The World Today for October 09, 2023

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Isthmus, Jammed


Officials operating the Panama Canal recently capped the number of ships passing through the commercial waterway to 31 a day, compared with 32 in August and an average of 36 a month, due to a drought that lowered water levels.

This seemingly minor change matters because around 6 percent of global trade, including about 40 percent of the supply containers from Northeast Asia to the US East Coast, passes through the waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean.

Rain in the Central American country has been insufficient to keep the shipping lane from conveying as many vessels as normal, which under ordinary conditions could hit 38 ships per day, reported the Associated Press. The Panama Canal uses fresh water from Lake Gatun, an artificial lake, to maintain water levels in the canal. (Seawater, in contrast, flows through the Suez Canal.)

As Lake Gatun’s depth plummeted in the drought, ships were waiting in line for nine days to enter the canal; when operating at full capacity the wait is usually two-and-a-half days, wrote Insider. Canal operators estimated they would lose $200 million due to the delays.

Petroleum products, furthermore, are the primary commodities that shippers bring through the canal, the Council on Foreign Relations added. Limited canal traffic therefore puts upward pressure on fuel prices and inflation at a time when central bankers in the West are hiking interest rates to tamp it down.

The problem has been ongoing for months. As the Washington Post explained, the crisis is yet another body blow to supply chains that are now girding for the Christmas shopping season after the brutal few years of the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and other disruptions. This crisis, however, is squarely related to climate change, officials say.

“The main impacts of climate change in Panama are related to the increase in the number, intensity and variability of extreme precipitation events, severe droughts and high temperatures,” said Piedad Martin, the United Nations Environment Programme’s deputy regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Panama and other members of the international community are taking action to address the situation. The watershed that feeds the canal also supplies water to Panama City, the capital, where half the country’s population of 4 million people live.

Panama assumed control of the canal from the US in 1999. The Panamanian government has turned to the American government agency that originally built the canal, the US Army Corps of Engineers, to divert four rivers into the canal and the Panama City watershed over the next 10 years.

Renewing an engineering wonder of the world is no small task.


Boiling Over


A day after a surprise attack on Israel that saw Hamas militants taking over some southern Israeli towns, Israel declared war, dropped bombs on Gaza and tried to regain control of its territory with fierce fighting near the border areas, with over 1,100 people killed in the conflagration, the Wall Street Journal reported.

On Saturday, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel in a coordinated assault involving more than 1,000 fighters that stunned the Jewish nation, Voice of America reported. Militants breached the Israeli/ Gaza Strip security barrier using ground vehicles, motorized paragliders and boats, penetrating at least four military bases and attacking a number of towns.

Hamas officials said they had sent more men and arms across the border Sunday, while continuing to launch missiles. Meanwhile, another Iran-backed militant group, Hezbollah, fired mortar shells and missiles at Israeli targets from southern Lebanon.

Israel, over the weekend, retaliated and by Monday had struck over 1,000 targets in Gaza, its military said. Israel also cut off electricity to the territory and said it would no longer supply power, fuel or other goods there.

So far, more than 700 Israelis, mostly civilians, have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded, a toll that Israel hasn’t experienced in decades. Approximately 260 bodies were found in the aftermath of the attack on the Tribe of Nova outdoor music festival near the Israel/ Gaza border, according to the Associated Press.

On the Palestinian side, at least 400 people have been killed and more than 2,000 injured in Israeli counterstrikes on Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world with 2.3 million people, the AP reported.

Thousands of rockets fell on Israeli cities over the weekend, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Although Israel’s Iron Dome defense system stopped many, some got through, hitting a number of buildings.

On Sunday, the Israeli government evacuated civilians from areas near Gaza, treated hundreds of wounded civilians, recovered the bodies of the dead and tried to ascertain how many Israelis were being held hostage by militants, some of whom had been moved to Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would face difficult days ahead, but that Hamas “will pay an unprecedented price. This war will take time. It will be difficult … (but) we will win.”

Hamas and Israel have been engaged in on-and-off confrontations for years but the recent attack caught Israel off guard, said analysts, who added that the militant group struck as a political crisis over a judicial overhaul continues to consume the country.

The leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, said the assault, named Operation Al-Aqsa Storm, was in response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza, the Israeli occupation and a series of recent incidents, which included settlement expansion and increasing tensions over the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the AP said.

Analysts said the declaration of war announced by Israel’s Security Cabinet was largely symbolic: Still, Yohanan Plesner, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute, a local think tank, told the AP it “demonstrates that the government thinks we are entering a more lengthy, intense and significant period of war.”

