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South Africa Turmoil

On this edition of Encounter, Ambassador Michelle Gavin, senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Ambassador to Botswana, and Frans Cronje, CEO of the Johannesburg-based Institute of Race Relations, analyze with host Carol Castiel the political, economic and social situation in South Africa following the arrest and detention of former South African president Jacob Zuma given the protests, looting and violence which this incident triggered.  How did the celebrated multiracial democracy led by Nelson Mandela reach this critical juncture point, and what does the future hold for South Africa? 

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Interior Secretary: Drought Demands Investment, Conservation 

Confronting the historic drought that has a firm grip on the American West requires a heavy federal infrastructure investment to protect existing water supplies but also will depend on efforts at all levels of government to reduce demand by promoting water efficiency and recycling, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Thursday.

Haaland told reporters in Denver that the Biden administration’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget includes a $1.5 billion investment in the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power in the Western states, and more than $54 million for states, tribes and communities to upgrade infrastructure and water planning projects.

“Drought doesn’t just impact one community. It affects all of us — from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Indian tribes. We all have a role to use water wisely,” Haaland said at the start of a three-day visit to Colorado to address the U.S. response to the increasing scarcity of  water and the massive wildfires burning throughout the region.

The American West, including most of western Colorado, is gripped by the worst drought in modern history. The northern part of the state is experiencing deadly flash flooding and mudslides after rain fell in areas scarred by massive wildfires last year. Fires are burning across the West, most severely in Oregon and California, while the drought stresses major waterways like the Colorado River and reservoirs that sustain millions of people.

The drought and recent heat waves in the region that are tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires larger and more destructive.

Haaland spoke after meeting with Democratic Representative Diana DeGette, Governor Jared Polis and Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, Colorado’s largest water agency, for a discussion on the drought and possible federal solutions.

Among other initiatives, she said, the Bureau of Reclamation is working to identify and dispense “immediate technical and financial assistance for impacted irrigators and Indian tribes.”

Tanya Trujillo, the department’s assistant secretary for water and science, cited a recent decision to release water from several Upper Colorado River basin reservoirs to supply Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two manmade reservoirs that store Colorado River water.

The reservoirs are shrinking faster than expected, spreading panic throughout a region that relies on the river to sustain 40 million people. Federal officials expect to make the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado River basin next month, prompting cuts in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

“We have seen hydrologic projections that are worse than anticipated,” Trujillo said.

Haaland’s three-day stay in Colorado includes her first trip Friday to the Bureau of Land Management’s new headquarters in Grand Junction, established by the Trump administration in 2019. The agency’s move from Washington, D.C., produced an outcry from critics who said it gutted the office. Haaland opposed the move as a member of Congress.

The agency overseen by the Interior Department manages nearly 250 million acres of public lands, most of which are in the West. Polis and Colorado’s congressional delegation have urged Haaland to keep the office in Grand Junction.

Haaland is visiting as severe dry periods sweeping areas of the West over the last several years have resulted in more intense and dangerous wildfires, parched croplands and a lack of vegetation for livestock and wildlife, according to government scientists.

They also found that the problem is accelerating — rainstorms are becoming increasingly unpredictable and more regions are seeing longer intervals between storms since the turn of the century.

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Over 600,000 Notified to Quarantine in British ‘Pingdemic’

Over 600,000 users of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service’s (NHS) COVID-19 test and trace app were “pinged” alerts recommending self-isolation earlier this month.

In what has been dubbed the “pingdemic,” the app told users to begin a 10-day quarantine if they tested positive for the coronavirus or had been in close contact with someone who did.

The mass alerts have had significant repercussions for supermarkets and other businesses in the U.K. Stores warn that products are running low, and staff shortages have affected restock abilities. Some shops are altering their hours of operation in response to the challenge.

Grocery store chain Lidl indicated a worker shortage was “starting to have an impact on our operations.”

Supermarkets are hiring large numbers of temporary employees to overcome staffing challenges. After 1,000 staff members were unable to return to work, the Iceland grocery chain is hiring 2,000 interim workers.

Photographs of empty shelves were widely shared on social media, but supermarkets downplayed the shortages, with Iceland declaring them “isolated incidents.”

Driver shortages and a rising number of workers required to self-isolate have also led to fuel supply issues.

