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Trash economics: surviving Venezuela’s downfall

Wed, 16 Aug 2017 10:28:22 +0000

The Guaire River, a stinking open sewer that runs through the heart of Caracas, is where Augusto Rengil makes his living, alongside groups of other young, jobless men. There may be nothing alive in the nauseating brown water except bacteria and microbes, but “you’ll be surprised by how many jewels go down the drain and end in the sewer,” says Rengil. Wading knee-deep, he sieves the swirling water with a net and dumps the mess he finds on the bank to be picked through with the blade of a knife for anything of value. Tomás Melo, 23, is by his side. JM Lopez/IRIN Augusto and Tomas trawl for gold and silver in the Guaire River “We chose this part of the river because it has easier access and it isn’t too deep,” he explains. “We usually work in a group. We are five people, and what we get is shared among all of us.”   In a country mired in an economic and humanitarian crisis, Venezuela’s poor are increasingly surviving solely on what others throw away. “We mainly find earrings and chains,” says Augusto, 21, who has been working in the Guaire River for four years, supporting his wife and child. He opens up his palm to proudly show what he thinks is roughly 1.2 grams of metal. Gold fetches the equivalent of roughly $23 per gram – the average haul after five or six hours of back-breaking work, he says. That is good money when the minimum monthly wage is $31. But in a country with a dizzying rate of inflation caused by fluctuating oil prices and failed economic policies – first under the late president Hugo Chávez and now his successor, Nicolás Maduro – that doesn’t buy much. A loaf of bread costs the equivalent of just over a dollar, and a kilo of meat roughly a third of the minimum wage. Working the river that flows close to the Palacio de Miraflores, the seat of government, may be profitable – but it’s not for the faint-hearted. “The smell here is unbearable and you can never get rid of it,” says Vladimir Pérez, 25. “Skin infections are very common, as well as gastroenteritis when you swallow some water. “But the most dangerous thing is when the river suddenly rises because of the rain – then you can be dragged under and drown.” JM Lopez A group of citizens are looking for food in the trash at dusk. The Francisco Fajardo highway passes close to the Guaire and is the ideological fault line of the city. The western side of the highway is pro-government, the home of state institutions, the city centre, and the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas – a solid Chavista base. To the east are the headquarters of the banks, big business, and the residential areas that are the heart of the opposition that battled Chavez throughout his presidency, until his death in office in 2013. Their supporters are now on the streets to daily protest Maduro’s keeping faith with the leftist “Bolivarian revolution” of his predecessor, and the naked attempt to cling on to power. In the late afternoon, when the supermarkets and malls in the eastern districts start to throw away their expired food and the leftovers from the restaurants, people begin to gather around the trash bins. “I know the quality of the food by its smell and colour,” says Adriana as she sorts through pieces of discarded fruit and a roast chicken. Her friend holds a one-and-a-half-year-old baby. Its skin is covered in scabs, symptomatic of poor hygiene and malnutrition. “This country used to be very rich; now we are very poor,” says one man as he eats a salvaged chocolate cake, still in its packaging. JM Lopez/IRIN Zaida lives with four other people inside a bridge section under the Francisco Fajardo highway To fight shortages and the booming black market, the government created the Local Committee of Supply and Production to distribute basic necessities in what was once the region’s economic powerhouse. The i[...]

