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Posts Tagged ‘WHO

A beginning to Monsanto’s end

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Monsanto_TribunalEnough is enough. Just under a year from now, the Monsanto Tribunal will sit in Den Haag (The Hague), Holland, to assess allegations made all over the world against Monsanto, and to evaluate the damages caused by this transnational company.

The Tribunal will examine how and why Monsanto is able to ignore the human and environmental damage caused by its products and “maintain its devastating activities through a strategy of systemic concealment”. This it has done for years, the Tribunal has said in an opening announcement, by lobbying regulatory agencies and governments, by resorting to lying and corruption, by financing fraudulent scientific studies, by pressuring independent scientists, by manipulating the press and media. As we know in India, that is only a part of its bag of very dirty tricks; others are even more vile.

The history of this corporation – representative of a twisted industrial approach to crop, food, soil, water and biodiversity which we today collectively call ‘bio-technology’ – is constitutes a roster of impunities. Like its peers and its many smaller emulators, Monsanto promotes an agro-industrial model that is estimated to contribute a third of global greenhouse gas emitted by human activity, a lunatic model largely responsible for the depletion of soil and water resources on every continent, a model so utterly devoted to the deadly idea that finance and technology can subordinate nature that species extinction and declining biodiversity don’t matter to its agents, a model that has caused the displacement of millions of small farmers worldwide.

Monsanto_Tribunal2In this demonic pursuit Monsanto – like its peers, its emulators and as its promoters do in other fields of industry and finance – has committed crimes against the environment, and against ecological systems, so grave that they need to be termed ecocide. In order that the recognition of such crimes becomes possible, and that punishment and deterrence at planetary scale becomes possible, the Tribunal will rely on the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ adopted at the United Nations in 2011, and on the basis of the Rome Statue that created the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2002. The objective is that Monsanto become criminally liable and prosecutable for crimes against the environment, or ecocide.

“Recognising ecocide as a crime is the only way to guarantee the right of humans to a healthy environment and the right of nature to be protected,” the Tribunal has said. Since the beginning of the 20th century Monsanto has developed a steady stream of highly toxic products which have permanently damaged the environment and caused illness or death for thousands of people. These products include:

* PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), one of the 12 Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) that affect human and animal fertility.
* 2,4,5 T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid), a dioxin-containing component of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which was used by the US Army during the Vietnam War and continues to cause birth defects and cancer.
* Lasso, an herbicide that is now banned in Europe.
* RoundUp, the most widely used herbicide in the world, and the source of the greatest health and environmental scandal in modern history. This toxic herbicide, designated a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization, is used in combination with genetically modified (GM) RoundUp Ready seeds in large-scale monocultures, primarily to produce soybeans, maize and rapeseed for animal feed and biofuels.

Monsanto_Tribunal3The Tribunal has: Corinne Lepage, a lawyer specialising in environmental issues, former environment minister and Member of tne European Parliament, Honorary President of the Independent Committee for Research and Information on Genetic Engineering  (CRIIGEN); Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Co-Chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food); Gilles-Éric Séralini, professor of molecular biology since 1991, researcher at the Fundamental and Applied Biology Institute (IBFA); Hans Rudolf Herren, President and CEO of the Millenium Institute and President and Founder of Biovision; Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources especially native seed, the promotion of organic farming and fair trade; Arnaud Apoteker, from 2011 to 2015 in charge of the GMO campaign for the Greens/EFA group at the European Parliament; Valerie Cabanes, lawyer in international law with expertise in international humanitarian law and human rights law; Ronnie Cummins, International Director of the Organic Consumers Association (USA) and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica; Andre Leu, President of IFOAM Organics International, the world umbrella body for the organic sector which has around 800 member organisations in 125 countries; and Marie-Monique Robin, writer of the documentary (and book) ‘The World According Monsanto’, which has been broadcast on 50 international television stations, and translated into 22 languages.

Holding our breath in India’s cities

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India's cities and PM2.5 - the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

India’s cities and PM2.5 – the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

The findings by the World Health Organisation on the quality of air in India’s cities are the strongest signal yet to our government (old and new, for the results of the 2014 general election will become known on 16 May) that economic ‘growth’ is a weapon that kills citizens through respiratory tract diseases and infections.

Amongst the 124 Indian cities in the new WHO database on urban air quality worldwide, one city only is at the WHO guideline for PM2.5 and one city only is just above the guidelines for PM10. As a bloc, the quality of air in India’s cities are at alarmingly high levels above the guidelines, above Asian averages (poor as they are, and even considering China’s recklessly poor record) and above world averages.

This is not a singular matter. Already, the WHO has warned that India has a high environmental disease burden, with a significant number of deaths annually associated with environmental risk factors. The Global Burden of Disease for 2010 ranked ambient air pollution as the fifth largest killer in India, three places behind household air pollution. Taken cumulatively, household and ambient air pollution constitute the single greatest risk factor that cause ill health -leading to preventable deaths – in India.

The WHO database contains results of ambient (outdoor) air pollution monitoring. Air quality is represented by ‘annual mean concentration’ (a yearly average) of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, which means particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). The WHO guideline values are: for PM2.5 – 10 micrograms/m3 annual mean; for PM10 – 20 micrograms/m3 annual mean. The two charts show just how dangerously above the WHO guidelines the air quality of our cities are.

India's cities and PM10 - it is the latest amongst many signs that India's GDP growth fever is a killer.

India’s cities and PM10 – it is the latest amongst many signs that India’s GDP growth fever is a killer.

Half of India’s urban population lives in cities where particulate pollution levels exceed the standards considered safe. A third of this population breathes air having critical levels of particulate pollution, which is considered to be extremely harmful. “We are also running out of ‘clean’ places. Small and big cities are now joined in the pain of pollution,” commented Down To Earth, the environment magazine.

Typically, the official Indian response was to question the WHO findings (these were carried out in the same way in 91 countries, and we don’t hear the other 90 complaining) and to reject them. The reason is easy to spot. Global offender Number One for air pollution amongst world cities is New Delhi, a city that has been pampered as the showcase for what the Congress government myopically calls “the India growth story”.

Hence government scientists are reported to have quickly said that WHO overestimated air pollution levels in New Delhi. “Delhi is not the dirtiest… certainly it is not that dangerous as projected,” said A B Akolkar, a member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board.

The same recidivist line was parroted by Gufran Beig, chief project scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (which otherwise does good work on the monsoon and on climate change). He is reported as having said that New Delhi’s air quality was better than Beijing’s, and that pollution levels in winter are relatively higher in New Delhi because of extreme weather events. Beig said: “The value which has been given in this (WHO) report is overestimating (pollution levels) for Delhi … the reality is that the yearly average is around 110 (micrograms).”

