UN campaign draws attention to the world’s ailing oceans

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n Iraqi man steers his boat around dead fish floating on the Euphrates in central Iraq. (AFP)
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Plastic bottles and waste cover a beach south of Beirut. (AFP)
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Pollution has left the world’s waterways on the brink of an ecological disaster, marine conservationists warn. (AFP)
Updated 09 June 2019
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UN campaign draws attention to the world’s ailing oceans

  • Microplastics floating in the ocean are making their way into the food chain
  • Most plastics are expected to remain intact for decades or centuries after use

DUBAI: When it comes to the planet’s unfolding environmental crisis, plastic waste is just one among many threats. But the danger it poses specifically to the health of the oceans is on an altogether different scale.

Against this grim backdrop, the UN is launching a global campaign targeting plastic pollution, “Play it Out,” to mark World Oceans Day on June 8.

The 8 million metric tons of plastic that leak into the ocean every year inflict enormous damage on a delicate ecosystem, killing an estimated 100,000 marine animals, experts say.

Most plastics are expected to remain intact for decades, or even centuries, after being used. Those that disintegrate end up as micro-plastics, which are swallowed by fish, seabirds, turtles and mammals, and make their way into the global food chain.

“Plastics essentially never decompose, they just break into smaller bits,” said Natalie Banks, a UAE-based marine conservationist. “Currently more than 5 trillion pieces are estimated to be floating in the sea.”

Following decades of overuse, a surge in single-use plastic bags is raising the spectre of global ecological disaster. Experts in the Gulf region are urging people to think globally and act locally when using plastic to make an impact.

“Plastic pollution forms the greatest threat to ocean health worldwide,” said Lachlan Jackson, founder and managing director of Dubai-based Ecocoast, which is developing solutions to create cleaner, healthier oceans and coastlines.

Pointing to the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world — the so-called great Pacific garbage patch, which lies between San Francisco and Hawaii — as one of nature’s warning signs, Jackson said: “It is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tons of plastic are entering the oceans each year from rivers.”

INNUMBERS

1m — Number of species in the world’s oceans

30% — Percentage of carbon dioxide produced by humans absorbed by oceans

2.6bn — People dependent on oceans as primary source of protein

200m — People employed directly or indirectly by marine fisheries

40% Percentage of ocean heavily affected by human activities

3bn — People dependent on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods

Source: UN

 

Oceans cover three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and represent 99 percent of the living space on the planet by volume. Scientists believe the sea is home to about 1 million species of animals. So far, they have found nearly 200,000 marine virus species organized into five distinct ecological zones.

The ocean’s economic significance can hardly be overstated. More than 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, according to estimates, with the so-called ocean economy expected to grow from $1.5 trillion in 2010 to $3 trillion in 2030.

While as much as 40 percent of the ocean is heavily affected by pollution, depleted fisheries, loss of coastal habitats and other human activities are accelerating the decline. The Maldives, for example, was hit by three major coral-bleaching incidents between 1998 and 2016, causing a spiral of coral death and reef decline.

All three events were said to be due to changes in weather patterns that resulted in higher ocean temperatures. Indeed, climate change is suspected to be one of the primary causes of coral bleaching.

“Last year, 7 km of land was reclaimed to build tourist islands in the Maldives similar to the World Islands in Dubai,” Jackson said. “Dredging and dumping of millions of tons of sand causes a significant threat to the marine environment. It can kill off a large number of corals, turning reefs into dead coral wastelands.”

There there is the issue of oil spills. Such incidents occur in the Gulf region with troubling frequency and affect not only people living along the coastline but also, indirectly, everyone from fishermen and hoteliers to tourists, diving centers and protected area authorities.

Compounding the problems afflicting the Gulf’s waters are brine disposal from desalination plants and the threat of invasive marine species.

“Clean, healthy oceans are critical to our survival,” Jackson said. “Yet the world — our environment and technology — is changing at an exponential rate. The world needs more pioneering solutions to support and protect our marine environment against the impact of development. With less rubbish in our waters, our marine life will be safer and healthier, as will be the seafood we consume.”

Jackson said Ecocoast strives to eliminate rubbish, debris and other pollutants from waterways and oceans, which could result in cleaner water and a healthier marine ecosystem. 

“We launched the Middle East’s first innovation lab for pioneering marine technologies in 2018 — Ecolabs — to solve the world’s most pressing marine problems,” said Dana Liparts, co-founder and director at Ecocoast and Ecolabs.

“The philosophy behind Ecolabs is that no single company or individual can solve the world’s most pressing marine problems. Collaboration is paramount and it will work as a platform that will bridge the gap between marine problems and solutions.”

Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of the UAE-based green social enterprise Goumbook, pointed out that oceans absorb pollutants and about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impact of global warming. “If we don’t fix all the different problems, we’ll lose our biggest ally in combating climate change,” she said.

“The most important source of clean air is our oceans. They provide us with 70 percent of the air we breathe. We need to act fast and make sure that the health of our oceans is preserved. For every 10 breaths we take, seven come from the oceans.”

According to Banks, the UAE-based marine conservationist, despite the ocean’s known life-sustaining role, almost all the problems that face it — from global warming and acidification to overfishing and plastic pollution — can be attributed to human activity.

“The Paris Accords aim to curb ocean warming in the sense that when countries move away from burning fossil fuels, they help to reduce acidification of ocean waters,” Banks told Arab News.

“With regard to the fishing industry, much of it loses money and is subsidized as a result, and in many places there is little or no regulation of catch or gear, and very little enforcement.”

On the positive side, Banks said, large-scale marine protected areas closed to fishing have made a big difference. Likewise, though on a smaller scale, the practice of declaring certain areas off-limits to all except local people who manage their own fishing is a promising development.

“Illegal fishing, including unreported catches, is a problem with global dimensions,” Banks said, adding that subsidies for fishing must eventually end and the importance of satellite tracking of fishing boats should be recognized.

“What is needed to replace petroleum-based plastics completely is a new era of engineering materials that perform like plastic but are truly biodegradable and have lifetimes scaled to actual use. I have recently come across materials grown from fungi and seaweed to replace plastic packaging.”

Banks said the diversity and productivity of oceans is vitally important for humankind.

“Our security, our economy, and our very survival require healthy oceans,” she said. “People need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, medicines, a climate we can live in, inspiration and recreation. The oceans provide all that and much more.”


Bangladesh protesters set state TV HQ ablaze as toll mounts, Internet cut

Updated 18 July 2024
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Bangladesh protesters set state TV HQ ablaze as toll mounts, Internet cut

  • Death toll mounts to 32 as authorities impose “near-total” Internet blackout amid police’s clash with protesters
  • Protesters demand end to quota system reserving more than half of civil service posts for specific groups

DHAKA: Bangladeshi students set fire to the country’s state broadcaster on Thursday as protests against civil service hiring rules escalated, with the death toll mounting to at least 32 and monitors saying a “near-total” Internet blackout had been imposed.

Police fired with rubber bullets at hundreds of protesters, who fought back and chased retreating officers to the headquarters of Bangladesh Television (BTV) in the capital Dhaka.

Demonstrators set ablaze the network’s reception building and dozens of vehicles parked outside, with the broadcaster saying in a Facebook post that “many people” were trapped inside, although a station executive later told AFP they had safely evacuated the building.

A day earlier, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appeared on the network seeking to calm the escalating clashes.

“Our first demand is that the prime minister must apologize to us,” protester Bidisha Rimjhim, 18, told AFP.

“Secondly, justice must be ensured for our killed brothers,” she added.

Widespread Internet outages went into effect, with websites for the Bangladesh home and foreign ministry, as well as the Dhaka Tribune and Daily Star newspapers, not available in the evening.

Bangladesh was experiencing a “near-total” Internet shutdown, outage monitor Netblocks said, posting a graphic online showing connectivity plummeting late Thursday from around 90 percent to about 10 percent.

It said the latest outage “follows earlier efforts to throttle social media and restrict mobile data services” — key communication tools for protest organizers.

Near-daily marches this month have demanded an end to a quota system that reserves more than half of civil service posts for specific groups, including children of veterans from the country’s 1971 liberation war against Pakistan.

Critics say the scheme benefits children of pro-government groups that back Hasina, 76, who has ruled the country since 2009 and won her fourth consecutive election in January after a vote without genuine opposition.

Hasina’s government has ordered schools and universities to close indefinitely as police step up efforts to bring the deteriorating law and order situation under control.

Her administration is accused by rights groups of misusing state institutions to entrench its hold on power and stamping out dissent, including by the extrajudicial killing of opposition activists.

Mubashar Hasan, a Bangladesh expert at the University of Oslo in Norway, said the protests had grown into a wider expression of discontent with Hasina’s autocratic rule.

“They are protesting against the repressive nature of the state,” he told AFP.

“Protesters are questioning Hasina’s leadership, accusing her of clinging onto power by force,” he added. “The students are in fact calling her a dictator.”

The premier appeared on BTV on Wednesday night to condemn the “murder” of protesters and vow that those responsible will be punished regardless of political affiliation.

But violence worsened on the streets despite her appeal for calm as police again attempted to break up demonstrations with rubber bullets and tear gas volleys.

At least 25 people were killed on Thursday in addition to seven killed earlier in the week, with hundreds more wounded, according to an AFP tally based on hospital data.

