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Archive for January 2012

Quiet numbers tell district tales – rural and urban India, part 5

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Teenager on a bicycle in rural Maharashtra, western India. At the current rate of migration from rural districts to urban centres, this youth may not stay in the farm labour pool for much longer.

What effect has this imbalanced ratio, so common in the rural populations of districts, on literacy and education? Census 2011 has told us so far that there are 55 districts in which the rural literacy rate is 74% or higher — this is the national effective literacy rate (for the population that is seven years old and above) which is a figure derived from rural and urban, male and female literacy rates. The literacy rates in these 55 districts are for all persons, female and male together. They range from 74% to 89%. All 14 of Kerala’s districts are among the 55, there are 7 districts from Maharashtra, 5 from Tamil Nadu, and 4 each from Mizoram, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh.

A lorry driver poses with his cargo, new tractors. The depletion of agricultural labour has turned agricultural machinery a fast-growing industrial sector. Worryingly for India, government planners see capital used for machinery and industrial agriculture as evidence of 'growth'. But food security remains uncertain for many rural communities.

The top 10 districts in this set are all from Kerala save one, East Delhi. But these 55 districts have returned literacy rates that will form the basis of study and analysis in the years to come, they are outnumbered, by a factor of more than 11 to 1, by districts whose rural populations lie under the 74% national mark, and this too will serve as an early indicator, continually updated, of the commitment of the Indian state to its implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009, and of the results of the first 10 years of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Since its inception in 2001-02 the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been treated by the Government of India and the states as the main vehicle for providing elementary education to all children in the 6-14 age-group. Its outcome — this is how the annual and Plan period results of India’s ‘flagship’ national programmes are now described — is the universalisation of elementary education. The Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009 gives all children the fundamental right to demand eight years of quality elementary education. For the planners in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the effective enforcement of this right requires what they like to call ‘alignment’ with the vision, strategies and norms of the SSA. In so doing, they immediately run into a thicket of problems for, to begin with, there are half-a-million vacancies of teachers in the country, another half-million teachers are required to meet the RTE norms on pupil-teacher ratios, and moreover 0.6 million teachers in the public school system are untrained.

This is the creaking administrative set-up against which the total literacy rates of the 585 districts whose rural populations are under the 74% mark must be viewed. Of these, 209 districts have literacy rates for their rural populations which are between 50% and 60%. This set of districts includes 33 from Uttar Pradesh, 30 from Madhya Pradesh, 20 from Bihar, 18 from Jharkhand, 17 from Rajasthan, 13 each from Assam and Andhra Pradesh, and 9 from Karnataka. And finally, there are 95 districts whose literacy rates of the rural population are under 50%.

Low-cost housing in north Mumbai (Bombay). Colonies such as this are typical: unclean surroundings caused by an absence of civic services, minimal water and sanitation for residents, no route to remedy because of political and social barriers.

This set of districts at the bottom of the table includes 17 from Bihar, 14 from Rajasthan, 9 each from Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, 7 from Madhya Pradesh and 6 each from Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh. The districts of Yadgir (Karnataka), Purnia (Bihar), Shrawasti (Uttar Pradesh), Pakur (Jharkhand), Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangapur, Koraput (all Orissa), Tirap (Arunchal Pradesh), Barwani, Jhabua, Alirajpur (all Madhya Pradesh), and Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dakshin Bastar Dantewada (all Chhattisgarh) are the 15 districts at the very base of the table with literacy rates of the rural population at under 40%.

Over 11 Plan periods there have been some cumulative gains in a few sectors. Today, in rural areas, seven major flagship programmes are being administered, with less overall coordination between them than is looked for – a contrast against the ease with which the central government’s major ministries collaborate on advancing the cause of the urban elite — but which nonetheless have given us evidence that their combined impact has improved the conditions of some.

A man transports an LPG cylinder, to be used as cooking fuel, to his home in a shanty colony in north Mumbai (Bombay). Already burdened by the high cost of petroleum products, slum-dwellers are forced to pay a premium for cooking fuels and water.

The seven programmes are: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), Indira Awas Yojana (IAY), the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) and Total Sanitation Campaign (TSP), the Integrated Watershed Development Programme (IWDP), Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), and rural electrification which includes separation of agricultural feeders and includes also the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY).

For the local administrator these present a bewildering array of reporting obligations. A hundred years ago, such an administrator’s lot was aptly described by J Chartres Molony, Superintendent of Census 1911 in (the then) Madras: “The Village Officer, source of all Indian information, is the recorder of his village, and it well may be that amid the toils of keeping accounts and collecting ‘mamuls’, he pays scant heed to what he and his friends consider the idle curiosity of an eccentric sirkar.”

[This is the fifth of a small series of postings on rural and urban India, which reproduces material from my analysis of Census 2011 data on India’s rural and urban populations, published by Infochange India. See the first in the series here; see the second in the series here; see the third in the series here; see the fourth in the series here.]

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Climate change in the USA and the new plant growers’ map

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The US government’s map of planting zones, usually seen on the back of seed packets, has changed. An update of the official guide for gardeners reflects a new reality, that of climate change and shifting meteorological zones. Some plants and trees that once seemed too vulnerable to cold can now survive farther north than they used to.

