Myanmar: Heroes and Villains

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Feb 23 2021 – Myanmar’s State Counsellor was recently deposed and arrested along with other leaders of her ruling party – National League for Democracy (NLD). The Leader of Tatmadaw, the Military, Min Aung Hlaing, announced that elections in November last year had been fraudulent and in an “effort to save democracy” the military would now rule the nation for at least one year, until new elections could be organised. Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of “importing ten or more walkie-talkies” and of violating the nation’s “Natural Disaster Law”. Some might agree that Suu Kyi deserves to be locked up. As an admired role model and Nobel Peace Prize winner, she was globally depicted as an almost saintlike being, canonized in movies like Luc Bessons’s The Lady. U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, watched the movie before she in 2011 visited Suu Kyi, who by then had spent altogether fifteen years in house imprisonment, deprived of the company of an ailing and eventually dying husband and two sons. In spite of her forced isolation she became an eloquent representative for her compatriots’ resistance and perseverance under almost fifty years of military dictatorship.

Since 25 August 2017, over 742,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh. While Thailand continues to host some 99,000 Burmese refugees in nine temporary camps along the Thai/Myanmar border. The inmates are in their great majority ethnic Karen, who have fled eastern Myanmar due to army persecution. Furthermore, there are approximately 600,000 Burmese migrant workers residing in Thailand. The income gap in Myanmar is among the widest in the world, while a large proportion of the economy remain in the control of supporters of the military.

The 2020 election proved Suu Kyi’s popularity among the majority of Myanmar’s electorate. She is after all the daughter of the nation’s founding father, Aung San, who together with seven council members was murdered in 1947, on the brink of Burma’s liberation from sixty years of British colonial rule. None of the perpetrators were caught, but a former prime minister placed by the British was hanged as instigator of the crime. It was later established that the killers had been provided with arms by “low-ranking British officers”. Upholding her father’s inheritance as a fighter for the rights and well-being of the Burmese people, Suu Kyi suffered intimidation and discrimination from the military regime, as well as being targeted by several murder attempts. Why is such a brave woman now is severely criticised by international governments, UN organisations and human rights groups?

For sure, no role model is exempt from human flaws. As a convinced Buddhist and proud Bamar it might happen that Suu Kyi fears Muslim fundamentalism and ethnic disaggregation, at the same time as she has to safeguard support from her acolytes. Furthermore, being a gifted speaker and author does not automatically make you into a stout politician and economist. After becoming State Counsellor, Suu Kyi has been globally criticised for her failure to effectively address Myanmar’s economic and ethnic problems. The latter has since the end of World War II caused one of the worlds biggest ongoing refugee crises and continuous ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, a slow economic recovery and a weakening of the freedom of the press have led to a mounting criticism of Suu Kyi’s leadership, which by foreign media has been described as “imperious, distracted and out of touch” (The Economist, 26 Oct. 2017).

The government of Myanmar recognizes 135 different ethnic groups, about 70 percent is constituted by the Buddhist Bamar people, who speak Burmese and live on the river plains and in the delta. The country is since 1948 a confederate nation, though a significant number of minority peoples demand increased self-government, and even nationhood, something that in several areas have resulted in endemic armed struggle.

One of these minorities are the Rohingyias, of whom most are Muslims and reside in the western Rakhine state, bordering the sea and Bangladesh. This area has for centuries above all been influenced by “Bengali People”, strengthened by British colonial rule that integrated Burma with its colonial Indian empire, the Raj, causing a strong influx of Bengali workforce and traders, an influence resented by several Burmese. During World War II many Muslims joined the British army, while Burmese, among them Aung San, Suu Kyi’s Father, sided with the Japanese invaders, hoping for liberation from British rule. By the end of the war the Japanese supporting Burmese Army, lead by Aung San, changed sides and ousted the Japanese alongside British troops.

