Saturday, May 31, 2008

Successful launch for shuttle Discovery

It was a successful lift-off for space shuttle Discovery which launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 21:02 GMT [17:02 local time] . Discovery is set to join up with the International Space Station on Monday. Its arrival will be great relief to the crew on board the ISS as it delivers spare parts for the toilet on board the space station which broke down earlier this week. Sky News, the BBC and CNN all covered the launch Live. Sky cut away after 7 minutes coverage while the BBC gave over 11 minutes to the launch. CNN International gave nearly fifteen minutes airtime to the launch. There were some signs that foam broke away during the launch. Debris was seen to fall away at 3 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight. The shuttle broke away from the main fuel tank and entered its preliminary orbit at 21:11 GMT, 9 minutes into the launch.

Shuttle Discovery prepares for launch

The space shuttle Discovery is preparing for a launch at 17:02 ET [21:02 GMT]. The mission, named STS-124, will deliver the main section of Japan's science lab known as Kibo, or "Hope". It is the third orbiter mission of 2008 and the first to fly the "in-line" external fuel tank. The mission will also take up a new pump to repair the station's toilet that has failed in the Zvezda service module. The toilet failed last week, and the ISS crew have had to flush the unit manually - an operation which takes two people 10 minutes to do. A replacement pump was rushed from Russia to be loaded onto Discovery for delivery to the ISS.
[BBC / CNN / NASA mission page]

Friday, May 30, 2008

Two dead in New York crane collapse

A crane has collapsed in the upper east side of New York. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The Top floor of an apartment building was severely damaged when the crane came down at east 91st street and 1st Avenue. Fire crews and police are at the scene and are trying to establish whether anyone is trapped in the twisted wreckage. Some people have been pulled from the rubble but their condition is unknown. However Fox News is saying at least two people have died. In March a twenty story crane collapsed killing 7 people [Sky News / BBC]

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Helicopters crash during training exercises

The scene after a helicopter hit a hospital in Michigan

A helicopter has crashed onto a hospital in Michigan, USA. The medical helicopter was making practice manoeuvres and had no patients on board when it crashed onto the helipad at the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids at 11:00 local time [16:00 GMT]. The two pilots were only slightly injured according to reports [CNN]. Meanwhile, in an unrelated incident, two people died after the Squirrel helicopter they were travelling in crashed into electrical cables. The aircraft was reported to have been carrying out training exercises in Devon, south-west England [BBC]. The crash occurred near Kingscott, Torrington, at 15:45 local time [14:45 GMT].
Another helicopter crashed on Thursday killing 11 of the 12 people on board. The aircraft struck a building in Panama City and fell to the ground in ball of fire. Amongst the dead was Chile's federal police chief. The police chief, Panamanian police officials and six members of a group from Chile, had been attending a regional forum in the city of Colon [CNN].

Large quake shakes Iceland

A large earthquake has hit southern Iceland. The 6.1 magnitude quake struck 50 km from the capital Reykjavik [64.026N, 20.985W] [BBC]. The tremor shook the island at 15:46 local time/GMT. Only minor damage and 20 injuries have so far been reported.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

UK - Electricity outages persist

A flame shoots from a chimney at Coryton Oil Refinery

A 50 metre flame shot into the air from a chimney at the Coryton Oil Refinery in Essex following electrical fluctuations in the UK yesterday. The flame could be seen from many kilometres away and has prompted environmental campaigners to air their concerns. George Whatley, chairman of People Against Methane, who witnessed the spectacle, said, "I was standing at the back of my house and I could see a big plume of smoke and a flame going up at least 150 feet in the air”. The campaigner said that should the incident have been more dangerous a mass evacuation would have been difficult. "In the event of an incident happening like a toxic cloud or an explosion, what safety procedures are there in place for Canvey? We need an emergency evacuation plan and escape route from the island“ he said, “The roads could not take a mass evacuation”.
Officials at the refinery downplayed concerns, with a spokeswoman saying that there was no damage to the refinery and that safety systems operated as expected. Georgina Clark said "an external electrical supply stability issue" with the National Grid had caused power interruptions but added "The company activated its emergency response plan and worked to resolve any operational issues caused by the power fluctuations from the Grid." [Echo].
The flare from the refinery came as Sizewell B shutdown yesterday. The nuclear plant went off line after the Longannet coal fired power station in Scotland also failed. The blackouts were caused by the opposite of a power surge as the National Grid deactivated local stations to maintain the required 50Hz frequency according to an industry spokesman. A total of nine power generation plants shut down causing widespread blackouts [BBC].
There were further problems for people in north Essex today as storms downed power lines on the east coast leaving thousands without power. Storms also brought down power lines in Gloucestershire leaving at least 2000 without electricity.

Protests increase over fuel prices

US motorists are facing higher prices but Europe pay more than double

Soaring fuel prices have forced ministers to hold meetings to discuss the issue. Global oil production is at its limit according to some analysts but UK government ministers want to boost North Sea oil production to help supply increased demand. The French PM has called for an EU wide cap on VAT, but so far the British Prime Minister has rejected calls to lower fuel taxes [BBC / Sky News].

In the UK lorry drivers protested yesterday as they called on the government to cut the tax on fuel. Across Europe the price of fuel has risen dramatically over the past year, up 30% in some cases. In the UK the price per litre is as high as £1.30. In the US it sells for less than half the price seen in Europe. Those in the Middle East can pay as little as 5 pence a litre. And many motorists see the discrepancy as unnecessary and draconian tax placed on fuel.

Across the rest of Europe there have been several protests as the price of fuel rockets. Fishermen are continuing their strike in Spain for the third day running and French fishermen are continuing to blockade port entrances. Belgian fisherman have also joined the blockades and ferry travel has been severely disrupted. There were further worries today after Indonesia announced it would pull out from OPEC [CNN].

The increasing price has fuelled more than a few protests in the West. Across many poorer parts of the world the fuel price rise has increased the price of food and in turn precipitated food riots. As it becomes more difficult to make ends meet, some have targeted migrant workers as recently seen in South Africa. Migrants from Zimbabwe and Mozambique have been beaten and killed by South Africans in riots fuelled by increased prices and decreasing employment. Food riots have been seen in several other parts of the world . Haiti has seen violent uprisings over the past few months and Egypt has also seen disturbances.

As land is turned over to produce bio-fuels, agricultural land is dwindling. This in turn has resulted in world shortages of basic foodstuffs including rice which has more than doubled in price in the last year. Bad weather and natural disasters have also had their effects on food production. The snow, cyclones and earthquakes that have hit Asia has destroyed many tonnes of crops. The World Health Organisation has already warned of further problems to come [CNN special]

China - Flood risks force mass evacuations

Earthmovers attempt to clear tonnes of rubble blocking rivers

Hundreds of thousands of people are being evacuated from low lying areas in the earthquake zone of Sichuan province as the threat of major flooding looms. What were once rivers have become lakes after landslides formed dams. Heavy rain has increased the level of these lakes which threaten to burst and cause torrential flooding. Thousands of troops from China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army have worked tirelessly to siphon off. So far 160,000 have been evacuated but authorities say that up to a million people may be relocated. China Daily reported that more than 100,000 soldiers were operating in the area of Tangjiashan lake. Heavy equipment has been carried in by a Mig-26 helicopter and earthmovers have attempted to make a diversion channel. But according to CCTV it will not be completed until 5th of June.

