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UN rushes envoy to mounting Pakistan flood crisis

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2010 at 7:22 am

The United Nations rushed a top envoy to Pakistan on Thursday to address the urgent plight of 3.2 million people hit by the worst floods in generations as officials warned the crisis was spreading.


As the humanitarian disaster pushed into a second week, fears are growing of a food crisis among survivors who saw their villages and farmland washed away, killing more than 1,500 people in northwest and central Pakistan.


Victims have increasingly lashed out against Pakistan’s government for being unable to provide better relief, piling pressure on a cash-strapped administration straining to contain Taliban violence and economic crisis.


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon dispatched special envoy Jean-Maurice Ripert to help mobilise international support and address victims’ “urgent, immediate needs,” a spokesman said.


Pakistani flood survivors block a motorway to demand relief supplies in Charsadda on August 4, 2010.

Facing protests from desperate survivors clamouring for help, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday ordered government officials to speed up relief work and said ministers would each donate one month’s salary.


Ripert, former French ambassador to the UN, arrived in Pakistan Thursday and will visit affected areas in the northwest and meet government officials.


The record rains triggered floods and landslides last week that devastated villages and farmland in some of the country’s poorest and most volatile regions in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and central Punjab provinces.


“We see urgent need of food assistance to people affected by floods to prevent a starvation-like situation,” warned Amjad Jamal, spokesman for the UN World Food Programme.


“Eighty percent of food reserves have been destroyed by the floods, which also caused massive damage to livestock, markets, roads and overall infrastructure.”


Pakistan’s meterological department has issued new flood warnings, raising fears that the destruction is not over. Flood waters continued spreading into Punjab, the country’s most populous province.


“The flood water is increasing at different points and we are expecting more rain in next 24 hours,” Hazrat Mir, chief metreologist for Punjab, told AFP.


“This is an alarming situation. Conditions are miserable in those areas, particularly at Tounsa and Gaddu barrages. There are extremely high floods at Kot Addu and other parts.”


The number of affected districts in Punjab rose to seven and alert warnings were issued in five districts of Sindh to the south, the United Nations said.


Survivors complain they have been abandoned by the government, organising protests in the northwestern city of Peshawar and on Wednesday blocking the motorway to Islamabad for 1.5 hours.


Particular scorn has been reserved for President Asif Ali Zardari, who is deeply unpopular, for pressing ahead with visits to Paris and London at the height of the disaster, saying in a five-star hotel while his people suffer.


Although Gilani has said about 100,000 people have been rescued and “relief items in sufficient quantity” provided to provinces, many people say they have received no assistance from the government, only from local families.


“I am totally helpless now. I built a small house with a lot of effort. It is destroyed. How will I repair it? Will there be any government help? These questions keep haunting my mind,” said Falak Naz near Charsadda.


The United Nations said clean drinking water and sanitation were urgently needed to stop disease spreading among survivors.

An international relief campaign has included a promise of a 10 million dollar aid package from the United States, while the United Nations will disburse up to the same amount from an emergency response fund.

“We’ve sent over boats to help with search and rescue, water purification units to provide clean water for thousands of people and temporary bridges to replace bridges damaged by the floods,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

“This represents just the start of our efforts. We will continue to help Pakistan in the days and weeks ahead.”

The British government pledged eight million dollars in aid, while Australia pledged 4.4 million dollars and China 1.5 million. Other countries including Indonesia, South Korea and Canada have also promised help.

Source: SGGP

BP rushes new plan to stem Gulf oil leak

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2010 at 5:19 am

 BP engineers scrambled to implement another high-risk plan to stem the devastating Gulf oil spill now being described as likely the worst environmental disaster in US history.


Hours after the British oil giant acknowledged failure in its “top kill” attempt to plug the underwater well, company officials said it could take a week to implement the next bid — placing a cap over the leak.


“Right now we are going to a containment operation,” BP Managing Director Bob Dudley told CNN’s “State of the Union” program of the latest attempt to deal with the ruptured well nearly a mile (1,600 meters) under water.


“Because this is being done at 5,000 feet with robots, we’re going to take our time, do it extremely carefully. By the end of the week, we should have this in place,” Dudley said.

Crews on ships work on stopping the flow of oil at the source site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on May 29, in the Gulf of Mexico near Venice, Louisiana

While the “top kill” would have sealed the well using a combination of heavy drilling fluid and eventually cement, the new effort aims only to contain most of the leak, and might temporarily increase the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, officials said.


The well will only be sealed when BP finishes drilling two relief wells, but those are not expected to be ready until August.


In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spew uncontrolled into the sea each day.


At least 20 million gallons are now estimated to have leaked into the ocean since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and sank, killing 11 workers.


Some 500 people braved rains in New Orleans’ French Quarter Sunday to denounce BP for its Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as well as the Barack Obama administration’s response to the disaster.


President Obama’s top environmental advisor, Carol Browner, said on Sunday that the spill was “probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country.”


“I think what the American people need to know is that it is possible that we will have oil leaking from this well until August when the relief wells will be finished,” she said.


The new bid underway involves using robots to sever a damaged riser pipe carrying oil from the wellhead and placing a containment device called a Lower Marine Riser Package (LMRP) over the leak.


Oil would then be siphoned from the device up to a container ship at the surface.


But the process could actually increase the amount of oil leaking into the sea, and it is uncertain how much oil would be contained, Browner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.


“When you cut the riser, the kink may be holding some of the oil in and so we could see an increase, experts are saying, of as much as 20 percent,” she said, adding the increase could last four to seven days as the cap is prepared.