The WHO database has captured measurements from monitoring stations located in urban background, residential, commercial and mixed areas. The world’s average PM10 levels by region range from 26 to 208 micrograms/m3, with a world average of 71 micrograms/m3.

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Central and state governments show no inclination to join the obvious dots. These are, that with more fuels being burned to satisfy the electricity and transport needs of a middle class now addicted to irresponsible consumption, the ‘India growth story’ is what we are choking to death on.

Beating the drums of war early in 2013

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The Algerian army has beefed up its positions on the border with war-torn Mali to prevent incursions by armed rebels fleeing north. Algeria, which had always opposed military intervention in Mali, was reluctantly drawn into the conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace, and closed its 1,400-kilometre southern border shortly afterwards. Photo: Reuters

The Algerian army has beefed up its positions on the border with war-torn Mali to prevent incursions by armed rebels fleeing north. Algeria, which had always opposed military intervention in Mali, was reluctantly drawn into the conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace, and closed its 1,400-kilometre southern border shortly afterwards. Photo: Reuters

Little noticed by the world’s media, the Munich Security Conference has in 2013 has just concluded. Its organisers and sponsors call it “the major security policy conference worldwide”. In this year’s conference – attended by about 400 participants from nearly 90 countries – a speech was delivered by the Vice President of the USA, Joseph Biden.

Biden mixed deception with aggression. This is what he said about current conflict the USA is prosecuting:

Today, we’re in the process of turning the page on more than a decade of conflict following the September 11, 2001 attack, and we ended the war in Iraq responsibly. And together we’re responsibly drawing down in Afghanistan, and by the end of next year, the transition will be complete.”

And here is what Biden has threatened:

… we took the fight to core Al Qaeda in the FATA, we were cognizant of an evolving threat posed by affiliates like AQAP in Yemen, al-Shabaab in Somalia, AQI in Iraq and Syria and AQIM in North Africa.”

The USA is estimated to have from 700 to over 1,000 military bases of all kinds in the world.

The USA is estimated to have from 700 to over 1,000 military bases of all kinds in the world.

At the Munich Security Conference leading political, military and defence industry representatives of the major powers, along with invited officials from other nations, met to discuss current and future military operations and geo-strategic issues.

That’s the sanitised version. The unsanitised version is plain to see in the speeches, such as Biden’s, and the statements. What this perverse gathering of war-mongers demonstrated is the consensus that exists among the countries of western Europe, amongst the USA and its allies, for an expanded political and military drive to install puppet governments and seize control of land, water and energy in the Middle East, in Central Asia and in the African continent. [See the map of US military bases, courtesy of the New Humanist.]

Biden in his speech revealed the growing darkness of widening conflict planned by this group:

As President Obama has made clear to Iranian leaders, our policy is not containment – it is is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court, and it’s well past time for Tehran to adopt a serious, good-faith approach to negotiations …”

And:

“The United States is taking difficult but critical steps to put ourselves on a sounder economic footing. And I might add, it’s never been a real good bet to bet against America.”

The American vice president then went on to allege that “Iran’s leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation”.

Who in truth is responsible for that deprivation, what is the human cost of that designed deprivation and isolation?

US Vice President Joe Biden in a helicopter over Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 11, 2011.  Photo: White House

US Vice President Joe Biden in a helicopter over Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 11, 2011. Photo: White House

Less than a week before this Munich Security Conference began, Iranian Mothers for Peace in an open letter to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, and Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Heath Organization, alerted them to the critical shortage of vital medication due to the US/EU-led sanctions on Iran and their deadly impact on the lives and health of the Iranian population.

Excerpts from the letter written by the Iranian Mothers for Peace:

Dear Dr. Margaret Chan
As you know, the illegal and inhumane actions led by the US and the EU, targeting the country and the population of Iran, with the stated intention to put pressure on the government of Iran, have intensified in the past two years and increasingly harsher sanctions are imposed almost on a monthly basis. The regulations governing these inhumane and arbitrary sanctions are executed with such strict inflexibility that Iran is now excluded from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) and the sanctions on banking transactions are preventing Iran from even purchasing its needed medical supplies and instruments. On the other hand, to avoid suspicion for dealing with Iran, the European banks are fearful not to engage in any kind of financial transactions with Iran and, therefore, in practice, refuse any transfer of payment for medical and health-related items and raw materials needed for the production of domestic pharmaceutical drugs, even payment for well-recognized drugs for the treatment of Special Diseases, which are not of dual use.”

We ask you: What could possibly be the intended target of the wealthy and powerful US and European statesmen’s ‘targeted’ and ‘smart’ sanctions but to destroy the physical and psychological health of the population through the increase of disease and disability? The right to health and access to medical treatment and medication is one of the fundamental human rights anywhere in the world. Please do not allow the killing of our sick children, beloved families, and fellow Iranians from the lack of medicine, caught in instrumental policies of coercion and power.”

The Munich Security Conference 2013 in session,

The Munich Security Conference 2013 in session,

Unheeding of the clamour for peace worldwide and blind to the appalling cost in life, the gathering of war-mongers in Munich listened to Biden:

“That’s why the United States applauds and stands with France and other partners in Mali, and why we are providing intelligence support, transportation for the French and African troops and refueling capability for French aircraft. The fight against AQIM may be far from America’s borders, but it is fundamentally in America’s interest.”

Representatives of the countries of western Europe – of the same governments bent on now impoverishing their own people just as surely as they have wreaked havoc in the countries of the South with neo-liberal mutations of the ‘structural adjustment’ doctrine of the 1980s – made clear that they were only too willing to participate in the re-colonialisation of the Middle East and North Africa in cooperation with the USA. The German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere stressed the importance of cooperation with the US and their support for the Western intervention in Syria, as well as the war in Mali.

Scholar Horace Campbell in his new book, ‘Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya‘, has argued that the military organisation is the instrument through which the capitalist class of North America and Europe seeks to impose its political will on the rest of the world, “warped by the increasingly outmoded neoliberal form of capitalism”. The intervention in Libya, he said, characterised by bombing campaigns, military information operations, third party countries, and private contractors, exemplifies this new model.

