Nation World  


Urban sprawl ‘aided Australian torrent’
SYDNEY (AFP) - Rapacious development in fast-growing Queensland magnified the horror of Australia’s epic floods, experts said, with natural buffers paved over by concrete and new construction paying scant heed to environmental risks.
At least 30,000 homes have been swamped by the devastating deluge on the Brisbane River which swallowed entire suburbs of Australia’s third-biggest city after weeks of heavy rains, which have flooded towns further north.
The Wivenhoe Dam, built after destructive floods which killed 14 people in 1974, helped moderate the worst of the unprecedented upstream flows by gradually releasing them into the river.
But experts said the rapid development of Brisbane and surrounding areas had worsened the damage by replacing absorbent green corridors with cement, and by erecting new buildings on vulnerable sites.
“If you look at the Gold Coast, Brisbane, those kind of areas over the past 10, 20 years, there’s been an enormous increase in buildings and hard surfaces,” Rob Roggema, an urban planning expert at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said.
“If spatial planning people ... would have listened a little closer to what you can expect (from the climate) over a longer period of time, a lot of the damage could have been prevented.”
Brisbane is one of Australia’s fastest-growing areas, with the population swelling by half a million between 1986 and 2007 and town planners preparing for an additional 145,000 dwellings to be built by 2026.
The Queensland state capital has a population of some two million and is growing at an annual rate of about three percent.
As far back as 1999 city authorities were warned that tens of thousands of properties built after 1974 would be at risk in the next major inundation, with water likely to be up to two metres (six and a half feet) higher.
“Those developments have all taken place in areas that were not flood liable in 1974, but they’ve increased the amount of water... (and) both volume and velocity of water flow during that time,” said Chris Eves, from the Queensland University of Technology.
“Even though that development may be out of flood areas, it’s created the potential to flood areas that were safe in 1974 and we’re seeing that now,” he said.
Young Japanese ‘losing sex drive’
TOKYO (AFP) - Young Japanese men are losing interest in sex, according to a study commissioned by the government, in a further warning sign for a nation notorious for its low birth rate, a doctor said.
The survey also found that more than 40 percent of married people said they have not had sex in the past month, said Kunio Kitamura, head of the clinic of the Japan Family Planning Association, who took part in the survey.
“This is directly linked with falling birth rate. Policy actions are necessary,” Kitamura said.
The data confirmed a wider social belief that younger men are becoming “herbivorous”, a label attached to passive men who do not actively seek women and sex.
The latest biennial survey found that 36.1 percent of Japanese males between the ages of 16-19 said they had no interest or even despised sex, a jump from 17.5 percent in the 2008 study.
Compounding the issue was data that showed 59 percent of girls in the same age group felt the same way, up 12 percentage points from 2008.
The data is a worry for a government aiming to encourage couples to have children to reverse a falling birth rate and avert a potential economic calamity.
Japan’s total fertility rate in 2009 was estimated by the government at 1.37 births per woman, one of the world’s lowest, compared with 2.06 in the United States and 1.97 in France.
Killing raises fears for liberal politicians
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - The killing of a provincial governor by his bodyguard has heightened security fears among Pakistan’s political liberals who say their voices are being drowned out by rising religious extremism.
Confessed killer Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri gunned down his boss recently outside an Islamabad coffee shop, and the ease with which he carried out his crime has stoked fears among politicians of more vigilante violence.
They say Salman Taseer’s assassination has deepened a bitter divide between supporters of a liberal Pakistan and an increasingly powerful lobby on the religious right who have welcomed his death and denounced his few outspoken proponents.
Rallies have been held to honour Qadri, who was showered with petals at court after he admitted to killing Taseer because he sought to amend a blasphemy law recently used to sentence a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, to death.
Minorities Minister Shabhaz Bhatti, a Christian, who first spoke out against the blasphemy law, believes he is “the highest target right now”.
“During this Bibi case I constantly received death threats. Since the assassination of Salman Taseer... these messages are coming to me even publicly,” Bhatti said.
Bhatti said fatwas, or religious decrees, had been issued calling for him to be beheaded, by extremist clerics in the country who were allowed to publicly spread messages of violence with impunity.
“The government should register cases against all those using hate speeches,” said Bhatti, who insists he will work as usual despite the threats.
“I’m not talking about special security arrangements. We need to stand against these forces of terrorism because they’re terrorising the country.
