Wednesday 30 December 2015

Floods: chronicle of a disaster foretold

Late in 2013, my book Flood: Nature and Culture was published by Reaktion Books. It noted the devastating floods seen across the world the previous year, and ended with a question:-

'Are we witnessing nothing more than the normal ups and downs of the climate? Or are those calculations by so many scientists right: does mankind now face a struggle with floods the like of which we have never seen before?'

Many people in the north of the UK in particular must have been asking something similar as the rainfall records I wrote about in the book keep being broken, leading more and more politicians to concede that what they had been categorising as 'exceptional' might, in fact, be becoming normal. The Environment Agency has admitted that a 'complete rethink' may be needed on flood defences.

In Flood, I also noted that in the United States, of the 48 Republican candidates for the Senate mid-term elections of 2010, all but one either denied the existence of global warming or opposed any action to combat it. It will be interesting to note what shift in opinion, if any, we see on the American right as the next year's presidential election looms.

Flood on Amazon:

Monday 28 December 2015

70 years on Japan and S Korea agree deal on women forced into sexual slavery during WW2

During World War Two, about 200,000 Asian women were forced to work as ‘comfort women’ – sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in military brothels. Many were Korean, and today Japan has agreed to apologise for its actions and pay compensation of £5.6 million to South Korea.

Japan has accepted ‘deep responsibility’ and the South Korean government says the deal will close the matter. Both countries have agreed to stop criticising each other publicly over the issue, and South Korea says it will look into removing a statue commemorating the women, which activists had put up outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

It is not clear whether the women will receive direct payments. The wording of the deal suggests Japan will provide ‘support’ and finance ‘projects for recovering honour and dignity and healing psychological wounds.’

Only 46 of the Korean women are still alive. They have tended to regard earlier apologies from Japan as grudging and insincere and they appear divided on this agreement, with some wanting a direct apology to them as individuals and direct compensation.

Monday 21 December 2015

Deadliest building collapse of modern times - 24 accused on the run

The Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 in Bangladesh was the deadliest building collapse of modern times, costing the lives of at least 1,138 people. More than 2,000 were injured, and some are still not accounted for.

41 people were charged with murder in connection with the collapse, but now 24 have absconded. A court has issued arrest warrants, and ordered that their property should be seized. The owner of the building, Sohel Rana, is still in custody. The trial is expected to start by April.

The building on the outskirts of Dhaka, originally constructed as a 6-storey shopping mall, had been converted into a 9-floor factory complex. It is alleged that workers drew attention to cracks in the structure before it collapsed.

Bangladesh’s clothing industry employs 4 million people, and makes garments for a number of well-known Western names. (see also my blogs of May 20 and June 12, 2013, and June 1, 2015.)

Wednesday 16 December 2015

After a disaster: return or move away?

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were plans to sweep away London's courts and alleys and replace them with something grander and neater, but many of them survived (and still do). A lot of Londoners wanted to rebuild the city much as it had been before the fire.

After the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, it was a similar story. Grand designs floundered because locals wanted to live in the same kind of homes in the same places as they had before. And when the Ugandan government tried to get people to settle away from an area devastated by floods in 1978, they too ran into opposition.

Now history seems to be re-repeating itself in Japan. After an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power station in 2011, some argued that the 80,000 people evacuated should be persuaded not to return, but to go and live somewhere else. 

And some have, but older people in particular seem to be keen to go back to the places they still think of as home. The town of Naraha is the first to be declared safe by the government.

Friday 11 December 2015

War crimes: Of Bangladesh and long shadows

Facebook has been restored in Bangladesh, after a three-week shutdown following the hanging of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid for war crimes during the country’s bloody struggle for independence from Pakistan 44 years ago.

A special war crimes tribunal had found Chowdhury guilty of 9 charges including genocide, arson and persecuting people on religious and political grounds. While Mujahid was convicted of 5, including abduction and murder.

Both were prominent opposition politicians. A senior figure in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Chowdhury had been elected an MP 6 times. Mujahid, an Islamist, was social welfare minister from 2001 to 2006. Both men maintained their innocence.

The tribunal was set up in 2010 by the current government, following an election pledge to bring murderers to justice, but human rights groups argue the men were not given a fair trial.

