UK Cuts Making Washington Nervous

Hilary Clinton has expressed worry at the extent of cuts to the UK arms budget by urging British defence minister William Hague to give assurances that Britain’s future capability as a major world player will not suffer at the hands of the spending review to be announced next week. Her main concerns were that the British, and other European powers,who were seeking to lessen their huge budget deficits, might weaken themselves to such a level that the burden of responsibility for policing the world’s hot-spots would fall increasingly more on the United States adminstration.
Commentators have predicted scything cuts in Wednesday’s review which could have the affect of inducing a major social upheaval in Britain as front-line services are cut to the bone, forcing they say, communities to rally themselves to maintain basic services. There is widespread apathy when it comes to politics in Britain and the proposed spending review has attracted little dissent as yet. Once, however, the full program is announced by the Chancellor, George Osbourne, and the full extent is realised I am predicting major social upheaval akin to the poll tax riots in the early eighties. The British are renowned for their reserve but they can only be pushed so far before they are liable to crack.
Furthermore, defence cuts are likely to be extremely unpopular with the British public who have become increasingly nervous about the progress of the war and the number of casualties. It is a common belief that the public regards the role of the British armed forces as being disproportionate compared to other European powers such as Germany and France. The British government currently commit over 8000 troops in Afghanistan which is more than the French, German and Italian forces combined. The United States currently has approaching 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
My feelings are that it is necessary for our troops to be in the region to counter the threat of insurgents in an already volatile region. Non-action could ultimately lead to the re-emergence of the Taliban in the region and a possible destabilization of surrounding countries such as Pakistan. The area is rife also with terrorist training camps which pose an even greater threat to the domestic security of allied countries.

Sci-Tech Information: After Sandy, New York Plans to Rebuild by Blue-Green Design

Sci-tech information: After Sandy, New York Plans to Rebuild by Blue-Green Design

When Hurricane Sandy struck New York in 2012, it was a brutal wake up call for the Big Apple. That call should have also been heard by the citizens of every other coastal city and those responsible for ensuring their safety – though there is little evidence that it has.

Sandy was the largest ever recorded Atlantic hurricane and, after Katrina, the second most costly, causing damage of around US$70 billion in the US alone. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds of thousands made homeless along the storm’s path through the Caribbean, US, and Canada. But while 24 US states were affected, it was the inundation of Lower Manhattan that generated the largest shock waves.

The death, destruction and general havoc wreaked by Sandy laid bare the inadequacies of current approaches to coastal flood risk management, generating a storm of public outrage. Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005 had been bad enough, but images of one of the world’s most iconic coastal cities being inundated by a storm surge despite several days advance warning were truly shocking. If it could happen to New York City, isn’t every other coastal community also at risk of catastrophic flooding? The scientific answer to that question is, of course, an emphatic yes.

The Rebuild by Design competition held to promote radical new approaches to protecting the city has now identified six winning projects, and it’s apparent that all are substantially based on using green and blue infrastructure to provide more natural and flexible defence than concrete walls. These defences work by mimicking the natural functions of coastal wetlands, woodlands, barrier beaches and offshore reefs in sapping the energy of waves and storm surges to reduce their height and rob them of destructive strength. Between storms, they provide a wide range of habitats necessary to support diverse ecosystems, providing leisure and commercial opportunities, including lost natural resources such as fisheries and oyster beds.

The lesson from Sandy is that while there are good reasons why huge population centres have developed adjacent to and just a few feet above the ocean, living there involves flood risk – a risk that cannot be eliminated, but can, and must, be reduced to a level that is acceptable, or at least tolerable. This applies not only to coastal cities in the US, but to every coastal conurbation and, especially, to Asian mega-cities. Easily said, but how can this be done?

Radical change is needed

It won’t be through business as usual, or even incremental changes to conventional flood risk management approaches. Following the European floods of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the UK government’s Flood Foresight paper reinforced the message that hard choices have to be made. It’s such a pity that, with subsequent severe flooding in Britain and elsewhere, from Australia to Zimbabwe, it seems the lesson has to be learned repeatedly and the hard way.

The need for radical new thinking did not go unrecognised in New Orleans. But the understandable, though scientifically and socially flawed, decision to simply rebuild breached defences and devastated neighbourhoods prevailed. Proposals to re-locate communities away from highest risk areas and return the most vulnerable land to its previous role of providing natural flood protection were ignored. Even the Green NOLA design competition in 2006, which set out to deliver “visionary yet practical responses” to the city’s problems, lacked the backing it needed from the authorities.

Good design, fit to purpose and budget

But the Rebuild by Design competition is different to that in New Orleans. It has the backing of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which gives the winning designs a real chance of being built. The designers seem to have engaged directly with communities and business owners at risk to find solutions that are not only radical, but which reflect the preferences of the people who will live and work around them every day.

