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Australian Fires ‘Contained’ in New South Wales as Flooding Dangers Loom

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  • Australia’s New South Wales Rural Fire Service said all fires within the state have been contained after heavy rains brought in by a now ex-tropical cyclone. 
  • Seemingly replacing one problem for the next, flash flooding has led to power outages and even prompted evacuations. 
  • Australia’s recent extreme weather shifts have raised concerns over climate change, with scientists predicting the country will continue to experience even more intense extremes as climate change worsens.

All Fires in New South Wales “Contained”

After months of struggling to contain brutal fires that ravaged millions of acres, firefighters in Australia’s state of New South Wales said all fires in the region have been contained.

“After what’s been a truly devastating fire season for both firefighters and residents, who’ve suffered so much this season, all fires are now contained in New South Wales, which is great news,” Rob Rogers, assistant commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, said.

“Not all fires are out,” he added. “There’s still some fire activity in the far south of the state, but all fires are contained, so we can truly focus on helping people rebuild.”

New South Wales is the country’s most populous state, with it being home to both Sydney and the country’s capital, Canberra. This is the first time since the bushfire season began in June that all fires have been contained—meaning fire crews have managed to surround them on all sides to prevent them from spreading.

While Australia sees a yearly brushfire season, its most recent one was particularly extreme thanks to a combination of below-average rainfall and high winds.

Source: Australian Board of Meteorology

In November, NSW and Queensland both declared states of emergency. Throughout the season, thousands were forced to evacuate their homes, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed, and at least 33 people died.

In December, heavy smoke blanketed Sydney, with the air quality in the city measuring 11 times above the hazardous level at one point. 

The fires have also been devastating to wildlife, with one billion animals estimated dead. On Tuesday, Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water, and Environment listed 113 species in need emergency intervention following the fire, including the koala and the platypus, among others.

Rain Puts Out Fires but Leads to Flash Flooding

News that NSW’s fires were contained came after the region’s latest bout of rain. In fact, over the last few weeks, Australia has witnessed several waves of rain that have helped assist fire crews in controlling the blazes.

In NSW alone, the RFS said the downpour helped it put out 30 fires since Friday. That rain also helped to put out NSW’s two biggest fires, which were burning about 1.2 million acres of land each. 

Over the past week, Australia’s east coast has experienced rain brought in by now ex-Tropical Cyclone Uesi. According to the Australia Bureau of Meteorology, NSW saw nearly 8 inches of rain within a 24 hour period.  Over a four day period, it saw more than 15 inches of rainfall, reportedly the heaviest it’s seen in 30 years. 

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney’s dams are reaching their highest levels since April 2018.

However, with the rain, Australia seemed to have traded one problem for another. Both Queensland and NSW are currently facing a series of issues, including flash flooding, power outages, and more evacuations.

Queensland itself saw several reports of missing people, with one body being found.

Is Climate Change To Blame?

With Australia’s extreme weather shifts, some have wondered whether or not the heavy rainfall witnessed on the east coast is a result of climate change; however, the answer isn’t quite clear.

Many scientists have credited the bushfire season as a result of climate change. Those scientists also predict that Australia’s bushfire season will only continue to become more frequent and more intense. Part of this is because Australia is especially susceptible to climate change since it has a vast interior desert and rapidly-heating ocean currents surround the country.

As far as storms go, the Climate Council of Australia found in 2016 that climate is fueling more intense and more damaging storms. 

“Extreme weather events including tropical cyclones, extreme rainfall, hail/thunderstorms and extra-tropical cyclones (for example, east coast lows) are now occurring in an atmosphere that is packing more energy and carrying more moisture than it did in the 1950s,” it found, adding that climate change also exacerbates coastal flooding. 

It then predicted that “climate change will continue to exacerbate storms in Australia, increasing the risk of devastating impacts.”

Still, it’s unclear whether this ex-tropical cyclone is a result of that climate change, though as London School of Economics and Political Science Professor Tim Forsyth said, it is possible.

