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Archive for September 14th, 2013

Caught in crossfire

Posted by African Press International on September 14, 2013

Black smoke rises as a cargo plane with relief goods arrives

ZAMBOANGA,  – Authorities in the southern Philippine port city of Zamboanga under siege from rogue Muslim rebels opposed to peace talks have ordered the “forced evacuation” of thousands of villagers as negotiations to end the standoff falter.

President Benigno Aquino flew to Zamboanga city on the southern island of Mindanao to personally assess the situation, five days after 100 to 200 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels encroached on six coastal villages, triggering heavy fighting that has left at least 14 combatants and civilians dead and dozens injured.

Up to 180 residents have reportedly been taken hostage and are currently being used as “human shields” to prevent a full-on military assault.

The number of displaced has swollen to more than 16,000 people, currently housed in 13 evacuation centres in the city, including in the main sports complex where many slept on the ground, the Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development reported, as a momentary lull in violence allowed trapped residents to flee. The International Committee of the Red Cross, UN humanitarian agencies and the US government have rushed aid to the those in need.

“I urge all parties involved to respect and protect the rights of the civilian population, provide special attention to women and children, and avoid unnecessary human suffering by reaching agreement to end the standoff,” Luiza Carvalho, the Humanitarian Coordinator, said on 13 September.

Caught in crossfire

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 136,000 people have been affected by the violence. A curfew is in place from 8pm to 5am.

All schools and almost all shops are closed, with only essential government offices open. The government and humanitarian partners have provided food packs, tents and non-food items and a mobile storage unit. An emergency hospital facility was established by the government for the displaced. An unknown number of people also remain trapped in affected coastal villages, unable to reach evacuation centres in the city.

Urgent needs of the evacuees include food, water, tents, bedding, cooking utensils and hygiene kits, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) reported.

Thousands have been caught up in the decades-long insurgency

Fighting rages

Hundreds of elite Philippine troops have been closing in on the gunmen, and sporadic clashes punctuated by powerful explosions from rebel mortar fire reverberate for miles around the city.

“Negotiations have been conducted by the Crisis Management Committee for the safe release of hostages and to end the armed conflict between the breakaway MNLF group of Nur Misuari and the government forces,” according to a resolution, passed by the city government and signed by mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, ordering the forced evacuations.

“After a series of negotiations with the breakaway MNLF group of Nur Misuari, the peaceful means to end the hostage crisis and armed conflict failed,” it said.

MNLF forces on nearby Basilan Island, across the sea strait from Zamboanga, also attacked government targets there in a bid to divert military attention. They were backed by two other Muslim militant groups, underscoring the volatility of the southern region, where decades of Islamic insurgency has left many parts vulnerable.

Aquino assured the public that the “overwhelming” presence of troops in Zamboanga would be able to contain the fighting in only the affected villages and that normalcy would resume soon.

“We want to make sure that there is no unnecessary loss of lives,” he said. “Preservation of life is the paramount mission.”

He also hinted that the government wanted to exhaust all peaceful means to end the crisis, even as he said a calibrated military response was in place from day one.

Decades of insecurity

Misuari founded MNLF in the early 1970s to fight for an independent Islamic state in the south, which Muslims consider their ancestral home. The long-running insurgency has led to a proliferation of other armed gangs and a black market of unlicensed guns that contribute to the region’s instability.

Misuari dropped his independence bid and signed a deal with the government in 1996 for the creation of a Muslim autonomous region, where he was subsequently made governor. But Manila later dubbed the region a “failed experiment” and said millions of dollars in development aid had been lost to corruption.

The government is now negotiating with the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF splinter group, for the creation of what is envisioned to be an expanded autonomous region that would supersede the one handed to the MNLF, a development that Misuari and a number of still-loyal fighters oppose.

An estimated 150,000 people have died in one of the region’s longest-running insurgencies, which has left the southern mineral-rich island mired in poverty.

aag/ds/rz  source

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Arsenic creep: Arsenic-free public tap in Nepal, but for how long?

Posted by African Press International on September 14, 2013

Arsenic-free public tap in Nepal, but for how long?

