Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes
A teacher, right, and volunteer sort distance learning materials to be picked up by parents at a school in Quezon City on Sept. 8, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 20 September 2021

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes
  • Up to a hundred public schools in areas considered ‘minimal risk’ for coronavirus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial

MANILA: The Philippines will reopen up to 120 schools for limited in-person classes for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in a pilot approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, officials said Monday.
While nearly every country in the world has already partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them closed since March 2020.
“We have to pilot face-to-face (classes) because this is not just an issue for education, it’s an issue for the children’s mental health,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
“It’s also an issue for the economy because we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”
Under guidelines approved by Duterte Monday, up to a hundred public schools in areas considered “minimal risk” for virus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial.
Twenty private schools can also participate.
Classrooms will be open to children in kindergarten to grade three, and senior high school, but the number of students and hours spent in face-to-face lessons limited.
Schools wanting to take part will be assessed for their preparedness and need approval from local governments to reopen. Written consent from parents will be required.
“If the pilot class is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase it,” said Education Secretary Leonor Briones.
Duterte rejected previous proposals for a pilot reopening of schools for fear children could catch Covid-19 and infect elderly relatives.
But there have been growing calls from the UN’s children fund and many teachers for a return to in-person learning amid concerns the prolonged closure was exacerbating an education crisis in the country.
It is not clear when the pilot will begin or which schools will be included.
A “blended learning” program, which involves online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media, will continue.
France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers said the decision was “long overdue.”
Fifteen-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.


Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’

Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’
Updated 23 sec ago

Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’

Taiwan says odds of war with China in next year ‘very low’
  • Taiwan has repeatedly said that it will defend itself if attacked, but wants to maintain the status quo with China
TAIPEI: The odds of war with China in the next year are “very low,” a top Taiwanese security official told lawmakers on Wednesday, amid heightened tensions between Taipei and Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the island.
Taiwan has repeatedly said that it will defend itself if attacked, but wants to maintain the status quo with China even as it complains of repeated sorties by the Chinese air force in its air defense identification zone, or ADIZ.
“I think generally, within one year, the probability of war is very low,” National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong told a parliamentary defense committee meeting.
“But there are many things you still have to pay attention to, called contingent events.”
Earlier this month, President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not be forced to bow to China, but reiterated a desire for peace and dialogue with Beijing.
Barring any “contingent events,” Chen said, “in the next one year, two years, or three years, during President Tsai’s term, I think there won’t be a problem.”
Chen cited the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of an unexpected event that has fundamentally changed society.
“Nobody expected that,” he said.
Earlier this month China mounted four consecutive days of mass air force incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ, which covers a broader area than Taiwan’s territorial air space. Taiwan monitors and patrols ADIZ in order to give it more time to respond to any threats.
While China’s aircraft did not enter into Taiwan’s airspace, flying primarily in the southwestern corner of its ADIZ, Taiwan views the increased frequency of incursions as part of Beijing’s intensifying military harassment.
China defended its military activities as “just” moves to protect peace and stability, blaming the tensions on Taiwan’s “collusion” with foreign forces — a veiled reference to the United States.
Taiwan says it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its formal name.
Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said last week that Taiwan will not start a war with China but will “meet the enemy full on.”
Military tensions with China are at their higher point in more than 40 years, Chiu said earlier this month, adding China will be capable of mounting a “full scale” invasion by 2025.