Monday 7 December 2015

Naming of storms

At least two people have now been killed by Storm Desmond. A 90 year old man was blown into the side of a moving bus in London, and another elderly man was swept into a river in Cumbria. Before Desmond, we were buffeted by Abigail, Barney and Clodagh

Until the last few months, only the very biggest storms got names in the UK - and those were unofficial ones, like the Great Storms of  1703 and 1987, the Burns' Day Storm of 1990, and the St Jude's Storm of 2013. Now, though, the Met Office has adopted the practice that forecasters in other countries have followed with major storms, and started giving them consecutive alphabetical names.

In the old days  in the West Indies, storms would be named after the saint's day on which they appeared. Then in the 19th century, an Australian meteorologist started calling them after politicians he disliked. Next the authorities tried numbers, but this proved too confusing when there was more than one blowing.

During World War Two, clarity was essential, so US meteorologists went back to names - often those of a wife or girlfriend. Then in 1953, the US National Weather Service drew up an official slate of female names, which continued until the late 1970s when feminist groups protested, and the authorities agreed to alternate male and female names. 

Monday 30 November 2015

Europe's migrant crisis - facts and numbers

Last month, more than 218,000 migrants reached Europe by sea according to the United Nations – about the same as the number for the whole of 2014. More than 10,000 arrived in Greece alone on a single day. So far this year, nearly 3,500 are estimated to have died trying to get to Europe.

The vast majority have come via Turkey to Greece. This has replaced the route to Italy via Libya which used to be more popular. The highest number come from Syria – about 53 per cent, with Afghanistan next – 18 per cent.

The United Nations has been heavily critical of Europe’s response, but the organisation’s own predictions for the number of migrants expected have been gross underestimates. It forecast 700,000 for the whole year, but at the end of October with two months still to go, that figure had already been exceeded by 44,000.

Normally the numbers fall during the winter months, but that may not happen this year as the people traffickers seem to be offering bad weather discounts. The fact that some of the Islamic fanatics who carried out the mass murders in Paris apparently slipped into Europe as ‘refugees’ has heightened alarm.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Remember Paris, but don't forget Beirut, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Cameroon....

is not every week that English football supporters sing the Marseillaise when a French team is playing England, nor every week that British prime ministers and home secretaries break into French, but then it is not every week that 129 people are murdured in Paris by Muslim fanatics.

But that was only one of a spate of recent Islamist attacks across a number of countries. In Beirut, ISIS said it carried out two suicide bombings that killed 40 people. In Nigeria, more than 40 people died in bombings by Boko Haram, which killed more than 6,640 in 2014, making it the world’s deadliest terror organisation.

In Mali, 20 people perished in an attack on a hotel claimed by two Islamist groups, one affiliated to al-Qaeda, while ISIS claims it brought down the Russian airliner that crashed in Sinai on October 31 with the loss of 224 people.

Just today, suicide bombers, suspected to be from Boko Haram, claimed another four victims in Cameroon. It is not only the dead and injured of Paris that we need to remember.

Friday 13 November 2015

Friday the 13th: is it really unlucky?

On Friday, 13th November, 1970, the deadliest storm in history devastated Bangladesh, with some estimates putting the number killed at as high as a million. And that was just one of the disasters that happened on this feared date.

On Friday, 13th October, 1307, scores of members of the elite military Knights Templar order, who had played a crucial role in the Crusades, were arrested by Philip IV of France and accused of heresy, blasphemy and vice. After the authorities extracted confessions by torture, the order was dissolved in 1312.

On Friday, 13th November, 1972, a Fairchild FH-227D on charter from the Uruguayan Air Force crashed in the Andes. 29 of the 45 people on board died. It took more than two months to rescue the remaining 16, some of whom had to survive by eating the dead. Their story was told in the feature film, Alive.

Then on Friday, 13th January, 2012, the Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, (pictured) struck a rock and capsized off a little Tuscan island with the loss of 32 lives. All nasty things to happen, but statistically enough to brand Friday the 13th as any worse than any other date? Well, funnily enough, a study in the British Medical Journal in 1993 apparently concluded that you might expect a higher than average rate of road accidents on Friday, 13th.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

London Borough of Camden's 50th anniversary photo competition - winner revealed!

