Thursday 28 October 2010

Indonesia - land of tsunamis and volcanoes

Indonesia has been living up to its reputation as the most seismically active country on earth. At least 300 people have been killed on the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra by a tsunami, which has washed away at least 13 villages.

After the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, that killed 94,000 people on Sumatra, a new early warning system was installed, but Indonesian officials say two buoys off the Mentawai Islands that formed part of it had been vandalised and were out of service. Even if the system had been functioning properly, though, warnings may still have reached local people too late.

Meanwhile, in central Java, 32 people have been killed by the eruption of the volcano, Mount Merapi. It is regarded as Indonesia’s most active, but the area around is heavily populated, and tens of thousands of people are now in temporary shelters.

Indonesia has seen many major eruptions – the most famous being Krakatoa in 1883, which killed around 36,000 people, though much more powerful was Tambora in 1815, which was responsible for perhaps 80,000 deaths in Indonesia, and thousands more around the world because of the volcanic winter the eruption caused. For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

*Latest about my books on the internet:-

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Iraq - justice for war criminals

While accusations swirl around that the USA turned a blind eye to torture by its Iraqi allies, Saddam Hussein’s former foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, has been sentenced to death by the Iraqi Supreme Court for persecuting Shia Muslim religious parties.

The website Wikileaks has published 400,000 US military logs, which are alleged to demonstrate that Iraqi security forces assaulted detainees with acid and electric drills, beat, mutilated, and summary executed them, and that coalition forces handed prisoners back to them even when there were signs that they had been mistreated.

Tariq Aziz, who spoke good English, was often the front man for Saddam’s regime on Western television. He had already been given prison sentences for his role in the execution of 42 merchants for profiteering and in driving Kurds from their homes.

Aziz, now 74, is reportedly ill after suffering a stroke. He may appeal against the sentence. Two other Saddam aides in the case were also sentenced to death.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Black Thursday + 81

This day…..81 years ago was dubbed “Black Thursday” – generally regarded as the start of the Great Crash of 1929. During the 1920’s, US share prices had gone mad, as investors piled in – many of them buying shares for just a few dollars down and borrowing the rest of the price.

It was all fine so long as stocks kept climbing, but in September 1929, they began to stall. Thursday, 24 October was the first real day of panic, with a record 12.9 million shares traded. As the market began to fall, banks and investment companies piled in, buying huge blocks of shares to try to hold the line.

But even they did not have the money to stave off the inevitable. October 28, “Black Monday”, saw the market fall by 12%, and it was followed by a similar fall on “Black Tuesday.” Politicians fell over each other in the rush to proclaim that there was no problem, but this was actually the beginning of the Great Depression, which overhung the world’s economy for a decade, and blighted millions of lives.

Last week, the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, warned that Britain faces a grim decade was we try to recover from the banking crisis.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Haiti - cholera strikes

Back in January, there were fears that the devastating Haiti earthquake might be followed by epidemics, particularly of cholera. Nine months later, the disease has finally arrived.

So far there have been more than 2,600 cases, and nearly 200 people have died. The areas affected are about 60 miles from the heavily populated capital, Port-au-Prince, where tens of thousands of people are still living in crowded tents with poor sanitation and little access to clean drinking water, though there are suspected cases in a suburb of the capital.

Officials say the victims were infected through drinking contaminated river water. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and for a time people were being treated in car parks. The World Health Organisation says this is the first time cholera has struck Haiti in a century.

See also my blogs of Jan 31, 2009 and Jan 14, 15, 16, 19, 22, 23 and 24; July 12 and Aug 26, 2010. The new paperback edition of A Disastrous History of the World also contains a section on the earthquake.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Malaria - is it even worse than we thought?

A new report, produced by the US National Institutes of Health among others, claims there are perhaps 13 times more deaths from malaria in India than official figures suggest. In rural India, well over 1 million people a year die from infectious diseases, where acute fever is the main symptom, but beyond that the condition often goes undiagnosed.

By interviewing a sample of bereaved families, the researchers came to the conclusion that there are up to 205,000 malaria deaths a year in India, compared to the World Health Organisation’s figure of 10-21,000. The WHO does not accept this conclusion, but agrees there might be limitations in its own calculations.

Across the world, malaria is thought to kill more than 1 million people a year, though, if the researchers are right about India, this may be a serious underestimate. The number of cases has risen over the last 30 years, partly through mosquitoes becoming resistant to drugs and insecticides. (See also my blogs of 11 April, 30 May, 24 Sept, 2009.)

*Out next month in paperback! A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 18 October 2010

Mumbai appeal

The only surviving gunman from the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai has begun his appeal against the death sentence. 23 year old Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, a Pakistani national, was one of ten assailants who caused the deaths of more than 170 people.

Qasab and an accomplice carried out the attack on the city’s main railway station, killing 52 people. In May, he was found guilty of mass murder and waging war against India.

For security reasons, the convicted man is appearing via video link from his prison. Reporters in the courtroom say he smiled frequently as he looked into the camera. The hearing is expected to last three months.

(See also my blogs of July 23 and Nov 26, 2009.)

Saturday 16 October 2010

Mining accidents - now the bad news

Amid the euphoria over the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, a reminder of how dangerous mining can be – especially in China. An explosion at a coal mine at Yuzhou in Henan province has killed 20 and trapped another 17 underground.

Official reports say that 239 miners got to the surface safely, and that attempts are being made to reach the missing men. China’s mining industry is the most dangerous in the world, with more than 2,600 killed in accidents last year.

The government has tried to improve standards, closing down more than 1,500 illegal pits this year. It also brought in new regulations saying that mine managers have to go and work underground with their men. This tougher approach has helped to reduce the number of deaths from nearly 7,000 a year in 2002, but many miners are poorly trained migrant workers, and rules are often broken.

(See also my blog of Nov 23, 2009.)

*The Glasgow and Leicester edition of have kindly put up articles about my books.

Friday 15 October 2010

Chile - disaster averted

Just back from Turkey in time for the wonderful news of the rescue of all 33 of the trapped Chilean miners, after 69 days underground. There are some dental and eye problems and one case of pneumonia, but overall they seem in remarkably good shape.

When it was first discovered they were still alive after 17 days, it was thought that it might take until Christmas to get them out. The dramatic reduction in the time needed appears to be thanks to the drafting in of a drill normally used in the oil industry.

Two other drills, which each start with a small, pilot hole before widening the shaft, were also used, but the Schramm T-130 starts with a wide hole, and soon outpaced the other two. Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, has promised “very radical” improvements to health and safety regulations in mining and other industries.

For other stories of people trapped for long periods underground, see my blog of August 24.

*Latest articles on London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the Banking Crisis – Fire News (Aug/Sept issue) and H&F News (Hammersmith & Fulham) Sept 21 edition.