Category Archives: News

Last Week’s Flooding: A Post-mortem View 2

From the previous post you should have some idea on the sequence of events that led to various (misleading so to say) interpretation of matters.

Today I’ll go into further details on some of the provisions of the Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme and analyse its adequacy or inadequacy with close reference to what obtains in other parts of the world.

Responsibilities under the Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme

With the severity of the events one can reasonably argue as to the adequacy of the scheme and the adherence to its provisions by the respective bodies. For instance the scheme provides that before the convening of a meeting of the Cyclone and Other Natural Disasters Committee, the Local Authorities should:

  1. undertake a survey of flood prone areas and the state of the drainage system and arrange for appropriate remedial action to be taken;
  2. carry out an audit of all drainage systems including the state of riverbeds in their respective areas of responsibility;
  3. arrange for the cleaning of all drains, canals, beds and banks of lakes, rivulets and streams systematically and specially during the rainy season;
  4. update the list of flood prone areas…..;
  5. review urban and rural development building plans taking into consideration the need for the provision of adequate drainage system; and
  6. compile appropriate documentation (audiovisual aids, photographs, handouts, etc) of flood events to promote public awareness.

While the Police with the assistance of the Fire Services and the Prisons Department have the responsibility to organise rescue or evacuation exercise.

Have these duties been discharged as indicated? People complained of lack or complete absence of assistance from the emergency and rescue services.

Awareness campaigns and the maintenance of drains, canals and other prone areas involve adequate resources in terms of labour and capital. Reports indicate that drains and canals at several places were clogged or simply rendered ineffective or inexistent by property development. And from press statements we gather that the authorities had to struggle through financial constraints in order to live up to their responsibilities.

No doubt heavy amount of accumulated water would gush once it finds a path. And that’s what happened at Mon Gout where the poor child was carried away along with a lady.

Then there’s one fundamental issue that needs attention: all too often people ignore warnings and they act irresponsibly when venturing in visibly risky weather conditions. And there are those for whom the sense of civic responsibility is a big deal. Just figure out the bus discharging its passengers in an over flooded area. Was there anyone to stop the child from crossing the bridge? It appears she was accompanied. Was there any public awareness campaign? If yes, how effective was it?

Those are the areas where the shoe pinches; and we should direct our effort in investigating into these aspects of the catastrophe in order to come up with mitigation measures for the future.

Is the Scheme adequate?

The cyclone emergency scheme has worked fairly well in Mauritius. With four stages of warning from Class I to Class IV the population is adequately informed of the imminent dangers of cyclones. But the torrential rain warning is not phased. A warning is issued only when the amount of rainfall has reached 100 mm and is likely to persist for several hours.

Emergency schemes and early warning systems vary from country to country. It all depends on the nature of the hazards. But the principle of these systems is the same. All are concerned with providing explicit and timely advice to the population so that they are prepared beforehand to face the events with minimal inconveniences and to protect themselves.

In some countries there’s a three-stage warning system for weather hazards including thunderstorms, floods, storms and tornadoes. A watch is issued when the weather services expect people to watch out for weather problems and when things might turn bad. An advisory is issued when minor street flooding starts to occur, meaning problems have started. While they’ll issue a warning when storms are actually causing considerable problems like flash flooding and things have become dangerous.

Can these systems be adopted or adapted to the local context? It’s up to the authorities to ponder upon them. The recent flood event has definitely given some food for thought. There’s widespread criticism with regard to the criteria of 100 mm. Some opinions indicate that when this has happened it’s already too late; it’s time for rescue and evacuation rather than to start taking precautionary measures.

Perhaps the authorities could also investigate into the enforcement side of warnings in an endeavour to situate the responsibility of each and every citizen. Are we responsible citizens of this country? It costs nothing for any Tom Dick and Harry to criticize; but it does cost some bucks in terms of man, money and materials when the rescue team has to set foot in gullies to save those who’ve been stuck out of their own imprudence by simply ignoring the safety instructions in disaster conditions. I won’t go into asking what people do around river banks at a moment when the weather is at its worst. Anyway.

My next post will focus on extreme events as standing challenges the world over. It will peek into the summer floods that hit the UK last year and the main lessons learnt. Stay tuned.

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Last Week’s Flooding: A Post-mortem View 1

Four dead including one school child of 13 in the unprecedented flood that hit the country on Wednesday last. The child was returning home after early school dismissal due to torrential rain warning. No sooner had she alighted from the bus than she attempted to cross an over flooded bridge to reach her residence. But the water gushing outrageously from the river swept her away from the roadway. How could she gauge the strength of such sudden surge?