Somalia’s impossible fight against cholera

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 16:29:47 +0000

Ahmed Hussein’s perfectly white teeth seem too big for his mouth; his upper arms look like they belong to a little boy, not a 23-year-old man. Propped up on an iron bed, Hussein laughs and says he always was slim. But he is clearly malnourished. Hussein arrived at Mogadishu’s Bandir Hospital a day earlier with his mother and two sisters, all suffering from acute watery diarrhoea: a tell-tale sign of cholera. A nurse at the hospital told IRIN she believed the whole family got sick from the same water source.  This is Somalia’s worst cholera outbreak in five years. So far, 71,663 cases have been counted, including more than 1,098 deaths, according to Doctor Ghulam Popal, the World Health Organization representative. In July, when Hussein was admitted, 5,840 cases of acute watery diarrhoea were reported at Bandir Hospital alone. Cholera is an acute disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. Waterborne, it thrives in unsanitary conditions. After nearly three decades of continuous conflict, Somalia has a barely existent government with no public health system and 800,000 people driven into unsanitary settlements by drought and insecurity – perfect conditions for cholera to thrive. “[The] WASH infrastructure in Somalia is totally collapsed due to the absence of the government,” explained Hassan Ahmed Ali, a Water Sanitation and Hygiene expert with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a development agency. Unknown scale The extent of Somalia’s cholera crisis is likely to be a good deal worse than the official numbers suggest. There are no health clinics or hospitals for 400,000 displaced people clumped in settlements along the two main arterial roads that feed into Mogadishu. Ali of the NRC believes many people, not counted in the statistics, will have died before they could reach treatment. Neither are the cases counted in the swathe of territory controlled by the jihadist group al-Shabab, which is battling the government. Compounding the effects of the war, three consecutive seasons of drought have served to tip Somalia into an even deeper food crisis. More than 6.2 million people – over half the population – need aid. That vulnerability increases their susceptibility to cholera. Rules and regulations “Unless the systems are strengthened, we can only save lives. Long-term social well-being cannot be achieved,” said Mahboob Ahmed Bajwa, the head of WASH for the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF. “Systems” refers both to the federal government’s loose relationship with the decentralised states, and the country’s generally pitiful infrastructure. National institutions are weak. In the absence of government, all water supply is privatised and unregulated. These profit-driven companies do not overly concern themselves with cleanliness or quality, despite the obvious risks. Doctor Lul Mohamed, head of paediatrics at Bandir Hospital, points to the problem of open defecation, and to the lack of controls that allows what toilets are available to be built right next to wells. The Ministry of Energy and Water Sources is creating new regulations to tackle contamination. But the bill has to go to parliament and will take at least three months to pass into law, according to Omar Shurie, an advisor to the ministry. Besides the infrastructural deficiencies, recruiting qualified health workers and paying them regularly is yet another of the seemingly endless tasks on Somalia’s to-do list. Doctor Mohamed, for example, does not receive a government salary. She earns money lecturing at a university in the city, only working at Bandir out of a sense of duty. Stronger response Despite the magnitude of the current food crisis and the cholera outbreak, the response of the humanitarian community and the generosity of the Somali diaspora have built a better ability to cope compared to previous disasters. “Aid works, and it is critical that we continue providing this support throughout the remainder of 2017”  In 2011, drought led to a famine in which 250,000 people died[...]

