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 on: Today at 05:42 AM 
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Midwife in Haiti tells of delivering babies knee-deep in water by torchlight

Hurricane Matthew’s destruction triggers fears of huge rise in maternal deaths, alongside danger of fresh cholera outbreak

Karen McVeigh
Tuesday 25 October 2016 12.07 BST   

A midwife in Jérémie, Grand’Anse, one of the worst-hit towns in Haiti during Hurricane Matthew, has told how she delivered six babies, two boys and four girls, in a blackout during the night of the storm.

Marie-Lyrette Casimir, a midwife at St Antoine hospital, worked by flashlight as the fiercest Caribbean storm in almost a decade ripped though the south-west tip of the country, killing more than 500 people and causing widespread devastation.

Casimir, who was trapped in the hospital with her patients for hours after the storm, due to rising floodwater, said: “During the deliveries, the mothers were saying: ‘Miss Casimir, please save us. You’re going to save us.’ I was worried a lot, but I tried to calm them down, to be reassuring. I said to them: ‘Even in this desperate situation, you have to play your role, in the interests of the baby.’”

In a town where 80% of the buildings have reportedly been destroyed, St Antoine’s maternity unit, housed in one of three buildings that make up the hospital, emerged relatively unscathed. One of the hospital’s adjacent buildings was flattened by winds of up to 145mph, the other suffered extensive damage.

Casimir, who works for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), described how windows were shattered and doors wrenched off their hinges during the storm and, amid fears the building itself would collapse, mothers were screaming and crying. There were two nurses in the ward that night, but she was the only midwife, she told the Guardian.

“I was very sad and worried … At first, the wind wasn’t very strong but the hurricane became really strong around midnight.”

When a power cut plunged the hospital into total darkness, she carried on using a rechargeable lamp and a flashlight, she said. “I was afraid, there was a lot of noise and I was worried I could be injured. But I had to stay – my work was to help women give life.”

Casimir, 46, said that by dawn the floodwater in the hospital had reached her knees. At one point she had to raise the bed in the delivery room, which was becoming contaminated with floodwater.

But her fears that falling debris or, worse, the collapse of the building, could risk all their lives, went unrealised. “I’m very proud of what I achieved that night. There were no deaths. The deliveries went well and none of the babies needed to go to paediatric care. Everything was great.”

Casimir’s story emerged after an assessment by the UNFPA and Haiti’s ministry of women’s affairs revealed the scale of devastation in Grand’Anse and Nippes, two of the country’s hardest-hit departments. It found most of the population affected were living in appalling conditions, with 176,000 in temporary shelters. Almost 100% of crops were destroyed in what is one of this impoverished country’s most fertile areas.

Up to 1.4 million people, 40% of them children, are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to a report (pdf) by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), with 806,000 people being at what it described as at “extreme-impact level” of food security (near-famine conditions), mainly in Grand’Anse and Sud. A further million people were at a “very high” or “high” level, it said.

Maternal health facilities were badly hit, particularly St Antoine and the City Med hospital in Beaumont. All seven of the main health facilities in the area were flooded and remain without power, water, equipment and short of staff. The directorate of civil protection of the Haitian government has reported 11 of the 33 hospitals in Grand’Anse, Nippes and Sud were damaged.

Along with the unmet basic needs of food and shelter for thousands, an estimated 13,650 women – among the most affected people – are due to give birth in the next three months, according to Ocha.

Vavita Leblanc, reproductive health programme manager of UNFPA in Haiti, said the agency has sent two teams of six midwives into the affected areas.

“In Grand’Anse, we found none of the health facilities have power [or] water, and all are flooded,” said Leblanc. “They have problems with medical supplies. Human resources have also been affected as nurses and doctors are facing their own problems, with their houses and with food.”

Leblanc said the devastation caused by the hurricane would severely affect the country’s maternal mortality rate – it is already the worst in the Americas but had been falling due to more hospital births.

“People will now stay in their communities to give birth,” said Leblanc. “It will set us back a decade.”

Two-thirds of babies in Haiti are delivered without qualified help. The country’s maternal mortality rate stands at 359 per 100,000 births in 2105. Cuba has a maternal mortality rate of 39 per 100,000.

Amid warnings by aid agencies of the risk of a fresh cholera outbreak, the storm also damaged most of the cholera treatment centres of Grand’Anse, according to the Ocha report. The country’s cholera epidemic began in 2010, when UN peacekeepers unwittingly introduced the disease shortly after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The disease, previously unknown in the country, went on to kill more than 9,000 people.

