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Pakistan: Dammed If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

“India is shrinking the flow of water into Pakistan,” said Pakistan’s Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on Saturday, renewing a ban on showing Indian TV shows and Bollywood films on Pakistani television. “They are trying to [obstruct the construction] of our dam and we cannot even close their [television] channels?”

On the face of it, this is a decision that invites ridicule. Let us suppose for a moment that India really is stealing Pakistan’s water. How does banning Indian content from Pakistani television hurt India back?

The Pakistani public loves Bollywood films and Indian TV shows: despite their religious differences, these are two closely related cultures. The Pakistani channels pay very little or nothing for the Indian content, but the ban will deprive Pakistanis of stuff they really like.

It’s self-defeating and stupid – but the quarrel behind it is deadly serious. The planned Diamer-Bhasha dam on the upper course of the Indus River will be the third-largest in the world if and when it is completed, and the 4,500 megawatts of electricity it produces would almost double Pakistan’s hydro power. That would help a lot in a country so short of generating capacity that it has ‘electricity riots’.

The big dam has become more urgent, as Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan pointed out recently, because without it there may be a serious shortage of water for irrigation by 2025, leading to drought-like conditions in most of the country. But construction on the dam has still not begun because the money is not there.

Pakistan’s previous big dams have all depended on huge investments by international organisations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This time they are not forthcoming, because the projected dam would be in the part of Kashmir province that is controlled by Pakistan but still claimed by India.

Pakistan seized the northern part of Kashmir when the British-ruled Indian empire was partitioned in 1947, while India grabbed the southern part including the densely populated Vale of Kashmir. For all practical purposes the Kashmiri border is permanent, but India’s persistent claim on the northern part scares international capital away.

That’s what made Chief Justice Saqib Nisar so cross. It’s also why Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a campaign seeking contributions from Pakistanis at home and abroad in order to get the dam started. The renewed ban on Indian TV and film is really a way of getting the Pakistani public’s attention for this campaign.

Like everything else about this dispute, the appeal for voluntary contributions is mostly symbolic: you can’t raise the $12 billion needed to build the dam that way. What is not symbolic is the 2025 deadline for more water storage capacity to avoid a collapse in food production in Pakistan.

It’s not clear from the public debate in Pakistan how much of this expected water shortage is due to climate change, and how much to the relentless growth of Pakistan’s population. (Pakistan has one of the highest birth rates outside of Africa, twice as high as India or Bangladesh.)

Back in 1951, shortly after Pakistan was created, the country’s 34 million people had 5,300 cubic metres of water per capita available to them. The rivers still contain the same amount of water, but there are now 210 million Pakistanis, so there is only 1,000 cubic metres per capita – and falling. The population is still growing fast, and climate change is coming.

The future of the Indus river system’s six tributaries in a warming world is to flood for a decade or two while the glaciers that feed them melt, and then to dwindle in volume when the glaciers are gone. Five of those six tributaries (though not the one the Diamer-Bhasha dam would be built on) cross Indian territory before they enter Pakistan.

The 1960 treaty that shares out the Indus system’s water between the two countries never foresaw that the flow might drop drastically. It just said that India could take out a fixed volume of water for irrigation and other purposes before letting the rest flow onwards to Pakistan.

If the flow should drop drastically due to climate change, therefore, India would still be entitled by treaty to take the same amount of water as before from those five tributaries, even though that would leave little for Pakistan. If India did that, however, Pakistan would start to starve, because 85 percent of its food production depends on irrigation from the Indus system.

It’s hard to believe that an India which was also facing food shortages – a predicted 25 percent loss in food production at 2 degrees Celsius higher average global temperature – would voluntarily give up water it is entitled to by treaty. It’s equally hard to believe that Pakistan would let its own people starve without threatening war with India.

Both of these countries have nuclear weapons. Their problem-solving abilities, as currently displayed, do not inspire confidence.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 11. (“The Pakistani…like”; and “Back…coming”)

Count Dracula and the WHO

It was a bit like appointing Count Dracula as the goodwill ambassador for the blood donor service.

Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be plausible. Reality is under no such constraint, and regularly produces events that would never be credible in a novel. Like the decision last Thursday to appoint Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as the World Health Organisation’s goodwill ambassador.

The newly elected head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he hoped that the Zimbabwean president would “influence his peers in the region” to devote more effort to health care, but Mugabe doesn’t really have much by way of peers.

Mugabe, in power since 1980, is effectively president-for-life, whereas all the neighbouring countries except Angola are more or less functional democracies. All of them, again except Angola, provide better healthcare to their citizens than Zimbabwe. Not good, but significantly better.

In Zimbabwe, heathcare improved significantly in the first twenty years of Mugabe’s rule, as did the economy in general. He built clinics, hospitals and schools, and Zimbabweans became one of the healthiest, best educated, and most prosperous populations in Africa. But then it all went wrong.

