Day: March 21, 2024

Oxfam Accuses Rich Corporations of ‘Grabbing’ Water From Global South

LONDON — As the United Nations observes World Water Day on Friday, there is a growing risk of conflict over water resources as climate change takes hold, the international body said.

Meanwhile, nongovernmental aid agency Oxfam accused global corporations of “grabbing” water from poorer countries to boost profits.

Declaring this year’s theme Water for Peace, the U.N. warned that “when water is scarce or polluted, or when people have unequal or no access, tensions can rise between communities and countries.”

“More than 3 billion people worldwide depend on water that crosses national borders. Yet only 24 countries have cooperation agreements for all their shared water,” the U.N. said. “As climate change impacts increase and populations grow, there is an urgent need within and between countries to unite around protecting and conserving our most precious resource.”

In South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, the taps have been running dry for several weeks, affecting millions of people.

On the outskirts of the city in Soweto, thousands of people have been lining up to collect water in bottles and buckets from tankers that bring in water from outside the city.

“It has been a serious challenge, a very challenging time for my age that I have to be here carrying these 20-liter buckets,” Thabisile Mchunu, an older Soweto resident, told The Associated Press on Monday. “And the sad thing is that we don’t know when our taps are going to be wet again.”

Crumbling infrastructure is partly to blame for the water shortages in Johannesburg. But scientists say worsening climate change is causing reservoirs to dry up in South Africa and many other parts of the world.

The United Nations estimates that 2.2 billion people live without safely managed drinking water.

Scientists from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say roughly half of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year, with poorer nations in the Global South the worst affected.


Water “grabbing”

In a report published Thursday, Oxfam accused major global corporations of “grabbing” vital water resources.

“The private sector is grabbing and polluting this resource at the expense of local populations in order to make profits, further increasing inequalities. Droughts exacerbated by climate change affect agriculture and therefore the economies of the countries that depend on it, contributing to increased poverty, food insecurity and health problems for the inhabitants, particularly in the Global South,” the report said.

Oxfam accuses richer countries and multinational corporations of shifting water shortages to poorer regions by importing water-intensive products such as fruit, vegetables, meat, flowers and bottled water from overseas.

The report says agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals, including through irrigation systems, to support the meat industry and biofuels.

“It is part of a neocolonial logic aimed at satisfying the consumption needs of the countries of the North at the expense of the countries of the South,” Oxfam said.

Its analysis suggests the private sector is failing to reduce its impact on water resources.

Of the “350 corporations that have been analyzed through the database — which account for half of the world’s agricultural revenue — only one in four of them are declaring they are reducing water use and pollution,” Quentin Ghesquiere, an agriculture and food safety adviser at Oxfam France, told VOA.

Government regulation

Oxfam also noted that large corporations are permitted to withdraw water, even when local populations face restrictions. It highlighted the activities of the French-owned multinational food products company Danone.

“Danone, in May 2023, continued to extract water from aquifers [in France] despite the restrictions that applied to local populations, in full legality. In the same year, the company made profits of almost 900 million euros and paid out 1.2 billion euros in dividends to its shareholders,” the Oxfam report said.

In a statement to VOA, Danone said that managing water sustainably is a priority, adding that “we have accelerated our innovations and investments to reduce, on a voluntary basis, water withdrawals from our bottling site.”

“Since 2017, we have invested 30 million euros to modernize our production lines, which allowed us to reduce our withdrawals by 17% over the period 2017-2023, maintaining volumes sold,” the Danone statement said.

The Oxfam report recommends stronger regulation and calls for “ambitious funding for adaptation in developing countries and universal access to water.”


At UN, Nations Cooperate Toward Safe, Trustworthy AI Systems

United Nations — The U.N. General Assembly adopted by consensus Thursday a first-of-its-kind resolution addressing the potential of artificial intelligence to accelerate progress toward sustainable development, while emphasizing the need for safe, secure and trustworthy AI systems.