It is an uncomfortable truth that the level of flood defence that can be provided to a community is limited by the value of the assets at risk. The solution has to make sense economically, which is why London is protected against a one-in-a-thousand-year flood, while Hemsby on the Norfolk coast is economically undefendable.

In Lower Manhattan, not just densely packed public housing, iconic buildings, and infrastructure such as the subway and electricity sub-stations are at risk, but Wall Street itself. This explains why there’s substantial funding available to provide protection against another Sandy-sized surge. The winning concept for Lower Manhattan, a green design that includes parkland and a banked earth flood wall around the tip of the island named the “Big U”, is costed at US$335m – a considerable sum but easily justified when compared to what’s at risk.

The blue-green advantage

The aim of using blue-green infrastructure in place of the old fashioned grey kind is to recreate a naturally-oriented water cycle that contributes to the amenity of the city by bringing together water and environmental management. This is achieved by combining and protecting the hydrological and ecological values of the urban landscape while providing resilient and adaptive measures to deal with flood and drought events. In this spirit, the Big U creates publicly accessible green spaces that will deliver social, economic and environmental benefits even when the defences are not keeping out storm surges, which is of course most of the time.

The project’s other great advantage is that it’s adaptable. Not only will it provide protection now, it also allows for a planned retreat from the coastline should that be necessary in future. This could be the case if, for example, melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet drives a larger than expected rise in sea level: unlikely, but not impossible.

But what about neighbourhoods not home to a global financial hub? Neighbouring communities on Staten Island and in Hoboken, New Jersey, are typical of dozens of ordinary towns and cities along the east coast affected by Sandy. While in sight of Manhattan, they are in different leagues, economically. They too were considered in Rebuild by Design, leading to five winning projects for other areas around the coasts of New York City and New Jersey, and running the total cost up to around US$1 billion.

According to Rebuild by Design, Staten Island merits US$60m of investment in Living Breakwaters and artificial reefs that provide sustainable coastal defence while restoring the valuable shoreline and marine ecosystems previously sacrificed to conventional concrete sea walls.

On the other hand Hoboken is envisaged as a Resiliency District where, by reducing the vulnerability of homes, businesses and infrastructure to flooding that cannot be prevented economically, it is hoped public-private finance will step in to support badly needed urban renewal. The initial cost of US$230m is affordable, but is just the start, and building a resilient community will require concerted, long-term investment by government and local businesses, which makes the future for Hoboken rather less secure than that of Lower Manhattan, or even Staten Island.

In it for the long term

The Rebuild by Design competition has produced worthy winners that address current flood risks effectively and affordably, while leaving space for adaptation to an uncertain future, recreating lost habitats and providing public green spaces of considerable socio-economic value. The winning solutions are sustainable in that they use science responsibly to conceive radical solutions that offer economic security while greening the urban landscape and restoring shoreline environments.

But the jury is still out on whether even these radical new approaches can deliver these benefits in ways that are socially equitable. In practice, this will depend more on good governance than creative engineering, something outside the scope of any design team. Achieving social justice in flood risk management relies on the willingness of people not just to get involved but to stay involved long after the damage of the trigger event has been repaired and the trauma, though dreadful, has passed. If Rebuilding by Design can lay the foundations for long-term community engagement in managing flood risk in New York and New Jersey it will fully deserve all the plaudits it looks likely to receive.

Paweena Oil & Gas, S.A

Russia is to build a nuclear power plant in Venezuela as part of a series of energy deals between the nations.

Russia will build two 1,200 megawatt nuclear reactors at the Venezuelan plant, said the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Meanwhile Rosneft, Russia’s state oil giant, will buy a 50% stake in German refinery firm Ruhr Oel from Venezuelan state-owned company PDVSA.

The agreement, worth $1.6bn (1bn), was signed at the Kremlin during Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s visit.

However the cost of the nuclear deal was not immediately revealed.

“It could be in 10 years, it could be earlier,” said Sergei Kirienko, head of the Russian state nuclear power corporation Rosatom.

“Right now we have no practical activity in building nuclear power stations.

“However, under the agreement signed today, that possibility has now in principle appeared.”

BP assets
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This transaction is consistent with our strategy to expand our presence with high quality assets in key international markets”

Eduard Khudainatov
Rosneft president
In addition to the nuclear and Rosneft deals, a shareholder in energy firm TNK-BP said that the company, which is owned by BP and Russian billionaires, would buy three of BP’s assets in Venezuela by the end of the year.

Russia’s energy ministry and Venezuela’s oil ministry signed an agreement in Moscow to support the deal.