At the time, they called it ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya, they tolerated suppression in Bahrain and Yemen, and then they supported civil war incitement and escalation of violence in Syria. The results have been: dangerous new urban geopolitics and the militarisation of city spaces as can be seen in Aleppo, Benghazi, Cairo and Manama; the privatisation of state violence through private security firms and mercenaries; the overuse of the democratic carrot and the economic sticks of debt, fiscal discipline, and international investment; the violence with which new forms of political and social participation, organisation, and representation (which include women, the unemployed, the urban poor) are met. This is the militarised world that has been described anew by the Biden speech.

Pakistan, India and people’s responsibility

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Relief work in the districts of Jaffarabad and Nasirabad in Balochistan. Photo: UNOCHA

Relief work in the districts of Jaffarabad and Nasirabad in Balochistan. Photo: UNOCHA

For a month the government of India, aided by its media and propaganda units (urban-centric English language dailies and magazines, and a dangerously partisan group of television channels) has bombarded the Indian public with its view of Pakistan.

This is a view that is full of threat and anger. There is in no communication of the government of India (not from the office of the prime minister of India, not from the cabinet, not from Parliament, not from its major ministries which share concerns, such as water and food, and not from its paid servants, a wastrel gaggle of self-important think-tanks) that says, in effect, yes we understand the troubles your peoples have, for we have the same, and let us find ways to aid one another.

There is plenty of reason to do so.

Let us look first at floods and natural disasters, which India has a great deal of experience in dealing with, both through those government agencies that possess an iota of integrity and through voluntary groups and NGOs. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by September monsoon flooding in Pakistan have not yet moved back into their homes, according to aid groups. Three of Pakistan’s four provinces were hit, affecting over 4.8 million people and damaging over 630,000 houses, according to the latest situation report by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Humanitarian Snapshot Pakistan - Complex Emergency and Floods 2012 (as of 18 December 2012). The 2012 monsoon floods affected 4.8 million people, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Western Balochistan, southern Punjab and northern Sindh provinces were the worst affected. As of 18 December, more than 774,594 people remain displaced in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to a complex emergency that has affected region since 2008. Moreover, 1.7 million refugees require assistance as do many of the 1.3 million people who returned to FATA since 2010. Source: UNOCHA

Humanitarian Snapshot Pakistan – Complex Emergency and Floods 2012 (as of 18 December 2012). The 2012 monsoon floods affected 4.8 million people, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Western Balochistan, southern Punjab and northern Sindh provinces were the worst affected. As of 18 December, more than 774,594 people remain displaced in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to a complex emergency that has affected region since 2008. Moreover, 1.7 million refugees require assistance as do many of the 1.3 million people who returned to FATA since 2010. Source: UNOCHA

Three months after the floods, 97 percent of those displaced have returned to their towns and villages. Nearly all of them, however, continue to live in makeshift shelters next to damaged homes. Aid groups and government officials say they still need critical assistance to help them through the winter. In the absence of adequate shelter and provisions, aid workers say, the cold weather in flood-hit areas is likely to put the affected population under more stress. [You can download a full-sized version of the Humanitarian Snapshot map above, from here (png, 1.8MB).]

Next is the matter of population, economic support for a growing population and sustainable alternatives to the ‘growth is best’ nonsense that South Asian ruling cliques foster with the help of their industrialist compradors. Internal pressures in the country with the world’s sixth largest population are likely to get worse before they get better: At 2.03 percent Pakistan has the highest population growth rate in South Asia, and its total fertility rate, or the number of children born per woman, is also the highest in the region, at 3.5 percent. By 2030, the government projects that Pakistan’s population will exceed 242 million.

“The failure to adequately manage demographic growth puts further pressure on the current population, who already lack widespread basic services and social development,” said the IRIN analysis. Pakistan’s health and education infrastructures are poorly funded, and experts have questioned the quality of what is being provided with existing budgets. With a weak economy and low growth, food insecurity and unemployment present further challenges. “The problem is that if you have a population that is illiterate and does not have proper training, a large segment cannot participate meaningfully in the economy,” IRIN quoted economist Shahid Kardar, a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, as having said.

A polio worker on the outskirts of Peshawar in Pakistan delivers vaccine drops, but many workers are now too scared to go into the field. Photo: IRIN, Tariq Saeed

A polio worker on the outskirts of Peshawar in Pakistan delivers vaccine drops, but many workers are now too scared to go into the field. Photo: IRIN, Tariq Saeed

And then there is the very worrisome aspect of violence, against the poor and vulnerable as much as against women. I find it a macabre coincidence that during the weeks when polio workers in Pakistan were being shot at and killed, women in various parts of India were being gang-raped and murdered.

Over the past few weeks there has been an upsurge in attacks on aid workers in Pakistan, many of them linked to a national polio eradication campaign in one of the world’s last three countries where the disease remains endemic. In December 2012 the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) suspended their anti-polio vaccination campaign after nine workers were killed in attacks in Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Polio workers, including those working for the UN, were also targeted earlier in 2012. Beyond the polio campaign, aid workers in general are starting to feel more hostility to their work. In an attack on 5 January, two aid workers with Al-Khidmat Foundation, an NGO working in education, were shot dead in the northwestern city of Charsadda. There was similarly no warning when gunmen killed seven aid workers with local NGO Support With Working Solution (SWWS) in the Swabi District of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province on 1 January.

And still the same old tiresome drums continued to beat, as they still do, Look at the reactions from India (and the jingoistic treatment given them by a rabid media):

India Today – “Military encounter on the LoC last week is threatening to erode the hard-fought gains in relaxing trade and visa regimes by India and Pakistan in recent times. The rhetoric is shrill in India, which claims it has been grievously wronged.”

Economic Times“India has ruled out high-level talks with Pakistan to de-escalate hostilities and normalise bilateral relations, people familiar with the situation said. The position is in line with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement…”

Times of India“India will maintain a tough outlook on Pakistan even as the LoC quietened after a fortnight of bruising skirmishes. At a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on Thursday, it was agreed that India would not respond immediately…”

BBC“India’s foreign minister says he will “not rush” into talks with his Pakistani counterpart to defuse military tensions in Kashmir. Salman Khurshid’s remarks came after Hina Rabbani Khar’s call for a dialogue between the two ministers.”

DNA“India’s army chief threatened to retaliate against Pakistan for the killing of two soldiers in fighting near the border of the disputed region of Kashmir, saying he had asked his commanders there to be aggressive in the face of provocation.”

Lost altogether in this teeth-gnashing mêlée of trouble-making are the efforts made by Pakistani and Indian people, such as the India Pakistan Soldiers Initiative (IPSI) for peace when they met at the Pakistan Red Crescent Society offices in Pakistan. Peace between the peoples of Pakistan and India that has nothing to do with the red-eyed posturing over the Line of Control and over Jammu and Kashmir will be our own responsibility.