Cholera vaccine plan for Yemen scrapped

Mon, 12 Jun 2017 14:07:00 +0000

A plan to deliver a million doses of the oral cholera vaccine in Yemen to help combat the worst outbreak of cholera in the world has been scrapped. There have been more than 313,000 suspected cases of cholera and 1,732 related deaths since the outbreak began in late April, according to the latest statistics. In response, the World Health Organization facilitated an emergency request for 3.4 million doses on behalf of Yemen to the International Coordinating Group (ICG), the body that oversees the global stockpile of vaccines. The million approved doses were to be the largest amount ever deployed since the stockpile was first developed five years ago. However, since the ICG’s approval in late June there has been an ongoing dialogue around the vaccine’s efficacy in halting the widespread outbreak three months in, at a point when the disease has already spread to all of Yemen’s governorates (but not the island of Socotra). The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, sent an email, seen by IRIN, organising a 10 July meeting in Sana’a between local ministries, the UN, and other aid agencies, saying the epidemic had “surpassed the capacity of WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] and health partners and there is a need for a system-wide response.” After this meeting, IRIN learnt that a decision had been taken to no longer deliver the vaccine to the war-torn country. “Based on the advice of the local authorities and consultations with local offices of WHO and UNICEF, it was communicated back to the ICG that it was thought that the one million doses were not necessary,” confirmed Doctor Robert Kezaala, a senior health advisor on immunisation at UNICEF and executive member of the ICG, speaking from New York. What happened? Exactly what was said in Monday’s meeting is still not entirely clear, but there appear to be a variety of factors that went into the decision to stop the rollout. Several aid agencies told IRIN that resources would be better spent on already existing approaches to tackle the current outbreak, including supporting efforts to provide clean water and sanitation, alongside education and health campaigns. “The thinking of the partners is: ‘we do not want energy diverted from those activities which are important’,” Doctor Sherin Varkey, head of UNICEF’s Yemen office, told IRIN. He said the move to cancel delivery of the vaccines was a “technical decision… that, considering where the outbreak is today, the benefits do not outweigh the risks of doing a limited campaign.” The oral cholera vaccine was originally planned to be one way to help stem the spread of the disease in Yemen, but it confers immunity only on those who have not already contracted it, and is best given in areas of low risk and exposure in two doses, usually two weeks apart. Even though the majority of suspected cases are confined to four governorates, they are present in 288 of Yemen’s 333 districts. Doctor David Olson, a cholera expert with the WHO, said this type of decision can also be influenced by the nature of the outbreak’s evolution, as the herd immunity conferred by the vaccine may be less useful later on in an epidemic's progression. “It’s a fine timeline between knowing that vaccination should be part of the plan, determining who to vaccinate, then getting the vaccine in the country and all planned out. It’s a narrow timeframe, and just a matter of a few weeks can change the calculus,” he told IRIN from Geneva. “In Yemen in particular at this time, with all the issues around conflict and the ability to logistically carry out a mass vaccination campaign, and because [the outbreak] has gotten quite big quite fast, that window has started to close,” he added. Rapid spread and slim resources The outbreak has spread faster and further than originally projected. In mid-June, when there were 124,000 cases, the UN expected that number to more than double by the end of the year. Only a month later and at more than 300,000 cases and coun[...]

From hateful ideologies to Macron’s climate lovefest: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 15:38:05 +0000

Check out the humanitarian topics on IRIN’s radar and trawl through our curation of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed: “Defeating ideologies of hate” – what does that mean? The Manchester and London attacks have triggered the now common response that we must combat the “ideology” of violent extremism. That usually means tackling the belief systems of extremists and their distribution through social media. But, researcher JM Berger argues, that would be the least effective approach. He points out that Facebook and Twitter have already been successfully squeezed. As of March, the median Arabic-language account openly supporting so-called Islamic State on Twitter had about 14 followers and could only stay online for about a day before being suspended. The key, overlooked element of ideology is identity. Extremist ideology describes an in-group based on race, religion, or nationality. “Extremists create a narrative justification for their beliefs by linking the out-group to a crisis afflicting the in-group, and linking the in-group to a violent solution against the out-group,” explains Berger, whose work we’ve quoted in our deep-dive on whether “countering violent extremism” works. The greater the perceived crisis, the more violent and extreme the solution. “These linkages are the substance of an extremist ideology, and, as such, they are vulnerable to counter-programming,” says Berger. To begin this process, policymakers and practitioners “must first exchange their romanticised notions of ideology for a more grounded definition.” But there is no silver bullet. Extremist movements such as the Ku Klux Klan, for example, have endured for generations. Cholera defies control in Yemen When we reported on Yemen’s cholera outbreak mid-May, 17,200 people were suspected of having the disease and 206 had died. Aid workers were worried but working to bring the situation under control. On Thursday, the UN announced the number of suspected cases had passed 100,000, with 791 dead. Oxfam sad the runaway epidemic was killing one person every hour and could become the worst this century. Haiti’s post-2010 outbreak killed nearly 10,000, so that’s a terrifying prospect. Why haven’t humanitarians been able to get a hold on a disease that should be easy to treat? It’s complicated, and next week, when the numbers will surely be even worse, we’ll do our best to break it down for you, plus we’ll explain what aid-speaky statements about the need for a “coordinated”, “scaled-up” response actually mean. Here’s a preview: while at first cholera seemed to be an urban problem, with most cases in Sana’a’s garbage-filled streets, it turns out rural Yemenis were drinking contaminated water and getting sick at a rate almost no one realised. Macron wants you The night US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling of the Paris Agreement on climate change, his newly elected French counterpart very publicly thumbed his nose across the Atlantic with a speech in English posted on Facebook that mockingly echoed Trump’s jingoism with the imprecation: “Let’s make our planet great again.”  In his address, Emmanuel Macron told “all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and responsible citizens” who disagreed with the US withdrawal “they would find in France a second homeland.” Yesterday, Macron announced on Twitter he was “delivering” on his promise with the launch of a web platform,, aimed at people wanting to move to France or seek French funding so as to tackle climate change. Visitors to the site are taken through a short questionnaire to establish their occupation (researcher, in business, with an NGO, student), their country of origin (all the world’s nations are listed), why they want to tackle climate change, what they are currently working on, and what their dream is. There follows an assurance that: “Whoever you are or represent… [...]

