India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam

India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam
The Shahtoot Dam will be a source of drinkable water for 2.2 million people of Kabul and also provide irrigation facilities for 4,000 hectares of land. (AP)
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Updated 10 February 2021

India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam

India boosts its Afghan presence with $236m deal for new dam
  • Dam is part of development initiatives announced by New Delhi last year

KABUL: As the latest sign of its growing involvement in Afghanistan, India on Tuesday pledged to build the $236 million Shahtoot Dam in Kabul to provide safe drinking water to 2.2 million residents in the capital city and boost irrigation facilities across the country. 

Plans for the construction of the dam were discussed during a virtual meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with representatives from both sides signing an agreement at the presidential palace in Kabul. 

The dam is part of a series of new development initiatives announced by India in November last year, with New Delhi also expected to spearhead 150 community projects worth $80 million in the war-torn country. 

Ghani thanked Modi for India’s role in the development of Afghanistan, adding that peace in Afghanistan was necessary to Central Asia. Modi, for his part, assured “all Afghans” that India would stand with them. 

“No outside powers will be able to hinder our friendship or affect your growth,” he said. 

Commending the initiative, Tahir Qadery, Afghan chargé d’affaires in New Delhi, said the signing of the agreement was a “historic day for our strategic partnership.” 

Scheduled to be completed in six years, the Shahtoot Dam will be built along the Kabul River Basin. With a height of 92 meters, it is designed to store 146 million cubic meters of water, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Water Management Department said. 

“It will provide drinkable water for 2.2 million people of Kabul, which will reduce, to some extent, the country’s water crisis. At the same time, it will provide irrigation facilities for 4,000 hectares of land,” Nizamuddin Khpelwak told Arab News. 

The Kabul River Basin extends over nine Afghan provinces, with the river itself a vital source of drinking water for millions of Afghans who have been grappling with a severe water crisis in the past few decades. 

A population boom and residents’ movement from villages to the capital for better employment opportunities have led to a spike in demand for clean drinking water. However, depleted groundwater resources, the arid conditions of the region and only 362 millimeters of annual rainfall mean there is not enough water for everyone. 

“The size of Kabul’s population is rising, the city is expanding, and our estimates show that over 70 percent of people have no access to piped water,” Khpelwak said. 

New Delhi’s offer to build the dam is, therefore, of prime importance to the nearly parched nation and comes a day after India became the first nation to send 500,000 vaccines to Afghanistan to help fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

Ghani has been pushing for the deepening of his embattled government’s ties with India, which, since the Taliban’s ouster in the US-led invasion in 2001, has spent $2 billion on the construction of a new parliament building, a mega hydroelectric dam near the border with Iran, and various reconstruction projects. 

For these reasons, India’s embassy and its interests have come under attack by militants in Afghanistan in the past.  

Both Kabul and New Delhi blame Pakistan for organizing the strikes, a charge vehemently denied by Islamabad. 

Experts, however, believe India’s growing interest and influence in Afghanistan is for its “long-term goals.”

“India, despite its economic hardships, is one of the major donors to Afghanistan and has spent $2 billion on reconstruction projects since the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001,” Saifuddin Saihoon, a lecturer at Kabul University, told Arab News. 

He added that both countries signed a “strategic partnership” agreement and that Afghanistan wants India — after the departure of US troops from the country — to be the “main player.”

“Afghanistan needs India for its interests. India has a rivalry with Pakistan and wants Afghanistan to manage its economy and security for its long-term strategic goals,” Saihoon said. 

Other experts exercised caution while analyzing India’s role in the country. 

“Afghanistan is a poor country and needs such assistance; people here welcome such aid,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, who runs a small think-tank in Kabul, told Arab News. 

“May God ensure that this is selfless aid without ulterior motives,” he added. 

However, Ahmad F. Samin, a former World Bank adviser, told Arab News that Kabul needed to “act prudently in its ties with India.”

“At face value, the construction of the Shahtoot Dam could be observed as a positive step toward developing Afghanistan. Yet, one has to question the timing and partnership not only on this project but other lesser-known contracts also involving India. 

