Monday, January 31, 2011

Return of the Bread Riots: Egypt spinning on its history

(photo of Egypt's bread intifada of 1977 from

There is a good reason why only Israel gets more American military money than Egypt. Both are vitally important countries at the centre of the world’s political, economic and religious fault lines. Stopping the two from tearing each other's throat has been a vital plank of US foreign policy for 40 years. US religiosity will keep Israel, the home of the bible, front and centre of their overseas donations. Americans may be less keen to celebrate the role of next door Egypt in the lives of Moses, Joseph and Jesus but their Government realises the importance of Cairo.

Though it was in decline by Jesus’ time, Egypt was an extraordinary civilisation in the ancient world. Alexandra had the largest library in the world and the Pyramid of Cheops was the tallest building in the world for 3800 years until one of the country's eventual colonial masters built Lincoln Cathedral in 1311.

The pyramids of Giza were cathedrals of their own and part of a rich culture. Egypt’s brilliance began after it mastered irrigation of the Nile and established a system of agriculture that built the foundation stones of western science: writing, mathematics and medicine. Its art and architecture were legendary and the pyramids were the result of advanced quarrying, surveying and construction techniques.

It was also created by slave labour and the Greeks inherited the Egyptian acceptance of slavery in its sense of democracy. This failure to see how the proper division of labour was crucial to a human’s sense of self importance would haunt Egypt to modern times. A succession of rulers including Romans, Arabs, Mamluks, Turks, an Albanian named Muhammad Ali, and later the English and Americans made sure it was the bondholders not the bonded that kept control in the country.

General Abdel Nasser was the first Egyptian in thousands of years to properly lead his country. He tried to steer an independent course but his attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal brought down the wrath of the UK, France and Israel in an opportunist war that crippled his state and brought the problems of Gaza to world attention. Israel's continued nagging killed him of a heart attack in 1970.

Vice President Anwar Sadat was Nasser’s logical successor. He was a senior member of Nasser’s Free Officers group that overthrew the hated royal regime and the one who announced Farouk’s removal on radio. Sadat was an astute president. When the Russians refused his request for more arms, he retaliated by agreeing to American terms for a peace settlement with Israel. He also courted senior Christian religious figures such as the Pope and Billy Graham to humanise himself with American voters. His visit to Israel in 1977 cemented his status as a senior Arab leader and earned him a Nobel a year later, even if it brought on the wrath of most of the Arab world.

But in the same year he went to Jerusalem, there were riots in Cairo. Sadat like other rulers before him tolerated no dissent on the home front and like Nasser he never put himself up for election. His economic policy “infitah” aimed at liberalising the economy saw cuts to subsidies to foodstuffs. The cuts to flour, rice, and cooking oil subsidies triggered the bread riots of 1977 forcing Sadat to backtrack. Despite its oil money, Egypt was caught between the demands of its people and the international bankers.

With rage growing over his Israeli peace deal, his opponents attempted a coup that was defeated by Sadat’s intelligence organisation. Their crackdown missed one key opposition figure Khalid Islambouli who murdered Sadat in a victory parade in 1981. Egypt executed Islambouli while the Ayatollah’s Iran celebrated him as a martyr. Sadat’s death brought his deputy Hosni Mubarak to the presidency where he tentatively remains to this day.

Mubarak kept to the Sadat agenda. He survived six assassination attempts and got his payday in 1991 when the US and its allies forgave Egypt $20 billion in debts for joining the war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. By then Mubarak was able to play the “politically stable” card as a long-term leader in a country with few changes of power. The west was prepared to overlook it was a lack of democracy that led to this stability, in order to “deal with” the Egyptian regime.

Its oil industry, tourism and shipping made it a safe bet for western business that showed (just as it does with China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere) it was prepared to export anything to the country except its political ideas. Mubarak held elections in 2005 but with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood banned it was a sham. The real source of his power was control over the media and enforcement by police intimidation.

As long as oil prices were high, Muburak could buy his way out of trouble. But the global crisis has hit Egypt hard with a triple whammy: high unemployment, rampant food inflation and low wages. The fuel was there and needed just a spark. That was provided in near-by Tunisia which exploded into riots against a similarly corrupt long-term leadership.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire it was as if millions across the region shared his pain. His martyrdom set off a wave of discontent against Egypt and countless similar autocratic rules across the Arab world. The monied West which was happy to accept these countries' sacrifice of lack of democracy to keep the dollars rolling now finds itself in an awkward position of exposed hypocrisy and redundancy. They can only watch as Mubarak and other dominoes wobble and fall in a feverish show of people power. For once, the West can no longer control what will happen next.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dances with democracy: Tunisia at the crossroads