New faces in Japan cabinet
TOKYO (AFP) - Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan added new faces to his cabinet in a bid to appease opposition parties, help his push to mend the country’s tattered finances and boost free trade to spur growth.
Among the changes in Kan’s third cabinet since becoming prime minister were new fiscal policy, trade, justice and transport ministers, but the premier kept other key posts such as foreign, finance and defence portfolios unchanged.
In doing so Kan has bowed to pressure from the conservative opposition in order to help secure the passage of bills to finance the 2011 budget, as he seeks to energise an economy mired in deflation, saddled by huge debt and burdened by a greying population.
Kan has seen his support ratings tumble after only seven months as premier as his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gears up for a tough 150-day parliamentary session starting this month.
“For Japan and the DPJ government, this cabinet reshuffle has come at a particularly difficult time,” said new Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, replacing Yoshito Sengoku, who takes a top party post.
Opposition parties had threatened to boycott budget sessions and delay the passage of key legislation unless Sengoku was removed, citing what was seen as his mishandling of a bitter territorial row with China.
Kan appointed 72-year-old conservative former finance minister, fiscal hawk Kaoru Yosano, as his new fiscal policy minister, also putting him in charge of tax and social welfare.
$100bn for ports upgrade
NEW DELHI (AFP) - India is aiming to invest $100 billion to develop new ports and ships under a major new government plan that seeks to unleash the country’s exporting potential.
“We want to bring our ports at a par with the best international ports in terms of performance and capacity,” Indian Shipping Minister G K Vasan said in a statement released with the “Maritime Agenda 2010-2020” plan.
Vasan said the ministry intends to expand the capacity of India’s ports to enable them to handle 3.2 billion tonnes a year. This would be greater than expected annual trade in 2020, which is forecast to hit 2.5 billion tonnes.
A total 4.52 trillion rupees ($100 billion) of investment is proposed through private and public participation, with 2.87 trillion rupees earmarked for ports and 1.65 trillion for ships.
Improving the country’s creaking ports is seen by economists as key to making India a global export hub for manufactured goods, which would generate mass employment and raise economic growth.
The country has already emerged as a world centre of small-car production, but relatively few are exported because of transport and capacity problems that bedevil its ports.
The investments will cover the development of two new major ports on the country’s east and west coasts -- at unspecified locations -- while four existing ports in Mumbai, Kochi, Chennai and Visakhapatnam will be expanded.
As part of the plan, the ministry also aims to raise India’s share of the global shipbuilding industry from one to five per cent by 2020.
It also seeks to increase the percentage of Indian seafarers in the global shipping industry from between six and seven percent currently to nine per cent by 2015.
Brazil suffering worst-ever disaster

Shocking scenes

TERESOPOLIS, Brazil (AFP) - Brazil is suffering its worst-ever natural disaster after mudslides near Rio de Janeiro that killed more than 500 people, according to the latest toll.
Municipal officials in the Serrana region just north of Rio said at least 506 people were killed, surpassing the 437 killed in a 1967 mudslide tragedy that “up until now seen as the biggest (disaster) in Brazil,” according to the news website G1.
It was feared more bodies were yet to be discovered as rescuers finally arrived in villages cut off because of destroyed roads and bridges in the region.
Efforts to locate survivors and bodies were going on under the risk of further mudslides, as rain continued to fall on the waterlogged region, making it even more unstable.
“It’s very overwhelming. The scenes are very shocking,” President Dilma Rousseff said after visiting the area.
She pledged “strong action” by her government, which has already released $470 million in initial emergency aid and sent seven tons of medical supplies.
The catastrophe was seen as her first big test since taking power two weeks ago, taking over from her popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Storms early Wednesday dumped the equivalent of a month’s rain in just a few hours before dawn, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.
The worst affected towns were Novo Friburgo, which recorded 225 deaths, Teresopolis, with 223 deaths, and Petropolis, with 39 deaths, according to municipal officials. Another 19 fatalities were registered in the village of Sumidouro.
The toll of dead from this one disaster was higher than the 473 rain-related deaths recorded for all of Brazil over the span of 2010.
Churches and police stations were turned into makeshift morgues, the smell of decomposing corpses heavy in the warm air. Thousands of survivors took refuge in shelters.
Outside one morgue in Teresopolis, crowds looked at photos of the dead, searching for loved ones.
“I can’t go inside. I don’t have courage to,” said one woman, Ana Maria, 40.
“You have no idea how hard it is to see the bodies of so many children... It’s horrible,” one fireman there said.