“The Afghan government needs to be more cautious and careful to not become a pawn in the growing tension between India and Afghanistan.”


Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr
Updated 14 May 2021

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr
  • Families receive food aid, new clothes as Ramadan draws to a close amid health restrictions

DHAKA: Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char island observed their first Eid Al-Fitr on Thursday, May 13, in an “isolated state” far away from their relatives.  

Most of the people relocated to the new island facility left their friends and relatives in 34 camps at Cox’s Bazar, which is home for more than 1 million Rohingya refugees.  

Bangladesh began the relocation of refugees, 18,000 to date, to Bhasan Char, some 63 km from the mainland, at the end of last year, explaining that it would ease pressure on the congested camps at Cox’s Bazar.

“We are observing a different kind of Eid this year, far away from friends and relatives. Usually we get together with relatives on Eid days,” Rohingya refugee Abdur Rahman, 37, told Arab News. 

“On this special occasion, I am not seeing any friends and relatives around me. Sometimes I feel isolated.”

Rahman said: “Mobile phones are the only way of communication for us but it’s not always affordable.”

Another refugee, Morium Begum, 29, said her children are missing the Eid festivities in Cox’s Bazar. 

“My children used to visit their friends’ houses and Eid fairs on these days at Cox’s Bazar. But here they don’t have any friends,” Begum told Arab News. 

“Probably, the ongoing coronavirus lockdown added more to our isolation. Otherwise authorities may have allowed some Eid fairs for the children,” she added. 

Mohammad Hossain, 19, said this Eid was a new experience to him. “The congregation field is prepared with makeshift tents and decorated in a befitting manner, which created much festivity on the island,” Hossain told Arab News. “I never saw this sort of arrangement in my days at Cox’s Bazar’s refugee camps.”

On marking Eid Al-Fitr, authorities have provided special food aid to the refugees on the island. 

“A food package containing vermicelli, powdered milk, sugar, edible oil, rice, lentil, spices etc have been provided on the occasion of Eid,” Moazzam Hossain, Bangladesh’s additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Arab News. 

“All the families received this aid according to their family size and need,” he said, adding that 5,000 new clothing items were also distributed to Rohingya children.

For maintaining social distancing and health and safety guidelines, authorities have organized three separate Eid congregations on the island. 

“Since the beginning of the Rohingya exodus in 2017, this is the first time the refugees on the island got the opportunity to celebrate the Eid festival in a comfortable environment, free from the threat of landslides, rough weather and the highly congested environment of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps,” Hossain added. 

Emergency health services are also open during Eid, and there are eight government health officials currently serving on the island, he said.

UN and international aid agencies are yet to begin aid operations on the island.

Currently, more than 40 local NGOs are providing humanitarian support to the relocated refugees. 

“Here the refugees are fully dependent on relief support, since there is no other source (of aid) on the island,” Saiful Islam Chowdhury, chief executive of Pulse Bangladesh Society, told Arab News. 

“We made a need assessment for each of the families, and supplied aid accordingly, so that all of them can enjoy the festival,” he added.


UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown
Updated 14 May 2021

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown
  • Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the spread of a new variant of coronavirus first detected in India could disrupt plans to move to eliminate most remaining lockdown measures in June, although it would not delay the next step in easing.
"We will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday, but I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress, and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June," Johnson told a Downing Street briefing on Friday.

Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s more important than ever therefore that people get the additional protection of a second dose,” he told a news conference.
“So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over 50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country, so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose,” he said.


Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO
Updated 14 May 2021

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO
  • "Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough," WHO told AFP in an email
  • The comment followed US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people

GENEVA: Even after receiving Covid-19 jabs, people should wear face masks in areas where the virus is spreading, the WHO said Friday, after the US decided the vaccinated do not need masks.
“Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough,” the World Health Organization told AFP in an email.
The comment followed a decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to lift mask-wearing guidance for people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Almost 60 percent of US adults now have one or both doses, while cases are falling fast, down to a seven-day-average of 38,000, or 11 per 100,000.
The WHO refrained from commenting specifically on the US situation, but experts highlighted that the decision to remove Covid restrictions, including mask recommendations, should rely on more than just the vaccination rate.
“It’s about how much virus is circulating,” WHO Covid-19 lead Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters.
“It’s about the amount of vaccines and vaccinations that are rolling out, it’s about the variants... that are circulating.”
The vaccines in use against Covid-19 have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, and there is also increasing evidence that they provide high protection against infection and transmission of the virus.
But WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stressed they are “not 100 percent effective against preventing infection.”
“You can have asymptomatic or mild illness or even moderate symptoms even after being vaccinated,” she said, warning that “vaccination alone is not a guarantee against infection or against being able to transmit that infection to others.”
It may be rare, but could still occur, she said.
“That’s why we need the other protective measures like the mask wearing, and the distancing and so on until countries get to the level at which a large number of people are protected and virus circulation and the transmission goes to very low levels.”
So far, she warned, “very few countries are at the point now where they can drop these measures by individuals and by governments.”
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan agreed.
Relaxing measures and taking away mask mandates, he said, “should only be done in the context of considering both the intensity and transmission in your area, and the level of vaccination coverage.”
“Even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you’ve got a lot of transmission, then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”


UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow
Updated 14 May 2021

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow
  • Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim
  • A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters

LONDON: The UK government on Friday defended an immigration raid that inflamed tensions in Glasgow’s Muslim community at the start of Eid Al-Fitr, insisting there was no connection to the Islamic festival.
Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim.
A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters, and the pair were eventually released on bail as Glasgow police intervened in a bid to defuse tensions.
“The operation was routine and in no way connected to Eid. We are tackling illegal immigration and the harms it causes,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.
“We will continue to tackle illegal immigration,” he added.
The area in Scotland’s biggest city is home to a large Muslim community, and is part of the constituency of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“The Home Office needs to ask itself hard questions,” she said.
“Doing this on Eid, in the heart of our Muslim community, and in the midst of a serious Covid outbreak, was staggeringly irresponsible — but the even deeper problem is an appalling asylum and immigration policy.”
The incident came after Sturgeon’s pro-independence party and allies secured a majority in the Edinburgh parliament in elections last week, and it fueled anti-UK sentiment in sections of the Scottish media.
Friday’s front-page headline on the pro-independence National newspaper read: “Glasgow 1 ‘Team UK’ 0.”
The raid also caused trouble for Britain’s main opposition Labour party, after a prominent union official tweeted that London-born Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is of Indian descent, should herself be “deported.”
Labour leaders suspended the Unite union’s Howard Beckett, who apologized for the tweet but said he stood by his criticism of the government’s “racist” policies.


Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’
Updated 14 May 2021

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’
  • Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks”
  • Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict

BERLIN: Germany on Friday said rockets fired by Hamas at Israel amount to “terrorist attacks” and warned it would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations on its own soil as the conflict intensified in the Middle East.
“These are terrorist attacks that have only one goal: to kill people indiscriminately and arbitrarily and to spread fear,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told a government press conference.
Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks,” he added.
Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
The most intense hostilities in seven years were triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict, with protesters shouting anti-Semitic slogans and burning Israeli flags.
Flags were burned outside synagogues in Muenster and Bonn, with 16 people arrested.
On Wednesday evening, around 180 people shouted anti-Jewish slogans at a march in Gelsenkirchen, also in the west.
On Thursday around 1,500 people gathered in the northern city of Bremen calling for “freedom for Palestine” in a protest which proceeded without incident, according to local police.
Seibert said Friday that Germany would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations.
“Anyone who attacks a synagogue or defiles Jewish symbols shows that for them it is not about criticizing a state or the policies of a government, but about aggression and hate toward a religion and the people who belong to it,” he said.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had on Thursday also condemned the protests.
“Those who burn Star of David flags in our streets and shout anti-Semitic slogans not only abuse the freedom to demonstrate, but are committing crimes,” he told the popular Bild daily.
“Nothing justifies threats against Jews in Germany or attacks on synagogues in German towns,” he said.