This week, a UN official said he was concerned the scale of the cholera outbreak may be under-reported because remote areas are cut off. He also warned that protests, by desperate people angry about the slow pace and uneven distribution of aid, were impeding progress.

A spokesman for the World Food Programme’s Haiti operation told the Guardian it had so far managed to get food assistance to just 10% of the 800,000 estimated to urgently need it. “Initially, the response took time,” the WFP spokesman said. “We started distributing on 8 October and so far, 80,000 people have received assistance.”

He said the damage to infrastructure and roads delayed trucks going to the peninsula until 7 October, four days after the hurricane. It is now sending out between two and four trucks a day to the hardest-hit areas, as well as helicopters, he said. They plan to use boats to get out to the coastal areas.

There have been a few security issues, he said, but they represent a small proportion of the response. “People are really suffering, they are desperate and hungry, but we expect safe passage so that we can get to the communities that need it.”

To support the government-led response, the humanitarian community in Haiti launched an appeal for $120m, only $15.1m of which, according to the latest Ocha report, has been raised.

Paul Brockman, MSF head of mission in Haiti, speaking from Baradères, around 50km from Jérémie, said that while cholera is not as bad as they feared, significant risks remain. Brockman said: “There is a great need for shelter and drinkable water everywhere. Cholera could be a very substantial risk. It’s important to remember, that, as a small country, Haiti was very affected by the rain in the hurricane, even in the areas where the wind did not devastate – and with cholera still present everywhere, it increases the risk when treatment centres [have been] flooded.

“In every coastal area we’ve been in, there has been partial or total destruction of the cholera treatment centres.”

 on: Today at 05:39 AM 
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A water-chilled coolbox gets vaccines on tap to the world's poorest

At the Grand Challenges conference in London, innovations in refrigeration and sanitation are among those making a difference to global healthcare

Kate Hodal
Monday 24 October 2016 15.01 BST

It was a walk past a frozen lake 10 years ago that got Ian Tansley thinking differently about global health. The Welsh inventor had spent decades travelling and developing solar technologies throughout Africa and Asia. Yet one puzzle he was keen to crack – how to deliver vaccines on a wide-scale basis to the poorest, most remote communities – had so far eluded him.

Vaccines are notoriously hard to deliver safely, requiring refrigeration at certain temperatures, which means having access to a constant power supply. Yet hot climates, intermittent availability of electricity, supply shortages and unreliable storage facilities mean that one in five children – more than 19m worldwide – do not get even the most basic immunisations to keep them healthy.

Using the frozen lake as his inspiration, with its frozen top but liquid bottom, Tansley developed a refrigeration system, Sure Chill, that harnesses water’s unique properties to keep vaccines cool at 4C – yet doesn’t require a constant power supply. The refrigeration compartment is surrounded by water, and relies on the fact that the liquid is at its heaviest at 4C, when it sinks. When the device has power, the water cools and forms ice above the compartment, leaving only water at 4C cooling the contents. When the power is switched off, the water warms and rises while the ice begins to melt, and water at 4C remains below to keep the vaccines chilled.

Sure Chill – which was awarded a $1.5m (£1.2m) Grand Challenges grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is now used to deliver vaccines in 38 countries – has proved a major breakthrough in global health. Tansley’s immunisations cold-box can keep vaccines cool for up to 35 days in even 43C weather. And the technology is entirely scaleable, from a cool box up to a warehouse.

Naming it one of the top four innovations saving children’s lives, the Gates Foundation’s director of vaccine delivery, Dr Orin Levine, calls Sure Chill “an important tool in humanitarian response efforts” and says it demonstrates, for the first time in decades, a global health issue “benefiting from significant innovation”.

Innovation is the theme of this year’s Grand Challenges global conference, taking place in London this week. Experts from all over the world will address key questions in tackling global health challenges, including innovations in achieving the sustainable development goals, treating infectious diseases, and developing collaborations between north and south.

Equally problematic in the global health challenge is poor sanitation: 40% of the world’s population currently lacks adequate toilet facilities, which in turn contributes to poor health and devastating environmental impacts.

Loowatt was granted a $1.3m investment to develop a waterless toilet system. Developed by Virginia Gardiner, an American journalist-turned-industrial design engineer, Loowatt has had a massive impact in Madagascar, where a pilot public toilet project has grown to provide 100 toilets for private use within family homes, and is set to be rolled out across other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The toilets seal waste into a portable cartridge within biodegradable film, and combine anaerobic digestion with pasteurisation in order to kill off any waterborne diseases. The waste is collected and converted into fertiliser and biogas, which is then used for cooking and electricity.

