Saturday, February 26, 2011

(but not for long)

Dam affected people protest on Feb 8, 2011 in Brasilia. photo and blog post at International Rivers

Good news via BBC

Federal judge Ronaldo Desterro said environmental requirements to build the Belo Monte dam had not been met. He also barred the national development bank, BNDES, from funding the project. The dam is a cornerstone of President Dilma Rousseff's plans to upgrade Brazil's energy infrastructure. (continue at full article)

[UPDATE - 3 March 2011: In this on again, off again struggle it is now ON AGAIN. BBC reports, "Last week a judge blocked construction of the Belo Monte dam, saying it did not meet environmental standards. But a higher court on Thursday said there was no need for all conditions to be met in order for work to begin."]

A really excellent backgrounder on how new climate change information maybe raising deep concerns about Brazil's Amazonian hydro-electric development model follows over the jump:

via Globalpost
Belo Monte dam: Brazil's energy gamble

by Solana Pyne and Erik German

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The epic battle over whether to build the world’s third-largest dam is often billed as a fight between those who love the land and those who love development.

But a brief scientific report  released today suggests something more basic may be wrong with the project known as Belo Monte, set to be built in the eastern Amazon. It pins Brazil’s energy future on an expensive hydropower installation in a region where water may be increasingly scarce.

The paper, published in the journal Science, makes no mention of the dam. Instead, it documents how for the second time in just five years, the Amazon basin has seen a once-in-a-century drought, arguing the shift matches predictions for how climate change will affect the region .

“This new research adds to a body of evidence suggesting that severe droughts will become more frequent,” said Simon Lewis , a forest ecologist at the University of Leeds, and a lead author on the paper. “It’s worrying because it fits with projections from some of the most sophisticated [climate] models — and those results were published before these two droughts had occurred.”

And some scientists fear Belo Monte is moving forward  without taking these potentially game-changing climate trends into account. While much of the high-profile opposition  has focused on the dam’s environmental impact — “Avatar” director James Cameron famously called Belo Monte an ecological disaster — less visible critics are asking whether the investment will even deliver the energy it promises.
“There is a danger that we may be building some extremely expensive white elephants,” said Foster Brown, environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre.

Brown and other scientists say extreme weather has been hitting the Amazon more often. The last five years have seen records both for rains and droughts. Both extremes can affect energy production, Brown said. Rain surges can increase how fast sediment builds behind hydroelectric dams, he said, while droughts can cause power outages.

Creating a system that can deal with these extremes would likely increase the cost of the electricity the dam produces, and could be enough to make the project a bad investment. “What people haven’t been asking,” Brown said, “is whether these projects are actually viable from a technical perspective.”

The pressure to bring more energy online is huge. Brazil aims to lift millions out of poverty, and it desperately needs better infrastructure to feed a growing economy. Officials with the state-run energy company Eletrobras, which oversees hydroelectric development, say big hydro projects are the greenest way to achieve that on a large scale, and Belo Monte is an essential part of the push.

“In the current circumstances, there is no better project,” Eletrobras president Jose Antonio Muniz Lopes said in a recent newspaper interview .

Eletrobras declined to make anyone available to answer questions about the new climate data. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the agency said projections regarding climate change are not a part of viability studies for hydroelectric projects, though the Eletrobras does consider the impact of “extreme events.”

Critics, however, say Belo Monte’s design makes it particularly vulnerable to extremes.

The reasons date back to the government’s earliest attempts to address environmental concerns about the project. The dam was initially proposed in the 1970s under Brazil’s military dictatorship. At the time, plans called for a series of dams that would flood vast swaths of forest. Authorities shelved the idea under a hail of local and international opposition.

The plan’s final incarnation  was more modest: just one dam with a much smaller lake behind it. But some engineers say the smaller reservoir won’t be able to deliver on promises of cheap, abundant power.

“The more that huge dams with relatively small reservoirs are built in the Amazon, the more insecure the electric system will be in the face of extreme climatic events,” said engineer Pedro Bara Neto , head of infrastructure strategy for the environmental organization WWF-Brasil.

According to plans the Brazilian government has made public, the Belo Monte plant will have 11,000 megawatts of production capacity, but it will only be able to operate at that level for a few months out of the year, when the river is high.

Several scientists who have studied the project say the plant will produce about one-tenth that much energy during the dry season, even in non-drought years.

“The problem with Belo Monte is that it only becomes viable if a whole complex of dams is built,” said Celio Bermann, professor at the Institute of Electrotechnics and Energy of the University of Sao Paulo.

He and others say the government has underestimated the true scope and costs of the project. Belo Monte will need a network of upstream dams to guarantee it a consistent water supply, he said. Once the first dam is in place, it becomes much easier for authorities to dust off 1970s-era plans and begin building more of them upstream.

“These other predicted plants would effectively inundate an enormous area,” he said.