The London Borough of Camden has been running a photo competition to mark its 50th anniversary, and this is the winner - a picture of two of her neighbours taken by the very talented Anne Clements.

Well done! Now her picture is gracing the cover of Camden's magazine.

The 400 entries included a variety of Camden people, and scenes - such as the Regent's Canal at sunset, the bottom of Camden High Street in snow, and a wittily titled 'watercolour' of a railway bridge in the rain.

Saturday 7 November 2015

The Bradford City fire: was it arson?

More than 30 years since the Bradford City fire in which 56 football fans died, a dramatic new development. West Yorkshire Police has referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission over its investigation into the blaze.

This follows a meeting with Martin Fletcher, whose father, brother, uncle and grandfather, all died at Valley Parade on 11 May 1985. In his recent book, Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire, he claimed the fire was one of nine that had happened at businesses linked with the club’s then chairman, Stafford Heginbotham.

The official inquiry had concluded the blaze was caused by a discarded cigarette setting fire to rubbish that had accumulated over years under an old timber stand. The structure was engulfed in minutes, and because doors at the back were locked, many spectators could not escape.

The police say Mr Fletcher’s book has raised ‘serious issues’, and that it is important that they are addressed.

For more on the fire, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Saturday 31 October 2015

A mysterious Halloween air crash

ISIS has claimed responsibility for bringing down the Russian Airbus A321 over Sinai, though it is fair to say that at present, not many believe them, with the authorities blaming a technical fault. What is clear is that 224 passengers and crew have been killed.

Halloween saw another mysterious air crash in 1999, when an EgyptAir Boeing 767 from New York to Cairo crashed into the Atlantic about 60 miles off Nantucket Island, killing all 217 people on board.

America’s National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the aircraft had been deliberately crashed by the first officer. The cockpit voice recorder (pictured) revealed that the captain had left the cockpit to go to the toilet, and that the first officer then began constantly repeating: ‘I rely on God’, as the autopilot was disconnected, and the engines shut down, leaving the aircraft plummeting towards the sea.

The Egyptians, though, rejected this explanation, saying a mechanical fault was the ‘likely cause’.

*Here I am doorstepping Tony Benn, then the Secretary of State for Industry, as crisis envelopes the British motorcycle industry in 1974 -

Wednesday 28 October 2015

20 years ago today - the world's deadliest subway disaster

It was 20 years ago today…..the world’s deadliest subway fire killed at least 289 people on the Baku Metro in Azerbaijan, as fire broke out on a train between two stations during the Saturday evening rush hour on 28 October 1995.

As smoke appeared in one of the five carriages, the lights went out, and the train came to a standstill. Passengers tried to get out of the coaches, but a set of doors jammed, and some were poisoned by fumes from burning fittings.

The driver had reported the incident and asked for the power to be switched off, but a number of people were electrocuted as they grabbed cables in an effort to escape. Among the dead were 28 children.

A government inquiry concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical fault, and two metro officials were sent to gaol, but others believed the real cause might have been a terrorist bomb. Incidentally, the Baku Metro, like the one in Moscow, is something of an architectural showpiece (see picture).

*For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Accidental anti-malaria drug

A Nobel prize-winning drug that kills parasitic worms may also work against malaria. Trials of ivermectin in villages in Burkina Faso are estimated to have prevented nearly 100 cases of the disease.

In communities where people took the drug, 25% of children avoided catching malaria during the rainy season, compared with just 16% in the untreated villages. The drug appears to work by weakening or killing the mosquitoes that spread the illness.

The trial does not end until next week, and these are preliminary results, but one of the investigators said they were ‘pretty excited’. Deaths from malaria have been reduced dramatically over the last 15 years, but it still kills about 430,000 people a year, most of them in Africa.

Fighting parasitic worms is also crucial. They can cause illnesses such as river blindness and elephantiasis, and by some estimates, they affect a third of the world’s population.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Murder hq

Honduras has passed on the unenvied title of the world’s most murderous country to its neighbour El Salvador. In the first 9 months of this year, there have been 4,930 killings in a population of 6.5 million – giving El Salvador a murder rate 20 times that of the United States.

A large part of the country is controlled by gangs, who recruit children in primary schools and extort money from businesses. It is estimated that nearly 300,000 people were forced to flee from their homes last year.