The Myanmar government has until now considered Rohingyas as colonial and postcolonial migrants, while avoiding the term Rohingya by referring to them as Bangali. Under the 1982 Myanmar Sate Nationality Law approximately 1.5 million Rohingyas are denied Burmese citizenship; their freedom of movement is restricted and they are excluded from state education and civil service. In 2012, the Burmese President declared that all Rohingyas should be deported or placed in UNHCR refugee camps, while Suu Kyi recently has stated that a proper investigation is needed to find out which country the Rohingya people should belong to.

After a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2017 killed 99 Hindus the Myanmar military conducted a violent campaign against the entire Rohingya population and 690,000 Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh, where most of them now remain confined in huge refugee camps. At the same time, ethnic conflicts escalated in the north-eastern federal states of Shan and Kachin causing thousands of refugees to enter China.

On 13 September 2017, Suu Kyi announced that she would not be attending a UN General Assembly debate to discuss the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and in December 2019, she defended in the International Court of Justice at the Hague the Burmese military against allegations of genocide. In her speech of over 3,000 words, Suu Kyi did not use the term Rohingya and stated that the allegations of genocide were “incomplete and misleading”, claiming hat the situation had actually been a legitimate Burmese military response to terrorist attacks. Suu Kyi’s government has apparently taken steps to issue ID cards for residency for Rohingyas, but so far they have not been given any guarantees of citizenship.

It is unreasonable to put all the blame of the wrongdoing of an entire government on one specific woman, just as well as it is wrong to canonize a living person, particularly within such an extremely complicated situation as the one prevailing in Myanmar. However, it might be viable to accuse the military leadership from profiting from endemic ethnic tensions and use them as a means to increase their power and enrichment.

In 1962, the Burmese military overthrew a corrupt government and instituted military rule. The state ideology came to be known as The Burmese Way to Socialism and aimed at centralizing the economy, as well as limiting foreign influence on businesses. The emphasis on socialism and nationalism projected an image of the army as a revolutionary institution able to ensure the population’s “social demands”. The military government nationalized the economy while pursuing a policy of autokraty, self-sufficiency, involving economic isolation from the world. However, the implementation of autokraty eventually led to the growth of the black market and rampant smuggling, while the central government slid into bankruptcy.

The constant struggle with separatist armed groups in federal states bordering China, Laos and Thailand toughened the army and turned it into an effective war machine, as well as the constant fighting became an excuse to militarise vast areas, providing the army with control of lucrative natural resources, like timber, petrol, natural gas and the mining of gems, zinc, copper and lead. During the decades leading up to 2011 two military-owned conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (MEHL) made it possible for military leaders and associates to grab licenses, land and economic concessions. At the same time Government bureaucracy was dominated by retired military personnel. Suu Kyi’s government eventually became bolder and in 2019 gradually began to de-militarise the country, a major achievement was ending the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs’ right to appoint government officials across the country.

If Besson’s The Lady focused on Ms. Suu Kyi as a human rights’ icon, Ridley Scott’s 2007 movie American Gangster paid attention to Khun Saa, a war lord in the federal state of Shan. Saa’s opium founded empire may serve as an illustration of the fatal symbiosis between Myanmar military regimes, illegal drug trade and ethnic guerillas. Khun Saa originally received equipment and training from both the remnants of the Chinese Kuomintang army and the Burmese army. Between 1976 and 1996 he commanded a private army, alternately fighting and co-operating with the Burmese military, as well as Laotian and Thai generals. During the Vietnam War he co-operated with corrupt U.S. officers. During the 1980s the share of heroin sold in New York originating from the so called Golden Triangle rose from 5 to 80 percent. Khun Sa was responsible for almost 50 percent of the U.S. heroin trade.

In return for fighting local Shan rebels the Burmese army allowed Khun Saa to use their land and roads to grow, process and trade heroin and several Burmese military leaders profited from this co-operation. In 1996, Khun Saa disbanded his army and moved to Yangon. After his retirement some of Khun Saa’s forces joined the Burmese military, others fought the Government, while Khun Saa engaged in “legitimate” business, especially mining and construction. After his death in 2007 Khun Saa’s children have remained as prominent business people in Myanmar.

