Monthly Archives: April 2015

Never Ending – War in Afghanistan

Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising.”…[I]nterviews with American and Western officials in Kabul and Washington offer a picture of a more aggressive range of military operations against the Taliban in recent months, as the insurgents have continued to make gains against struggling government forces.

Rather than ending the American war in Afghanistan, the military is using its wide latitude to instead transform it into a continuing campaign of airstrikes — mostly drone missions — and Special Operations raids that have in practice stretched or broken the parameters publicly described by the White House.

Western and military officials said that American and NATO forces conducted 52 airstrikes in March 2015 months after the official end of the combat mission. Many of these air assaults, which totaled 128 in the first three months of 2015, targeted low- to midlevel Taliban commanders in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan.,,,“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”…Gen. John F. Campbell, vehemently denied accusations that he was putting troops into harm’s way just to enable more airstrikes.….“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”

The operations are continuing during a troubling stretch for the Afghan security forces, as the Taliban are continuing to make gains…Mr. Ghani, who has yet to name a minister of defense, has in many ways outsourced much of the running of the war to General Campbell.

Excerpts from AZAM AHMED and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back Into Fight in Afghanistan, NY Times, Apr. 29, 2015

Brazil as Space Power

The Brazilian government is ending a decade-long project to operate Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 rocket from Brazilian territory following a government review that found too many open questions about its cost and future market success, the deputy chief of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) said.  It remains unclear whether the decision will force Brazil to pay Ukraine any financial penalties for a unilateral cancellation of a bilateral agreement. Over the years, the work to build a launch facility for Ukraine’s Cyclone at Brazil’s Alcantara spaceport has suffered multiple stops and starts as one side or the other fell short on its financial obligations to the effort…

Noronha de Souza said the idea of making a profit in the launch business is now viewed as an illusion. The project, he said, was unlikely ever to be able to support itself on commercial revenue alone.  “Do you really believe launchers make money in any part of the world? I don’t believe so. If the government doesn’t buy launches and fund the development of technology, it does not work,” he said.  “Everybody talks about SpaceX [of Hawthorne, California] like it’s magic, somehow different. It’s no different. Their connections with NASA have been important. If NASA had stopped the funding, where would they be? I really appreciate what they are doing, but I doubt whether launch bases can make money and survive on their own without government support.”…

While the Cyclone-4 project is about to end, Brazil has maintained as a strategic goal the development of a space-launch vehicle from the Brazilian military-owned Alcantara facility. As such it is continuing work with the German Aerospace Center, DLR, on a small solid-fueled vehicle, called VLM-1 for Microsatellite Launch Vehicle, that began as a launcher for suborbital missions and has evolved to a small-satellite-launch capability…

AEB is a purely civilian agency funded through the Science and Technology Ministry. Until a few years ago, the Brazilian military had not been a player in the nation’s space policy. That is starting to change with the Brazilian Defense Ministry’s establishment of space-related operational requirements.  Among those requirements is a radar Earth observation satellite, which AEB has penciled into its program for around 2020. Aside from allowing the use of its Alcantara site, the Brazilian military is not yet financing any AEB work, but the military is expected to pay for launches of its satellites once the development is completed

AEB is finishing design of a small multimission satellite platform whose first launch will be of the Amazonia-1 Earth observation payload, with a medium-resolution imager of 10-meter-resolution, similar to the capacity of today’s larger China-Brazil CBERS-4 satellite, which is in orbit.

Brazil and Argentina’s CONAE space agency will be dividing responsibility for an ocean-observation satellite system, using the same multimission platform, called Sabia-Mar. The first Sabia-Mar is scheduled for launch in 2017, with a second in 2018, according to AEB planning.

Excerpts from Peter B. de Selding Brazil Pulling Out of Ukrainian Launcher Project,  Space News, Apr. 16, 2015

Russia has rushed to take advantage of the cancellation of space agreement between Brazil and Ukraine. [Russia] wants bot build  joint projects and space programs on the long term with BRICS Group member countries, particularly Brazil.  Brazil attempts to build its own cosmodrome, and unfortunately for the loss of Ukraine and its technology, the Brazilian-Ukrainian Project for the use of the Cyclone rocket in coastal launchings is practically minimalized…Russia proposed its variant of work, consisting in principle on the installation, already existent, of several satellite navigation stations Glonass and tbe idea of helping Brasilia in some way to the construction of the cosmodrome.

Excerpt from  Odalys Buscarón Ochoa, Russia Interested in Space Coop with BRICS Countries, Prensa Latina, Apr. 24, 2015

Under-sea GPS: DARPA POSYDON

The objective of the POSYDON program is to develop an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning. DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin.  By measuring the absolute range to multiple source signals, an undersea platform can obtain continuous, accurate positioning without surfacing for a GPS fix.

