New Zealand navy ships taking water, other supplies to tsunami-hit Tonga

New Zealand navy ships taking water, other supplies to tsunami-hit Tonga
HMNZS Aotearoa departs to provide disaster relief and assistance to Tonga after a volcanic eruption and tsunami on Jan. 18, 2022. (New Zealand Defense Force via Reuters)
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Updated 19 January 2022

New Zealand navy ships taking water, other supplies to tsunami-hit Tonga

New Zealand navy ships taking water, other supplies to tsunami-hit Tonga
  • Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands have been destroyed
  • Tonga is one of the few countries that is COVID-19 free and an outbreak there would disastrous

Two New Zealand navy vessels will arrive in Tonga on Friday, carrying much-needed water and other supplies for the Pacific island nation reeling from a volcanic eruption and tsunami, and largely cut off from the outside world.
Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands have been destroyed, and at least three people were killed after Saturday’s huge eruption triggered tsunami waves, which rolled over the islands causing what the government has called an unprecedented disaster.
With its airport smothered under a layer of volcanic ash and communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation has mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.
“For the people of Tonga, we’re heading their way now with a whole lot of water,” Simon Griffiths, captain of the HMNZS Aotearoa, said in a release.
Griffiths said his ship was carrying 250,000 liters of water, and had the capacity to produce another 70,000 liters a day, along with other supplies.
New Zealand’s foreign ministry said the Tongan government has approved the arrival of Aotearoa and the HMNZS Wellington in the COVID-free nation, where concerns about a potential coronavirus outbreak are likely to complicate relief efforts.
Tonga has said its water supplies have been contaminated by ash from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which erupted with a blast heard 2,300 kilometers away in New Zealand. It also sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean.
James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the force of the eruption was estimated to be equivalent to five to 10 megatons of TNT, an explosive force more than 500 times the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War Two.
The Red Cross said its teams in Tonga were distributing drinking water across the islands where salt water from the tsunami and volcanic ash were “polluting the clean drinking water sources of tens of thousands of people.”
Other countries and agencies including the United Nations are drawing up plans to send aid.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said it would send help, including water and food, when the archipelago’s main Fua’amotu International Airport reopens. It was not damaged but was covered in ash, which is being cleared manually,
“We thought that it would be operational yesterday, but it hasn’t been fully cleared yet because more ash has been falling,” Fiji-based UN co-ordinator Jonathan Veitch said on Wednesday.
Pacific neighbor Fiji will send defense engineers on Australia’s HMAS Adelaide, which is due to set sail from Brisbane for Tonga on Friday, a Fiji military spokesman told a briefing in Suva.
A second New Zealand Defense P3 Orion surveillance flight will fly over Tonga on Wednesday to assess damage, the foreign ministry said.
Waves reaching up to 15 meters hit the outer Ha’apia island group, destroying all of the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the prime minister’s office said.
On the west coast of Tongatapu, residents were being moved to evacuation centers as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.
New Zealand said power has now been restored, and clean-up and damage assessments were going on and Tongan authorities were distributing relief supplies.
Australia and New Zealand have promised immediate financial assistance. The US Agency for International Development approved $100,000 in immediate assistance to support people affected by volcanic eruptions and tsunami waves.
Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni has met the heads of diplomatic missions to discuss aid, the office said.
Tonga is still largely offline after the volcano severed the sole undersea fiber-optics communication cable.
International mobile phone network provider Digicel has set up an interim system on Tongatapu using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish, the New Zealand foreign ministry said.
That would allow a 2G connection to be established but the connection is patchy and amounts to about 10 percent of usual capacity,
US cable company SubCom has advised it will take at least four weeks for Tonga’s cable be repaired, it added.
Tongan communities abroad have posted images from families on Facebook, giving a glimpse of the devastation, with homes reduced to rubble, fallen trees, cracked roads and sidewalks and everything coated with grey ash.
Aid agencies, including the United Nations, are preparing to get relief supplies to Tonga at a distance to avoid introducing the coronavirus, Veitch said.
Tonga is one of the few countries that is COVID-19 free and an outbreak there would disastrous, he said.
“We believe that we will be able to send flights with supplies. We’re not sure that we can send flights with personnel and the reason for this is that Tonga has a very strict COVID-free policy,” Veitch told a briefing.
“They’ve been very cautious about opening their borders like many Pacific islands, and that’s because of the history of disease outbreaks in the Pacific which has wiped out societies here.”