The government has stated it has no plans to build these dams, and says it has factored in seasonal differences in electricity production.

But as it stands, the one-dam plan doesn’t make financial sense, said Wilson Cabral de Sousa Jr., a professor of environmental engineering at one of Brazil’s top engineering schools, the Instituto Tecnologico de Aeronautica.

“This undertaking, from an economic perspective is unviable, unfeasible,” Cabral said, and more frequent and severe droughts would only make it less so.

According to his analysis, the costs of building the hydropower plant will likely be higher than the income  from selling the energy. And because government agencies are both financing much of the construction, and buying most of the energy produced, he says, that loss will be borne by the public.

“We proved that the organization of the project is such that public money is responsible for more than 90 percent of the cost,” Cabral said. “Society is going to pay for this, one way or another.”

Friday, February 18, 2011


Prayers in Bahrain
Women pray for protesters who were injured after riot police stormed an anti-government protest camp, 
outside the Salmaniya hospital where the casualties were sent to, in Manama February 17, 2011.  
Photo via Boingboing

Nicholas Kristof's report is heartbeaking:

Blood Runs Through the Streets of Bahrain

MANAMA, Bahrain

As a reporter, you sometimes become numbed to sadness. But it is heartbreaking to be in modern, moderate Bahrain right now and watch as a critical American ally uses tanks, troops, guns and clubs to crush a peaceful democracy movement and then lie about it.

This kind of brutal repression is normally confined to remote and backward nations, but this is Bahrain. An international banking center. The home of an important American naval base, the Fifth Fleet. A wealthy and well-educated nation with a large middle class and cosmopolitan values.

To be here and see corpses of protesters with gunshot wounds, to hear an eyewitness account of an execution of a handcuffed protester, to interview paramedics who say they were beaten for trying to treat the injured — yes, all that just breaks my heart.

So here’s what happened.

The pro-democracy movement has bubbled for decades in Bahrain, but it found new strength after the overthrow of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Then the Bahrain government attacked the protesters early this week with stunning brutality, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun pellets at small groups of peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. Two demonstrators were killed (one while walking in a funeral procession), and widespread public outrage gave a huge boost to the democracy movement.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa initially pulled the police back, but early on Thursday morning he sent in the riot police, who went in with guns blazing. Bahrain television has claimed that the protesters were armed with swords and threatening security. That’s preposterous. I was on the roundabout earlier that night and saw many thousands of people, including large numbers of women and children, even babies. Many were asleep.

I was not there at the time of the attack, but afterward, at the main hospital (one of at least three to receive casualties), I saw the effects. More than 600 people were treated with injuries, overwhelmingly men but including small numbers of women and children.

One nurse told me that she was on the roundabout, known as Pearl Square, and saw a young man of about 24, handcuffed and then beaten by a group of police. She said she then watched as they executed him at point-blank range with a gun. The nurse told me her name, but I will not use full names of some people in this column to avoid putting them at greater risk.

I met one doctor, Sadiq al-Ekri, who was lying in a hospital bed with a broken nose and injuries to his eyes and almost his entire body. He couldn’t speak to me because he was still unconscious and on oxygen, after what colleagues and his family described as a savage beating by riot police outraged that he was treating people at the roundabout.

Dr. Ekri, a distinguished plastic surgeon, had just returned from a trip to Houston. He identified himself as a physician to the riot police, according to other doctors and family members, based partly on what Dr. Ekri, 44, told them before he lost consciousness. But then, they said, the riot police handcuffed him and began beating him with sticks and kicking him while shouting insults against Shiites. Finally, they said, the police pulled down his pants and threatened to rape him, although that idea was abandoned and an ambulance eventually was allowed to rescue him.

“He went to help people,” said his father, who was at the bedside. “It’s his duty to help people. And then this happened.”

Three ambulance drivers or paramedics told me that they had been pulled out of their ambulances and beaten by the police. One, Jameel, whose head was bandaged and his arm was in a cast, told me that police had clubbed him and that a senior officer had then told him: “If I see you again, I’ll kill you.”

A fourth ambulance driver, Osama, was unhurt but said that a military officer — who he said he believed to be a Saudi, based on his accent in Arabic — held a gun to his head and warned him to drive away or be shot. (By many accounts, Saudi tanks and other military forces participated in the attack, but I can’t verify that).

The hospital staff told me that ambulance service has now been frozen, with no ambulances going out on calls except with approval of the Interior Ministry.

Some of the victims, though not all, said that the riot police shouted anti-Shiite curses when they attacked the protesters, who were overwhelmingly Shiite. Sectarianism is particularly delicate in Bahrain because the Sunni royal family, the Khalifas, presides over a country that is predominately Shiite, and Shiites often complain of discrimination by the government.

Hospital corridors were also full of frantic mothers searching desperately for children who had gone missing in the attack.

