News & Current Affairs

February 21, 2010

Portugal rushes aid to Madeira after deadly floods

Portugal rushes aid to Madeira after deadly floods

Portugal’s armed forces are sending two ships with helicopters and medical supplies to Madeira island, where floods have killed at least 32 people.

Extra search and rescue teams were expected to arrive on Sunday to help clean up after mudslides and raging floods tore through towns on Saturday.

Officials fear the death toll could rise. Water, power and phones were cut in some areas.

PM Jose Socrates, who is in Madeira, said he would “do everything to help”.

The storms were the worst there since October 1993, when eight people died.

“So far we have confirmed 32 deaths but eventually the number may increase,” regional official Francisco Ramos was quoted as saying by Portuguese newspaper Publico.

Madeira is located about 900km (560miles) from the Portuguese mainland and is popular with foreign tourists.

Debris left behind in Funchal by the flash floods

Officials say the extra emergency teams being sent include 56 military rescuers with search dogs and 36 firefighters.

Portuguese Interior Minister Rui Pereira, who has also flown to the island, said forensic experts would conduct post-mortem examinations to allow funerals to take place soon.

He added: “We are studying the possibility of declaring a state of emergency and then seeking help from the European Union.”

The regional capital, Funchal, among the worst affected areas by Saturday’s floods and mudslides.

Television pictures showed muddy torrents coursing down narrow channels and spilling over the sides, roads awash with water and streets littered with debris.

‘Ghost town’

Trees have been brought down and cars swept away, blocking roads and hampering relief teams. Some bridges and roads have been washed away.

MADEIRA FACTS
map
Autonomous region of Portugal with population of around 250,000
Lies just over 480km (300 miles) from West African coast
The European continent is more than 900km away

British holidaymaker Cathy Sayers told the news Funchal was like a ghost town. She said the infrastructure had been wrecked.

“The drains just cannot cope with the water that’s coming down from the mountains – they are just overfilled with sludge.”

There had not really been any warning that it would be quite so bad, she said.

“I think everyone is extremely shocked that this has happened at this time of year,” she said.

The president of the regional government, Joao Jardim, said outdoor markets would be encouraged to reopen.

“We don’t know how much it will affect the tourism, but there is no point in dramatising the situation too much,” he said.

Local media say the authorities’ main concern now is for residents of Nuns valley – an isolated mountainous region that rescue workers have been unable to reach.

The Weather Center says the severe weather was due a low pressure system, and that while Madeira can expect further rain with heavy downpours on Sunday, there is no danger of a repeat of the flash floods.


Do you live in the area? Have you been affected by the floods and mudslides? Are you visiting the island?

Send your comments

January 31, 2009

Australia counts heatwave deaths

Australia counts heatwave deaths

The Australian authorities fear about 20 people have died as a result of one of the worst heatwaves in 100 years to hit the south-east of the country.

Most of them were elderly people who had been struggling in the heat.

The heatwave has also caused power outages in Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest city.

Extreme temperatures of more than 40C (104F) have hit the south-eastern states of Victoria and South Australia in the past three days.

If the high temperatures continue into Sunday, it will equal the worst heatwave that south-eastern Australia has witnessed in 100 years.

Already, it has caused disruption, destruction and death.

Map

In Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, health officials reported more than 20 sudden deaths, most of them elderly people overcome by the baking temperatures of over 40C who had suffered strokes and heart attacks.

Raging wildfires have ripped through the Gippsland region of neighbouring Victoria, and at least 10 homes have been destroyed near the rural town of Boolarra.

In Melbourne, the state capital, the heatwave has meant disruption to transportation services and power outages.

Trains have been cancelled because the rail lines have buckled in the heat.

An explosion at an electrical substation left over 300,000 homes without power.

Some traffic lights in the city have stopped working, so too the signals in parts of the rail network.

 


Are you affected by the heatwave? Send us your comments

September 16, 2008

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas has begun what is being described as the biggest search and rescue effort in its history following Hurricane Ike.

At least 2,000 people have been rescued but many thousands more are believed to have ignored the mandatory order to evacuate before Saturday’s storm.

The death toll rose to 30 as Ike swept on from Texas into the mid-US, with heavy rain causing flooding.

Millions of people are without power and Houston is under a week-long curfew as work continues to restore services.

While many schools remained shut, there were signs of a return to normality on Monday, as the city’s two airports resumed limited services and some shops and restaurants opened for business.

Five people died in Galveston Bay, an island city south-east of Houston which bore the brunt of the storm as Ike swept ashore on Saturday, bringing 13ft (4m) waves and 110mph (175km/h) winds.

‘Stay away’

Rescuers feared the toll could rise as they searched areas awash with sewage for those who did not leave before the hurricane hit.

