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The tide stays out
Desert grows as Aral Sea dies

Back on dry land: camels replace cruise-ships in Central Asia

‘When I was a small child I used to go swimming all the time,’ says Kubeisin Ikmitulayev. He is talking about the Aral Sea, in Central Asia. ‘The water came right up to our backyard. But by the time I was eight years old, it was too far to walk.’ He has recently celebrated his 30th birthday and the Sea is now 112 kilometres away from his home. In his lifetime the Aral has shrunk by more than half, from 65,000 square kilometres – the world’s fourth-largest lake – to 31,200 square kilometres.

When Kubeisin was born, Muynak was a thriving port and a popular resort on the Aral Sea. Its population has now dropped from 45,000 to 28,000. Cotton crops to supply the Soviet Union became the main occupation in the region a few decades ago. A maze of irrigation canals was built, but much of the diverted water was lost to evaporation or seepage because the canals were not covered or lined. Only a trickle of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya Rivers was left to feed the Aral.

This water is contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals sprayed on the cotton and rice fields. The chemicals settled on the seabed. Now that much of the sea has shrunk, windstorms carry them through the streets of Muynak and hundreds of miles beyond. ‘Dust storms pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink,’ says Orinbey Yusekepov, a local doctor. ‘We are seeing a very high incidence of anaemia, especially among children. Cancers have increased. Stomach and intestinal diseases are very common. People’s kidneys and livers cannot stay healthy in an environment like this.’

The five Central Asian countries affected by the loss of the Aral Sea (Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) have urged action to protect what remains of the Aral – but none is optimistic. Scientists and politicians agree that the only hope for halting the shrinkage would involve drastic conservation. But because all the Central Asian countries need to use the water now, none is ready to take radical steps. An Uzbek Government official, Ospan Kariansakov, says cuts to water use would mean a big drop in agricultural production, widespread unemployment and social dislocation: ‘Maybe we could absorb a five-per-cent cut but no more than that.’ Scientist Sadar Gasanov says: ‘If these countries are going to change their ways and cut their water use, they need to industrialize or at least start growing other crops that don’t need as much water.’ In an area reliant on agriculture to make a living, he says, ‘that is a huge project.’

Stephen Kinzer/International Herald Tribune No 35655

Trustworthy computers

Trustworthy computers
Alcoholics are twice as likely to confess a drink problem to a computer as to a doctor, according to a study in the US. Kenneth Kobak from the University of Wisconsin says: ‘We don’t know whether the computer is over-diagnosing or whether people are just more honest with a computer. But we think it’s the latter.’ Kobak’s earlier work found people are less embarrassed and more willing to disclose information about sensitive issues such as risky sexual behaviour or suicidal tendencies when questioned by a computer. He thinks use of a computer at a patient’s check-up may help to diagnose health problems.

New Scientist No 2102

‘From now on, we shall have to whip on the spot all those drivers causing accidents due to negligence,’ announced Tanzania’s Inspector General of Police Omari Mahita. Two serious bus crashes this year left 32 people dead. And the World Bank estimates accidents cost Tanzania more than its annual budget for education.

Mahita’s announcement has produced an outcry from human-rights activists, lawyers and bus drivers. Chair of the Tanzania Bus Owners Association says: ‘Giving police such powers could be a source of embarrassment to the entire road-transport sector.’

Alfred Mbogora/Gemini News Service

Empower women
In the US a woman is physically abused by her intimate partner every nine seconds; every day 6,000 girls are genitally mutilated world-wide and roughly 60 million women who should be alive are now ‘missing’ because of gender discrimination. These facts highlight the need for action to implement the UN Declaration of Human Rights on its 50th anniversary. Among the most urgent strategies to empower women worldwide include: the education of girls, implementation of anti-violence laws, dissemination of information to women about their rights, fostering of women’s economic autonomy, training of police and judiciary in gender equality and political participation of women.

Noeleen Heyzer/Third World Network Features



Rough and tumble
Sex workers unite in Calcutta

Tough Women Together Committee has some new recruits - men.

A group of male sex workers has come out into the open and joined organizations for female prostitutes for the first time in Calcutta, India. ‘Our situation is worse than that of female sex workers because society doesn’t accept us as normal.’ says a spokesperson for male prostitutes, Madhu Sarkar. ‘Besides, the women are doing great work looking after themselves. Why not be together when we’re in the same boat, though in different context?’

This thinking led several men to join Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, which translates as ‘Tough Women Together Committee’ (DMSC).

‘When Madhu and friends approached us we were rather surprised,’ admits DMSC secretary Sadhana Mukherjee. But she says they soon found men faced problems similar to women. The existence of male sex workers has rarely been acknowledged. When they were photographed and publicized many locals were shocked. According to a report by the Panos Institute there are an estimated 50,000 male prostitutes in Mumbai/Bombay alone, compared with 250,000 female prostitutes. The report says there are well-documented accounts of male prostitutes in every region of the world and emphasizes that they have sex with men and women.