Police weaponry was the cause of at least two-thirds of those deaths, based on descriptions given to AFP by hospital figures.

“We’ve got seven dead here,” an official at Uttara Crescent Hospital in Dhaka, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told AFP.

“The first two were students with rubber bullet injuries. The other five had gunshot injuries.”

Nearly 1,000 others had been treated at the hospital for injuries sustained during clashes, the official said, adding many had rubber bullet wounds.

Didar Malekin of the online news outlet Dhaka Times told AFP that Mehedi Hasan, one of his reporters, had been killed while covering clashes in Dhaka.

Several cities across Bangladesh saw violence throughout the day as riot police marched on protesters who had begun another round of human blockades on roads and highways.

Helicopters rescued 60 police officers who were trapped on the roof of a campus building at Canadian University, the scene of some of Dhaka’s fiercest clashes, the elite Rapid Action Battalion police force said in a statement.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric appealed for “restraint from all sides.”

“We urge the government to ensure a conducive environment for dialogue. And we encourage protesters to engage in dialogue to resolve the deadlock,” he told reporters.

“Violence is never a solution.”

Before the late near-total Internet shutdown, junior telecommunications minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak told reporters that social media had been “weaponized as a tool to spread rumors, lies and disinformation,” forcing the government to restrict access.

Along with police crackdowns, demonstrators and students allied to the premier’s ruling Awami League have also battled each other on the streets with hurled bricks and bamboo rods.

Rights group Amnesty International said video evidence from clashes this week showed that Bangladeshi security forces had used unlawful force.


Migrants encounter hazards of food delivery on the streets of NYC

Updated 18 July 2024
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Migrants encounter hazards of food delivery on the streets of NYC

  • Asylum-seekers have gravitated to working food delivery in New York and other major cities

NEW YORK: Brad Song thought he was about to get his e-bike stolen a second time in a less than a month after delivering an order for Chinese food app Fantuan Delivery. Seven strangers surrounded the Chinese immigrant and knocked him off the scooter. He was rescued when a nearby motorist revved his engine, scaring the assailants.
His brakes were damaged and a phone used for navigation had its screen shattered, but, while the February attack in New York rattled Song, his bike and body emerged intact.
Asylum-seekers have gravitated to working food delivery in New York and other major cities, drawn by an abundance of customers and ease of getting started. But the job carries hazards, particularly thieves who target food delivery bikes. Newly arrived asylum-seekers have been easy targets. Some work without legal permission, which can make them fearful of seeking help in an emergency.
Dissatisfied with the police response, many delivery drivers have banded together.
Juan Solano, who migrated from the Mexican state of Guerrero in 2017, founded E l Diario de los Delivery Boys en la Gran Manzana, a group of delivery workers who help retrieve stolen e-bikes, often with the help of monitoring devices. Launched during the pandemic, the group has more than 50,000 followers on Facebook and a WhatsApp channel to alert delivery workers of robberies in real time.
Solano, 35, started working in food delivery during the pandemic with his nephew, Sergio, who had his e-bike stolen twice.
Thieves appear to target isolated areas near bridges that connect Manhattan to other boroughs, especially those with lighter police presence. They prey especially on those traveling alone.


White House: Biden expecting to meet Netanyahu next week

The Israeli and US governments have tentatively scheduled a meeting between Biden and Netanyahu on Monday. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 July 2024
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White House: Biden expecting to meet Netanyahu next week

  • Netanyahu will be in Washington next week for a July 24 address to a joint session of the US Congress
  • The two leaders have had strained relations for months over Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza conflict

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden expects to be able to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week depending on his recovery from COVID-19, the White House said on Thursday.
Netanyahu will be in Washington next week for a July 24 address to a joint session of the US Congress. The two governments have tentatively scheduled a meeting between Biden and Netanyahu on Monday.
Vice President Kamala Harris will also meet Netanyahu while he is in Washington, a White House official said.
Biden, under pressure from some fellow Democrats to not seek reelection due to a disastrous debate performance against Republican Donald Trump on June 27, tested positive on Wednesday for COVID-19 and is recuperating at his beach house in Delaware. His current plan is to return to Washington on Sunday.
The two leaders have had strained relations for months over Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza conflict where more than 38,000 people have been killed in Israel’s pursuit of Hamas militants responsible for the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed.
“We have every expectation that the two leaders will have the chance to see each other while Prime Minister Netanyahu is in town,” said White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, without mentioning a specific date.
“Obviously we need to make sure that the president’s health and his recovery from COVID takes priority and if and how that might affect the discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu, we’re just not in a position today to be able to help,” he told reporters.
The United States has been working with Qatar and Egypt to try to arrange a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict in order to free hostages held since Oct. 7 and get more humanitarian aid into the enclave
A US official said US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was traveling to the Middle East on Thursday for consultations on the Gaza conflict, with stops planned in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, a US official said.
No deal appeared imminent. Kirby said McGurk’s trip was part of regular consultations.
Netanyahu’s visit would be his first visit to the White House since he returned to office in late 2022.
The Biden administration may have eased on one point of contention last week when it said it would resume shipping 500-pound bombs to Israel, though it said it would continue to hold back on supplying 2,000-pound bombs over concerns about their use in densely populated Gaza.
In June, Netanyahu had criticized the United States for withholding some weapons, prompting Biden’s aides to express disappointment and confusion over the Israeli leader’s remarks.
The invitation for Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress was orchestrated by the House of Representatives’ Republican leadership, which has accused the Democratic president of not being supportive enough of Israel’s strategy in the Gaza war.
Addresses to joint meetings of Congress by foreign leaders are a rare honor generally reserved for the closest US allies or major world figures.
Netanyahu’s speech could highlight differences over Israel policy between Biden and some progressive Democrats, especially if some of them follow through on their threat to boycott the Israeli leader’s appearance.