Observers added that the new war threatens to disrupt US-brokered talks to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Teeter, Totter


A powerful 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit western Afghanistan over the weekend, causing thousands of casualties in the Central Asian country as it grapples with a humanitarian crisis and international isolation following the Taliban takeover two years ago, the Washington Post reported.

Taliban officials said the earthquake hit near Herat – one of the country’s most populous cities – destroying more than 450 houses and razing a number of villages. Local authorities later reported powerful aftershocks.

Almost 2,450 people died and around 10,000 were injured, according to the Taliban, although the death toll may rise. The national director of the aid group World Vision Afghanistan, Thamindri de Silva, told CNN: “The situation is worse than we imagined with people in devastated villages still desperately trying to rescue survivors from under the rubble with their bare hands.”

Officials compared the destruction to the damage caused by a similar quake in eastern Afghanistan last year.

That natural disaster was considered one of the deadliest in Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 people and prompting concerns about the Taliban government’s ability to respond to such disasters effectively.

Since the Taliban’s takeover in 2021 following the withdrawal of foreign troops, Afghanistan has been facing deepening crises as it grapples with humanitarian and economic challenges, the New York Times added.

Currently, nearly half of its population of 39 million people is dealing with severe hunger, with around three million teetering on the edge of starvation, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

No country has recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate leaders. The armed group has imposed draconian restrictions on women since it came to power, a reversal of its promises. This has led to international calls to cut funding to the country.

Grabbing at Straws


Venezuelan authorities issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader and former interim President Juan Guaido this week, a move that critics say is another attempt to crush the opposition ahead of next year’s elections, CNN reported.

Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab accused Guaido of misusing state-owned oil company resources, saying the opposition leader “caused losses to the nation of $19 billion.” The arrest warrant also includes other charges, such as treason, usurpation of functions and money laundering.

Guaido, who is currently residing in Miami, denied the allegations and challenged President Nicolas Maduro to face justice himself.

A former president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Guaido proclaimed himself as the country’s “interim president” in January 2019 after challenging the re-election of Maduro in 2018, Agence France-Presse noted.

He initially received international support and launched a series of mass demonstrations to oust Maduro. However, his attempts failed to remove the president. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan opposition voted last year to formally end his position as acting president.

The recent charges underscore the ongoing political turmoil in the oil-rich South American country, where the government seeks to consolidate power and weaken the opposition.

The country is scheduled to hold a presidential election in 2024, but concerns about the fairness and transparency of the electoral process persist amid a repressive political climate.

Meanwhile, the United States – a staunch supporter of Guaido – has softened its stance toward Caracas in light of regional turmoil caused by a surge of Venezuelan refugees and inflation.

In a significant policy shift, the US government announced the resumption of deportations of Venezuelans directly to Venezuela in an effort to address the record number of border crossings at the US-Mexico border.

Guaido has called this move part of Maduro’s strategy to gain international recognition as Venezuela’s head of state. At the same time, he says that addressing the root causes of migration, such as restoring democracy in Venezuela, is essential to resolving the migration crisis.


Deconstructing an Icon

The cowboy is an iconic image often associated with the American West.

But new research shows that the first cowboys lived in other regions, such as Mexico and the Caribbean, and a significant number of them were of African descent, according to Science Magazine.

To arrive at this conclusion, scientists analyzed DNA from approximately 400-year-old cow bones excavated from sites in Mexico and Hispaniola island. One key finding is the presence of African cattle DNA in a bone sample from Mexico City dating back to the early 1600s.

The research team explained that the discovery challenges previous assumptions that all cattle in the early colonial period were of European origin. It suggests that colonizers intentionally introduced African cattle to adapt to the tropical climates of the Caribbean and Mexico.

But this arrival of African cattle also coincides with the transatlantic slave trade: Co-author Nicolas Delsol said that Spanish and Portuguese ranchers in the New World “needed trained, skilled workers, and African ranchers were more knowledgeable about raising cattle in tropical environments.”

He added that the Indigenous populations of the Americas had little experience with large, domesticated animals, such as cows.

Historical records from the early 1600s indicate that slave traders were targeting African groups with expertise in cattle herding, such as the Fulani from modern-day Cameroon.

Other researchers hope that the study will help shift the misconception of the origins of the cowboy, while also underscoring the significant contributions of enslaved Africans, who also introduced innovative techniques, such as herding cattle from horseback and using lassos.

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