Monday, 17 November 2014

Hippo attack leaves two dead, 11 missing in Niger

At least two people died and around 11 schoolchildren were missing Monday after a hippopotamus attacked a boat on the Niger River near the capital Niamey, local authorities said.

"We recovered the bodies of two villagers and counted five survivors, and at least 11 pupils are missing," a local official told AFP.

Two of the survivors were children, he added.

The hippo overturned the boat with at least 18 people aboard, mostly children, he said.

The boat was crossing the Niger River that flows through the capital Niamey. The children cross the river every day to go to school, local sources said.

Witnesses said rescue workers were searching for other victims.

Game wardens shot dead a hippo last year after it killed a teenager in Niamey.

Hippos with young in tow are the most aggressive, even attacking cattle that come to graze on the banks of the Niger River, experts say.

Monday 17 November 2014

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US tourist tries to ship baby body parts home

A parcel delivery company in Thailand put three packages bound for the United States through a routine X-ray and made a startling discovery: five preserved human parts, including an infant’s head, a baby’s foot and a heart.

The body parts, it seems, were in fact stolen from the medical museums of one of Bangkok’s biggest hospitals, its administrators said yesterday. Two of them belonged to the department of anatomy and the other three to the department of forensic medicine.

The parts were stored in plastic containers filled with formaldehyde, wrapped and addressed to Las Vegas. Police Colonel Chumpol Poompuang said the sender was a 31-year-old American tourist who told them he had found the items at a Bangkok night market.

Police tracked down the American after being alerted by the shipper, DHL.

“He said he thought the body parts were bizarre and wanted to send them to his friends in the US,” Mr Chumpol said, adding that the man was questioned on Saturday along with an American friend for several hours and released without charge.

The three packages were being sent to Las Vegas, including one that the man had addressed to himself.

The seized packages were labelled as toys, police said. They were contacting the FBI to get information about the would-be recipients.

Clinical professor Udom Kachintorn, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital, said that the Americans visited the museum last Thursday, but that CCTV did not show them taking any items away.

Police at a news conference said the heart, which had been stabbed, belonged to an adult.

Police Lieutenant General Ruangsak Jaritake showed pictures of all five body parts, which included two pieces of tattooed skin from an adult, one with a jumping tiger and the other depicting an ancient Asian script.

The way the body parts were preserved and the manner in which they were cut appeared to be professional and police were examining whether the parts were stolen from medical institutes.

In some Thai cults, preserved foetuses or spiritual tattoos are thought to give the owners good luck or protection from evil. They can also be used to practise black magic.

A British citizen was arrested in 2012 with six roasted foetuses covered in gold leaf after police received information that infant bodies were being sold online for black magic.

Monday 17 November 2014

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Building disaster resilience amidst rampant poverty

Of the thousands of landslide-prone villages he has visited and worked with, R M S Bandara, a high-ranking official from Sri Lanka’s National Building Resources Organisation (NBRO), says only one has made him sit up and take note.

Keribathgala, located in the Ratnapura District about 120 km southeast of the capital, Colombo, is the only village out of thousands that keeps a regular tab on the rain gauge donated by the Disaster Management Ministry’s NBRO, the focal point for all landslide-related services in the country.

“It is the only village that calls us back to discuss the information they have and get advice from us. We have distributed thousands of rain gauges, and this has been the only interactive relationship,” Bandara, who heads the NBRO’s Landside Risk Research and Management Division, tells IPS.

The official said that most villages pay no heed to NBRO advice and training.

“A deadly landslide will occur maybe once every 10 years, so people don’t take notice of them or the dangers they pose,” he explains.

But such negligence can be deadly. On Oct. 29, at 7:15 in the morning, a large section of a hillside in the village of Meeriyabedda in the Badulla District, about 220 km from Colombo, caved in.

Two weeks later, when rescue workers finally gave up looking for victims, 12 bodies had been recovered and 25 were listed as missing.

This was a tragedy that could have been avoided, according to experts like Bandara. There had been two minor landslides in the village in 2005 and 2011. On both occasions the NBRO carried out surveys and recommended that the village be relocated.

In 2009 the NBRO carried out a large-scale community awareness programme that included conducting mock drills and handing a rain gauge over to the village. Bandara says another such programme was carried out last year as well.

All signs at Meeriyabedda prior to the landslide pointed to a disaster waiting to happen. Warnings for relocation had come as early as 2005 and the night before the disaster villagers were alerted to the possibility of a catastrophe. Very few moved out.

Though there is no evidence left of the reading on the rain gauge at Meeriyabedda, a similar device maintained by the NBRO at a nearby school indicated that at least 125 mm of rain had fallen overnight. That information, however, never reached the village.

“People really don’t pay attention to the equipment or the signs, partly [because] disasters don’t occur every day,” Bandara asserts, adding that despite the infrequency of natural hazards, daily vigilance is essential.

Testimony from villagers in Meeriyabedda supports his assessment.

“No one was looking at a rain gauge or other signs,” admits B Mahendran, a resident of the unhappy village. “People in these parts are more worried about where their next meal will come from.”