Tunisia’s leaders resist change. It has had only two leaders in the 55 years since independence (though two more in the last 12 days). Colonial master France not only left its language and its culture but it also imparted the doggedness of its political elites. It was a lesson well absorbed by Habib Bourguiba. Bourguiba spent 11 years in French and Nazi custody for sedition where he picked up western ways with power. The Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique party was the vehicle for Bourguiba to seize power in 1956. The RCD became synonymous with Tunisian politics and The Supreme Warrior was voted the honour of president for life in 1975. He lasted another 12 years. (photo of Tunisian protests courtesy AP)

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was Bourguiba’s Prime Minister and natural successor. Ben Ali had widespread experience in the military, politics and diplomatic service. With a sluggish economy and the support of the west he took control he used an 1987 medical report and Article 57 of the Tunisian constitution to show his boss should be removed on the grounds of “total incapacity”.

Ben Ali would prove just as tenacious in power as the man he replaced, with the added knowledge of knowing just how vulnerable life at the top could be. He kept Bourguiba under house arrest for the rest of his life and set about cementing his own reputation. He kept the ruling class of the RCD onside by keeping most of them in the powerful positions they had during the Bourguiba era. He won five elections, all of them rigged. After the Soviet era, the West was happy with Ben Ali because he was a strong and stable and secular ruler. Over time, Ben Ali was an elder statesman of the region. The US rewarded the Ben Ali’s regime with an estimated $350million in military aid between 1987 and 2009.

The Americans were not blind to Tunisia’s problems. As a Wikileaked cable said, Tunisia was a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems. “They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international," the cable said. "Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising.”

Despite knowing all this, the Obama administration continued to distribute largesse. As recently as last year the US sold Tunisia $282 million worth of 12 Sirkorsky military helicopters to Tunisia. Congress approved the deal on the grounds they would “enhance the modernisation of the Tunisian Air Force's overwater search and rescue capability and enable continued interoperability with US Armed Forces and other coalition partners in the region.” The sale would also improve “the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for economic and military progress in North Africa.”

The sale of the helicopters showed the military progress. But it was harder to make the case for economic progress in Tunisia, particularly for the lower classes. There wasn't much progress in the life of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi had a computer science degree but sold fruit and vegetables without a licence in Sidi Bouzid because he could not find any other job. On 17 December, police confiscated his produce when he could not produce a permit. When he tried to snatch his apples back, the police officer slapped him in the face. Two other officers then beat him up. Bouazizi walked to the municipal building demanded his property, and was beaten again. Then he walked to the governor’s office, where he was refused an audience. In front of the governor’s gate he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself alight. The burns covered 90 percent of his body. He died a painful death 18 days later in hospital.

Bouazizi had tapped into something in a repressed national psyche. People protested on the street in Sidi Bouzid where he was arrested. In a country where protesting is rare and the media is oppressed, the word was spread through amateur video which eventually made its way to Al Jazeera. A mass uprising was springing up from a groundswell of long-term grievances with the regime. Ben Ali knew the writing was on the wall and fled to Saudi Arabia on the 14th.

Within 24 hours his longtime ally and prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, assumed power. But the Constitutional Court ruled Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker, should be made president and given 60 days to organise new elections. Both men are heavily associated with the RCD and the protesters want the party removed from power, not just a new name at the top. Another Ghannouchi lies in the wings. Rachid Ghannouchi is the exiled head of Tunisia's Islamist party who plans to return to the country within weeks.

The likelihood of an Islamist Government if true democracy was restored is what scares the West the most. It also scares the other leaders in the Maghreb. The Algerian elite overturned the 1993 election when it seemed the Islamists were going to win at the ballot box and unleashed a civil war that killed 150,000 and goes on to this day. Other long-term leaders fear copycat immolation suicides such as the one in Mauretania. Egypt has also had copycat suicides and activists in Cairo using social networks are launching a "Day of Wrath" against Mubarak’s 30-year rule later today.

Next door in Libya Gaddafy is also worried. When he told Libyans in a broadcast “Tunisia lives in fear” he was really referring to himself. “Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American Revolution,” he railed. Gaddafy, in power for 40 years, has strong self interest at work but he does have a point. Nobody is sure what Tunisia’s troubles will lead to: a transition to multiparty democracy, an Islamist Government, a military coup or a prolonged period of turmoil.

Rachid Sfar, a former prime minister, outlined the problem in an editorial he wrote in La Presse yesterday. "We have to make the democratic process real and irreversible and at the same time guard against the violence and anarchy that threaten our country,” he said. Striking unionists have refused to recognise the new government because Mohamed Ghannouchi is there. A democratic vote will be held in six months but what if people suspicious of the West and the elites that serve it award it to the other Ghannouchi? The unions, and the left generally, should be careful about what they wish for.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Leao survives the Brazilian floods alone

'Neath her hind feet as rushing on his prey, The lordly Lion greets the God of day.'
- Aratos

This dog is Leao. His custodian Cristina Maria Cesario Santana died in the landslides in Brazil that killed hundreds a week ago. Leao has been beside her grave for two days waiting for his owner to return. Santana and Leao lived in Teresopolis near Rio de Janeiro where the latest human death toll from the landslides is 785 with two in five from Teresopolis.