BP announced that a “vast majority” of the shortages were going to be resolved “within the day,” but a “handful” of their gas stations will be temporarily closed.

According to the BBC, isolation is only legally required when instructed by the NHS test and trace program. A ping from the NHS COVID-19 app is only an advised self-isolation.

Some business owners are trying to circumvent this regulation by allowing ‘pinged’ employees who have received a negative PCR test to return to work.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng cautioned those attempting to avoid isolation, stating that “the rules are clear, and I think they should be followed.”

The British government announced that it is necessary to maintain these guidelines until August 16, when further restrictions are scheduled to be lifted.

 

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Hong Kong Police Arrest Another Apple Daily Editor Under Security Law

A former senior editor of Hong Kong’s shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was arrested by national security police on Wednesday morning. 

A police source told AFP that former executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung had been detained.  

In a statement, police said they had arrested a 51-year-old former newspaper editor for “collusion with foreign forces,” a national security crime.  

Lam is the ninth employee of Apple Daily arrested under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year after huge and often violent democracy protests. 

Apple Daily, an unapologetic backer of the democracy movement, put out its last edition last month after its top leadership was arrested and its assets frozen under the security law. 

Lam was the editor who oversaw that final edition, ending the paper’s 26-year run. 

Authorities said Apple Daily’s reporting and editorials backed calls for international sanctions against China, a political stance that has been criminalized by the new security law. 

The tabloid’s owner Jimmy Lai, 73, is currently in prison and has been charged with collusion alongside two other executives who have been denied bail. 

They face up to life in prison if convicted.  

Among the others arrested, but currently not charged, are two of the paper’s leading editorial writers, including one who was detained at Hong Kong’s airport as he tried to leave the city. 

The paper’s sudden demise was a stark warning to all media outlets on the reach of a new national security law in a city that once billed itself as a beacon of press freedom in the region. 

Last week the Hong Kong Journalists Association said media freedoms were “in tatters” as China remolds the once outspoken business hub in its own authoritarian image. 

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Billionaire Bezos Makes Successful Suborbital Trip

Space company Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos rocketed to space Tuesday, with the world’s oldest and youngest people to ever fly in space in tow.  Bezos’ flight follows last week’s suborbital jaunt by Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson. The two billionaires are further ushering in an era of space tourism and exploration. VOA’s Laurel Bowman has our story.

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After the German Deluge, a Flood of Political Recriminations

Germany’s federal officials are being buffeted by accusations that they failed to heed a string of warnings from scientists ahead of last week’s devastating flash floods — the worst to strike the country since 1962, when a North Sea storm surge left 315 Germans dead.

The latest floods, which impacted Germany’s prosperous Rhineland region, caught many local authorities, residents and businesses by surprise, despite the first alarm about the likelihood of floods being raised on July 10 — three days before a deluge caused the swollen tributaries of the Rhine and Meuse to break their banks.

German authorities on Sunday had confirmed 155 deaths, but they expected the death toll to rise as rescuers continued their search in wrecked buildings for hundreds of missing residents.

Both the German and Belgian governments were warned of the likelihood of flooding, say scientists with the Copernicus Emergency Management Service and the European Flood Awareness System. Belgium has confirmed 27 casualties.

Hannah Cloke, hydrology professor at Britain’s Reading University told AFP: “For so many people to die in floods in Europe in 2021 represents a monumental failure of the system.”

She added: “The sight of people driving or wading through deep flood water fills me with horror, as this is about the most dangerous thing you can do in a flood. Forecasters could see this heavy rain coming and issued alerts early in the week, and yet the warnings were not taken seriously enough and preparations were inadequate. These kinds of high-energy, sudden summer torrents of rain are exactly what we expect in our rapidly heating climate.”

As a huge rescue operation continued Sunday in the worst affected the German regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, chancellor Angela Merkel visited stricken areas, pledging to build back better. She held the hand of one grieving local politician and later said: “I’ve come here today to symbolize that we’re standing together in solidarity. We will fix everything one step at a time in this beautiful area. We have to act fast.”

Questions

Nonetheless Germany’s media has begun to question whether the federal government should have acted faster ahead of the storms and are focusing on the possible political repercussions of the flooding, which has left homes and businesses wrecked. Thousands of people have been left without access to electricity or clean drinking water.