Elsewhere in the town, in a gymnasium, hundreds of people left homeless by the calamity sat around on mattresses, still in shock, some injured.
100 dead in Kerala stampede
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (AFP) - More than 100 Hindu devotees were killed after a road accident triggered a stampede among thousands of pilgrims returning from an Indian religious festival, officials said yesterday.
The Friday evening tragedy unfolded in a remote, mountainous area of southern Kerala as pilgrims made their way home from an annual ceremony at the hill shrine of Sabarimala that draws three to four million people each year.
Kerala Home Secretary Jaya Kumar said 102 people had been confirmed dead and dozens more injured, some of them seriously.
Police officials said a packed jeep had lost control and ploughed into a crowd of devotees packed onto a narrow road in a hilly and densely forested area 10km from the shrine.
“The accident caused a mass panic and triggered a stampede on the hillside,” said Special Police Commissioner Rajendra Nair.
The search for bodies and survivors had been hampered by the remote location, heavy mist and the thick forest terrain.
Indian television ran pictures of casualties being passed over the heads of tightly packed crowds of pilgrims in a rescue effort that stretched deep into the night.
The stampede occurred on the final day of the pilgrimage at the Sabarimala shrine, located in Idukki district, about 200km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram
The governor of Kerala, a popular holiday destination and spice-growing region with sandy beaches and lush green mountains, expressed his sadness at the loss of life.
R S Gavai said he was “deeply shocked and saddened at the tragic accident.”
He added: “I share my profound grief of the bereaved families and pray for the speedy recovery of those injured.”
Many of the victims were from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
The shrine is packed with devotees throughout the pilgrimage season from November to January.
2010 hottest year on Indian records
NEW DELHI (AFP) - India experienced its hottest year on record in 2010, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) said on Friday, blaming the rise in temperatures on global warming.
India’s mean annual temperature during 2010 was 0.93 degrees Celsius (33.6 Fahrenheit) higher than the long term (1961-1990) average, according to the Annual Climate Summary of India during 2010.
“Indians experienced the worst summer in the last one century, and this was a definite result of global warming,” IMD spokesman B K Bandyopadhyay said. The country’s weather records began in 1901.
The study also said that that the 2001-2010 decade was the warmest since the records started, with a temperature averaging 0.40 degrees Celsius (32.7 Fahrenheit) higher than that of the previous decade.
“We are still trying to examine the key reasons responsible for the drastic rise in temperatures and ways to control it,” the spokesman added.
Experts on climate change warn that without action the planet’s rising temperatures could unleash potentially catastrophic change to the earth’s climate system, leading to hunger, drought, storms and massive species loss.
In late 2009, India announced a plan to reduce the growth of its greenhouse gas emissions by becoming more carbon efficient. It aims to cut the emissions generated per unit of GDP by 20 to 25 percent by 2020 compared with 2005.
Last year a study from India’s environment ministry said that annual greenhouse gas emissions had increased by 58 percent from 1994-2007, driven by higher industrial activity, energy production and transport.
Tunisian president flees to Saudi
TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia amid a wave of deadly social protests in a dramatic end to his 23 years in power that is unprecedented for a leader in the Arab world.
Ben Ali signed a decree handing interim presidential powers to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and flew out of Tunis after failing to quell growing public anger against his iron-fisted regime.
Saudi Arabia early today officially announced that it was hosting the toppled Tunisian president and his family.
“Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country... the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom,” a palace statement said.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands totally alongside the brotherly Tunisian people and hopes that they will close ranks in order to overcome this difficult period in their history,” the statement added.
In an address on state television following a day of riots that engulfed central Tunis and several other towns in the North African state, Ghannouchi announced that he had taken over and promised social and political reforms.
“I call on Tunisians of all political persuasions and from all regions to demonstrate patriotism and unity,” said Ghannouchi, a 69-year-old career bureaucrat who has served as prime minister on and off since 1999.
The government earlier said new elections would be held in six months.
US President Barack Obama hailed the “courage” and “dignity” of Tunisian protesters and called for “free and fair elections in the near future”.
The European Union expressed “support and recognition to the Tunisian people and their democratic aspirations, which should be achieved in a peaceful way”.
Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987 at a time of stagnation for Tunisia and he was initially hailed by many people for enacting liberal economic reforms as well as nipping in the bud the Islamist Ennahdha party.
He has come under growing criticism for authoritarianism and corruption.
