North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Catching Up, Cleaning Up, Fixing Up

After a 2 week absence, and a few days before the US mid term elections, perhaps some catching up is in order.

Waste from camps pumped into ... who knows what: canal, ditch, low spot ...

Haiti - woefully slow in cleaning and fixing up, had to contain a new risk - cholera. Starting in a refugee camp outside the capital, Port au Prince, the disease reached the capital in just a few days, but humanitarian aid agencies apparently are making progress in halting the rate of spread, albeit after more than 300 died, and nearly 5,000 made ill. Haiti is now 10 months on from the devastating earthquake, but reconstruction progress is slow. Ironically, health investigators are concentrating on waste from a new Nepalese peacekeeping base as the most likely source of the disease.

Indonesia experienced a tsunami last week that was reminiscent of the 2004 tsunami that caught world attention and horror with over 200,000 killed. This time nearly 400 lives were lost, thousands injured,and the electronic alert system installed after the large one several years ago, was limited in effectiveness. Indonesia has thousands of isolated villages among hundreds of islands that make up the nation - creating a management challenge little appreciated. Clean up efforts begin.
Indonesia has hundreds of isolated islands and villages

Hurricane Richard, nearly the last of the storms of 2010, was downgraded to a tropical depression a few days ago. It had threatened Guatemala again, similar to the first hurricane of the season, Agatha, had brought damage to the country in early June, 2010 along with 174 deaths. In contrast to Haiti, cleanup efforts are well underway, providing health worker training, rebuilding of homes, etc. Aid agency in Guatemala sponsoring a handcraft marketing event for would be buyers

The US oil spill in the gulf has moved from page one and lead cable story to "enrichment" status - page 17 and further back in most newspapers. But cleanup efforts continue, locals see it through, and hope that structural organizations stay involved as long as possible. BP's cleanup website, for some reason, seems to highlight head and shoulders pictures of its company leaders. Real news from google searches at least, are not obvious. Media attention remains drawn to "conflict", covering the argument between Halliburton, a company working in the Gulf, and BP, over satisfactory testing of cement used in the failed well.
Containment fencing remains around the gulf...

Hungary's red sludge in early October has faded from the news. In all the cases above, from 10 months, three months, to 3 weeks, once the "event" has run its course, coverage drops dramatically. It is as though there is a rampaging group of reporters roaming from one event to another, with few followups as the news cycle moves on ... Red sludge on green landscape made brief news early this month

Hats off in any regard to those local efforts that always toil in obscurity after world attention moves on.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Miners are Out!

Chilean President Pinera, in red, hugs one of the rescuers and each of the rescued miners

Reports are that over 1 billion people world wide watched the successful rescue of the 33 Chilean miners after being trapped 68 days underground - it is a rare, positive, global story. The Chilean President and his wife were on site for all of the miners as they surfaced, and the individual stories of each miner as they greeted friends and family were remarkable.

It appears this is also a great moment of Chilean unity and pride: a country of over 16 million, where the major ethnic group is Mestizo (mixed native American and European ancestry 66 percent); Europeans ancestry 25%, and native American 7%. Literacy is very high in Chile, and the majority of the people are Roman Catholic, as evidenced by many miners giving thanks to God for their "return" to life. One of the more concise and powerful statements came from the 2nd miner, Mario Sepulveda, brought to the surface, ‎"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God."

Chilean pride and unity spilled out

The leader and shift foreman, Luis Urzua, came out last of the 33 men. He remained the leader in the situation, organizing exercise regimes, sleeping areas, bathroom areas, etc, carefully using the lights of several mining cars found below for simulating night and day after exploration of the areas they had access to, creating teams for work and cohesion, looking after those suffering from infections, and deciding, even, who got what to eat in those first 17 days alone before contact was made.

Luis Urzua, the leader of the trapped miners, was the last to surface

From one of thousands of media articles, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, upon the conclusion of the successful rescue said, "I want to say we did it the Chilean way - this means that we did it right, with unity, faith, hope, and I would like to thank everybody." He said the 33 miners showed loyalty and teamwork. And he said that he told Luis Urzua - the last of the 33 miners to be rescued, and the leader and shift foreman of the group - that he was a boss "that made us proud."