Passers by stood dumb, powerless. Several houses were inundated, cars wrecked and roads damaged, causing gross inconvenience. It’s been raining heavily since the preceding week but none expected such a catastrophic outcome like a flash flood that would sweep everything on its way.

I’ll be dealing with the recent flood event of 26 March 2008 in a series of four posts starting from this one. I’ll make a brief analysis of the sequence of events that caused widespread confusion and come up with some suggestions based on experiences here and there.

In such events we tend to look for a scapegoat. That’s typical political, and often communal, strategy. Can we find one? Should we venture to point fingers? Be wary. And don’t be shocked if you happen to unveil the culprits. And culprits there are definitely, three: somebody, nobody and everybody.

In this post I’ll look into what happened on the morning of Wednesday 26 March and what the existing emergency scheme says about torrential rain warnings.

The authorities criticised

The people are pointing at the Meteorological Services for not having warned the population in time. They criticised the Minister of Education for not having taken appropriate action to order school closure right from the morning on that day and for having dismissed school late at a time when, they say, the downpour had exceeded torrential stage. The people are angry with what they call an ineffective emergency response service. They had to organise their own rescue system to prevent those they could from drowning.

Could the torrential rain have been predicted? Was the flooding (over flooding or flash flood) foreseeable? Why did the Meteorological Services wait until 11.00 am (07.00 UT) to issue a torrential rain warning? Why did the Ministry of Education fail to declare a school holiday on that day? Were the authorities up to the level of their responsibility? These and many other questions are still haunting the minds of the people who are outraged and need reassurance.

To a question from the press during the weekend the Deputy Director of the Mauritius Meteorological Services was blunt: “I challenge any meteorological station in the world to be able to predict such torrential rain.” He further stated that, if we can calculate the percentage of humidity in the atmosphere, it’s impossible to know the amount of rainfall that the clouds will release at a given time.

Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme (TRES)

Yet there is a Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme which forms an integral part of the Cyclone and Other Natural Disasters Scheme. This scheme lays specific responsibilities on various bodies, like the Local Authorities, the Meteorological Services, the Road Development Authority, the Ministry of Education, the Police, and the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) among others with regard to the action to be taken in the event of torrential rain conditions. Let us see some of its salient features in order to understand whether what happened on Wednesday could have been prevented. The scheme provides as follows:

  1. The Meteorological Services is required to advise the Ministry of Education and Human Resources and issue warnings at regular intervals as soon as “climatic conditions prevailing over Mauritius or Rodrigues produced 100 mm of widespread rains in less than 12 hours and that this heavy rain is likely to continue for several hours”.
  2. Whenever torrential rain conditions have produced 100 mm of rains and heavy rains are likely to continue at the beginning of a school day, schools will not be opened for school children. If such a condition is observed during school hours the Meteorological Services will inform the Ministry of Education and Human Resources who will arrange through the MBC, private radio stations and the Police to warn the public accordingly.”
  3. As soon as such a warning is issued all classes will stop.” And the National Transport Authority has the responsibility “to arrange for bus facilities in all routes to be provided, as soon as possible, to school children who travel by bus.”

What really happened in that dreary morning?

At 5.00 am (01.00 UT) rainfall recorded hadn’t reached 100 mm, the weather services say. But the communiqué issued at that time did mention that people including school children should take precautions in view of heavy rainfall forecast. After having ascertained the criteria was reached, the Meteorological Services issued a torrential rain warning at around 11.00 am (07.00 UT). The Cyclone and other Disasters Committee met subsequently and it’s only then that the decision was taken to stop school. By that time it was nearly 2.00 pm (10.00 UT). We all know what followed.

It cannot be said with ease whether a decision could have been taken to close schools altogether on that day in the absence of clear and specific instructions to that effect in the scheme. People can draw their own conclusions based on existing procedures and knowledge of the prevailing situation.

In my next post I’ll probe deeper into the existing scheme and find out how the various parties responded in relation to the responsibilities entrusted on them.

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Golden Pen of Freedom to Chinese; Gunshot to Pakistani

Li Changqing, a Chinese journalist, has been awarded the 2008 Golden Pen of Freedom, which is the annual press freedom prize of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). Mr. Li, was imprisoned for three years on a charge of “fabricating and spreading false information” in January 2006. He had alerted the public to an outbreak of dengue fever before the authorities.

In making the award the Board of the WAN which met in Vienna, said “The Chinese authorities have a long history of covering up events they prefer to keep secret, and Li’s courageous decision to report on this outbreak, knowing the possible consequences, is an inspiration to journalists everywhere.”

