" of more than 10 million people rising to 29 by 2025, and the planet's urban population increasing from 3.3 billion in 2007 to 6.4 billion in 2050.

Food will also become an increasingly precious commodity. Developed countries such as the UK will be forced to abandon what the Institute calls their "throwaway" lifestyle.

Water consumption will increase by 30% by 2030, and a 50% increase in water extraction for industrial use is forecast in Asia.

This, the report warns, could create civil unrest and land battles for resources as climate change looms.

"Existing Technologies Are The Answer"

The report lists energy, food, water, urbanisation and finance as the five areas which will be significantly affected by the effects of population growth.

Its lead author, Dr Tim Fox, told BBC Radio 4's “Today” programme on 12 January 2011: "The scenario shows that the population will peak at 9.5 billion in 2075,and will reach something like 9 billion in 2050… The challenge of providing food, water, energy and homes internationally can be met through existing technologies that are available today …

"The bulk of population growth through to the end of the century is going to take place in the newly developing nations, at the same time as they are going through the process of industrialising. What the report shows and calls for is for us to transfer this knowledge, technology and expertise to enable them to not make the same mistakes we made."

In remarks published on the IMechE website, Dr Fox said: "Population increase will be the defining challenge of 21st century, a global issue that will affect us all no matter where we live. Britain is in a currently in a prime position where it has, at its fingertips, some of the most groundbreaking engineering solutions in the world – and the brightest and most educated engineers. We need to work right now with the Department for International Development to set up a knowledge ‘swap-shop’ of engineering skills with other countries. This is not altruism. This is self-defence."

"Up to 1 billion people could be displaced by climate change over the next 40 years and we are likely to see an increase in unrest as resource shortages become clear," Fox added.

BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin commented on the BBC website on 11 January 2011 that the report would be welcomed by some who consider that climate change has assumed too dominant a role in international policy circles.

"But others will criticise the institution for allowing climate change and population to be set against each other in the public debate," Harrabin added.

More "Good News" On Sustainability

Another report on sustainability, mentioned on the New Scientist website on 11 January 2011, said the 9 billion people projected to inhabit the earth by 2050 need not starve in order to preserve the environment.

"Agrimonde describes the findings of a huge five-year modelling exercise by the French national agricultural and development research agencies, INRA and CIRAD…The model suggested that realistic yield increases could feed everyone, even as farms take measures to protect the environment, such as preserving forests or cutting down on the use of fossil fuels. The key will be to tailor detailed solutions to different regions."

New Scientist commented: "It is the second report on sustainability launched this week to provide a healthy dose of good news."

Tuesday 11 January 2011

British Defence Giant Tests Non-Lethal Anti-Pirate Laser

As pirate attacks worldwide continue, UK firm BAE Systems has demonstrated a non-lethal laser device that could deter attacks on commercial shipping.

Graphic - BAE Systems

Leading British defence manufacturer BAE Systems has demonstrated a prototype laser device that could serve as an effective non-lethal way to deter pirate attacks on commercial vessels, the company said on 10 January 2011.

Pirate attacks on shipping worldwide are increasing, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which recorded 430 attacks worldwide in 2010, up from 406 in 2009.

In the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, pirates remain active despite continuing operations by NATO, the European Union's EUNAVFOR mission, and naval ships from Russia, China, India and South Korea, among others. There are now 28 vessels and 654 hostages being held by pirates off the coast of Somalia, according to EUNAVFOR.

Disorientating But Not Lethal

As pirates increase their range of operations and their capabilities, commercial shipping agents are increasingly looking for ways of preventing attacks while avoiding armed guards on their ships.

BAE said its recently-tested laser was non-lethal and would "leave only temporary effects, to distract and deter potential attackers from a distance".

The laser had been tested at a range near Worcester over a variety of distances in different conditions, in daytime and at night.

"The laser beam is capable of providing a visual warning to pirates at distances greater than 2 km, and of disorientating attackers sufficiently at lesser distances so that weapons cannot be targeted effectively. At all times the power levels of the laser remain eye safe," BAE said.