DARPA program  April 14, 2015

 

Building Climate Resilience in Ecosystems

Some ecosystems show little response [to climate change] until a threshold or tipping point is reached where even a small perturbation may trigger collapse into a state from which  recovery is difficult .  ….[S}uch collapse may be altered by conditions that can be managed locally…. [This] provides  potential opportunities for pro-active management.…[C]rises in iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites illustrate that such stewardship is at risk of failing. The term “safe operating space” frames the  problem of managing our planet in terms of staying within acceptable levels or “boundaries” for global stressors [Such as climate change]….

Obviously, local interventions are no panacea for the threats of climatic change. For example, melting of arctic sea ice with its far-reaching ecological consequences cannot be arrested by local management. However, ways of building climate resilience are emerging for a variety of ecosystems, ranging from control of local sources of ocean acidification  to management of grazing pressure on dry ecosystems,World Heritage Areas.

The Doñana wetlands in southern Spain provide the most important wintering site for waterfowl in Europe. They contain the largest temporary pond complex in Europe, with a diversity of amphibians and invertebrates. Despite the site’s protected status, the marshes are threatened by eutrophication due to pollution and reduced flow of incoming streams, promoting toxic cyanobacterial blooms and dominance by invasive floating plants that create anoxic conditions in the water. In addition, groundwater extraction for strawberry culture and beach tourism also has major impacts.  Little has been done to control these local stressors, leaving Doñana unnecessarily vulnerable to climate change. UNESCO has just rated this World Heritage Site as under ‘very high threat’.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system in the world. In response to multiple threats, fishing has been prohibited since 2004 over 33% of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and efforts have begun to reduce runoff of nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and sediments from land. However, these interventions may be too little, too late. Approximately half of the coral cover has been lost in recent decades, and the outlook is “poor, and declining” with climate change, coastal development and dredging as major future threats. The World Heritage Committee has warned that in the absence of a solid long-term plan, it would consider listing the reef as “in danger” in 2015.

More available online Creating a Safe Operating Space for Iconic Ecosystems By M. Scheffer et al, 2015

Nuclear Benefits – Pakistan/Saudi Arabia Friendship

The Pakistani Parliament, even while stating its commitment to protect the territory of Saudi Arabia, recently adopted a resolution not to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen….The foreign affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates, Anwar Gargash, blasted the decision as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected,” accusing Pakistan of advancing Iran’s interests rather than those of its own Persian Gulf allies. Pakistan was choosing neutrality in an “existential confrontation,” he said, and it would pay the price… Millions of Pakistanis work in the Persian Gulf, sending back vast remittances. Many of Pakistan’s politicians and generals have major investments in the region, and some have a deep affinity for Wahhabism. Rich Arabs in Pakistan are treated like royalty, allowed to flout hunting and environmental protection laws… [S]ome backpedaling has begun. The Pakistani military agreed to commit naval vessels to help enforce an arms embargo against the Houthis. This, however, will not undo the damage: The recent deterioration of Pakistan’s ties with its Arab benefactors, even if it turns out to be temporary, is unprecedented.

For Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Parliament’s surprising assertion of independence was especially worrisome because it came on the heels of the American-backed preliminary nuclear deal with Iran…This development undermines Saudi Arabia’s longstanding nuclear strategy. In the 1970s, partly to extend its influence, partly in the name of Muslim solidarity, it began bankrolling Pakistan’s nuclear program. In gratitude, the Pakistani government renamed the city of Lyallpur as Faisalabad, after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. When Pakistan seemed to dither after India tested five nuclear bombs in May 1998, the Saudi government pledged to give it 50,000 barrels of oil a day for free. Pakistan soon tested six of its own bombs. Later, the Saudi defense minister at the time, Prince Sultan, visited the secret nuclear and missile facilities at the Kahuta complex near Islamabad… In exchange for its largesse, Saudi Arabia has received Pakistani military assistance in the form of soldiers, expertise and ballistic missiles.

The Saudi government has taken the quid pro quo to imply certain nuclear benefits as well, including, if need be, the delivery at short notice of some of the nuclear weapons it has helped pay for. Some Pakistani warheads are said to have been earmarked for that purpose and reportedly are stocked at the Minhas air force base in Kamra, near Islamabad. (Pakistan, which has as many as 120 nuclear warheads, denies this..)

