Beyond Harvey: Deadly Floods Cause Havoc in Africa, Asia

Harvey has gathered headlines as the most powerful storm to hit Texas in half a century, but floods have killed many more people in Africa and Asia this year amid extreme weather worldwide.

Here are some of them:

South Asia

Floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have killed more than 1,200 people and affected 40 million, and are likely to intensify as monsoon rains continue, aid agencies say.

All three countries suffer frequent flooding during the June-September monsoon season, but aid agencies say things are worse this year, with thousands of villages cut off and people deprived of food and clean water for days.

Tens of thousands of houses, schools and hospitals have been destroyed as humanitarians prepare for more deaths, hunger and waterborne diseases.

“These are some of the worst floods we’ve seen in South Asia in decades, and the impact is likely only going to get worse,” Madara Hettiarachchi, Christian Aid’s humanitarian head in Asia, said in a statement. “Farms and livestock have been washed away, so food security is going to be a huge problem.”

The worst floods in a decade struck Nepal, killing 150 people and destroying 90,000 homes.

Monsoon floods submerged more than a third of low-lying, densely populated Bangladesh, causing more than 130 deaths and widespread crop damage.

The latest disaster zone is Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where overnight floods killed at least a dozen people, officials said  Thursday.

West Africa

Widespread flooding has killed at least 40 people in Niger since the rainy season began in June, leaving thousands homeless, without cattle or crops.

Aid agencies are increasingly worried about waterborne diseases like cholera as the waters are not expected to subside until rains end in September.

A mudslide in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, on August 14 killed about 500 people after heavy rains, with hundreds still missing.

Sporadic downpours continue, flooding parts of the coastal city and washing away more mud containing human remains.

Heavy rainfall also sparked a landslide at a rubbish dump in Conakry, the capital of neighboring Guinea, last week, killing 10 people, while at least 200 people are thought to have died in another slide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yemen

At least 18 people were killed in Yemen in flooding caused by heavy rains, the government-run news agency Saba reported Wednesday.

Aid organizations say the rains could exacerbate Yemen’s cholera epidemic, which has infected more than half a million people and killed nearly 2,000 since April.

Sources: Oxfam, International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reuters

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Mozambique Opposition Leader Vows to Sign Peace Deal by November

Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of Renamo, the Mozambican opposition, says he will sign a peace deal with the government by early November, in a bid to end almost three years of sporadic violence.

Renamo and the ruling Frelimo party fought on opposing sides of a civil war from 1976 to 1992 in which a million people died before a peace accord ended the fighting.

Violence has flared up again since Renamo challenged results of the southern African nation’s 2014 elections.

“It will be in October or November, no later than the beginning of November,” Dhlakama told the weekly independent newspaper Canal de Moz. His remarks were quoted by Noticas, the pro-government daily paper, on Thursday.

Dhlakama said his party was negotiating cautiously with the government to avoid a deadlock, which has seen previous talks collapse.

Issues still being discussed include the decentralization of powers, constitutional reforms to allow provincial governors to be elected, and the reintegration of Renamo’s staff into the police and army.

Renamo wants governors to be elected in 2019, seeing it as a chance to rule areas where it has popular backing.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi and Dhlakama met in early August for the first time since 2015 to discuss the next steps in the peace process, which they hoped would be completed by the end of the year.

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UN Committee: Britain ‘Going Backwards’ on Rights of Disabled

The U.N. Committee on the rights of disabled people said on Thursday it had more concerns about Britain – due to funding cuts, restricted rights and an uncertain post-Brexit future — than any other country in its 10-year history.

The committee, which reviews states’ compliance with the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, published a 17-page report with recommendations about how Britain could do better.

“The UK is at the moment going backwards in accordance to the information that we have received,” committee member Stig Langvad told a news conference in Geneva.

Britain said it was disappointed by the report. It said it did not reflect the evidence it had provided to the committee, nor did it recognize progress that had been made.

