Tag Archives: Markets

Where to Bury Iraq Nuclear and Toxic Waste

Arabian Desert.  image from Wikipedia. Iraq's desert is part of Arabian desert. In this image the yellow line  indicates the ecosystem and the black lines the national boundaries .

Most of the Iraq’s vast deposits of radioactive materials are a legacy of the turbulent regime of former leader Saddam Hussein, and have built up over the last four decades. Other toxic materials can be found in the country’s graveyards of contaminated industrial equipment“The parliament has decided to study the situation again after other provinces [including Dhi Qar] rejected such decision,” said Yahya al-Nasiri, governor of the southern Dhi Qar province.

“The proposals suggest burying the waste outside the country or in the desert…Asked if there are other ways to dispose of the waste, he said “it could possibly be buried in the sea using special containers or be sent to countries willing to take it, in exchange for money.”

While Nasiri said other provinces have rejected a similar request, Dhi Qar’s provincial council voted against the Iraqi parliament’s proposal in early July 2015 to use some of the southern province’s land as a burial site for the radioactive pollutants coming from all other provinces of the country.  Dhi Qar’s health and environment committee head Abdulamir Salim at the time slammed the proposal and said it posed a “real threat to the health and security of the province’s citizens.”..

An official Iraqi study in 2010 found more than 40 sites across the country that were contaminated with high levels or radiation and dioxins.  Iraq “without doubt” suffers from these radioactive pollutants inherited from “continuous wars” starting in the 1980s Iraqi-Iran war to the Gulf War in 1990s till 2003, when the United States used highly advanced weapons – including depleted uranium – in its efforts to topple Hussein’s regime, the governor lamented….However, it is not only war-produced pollutants that harm people’s health in Iraq – in addition, there is a lack of quality controls imposed on imported goods.  Radioactive material is also “the result of imports of car parts from Japan to the province,” he added….Areas around Iraqi cities such as Najaf, Basra and Fallujah accounted for more than 25 percent of the contaminated sites, with the southern city of Basra – the frontline during Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War – having 11 sites, according to the 2010 study.

The study, carried out by the environment, health and science ministries found that scrap metal yards in and around the capital Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionizing radiation, which is thought to come from depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf war and since the 2003 invasion.  “The U.S. army unfortunately caused an increase in these radioactive material by using uranium and its advanced arms that use a lot of harmful radioactive material,” Nasiri said. “But the U.S. army did not help nor support our projects to get rid of these pollutants.”

Excerpts from Dina al-Shibeeb, Iraq studying new plan on where to bury radioactive waste, says official, Al Arabiya News, July 18, 2015

Finance: the BlackRock Dominance

BlackRock headquarters

BlackRock, an investment manager, owns a stake in almost every listed company not just in America but globally. (Indeed, it is the biggest shareholder in Pearson, in turn the biggest shareholder in The Economist magazine.) Its reach extends further: to corporate bonds, sovereign debt, commodities, hedge funds and beyond. It is easily the biggest investor in the world, with $4.1 trillion of directly controlled assets (almost as much as all private-equity and hedge funds put together) and another $11 trillion it oversees through its trading platform, Aladdin.

Established in 1988 by a group of Wall Streeters led by Larry Fink, BlackRock succeeded in part by offering “passive” investment products, such as exchange-traded funds, which aim to track indices such as the S&P 500. These are cheap alternatives to traditional mutual funds, which often do more to enrich money managers than clients (though BlackRock offers plenty of those, too). The sector continues to grow fast, and BlackRock, partly through its iShares brand, is the largest competitor in an industry where scale brings benefits. Its clients, ranging from Arab sovereign-wealth funds to mom-and-pop investors, save billions in fees as a result.

The other reason for its success is its management of risk in its actively managed portfolio. Early on, for instance, it was a leader in mortgage-backed securities. But because it analysed their riskiness zipcode by zipcode, it not only avoided a bail-out in the chaos that followed the collapse of Lehman, but also advised the American government and others on how to keep the financial system ticking in the darkest days of 2008, and picked up profitable money-management units from struggling financial institutions in the aftermath of the crisis.