The Saudis have also come to expect that they fall under the nuclear protection of Pakistan, much like, say, Japan is covered by the United States’s nuclear umbrella. Pakistan’s nuclear forces were developed to target India, but they can strike farther, as was recently demonstrated by the successful test launch of the Shaheen-3 missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with South Korea “to assess the potential” for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It plans to build 16 nuclear-power reactors over the next 20 years, with the first reactor expected to be on line in 2022, according to the World Nuclear Association. It insists on having a full civilian fuel cycle, leaving open the possibility of reprocessing weapon-grade plutonium from nuclear waste.

Excerpts, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan, the Saudis’ Indispensable Nuclear Partnership, NY Times, Apr. 21, 2015

The Nuclearization of Sub-Saharan Africa

Kenya and Uganda are among the countries making progress in nuclear technology in sub-Saharan Africa with both involved with the pre-feasibility study stage in their atomic energy programmes.  According to the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kenya successfully completed its pre-feasibility stage while Uganda is currently conducting its own.

A pre-feasibility stage involves assessing energy needs, proposing roadmaps, developing expertise and training human resources, establishing policy and regulatory frameworks and mobilizing funding as a country prepares to conduct feasibility studies for nuclear plants.

“Kenya and Uganda join their sub-Saharan Africa counter-parts, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Niger while in North Africa – Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya have taken notable steps,” Jin Kwang Lee, African Regional Officer at IAEA told a conference on energy and nuclear power in Kwale….James Banaabe Isingoma, Uganda’s acting Commissioner for Energy Efficiency and Conservation told East African Business Week while it is perceived Uganda will build a nuclear plant by 2026, this projection is too ambitious, because financing for reactors is hard to find.  Kenya aims to have a nuclear plant by 2025…

Kenya hopes to establish a 1,000 MW reactor between 2022 and 2027. Njoroge said, “We are committed to the introduction of nuclear energy to our country’s energy mix which is currently dominated by hydro-power projects. We will soon deplete geothermal and hydro generation hence be left with no choice, but to go nuclear,” he said.  “We are injecting Ksh 300 million (about $3 million) in human resource training annually and we think nuclear will be a game changer. It is economically strategic because all other available resources will be exploited by 2031,” Njoroge said.He said, “It means we will be able to drive ironuclear power plantn and steel production, electric rails, powering mills and petroleum pipelines.”

Currently, the two regional neighbours are grappling with insufficient power supply as demand increases with economic growth and rural electrification programmes that are putting more people on the grid.

Excerpt from Uganda: Kenya and Uganda Eye Nuclear Power, allAfrica.com, Apr. 19, 2015

Investigating the Deep Dark Web

DARPA’s Memex search technologies have garnered much interest due to their initial mainstream application: to uncover human trafficking operations taking place on the “dark web”, the catch-all term for the various internet networks the majority of people never use, such as Tor, Freenet and I2P. And a significant number of law enforcement agencies have inquired about using the technology. But Memex promises to be disruptive across both criminal and business worlds.

Christopher White, who leads the team of Memex partners, which includes members of the Tor Project, a handful of prestigious universities, NASA and research-focused private firms, tells FORBES the project is so ambitious in its scope, it wants to shake up a staid search industry controlled by a handful of companies: Google, Microsoft,  and Yahoo.

Putting those grandiose ideas into action, DARPA will today open source various components of Memex, allowing others to take the technologies and adapt them for their own use. As is noticeable from the list of technologies below, there’s great possibility for highly-personalised search, whether for agents trying to bring down pedophiles or the next Silk Road, or anyone who wants a less generic web experience.

Uncharted Software, University of Southern California and Next Century Corporation
These three have produced the front-end interfaces, called TellFinder and DIG, currently being used by Memex’s law enforcement partners. “They’re very good at making things look slick and shiny. Processing and displaying information is really hard and quite subjective,” says White.

The ArrayFire tech is a software library designed to support accelerated computing, turbo-boosting web searches over GPUs. “A few lines of code in ArrayFire can replace dozens of lines of parallel computing code, saving users valuable time and lowering development costs,” the blurb for the technology reads.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is building various pieces of the Memex puzzle, but its TJBatchExtractor is what’s going open source today. It allows a user to extract data, such as a name, organisation or location, from advertisements. It was put to good use in the anti-human trafficking application already in use by law enforcement agencies.

Diffeo’s Dossier Stack learns what a user wants as they search the internet. “Instead of relying on Google’s ranking to tell you what’s important, you can say, “I want the Thomas that’s in the UK not the US, so don’t send me anything that has US-oriented information,” explains White.