As this report on Yahoo News pointed out, it’s the first time since 1990 that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has updated the map and much has changed. Nearly entire states, such as Ohio, Nebraska and Texas, are in warmer zones. The new guide, unveiled this week, also uses better weather data and offers more interactive technology. For the first time it takes into factors such as how cities are hotter than suburbs and rural areas, nearby large bodies of water, prevailing winds, and the slope of land.

The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. For the first time, the map is available as an interactive GIS-based map, for which a broadband Internet connection is recommended, and as static images for those with slower Internet access. Users may also simply type in a ZIP Code and find the hardiness zone for that area.

The 26 zones, however, are based on five degree increments. In the old 1990 map, the USDA mentions 34 different US cities on its key. Eighteen of those, including Honolulu, St. Louis, Des Moines, St. Paul and Fairbanks, are in newer warmer zones. Agriculture officials said they didn’t examine the map to see how much of the map has changed for the hotter. However, the Yahoo News report said Mark Kaplan, the New York meteorologist who co-created the 1990 map and a 2003 update that the USDA didn’t use, said the latest version clearly shows warmer zones migrating north. [See the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map here, with zip code form, interactive mapping and downloads.]

Hardiness zones are based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature during a 30-year period in the past, not the lowest temperature that has ever occurred in the past or might occur in the future.

The USDA has said gardeners should keep that in mind when selecting plants, especially if they choose to “push” their hardiness zone by growing plants not rated for their zone. In addition, although this edition of the USDA PHZM is drawn in the most detailed scale to date, there might still be microclimates that are too small to show up on the map.

Microclimates, which are fine-scale climate variations, can be small heat islands – such as those caused by blacktop and concrete – or cool spots caused by small hills and valleys. Individual gardens also may have very localised microclimates (your entire yard could be somewhat warmer or cooler than the surrounding area, the USDA explained, because it is sheltered or exposed).

The 1990 map was based on temperatures from 1974 to 1986; the new map from 1976 to 2005. The nation’s average temperature from 1976 to 2005 was two-thirds of a degree warmer than for the old time period, according to statistics at the National Climatic Data Center. So far, according to the reports on the new zones map, the USDA is not actively associating its map with the effects of climate change on the USA.

Many species of plants gradually acquire cold hardiness in the fall when they experience shorter days and cooler temperatures. This hardiness is normally lost gradually in late winter as temperatures warm and days become longer. A bout of extremely cold weather early in the fall may injure plants even though the temperatures may not reach the average lowest temperature for your zone. Similarly, exceptionally warm weather in midwinter followed by a sharp change to seasonably cold weather may cause injury to plants as well. Such factors are not taken into account in the USDA PHZM.

David W. Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology in Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture said the USDA is being too cautious and has disagreed about the Agency ignoring the climate change connection. “At a time when the ‘normal’ climate has become a moving target, this revision of the hardiness zone map gives us a clear picture of the ‘new normal,’ and will be an essential tool for gardeners, farmers, and natural resource managers as they begin to cope with rapid climate change,” Wolfe has said.

Still, the USDA has emphasised that all PHZMs are guides. They are based on the average lowest temperatures, not the lowest ever. Growing plants at the extreme of the coldest zone where they are adapted means that they could experience a year with a rare, extreme cold snap that lasts just a day or two, and plants that have thrived happily for several years could be lost. Gardeners need to keep that in mind and understand that past weather records cannot be a guarantee for future variation in weather.

Iran’s oil, Europe’s oil imports, many threats, upward prices

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Iranian President Ahmadinejad punches the air in front of a banner of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during rally to mark the anniversary of Islamic Revolution in Tehran. With its threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is responding to the United States' decision to impose sanctions on financial institutions that deal with Iran's central bank. Photo: Der Spiegel / Reuters

The concern about the multi-bloc confrontation with Iran (the Islamic Republic of, to use the official name) has continued from December 2011 into January 2012. Oil prices and petroleum products markets have been affected. There have been oft-repeated and serious concerns that there could be some armed confrontation, especially involving Israel and Iran. There has also been speculation that Iran’s government would block the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of all crude oil shipped worldwide passes. Some of these concerns have abated in the last week, but only partially.

Now, Der Spiegel has reported that although the European Union embargo on Iranian oil will only come into effect in six months, the leadership in Tehran wants to act first: Exports to Europe are set to be halted immediately. It is a move which could mean added difficulties for struggling economies in southern Europe. The Iranian government wants to present a bill to parliament this weekend calling for an immediate halt to oil deliveries to Europe. The move, with most reports citing the Iranian news agency Mehr, has come about in response to the EU agreement to impose sanctions against Iran, which were announced earlier this week.

The sanctions banned any new contracts for buying oil from Iran, but allowed existing deals to continue until July in order to give countries time to find other sources. But that process is now at risk after the latest move from Tehran, a step the Iranian government had already threatened. “If this bill is passed, the government will be forced to stop selling oil to Europe before the actual implementation of their sanctions,” said Emad Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s energy commission, reportedly said. The bill is set to become law on Sunday.

