Pakistani Village Seen as Model of Climate Resilience

The village of Pono in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province is so small it’s difficult to find on Google maps, but it’s still getting international attention. That’s because the village is designed to show how communities that are most vulnerable to climate change can become climate resilient and self-sustaining using old techniques. VOA’s Pakistan Bureau Chief Sarah Zaman visited Pono and brings this report.

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UN Food Chief: Billions Needed to Avert Unrest, Starvation

Without billions of dollars more to feed millions of hungry people, the world will see mass migration, destabilized countries, and starving children and adults in the next 12-18 months, the head of the Nobel prize-winning U.N. World Food Program warned Friday.

David Beasley praised increased funding from the United States and Germany last year, and urged China, Gulf nations, billionaires and other countries “to step up big time.”

In an interview before he hands the reins of the world’s largest humanitarian organization to U.S. ambassador Cindy McCain next week, the former South Carolina governor said he’s “extremely worried” that WFP won’t raise about $23 billion it needs this year to help an estimated 350 million people in 49 countries who desperately need food.

“Right at this stage, I’ll be surprised if we get 40% of it, quite frankly,” he said.

WFP was in a similar crisis last year, he said, but fortunately he was able to convince the United States to increase its funding from about $3.5 billion to $7.4 billion and Germany to raise its contribution from $350 million a few years ago to $1.7 billion, but he doesn’t think they’ll do it again this year.

Other countries need to step up now, he said, starting with China, the world’s second-largest economy which gave WFP just $11 million last year.

Beasley applauded China for its success in substantially reducing hunger and poverty at home, but said it gave less than one cent per person last year compared to the United States, the world’s leading economy, which gave about $22 per person.

China needs “to engage in the multilateral world” and be willing to provide help that is critical, he said. “They have a moral obligation to do so.”

Beasley said they’ve done “an incredible job of feeding their people,” and “now we need their help in other parts of the world” on how they did it, particularly in poorer countries including in Africa.

With high oil prices Gulf countries can also do more, especially Muslim nations that have relations with countries in east Africa, the Sahara and elsewhere in the Middle East, he said, expressing hope they will increase contributions.

Beasley said the wealthiest billionaires made unprecedented profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and “it’s not too much to ask some of the multibillionaires to step up and help us in the short-term crisis,” even though charity isn’t a long-term solution to the food crisis.

In the long-term, he said what he’d really like to see is billionaires using their experience and success to engage “in the world’s greatest need – and that is food on the planet to feed 8 billion people.”

“The world has to understand that the next 12 to 18 months is critical, and if we back off the funding, you will have mass migration, and you will have destabilization nations and that will all be on top of starvation among children and people around the world,” he warned.

Beasley said WFP was just forced to cut rations by 50% to 4 million people in Afghanistan, and “these are people who are knocking on famine’s door now.”

“We don’t have enough money just to reach the most vulnerable people now,” he said. “So we are in a crisis over the cliff stage right now, where we literally could have hell on earth if we’re not very careful.”

Beasley said he’s been telling leaders in the West and Europe that while they’re focusing everything on Ukraine and Russia, “you better well not forget about what’s south and southeast of you because I can assure you it is coming your way if you don’t pay attention and get on top of it.”

With $400 trillion worth of wealth on the planet, he said, there’s no reason for any child to die of starvation.

The WFP executive director said leaders have to prioritize the humanitarian needs that are going to have the greatest impact on stability in societies around the world.

He singled out several priority places — Africa’s Sahel region as well as the east including Somalia, northern Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia; Syria which is having an impact on Jordan and Lebanon; and Central and South America where the number of people migrating to the United States is now five times what it was a year-and-a-half ago.

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Death Scene in Burned Ferry Moves Filipino Rescuers to Tears

A Philippine coast guard commander said Friday that the tragic scenes of death his team saw aboard a gutted ferry, including bodies of adults clutching children, had moved them to tears and sparked fears other passengers could be found dead in the still-smoldering ship. 

At least 29 of more than 250 people onboard the M/V Lady Mary Joy 3 were killed in the blaze that raged through the ferry Wednesday while it was on an overnight trip from the southern Zamboanga city to Jolo town in Sulu province. At least seven passengers, including two army soldiers, remained missing in the country’s deadliest sea disaster this year, the coast guard said. 

Basilan Governor Jim Hataman initially reported 31 deaths Thursday but later reduced the toll to 29 after search and rescue groups cross-checked their figures. 