There have been several major aftershocks in the past few days resulting in several fatalities. Yesterday a 6.0 magnitude earthquake occurred near to the Guangyuan plutonium production reactor. It is one of several major aftershocks occurring near to the plant, but there has been no clear information as to how badly the installation was damaged. There is still no further update from authorities over the state of this and two other nuclear sites first brought to public attention by the French nuclear authorities. Last week, Chinese authorities said they had retrieved several sources of radioactivity but that 15 other identified areas remained out of reach.
Coverage from the earthquake hit region ahs all but dried up. CNN continues to give daily reports with three reporters still operating in the area. But both Sky News and the BBC have withdrawn to their Beijing offices and have only returned to the story as lakes threaten to destroy many more areas of the devastated region. CCTV has also reduced its coverage of the earthquake disaster which has now killed 68,109 with a further 19,851 still missing. Aid continues to poor into the country adding to 34.79 billion Yuan [[$1.3 bn] already donated. Even amongst the Chinese leadership the attention is beginning to focus elsewhere. In the first week of the earthquake Premier Wen Jiabao tirelessly made his way around the devastated region. By the end of the week President Hu Jintao had arrived. As two weeks have passed since the earthquake less well known legislators are making their way around the region overseeing relief and reconstruction efforts. Wu Bangguo arrived in the region this week visiting the Zipingpu dam, hospitals and a steam turbine factory [Xinhua].

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

UK - "Fault" shuts nuclear power station

Hundreds of thousands of homes have suffered power cuts after a fault caused an unplanned shutdown at the Sizewell B nuclear power plant in Suffolk. Homes and businesses in London, East Anglia, Cheshire and Merseyside were affected between 11:00 BST [10:00 GMT] and 13:00 BST. The shutdown cut off supplies to the National Grid within minutes of another plant - the coal-fired Longannet power station in Fife - going offline. A National Grid spokesman said normal service was expected on Wednesday. A British Energy spokesman said the Sizewell B shutdown was caused by a fault with conventional equipment and not any part of the nuclear reactor. It is the first unplanned shutdown at Sizewell for more than three years. British Energy said there was no safety issue but could not confirm when the problem would be fixed. Sizewell provides around 3% of the UK's electricity.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Phoenix lands on Mars

Excitement as Phoenix touches down on the Martian north pole

Phoenix has made a successful landing on Mars. The landing craft will analyse soil and ice samples for previous signs of life and chemicals needed for the sustainability of life. CNN covered the landing in depth with a special program in excess of one hour. The BBC also covered the landing with a half hour special while Sky News joined the coverage shortly after the landing was confirmed [NASA]

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Phoenix makes final approach to Mars

Phoenix Mars Lander part of NASA’s scout program to the red planet will soon make its descent. Launched in August 2007 the it is due to explore the arctic region of the planet’s surface. If successful it will be the sixth lander to land on Mars since Viking 1 and 2 in 1976 [BBC].

Boeing splits in half after crash

A large cargo plane crashed at the end of a runway and split in two while trying to take off at Brussels airport. Four of the five crew members on board the Boeing 747 were said to be slightly injured and were hospitalized. "The plane is very seriously damaged" said Jan Van der Cruysse, spokesman at Brussels Airport. Fire brigade spokesman Francis Boileau said apart from its cargo of cars and equipment, the jet was full of fuel. "There was a danger of an explosion just after the accident because it was full of kerosene, about 100 tonnes of it, and there was a big leak when it broke" he said. The aircraft cracked in two after it crashed at the end of runway 220, which lies very close to a rail line and houses. Rail services to and from the airport were suspended as a safety precaution, however the crash did not affect other flights at the airport. The plane did not catch on fire when it crashed after attempting to take off on Sunday at 13:30 local time [11:30 GMT] [BBC / CNN]

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Russia wins Eurovision Song Contest

Russian pop artist Dima Bilan performs Believe

Russia has won the Eurovision Song Contest 2008. Britain was left at the bottom of the list coming a joint fourth with only 14 points. “You have to say this is no longer a song contest” said Terry Wogan, the veteran BBC presenter, “and we, and indeed Western participants have to decide whether to participate as their prospects are poor”. The voting was almost blatantly political as Slavic countries voted for each other and Norwegian countries stuck together and the Balkans joined hands. “Good-bye Western Europe” Terry Wogan quipped as the winner,
Dima Bilan, made his acceptance address, “So that’s it from the 53rd Eurovision handicap...” he added.

China struggles to rebuild lives

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has visited areas within the devastated region of Sichuan as the official death toll rose to 60,560. “The whole world and the UN stands behind you” he said while visiting Yingxiu. He spoke too in praise of the government’s swift and open response to the disaster [CNN / BBC / Sky News]. Dr Matt Marko, a general practitioner who had travelled to Wuxi to help survivors, told CNN that medical supplies were still needed. He said many people had suffered from fractures and dehydration.

The rescue effort has given way to a phase of recovery in many parts of Sichuan. Most survivors are dependent on food aid some of which has come from foreign companies such as Coca Cola and French supermarket giant Carrefour. Aid from domestic and foreign sources has exceeded 26 billion Yuan and continues to pour in. But attempting to house and feed nearly 5 million displaced persons is proving difficult. China has made appeals for more tents and factories have been asked to step up production. Getting food to people in areas still cut off by the quake is also proving difficult. But the real worry is the risk of disease and infection. Troops have been spraying disinfectant and bleach onto ruins and dead animals to prevent the spread of disease.
Sanitation is providing a major problem across the devastated region. Many water supplies have been disrupted and temporary toilet facilities have been set up. Personal hygiene has been lacking in many places as people are unable to bathe or shower. One resident who spoke to tvnewswatch from Mianyang has described the living situation as “difficult”. Although their home had not been destroyed in the earthquake they had sought refuge in the family car. “We did return to the flat once to shower” said Mr Zhang, “We couldn’t stand being dirty any more” . The family also used the opportunity to catch up on the news. Because people are living outside, few have access to television and news is only accessible via radio broadcasts. The family described the situation at the sports stadiums in the town as uncomfortable and “smelly”. Hundreds of people have been living in the temporary refuge and have been unable to wash for over a week. The sanitation was even less appetising. “The toilets are disgusting” said his wife.
Mr Zhang and his wife, a government official, have worked tirelessly in helping the relief effort, relying on a portable radio for updates to the developing situation. Their daughter who works abroad was worried for her parents but managed to get through on the telephone within hours of the earthquake. She was comforted to find they were safe but was saddened to learn a neighbour had died in the tremor.
There is hardly a single family unaffected by the disaster. Some have lost nearly every family member as well as most of their possessions. A CCTV reporter spoke to earthquake survivors on the road who were making the dangerous journey to their devastated home to retrieve what they could. One said he had lost his mother, father, wife and son in the tragedy but had to continue with his life as best he could. He like many others have to try and rebuild their lives. As they do, the world’s attention is gradually shifting away. Newspaper coverage in the West began to wane after only a few days. Now nearly two weeks after the quake struck only CNN gives regular updates from the region. Even CCTV-9 has begun to drop its constant rolling news coverage. For the people of Sichuan the real struggle is only just beginning.