Myanmar is after Afghanistan the world’s largest producer of opium and the greatest manufacturer of synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. Its production is rising and it is known that militias from the northern Shan State are allied with government troops, which are engaged in resource extraction, logging, money laundering and, of course, illicit narcotics. A constantly unruly and militarised countryside benefits from illicit activities, enriching both sides of a conflict, a reality which combined with the self-interest and economic power of a military regime do not bode well for Myanmar’s future.

Nevertheless, let us hope that the latest unfortunate development will be a wake-up call for Myanmar’s young people, whom a taste of democracy has made aware of how power abuse has infested military leaders, who consciously have used ethnic strife to benefit their politics and economy. Maybe peace, solidarity and prosperity now are coming to the forefront in the minds of young people who for so long have been poisoned by political narratives about ethnic minorities.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.


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Natural Enemies: How Mango Farmers are Tackling an Invasive Fruit Fly Pest

Mango farmers Susan and Batsirai Zinoro from Mutoko District, Zimbabwe are using Integrated Pest Management methods to control a fruit fly pest. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Feb 23 2021 – Every harvest season, Susan Zinoro, a mango farmer from Mutoko, Zimbabwe, buries half the mangoes she’s grown that season. They have already started rotting either on the tree or have fallen to the ground before harvest. It’s a difficult task for Zinoro because she knows she is throwing away food and income meant for her family.

But this has been happening for the last seven years, when she first began to notice that more and more fruit would rot and litter the ground.

Zinoro from Zinoro village in Mutoko, 143km north-east of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has earned an average $400 per season from selling mangoes over the last five years. This is a shift from many years ago when she would earn more than $1,000 a season.

Another farmer, Pelegrina Msingwini, from Mhondiwa village in Murehwa, which neighbours Mutoko, remembers just two years ago when she harvested and sold 150 (20-litre) buckets of fruit from her plot. Half were rejected at the market because they were damaged. In 2020, she harvested even less mangoes, only 30 buckets.

Warming climate brings destructive pest

As the climate warms, a destructive pest is spreading its wings and damaging the livelihoods of fruit growers in southern Africa. The invasive fruit fly, Bactrocera dorsalis, is so small it’s often mistaken for a mosquito.

It has become is a serious impediment to mango farmers as it can cause total fruit loss, the ruin livelihoods and export prospects for the tropical fruit, Shepard Ndlela, an entomologist with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), based in Nairobi, Kenya, tells IPS.

Mutoko, Murehwa and Zvimba are Zimbabwe’s top mango-producing areas.

“In Mutoko [Zimbabwe] only, about 55 percent of households produce and sell mangoes together with other fruits such as bananas, guava and citrus,” Ndlela tells IPS, adding that, “They call mango “the golden fruit” thus depicting the true value of the fruit for food, nutrition and source of income.”

But approximately half of the 400,000 metric tonnes of mangoes produced each year are lost as a result of the fruit fly, says Ndlela. Uncontrolled, the pest can inflict 100 percent yield loss.

Scientists at ICIPE, supported by various donors, have developed an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) package.

It’s an approach to crop production and protection which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes as combining different strategies and practises to grow healthy crops, minimising the use of pesticides. The environment-friendly methods, which include use of natural enemies of crop pests and bio-pesticides, discourage the development of pest populations by encouraging the natural pest controls.

According to the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, best practice in sustainable food production also involves efforts to eradicate worst practices which include the overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

In 2020, in Zimbabwe’s top mango producing areas, the farmer have started doing just that when a natural enemy to the fruit fly was introduced.

A farmer’s friend for a nasty fly

Parasitoids are small insects that are natural enemies of the fruit fly, which lay their eggs in the body of the insect pest, completing their development inside the host and killing it. They are naturally found in Asia where the fruit fly pest is indigenous.