The U.N. committee’s chairwoman Theresia Degener has described the situation in Britain as a “human catastrophe.”

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognized as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” she said.

The most acute concern was the limitations on independent living.

“Persons with disabilities are in our view not able to choose where to live, with whom to live, and how to live,” Langvad said.

Britain was also not fulfilling its commitment to allow inclusive education, and there was a high incidence of bullying at schools. A growing number of disabled people were living in poverty.

Budgets for local authorities had not only been slashed, but they were no longer ear-marked for disabled people, another committee member, Damjan Tatic, said.

Langvad said people with disabilities should be involved in preparations for Britain’s Brexit talks with the European Union, to avoid losing protections that historically came from the EU.

“Persons with disabilities are afraid of the future since they do not know what is happening and since they do not feel that they are involved in the discussions on how to secure the rights of people with disabilities afterwards,” he said.

Britain’s government said it was a recognized world leader in disability rights, and almost 600,000 disabled people had moved into work in the last four years.

“We spend over 50 billion pounds a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions — more than ever before, and the second highest in the G7,” a government spokesperson said.

Debbie Abrahams, the opposition Labour party’s spokeswoman for Work and Pensions, said the “damning” report was a vindication of Labour’s criticism of the government’s policies.

“This confirms what Labour has been saying all along, that the lack of progress on all convention articles, including cruel changes to social security and the punitive sanctions regime, are causing real misery for sick and disabled people.”

A Labour government would incorporate the convention fully into British law, she said in a statement.

Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Richard Balmforth

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Huge WWII Bomb to Be Defused Close to German Gold Reserves

Frankfurt’s city center, an area including police headquarters, two hospitals, transport systems and Germany’s central bank storing $70 billion in gold reserves, will be evacuated on Sunday to allow the defusing of a 1.8-metric ton World War II bomb.

A spokesman for the German Bundesbank said, however, that “the usual security arrangements” would remain in place while experts worked to disarm the bomb, which was dropped by the British air force and was uncovered during excavation of a building site.

The Bundesbank headquarters, less than 600 meters (650 yards) from the location of the bomb, stores 1,710 metric tons of gold underground, around half the country’s reserves.

“We have never defused a bomb of this size,” bomb disposal expert Rene Bennert told Reuters, adding that it had been damaged on impact when it was dropped between 1943 and 1945. Airspace for 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile) around the bomb site will also be closed.

Frankfurt city officials said more than 60,000 residents would be evacuated for at least 12 hours. The evacuation area will also include 20 retirement homes, the city’s opera house and the diplomatic quarter.

Bomb disposal experts will use a wrench to try to unscrew the fuses attached to the bomb. If that fails, a water jet will be used to cut the fuses away, Bennert told Reuters.

The most dangerous part of the exercise will be applying the wrench, Bennert said.

Roads and transport systems, including the underground, will be closed during the work and for at least two hours after the bomb is defused, to allow patients to be transported back to hospitals without traffic.

It is not unusual for unexploded bombs from World War II air raids to be found in German cities, but rarely are they so large and in such a sensitive position.

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US Orders Russian Consulate in San Francisco to Close

U.S. officials have ordered Russia to close three diplomatic buildings in the United States, part of the ongoing quarrel between the two countries over U.S. sanctions.

The action follows Russia’s demand earlier this month that the U.S. reduce the number of personnel at its diplomatic missions in the country.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to tell him that the United States has fully implemented the decision by the Russian government to reduce the size of the U.S. mission in the country.  

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian decision “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”  

Nauert continued, “In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C. and consular annex in New York City.”

She said the closures would need to be completed by September 2.

Nauert stressed that the U.S. “has chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.” A senior administration official stressed that Tillerson and Lavrov both still want to improve U.S.-Russian relations, and described their phone call as professional.

Russia Today reported that Lavrov responded to the closures by “expressing regret” over the escalation of tensions.  He said that Moscow would study the new measures carefully and inform Washington of its reaction.