* * *

On the other hand a veteran reporter and investigative journalist, Zubair Ahmed Mujahid was shot dead in Pakistan in the southern province of Sindh on November 23. His killer, an unidentified gunman, was traveling on motorcycle when he shot him in his stomach.

Mr Mujahid is said to have been “killed because of his articles criticising the situation of the poor”. He is the seventh journalist to be murdered this year.

Considering Mr. Mujahid’s work as “courageous” and “admirable”, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said: “The perpetrators must be punished and learn that silencing journalists with violence is criminal and will not be tolerated.”

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Media and trade unions under scrutiny?

Repression against journalists and trade unionists seems to take a new turn, at least here in Mauritius. On Wednesday three members of the press, the Editor-in-chief of Weekend newspaper and two journalists of Radio Plus, a private radio, were arrested for having allegedly diffused false news. They were brought to court yesterday and released on bail. They have also been charged for alleged defamation. They had published and broadcast a news about a big sum of money supposedly found in the locker of a senior police officer, which was denied by the police department.

A day earlier two trade union leaders were summoned to court for having participated in a union action in June last against the intended closure of the police mechanical workshop as announced in the last budget. However the court has temporarily lifted the objection to their departure to enable them participate in a conference of the International Trade Union Confederation in Ghana. Other trade unionists were questioned by police last week on their participation last year in a demonstration against the closure of the Development Works Corporation, a para-statal organisation.

Are we heading towards a rise of repression in the country? Observers seem to be concerned with this issue at a moment when the country is facing serious economic set back with the end of the sugar protocol and rising prices of basic commodities. Reporters Sans Frontieres reminds us that the last time journalists were arrested in Mauritius dates as far back as thirteen years ago. The Mauritian Premier announced some time ago his intention to bring more stringent laws against defamation and diffusion of unfounded news. What else can be done when the media hurts?

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News round-up

The tsunami alert was lifted at around 11.00 am today. A series of aftershocks, the latest one recorded at around 4.00 am, warranted the maintenance of a state of vigilance in Mauritius. No major incident was recorded as the population seems to have followed the instructions. And the dreaded tsunami did not show up, although waves of about one metre were recorded at Rodrigues islands and of about 40 cm in Mauritius, not significant enough to cause panic. No doubt the authorities have managed the situation excellently well. The population was updated regularly on the evolution of the situation through radio and TV communiqués.

***

Just as a follow up to my “Muslims in purge”, Ramadhan started today. The moon was visible yesterday evening as expected. Muslims here and in other parts of the world had their first fasting today. 29 more are left. The first day was quite cool here with a rainy weather.

***

A sugar lorry overturned this morning on the highway to Port Louis. It left the lane to land topsy-turvy on the other side of the carriageway. Several tons of sugar was spilt on the highway. This caused a huge traffic jam and a lot of inconvenience to road users during the whole day. The driver and his helper were seriously injured. Police inquiry is on to look into the circumstances of the accident.

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Tsunami alert

A tremor of 8.2 on Richter scale occurred in the Sumatra region this afternoon. An alert was launched immediately to Tsunami warning centres in the region. Several buildings in the Sumatran region are reported to have been damaged; some ten people killed and a hundred injured following several aftershocks felt.

The Mauritius Meteorological Services, which acts as a focal point for tsunami warning in the mascarenes region, received a first alert around 3.00 pm. Minutes after the news was on the air. The authorities met urgently at the Prime Minister’s Office to monitor the situation and decide on the course of action should a tsunami hit our region.

Information obtained subsequently revealed a slight rise in sea level varying between 10 to 30 cm in the eastern region, near Cocos and Christmas islands. The population was nevertheless warned through frequent bulletins not to venture at sea as significant waves could be expected at around 9.00 pm in our waters. Boats were advised to remain on high seas.

Although a small tsunami hit the Indonesian region, no tsunami was experienced on our side, fortunately. It will be long before people can forget the December 2004 tsunami episode that killed more than 200 000 people. In Mauritius people living in the southern coasts still have the trauma sequels of the tidal waves that hit the island earlier this year. Riviere des Galets inhabitants know something about it. But communication and alert systems have since considerably improved with rapid dissemination of information through the multiple media systems.

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New Occupational Safety & Health Act proclaimed in Mauritius

Just a quick follow-up post to my “A glimpse of the evolution of Health & Safety Legislation in Mauritius” posted on 27 August, to tell you that the Occupational Safety & Health Act 2005 (OSHA 2005) has been proclaimed on 1 September, nearly two years after its enactment.

The Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment Minister announced it at a press conference held this morning at Port Louis. He stressed upon the urgent need to review the previous law in order to make it current with on-going developments.