Food crisis in the Sahel

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UN-OCHA map of vulnerability to food insecurity in the Sahel.

ReliefWeb has a series of backgrounders, assessment reports and maps to explain the malnutrition and food crisis in the Sahel. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that the Sahel is characterised by long standing chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, poverty and extreme vulnerability to drought. “The localised deficit recorded for the agropastoral season 2011-12 and increasing cereals prices in Mali and Niger could bring millions of people at risk of food insecurity,” said the UN-OCHA briefing.

Throughout the Sahel, acute malnutrition in children reaches its annual peak during the hunger season. Children under two years of age have the highest risk of becoming sick or dying during this period. Malnutrition is caused by inadequate food quality and quantity, inadequate care, as well as unhealthy household environment and lack of health services.

The prevalence of global acute malnutrition met or exceeded the critical threshold of 10% in all of the surveys conducted in the hunger season of 2011 (from May to August). If food security significantly deteriorates in 2012, the nutrition conditions for children could surpass emergency levels throughout the Sahel region.

Affected countries are: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia (the), Mali, Mauritania, Niger (the), Nigeria and Senegal.

Food insecurity and malnutrition chronically affect a significant part of the Sahel population. However, several events came in 2011 which exacerbate this vulnerability:

1. In 2011 many parts of the region received late and poorly distributed rains, resulting in average harvests and serious severe shortfall in some areas. Consequently, the Government of Niger as an example has estimated that the 2011 agro pastoral season will record a deficit of 519,600 tons of cereals and of over ten million tons of fodder for livestock.
2. In Mauritania, authorities expect a decrease of more than 75% of the agriculture production and a strong fodder deficit.
3. In areas where harvests are weak, households will run out of food stocks faster than usual and will be forced to rely on markets for supplies, contributing to maintaining the already high prices at the same level.

UN-OCHA map of expected cases of severe acute malnutrition in the Sahel.

Furthermore, the purchasing power of the most vulnerable populations is likely to deteriorate. In addition the lean season is estimated to begin earlier than usual, probably as early as January 2012 in Chad, two months in advance. As the situation gets worse by spring 2012, there will be an increase of infant acute malnutrition, already beyond emergency thresholds in four wilayas in southwestern Mauritania.

Several countries in the Sahel have already announced measures taken to curb the negative effects of the food insecurity and malnutrition on vulnerable populations; who have not had enough time to recover from the 2009-10 crisis, despite the good harvest registered last year. Three countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali) have also requested for assistance from the humanitarian community. In late November, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), administered by OCHA, allocated US$ 6 million to three organisations in Niger – the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization – for emergency operations to fight food insecurity and malnutrition.

According to a ‘Humanitarian Dashboard – Sahel’ dated 12 January 2012 released by UN-OCHA, early indicators point to a likely food crisis in localised areas of the Sahel in 2012, with people at particularly high risk in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and localized areas of Senegal. These are:

1. Acute food insecurity already noted in southeastern Mauritania.
2. Deficits in 2011, in agro-pastoral production led to higher market prices, resulting in an earlier than usual need for food aid.
3. Resilience to food insecurity is low in most vulnerable groups.
4. High poverty level in Sahel (51%) impacting on food accessibility due to high prices.

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.

FAO’s World Food Day sermon, well balanced with a few blind spots

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This is worth a close read for it reflects, in my view, the pull and tug of various opinions and convictions inside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the single entity that we rely on the most to inform us about the state of cultivators, what they’re growing in our world, and who isn’t getting enough of those crops as food.

I have extracted some important paragraphs of this publication [get it here as a pdf], and commented on them. Here goes:

“At the level of individuals, people living on less than US$1.25 a day may need to skip a meal when food prices rise. Farmers are hurt too because they badly need to know the price their crops are going to fetch at harvest time, months away. If high prices are likely they plant more. If low prices are forecast they plant less and cut costs.”

Yes and no. The one-dollar-a-day global poverty line really ought to be done away with. It means nothing at national level and less within countries. Trying to equate real prices and actual consumption (in grams or hundred grams a day) with purchasing power parity-adjusted international dollars is generally a pointless exercise that generates lists and rankings that distract rather than inform. Anyway, the important part of what FAO said here is that when they’re under a certain daily income line, people can’t buy food to eat what they need to. The comment on farmers making decisions based on expected prices is a good one, something that most people miss, assuming that farmers are as interested in food security as academics are – which is quite untrue. For a farming household, sowing a field is a cost, and that cost needs to be more than recouped in order to make the decision to sow a good one.

“Rapid price swings make that calculation much more difficult. Farmers can easily end up producing too much or too little. In stable markets they can make a living. Volatile ones can ruin them while also generally discouraging much-needed investment in agriculture. Recognizing the major threat that food price swings pose to the world’s poorest countries and people, the international community, led by the G20, moved in 2011 to find ways of managing volatility on international food commodity markets. Under the presidency of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the world’s 20 largest economies agreed that any strategy directed to that purpose should have the protection of vulnerable countries and groups as its main priority.”

Now here’s the FAO getting to grips with today’s problem. Rapid price swings is what we tend to call volatility – this can be volatility in retail food prices, or in input prices for farmers, or in offtake (purchase at the farm gate or local market) prices of harvested crops. I don’t see any stable markets the FAO is referring to here. Under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the stability is constructed by coordinating a monstrous array of incentives and subventions – causing instability elsewhere in the world and particularly when that ‘elsewhere’ is importing (under duress) European agri products and processed food. But that’s another though related story.

The idea of “much-needed investment in agriculture” is an ill-defined one. The best investment a farmer can make, so goes an old Indian proverb, is that she walks the soil of her field every day with her bare feet – and that means for the farmer to till her land and come face to face with her natural resources and biodiversity. It is not the sort of investment the ‘market’ can understand. But FAO ought to, especially since it also has a Save And Grow programme aimed at addressing the organic, low input, community side of cultivation. This is an example of the contradictions in this FAO document. The “international community” is a tired and non-existent label, describing nothing while pretending to be collegial. Mediocre editorial writers still use it but no realists do. The G20 statement this time around may be a little less wishy-washy than it was last year, but that is scant comfort to the hungry or to the cultivators of small plots.

“Today’s turbulent commodities markets contrast sharply with the situation that characterized the last 25 years of the twentieth century. Between 1975 and 2000 cereal prices remained substantially stable on a month-to-month basis, although trending downwards over the longer term. For despite rapid population growth – world population doubled between 1960 and 2000 – the Green Revolution launched by Dr Norman Borlaug in the 1960s helped food supply to meet and even exceed demand in many countries, including India, thanks to the work of M. S. Swaminathan, then Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.”