Friday, May 23, 2008

China - profiteering sparks protests

A police car lies on its side after protests over profiteering

Officials in China have said that 50 hazardous radioactive sources and 4 chemical leaks have been identified in the earthquake zone, Channel Four News reported on Friday. At least 15 sites are said to be unreachable. The news was downplayed on the Xinhua website which said most of the radioactive isotopes had been made safe and the environment had not been contaminated. AP reported that 15 radioactive sources were still being sought by recovery workers. Meanwhile there have been protests which saw the overturning of at least one police car when an angry crowd gathered outside a shop in Deyang believed to be selling aid supplies [Reuters]. There have also been reports of aid convoys being held up by desperate survivors. Several thousand people in Luojiang, near Deyang, recently surrounded a truck delivering goods meant for quake relief to a store for sale according to some reports.

Ming Pao reported Deyang incident on Friday. The Hong Kong based publication said that a lorry a stopped front of a store to unload goods including ham sausage, "eight treasure" congee, instant noodles & bottled water. People gathered believing the consignment was part of the large amount of aid pouring into the area. However, the truck left without completing its delivery creating suspicion amongst some members of the building crowd. Police were called and according to reports a military jeep not displaying plates arrived on the scene along with at least one police vehicle. The occupants of the jeep then loaded the goods previously dropped off by the lorry into their vehicle. On trying to leave part of the crowd attempted to stop the jeep but despite the large numbers, police managed to escort the vehicle away. Laying siege to the store, the crowd demanded an explanation from the authorities. A man was reportedly taken from the store by police as some shouted anti-corruption slogans at officials who had begun to arrive at the scene. One source said that the deputy public security bureau director was hit with a wine bottle to cheers of “good job”. Police rushed into the melee to rescue the official named later as Yan Chongping. Violence flared up again into the evening and at least one police vehicle was damaged after angry members of the crowd jumped upon it and turned it on its side. The crowd eventually dispersed after officials promised a full investigation.

Ming Pao later reported that three people had been arrested over corruption and embezzlement. Sichuan Chen Kefu, deputy director of the Home Office said yesterday that such acts are despicable, must be severely punished. Some reports suggested that some individuals were obtaining relief supplies to resell for profit. Other reports suggest officials have been guilty of diverting tents from the victims to their own friends and relatives.A deputy police chief was sent to hospital. According to official figures, nearly 56,000 have died in China’s worst natural disaster in over 30 years.

Man guilty in shopping centre bomb plot

Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, south-east England

A man has pleaded guilty to threatening to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. Saeed Ghafoor said he was going to pack three limousines with gas canister explosives to bomb Europe's largest shopping complex. The Old Bailey heard that when questioned, Ghafoor said Bluewater was in Exeter. When told it was near the Dartford tunnel in Kent, the 33-year-old said he had not "finalised" his plans. Ghafoor made his threat to prison officers at Haverigg jail in Cumbria where he was serving a sentence for threatening to kill his sister and assault. Bluewater was the target for a gang of terrorists led by Omar Khyam who were jailed for a fertiliser bomb plot last year. Ghafoor will be sentenced in June [Sky News / BBC].

More arrests following Exeter blast

Pictured: Reilly walks to restaurant and the injured suspect

Police have made further arrests following an attempted terrorist attack at an Exeter restaurant. The two men were detained by armed police in Plymouth in front of shocked shoppers. Nicky Reilly who is said to have mental problems attempted to arm two devices in the Giraffe restaurant in Exeter but one detonated in his face causing serious injuries. Police have said the devices contained ‘chemicals’ and ‘small metal objects including nails’. Known as a ‘big giant’ that kept himself to himself, Reilly is said to not have many English friends. He converted to Islam about 5 years ago and regularly attended a local mosque close to his Plymouth flat. Police believe he was “taken advantage of and radicalised” due to his mental difficulties [CNN / BBC / Sky News].

RAF Nimrod "not airworthy" inquest finds

The fourteen airmen who died in the Nimrod explosion

A coroner at the inquest into the deaths of 14 military personnel killed when their aircraft exploded has declared the Nimrod aeroplane was “not airworthy”. But the findings have been dismissed by Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth. The MoD and RAF have also disputed the finding by Andrew Walker that the aircraft had “never been airworthy”. The explosion resulted in the worst single loss of military personnel in Afghanistan. The men killed were Flt Sgt Adrian Davies; Flt Lt Leigh Mitchelmore; Flt Lt Gareth Nicholas; Sgt Benjamin Knight; Sgt Gary Quilliam, Flt Lt Steven Swarbrick, Sgt John Langton Bottom L-R: Flt Sgt Stephen Beattie; Flt Lt Allan Squires; Flt Sgt Gary Andrews; Flt Sgt Gerard Bell; Flight Lt Steven Johnson, Marine Joseph Windall, and L Cpl Oliver Dicketts. The incident occurred in September 2006 at a time when only 36 had died in the conflict. The then defence minister Des Brown said it had been a “dreadful and shocking accident” while Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the time, the “accident” would “distress the whole country” [tvnewswatch]. But the findings of the inquest has added further distress to the families of the airmen who have called for the Nimrod fleet to be taken out of service [BBC / Sky News].

Conservatives win Crewe & Nantwich

Conservative Edward Timpson has won the Crewe & Nantwich by-election with 49% of the vote. He took 20,539 votes against Labour’s 12,679 a 17% swing to the Tories. Lib Dem took third place with 6,040. Several minor candidates lost their deposits taking only a few hundred votes each. Amongst them were Flying Brick of the Monster Raving Loony Party, The Green Party and UKIP [BBC]

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Exeter bomber was "Muslim convert"

Suspect: Nicky Reilly

The man who attempted to detonate and explosive device in an Exeter restaurant was a Muslin convert, the Daily Mail has reported. The paper named the suspect as Nicky Reilly and said he had a ‘mental disorder’. He is said to have tried to detonate two ‘nail-bombs’ but in attempting to arm the devices an explosion occurred. He is described as having serious facial injuries. Devon and Cornwall police have refused to say what offence he was being held on suspicion of. However they revealed that at least one other device had been found “nearby”. According to the Daily Mail police forensic teams are believed to have recovered one or two canisters of sodium-based home made explosive either from the toilet or outside the restaurant. A 14-strong team from the Metropolitan's Counter Terrorism Command later travelled to Exeter to assist in the investigation. Devon and Cornwall chief constable Stephen Otter said: "There were two devices, one in the cafe and one nearby. We do not know precisely how bad it could have been if they had gone off but it would have been quite serious. That is why we are treating this as a serious incident and investigating it quite thoroughly. I cannot confirm if it was a nail bomb. We are still examining the devices”.