HANOI, – Millions of people in South and Southeast Asia may be at risk of arsenic poisoning as massive pumping of groundwater pushes tainted water closer to uncontaminated aquifers, scientists warned in a new study published in the journal Nature.

The study, published by experts from Switzerland, the US and Vietnam, examined changing groundwater flow over one decade in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.

Hanoi is expanding rapidly, as is water demand. Pumping for municipal water supplies doubled between 2000 and 2010, to around 240 million gallons daily. In the city, water is filtered and treated, but in areas just a few kilometres outside, near the Red River, many households use private untreated wells.

In the past, higher water levels in the aquifer (underground layer of water-bearing rock, sand or silt) meant water from these wells was generally safe. But as more groundwater has been pumped, water from arsenic-rich sediments is increasingly intruding into the previously uncontaminated aquifer.

Arsenic, one of the most common inorganic contaminants found in drinking water worldwide, can be highly toxic to humans. Even in low concentrationsarsenic can damage health if ingested over long periods. It is associated with cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidneys.

At some sites in Vietnam investigated for the study, arsenic concentrations were up to 50 times higher than the internationally recommended limit of 10 micrograms of arsenic per litre.

The study focused on a village on the outskirts of Hanoi, Van Phuc, where residents have private wells. Although the sample was small, it is believed similar processes may be underway elsewhere in large Asian cities that are pumping more groundwater, said co-author Michael Berg, a geochemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.

“The processes in nature should be the same anywhere,” he told IRIN, adding that changes in water quality were easier to study in this village because groundwater flow was in one direction – to Hanoi.

“We know exactly where the groundwater is flowing to and we precisely identified where this contaminated water is now intruding into previously safe water,” he explained.

Arsenic creep

Over the last four to six decades, water from the contaminated aquifer has migrated more than 2km toward the city centre, according to the study. However, substantial arsenic contamination moved at a slower pace, only about 120m.

“In some ways it’s not a hugely alarming picture. The water is moving but the arsenic isn’t moving nearly as fast as the water,” said co-author Benjamin Bostick, from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

This could buy time, perhaps decades, for water managers to try and solve the problem, lead author, Alexander Van Geen, a geochemist at the same observatory, told IRIN from New York.

“But I think there are enough people in trouble now, and this needs to be addressed. We can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. There’s action needed now,” he said.


To tackle contamination, authorities in Van Phuc set up a water cooperative and built a water-treatment facility next to the local health station that serves around 1,000 households.

Berg said this is a good long-term solution and called for local governments to centralize drinking water systems with large treatment facilities capable of serving up to 10,000 people. Residents on Hanoi’s outskirts currently rely on private wells drilled into a patchwork of clean or polluted sands with no central filtering system.

“The challenge there is setting up a distribution network. You have to pipe this water, and the piping is difficult. It’s costly, of course,” said Berg.

Setting up a piped water system is even more difficult in a country likeBangladesh, where there is generally a low level of formal education and weak governance in villages, Van Geen added.

In Bangladesh, the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water has been set by the national government at five times higher than the international limit. Of the estimated 8.6 million tube wells nationwide, some 4.7 million have been tested, according to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF); of these 1.4 million were contaminated.

UNICEF estimates some 20 million people in Bangladesh are drinking water from wells with higher-than-government approved levels of arsenic.

The first step across the region should be to test every well, Van Geen said. “This is not happening enough anywhere in South and Southeast Asia, and we’re trying to come up with a semi-commercial approach to the problem.”

Van Geen and researchers in India recently tested the willingness of rural households in the Indian state of Bihar to pay for arsenic testing. Of some 1,800 households offered a test, almost 1,200 agreed to pay a fee to test their tube wells. The researchers found that two out of three households were willing to pay the 20 rupees (US$0.31) necessary to cover the tester’s time and travel, but not the total actual cost of testing (up to $2.37), a gap that would need to be subsidized in a testing campaign.

These and other solutions should be explored now, said Van Geen.

“What we did in Vietnam was important to make people understand that if you have a safe well, it’s not going to become unsafe overnight, so the 10-year policy [timeframe of study] should be for countries to take advantage of that rather than throwing their hands in the air saying ‘I don’t see a solution to that’ or coming up with solutions that are not practical.”

mb/pt/rz  source


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