The initiative, led by the United States, seeks to manage AI’s risks while utilizing its benefits.

“Today as the U.N. and AI finally intersect, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to choose as one united global community to govern this technology rather than to let it govern us,” said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “So let us reaffirm that AI will be created and deployed through the lens of humanity and dignity, safety and security, human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The Biden administration said it took more than three months to negotiate what it characterized as a “baseline set of principles” around AI, engaging with 120 countries and incorporating feedback from many of them, including China, which was one of the 123 co-sponsors of the text.

While General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, they reflect the political consensus of the international community.

The resolution recognizes the disparities in technological development between developed and developing countries and stresses the need to bridge the digital divide so everyone can equitably access the benefits of AI.

It also outlines measures for responsible AI governance, including the development of regulatory frameworks, capacity building initiatives and support for research and innovation. The resolution encourages international collaboration to address the evolving challenges and opportunities AI technologies pose, with a focus on advancing sustainable development goals.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris welcomed adoption of the resolution, saying all nations must be guided by a common set of understandings on the use of AI systems.

“Too often, in past technological revolutions, the benefits have not been shared equitably, and the harms have been felt by a disproportionate few,” she said in a statement. “This resolution establishes a path forward on AI where every country can both seize the promise and manage the risks of AI.”

At the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, in January, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern about the risk of unintended consequences with “every new iteration of generative AI.” He said it has “enormous potential” for sustainable development but also the potential to worsen inequality.

“And some powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a clear disregard for human rights, personal privacy and social impact,” he said at the time.

The U.N. chief created an AI advisory body last year, and it will publish its final report ahead of the U.N.’s Summit of the Future in September.


Arcade Game-Style Gripper May One Day Claw Orbiting Space Junk

A high-tech solution for tackling space clutter, photography tips for the upcoming solar eclipse, and we remember a spaceflight pioneer. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.


Nations Pledge to Boost Nuclear Power to Fight Climate Change

Paris — Representatives of 30 nations meeting in Brussels vowed to beef up nuclear energy Thursday as one solution to meet climate-fighting targets and guarantee reliable energy supplies. But the issue of nuclear power is divisive, and critics say it shouldn’t be part of the world’s approach to energy challenges.

The summit was the first of its kind, drawing leaders and delegates from the United States, Brazil, China and France, among others. The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, co-hosted the meeting and is promoting nuclear energy as a key way to reduce skyrocketing climate emissions.

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said, “The heads of government, presidents, they believe that in the current context energywise, securitywise, nuclear has a very important contribution to make.”

Over 400 nuclear plants operate in about 30 countries, with another 500 planned or under construction. But overall, nuclear represents 10% of global electricity generation. In a statement, countries attending the meeting committed to increasing nuclear power’s potential, including by building new plants.

White House climate advisor John Podesta said, “I think what this summit will do, will put a marker down … that expansion of nuclear power is critical for tackling the climate crisis that is really beginning to disturb everyone across the globe.”

European Union countries such as France, which gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, believe it can help meet ambitious European climate goals.

But the EU itself is divided. Some member states, including Germany, Austria and Spain, have safety and environmental concerns about nuclear energy, including the waste it generates.

So do groups such as Greenpeace, whose activists protested the Brussels summit.

Lorelei Limousin, the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace EU in Brussels, said, “Nuclear power is too slow to tackle the climate emergency. Nuclear energy is also very expensive, and much more expensive than renewables today. Finally nuclear power remains dangerous today — with risks to health, environment, safety.”

Supporters say those risks can be managed — and they say that for now, increasing nuclear’s share of the power mix is essential if the world is to turn around a dangerous climate trajectory.


Reddit, the Self-Anointed ‘Front Page of the Internet,’ Jumps 55% in Wall Street Debut

NEW YORK — Reddit soared in its Wall Street debut as investors pushed the valued of the company close to $9 billion seconds after it began trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Reddit, which priced its IPO at $34 a share, debuted Thursday afternoon at $47 a share. The going price has climbed even higher since, with shares for the self-anointed “front page of the internet” soaring more than 55% as of around 1:20 p.m. ET.