The diplomatic retaliations stem from U.S. sanctions of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Last month, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill preventing President Donald Trump from easing sanctions on Russia without congressional approval. After Trump signed the bill, Russian authorities denounced it as “trade war.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco is the oldest Russian consulate in the United States.  She said the two annexes ordered closed in Washington and New York were primarily trade missions.  She said no Russian diplomats are being expelled – the diplomats in those three building may be reassigned  to other Russian consulates in the U.S.

The senior official said the U.S. has complied with the Russian order to reduce its presence in Russia down to 455 staff members.  The official stressed that with this new U.S. order to close three buildings, the Russian would still have more consulates and annexes in the United States than the U.S. has in Russia.

The U.S. president’s response to the tensions has also sparked controversy.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the U.S. diplomats were being expelled, Trump responded by saying,  “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down the payroll.”

White House officials later told reporters the president was being sarcastic.

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US Pressure or Not, UN Nuclear Watchdog Sees No Need to Check Iran Military Sites

The United States is pushing U.N.nuclear inspectors to check military sites in Iran to verify it is not breaching its nuclear deal with world powers. But for this to happen, inspectors must believe such checks are necessary and so far they do not, officials say.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is scrutinizing compliance with the 2015 agreement, as part of a review of the pact by the administration of President Donald Trump. He has called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.”

After her talks with officials of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Haley said: “There are… numerous undeclared sites that have not been inspected. That is a problem.” Iran dismissed her demands as “merely a dream.”

The IAEA has the authority to request access to facilities in Iran, including military ones, if there are new and credible indications of banned nuclear activities there, according to officials from the agency and signatories to the deal.

But they said Washington has not provided such indications to back up its pressure on the IAEA to make such a request.

“We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal,” an IAEA official said, mentioning a military base often cited by opponents of the deal including Iran’s arch-adversary Israel and Trump’s Republican Party. The deal was hatched under his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano frequently describes his Vienna-based agency as a technical rather than a political one, underscoring the need for its work to be based on facts alone.

The accord restricts Iran’s atomic activities with a view to keeping the Islamic Republic a year’s work away from having enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, should it pull out of the accord and sprint towards making a weapon.

The deal also allows the IAEA to request access to facilities other than the nuclear installations Iran has already declared if it has concerns about banned materials or activities there. But it must present a basis for those concerns.

Those terms are widely understood by officials from the IAEA and member states to mean there must be credible information that arouses suspicion, and IAEA officials have made clear they will not take it at face value.

“We have to be able to vet this information,” a second IAEA official said, asking not to be identified because inspections are sensitive and the agency rarely discusses them publicly.

No new intelligence

Despite Haley’s public comments, she neither asked the IAEA to visit specific sites nor offered new intelligence on any site, officials who attended her meetings said. A U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed this.

“She conveyed that the IAEA will need to continue to robustly exercise its authorities to verify Iran’s declaration and monitor the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” the spokesman added, using the deal’s official name.

Under U.S. law, the State Department must notify Congress every 90 days of Iran’s compliance with the deal. The next deadline is October. Trump has said he thinks by then Washington will declare Iran to be non-compliant — a stance at odds with that of other five world powers including U.S. allies in Europe.

An IAEA report published in 2015 as part of the deal formally drew a line under whether Iran pursued nuclear weapons in the past, which is why new information is needed to trigger a request for access.

The IAEA has not visited an Iranian military facility since the agreement was implemented because it has had “no reason to ask” for access, the second agency official said.

The deal’s “Access” section lays out a process that begins with an IAEA request and, if the U.N. watchdog’s concerns are not resolved, can lead to a vote by the eight members of the deal’s decision-making body – the United States, Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union.

Five votes are needed for a majority, which could comprise the United States and its Western allies. Such a majority decision “would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns” and Iran “would implement the necessary means,” the deal’s Access section says.