An oil tanker is seen docked next to Iraq's vital al-Basra oil terminal, in Persian Gulf waters. Four decades after the 1973 oil shock, Iran and the West are once again embracing oil as a weapon. Tehran is threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, while the industrialized countries are considering a boycott of Iranian oil. Photo: Der Spiegel / AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

The EU sanctions allow for oil deliveries from Iran until July 1. Any pre-empting of this timescale by Tehran could prove problematic for countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, who would need to urgently find new suppliers. China, meanwhile, a major importer of Iranian oil, has also criticized the EU sanctions. The Xinhua news agency quoted the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday as saying: “To blindly pressure and impose sanctions on Iran are not constructive approaches.” Many members of the EU are now heavily dependent on Iranian oil. Some 500,000 barrels arrive in Europe every day from Iran, with southern European countries consuming most of it. Greece is the most exposed, receiving a third of all its oil imports from Iran, but Italy too depends on Iran for 13 percent of its oil needs. If this source were to dry up abruptly, the economic conditions in the two struggling countries could become even worse.

Iran holds around 137 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, or nearly 10 percent of the world total, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2011. Despite sitting on the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, Iran’s growing appetite for its own gas, combined with tightening international sanctions that have throttled its fledgling liquefied natural gas (LNG) programme, have made it a net gas importer for most of the last decade. Natural gas accounts for 54 percent of Iran’s total domestic energy consumption, while most of the remainder of energy consumption is attributable to oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Graphic: Der Spiegel / Reuters

The Gloria Center’s Barry Rubin has said that the claim of Israel being about to attack Iran repeatedly appears in the media (see his article, ‘Israel Isn’t Going to Attack Iran and Neither Will the United States’). “Some have criticized Israel for attacking Iran and turning the Middle East into a cauldron of turmoil (not as if the region needs any help in that department) despite the fact that it hasn’t even happened,” he said. “On the surface, of course, there is apparent evidence for such a thesis. Israel has talked about attacking Iran and, objectively, one can make a case for such an operation. Yet any serious consideration of this scenario—based on actual research and real analysis rather than what the uninformed assemble in their own heads—is this: It isn’t going to happen.”

Rubin said that the main leak from the Israeli government, by an ex-intelligence official who hates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been that the Israeli government already decided not to attack Iran. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly denied plans for an imminent attack as have other senior government official. “Israel, like other countries, should be subject to rational analysis. Articles being written by others are being spun as saying Israel is going to attack when that’s not what they are saying.”

So why are Israelis talking about a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Rubin has asked. Because that’s the only way Israel has to pressure Western countries to work harder on the issue, to increase sanction and diplomatic efforts, is his answer.

A satellite image of the Persian Gulf. About a third of all the crude oil shipped worldwide passes through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman. Photo: Der Spiegel / DPA / NASA / The Visible Earth

Bloomberg provided a round-up of Iran-related oil and prices news – oil declined a second day in New York as rising U.S. crude inventories countered data showing gasoline demand increased last week in the world’s largest oil consumer. Futures fell as much as 0.9 percent after dropping 0.6 percent yesterday. Crude stockpiles probably rose last week as imports rebounded, according to a Bloomberg News survey before an Energy Department report today. U.S. gasoline demand grew for a second week, MasterCard Inc. data showed yesterday. The European Union embargo on Iranian oil supplies will “bear bitter fruit,” Iran’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said this week.

Ria Novosti, the Russian news agtency, quoting a CNN report, said the United States will use all available options to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” Obama said.

The New York Times reported that as the Obama administration and its European allies toughened economic sanctions against Iran on Monday — blocking its access to the world financial system and undermining its critical oil and gas industry — officials on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledge that their last-ditch effort has only a limited chance of persuading Tehran to abandon what the West fears is its pursuit of nuclear weapons. “That leaves open this critical question: And then what?”

Fox Business has reported that the International Monetary Fund warned on Wednesday that global crude prices could rise as much as 30 percent if Iran halts oil exports as a result of U.S. and European Union sanctions. If Iran halts exports to countries without offsets from other sources it would likely trigger an “initial” oil price jump of 20 to 30 percent, or about $20 to $30 a barrel, the IMF said in its first public comment on a possible Iranian oil supply disruption.

Graphic: Der Spiegel / Reuters

Impacts on refining in Europe was reported by Bloomberg – the European Union’s embargo on Iranian oil threatens to accelerate refinery closures in Europe, the head of Italy’s refiners’ lobby said. “Asian countries not applying the embargo could buy the Iranian oil at a discount and sell cheap refined products back to us,” Piero De Simone, general manager of Unione Petrolifera, said in an interview in Rome. “Italy already risks the closure of five refineries and at a European level we’re talking about 70 possible shut downs.”

Brinksmanship over Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz sparked a rally in oil prices at the end of last year, The National of UAE reported, with sabre-rattling by Iran and the US sending the price of Brent crude futures to highs of US$111.11 per barrel. Saudi Arabia looks set to benefit from sanctions against Iran as the kingdom is one of the few oil producers with capacity to make up any shortfall they will cause. Meanwhile India’s oil minister said Wednesday the energy-hungry nation was continuing to import oil from Iran and was not bound by new sanctions imposed by the European Union.