Oh dear. This is one step forward and three back for the FAO. It should not – not – go looking at Green Revolution history in an attempt to encourage beleaguered small farmers and consumers battered by food price inflation. Yes, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and CIMMYT (the CGIAR International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) will establish the Borlaug Institute for South Asia in India. This institute will be at the forefront of the so-called Second Green Revolution in eastern India (and thereafter sub-Saharan and East Africa). The kind of infrastructure demanded by the first Green Revolution by way of irrigation canals, dams with extensive command areas, provision of rural electricity to run pumpsets with, heavily subsidised inorganic fertilisers produced by a monolithic industry closely allied to the petro-chemicals industry and fossil fuel suppliers – all these were overlooked in the rush to raise yield per hectare. We do not want to see that being attempted again with public monies. It is this investment – rather this big fat public money pipe – which kept cereal prices “substantially stable on a month-to-month basis” in what used to be called the First World. It is not possible there now, it is not possible here (Asia and Africa) now. And that’s what FAO should have said, clearly and bluntly.

“In fact there was, in the Western Hemisphere at least, an over-abundance of food, caused in no small part by the generous subsidies which OECD countries paid to their farmers. But the picture today is a very different one. The global market is tight, with supply struggling to keep pace with demand and stocks are at or near historical lows. It is a delicate balance that can easily be upset by shocks such as droughts or floods in key producing regions.”

So it does try to say this, in a push-me-pull-you sort of way, but the truth is there is no delicate balance. Markets do not tolerate delicate balances because investors have no time for such niceties.

“In order to decide how, and how far, we can manage volatile food prices we need to be clear about why, in the space of a few years, a world food market offering stability and low prices became a turbulent marketplace battered by sudden price spikes and troughs.”

Hear, hear.

“The seeds of today’s volatility were sown last century when decision-makers failed to grasp that the production boom then enjoyed by many countries might not last forever and that continuing investment was needed in research, technology, equipment and infrastructure. In the 30 years from 1980 to date the share of official development assistance which OECD countries earmarked for agriculture dropped 43 percent. Continued under-funding of agriculture by rich and poor countries alike is probably the main single cause of the problems we face today.”

Why does the FAO continue stubbornly to see “investment” as an output of only, and exclusively, national agricultural research systems that are in the vast majority of countries government departments with little real connection to growers and household consumers, or are adjuncts of industrial agriculture multinationals? The seeds of volatility (FAO’s pun, not mine) were planted when commodity exchanges invented commodity futures in collusion with banks and investment consulting companies – production booms were not, in the ecological economics framework of measuring things, booms of any kind, nor were they seen in many countries other than the subvention-drunk OECD of the 1970s and 1980s. In this para, FAO has blundered clumsily by now apportioining some blame to “continued under-funding” while having already mentioned the “generous subsidies” years in the West.

“Contributing to today’s tight markets is rapid economic growth in emerging economies, which means more people are eating more meat and dairy produce with the need for feedgrains increasing rapidly as a result. Global trade in soymeal, the world’s leading protein feed for animals, has grown 67 percent over the past 10 years.”

Hear, hear. Type 2 diabetes and the burden of non-communicable diseases (see the WHO’s recent campaign) have also increased dramatically as a result of the wanton carpet-bombing of “emerging economies” (another revolting label) by the food-agbiotech-retail MNCs.

“Population growth, with almost 80 million new mouths to feed every year, is another important element. Population pressure is compounded by the erratic and often extreme meteorological phenomena produced by global warming and climate change. A further contributing factor may be the recent entry of institutional investors with very large sums of money into food commodity futures markets. There is evidence to suggest that food prices may have surged partly as a result of speculation. But there is considerable debate over the issue.”

Yes and no. FAO is right about the impact of population growth, about climate change (it has an enormous amount of documentation on the subject), about institutional investors and how they distort prices and about food speculation and its effects on street prices. There is plenty of evidence. There is not “considerable debate”, unless the FAO thinks that the angry bleatings of bankers to the contrary is some sort of debate. If so, it should consult its fellow UN agency, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which this year released a study titled ‘Price Formation in Financialized Commodity Markets: The Role of Information’. The UNCTAD experts who wrote this paper concluded that the commodities market isn’t functioning properly, or at least not the way a market is supposed to function in economic models, where prices are shaped by supply and demand. But the activities of financial participants, according to the study, “drive commodity prices away from levels justified by market fundamentals”. This leads to massively distorted prices, which are not influenced by real factors but by the expectation that economic developments will improve or worsen.

“Lastly, distortive agricultural and protectionist trade policies bear a significant part of the blame. In addition, with agriculture now substantially part of the wider energy market, any shock to the latter – such as unrest in a producing country – can have immediate repercussions on food prices. Responding to food price volatility therefore involves two different kinds of measures. The first group addresses volatility itself, aiming to reduce price swings through specific interventions while the other seeks to mitigate the negative effects of price swings on countries and individuals. One measure frequently invoked under the first heading is the setting up of an internationally held food stock able to intervene on markets to stabilize prices. But FAO’s view is that such a stock would be of dubious value, as well as expensive and difficult to operate. Also, government intervention in food markets discourages the private sector and hinders competition.”

Again the FAO push-me-pull-you is at work here, but the premier food agency has made some important points. The connection between agriculture and energy is one – and that means biofuels, which has a para to itself in the FAO document. Conflict is also brought in as a factor affecting prices – in how many food-producing and exporting countries is there now war or armed conflict? The idea of ‘strategic food reserves’ – which countries in South-east Asia and in the Persian Gulf region are pursuing – has been given short shrift, rightly in my view. But once again the FAO makes a tired attempt to placate the pro-WTO groups by bemoaning protectionist trade policies – which in WTO-speak means no barriers to entry for OECD food products anywhere so that all that accumulated legacy subsidy can pay back a little. Not acceptable, FAO folks. And to round off the contradictory para, the FAO statement again criticises “government intervention” as hindering competition. Governments have to serve their citizens according to constitutions and charters – these are internal matters and this is where sovereignty and self-determination come before market. Better believe it FAO. At least, for now.

Joining the dots between economics, income, health and poverty

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The concerns about recession and its impacts on poverty are seen commonly as a question mark over household incomes, over food security and often involve debates about social protection. An aspect that all too often gets ignored in this equation – no doubt because of its complexity – is health and in particular the health of women and children.