US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
Updated 6 sec ago

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
  • Withdrawal ‘destroyed’ the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support
WASHINGTON: The biggest factor that led to the collapse of the Afghan military in August last year was the US decision to withdraw forces and contractors from Afghanistan through an agreement with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration and executed by the Biden administration, a US watchdog report concluded.
The withdrawal “destroyed” the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support, according to an assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was made public late Tuesday.
“SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) collapse in August 2021 was the US decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration, followed by President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021,” the report said.
Under US President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, the United States made a deal with the Islamist Taliban to withdraw all American forces.
After the signing of the deal, the US military support to Afghan forces came down, which also included a drop in air strikes in 2020 after a record high level in the previous year, the report added.
“Limiting airstrikes after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement the following year left the ANDSF without a key advantage in keeping the Taliban at bay,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August as the former Western-backed government collapsed with surprising speed and the last US troops withdrew.
Biden had argued the war in Afghanistan needed to be brought to a close after 20 years of fighting that had cost American lives, drained resources and distracted from greater strategic priorities.
The US Congress created the office of SIGAR to provide an oversight of reconstruction projects and activities during the war in Afghanistan.
“Many Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country,” Sopko said.

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO
Updated 28 min 17 sec ago

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO

Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO
  • Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War
  • Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year

BRUSSELS: Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance on Wednesday at allied headquarters, a decision spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and setting in motion an accession process that is expected to take only a few weeks.

Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join NATO is one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture for decades, reflecting a sweeping shift in public opinion in the Nordic region since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a short ceremony in which the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the alliance handed over their application letters, each in a white folder embossed with their national flag.

“I warmly welcome requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will increase our shared security,” Stoltenberg said. The alliance considers that the accession of Finland and Sweden would hugely strengthen it in the Baltic Sea.

Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say.

Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about Finnish and Swedish membership. Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that he thought the issues could be resolved.

“We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said, noting strong support from all other allies.


Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain

Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain
Updated 18 May 2022

Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain

Half a million Indians flee floods in northeast brought by rain
  • One of the world’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, burst its banks in Assam over the last three days, inundating more than 1,500 villages

GUWAHATI, India: More than 500,000 people have fled their homes in India’s northeastern state of Assam to escape heavy floods triggered by pre-monsoon rains that drowned seven, authorities said on Wednesday, as they warned the situation could worsen.
One of the world’s largest rivers, the Brahmaputra, which flows into India and neighboring Bangladesh from Tibet, burst its banks in Assam over the last three days, inundating more than 1,500 villages.
Torrential rains lashed most of the rugged state, and the downpour continued on Wednesday, with more forecast over the next two days.
“More than 500,000 people have been affected, with the flood situation turning critical by the hour,” Assam’s water resources minister, Pijush Hazarika said, adding that the seven drowned in separate incidents during the last three days.
Soldiers of the Indian army retrieved more than 2,000 people trapped in the district of Hojai in a rescue effort that continues, the state’s health minister, Keshab Mahanta, said.
Water levels in the Brahmaputra were expected to rise further, national authorities said.
“The situation remains extremely grave in the worst-hit Dima Hasao district, with both rail and road links snapped due to flooding and landslides,” said Assam’s revenue minister, Jogen Mohan, who is overseeing relief efforts there.
Cities elsewhere in India, notably the capital, New Delhi, are broiling in a heat wave.


Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch

Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch
Updated 18 May 2022

Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch

Australian election polls show race tightening in final campaign stretch
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison describes the pre-polling trends as ‘really encouraging’
  • Opposition leader Anthony Albanese blames government mismanagement for the slow rise in wages and inflation shock

SYDNEY: Australia’s national election has become too close to call, polls out on Wednesday showed, as the ruling conservative coalition narrowed the gap with the main opposition Labour Party, three days before the country decides on a new government.
Center-left Labor’s lead over the Liberal-National coalition has shrunk to 51-49 percent on a two-party preferred basis from 54-46 percent two weeks ago, a poll done for the Sydney Morning Herald showed. A Guardian poll indicated Labor’s lead had dipped to 48-46 percent from 49 percent-45 percent two weeks ago.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the pre-polling trends as “really encouraging,” while Labor acknowledged the election would be “incredibly close.”
With Australia going to the polls on Saturday, rising living costs have dominated the final stretches of the campaign with voters rating it as the most critical issue in some polls.
Australian wage growth ticked up by only a fraction last quarter, data out on Wednesday showed, even as a tightening labor market and record vacancies heightened competition for workers.
But consumer price inflation has risen twice as fast as wages, keeping real income in the red.
“I have been very candid with Australians about the economic challenges we’re facing ... Labor has no magic bullet on this, they have no magic pen or magic wand,” Morrison told reporters from the marginal Labor-held seat of Corangamite in Victoria.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese blamed government mismanagement for the slow rise in wages and inflation shock.
“Australian workers are paying the price for a decade of bad policy and economic failures while Scott Morrison says he should be rewarded with another three years because he is just getting started,” Albanese said.
Nearly 6 million voters out of an electorate of 17 million have already cast their ballots through postal votes or early in-person voting, official data showed.
An additional 1.1 million postal votes have been received so far versus the 2019 election. The Electoral Commission has flagged a clear winner may not emerge on election night if it is a close contest due to time required to count all postal votes.


Global pollution kills 9 million people a year, study finds

Smoke rises from the Duvha coal-based power station owned by state power utility Eskom, in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.
Smoke rises from the Duvha coal-based power station owned by state power utility Eskom, in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.
Updated 18 May 2022

Global pollution kills 9 million people a year, study finds

Smoke rises from the Duvha coal-based power station owned by state power utility Eskom, in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.
  • Pollution kills about the same number of people a year around the world as cigarette smoking and second-hand smoke combined, the study said