As many as 140,000 people – some 10,000 in Galveston alone – failed to heed the order to evacuate.

Across Texas, 50 helicopters, 1,500 federal, state and local search teams were looking for stranded survivors, and a US navy ship carrying engineers was heading to Galveston to help with rebuilding operations.

We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal
US President George W Bush

Nearly 40,000 evacuees were being housed in 250 shelters across Texas – some with little money and no idea how long they would have to stay.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged residents to stay away until it was safe to return to their homes.

“There’s nothing to come here for,” she said. “Please leave.”

Warning that residents of Texas and Louisiana were in for “tough times”, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said some people would “be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months”.

Fema has said it will deliver 7.5m meals as well as 5m gallons (20m litres) of water over the next few days.

President George W Bush, who is due to survey the damage on Tuesday, told those affected by the storm: “We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Although Ike weakened to a tropical depression as it headed beyond Texas, the storm’s US death-toll rose to 30 as torrential rain caused severe flooding and power outages in parts of Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Ike killed more than 80 people when it tore through the Caribbean late last week.


Have you been affected by Hurricane Ike? Send us your comments and experiences

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

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

September 13, 2008

Details of Zimbabwe deal emerge

Details of Zimbabwe deal emerge

Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe, file images

Both Mr Tsvangirai (l) and Mr Mugabe claim to have won this year’s elections

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is to retain control of the army and chair cabinet meetings, according to leaks of Thursday’s power-sharing deal.

South African President Thabo Mbeki said Mr Mugabe had agreed to share power with Morgan Tsvangirai but said details would be released on Monday.

Mr Tsvangirai will control the police force and chair a new council of ministers, the sources say.

The deal followed seven weeks of talks and this year’s election violence.

Mr Mugabe has yet to comment on the agreement, brokered by South Africa’s leader.

Fair division?

BBC News is banned in Zimbabwe, but a correspondent inside the country says MDC supporters are not rejoicing on the streets, nor are Zanu-PF backers protesting.

Instead a silent optimism prevails – and after so many false dawns, Zimbabwe is holding its breath, our correspondent says.

REPORTED DEAL
Robert Mugabe:
President
Heads armed forces
Chairs cabinet
Zanu-PF has 15 ministers
Morgan Tsvangirai:
Prime minister
Chairs council of ministers
Controls police force
MDC has 16 ministers – 3 from smaller faction

International donors have said they would resume financial aid for Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy if Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is given a genuine share of power.

The EU said it would “evaluate the situation” at a foreign ministers’ meeting on Monday.

The agreement appears to give Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai roughly equal shares of power.

In cabinet, Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC and another MDC faction will together have 16 seats, while Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF will have the remaining 15.

Mr Mugabe will control the armed forces, while Mr Tsvangirai will be in charge of the police.

Our correspondent says the devil will lie in the detail and in the ability of the two men and the power blocks under them to wield genuine authority.

Mbeki hails deal

Work on finalizing the agreement will continue over the weekend. Some opposition MDC voices have already called the deal a climb-down, although others have said it is the best available.

MDC chairman and Zimbabwe’s parliamentary speaker Lovemore Moyo told that although his party was pleased with the deal, it had been a compromise.

“We wanted a titular head of state with an executive prime minister but that did not happen,” he said.

“So what we got at the end of the day perhaps was probably nearly a sister-sister power-sharing, so I’m saying it’s not exactly initially what we wanted.”

Negotiations started at the end of July, but stalled over the allocation of executive power between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai – bitter rivals for a decade.

The breakthrough came after the last four days of talks in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Mr Tsvangirai was first to announce the breakthrough, telling reporters on Thursday simply: “We’ve got a deal.”

Later, Mr Mbeki told a news conference the two sides had agreed to form an inclusive government.

He said: “I am absolutely certain that the leadership of Zimbabwe is committed to implementing these agreements.”

The deal would be signed at a ceremony in Harare attended by African leaders, he said.

British concern

Zimbabwe’s envoy to the UN, Boniface Chidyausiku, told the BBC that the deal was a “triumph for African diplomacy”.

The UN special representative on Zimbabwe, Haile Menkerios, said the announcement marked a way forward that all sides could live with.

HAVE YOUR SAY

This deal will work if outsiders stop prescribing to Zimbabweans what is good or not good for them

Dzvinyangoma, Zimbabwe

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was following the situation closely, adding that “our concern is the welfare of the Zimbabwean people”.

Zimbabwe has the fastest shrinking economy in the world with annual inflation of more than 11,000,000%.

Mr Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, won a controversial presidential run-off election in June.

He ran unopposed after Mr Tsvangirai withdrew, claiming the MDC was the target of state-sponsored violence.

In the first round of the presidential election in March, Mr Tsvangirai gained more votes than Mr Mugabe, but official results say he did not pass the 50% threshold for outright victory.