The violence got worse when the government withdrew its support for a truce between the gangs in the run-up to last year’s presidential election.  During the ceasefire, killings had dropped by nearly two-thirds, but the gangs carried on with their extortion rackets, which made the government look weak.

Now police and soldiers are trying to try to wrest back control of neighbourhoods, so far with little success. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to resurrect the truce, but for the moment, the president is refusing to talk to the gangs.

Friday 9 October 2015

London theatre fires and riots

Boyd Hilton’s excellent volume on English history from 1783 to 1846 in the New Oxford History of England – A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? - mentions one of the many disasters to afflict London’s theatres.

The Covent Garden Theatre was burned down twice – in 1808 and 1856. The first fire in September 1808 destroyed not just the building, but also the costumes, the scenery and the scripts, but thanks partly to some chivvying from King George III, Londoners contributed generously enough to help the owners get the theatre rebuilt and reopened just a year later.

To recoup some of the considerable sums they had invested, the owners decided to put up the prices. On the first night of Macbeth, patrons rioted until the early hours of the morning over the new charges, and that was just the start of the so-called ‘old price riots’ which went on for 64 days.

In the end, the manager and part owner of the theatre, John Kemble, a distinguished actor, had to deliver a public apology, and announce that the increases were being withdrawn. (See also my blog of 21 December 2013.)

Monday 5 October 2015

Malaria - progress in the fight

Malaria is projected to kill more than 430,000 people this year. That's bad enough, but it represents a cut of around 60 per cent since 2000, the year the disease was targeted by the UN's Millennium Development Goals programme.

The WHO says 6 million lives have been saved. Its director general, Dr Margaret Chan, describes this as 'one of the great public health success stories of the past 15 years. It's a sign that our strategies are on target, and that we can beat this ancient killer.' 

Nearly 70 per cent of the reduction is put down to the distribution of a billion insecticide-treated bed nets. But there are some worrying signs. The mosquitoes that carry the disease are becoming more resistant to some insecticides, and the rate at which cases are being reduced is falling. 

Africa still accounts for about 80 per cent of all cases. (See also my posts of 11 June 2009, 23 May 2012, 23 Sept 2011, 29 April 2013.) 

Sunday 27 September 2015

Memory Lane

Back in the 1970s, I used to be industrial correspondent at ATV in the English Midlands, appearing mainly on ATV Today. Two of my film reports from that era have just appeared online:-

The effects of the British Leyland toolmakers' strike on supplies of the Mini in 1975 -

The British hot rod team practising in 1974 -

Friday 25 September 2015

Yet another Hajj tragedy

How strange that just as I was writing yesterday’s blog about the crane collapse that killed more than 100 pilgrims in Mecca, an even worse disaster was unfolding at the Hajj, with a stampede killing at least 717.

It happened at the last major rite, when pilgrims throw stones at pillars representing the devil. This event has caused major casualties before – at least 118 died in 1998, and about 250 in 2004.  After the latest accident, the Saudi Arabian king, Salman, has promised a safety review, but already countries who have lost people, such as Nigeria and Iran, are blaming the Saudis.

Iran has been particularly vocal, just as it was after the even more deadly Mecca stampede of 1990 in which more than 1,400 perished in a pedestrian tunnel. The then Saudi king, Fahd, said that those who died had been ‘martyrs’ and the accident ‘God’s will’, though he added that the pilgrims had disobeyed safety instructions. The Saudi health minister has made a similar claim this time.

The deadliest stampede in history may be the one that happened at a huge air raid shelter in the Chinese city of Chungking as Japanese aircraft attacked on 6 June 1941. The shelter’s ventilation system failed, and during an apparent lull in the bombing, hundreds rushed outside for a breath of air. Then the sirens sounded again, leading to a fatal crush that killed perhaps 4,000 as people still trying to get out collided with others frantic to return.

For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Another Hajj tragedy

All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are supposed to go to Mecca during the week of the Hajj at least once in their lives, but this year the event has again been marred by tragedy, as 107 people were killed when a crane collapsed on top of worshippers gathering outside the Grand Mosque.

The crane was operated by the Saudi Binladin Group (some relation – it is run by Osama’s brother). The group has been hired on a 4 year contract worth $27 billion to expand the Grand Mosque.