The toilets are particularly essential in regions where waterborne diseases are prevalent, or where shared – or a complete lack of – toilets prevent women and girls from going to the bathroom, says Gardiner.

“People are going from having pit latrines at home to our toilets in their homes, which means they’re not being exposed to eco-pathogens in their everyday lives any more,” says Gardiner. “The current model can support 2,000 people – in urban or rural settings – and is important in showing that in this global sanitation crisis, there is technology out there than can convert waste into energy.”

Both Gardiner’s and Tansley’s systems get to the heart of what the Grand Challenges are about – improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. Tansley has been surprised at just how much his Sure Chill technology has changed the face of medical outreach. “The people benefiting the most are generally the poorest people in the most remote places, the people you just wouldn’t normally see: rural agricultural communities far from any infrastructure or power grid,” he says. “Maybe they’re nomadic or very dispersed – they’re people who weren’t being reached before.”

 on: Today at 05:32 AM 
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Hacked emails reveal plan to counter Rupert Murdoch's climate denial

Emails sent to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta reveal $3m campaign aimed to put media mogul ‘on the defensive’ and help conservative politicians support global warming action

Michael Slezak
Tuesday 25 October 2016 12.00 BST

A well-funded international campaign to counter the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire on climate change has been planned, emails to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman reveal.

The plan to use “guerilla tactics”, civil disobedience and targeted advertising appears to have been hatched by David Fenton, founder of Fenton Communications, a US public relations agency.

The proposal aimed to “make Murdoch’s climate denial a major issue,” and “bring the scientific facts on climate change to his audiences directly in print and on television”. It would involve adverts in his and other publications, and the creation of websites that disseminated facts about climate change, and directly challenged the reporting in Murdoch media.

The goal was to put Murdoch “on the defensive on climate change,” and make it possible for conservative politicians to support action on climate change. Part of the plan involved “public shaming” of Murdoch so that his children, who have more progressive views on climate change, would have “leverage with their father”.

On 19 February 2015, David Fenton thanked Clinton’s chairman, John Podesta, for a meeting earlier that day, and sent him two emails. WikiLeaks has published a series of emails hacked from Podesta’s account, and Clinton’s campaign has neither confirmed or denied their authenticity but has attacked what it said were Russian state actors involved in obtaining them.

One email said: “Here is the plan to go after [the Wall Street Journal] and Fox [the TV network] on climate. I have 500,000 [dollars] of this pledged if I can raise another million. It’s a real pledge from Graeme Wood in Australia. I sure hope something like this can happen it’s long overdue.”

Graeme Wood is the founder of travel website Wotif and an internet entrepreneur who provided a loan to help launch Guardian Australia. Wood told the Guardian: “It sounded like a good idea at the time but in the end I didn’t proceed with any funding.”

The Guardian understands the campaign never went ahead.

The plan, attached to the email and dated 1 December 2015 said: “Unless and until Murdoch is put on the defensive on climate change, opening political space for conservatives to come forward, it is unlikely that bipartisan efforts on climate change will be achieved in time.”

“Fox News is the biggest single factor keeping almost 40% of Americans from believing humans are changing the climate, while only 10% know that 97% of climate scientists agree we are warming the earth at our peril.”

“In some ways, the effect of the Wall Street Journal is even worse, as it sows regular confusion among its 3 million daily subscribers – business leaders and investors among the most influential people in the country.”

The plan also mentioned the role Murdoch papers played in Australia and the UK.

It outlined and costed a $2m plan with six main steps and 12 “campaign elements”.

The plan to use ‘guerilla tactics’, civil disobedience and targeted advertising appears to have been hatched by David Fenton, founder of a US public relations agency.

According to the plan, $600,000 would be spent advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and $350,000 would be given to other groups including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to conduct “grassroots and social media activism”.

Plans for a campaign outside the US were not costed but Fenton said: “We would be happy to work with counterparts in Australia and the UK to create proportional budgets for similar campaigns there, adapted to local conditions.”

Fenton concluded: “We have let Rupert Murdoch get away with this atrocious behavior for too long. It’s time to make his endangerment of national and economic security a prominent, inescapable issue.”

 on: Today at 05:30 AM 
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Renewables made up half of net electricity capacity added last year

Experts hail rapid transformation that will see clean energy outgrow fossil fuels in the next five years - but warn UK is failing to exploit huge potential

Adam Vaughan
Tuesday 25 October 2016 09.00 BST

Green energy accounted for more than half of net electricity generation capacity added around the world last year for the first time, leading energy experts have found.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said the milestone was evidence of a rapid transformation in energy taking place, and predicted capacity from renewable sources will grow faster than oil, gas, coal or nuclear power in the next five years.

