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US aircraft carrier strike group patrols S. China Sea

Monday, 20 February 2017 00:00 Published in Headlines

WASHINGTON — A US aircraft carrier strike group is patrolling in the South China Sea, the US Navy yesterday said, days after Beijing told Washington not to challenge its sovereignty in the disputed territory.
China asserts ownership of almost all of the resource-rich waters despite rival claims from several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines.
It has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group was engaging in “routine operations in the South China Sea,” the Navy said in a statement on its website.

It noted that the ships and aircraft had recently conducted exercises off Hawaii and Guam to “maintain and improve their readiness and develop cohesion as a strike group.”
“We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” strike group commander Rear Adml. James Kilby said in the statement.
China’s foreign ministry said ships and aircraft were allowed to operate in the area according to international law.
But Beijing “firmly opposes any country’s attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight,” spokesman Geng Shuang told journalists Wednesday, responding to reports that the Vinson was headed to the South China Sea.
“We also urge the US to refrain from challenging China’s sovereignty and security and to respect regional countries’ efforts to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
The Vinson has deployed to the South China Sea 16 times in its 35-year history, the US Navy said.
Washington says it does not take sides in the territorial disputes but has several times sent warships and planes to assert freedom of navigation in the Sea, sparking protests from Beijing.
The Spratlys, comprise more than 750 islets, atolls, and reefs, and lie off the coastlines of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and China, with all the claimants having their own national names for the archipelago. Beijing persists in claiming the reefs in defiance of a ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague.
While freedom of navigation and military drills accelerated under President Barack Obama’s administration, Trump and his team appear to be heading on a collision course with China.                                   

KATHMANDU — The continuous whirl of hair dryers is a novel sound at the Blush Beauty Point parlor in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, which until just five months ago had to close at regular intervals because of power cuts. Scheduled power cuts — known as load-shedding — have been a part of daily life in the impoverished landlocked country for decades, forcing small businesses to rely on expensive generators or simply close when the lights went out.
“We had to run our business according to the load-shedding schedule. Clients would call and check if there was light,” the salon’s owner Anita Shrestha told AFP.
But that has all changed since Kulman Ghising was appointed head of the Nepal Electricity Authority in September last year.
Load-shedding — previously up to 16 hours a day in the winter dry season — has all but ended in the country’s three largest cities and in other major towns been reduced to around two hours on alternate days.
“When I was appointed I set the goal that I would at least make Kathmandu load-shedding free,” Ghising told AFP.
“But at that time I felt that whatever I said I could manage more than that.”
Demand for electricity has long outstripped supply in Nepal, with energy production severely depressed by chronic under-investment and inefficiencies in the power network.
The result has been crippling for domestic industry and deterred foreign investment, while crucial infrastructure development has flagged in the years of political paralysis that followed the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2006 and the overthrow of the monarchy two years later.
Political alignment
Ghising’s formula to end the power cuts involved tackling some basic inefficiencies.
He overhauled the hydropower generation system — storing water at times of low demand so more could be generated at peak hours. He also ended a policy that provided electricity round the clock to certain industries.
The policy was meant to give 24-hour power to around 20 big employers, but had expanded after decades of mission creep — and backhanders.
“Before there was some mismanagement that some industries get 24 hours (of power), some industries get 12 hours, some industries get only eight hours. There was unequal distribution of electricity that was not as per the rules of NEA,” said Ghising.
In addition, he brought online some power plants that had been sitting idle due to poor maintenance, and launched a public awareness campaign to encourage people to avoid electricity-guzzling activities — like ironing and pumping water — in the evenings when demand for power is at its highest.
But arguably the single greatest weapon Ghising has is the backing of the prime minister and the energy and finance ministers.
For one of the first times in Nepal’s short history as a parliamentary democracy, all four are members of the Maoist party and that political alignment is bearing fruit.
The country is due to hold its first local elections in nearly two decades later this year and the Maoists need to show results to boost their chances at the polls.
Hydro potential
But while Ghising might have turned on the lights for much of Nepal, the country will need to harness its huge hydropower potential to keep the electricity flowing.
“It’s cautious optimism because we are known to squander opportunities,” said Sujeev Shakya, founder of the Kathmandu-based Nepal Economic Forum, of the recent drop in load-shedding.
He added: “Now at (the) NEA you have a good guy and he may try to reform, but the system is designed to take care of the interests of few.”
Nepal with its mountain river system should be an energy-producing powerhouse.
Experts say it could be generating 83,000 megawatts of power, but its total installed generation capacity currently stands at less than two percent of that.
Construction on two long mooted projects is finally expected to begin later this year.
It will take around seven years before they come online, but even one would double Nepal’s current generation capacity, eventually transforming it into an energy exporter.
That would be a game changer for the Himalayan nation, which currently relies on India for electricity in the winter dry season.
But with the average tenure of governments in Nepal at around seven months, many are concerned that another change at the top could reverse the recent gains.
“Development of hydro energy infrastructure requires a long-term view. And with these short-term governments it’s very difficult to believe they can have a long-term view,” said Shakya.
And on the now lit streets of Kathmandu, suspicion darkens the mood.
“I don’t know the details, but I feel like Nepalis were kept in the dark for too long,” said Shrestha as she styled a client’s hair into cascading curls.
“There is a tension that there will be power cuts again if the government changes.” 