Scientists from ICIPE imported parasitoids for the fruit fly from Hawaii in 2006 for multiplication. Since then parasitoids have been multiplied in Kenya and have been distributed in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Parasitoids have been successfully used in East and West Africa where the fruit fly has been controlled with an up to 33 percent success rate, Ndlela says.

“What we have done is to unite the pest (fruit fly) and its natural enemies (parasitoids),” Ndlela tells IPS.

“Once released into the environment in good numbers, they multiply themselves in the field and move around. This is a biological control programme where we release parasitoids and nature takes its course,” Ndlela says.

Ndlela explains that farmers do not have to buy the parasitoids because ICIPE is training its partners in Southern Africa to mass produce the parasitoids for release to farmers.

Wide-scale adoption of other IPM interventions such as baiting techniques, killing of male flies to reduce their population, using bio pesticides and orchard sanitation, are being promoted in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe under a four-year pilot project targeting 4,000 farmers across the region.

The project seeks to improve food security and nutrition, provide income-generation opportunities, and reduce the poverty of small- and medium-scale mango growers, particularly women and youth.

Zinoro and her husband, Batsirai, are part of 1,000 Zimbabwean farmers trained on IPM methods.

More than 1,500 parasitoids were released at Zinoro’s mango orchard during the launch of the project. Once established on the farm the parasitoids do not need farmer intervention and will populate and prey on the pest.

“We have learnt that these insects (parasitoids) are friends of the farmer but an enemy of the fruit fly which is the enemy of our mangoes,” Zinoro says.

“The programme is helping improve our livelihoods because we are eliminating a pest that has affected mangoes from which we get income,” Zinoro, tells IPS from outside her homestead overlooking a field of towering mango trees. Some of the fruit trees have bright yellow plastic buckets dangling under fruit-laden branches — fly traps.

Research by ICIPE has found that in East Africa, farmers using the IPM package spent 46 percent less on synthetic insecticides per acre, reducing rejection of their fruit by half. As a result, farmers earned 22 percent more income than those not implementing IPM.

“We want to get to a point where the fruit fly is not causing any economic damage,” says Ndlela, explaining that the project was inviting agro-dealers to supply traps, lures and bio-pesticides at affordable prices to farmers to promote the wide use of IPM methods.

Adding value

The use of IPM strategies will enable fruit growers from Zimbabwe to meet the phytosanitary requirements for both domestic and export markets like the European Union, said John Bhasera, Zimbabwe’s Permanent Secretary of Agriculture, at the project launch in Mutoko last December.

Bhasera commented that increased mango productivity and quality will support horticulture farmers and open opportunities for value addition of the fruit.

The European Union, a key market for fruit, including mangoes from Africa, requires a phytosanitary certificate from exporting countries to indicate the fruit is free from pests.

Horticulture farmer, Phineas Chinomora, from Chinomona village in Mutoko, grows tomatoes and green mealies and has 56 mango trees on his farm. He is excited about IPM and sees an opportunity to improve his mango production while doing away with commercial pesticides.

“Over the years, I have lost a lot of mangoes to pests and was not sure about the cause. This programme will help me improve my production as I have introduced a lot of grafted mango trees under the programme and reducing pesticides will cut costs,” Chinomora tells IPS.

“We have to send our mangoes to Harare, incurring huge transport costs and we get low prices, so improving production and the quality of my mangoes will help us make more money,” Chinomora says. “We can now look at adding value to our mangoes by making juice and jam.”


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How Technology Can Promote Multilingualism & How it Cannot

At a 2018 joint meeting of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its Economic and Social Committee, a robot named Sophia had an interactive session with Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

By Ian Richards and Mohamed Chiraz Baly
GENEVA, Feb 23 2021 – Some of you may remember Sophia, the talking robot.

In 2017 and 2018 she toured UN meetings and TV studios, wowing audiences with her thoughts on the future of technology and seemingly engaging in conversations with UN deputy chief, Amina Mohammed and British broadcaster, Piers Morgan.