Sky News reported that the man was a recent Muslim convert who had been "preyed upon and radicalised" according to police. The BBC did not initially revealed the identity of the man who targeted the Giraffe restaurant at 12:50 on Thursday afternoon, but later posts on its website did report his name and showed a photograph of the suspect. Last June car bombs were left in London and another was rammed into Glasgow airport. In one of the incidents a car bomb was left outside the TigerTiger club in London but failed to explode [BBC]. Another car bomb had been inadvertently removed by parking enforcement. It too failed to detonate. But a week later a vehicle was rammed into the front of Glasgow Airport’s terminal building before exploding in flames. Only the two attackers were injured, one fatally. The other man, Bilal Abdullah, is currently awaiting trial. While the threat from Islamist inspired terrorism remains, it is clear there is a severe lack of competence displayed.

UK - man arrested after explosion

An explosion has occurred in a restaurant in Exeter in south-west England. At 12:50 at least one explosion was heard coming from toilets in the Giraffe restaurant. There have been conflicting reports as to the number of explosions but one man was seen to exit the toilets covered in blood. He was later arrested and police have placed a large security cordon around the shopping centre. Early reports on Sky News and the BBC do not yet suggest terrorism and some eyewitnesses have described the explosion as small. Peter Lacey who was in the restaurant with his wife told BBC News, "There were three explosions. It is my impression they sounded more like gunshots than a bomb, like a lightbulb exploding.

Dalai Lama - “World peace starts with inner peace”

“World peace starts with inner peace” the Dalai Lama said to his audience of several hundred people at the Albert Hall. During his lengthy address, lasting nearly one hour, he did not speak specifically about Tibet, but said religious harmony and dialogue was important in the coming century. Different views over religion should not provide reason for conflict he insisted. “Respect to all religions” was important but he said non-believers should also be respected.

In a short question and answer session he said he was saddened by the events in China following the Sichuan earthquake. “It was very sad and very shocking” he said. He added that China’s one child policy had compounded the pain for many parents who had lost their only child. But he said he was encouraged by the “transparency of the Chinese government”.

Asked what makes the Dalai Lama laugh, he spoke of a meeting in Mexico with a Japanese Buddhist who remained serious even as the string of rosary beads snapped scattering them everywhere. “That made me laugh”, he said. With regards a question on Tibet he repeated that he was “not seeking separation” but instead, “meaningful autonomy to safeguard our culture”. He added that, “Many Chinese people think we Tibetans are anti-Chinese but this is not true” and called on people to educate “our Chinese brothers and sisters”. After his hour long address he received a rapturous applause from the audience. Little coverage was given to the event, though Sky News active did provide access to the entire speech.

The Dalai Lama was far more critical yesterday when he said Britain was not doing enough [BBC]. He is expected to meet tomorrow with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Fuel prices rise as oil hits $135 per barrel

Fuel prices have risen dramatically over the last five years

Drivers face further increases in the price of fuel as oil reached another record of $135 per barrel [BBC / Sky News]. In the UK diesel can cost £1.30 a litre [equivalent to $9.67 per US gallon]. Across the pond, American drivers are already complaining at paying more than $4 per gallon, less than £0.55 per litre. The highest price seen in the US was photographed and sent to CNN’s i-report. But even at $5.15 per gallon [£0.69] it is still way below that paid by European motorists. It has been many years since UK prices were that low. In 2003 diesel was around £0.79 per litre, a price that had remained steady for over two years. But less than two years later the price had increased to an average of £0.89 per litre. By the end of 2006 the price at the pump had inched past the one pound mark. But the last six months has seen a dramatic rise with nearly 30 pence being placed on the price of a litre of fuel [CNN].

Insurance headache after China quake

Many do not have insurance or face a tangle of red tape

The official death toll has risen to 51,151 with over 288,000 injured. A further 30,000 are reported missing [Xinhua / BBC / CNN]. The biggest problem faced by authorities is the housing of 5 million people made homeless by the earthquake. Authorities have put out an urgent appeal for tents and many countries have offered financial aid. The cost to the economy is massive. Damage and losses to the devastated region have been estimated at $50 billion. The rebuilding of the region has begun including more than 96 historical sites damaged in one area alone. Across the entire province the loss to the tourist industry is expected to exceed $1.4 billion. But the priority is to rebuild houses and local infrastructure. Water mains, gas pipelines, electrical and telecommunications links have been severely disrupted and many roads still remain in a state of disrepair.

Bi Jiyao [Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for International Economic Research NDRC] spoke of the problems facing those whose houses were destroyed and who may face mortgage repayments besides having no house to live in. Speaking on CCTV-9, he said the Bank of China had halted repayments but said this was only temporary. Insurance is not as widespread as in the West and many families may face further difficulties as they struggle to pay for a home that lies in rubble. Even for those with insurance, further problems exist as so called ‘acts of God’ are excluded. Insurance premiums to cover such risks as earthquakes and floods are often not taken up. Part of the reason is cost, says Zhang Hannan, a lecturer at the Central University of Finance and Economics, but also partly due to ignorance that such clauses exist.

According to the Chinese Insurance Regulatory Commission, only 31 million Yuan has been paid to victims by insurance companies with respect to life insurance. Xinhua reported the figure as high as 400 million Yuan. But there are also problems with many insurance companies requesting original insurance documents. Many families are unable to provide the paperwork since they would have been buried in the many collapsed homes.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Asia - Millions homeless after natural disasters

Queues for noodles in one of the tent cities

The official death toll in China’s earthquake has risen to 41,353 according to Xinhua news. Several thousand remain trapped and missing which could take the number to more than 70,000. Meanwhile it has been announced that the town of Beichuan will be relocated when it is rebuilt. Nearly the entire town was destroyed in the Wenchuan earthquake and residents face an uncertain future as the clear up operation begins. Millions of people are sleeping in tents or temporary accommodation and there are continuing logistical problems in providing food, water and adequate sanitation.

Far worse problems exist on the ground in Myanmar which was devastated by Cyclone Nargis two weeks ago. The death toll is said to have exceeded 100,000 but the government say the toll stands at 70,000 dead. Aid from foreign aid groups has begun to flow into the country but it remains only a small amount of what is needed.