Reuters provided a factbox about Iran’s oil exports as OPEC’s second largest producer. Iran sells large volumes of oil to China, India, South Korea, Japan and Italy. But Greece, Turkey, South Africa and Sri Lanka rely most heavily on Iranian oil as a percentage of imports. Sri Lanka imported 39,000 bpd in the first half of the year, IEA data shows. It is completely reliant on Iranian oil.

EU figures show imports of Iranian crude were up more than 7% in the third quarter of 2011 compared to the second quarter. The EU says it imported about 700,000 bpd of Iranian crude oil in the third quarter of 2011, compared to about 655,000 bpd in the second quarter.

The European Union agreed on Jan. 23 to ban Iranian oil imports, but the embargo will not be fully implemented until July 1, to avoid harming economies to whom Iran has been a major supplier. The EU move follows new financial sanctions signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 31, which aim to make it difficult for countries to buy Iranian oil in an attempt to discourage Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Iran produces about 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude with another 500,000 bpd of condensate – light hydrocarbon liquids. Iran exports about 2.6 million bpd, of which about 50,000 bpd is refined products, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates. The top 10 buyers of Iranian crude last year were as follows:

An Iranian oil technician makes his way at the oil separator facilities in Azadegan oil field, near Ahvaz, Iran. Photo: Der Spiegel / AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Country – Imports (bpd) – % Imports
1. China – 543,000 – 10
2. India – 341,000 – 11
3. Japan – 251,000 – 5.9
4. Italy – 204,000 – 13.2
5. South Korea – 239,000 – 7.4
6. Turkey – 217,000 – 30.6
7. Spain – 170,000 – 16.2
8. Greece – 158,000 – 53.1
9. S.Africa – 98,000 – 25
10.France – 75,000 – 6.0

[Figures for EU countries are from the bloc’s Eurostat office and are for the third quarter. Figures for other OECD countries are from the IEA and for the second quarter. Figures for China, India and South Africa are for the first half of 2011 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).]

Asia takes the research and development lead

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Ten Asian countries, including some developing countries in South-East Asia, have, as a bloc, caught up with the global leader in research and development (R&D) investment, the United States, a report by Scidev.net has said.

The report quoted is the National Science Board’s ‘Science and Engineering Indicators 2012’ which is a broad base of quantitative information on the U.S. and International science and engineering enterprise. The National Science Board (NSB) is the policymaking body for the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSB report has said that total science spend of China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam rose steadily between 1999 and 2009 to reach 32 per cent of the global share of spending on science, compared with 31 per cent in the US.

“This information clearly shows we must re-examine long-held assumptions about the global dominance of the American science and technology enterprise,” said NSF Director Subra Suresh of the findings in the ‘Science and Engineering Indicators 2012’. “And we must take seriously new strategies for education, workforce development and innovation in order for the United States to retain its international leadership position,” he said.

Well over a year ago (2010 November), the UNESCO Science Report 2010 had as its primary message stated that Europe, Japan and the USA (the Triad) may still dominate research and development (R&D) but they are increasingly being challenged by the emerging economies and above all by China.

The report depicted an increasingly competitive environment, one in which the flow of information, knowledge, personnel and investment has become a two-way traffic. Both China and India, for instance, are using their newfound economic might to invest in high-tech companies in Europe and elsewhere to acquire technological expertise overnight.

The USA's National Science Foundation (NSF) launched a number of new initiatives designed to better position the United States in global Science and engineering. Photo: National Science Board / Richard Lerner

Other large emerging economies are also spending more on research and development than before, among them Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. If more countries are participating in science, the UNESCO Science Report 2010 saw a shift in global influence, with China a hair’s breadth away from counting more researchers than either the USA or the European Union, for instance, and now publishes more scientific articles than Japan.

A “major trend has been the rapid expansion of R&D performance in the regions of East/Southeast Asia and South Asia,” according to the biennial report ‘Science and Engineering Indicators 2012’ produced by the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the US National Science Foundation, which drew upon a variety of national and international statistics. The report also mentions that the share of R&D expenditure spent by US multinationals in Asia-Pacific has increased.

According to the new Indicators 2012, the largest global S&T gains occurred in the so-called ‘Asia-10’ – China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand – as those countries integrate S&T into economic growth. Between 1999 and 2009, for example, the U.S. share of global research and development (R&D) dropped from 38 percent to 31 percent, whereas it grew from 24 percent to 35 percent in the Asia region during the same time. In China alone, R&D growth increased a stunning 28 percent in a single year (2008-2009), propelling it past Japan and into second place behind the United States.

“Asia’s rapid ascent as a major world science and technology (S&T) centre is chiefly driven by developments in China,” says the report. “But several other Asian economies (the Asia-8 [India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand]) have also played a role. All are intent on boosting quality of, and access to, higher education and developing world-class research and S&T infrastructures. The Asia-8 functions like a loosely structured supplier zone for China’s high-technology manufacturing export industries. This supplier zone increasingly appears to include Japan. Japan, a preeminent S&T nation, is continuing to lose ground relative to China and the Asia-8 in high-technology manufacturing and trade,” the report says.

International R&D highlights
(1) The top three R&D-performing countries: United States, China – now the second largest R&D performer – and Japan represented just over half of the estimated $1.28 trillion in global R&D in 2009. The United States, the largest single R&D-performing country, accounted for about 31% of the 2009 global total, down from 38% in 1999.