The new law aims at reinforcing the duties and responsibilities of all stakeholders and enhancing their commitment to safety and health at work.

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Daughter-in-law stabbed

About two weeks ago I mentioned a case of infanticide. Latest information reveals that the 17-year-old mother was taken in custody immediately after her discharge from hospital and brought to court. She denied charges against her and she’s been released on bail.

This time it’s the case of a 58-year-old labourer physically assaulting his daughter-in-law. The 24-year-old mother of two sustained 18 stab wounds. She died of cerebral lacerations and fracture of the skull shortly after her admission to the hospital. The killer has been arrested on a provisional charge of murder. In a statement to the police he said having acted on provocation. Neighbours say the two were at daggers drawn.

But that’s not the end of the series of family related crimes. Quite a number of cases of patricide, fratricide and incest have been reported recently. I don’t know whether it has to do with the social situation of people. But the stress of the rising cost of living is definitely putting some pressure on the households.

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Newly-born stabbed to death

Horrible! It’s the least that can be said when you discover a newly-born, innocent, less-than-a-day-old child, draped in a piece of cloth and inert in a school bag. And on further probe you end up with a lifeless being, hardly born enough. Deeply lacerated and perforated at various places, the baby’s corpse bore a serious head wound and several cuts around the neck.

Yes, that was the horrible scene police found when they reached a small house in the suburbs of Port Louis, after a phone call at 7.00 pm on Sunday.

The baby’s mother, a 17-year-old student, was there too. She had apparently had a clandestine delivery, far from the specialized health care facilities, during the day. She had kept her pregnancy secret and nobody, not even her close relatives, ever knew about her health condition.

Postmortem examination revealed the baby-girl died from “multiple stab wounds of the chest”. Some 30 spots of severe injury, with serious throat cuts, were found. As of now there are no solid clues as to the real circumstances of the crime. Police inquiry is on and will definitely target the baby’s mother as soon as she’s released from hospital where she’s been admitted just after the police raid.

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Life on Mars?

Has life existed on Mars? Could there be life? Those are the main concerns of the NASA people who’ve just launched a mission to reach Mars in May 2008. Scientific operations on the Martian surface will last about three months. Investigators believe there is water ice some centimeters below the surface. They’ll probe into whether there are signs of the ice melting. This could provide clues as to the history of the water ice and whether it could support microbial life.

Peter Smith who is a professor at the University of Arizona and the mission’s principal investigator said they’d try to find out whether the ice has melted. “Liquid water in contact with soil may provide us with a habitable environment.”

The Phoenix solar powered spacecraft was launched today, a day later, due to adverse weather conditions. It is equipped with various instruments to enable probing into a wide profile of the Martian environment. There’s a robotic arm to dig trenches, position tools and deliver samples to other instruments. Soil samples will be examined using microscopy, electrochemistry and conductivity analyzer. A camera is on board for taking images of the soil. A thermal and evolved-gas analyser will assess the chemical properties and look for organic compounds of samples. And of course the daily weather and seasonal changes will be tracked by a meteorological station with the use of temperature and pressure sensors.

Man’s quest for exploration has always been insatiable. At one time it was the Moon; now Mars. After the two earlier failed attempts towards Mars, let’s keep fingers crossed.

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Mineral wells in Mauritian waters

Significant hydrothermal sites have been discovered in the territorial waters of Mauritius, which extend to 200 nautical miles. Minerals like zinc, copper and even gold may be present. But we are only at the research stage.

That’s what Prof. Kensaku Tamaki said at the Fourth National Ocean Science Forum held under the aegis of the Mauritian Oceanography Institute (MOI) on 11 and 12 July at the Octave Wiehe Auditorium of the University of Mauritius.

Prof K Tamaki of the University of Tokyo led a research team during November to January last in collaboration with the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the Mauritian government and the MOI. The team comprising scientists from Japan, Mauritius, France, US, China and Indonesia found considerable amount of manganese, which indicates the existence of hydrothermal sources.

That reminds me of another research in our waters in the 70’s when an oil slick was discovered around Mauritius. Drilling works were initiated and lasted several months before they were abandoned due to sinking evidences.

Let’s hope this time we have positive outcomes. The ocean hasn’t revealed all the secrets yet.

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Childhood Asthma Probe

ORMDL3. Does that mean anything to you? Perhaps only a set of letters and a figure. That’s all. Idem for me too. Not for scientists though. It seems to be the culprit. It’s a gene found in a more significant amount in the blood cells of children with asthma than in those without. This higher level of ORMDL3 could increase the risk of having asthma by about 70%.

That’s what a group of researchers from Imperial College London, along with others from UK, France, Germany, USA and Austria, have concluded after a study carried out on more than 2000 children.