Dalai Lama in London

“Breaking News: Dalai Lama says Tibetans should not disrupt progress of Olympic torch when it is taken through their country” the Sky News strap read. The word ‘country’ changed to ‘territory’ during later news reports but like so many reports connected with contentious regions of the world there is the tricky issue of names and descriptions applied. CNN call the region hit by Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar, the name accepted by the UN. But other broadcasters refer to the country by its colonial name of Burma. Tibet, or as China refer to it, the Autonomous Region of Tibet, has itself brought a minefield for Western journalists. Not wishing to upset Chinese sentiment, but at the same time not wishing to side with authorities, news organisations have been careful in their naming of the province. Some have referred to the province as merely the ’Tibetan region of China’ or just ’Tibet’. But occasionally mistakes are made and the region has been called a ‘country’. The Dalai Lama avoided all references to Tibet’s status when calling on Tibetans not to disrupt the torch relay when it arrives in Lhasa. But he himself is the subject of name calling. Some Chinese politicians have called him a ‘jackal in monks robes’ and the Chinese Ambassador to the UK has said “he wears many hats”. But the religious leader remains unflustered by such criticisms and has even said he was willing to attend the Beijing games if talks with his aids make progress. Besides his apparent moderate stance and his calls for calm when the Olympic torch arrives in Tibet, Chinese authorities are unlikely to give way to any of his demands or requests. His visit to London is likely to draw fresh criticism from Beijing.

'Dirty bomb' threat to Beijing Olympics

Beijing maybe under threat from more than pollution

BBC Essex radio news reported this morning that a UN body had warned of a possible ‘dirty bomb’ attack on the Beijing Olympics. However since that broadcast there has been few other reports of this item. A trawl of the internet only finds a few references to this new risk specifically targeting China and the Beijing Olympics. There are a number of terrorist groups that may wish to disrupt the Olympic games in August, but it is perhaps groups aligned with al-Qaeda that might prove to be the strongest threat. Earlier this year Chinese authorities announced they had broken up terror cells and thwarted potential attacks aimed at crashing a plane into an Olympic site. There are some who have questioned the veracity of China’s claims and accuse authorities of using the perceived threat to target Muslim minority groups. In the last few days further restrictions have been put in placed. Xinhua reported earlier this month that authorities had “revised rules, based on a regulation implemented in 2004, added new regulations banning dangerous items, including explosives, poisonous and radioactive material” and more recently said that medical personnel and experts had been trained to deal with exposure to radioactivity, pathogens and poisonous chemicals [Xinhua].

This release of radioactive substances into a large crowd would pose a serious threat to health. But obtaining material construct a radiological dispersal device may prove difficult, especially in a country such as China. In the UK, which has already been hit by terrorist attacks, there is already concern that al-Qaeda wish to hit London with such devices. Some radioactive substances are relatively easy to obtain. Depleted Uranium is commonly used in pipe inspection equipment. Radioactive isotopes can be found in smoke detectors and medical equipment but the logistics of collecting enough material to pose a serious threat would be difficult. Cobalt-60 is widely used in the US to irradiate food but dispersal would be difficult [The Guardian]. But while there has been no specific threat to Beijing, the IAEA says there are groups that want to hit the games [Daily Telegraph]. The reports from the International Atomic Energy Authority could be seen as scare-mongering. The IAEA warning may also be seen as encouraging others to stay away from the Beijing games. But even if not intended as being malicious, the warning only adds to the fear that is felt by potential visitors to the August games.
If the propaganda machine in the West is to be believed, visitors may suffer from appalling pollution, dangerous food and the risk of being caught up in a terrorist attack. The pollution is real, but many cities in the West offer similar conditions of poor air quality. As regards the food, besides the scare stories, most people do not succumb to food poisoning. And the terror threat, while it should not be ignored, is no different from that of many other countries. China has yet to be targeted by Islamic terrorists, although authorities say there are plots and outside infiltrators. The threat in Europe, the US and other parts of the world is far more real with Islamic terrorists having hit Western targets in New York, London, Madrid, Morocco, Turkey and Pakistan. China has yet to see such outrages experienced here in the West. Hopefully it never will and the doom-mongers will be proved wrong.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

London - Bus crash kills 1, injures 18

A London bus has crashed into a tree killing one woman and injuring up to 19 others, Sky News has reported. The accident which occurred at 09:23 UK time [08:23 GMT] near to Tower Bridge on the route 188 bus. Some of the injured are said to have sustained serious injuries according to a spokeman from Guys Hospital. There is widespread disruption to traffic routes in the area.

Monday, May 19, 2008

China mourns its dead

China stood in silence today to mark one week since a massive earthquake devastated central Sichuan province. In scenes not seen since the death of Mao Zedong, millions of ordinary Chinese paid their respects to those that died in last week’s earthquake. At 14:28 local time, car horns and air-raid sirens wailed to mark the time the earthquake struck south-west China. Millions then stood in silence remembering the dead and sparing thoughts for those injured in the worst natural disaster in many years. Even in the devastated region, rescue workers stood silently to remember the dead, pausing from their search if only for a few moments. China has declared three days of national mourning and even the Olympic torch relay has been postponed. In recent days the continuing relay has been a sombre affair. The event has been virtually dropped from news reports in China and newspapers have pushed the events to the middle pages. Routes have been shortened and beginning and ending ceremonies have been marked with a minutes silence [Xinhua / CNN / BBC / Sky News].

For rescuers on the ground there are fewer and fewer people being pulled alive from the rubble. It will be a tough decision for authorities to make but they will soon have to move from a rescue mission to one of salvage and clear-up. Already pictures have emerged showing the mass graves as authorities struggle to deal with thousands of bodies. Emotion has to be pushed aside to deal with the practical disposal of the dead in order to prevent the spread of disease. But of course it is heart breaking for thousands of families unable to bury their dead with the respect they would prefer. DNA has been taken from the victims and numbers placed on the graves which may give some hope to those wishing to identify family members later on. Amidst all the grief there is also an under current of anger running through Chinese society. Some have suggested that school buildings were not properly constructed and that corruption had a part to play. While there has been critique in Western media, Chinese media has also questioned building standards especially after so many schools collapsed in the earthquake. On Wednesday, the China Daily asked questions over the quality of building construction and the Chinese government said anyone found to be responsible for substandard building work would be severely punished. In an editorial, the paper said the “quality of school buildings raises disturbing questions”. The state run paper continues; “Tragic though the circumstances are, we cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the quality of school buildings”. The editorial adds that if “subsequent investigations indicate that most of the school buildings collapsed because of their poor-quality construction or the builders’ shoddy compliance with building rules, we must take a firm resolve to do away with man-made factors that are easily neglected in normal times but prove disastrous in an emergency”. The criticism also extended to the slow allocation of government funding to “renovate buildings so that they can withstand major quakes”. On Saturday the story had made it to the front page of the state run paper. Jiang Weixin was quoted as saying, “If quality problems do exist in school buildings, those found responsible will be dealt with severely”. Up to 7,000 schools are said to have collapsed across the province and there has been criticism that whilst government buildings remained intact, nearby schools collapsed into rubble. The questions over building construction has been a dominant feature in Western news reports. CNN’s John Vause filing a report from the rubble of one school showed the thin wire used to reinforce buildings and both the BBC and Sky News have raised questions as to whether building regulations were flouted. It has to be said that there is no such thing as an 'earthquake proof' building. In the Kobe earthquake in 1995 at least 6,000 died despite stringent building regulations. Elevated roadways collapsed and infrastructural damage was widespread. Although only 60 died in the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles the year before, many bridges and buildings were severely damaged. The Japan earthquake measured at 7.3 while the L.A tremor measured at 6.7. Chinese seismologists upgraded the magnitude of the Sichuan earthquake to 8.0 on Sunday, and though some might be cynical of the new status, even at 7.9 on the Richter scale there are few structures that survive such devastating tremors. But there is much debate on internet forums over so called ‘tofu buildings’ which crumbled in the wake of Monday’s earthquake.