In the hospital mortuary, I found three corpses with gunshot wounds. One man had much of his head blown off with what mortuary staff said was a gunshot wound. Ahmed Abutaki, a 29-year-old laborer, stood by the body of his 22-year-old brother, Mahmood, who died of a shotgun blast.

Ahmed said he blamed King Hamad, and many other protesters at the hospital were also demanding the ouster of the king. I think he has a point. When a king opens fire on his people, he no longer deserves to be ruler. That might be the only way to purge this land of ineffable heartbreak.

And now the good news...

February 19, 2011, 11:21 am
Delirious Joy in Bahrain

BAHRAIN — There’s delirious joy in the center of Bahrain right now. People power has prevailed, at least temporarily, over a regime that repeatedly used deadly force to try to crush a democracy movement. Pro-democracy protesters have retaken the Pearl Roundabout – the local version of Tahrir Square – from the government. On a spot where blood was shed several days ago there are now vast throngs kissing the earth, chanting slogans, cheering, honking and celebrating. People handed me flowers and the most common quotation I heard was: “It’s unbelievable!”

When protesters announced that they were going to try to march on the Pearl Roundabout this afternoon, I had a terrible feeling. King Hamad of Bahrain has repeatedly shown he is willing to use brutal force to crush protesters, including live fire just yesterday on unarmed, peaceful protesters who were given no warning. I worried the same thing would happen today. I felt sick as I saw the first group cross into the circle.

But, perhaps on orders of the crown prince, the army troops had been withdrawn, and the police were more restrained today. Police fired many rounds of tear gas on the south side of the roundabout to keep protesters away, but that didn’t work and the police eventually fled. People began pouring into the roundabout from every direction, some even bringing their children and celebrating with an almost indescribable joy. It’s amazing to see a site of such tragedy a few days ago become a center of jubilation right now. It’s like a huge party. I asked one businessman, Yasser, how he was feeling, and he stretched out his arms and screamed: “GREAT!!!!”

Many here tell me that this is a turning point, and that democracy will now come to Bahrain – in the form of a constitutional monarchy in which the king reigns but does not rule – and eventually to the rest of the Gulf and Arab world as well. But some people are still very, very wary and fear that the government will again send in troops to reclaim the roundabout. I just don’t know what will happen, and it’s certainly not over yet. But it does feel as if this just might be a milestone on the road to Arab democracy.

For King Hamad, who has presided over torture, gerrymandering and lately the violent repression of his own people, I don’t know what will happen. Like Hosni Mubarak, he could have worked out a deal for democracy if he had initiated it, but he then lost his credibility when he decided to kill his own citizens. Some people on the roundabout were chanting “Down with the Regime,” and they have different views about what precisely that means. Some would allow the king to remain in a largely figurehead role, while others want King Hamad out.

A democratic Bahrain will also put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia has been notoriously repressive toward the Shiite population in its eastern region, and the racist contempt among some Sunnis in the Gulf toward Shiites is breathtaking. If Shiites come to rule the banking capital of the region (as well, now, as Iraq), that will help change the dynamic.

We don’t know what exactly President Obama said to the king in his call last night, but we do know that the White House was talking about suspending military licensing to Bahrain. This may have been a case where American pressure helped avert a tragedy and aligned us with people power in a way that in the long run will be good for Bahrain and America alike.

Americans will worry about what comes next, if people power does prevail, partly because Gulf rulers have been whispering warnings about Iranian-influence and Islamists taking over. Look, democracy is messy. But there’s no hint of anti-Americanism out there, and people treated American journalists as heroes because we reflect values of a free press that they aspire to achieve for their country. And at the end of the day, we need to stand with democracy rather than autocracy if we want to be on the right side of history.

Finally, I just have to say: These Bahraini democracy activists are unbelievably courageous. I’ve been taken aback by their determination and bravery. They faced down tanks and soldiers, withstood beatings and bullets, and if they achieve democracy – boy, they deserve it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

          VIVA EGYPT VIVA! 


This historic day as blogged by:


The Guardian UK

The NY Times

and some images from the web...






Monday, February 07, 2011


Egypt: The viral vlog that helped spark an uprising. 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz of Egypt recorded this video on January 18th, uploaded it to YouTube, and shared it on her Facebook. Within days, the video went viral within Egypt and beyond.

[update 08 Feb: Tom Friedman offers a moving description of the shout for freedom in Tahrir Square.]

Boing Boing's Xeni Jardan gives more background:

The video is popularly credited with helping inspire fellow Egyptians by the thousands to participate in protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, calling for an end of the 30-year authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak. The video is also credited with helping to inspire the Egyptian government to block Facebook. Whether it's accurate to credit this one video, and this one young woman, with all of that, I'll leave to activists in Egypt who know the history better than I. But at the very least, her powerful video captures the spirit of an important moment in history.

There are more details and links at the original post.