“For years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted weather will be more extreme and unpredictable,” he told NBC News. “This is consistent with the pattern this year in Australia of a longer than expected dry period, followed by unexpectedly high rainfall.”

“However, it is also important not to draw rapid conclusions,” he added. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty about long-term weather patterns. We have to acknowledge that human records of weather in Australia only go back to the early 20th century — so there are limits to what we know.”

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Guardian) (NPR)

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Saudi Arabia To Require Vaccine for Hajj Pilgrims

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  • Saudi Arabia will require all pilgrims participating in the Hajj this year to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to local media.
  • The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are required to take at least once in their lifetime if they are physically or financially able to.
  • Many believe the inoculation requirement may help allay suspicions over vaccines within certain Muslim communities.
  • Those suspicions have persisted despite Muslim leaders clarifying that there are no theological problems with taking any of the COVID-19 vaccines available.

COVID-19 Vaccines for Pilgrims

Saudi Arabia’s health ministry will only allow people vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend the Hajj this year, according to local outlet Okaz.

The Hajj is a mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca for all Muslims at least once in their lifetime – assuming they are physically and financially able to. However, requiring a vaccine before taking part in the Hajj isn’t a new thing. In fact, Saudi Arabia already has a list of necessary vaccinations for pilgrims.

For a virus that is among the most virulent in recent history and requiring a COVID-19 vaccine makes sense, especially since the Hajj is among the most densely populated events in the world.

In an effort to combat COVID-19, Saudi Arabia has also introduced restrictions over how many pilgrims can come to Mecca for the first time in modern history.

Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine to partake in the Hajj will likely have the added benefit of allaying fears about COVID-19 vaccines in Muslim communities, which account for nearly 2 billion people in the world. While Muslims overall support vaccinations and their religious leaders openly support vaccination efforts, some do doubt vaccines for either political reasons or religious ones.

Changes in Vaccine Hesitancy

Suspicions have arisen due to recent history, notably after Osama bin Laden was located through a vaccine program that acted as a front for the C.I.A. That incident led to a wider-anti vaccine movement in parts of Pakistan that have seen vaccine clinics burned to the ground.

Others are worried over more religious concerns, such as whether the vaccines are Halal, which is roughly the Muslim version of Kosher. To that, most major vaccines say that they are Halal and contain no animal products, such as Pfizer’s, Moderna’s, and AstraZeneca’s,

While other possibly non-Halal vaccines, such as Sinovac’s, have been given the okay from major Islamic authorities, such as Indonesia’ Ulema Council.

The concerns over whether a vaccine is Halal or not may be mute as most imams and Islamic councils have clarified that such dietary restrictions are trumped by the need to save human lives.

While the Health Ministry’s statement is for 2021, it’s possible that the decision will last beyond that based on the pandemic’s progress.

See what other are saying: (Al Jazeera) (The Hill) (Middle East Eye)

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E.U. and U.S. Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny Detention

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  • The E.U. and U.S. coordinated new sanctions against seven Russian officials tied to the current fate of activist and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • More efforts are expected to follow, with officials claiming that 14 Russian entities tied to the manufacturing of Novichok – the rare nerve agents that supposedly poisoned Navalny – are the next to be sanctioned.
  • Despite the sanctions, Biden’s administration hopes to be able to work with Russia on other world issues, such as nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea.
  • Navalny himself isn’t likely to benefit from the sanctions as he’s serving a 2.5-year prison sentence in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies.

Coordinated Efforts by E.U. and U.S.

The U.S. and E.U. both announced coordinated sanctions against Russia Tuesday morning over the poisoning, arrest, and detention of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In particular, seven senior officials are targeted by the sanctions.

  • Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov
  • Chief of the Presidential Policy Directorate Andrei Yarin
  • First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Kiriyenko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksey Krivoruchko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Pavel Popov
  • Federal Penitentiary Service director Alexander Kalashnikov
  • Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov.