The IPO will test the quirky company’s ability to overcome a nearly 20-year history colored by uninterrupted losses, management turmoil and occasional user backlashes to build a sustainable business.

“The supply is pretty limited and there’s strong demand, so my sense is that this is going to be a hot IPO,” Reena Aggarwal, director of Georgetown University’s Psaros Center for Financial Markets and Policy, said ahead of Reddit’s trading Thursday. “The good news for Reddit is it’s a hot market.”

Still, she also anticipates Reddit’s IPO to be volatile. Even with a sizeable “pop,” it’s possible that some might sell their shares to reap their gains soon after, potentially causing prices to drift.

The interest surrounding Reddit stems largely from a large audience that religiously visits the service to discuss a potpourri of subjects that range from silly memes to existential worries, as well as get recommendations from like-minded people.

About 76 million users checked into one of Reddit’s roughly 100,000 communities in December, according to the regulatory disclosures required before the San Francisco company goes public. Reddit set aside up to 1.76 million of 15.3 million shares being offered in the IPO for users of its service.

Per the usual IPO custom, the remaining shares are expected to be bought primarily by mutual funds and other institutional investors betting Reddit is ready for prime time in finance.

Reddit’s moneymaking potential also has attracted some prominent supporters, including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who accumulated a stake as an early investor that has made him one of the company’s biggest shareholders. Altman owns 12.2 million shares of Reddit stock, according to the company’s IPO disclosures.

Other early investors in Reddit have included PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Academy Award-winning actor Jared Leto and rapper Snoop Dogg. None of them are listed among Reddit’s largest shareholders heading into the IPO.

By the tech industry’s standards, Reddit remains extraordinarily small for a company that has been around as long as it has.

Reddit has never profited from its broad reach while piling up cumulative losses of $717 million. That number has swollen from cumulative losses of $467 million in December 2021 when the company first filed papers to go public before aborting that attempt.

In the recent documents filed for its revived IPO, Reddit attributed the losses to a fairly recent focus on finding new ways to boost revenue.

Not long after it was born, Reddit was sold to magazine publisher Conde Nast for $10 million in deal that meant the company didn’t need to run as a standalone business. Even after Conde Nast parent Advance Magazine Publishers spun off Reddit in 2011, the company said in its IPO filing that it didn’t begin to focus on generating revenue until 2018.

Those efforts, mostly centered around selling ads, have helped the social platform increase its annual revenue from $229 million in 2020 to $804 million last year. But the San Francisco-based company also posted combined losses of $436 million from 2020 through 2023.

Reddit outlined a strategy in its filing calling for even more ad sales on a service that it believes companies will be a powerful marketing magnet because so many people search for product recommendations there.

The company also is hoping to bring in more money by licensing access to its content in deals similar to the $60 million that Google recently struck to help train its artificial intelligence models. That ambition, though, faced an almost immediate challenge when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission opened an inquiry into the arrangement.

Since Thursday just marks Reddit’s first day on the public market, Aggarwal stresses that the first key measure of success will boil down to the company’s next earnings call.

“As a public company now they have to report a lot more … in the next earnings release,” she said. “I’m sure the market will watch that carefully.”

Reddit also experienced tumultuous bouts of instability in leadership that may scare off prospective investors. Company co-founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian — also the husband of tennis superstar Serena Williams — both left Reddit in 2009 while Conde Nast was still in control, only to return years later.

Huffman, 40, is now CEO, but how he got the job serves as a reminder of how messy things can get at Reddit. The change in command occurred in 2015 after Ellen Pao resigned as CEO amid a nasty user backlash to the banning of several communities and the firing of Reddit’s talent director. Even though Ohanian said he was primarily responsible for the firing and the bans, Pao was hit with most of the vitriol.