Climate calamity, migrant myths, and children in conflict: The cheat sheet

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 15:56:55 +0000

Check out which humanitarian topics are on IRIN’s radar and trawl through our curation of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed: Where next for planet Earth? US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he is withdrawing the planet’s second largest polluter from the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change has prompted dismay around the globe. The World Meteorological Organisation is warning that in a worst-case scenario Trump’s move could add 0.3 degrees Celsius to global temperatures by the end of the century. But as IRIN will outline in detail next week, it also compounds the effect on developing countries of ongoing cuts to overseas aid, as the US will cease contributing to the Green Climate Fund – the biggest source of climate finance by far. The private sector has an increasingly vital role to play in climate change mitigation, but the US withdrawal from Paris could relegate American companies to the sidelines in developing countries. The G20 summit in Hamburg on 7/8 July has become a moment of reckoning for world leaders. Can they devise a new business model for climate action and for the involvement of the private sector in this "post-US" era? Identify children’s rights violators in war In an open letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 41 organisations working to protect the rights of children in armed conflict have condemned the UN’s reported decision to “freeze” any new additions of armies/groups that commit grave violations of children’s rights to the annexes of the upcoming 2017 annual report to the UN Security Council on children and armed conflict. There have been past examples of the “politicisation” of the list. In 2015, Israel (over the Gaza war), and, in 2016, Saudi Arabia (over Yemen) avoided being listed after “undue pressure”, the letter said. A freeze would mean the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting in Yemen would escape again. The rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said: “We believe firmly that the list should be impartial, based on UN-verified evidence, and with all parties held to the same standard.” They also urged Guterres to issue an updated list for 2016. Al-Shabab triumphant It’s been a rough few weeks for Kenyan security forces in their battle with al-Shabab militants. On Wednesday, seven police officers and a civilian were killed when a roadside IED destroyed their armoured vehicle in southeastern Lamu. On 24 May, at least five officers were killed in an IED blast that targeted Governor Ali Ibrahim Roba’s motorcade in northeastern Mandera. On the same day, three policemen were killed and two injured in an IED attack in Garissa, north of Lamu. All told, at least 19 officers have died in the past two weeks in al-Shabab attacks on Kenyan counties neighbouring Somalia. This week, the jihadists claimed another propaganda victory when they released footage that seemed to show they had overrun a Kenyan army base at Kulbiyow, in Somalia’s Lower Juba, in January. The government has always denied the base fell – although it has admitted the battle was vicious, with defences breached by three vehicle-borne IEDs. Al-Shabab claimed they killed 67 soldiers. The footage shows them in the camp, with Kenyan soldiers in retreat. Critics have condemned the army for not learning both the military and information management lessons after the fall of El-Adde base in 2016. Did you miss it? UN flight ban reduces Yemen access at critical time The difficulties and dangers journalists face in reporting on humanitarian emergencies are not often told. Given the gravity of events unfolding in Yemen, it is a point worth making on this occasion. Regular IRIN contributor Samuel Oakford reveals how Saudi pressure has led to an effective ban on journalists and human rights workers travelling on UN chartered flights to the capital, Sana’a. Given the non-existence of commercial flight[...]