// archives

Bangladesh

This tag is associated with 18 posts

Early Warning System

13 November 2013

Early Warning System

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’ve been telling the rest of the world we don’t want what’s happening to us to happen to everyone else,” said Lucille L. Sering, the vice chair of the Philippines’ Climate Commission,, as the country struggled to cope with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. “This is your early warning system…we will all eventually be victims of this phenomenon.”

A full week after the typhoon roared through the eastern Visayas, the number of people killed is still unknown. Ten thousand dead is the number being used in the media, but the area around Tacloban city alone may have lost that many. Many other parts of Samar and Leyte islands are still inaccessible to both media and aid workers.

Another reason the death toll remains unknown is that the victims are still dying in large numbers, and not all of them from infected wounds and other storm-related injuries. The chronically ill are dying because vital medicines and medical procedures like dialysis are unavailable. They will soon be joined by those who die of infectious diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever, which become epidemic about a week after sanitation services break down.

Most of these later deaths could have been prevented if emergency aid had arrived more quickly after the typhoon struck, and there will doubtless be one or more inquiries later on that find various authorities at fault for responding too slowly. But these are islands, and most airports and harbours in the worst-hit areas are out of commission. There were bound to be long delays in getting aid in after a calamity of this scale.

But the question that people will be asking elsewhere is: will we really all become victims of this and similar phenomena? Is this truly an early warning of storms so big and strong that they will change the way we live? The answer, of course, is maybe.

As scientists always hasten to explain, you can never attribute a particular weather event to climate change with complete confidence. Normal variations in the weather include occasional extreme events as destructive as all but the very worst storms that you would see in a world that was, say, 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) warmer. The difference is that in a warmer world, you will see a lot more of these extreme events.

But consider this. The Philippines is the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones. Their tracks most often take them across northern Luzon or the eastern Visayas, and about six to nine of them make landfall each year. They do a lot of damage, but by and large Filipinos have learned to ride them out. However, you cannot just ride out something as big as Haiyan.

What did most of the killing in Samar and Leyte last week was not the high winds (although they stripped off almost every roof in the affected areas). It was the “storm surge” that submerged coastal regions to the height of a two-story building. The pressure at the centre of the typhoon was so low that a “hump” of water 6 metres (20 ft.) high was pushed up beneath the eye and travelled with it.

Shelters are not much good against that sort of thing unless (as in Bangladesh) you start building them on elevated platforms. Even then, you may decide that you want to move elsewhere if your city is going to be inundated and destroyed every ten years or so. The east coast of Luzon is very sparsely populated for precisely this reason, and this may be the future that awaits the eastern Visayas as well if storms of this scale become more frequent.

The very worst typhoon that hit the Philippines since detailed records began in the 19th century was Thelma, which killed about 5,100 people in 1991. But of the next worst nine, all of which killed over a thousand people, six have happened in the past decade: 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

So Haiyan may really be an early warning of what is to come, not just for the Philippines but for China and Japan, Burma and Bangladesh, the Windward Islands and Florida – indeed, for any coastal area that is within a thousand km. (500 miles) of the usual tracks of tropical storms. And at some point, people will decide that it’s just not worth living in such constant danger. They will become, for want of a better word, “climate refugees”.

In some areas, it will be frequent mega-storms that drive them out. In other areas it will be drought and desertification, or heat so great that it kills the crops that people depend on. There are going to be a lot of refugees, and not many places that are willing to let them in.

Lucille Sering is right: this is an early warning of how the warming will unfold, and what the impacts on human societies will be. But we are getting lots of early warnings, and so far we are managing to ignore them all.

____________________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Another…scale”)

 

 

Bangladesh: The Trials

17 July 2013

Bangladesh: The Trials

By Gwynne Dyer

Genocide is always a difficult crime for courts to deal with, and all the more so when it happened 42 years ago. But Bangladesh is really making a mess of it – largely because most of the old men on trial are leading members of a political party that is part of the country’s official opposition.

“It is undeniable that a massive genocide took place in the then East Pakistan,” Justice Anwarul Haque said on 17 July as he imposed a death sentence on Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Secretary-General of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. “This massacre can only be compared to the slaughter by Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.”

That is an exaggeration, but not a very big one. The official Bangladeshi estimate is that 3 million people were killed, and 200,000 women were raped, by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators during the independence war of 1971. Few countries have had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh.

For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But it was always controlled by the western half (today’s Pakistan), and when it attempted to break away in 1971 the Pakistan army tried to drown the independence movement in blood.

It was aided by local paramilitary groups, made up mostly of pious Muslims who believed that Pakistan must be preserved as the single home for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Initially they targeted secular intellectuals and the Hindu minority for murder, but in the end they were slaughtering whole villages that supported the nationalist cause. The killing lasted for nine months.

Eventually the Indian army intervened and the Pakistani forces were forced to surrender. But the Pakistani soldiers were all sent home, and the leaders of the local paramilitary forces that fought alongside them fled abroad. And then, after some years in exile, the leaders of the genocide came home again and went into politics.