All 35 crew members survived, including the captain, who issued an abandon-ship order when the fire hit close to midnight and then ran the ferry aground on an island off Basilan province to give remaining passengers a better chance to survive, coast guard officials said. 

Many passengers jumped into the sea in panic without life jackets and were saved by rescuers but at least 11 drowned. When a team of coast guard personnel, including Bureau of Fire officers, boarded the burned ferry on Baluk-baluk island’s coast, they discovered the bodies of 18 passengers scattered on the uppermost open-air economy deck and another floor below, coast guard Commander Chadley Salahuddin said. 

The passengers, including an adult clutching a child by the railing, could have easily jumped into the sea and survived like many others but failed to do so for unclear reasons. Two passengers, apparently siblings who were among the missing, were found holding each other in a bathroom, he said. 

“When I first saw that scene, I was moved to tears with some of my men,” Salahuddin told The Associated Press by telephone. “It was a short journey. Why did so many have to die?” 

“What if my mother or my other loved ones were the ones who were trapped here? They were just a step away from the open sides but why did they not jump off like the others?” Salahuddin asked. 

The passengers, some of whom were burned beyond recognition, could have been overcome by smoke and passed out or could have been immobilized by injuries. Some survivors said they heard a series of firecracker-like blasts during the fire, but Salahuddin said all those details could only be confirmed by investigators. 

He feared more bodies could be found in the lower enclosed decks, which remained dangerously hot and could not be inspected Thursday by his team. 

His team found a partly burned rifle, which may have been left by a police officer who was among the passengers who survived, Salahuddin said, adding that there was no sign of a bomb explosion at least in the upper decks that they managed to inspect. 

The steel-hulled ferry could accommodate up to 430 people and was not overcrowded, said another coast guard official, Commodore Rejard Marfe. 

According to the manifest, it was carrying 205 passengers and a 35-member crew, Marfe said. In addition, it had a security contingent of four coast guard marshals, who all survived. Eight soldiers were traveling to Sulu. 

Threats posed by Muslim insurgents, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, remain a security issue in the southern Philippines, where cargo and passenger ships are provided extra security by the coast guard and other law enforcement agencies in vulnerable regions. 

Marfe said officials are investigating whether the 33-year-old ferry was seaworthy, if there were passengers not listed on the manifest, and whether the crew properly guided passengers to safety. 

Sea accidents are common in the Philippines because of frequent storms, badly maintained vessels, overcrowding and spotty enforcement of safety regulations, especially in remote provinces. 

In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster. 

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Stampede for Food Aid Kills 11 in Pakistan  

Authorities in Pakistan said Friday that a stampede at a free-food distribution center in the southern port city of Karachi had killed at least 11 people and injured five others.

Local police and rescue workers in the impoverished country’s largest city said the victims were mainly women and children.

The stampede occurred outside a Karachi factory where a distribution center for employees had been set up in connection with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Hundreds of people in the crowd, made up mostly of women, panicked and started pushing each other to collect food, with some falling into a nearby drain, witnesses and police said.

Friday’s incident brought the death toll from stampedes at private- and government-funded food aid centers to at least 22 in recent days as Pakistanis struggle with soaring costs of basic staples and food items.

The South Asian nation of about 232 million people is suffering through one of its worse economic crises in decades.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government rolled out a free-flour distribution project at the start of Ramadan to help millions of low-income families offset the impact of record-breaking inflation. Official estimates suggest inflation is running above 40%, a five-decade high, with the price of flour skyrocketing more than 45% in the past year.

The government initiative has resulted in thousands of people crowding distribution centers. Families say a lack of proper arrangements to accommodate large crowds in some districts has triggered deadly stampedes over fears of not being able to get the free flour.

Authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces collectively reported 11 deaths as of Thursday. Thousands of bags of flour have also been looted from trucks and distribution points, according to officials.

The deadly rush underscored the desperation in the face of soaring costs, exacerbated by the falling rupee exchange rate and the removal of fuel subsidies. Government cuts were required for the International Monetary Fund to unlock the latest tranche of its financial support package.

Critics have slammed the government for launching the project without putting in place proper arrangements to ensure the safety of people.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan blamed what it said was the mismanagement of the flour distribution center for the deadly stampedes.

In a statement Friday, the watchdog described the Karachi incident as particularly alarming and demanded the government immediately improve the distribution system across the country.