On one forum some have asked whether cheap wire was used instead of high quality steel. But others have again expressed anger, not at Chinese authorities, but instead at Western media who they accuse of using the issue as another excuse for China bashing. Some have questioned the ‘facts’ being disseminated by the media. One writer questions the number of schools damaged in the quake saying that if 7,000 schools were destroyed even an average of 10 dead would equal 70,000 fatalities. “This is clearly nonsense!”, he says. Aside of the recriminations there remains the difficult and slow rebuilding of many towns and villages. Conservative estimates suggest the Sichuan earthquake has cost in excess of $10 billion in damage and loss to business. There is also the practical issue as to how authorities will house nearly 5 million people displaced by the disaster. Meanwhile China has made fresh appeals for international aid and donations. The official death toll now stands at 34,073. However, taking into account the numbers still buried or missing, the number may rise to more than 70,000. A further quarter of a million people have been injured many seriously.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Scientists "predicted" Sichuan earthquake

Detailed maps from 2007 showing fault lines

Ten months ago a little read scientific report was compiled by seismologists from China, Europe and the US. Today that report makes uneasy reading. For the report which was outlined in the July 2007 edition of Tectonics warned that Beichuan was “ripe for a major earthquake”. A report in the National Geographic said the scientists issued a warning following studies of satellite images and on-the-ground examinations of active faults in Sichuan Province for more than a decade. "The faults are sufficiently long to sustain a strong ground-shaking earthquake, making them potentially serious sources of regional seismic hazard," the report read. They concluded that clashing tectonic forces were growing in Beichuan, “ready to burst in an explosion of seismic energy”.
The researchers charted the active faults on multicolored maps of Beichuan, which now turn out to be the epicenter of the recent earthquake. "As far as I know, this is the only investigation of these active faults," said study co-author Michael Ellis of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. There is little reason to believe Chinese officials were aware of the July 2007 report, or that it would have made much difference if they had been. "We had certainly identified the potential of these active faults," Ellis said. "But that information was effectively locked in an academic journal." The magnitude 7.9 quake that struck on May 12th almost entirely levelled parts of Sichuan Province. Chinese officials today estimated that the death toll would reach 50,000 and that nearly five million people are homeless.

China - Flood fears fuel panic

Many towns have been almost entirely destroyed

Hours after President Hu Jintao visited Beichuan in north-east Sichuan province, residents have fled as aftershock brought fresh landslides. On Friday President Hu talked to victims caught up in Monday’s quake and offerd reassurance that the government would do all it could [Xinhua]. But only hours later rock and mud was sent crashing down hillsides towards villages already devastated by the 7.9 earthquake. Throughout the morning there had been rumours that a dam was about to burst. Water levels have risen over the past few days with heavy rain hitting many parts of the province. This has put further pressure on many dams said to be damaged. Sky News reported that many had fled to the hills over fears that rivers were going to burst their banks. Members of the public, army troops and rescue workers evacuated the area. Later many gradually returned, but valuable hours had been wasted and it is time that is running out for those who may still be alive in the rubble of thousands of fallen buildings [CNN / BBC].

Senator Edward Kennedy "suffers stroke"

Senator Edward Kennedy has been rushed to hospital in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, CNN in the United States has reported. CNN International had not yet reported by 15:45 GMT however the BBC has reported the Breaking News via News 24 and their website. Sky News reported that Senator Kennedy had been taken to hospital early on Saturday suffering from a stroke.

China - Nuclear facilities "at risk" after quake

The Guangyuan plutonium production facility lies only 16 km from one aftershock

As if the dangers and outlook for the people of Sichuan province weren’t bad enough there are fears that radiation may pose a further hazard. On Wednesday a French nuclear watchdog warned that some nuclear facilities might have been damaged in Monday’s 7.9 earthquake. The Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety said that nuclear research reactors or facilities used to produce nuclear fuel were located within 100km of the quake's epicentre [al Jazeera]. The institute said it was waiting for Chinese inspections to confirm that the four electricity-producing sites in eastern China - Lingao, Daya Bay, Qinshan and Tianwan – were unharmed. However it said damage was unlikely since they are more than 1000km from the epicentre. Today it emerged that the Chinese Minister of Environmental Protection, Zhou Shengxian (周生賢), had convened an emergency meeting late on Monday, hours after the 7.9 magnitude tremor shook the province. The ministry website said he activated the lowest tier of a four-stage system of ranking radiation leaks. The Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, also known as the Southwest Institute, in Mianyang is the primary design laboratory for Chinese nuclear weapons, according to But one Western expert with knowledge of the Mianyang lab had said it was unlikely it was at serious risk the Taipei Times reported. Nonetheless there has been enough concern amongst foreign military circle to initiate a reconnaissance of the nuclear sites. AP reported today that “American experts” were “monitoring” nuclear facilities in China's earthquake zone. U.S. officials are monitoring China's nuclear facilities in the quake zone, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. He said he had no information about any damage.

Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said he had no information about the state of the atomic sites. But he told reporters the Chinese government was "preparing for every consequence" as it worked to rescue survivors and repair damage.
The plutonium production reactor at Guangyuan, China's largest, is also in the quake zone. "Damage to these plants could potentially be a serious issue for the Chinese government," said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists. He said the reactor at Guangyuan is "at the center of China's fissile material production. "If there is damage to (the reactor), it would disrupt China's warhead maintenance capabilities," Kristensen said. "That could have impacts for several years."

Besides the risk of a radiation leak Sichuan province also faces potential an even worse catastrophe if any of an estimated 300 dams said to be damaged, should fail. In 1975 the Banqiao dam burst open following a massive Typhoon. According to the Hydrology Department of Henan Province approximately 26,000 people died from flooding and another 145,000 died during subsequent epidemics and famine. In addition, about 5,960,000 buildings collapsed, and 11 million residents were affected. With questions already being asked over the construction of some 7,000 schools which collapsed, there may well be further heads rolling if it is found that planners skimped on dam construction. Isabel Hilton writing in the Guardian says the tragedy this week will “test the Chinese government's commitment to freedom of information and its willingness to put technical and environmental concerns above politics”. But the risk of a free flow of information may also have other, as yet unseen, consequences. As people look for blame for the tragedy that has befallen them there may well be unrest in the future. The seeds of discontent appear to already be sown as examples of shoddy building begin to emerge. Corruption on such a large scale may be seen to lead back to the very heart of government which itself may have a difficult time silencing the angry voices.