They came home because a military coup in 1975 virtually exterminated the family of Mujibur Rahman, the secular politician who led the country to independence. The generals who wound up in power tried to win popular support by pushing an Islamic agenda, which left the returned exiles free to found the Jamaat-e-Islami Party. By the 1990s, when democracy returned, they were even serving as junior partners in governing coalitions.

Their senior coalition partner was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, created by one of the generals and still led by his widow, Khaleda Zia. The other main party, the Awami League, is led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred “father of the nation”, Mujibur Rahman. The two women loathe each other, and their bitter rivalry has dominated and often paralysed Bangladeshi politics for the past twenty years.

Sheikh Hasina promised to put the perpetrators of the genocide on trial in her election platform in 2008. She won by a landslide, and the trials began in 2010. There was strong international support for her decision at first, but the conduct of the trials has left much to be desired. Most of the accused were certainly implicated in the killing, but the BNP has quite rightly accused the government of politicising the trials.

The Jamaat-e-Islami has portrayed the trials as an attack on Islam, and when the first death sentence was handed down in February there were violent nationwide protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Youth League, leaving about 150 people dead. When the first life sentence was given out a few days later, hundreds of thousands of other young people demonstrated to demand the death penalty for all of those convicted.

They were driven by the fear that if the BNP wins the next election (due by January), then it will amnesty all the surviving Jamaat leaders to preserve its electoral alliance with the Islamist party. The Awami League has responded to their demand by passing a new law that shortened the time allowed for appeals, so that they can be hanged before the next election. Lynch law.

There is a way out of this, and it could end the twenty-year stalemate in Bangladeshi politics. In a poll before the last election, four out of five young Bangladeshis said they wanted to see the perpetrators of the genocide brought to trial: the crimes have not been forgotten. So give them what they want, but don’t kill anybody.

The Awami League said that it was setting out to exorcise “historical ghosts”, and it can do so without hanging old men. Nor does the BNP need to preserve its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami: the party only got 3 percent of the vote in the last election.

So let the convictions stand but don’t hang anybody – most of them will be dead in a few years anyway – and just move on. It would take more statesmanship than either party has shown in the past, but it would open the way to a better future for the country.

___________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Jamaat…law”)

Genetic Engineering: Golden Rice

2 April 2013

Genetic Engineering: Golden Rice

by Gwynne Dyer

Fourteen years ago, scientists developed a genetically engineered version of rice that would promote the production of vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in developing countries. In a few months, the Philippines will become the first country to start giving “golden rice” out to its farmers. Bangladesh and Indonesia will follow suit soon, and India is seriously considering it.

Good, but fourteen years is rather a long time, isn’t it? The number of children in developing countries who went blind from vitamin A deficiency during that time (half of whom died within twelve months of losing their sight) runs into the low millions. (The World Health Organisation estimates that between a quarter-million and a half-million children a year go blind from vitamin A-deficiency.)

“Golden rice” contains beta-carotene, an orange-coloured pigment that is a key precursor chemical used by the body to make vitamin A. Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and butternut squash are naturally rich in beta-carotene, but ordinary white rice contains almost none. And rice is the most important food in the diet of about half the world’s people.

So what caused such a delay in getting it out to the farmers? It was created by Peter Beyer, professor for cell biology at Freiburg University in Germany, and Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences in Switzerland in the late 1990s, and was ready for field trials by 2000. But the first field trials were delayed for seven years by protests from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, and crossing various regulatory hurdles took another six.

Both the protests and the regulatory hurdles were based on the notion that genetically engineered plants are “unnatural”. Which automatically raises the question: which human food crops are actually “natural”, in the sense that you will find them growing wild in nature. Answer: none.

That’s why ecologist Stewart Brand has proposed the phrase “genetically engineered” (GE) in lieu of the more common “genetically modified” (GM) on the grounds that ALL domesticated plants have been genetically modified, by cross-breeding or by blasting seeds with radiation. None of them would survive in the wild.

Gene-splicing is just a more efficient and neater way of achieving the same goals. Much of the early opposition to GE was no more than a superstitious fear of the unknown, and there was also genuine concern that it might pose health risks to consumers.

The way that GE crops were first introduced was bound to arouse opposition. In 1996 Monsanto, the world’s leading biotech company, began to market GE versions of corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa that had been engineered to tolerate glyphosate, a very effective herbicide that the company had been selling with great success as “Roundup” since 1974.

The patent on “Roundup” was expiring in 2000, allowing glyphosate to be made by rival companies. But in practice Monsanto’s patents on the new GE seeds extended its monopoly for decades more: farmers could buy glyphosate wherever they wanted, but to use it to best effect they had to buy Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant seeds (called, of course, “Roundup Ready”).

Then Monsanto used relentless lobbying to get its GE seeds through the approval process and out onto the market. It succeeded in North America and most other major grain-growing areas, but not in Europe – and its strong-arm tactics created deep resentment and suspicion in many quarters. A decade and a half later, that still lingers.