(2) Asian countries – including China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand – represented 24% of the global R&D total in 1999 but accounted for 32% in 2009, including China (12%) and Japan (11%). The pace of real growth over the past 10 years in China’s overall R&D remains exceptionally high at about 20% annually.

(3) The European Union accounted for 23% total global R&D in 2009, down from 27% in 1999. Wealthy economies generally devote larger shares of their GDP to R&D than do less developed economies. The U.S. R&D/GDP ratio (or R&D intensity) was about 2.9% in 2009 and has fluctuated between 2.6% and 2.8% during the past 10 years, largely reflecting changes in business R&D spending. In 2009, the United States ranked eighth in R&D intensity – surpassed by Israel, Sweden, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan – all of which perform far less R&D annually than the United States.

(4) Among the top European R&D-performing countries, Germany reported a 2.8% R&D/GDP ratio in 2008; France, 2.2%; and the United Kingdom, 1.9%. The Japanese and South Korean R&D/GDP ratios were among the highest in the world in 2008, each at about 3.3%. China’s ratio remains relatively low, at 1.7%, but has more than doubled from 0.8% in 1999.

“India’s high gross domestic product (GDP) growth continues to contrast with a fledgling overall S&T performance.” The figures show that China, while still a long way behind the United States, is now the second largest R&D performer globally, contributing 12 per cent of the global research spend. It has overtaken Japan, which contributed 11 per cent  in 2009. The proportion of GDP that China devotes to science funding has doubled since 1999 to 1.7 per cent and China’s pace of real growth in R&D expenditure “remains exceptionally high at about 20 per cent annually,” the report says. Overall, world expenditures on R&D are estimated to have exceeded US$1.25 trillion in 2009, up from US$641 billion a decade earlier.

“Governments in many parts of the developing world, viewing science and technology as integral to economic growth and development, have set out to build more knowledge-intensive economies,” it says. “They have taken steps to open their markets to trade and foreign investment, develop their S&T infrastructures, stimulate industrial R&D, expand their higher education systems, and build indigenous R&D capabilities. Over time, global S&T capabilities have grown, nowhere more so than in Asia.”

The scientific landscape is not conveniently demarcated by blocs, whether formed by states or by private sector interests. As UNESCO has said, even countries with a lesser scientific capacity are finding that they can acquire, adopt and sometimes even transform existing technology and thereby leapfrog over certain costly investments, such as infrastructure like land lines for telephones. Technological progress is allowing these countries to produce more knowledge and participate more actively than before in international networks and research partnerships with countries in both North and South. This trend is fostering a democratization of science worldwide. In turn, science diplomacy is becoming a key instrument of peace-building and sustainable development in international relations.

恭禧發財 for the Year of the Dragon

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A dragon-design embroidery for the Chinese Lunar New Year in Singapore. Photo: China Daily / Agencies

The oldest and most important festival in China is the Chinese New Year, which marks the first day of the lunar calendar and usually falls somewhere between late January and early February of the Gregorian calendar.

Like all Chinese traditional festivals, the date of the New Year is determined by the Chinese lunar calendar, which is divided into 12 months, each with about 29.5 days. One year has 24 solar terms in accordance with the changes of nature, stipulating the proper time for planting and harvesting.

The first day of the first solar term is the Beginning of Spring, which cannot always fall on the first day of the year as in the Western Gregorian Calendar.

Besides celebrating the earth coming back to life and the start of plowing and sowing, this traditional festival is also a festival of reunions. No matter how far people are from their homes they will try their best to come back home for the reunion dinner.

The spring festival means fireworks and red couplets, dumplings in China’s north and glutinous rice cakes in the south, red wrappings with cash for children, and also no haircut until the start of the second lunar month.

In northern China, dumpling is an indispensable dish on the New Year dinner table. Experts say the snack was already popular in the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280).

Many Chinese believe that to eat dumplings at the turn of the year will bring good luck, because the food resembles “yuan bao”, a boat-shaped gold ingot that served for many years in history as China’s currency.

Vegetables, meat, fish and shrimps can all make dumpling fillings. But some families put something special – from nuts and dates to coins – in just one of the dumplings. He who happens to eat this special dumpling is considered the luckiest person in the new year.

In southern China, where people prefer rice to wheat, families eat glutinous rice cakes instead of dumplings for the new year. These cakes, whose Chinese name “nian gao” (higher year-on-year), are also symbols of a prosperous new year.

Traditional lunar new year snacks are sold in a supermarket in Hengyang. Photo: China Daily / D J Clark

Red envelopes used to give Spring Festival money gifts and lunar new year wall hangings are sold in Hengyang market. Photo: China Daily / D J Clark

Sweets, toys and brushes are held high in Hengyang market, Hunan province. Photo: China Daily / D J Clark

A man grinds peppers in Hengyang market. Hunan's spicy foods are known throughout China. Photo: China Daily / D J Clark

Traditional Spring Festival snacks in Hengyang market, Hunan province. Photo: China Daily / D J Clark

Written by makanaka

January 21, 2012 at 23:30

Global Commodities Forum 2012

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UNCTAD’s Global Commodities Forum is back. The theme of this third meeting (23-24 January, 2012) is “Harnessing development gains from commodities production and trade”. Participants are to discuss the debt crisis and analyse the trade-related innovations developed in response to it.