September 12, 2008

Thai party ‘drops Samak for PM’

Thai party ‘drops Samak for PM’

Ousted Thai PM Samak Sundaravej leaves Parliament House in Bangkok on 11September 2008

Protesters have consistently demanded that Mr Samak leave office

Thailand’s ruling party has dropped ousted PM Samak Sundaravej as its nominee for the job, say party sources.

The decision marks an apparent U-turn by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which earlier seemed determined to re-nominate him to the post.

Protesters have been demanding for weeks that Mr Samak should resign.

The apparent confirmation that he is no longer in contention for the post may pave the way for a settlement of the political crisis, analysts say.

Mr Samak had vowed not to bow to the protesters’ demands, but was eventually forced out earlier this week, over an apparently unrelated appearance in a TV cookery show.

The protesters call him a puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

New candidates

Reports are confused as to whether the pressure to drop Mr Samak came from within the ruling party or from its five coalition partners.

The Associated Press news agency quoted PPP spokesman Kuthep Kuthep Saikrajang as saying the party had short-listed three party members as its prime ministerial nominee, though they were not named.

Video still of Samak Sundaravej

Mr Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister

The party will need to agree on a compromise candidate before Wednesday, when parliament has scheduled a new vote for prime minister.

Earlier on Friday, a planned vote in the Thai parliament to re-elect Mr Samak as prime minister was postponed because too few MPs turned up.

Thousands of protesters who have been holding a sit-in outside Government House calling for Mr Samak’s resignation were enraged by his re-nomination.

Protesters pledged to continue their protest until a suitable replacement for Mr Samak was found – a scenario which may now have materialized, say correspondents.

Although the PPP is the largest party in parliament, it does not have an outright majority and four of its five coalition partners had already said they wanted an alternative candidate.

On top of that, Mr Samak also faces disqualification again later this month if the verdict in a defamation case goes against him.

Bed sharing ‘drains men’s brains’

Bed sharing ‘drains men’s brains’

Image of a couple sleeping

Bed sharing disturbed sleep quality

Sharing a bed with someone could temporarily reduce your brain power – at least if you are a man – Austrian scientists suggest.

When men spend the night with a bed mate their sleep is disturbed, whether they make love or not, and this impairs their mental ability the next day.

The lack of sleep also increases a man’s stress hormone levels.

According to the New Scientist study, women who share a bed fare better because they sleep more deeply.

Sleepless nights

Professor Gerhard Kloesch and colleagues at the University of Vienna studied eight unmarried, childless couples in their 20s.

Each couple was asked to spend 10 nights sleeping together and 10 apart while the scientists assessed their rest patterns with questionnaires and wrist activity monitors.

The next day the couples were asked to perform simple cognitive tests and had their stress hormone levels checked.

Sharing the bed space with someone who is making noises and who you have to fight with for the duvet is not sensible
Professor Neil Stanley, a sleep expert at the University of Surrey

Although the men reported they had slept better with a partner, they fared worse in the tests, with their results suggesting they actually had more disturbed sleep.

Both sexes had a more disturbed night’s sleep when they shared their bed, Professor Kloesch told a meeting of the Forum of European Neuroscience.

But women apparently managed to sleep more deeply when they did eventually drop off, since they claimed to be more refreshed than their sleep time suggested.

Their stress hormone levels and mental scores did not suffer to the same extent as the men.

But the women still reported that they had the best sleep when they were alone in bed.

Bed sharing also affected dream recall. Women remembered more after sleeping alone and men recalled best after sex.

Separate beds

Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert at the University of Surrey, said: “It’s not surprising that people are disturbed by sleeping together.

“Historically, we have never been meant to sleep in the same bed as each other. It is a bizarre thing to do.

“Sleep is the most selfish thing you can do and it’s vital for good physical and mental health.

“Sharing the bed space with someone who is making noises and who you have to fight with for the duvet is not sensible.

“If you are happy sleeping together that’s great, but if not there is no shame in separate beds.”

He said there was a suggestion that women are pre-programmed to cope better with broken sleep.

“A lot of life events that women have disturb sleep – bringing up children, the menopause and even the menstrual cycle,” he explained.

But Dr Stanley added people did get used to sharing a bed.

“If they have shared their bed with their partner for a long time they miss them and that will disturb sleep.”

Zimbabwe rivals agree unity deal

Zimbabwe rivals agree unity deal

Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe have reached a deal to share power.

After mediating four days of talks in Harare, South African President Thabo Mbeki said the agreement would be signed and made public on Monday.

Mr Tsvangirai has confirmed the deal, but Mr Mugabe has yet to comment.

The government and the opposition MDC had already agreed that Mr Tsvangirai would be prime minister with Mr Mugabe staying on as president.