Founded by the Swiss burghers of Friburg in 1819, the nearby city of Nova Friburgo fared even worse with 365 deaths. Both cities are in the Região Serrana of Rio de Janeiro state in south eastern Brazil some 60km north of Rio itself. Região Serrana means mountain district and many dwellings in the region are exposed to landslide hazards due to the steep terrain. On 11 January it started to rain in the region, heavily. In Teresopolis it rained 144mm in 24 hours, more than the average for the month of January.

The downpours caused rivers to break their banks and triggered landslides. It knocked over bridges, houses, churches and the entire downtown area of Novo Friburgo. 6,000 people were made homeless and another 8,000 had to leave their houses and go to shelters while authorities assessed the risk of more mudslides. The death toll rose to make it Brazil’s worst ever natural disaster. Further rainfall over the weekend slowed rescue efforts. Army troops, police forces and thousands of volunteers searched for survivors and recovered bodies while air force helicopters transported food and water to families stranded in rural areas without communications.

The San Antonio river burst its banks, submerging buildings, while the rainfall set off several mudslides sending entire shantytowns washing through the city streets below. Brazil’s saturated urban centres are littered with poor-quality homes built informally on precarious inclines. As the Christian Science Monitor said the correlation between Rio’s favelas and its jagged hills is so strong that morro (hill) is a common synonym for “slum,” and asfalto (asphalt) stands for the higher-quality neighbourhoods below. Teresopolis Mayor Jorge Mario Sedlacek called it a huge catastrophe. It was, but it was a human-made one.

According to watchdog group Contas Abertas, the federal government budgeted $263m for disaster prevention last year but only spent $82m. And only 1 percent of that went to Rio state while a whopping 54 percent went to Bahia, a state that had no major disasters because the minister in charge of disbursing funds was running for governor there. It is part of a long tradition of political corruption in Brazil.

While little is spoken about corruption, even less is known about Cristina Maria Cesario Santana, a citizen of Teresopolis. She was one of the town’s 138,000 inhabitants and she was one of 316 people who died there. Television images from the town showed cars submerged by water, buses and trucks with water up to their windows, homes destroyed and tearful survivors surveying the carnage. One resident described the scene as being "like a horror film" and said she saw a baby "carried away by a torrent like a doll" as the child's mother tried in vain to save it. Christina presumably was also carried away in the torrent. Her tan crossbreed dog Leao somehow survived. And his picture mourning Cristina has reverberated across the media world.

The promises of new Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff have reverberated less but are more important in the long run. Rousseff pledged a swift relief effort but will have to confront major flaws in emergency planning and disaster prevention. She said the disaster was caused by decades of lax oversight by municipal authorities who allowed poor people to build houses on hillsides vulnerable to landslides. “Building houses on high risk areas is the rule in Brazil, not the exception,” said added. “You have to get people away and into secure areas. The two fundamental issues are housing and land use and that involves putting proper drainage and sewage systems in place.” But many people living in flood-prone areas say they have nowhere else to go. Like Leao, the problem of the favelas is not going to go away any time soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sri Lanka starts to recover from its major flooding

As Australia commences the clean-up from its devastating floods, world attention is finally moving to other major floods zones across the world. One of the worst hit is in Sri Lanka where flood waters are finally starting to recede in the worst-hit areas in eastern and northern-central parts of the island. Water levels are falling but monsoon conditions will last until mid-February. Low lying areas in the Districts of Batticaloa, Ampara, Trincomalee, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were flooded due to torrential monsoon rain from Saturday, 8 January with up to 300mm falling daily in some parts for five days of intense rain. More than a million people were temporarily displaced by the rains that killed at least 43 people. (photo:Sri Lankan disaster management centre)

Yesterday the country's disaster management centre reported over a million people were affected. As the flood waters recede people have started to return home and 51,423 displaced people remained in 137 camps. This is adding to an already difficult situation in the north where 20,000 internally displaced persons remain in Government-run camps since the end of the Tamil Tiger conflict in 2009.

UN Assistant Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg will arrive in Sri Lanka tomorrow on a three day mission to supervise relief operations and to launch an international appeal for funding on 20 January. Bragg said her mission would highlight Sri Lanka’s humanitarian needs and she would advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable. The UN said it supported the Sri Lankan Government as it provided emergency supplies such as safe drinking water, food, sanitation and emergency shelter.