Childhood asthma is a common chronic disease. 10% of children in the UK are currently affected. It’s a tough time indeed, for the children as it is for the parents. Therapies have hitherto been limited to attenuating the episodes of asthma, without significant progress into its cure.

Deep probe has yet to be effected into the exact causes of asthma. It is not well understood how ORMLD3 exacerbates the risk of asthmatic conditions in children. But the combination of genetic and environmental factors provides a definite clue.

The researchers compared the genetic makeup of childhood asthmatic and non-asthmatic patients. They probed into the mutational behavior of the nucleotides, the building blocks of genes making up the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid – a self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms carrying the genetic information). Mutations were observed and the researchers unveiled those specific to childhood asthma.

The new findings will, it is hoped, pave the way for the development of new therapies. For further information see links below:

More about the gene linked with childhood asthma.

What is asthma?

How can I treat my asthma?

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Released… after 114 days of living nightmare

The world was awakened with the good news of the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston this morning. “Alan Johnston freed” reads the latest entry in the BBC Blog Network, The Editors.

Captured on 12 March in Gaza by the Army of Islam group, Mr. Alan Johnston, 45, was released early this morning. He was handed over to the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza City. He is now in the British Consulate in Jerusalem waiting to fly back to UK.

“I literally dreamt many times of being free and always woke up back in that room,” Mr. Johnston said shortly after his release.

The reporter describes his captivity as a frightening experience as he was uncertain how it’d end. He said he had fallen ill from the food but was not tortured during the captivity period. It was hard for him to believe he’d be freed as he said he was “in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable”.

Thanking his colleagues and all who supported him throughout his captivity, he cheered at the overwhelming international campaign for his release. “The thing you don’t want is to be left behind, buried alive, and have the world go on around you,” he said.

Several hundreds of thousands of people around the world had petitioned and rallied for his release.

“It’s been 114 days of a living nightmare,” said his overjoyed father Graham soon after his son’s release.

Answering to questions in the UK Parliament new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “The whole country will welcome the news that Alan Johnston, a fearless journalist whose voice was silenced for too long, is now free.”

Hats off Mr. Johnston for your perseverance and bravery during 16 weeks’ tough times. As we say in French: “Tout est bien qui finit bien”. (All is good that ends well).

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Another female journalist slain

Media killings continue and know no barriers. Some time back I mentioned the case of media people being subject to violent treatment in Romania and Russia. There’s also the case of missing journalist in Gaza. Not later than yesterday I raised concern about killings in Afghanistan of female journalists fighting for women’s rights.

This time it’s in Iraq, where more than 180 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the beginning of the war in March 2003. In the only month of May 12 journalists have been killed there.

But what is more appalling is the case of another female journalist who was showered with bullets by gunmen in front of her house near Mosul on Thursday June 7. Mother of three girls, aged 45, Sahar al-Haidari has been working for an independent Iraqi news agency in Mosul, some 400 km north of Baghdad.

Although women journalists, reporters and presenters constitute a minority in such countries, they are on the increase. And it seems male dominated families exert extreme pressure on them with the result that intimidation and threats of violence are also growing.

The brutal treatment and killing of respected and brave journalists as those in the conflict zones are issues of concern not only to the media organizations and their members, but also, and mostly, to the families and close relatives of the victims.

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Women bashing?

Shocking. It’s the least that we can say of cold-blooded murders of women whose only sin was to dare their own way to raise their voice in an endeavour to bring news to the people at large and contribute to the recognition of women’s status.

On the very day I was writing about “women empowerment” in India, one female reporter and presenter for Shamshad TV, Ms Shokila Sanga Amaaj was murdered in Afghanistan. One of the arrested alleged killers had, in the past, repeatedly threatened her for her determination to become an educated and professional figure.

But that’s not all. Five days later, in the same country, on 6 June another female journalist, Zakia Zaki, head of a radio station “Sada-e-Sulh” (Peace Radio), was shot dead by three armed men who broke in her home. She was sleeping with her two-year-old son and a baby less than six months’ old.

Threats against women journalists have become a major concern for media people and the International Federation of Journalists. The case of another woman journalist, Ms Shaima Raazi who worked for an independent TV channel (again in Afghanistan) murdered two years ago has remained unresolved.

These are cases that have surfaced out in one country. How many of them have remained unidentified and untracked? Which brings me back to my previous posts on the issue of the dangerous nature of the work a journalist. The posts under reference are:
Journalism – a dangerous occupation
Hats off!
Reporters and Journalists, beware

How ironical: empowering women on one side, and I’m tempted to say, “women bashing” on the other.

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