The UN declared her an innovation champion, Elle magazine put her on their cover and Saudi Arabia granted her citizenship, a hat trick of “firsts” for a robot.

Many were impressed by her human qualities. Yet her ability to follow gazes and respond to questions masked the human input required to provide a lifelike experience and pithy one-liners. Those interviewing her reported ( having to send questions in advance.

And while Sophia certainly created an important debate on the future of artificial intelligence, even her makers, following much criticism, admitted ( that people had been too quick to overestimate her technological ability. Behind the wishful thinking, she was more airline customer service chatbot than human.

Yet while Sophia appears to have disappeared from public view, perhaps as a result of Covid-19 (which also appears to have diminished our faith in airline customer service chatbots), digital diplomacy, as we discovered during this year’s International Mother Tongue Day, isn’t immune to technological overhype.

Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Next month the UN will test a new virtual interpretation system at the 14th Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice to be held in Kyoto. A number of delegates will be travelling there, but the UN’s interpreters in Vienna and New York, that would have normally joined the conference, will instead be staying at home.

Working early morning and late night shifts they will interpret the meeting’s negotiations into the six UN languages over the internet. Think of it as being in a Teams or Zoom meeting. Not only do you have to try and understand exactly what is being said, but you also need to interpret it into another language and feed it back down the same line.

The biggest challenge won’t be “you’re on mute,” but the poor sound quality.

Experience from using the system during lockdown, when there was no other choice, showed how poor sound quality and failing connections made the work more daunting, as interpreters need a higher quality of sound than a normal listener to perform their job correctly.

Interpreters reported acute acoustic shock, tinnitus, headaches, and nausea. The poor sound quality is because the platforms currently on the market compress the sound to push the back and forth of languages down the line at the same time. None of the systems are ISO-compliant.

The UN is not alone with these problems.

An article ( on the Canadian parliament, which operates in English and French, noted that, “coping with iffy audio quality, occasional feedback loops, new technology and MPs who speak too quickly has resulted in a steep increase in interpreters reporting workplace injuries”.

Assumptions about the powers of technology have also affected the UN’s translators. Following the introduction of a new computer-assisted translation tool, they have been told to increase their daily productivity target from 5 pages of often dense technical text, to 5.8.

The software has been hyped as a google translate on steroids. But a recent survey of its users showed that view was far from shared.

While recognizing its benefits, eighty percent of translators said they would not be able to meet the new productivity targets while maintaining minimum standards of quality. One said the software was “often slow and time consuming, rather than time-saving, and its role is way overrated.”

Another commented that rewriting poor machine translations demanded more time than translating from scratch. Several noted that computer-assisted translations could not compensate an overall decline in the quality of the original texts that translators received.

This year’s International Mother Tongue Day was devoted to multilingualism.

But two years ago, the UN General Assembly rightly noted that “multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, tolerance and dialogue”, and recognized its contribution in “promoting international peace and security”.

Technology has an important role in promoting communications between linguistic groups, and has already made an important difference. But as with Sophia, this year we need to be as much aware of what it can do as what it can’t.


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Cuba Prioritises Sustainable Water Management in the Face of Climate Challenges

High-density polyethylene pipe is laid on a street in the Cuban capital, where the Aguas de La Habana water company is upgrading the water supply networks in the municipality of Centro Habana. CREDIT: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

High-density polyethylene pipe is laid on a street in the Cuban capital, where the Aguas de La Habana water company is upgrading the water supply networks in the municipality of Centro Habana. CREDIT: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Luis Brizuela
HAVANA, Feb 23 2021 – With the construction of aqueducts, water purification and desalination plants, and investments to upgrade hydraulic infrastructure, Cuba is seeking to manage the impacts of droughts and floods that are intensifying with climate change.

The “initiative to strengthen hydrological monitoring” in Cuba, signed in Havana on Feb. 11, aims to boost capacities to measure, transmit, process and analyse hydrological variables and systematically assess water availability at the national level.