This year, the Forum will focus on ways to spur development through commodity production and trade, and on practical approaches to developing supply markets in commodity-dependent developing countries. Participants are also expected to discuss the sovereign debt crisis and analyse the trade-related innovations developed in response to the credit crunch. A special session is going to be dedicated to identifying opportunities for applying existing private-sector solutions to the challenges faced by developing countries.

The third GCF is divided into two parallel streams: the Plenary A stream treats the Forum’s overall theme of harnessing development gains from commodities production and trade; the Parallel B  stream examines the development of supply markets in commodity-dependent countries.

Plenary A: Recent developments in international commodities trade, their impacts and implications (Joint A1/B1); The sovereign debt crisis and its impacts on commodities production and trade (A2); Trade-related financial innovations developed in response to the post-2008 credit crunch (A3); Key challenges facing commodity-dependent developing countries (A4/5); Identifying emerging opportunities in the changing global energy mix (A6); Practical examples of supply chain development in developing countries (A7).

Parallel B: Recent developments in international commodities trade, their impacts and implications (Joint A1/B1); In practice: Financing commodity-based development in developing countries (B2/3); Expanding access to markets and trade-enabling tools (B4/5); Identifying potential opportunities for collaboration (B6/7).

From the concept note: Many developing countries are heavily dependent on exports of commodities. Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, prices for these goods remained low, but since 2002 they have risen considerably. Despite the resulting increase in the value of their chief exports, most commodity-dependent developing countries (CDDCs) have been unable to convert the additional revenue into a diversification of their export industries. Since 2002, the number of countries whose commodity exports represent more than 60% of merchandise exports has risen from 85 to 91.

Their persistent dependence on commodities exports has been particularly poignant for CDDCs as the fallout from the 2008 global economic crisis continues.  Many of these nations are dependent on imports of food, oil, and manufactured goods. Poverty and food security are often pressing concerns. As the global crisis has squeezed government and household budgets, CDDCs find themselves less able to confront these major challenges. It is vital for them to realize greater lasting value from their commodities exports.

Over the past year, the pressure on CDDCs has increased with the worsening of the sovereign debt crisis, which threatens to reduce the amount of credit available to commodities producers and to increase the amount of speculative capital that flows from financial markets into commodities in search of profitable investments. Continued price volatility in commodities markets has prompted high-level collaborative international action, including most recently by the UN High Level Task Force (UN HLTF) and the G-20 grouping of major economies. This year’s UNCTAD Global Commodities Forum (GCF) will focus on what CDDCs can do to reverse the pattern. The event’s theme is ‘Harnessing development gains from commodities production and trade.’

Stop SOPA and PIPA, protect the free flow of information and exchange

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Hundreds of websites have gone dark to protest proposed legislation in the USA called the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). These proposed laws would place websites in legal jeopardy if they linked to a site anywhere online that had any links to copyright infringement.

This would unmake the Web, just as proposed in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and are a dangerous attempt to choke free speech, are a precursor to throttling the exchange of ideas and information which rely on the web. If you don’t want such legislation in the USA, visit AmericanCensorship.org for instructions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has more information on this and other issues central to your freedom online.

18 January 2012 - Wikipedia goes dark

18 January 2012 - WordPress goes dark

 

Totally drug-resistant tuberculosis in India

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Several reports have been published in India over the last week about a strain of tuberculosis (TB) that is resistant to all existing TB drugs. Here is a preface and early links to new reports. Go to the page on Totally drug-resistant tuberculosis in India for new background, full text of news reports and links, sources and backgrounders (most provided by ProMED-mail, a programme of the International Society for Infectious Diseases).

New Scientist has reported: “We currently have 12 confirmed cases, of which three are dead,” says Zarir Udwadia of the Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Mumbai, and head of the team whose diagnoses of four cases has just been published. The emergence of the disease in such a densely populated city is a major concern as it could spread so easily. “We know one patient transmitted it to her daughter,” Udwadia told New Scientist. “It’s estimated that on average, a tuberculosis patient infects 10 to 20 contacts in a year, and there’s no reason to suspect that this strain is any less transmissible,” he warns.

For patients, the outlook is grim. “Short of quarantining them in hospitals with isolation facilities till they become non-infectious – which is not practical or possible – there is nothing else one can do to prevent transmission,” says Udwadia. The worry is that if it continues spreading, TB will become incurable again and patients will have to rely on their immune system, rather than medical intervention, to overcome the illness – a scenario last seen a century ago.

A communication on ProMED has said: “[Multidrug-resistant TB or MDR-TB refers to tuberculosis that is caused by a strain of _Mycobacterium tuberculosis_ resistant to 2 of the most effective drugs used to treat TB, isoniazid (INH) and rifampin. Extensively drug-resistant TB or XDR-TB refers to a subgroup of MDR-TB strains that are additionally resistant to any of the fluoroquinolone class of drugs (e.g., levofloxacin. moxifloxacin, or gatifloxacin) and any of the 3 injectable drugs used to treat tuberculosis (capreomycin, kanamycin and amikacin).”