Hyperion Gray’s crawlers are designed to replicate human interaction with websites. “Think of what they do as web crawling on steroids,” says White. Its AutoLogin component takes authentication credentials funnelled into the system to crawl into password-protected areas of websites, whilst Formasaurus does the same but for web forms, determining what happens when fields are filled in. The Frontera, SourcePin and Splash tools make it easy for the average user to organise and view the kind of content they want in their results. Its HG Profiler code looks for matches of data across different pages where there’s no hyperlink making it obvious. Hyperion Gray also built Scrapy-­Dockerhub, which allows easy repackaging of crawlers into Docker containers, allowing for “better and easier web crawling”, notes White.

IST Research and Parse.ly: “These tools [Scrapy Cluster, pykafka and steamparse] are major infrastructure components so that you can build a very scalable, real-time web crawling architecture.”

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This NASA-based organisation has crafted a slew of Memex building blocks, four of which – ImageCat, FacetSpace, LegisGATE and ImageSpace – are applications built on top of Apache Software Foundation projects that allow users to analyse and manipulate vast numbers of images and masses of text. JPL also created a video and image analysis system called SMQTK to rank that kind of visual content based on relevance, making it easy for the user to connect files to the topic they care about. Its Memex Explorer brings all those tools together under a common interface.

MIT Lincoln Laboratory.  Three of MIT’s contributions – Text.jl, MITIE, Topic – are natural language processing tools. They allow the user, for example, to search for where two organisations are mentioned in different documents, or to ask for terse descriptions of what a document or a webpage is about.

New York University.  NYU, in collaboration with JPL and Continuum Analytics, has created an interface called Topic, which lets the user interact with “focused crawlers”, which consistently update indexes to produce what’s relevant to the user, always “narrowing the thing they’re crawling”, notes White. “We have a few of these different kinds of crawlers as it’s not clear for every domain what the right crawling strategy is.

Qadium.  This San Francisco firm has submitted a handful of utilities that allow for “data marshalling”, a way to organise data so it can be inspected in different ways.

Sotera Defense Solutions. This government contractor has created the aptly-named DataWake. It collects all links that the user didn’t click on but could, and maybe should, have. This “wake” includes the data behind those links.

SRI International.  SRI is working alongside the Tor Project, the US Navy and some of the original creators of Tor, the anonymising browser that encrypts traffic and loops users through a number of servers to protect their identities. SRI has developed a “dark crawler” called the Hidden Service Forum Spider, that grabs content from Hidden Services – those sites hosted on Tor nodes and are used for especially private services, be they drug markets or human rights forums for those living under repressive regimes. The HSProbe, meanwhile, looks for Hidden Service domains. The Memex team is keen to learn more about the darker corners of the web, partly to help law enforcement clean it of illegal content, but also to get a better understanding of how big the unmapped portions of the internet are.

DARPA is funding the Tor Project, which is one of the most active supporters of privacy in the technological world, and the US Naval Research Laboratory to test the Memex tools. DARPA said Memex wasn’t about destroying the privacy protections offered by Tor, even though it wanted to help uncover criminals’ identities. “None of them [Tor, the Navy, Memex partners] want child exploitation and child pornography to be accessible, especially on Tor. We’re funding those groups for testing,” says White.

DeepDive from Stanford turns text and multimedia into “knowledge bases”, creating connections between relationships of the different people or groups being searched for. “It’s machine learning tech for inferring patterns, working relationships… finding links across a very large amount of documents,” adds White.

Excerpts from Thomas Fox-Brewster, Watch Out Google, DARPA Just Open Sourced All This Swish ‘Dark Web’ Search Tech,Forbes, Apr. 17, 2015

For extensive information see DARPA MEMEX

Peacekeepers Kill Demonstrators: Central African Republic

One person died and a dozen people were wounded when hundreds of protesters clashed with U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic on April  10, 2015 local authorities said.  The demonstrators in the town of Kaga-Bandoro,[Christians]  about 350 km (220 miles) north of the capital Bangui, were angry that the U.N. MINUSCA mission had failed to stop raids by ethnic Peuhl pastoralists [Muslims]…”The protesters attacked the town’s aerodrome. To beat them back, the Pakistani blue helmets used tear gas and guns,” the town prefect Gaston Yendemo said, adding that the injured had been taken to hospital. Among those hurt was a Pakistani peacekeeper.

A statement from MINUSCA said up to 400 people, some armed with weapons, attacked the camp. They threw stones at peacekeepers and tried to force their way through the camp barrier, which they set on fire.  “Given the scale of the attack, the blue helmets needed to react by firing in the air. We deplore the death of one person and several injuries among the attackers,” it said, adding that it was the second attack in a week against the base.