The accident happened during high winds and heavy rain, and one of the company’s engineers said it was an ‘act of God’, but the Saudi government’s official mouthpiece said the Binladin Group had not ‘respected the rules of safety’, and the company’s directors have been ordered not to leave the country.

At the Hajj in 1990, more than 1,400 pilgrims were killed in a fatal crush in a tunnel. Four years later, at least 270 died in another stampede. A fire in 1997 killed 343, and further stampedes in 2004 and 2006 killed another 580.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Mumbai train bombers convicted

In India, 12 men have been convicted for their part in the co-ordinated bombings of Mumbai commuter trains in 2006 that killed 189 people and injured more than 800. One man was acquitted. Sentencing is due tomorrow.

The seven bombs went off during a 15 minute spell, and appeared to have targeted first class compartments as people were going home from jobs in the city’s financial district. Explosives were packed into pressure cookers, then put in bags.

Prosecutors said the attack was planned by Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI, and carried out by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba with help from the Students' Islamic Movement of India, a banned Indian group. Pakistan has rejected the allegations.

Mumbai has been hit by a number of terrorist attacks. In 2013, bombs killed 257 people, and bombers also struck in 2003 and 2011, killing a total of 70, while in 2008, gunmen attacked a number of places in the city, killing 165.

Friday 11 September 2015

Pakistan's 9/11

On this day………….3 years ago, more than 280 people were killed in a fire at a clothing factory in Baldia Town, Karachi in what is believed to be the worst disaster of its kind in Pakistan’s history.

The Ali Enterprises factory exported clothes to Europe and the United States.  An inspection in 2007 had revealed deficiencies in fire precautions, but a few weeks before the blaze in 2012, the building passed a safety test.

But when fire raced through the factory, it was said that exit doors were locked and windows were covered with iron bars, trapping victims inside. It was reported that it took the fire brigade 75 minutes to reach the scene.

A judicial inquiry concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical fault, but then in February of this year came claims that the MQM, one of Karachi’s leading political parties, had been involved in starting it. Last month, it was reported that investigators had travelled to London to interview the factory’s owners.  

Monday 7 September 2015

India's deadliest natural disaster - lightning

More than 30 people are reported to have been killed in lightning strikes in India - 23 in Andhra Pradesh and 9 in Orissa. Most were said to have been working in the fields during torrential monsoon rain storms.

Figures just released show that more than 2,500 people were killed by lightning in India last year, more than in any other kind of natural disaster. Next most disastrous was extreme heat with nearly 1,250 victims, though third came cold - killing more than 900.

India's National Crime Records Bureau says lightning is consistently the subcontinent's deadliest natural disaster, claiming at least 1,500 victims in every year since 2003.

In July 2011, 30 people were killed by lightning in Uganda, including 18 pupils and a teacher in a primary school (see my post of 1 July, 2011). Later that month, lightning caused a rail crash in China, when a train stalled after being struck, and another ran into its back. More than 40 people died. (see my post of 25 July, 2011) 

See also my post of 15 May 2016.

Monday 31 August 2015

Taiwan typhoon

Managed to dodge Typhoon Goni while I was in Taiwan, though for a few days, it looked as thought it might hit the island. The Philippines were less fortunate, and there the typhoon killed at least 27 people, while in Japan, one man died after he fell from a fishing boat.

The storm passed within about 100 miles of the island, but we got away with nothing worse than very heavy rain. While I was in Taiwan I did see some of the damage from Typhoon Soudelor, which hit the island on August 7.

The picture above shows a landslide at the Taroko Gorge, where almost all of the trails had been closed because of the effects of the storm. At least 8 people were killed in Taiwan, with another 30 across China and Japan.

Taiwan's deadliest ever typhoon was Marokot, which struck the island on 7 August 2009, killing 461 people and doing damage estimated at more than $3 billion. 

Friday 28 August 2015

Earthquake museum, Taiwan

Just back from Taiwan where I visited the fascinating, disturbing 921 Earthquake Museum. The museum is built around the remains of Kuang-Fu Junior High School in Wufeng, where buildings collapsed and sports fields buckled, when the 7.3 force quake struck on September 21, 1999.

