Month: July 2019

Zelenskiy’s Party Leads In Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

The party of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the most votes in Sunday’s parliamentary election giving the president a mandate to carry out sweeping changes in the country beset by conflict and high-level corruption. The former comedian and TV celebrity won a landslide victory in the April 21 presidential election and has called for snap elections to gain parliamentary support.  His party, Servant of the People, is named after his popular TV show, which satirized government corruption. Another new party, Voice, is headed by Ukraine’s most popular singer. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke rports the two may join to form a ruling coalition.

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Could Being Distracted by Your Phone Cause Weight Gain?

From mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers to all the different types of social media out there, modern day society as a whole is distracted in a way it never has before.  Scientists have noticed that as technology becomes more prevalent, people are also getting fatter.  VOA’s Elizabeth has the details on a Rice University study examining whether there is a link between technology habits and obesity.

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Education Key Campaign Issue for Younger Voters, But Not the Only One

Education has been a key issue for Democratic candidates running for president in the 2020 race, especially as they seek the support of younger Americans who have now replaced Baby Boomers as the country’s largest voting bloc. But education is not the only concern for these young voters.  Other social issues are likely to motivate them to go to the polls in 2020.  Sahar Majid has more in this report for VOA narrated by Kathleen Struck. 
 

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Old Fashioned Steam Train Still Thrills in Pennsylvania

There is an allure and excitement to the power of an old-fashioned steam train. Coal powered trains plied the rails in the United States for 175 years, starting in the 1830’s, and were an integral part of America’s westward expansion and industrial revolution. Today, visitors can experience riding on America’s oldest operating railroad, which is only seven kilometers long. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us more from Ronks, Pennsylvania.

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El Salvador’s President Bukele Not Focused on ‘Free Money’ from the US

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele hailed a new chapter in his country’s relationship with the United States, thanking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for being the first top U.S. diplomat to visit his country in ten years.

For his part, Secretary Pompeo praised Bukele’s shift towards the United States.

“El Salvador with its new leadership has made a clear choice to fight corruption, promote justice and partner with the United States, and together both of our peoples will reap those benefits.”

Pompeo also praised El Salvador for declaring it does not recognize what he termed “the corrupt Maduro regime” as the legitimate government of Venezuela.

El Salvador’s Bukele spoke in English and it was clear that he has a warm rapport with Pompeo.

“We talk about fighting the gangs together, we talk about interdicting narcotics together, we talk about reducing immigration together.  So I think this was a very, very important meeting.  I think that it’s a game-changer.”

Asked about the U.S. freezing its foreign aid for El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to compel their leaders to stem the flow of migration to the U.S. southern border, Bukele had a strong response.

“What do we want to do in El Salvador? Do we want to get more free money?  Do we want more blank checks?  No. We want to improve the conditions at home.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, listens to simultaneous translation as El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele speaks at the Presidential House in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, July 21, 2019.

Bukele said it “sounds tacky” to have the top U.S. diplomat visiting and to ask him for free money. 

Benjamin Gedan of the Wilson Center told VOA Bukele is much more pro-American than his predecessor, and is committed to a new approach to fighting violent gangs and drug traffickers with the U.S.

“The new president [of El Salvador] from the very beginning was very enthusiastic about the idea of working closely with the United States on any number of issues and in fact was skeptical about the role of China in El Salvador which was a source of tension with his predecessor.”

U.S. lawmakers from both major political parties are calling on the Trump administration to restore U.S. foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, saying it is counterproductive to punish countries fighting extreme poverty and violence, while at the same time calling on them to reduce the flow of migration.  

Before heading to San Salvador, Pompeo met with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard on an overnight stop in Mexico City.  Asked by VOA whether Mexico has done enough to meet the requirements of a 45-day U.S. deadline on imposing potential tariffs, Pompeo said there has been progress, but he would consult with President Donald Trump.

“There are fewer apprehensions taking place today along our southern border, but we’ve got a long way to go yet.  There is still much more work to do.”

In this handout photo released by the Mexican Government Press Office, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Mexican counterpart Marcelo Ebrard meet in Mexico City, Sunday morning, July 21, 2019.