The floods have likely destroyed at least half of the season’s harvest in the eastern province, will also have a severe impact on agricultural livelihoods in a region still suffering the effects of the 2004 tsunami and recovering from the decades-long conflict. Over 200,000 acres of paddy cultivation have been completely destroyed and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said today food prices would rise after the floods destroyed rice and vegetable crops. "We have a buffer stock of rice that is good for three months,” said Amaraweera. “That means there will be no immediate impact on the price of rice, but vegetables are already going up in price.”

Meanwhile many roads were impassable for the five days of heavy rain. According to a UK Foreign Office travel advisory some access roads to the east of the country are impassable. Areas in the central province such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla have experienced earth slips due to the rain. Drinking water is now scarce in the region and there is a large danger of water-borne diseases.

Sri Lankan aid workers say there could be outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera and buried landmines left over from the county’s long civil war may have become dislodged by flood waters. UN humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne told AlertNet basic aid was still required and health risks were high. "A lot of people affected were quite poor to start with and now they don't have much, so there is a serious need to support them when they move back," Buhne said. "We are particularly concerned about food as these communities are pretty vulnerable and their food stocks have been destroyed so their usual source of income won't be a source of income for a while."

In the eastern town of Kattankudy, hundreds of flood victims besieged a government office yesterday complaining about unfair distribution of emergency food aid. The angry crowd attacked three officials in protests. “Officers were called in and we managed to bring the situation under control," said a local police spokesman. "A decision was then taken to distribute aid through cooperative stores rather than government offices."

The capital Colombo has been unaffected but some media including the Christian Science Monitor are hopeful the floods will be an opportunity to aid the reconciliation process with the Tamil north. In his initial tour of flood-hit areas President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Singhalese farmers but ignored Tamil areas. However with army troops rescuing civilians, distributing food and building temporary shelters, Rajapaksa said the government was sparing no expense. “The relief operations are going ahead and I have told the officials to ensure that there are no delays in distributing aid.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Life During Wartime: Queensland floods 2010-2011

It’s no wonder Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said her state was like a war zone. What Queensland has endured in the last three weeks was war with constantly changing battlegrounds. Nature did battle with life across a warzone of a million square kilometres. Around 70 towns and about a quarter of a million people have been directly affected and millions more indirectly. (photo from Toowoomba flood:Wikipedia)

As of Saturday night 16 people were confirmed dead and 15 more are missing, likely to have been washed away by nature’s heavy artillery. Among the dead were Donna Rice, 43 and her 13-year-old son Jordan who were swept off the roof of the car in Toowoomba. Jordan Rice has become an on-line hero for insisting his younger brother be rescued ahead of him. Meanwhile three members of one family died when Fire Truck 51 of the Rural Fire Brigade became inundated on the Gatton-Helidon Rd. Two others on the truck escaped.

The others who died were in Grantham, Murphy’s Creek, Marburg, Dalby and Durack as the Lockyer Valley took the brunt of the savage attack. All that water ended up in the Bremer River causing further havoc in Ipswich before heading on to Brisbane where it caused mayhem in the riverside suburbs and associated creeks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Normal routines were obliterated as the city shut down and emergency workers took over. No-one batted an eye-lid as Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale threatened vigilante justice by turning supposed looters into “flood markers”. There may have been some small-scale looting but it was likely over-sold by media just as they exaggerated the natural response of people wanting to see what happened as “rubbernecking”. A more profound reaction was shown today with reports of over 7,000 volunteers showing up to help with the clean-up.

One of the saddest sights for me in the Brisbane floods was the footage of the floating pontoon sailing down the river. It felt and looked like a funeral. A barge was there to act as cortege as it moved slowly and sombrely down towards the sea. The pontoon is certainly a structure I will remember with fondness. I used to often ride along its path which linked New Farm with the Howard Smith Wharves under the northern side of the Story Bridge (a site where a planned hotel might no longer be so attractive an option).

There were shorter ways of cycling from Wooloowin to the city but none so attractive as the paths that hugged the river. The pontoon at the end of Merthyr Road was the best part as it went right out on the river. It was exhilarating to be on a bikepath in the Brisbane River’s thalweg. You were part of the water traffic and if you were foolish enough, you could attempt to race against the Citycats as they glided past elegantly over 20 knots an hour.

On Thursday morning it was the pontoon itself that was dashing past at 25 knots. It broke clear of its moorings in the height of the flood around 4am. The Brisbane River was peaking at 4.46 metres. The combination of all the water coming down from the ranges and into the river system, plus the necessary spill-offs to save Wivenhoe Dam and finally a king tide pushing water in from the coast, put too much strain on the design. Off it went towards Moreton Bay. The flood was high enough to do great damage but a metre below the 1974 record peak the experts thought it was going to break.