Although his founder’s letter leading up to this IPO didn’t mention it, Huffman touched upon the company’s past turmoil in another missive included in a December 2021 filing attempt that was subsequently canceled.

“We lived these challenges publicly and have the scars, learnings, and policy updates to prove it,” Huffman wrote in 2021. “Our history influences our future. There will undoubtedly be more challenges to come.”


US Takes On Apple in Antitrust Lawsuit

Washington — The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday sued Apple, the first major antitrust effort against the iPhone maker by the Biden administration, alleging it monopolized smartphone markets.  

Apple joins a list of major tech companies sued by U.S. regulators, including Alphabet’s  Google, Meta Platforms and across the administrations of both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.

“Consumers should not have to pay higher prices because companies violate the antitrust laws,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “If left unchallenged, Apple will only continue to strengthen its smartphone monopoly.”

The Justice Department alleges that Apple uses its market power to get more money from consumers, developers, content creators, artists, publishers, small businesses and merchants.

The civil lawsuit accuses Apple of an illegal monopoly on smartphones maintained by imposing contractual restrictions on, and withholding critical access from, developers.

Apple has already been subject to antitrust probes and orders in Europe, Japan and Korea, as well as lawsuits from corporate rivals such as Epic Games.  

One of Apple’s most lucrative businesses – its App Store, which charges developers commissions of up to 30% – has already survived a lengthy legal challenge under U.S. law by Epic. While the lawsuit found that Apple did not violate antitrust laws, a federal judge ordered Apple to allow links and buttons to pay for apps without using Apple’s in-app payment commission.

In Europe, Apple’s App Store business model has been dismantled by a new law called the Digital Markets Act that went into effect earlier this month. Apple plans to let developers offer their own app stores – and, importantly, pay no commissions – but rivals such as Spotify and Epic argue Apple is still making it too hard to offer alternative app stores.

The rulings on Apple’s App Store forced the Justice Department to look at Apple’s other practices for the basis of a complaint, such as how Apple allows outside firms to access the chips and sensors in the iPhone.

Consumer hardware firms, such as smart-tracker maker Tile Inc, have long complained that Apple has restricted the ways in which they can work with the iPhone’s sensors while developing competing products that have greater access.  

Apple began selling AirTags – which can be attached to items like car keys to help users find them when they are lost – several years after Tile had been selling a similar product.

Similarly, Apple has restricted access to a chip in the iPhone that allows for contactless payments. Credit cards can only be added to the iPhone by using Apple’s own Apple Pay service.  

And Apple has also faced criticism over its iMessage service, which only works on Apple devices.

Apple has long argued that it restricts access to some user data and some of the iPhone’s hardware by third-party developers for privacy and security reasons.


Wildlife Conservation, Traditional Medicine Collide in Eswatini

Manzini, Eswatini — Traditional medicine, or “muti,” is an important part of Eswatini’s culture. However, an increasing demand for muti has placed some of the southern African kingdom’s animal species at risk of extinction. That’s something conservationists and molecular biologists want to change.

Molecular biologist Zamekile Bhembe, who works for the USAID-funded EWild Laboratory at the University of Eswatini, is fighting poachers and trying to get them convicted for their crimes.

She said poaching for traditional medicinal purposes is a leading cause of biodiversity decline, and she wants stronger regulations to protect wildlife.

“Every time you see biodiversity declines, there will be some sort of poaching involved,” she said. “As a country, we cannot deny that we are using these resources as our traditional medicine. It’s just that we need a way of regulating.”

For generations, the people of Eswatini have held traditional beliefs and values close to their hearts. This is reflected in the fact that more than 80% of the population still consults traditional healers, or “witchdoctors,” for advice and healing.

These healers use a wide range of plant and animal species to create traditional medicine, drawing on knowledge passed down through generations. However, excessive hunting has endangered the local populations of pangolins, crocodiles, vultures and owls, leading to calls for more sustainable practices.