The Federal Office for Citizen Protection and Disaster Assistance did issue alerts on its app about coming floods, say officials. But critics say that a very small fraction of the German population has downloaded the app on their smartphones and that a much louder warning should have been sounded to allow local communities to better prepare for the deluge of midweek rain.

The influential tabloid newspaper Bild has accused the agency of a massive failure.

“The tidal waves came in the night — and surprised hundreds of thousands of people,” the paper editorialized. It said: “The force of the water trapped them in their cellars, tore them on the run or even with their houses. More than 100 dead and countless missing people are to be mourned. Forewarnings? Sirens? Loudspeaker announcements?”

The tabloid concluded warnings were “often not available or much too late.”

Other German media outlets have pointed out that hundreds of people sought refuge in their basements, the worst place to seek sanctuary.

Hundreds of towns and villages in the western regions of Germany have been destroyed. And the images of the destruction aired by the country’s broadcasters and posted on social media sites have startled Germans.

The flooding has come just two months before federal elections, which will determine Merkel’s successor. She is stepping down after 16 years in office.

An immediate $354 million aid package is being prepared by the federal government. Officials say the cost of rebuilding will be in the billions. Rebuilding costs in 2013 after floods on the Elbe and Danube amounted to more than $9 billion.

Ruling Christian Democrat lawmakers hope a quick federal response will limit any political damage from the mounting accusations of insufficient preparedness ahead of the flooding — and they will be scrutinizing post-flood opinion polls to see if their ratings are slipping ahead of September’s federal elections.

Caught laughing

Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrats’ electoral candidate to succeed Merkel, has added to the worries of the ruling party. His electoral campaign has not been gaffe-free and on Saturday he was forced to apologize for being seen laughing with aides in the background when accompanying President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on a tour of stricken towns.

Laschet is the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia.

He tweeted later his regrets, saying, “This was inappropriate and I’m sorry. The fate of those affected is close to our hearts, and we have heard of it in many conversations,” he wrote. Photographs of him joking with aides in the background as Steinmeier delivered a somber statement have been carried in most of Germany’s main newspapers.

Laschet’s apology has failed to placate critics. “This is all apparently a big joke,” tweeted Maximilian Reimers of the far-left Die Linke opposition party. “How could he be a chancellor?” “I’m speechless,” tweeted Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the center-left Social Democrats, who govern in a coalition with the Christian Democrats.

Laschet, like most of Germany’s mainstream politicians, have linked the floods to climate change, but the Green Party, which has been running strongly in opinion polls, albeit with slippage in recent weeks, has been critical of the Christian Democrats’ climate action plans, saying they don’t go far enough.

This report includes information from AFP.

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England Lifts COVID Restrictions 

Monday is Freedom Day in England. The day has received the moniker because all social restrictions, like mask wearing and maintaining social distancing, that have been imposed to fight against COVID-19 have been lifted.  

The reversal of the restrictions happens amid a rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations in England, largely driven by the delta variant of the virus.

  

Freedom Day is also happening as Sajid Javid, Britan’s health minister, is self-isolating because he tested positive for COVID. The National Health Service notified British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the finance minister that they had been exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID. 

People who have been notified by the NHS of an exposure are expected to self-isolate. Johnson and Sunak, however, were expecting to participate in a pilot program that would have allowed them to work at Downing Street but decided against it after a public uproar.  

“Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business,” Sunak posted on Twitter, “I recognize that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong. To that end I’ll be self-isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot.” 

In Thailand, protesters demonstrating against the government’s handling of the COVID outbreak clashed with police Sunday in Bangkok, the capital. The protests in the capital and in other locations around the country were in defiance of a ban on public gatherings of more than five people that was recently announced by the government.  

U.S. teenaged tennis sensation Coco Gauff has tested positive for COVID and will not be part of the Tokyo Olympics. The 17-year-old athlete posted on Twitter that “It has always been a dream of mine to represent the USA at the Olympics, and I hope there will be many more chances for me to make this come true in the future.” It was not immediately clear if Gauff had been vaccinated. The Olympic games were canceled last year, but the Olympic committee’s decision to continue with the games this year has received much criticism as the world continues to grapple with the handling of the COVID pandemic.  

190.4 million global COVID cases and more than 4 million deaths from the virus were recorded worldwide early Monday, according to the coronavirus resource center of Johns Hopkins University. The center’s data shows that over 3.6 billion vaccines have been administered so far.