“This situation is adding insult to injury for marginalized people of Pakistan who are braving the economic injustice perpetrated by the elites who dominate the state,” the HRCP said.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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Activists Criticize Journalist’s Arrest on Terror Charges in India-Administered Kashmir

Activists this week described the March 20 arrest of Kashmiri freelance journalist Irfan Mehraj for association with a Kashmir-based human rights group as another in a series of instances of Indian government punishment of journalists and activists who expose rights abuses in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Mehraj was arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency for his connection with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, or JKCCS, for which he provided research support. The organization, a federation of rights organizations and individuals in Indian-administered Kashmir, is being investigated as part of what is known as the “NGO terror funding case” — security agencies allege that several organizations have funded Kashmiri terrorist groups.

The group’s leader, Kashmiri rights activist Khurram Parvez, had been detained on terrorism-related charges since November 2021. He was formally arrested in the terror funding case March 22.

Mehraj worked for such Indian news portals as Article 14 and The Caravan magazine. He also contributed to international media outlets, including Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera, apart from his work for the JKCCS.

“Investigation revealed that the JKCCS was funding terror activities in [Kashmir] valley and had also been in the propagation of secessionist agenda in the Valley under the garb of protection of human rights,” the NIA said in a statement after Mehraj’s arrest.

However, Mehraj’s arrest “for his principled articulations is grievous,” Angana Chatterji, a University of California at Berkeley scholar who has long worked on Kashmir human rights issues, said.

“The strategy of the Indian government to brand certain Kashmiri journalists and human rights defenders as agents of ‘terror’ is an assault on freedom of speech and seeks to effectively silence reportage on the egregious political violence and human rights abuses in Indian-administered Kashmir,” Chatterji told VOA.

The crackdown on journalists and rights activists has increased since August 2019, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led national government unilaterally revoked the autonomy that Kashmir had had for 70 years, dissolved its government, and brought it fully under the control of the central Indian government.

In the past 3½ years, dozens of Kashmiri journalists have been summoned by the security agencies for background checks or to explain their stories, or their houses were raided. Some of them were arrested and jailed.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, four Kashmiri journalists, including Mehraj, are now in jail.

Dilbag Singh, director general of police for Jammu and Kashmir, did not respond to a WhatsApp request from the VOA for comment on the issue.

New Delhi-based senior BJP leader Alok Vats told VOA, however, that whatever security-related actions the government is taking in Kashmir are in the interest of peace and stability in the region.

“Under the garb of journalism and human rights activism, many secessionists and unlawful people are at work in Kashmir, in collaboration with the terrorist organizations. They are aiming to disrupt the region’s peace and stability, ” Vats said.

“The government is simply acting to stop those subversive activities. In this process suspects are arrested and questioned, to establish their links with terrorist organizations. Their arrest and interrogation in custody are fully justified.”

Several global media rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders, have condemned the arrest of Mehraj and sought his immediate release.

Daniel Bastard, head of the organization’s Asia-Pacific desk called Mehraj “an experienced, responsible and careful reporter who has no place being in prison.”

“Special laws intended to combat terrorism should not be used to suppress the activities of journalists,” he said.

A Kashmir-based journalist said journalists and rights activists are being targeted by the government “primarily because they are exposing rights violations committed by the forces.”

“The government is punishing some journalists to send out a message to others that any journalist or human rights activist daring to expose rights violation in Kashmir would face punishment,” the journalist who did not want to be identified told VOA.

Meenakshi Ganguly, south Asia director of Human Rights Watch told VOA the Indian authorities need to uphold human rights protections in Kashmir instead of punishing activists and journalists that draw attention to problems.

“Arbitrary arrests of journalists under draconian counterterrorism laws only exposes the Indian government to allegations that it is repressive, discriminatory and authoritarian,” Ganguly said.

Mehraj’s arrest is “another indication of the erosion of rights and democracy in India” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Rohit Chopra, an associate professor at Santa Clara University in the U.S., told VOA.

“Like all regimes that seek to consolidate power at the expense of rights, the Modi regime wishes to control the flow of information and censor stories of state repression and rights violations. Mehraj’s deep understanding of Kashmiri society and his record of work challenges the official narratives about Kashmir trotted out by the government,” Chopra said.

“Kashmir activists are likely being targeted for the same reason that they might bring to light rights violations, a crackdown on ordinary freedoms of Kashmiris, and the fact that all is not hunky-dory in Kashmir.”