According to water sector authorities, the modernisation and optimisation of hydrological observation networks will be an essential component of early warning systems for floods and droughts.

The initiative will be implemented by the National Water Resources Institute (INRH), with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funding from Russia.

It also plans to redesign the observation network for both groundwater and surface water quality, explained INRH Director of Hydrology and Hydrogeology Argelio Fernandez.

The initiative is in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which calls on governments to ensure availability and sustainable management of water, as well as sanitation.

It also responds to national policies and priorities contained in “Tarea Vida”, the government plan in place since 2017 to address climate change.

Among its multiple strategic guidelines, the plan aims to ensure the availability and efficient use of water to cope with droughts, based on the application of technologies to save water and meet local demand.

It also urges the optimisation of hydraulic infrastructure and its maintenance, as well as the introduction of actions to measure water efficiency and productivity.

The Ejército Rebelde reservoir is located near the Parque Lenin recreational complex in Havana. Cuba has more than 240 dams with a reservoir capacity of over nine billion cubic metres of water, as part of the infrastructure designed to guarantee a water supply to the population and promote industrial development plans, agricultural irrigation and flood control. CREDIT: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The Ejército Rebelde reservoir is located near the Parque Lenin recreational complex in Havana. Cuba has more than 240 dams with a reservoir capacity of over nine billion cubic metres of water, as part of the infrastructure designed to guarantee a water supply to the population and promote industrial development plans, agricultural irrigation and flood control. CREDIT: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Pathways for water

The long, narrow shape of the island of Cuba, the largest in the Cuban archipelago, means many rivers are short and the water flow is low and highly dependent on rainfall, more abundant in the May to October wet season and during the passage of tropical storms.

With average annual rainfall of 1,330 mm, the records show that rains are increasingly scarce, particularly in the eastern region where the country’s longest and largest rivers, the Cauto and Toa, respectively, are located.

From 2014 to 2017, the country faced the greatest drought in 115 years, affecting 70 percent of the national territory.

Studies predict that Cuba’s climate will tend toward less rainfall, higher temperatures and more intense droughts, and that by 2100 water availability could be reduced by more than 35 percent.

Another consequence of climate change is that sea levels are projected to rise, a phenomenon that will aggravate saltwater intrusion, to which 574 human settlements and 263 water supply sources are currently vulnerable, according to official figures.

Law No. 124 of the Land Water Law has been guiding the integrated and sustainable management of water since 2017, while the new constitution in force since April 2019 protects the right of Cubans to drinking water and sanitation, with due remuneration and rational use.

Since 1959, the government has promoted an ambitious engineering programme for artificial water reservoirs, to guarantee the water supply for a population that almost doubled to 11.2 million inhabitants since then, and to promote plans for industrial development and agricultural irrigation.

The data shows that from just over a dozen small reservoirs six decades ago, there are now more than 240 in the 15 provinces and the special municipality of Isla de la Juventud – the second largest island in the archipelago – with a storage capacity of more than nine billion cubic metres.

According to the 2020 Statistical Yearbook, more than 95 percent of the Cuban population has access to drinking water, but only 86.5 percent of the urban population and 42.2 percent of the rural population receives piped water at home.

Workers of the Aguas de La Habana water company lay a high-density polyethylene pipe to supply drinking water in the Peñas Altas district, near Guanabo beach, in eastern Havana. Part of the hydraulic investments made by Cuba in the sector are supported by international cooperation through projects and funds from other countries and international organisations. CREDIT: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Workers of the Aguas de La Habana water company lay a high-density polyethylene pipe to supply drinking water in the Peñas Altas district, near Guanabo beach, in eastern Havana. Part of the hydraulic investments made by Cuba in the sector are supported by international cooperation through projects and funds from other countries and international organisations. CREDIT: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Despite the economic crisis the country has suffered for three decades and the impact of the U.S. embargo since 1962, in recent years millions of dollars have been invested to mitigate the water deficit and improve water quality.

