"And there shall be famines..." (Mat.24.7)
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When Fidel Castro makes a rare visit to the U.S., he tends to make it count. As the UN's Millennium Assembly convened in New York City last September, Mr. Castro spoke at the Riverside Church in Harlem and delivered a scathing assessment of how the global economy is failing the world's poor and developing countries. We provide several short excerpts in this "Read My Lips" feature.
What happened to per capita income? "In more than 100 countries, the per capita income is lower than it was 15 years ago. In the Third World, there are 1.3 billion poor people. In other words, one out of every five inhabitants lives in poverty."
How many people go to bed hungry? "More than 820 million people in the world suffer from hunger; and 790 million of them live in the Third World."
What does that mean for life expectancy? "At the moment of birth, an inhabitant of the Third World can expect to live 18 years less than another of the industrialized world.
"Life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is barely 48 years. That is 30 years less than in the developed countries.
"It is estimated that 654 million people living in countries of the South today will not live past 40--almost half my age."
What about the children? "More than 11 million boys and girls under five years of age die every year in the Third World from diseases that are largely preventable. That means more than 30,000 every day, 21 every minute, and almost a thousand since this rally began, about 45 minutes ago.
"In the Third World, 64 children out of every 1,000 born live die before reaching one year of age."
Those who survive, how do they live? "Two out of every five children in the Third World suffer from retarded growth, and one in every three is underweight for their age.
"I said 64 out of every 1,000 as an average for all the Third World countries, and that includes Cuba, whose infant mortality rate is slightly under seven. But, there are numerous countries in Africa where more than 200 children out of every 1,000 live births die every year before the age of five."
How does this compare to money spent on other things? "All of this is happening at a time when, throughout the world, 800 billion dollars are put into military spending, 400 billion are spent on narcotic drugs, and a trillion dollars are invested in commercial advertising.
"By the end of 1998, the Third World's external debt amounted to 2.4 trillion dollars, that is, four times the total in 1982, only 18 years ago."
What happened to all the debt payments--any relief yet? "Between 1982 and 1998, these countries paid over 3.4 trillion dollars for debt servicing; in other words, almost a trillion dollars more than the current debt. Far from decreasing, the debt grew by 45% in those 16 years."
So, how do the wealthy nations help the poor? "While flows of official development assistance in 1992 represented 0.33% of the developed countries' gross national product, by 1998, six years later, that percentage had dropped to 0.23%, far below the 0.7% goal set by the United Nations. Therefore, while the wealthy world is becoming increasingly wealthy, contributions to the development of the large number of poor people decrease every year."
More than 800 million people still suffer from hunger or diseases associated with undernourishment, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said in its annual report.
Though the figure is well down from the 960 million estimated to be suffering from hunger 30 years ago, a backlog of unresolved problems remains amid new challenges, risks and uncertainties, said the report, entitled "The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA-2000)."
Yet the eradication of hunger, though an arduous task, can be achieved. The FAO report noted that present world food production is more than sufficient to feed the world's six billion inhabitants.
Wars, armed conflicts and civil strife are major factors of food insecurity, the report stressed, noting that "food supply disruptions associated with (political instability and conflicts) have led to the outbreak or persistence of serious food emergency situations in a large number of countries--currently more than 30--around the world."
Between 1970 and 1997, total losses of agricultural production caused by conflict is estimated at around 121 billion dollars, an average of 4.3 billion dollars a year.
The number of food emergencies arising from human-induced factors "were a determining factor in more than 50 percent of cases" by late 1999 according to SOFA-2000.
Fresh water systems around the world are so environmentally degraded they are losing their ability to support human, animal and plant life, according to a new report released by the World Resources Institute. Their decline will mean increased water shortages for people and rapid population loss or extinction for many other species.
"The findings are very disturbing," said Jonathan Lash, president of the Washington, D.C.-based policy research center. "We're just using way more water than the earth can afford to give us."
While many regions have ample water supplies, four out of every 10 people live in river basins with water scarcity, the report says. It predicts that by 2025, at least 3.5 billion people--roughly half the world's population--will experience water shortages.
Only about 1 percent of the water on the planet is fresh water available for human use, Lash said. Agriculture accounts for 93 percent of fresh water use, producing runoff that degrades water quality with silt and chemicals, the report says.
Also being depleted is the world's groundwater, the sole source of drinking water for 1.5 billion people, the report says.
Twenty percent of the world's 10,000 fresh water fish species have become extinct, threatened or endangered in recent decades.