“Once the cap is on, the question is how snug is that fit? If it’s a snug fit then there could be very, very little oil. If they’re not able to get a snug fit then there could be more.”


That is a nightmare scenario for a region under siege and increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress.


On Friday, Obama visited Louisiana for the second time since the spill began, and he pledged Saturday to do whatever it takes to help those whose livelihoods have been upended by the catastrophe.

“We will not relent until this leak is contained, until the waters and shores are cleaned up, and until the people unjustly victimized by this manmade disaster are made whole,” he said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement that at a briefing with Obama Sunday, retired US Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the spill, said the federal containment effort had redoubled.

“Officials on the ground have increased efforts to be more responsive to needs identified by local communities,” Allen said, according to Gibbs.

Since the spill began, an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of crude have leaked into the Gulf each day.

The disaster has already closed stretches of coastal fishing waters, endangering the seafood industry and tourism, and threatening a catastrophe for Louisiana marshes, home to many rare species.

Government data released Thursday suggested between 18.6 million gallons and 29.5 million gallons of oil have poured into the Gulf — far more than the roughly 11 million gallons of crude spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

The spill has been a public relations nightmare for BP, which faced new allegations of negligence Sunday after The New York Times said internal company files showed the firm had serious concerns about the Deepwater rig weeks before the accident.

Congressman Ed Markey, who forced BP to make available a live video feed of the oil leak, said Sunday he had “no confidence whatsoever in BP.”

“BP has been making it up as they go along the whole way,” he said on “Face the Nation.”

Source: SGGP

Greece rushes austerity cuts as anger builds

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm

A man passes by a shop window in downtown Athens. (AFP photo)

ATHENS (AFP) – Greece’s socialist government rushed on Monday to push through parliament a fresh round of spending cuts in the face of public anger at the price to pay for the 110-billion-euro international bailout.


Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has insisted the austerity package was essential to secure the joint eurozone-International Monetary Fund rescue package.


But Greek unions have vowed to battle the drastic round of austerity measures, worth some 30 billion euros (40 billion dollars) that include deep cuts to wages and pensions.


Union leaders have flagged up a general strike Wednesday as the first stage in resistance to the government’s austerity programme.


The government is to present the new austerity measures to parliament late Monday or Tuesday and aims to get a vote on Wednesday or Thursday at the latest, an official said.


Newspapers said the day after the cuts were unveiled that they marked the end of an era in Greece and beginning of years of painful sacrifice.


“Our way of life, of working, consuming and organising our lives in this part of the Balkans is finished since yesterday,” the pro-governmental Ta Nea newspaper said in an editorial.


The main headline of the independent left-leaning Eleftherotypia read “Four years without a breath…”


Papandreou, in a speech to his cabinet Sunday, made it clear the cuts would run deep: but he was clear too about what he believed was at stake.


“I know that with the decisions today our citizens must suffer greater sacrifices,” he said.


“The alternative however would be catastrophe and greater suffering for us all.”


The 110-billion-euro bailout to dig Greece out of its debt crisis is bigger than the deal agreed to salvage bankrupt Argentina in the 1990s.


European governments endorsed the deal at a meeting of finance ministers in Brussels on Sunday, although the parliaments of some of the 16 eurozone countries involved, notably France and Germany, still need to approve it.


The first installment of the eurozone-IMF rescue package would then be paid within the next few weeks, with the rest spread over three years and conditional on the cuts and tax rises in Greece.


That should mean the first payment will be in the Greek coffers ahead of the May 19 deadline for nine billion euros of debt repayments.


IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said Sunday that the Fund’s executive board was set to approve its part of the deal, 30 billion euros, within the week.


“The authorities’ program is designed with fairness in mind,” he said of the government’s cuts. It would include more progressive taxation; a clampdown on tax evasion with closer checks on the rich.


Athens would also exempt the most vulnerable from cuts in wages and pensions, said Strauss-Kahn. And there would be a “significant reduction” in military spending.


But Yannis Panagopoulos, president of the million-member strong GSEE union, denounced the government’s plan as the “most unfair and hardest measures in the modern history of Greece”.


The austerity plan would only “worsen the recession and plunge the economy into a deep coma”, he warned.


“It’s time to step up the social battle, our May 5 general strike will be the beginning of a long battle.”


In exchange for emergency loans, Greece has agreed the new cuts over three years with the aim of slashing the public deficit to less than three percent of output by 2014, from 13.6 percent last year.


Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said the government would scrap 13th and 14th month bonus wages for public sector workers and pensioners; raise the retirement age for women from 60 to 65, bringing it in line with that for men; and raise the sales tax from 21 percent to 23 percent this year.


Rocked by violent street protests at home, Greece has been under heavy pressure to cut a massive public deficit that has shaken the euro, rattled markets and sparked fears of contagion to other debt-ridden European countries.


But the euro slipped and Asian stocks tumbled in thin trading on Monday on doubts about the bailout.


The single European currency bought 1.3224 dollars at 0350 GMT in Asia, down from 1.3294 late in New York Friday, paring back early gains that saw it climb as high as 1.3332 dollars.


The European Central Bank meanwhile suspended criteria for Greek debt it accepts as collateral for loans of central bank funds, a major boost for the Greek government and banks.


The move, which is to remain in effect “until further notice”, means that banks in Greece and elsewhere will be able to keep getting ECB cash loans using government bonds and other marketable debt instruments as collateral despite their ratings by international agencies.

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Source: SGGP