Negotiations have been on-off since the end of July, but have stalled over the allocation of executive power between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai, bitter rivals for a decade.

‘Parallel governments’

Mr Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was first to announce the breakthrough, telling reporters simply: “We’ve got a deal.”

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai speaks during a press conference in Harare on 11 September 2008

Later, Mr Mbeki told a news conference the two sides had agreed unanimously to form an inclusive government.

He said: “I am absolutely certain that the leadership of Zimbabwe is committed to implementing these agreements.”

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told : “Both political parties are committed, it’s our wish that the deal will be successful.”

Zimbabwe’s envoy to the UN, Boniface Chidyausiku told that the deal was a “triumph for African diplomacy”.

The UN special representative on Zimbabwe, Haile Menkerios, said the announcement marked a way forward that all sides could live with.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was following the situation closely, adding that “our concern is the welfare of the Zimbabwean people”.

The discussions are thought to have been deadlocked over how many ministries each party should have in a unity government, and how much power Mr Mugabe should retain.

Mr Tsvangirai has consistently demanded that he should become executive prime minister, thereby taking over some of the powers that Mr Mugabe has exercised for more than 28 years.

Mr Tsvangirai may now chair a new council of ministers and control the day-to-day running of the country, but Mr Mugabe will head the cabinet, our correspondent says.

However, how two – in effect – parallel governments will work is unclear, he adds.

Aid hopes

The agreement opens the way for international donors to help to revive Zimbabwe’s economy.

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe arrives for the talks in Harare on 10 September 2008

It is now the fastest shrinking in the world with inflation galloping to more than 11m%.

Mr Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, won a controversial June presidential run-off election unopposed after Mr Tsvangirai withdrew, claiming the MDC was the target of state-sponsored violence.

In the first presidential election in March, Mr Tsvangirai gained more votes than Mr Mugabe, but official results say he did not pass the 50% threshold for outright victory.

Earlier on Thursday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said any power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe would be judged by how much it reflected legitimate election results.


Are you in Zimbabwe or do you have family or friends there? What is your reaction to the news of a power-sharing deal? Send us your comments

September 10, 2008

Fusion power seeks super steels

Fusion power seeks super steels

Jet (EFDA)

The JET lab has helped pioneer fusion

Scientists say an understanding of how the Twin Towers collapsed will help them develop the materials needed to build fusion reactors.

New research shows how steel will fail at high temperatures because of the magnetic properties of the metal.

The New York buildings fell when their steel backbones lost strength in the fires that followed the plane impacts.

Dr Sergei Dudarev told the British Association Science Festival that improved steels were now being sought.

The principal scientist at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said one of the first applications for these better performing metals would be in the wall linings of fusion reactors where temperatures would be in a similar range to those experienced in the Twin Towers’ fires.

‘Not melting’

The key advance is the understanding that, at high temperatures, tiny irregularities in a steel’s structure can disrupt its internal magnetic fields, making the rigid metal soft.

“Steels melt at about 1,150C (2,102F), but lose strength at much lower temperatures,” explained Dr Sergei Dudarev, principal scientist at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

Atoms in steel (UKAEA)

Iron atoms in steel: Black balls show irregularities that disrupt magnetic fields, weakening steel

At room temperature, the magnetic fields between iron atoms remain regular, but when heated, these fields are altered allowing the atoms to slide past each other, weakening the steel.

“[The steel] becomes very soft. It is not melting but the effect is the same,” said Dr Dudarev.

He said blacksmiths had exploited this property for hundreds of years – it allows iron to become pliable at temperatures much lower than its melting point.

The peak in this pliability is at 911.5C, but begins at much lower temperatures, at around 500C (932F) – a temperature often reached during building fires.

The steel backbone of the Twin Towers was probably exposed to temperatures close to this, when insulating panels – meant to protect the buildings’ structural frame – were dislodged by the impacts of the hijacked planes.

The roaring fire mid-way up the building heated the steel struts, and once temperatures rose above 500C the structure became elastic, and collapsed under the force of the floors above.

Tuning up

The interest of Dr Dudarev and the UKAEA is to find steels that can withstand the intense heat of being inside a a fusion reactor.

UKAEA has helped pioneer fusion power – deriving energy by forcing together atomic nuclei – at Europe’s JET lab in Oxfordshire; and is now assisting the development work on the world first large-scale experimental reactor known as Iter.

The extended periods over which Iter will run means the reactor must have robust materials built into the vessel where the fusion reactions will occur.

Dr Dudarev said it should be possible to tune the properties of suitable new steels by adding a mix of other elements.

“We need to look at the magnetic properties of steel, [and] vary their chemical composition in a systematic way in order to get rid of this behaviour,” he suggests.

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