Thousands have been killed and around a million displaced from their homes in violence that has gripped the impoverished landlocked country since the mainly-Muslim Seleka took power in March 2013.  The group gave up power last year in the face of diplomatic pressure and violence by the “anti-balaka” militia, who are mainly Christian or animist, and an interim government was installed.

One dead in protest against peacekeepers in Central African Republic, Reuters,  Apr. 10, 2015

Corruption Begets Corruption: Nigeria Oil

Dead fish wash up on the once-fertile shores of creeks around Bodo, a town in the Niger delta, that are covered with crude oil more than six years after two massive spills. Locals have only now received compensation from Shell, the oil firm responsible for the leaks. For the first time in half a decade, fishermen have cash to start businesses, repair their houses and send children to school… “Look,” says the chief of a tiny town called B-Dere, just a few miles from Bodo. He gestures to the deathly-black banks still bearing the marks of the slicks. “There is nothing to drink, nowhere to fish. What good has come from it?”

The cash that the oil industry provides has greased Nigerian politics for decades. Gross mismanagement and corruption in the industry are the causes of much of the inequality and discontent with the ruling party in an economy that is not just Africa’s largest but that ought to also be one of its wealthiest…

Nigeria pumps something like 2m barrels of oil a day. These account for most of its exports and about 70% of government revenues. But official figures are as murky as its polluted creeks. Volumes are recorded only at export terminals rather than at the wellhead, says Celestine AkpoBari of the Port Harcourt-based advocacy group, Social Action. Were a proper tally kept, he says, corruption would be exposed on a scale that would shock even the most cynical Nigerian.

It seems likely that more than 100,000 barrels of crude are stolen (or “bunkered” in the local parlance) every day, at a cost to the state and investors of billions of dollars a year. Politicians, oil workers and security forces are said to be behind the complex cartels that steal, illegally refine and sell crude oil. They have amassed almost unimaginable wealth in a country where poverty is still rife.

Oil’s taint has seeped into almost all levels of government and business. Yet the central problem is found in the petroleum ministry, which wields vast unaccountable power. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), a state-owned behemoth, is responsible for all aspects of the industry, from exploration to production and regulation. It is among the most secretive oil groups in the world, and is “accountable to no one”, says Inemo Samiama, country head of the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a non-profit group.

In 2013 the former governor of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, alleged that $20 billion in oil revenues was missing from state coffers. He was fired for his troubles soon after. …

Even where cash has not been nicked, it has often been squandered. Take the Excess Crude Account (ECA), a sovereign-wealth fund intended to cushion Nigeria’s budget against falling oil prices. Most of it was spent over the past two years, despite oil prices being relatively high for most of that period.

The industry itself is in as sorry a state as the government’s finances. Although oil practically gushes from the ground in parts of the delta, oil output has been stagnant for years and billions of dollars of investment are stalled because of uncertainty over a new law for the industry.  This is holding back Nigeria’s economy almost across the board. Because the industry has failed to build the infrastructure to pipe gas to domestic consumers such as power plants, much of it is simply flared and burned: Britain reckons that some $800m worth of Nigeria’s gas a year goes up in smoke. The country is also chronically short of fuel even though it has four state-owned oil refineries. Because of poor maintenance and ageing equipment they operate at well below capacity, forcing Nigeria to import about 70% of the fuel it needs. There is little incentive for reform since the government pays hefty subsidies to NNPC to keep on importing…

But a starting point should be to halt subsidies for fuel imports. At a stroke that would undercut a major source of corruption and crime (both on land and at sea) that spills into neighbouring countries, the destination for smuggled consignments of cheap Nigerian fuel. It should also take a close look at NNPC, which should not be allowed both to participate in the market and regulate it. Some of its assets could be privatised. The ruling party and opposition are considering both….

For communities in Ogoniland, the most pressing problem is cleaning up. Shell has promised to mop up the mess around Bodo, though the process has yet to start. Compensation is one thing, Bodo residents say, but what they really want is their livelihood back.

Nigeria’s oil: Crude politics, Economist,  Mar. 28, 2015, at 54

Boycotting Coal

Chinese coal  consumption dipped by 1.6% in 2014, despite economic growth of 7.3%. The country’s voracious appetite for steel is peaking, damping demand for coking coal. Worries about pollution mean that demand for thermal coal, as used in power stations, is slackening too. Water conservation is another concern for policymakers—on current trends coal could account for a quarter of China’s water use by 2020 and coal reserves are mainly in the most parched regions. Its coal-fired plants are running at only 54% of capacity, a 35-year low. In Beijing two big coal-fired plants closed this week; the capital’s last one will shut down next year.