But it’s now clear that GE crops pose no health risk. North Americans have been eating them for fifteen years, whereas Europeans scarcely eat them at all, but there is no significant difference in disease and death rates that can be linked to GE food.

Meanwhile crop yields have risen dramatically, herbicide and pesticide use has declined, and no-till farming that cuts carbon dioxide emissions due to ploughing has become far more common. The opposition to GE crops never came from farmers, and it’s now in steep decline in the general public as well.

There are seven billion of us now, and there will be at least eight-and-a-half billion before the human population of this planet stops growing. Moreover, as living standards rise in most formerly poor countries, diet is changing too and much more meat is consumed. To meet that demand, even more grain is needed.

We are using 40 percent of the land surface of the planet to grow our food. That is already too much, because replacing the complex natural ecology with our monocrop agriculture removes vital elements from the chemical and biological cycles that keep our climate stable. As environmentalist Jim Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, put it: “We cannot have both our crops and a steady comfortable climate.”

But perhaps we could have it both ways if we cut back to, say, 30 percent of the planet’s land surface devoted to agriculture. Or 25 percent. The point is that we must reduce the area we are farming, not increase it. The only way to do that is to raise crop yields dramatically. Genetically engineered crops may be able to meet that demand. There are no other proposed solutions on the table.

_____________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The way…lingers”)

 

 

Bad Days in Burma

29 July 2012

Bad Days in Burma

By Gwynne Dyer

At last somebody in an official position has said something. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation into claims that Burmese security forces are systematically targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community living in the Arakan region. Even the Burmese government says at least 78 Rohingya were murdered; their own community leaders say 650 have been killed.

Nobody disputes the fact that about 100,000 Rohingyas (out of a population of 800,000) are now internal refugees in Burma, while others have fled across the border into Bangladesh. As you would expect, the Buddhist monks of Burma have stood up to be counted. Unfortunately, this time they are standing on the wrong side.

This is perplexing. When the Pope lectures the world about morality, few non-Catholics pay attention. When Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran instructs the world about good and evil, most people who aren’t Shia Muslims just shrug. But Buddhist leaders are given more respect, because most people think that Buddhism really is a religion of tolerance and peace.

When the Dalai Lama speaks out about injustice, people listen. Most of them don’t share his beliefs, and they probably won’t act on his words, but they listen with respect. But he hasn’t said anything at all about what is happening to the Rohingyas – and neither has any other Buddhist leader of note.

To be fair, the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, not Burmese, but he is not usually so reserved in his judgements. As for Burma’s own Buddhist monks, they have been heroes in that nation’s long struggle against tyranny – so it’s disorienting to see them behaving like oppressors themselves.

Buddhist monks are standing outside the refugee camps in Arakan, turning away people who are trying to bring food and other aid to the Rohingya. Two important Buddhist organisations in the region, the Young Monks’ Association of Sittwe and the Mrauk U Monks’ Association, have urged locals to have no dealings with them. One pamphlet distributed by the monks says the Rohingya are “cruel by nature”.

And Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the woman who spent two decades under house arrest for defying the generals – the woman who may one day be Burma’s first democratically elected prime minister – has declined to offer any support or comfort to the Rohingyas either.

Recently a foreign journalist asked her whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know,” she prevaricated. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.”

If she were honest, she would have replied: “Of course the Rohingya are citizens, but I dare not say so. The military are finally giving up power, and I want to win the 2015 election. I won’t win any votes by defending the rights of Burmese Muslims.”

Nelson Mandela, with whom she is often compared, would never have said anything like that, but it’s a failure of courage on her part that has nothing to do with her religion. Religious belief and moral behaviour don’t automatically go together, and nationalism often trumps both of them. So let’s stop being astonished that Buddhists behave badly and just consider what’s really happening in Burma.

The ancestors of the Rohingya settled in the Arakan region between the 14th and 18th centuries, long before the main wave of Indian immigrants arrived in Burma after it was conquered by the British empire during the 19th century. By the 1930s the new Indian arrivals were a majority in most big Burmese cities, and dominated the commercial sector of the economy. Burmese resentment, naturally, was intense.

The Japanese invasion of Burma during the Second World War drove out most of those Indian immigrants, but the Burmese fear and hatred of “foreigners” in their midst remained, and it then turned against the Rohingya. They were targeted mainly because they were perceived as “foreigners”, but the fact that they were Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country made them seem even more alien.

The Rohingya of Arakan were poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. However, the army attacked the Rohingya and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh in 1978, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques.

The military dictator of the day, Ne Win, revoked the citizenship of all Rohingyas in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. And now this.

On Sunday former general Thein Sein, the transitional president of Burma, replied to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay: “We will take responsibilities for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas who are not our ethnicity.” Some other country must take them all, he said.

But the Rohingya did not “enter illegally”, and there are a dozen “ethnicities” in Burma. What drives this policy is fear, greed and ignorance – exploited, as usual, by politicians pandering to nationalist passions and religious prejudice. Being Buddhist, it turns out, doesn’t stop you from falling for all that. Surprise.

____________________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, and 5. (“At last…themselves”)