That process and wording have yet to be put to the test.

But Iran has already made clear that its military sites are off limits, raising the risk of a stand-off if a request for access were put to a vote. That adds to the pressure to be clear on the grounds for an initial request.

“If they want to bring down the deal, they will,” the first IAEA official said, referring to the Trump administration. “We just don’t want to give them an excuse to.”

During its decade-long impasse with world powers over its nuclear program, Iran repeatedly refused IAEA visits to military sites, saying they had nothing to do with nuclear activity and so were beyond the IAEA’s purview.

Shortly after the 2015 deal, Iran allowed inspectors to check its Parchin military complex, where Western security services believe Tehran carried out tests relevant to nuclear bomb detonations more than a decade ago. Iran has denied this.

Iran has placed its military bases off limits also because of what it calls the risk that IAEA findings could find their way to U.S. and Israeli intelligence services.

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Britain’s May to Appeal to European Leaders as Brexit Talks Deadlock

British Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to appeal to her counterparts in the European Union to try to break an impasse in Brexit talks.

After four days of negotiations, the third round of formal exit discussions between London and Brussels, the two sides are as wide apart on the key issues as they were before, acknowledge British and EU officials.

Officials said the talks were at a “standstill” and “deadlocked.”  Each side is blaming the other for the impasse.  Europeans say the British remain unclear about what they want, while the British argue the EU negotiators’ insistence on agreeing on the terms of departure before negotiating a free trade deal is artificial and unhelpful.

Remaining stumbling blocks include a reported $89 billion “divorce bill” Brussels is demanding for the British departure to cover budget payments, and project and structural loans Britain committed to in 2013, long before last year’s Brexit referendum.  The British say the EU sums don’t add up, but EU officials dismissed a British demand for flexibility in the negotiations.

Basis for compromise?

An exasperated Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator told reporters, “To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point.  We need to know their position and then I can be flexible.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, seconded Barnier’s remarks, arguing, “If only one party around the table is putting [out] a position and the other party is not responding, then it is difficult to start a negotiation.”

Verhofstadt says it is highly unlikely the negotiation timetable will be met.  The two sides are to have made substantial progress towards a departure agreement by October or trade talks can’t begin, as far the European Union is concerned.

Analysts say the British don’t want to agree to a settlement bill until they’re convinced they can secure a preferential free trade deal shaped to their liking.  The Europeans see the divorce costs and a future trade agreement as two separate things.

But there are no signs Britain is prepared to change its negotiating strategy.  Speaking Thursday during a visit to Japan, May said, “I think a good trade deal is not just about the UK, it is about what is good for businesses in what will be the 27 remaining states of the EU as well.”

While acknowledging Britain has financial obligations on departure, she added, “I think it is in all our interest to move on to those trade talks and to get a good deal.”

Border concerns

The Brexit talks have been laced with distrust and suspicion, acknowledge officials, with British and EU negotiators ready to identify even apparently trivial oversights as ways to gain an edge in the discussions.  Former European Commission president Roman Prodi warned earlier this month the talks headed by Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis and Barnier had got off to a very bad start with “blood on the floor.”

The two sides have also made little progress on the long-term rights of more than two million European citizens and their families living in Britain and the estimated 1.3 million Britons residing in EU countries.

Nor is there any agreement yet on what will happen with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Britain’s only land frontier with the European Union.  Dublin and politicians in Northern Ireland, which along with Scotland voted against Brexit, oppose the return of a hard border between the north and south of the island.  And there are fears that anything short of an open border risks triggering a revival of violent Irish republicanism.

Ireland has threatened to veto any moves towards trade negotiations until they are satisfied about cross-border arrangements.

Internal disagreements

Some former British officials have criticized the British government’s strategy.  They say it is a reflection of the sharp rifts within Theresa May’s Cabinet, as well as the wider Conservative Party and Britain’s Parliament, over whether the country should remain a member of the EU single market and customs union after Brexit, despite having to accept rules and regulations from Brussels that London will have no influence on shaping.