But the analysts said the outlook in the UK has deteriorated since the Conservative government took power last year and cut support for wind and solar power. The agency’s chief said Britain had huge renewable energy potential and ministers needed to design stronger policies to exploit it.

“What I see is we are witnessing the transformation of energy system markets led by renewables and this is happening very quickly,” said Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA. “This transformation and the growth of renewables is led by the emerging countries in the years to come, rather than the industrialised countries.”

China will lead the world for growth in renewable power, followed by the US and Europe, a new report by the agency found. The IEA said the EU was relinquishing its position as a renewable energy pioneer due to weak electricity demand and policy uncertainty, which Birol warned could see European renewable energy manufacturers lose out to international rivals.

“If you think of running a marathon, Europe started with a big advance, more than half of the marathon they are leading by far. They are now getting a bit tired, and some others are overtaking Europe slowly but surely,” he told the Guardian.

The IEA said Asia will be the “engine of growth”, led by China and India. “China is a completely separate chapter,” said Birol. “China alone is responsible for about 40% of growth in the next five years. When people talk about China, they think about coal, but it is changing.”

A total of 153GW of net renewable electricity capacity was installed globally in 2015, a record high, equivalent to Canada’s capacity and up 15% on the year before. Net capacity is new capacity minus retired capacity, such as old hydro being taken offline. China is expected to add a further 305GW over the next five years, followed by India with 76GW.

Onshore windfarms and solar power led the charge last year, with 63GW and 49GW of new global capacity respectively. The two technologies are also forecast to take the lion’s share of growth, with electricity generation from solar tripling and wind doubling.

Their costs are expected to continue the dramatic and unprecedented reductions in recent years, with onshore wind coming down a further 15% and big solar 25% by 2021.

“The cost of wind dropped by about one third in the last five to six years, and that of solar dropped by 80%,” said Birol, adding that while the cost of gas had also fallen recently, it was not at the same speed that green energy had become cheaper. “The decline in renewables [cost] was very sharp and in a very short period of time. This is unprecedented.”

While renewables now account for more than 50% of net capacity additions and are expected by the IEA to reach around 60% by 2021, they still provide a relatively small share of the world’s electricity. Green sources are only expected to provide 28% of electricity generation by 2021, up from 23% in 2015, and much of that will be from existing hydropower dams.

Renewable energy is seen by scores of countries as a key way to meet climate targets that they pledged under the Paris agreement, which comes into force in November.

But even with the huge growth expected in coming years, the IEA said it will not be sufficient to meet the Paris deal’s target of keeping temperatures below 2C, the threshold for dangerous warming. “No, it’s by far not enough [the trajectory of growth],” said Birol.

The agency painted a gloomy picture of solar and onshore wind’s prospects in the UK, echoing recent warnings from other respected energy authorities. “The policy landscape for renewables has become more challenging since the 2015 general election,” the report said.

Since coming to power, the Conservatives have drastically cut or ended subsidies for wind and solar power, begun the privatisation of the green bank which supports clean energy, and enthusiastically backed fracking for shale gas and new nuclear. “While government support for new gas and nuclear capacity is evident, recent policy changes indicate that the role envisioned for renewables is uncertain,” the IEA said.

“There is need in the UK to invest in stronger renewable policies,” said Birol. “The potential is huge compared to what we are expecting.”

The agency’s chief said that contrary to what renewable energy critics argued, the biggest threat to the technologies was not their intermittent nature but the intermittency of governments’ support.

“The issue is not the predictability of solar and wind, it is the predictability of government policies because investors need to see what their prospects are. This is the main challenge I see in the renewable energy sector.”

 on: Today at 05:28 AM 
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Pope Francis's edict on climate change has fallen on closed ears, study finds

Hailed as a significant call for action, the pope’s encyclical has not had the anticipated rallying effect on public opinion, researchers have found

Nicola Davis
Monday 24 October 2016 16.48 BST

The pope’s call for action on climate change has fallen on closed ears, research suggests.

A study by researchers in the US has found that right-leaning Catholics who had heard of the pope’s message were less concerned about climate change and its effects on the poor than those who had not, and had a dimmer view of the pope’s credibility.

“The pope and his papal letter failed to rally any broad support on climate change among the US Catholics and non-Catholics,” said Nan Li, first author of the research from Texas Tech University.