Another prop to demand has been power generation in rich countries. But in America coal now struggles to compete with natural gas, which has fallen by 80% in price since 2008. Domestic coal use there peaked in 2007. European consumption soared after Germany’s hasty decision to close its nuclear-power plants. But gas and renewables are eating into that.

Coalswarm, an environmental think-tank, says in a new report that two-thirds of coal-fired power plants proposed worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or cancelled…. Overall, Europe and America have already cut coal-fired generation capacity by over a fifth in a decade. The output of American coal mines dropped to 1993 levels in 2013.

Political pressure is growing against the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity. But of 1,617GW of global capacity, 75% is of the dirtiest kind…. The chimneys of all but the most modern coal plants also emit plenty of other nasties. Mercury emissions stunt young brains. Sulphur and nitrous oxides scald lungs. Overall, coal kills around 800,000 people a year, most of them poor. In China it is responsible for up to a sixth of the particulates most dangerous for human health.

In America the coal and electric-utility industries are fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to curb emissions of CO2, mercury and other toxins contained in coal. On March 25th, 2015 the Supreme Court heard arguments by some state governments, backed by the miners and utilities, that the agency has failed duly to consider the cost of its measures against mercury (see article).

Campaigners reckon 80% of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground if the planet is to stand a chance of keeping global warming under 2ºC by 2050. A divestment movement akin to the apartheid-era campaign to boycott South Africa is under way in many universities. Stanford may dump its coal investments and Oxford University is under pressure to do likewise. The World Bank no longer invests in coal-fired plants. Last year Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund dumped its holdings in more than 50 coal companies worldwide. South Korea recently introduced a carbon cap-and-trade scheme which punishes coal….

Furthermore, in some emerging markets, India especially, demand for coal is set to continue rising—so overall global demand may not peak until at least the 2030s. This week India’s government predicted a 19% rise in the country’s coal imports in this fiscal year. But thereafter the plan is to bring in private contractors to develop India’s untapped coalfields, and then to phase out all thermal-coal imports. If so, that will be grim news for the Indonesian, Australian and South African mining firms that are supplying India at the moment.

Even though some other developing nations’ coal imports will grow in future, coal companies are having to face up to a crisis now. Some are cutting costs and getting ready for a wave of consolidation. Others are litigating and lobbying against change.

Excerpts from Coal Mining: In the Depths, Economist, Mar. 28, 2015, at 65

Fighting U.S. Sanctions: national payment systems

International payment operators Visa and MasterCard have started processing domestic payments inside Russia’s new national processing system, launched in response to U.S. sanctions against Moscow that saw cards from several Russian banks blocked in 2014. Observers see the creation of the National Card Payment System as the first step towards an autonomous financial system in Russia.

“The national system has already been introduced, quickly and at a little cost, and it has fully resolved the problem of payments inside the country,” says Sergei Khestanov, professor of finance and banking at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.  If Visa and Mastercard do not fulfill the requirements of the Central Bank, they will have to pay a security deposit, whose size will be linked directly to the turnover of the credit card systems. Morgan Stanley estimated the figure at $950 million for Visa and $500 million for MasterCard.

According to Khestanov, processing Visa transactions through the national system should be viewed as a compromise: The Russian government’s control of the transactions will strengthen, but the international systems will continue to operate in Russia.  “The potential of the development of the Russian cashless payment market is still enormous,” explains Anton Soroko, an analyst at Finam Investment Holding.,,,For the time being, experts are avoiding any clear-cut predictions of success, and say that Visa’s protocols are more complex than MasterCard’s. “We will see if this will be successful only after the infrastructure assumes the full burden,” says chief analyst at UFS IS Ilya Balakirev.

The next stage should be the Russian national payment system’s issuance of plastic cards, which is slated for December 2015.The picture is further complicated by the emergence of Asian operators as an alternative to western payment systems. Immediately after the introduction of sanctions against Russia by the U.S., the Chinese bank card system UnionPay entered the Russian market in April 2014, followed in March 2015 by Japan Credit Bureau (JCB). By 2017 Russia is planning to issue about two million UnionPay cards and three million JCB cards.

