News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Pakistan rains kill at least 26

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Pakistan rains kill at least 26

A Pakistani family in their flooded house in Karachi, July 19

Hundreds of families are still living in flooded homes

At least 26 people have been killed in monsoon rain in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, officials say.

Most of the deaths were caused by collapsing walls and electrocution.

The downpour flooded low-lying parts of the city and left most areas without electricity on Saturday night, but power was gradually being restored.

Monsoon rains wreak havoc in Pakistan almost every year. Correspondents say an ageing drainage system leaves parts of Karachi vulnerable to flooding.

Pakistan’s chief meteorologist said nearly 14.7cm (6in) of rain fell on the city on Saturday.

Abdullah, a resident who was standing by the body of his neighbour’s son, said the child had drowned after falling into a drain.

“People pulled his body out of a rain drain which was running very fast,” he told Reuters news agency.

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January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


Have you been affected? Are you worried by the crisis?

Send your comments

September 14, 2008

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

US President George W Bush has warned Texas will take a long time to recover from Hurricane Ike, as a huge search and relief operation gathers pace.

Mr Bush will travel to the state on Tuesday to inspect the relief effort.

Rescuers are trying to get to thousands of people who ignored orders to flee the storm, which cut power to millions and mauled America’s oil hub.

“This is a tough storm and it’s one that is going to require time for people to recover,” Mr Bush said.

Ike has been blamed for four deaths so far, two in Texas and two in Louisiana.

What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to them
Tommie Mafrei
Galveston police chief

Rescuers are using boats, lorries and helicopters to tackle roads waist-deep in water and blocked by felled trees.The storm made landfall in Galveston early on Saturday with 110mph (175km/h) winds.

It cut a 500-mile (800-km) swathe of destruction across a span of the Gulf of Mexico coast before weakening to a tropical depression on Sunday morning over Arkansas.

Ike severely hit oil and gas production in the region and wreaked at least $8bn (£4.5bn) in onshore damage.

Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison warned that oil refineries disabled by the hurricane could remain idled for a further eight or nine days – and that Americans should brace for possible fuel shortages.

Some coastal residents waded through chest-deep water with their belongings and children in their arms to get to safety on Saturday, but thousands of others ignored evacuation orders.

Mr Bush said the federal government would be delivering 1.5m liters of water and 1m meals daily for the displaced.

Distress calls

Police, paramedics, rescue dogs and structural engineers fanned out at daybreak on Sunday across the coastal city of Galveston, which took the brunt of the storm, hampered by floodwater’s and widespread wreckage.

Galveston police officer Tommie Mafrei said: “What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to [the stranded]… They are naive about it, thinking it’s not going to be that bad.”

State Governor Rick Perry’s office said 940 people had been rescued by nightfall on Saturday, but that thousands had made distress calls the night before.

Hurricane Ike caused widespread destruction in Galveston, Texas

Officials said another 600 people were rescued in neighboring Louisiana, where flooding ruined tens of thousands of homes and left nearly 200,000 householders without electricity.

More than three million people had no power in Texas at the height of the storm, and the authorities said it could be weeks before supplies were fully restored.

Ike sent fuel prices higher at the pumps and, analysts say, has triggered the biggest disruption to US energy supplies in at least three years.

Production was shut down at 14 oil refineries and 28 natural gas processing plants in the storm’s path.

The hurricane also battered Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US and the nation’s oil hub. Police there had used bullhorns to order people back into their homes.

The BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani weathered the storm in Houston and described how ferocious winds ripped the glass from many of the city’s skyscrapers.

But officials were encouraged by the fact flooding brought by the storm surge turned out to be much less serious than forecast.

Among those killed by Ike were a woman in Pinehurst, Texas, and a teenage boy in Louisiana’s Bayou Dularge, AP news agency reported.

Last week, Ike caused devastation in Cuba and Haiti, where hundreds of people have died in several tropical storms over the last month.