Fortunately, it was at about a quarter to two in the morning, so there were no pupils in the school, but across the island the disaster killed more than 2,400 people, and destroyed more than 50,000 homes.

The museum is designed to ensure the tragedy is not forgotten, and to help stimulate research on earthquakes and on disaster relief, and more than a million people have visited it since it opened in 2004. One room with a shaking floor simulates the terrifying experience of being caught in a quake.

The deadliest earthquake in Taiwan's history is believed to be the one that hit the Hsinchu and Taichung areas on 21 April, 1935, killing more than 3,270 people.

Thursday 27 August 2015

London's deadliest fire since the Blitz - another story

On July 19, I blogged about a story in the Express on the Denmark Place fire of 16 August 1980 - an arson attack that killed 37 people  - in which I was quoted.

Now I am also quoted in a story the Independent has written about the blaze -

For a long time, the crime was largely ignored by the media, so as it passes its 35th anniversary, it is good to see that being rectified, and Simon Usborne has done a really good job, turning up a lot of material I have not seen before.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Nagasaki + 70: Kokura's luck

70 years ago today, Nagasaki was hit in the world's second atomic bomb attack, and the phrase 'Kokura's luck' entered the Japanese language. The city of Kokura was the target for the attack, but when the American B-29 bomber reached it, it was shrouded in haze.

So the aircraft flew on another 90 miles to Nagasaki, and, finding a gap in the clouds, dropped 'Fat Man' - a more powerful bomb than the one used on Hiroshima. Thanks to better air raid precautions and because the bomb was detonated about two miles from its intended point, it caused fewer casualties, though it still killed about 40,000. 

Nagasaki was a centre for Roman Catholicism in Japan, and a revered Catholic priest, Takashi Nagai pointed to the great hole gouged out by the bomb, and said the Japanese themselves were to blame for it: 'We dug it to the rhythm of military marches.'

Over the years that followed, perhaps 80,000 died from the bomb's longer term effects. For a long time, many of the sick and injured received no government support, and even when that was put right, 10,000 Korean victims had to wait another 11 years before they got help, and even then on very restrictive terms.

For more on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Hiroshima + 70, and a classic piece of journalism

I went to Hiroshima in 1992. It was a bizarre experience to be able to stand at the epicentre of the atomic bomb explosion of August 6, 1945, and to see the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now know as the A-bomb dome. Perhaps even more bizarrely the nearby pedestrian traffic lights played 'Coming Through the Rye' when it was time to cross the road.

One of the first real accounts of the effects of the bomb came in a classic piece of journalism by the American writer, John Hersey, who visited the city in May 1946, and interviewed survivors for his book, Hiroshima.

In measured, factual tones, he tells the story of the Methodist pastor, who was sitting in his friend's garden when he saw a blinding flash across the sky. He dived for cover as debris fell from the sky, and when he looked up, the house had disappeared, and day had turned to night.

Hersey tells how almost all Hiroshima's doctors and nurses were killed or injured, and how at the Red Cross hospital there was just one doctor left as an endless stream of badly burned casualties began to stream in. These are just a couple of the vivid human stories in a slim but compelling volume. You can read it in a couple of hours but you will remember it for a lifetime.

Sunday 2 August 2015

China's coal mines - getting less dangerous

For a long time China has had the unenviable record of running the world's most dangerous coal mines, but at least things are not as bad as they used to be. Last year the total number of miners killed fell below 1,000 for the first time. 931 is still a lot, but it is many fewer than the 7,000 recorded in 2002.

China produces about half of the worlds's coal, and the director of the State Administration of Work Safety acknowledged it still faces 'grave and complicated challenges in coal mine work safety.'  

Safety campaigns and better monitoring of methane gas have played their part in reducing the death toll, though perhaps the most important factor has been the closing of small mines which often had the worst records.

But there is concern that the number of casualties may be under-reported. Any accident that kills more than 30 miners automatically becomes the subject of a government inquiry. Last year, 14 managers and officials in Jilin province were gaoled for concealing the deaths of 8 miners so that the death toll in an accident in 2013 appeared to be 28 not 36.

See also my posts of Feb 22, March 10 and 19 Nov, 2009, and 16 Jan and 14 April, 2010.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Srebrenica - the battle over its history

Twenty years ago this month, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb forces at Srebrenica in the worst mass murder in Europe since World War Two. It was condemned as genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and also by the International Court of Justice.