Mystery surrounded Ben Ali’s planned final destination and the streets of central Tunis were mostly empty after the announcement, with the silence punctuated by occasional bursts of gunfire heard in the distance.
State television reported numerous cases of looting in Tunis and in other parts of the country and police helicopters mounted with loudspeakers circled in Tunis, calling for calm and urging residents to stay in their homes.
The government has declared a state of emergency following the recent violence and has put in place a dusk-to-dawn curfew across the country under which anyone disobeying orders or fleeing from security forces can be shot.
Analysts said the abrupt change of power was likely to send shockwaves around a region dominated by veteran leaders like the 74-year-old Ben Ali.
Gates warns of ‘disconnect’ between China military and civilian leadership
Tension in the air
TOKYO (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said after a trip to Beijing that China’s revelation of a stealth jet’s flight test pointed to a “disconnect” between its military and civilian leaders.
Gates was speaking in Japan during a week-long Asia tour focussed on the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea and the increasing military assertiveness in the region of Pyongyang’s only major ally China.
The Pentagon chief stressed that China’s President Hu Jintao, whom he met recently, was “in command and in charge” but also said there were signs that civilian leaders had been unaware of the J-20 jet’s test flight.
When Gates met Hu and other top officials recently, Chinese state media published photos that were said to show the debut flight of the J-20, the country’s first radar-evading combat aircraft.
The timing of the stealth fighter’s flight appeared to be a snub to Washington, fuelling the sense of a military rivalry despite positive statements from both governments during the four-day visit.
But Gates said that, in his meeting with Chinese civilian leaders, there were “pretty clear indications they were unaware of the flight test”.
Gates, speaking at Tokyo’s Keio University, said “this is an area where over the last several years we have seen some signs of, I guess I would call it a disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership”.
China’s government leaders had also appeared to be initially unaware of aggressive actions taken by their naval vessels against a US Navy surveillance ship in 2009, and of an anti-satellite test in recent years, Gates said.
Gates -- who later took off on a flight to South Korea -- renewed his warnings about China’s latest weaponry, which he said presented a possible threat to the US military’s long-running presence in the Pacific.
“Advances by the Chinese military in cyber and anti-satellite warfare pose a potential challenge to the ability of our forces to operate and communicate in this part of the Pacific,” he said.
But he said Washington and Tokyo were well-placed to counter the threat with high-tech hardware and that it was not a foregone conclusion that China would turn into a military rival.
“I disagree with those who portray China as an inevitable strategic adversary of the US,” he said.
“We welcome a China that plays a constructive role on the world stage.”
Gates stressed the importance of the half-century-old US-Japan alliance and American troop presence in the country -- both to deter the volatile North Korean regime and counter China’s more assertive stance.
“Without such a presence, North Korea’s military provocations could be even more outrageous,” and “China might behave more assertively towards its neighbours”, said Gates.
“Without the forward presence of US forces in Japan, there would be less information sharing and coordination, and we would know less about regional threats and the military capabilities of our potential adversaries.”
The presence of almost 50,000 US troops in Japan, dating back to World War II, has been a source of friction over the years, with strong opposition in Okinawa over plans to relocate an air base on the southern island.
However, tensions on the divided Korean peninsula and China’s rising military power have renewed interest in the US-Japan alliance, with officials in Tokyo calling for bolstering defence ties with Washington.
Mrs Obama talks tolerance in open letter to parents
WASHINGTON (AFP) - First Lady Michelle Obama urged parents to teach their children tolerance in response to the deadly Tucson shooting spree that touched off debate about political rhetoric.
Mrs Obama, who joined her husband at a memorial service for the victims, issued an open letter to parents. Children are struggling, she said, to make sense of Saturday’s shooting that killed six and left 14 injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
“We can teach them the value of tolerance -- the practice of assuming the best, rather than the worst, about those around us,” she wrote. “We can teach them to give others the benefit of the doubt, particularly those with whom they disagree.”
At the memorial service, President Barack Obama called for national unity.
“It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” the president told the audience at the University of Arizona convention hall.
The first lady said that message can be passed along to American children.
“We can explain to them that although we might not always agree with those who represent us, anyone who enters public life does so because they love their country and want to serve it,” she wrote.
Some liberals have claimed that the tragedy is linked to a climate of hate whipped up by conservative political figures like Sarah Palin. The former Republican vice presidential candidate rejected any responsibility, saying “acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own.”