“The conservative Catholics who are cross-pressured by the inconsistency between the viewpoints of their political allies and their religious authority would tend to devalue the pope’s credibility on this issue in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they experience,” she added.

Issued in June 2015, Pope Francis’s encyclical, called Laudato Si’, warned of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems” if climate change continues unchecked and cited the scientific consensus that human activity is behind global warming.

Research conducted on the eve of the announcement found that 68% of Americans and 71% of US Catholics believe in climate change, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to believe in the issue, put it down to human causes and rate it as a serious problem.

The pontiff’s comments were seen by many as a significant call for action in the battle against climate change, focusing on the moral need to address the impact of humans on the planet. “Pope Francis is personally committed to this [climate] issue like no other pope before him. The encyclical will have a major impact,” said Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, at the time.

But new research published in the journal Climatic Change suggests that the encyclical might not have had the anticipated rallying effect on public opinion.

In a nationally representative survey of 2,755 individuals across the US, including more than 700 Catholics, researchers quizzed individuals on their attitudes towards climate change, its effects on the poor and papal credibility on the issue, together with questions on their political views and demographics such as age, sex and ethnicity. The team found that 22.5% of respondents said they had either heard of the pope’s message or his plans for the letter.

Overall, the team found that members of the public who identified as politically liberal, whether Catholic or not, were more likely to be concerned about climate change and perceive climate change as disproportionately affecting the poor than those who identified as conservative.

But knowledge of the papal letter did not overall appear to be linked to higher levels of concern regarding climate change.

Instead, the researchers found that the effects of awareness of the letter were small, although awareness was linked to more polarised views. For both Catholics and non-Catholics, conservatives who were aware of the letter were less likely to be concerned about climate change and its risk to the poor, compared to those who had not. The opposite trend was seen among liberals.

But, the authors say, among both conservative Catholics and non-Catholics who had heard of the encyclical, the pontiff’s perceived credibility decreased as political leaning veered to the right.

“For people who are most conservative, the Catholics who are aware of the encyclical give the pope 0.5 less than Catholics who aren’t aware of the encyclical on a one to five scale,” said Li.

The researchers say it is not clear if the increased polarisation is caused by hearing about the encyclical or, for example, if more politically engaged individuals were simply more likely to be aware of the papal letter.

“In sum, while [the] pope’s environmental call may have increased some individuals’ concerns about climate change, it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the pope’s credibility on climate change,” the authors write.

The results chime with the reaction to the papal stance by conservative media and a number of prominent individuals, including former presidential candidate Jeb Bush who rebuffed the pope’s message, saying: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”

Neil Thorns, director of advocacy at the Catholic aid agency Cafod, said: “Laudato Si’ was a wake-up call on how we’re treating our planet and its people which unsurprisingly – although disappointingly - some climate deniers and those with vested interests were not willing to hear.”

 on: Today at 05:26 AM 
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Coal will be important 'for many, many decades to come', says Turnbull

Prime minister defends fossil fuel as part of Australia’s energy mix as critical Senate bloc opposes ‘green lawfare’ changes

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Tuesday 25 October 2016 02.15 BST
Malcolm Turnbull has declared coal will be part of Australia’s energy mix for “many, many, many decades to come” as a critical Senate bloc expressed opposition to so-called “green lawfare” changes designed to limit the legal standing of conservation groups in court proceedings.

Turnbull made the bullish observation about coal during a radio interview in Brisbane on Tuesday morning, arguing that the effort to “strangle the Australian coal industry is not going to do anything to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions”.

The prime minister’s comments came as Nick Xenophon said he was very unlikely to support legislation removing the right of most environmental organisations to challenge developments under federal laws unless they can demonstrate they are directly affected.

He said he might support amendments “around the edges, in cases where legal challenges were vexatious” but he was not persuaded about the need for a substantial overhaul.
Coalition can bring back green 'lawfare' bill if Senate supports it, says Turnbull
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“I have not been convinced of the need for change,” Xenophon told Guardian Australia.

Xenophon opposed the change in the last parliament when it was proposed by Tony Abbott, backed by the majority of the then Senate crossbench.

On the ABC, Turnbull suggested the government might attempt to persuade Labor to look at the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act on the basis that decisions were being “unreasonably delayed” and unreasonable delay in many instances was the same as a denial.

The prime minister linked the issue to housing affordability.

“If you talk to developers, if you talk to investors, this has been an issue across Queensland, across Australia, that the processes for getting approval take too long.