British foreign secretary’s concern over former PM Johnson’s meeting with US presidential hopeful Trump

Updated 18 July 2024
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British foreign secretary’s concern over former PM Johnson’s meeting with US presidential hopeful Trump

  • Lammy admitted to LBC presenter Tom Swarbrick that he had not been aware the meeting was taking place

LONDON: British Foreign Secretary David Lammy expressed his concern on Thursday about a meeting between former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Speaking on the LBC radio morning show, Lammy admitted to presenter Tom Swarbrick that he had not been aware the meeting was taking place.

Johnson posted a picture on social media of him meeting Trump at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, after which he said the former president was “on top form” and that they had discussed the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The foreign secretary was asked if Johnson had followed protocol by informing the UK Foreign Office of his meeting with Trump, to which Lammy replied: “I’m not sure that Boris Johnson consults either Keir Starmer or us on his plans. And I certainly didn’t know.”

Lammy refused to be drawn when pressed by Swarbrick on whether the meeting went against “UK national interests” or not.

“The record will show that I had a friendship with Barack Obama, prior to him becoming president of the United States of America, and about a year or so into office, he was dealing with David Cameron (as prime minister),” he said.

“I would never have done anything to prejudice the UK national interests at that time. So the point you’re making is a serious one. I would hope that all former prime ministers would act in the UK national interests and not cut across us, particularly two weeks into office.

“You know, I’m not interested, actually, in the past. I’m interested in the future.”


Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the “Desert Rats,” stand in a trench on January 6, 1991.
Updated 18 July 2024
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Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

  • Thousands of 1991 war veterans suffered chronic fatigue, PTSD, joint pain and headaches
  • Findings a ‘significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness’

LONDON: Exposure to chemical and biological agents has been identified as the cause of Gulf War syndrome in a landmark study, The Times reported.
In what was described as a “world-first discovery,” scientists found that thousands of soldiers suffering from the syndrome had faulty cell function due to contact with the hazardous agents.
The mysterious illness was first identified in the wake of the Gulf War, with victims suffering from symptoms including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue, joint pain and headaches.
Many struggled to find medical help and claim compensation as doctors were left baffled by the illness.
Up to 33,000 British veterans who served in the war may be suffering from the syndrome.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence has long argued against the existence of the illness, referring to a 2003 study that found no research identifying a unique syndrome linked to military service in the Gulf.
Scientists in the US have also blamed sarin, the nerve agent, for causing the symptoms, after Iraqi chemical weapons caches were bombed during the war, causing aerial exposure.
But the latest study, in the journal Plos One, could open a path for the syndrome to be recognized as a unique illness.
Veterans who suffered from Gulf War syndrome had an “impaired ion channel function in their cells,” said one of the study’s researchers, Etianne Martini Sasso of Griffith University in Australia.
The impairment resulted in an inability of the body to properly transport calcium.
The element plays a crucial role in muscle contraction, nerve function and hormone regulation.
“The findings from our research provides clear scientific evidence that the health problems experienced by Gulf War veterans can be directly linked to their exposure to specific hazardous agents during their service,” said another of the study’s authors, Prof. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik.
Discovering the link between exposure to hazardous agents and impaired ion channel function is a “significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness,” she added.
The former Conservative government in the UK imposed a six-year limit on civil cases involving injury or death, preventing veterans of the 1991 war from claiming compensation.
Veterans can still claim a war pension, however.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “We are indebted to all those who served our country in the Gulf wars and have already sponsored significant research into the effects of this conflict on veterans.
“We continue to monitor and welcome any new research that is published around the world and financial support is available to veterans whose illness is due to service through the MoD war pensions and the armed forces occupational pension schemes.”