Mapping a Palestinian camp in Lebanon

Monday, 20 February 2017 00:00 Published in Commentary

BURJ AL-SHAMALI, Lebanon — Equipped with an inexpensive camera and a big red balloon, Firas Ismail — a 20-year-old Palestinian refugee in southern Lebanon — is not your typical urban planner.
But the aerial shots he helped capture of the Burj al-Shamali refugee camp, near the Mediterranean coastal city of Tyre, will help residents plan out everything from future green spaces to health inspections.
“From below, you can’t really tell anything about the camp. But from above, you can see just how dense the buildings are and how little space there is,” Ismail told AFP.
“It becomes clear there was no planning — this map is the first time there’s a kind of urban planning for the camp,” he said.
The mapping project was born when residents of Burj al-Shamali, one of 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon, wanted to create a local green space.
They enlisted help from Claudia Martinez, a humanitarian worker who has volunteered in the camp for years.
“I asked to see a map, but what they showed me was like a kid’s drawing,” she told AFP.
“We decided we needed a new map... which could also be useful to deal with problems of electricity grid, fires, and doing health inspections of restaurants.”
Lebanon is home to around 450,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN, who live in cramped camps where infrastructure is dilapidated and services limited.
When it was established in 1948 to accommodate Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes after the creation of Israel, Burj al-Shamali housed just 7,000 people.
But it is now home to nearly 23,000 residents and suffers from “extremely high” unemployment, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees.
Phone stores, falafel shops
With Martinez’s help, Burj al-Shamali’s residents raised more than $16,000 in crowd-funding last year to finance a community-led project to map their camp.
For days, Ismail and fellow volunteer Mustapha tied “one of those $60 Canon cameras” to a red helium balloon and flew it over different parts of Burj al-Shamali to take pictures.
The young mappers laugh when recounting the challenges of guiding the balloon through the camp’s chaotic maze of narrow alleyways.
On one occasion, the balloon popped when they tried to squeeze it through a particularly narrow street. On another, celebratory gunfire from a nearby wedding shot their camera straight out of the air.
Stitching the images together, mappers saw their camp from above for the first time: a monochrome grid of concrete rooftops dotted with water tanks and satellite dishes, broken up occasionally by a row of trees.
To produce a real map, they printed large-scale copies of the composite image and invited camp residents to identify landmarks, but also annotate locations with relevant dates or associated memories.
In February, curious residents gathered at Al-Houla, the community group that has spearheaded the initiative, to contribute their expertise.
They pored over the bird’s eye pictures, trying to find their homes and taping neon pieces of paper identifying local landmarks like Abu Samer’s bakery, Najwa’s Nursery and the Old Mosque.
“People were writing that shops opened a certain year, NGOs were established in this year, this year electricity came to the camp. There’s a phone store here, a falafel restaurant there,” Ismail said.
‘We can create’
The annotated images have been sent to designers, who are working on finalizing the map, which will then be printed and distributed to camp residents.
For Mahmoud Jumaa, who heads Al-Houla, the map will serve as “a message, carrying within its folds the concerns, problems and lifestyle of the camp.”
Many residents had never used a map before, but now, “we can begin planning buildings — planning the future.”
Inspired by the densely packed concrete rooftops visible in the aerial images, Jumaa says there are already discussions about creating urban gardening projects and then a full-fledged park later this year.
“I was surprised that, despite the density, we can create,” Jumaa, a lifelong camp resident, told AFP.
“There is the possibility for innovation — there is a positive image despite all the difficulties.”
Organizers say the map may also help make Burj al-Shamali accessible to Lebanese citizens, whose impressions of Palestinian camps are often colored by stereotypes of the areas as hotbeds of crime and extremism.
“There was a big interest (among residents) in building bridges with the Lebanese community, to say this place is not intimidating, you can move around,” Martinez said.                           

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