With a ground floor unit in a street that floodmaps say got some water in 1974, that news was a personal relief. Elsewhere the destruction was intense. Mayor Campbell Newman said the river transport infrastructure was "substantially destroyed" and 20,000 homes flooded. It was the city's sixth biggest flood in its 170 year history. Those who lived through the last big one in 1974 like John Birmingham have it branded in their memories as the "warning from the west”.

Wivenhoe Dam was one answer to the 1974 western warning. It gave Brisbane massive support during the 2011 flood. Its engineers had to open sluice gates that contributed to the inundation but it does not bear thinking about what might have happened to Brisbane this week if Wivenhoe was not there. Its role re-opened the debate over dams. An awkward alliance of Marxist left and centre-right libertarians will struggle to sell confident environmentalists there is any good in dams.

Standing in the centre, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has been praised for her disaster response. Her role became that of communicator-in-chief and the bearer of bad news. Flanked by silent politicians, police chiefs and a signer for the deaf, she did what she does best: she mastered the detail.

The media ate it up. The floods are a great news story in an otherwise flat time of year. The commercial TV stations tried as usual to shamelessly turn themselves into the story but it was old-fashioned radio that stole the show. ABC Local Radio was consistently the best outlet for latest news on the floods across the state. Unlike the 24-hour television stations it didn’t need pictures to sell the stories. It was able to use its wide network of reporters to link in well with the goodwill it has from its listeners and providers of content. Newer media showed their uses too. The Queensland Police Service Facebook page became a vital and well-updated cog in the delivery of important information, and just as important, the quashing of rumours. Many of those rumours emerged on Twitter which was its usual chaotic self. The #qldfloods hashtag was a goldmine of some astonishing images from the flood regions.

Also on Twitter was the self-serving and mostly useless “prayforaustralia” campaign (Brisbane is a sprawling city but NOT the size of France and Germany) which trended across the world during the “war”. Other than making those praying feel good about themselves, it didn’t achieve much. Far better would have been to contribute to a flood appeal. Not necessarily a Queensland one (or Australian – the warzone spread to NSW and Victoria) but also to the more needy who have suffered in less reported but even more devastating floods in Brazil or Sri Lanka. As in any war, the poorest always suffer the worst.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Brisbane's turn to face the Queensland flood crisis

Three-quarters of Queensland has now been declared a flood disaster zone - an area about 1.3 million sq m. This is roughly the size of Peru, the world’s 20th largest country. The widespread devastation is finally heading to Queensland’s largest population centre, with a major flood predicted to peak on Thursday. And Brisbane has had it coming for some time.
(picture of flooding in Ipswich today courtesy of the Toowoomba Chronicle)

It was all so different in January 2010 when a parched Brisbane had 40.2mm of rain for the entire month. It was the back end of a typical 10-year El Nino Southern Oscillation weather pattern that was about to break spectacularly. February (272mm) and March (162) had high falls. The back end was worse still - October had 306mm and December 479mm.

12 months on and La Nina now in her element, things have changed drastically for the city. In all 1658mm fell in 2010 (the highest since 1974) and all the signs are for a repeat performance this summer. After a few dry days to see in the new year, 41.8mm fell on Thursday. There was another 35.6mm on Friday and 23mm over the weekend. Then yesterday, the monsoon hit and dumped an incredible 110.8mm in 24 hours – three times what fell in the entire month of January 2010.

Brisbane’s rainfall pattern was repeated through the southern and central parts of the state. After getting a drenching from October through to Christmas, the soaking catchments were unable to deal with the deluge dumped on Boxing Day in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Tasha. On 27 December (the day I tried unsuccessfully to return to Roma after spending Christmas at Maryborough), flooding broke out in several parts of the state. Dalby and Chinchilla, towns I needed to get through, went under. So did Warwick. All three towns are in the Murray-Darling basin and they sent walls of floodwaters to downstream centres such as Condamine, Surat and St George. In relatively flat country it could take many more weeks for it to inundate parts of NSW further south.

North of the Great Dividing Range, there was havoc on two other river systems, the Burnett and the Fitzroy. On the Burnett, towns like Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah all suffered flooding and the waters finally made their way to Bundaberg where streets around the iconic distillery all went under. Further north still, tributaries of the Fitzroy started filling up. The Dawson River rose so high, the entire 450 people of Theodore had to be airlifted to safety. The Nogoa River reached record levels exceeding waters in Fairbairn Dam over 100 percent capacity. The dam could not save the nearby town of Emerald from intense flooding.

The swollen Nogoa, Dawson, Comet and McKenzie come together to form the Fitzroy in the largest river catchment to flow into eastern Australia. Sitting near its mouth, the large town of Rockhampton was the next Queensland settlement to bear the flood burden with the town closed off and the Fitzroy peaking around 9.4m last Wednesday.