After a referendum in 2000 rejected a new constitution designed to strengthen Mugabe’s grip on power, he became increasingly paranoid and authoritarian. The sole purpose of government became hanging on to power at any cost (to others), so favoured cronies in the ruling party and the military were allowed to loot the economy – which duly collapsed..

By now, in fact, there is hardly any Zimbabwean economy left beyond subsistence agriculture. Unemployment has soared to 75 percent or higher, and the schools and hospitals have fallen apart. Adult life expectancy has plunged from 61 years to 45, and state-run hospitals and clinics frequently run out of even basic medicines like painkillers and antibiotics.

Mugabe has presided over this catastrophe for seventeen years now, insisting all the while that all is well. At the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban last May, he claimed that “Zimbabwe is one of the most highly developed countries in Africa.” He is planning to run for re-election as president next year at the age of 94, and nobody dares to defy him.

He will win, of course, after the usual number of opposition activists has been beaten up, jailed or murdered – if he lasts that long, but he is beginning to show serious signs of wear. In fact, Mugabe has made three “medical visits” to Singapore for treatment this year.

Why Singapore? The presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, says that it’s a problem with Mugabe’s eyes, which would helpfully explain away the fact that he frequently appears to fall asleep at public meetings. (He’s just resting his eyes, really.) He needs a foreign specialist for that, but for everything else, Charamba claims, Mugabe goes to a Zimbabwean doctor – who is, he assures everybody, a “very, very, very black physician”.

There are very good Zimbabwean doctors, of course, but most of them, frustrated at the lack of medical supplies, have long since left the country for greener pastures. And it does seem unlikely that it’s an eye problem that has caused Mugabe to make three “medical visits” to Singapore this year. It’s probably something more serious, and Mugabe just doesn’t trust his own health service to deal with it.

How did the new head of WHO hit upon the idea of making this man, of all people, the organisation’s “goodwill ambassador” for Africa? He and his advisers must have discussed it in various meetings for weeks before announcing it. Did nobody ever bother to point out that it would be a public relations disaster? “Special ambassadors” don’t have to do very much, but their choice does shine a light on the judgement and integrity of those who choose them.

In the event, the public outcry about the choice of Mugabe was so instant and widespread that within three days his appointment was cancelled. Mugabe had been the head of the African union when the organsation endorsed Tedros as the sole African candidate for the WHO job, and no doubt Tedros felt some obligation to return the favour, but the organisation’s financial support comes from elsewhere.

So it’s just politics as usual. The WHO’s reputation will eventually recover, but healthcare in Zimbabwe won’t as long as Mugabe is alive. And the world will continue to rotate in an easterly direction.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 5. (“In Zimbabwe…wrong”)

African Elections

There are a number of ways to win an African election. The simplest, obviously, is to win the most votes, but this is sometimes hard to achieve, especially if you have been the president for a long time and people are getting fed up with your rule.

If your country’s constitution only allows two terms as president, then your first task is to change it, as half a dozen African leaders have already done (Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, etc.). Now you can run again – but you still have to win the election.

You might just stuff the ballot boxes and have the army shoot anybody who objects, but this approach has high potential costs. Killing protesters will damage your international reputation, and may even lead to sanctions and freezes on your secret assets abroad. The African Union or Ecowas (the Economic Community of West African States) may also take you to task, or even send troops if you kill too many people.

It’s better to make it look like you really won the election. Fiddling with voter registration can exclude lots of opposition voters, and turning off the internet on election day makes it hard for the opposition’s election monitors to keep track of the count.

But if the votes are being counted in public and the numbers are going against you, then you have to stop the count until you can fix it. Standard practice in this case is to claim technical difficulties until you have time to massage the vote.

This was President Ali Bongo’s solution in Gabon’s election last August. He was clearly losing the count, but the results from the distant province of Haut-Ogooue (Bongo’s home province) were mysteriously delayed.

The opposition leaders weren’t worried, because to change the outcome almost every living person in Haut-Ogooue (and a few of the recently dead) would have had to vote for Bongo. But then the results arrived: 99.93 percent of the province’s population had allegedly turned out to vote, and 95 percent of them had allegedly voted for Bongo. So he “won” another term as president by 5,594 votes.

People in Haut-Ogooue may be remarkably healthy and civic-minded, but you NEVER get a 99 percent turnout in an election. (The turnout in Gabon’s other provinces was between 45 percent and 71 percent.)

It was a transparent and shameless fraud, but fewer than a dozen people were killed in the subsequent protests, so Ali Bongo is starting another seven-year term as president. Not bad for a kid who started out as the humble son of Omar Bongo, president of Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009.

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo should have used the same tactics to get re-elected. DR Congo’s constitution imposes a two-term limit, and he had already served two seven-year terms since his father, President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2001, but for whatever reason, he didn’t change the constitution in time.

Instead, Kabila ended up facing an election in November 2016 in which he was not legally allowed to run. To win more time, he announced that the election could not be held on time for “logistical and financial reasons,” and that he would therefore stay on as “transitional president” until 2018.