Among the engineering works, the water transfer aqueducts stand out, with more than a dozen throughout the country, considered strategic pillars in building resilience to the effects of climate change.

These interconnected systems of dams, canals, aqueducts, tunnels and bridges transfer water hundreds of kilometres from places where it is abundant to agricultural and industrial areas and human settlements.

They also make it possible to control floods, lessen the impact of drought and allow the siting of hydroelectric power plants.

Cuba has three plants that produce high-density polyethylene pipes 1,200 mm in diameter for laying new aqueducts and to replace the aging and leaking hydraulic infrastructure that in some cities is over 100 years old.

It also seeks to prioritise the manufacture of fittings and parts for domestic water supply networks, where almost a quarter of the piped water is lost.

Of the total investment in the water system, which in recent years has averaged more than 400 million pesos (16.5 million dollars) a year, more than half comes from the government budget for construction and assembly.

The rest comes from international cooperation through projects and funds from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, Spain, France and the OPEC Fund for International Development.

Thanks to these investments, in the 2018-2020 period, desalination plants were inaugurated in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Guantánamo and the municipality of Isla de la Juventud, in order to create easy access points in populations affected by high levels of salinity in their water supply sources.

Meanwhile, in Camagüey, the third most populated city in Cuba located 538 km east of the capital, a water treatment plant with a capacity to process 1,800 litres of water per second is nearing completion, which will make it the largest in the country.

Although the water that reaches most homes is treated and chlorinated, people remain concerned about the presence of microorganisms or salt that require boiling.

“It would be useful if shops sold water filters more frequently and at affordable prices, because they help protect our health,” a Havana resident, Yolanda Soler, told IPS.

However, building resilience also involves encouraging a water culture in the business and private sectors and among citizens as a whole, hydroeconomics engineer Luis Bruzón, who lives in the western province of Mayabeque, told IPS in a telephone interview.

“Do we know how much water is used to produce a ton of a given agricultural or industrial product or to provide a specific service?” asked Bruzón, who believes that having such data would improve decision-making in a nation that must increasingly optimise and save water.

Developing Countries Struggling To Cope With COVID-19

By Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram
SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 23 2021 – The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is adversely impacting most developing countries disproportionately, especially the United Nations’ least developed countries (LDCs) and the World Bank’s low-income countries (LICs).

Years of implementing neoliberal policy conditionalities and advice have made most developing countries much more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic by undermining their health systems and fiscal capacities to respond adequately.

Anis Chowdhury

Less taxes
Four decades of ‘neoliberal’ policy influence has resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’ to cut direct taxes, particularly corporate tax rates, ostensibly to promote investments and spur growth.

But most LDCs and LICs were left high and dry as foreign direct investment (FDI) seeks profitable locations considering various relevant criteria besides tax rates. Thus, tax cuts have not induced the promised investments, but also resulted in net revenue losses.

Revenue loss due to such tax competition could be five times that due to illicit financial flows seeking to evade taxes. Low and middle-income countries lose US$167~200 billion annually, around 1.2~1.5% of their national incomes, to corporate tax competition.

Poor countries’ tax bases have narrowed since the 1990s, with Sub‐Saharan African countries suffering the highest revenue losses as a share of national incomes. More indirect taxes have not compensated for less direct tax revenues.

Less government spending
As the tax system became less progressive, tax cuts also depleted the public coffers in most developing countries. Pressures on governments to pursue fiscal consolidation and austerity grew, with devastating impacts for public health.

Implementing IMF-World Bank structural adjustment program conditionalities, most sub-Saharan African countries drastically reduced their healthcare budgets. Per capita public spending on health in LICs fell during 2004–2012, while their shares of national income declined during 2004-2015.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Years of public sector underinvestment seriously undermined public health systems in most developing countries, especially LDCs and LICs. Government provision was deliberately reduced to promote for-profit private healthcare, adversely affecting public service quality, effectiveness, costs and access.

