Sunday, July 29, 2007
Benedicte Kurzen for The New York Times. The lack of reliable power has begun to hamper development in sub-Saharan Africa, shaving more than 2 percent off the annual growth rate in some countries. Above, slag pots at the Chambishi smelter which consumes nearly 40 megawatts of power.
Toiling in the Dark: Africa’s Power Crisis
By MICHAEL WINES
LUSAKA, Zambia — It is not that Jacob Mwale minds irrigating the 11 acres of land he farms just east of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. It is irrigating his 11 acres in the dead of night that angers him.
Two or three times a week, the Mwale farm abruptly loses power, like the homes and businesses of some of Zambia’s 300,000 other electricity users. When the power returns, sometimes late in the evening, Mr. Mwale’s farmhands work overtime, watering the fields by moonlight.
“If they shut down the whole day, I have to work nights, and pay extra,” Mr. Mwale, 39, grumbled. “It’s killing us.”
Power blackouts — “load shedding,” in utility jargon — are hardly novel in sub-Saharan Africa, where many electricity grids remain chewing-gum-and-baling-wire affairs. Even so, this year is different. Perhaps 25 of the 44 sub-Saharan nations face crippling electricity shortages, a power crisis that some experts call unprecedented.
The causes are manifold: strong economic growth in some places, economic collapse in others, war, poor planning, population booms, high oil prices and drought have combined to leave both industry and residents short of power when many need it most.
“We’ve had no significant capital injection into generation and transmission, from either the private or public sectors, for 15, maybe 20 years,” said Lawrence Musaba, the manager of the Southern African Power Pool, a 12-nation consortium of electricity utilities at the continent’s tip.
The implications go beyond candlelight suppers and extra blankets on beds. The lack of reliable power has already begun to hamper the region’s development, clipping more than 2 percent off the annual growth rates of the worst-hit African economies, according to the World Bank. Some nations, like Ghana, have tried to deal with their power crises by leasing huge teams of gas generators, producing emergency power at exorbitant rates until power plants can be built.
In Nigeria, Angola and some other nations, virtually all businesses and many residents run private generators to supplement faltering public service, saddling economies with added costs and worsening pollution.
“I’ve been on the 20th floor of an apartment building in Luanda, and there would be generators on all the verandas, with the racket, the fumes,” said Anton Eberhard, a former electricity regulator and an expert on power at the University of Cape Town. “And the lift isn’t working, because the main power supply is off.”
In normal times, South Africa’s muscular chain of power plants fills the gaps of its neighbors. But South Africa now could experience up to seven years of its own electricity shortages. Rolling blackouts blanketed parts of the country in January, and sporadic power failures have persisted since.
The gravity of this year’s shortage is all the more apparent considering how little electricity sub-Saharan Africa has to begin with. Excluding South Africa, whose economy and power consumption dwarf other nations’, the region’s remaining 700 million citizens have access to roughly as much electricity as do the 38 million citizens of Poland.
Much goes to industry: a single aluminum smelter near Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, gobbles four times as much power as the entire rest of Mozambique. On average, the World Bank says, fewer than one in four sub-Saharan Africans are hooked to national electricity grids.
Moreover, some grids are so poorly maintained that electricity suppliers get paid for as little as 60 percent of the power they generate. The rest is either stolen or lost in ill-maintained networks.
For decades, the region had enough generating capacity — and few enough customers — to tolerate such waste. No more: sub-Saharan nations are adding about a thousand megawatts of generating capacity each year, World Bank experts say, but need up to twice that to keep pace with demand.
Some governments privatized chunks of their power industry in the early 1990s when free-market solutions to public-sector problems were in vogue, leaving it unclear who is ultimately responsible for providing power.
Other governments, as in South Africa, failed to build power plants that experts warned were needed. The government monopoly Eskom, the world’s fourth-largest power utility, was advised in a 1998 report that it would run short of power in 2007, but planning and financing problems — not all within the utility’s control — stalled upgrades. The forecast was actually optimistic: Eskom began running short in 2006.
Yet South Africa’s woes pale beside those of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. Only 19 of 79 power plants work, the government said in April. Daily electricity output has plunged 60 percent from its peak, and blackouts cost the economy $1 billion a year, the Council for Renewable Energy in Nigeria says.
Poor management is but one problem. War has devastated the power grid in Congo, in Africa’s heart, and stalled plans to develop its vast hydroelectric potential. In Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and parts of West Africa, drought has shrunk rivers and slashed the generating capacity of hydroelectric dams. Drought in Ghana, for example, has crippled gold and aluminum production and set off blackouts in Togo and Benin, which buy power from Ghana.