But Serb leaders deny the massacre was genocide, arguing that Serb victims of the wars that followed Yugoslavia's break-up have been forgotten, and a recent UN Security Council resolution denouncing it was vetoed by Russia.

Today Bosnia is split between Serb, Bosnian and Croat run sectors. Bosnian children learn all about the massacre, while Bosnian Croat children hear little about it, and Bosnian Serb children are taught that its mastermind, Ratko Mladic, currently on trial at The Hague, was a hero.

Srebrenica has never recovered, but one bright spot in the story is the absence of inter-communal revenge killings, though worryingly last month ISIS released a video calling on Balkan Muslims to murder their non-Muslim neighbours. 

Thursday 23 July 2015

Gaza - normal lack of service resumed

After Israel carpet-bombed Gaza last year, destroying 17,000 Palestinian homes, international donors promised $3.5 billion to rebuild it. While the Palestinians waited, their babies died of hypothermia in the plywood huts they had been reduced to living in.

A year on, the number of houses that have been rebuilt is.....0. Israel constantly obstructs the importation of the materials that are needed, in spite of vague promises that its blockade would be lifted.

Most of the help donors promised has not been delivered, but then if you know that anything you do rebuild will soon be destroyed again by the Israelis, you might start asking what is the point?

Power cuts last up to 16 hours a day. Unemployment is 43 per cent. As for the relief effort, the Palestinians say: 'People come to talk to us every month. They talk, and they leave, and nothing ever changes.'

There are now signs that ISIS is feeding on the despair, and could be making Gaza its next target. With their blind support for Israel, Western leaders like David Cameron are laying out the welcome mat.

As for Israel, it calls its periodic attacks on Gaza 'mowing the lawn', and another one is expected soon. As one Israeli newspaper put it: 'Israel is heading to the next violent eruption with the Palestinians as though it is some sort of natural disaster that can't be avoided.'

See also my posts of July 22 and 28, 2014.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Forgotten tragedy - London's deadliest fire since the Blitz

The 35th anniversary of Britain's deadliest fire since the Blitz is approaching. For a long time, it attracted remarkably little attention, but that is changing.

I was interviewed by the Express for a story they've just published -

The fire struck two unlicensed drinking clubs in Denmark Place in London's colourful Soho area in the early hours of 16 August 1980. A disgruntled customer had poured petrol through the letter box and set fire to the building.

The flames spread with alarming speed, and there were no proper means of escape, so 37 people died. The story of the fire is in my London's Disasters, and the Express story covers some of the developments since the book was published.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Ghosts of Biafra

Biafra. Just the name conjures up visions of the dreadful Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s in which two million civilians died, many from starvation, as the federal government blockaded the southern province which wanted to break away.

Now the Nigerian government is trying to shut down Radio Biafra, a pirate radio station broadcasting from the region. The government says it has ‘successfully jammed’ the station, but reporters in Nigeria say it is still broadcasting.

It targets the Igbo, who still feel they are discriminated against by the northern Nigerians, transmitting phone-ins and attacks on the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, and other government figures.

Independence for Biafra is still being demanded by a group called the Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), and a number of its leaders and sympathisers have been arrested.  

Tuesday 14 July 2015

AIDS - are we winning the war?

Thirty years ago, I was one of the first foreign television reporters to report on AIDS in Africa. At that time, the disease was a death sentence. There was no effective treatment. But, at a speed that surprised quite a few in the medical profession, effective drugs began to appear, and, though still dangerous, the virus ceased to look all-conquering.

Now the United Nations says life expectancy of those with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, has grown by 20 years since 2001, thanks to a sharp increase in access to effective drugs, the price of which have fallen dramatically. In 2000, the cost per year was $14,000. Now it is just $100.

In 2000, fewer than 700,000 of those with the virus were getting effective treatment. Now the figure is 15 million. The executive director of the UN’s AIDS programme, Michel SidibĂ© (pictured), describes this as ‘one of the greatest achievements in the history of global health.’

Not that everything in the garden is rosy. Up to 41.4 million are now infected by the virus, the majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. So most are not getting access to treatment, and experts warn that if we do not invest more money, deaths will start increasing again.