We could end the story here, the aftermath will still unfold, Chile may move forward in ways we don't know yet. We can be thankful. Alaba a Dios! But let's also remember the remarkable number of men who around the world make their livings in mines, quite unsung and realistically with humble aspirations. The more frequent outcome of mining disasters is much more somber, and the responsibility of mining companies and their owners questionable. Mr Pinera has already said the San Jose mine "will definitely never open again", and has vowed to punish anyone found guilty of wrongdoing. "Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility," he said.

From a scattering of news articles, the following can readily be gleaned. Chilean company Minera Esteban Primera, owner of the San Jose mine near has submitted a request to the comptroller general to start an investigation into alleged irregularities surrounding the reopening of the mine in 2008. In testimony soon after the cave-in in early August, the former head of national geology and mining service Sernageomin, Alejandro Vio, said the reopening of the mine in 2008 was not carried out in accordance with normal procedures. And the former labor office director, Maria Ester Feres, said that a previous attempt to close the mine in 2001 was unsuccessful after authorities came under pressure from the mining sector to keep it open.

The mining company's CEO's Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemeny say the firm is undergoing an internal audit of its assets and debt to determine whether it should declare bankruptcy. The mine, which is more than 100 years old, has a long history of accidents that have killed and seriously injured many miners in recent years.

Chilean mining regulators have also been criticized for being unprepared. The accident prompted PiƱera to fire the chief regulator, and revealed the shoddy realities of an industry with a mixed record on employee safety. The president has also introduced legislation to strengthen the regulator, increasing its budget across the mineral-rich high altitude Atacama desert. There are only 18 safety inspectors for all of Chile and only 3 or 4 for the Copiapo area where there are more than 800 mines. Small- and medium-sized mines have felt the fallout of the accident as the government moved rapidly to close dozens of tiny operations across the country over safety conditions.

Those are the immediate impacts on the larger mining dynamics in Chile, and one suspects would be repeated around the world (are companies held responsible, do they have financial reserves to address disasters or penalties, are there enough government inspectors, are improvements really made, etc.) But as to the human toll, in just the past 4 years, there have been multiple mining accident deaths in the Ukraine, West Virginia, Utah, and several incidents in China.

In Utah's coal country, a lot of painful memories were brought back among friends and family in the small mining town of Huntington while watching the rescue in Chile. Many residents were affected by the death of six miners and three rescuers back in August 2007. Then, six miners were buried and killed in a collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine. Ten days later, three others died during the rescue attempt. Crandall Canyon became the final resting place for six men and headstones mark the mine that is their tomb. Many in Huntington are overjoyed that the families in Chile could be reunited again.

The Sago Mine disaster was a coal mine explosion on January 2, 2006, in the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia, USA. The blast and ensuing aftermath trapped 13 miners for nearly two days with only one miner surviving.

However just 4 months later, 25 miners were killed in another West Virginia mine due to a methane explosion. The Upper Big Branch Mine, owned by Massey Energy was the scene.

The 2007 Zasyadko mine disaster was a mining accident that happened on November 18, 2007 at the Zasyadko coal mine in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. 101 miners were killed, the worst accident in Ukraine’s history, caused by a methane explosion located more than 3,000 ft below ground.

The Wangjialing mine in Shanxi province, China flooded after miners broke a wall into an abandoned shaft on March 28, 2010. However more than 100 Chinese miners were rescued alive after being trapped for over a week in flooded tunnels. As relatives celebrated the news, the men saved told of their horrific ordeal. Some ate sawdust and strapped themselves to the walls with their belts to avoid drowning while they slept.

Just three months later, however, at least 38 miners were killed in three separate accidents in China's coal mines. Twenty eight people died after an electrical cable caught fire inside the Xiaonangou mine in Shaanxi province. Police arrested the mine's owner. Eight miners died in an accident in Henan province, while two others were killed in Hunan.

Firemen deal with the electrical fire aftermath at the Xiaonangou mine.

The sudden surge in rescues in the Wangjialing case was a rare piece of good news for China's notoriously dangerous mining industry, the deadliest in the world. Accidents killed 2,631 coal miners in China in 2009, down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record, according to official figures.