TNK-BP shareholder, billionaire German Khan told journalists: “We will buy 16.7% of Petromanagas, 40% of Petroperija and 26.6% of Bouqeron.”

He did not say how much TNK-BP would pay for the stakes.

European assets
While Rosneft will become an owner of a 50% stake in Germany’s Ruhr Oel, BP owns the other 50%.

Ruhr Oel holds stakes in four German petrochemical and refinery plants.

Rosneft said in a statement that the plants’ capacity is 23.2 million tonnes per year, or about 20% of Germany’s refining capacity.

The Russian firm’s president, Eduard Khudainatov, said: “As a result of this acquisition, 18% of Rosneft’s refining capacity will be located in the heart of industrialised Europe.

“This transaction is consistent with our strategy to expand our presence with high quality assets in key international markets.”
It was Nov. 7, the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and Medvedev and the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Igor Sechin, were accompanying their host, Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez, at the inauguration of operations by UrdanetaGazprom, a partnership with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA to explore for gas in the northwestern Gulf of Venezuela.

Moments earlier, perched on the scaffolding of bars and walkways on the Escorpin Vigilante, a platform rented from the United States, Chvez saluted the “strategic alliance between two energy giants,” his own country and Russia, “the homeland of Lenin.”

The ceremony under the blazing Caribbean sun underlined the importance Caracas attaches to its alliance with Moscow, the numerous economic pacts that sustain it, and the remarkable intensification and acceleration of these agreements this month. “Russia is clearly taking advantage, for the benefit of its companies, of the opportunities opened up by Venezuela, which has self-imposed ideological blinkers,” political analyst and professor of economics and international affairs Orlando Ochoa told IPS. “At the same time, Russia is advancing in the terrain of global geopolitical confrontation.”

For his part, Chvez “is motivated by geopolitical fears inspired by the United States and Colombia and, in accordance with his view that political agreements should be cemented by business ties, is offering the Russians a wide range of opportunities,” said Ochoa, who has been monitoring relations between the two countries for several years.

The inauguration of Escorpin Vigilante, broadcast nationwide by all radio and TV stations, has been the alliance’s most eye-catching event. But it is only one of many multimillion dollar deals jump-started this month, ranging from gold, oil and gas to chocolate sales, and from a joint bank to nuclear energy cooperation.

In the political arena, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is to visit Venezuela towards the end of the month, the first president of that country to do so.

But the real news in the region is the forthcoming arrival of a Russian fleet in Venezuela to carry out joint naval and air force manoeuvres in the Caribbean sea, which will be mainly simulated search and rescue operations.

The Venezuelan armed forces will take part in these operations using some of the military equipment purchased from Russia over the last three years, costing some 4.5 billion dollars, including multi-role jet fighter aircraft, helicopters, transport planes and assault rifles.

Negotiations are also under way to acquire more planes, ships and submarines.

Chvez has visited Russia a dozen times over the past 10 years, and Venezuela has become a frequent destination or stopover for members of Russian leaders when they visit the region.

In his impassioned speeches on international issues, Chvez repeatedly defends Moscow and even places it in opposition to Washington, in the context of his proposal for a new “multipolar” world order, while boasting boasts about his friendship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The usual cooperation and trade agreements between countries enjoying good relations have been established, and Russian oil companies have begun to operate in Venezuela, but this November economic relations have been revved up.

Making the most of Sechin’s visit, an intergovernmental commission was set up, which produced 15 business and trade deals.

Russia is to instal car and truck factories in Venezuela, using technology that will allow the vehicles to use natural gas as fuel, and its Naval Construction Institute will partner PDVSA to build a shipyard in the east of the country to make tugs, flatboats and other river craft.

Chvez celebrated the agreement under which Venezuela secured Russian cooperation and technology for the development of nuclear energy “for peaceful purposes.” “It goes without saying, but it has to be said: we will have atomic reactors€¦ we will soon be accused of making 100 atomic bombs,” he quipped.

Venezuela is a signatory of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which bans nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean and has been in force since 1969. For the past half century it has run a small nuclear reactor at the Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC), near Caracas, which is used mainly for medical studies.

Venezuela has also made its large reserves of alumina (used for producing aluminium) available for joint projects with Russia, and new cooperation plans have been announced in the food sector, including exports of Venezuelan cocoa and chocolate to Moscow. Finance Minister Al­ Rodr­guez is to travel to Moscow to prepare an agreement for the creation of a binational investment bank, which will likely be signed when President Medvedev visits Caracas.

But oil and gas form the chief foundation of this economic relationship, and in October five Russian companies – Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom, TNK-BP and Surgutneftegaz – formed a consortium for operating in Venezuela.

Lukoil and Gazprom have been assigned two of the 27 blocks in the Orinoco Belt, an enormous reserve of extra-heavy crude in southeastern Venezuela that could yield up to 270 billion barrels, a quantity similar to Saudi Arabia’s reserves.