Both the E.U. and U.S. also plan to add fourteen entities that are involved in making the extremely deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok.

First Step For Biden

These sanctions are the first such action by the Biden administration against Russia and seem to be a tone shift from the previous administration. The Trump administration was considered relatively soft on Russia and only enacted a few sanctions over election interference, which were only softly enforced.

One U.S. official, according to NBC News reportedly said, that “today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”

“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate,” the official went on to add.

The man at the center of all this, Alexei Navalny, has been an outspoken critic of Putin who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated for Novichok poisoning.

He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over alleged fraud crimes and is reported to have been sent to one of Russia’s worst penal colonies outside of the city of Pokrov to serve out his term.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (NPR) (NBC News)

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Biden Faces Criticism Over U.S. Airstrike in Syria

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  • On Friday, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against an Iranian-back militia in Syria after it shot rockets into northern Iraq and injured U.S. service personnel.
  • The airstrike marks the first in Biden’s presidency, and while normally a routine response, it caused particular backlash against the president, who campaigned on getting out of “forever wars” in the region.
  • Many felt like Biden was more concerned with bombing people in the Middle-East than he was with passing his $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which was being debated by Congress at the time.
  • The targeting of an Iranian-backed militia likely didn’t help efforts to start informal talks with Iran on Sunday in an effort to reignite the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Striking Back Against Militias

The U.S. military conducted an airstrike on an Iranian-backed militia in Syria on Friday, marking it as the first such airstrike under President Joe Biden’s term.

The airstrike was conducted as retaliation after the militia launched rockets into northern Iraq; killing civilians, contractors, and injuring a U.S. service member as well as other coalition troops.

Despite airstrikes being a routine response for such situations over the last 20 years, the decision caused Biden to face intense backlash in the U.S.

For many, it set the tone and seemed to contradict some of his earlier stances when running for office. In 2019, for instance, Biden made it clear that he wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, as well as speed up the removal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, such airstrikes are often blamed for further entrenching the U.S. in the region.

Biden received criticism across the political spectrum, with only a few conservatives praising the airstrike as a necessary move to protect U.S. troops.

In Congress, many Democrats called the move unconstitutional, a stance the party has had since at least 2018 when Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said a similar airstrike conducted by President Trump required the approval of Congress. The Biden administration pushed back against this, sending a letter to Congress on Sunday saying the president had the power to use limited force without the body’s approval via the War Power Act.

Public Perception in a Downward Spiral

Many Americans have mocked Biden for seemingly feeling comfortable enough to use his executive power to bomb militias while also expressing apprehension toward using that same power to forgive student loans.

Others pushed back against the idea that the airstrike was a form of defensive retaliation

“This latest Biden airstrike is being spun as “defensive” and “retaliatory” despite its targeting a nation the US invaded (Syria) in response to alleged attacks on US forces in another nation the US invaded (Iraq),” wrote one user on Twitter, “You can’t invade a nation and then claim self-defense there. Ever.”

Some of the biggest criticism the president received came from those who said it seemed like his priorities were off-base. Because while the airstrike was conducted, Congress was debating his $1.9 trillion stimulus package.

Civil Rights activist Ja’Mal Green, for instance, tweeted, “We didn’t flip Georgia Blue for Biden to air strike Syria. We flipped Georgia Blue for our $2,000 Stimulus Checks.”

However, it’s worth noting that there’s not much Biden can do right now to push his stimulus package through Congress, other than attempt to convince some on-the-fence senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV). Still, the perception of confused priorities was enough to anger many.

All of this likely didn’t help when the E.U. foreign policy chief, on behalf of all the countries who signed the Iran Nuclear deal, attempted to convince Iran to engage in informal talks to try and restart the deal on Sunday. A proposal was shot down by Iran.

Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh

See what others are saying: (BBC) (NBC) (CNN)

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