Once a major power exporter, Uganda now blacks out parts of its capital, Kampala, for as much as a day at a time and has leased two 50-megawatt generators, burning diesel at a time of record oil prices. The demand for hydropower in Uganda and its neighbors, with drought, is blamed by some for a steady reduction in the water level of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest.
Uganda’s gas stations are now short of diesel for vehicles — in part, paradoxically, because power shortages are shutting down a pipeline from Kenya. News reports say the nation has spent enough on diesel-fueled power generation to build two hydroelectric dams.
Zambia, where power to customers like Mr. Mwale is rationed almost every day, is a template for such problems. Barely 20 percent of households are wired for power — only 3 percent in rural areas — but the Zambia Electricity Supply Company, known as Zesco, is signing up 10,000 new customers a year, said Christopher Nthala, the utility’s transmission director.
Now Zambia is getting a push: a global commodities boom has jolted its moribund metals industry to life. Investors are building two smelters, and doubling the capacity of another, to handle the boom in copper, nickel and other metals, taxing the nation’s power supply.
“We’ve never seen this kind of growth before,” Mr. Nthala said.
Once the utility could make up shortfalls by buying power from other utilities in the Southern Africa Power Pool. But today, Mr. Nthala said, neighbors have little surplus to hand out. “Sometimes we get it,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t.”
None of that mollifies customers, who say blackouts are so common that service in much of Lusaka has become totally unreliable.
Many power failures seem to hit Matero, a poor township that is home to maybe a million of Lusaka’s estimated three million residents. “Every day — it’s either in the morning, when people are going to work or preparing to cook, or in the evening, the prime time when I’m tired and I need to go home and listen to the news and cook my supper,” said Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, who leads the 250,000-member Bible Gospel Church, an evangelical movement.
Nighttime prayer meetings in his corrugated-roof chapel have been canceled. Bishop Ndhlovu and others say they lave lost refrigerators, televisions and DVD players to the utility’s blackouts and surges.
Most of the township’s residents have adapted by turning away from their stoves and instead cooking outdoors, village-style, with homemade charcoal. “Charcoal is going very fast, because they’ve found out that Zesco is cutting power unpredictably,” the bishop said.
On Lusaka’s eastern outskirts, Mr. Mwale, the farmer, also has laid in a stock of charcoal — not to cook, but to warm his stock of newborn chicks, which must be kept at a constant 90 degrees for the three weeks after hatching.
He said he worried about the environment. Charcoal production is a major contributor to deforestation in Zambia and nearby nations. But the alternative is to take a loss on his poultry business.
“When they make a loss, they just raise their tariff,” he said of Zesco. “When I make a loss, I have to make it up myself. Is that fair?”
Zambia’s plan, like the plans of dozens of other nations, is to build its way out of the power crunch. Zesco plans $1.2 billion in generating upgrades and new capacity, financed mostly by China and India. South Africa plans more than $20 billion in upgrades; Congo is contemplating a hydroelectric station that by itself would increase capacity outside South Africa by 50 to 75 percent.
The World Bank says its financing of power projects in sub-Saharan Africa is ballooning, from $250 million five years ago to $660 million last year to $1 billion in 2007.
But many plans remain just that. Issues like creditworthiness, lax regulation, domestic politics and the sheer difficulty of sending power over rundown grids to the customer make outside investments in power stations tougher than they appear, said Tore Horvei, the chief operating officer of CIC Energy Corporation, which is based in South Africa.
The best answer, most experts consulted agree, would be for nations to cooperate on regional power solutions. One or two large regional plants, they say, could supply power more cheaply and efficiently than dozens of smaller ones.
But while that may be logical, Mr. Horvei said, “it’s very challenging in practice to do so.”
“National pride and everything else comes in,” he added.
There is an alternative: saving energy. Namibia plans a wind farm on its southern coast, while in South Africa, Eskom has handed out five million fluorescent bulbs and 140,000 insulating blankets for water heaters, and has paid industrial customers to switch off equipment during periods of high demand.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
Friday, July 27, 2007
Brady Barr with a crocodile in a cave system beneath the Ankarana nature reserve in Madagascar. The crocs that inhabit this cave may perhaps be a subspecies of the Nile Crocodile. Photograph copyright Brady Barr/NGT&F
Investigating Africa's Mysterious Cave Crocodiles
for National Geographic News
June 20, 2003
In a vast labyrinth of caves beneath the island of Madagascar's Ankarana nature reserve off the coast of Africa, scientists are studying cave-dwelling crocodiles—perhaps the only ones in the world. Are the behemoths that inhabit these caves a new subspecies? To find out, Brady Barr led a team of researchers into the dark depths of the caves. They emerged with tantalizing clues, a scientific first, and lots of unanswered questions.