Are you in the areas affected? Are preparing to evacuate or are you staying in your home? Send us your comments and experiences

August 26, 2008

Green tech in ‘Formula Zero’ race

Green tech in ‘Formula Zero’ race

Formula Zero karts

Delft University’s Greenchoice leads the newly established table

The world’s first international hydrogen-powered motorsport race was held in Rotterdam this weekend.

Dubbed the Formula Zero championship, the contest pitted teams from five countries against each other in a zero-emissions go-kart race.

Each team’s entry was powered by a commercial fuel cell that produces electricity from hydrogen.

A Dutch team won the endurance event, while a Spanish team clinched the award for fastest lap.

Peak power

Founded by Dutch motorsport enthusiasts Godert van Hardenbroek and Eelco Rietveld, Formula Zero is already recognized by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the world’s motor sport governing body.

The championship consisted of several events, with teams from the UK, US, the Netherlands, Spain, and Belgium competing for the top honour: zeroth place.

The events included a sprint race, won by a Spanish team called EuplatecH2 with a lap time of 36 seconds. In the endurance event, the Greenchoice Forze team from Delft University took the zeroth place on the podium.

Formula Zero kart

Formula Zero looks set to green up motorsport

That puts the Delft team on top in the standings. In third place was Imperial College London’s team Imperial Racing Green, who proved to have the most reliable entry if not eventually the fastest.

“In 10 years if the motorsport industry as a whole hasn’t engaged in zero or low emission principles, it probably won’t be around,” said Greg Offer, who headed up the Imperial team. “Teams that embrace this new technology early on will succeed, and those that don’t will fall by the wayside.”

Racing excitement won’t suffer, though; Dr. Offer says that fuel-cell powered vehicles don’t represent a compromise in performance over traditional petrol-fueled engines.

“With a combustion engine, you have to reach three or four thousand rev[olutions per minute] to get your peak power,” he says. “With an electric vehicle, it’s all there from standing, and they’re more efficient.”

It is expected that the class will grow to Formula Three standard and then full-size racing class as interest in green motoring escalates. The next event will be held in the US in March. In 2009 the Formula Zero championship will comprise four races.

August 7, 2008

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

JERUSALEM – Israel is building up its strike capabilities amid growing anxiety over Iran‘s nuclear ambitions and appears confident that a military attack would cripple Tehran’s atomic program, even if it can’t destroy it.

Such talk could be more threat than reality. However, Iran’s refusal to accept Western conditions is worrying Israel as is the perception that Washington now prefers diplomacy over confrontation with Tehran.

The Jewish state has purchased 90 F-16I fighter planes that can carry enough fuel to reach Iran, and will receive 11 more by the end of next year. It has bought two new Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed warheads — in addition to the three it already has.

And this summer it carried out air maneuvers in the Mediterranean that touched off an international debate over whether they were a “dress rehearsal” for an imminent attack, a stern warning to Iran or a just a way to get allies to step up the pressure on Tehran to stop building nukes.

According to foreign media reports, Israeli intelligence is active inside Iranian territory. Israel’s military censor, who can impose a range of legal sanctions against journalists operating in the country, does not permit publication of details of such information in news reports written from Israel.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear program took on new urgency this week after U.S. officials rejected Tehran’s response to an incentives package aimed at getting it to stop sensitive nuclear activity — setting the stage for a fourth round of international sanctions against the country.

Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear power, sees an atomic bomb in Iranian hands as a direct threat to its existence.

Israel believes Tehran will have enriched enough uranium for a nuclear bomb by next year or 2010 at the latest. The United States has trimmed its estimate that Iran is several years or as much as a decade away from being able to field a bomb, but has not been precise about a timetable. In general U.S. officials think Iran isn’t as close to a bomb as Israel claims, but are concerned that Iran is working faster than anticipated to add centrifuges, the workhorses of uranium enrichment.

“If Israeli, U.S., or European intelligence gets proof that Iran has succeeded in developing nuclear weapons technology, then Israel will respond in a manner reflecting the existential threat posed by such a weapon,” said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a policy forum in Washington last week.

“Israel takes (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding its destruction seriously. Israel cannot risk another Holocaust,” Mofaz said.