BAE's Roy Evans explained: "The effect is similar to when a fighter pilot attacks from the direction of the sun. The glare from the laser is intense enough to make it impossible to aim weapons like AK-47s or RPGs, but doesn’t have a permanent effect [on the eyes]." But he added that there were many more requirements to meet before a non-lethal laser weapon could be fitted on commercial ships.

Pirates Said Using More "Mother Ships"

Since international naval forces began intercepting more pirate groups near the coast of Somalia, the pirates have changed their modus operandi, Dutch anti-piracy expert Dr Erik Sluiman told Suite 101 on 7 January 2011. They have switched to the greater use of hijacked vessels as "mother ships", operating further from the mainland to launch attacks.

Sluiman said the vast area of operations in which Somali pirates operated - from the Gulf of Aden to the Somali Basin and deep into the Indian Ocean - limited the ability of anti-piracy forces to track the positions of all pirate "mother ships".

"Naval forces are not capable maintaining surveillance of such a large area, let alone providing protection," he added.


Sunday 9 January 2011

July 2010: China and Japan take military rivalry to Djibouti

July 2006: Israel steps up "psy-ops" in Lebanon

January 2007: China wrestles with new media era

June 2004: Iraqi media test new environment

December 2002: U.S. planes target Iraq with broadcasts

September 2002: Middle East media awaken after 9/11

Saturday 8 January 2011

Middle East: Censorship on the rise with boom in "new media"

By Peter Feuilherade

This article was first published in the January 2011 issue of The Middle East (London)

As internet use grows in the Arab world, long-established news providers such as TV channels and print publications are feeling the impact.

Although television is still the dominant medium of entertainment, younger viewers are spending more time online, while the gradual growth of video-on-demand is challenging the concept of traditional linear broadcasting. And many newspapers are closing or switching to online publication.

Young people below the age of 35, who comprise over 65% of the Arab population, are driving these changes in media consumption patterns.

The ever-increasing popularity of social networking sites and blogs in the Arab world, especially among younger people, has been accompanied by a rise in official censorship across the region. Some of these sites, as well as mobile communication devices such as the BlackBerry, have become the latest targets of governments seeking to control messages and data sent abroad.

Arab youth keen consumers of online media

Internet use in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the last 10 years has grown faster than anywhere else, even though online content in Arabic is only about 1% of world totals, while Arabic speakers make up about 7% of the global population.

According to the Internet World Stats website, in July 2010 there were 63.2 million internet users in 14 Middle East countries, including Iran and Israel but not Turkey. Although this represents 29.8% of the region's population, it is a mere 3.3% of the global online total. Iran alone had over 33 million users.

In general across the Middle East, internet and broadband penetration rates remain low, with access speeds often relatively slow and tariffs relatively high compared with other regions in the world.

An online survey of MENA respondents in mid-2010 by Effective Measure, an audience measurement company, revealed that internet users spend more time surfing the web than watching television, with 88% of users accessing the internet daily compared with only 70% of respondents watching television.

A survey carried out among 13-28 year-old students in the UAE and Jordan, and presented at the Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut in June 2010, concluded that young Arabs were interested in news, with 57% getting their news from websites, but they did not want to pay for it.

There is a growing appetite for news in Arabic. Reuters news agency has increased general Arabic content by 12% cent since 2009, and has doubled Arabic economic and business news output.

Blogging in the region is also growing fast.

Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, estimated that in July 2010 there were about 750,000 blogs in the Arab world, about 300,000 of which were active.

The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University says the majority of Arab bloggers are under the age of 35; most of them are males, with Syria and Morocco having the highest rate of male users and Egypt the highest rate of female users.

The leading global social networking site Facebook has more than 15 million users in the Arab world among its 515 million users worldwide.

But internet use has yet to spread to the lower middle classes or rural areas of the Arab world; poor computer literacy, high costs and the lack of electricity in many areas are among the main reasons.

TV, radio thrive, but print media hit hard

Arabs watch TV for between four and four and a half hours a day. Although younger Arabs are turning increasingly to the internet, TV remains the dominant entertainment medium, as well as the main source of information overall.