We know now that successful mine rescues are truly good and rare news. Bigger news would be that tough effective regulations and inspections were the norm, along with responsible and solid companies themselves.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hungary's Red Flood

A few days ago, Hungary experienced an environmental disaster of its own, when a dam containing a red sludge left over after a bauxite-refining process broke. The wall of sludge flooded through a small downstream village of Kolontar, releasing in 3 hours nearly as many gallons as did the much publicized US Gulf Oil spill this summer (184 million gallons compared to 200 million gallons).

Dam breach - the remaining wall is also in danger of collapse

At least seven people have died as a result of the accident - most of those killed were drowned or swept away in Kolontar. Around 150 people were injured by the spill - many receiving burns.

Now, on Saturday morning, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said it was "very likely" that an entire wall of the reservoir would collapse, releasing a fresh wave of chemical effluent. This would be heavier and thicker than the first spill, and would move slower - but would be even more toxic, says the BBC's Duncan Kennedy at the scene.

Besides those evacuated from Kolontar, police were also telling residents of the neighbouring village of Devecser to pack a single suitcase so they could leave quickly if necessary. Tunde Erdelyi saves her cat while Janos Kis walks into their yard flooded by toxic mud in the town of Devecser, Hungary

In the last few days, residents and emergency workers have worked round-the-clock to remove the worst of the sludge which damaged houses, streets and farmland, and polluted waterways. The red sludge reached the Danube River in 72 hours, but from all accounts, the massive water flow diluted the sludge to the point where authorities did not believe there would be environmental degradation. So Hungary's neighbors, Croatia, and Slovenia In recent decades, the Danube has benefited from a massive cleanup effort involving all 10 countries that share the river. Marine life are again healthy, cormorants have returned to many stretches and the Danube delta emptying into the Black Sea is one of Europe's greatest homes for unique wildlife.

Far downstream at the Danube delta

And so another cleanup effort begins ...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Germanys Anniversary and current challenge

Germany's capitol building lit up for the celebration

On October 3, 1990, Germany was formally reunited - its West German and East German components combined after the fall of the Soviet Union. This past Sunday, October 3, 2010, Germany marked 20 years since reunification with pomp and ceremonies — and a final payment for outstanding interest due on loans dating back to the end of World War I. The reunited country has emerged as the economic powerhouse of Europe and a leader on the world stage. The final payment was a symbolic (though quite real) gesture, marking the end of financial obligations imposed by the victorious nations after WWI, but which had also set up the discontent which Adolf Hitler exploited on his way to seizing power.

An alternative choice would have been the day the Berlin Wall came down—November 9, 1989, which coincided with the anniversary of the proclamation of the German Republic in 1918 and the defeat of Hitler's first coup in 1923. However, 9 November was also the anniversary of the first large-scale Nazi-led pogroms against Jews in 1938 (Kristallnacht), so the day was considered inappropriate as a national holiday.

Besides the final payment, there were celebrations and street parties around Germany including one at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, where the infamous wall of separation had been, as well as the scene where the equally famous Berlin Airlift kept West Berlin from starving by a Soviet blockade for 10 months between June 1948 and May 1949.

Street celebrations at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate

While Germany's East-West boundaries have blurred over time, many "Ossis" and "Wessis" – the nicknames for those born and raised in the east and west – still seem to stick to old mindsets and keep to themselves. The two increasingly live side-by-side in German cities, but it's still relatively rare for social circles to cross the east-west divide.

Angela Merkel, the current Chanceller of Germany (Europe's richest country), still hoards food. That's how much power Cold War-era habits still hold over Germans like Merkel who grew up in the communist East, a full two decades after reunification. The chancellor still does her laundry with an East German liquid detergent, prepares East Germans' favorite Soljanka soup (made with sausages and pickle juice) – and can't fight the urge to stockpile goods she sees at the supermarket. "This inclination to hoard is deeply ingrained in me, because in the past, in times of scarcity, you took what you could get," Merkel said, referring to former times under communism when people would stand in line for hours to buy a few bananas or oranges.