These blocks are being explored to quantify the reserves accurately, after which partnerships will be formed for exploiting them, as already occurs with U.S. and European companies that are producing 500,000 barrels per day of synthetic crude (an upgraded form of the extra-heavy oils from the Orinoco Belt).

More Violence in Syria, As Tensions Rise With Turkey

Every day that the West sits on its hands while watching innocent men, women and children die in Syria, helps to create the sense that the West is more and more enfeebled against a resurgent Russia and emergent China.

Moscow and Beijing continue to patronise Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose butchery has led to the deaths of scores of his own people. Last night massive gunfire erupted in Damascus between forces loyal to Assad and rebels who seek his overthrow.

The violence, which has been deemed some of the worst since the uprising against Assad began over 12 months ago, comes amid fresh tensions with Turkey over a Turkish fighter jet which Syria allegedly downed while the jet was in international airspace.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a packed Turkish parliament that if Syrian forces approached Turkey’s borders, it would be deemed as an act of aggression. Meanwhile Assad has officially declared his country to be in a €state of war€ with rebels.

So far Turkey’s response has been measured, but Ankara is not likely to take the incident lying down, especially since relations with it former ally in Damascus have all but completely deteriorated following the outbreak of civil war in Syria.

Recent violence happened near Syria’s elite force Republican Guard positions in Qadsaya and al-Hama, something which would appear to suggest the rebels believe that they now have the upper hand. That one general, two colonels, two majors and 30 soldiers from Syria crossed into Turkey on Sunday night, as part of a group of 200 people, would appear to indicate a growing dissatisfaction with Assad.

Although analysts such as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria have laid out a compelling case as to why the West should not launch an air offensive, questions must be asked about how much longer the world can tolerate another Middle Eastern civil war, whose violence and refugee crisis are looking eerily similar to the Lebanese Civil War which raged for over 15 years.

Around 30,000 Syrian refugees are now being housed inside Turkey at a cost to Turkish taxpayers. Syrian forces allegedly fired into a Turkish refugee camp, killing two people as they tried to cross the border. On 4th April alone, over 2,300 people fled their homes in the war-torn country for shelter in Turkey.

According to Turkish sources, refugees are crossing near the village of Bukulmez, while others are waiting on the other side of the border. New arrivals are being taken to a refugee camp in Reyhanli in 44 minibuses. The Syrian Army has allegedly booby-trapped many border-crossings with landmines to prevent further emigration. A further 200,000 Syrians are internally displaced.

Erdogan has said he does not trust Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to comply with a peace plan put forward by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. €He shoots people but pretends he is withdrawing troops. He is not withdrawing troops but he is duping the international community,€ Erdogan said. Syria’s leader ignored the ceasefire negotiated by Annan. He clearly feels the ability to act with impunity, since Damascus has the backing of the Kremlin and Chinese politburo.

China and Russia’s business interests in Syria (Russia is alleged, by some estimates to have sold up to US$1bn worth of military hardware to Syria, including missiles) and their own military might has warned the U.S. and its Western allies against intervention in Syria.

According to Thomas Grove and Erika Solomon of Reuters, Russia sold US$1bn worth of munitions to Syria in 2011. €CAST, a Moscow-based defence think tank, says Russia sent Syria at least $960 million worth of heavy arms – which included several missile systems – in 2011 and has some $4 billion in outstanding contracts,€ they said. China has denied selling weapons to Syria via Iran.

€ThomsonReuters shipping data shows at least four cargo ships since December that left the Black Sea port of Oktyabrsk – used by Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport for arms shipments – have headed for or reached the Syrian port of Tartous,€ Grove and Solomon said.

€Separately was the Chariot, a Russian ship which docked at the Cypriot port of Limassol during stormy weather in mid-January. It promised to change its destination in accordance with a European Union ban on weapons to Syria but, hours after leaving Limassol, reset its course for Syria. A Cypriot source said it was carrying a load of ammunition and a European security source said the ship was hauling ammunition and sniper rifles of the kind used increasingly by Syrian government forces against protesters.€

According to Grove and Solomon, sources indicate that €Russian manufacturers had increased production to meet the demand from Syria,€ while many €Russian weapons advisers work in Syria and Rosoboronexport has an office with a staff of about 20 in the country.€

According to Mahmoud Suleiman Haj Hamad, the former Chief Auditor for the Syrian Defence Ministry, €Russian arms accounted for 50 per cent of all deals before Assad’s crackdown on the protesters. China and North Korea provided 30 per cent, and Iran and other suppliers 20 per cent,€ said Grove and Solomon. He claimed that Defence Ministry funds were doubled in 2011.