The 22-year-old alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, faces the death penalty because a federal judge was among the victims.
Michelle Obama said American children probably are asking the same questions that her two daughters have asked.
“We can teach our children that here in America, we embrace each other, and support each other, in times of crisis,” she wrote. “And we can help them do that in their own small way -- whether it’s by sending a letter, or saying a prayer, or just keeping the victims and their families in their thoughts.”
Poll boost for Miliband
LONDON: Labour have comfortably won the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election with a majority of more than 3,500.
Debbie Abrahams held off the challenge of Lib Dem Elwyn Watkins, while the Conservatives’ vote fell by more than 7,000 as they came a distant third.
Labour said the result - a boost for party leader Ed Miliband - was a “wake-up call” for the coalition.
Nick Clegg said he was pleased with the Lib Dem performance - their share of the vote was up 0.3% on May’s result.
Ms Abrahams told activists that the result sent a clear message to prime minister David Cameron that “you have to listen, think again and change direction”.
The by-election was called after a special court found ex-Labour minister Phil Woolas had lied about Mr Watkins in May’s general election and invalidated the result.
Eight months ago, Labour won the seat by just 103 votes from the Lib Dems but, this time, it secured a much clearer victory - finishing 3,558 votes ahead of their closest rivals with 14,718 votes. The party’s share of the vote increased by 10% to 42%.
Although the Lib Dems failed to snatch the seat, their share of the vote actually increased by 0.3% to 32% from May.
They polled 11,160 votes, with the Conservatives getting 4,481 (12.8% share), UKIP 2,029 (5.8%) and the BNP 1,560 (4.5%).
However, the Tories’ said it had been a “disappointing” night as their share of the vote fell by 13.6%.
War-ravaged railway re-opens after 18 years
LUANDA (AFP) - A railroad destroyed during Angola’s 27-year civil war officially re-opened this week, ending a near two-decade long closure of a 112-year-old line originally built by colonial ruler Portugal.
The 424-km track between Luanda and the eastern city of Malanje was one of three major railway routes wrecked by the conflict and it eventually closed in 1992.
“This one is more modern,” joked Julia Conde Oliveira, 49, a passenger who said she had taken the train during the colonial era.
“I am going to visit Malanje and its region as a tourist,” she said as the train set off around 5:10 am (0410 GMT).
The route is the first major line to re-open under a four billion-dollar (3.07 billion-euro) rail project carried out by Chinese firms since the end of Angola’s 1975-2002 civil war.
Angola, which vies with Nigeria for the title of Africa’s top producer of crude oil, has been on a massive infrastructure spending spree in recent years.
China has played a pivotal role in reconstruction, extending generous credit lines conditioned on the hiring of Chinese companies and repaid in oil.
Ten years on, Wikipedia eyes a better world
NEW YORK (AFP) - Ten years after its debut as a geeky online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia today wants to use its huge, growing popularity and spirit to spread knowledge across the world.
In the decade since it was born, the free, non-profit encyclopaedia that anyone can edit has profoundly changed the way people access information, becoming almost the default source for quick online references.
After a failed attempt to launch a conventional online encyclopaedia called Nupedia, Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia on January 15, 2001 with little expectations.
“Wikipedia turned out to be more successful than anybody ever imagined or ever even aspired for it to be. It took on a life of its own and became this hugely popular thing,” Wikipedia chief executive officer Sue Gardner said.
Today, Wikipedia is available in more than 250 languages, includes some 26 million entries, is read by hundreds of millions across the world and edited by millions of “Wikipedians.”
And now that it has established itself in rich countries, Wikipedia has set its sights on developing countries, as Internet access and literacy gradually improve.
“Our goal is to reach people all around the world with Wikipedia and to make it possible for them to access the encyclopaedia,” Gardner said in an interview with AFP.
“We know that people are coming online in massive numbers, particularly through mobile phones, and so we have a new strategic effort to focus our energies on these developing countries so, as those people come online, Wikipedia is there for them to use.”
Wikipedia is set to open its first office outside the United States in India to increase awareness for the open-source encyclopedia in the rapidly growing economy where the growing middle-class is hungry for information.
It is also expanding and improving its website in Chinese, even though Beijing continues to restrict access to the site.
“When I talk to Chinese Wikipedians I have the impression that what they are hoping to do is build up a good Chinese-language encyclopedia so that come the day that people in China get unfettered access to the Internet, it is waiting for them, good and rich to read,” Gardner said.