Changes in neonatal mortality rates between 1990 and 2009. The map illustrates the change in NMR between the years 1990 and 2009 for each of the 193 countries estimated. PLoS Medicine 8(8): e1001080

This is linked very closely to poverty, however we measure it, and the conditions that either cause poverty to persist (leading to chronic poverty) or cause households at risk to lapse into poverty every now and then (shock). The human development index methodolgy, which is from this year using multi-dimensional indices for poverty for the first time, helps us link health, poverty, income and economic growth (or its opposite).

The question is: is this new understanding, which is more in tune with the way households actually carry on with their lives and are actually affected by wider trends concerning economy, helping integrate the connections? If there is one good reason to ask this question, it is the new study on ‘Neonatal Mortality Levels for 193 Countries in 2009 with Trends since 1990: A Systematic Analysis of Progress, Projections, and Priorities’.

[The World Health Organization (WHO) has a report and summary of the study on this page – ‘Newborn deaths decrease but account for higher share of global child deaths’]
[The full study is available on PLoS Medicine, 1 August 2011 (Volume 8, Issue 8)]

This has shown that every year, more than 8 million children die before their fifth birthday. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries and most are caused by preventable or treatable diseases. In 2000, world leaders set a target of reducing child mortality to one-third of its 1990 level by 2015 as Millennium Development Goal 4 (MDG4). This goal, together with seven others, is designed to help improve the social, economic, and health conditions in the world’s poorest countries. In recent years, progress towards reducing child mortality has accelerated but remains insufficient to achieve MDG4.

“In particular, progress towards reducing neonatal deaths – deaths during the first 28 days of life – has been slow and neonatal deaths now account for a greater proportion of global child deaths than in 1990. Currently, nearly 41% of all deaths among children under the age of 5 years occur during the neonatal period. The major causes of neonatal deaths are complications of preterm delivery, breathing problems during or after delivery (birth asphyxia), and infections of the blood (sepsis) and lungs (pneumonia). Simple interventions such as improved hygiene at birth and advice on breastfeeding can substantially reduce neonatal deaths.”

Neonatal mortality rates in 2009. The map illustrates the NMR in year 2009 for each of the 193 countries estimated. PLoS Medicine 8(8): e1001080

The researchers used civil registration systems, household surveys, and other sources to compile a database of deaths among neonates and children under 5 years old for 193 countries between 1990 and 2009. They estimated NMRs for 38 countries from reliable vital registration data and developed a statistical model to estimate NMRs for the remaining 155 countries (in which 92% of global live births occurred).

They found that in 2009, 3.3 million babies died during their first month of life compared to 4.6 million in 1990. More than half the neonatal deaths in 2009 occurred in five countries – India, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. India had the largest number of neonatal deaths throughout the study. Between 1990 and 2009, although the global NMR decreased from 33.2 to 23.9 deaths per 1,000 live births (a decrease of 28%), NMRs increased in eight countries, five of which were in Africa. Moreover, in Africa as a whole, the NMR only decreased by 17.6%, from 43.6 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 35.9 per 1,000 live births in 2009.

To return to my question concerning the understanding of economics, income, health and poverty, does most current analysis see to integrate these elements, or is it still GDP-income driven? A new (2011 May) paper released by the Brookings Institution indicates that the GDP-income route is still favoured. The paper, ‘Two Trends in Global Poverty’, Geoffrey Gertz and Laurence Chandy, has said that while the overall prevalence of poverty is in retreat, the global poverty landscape is changing. “This transformation is captured by two distinct trends: poor people are increasingly found in middle-income countries and in fragile states. Both trends – and their intersection – present important new questions for how the international community tackles global poverty reduction.”

The two charts show the trajectory of 20 developing countries along three dimensions: number of poor people, degree of fragility and real income per capita. These 20 countries collectively account for 90 percent of the world’s poor in 2005, and thus largely define the evolving state of global poverty. Graphic: Brookings Institution

“The increased prevalence of poverty in middle-income countries is in many ways a trend of success. Over the past decade, the number of countries classified as low-income has fallen by two fifths, from 66 to 40, while the number of middle-income countries has ballooned to over 100. This means 26 poor countries have grown sufficiently rich to surpass the middle-income threshold. Among those countries that have recently made the leap into middle-income status are a group of countries  –  India, Nigeria and Pakistan  – containing large populations of poor people. It  is their “graduation” which has brought about the apparent shift in poverty from the low-income to middle-income country category.”

This categorisation of middle, low and high income was to an extent useful in the 1970s, when the idea of a human development index was being discussed, but we’ve come a long way since. We know that even in smaller countries (rather, countries with populations that are relatively small compared to those whic bear the sort of burdens studied in the PLoS Medicine research) there is a great deal of income disparity. ‘Income’ itself is a condition with a bewildering number of inputs – social science is quite inadequate to the task of being able to recognise all of these, let alone quantify them and rationalise them across countries and regions – which is exactly what studies like this try to do unfortunately.

“In 2005, when more than half the world’s poor lived in such countries, it made some sense to think about fighting poverty in terms of a single developing country paradigm, based on what worked in countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique or Vietnam,” Gertz and Chandy have said. “This logic was evident in two of the major events of that year which continue to shape today’s development agenda: the G8 meeting at Gleneagles and the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Paris. It was also apparent in Jeffrey Sachs’ influential 2005 best-seller, ‘The End of Poverty’. The legacy of these ideas is scattered throughout the work of the international development community in the design of traditional aid instruments and the standard methods of country engagement.”

The authors of the Brookings paper have said that this approach remains relevant for some countries, but with 90 percent of the world’s poor living in different settings today, its broader application can no longer be justified. Yet they have found that such an admission poses a dilemma. The dilemma exists because one of the reasons the stable low-income paradigm has persisted is because it characterizes an environment in which the international development community feels most comfortable and has the most experience. “The role of external actors in supporting poverty reduction in stable low-income countries is well understood and the standard tools of external assistance – financial and technical assistance – are well suited to them.”

Maplecroft's 2011 food security risk index

What does this mean? Does it give us a hitherto obscured insight into the inner world of aid agencies and international development departments and how they see ‘poor’ countries’ populations? Does it mean that we are burdened with three decades worth of simplistic labelling of populations at risk simply because labelling them any other way makes it difficult to help them? That’s what it looks like to me and I’d like to thank Gertz and Chandy for revealing this. But it’s way past high time this sort of categorisation was ditched, once and for all. It would do us and the battalions of development professionals a huge amount of good to simply be able to say, every so often, “we don’t know enough”.