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change
Updated 9 min 7 sec ago

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change
  • Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters

VENICE, Italy: After Venice suffered the second-worst flood in its history in November 2019, it was inundated with four more exceptional tides within six weeks, shocking Venetians and triggering fears about the worsening impact of climate change.
The repeated invasion of brackish lagoon water into St. Mark’s Basilica this summer is a quiet reminder that the threat hasn’t receded.
“I can only say that in August, a month when this never used to happen, we had tides over a meter five times. I am talking about the month of August, when we are quiet,” St. Mark’s chief caretaker, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, told The Associated Press.
Venice’s unique topography, built on log piles among canals, has made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels are increasing the frequency of high tides that inundate the 1,600-year-old Italian lagoon city, which is also gradually sinking.
It is the fate of coastal cities like Venice that will be on the minds of climate scientists and global leaders meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, at a UN climate conference that begins Oct. 31.
Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters (3 feet, 11 inches), according to a new study published by the European Geosciences Union. That is 50 percent higher than the worse-case global sea-rise average of 80 centimeters (2 feet, 7 1/2 inches) forecast by the UN science panel.
The city’s interplay of canals and architecture, of natural habitat and human ingenuity, also has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding universal value, a designation put at risk of late because of the impact of over-tourism and cruise ship traffic. It escaped the endangered list after Italy banned cruise ships from passing through St. Mark’s Basin, but alarm bells are still ringing.
Sitting at Venice’s lowest spot, St. Mark’s Basilica offers a unique position to monitor the impact of rising seas on the city. The piazza outside floods at 80 centimeters (around 30 inches), and water passes the narthex into the church at 88 centimeters (34.5 inches), which has been reinforced up from a previous 65 centimeters (25.5 inches).
“Conditions are continuing to worsen since the flooding of November 2019. We therefore have the certainty that in these months, flooding is no longer an occasional phenomenon. It is an everyday occurrence,” said Tesserin, whose honorific, First Procurator of St. Mark’s, dates back to the ninth century.
In the last two decades, there have been nearly as many inundations in Venice over 1.1 meters — the official level for “acqua alta,” or “high water,” provoked by tides, winds and lunar cycles — as during the previous 100 years: 163 vs. 166, according to city data.
Exceptional floods over 140 centimeters (4 feet, 7 inches) also are accelerating. That mark has been hit 25 times since Venice starting keeping such records in 1872. Two-thirds of those have been registered in the last 20 years, with five, or one-fifth of the total, from Nov. 12-Dec. 23, 2019.
“What is happening now is on the continuum for Venetians, who have always lived with periodic flooding,” said Jane Da Mosto, executive director of We Are Here Venice. “We are living with flooding that has become increasingly frequent, so my concern is that people haven’t really realized we are in a climate crisis. We are already living it now. It is not a question of plans to deal with it in the future. We need to have solutions ready for today.”
Venice’s defense has been entrusted to the Moses system of moveable underwater barriers, a project costing around 6 billion euros (nearly $7 billion) and which, after decades of cost overruns, delays and a bribery scandal, is still officially in the testing phase.
Following the devastation of the 2019 floods, the Rome government put the project under ministry control to speed its completion, and last year start activating the barriers when floods of 1.3 meters (4 feet, 3 inches) are imminent.
The barriers have been raised 20 times since October 2020, sparing the city a season of serious flooding but not from the lower-level tides that are becoming more frequent.
The extraordinary commissioner, Elisabetta Spitz, stands by the soundness of the undersea barriers, despite concerns by scientists and experts that their usefulness may be outstripped within decades because of climate change. The project has been delayed yet again, until 2023, with another 500 million euros ($580 million) in spending, for “improvements” that Spitz said will ensure its long-term efficiency.
“We can say that the effective life of the Moses is 100 years, taking into account the necessary maintenance and interventions that will be implemented,’’ Spitz said.
Paolo Vielmo, an engineer who has written expert reports on the project, points out that the sea level rise was projected at 22 centimeters (8 1/2 inches) when the Moses was first proposed more than 30 years ago, far below the UN scientists’ current worse-case scenario of 80 centimeters.
“That puts the Moses out of contention,” he said.
According to current plans, the Moses barriers won’t be raised for floods of 1.1 meters (3 feet, 7 inches) until the project receives final approval. That leaves St. Mark’s exposed.
Tesserin is overseeing work to protect the Basilica by installing a glass wall around its base, which eventually will protect marshy lagoon water from seeping inside, where it deposits salt that eats away at marble columns, wall cladding and stone mosaics. The project, which continues to be interrupted by high tides, was supposed to be finished by Christmas. Now Tesserin says they will be lucky to have it finished by Easter.
Regular high tides elicit a blase response from Venetians, who are accustomed to lugging around rubber boots at every flood warning, and delight from tourists, fascinated by the sight of St. Mark’s golden mosaics and domes reflected in rising waters. But businesses along St. Mark’s Square increasingly see themselves at ground zero of the climate crisis.
“We need to help this city. It was a light for the world, but now it needs the whole world to understand it,’’ said Annapaola Lavena, speaking from behind metal barriers that kept waters reaching 1.05 meters (3 feet, 5 inches) from invading her marble-floored cafe.
“The acqua alta is getting worse, and it completely blocks business. Venice lives thanks to its artisans and tourism. If there is no more tourism, Venice dies,” she explained. “We have a great responsibility in trying to save it, but we are suffering a lot.”


Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul
Updated 20 October 2021

Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul

Grenade attack targets Taliban vehicle in Kabul
  • Explosion happened during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital

KABUL: A grenade was thrown at a Taliban vehicle in the Afghan capital on Wednesday morning, wounding two fighters and four nearby school children, government officials said.
“This morning a grenade was thrown at a mujahideen vehicle in Deh Mazang, wounding two mujahideen,” Taliban interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti said.
Another official said: “Our initial information shows four school students wounded.”
The explosion happened just before 8 a.m. (0330 GMT) during rush hour in the Deh Mazang district in the west of the capital, a witness said.
“I was on my way to work, it was 7.55am and I heard this very big explosion on the road. I managed to escape,” said Amin Amani.
“I saw a lot of smoke in the mirror of the car and I saw people running,” the 35-year-old translator said.
Images shared on social media showed plumes of smoke and dust rising into the air on the streets of the capital.


Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal

Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal
Updated 4 min 18 sec ago

Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal

Floods, landslides kill 116 in India and Nepal
  • In Uttarakhand in northern India, officials said 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing
  • Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state

DEHRADUN: The death toll from days of flooding and landslides in India and Nepal crossed 100 on Wednesday, including several families swept away or crushed in their homes by avalanches of mud and rocks.
Experts say that they were victims of ever-more unpredictable and extreme weather across South Asia in recent years caused by climate change and exacerbated by deforestation, damming and excessive development.
In Uttarakhand in northern India, officials said 46 people had died in recent days with 11 missing.
At least 30 were killed in seven separate incidents in Uttarakhand’s Nainital region early Tuesday, after cloudbursts — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered landslides and destroyed several structures.
Five of the dead were from a single family whose house was buried by a massive landslide, local official Pradeep Jain told AFP.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
The floods almost swept away an elephant near the Corbett Tiger Reserve — home to 164 of the big cats and 600 elephants — but in a video that went viral, the animal managed to battle the strong currents and swim to safety.
Uttarakhand reported 178.4 mm rain in the first 18 days of October — almost 500 percent more than the average, the Hindustan Times reported citing Indian Meteorological Department data.
And the state’s Mukteshwar area reported 340.8 mm rainfall in the 24 hours until Tuesday morning, the most since the weather station was set up there in 1897, the newspaper said.
The Indian Meteorological Department forecast a “significant reduction” in rainfall in the state from Wednesday.
In Nepal, 31 were reported dead after days of heavy rains across the country.
Disaster management official Humkala Pandey said that 43 others were still missing.
“It’s still raining in many places... The death toll could go up further,” she added.
In the eastern district of Dhankuta, a landslide buried a house overnight, killing six people including three children.
Swelling rivers flooded homes in several districts, damaging roads and bridges and reportedly destroying crops.
Landslides are a regular danger in the Himalayan region, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame deforestation and the construction of hydroelectric dams.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
The state has reported over 7,750 extreme rainfall events and cloudbursts since 2015 — a majority of them in the last three years.
In Kerala state in southern India, the death toll reached 39 on Wednesday.
The coastal state has been battered by heavy rain since Friday and thousands have been moved to safer locations. More than 200 homes were destroyed and almost 1,400 damaged.
Kerala has also seen an increase in natural disasters, including in 2018 when nearly 500 people perished in the worst flooding in a century.
Environmentalists blame an increase in extreme weather in the warming Arabian Sea as well as excessive development in the Western Ghats mountain range.
After a brief respite, forecasters are warning of more heavy rain in the coming days with alerts issued in several places in Kerala.
Those killed over the weekend included six members of the same family after a landslide buried their house.
Shutters on at least three dams across the state were opened Tuesday including Idukki, one of Asia’s biggest, though State Electricity Board chairman B. Ashok said “there was no need to panic.”