Excerpts from Alexei Lossan, Visa and MasterCard join Russia’s National Card Payment System, Russia Beyond the Headlines, Apr.  2, 2015

Nuclear Submarines on Fire

More than 80 firefighters and 20 fire trucks were involved in the work to extinguish the fire [that occurred on nuclear submarine  the “Oryol”], at around 2PM Moscow time during  works on the submarine, at Zvezdochk,  shipyard in Severodvinsk Russia.   The first information that the fire had been put out, came at around 5PM, but this information turned out to be false. The fire was not extinguished until 00:57 Moscow time, after the dock with the submarine had been flooded.  The vessels reactor had been shut down and the fuel had been unloaded before the repairs started. The submarine had no weapons onboard

One of many accidents
This accident that occurred on April 7, 2015 was the latest in a series of accidents that have occurred at Zvezdochka and other ship repair yards in Northwest-Russia during the last years.

On December 29, 2011 a fire broke out on the nuclear-powered Delta IV-class submarine “Yekaterinburg” while it was in a floating dock at the naval yard Roslyakovo just north of the town of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. According to the first official reports the fire only harmed the outer rubber coating of the submarine, and all the missiles had removed from the vessel before going in dock. Later Northern Fleet officials admitted that the submarine had both missiles and torpedoes on board. “Yekaterinburg” was re-launchedin June 2014, after two years of repairs.

In March 2014, during decommissioning work on the Oscar-II class nuclear submarine “Krasnodar” at the Nerpa naval yard north of Murmansk, the rubber on the outer hull of the submarine caught fire. There were no radioactive leakages, and no one was hurt in the accident.

Tuesday’s accident was the seventh at Zvezdochka in ten years, according to RIANovosti.  The other accidents were:

February 19 2010: Fire during dismantling of the Akula-class nuclear submarine K-480 “Ak Bars”. No casualties. Cause of fire: violation of fire safety during hot works.
December 11 2009: Leak of two cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste from a broken pipeline. No casualties, no radioactive waste leaked into the environment.
October 6 2009: Fire during dismantling of the Yankee-class nuclear submarine K-403 “Kazan”. The fire occurred during use of gas-flame cutter. Workers evacuated, no casualties.
March 25 2009: Fire during dismantling of the Yankee-class nuclear submarine K-411 “Orenburg”. The rubber coating of the vessel caught fire during hot works. No casualties.
July 26 2007: The main ballast tank of a nuclear submarine in dry dock was punctured as a result of excess air pressure. No casualties.
August 1 2005: Two people died in a fire during dismantling of an Akula-class nuclear submarine. Cause of the fire was ignition of vapors of fuel and lubricants during hot works.

Excerpts  from Trude Pettersen, Fire-struck nuclear submarine to be repaired, Barents Observer, Apr. 8, 2015

Slavery and the Fishing Industry

Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, laboured unpaid for six months on a Thai ship fishing illegally in Indonesian waters…naval patrols came close, but the crew would evade them. He had been forced aboard at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. It was the first time he had ever seen the sea.

Mr Maung’s story is told by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity, in a recent study of trafficking and piracy in Thailand’s seafood industry. The country hosts tens of thousands of trafficking victims, by conservative estimates, many from Myanmar, as well as from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many of them sweat on trawlers or in vast fish-processing plants. Some were duped by recruitment agents; a few were kidnapped. Others are migrants who were waylaid by traffickers while travelling through Thailand.

Overfishing is partly to blame. Average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. Such meagre pickings have driven local workers out of the industry and encouraged captains to seek ultra-cheap alternatives. Boats now fish farther afield and stay at sea for months at a time, making slavery harder to spot.

International pressure is mounting. The American government ranks Thailand among the least effective of all countries in fighting trafficking, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Food firms in Europe and North America—who together purchase about a third of Thailand’s fish exports—seem concerned. Last year the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised tougher enforcement. At a press conference this month, the authorities said they had identified nearly 600 trafficking victims in 2014.

But cynics worry that the military government in power since a coup last May will turn a blind eye again once the immediate threat to exports fades. Frank discussion of the business seems to be discouraged. Two journalists in Phuket—an Australian and a Thai—may face a defamation trial for republishing sentences from a Reuters article alleging that navy personnel had helped traffickers. In January  2015 campaigners forced the government to drop a plan to put convicts to work on fishing boats—a policy probably intended to dampen demand for bonded labour. A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.

Excerpts, Slavery and seafood: Here be monsters, Economist, Mar. 14, 2015, at 62

Nile Water: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on March 23, 2015 signed an initial agreement on sharing water from the Nile River that runs through the three countries, as Addis Ababa presses ahead with its construction of a massive new dam it hopes will help alleviate the country’s power shortages.  The dam had been an issue of contention among the three countries, with Egypt concerned it would reduce its share of the Nile established under a colonial-era agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan the main rights to exploit the river’s water…..