Still the rain kept coming across Queensland. It was the Mary River’s turn on the weekend, a fourth river basin swelling up causing major flooding in Kilkevan, Gympie and upstream at Maryborough. Then the focus turned back south with the news of Toowoomba’s horrific flash flooding yesterday so graphically captured in this incredible amateur video:

Torrents of water gushed through town sweeping cars and vegetation aside. Much of the water rushed down the ranges below Toowoomba and into the vulnerable Lockyer Valley below. Small towns like Withcott, Murphy’s Creek and especially Grantham had no chance as an 8-meter high “inland tsumani” rushed by, tearing houses apart and stacking cars on top of each other leaving many dead.

Back up on the ridge, towns like Warwick, Dalby and Chinchilla were getting ready to face the floodwaters again – this time possibly even higher than before. I saw myself the Balonne River at Surat 6kms wide on Saturday, after the first flooding. It is receding now but can expect to get even bigger with the next lot of floods predicted to arrive on 18 January.

(Surat from the air last week PHOTO: Maranoa Regional Council)

Brisbane, with a quarter of Queensland’s population, has been watching the growing the flood crisis with horror as it got steadily closer. The massive Wivenhoe Dam, built as a lesson from the devastating 1974 floods, was straining to keep its waters sitting at a seemingly impossible 175 percent full. It is pumping record amounts of water through its five gates but is still increasing. Meanwhile that released water is heading towards Ipswich and Brisbane. Allied to heavy local rain and king tides, it is preparing a muddy cocktail for the capital. Worse still if the waters ever overtop the dam, it would produce a deluge that would make the event in Grantham seem like a picnic.

That is the worst case scenario. But even more sober predictions make grim reading for Brisbanites. Premier Anna Bligh has conceded the effect will be the city’s worst flood since 1893, with up to 40,000 properties at risk of being affected when the Brisbane River peaks on Thursday. Evacuation centres have been set up and the CBD shut down adding the already heavy economic impact of the crisis. It was no surprise to hear the Aussie dollar fell 2 cents today against the greenback.

Out here in Roma we are far from the world’s stock markets and surprisingly free from flooding this time round. At the top of the Murray-Darling basis there is no upstream water to worry about and the rains have mostly missed us out. Nearby Surat is a different story but there is now a common thread here as both towns become isolated due to the flood crisis to the east. Supermarket shelves have emptied of basics and there is no chance of re-supplies for possibly weeks to come. This is the “invisible flood” where businesses suffer despite having no waters running through their premises. It makes for less emotive television but the impact is almost as severe. The Maranoa local government region is not yet a flood-declared council so it misses out on many types of flood relief. Many other western regions will face similar issues. Dealing with these issues will cause authorities many headaches in the months, and possibly years to come.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Hans Rosling's Gapminder shows world's health trends over 200 years

It’s early days but it is encouraging to see ABC use the crowd sourcing platform Ushahidi to map the Queensland floods from the perspective of its audience. Ushahidi means testimony in Kiswahili and works best when there are lots of people witnessing the same large event. It was developed to allow people to map incidents when ethnic violence erupted in Kenya in late 2007 and proved influential in exposing fraud in the 2009 Namibian election.

It is great to see innovative tools used here and it reminds me of my favourite thing on the Internet right now. It is a four minute video by Swedish doctor and professor of statistics Hans Rosling produced by the BBC. Rosling has also developed remarkable statistics software called Gapminder which has a dazzlingly brilliant way of interpreting statistics in a way that is informative and compelling.

In this BBC video he shovels 120,000 sets of numbers through his program from world census surveys for two hundred years. He plots the data by countries of the world since 1810 on a graph where the x-axis is income per person and the y-axis is life expectancy in years. Near coordinates 0,0 are the sick and poor, and near n,n are the very healthy and wealthy. In fast forward, we can see 200 years of trends flashing in front of our eyes as two centuries of data is plotted on the graph.

In 1810 all the countries of the world are clustered in the lowest quadrant. The UK and the Netherlands were clearly better than every other country on both indicators, though they were still low with life expectancy around 40 years and average per capita income less than $3,000. By 1860 the Nordic countries Norway, Sweden and Denmark were leading the way with remarkable improvements in life expectancy by up to ten years. The UK was still the wealthiest in the world as it was about to enter Pax Britannica and its new colonies in Australia and New Zealand weren’t far behind though life expectancy was low. The US was also catching up fast.

Fast forward another 50 years and Scandinavia was still the healthiest part of the world with average life expectancy pushing 60 years. New Zealand and Australia were finally seeing the benefits of their remarkable riches (second and third wealthiest in the world behind the US) to push life expectancy above 50. With the exception of colonial countries Canada and Argentina, the European countries were next highest on both indicators, though Japan was rising quickly. At the bottom, average life expectancy was just 22 years in the area now called Bangladesh and 23 in India.