Compared with the many banks which are flourishing only thanks to state largesse, BlackRock’s success—based on providing value to customers and paying attention to detail—is well-deserved. Yet when taxpayers have spent billions rescuing financial institutions deemed too big to fail, a 25-year-old company that has grown so vast so quickly sets nerves jangling. American regulators are therefore thinking about designating BlackRock and some of its rivals as “systemically important”. The tag might land them with hefty regulatory requirements.

If the regulators’ concern is to avoid a repeat of the last crisis, they are barking up the wrong tree. Unlike banks, whose loans and deposits go on their balance-sheets as assets and liabilities, BlackRock is a mere manager of other people’s money. It has control over investments it holds on behalf of others—which gives it great influence—but it neither keeps the profits nor suffers the losses on them. Whereas banks tumble if their assets lose even a fraction of their value, BlackRock can pass on any shortfalls to its clients, and withstand far greater shocks. In fact, by being on hand to pick up assets cheaply from distressed sellers, an unleveraged asset manager arguably stabilises markets rather than disrupting them.

But for regulators that want not merely to prevent a repeat of the last blow-up but also to identify the sources of future systemic perils, BlackRock raises another, subtler issue, concerning not the ownership of assets but the way buying and selling decisions are made. The $15 trillion of assets managed on its Aladdin platform amount to around 7% of all the shares, bonds and loans in the world. As a result, those who oversee many of the world’s biggest pools of money are looking at the financial world, at least in part, through a lens crafted by BlackRock. Some 17,000 traders in banks, insurance companies, sovereign-wealth funds and others rely in part on BlackRock’s analytical models to guide their investing.

That is a tribute to BlackRock’s elaborate risk-management models, but it is also discomfiting. A principle of healthy markets is that a cacophony of diverse actors come to different conclusions on the price of things, based on their own idiosyncratic analyses. The value of any asset is discovered by melding all these different opinions into a single price. An ecosystem which is dominated by a single line of thinking is not healthy,

The rise of BlackRock, Ecomomist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 13

Challenging the State: airtime as currency

Cellphone Repair Kiosk,image from wikipedia

Pre-paid minutes can be swapped for cash or spent in shops most easily in Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana and Uganda, says Chris Chan of Tranglo, a Malaysian firm that facilitates “airtime remittances” to mobile phones. Airtime is commonly used as money in Nigeria, too. Hannes Van Rensburg, Visa’s boss for sub-Saharan Africa, says this is partly because regulators there have made it difficult for banks to offer the newer form of mobile money.  But even in places like Kenya, airtime minutes are still being used as currency. Unlike mobile money, airtime’s value does not rely directly on a government’s stability or ability to hold down inflation by, say, showing restraint printing money. Opening a mobile-money account typically requires waiting for days after showing your ID. In contrast, airtime can often be purchased and sent immediately and anonymously. Because many telecoms firms in Africa and elsewhere transfer minutes nationwide free of charge, airtime is especially useful for settling small debts.

In Zimbabwe, for example, American banknotes have largely replaced the hyperinflation-ravaged Zimbabwean dollar. American coins are scarce, however, so pretty much everybody in Zimbabwe transfers airtime in their place at least occasionally, says Oswell Binha, president of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce in Harare. …The use of airtime as currency is fuelled by the growing ease of sending minutes abroad. A Dublin firm called ezetop, for example, sells airtime for 238 telecoms firms via the web, text messaging and about 450,000 shops in 20 countries. The value of international airtime transfers has doubled from $350m in 2011 to $700m in 2012, estimates Berg Insight, a consultancy.

Some authorities are concerned about airtime’s use as money. As one industry executive puts it, network operators are, in effect, “issuing their own currency” and setting its exchange rate; central banks tend to dislike such things. Others worry that airtime could be used by criminal or extremist groups to move money covertly. According to a senior official at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body in Paris, it appears that some groups buy top-up scratch cards in one country and sell the airtime in another.