Although they dwell reclusively within the cave system, the large reptiles were certainly no secret. In fact, before they could enter the caves Barr's team had to attend a local ceremony during which a woman became possessed by the spirit of the crocodile. The spirit granted permission for them to enter—but only after a suitable offering was made of honey, tobacco, and alcohol.
"The locals had always known that crocs were living in the caves," Barr told National Geographic News, "and the scientific community had known for a long time but no scientist had put their hands on one and nothing was known about the population."
Getting his hands on one of the cave crocs is exactly what Barr set out to do, accompanied by Spanish biologist Gerardo Garcia Herrero, longtime cameraman Eric Cochran, and a local guide named Angelin. They hoped to learn if the animals represented a separate subspecies of the Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) that inhabit the rest of Madagascar.
Those reptiles have had a tough time in the areas near Ankarana and elsewhere on the island. Humans certainly aren't their primary prey, but enough people have been killed by crocs to instill a healthy local fear for the animals, which also prey on livestock. These factors, and Madagascar's generally poor economic conditions, mean that poaching is a real problem.
"Outside the caves, the crocs were almost wiped out by poaching," Barr said. "We saw it in action."
Inside the caves, however, populations appear to be thriving. But why here, and not elsewhere in the world, have crocs ventured into caves below the Earth? The answers to that question still await future intrepid researchers—but Barr has developed some ideas.
"I don't know why they are using the caves," he said. "Maybe it's a safe haven, maybe it's a refuge from the incredibly high daytime temperatures, and maybe they use them seasonally or as a food source because of all the bizarre animals living in the caves." The caves are home to all kinds of interesting wildlife, including blindfish, eels as thick as a mans thigh, bats, spiders, and scorpions. "Why are the crocs there?" Barr asked. "That's the million-dollar question."
A further riddle concerning the reptiles' cave existence is the fact that they are ectothermic, which means that they rely on their environment to moderate their body temperatures. That's why crocs typically bask in the sun to warm up and lie in water to cool down. The cave's internal thermometer is fairly constant and not entirely accommodating. "It's way too cool for them in the cave," Barr said, "yet they are making a living in there."
It's speculation awaiting further research, but the crocs may be adapting to the caves by adjusting their metabolism. "They can't digest prey if it's too cold," Barr explained. "It was pretty cool in there, so maybe they're not feeding in there at all. Crocs can go a year without a meal if they really have to, because they may eat 20 percent of their body mass in a single meal. Their metabolism might slow down so that they don't burn energy and they can use these caves as a refuge—[they're] not cognizant, but just in a case of survival of the fittest."
"The biggest, boldest, most intimidating crocs are always the first to be killed," Barr said, "and the survivors are the shy, reclusive animals. Maybe those left in the caves are the ones who, for whatever reason, didn't use the prime habitat. The caves weren't optimal habitat, but they might have turned out to be optimal because it's helped them to survive."
Scientific First Raises More Questions than Answers
Nile crocs can grow to 16 feet (5 meters) or more, and local tales tell of 20-foot (6-meter) crocs in the caves. Barr did not encounter any of the true giants, but he did find evidence that they exist within the 60 miles (97 kilometers) of underground rivers and passageways.
"I never saw any big crocs but there were giant footprints," he said. "There are lots of crocs using these caves and it was frustrating to know that there were a lot of them around that we couldn't see. In a lake, river or swamp they dive underwater, but here they dive underwater, and then go through a secret passage to another room on the other side of a wall. It was a 3-D environment, the ultimate maze, like an ant farm for crocs."
The difficulties and dangers, which included flooding, quicksand, and disorienting directions did not stop the team from achieving their goal—capturing the first ever cave croc and taking a tissue sample for genetic study.
"We did something that had never been done before," Barr explained to National Geographic News. "Yeah, I would have loved a 16-foot [5-meter] croc but the real achievement was that we allowed a genetic analysis to take place of the tissue samples of those crocs." While it's too early to tell, the preliminary results of those tests look intriguing.
"I'm not a geneticist," Barr said, "but we are hearing that the cave population was distinctly different genetically from other populations of Nile crocodiles in Madagascar. There's ongoing research on the tissue and DNA tests, and these results are just very preliminary, but since they appear to be different that's an extra added incentive to protect the caves where they dwell."
Barr added that he's eager to return and study the cave crocs, and that others are joining the effort as well. "What I saw has been passed on to the scientific community and I know that others are eager to do research in the caves. Hopefully someone can unravel the mystery of this bizarre subterranean population of crocs."