By 1960, the discrepancy between rich and poor were quite pronounced. Most of Europe, North America, the colonial countries and Japan were achieving life expectancy of up to 70 years. The US and Switzerland were pulling away with average incomes up to $20,000. Small oil-rich states such as Brunei and Qatar were averaging over $40,000 though life expectancy was lower. China had slumped to the bottom as it suffered through the famine trauma of the Great Leap Forward. Yet the Chinese were still living ten years longer than they did in 1910. African countries were the poorest but surprisingly healthy with Lesotho people living to 47 years on just $365 (literally a dollar a day).

In 1985 Brunei and Qatar were still the wealthiest countries in the world and their citizens were living longer too. The Japanese were living an average 78 years making them the healthiest in the world. All the First World countries were clustered close behind. The developing nations were catching up quickly. Countries (or soon to be countries) such as Mexico, Latvia, Ukraine, Albania and even North Korea were averaging over 70 year lifespans. The five biggest Asian nations (China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh) were still poor but beginning to make a charge. Post-colonial Africa was bringing up the rear. Yet even in the poorest country, Mozambique on just $366, the average lifespan was three years higher than Britain in 1810.

In 2009, Japan is still the long-living nation in the world, now averaging 83 years. Its ageing population is presenting new challenges for economists as well as demographers. But most of the West is now averaging 80 years of lifespan with an average wage clustered around $30,000. Qatar remains the richest country in the world (a clue to why a country of 1.1 million has won the right to stage the World Cup in 2022). Most of Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific were also living longer than 70 years. There were improvements at the bottom end too. War-torn Afghanistan was the least healthiest country in the world, living just 44 years even there both indicators have remarkably been improving since 1994. The equally war-torn DRC (Congo) is now the poorest country with an average salary of just $359 (less than the poorest in 1960) but the Congolese still live to 48 years.

Rosling notes that within countries there are massive discrepancies. If Shanghai was removed from China it would be in the top 1 percentile. Similarly Australians live for 82 years and enjoy an average wage of $34,327 but if the Indigenous population was measured alone, it would be much worse. Yet despite the wider discrepancies across the world that now exist, Rosling’s imaginative graph makes a powerful point: the trend is worldwide for higher earnings and longer lifespans. Projecting out to 2060, it is clear all countries are pushing towards the mythical “n,n”. Feeding all these long-living people in a world of catastrophic climate change is beyond the powers of this data, but it is certainly engrossing food for thought.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Silicon Valley alarmed by Hyderabad's Telengana statehood push

A little known feud over the possible creation of a new state in India has American media worried over the ramifications to US interests. Bloomberg has reported India deployed extra police to Hyderabad yesterday “home to offices of Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc” ahead of the release of a parliamentary report (pdf) on recommendations to create a new state. The report is likely to turn down turn statehood leading to possible violence which in turn has US investors worried about high-tech interests in the city. (photo of Hyderabad by McKay Savage)

Hyderabad is currently the capital of Andhra Pradesh, the country’s fourth largest state by area and fifth by population with 76 million people on the eastern seaboard. Hyderabad is also capital of Telengana, one of Andhra Pradesh three provinces. For 50 years or more there has been a large secession movement for Telengana centred in Hyderabad. The movement has been resisted by the other two provinces because Telengana is the richest of the three provinces with the state’s only international city and providing 70 percent of the state’s wealth. Those in favour are using precisely the same reasons to promote the split.

For political expediency, the state-ruling Congress Party initially voted in favour of Telengana but has been speedily backtracking as extremists on both sides have become more violent. The status of Hyderabad is at the heart of the dispute. It has become a Jerusalem, claimed as the capital by both sides. To complicate matters, Andhra Pradesh is a swing state nationally and its 42 members have been instrumental in successive Congress victories in New Delhi in 2004 and 2009.

Telengana has ten of Andhra Pradesh's 23 districts. Britain never administered the region and it was governed instead by as the Nizam’s princely state of Hyderabad from 1719 until the end of the Raj in 1948. The Nizams had their own army, railways, postage and other insignia of independence and were one of just three princely states out of 562 that resisted Indian overtures to join the new union. The Muslim rulers took weapons from Pakistan but India launched a brutal four-day Operation Polo (so called because Hyderabad had more polo grounds than anywhere else in India). Polo crushed the Nizam resistance with many casualties in what was euphemistically called a “police action”.

In 1956, India attempted to re-organise its states on a linguistic basis. Legislators merged the Telegu-speaking parts of Hyderabad with the Telegu-speaking parts of Madras to form Andhra Pradesh with Hyderabad city as capital. From the 1960s onwards opposition movements grew to overturn the merger based on claims of neglect and economy superiority of Madras. Demands grew stronger after India created three new states (Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh) in 2000.