Friday, May 16, 2008

China - Questions asked about building construction

A grief stricken parent is pushed back as President Hu visits Beichuan

President Hu Jintao today visited areas struck by the devastating earthquake which has left at least 4.8 million people homeless and killed more than 20,000. On Friday afternoon a large aftershock caused further damage to buildings and cutting off routes to some areas. The 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit near to Miansizhen at 13:25 local time [05:25 GMT] and is the latest of more than 4,000 aftershocks. More than 200,000 buildings have been destroyed following the massive earthquake on Monday including 7,000 schools and the Chinese government has said investigations will be launched to see if building codes were ignored.

President Hu visited Beichuan today and said it was the worst earthquake to have hit China since 1949. China has suffered from some of the worst earthquakes in history. In 1976 the Tangshan earthquake in Hebei province killed up to half a million people, and in 1927 a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Gansu killed at least 40,000. More than 200,000 were killed only seven years previously when an 8.6 magnitude quake struck the Ningxia-Gansu region of China but the worst disaster was in 1556 when nearly one million died in the Shaanxi Earthquake.

Following major earthquakes in recent history the Chinese authorities have toughened building regulations in earthquake zones. More than one third of all earthquakes hit China and most strike the southern province of Yunnan province. Following a 6.4 earthquake last year the provincial government announced a 10 year plan to make all houses able to resist a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. But the plan to replace houses will take some time with current projections looking at costs of more than ¥ 3 billion over the next 12 years. But the focus is now on Sichuan and questions are now being asked even by Chinese state media. The China Daily has already asked questions over the quality of building construction and the Chinese government has said anyone found to be responsible for substandard building work will be severely punished authorities have said. In an editorial published on Wednesday the paper said the “quality of school buildings raises disturbing questions”. The state run paper continues; “Tragic though the circumstances are, we cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the quality of school buildings”. The editorial adds that if “subsequent investigations indicate that most of the school buildings collapsed because of their poor-quality construction or the builders’ shoddy compliance with building rules, we must take a firm resolve to do away with man-made factors that are easily neglected in normal times but prove disastrous in an emergency”. The criticism also extended to the slow allocation of government funding to “renovate buildings so that they can withstand major quakes”. Some parents have expressed their anger at the building quality and told reporters that corners have been cut in the construction of some buildings. One man told the AFP news agency, "I'll tell you why the school collapsed. It was shoddily built. Someone wanted to save money". One mother told reporters there were doubts about the construction of a school destroyed in Monday‘s quake. ''It was built in a very short time. They added one floor at a time, and continued building as they had money for it. So the base was not made for several floors. It was too weak. The whole building collapsed, straight down, hardly without shaking, even,'' she said [BBC / LA Times].

The disaster is all the more tragic with so many families losing their only child, a result of China’s controversial one child policy. It is unclear what proportion of the victims are children, but there are terrible scenes unfolding across the province as parents watch rescue workers pulling out hundreds of bodies from schools. In one of the worst cases, hundreds of students were feared buried in the debris of the Juyuan Middle School where more than 50 bodies have already been pulled out. At a newly built primary school that collapsed in Dujiangyan, just a flew kilometres away, 100 students and teachers were pulled out of the rubble but more than 100 remained buried on Wednesday. And at the main building of Beichuan Middle School in Mianyang city a little further to the north in Sichuan province, at least 1,000 students and teachers were dead and missing. The scene is repeated over and over again with an estimated 7,000 schools destroyed.

Amidst the sorrow there are brief moments of joy as some children are pulled alive from the rubble of collapsed buildings. But sadly the life for many survivors will never be the same. Besides the trauma and anxiety after living through such a disaster many have suffered terrible injuries. Countless victims have lost not only their homes but also their limbs. Infections have forced doctors to amputate arms and legs. One young boy asked doctors not to remove his arms because he wanted to go to school and would be able to hold his pencil. His sister tearfully told reporters that doctors said if they did not amputate his arms, her brother would die.

The story remains at the top of many news bulletins with some providing extensive coverage. The BBC covered the story for nearly twenty minutes with Sky News giving around 8 minutes to the story. CNN has also given over a large proportion of air time to the unfolding tragedy, but the largest coverage has been on the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. The type of broadcasting seen on Chinese television is unprecedented.

Studio discussions and live reports from affected areas have filled the air time and many people in China have been glued to the coverage. Some have spoken of how the images have left them tearful and with sore eyes, while others have talked of being motivated to help. Thousands have joined queues to give blood and donations of food, water and money have poured in from all parts of the country. More than ¥ 20 million has already been donated by the public.

As some Western media focuses on whether building regulations were flouted there is little discussion as to how much the West is prepared for such a disaster. Although rare, earthquakes can and do occur in Europe. Speaking to Swiss Info, Thomas Wenk, chairman of the Swiss Society for Earthquake Engineering and Structural Dynamics, has said while Switzerland is in a lower risk category than most of China, an earthquake of similar strength could occur in other parts of Europe. “I am not a seismologist, but in Europe an earthquake on that scale could only be imagined in the main risk areas towards Turkey and Asia,” Wenk said. A small earthquake earlier this year caused relatively minor but widespread damage in the UK, but there are examples where natural disasters have overwhelmed authorities in the West. Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people in the United States in 2005 and the government was widely criticised for its poor response to the disaster. The area affected by the Wenchuan earthquake is massive and the damage is beyond imagination. Whilst efforts to make buildings ‘earthquake proof’, there is no sure way to prevent deaths occurring following such a massive disaster. Japan, which has stringent regulations concerning the construction of buildings and infrastructure, was severely hit by the Kobe earthquake in 1995 killing over 6,000.
Perhaps the most critical reports have come from Channel Four News which talks of ‘palm greasing’ and corruption as being responsible for the poor building standards. Today they showed pictured of angry parents in grief from having lost their only child. “My colleagues and I at the Ministry of Housing feel very sad to see that. I was also heavy hearted when I saw those students being pulled out. So if we find the collapsed buildings have quality problems after our investigation we will definitely seal with it aggressively” said Jiang Weixin. But it is little consolation to those who have lost loved ones. And as President Hu visited Beichuan today grieving parents were pushed away by police and security guards as they attempted to approach him to air their case. The cameraman who was filming was also stopped from filming further.

Weather is still hampering rescue efforts in many parts of Sichuan causing further landslides and there are fears increased water levels may put greater pressure on dams across the province. Up to 300 dams are said to be affected by the earthquakes and troops are working to make them safe. Any breaches would certainly bring further tragedy to an already devastated region.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

China - More helicopters help in aid relief

Chinese authorities are beginning to increase the numbers of helicopters in an effort to reach areas so far cut off from rescue workers. On Wednesday up to 19 helicopters had been deployed to drop supplies into many areas including the epicentre at Wenchuan. Today Premier Wen ordered a further 90 helicopters to be deployed in order to assist in the rescue effort [Xinhua]. On CCTV-9 one expert suggested that China should seek assistance from other countries. Helicopters are invaluable in disasters such as this especially where regular transport links have been destroyed or remain impassable. Col Feng Fuhai, of the Chinese Air Force, said that helicopters can carry up to 3 tonnes of equipment and provided essential help to the disaster stricken area.