It’s ridiculous. In the seven years since the last election, Kabila couldn’t find the time and money to organise the next one? The only possible conclusion is that he is either completely incompetent or a bare-faced liar. (In fact, he’s both.)

And since DR Congo is big enough (70 million people compared to Gabon’s 1.6 million) to contain lots of tough, clever politicians with their own strong regional bases, Kabila is not getting away with it.

The powerful Catholic church has stepped in to act as mediator, and Archbishop Marcel Utembi has just persuaded government ministers and opposition leaders to sign a document promising to hold the election this year. In the meantime, an opposition politician will serve as Kabila’s prime minister.

Kabila has not yet signed the document himself, but the agreement also says that he must not try to end term limits. It looks like he will have to retire – in which case DR Congo will see its first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.

It’s easy to be cynical about democracy in Africa, but there is as much good news as bad. Last month Ghana’s sitting president lost an election and tamely handed power over to the winner. In 2015 the same thing happened in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country. The glass is not empty. It is half-full.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“If…election”; “People…percent”; and

Malaria and Chickens

I had malaria once, and it was extremely unpleasant. I had been working in Yemen, but I actually contracted it when I was flying home on a Dutch airline that must remain nameless. The flight made a stop in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and the plane was parked out on the runway while waiting to pick up passengers – right on the edge of a mangrove swamp on the Red Sea coast .

The pilot turned the engines off to save fuel, and then opened the door to give us fresh air. It was night-time, and so a million mosquitoes swarmed into the plane. In five minutes everybody had been bitten multiple times. The passengers then revolted and the pilot shut the door and turned the air con back on, but it was too late.

I fell ill and collapsed a couple of weeks later, when I was at my wife’s family’s house in a small village in southern France, but I was lucky. My wife, who grew up in Africa, thought it was malaria, and the village doctor (who had served with the French army in Africa) confirmed it, so there and then he gave me a massive dose of antimalarial drugs.

By the time they got me to the hospital in Bayonne, they couldn’t even find any of the Plasmodium parasites in my bloodstream. They kept me in hospital for a couple of days anyway, but it wasn’t that bad, because in French hospitals they give you wine with your meals.

Small crisis, not many hurt. But the point of the story is that none of this would have happened to me (and presumably to some of the other passengers too) if only there had been chickens on the plane.

Statistics can sometimes lead to significant medical breakthroughs. In this case a team of Ethopian and Swedish scientists did a statistical study in three villages in western Ethiopia about the feeding habits of nocturnal, malaria-carrying Anopheles arabiensis mosquitoes. The results were instructive.

Outdoors, the mosquitoes preferred to feed on cattle (63 percent of bites), with human beings coming next (20 percent), and goats and sheep bringing up the rear (5 percent and 2.6 percent). Indoors, people provided 69 percent of the mosquitoes’ meals, compared to cattle at 18 percent and sheep and goats coming last again. (In this part of Ethiopia, people sometimes bring their animals indoors at night.)

There were also plenty of chickens around, both indoors and out. But in one outdoor sample, only one female mosquito out of 1,200 had chicken blood in her. In the indoor sample, none did. MOSQUITOES DON’T BITE CHICKENS.

Why not? Maybe evolution has taught mosquitoes to avoid chickens because chickens eat mosquitoes. But how do mosquitoes actually spot a chicken? Certainly not by sight: tiny compound eyes are good for spotting movement, but they do not give you much detail or any distance vision at all. So maybe by smell? That would be handy.

We can’t disguise ourselves as chickens, but we could try smelling like them. Or at least have something that smells chickeny nearby. In one experiment, the scientists even hung cages with live chickens in them over people’s beds at night, and lo! They had very few mosquito bites – fewer even than people sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets.

Admittedly, this approach is a bit impractical for general use. Something more compact and less noisy would be preferable. So the scientists tried putting chicken feathers near people’s beds, and it still worked. Then they tried distilled essence of chicken odour (isobutyl butyrate, naphthalene, hexadecane and trans-limonene, if you must know), and that worked too.

Almost half the world’s population (3.2 billion people) lives in areas where malaria-bearing mosquitoes are present. About one in fifteen of those people actually comes down with malaria each year, and almost half a million of them die of it. Many tens of millions more spend a long, agonising time being very sick indeed.

Anything that cuts into those numbers would be most welcome, and prevention is much better than cure. CHEAP prevention is even better, and compared to insecticide-treated bed nets and various experimental vaccines, just sprinkling some “essence de poulet” (chicken fragrance) around before going to bed has got to be cheaper.

Essence de poulet probably won’t be on the market for a while yet, but hats off to Professor Habte Tekie of the University of Addis Ababa and Professor Rickard Ignell of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who led the Ethiopian-Swedish team that did the study. (Their full report is available online in the 21 July issue of Malaria Journal)

Meanwhile, if you want to bring a chicken along on our next camping trip, it’s fine with me. But don’t get the supermarket kind. They don’t work as well.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…handy”)