Mexico has deployed forces to its southern border to stem the flow of migration from Central America. But Benjamin Gedan of the Wilson Center said he is skeptical that Mexico has the resources to sustain this for a long time.

“Rather than addressing the root causes of migration flows from northern Central America, there is this effort to harden the U.S. border, to encourage Mexico to harden its southern border and to have Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador take their own steps to really impede the flows of individuals north to the United States.”

Before going to Mexico, Pompeo made a stop Saturday in Guayaquil, Ecuador to meet with President Lenin Moreno, the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to that country in nine years.  They also stressed common goals and improved relations between the two countries.  Moreno asked for more help from the U.S. and the international community to deal with the influx of refugees to his country from neighboring Venezuela, calling it a “social apocalypse.”  Pompeo discussed the ongoing crisis in Venezuela at every stop.

Pompeo started his jam-packed Latin America trip Friday in Argentina.  He confirmed the U.S. has imposed financial sanctions against a Hezbollah militant group leader suspected of directing a deadly bombing in 1994 of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

“They were killed by members of a terrorist group, Hezbollah, and had help that day from Iran,” which provided “logistical support and funding through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Pompeo said at an event in Buenos Aires to rally support from Latin American leaders in the U.S. fight against Middle East militant groups.

Standing at a memorial at the site of the car bombing, Pompeo lit a candle with AMIA President Ariel Eichbaum and said the worst terrorist attack in Argentina is a stark reminder of the danger to the Western Hemisphere from Hezbollah and other groups based on the other side of the world.

“It was a moving reminder that our discussion today isn’t abstract; it’s not theoretical. The risk of terrorism is real for each and every one of us and each and every one of our citizens.”

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‘Stronger Than Ever’: India Set for Fresh Moon Launch Attempt

India will make a second attempt Monday to send a landmark spacecraft to the Moon after an apparent fuel leak forced last week’s launch to be aborted.

The South Asian nation is bidding to become just the fourth nation — after Russia, the United States and China — to land a spacecraft on the Moon.

The mission comes 50 years after Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon, an occasion celebrated by space enthusiasts globally on Saturday.

The fresh launch attempt for Chandrayaan-2 — Moon Chariot 2 in some Indian languages including Sanskrit and Hindi — has been scheduled for 2:43 pm (0913 GMT) on Monday, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said.

“Chandrayaan 2 is ready to take a billion dreams to the Moon – now stronger than ever before!” it said on Thursday.

The first launch attempt was scrubbed just under an hour before the scheduled lift-off because of what authorities described as a “technical snag.” Local media, citing ISRO officials, said that issue was a fuel leak.

The agency tweeted Saturday that a rehearsal for the launch was completed successfully.

Chandrayaan-2 will be launched atop a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MkIII, India’s most powerful rocket.

Experts said setbacks were to be expected in such missions given their complexity, and that it was more prudent to delay the launch instead of taking risks that may jeopardise the project.

“In such an ambitious and prestigious mission like Chandrayaan, one cannot take a chance even if a small flaw is detected,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of space policy at the New Delhi think tank the Observer Research Foundation, told AFP.

Former NASA scientist Kumar Krishen said India’s space agency should be praised for taking on ambitious projects like Chandrayaan-2.

“We should keep in mind that space exploration is risky as many systems have failed in the past and many lives lost,” he told AFP.

National pride

Aside from propelling India into rarefied company among spacefaring nations, Chandrayaan-2 also stands out because of its low cost.

About $140 million has been spent on preparations for the mission, a much smaller price tag compared with similar missions by other countries — whose costs often run into billions of dollars.

Chandrayaan-2, and India’s space program as a whole, are a source of national pride in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined an ambitious plan to launch a crewed space mission by 2022, and India hopes to seek out commercial satellite and orbiting deals.

The new mission comes almost 11 years after the launch of India’s first lunar mission — Chandrayaan-1 — which orbited the Moon and searched for water.

The rocket carrying Chandrayaan-2 will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota, an island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

The spacecraft will carry an orbiter, lander and a rover, which has been almost entirely designed and made in India.

The orbiter is planned to circle the Moon for about one year, imaging the surface and studying the atmosphere.

The lander, named Vikram, will head to the surface near the lunar South Pole carrying the rover. Once it touches down, the rover will carry out experiments while being controlled remotely by ISRO scientists.