Mali asks Islamic High Council to begin dialogue with Al-Qaeda

Mali asks Islamic High Council to begin dialogue with Al-Qaeda
Updated 20 October 2021

Mali asks Islamic High Council to begin dialogue with Al-Qaeda

Mali asks Islamic High Council to begin dialogue with Al-Qaeda
  • It is not clear when the dialogue will begin, but the council will lead discussions with Malian militant leaders

BAMAKO: Mali’s government has asked the country’s Islamic High Council to begin a dialogue with Al-Qaeda-linked groups in a new effort to address a nearly decade-long insecurity crisis.

It is not clear when the dialogue will begin, but the council will lead discussions with Malian militant leaders Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa of the Al-Qaeda-linked group known as JNIM, the council said.

Mohamed Kibiri, spokesman for the council, said on Tuesday that he was asked by the government last week to launch discussions. He said they are working with their representatives in the country’s north.

“The only directive we have received is to negotiate only with the Malians,” he said. “The other jihadists we consider invaders.”

Mali’s Minister of Religious Affairs and Worship Mamadou Koné confirmed that the government asked the council to lead discussions with the two groups.

This is not the first time the Malian government has asked the council to open dialogue with jihadist groups. Earlier this year, the council reached a ceasefire agreement between an Al-Qaeda-linked group and local fighters in a village in the Niono circle in central Mali. The jihadists granted freedom of movement to the villagers, and peaceful cohabitation with the army and local armed groups, in exchange for compulsory veiling of women, collection of taxes and traditional justice.

Mali has been fighting growing insecurity since 2012, when Al-Qaeda-linked groups took over parts of the north. Despite a French-led military operation that forced many rebels from their northern strongholds in 2013, insurgents quickly regrouped and have been advancing year after year toward the south of the country, where the Malian capital is located.

Meanwhile, the French army said Tuesday its troops shot dead a woman while conducting an anti-terror reconnaissance operation with Malian soldiers in the west African country, prompting an investigation.

The woman died on Monday during a joint patrol “in an area where elements of an armed terrorist group has been detected east of Gossi” in the north, the French general staff said.

The soldiers saw two individuals riding a motorbike, but they left it behind to flee into the undergrowth when they spotted the French and Malian troops, said the statement.

“An abandoned assault rifle, ammunition and a military bag are discovered near the motorbike,” it added.

The soldiers “engage in the pursuit of one of the two individuals in the woods. Four warning shots are fired to stop him but the latter moves further away.”

“The individual turns sharply toward the soldiers who fire to neutralize” the target and then “discover that it is a woman,” suspected of being one of the people on the motorcycle.

“Residents of the nearest village are called to give the identity of this person” but “no one knows her,” said the general staff, adding that the body was buried at the site.

An investigation has been opened “to clarify the exact sequence of events and to shed full light on this combat action,” the statement concluded.

Deployed to Mali since 2013 because of deadly jihadist activity, a force of some 5,000 French troops is now being drawn down, potentially by as much as half by early next year.