NEW DELHI: A new study blames pollution of all types for 9 million deaths a year globally, with the death toll attributed to dirty air from cars, trucks and industry rising 55 percent since 2000.
That increase is offset by fewer pollution deaths from primitive indoor stoves and water contaminated with human and animal waste, so overall pollution deaths in 2019 are about the same as 2015.
The United States is the only fully industrialized country in the top 10 nations for total pollution deaths, ranking 7th with 142,883 deaths blamed on pollution in 2019, sandwiched between Bangladesh and Ethiopia, according to a new study in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health. Tuesday’s pre-pandemic study is based on calculations derived from the Global Burden of Disease database and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle. India and China lead the world in pollution deaths with nearly 2.4 million and almost 2.2 million deaths a year, but the two nations also have the world’s largest populations.
When deaths are put on a per population rate, the United States ranks 31st from the bottom at 43.6 pollution deaths per 100,000. Chad and the Central African Republic rank the highest with rates about 300 pollution deaths per 100,000, more than half of them due to tainted water, while Brunei, Qatar and Iceland have the lowest pollution death rates ranging from 15 to 23. The global average is 117 pollution deaths per 100,000 people.
Pollution kills about the same number of people a year around the world as cigarette smoking and second-hand smoke combined, the study said.
“9 million deaths is a lot of deaths,” said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College.
“The bad news is that it’s not decreasing,” Landrigan said. “We’re making gains in the easy stuff and we’re seeing the more difficult stuff, which is the ambient (outdoor industrial) air pollution and the chemical pollution, still going up.”
It doesn’t have to be this way, researchers said.
“They are preventable deaths. Each and every one of them is a death that is unnecessary,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health, who wasn’t part of the study. She said the calculations made sense and if anything. was so conservative about what it attributed to pollution, that the real death toll is likely higher.
The certificates for these deaths don’t say pollution. They list heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, other lung issues and diabetes that are “tightly correlated” with pollution by numerous epidemiological studies, Landrigan said. To then put these together with actual deaths, researchers look at the number of deaths by cause, exposure to pollution weighted for various factors, and then complicated exposure response calculations derived by large epidemiological studies based on thousands of people over decades of study, he said. It’s the same way scientists can say cigarettes cause cancer and heart disease deaths.
“That cannon of information constitutes causality,” Landrigan said. “That’s how we do it.”
Five outside experts in public health and air pollution, including Goldman, told The Associated Press the study follows mainstream scientific thought. Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency room doctor and Harvard professor who wasn’t part of the study, said “the American Heart Association determined over a decade ago that exposure to (tiny pollution particles) like that generated from the burning of fossil fuels is causal for heart disease and death.”
“While people focus on decreasing their blood pressure and cholesterol, few recognize that the removal of air pollution is an important prescription to improve their heart health,” Salas said.
Three-quarters of the overall pollution deaths came from air pollution and the overwhelming part of that is “a combination of pollution from stationary sources like coal-fired power plants and steel mills on one hand and mobile sources like cars, trucks and buses. And it’s just a big global problem,” said Landrigan, a public health physician. “And it’s getting worse around the world as countries develop and cities grow.”
In New Delhi, India, air pollution peaks in the winter months and last year the city saw just two days when the air wasn’t considered polluted. It was the first time in four years that the city experienced a clean air day during the winter months.
That air pollution remains the leading cause of death in South Asia reconfirms what is already known, but the increase in these deaths means that toxic emissions from vehicles and energy generation is increasing, said Anumita Roychowdhury, a director at the advocacy group Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
“This data is a reminder of what is going wrong but also that it is an opportunity to fix it,” Roychowdhury said.
Pollution deaths are soaring in the poorest areas, experts said.
“This problem is worst in areas of the world where population is most dense (e.g. Asia) and where financial and government resources to address the pollution problem are limited and stretched thin to address a host of challenges including health care availability and diet as well as pollution,” said Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, who wasn’t part of the study.
In 2000, industrial air pollution killed about 2.9 million people a year globally. By 2015 it was up to 4.2 million and in 2019 it was 4.5 million, the study said. Toss in household air pollution, mostly from inefficient primitive stoves, and air pollution killed 6.7 million people in 2019, the study found.
Lead pollution — some from lead additive which has been banned from gasoline in every country in the world and also from old paint, recycling batteries and other manufacturing — kills 900,000 people a year, while water pollution is responsible for 1.4 million deaths a year. Occupational health pollution adds another 870,000 deaths, the study said.
In the United States, about 20,000 people a year die from lead pollution-induced hypertension, heart disease and kidney disease, mostly as occupational hazards, Landrigan said. Lead and asbestos are America’s big chemical occupational hazards, and they kill about 65,000 people a year from pollution, he said. The study said the number of air pollution deaths in the United States in 2019 was 60,229, far more than deaths on American roads, which hit a 16-year peak of nearly 43,000 last year.
Modern types of pollution are rising in most countries, especially developing ones, but fell from 2000 to 2019 in the United States, the European Union and Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s numbers can’t quite be explained and may be a reporting issue, said study co-author Richard Fuller, founder of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution and president of Pure Earth, a non-profit that works on pollution clean-up programs in about a dozen countries.
The study authors came up with eight recommendations to reduce pollution deaths, highlighting the need for better monitoring, better reporting and stronger government systems regulating industry and cars.
“We absolutely know how to solve each one of those problems,” Fuller said. “What’s missing is political will.”