While the dark challenges of the 20th century (WWI, The Third Reich, WWII, divisions between Communist East and Democratic West) have been met, a new challenge has emerged in this century - the rise of militant Islam that affects even the blond, blue-eyed Germany nation. US drone attacks in Pakistan the last few days have killed German militants who were in the Taliban controlled areas, training to return to Germany and other European Union countries to conduct mass killings. The plot has led to French security forces arresting a dozen suspected Islamist militants in the country's south, the US issuing a travel warning to citizens traveling in Europe, and a intensification of surveillance in Great Britain of its hardline Islamic population.

German police and intelligence authorities say over 100 Muslims who grew up in Germany have travelled to terrorism training camps in the tribal border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, and that many of them have returned. The head of Germany's police federation, Konrad Freiberg, said there were some 40 militants living in Germany who had received explosives training. "An increasing number of people have traveled from Germany to the training camps there -- and many of them returned and are now living here. ...We have to expect attacks." He said the police didn't have the means to keep them under 24-hour surveillance.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere reiterated on Wednesday that Germany had no indications that any attack was imminent. "No one should be in any doubt that Germany too is a target area for terrorists, but that on the other hand there is no concrete imminent attack plan that we are aware of," he told Deutschlandfunk radio.

The center of Germany Islamic extremism loosely centers around a mosque in Hamburg - the Al-Quds Mosque. The mosque was a center of extremist teaching, and one that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the September 11, 2001 attacks, attended. It took nearly nine years before German authorities finally shut the mosque down on August 9 2010 along with an adjacent cultural center, and banned the cultural organization behind it. The Taiba organization's committee was notified of the ban early Monday, according to a statement from the Interior Senate of Hamburg. "At the same time, the group's premises and the homes of its leading members were searched and the organization's funds seized," the statement said.

The Al-Quds mosque and cultural center now shut down and guarded by police

"Recent events have again shown that instructional courses, sermons and seminars held by the organization and texts published on its website are not only aimed against constitutional regularity, but also seek to radicalize their listeners and readers," the town statement said. Christoph Ahlhaus, Hamburg's Interior Minister, said "Behind the scenes, an alleged cultural organization has shamelessly exploited the freedoms of our constitutional democracy to promote the cause of the 'holy war,'" pointing out that the courses, sermons and seminars at the mosque "spread an ideology that was hostile to democracy" and sought to radicalize young Muslims. Ahlhaus insisted that Hamburg "must not serve as the incubator for Islamists willing to use violence."

German Islamic militants who gathered at the mosque

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Hindu-Muslim hotspot

Ayodhya, India

An Indian court has decided the fate of plot of land that is the center of a long simmering conflict in Ayodhya, India, a city of just 49,000 or so, up north towards Nepal. The site is small but holy to Hindus, as it is considered the birth place of Hindu god Sri Rama.
The city is located along a river

Hindus want to build a temple there. Unfortunately, over the past 400 or so years, there was a mosque sitting on the site, though built only after an earlier temple had been demolished on the orders of Mughal emperor Babur in 1528. Since 1949, 18 judges have heard court cases regarding the legitimacy of not only the demolition of the original temple, but whether the Mosque had been built according to Islamic law, etc, etc.

In 1992, Hindu activists tore down the Mosque, which resulted in extreme violence with over 2000 people killed. A tent was then erected over a small portion of the site which is supposed to be the exact birthplace of Rama, and the whole acreage in question has been heavily guarded ever since.

The new ruling gives Hindus control over most of the site including their tent location, but must share a portion of the overall site with Muslims, as well as a smaller portion awarded to another sect altogether. The Indian Prime Minister appealed for calm and a respect for other's religions. The head of one Hindu group involved in the court case and responsible for the tent, Mohan Bhagwat, said: "It is no-one's victory, no-one's defeat. The temple for Lord Ram should be built; now everyone should work unitedly to ensure that the temple is built at the site." Nearly 200,000 security personnel were deployed across northern India to quell any unrest in the wake of the verdict. The site contains half demolished buildings, a makeshift tent, and a lot of passionate believers.

Is this relevant or not to larger world issues? Certainly the earlier deaths of 2000 people make it a potential flashpoint again. Perhaps we can say that religious identities and loyalties so often succumb to a much larger "god" of violence, regardless of what each religion's tenets espouse. We can hope the plea from these Indian Schoolgirls seen below will prevail.