It is worth being honest about the state of our knowledge concerning the lives of the the majority of households in ‘developing’ countries. Some of the reasons why such honesty will help in the long term are contained in a thoughtful new publication from the World Bank (whose army of development professionals will benefit from its reading). This collection is entitled ‘No Small Matter: The Impact of Poverty, Shocks, and Human Capital Investments in Early Childhood Development’ (The World Bank, 2011) and it has said that, as the 2008 global financial crisis has again demonstrated, economic crises are an unfortunate recurring event in the world and can have severe consequences for household livelihoods.

Progress in key health indicators, UN Human Development Report 2010

‘No Small Matter’ defines economic crises as sharp, negative fluctuations in aggregate income, these being especially common in developing countries, and the frequency with which they occur has been increasing in recent history. We know that declines in household and community resources are not the only risks that arise from an economic crisis because of its aggregate nature. We also know – from fieldwork and by hearing those whom we would wish to help – that at the same time as households cope with the possibility of reduced income from aggregate economic contractions, vital public services may also experience a decline in quality or availability, which in turn may have an additional impact on skill development among children. This is happening now, in more countries than ever before. The economic crisis that hit Latin America in 1982 led to a decrease in public health spending and had a disproportionate effect on the poorest groups. In 2011, the decrease in public health spending exists in many more countries.

A chapter in ‘No Small Matter’, ‘The Influence of Economic Crisis on Early Childhood Development: A Review of Pathways and Measured Impact’, by Jed Friedman and Jennifer Sturdy, is particularly useful.

This has said that “conservative estimates suggest that over 200 million children under five years of age living in developing countries fail to reach their cognitive development potential because of a range of factors, including poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of stimulation in home environments”. It is possible, the chapter’s authors have said, that this burden increases during times of crisis as poverty increases and food security is threatened. However, to investigate this claim more carefully it is necessary to understand the pathways through which poverty influences skill acquisition in children.

“The most severe condition affecting ECD (Early Childhood Development) is infant and early child mortality. Sharp economic downturns were associated with increases in infant mortality in Mexico, Peru and India. The mortality of children born to rural and less educated women is more sensitive to economic shocks, which suggests that the poor are disproportionately affected during most economic crises, and perhaps the poor face important credit constraints that bind in tragic ways during large contractions.

Weak relationship between economic growth and changes in health and education, UN Human Development Report 2010

The mortality of girls is also significantly more sensitive to aggregate economic shocks than that of boys. This gender differential exists even in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa that are not particularly known for son preference and indicates a behavioral dimension where households conserve resources to better protect young sons at the expense of daughters.”

Finally, a further note about the extremely valuable PLoS Medicine study ‘Neonatal Mortality Levels for 193 Countries in 2009 with Trends since 1990: A Systematic Analysis of Progress, Projections, and Priorities’. The authors are: Mikkel Zahle Oestergaard1, Mie Inoue1, Sachiyo Yoshida, Wahyu Retno Mahanani, Fiona M. Gore1, Simon Cousens, Joy E. Lawn and Colin Douglas Mathers (on behalf of the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation and the Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group – World Health Organization, Department of Health Statistics and Informatics; World Health Organization, Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development; London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Saving Newborn Lives/Save the Children).

Children of poor households are more likely to die, UN Human Development Report 2010

The study found that of the 40 countries with the highest NMRs in 2009, only six are from outside the African continent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Cambodia). Among the 15 countries with the highest NMRs (all above 39), 12 were from the African region (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Central African Republic, Burundi, Angola, Mauritania, Mozambique, Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea), and three were from the Eastern Mediterranean (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan). Throughout the period 1990–2009, India has been the country with largest number of neonatal deaths. In 2009, the five countries with most deaths accounted for more than half of all neonatal deaths (1.7 million deaths = 52%), and 44% of global livebirths: India (27.8% of deaths, 19.6% of global livebirths), Nigeria (7.2%, 4.5%), Pakistan (6.9%, 4.0%), China (6.4%, 13.4%), and Democratic Republic of the Congo (4.6%, 2.1%). The top five contributors to the 4.6 million neonatal deaths in 1990 were: India (29.5% of deaths, 19.8% of global livebirths), China (12.3%, 18.0%), Pakistan (5.4%, 3.4%), Bangladesh (5.0%, 2.9%), and Nigeria (4.8%, 3.3%).

As the risk of children dying before the age of five has fallen, the proportion of child deaths that occur in the neonatal period has increased. This increase is primarily a consequence of decreasing non-neonatal mortality in children under five from infectious diseases such as measles, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and AIDS. Globally, 41% of under-five deaths now occur in the neonatal period. Over the 20 y between 1990 and 2009, the proportion of global neonatal deaths that occurred in Africa increased. Although Africa is now the region with the highest NMR, the proportion of under-five child deaths that are neonatal remains relatively low in Africa—the fraction increased from 26% to 29% between 1990 and 2009. This apparent anomaly reflects the fact that Africa accounts for approximately 90% of child deaths due to malaria (0.7 million under-five deaths) and HIV/AIDS (0.2 million under-five deaths), resulting in relatively higher post-neonatal child mortality than other regions.

Seasonal pollution changes over India

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Data from the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft have been used in a new study that examines the concentration, distribution and composition of aerosol pollution over the Indian subcontinent. The study documents the region’s very high levels of natural and human-produced pollutants, and uncovered surprising seasonal shifts in the source of the pollution.

Larry Di Girolamo and postdoctoral scientist Sagnik Dey of the University of Illinois, used a decade’s worth of MISR data to comprehensively analyse aerosol pollution over the Indian subcontinent. This densely populated region has poor air quality and lacks on-the-ground pollution monitoring sites. The study was published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The NASA report said that aerosols — tiny particles suspended in the air — are produced both by natural sources, such as dust and pollen carried on the wind, and by human activities, such as soot and other hydrocarbons released from the burning of fossil fuels. They can affect the environment and human health, causing a range of respiratory problems. Aerosol pollution levels can be measured on the ground, but only the most developed countries have widespread sensor data.

Since standard satellite imaging cannot measure aerosols over land, Di Girolamo and Dey used NASA’s MISR, developed and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. MISR’s unique multi-view design allows researchers to differentiate surface variability from the atmosphere so they can observe and quantitatively measure particles in the air. MISR not only measures the amount of aerosols, but can also distinguish between natural and human-produced particles.

The scientists found very high levels of both natural and human-produced aerosol pollutants. The level of atmospheric pollution across most of the country was two to five times higher than World Health Organization guidelines.