Villagers here travel 60 km daily to make a wage of about 400 rupees (a little over three dollars). Such hardships are not unusual in this region, home to many of Sri Lanka’s vast plantations. Government data indicate that poverty levels here are over twice the national average of 6.7 percent.

The literacy level in the estate sector is around 70 percent, roughly 20 percent below the national average, and U.N. data indicate that 10 percent of children living on plantations drop out of school before Grade Five, five times the national average dropout rate of just over two percent.

Most victims of this latest landslide were working at a sugarcane plantation about 30 km away, after they lost their jobs in nearby tea plantations, villagers tell IPS.

“Poverty here is a generational issue,” explains Arumugam Selvarani, who has worked as a child health official in Meeriyabedda since 2004. “Government and outside interventions are needed to lessen the impact.” She feels that the government needs to put in more effort to ensure the sector is linked to national planning and systems, and monitor such linkages continuously.

She herself has worked to improve nutrition levels among children for nearly a decade, but she believes that such efforts have “zero impact if they are ad-hoc and infrequent”.

Such initiatives need to be sustained over a long period of time in order to be really effective.

This is especially true in the arena of disaster preparedness, experts say, where government support is needed to keep early warning systems fine-tuned all year round, particularly in poverty-stricken areas where the fallout from natural disasters is always magnified by socio-economic factors like poor housing and food insecurity.

Sri Lanka has made some strides in this regard. Eight months after the 2004 Asian tsunami slammed the country’s coastal areas, the government established the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) to oversee preparedness levels around the island.

The 25 DMC district offices coordinate all alerts and evacuations with assistance from the police, the armed forces and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS). In fact a village in the same district where the landslide occurred had a mock drill conducted by the DMC just six days before the disaster.

But DMC officials themselves admit there is an urgent need for a uniform country-wide disaster preparedness mechanism.

“Along the coast we are pretty prepared, because of all the work we have done since 2005, but we need such levels of action now to spread to the rest of the country,” says DMC spokesperson Sarath Lal Kumara.

NBRO’s Bandara has other ideas on how to strengthen disaster resilience. Effective utilisation of available data is topmost on his list. For instance, the NBRO has developed hazard maps for all 10 landslide-prone districts in the island. The map for the Badulla District, accessible online, clearly identifies Meeriyabedda as a high-risk area.

The problem is that no one is using this important information.

Bandara says these maps should form the basis of building codes and evacuation routes. Sadly, this is not the case.

DMC’s Kumara tells IPS that in a country comprising 65,000 sq km, land is at a premium and land management is a delicate issue. “There are so many overlapping concerns and agencies.”

He says it is not easy to follow each hazard map to the letter. The houses hit by the landslide, for instance, were built years before the maps were developed – relocating them would be a huge challenge, and efforts to do so sometimes run into resistance from the villagers themselves.

What experts and villagers can agree on is the need to have a dedicated government official overseeing disaster preparedness levels. Some experts suggest using the Divisional Secretariats, Sri Lanka’s lowest administrative units, to monitor their respective areas and feed into the DMC’s national network.

“All the drills, all the preparations will be useless unless there is an official or an office that is unambiguously tasked with coordinating such efforts in real time,” according to Indu Abeyratne, who heads SLRCS’s early warning systems.

In Meeriyabedda, such ambiguity cost three-dozen lives. Perhaps it is time to realign the system, to ensure that a trained official is present at the village level to carry information to the proper authorities.

Monday 17 November 2014

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Two more bodies found 21 days after Ermenek coal mine disaster

The bodies of two more miners were discovered on Monday in the Ermenek coal mine where flooding on Oct. 28 trapped a total of 18 workers. The Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) announced that search and rescue efforts are under way to recover the two bodies, which were located after weeks of searching.

The bodies of two others, Kerim Haznedar and İsa Gözbaşı were recovered by rescue teams on Nov. 6, causing hope to fade that the other 16 miners would be found alive. The AFAD teams are still working to locate and retrieve the 14 remaining bodies.

The Karaman mine accident left 18 people trapped underground on Oct. 28 after the mine was flooded with water that did not drain from one of the shafts in the mine.

Claims of negligence have characterized discussions of the accident, as some say water inside the mine was not drained in time, which caused the flooding. According to regulations, this water should have been drained every other week.

The company had not allowed workers to take their lunch outside the mine, which is a violation of the miners' right to a one-hour lunch break. The workers would have survived the disaster if they had been outside the mine at lunchtime.

The company owner, Uyar, had argued that not enforcing lunch break regulation is a countrywide practice at all mines and refused to take responsibility for the incident.

It has been revealed that the company was previously fined for failing a series of inspections. In addition, mining was stopped at the mine two weeks ago after flooding occurred due to a water leak. The leak was fixed, but water left in the mine's gallery was not removed.

Another issue that commentators believe indicates company negligence is its failure to heed the advice of a report by the Turkish Foundation for Reforestation, Protection of Natural Habitats and Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA), which said the region is not appropriate for mining and that continuing to mine at the site could eventually cause flooding and lead to possible deaths.

Monday 17 November 2014

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