The FATF is studying over 50 instances of “suspicious” dealing in airtime from the past two years and plans to issue new guidelines early this year. It is likely that countries and firms will be asked to set rules to obtain more data on buyers and sellers. Transfer caps may also end up lower. But such rules must be set against the good that tradable airtime still does

The other type of mobile money: Airtime is money, Economist, Jan. 19, at 72

What Iraq and EU have in Common? Nuclear Waste

Iraq Toxic sites.  Image from  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/22/iraq-nuclear-contaminated-sites

The Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology on Thursday (December 20th) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the European Union (EU) to build a $2.6 million landfill for dumping radioactive nuclear waste, according to a ministry statement. During a joint press conference with Iraqi Science and Technology Minister Abdul Karim al-Sammarae, the head of the EU Delegation to Iraq, Ambassador Jana Hybášková, said the memorandum will complete joint activities and programmes that began in 2008.

The grant allocates money to design and prepare a landfill and train Iraqi scientists in the field, she said. Al-Sammarae said the MoU is slated to take effect for a maximum of three years, during which all destroyed nuclear facilities are to be liquidate

EU to build $2.6 million radioactive waste landfill for Iraq, http://www.al-shorfa.com,  Dec, 21, 2012

——-

More than 40 sites across Iraq are contaminated with high levels or radiation and dioxins, with three decades of war and neglect having left environmental ruin in large parts of the country, an official Iraqi study has found.  Areas in and near Iraq’s largest towns and cities, including Najaf, Basra and ­Falluja, account for around 25% of the contaminated sites, which appear to coincide with communities that have seen increased rates of cancer and birth defects over the past five years. The joint study by the environment, health and science ministries found that scrap metal yards in and around Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionising radiation, which is thought to be a legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf war and since the 2003 invasion.

The environment minister, Narmin Othman, said high levels of dioxins on agricultural lands in southern Iraq, in particular, were increasingly thought to be a key factor in a general decline in the health of people living in the poorest parts of the country.  “If we look at Basra, there are some heavily polluted areas there and there are many factors contributing to it,” ­she told the Guardian. “First, it has been a battlefield for two wars, the Gulf war and the Iran-Iraq war, where many kinds of bombs were used. Also, oil pipelines were bombed and most of the contamination settled in and around Basra. “The soil has ended up in people’s lungs and has been on food that people have eaten. Dioxins have been very high in those areas. All of this has caused systemic problems on a very large scale for both ecology and overall health.”…

Ten of those areas have been classified by Iraq’s nuclear decommissioning body as having high levels of radiation. They include the sites of three former nuclear reactors at the Tuwaitha facility – once the pride of Saddam ­Hussein’s regime on the south-eastern outskirts of Baghdad – as well as former research centres around the capital that were either bombed or dismantled between the two Gulf wars.

Bushra Ali Ahmed, director of the Radiation Protection Centre in Baghdad, said only 80% of Iraq had so far been surveyed. “We have focused so far on the sites that have been contaminated by the wars,” he said. “We have further plans to swab sites that have been destroyed by war.  “A big problem for us is when say a tank has been destroyed and then moved, we are finding a clear radiation trail. It takes a while to decontaminate these sites.”

Scrap sites remain a prime concern. Wastelands of rusting cars and war damage dot Baghdad and other cities between the capital and Basra, offering unchecked access to both children and scavengers.

Othman said Iraq’s environmental degradation is being intensified by an acute drought and water shortage across the country that has seen a 70% decrease in the volume of water flowing through the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  “We can no longer in good conscience call ourselves the land between the rivers,” she said. “A lot of the water we are getting has first been used by Turkey and Syria for power generation. When it reaches us it is poor quality. That water which is used for agriculture is often contaminated. We are in the midst of an unmatched environmental disaster.”

Excerpts from Martin Chulov, Iraq littered with high levels of nuclear and dioxin contamination, study finds, Guardian, Jan. 22, 2010

What is In-Q-Tel? the technological branch of the CIA

Throughout its lifetime, the CIA has operated at the cutting edge of science and technology. From the U-2 spy plane to the CORONA satellite, CIA’s “wizards of Langley” earned a reputation for bold innovation and risk taking, working in advance of the private sector and other branches of government. Much of CIA’s technology success was a result of identifying gaps and opportunities.  By the late 1990s, the pace of commercial innovation had overtaken the ability of government agencies to develop and incorporate new technologies. Private industry represented technical insights and innovation far too important to ignore. Driven by private sector R&D investment, these commercial technologies addressed many of the same information technology, biotechnology, communications, and energy challenges that faced the Intelligence Community.