But the study also revealed some surprising trends. For example, the researchers noticed consistent seasonal shifts in human-produced versus natural aerosols. Before monsoon season begins, the winds over the Indian subcontinent shift, blowing inland instead of out to sea. These winds carry immense amounts of dust from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to India, degrading air quality.

“Just before the rains come, the air gets really polluted, and for a long time everyone blamed the dust,” Di Girolamo said, “but MISR has shown that not only is there an influx of dust, there’s also a massive buildup of man-made pollutants that’s hidden within the dust.”

During monsoon season, rains wash some of the dust and soot from the air, but other human-produced pollutants continue to build up. After monsoon season, dust transport is reduced, but human-produced pollutant levels skyrocket, as biomass burning and the use of diesel-fueled transportation soar. During winter, seaward-blowing breezes disperse all the pollutants across the subcontinent and out to sea, where they remain until the pre-monsoon winds blow again.

“We desperately needed these observations to help validate our atmospheric models,” said Di Girolamo. “We’re finding that in a complex area like India, we have a long way to go. But these observations help give us some guidance.”

As MISR continues to collect worldwide aerosol data, Di Girolamo says atmospheric scientists will continue to refine models for India and other areas and begin to propose new regulatory measures. The MISR data may also reveal trends in aerosol concentration over time, which can be compared with climate and health data.

For further information, read the complete University of Illinois news release.

The images represent MISR data used to measure the concentration of aerosol pollutants over the Indian subcontinent and how it varies by season. The most polluted areas are depicted in red. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Illinois.

Deadly floods, torrential rain hammer Pakistan

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Children sit among the rubble of their house in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

Children sit among the rubble of their house in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

Torrential rain and floods in usually dry regions of South Asia are continuing to kill hundreds, maroon thousands and destroy the homes and livelihoods of many hundreds of thousands. The situation in northern Pakistan and adjoining Afghanistan is very serious.

The UN News wire has reported that with monsoon rains expected to continue pummeling Pakistan for several more weeks, the United Nations warned today that the country’s south could also be affected by deadly flooding, which has already affected millions of people. Martin Mogwanja, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan, told reporters that the devastation wrought by the current flooding is on par with that caused by the earthquake that struck the country in 2005.

Damage Overview of Flood-Affected Towns In Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This map presents the preliminary findings of a damage assessment over sixteen flood-affected towns and cities along the Kabul and Kalpani Rivers including the main city of Nowshera, Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. UNOSAT

Damage Overview of Flood-Affected Towns In Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This map presents the preliminary findings of a damage assessment over sixteen flood-affected towns and cities along the Kabul and Kalpani Rivers including the main city of Nowshera, Nowshera District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. UNOSAT

He said that the floods – the worst in Pakistan in living memory – have affected 4 million people so far, with at least 1.5 million people having lost their homes. Mr. Mogwanja said that 1,400 people have been killed so far, “but this number may rise as new bodies may be found.” The monsoon season, he pointed out, could last up to four more weeks, with the possibility that the flooding – currently concentrated in northern Pakistan – could move south towards the Indian Ocean, affecting millions more people. Already, the central areas of Sindh province in the south have felt the effects of flooding.

The search-and-rescue and evacuation phase has come to an end, with many people having been moved to safer areas by helicopters and boats. UN agencies have been rushing relief to the area since the early days of the disaster. The World Food Programme (WFP) has provided 500 metric tons of food, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has distributed enough clean drinking water for 700,000 people. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has supplied 11,000 tents and the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has distributed dozens of cholera kits for health centres.

The Hindu of India has reported that the death toll in the Leh cloudburst has climbed to 130, with 600 more people feared washed away in the calamity that was followed by torrential rains and flash floods devastating this Himalayan town in the Ladakh region. Sources in Ladakh, of which Leh is the district headquarters, fear that the death toll could cross over 500 as several far flung villages were yet to be accessed by rescue teams in this high-altitude terrain. Ladakh is a high mountainous region in northern India, in the western Himalaya. A small village before Choglumsur, which bore the brunt of the incessant rains, was completely wiped out as rescue workers were looking for survivors in the mud slush and debris. Over 200 people were still reported to be missing from the village.

Updated Overview of Flood Waters in Punjab Province, Pakistan. This map presents the standing flood waters over the affected Provinces of Punjab, Pakistan following recent heavy monsoon rains. UNOSAT

Updated Overview of Flood Waters in Punjab Province, Pakistan. This map presents the standing flood waters over the affected Provinces of Punjab, Pakistan following recent heavy monsoon rains. UNOSAT

The United Nations health agency said today that it has begun sending medical supplies to aid thousands of people affected by recent flooding across Afghanistan, where the major health concerns right now are water contamination and the spread of waterborne diseases. The Afghan government estimates that the floods have left several thousand individuals homeless in northeast Kapisa, central Ghazni, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Khost and northern Parwan provinces, where at least 2,500 houses have been destroyed. An estimated 80 people have reportedly died in the floods, and much of the arable land, where crops were planted, has been inundated.

Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported that news coming in from many parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, especially Swat because of its mountainous terrain, describes people displaced by the floods being desperately short of food, medicines, drinking water and other supplies essential to their survival. There is talk of starvation with no food available and international relief agencies are also warning of outbreak of diseases in the relief camps-mainly because clean drinking water and sanitation facilities are in short supply. In other parts of the flood-stricken region there are accounts of disease breaking out. Things could become worse in the coming days if the relief effort is not quickly streamlined. In Swat, many of those hit have already withstood many months of conflict. This Reuters AlertNet news feature describes the situation.

Russia wildfiresThe unfolding tragedy in Pakistan and Afghanistan comes alongside extreme weather events in Moldova, China and Russia. In Moldova, authorities have been evacuating people and goods from the flood-hit zones and to carry out prevention works. Xinhua News reported that in China, more than 4 million people have been affected since the flood season began in June and some 700,000 people have been evacuated. Additionally, about 62,000 houses have collapsed and 193,000 others have been damaged, along with 1.2 million hectares of cropland having been inundated. In the hardest-hit areas, flash floods have cut roads, isolated villages, and disrupted communications and water supplies. In the industrial city of Tonghua, torrential rains have damaged water pipelines, leaving 300,000 people without tap water for two days. The Voice of Russia has reported that wildfires are still burning in a number of Russian regions, including Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Voronezh and Ryazan. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and the air is thick for smog. Dozens of people have been killed by fires.

[The maps from which these images have been posted are from UNOSAT, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme, implemented in co-operation with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).]