“While you are working for the development of your people, keep in mind the Egyptian people, for whom the Nile is not only a source of water, but a source of life,” el-Sissi said, addressing his Ethiopian counterpart after the three watched a short film about the Grand Renaissance Dam highlighting how it could benefit the region.

Cairo previously had voiced fears that Ethiopia’s $4.2 billion hydro-electric project, announced in 2011, would diminish its share of the Nile, which provides almost all of the desert nation’s water needs, especially under previous governments.

The agreement, hashed out by officials from the three countries weeks beforehand in Khartoum, outlines principles by which they will cooperate to use the water fairly and resolve any potential disputes peacefully, leaving details on specific procedures to be determined later after the release of joint, expert studies.

“The Egyptians don’t really have any other options,” said Ethiopian water researcher Seifulaziz Milas, adding that once the dam had been built and the land behind it flooded, the amount of water flowing down the Nile would return to normal. “It’s just a question of filling up the reservoir, after that there’s nowhere else for the water to go besides downstream.”

Until recently, Ethiopia had abided by the colonial-era agreement that gives downstream Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt taking 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters of the total of 84 billion cubic meters, with 10 billion lost to evaporation.

That agreement, first signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 6,700-kilometer (4,160-mile) river and its basin, which have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord.  But in 2013, Ethiopia’s parliament unanimously ratified a new accord that replaced previous deals that awarded Egypt veto powers over Nile projects….  Experts have estimated that Egypt could lose as much as 20 percent percent of its Nile water in the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill the dam’s massive reservoir.

Excerpt from MOHAMED OSMAN and BRIAN ROHAN , Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan Sign Accord Over Nile, Associated Press, Mar. 23, 2015

Global Oil Chokepoints and War in Yemen

Fighters from Yemen’s Houthi militia entered  on March 31, 2015 a coastal military base overlooking the Red Sea’s strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait, local officials told Reuters.  Soldiers of the 17th Armored Division in the Dabab district in Yemen’s southwestern Taiz province opened the gates to the Houthis, whose military advance has been challenged by six days of Saudi-led air strikes. This means that Houthi rebels have a foothold along one of the world’s crucial oil chokepoints.    According to the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) fact-sheet on global oil chokepoints, 3.8 million barrels of oil and “refined petroleum products” passed through the Bab el-Mandeb each day on its way to Europe, Asia, and the US, making it the world’s fourth-busiest chokepoint.  The strait controls access to multiple oil terminals and to a oil pipeline co-owned by state companies from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar that transits oil between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, called the Suez-Mediterranean or SUMED pipeline.  The Bab el-Mandeb is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, “limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments,” according to the Energy Information Administration.

“Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost,” the EIA fact-sheet explains. “In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.”

Recent events in Yemen, where a Saudi-led Arab military coalition is fighting to restore president Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi against an Iranian-backed insurgent movement, have already jolted global oil prices.

Excerpt from ARMIN ROSEN,  Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen just captured a military base along one of the world’s major oil lanes, Reuters, Mar. 31, 2015

More from wikipedia: On February 22, 2008, it was revealed that a company owned by Tarek bin Laden is planning to build a bridge  across the Bab el-Mandeb strait, linking Yemen with Djibouti.  Middle East Development LLC, a Dubai company owned by Tarek bin Laden, would build the bridge. The project has been assigned to engineering company COWI in collaboration with architect studio Dissing+Weitling, both from Denmark.

Nuclear Submarines with Attack Boats: China

China’s latest nuclear submarine design appear to include a shelter capable of holding a miniature submarine for special operations forces (SOF) not unlike vehicles used to deliver Navy SEALs to shore from U.S. nuclear attack boats, according to an image in wide circulation in Chinese online networks.  The Chinese boat — a Type-93T or Shang-class nuclear attack submarine — features a hangar for the SOF submersible that would allow People’s Liberation Army troops to discrete deployment much like U.S. forces, according to a translation of a March 17 story in the state-run Reference News.  The image was first reported in English by Jane’s Defence Weekly….

The Chinese report on the delivery vehicle follow a consistent trend in Chinese ship design, according U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World author Eric Wertheim. “It shows that they are really looking at Western designs and take lessons learned and look at how we use our subs and incorporate some those features into their own,” he told USNI [U.S. Naval Institute] News…In a wider context, China’s submarine abilities improve and their operations expand beyond their home waters it is making neighbors nervous.   Recenty the Indian Navy expressed concern over a Shang SSN that patrolled near its coastline from December 2014 to February 2015, according to a report in The Telegraph

Excerpt from Sam LaGrone, Chinese Nuclear Sub Design Includes Special Operations Mini-Sub,  U.S. Naval Institute News, Mar. 25, 2015