Welcome to Thursday, where the UK has begun a trial of mixing vaccines, Facebook is blocked in Myanmar and German singles try to find love in the local supermarket. We also hear from a Belgian bioengineer working against the tech consensus of "smart cities."
• COVID-19 latest: Germany flies in doctors, ventilators, and beds to Portugal, which is battling a recent surge in cases and shortage of medical care. In Africa, the regional CDC finds that the death rate on the continent is 0.4% higher than the global average. COVAX, the UN-backed vaccine equity project has announced that it will be distributing 337.2 million vaccine doses globally by June. The UK has launched a trial to see if mixing different COVID vaccines could improve immune responses.
• Myanmar blocks Facebook: Attempting to quell organization of further protests against its coup this week, the military government blocked Facebook and other social media networks.
• U.S. and Russia renew nuclear arms treaty: New START, the nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia set to expire this week, has been extended for five more years.
• Uyghur report: The BBC has released numerous first-hand accounts of alleged crimes against humanity targeting the Muslim minority Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region.
• Iran diplomat sentenced to prison: A Vienna-based Iranian envoy has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning to bomb a meeting of an exiled opposition group near Paris. It was the first trial of an Iranian official for suspected terrorism in the European Union since 1979.
• Ethiopia foils UAE embassy attack plot: Authorities in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, have seized weapons and explosives and arrested 15 people over a plot to attack the United Arab Emirates' embassy.
• Find love at the supermarket: A German grocery store is dedicating Friday evenings to "singles shopping" for those struggling to find love behind masks and curfews.
"There are those who say No," titles Italian daily La Sicilia as former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi attempts to form a coalition technical government. Several political parties have indicated they will not support the government despite growing consensus that the 73-year-old is the best option to lead Italy through the health and economic crisis.
Smart cities won't save the planet: we need low-tech cities
The concept of smart cities is a kind of received wisdom among planners and technologists, but our digital world of today is not sustainable, writes bioengineer Jean-Philippe Lens in Belgian daily Le Soir.
The idea behind the concept of smart cities is to think about digital technology as vital to all the challenges posed by global warming, road congestion, air quality improvement or even biodiversity loss. The result? A multitude of sensors, screens and wifi hotspots colonize cities, connecting everything that can be connected. All kinds of objects from swimming pool boilers to war memorial spotlights, road traffic flows or the level of glass shards in recycling bins, and even trees.
The founding argument by the concept's advocates is that 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. Yet such a vision is likely to have a colossal impact on the environment. While the connected city can certainly provide answers to future challenges, the low-tech city — a concept that's still largely absent in urban planning debates — can offer a range of solutions and technical innovations that are just as effective and much less energy-intensive.
For instance, rather than building an underground network of pipelines and stormwater basins equipped with sensors to monitor the level of runoff water at all times and manage its flow, the low-tech city only needs an overhead network of infiltration basins and temporary immersions basins. Not only is this solution cheaper and less energy-intensive, but it also helps to develop biodiversity and reinfiltrate rainwater into the water tables.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
Man Walks Into Barr, Steals A Letter: Bad Joke Or Lockdown Protest?
The almost aptly-named village of Barr, considered one of the wine capitals of eastern France, has been targeted by vandals who may have been making a political statement about pandemic lockdown measures. Last Saturday night, someone stole the final "R" from the main town sign, proudly standing on a roundabout near the famous Route des Vins, L'Alsace-Le Pays reports.
Barr thus became "Bar."
Mayor Nathalie Kaltenbach-Ernst launched a call on Facebook to find the missing letter. While she jokingly acknowledged that "everybody wants a piece of Barr." She also asked whether the act should be seen as "a subliminal message in favor of the reopening of bars' which have been closed for the past four months in France because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the letter is not found, the mayor lamented, the rest of the sign will just have to go, to be replaced with a new one. But the mayor said she was not planning on filing a complaint. In other words: No one should end up behind bars.
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
With 104.9 million vaccine doses administered around the world, there are now more people vaccinated against the coronavirus than infected (104.1 million cases). Israel is leading the world with 28% of its population vaccinated so far.
LGBT, there is no such thing.
— Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented on this week's pro-LGBT protests in Istanbul, while also calling the demonstrators "terrorists." The wave of protests was originally sparked last month when Erdogan appointed a loyalist as rector of the prestigious Bogazici University, but took on a pro-LGBT tone in recent days after protesters were arrested for hanging rainbow flags near the new rector's office.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.