In 1998, CIA identified technology as a top strategic priority, and set out a radical plan to create a new venture that would help increase the CIA’s access to private sector innovation. In-Q-Tel was chartered in February 1999 by a group of private citizens at the request of the Director of Central Intelligence and with the support of the U.S. Congress. IQT was tasked with building a bridge between the Agency and a new set of technology innovators.

From the website IQT

IQT portfolio

Forest Ownership: government or the people?

Indonesia remains Asia’s most-forested nation, but it has suffered serious deforestation in recent decades, contributing to Indonesia’s status as the third-largest emitter of carbon after the U.S. and China.  And perhaps there is no starker example than Borneo — roughly three-quarters of which belongs to Indonesia, the rest to Malaysia and Brunei.  Conservationists are urging Indonesia’s government to respect the Dayak’s rights to their traditional lands and to affirm their stewardship of the forests based on their animist religion. But in much of Borneo, it appears too late.

Where forests once stood, towns now hum with traffic and commerce. According to Indonesian government statistics, 60 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been cut down. Only 8 percent of its virgin forests remain, mostly in national parks. Western Borneo is the most denuded.  Efforts to combat deforestation are under way. In May, the Indonesian government announced a two-year moratorium on cutting down virgin forests. As well, a U.N.-backed scheme will see developed countries paying Indonesia to protect its rainforests.  But it’s too soon to say how effective these measures will be, calling into question the sustainability of Indonesia’s current economic boom, which is largely dependent on the extraction of natural resources.

Andy White, a coordinator at the Washington, D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of groups focusing on land rights, says confusion over property rights [generates conflict]. “Seventy percent of the territory of the country, tens of millions of people are essentially squatters on their own historic lands,” he says. “And over 20,000 villages are in this contested status, basically sitting on land that they think is their own and the ministry of forestry claims as their own.”  In the future, the children and grandchildren of the indigenous people will not own these lands. They will become beggars or criminals, because the bounty before their eyes is no longer theirs.  Corruption is endemic at all levels of government in Indonesia, but some observers point to the forestry ministry as an egregious example. A recent expose in Indonesia’s Tempo magazine accuses officials from the forestry ministry of filling their political party’s war chests with bribes, which businessmen pay in exchange for tracts of forested land.  The ministry denies the allegations. But Kuntoro Mangkusobroto, a troubleshooter for Indonesia’s president and the chairman of a government task force on deforestation and climate change, says the reports are “not surprising.”  Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission will investigate suspected illegal grants of forested land, but Kuntoro says that the problem has become deeply entrenched and hard to root out. “Forests are a means for the power holder to maintain his power, by giving concessions to the military commander in the regions, governors or those who can support the regime,” he explains. “You cut trees, you got money, OK? And it’s been practiced like that for 40 years.”

Conservationists’ hopes of saving Borneo’s rainforests and its inhabitants’ traditions may be unrealistic, romantic, or simply too late. They may also obscure indigenous peoples’ fight to control the terms on which they develop and modernize. Some Indonesians see the Dayaks as culturally backwards, and many Dayaks themselves seem unsentimental about shedding the ways of their forefathers.

White, of the Rights and Resources Initiative, notes that forests can be re-grown to support communities and store carbon. Indigenous people have the right to choose their own path of development, he adds, and the issue of rights will not go away with the destruction Indonesia’s forests.  “Of course it’s sad, of course it should be stopped, but that does not diminish the importance of this issue,” he says, “or the potential of these lands to be restored and for these communities to live much better lives in the future and for these areas to contribute much, much more to their country’s development.”

Excerpts from Anthony Kuhn, Battle Is Under Way For The Forests Of Borneo, NPR, Aug.21, 2011

See also Rights and Resources Initiative