The death toll has now exceeded 19,500 and state authorities say the numbers may rise above 50,000 [BBC / Sky News / CNN / Xinhua]. The area affected by the earthquake is vast stretching hundreds of kilometres and the task confronting the relief workers is staggering. But despite the best efforts of the People’s Liberation Army many areas have still not been reached and there exists frustration on the ground that rescuers have not arrived. More than150,000 troops have been sent to areas hit by the earthquake and 20 transport planes have help send in food supplies and equipment. Many people remain homeless following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and thousands of residents are living in makeshift tents. CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster has provided unprecedented coverage of the disaster. The openness of the media has surprised many, not only in the West but also in China. The disaster has brought many Chinese together and some have organised to help take help and supplies to the grief stricken areas. However, the help from ordinary people has only complicated the situation on the ground with food supplies and shelter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Is Clinton an ex-candidate?

Hillary may be ‘squawking’ but there are some that think she is an ‘ex-parrot’ or rather an ’ex-candidate’. Besides her landslide victory in the most recent primary of West Virginia, few pundits see her as winning the candidacy.

Channel Four News in the UK discussed the recent comments during Hillary Clinton’s campaign which raised the issue of race. During one rally in Kingstree, Bill Clinton called on a black man standing off to the side of the small stage. The man identified himself as a pastor and told Clinton that "black America is voting for Obama because he's black." The man also said Democrats are in a "dangerous position" because if Obama wins the nomination, voters will put a Republican in the White House. "They're not ready to vote for a black president," the man said. The suggestion that many of her voters would not vote for a black candidate has rattled many, and even if not directly said by Hillary herself the race card is beginning to tar her campaign. The issue has certainly ruffled more than a few feathers. So too has the comparison of Hillary with the infamous parrot in the Monty Python sketch. The skit which ran in the Washington Post has outraged some. But at least, the Washington Post suggests today, no-one compared her to the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

It will be a “Miracle or disaster for Hillary to win now” suggested the news broadcaster tonight. And as two more super delegates joined the Obama camp today the Holy Grail sought after by Hillary seems further away than ever. Despite the mathematics, the lack of delegates and a slating in the popular media, Clinton is determined to continue. It is difficult to see when or if she will ever quit in the race for the candidacy that inches further and further away.

This side of the pond there are many that see her as a ‘doomed enterprise’ that is bringing down the Democrat party with her. And as long as Clinton clings to her perch the party cannot get on with the election campaign proper.

China - "dangerous cracks" appear in dam

The Zipingpu dam near Dujiangyan on the Minjian river in Sichuan province

About 2,000 troops are said to be en-route to Zipingpu dam to plug holes after “dangerous cracks” appeared in the structure. The dam is near to the epicentre by the small town of Dujiangyan. The name has been misspelt as 'Zipingku' on many news websites [AP]. Some reports suggest dame to other parts of the infrastructure. "Plant and associated buildings have collapsed and some are partly sunk" one Chinese news website said. Meanwhile the Ministry of Water Resources plans "to safely discharge the reservoir's rising waters and guarantee that the damage posed no threat to Dujiangyan and the neighboring Chengdu Plain," the state-run Xinhua reported [CNN].

China accepts money but says help not needed

A map in today's China Daily shows the level of destruction

China has thanked the offers of aid and assistance from around the world. But while the money has been accepted authorities have so far declined help from aid groups saying that blocked roads would prevent movement and further complicate rescue efforts. Thousands of army troops are continuing to pull people trapped in the rubble but many areas remain inaccessible. Whilst army vehicles travelled around Sichuan province conveying troops to areas of devastation many are still unable to reach rural areas. Premier Wen flew in by helicopter on Monday and spoke of the importance of clearing roadways. But many are damaged beyond repair and some areas could only be reached by helicopter. Plans to parachute in thousands of troops were cancelled due to high winds and heavy rain increasing the need for helicopters in many areas not yet reached by the army. There has been few signs of any army helicopters in news footage and while US ships in the south China sea could provide logistical help Chinese authorities have yet to take up offers. On Monday President Bush said the US would help in “any way possible”, but so far China has only taken the offers of financial assistance. Helicopters, especially such aircraft as Chinooks, would be able to take troops and heavy rescue equipment into areas otherwise inaccessible. And it is clear that problems exist in getting equipment to where it is need. Sky’s Peter Sharp speaking from Dujiangyan, near the epicentre, said, "The frustrating thing about it is, I passed about 40-50 diggers and front-end loaders on my way here, equipment that would be invaluable at the epicentre area, but they just can't get there."

US assistance in previous disasters is well documented. In 2004 a massive US led relief effort was mounted in Bande Aceh following the devastating tsunami in Indonesia. Initially authorities there were resistant to accepting US assistance but relented after the scale of the disaster became apparent. On Wednesday morning, two Chinese helicopters with relief supplies flew over the Yingxiu Town of Wenchuan County and three more were standing by awaiting orders at the Fenghuanshang airport, according to the Chengdu Military Command [Xinhua].

There has been a huge effort mounted by the Chinese government to rescue those trapped, but some logistics have still not been solved. Thousands of residents are sleeping rough after their houses were destroyed and there is little cover from the elements. Many have been forced to construct make shift tents while others are left in the open. There is little protection from mosquitoes with few mosquito nets available and with further rain predicted the situation may well deteriorate.

Britain has offered a £1 million in financial assistance and remains in contact with Chinese authorities. William Erhman, British Ambassador to China, commended the “rapid and huge response” to the disaster. But he said there were worries over some British tourists not heard from since Monday. “We remain concerned about British citizens in the area” he said. Since Monday’s earthquake there has been no word from 19 Britons who were visiting a panda reserve. However Chinese officials say that 31 British tourists have been found, though it is not clear if the 19 missing Britons were amongst them. Travel firm Kuoni said the 19 were on a coach from Chengdu to Wolong in Sichuan province when the tremor struck [BBC].

The official death toll now stands at 14,866 but unofficial figures put the number at 20,000. Behind the staggering figures are individual tales of tragedy [CNN / BBC]. CNN’s John Vause yesterday travelled through parts of Sichuan and met with one communist party official who besides having lost his parents, his wife and child, continued to help victims caught up in the disaster. It is a tale repeated across the province and all across China. Countless families have lost their only child. The one child policy has made the disaster all the more tragic for many families. Sichuan residents are well travelled and it’s hard to find a province where they have not settled. As such the tragedy has hit people from all over the country with many having lost relatives and friends. The first forty eight hours are the most critical following a tragedy such as this and if more families are to be spared the grief of losing their loved ones Chinese authorities must accept help from anyone who offers it.