“It’s one of the issues that affects housing affordability, there’s too much red tape, there’s too much delay,” Turnbull said.

“Nobody wants to take shortcuts on environmental matters, least of all me. But there has been far too much delay.”

Turnbull’s comments on coal are something of a departure from a signal that the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, sent when taking on his new portfolio in July.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, Frydenberg said “I accept that a transition is occurring away from coal and that is not a bad thing.

“Coal-generated power is still a part of our energy mix, with today about 60%, but that has come down from 70% a decade ago,” Frydenberg said on 28 July. “It’s coming down, and the market is bringing on this change.”

On Tuesday, Turnbull said his government had signed an agreement in Paris to reduce carbon emissions, but coal remained part of the energy landscape, either because Australia exported it, or because other countries exported it.

“Coal is going to be an important part of our energy mix, there is no question about that, for many, many, many decades to come, on any view,” the prime minister told the ABC.

“The reality is that Australia’s coal, compared to that from other countries, is relatively clean. The fact is if we stopped all of our coal exports tomorrow you would simply have more coal exported from other countries, like Indonesia, like Colombia, like China, that would be filling the gap,” he said.

“Trying to strangle the Australian coal industry is not going to do anything to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Federal cabinet was meeting in Brisbane on Tuesday.

Turnbull was asked during a press conference how it felt to be a more unpopular prime minister than Tony Abbott after the latest Newspoll indicated his voter support had dropped below Abbott’s last ​reading before he was ousted as prime minister in September last year.

“Thank you very much,” the prime minister said in response to the question.

He got a follow-up question on voter approval. Turnbull said he was focused on delivery, not popularity.

“The important thing for me, as prime minister, and for my government, is to get on with the job of governing and delivering, and that is what we’re doing,” Turnbull said.

“We are delivering, we are governing, we are delivering the jobs and growth that we promised, and we will continue to do so.”

“There will be distractions, of course. That’s in the nature of politics. But we will govern, we will lead, and we will deliver.”

 on: Today at 05:24 AM 
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UK government boosts local air quality with £3m in funding

Annual funding for local air quality management in England has been restored to previous levels, reversing a chronic decline, reports The ENDS Report

Gareth Simkins for The ENDS Report, part of the Guardian Environment Network
Monday 24 October 2016 13.54 BST

The government has stumped up £3m to fund English local authorities’ work to monitor and improve air quality.

The air quality grant for 2016/17 was announced on 6 October and is six times greater than the amount allocated for the current financial year. It is the first funding round to be managed by DEFRA and the Department for Transport’s Joint Air Quality Unit.

Some £2.36m was allocated when the fund was launched in 2010/11, rising to £3.1m the following two years. But it fell to £1m in 2013/14 and 2014/15.

This was then cut further to only £0.5m. The number of councils given cash to improve air quality dropped accordingly, falling from 36 to eight over the past three years. More councils in Northern Ireland than England received such funding this year.

ENDS highlighted the steady reduction to the fund in January.

So too did the Commons’ Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA), which in April called on DEFRA to preserve funding and ensure that councils are “recompensed for any costs of implementing new clean air zones which they are not able to recoup from reasonable charges on drivers”.

Restoring the grant’s budget may be interpreted as a response to such criticism.

The grant may be sought for any location that DEFRA projects will exceed EU air quality limits, as reported to the European Commission, or had an air quality management area declared by the end of March 2016. Applications are due before midday on November 23.

EFRA chair Neil Parish said: “The government needs to act now to give all councils the power – and crucially, the funding – to implement a Clean Air Zone and limit the most polluting vehicles in hotspot areas. The £3m government funding pot is a start, but not nearly enough. We also need a big push to incentivise electric and low-emissions vehicles to replace the oldest, most polluting vehicles.”

In a response to a written parliamentary question by the MP, on 19 October the government revealed that more than a third (169) of the UK’s 418 local authorities breached air quality limits on nitrogen dioxide in 2015. Breaches were reported in all four UK nations.

 on: Today at 05:21 AM 
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Whaling nations block South Atlantic sanctuary plans

Conservation groups dismayed as Japan and other pro-whaling nations vote against plans for a protected area for whales, dolphins and porpoises

Adam Vaughan
Tuesday 25 October 2016 09.50 BST

Japan and other pro-whaling nations have defeated a proposal to create an sanctuary for whales in the South Atlantic.

The push to create the protected area during a biennial meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was defeated after 38 countries voted yes and 24 against, as proposals at the conference require 75% of votes to pass. Two abstained.