Arab free-to-air (FTA) satellite TV is experiencing slower growth. Only 13 new FTA channels appeared between March 2009 and April 2010, compared with 104 channels added between August 2007 and March 2009, the Amman-based Arab Advisors Group reported. There are now 487 stations broadcasting via the three main satellites serving the MENA region - Arabsat, Nilesat and Noorsat.

As for radio, there are around 350 FM stations in the Arab world. Half of these are privately-owned and many, as well as some state-owned channels, are commercially successful.

Abdulrahman Awadh Al Harthi, director of Abu Dhabi Radio Network, told the Dubai-based Digital Production Middle East website: "Radio is very strong in this region. There are 230 million people listening to the radio regularly and already there are 78 million people listening to the radio through the internet."

But print media are not faring so well.

The global economic crisis that began in 2008 has killed off one fifth of print titles in the GCC states, the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National said on 26 July.

Since the start of 2009 year, 171 Gulf-based magazines and 11 newspapers have suspended or discontinued publication, the paper said, citing the data supplier MediaSource.

Censors target mobile devices

Many Arab governments are stepping up efforts to combat perceived security threats on the internet, as well as online activists.

In July 2010, the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced plans to ban some functions of the BlackBerry mobile phone, citing "social" and national security concerns.

The Messenger application on the BlackBerry, made by Canadian firm Research In Motion (RIM), is a popular business and social networking tool in the Gulf region. But because the data is encrypted and sent to offshore servers, it cannot be tracked locally.

This lack of access has raised fears in security-conscious Gulf states about their ability to track potential spies, assassins or Islamic militants.
"BlackBerry has proven popular with young singles in Saudi Arabia, the biggest BlackBerry market in the Gulf with 700,000 users, as a means of meeting in an Islamic society which restricts contact between unrelated men and women," Reuters noted.

The UAE has an estimated 500,000 BlackBerry users.

Activists argued that Saudi Arabia and other countries were more motivated by the desire to extend curbs on freedom of expression and strengthen already tight controls over the media than by a fear of terrorism.

In September, Saudi Arabia appeared to have resolved its dispute with RIM. The Saudi telecoms regulator said it would allow service to continue for the time being, citing "positive developments", although it remained unclear whether the reprieve was permanent.

The UAE had planned to suspend e-mail, messaging and web browsing on BlackBerry devices starting in October 2010.

But following talks with RIM, the UAE telecoms regulator said it was satisfied that services on the devices complied with its "security needs". It also acknowledged "the positive engagement and collaboration of RIM in reaching this regulatory compliant outcome". Details of the compromise were not divulged.

Kuwait said it was in talks with RIM over "moral and security concerns", but had no intention of stopping BlackBerry services for the time being. Oman has also said it had no plans to block BlackBerry services.

Old and new media under threat

Government censorship also continues to target all forms of media, old and new, across the Arab world.

At the end of August, activists in Jordan welcomed the government's decision to amend a new law on "internet crimes", calling the amendments "a step in the right direction", the Jordan Times reported.

The proposed law would have allowed the government to regulate online content and punish those whose posts upset the authorities.

In Sudan, the authorities announced in August that they were suspending the BBC's licence to broadcast in Arabic on local FM frequencies in four northern cities, including the capital, Khartoum.

BBC Arabic radio has a weekly audience of 4 million listeners in Sudan.

The government said the decision to suspend BBC radio broadcasts was linked to the BBC allegedly importing satellite equipment into Sudan through diplomatic channels, and "working in Southern Sudan without permission from the central government".

In October, the Sudanese government refused to renew the local FM relay licence of Monte Carlo Doualiya, the Arabic service of Radio France Internationale. It denied any political motive, but the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information criticized the move as part of "an escalating restrictive policy… against all media".

And Iraqi proposals to set up a new press court have aroused concern among international media freedom watchdogs as well as local journalists.

In the future, more Arab countries are likely to follow the examples of Kuwait and the UAE, which respectively passed laws in June 2010 making it a crime to visit "pornographic" websites or those that promote "terrorism".