BORSHETAU, Uzbekistan--Every morning, eight-year-old Selima climbs several feet down into a well and hands up pail after pail of brackish water to her mother.
It is a chore she has performed every day this summer after rains failed in the parched Karakalpakstan region, killing crops and leaving most of its 1.5 million people in the grip of a drought that experts say could lead to starvation this winter.
"The crops have died and we have no work, no money and no food," said Sagyntay Oinarov, a bearded patriarch whose hut stands near the once-abandoned hole that now provides water for Borshetau's 350 people.
"The only thing we do now is hunt for water to drink, but what we shall do in winter, God only knows." For miles around, the fields are bowls of swirling dust, which has settled in ghostly layers on shrubs, the villagers' bodies and their thatched mud huts.
A stranger would find it hard to believe this arid land half the size of Italy, in western Uzbekistan, once bordered the sea. The Aral, the world's fourth largest inland body of water, has receded hundreds of miles since the 1960s, leaving in its wake villages stricken with a dwindling water supply, summers that are hotter and soil that is saltier with each passing year.
Humanitarian agencies say about one million people could face starvation this winter, with more than a third of Uzbekistan's 24 million population suffering from drought.
Even the underground water that Selima and her mother spend hours collecting is deadly. Rudy Rodriguez, the UNICEF representative in Uzbekistan, says most water in the area is highly saline, killing vegetation and causing stunted growth and damage to internal organs in people as well as animals.
In Moinaq, a few hours drive from Borshetau, jetties and ships are marooned in the sand like giant whales, reminders of a port that flourished just 35 years ago. If anything, the situation here is even worse than in Borshetau.
"By 1980 the river was just a trickle when it reached the Aral," recalls 66-year-old Sergei Bakaushin, former head of a flotilla of fishing boats that caught 15,000 tons of sturgeon every year. "We had to sail further each year to find fish." The last fishing boat set sail from Moinaq in May 1983 and returned with exactly one fish. That day Bakaushin quit his job.
Since then large parts of the Aral have turned into a giant wasteland, whose salt has been blown by the winds and covered Karakalpakstan, leaving much of the soil unfit for agriculture. The exposed seabed is now as big as the Netherlands.
A new analysis of detailed satellite photos of the earth's land mass and other data is helping scientists determine the state of global agriculture. Their conclusion: It's in trouble.
Previous data has assessed individual agricultural systems, but the U.N.-affiliated International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is looking at the whole world and concludes that nearly 40 percent of farmland is seriously degraded.
Soil erosion, loss of organic matter, hardening of soil, chemical penetration, nutrient depletion, excess salinity and other damaging influences on soil have left much of the world's potential and previous agricultural land unusable, according to the new analysis.
The research says 75 percent of all cropland in Central America is seriously degraded, 20 percent in Africa and 11 percent in Asia.
Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the U.N.'s Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, of which IFPRI is a part, said the new mapping raises new concerns about the world's ability to feed itself.
The problem is the worst in developing countries, he said. "These are precisely the regions where the greatest growth in food production will be needed, but where all indications are that achieving such growth will be the most difficult."
Tornadoes, hurricanes and floods are the stuff of television drama; they make people sit up and take notice. Not so with drought. It is a far more subtle weather catastrophe that "sneaks up on you" and consequently commands little awe or respect, says Dr. Donald A. Wilhite, a Nebraska climatologist who is an expert on the subject.
Although it might not stir the emotions, in an average year drought is responsible for about as much economic damage as floods and hurricanes combined. According to figures compiled by Dr. Wilhite's organization, drought costs the nation $6 billion to $8 billion a year on average, compared with $2.4 billion for floods and $1.2 billion to $4.8 billion for hurricanes.
And in 2000, much of the U.S. midsection and a broad swath of its southern tier from Arizona to Florida--roughly a quarter of the territory of the contiguous 48 states--is experiencing a moderate to severe drought.
Many experts believe that with the world's climate warming as it is, droughts will become more frequent and severe.
Megadroughts lasting a century or two are known to have occurred in what is now California over the last 3,500 years. Droughts of similar severity have also been implicated in the downfall of the empire of the Maya in Central America a millennium ago; the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia 4,200 years ago (that drought lasted 300 years) and several pre-Inca cultures in South America.
But it does not take a megadrought to bring disaster, and the record of past dry spells contains several smaller ones that would surely devastate much of the U.S. if they materialized again.
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|Articles on this Page
Fidel Castro on the world economy
One in eight hungry
Water systems in trouble
Time running out for drought-hit Aral Sea region
Half of farm soil imperiled
Drought, the undramatic disaster
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