Report – Following the discovery of 4 cases of totally drug resistant tuberculosis (TDR-TB) in a Mumbai hospital 3 days ago, 2 confirmed cases with the deadly new strain of TB have been detected at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases (RGICD) in Bangalore. But the scarier scenario is this: one among them, a 56-year-old man (the hospital has not disclosed his name), has gone absconding, raising the threat perception many levels higher, considering that he could infect others with the deadly strain.

Report – Even as 2 cases of totally drug-resistant tuberculosis (TDR-TB) have been detected in Bangalore, one of the patients is missing. This poses a grave threat of rapidly spreading the deadliest strain of _Mycobacterium tuberculosis_, the bacterium that causes the disease.

Report – According to Udwadia, the drug-resistant nature of the TB-causing _Mycobacterium tuberculosis_ increases with mutations of the strain often catalysed by incorrect and erratic administration of 2nd-line drugs. “An audit of the patients’ prescriptions showed that 3 of the 1st 4 patients received unsupervised 2nd-line drugs often in incorrect dosages by private practitioners in an attempt to treat their multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). By the time they were referred to us, they had moved from the MDR stage and the XDR stage to TDR-TB,” he said.

Report – News of some of the cases was published on 21 Dec 2011 in an ahead-of-print letter to the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. That letter describes the discovery and treatment of 4 cases of TDR-TB since last October [2011]. On Saturday [7 Jan 2012], the Times of India disclosed that there are actually 12 known cases just in one hospital, the P. D. Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre; in the article, Hinduja’s Dr. Amita Athawale states: “The cases we clinically isolate are just the tip of the iceberg.” And, as a follow up, the Hindustan Times reported yesterday [8 Jan 2012] that most hospitals in the city — by extension, most Indian cities — don’t have the facilities to identify the TDR strain, making it more likely that unrecognized cases can go on to infect others.

The Doomsday Clock moves to 5 minutes to midnight

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From six minutes to five. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock, a simple graphic which reminds us how close human civilisation is to extinguishing itself through its own inaction over its own violent means.

“It is five minutes to midnight. Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007,” said the statement.

The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2010, when the Clock’s minute hand was pushed back one minute from five to six minutes before midnight.

The January 10, 2012 Doomsday Clock followed an international symposium held on 09 January 2012. The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reviewed the implications of recent events and trends for the future of humanity with input from other experts on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, climate change, and biosecurity.

Questions addressed on January 9th included: What is the future of nuclear power after Fukushima?; How are nuclear weapons to be managed in a world of increasing economic, political, and environmental volatility?; What are the links among climate change, resource scarcity, conflict, and nuclear weapons?; and, What is required for robust implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention?

President of the United States Barrack Obama delivers a press brief along with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon on January 5, 2012. President Obama and Secretary Panetta delivered remarks on the Defense Strategic Guidance for the Defense Department going forward. They were joined by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the members of the Joint Chiefs and Service Secretaries(DOD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)(RELEASED)

Despite the promise of a new spirit of international cooperation, and reductions in tensions between the United States and Russia, the Science and Security Board believes that the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear, and leadership is failing, according to the participants of the symposium.  The ratification in December 2010 of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States reversed the previous drift in US-Russia nuclear relations.

However, failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea and on a treaty to cut off production of nuclear weapons material continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons.  The world still has approximately 19,500 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the Earth’s inhabitants several times over.   The Nuclear Security Summit of 2010 shone a spotlight on securing all nuclear fissile material, but few actions have been taken.  The result is that it is still possible for radical groups to acquire and use highly enriched uranium and plutonium to wreak havoc in nuclear attacks.

Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain.  Among these are disagreements between the United States and Russia about the utility and purposes of missile defense, as well as insufficient transparency, planning, and cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states to support a continuing drawdown.  The resulting distrust leads nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals.  While governments claim they are only ensuring the safety of their warheads through replacement of bomb components and launch systems, as the deliberate process of arms reduction proceeds, such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups.

The movement of the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock will be of no concern to the US Department of Defense and the current government of the United States of America. On 05 January 2012 US President Barack Obama presented at the Pentagon the document entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”. Obama insisted that the US military budget would remain higher than those of the next 10 military powers combined.

The past decade, dominated by the “global war on terror” and the simultaneous wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw military spending in the US soar by more than 80%. The plan being implemented by Obama will maintain military spending at this unprecedentedly high level, even as the White House and the US Congress prepare to slash core social programs and benefits, including Medicare and Social Security.

See Defense.gov News Article: ‘Obama: Defense Strategy Will Maintain U.S. Military Pre-eminence’
See ‘You Can’t Have It All’ in Foreign Policy
See ‘New US defense policy challenges trust’ in People’s Daily Online
See ‘Pentagon plan changes game in Asia’ in People’s Daily Online

Powerful corporate interests are pleased with the new document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”, and its promise of continued spending on a new stealth bomber, submarines, star wars technology and other air and sea weapons systems that are seen as the most efficient means of aggressively projecting US military might. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directly addressed these interests, declaring the Pentagon’s commitment to “preserving the health and viability of the nation’s defense industrial base.”