With elections set for next year in India, “Modi is keen to project an image as a hypernationalist strong leader and immobilize any sources of criticism,” he added.

“This strategy had worked for the BJP and him in 2019, so we will likely see jingoistic chest-thumping and stronger state repression in India in the months to follow,” he said.

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India’s Five-Decade Battle to Save Tiger Succeeding, but Road Ahead Challenging

Five decades ago, a count of tigers in India revealed that their numbers had plummeted from tens of thousands to about 1,800 as they fell prey to recreational hunting or lost habitat to a growing population pressing into forests.  

That prompted India to launch one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects.  In April 1973, the tiger was declared the country’s national animal and protected areas were set up to conserve a species that lies at the top of the food chain. Hunting had been outlawed months earlier. 

In its 50 years, Project Tiger has seen many ups and downs. But the nearly 3,000 tigers that now roam India’s forests show the mighty cat has been saved from extinction, although conservationists warn that it still counts as an endangered species. 

“I rate it as one of the finest examples in the annals of conservation globally. It is not matched anywhere in the magnitude, scale and effort,” said Rajesh Gopal, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum. 

“But we are still very much in project mode because the treasure you are guarding is unlocked and mobile and there is always a new challenge to overcome,” he told VOA.

Over the years, the number of sanctuaries has grown from nine to 54 and India is now home to 70% of the world’s tigers, which have disappeared from all except 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia.  

The battle was not easy. More than 30 years after the project was launched, a census in 2006 rang alarm bells when it indicated that the tiger population had declined to 1,411. The wake-up call led authorities to refocus strategies to save the species.

A major threat to tigers was the rampant poaching of the predator as rising affluence in China and East Asian countries fueled growing demand for tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine. 

But increased surveillance and better technology paid dividends in checking the thriving illegal trade in tigers and, while poaching has not ended, it no longer poses a significant threat, according to wildlife experts. 

They say, though, that the challenges over the next 50 years could be greater than those of the past half century. The most pressing is the risk to tiger habitats from the ever-growing demand for land and resources in a rapidly developing country.

“There is the enormous pressure of the economic transformation of India – the building of highways, roads and mines that are cutting off access to what once used to be wildlife corridors along which tigers moved unhindered between forest landscapes in search of territory,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history at Ashoka University in Haryana.

“This also raises a biological challenge – the danger of inbreeding of tiger populations as some of these reserves get cut off from one another,” he said. 

While tiger habitats have been secured, coexistence of the world’s second-largest population in a densely packed country of 1.4 billion with the world’s largest tiger population is not easy. Even though hundreds of villages have been relocated from sanctuaries to make space for the tigers, many parks are adjacent to human settlements into which tigers sometimes stray, resulting in increasing incidents of human-tiger conflict. 

“A third of the tigers are still living outside protected areas and their prey often becomes livestock due to dwindling prey species due to hunting in the forests,” Rangarajan said.

“There have been many incidents of tiger attacks on humans and also the reverse, that is the killing of tigers by villagers in retaliation. This needs serious redressal.” 

Some conservationists also question whether the single-minded focus on tigers needs to be broadened and say the tiger should be seen as a symbol of sustainable development.

“When we launched the project, the vision was that the tiger was a means to an end, to utilize it as an iconic flagship species to save something much more valuable than the tiger itself – the diverse habitat of which the tiger is an integral part but not its only representative,” said M.K. Ranjitsinh, who was the country’s first wildlife preservation director and was associated with Project Tiger. 

“The project has been a success, but the focus is now too species-centric. We judge a wildlife reserve by the number of tigers it holds instead of seeing whether the entire ecosystem, the other species and flora and fauna in the park, are also flourishing,” Ranjitsinh said. 

Experts say that in coming decades, the focus should be on stabilizing the tiger population rather than increasing numbers. 

“The tiger reserves are already reaching their carrying capacity. If we try to increase the tiger population beyond a point, we will land in a situation where we will be grappling with other problems such as more incidents of tiger-human conflict,” said Gopal, who headed Project Tiger for several years. “We don’t want the tiger to gain a pest value. We have to balance the needs of the tiger with that of more than a billion people.” 

India will reveal the results of the latest tiger census during a three-day event starting April 9 to commemorate 50 years of the project. 

Regardless of the numbers, though, conservationists say India is now indisputably the world’s greatest tiger stronghold. 

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