It is expected to work for one lunar day, the equivalent of 14 Earth days, and will look for signs of water and “a fossil record of the early solar system”.

 

 

 

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Recycled Water Part of Perth’s Plan to Beat Climate Change in Australia

As drought-hit towns across New South Wales and Queensland edge closer to completely running out of water, federal and state governments in Australia are trying to come up with ways to guarantee supplies into the future. But on the other side of the continent, the city of Perth is leagues ahead in its water efficiency following a long-term decline in rainfall. Part of its survival plan relies on recycled water from toilets, a move that many consumers elsewhere still consider to be unpalatable.

Since 2017, residents in the Western Australian city of Perth have been drinking water recycled from sewage. It is filtered using a process called reverse osmosis, which is similar to forcing water through a giant sponge. It is then disinfected with ultra-violet light at a treatment plant, pumped into natural aquifers, and extracted.

Perth is a city of two million people, and Clare Lugar from Western Australia’s Water Corporation said it has had to get used to climatic changes.

“We know from the mid-70s onwards Perth’s rainfall has been declining by about 20 percent, and that has had a huge impact on our water sources that are dependent on the climate.”

Lugar said convincing residents of the benefits of drinking recycled sewage did take time.

“So, it is only a small percentage of the water that comes into the plant is actually from our toilets. But getting over that perception, that kind of image you might be drinking the water that you flushing down the toilet – that was probably one of our big challenges initially,” said Lugar.

Two desalination plants supply about half of Perth’s water. Aquifers are also crucial, but recycling produces only two percent of the total. But that figure is soon expected to rise.

Ian Wright, an expert in environmental science at Western Sydney University, believes other parts of Australia should embrace recycling.

“In Sydney that is probably 150 liters per day per person of waste water that is completely wasted, and, yes, we have the availability of desalination on the coast, but Canberra does not have desalination and then the poor drought-stricken towns like Tamworth and Dubbo, and Broken Hill, they could really, really use that now,” he said.

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent. Water is precious, and, in many places, scarce. More than 95 percent of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, is officially in drought, and the next three months are forecast to be drier than average.

 

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UK Treasury Chief Vows to Quit if Boris Johnson Becomes PM

British Treasury chief Philip Hammond said Sunday that he will quit if _ as widely expected — Boris Johnson becomes prime minister this week on a promise to leave the European Union with or without a divorce deal.
 
Hammond said Johnson’s vow to press for a no-deal Brexit if he can’t secure a new agreement with the EU is “not something that I could ever sign up to.”
 
Hammond was almost certain to be removed from office by the new leader in any case. He has angered Brexit-backers, who now dominate the governing Conservative Party, with his warnings about the economic pain that leaving the EU could cause.
 
Hammond told the BBC that if Johnson wins, “I’m not going to be sacked because I’m going to resign before we get to that point.”
 
Johnson is the strong favorite to win a two-person runoff to lead the Conservative Party and the country. The winner is being announced Tuesday, with the victor taking over from Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday.
 
Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31 but Parliament has repeatedly rejected the divorce deal struck between May and the bloc. Both Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, say they will leave the EU without an agreement if the EU won’t renegotiate.
 
Most economists say quitting the 28-nation bloc without a deal would cause Britain economic turmoil. The U.K.’s official economic watchdog has forecast that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a recession, with the pound plummeting in value, borrowing soaring by 30 billion pounds ($37 billion) and the economy shrinking 2% in a year.
 
But Johnson, who helped lead the “leave” campaign in Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum, says a no-deal Brexit will be “vanishingly inexpensive” if the country prepares properly.
 
The EU insists it won’t reopen the 585-page divorce deal it struck with May.
 
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said Sunday that the bloc is “simply not going to move away from the Withdrawal Agreement.”
 
“If the approach of the new British prime minister is that they’re going to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement, then I think we’re in trouble,” he told the BBC. “We’re all in trouble, quite frankly, because it’s a little bit like saying: ‘Either give me what I want or I’m going to burn the house down for everybody.'”
 
Hammond is the third U.K. minister within a week to quit or say they will resign in order to try to prevent a cliff-edge Brexit. Britain looks set for a fall showdown between the new Conservative government and British lawmakers determined to thwart a no-deal exit.
 