In his appearance at the Pentagon, Obama repeated his assertion that, based on the withdrawal from Iraq and the minimal troop reductions in Afghanistan, “the tides of war are receding”. On the contrary, the defense strategic guidance demonstrates that US imperialism remains committed to the use of armed force to assert its hegemony over the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia, even as it gears up its war machine for an armed confrontation with China.

Commenting on the Doomsday Clock announcement, Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors said: “Unfortunately, Einstein’s statement in 1946 that ‘everything has changed, save the way we think,’ remains true. The provisional developments of 2 years ago have not been sustained, and it makes sense to move the clock closer to midnight, back to the value it had in 2007. Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leads are failing to change business as usual. Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock. As we see it, the major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.”

The Fukushima 50? Or the Fukushima 18,846?

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Japanese police man a checkpoint near the edge of the contaminated exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station near Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Photo: David Guttenfelder, Pool

A new article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has exposed the large-scale and mostly invisible sub-contracting of labour in the international nuclear power industry. The article examines what has happened during the clean-up process at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and reveals exploitation of labour which is indefensible and criminal in view of the extreme hazards at the site following the 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

The reference to the 18,846 workers comes at the very end of the long and dense status sheet for 2011 December.

‘Nuclear nomads: A look at the subcontracted heroes’, By Gabrielle Hecht explains in dreadful detail how: during much of the cleanup process at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, thousands of subcontracted day laborers will be exposed to levels of ionising radiation well in excess of internationally recommended annual limits; how sub-contracted labourers account for some 90% of Japanese nuclear power plant workers during normal reactor operations; they often receive around three times the annual dose absorbed by a full-time plant employee; and how the sub-contracting approach within the nuclear industry carries exceptional risks and implications. Until these are recognised and documented, complex social and physiological realities will continue to be hidden.

The heroism of the ‘Fukushima 50’ – the plant and emergency workers who exposed themselves to extremely high radiation levels to get the reactors under control – was celebrated by the international media. But, during much of the clean-up process, thousands of workers were exposed to levels of ionising radiation well in excess of internationally recommended annual limits. Rather, in what amounts to premeditated and criminal negligence by the Government of Japan and by the power plant operator, Tepco, exposure limits were raised for both workers and the public, presumably in an attempt to reduce the number of cases that need to be documented as overexposures.

[See the 2011 December status document released by Tepco here (pdf)] [See the Fukushima nuclear emergency page for extensive background coverage, documents and material.] [See the running post on Fukushima for reportage and insights.]

In ‘Nuclear Nomads’ Hecht has asked: “So how many emergency workers are there anyway, and who are they?” A new document released by Tepco in December 2011 shows that over 18,000 men had participated in clean-up work by early December 2011. Some hailed the workers as “national heroes,” men willing to sacrifice their lives for the future of their nation. A few investigative reporters and scholars, however, uncovered a different story. The vast majority of these men are subcontract employees, recruited among local residents rendered unemployed by the disaster, or among the thousands of day laborers who eke out an existence in the margins of Japanese cities.

The Unit 4 reactor building of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station is seen through a bus window in Okuma, Japan Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Media allowed into Japan's tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant for the first time then saw a striking scene of devastation: twisted and overturned vehicles, crumbling reactor buildings and piles of rubble virtually untouched since the wave struck more than eight months earlier. Photo: David Guttenfelder, Pool

‘Nuclear Nomads’ has quoted one such worker: “If [day labourers] refuse, where will they get another job?… I don’t know anyone who is doing this [cleanup work] for Japan. Most of them need the money.” Cleanup workers are issued with dosimeters, and are checked at the end of each shift. Unskilled temps get paid about US$130 a day. Many don’t have written employment contracts. When they reach their exposure limit, they lose their jobs and are replaced, ideally, by non-exposed workers. Some have opted to prolong their employment by leaving dosimeters behind while working.

The overview of the status of countermeasures at Fukushima Daiichi Units 1-4 issued by Tepco in 2011 December.

The article by Hecht lists implications of the sub-contracting approach to reactor maintenance:

(1) Greater exposure. As for the accident cleanup crew, the short-term financial incentive for the temps is to abandon their dosimeters for certain jobs, so that their radiation exposures are not officially recorded. This prolongs their employment – and increases their doses.

(2) No occupational disease. Subcontract workers are often dubbed nuclear nomads because they move around from workplace to workplace, living out of trailers. There’s no compulsory centralised system for tracking cumulative exposure and health data for these temps. The absence of interactions among labor, information, and health infrastructures means that workers’ health problems are not collected and recorded in a centralized database — thus, many severe health problems never qualify as occupational diseases. Workers rarely — if ever — benefit from compensation, because their diseases cannot be linked to past exposures in ways that are scientifically or legally persuasive.

(3) Collective dose. Utilities don’t include the exposures of temp workers in their own data. That, in turn, means that data for any given nuclear power plant vastly under-reports the true collective dose (i.e., the total exposure received by the sum of both utility and subcontract workers).

“We’re not talking about a small portion of Japan’s nuclear workforce,” Hecht has said in ‘Nuclear Nomads’. “Since the late 1980s, some 90 percent of nuclear power plant workers in the country have been subcontracted. Estimates suggest that on average, during any one subcontracted job, a worker receives two to three times the annual dose absorbed by a regular plant worker.”

Written by makanaka

January 10, 2012 at 14:00