Although the proposal has been defeated in previous years and was expected to fail this time around too because of opposition by Japan, Norway and Iceland, conservation groups were dismayed by the result.

“There is an urgent need for us to better protect our whales, dolphins and porpoises. This sanctuary would have done just that and supported the growth of sustainable whale watching tourism and fostered much-needed research,” said Josh Coates, marine campaigner with the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“Once again whaling nations have stood in the way of progress, despite the IWC’s own scientific committee approving the plan for the sanctuary.”

Greenpeace noted that the sanctuary was being blocked by countries far from the the South Atlantic aligning themselves with the whaling nations.

John Frizell, a whales expert with the group, said: “What is the most disappointing is that all these efforts are ultimately being undermined by IWC member countries who are thousands of miles away, not even in the southern hemisphere and some even on the other side of the world. Conversely, all members with territory in the proposed sanctuary, fully support it.”

Matt Collis of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said: “It is very disappointing that once again, a proposal for a South Atlantic whale sanctuary has been harpooned.”

Also on the agenda at the IWC meeting in Slovenia is a resolution put forward by Australia that would require Japan to get approval from the IWC for its “scientific” quotas. That move is also expected to be blocked.

 on: Today at 05:19 AM 
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Night parrot population discovered in Queensland national park

Discovery of elusive bird, thought to be extinct for a century until 2013, leads scientists to believe the ‘dumpy budgerigar’ may be more common than thought
night parrot

Calla Wahlquist
Tuesday 25 October 2016 07.10 BST

The elusive night parrot has been recorded in Diamantina national park in central-west Queensland, expanding its known range and leading scientists to believe it may not be as rare as previously thought.

The bird, described by Bush Heritage Australia’s Jim Radford as a “dumpy budgerigar” or a “podgy, sort of smallish, green and yellow parrot”, was thought to be extinct for more than 100 years before ornithologist John Young managed to photograph it in 2013.

That discovery was made on an area of reclaimed pastoral lease now known as Pullen Pullen nature reserve.

Protecting the enigmatic night parrot at Pullen Pullen reserve: <iframe src="" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

This month, another team of researchers from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, led by Young, announced they had found what they believe to be a larger population of night parrots in the nearby national park.

The birds were discovered as part of a broader survey of threatened species in the park. Researchers made seven records of the bird this year: four sightings, three of which included nests with eggs, and three recorded calls.

“My immediate reaction was excitement – this is great, there are more birds out there than we thought,” Atticus Fleming, chief executive of AWC told Guardian Australia.

“But when you start to analyse it, the really significant thing about this is that these birds may be more common than we thought. That is something that we will be developing in the next few years as the study extends into other areas.”

The parrots were discovered in an area of the park bordered by the Diamantina and Mayne rivers.

The Queensland government has declared that area a restricted access zone with hefty fines for unauthorised access to deter poachers or enthusiastic twitchers from seeking out the rare parrots.

The same penalties apply for entering Pullen Pullen, which is owned and managed by Bush Heritage Australia.

Radford, BHA’s head of science and research, listed poachers as one of the significant threats faced by the parrot, particularly now researches have reported spotting eggs in both Pullen Pullen and Diamantina.

Other threats include cattle, feral cats and potential habitat destruction from bushfires, which destroy the tall spinifex clumps where night parrots make their nests.

There are other dangers that go along with being a largely ground-dwelling parrot. In April researchers from BHA discovered eggs in a night parrot nest after heavy rain, only to return later and find shell fragments containing traces of what proved to be the DNA of a brown snake.

“Which is an interesting discovery in and of itself because we didn’t realise that brown snakes would predate on eggs,” Radford said.

It was an unfortunate loss but not a significant one. Unprecedented rainfall has pompted a breeding frenzy in the arid plains of central-west Queensland, and Radford said he expected that pair would breed again.

“All indications are that it will be a very good year, not just for night parrots but for other birds,” he said.

The night parrot is one of just two fully nocturnal bird species in the world. The other is New Zealand’s kakapo, famous for being the world’s heaviest parrot and for being particularly enamoured with zoologist Mark Carwardine.

Scientists are now making a concerted effort to study the bird, a process made difficult by its nocturnal habits and the sparseness with which it is spread across a remote landscape.

Like Fleming, Radford said the discovery of more birds at Diamantina was “not unexpected” but was significant for the hope it gave researchers that small populations of the birds may be tucked away in other areas of the remote desert.