The influential chancellor of the exchequer, (finance minister) Phil Hammond, backed by many of the country’s top business people, is trying to maneuver the ruling Conservatives away from a so-called “hard Brexit” and a definitive break with Europe.

Opinion polls suggest British voters are becoming skittish over Brexit, possibly in reaction to increasingly bad news about the British economy, which is now the world’s worst performing major economy.

Rising concerns about post-Brexit economic prospects and their future status in Britain is likely to prompt an exodus of up to half the Europeans residing in Britain.   A million EU citizens, many highly educated and qualified, are planning to leave the country because of Brexit, a study by KPMG, the professional services firm, has found.

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Explosions Rock Flooded Houston-Area Chemical Plant

A Houston-area chemical plant that lost power after Harvey engulfed the area in extensive floods was rocked by two explosions early Thursday, the plant’s operator said.

Arkema Inc. said in a statement on its website that the Harris County Emergency Operations Center reported two explosions and black smoke coming from the plant at about 2 a.m.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that a deputy was taken to the hospital after inhaling fumes. Nine other deputies drove themselves to the hospital as a precaution.

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office said there had been “a series of chemical reactions” at the plant and advised people to stay away from the area.

A spokeswoman for the plant in Crosby, Texas, said late Wednesday that the flooded facility had lost power and backup generators due to the flooding, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. The plant is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Houston.

“The fire will happen. It will resemble a gasoline fire. It will be explosive and intense in nature,” spokeswoman Janet Smith told The Associated Press late Wednesday.

There was “no way to prevent” the explosion, chief executive Rich Rowe said earlier Wednesday.

Arkema manufactures organic peroxides, a family of compounds used for making a variety of products including pharmaceuticals and construction materials.

“As the temperature rises, the natural state of these materials will decompose. A white smoke will result, and that will catch fire,” Smith said. “So the fire is imminent. The question is when.”

Harvey struck Southeast Texas last week, slamming into the coast as a Category 4 hurricane, then weakening to a tropical storm that dumped record amounts of rain on the state, in particular the Houston area. The storm was downgraded to a tropical depression late Wednesday.

The company shut down the Crosby site before Harvey made landfall last week, but a crew of 11 had stayed behind. That group was removed and residents living within a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) radius were told to evacuate Tuesday after the plant lost power.

Harris County Fire Marshal spokeswoman Rachel Moreno said late Wednesday that the 1.5-mile radius was developed in consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other subject-matter experts.

“The facility is surrounded by water right now so we don’t anticipate the fire going anywhere,” Moreno said.

The plant falls along a stretch near Houston that features one of the largest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants in the country.

Arkema was required to develop and submit a risk management plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because it has large amounts of sulfur dioxide, a toxic chemical, and methylpropene, a flammable gas. The plans are supposed to detail the effects of a potential release, evaluate worst-case scenarios and explain a company’s response.

In its most recently available submission from 2014, Arkema said potentially 1.1 million residents could be impacted over a distance of 23 miles (37 kilometers) in a worse case, according to information compiled by a nonprofit group and posted on a website hosted by the Houston Chronicle.

But, Arkema added, it was using “multiple layers of preventative and mitigation measures” at the plant, including steps to reduce the amount of substances released, and that made the worst case “very unlikely.”

Daryl Roberts, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, technology and regulatory services in the Americas, did not dispute that worst-case scenario but said that assumed all the controls in place failed and strong winds blew directly toward Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“We have not modeled this exact scenario but we are very comfortable with this 1.5-mile radius,” Roberts told the AP. He added that it mostly resembled less serious scenarios that would affect a half-mile radius and a few dozen people.

Roberts said the vessels containing the organic peroxide are equipped with controls to slow the release of chemicals. He said the chemicals will quickly vaporize because of the water, reducing the size and scope of the fire.

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