The Economic Times said the Justice Srikrishna Committee is now looking at six options to deal with the Hyderabad problem. Its most favoured option is Number 6: creating a regional council for Telengana within the existing boundary. This one, they say will satisfy the most people. It would also “take care of the uncertainty over the future of Hyderabad as a bustling educational, industrial and IT hub/destination” that so worries Bloomberg.

When released, the full report may trigger further violence from separationist hardheads but Hari Kumar at India First-Hand doubts if secession would make life better for any of Andhra Pradesh’s people. Hari said the people of Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand were no better off today than they were 10 years ago. “Complaints of neglect and other similar issues are not reasons for creating a new state or country,” Hari said. “The solution to issues like neglect is to make sure that the system is more transparent.”

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Southern Sudan set for independent path

Southern Sudanese leaders have called for locals to warmly welcome Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir as he visits the region five days before a referendum is held to secede. Bashir is visiting former enemy and now Southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir in the run-up to the vote. Barnaba Marial Benjamin Bill, Southern Sudanese minister of information and broadcasting service is calling for a “massive reception” for Bashir when he visits Juba on Tuesday. Marial and others are welcoming Bashir because they said he has been courageous in announcing he would be one of the first leaders to accept the new nation if the result is secession. (photo:Reuters)

Bashir made the call on 28 December at a party rally in Gezira state, southeast of Khartoum. Bashir said he would be "the first to recognise the south" if it chooses secession in a free and fair vote on 9 January. "The ball is in your court and the decision is yours. If you say unity, welcome. And if you say secession, also welcome, and welcome to a new brotherly state,” Bashir said. "We are going to cooperate and integrate in all areas because what is between us is more than what is between any other countries."

The January 9 referendum is a major plank of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement reached in 2005 which brought an end to 22 years of civil war which left two million people dead. The Islamist north has much to lose if the animist and Christian south decides to split. Southern Sudan produces over 80 per cent of all Sudanese oil, which contributes to a little over 70 per cent of all Sudanese exports. Under the terms of the 2005 CPA, the two sides will equally share oil resources from Southern Sudan in the short term.

In the aftermath of the CPA, the Northern Sudanese leaders played down the prospect of splitting and advocated a “no” vote in the referendum. However as the vote nears, and the likelihood of a landslide vote of “yes” approaches, the Bashir administration has started to take a more realpolitik view of events. As the BBC reports senior northern officials have started to say publicly what many have believed for years - the south is almost certain to split away.

For the vote to be declared valid, at least 60 percent of the population must take part. International observers will be watching out for "potential spoilers". John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project said they wanted to avoid the referendum potentially triggering a renewed civil war. "We have to keep our eye on those potential spoilers that will attempt to undermine the process and the aftermath of the process in order to keep Sudan united and the oil flowing from southern Sudan to northern Sudan,” he told CNN.

The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission said it is ready to process the vote of more than four million people. The SSRC deputy chair Chan Reec Madut told Al Jazeera the vote would be a week-long process ending on January 15 but did not rule out extending the number of days if mobility in remote areas is a problem. He said it could take three weeks after that to get a result. Vote counting will be done on a daily basis and results will be displayed at individual centres. Permanent residents of south Sudan since 1956 when Sudan gained independence are eligible to vote as are those elsewhere who can trace their ancestry to an established south Sudan tribe.

Not everyone is favour of secession with the Misseriya tribe dead set against it. The Misseriya are one of two dominant tribes in the province of Abyei while the other, the Dinka, want to go with Southern Sudan. Bishtina Mohammed El Salam of the Misseriya is threatening war if the Dinka get their way. The status of Abyei is one of the most contentious elements of the CPA. An international court in The Hague redrew the border to give important oil fields to the north but some Misseriya on the wrong side of the fence are still not happy. But the south holds a symbolic attachment to the region, as many of its leading figures come from there, including Salva Kiir.

One Southern Sudanese intellectual is warning of the danger the new nation could become another Somalia, riven apart by ethnic strife. Zechariah Manyok Biar, writing in said Southern Sudan could descend into chaos if it abandoned the principles of democracy “that brought us this far”. Biar warned against returning to the old way of doing things in Sudan. “This old way of doing things is coup d'état,” he said. “When leaders take power by coup, they disregard the views of citizens because citizens do not have a say in who should be their leader when leaders take power by force.”

With the Abyei region, border demarcation and other post referendum arrangements still up for grabs, it is just as well relations between Kiir and Bashir are cordial - the difficult task of nationhood will need all the help it can get. As the Algerian revolutionary leader Larbi Ben-M’Hidi warns in the classic post-colonial film The Battle of Algiers said. “It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin.”