Makhanya Makhanya, president of the Witchdoctors Association, is a widely renowned traditional healing practitioner in his own right. He said the role of traditional healers needs to be protected.

Such healers, he said, have served Eswatini for generations, providing healing and support to those in need. But he said current laws do not reflect the reality of their work. He wants to see regulations that recognize the traditional healers’ role in society and allow them to continue their work.

Patrick Maduna, a South African citizen, said he travels from neighboring South Africa to Eswatini to seek traditional medicinal solutions. His preference for traditional healing shows the complex relationship between modern and traditional medicine in Eswatini.

“I came all the way from South Africa to Swaziland for traditional attention,” he said. “I have been using the same traditional doctor since 2006, I have been coming to the same place. For me to come and get traditional attention, for me, it’s like therapy. I have never, ever gone to the hospital.”

Maduna said if there were laws in Eswatini to limit the poaching of animals for traditional medicine, he believes the so-called witchdoctors would comply with the rules.


South Korea Will Take Final Steps to Suspend Striking Doctors’ Licenses

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s government will take final steps to suspend the licenses of striking junior doctors next week as they refuse to end their weekslong walkouts that have burdened the country’s medical services, officials said Thursday.

More than 90% of the country’s 13,000 medical interns and residents have been on strike for about a month to protest the government’s plan to sharply increase medical school admissions. Their strikes have caused hundreds of canceled surgeries and other treatments at hospitals.

Officials say it is urgent to have more doctors because South Korea has a rapidly aging population, and its doctor-to-population ratio is one of the lowest in the developed world. But doctors say schools can’t handle an abrupt, steep increase in students, and that it would ultimately undermine the country’s medical services.

The government has been taking a series of administrative steps required to suspend their licenses after they missed a government-set, February 29 deadline to return to work.

The steps include sending officials to formally confirm the absences of strikers, informing them of possible license suspensions and giving them chances to respond.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told a briefing Thursday that the government is expected to complete those steps for some of the striking doctors next week and will send them notices about its final decision to suspend their licenses.

Park earlier said that under South Korea’s medical law, the striking doctors could face at a minimum three-month suspensions and even indictments by prosecutors for refusing the government’s back-to-work order.

He urged the striking doctors to return to work immediately, suggesting those who end their strikes could receive softer punishments.

“They should return as soon as possible not only for patients but also for their future careers. This kind of exhaustive walkout from hospitals must not continue any longer,” Park said. “As we’ve said many times, we won’t treat those who return swiftly as equally as those who return late.”

It’s unclear whether and how many striking doctors would return to their hospitals at the last minute. According to Park, none of the strikers who were informed of their possible license suspension has responded.

Senior doctors at major university hospitals recently decided to submit resignations next week in support of the junior doctors. Still, most of them will likely continue to report to work. If they walk off the job, that would hurt South Korea’s medical services severely.

Two senior doctors, who lead an emergency doctors’ committee for the walkouts, were recently given government notices that their licenses would be suspended for three months for allegedly inciting the junior doctors’ walkouts.

The striking junior doctors account for less than 10% of South Korea’s 140,000 doctors. But in some major hospitals, they represent about 30%-40% of the doctors, assisting senior doctors during surgeries and dealing with inpatients while training.

The government aims to increase the country’s medical school enrollment cap by 2,000 starting next year, from the current cap of 3,058 that has been unchanged since 2006.

Wednesday, the government announced detailed plans on how to allocate those additional 2,000 admission seats to universities, a sign that it won’t back down its plan.

Officials say more doctors are required to address a long-standing shortage of physicians in rural areas and in essential but low-paying specialties. But doctors say newly recruited students would also try to work in the capital region and in high-paying fields like plastic surgery and dermatology. They say the government plan would also result in doctors performing unnecessary treatments due to increased competition.

Surveys show that a majority of South Koreans support the government’s push to create more doctors, with critics suspecting that doctors, one of the highest-paid professions in South Korea, worry about lower incomes due to the supply of more doctors.


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