The Iranian leader has in the past called for Israel’s elimination, though his exact remarks have been disputed. Some translators say he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” while others say a better translation would be “vanish from the pages of time” — implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment is meant only for electricity generation, not a bomb — an assertion that most Western nations see as disingenuous.

Israeli policymakers and experts have been debating for quite some time whether it would even be possible for Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear program. The mission would be far more complicated than a 1981 Israeli raid that destroyed Iraq’s partially built Osirak nuclear reactor, or an Israeli raid last year on what U.S. intelligence officials said was another unfinished nuclear facility in Syria.

In Iran, multiple atomic installations are scattered throughout the country, some underground or bored into mountains — unlike the Iraqi and Syrian installations, which were single aboveground complexes.

Still, the Syria action seemed to indicate that Israel would also be willing to use force preemptively against Iran.

“For Israel this is not a target that cannot be achieved,” said Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former head of Israel’s army intelligence.

However, it’s unlikely Israel would carry out an attack without approval from the United States.

Recent signs that Washington may be moving away from a military option — including a proposal to open a low-level U.S. diplomatic office in Tehran and a recent decision to allow a senior U.S. diplomat to participate alongside Iran in international talks in Geneva — are not sitting very well with Israel.

That may help explain recent visits to Jerusalem by Mike McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each of whom delivered a message to Israel that it does not have a green light to attack Iran at this time.

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they do not wish to appear at odds with their most important ally, said they were concerned about a possible softening of the U.S. stance toward Iran.

Apparently to allay Israeli concerns, Bush administration officials last week assured visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the U.S. has not ruled out the possibility of a military strike on Iran. And the U.S., aware of Israel’s high anxiety over Iran’s nukes, is also hooking Israel up to an advanced missile detection system known as X-Band to guard against any future attack by Iran, said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions over the issue have not been made public.

With sanctions and diplomacy still the international community’s preferred method to get Iran to stop building the bomb, an Israeli strike does not appear imminent.

If it did attack, however, Israel would have to contend with upgraded Iranian defense capabilities, including 29 new Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile systems Iran purchased from Russia last year in a $700 million deal.

Russia has so far not gone through with a proposed sale to Iran of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, an even more powerful air defense system than the Tor-M1. An Israeli defense official said the deal is still on the table, however. This is a big source of consternation for Israel because the system could significantly complicate a pre-emptive Israeli assault on Iran.

Military experts say an Israeli strike would require manned aircraft to bombard multiple targets and heavy precision bombs that can blast through underground bunkers — something Israel failed to do in its 2006 war against Hezbollah. It’s widely assumed that Israel is seeking to obtain bunker buster bombs, if it hasn’t already done so.

Elite ground troops could also be necessary to penetrate the most difficult sites, though Israeli military planners say they see that option as perhaps too risky.

America’s ability to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities is far superior to Israel’s.

Unlike Israel, the United States has cruise missiles that can deliver high-explosive bombs to precise locations and B-2 bombers capable of dropping 85 500-pound bombs in a single run.

Yet the cost of an attack — by the U.S., Israel or both — is likely to be enormous.

Iran could halt oil production and shut down tanker traffic in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which could send the price of crude skyrocketing and wreck Western economies.

It could stir up trouble for the U.S. in Iraq by revving up Shiite militias there just as Washington is showing some important gains in reining in Iraqi chaos.

It could activate its militant proxies in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, from where Israel could come under heavy rocket attack. And it could strike Israel with its arsenal of Shahab-3 long-range missiles — something Israel is hoping to guard against through its Arrow missile defense system.

Perhaps most importantly, any strike on Iran — especially if it’s done without having exhausted all diplomatic channels — could have the opposite of the desired effect, “actually increasing the nationalist fervor to build a nuclear weapon,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli and expert on Iranian affairs.

Whether an attack on Iran would be worth its cost would depend on how long the nuclear program could be delayed, said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“A two, three-year delay is not worth it. For a five to 10-year delay I would say yes,” he said.

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