“I fully expect that they will be discovered in other places in Australia in time as well, because I don’t think that this can be the only population,” he said.

 on: Today at 05:08 AM 
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Africa Rising: Economic progress vs. cultural preservation in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's state project to make it into one of the world's top sugar producers requires the resettling of semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages. Which priority wins out: cultural preservation or economic progress?

By William Davison, Contributor October 25, 2016

Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, a United Nations World Heritage Site along the border with Kenya, is renowned for its numerous tribes, among them the lip plate-inserting Mursi and bull-running Hamer.

Sixteen ethnic groups occupy the scorching, low-lying region, raising cattle, and growing crops, often along the fertile banks of the Omo River that wriggles its way through the bush.

Western tourists, archaeologists, and anthropologists are regular visitors to observe the unique cultures and pre-human fossils.

But the Ethiopian government has begun a project to build sugar farms in the area in an effort to take the nation into the top ten of global sugar exporters. The plan, which would require resettling semi-nomadic herders in permanent villages, puts the effort to modernize Ethiopia's archaic agricultural system at loggerheads with the desire to preserve the cultural identities of local ethnic groups.
A push for economic development

The state-run project launched this year – combined with other large-scale farming investments irrigated by the outflow from an under-construction hydropower dam – look likely to alter the area forever, initially for some Bodi and Mursi communities who will be resettled to make way for the sugar fields.

"They will still be pastoralists, but agro-pastoralists. They will not roam around in search of water and grazing land," Abay Tsehaye, head of the state-owned Sugar Corporation, says. "They will have enough grazing land because we will supply them with irrigation."

The farms will be made possible by the regulated outflow from the upstream Gibe III hydropower plant. The plant, which will almost double Ethiopia's power generating capacity, is scheduled to be finished in 2013.

It will provide electricity to Ethiopia and also generate scarce foreign exchange by supplying the region. Ethiopia's large hydropower potential – due to plentiful rainfall in its highlands and mountainous terrain – is a vital asset that must be utilized to bring the country out of poverty, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's leader of two decades, says.

Roads have been improved, scrub land demarcated, and construction of a diversion weir begun for the six plantations fed by the Omo that will occupy at least one-eighth of the Lower Omo area and use 3 billion cubic meters of water per year. Despite the progress, resettlement plans and technical studies on the plantations have not yet been completed, the Sugar Corporation says.

Mr. Abay says agricultural experts, irrigation schemes, and social services will bring much-needed development to a neglected backwater. Critics like Survival International, a British charity that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people, argue communities' rights are being trampled and that the water use will parch Lake Turkana, another World Heritage Site that straddles the Ethiopia-Kenya border.

"They want these people to remain as primitive as they used to be, as poor as they used to be, as naked as they used to be so that they will be specimen for research and an agenda for raising funds," Abay says about the project's naysayers.

'I want my children to be pastoralists'

But while the government says it has had extensive consultation with the communities, several members of the Bodi tribe, who number about 7,000, say such claims are exaggerated.

"The government is building it themselves. They are not sharing it with other people, they did not call a meeting," father of three, enrobed Dori Bella, who moves every month to graze his cattle said in a new school just outside the village of Hanna. "We don't want to be begging in town, I want my children to be pastoralists."

Activists spoke of a widespread fear of reprisals for speaking out and predicted armed resistance to what they see as a government land grab.

A report this month from Survival also claimed that over 100 individuals from the Mursi and Bodi were arrested for protesting the plan. But locals said that recent detainments were not directly related to the project.

As our Land Cruiser wound its way to the Omo valley along a sturdy gritted track, a broken-down truck carrying panels for plantation workers' homes almost blocked the road after failing to mount a steep incline – an indication of the huge logistical challenges involved in bringing commercial farming to this far-flung region.

The water extracted for the farms will result in a five-meter reduction in the level of Lake Turkana and eventually fewer fish, according to Sean Avery, an engineer who published a report on the area for the African Development Bank in November. Concerns over effects on Turkana prompted a UNESCO committee to make a futile call for the government to halt construction of Gibe III in July. A "fragile environment and the livelihoods of tribes" will be destroyed, Survival states.

For the several thousand Turkana and Dassenech people depending on the lake for their livelihood, the future is uncertain.

Educated Kenyan fisherman Michael Irgeno from the Dassenech tribe believes the dam is a mixed blessing. Power and irrigation are welcome for the deprived regions, but "at this time it's bad as most people have not heard about Gibe III," he says in the half-light of his domed hut near the wind-lashed shore. "It would be better if people come together with one mind and decide what to do," he says. "But if they start without informing people it will have an effect. Most of our community is illiterate so it is hard for them to have an opinion."

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