The DMSC grew out of an aids prevention project in Songachi, Calcutta’s biggest red-light district, which is home to around 5,000 sex workers. Now it seeks recognition of sex workers under industrial legislation. The DMSC hopes this will stop police harassment, establish supervision to prevent minors from entering the trade and enable co-operatives to be set up in order to keep members out of the grip of money lenders.

A recent sex-workers’ convention, organized by DMSC, ran for three days and attracted more than 3,000 participants from India and abroad. Male sex workers took part and some staged performances of song or dance. ‘We learn these arts to please our clients,’ says Madhu. ‘But clients often ill-treat us, even physically torture us. We can’t say anything because, unlike the women, we don’t have our own place to bring them to. Many of us live with our families – mothers, brothers and so on. Drawing the attention of people in the area would only mean we’d be arrested by the police.’

Madhu’s next plan is to establish a drop-in centre where male sex workers can exchange news and mobilize resources to help them withstand official harassment. Madhu is critical of society’s hypocrisy towards male sex workers, pointing out that they exist because of public demand.

Ranjita Biswas/Gemini News Service

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Cutting class barriers
Japan’s Burakumin, or ‘untouchable class’, say their conditions still need improvement and government assistance. The package of affirmative action and official assistance reforms implemented 28 years ago is being threatened with cutbacks after official claims that they are no longer needed. The Burakumin Liberation League (BLL) says conditions for their communities have improved. But they point out that discrimination still exists in areas such as marriage and employment. The average earnings of Burakumin are only 60 per cent of the national figure. The BLL says: ‘Many still hide the fact that they are Burakumin. This proves that discrimination is still severe.’

Gareth Vaughan/Gemini News Service

More hot air
International agreements have left out an unnoticed greenhouse gas, fluoroform, which has a global-warming potency 10,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. After the Montreal Protocol, chemical corporations switched to using HCFC-22 as a substitute for ozone-eating CFCs. But producing HCFC-22 – for use in a range of products such as fridges, air- conditioning systems, computer disks and aircraft fuel pipes – emits fluoroform. The amount of fluoroform in the atmosphere has skyrocketed and is expected to increase by five per cent a year.

New Scientist No 2120

Forest fire

Forest fires
Last year more tropical forest burned around the world than any time in recorded history. Although the massive Indonesian fires made headlines, an investigation by a Brazilian Government committee estimates that in 1997 Amazon rainforest fires increased by more than 50 per cent over the previous annual rate. The Amazon loses around 51,800 square kilometres per year due to logging and fires. The report states that if measures are not taken now to protect it, in 50 years the entire Amazon will be gone.

Green Events, February 1998


Risky business
Crime gangs have a new weapon

 Scores of businesses in the West have been stung by African fraudsters tempting them with huge riches. Letters that appear ordinary, bearing Nigerian and Côte d’Ivoire stamps, are offering something extraordinary – millions of dollars, held illegally and awaiting transfer from Nigeria into the bank accounts of Western companies. The letters promise that if bank details of the firm and blank copies of their business letterheads are supplied, money will be lodged into the firm’s bank account and a 25 to 50-per-cent handling commission will be paid to the firm. But the letter writer uses access to the Western company’s bank account to withdraw huge sums of money or use the account for other illegal deals.

In Britain, this fraud has reached epidemic levels. British businesses lose an estimated annual $5.6 billion to West African fraudsters, with over 80,000 fake letters received last year. The gangs have infiltrated offices in Britain which give them access to sensitive papers and information. At the Treasury Solicitor’s office in London, one worker was found using a fax machine to work a swindle. In the tax office a worker was found photocopying returns, cheques and headed notepaper to set up fake standing orders with banks.

One London company received a letter supposedly written by S Saro-Wiwa, the son of the executed Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. The letter, posted from Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, stated that before Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution by the Government of Nigeria, the Nigerian Military Head of State, General Sanni Abacha, had given him $3 million. The letter writer offered the British company a commission in exchange for allowing the use of its bank account.

In 1997 alone, some 68,000 letters were handed in or recovered by police. They believe that more than a million letters are sent to African and Western countries. National Criminal Intelligence Service Director-General John Abbott said: ‘These criminals are heavily involved in fraud, exploiting individuals, companies and governments all over the world.’

Newslink Africa, Vol 16 No 7


‘Since my boss rings me almost every hour it gives me no time to think
of an excuse for my unproductivity during the day.’

A Japanese insurance salesman, on the downside of his company-supplied mobile phone.

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New Internationalist issue 301 magazine cover This article is from the May 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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