Unsurprisingly, these economies not only lacked fiscal resources to cope with the pandemic, but their fiscal systems had also been made incapable of responding to the challenge. Thus, these poorly funded, inadequate health systems were grossly unprepared for the pandemic.

Uneven impacts
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres cautioned last July that COVID-19 was making achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “even more challenging” as many developing countries were already “off track” in 2019, before the pandemic.

On 3rd April, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva warned that the worst recession since the Great Depression would hit developing countries hardest, as they have “less resources to protect themselves”. World Bank President David Malpass also acknowledged that it would “hurt world’s poorest countries the most”.

The pandemic has already set back decades of modest and uneven progress in developing countries. The World Bank recently estimated those falling into extreme poverty worldwide in 2020 at between 119 and 124 million people, i.e., by around 15%.

And the situation is getting worse. Rich country resistance to the developing countries’ request for a TRIPS waiver, vaccine imperialism and the flawed COVAX arrangements are deepening the crisis in poor countries as most remain far behind in the vaccine queue.

To boost their profits, vaccine developers restrict greater output. Despite having received various generous government subsidies, they refuse to share research findings needed to massively scale up generic production. Meanwhile, rich countries have secured many times more vaccines than they need.

Limited fiscal space
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, low income countries already had the largest deficits, higher borrowing costs and more debt relative to government revenue than high-income countries. Thus, they devote ever larger shares of their modest revenues to pay interest.

The pandemic has undoubtedly worsened public finances. Average deficits in LICs increased from -4.0% of GDP in 2019 to -5.7% in 2020, with debt rising from 43.3% to 48.5% of GDP.

Fiscal responses have been influenced by access to financing. Global fiscal support reached nearly US$14 trillion in 2020, comprising US$7.8 trillion in additional spending or foregone revenue, and U$6 trillion in equity injections, loans and guarantees.

Nearly US$12 trillion (about a fifth of GDP) was deployed in advanced economies to address the pandemic and its economic fallout. Meanwhile, LICs could only afford US$26.6 billion (1.2% of GDP), as emerging market economies deployed around 5%.

Declining fiscal space
Countries relying on primary commodity production, tourism or manufacturing for transnational supply chains have been most disrupted by the pandemic. More open to the outside world, their government revenue and fiscal space have been more severely affected.

Revenue shortfalls from output drops, concurrent commodity price drops and debt demands have limited many LICs’ fiscal capacities. The pandemic is thus more likely to leave lasting impacts, including worse poverty and malnutrition.

The IMF head urged countries not to hesitate to “spend, but keep the receipts”, suggesting a major U-turn in IMF fiscal policy advice. Likewise, despite her earlier reputation as a ‘debt hawk’, World Bank Chief Economist Carmen Reinhart advised “First fight the war, then figure out how to pay for it”.

But most LICs have little alternative but to rely heavily on foreign aid. Even before the pandemic, aid from the OECD countries only reached 0.31% of their gross national income (GNI), less than half the 0.7% of national income target agreed to more than half a century ago.

Had donors met their LDCs aid target of 0.15~0.20% of their national incomes, LDCs would have received an extra US$32 billion more annually at least. Donor government cuts in bilateral aid commitments by almost 30%, from US$23.9 billion in the first five months of 2019 to US$16.9 billion during January-May 2020, have only made things worse.

Meanwhile, despite Boris Johnson’s rhetoric about reviving Commonwealth, i.e., colonial, connections now that Britain has ‘Brexited’, he plans to cut bilateral aid by 50~70% following the £2.9 billion cut in July 2020!

Britain is now paying “Covid bills off the backs of the poor”, even breaching UK law! Ever clever on the hoof, BoJo may yet donate the excess vaccines he has ordered to the ‘most deserving’ in another typically spectacular, grandiloquent gesture while continuing to block much broader access by denying developing countries’ TRIPS vaccine waiver request.


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