France flays Assad for ‘mass crimes’

A Syrian man carries the body of a child who was killed in a reported air strike in the rebel-controlled town of Hamouria, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, in this December 3, 2017 photo. (AFP)
Updated 16 December 2017
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France flays Assad for ‘mass crimes’

PARIS: France on Friday accused Syria of doing nothing to reach a peace agreement after almost seven years of war and said it was “committing mass crimes” in the Eastern Ghouta region where 400,000 people are besieged by government forces.
“The Assad regime never entered in any negotiation since the beginning of the civil war,” France’s Ambassador to the US Gerard Araud said on Twitter, adding: “They don’t look for a political compromise but for the eradication of their enemies.”
There is no alternative to a negotiated political solution agreed by both parties under the auspices of the UN,” Alexandre Giorgini, deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in a daily briefing, reiterating Paris’ support for UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and appearing to dismiss a separate Russian initiative planned in Sochi next year.
“We deplore the attitude of the Syrian regime, which has refused to engage in the discussion. The Syrian regime is responsible for the lack of progress in the negotiations,” he said.
The UN says about 400,000 civilians are besieged and face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the Syrian regime were blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.
“By denying humanitarian access, the Damascus regime is responsible for mass crimes, particularly through the use of the siege as a weapon of war,” Giorgini said.
Meanwhile, over half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now living in extreme poverty, and the vast majority live below the poverty line, the UN’s refugee agency said Friday.
According to the UN, more than a million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon since the war in their country erupted in March 2011.
The massive influx has tested Lebanon, a country of just four million citizens that already struggled with overstretched resources before the arrival of Syrian refugees.
Over the last six years of the war, the refugee population has sunk further into debt and poverty, UNHCR said, with 58 percent of households now living in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2.87 per person a day.
That is an increase of five percent since last year, UNHCR said in an annual survey.
The survey found 76 percent of refugees were living below the poverty line, defined as less than $3.84 per person a day, and that nearly 90 percent of refugees were in debt.
“Syrian refugees in Lebanon are barely keeping afloat,” said UNHCR’s Lebanon representative Mireille Girard said.
“Most families are extremely vulnerable and dependent on aid from the international community.”
One bright spot in the survey was a large jump in school enrolment of refugee children aged 6-14, with 70 percent now registered at school, up from around just half. But the report found just 12 percent of adolescent refugees had finished their education.


Northern Red Sea coral reefs may survive a hot, grim future

Updated 20 February 2019
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Northern Red Sea coral reefs may survive a hot, grim future

  • Corals at the northernmost tip of the Red Sea are exhibiting remarkable resistance to the rising water temperatures and acidification
  • There is broad scientific consensus that the effects of climate change have devastated the world’s reefs

EILAT, Israel: As the outlook for coral reefs across a warming planet grows grimmer, scientists in Israel have discovered a rare glimmer of hope: The corals of the northern Red Sea may survive, and even thrive, into the next century.
There is broad scientific consensus that the effects of climate change have devastated the world’s reefs, recently ravaging large swaths of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, one of the natural wonders of the world.
The carbon dioxide that humans pump into the atmosphere spikes the temperature and acidity of seawater, which both poisons the marine invertebrates and hampers their growth at alarming rates, according to studies published last year in the journal Science. Experts estimate that half of the corals that existed in the early 20th century have died.
But the corals at the northernmost tip of the Red Sea are exhibiting remarkable resistance to the rising water temperatures and acidification, according to recent research conducted by the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences based in Eilat. Experts hope the lessons learned in the Red Sea can help coral reefs elsewhere in the world.
“Corals worldwide are dying and suffering at a rapid pace, but we have not witnessed a single bleaching event in the Gulf of Aqaba,” said Maoz Fine, an expert on coral reefs at Bar-Ilan University and director of the research.
Warmer water causes corals to eject the brightly colored plants that serve as their primary food and oxygen source. This causes reefs to “bleach,” or take on a bone-white pallor that often portends mass mortality.
While other hardy coral species can be found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, “there’s nowhere else in the world that reefs are this far away from their bleaching thresholds,” said Fine. Plenty of other refuges remain unknown, but “this is the only spot we know of with a warranty ensuring these reefs stay safe for the next several decades,” he said.
On a recent day at the lab, Fine examined coral fragments in water treated to simulate future global warming scenarios, pointing to their ruddy color as a sign of good health.

Scientists have discovered a rare glimmer of hope for corals. (AP/Ariel Schalit)


The Gulf of Aqaba has become a refuge for tough corals that are projected to outlast far worse future conditions. Fine’s latest study, published this month in the Journal of Experimental Biology, found further cause for optimism: The coral species’ thermal resistance carries over to their offspring, indicating that future generations will also remain immune to bleaching, with implications that could extend beyond this spot of the Red Sea.
Fine’s research credits northern Red Sea coral resilience to a giant natural selection event that occurred some 18,000 years ago. As glaciers retreated at the end of the ice age, reefs moved in to recolonize the southern part of the sea, where temperatures ran exceedingly high.
Only corals that could bear the heat managed to reach maturity and migrate north, where they resettled in conditions several degrees cooler than their thermal threshold. Further research is underway to determine how existing in temperatures below their tolerance levels may lend corals physiological benefits.
“All corals were obliterated except for the best genotypes, the winners of the climate change lottery,” said Fine. Today, these hardy corals continue to survive as Red Sea waters warm, only showing signs of heat stress at six degrees above the summer maximum sea temperature.
“Not only does this give us an incentive to protect this special refuge as much as possible, but also allows us to find hints as to the most important genes for thermal resistance,” he added.
Picking out winning genes can contribute to an urgent worldwide push to restore and repopulate dead reefs. Some cutting-edge labs in Hawaii and Australia have even started crossbreeding the corals that survived or recovered from the mass bleaching of their reefs to create gene banks of “super-corals” that they hope can survive future elevated temperatures.
“If corals are surviving and reproducing in the Gulf of Aqaba under stressful conditions, and in the central and southern Red Sea they’re not, we can reseed the hardy corals in nearby bleached areas,” said Jacqueline De La Cour, operations manager for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, who was not a part of the study. “Entirely new ecosystems that can withstand climate change would be established.”
The US agency has honed such restoration techniques in Florida, where reefs play a critical role in softening the blow of hurricanes.
Jessica Bellworthy, a doctoral student in Fine’s lab, said that while it’s too soon to tell whether Gulf of Aqaba corals would retain their resilience if multiplied and transplanted to other environments, it’s a “direction we could eventually take our data.”
Fine likened transplanting corals to “playing God,” saying that although such human intervention has become well-established, it carries ecological risks and raises ethical questions. For instance, should humans be introducing new species where there are natives?
But some scientists contend that only a hands-on response can address accelerating reef mortality rates. From 2014-2017, corals experienced the most widespread and damaging “bleaching event” in global history, said De La Cour.
Experts often compare reefs to rainforests when trying to convey their stunning diversity of life. “If you lose reefs, you lose everything that depends on them,” said Michael Webster, executive director of Coral Reef Alliance, a San Francisco conservation group.
Reef death not only carries dire consequences for wildlife, but also for the homes, health and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people: those who fish, work in tourism, dwell on islands made of coral or rely on reef protection from coastal erosion.
“The survivors in the Gulf of Aqaba are only going to become even more essential to us over the next 100 years,” said De La Cour. “Coral refuges show us that species can adapt. It gives us hope.”