“I am confident that Parliament does have a way of preventing a no-deal exit on October 31 without parliamentary consent and I intend to work with others to ensure parliament uses its power to make sure that the new government can’t do that,” Hammond said.
 

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UN: Humanitarian Situation in Syria Continues to Deteriorate

The United Nations says conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate and humanitarian needs for millions of civilians remain acute across the war-torn country. 

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Najat Rochdi’s job is to keep tabs on the humanitarian situation in Syria. She said conditions in this country, which has been at war for more than eight year, are alarming. She is appealing to the international community to protect and support millions of vulnerable civilians who lack the bare essentials for survival.

She said an estimated 11.7 million people need humanitarian aid and five million are in acute need. She said it has been a particularly grave month for civilians caught up in intensified fighting between Government and rebel forces in Idlib in northwestern Syria.

Her spokeswoman, Jenifer Fenton, said at least 350 civilians reportedly have been killed and more than 330,000 have been displaced. She said some three million people are at particular risk. She said they are trapped in the battle zone and are at the mercy of the warring parties as there is no place where they can flee.

“Civilian infrastructure continues to be damaged and destroyed. Protection of civilians remains our foremost concern. Far too many civilians are dying. Fighting terrorism does not absolve any party of its obligations under international humanitarian law and we continue to call on parties to uphold their agreements and to stabilize the situation,” said the spokeswoman.

Fenton said the situation remains unsustainable for some 70,000 people living in the squalid, overcrowded Al Hol camp in northeastern Syria. These people fled to Al Hol after the Syrian government seized control of Deir-Ez-Zour, the radical Islamic State group’s last stronghold.

FILE – Women walk through al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, April 1, 2019.

The vast majority of the camp population is comprised of Syrian and Iraqi women and children. This population includes more than 11,000 family members of suspected IS foreign fighters from dozens of countries. These nations are reluctant to bring back their nationals fearing prosecutions of IS fighters will be difficult and will alienate their citizens.

UNICEF and other agencies are urging nations to repatriate an estimated 29,000 children of foreign IS fighters, noting they are blameless and are victims of this brutal war.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports a number of children have been repatriated to their countries of origin in past weeks. But it adds thousands of others remain in Al Hol, facing an uncertain future.

 

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World Bank: Peace Deal With Taliban to Help Improve Struggling Afghan Economy

The World Bank estimated Sunday that Afghanistan’s economy grew by less than two percent (1.8 %) in 2018 primarily due to ongoing war, drought and political uncertainty, likely leading to further increases in poverty.

In its latest assessment of the Afghan economy, the Bank noted that sustained and substantial improvement in the security situation are key to better economic conditions required to reduce poverty from high current levels.

“Any political settlement with the Taliban could bring major economic benefits through improving confidence and encouraging the return of Afghan capital and skilled workers from overseas,” the assessment noted.

The report comes as the United States has been holding negotiations with Taliban insurgents to try to bring an end to the 18-year-old Afghan war. The two adversaries are said to have come closer to signing a peace deal that could also jumpstart intra-Afghan negotiations for permanent cessation of four decades of hostilities in the country.

“Whatever happens, rapid growth will only be possible with improved security under a government that remains committed to private sector development, respects the rights of investors, and maintains the gains Afghanistan has achieved over the past two decades towards establishing strong and impartial government institutions” said  Henry Kerali, the World Bank Afghanistan country director.

FILE In this Mar. 27, 2019 photo, construction projects can be seen in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Sunday’s report, however, hailed progress in government policies and a strong economic management, saying it has improved prospects for 2019, with growth expected to accelerate to 2.5 percent with the easing of drought conditions.

“Government revenues reached a new high of nearly 190 billion afghanis in 2018, up seven percent from 2017 while budget execution rates also reached record levels,” it noted.

It urged the government to do more to improve the business environment, ensure a smooth election process and prevent corruption and management of scarce fiscal resources over the difficult months to come.

Afghan election officials are preparing to hold the repeatedly-delayed presidential vote on September 28. Presidential hopefuls alleged incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who is also seeking re-election, is using state machinery and resources to undermine his rivals.

Presidential spokespeople, however, reject the charges.

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