Following the conclusion of the TIGER workshop 2006, ESA and UNESCO organised training sessions. ESA’s training focused on advanced optical data from Envisat’s MERIS instrument for use in detecting and monitoring land cover, vegetation index, etc., while UNESCO offered basic remote-sensing training for wetland management. Credits: ESA
African mapping highlights risk of drought and flood
27 July 2007
The European Space Agency (ESA) has produced maps of soil moisture levels in southern Africa, and says they will help predict floods and droughts.
The maps of countries in the Southern African Development Community were published online last week (16 July) and will be available to governmental and independent organisations free of charge.
Conventional methods of measuring soil moisture are expensive and inaccurate as each measurement has to be done on-site. ESA's ENVISAT satellite measures soil moisture levels by emitting radar waves and measuring the energy bounced back by the soil.
High levels of soil moisture can lead to flooding and erosion, and low levels cause crops to wilt and die.
Annett Bartsch, project coordinator at Vienna University of Technology, Austria, explained how the maps are used. "Areas of saturated upper soil can be identified with ENVISAT," she said. These areas are those at risk of flooding.
The maps can also help predict droughts by looking at past trends in soil moisture. "Provided that a long enough reference database is available, anomalies can be identified and thus… drought risk areas identified," she told SciDev.Net.
In a changing climate, predicting when and where floods are likely to happen is becoming more and more important, according to Geoff Pegram, co-researcher on the project at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. "Although we cannot prevent floods, we can anticipate them and hopefully get people out of the way."
"I think it is really a breakthrough," said Wolfgang Wagner, professor of remote sensing at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria. He said that the satellite is the first to provide enough measurements over the right timescale to give detailed maps of soil moisture.
The maps have been produced as part of the SHARE project (Soil Moisture for Hydrometeorological Applications in the Southern African Development Community).
The SHARE project is part of ESA's TIGER initiative, which aims to assist African countries in managing water-related problems by using satellite data. The next stage of the initiative involves transferring leadership of the projects to African authorities.
Related SciDev.Net articles:
Africa's weather stations need 'major effort'
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Africa, mostly offline, struggles to get on the Internet
By Ron Nixon
Sunday, July 22, 2007
On a muggy day in Kigali in 2003, some of the highest-ranking officials in the Rwandan government, including President Paul Kagame, flanked an American businessman, Greg Wyler, as he boldly described how he could help turn their small country into a hub of Internet activity.
Wyler, an executive based in Boston who made his fortune during the technology boom, said he would lace Rwanda with fiber optic cables, connecting schools, government institutions and homes with low-cost, high-speed Internet service.
Until that point, Wyler, 37, had never set foot in Africa - he was invited by a Rwandan government official he had met at a wedding. Wyler never expected to start a business there; he simply wanted to try to help the war-torn country.
Even so, Wyler's company, Terracom, was granted a contract to connect 300 schools to the Internet. Later, the company would buy 99 percent of the shares in Rwandatel, the national telecommunications company, for $20 million.
But after nearly four years, most of the benefits hailed by him and his company have failed to materialize, Rwandan officials say. "The bottom line is that he promised many things and didn't deliver," Albert Butare, the Rwandan telecommunications minister, said.
Wyler says he sees things differently and that he and the Rwandan officials will probably never agree on why their joint venture has been so slow to get off the ground. But Terracom's tale is more than a story about a business dispute in Rwanda. It is also emblematic of what can happen when good intentions run into the technical, political and business realities of Africa.
Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of the African population is connected to the Web. Most subscribers are in North African countries and the republic of South Africa.
A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, years of civil conflict destroyed communications networks, and continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems.
E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to date.
"Most African governments haven't paid much attention to their infrastructure," said Vincent Oria, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who is from the Ivory Coast. "In places where hunger, AIDS and poverty are rampant, they didn't see it as critical until now."
Rwandan officials were especially interested in wiring schools, seeing information technology as crucial to modernizing the rural economy.
But as of mid-July, only one-third of the 300 schools covered in Terracom's contract had high-speed Internet service. All 300 were supposed to have been connected by 2006.
Overall, less than 1 percent of the population is connected to the Internet. Rwandan officials say Terracom seems more interested in tapping the more lucrative cellphone market than in being an Internet service provider.
In November, Wyler stepped down as chief executive of Terracom, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. He still serves on the board.
Wyler said by telephone from his Boston home that he would not address the government's criticism. He said he did not want to be quoted as saying anything negative. But he said there were some things he had not anticipated, particularly the technical challenges of linking the Rwandan Internet network to the rest of the world.
"Terracom has done everything it can, " he said. "Because of the technical challenges, the Internet service is as good as it's going to get. But given what we started from, I still think we have accomplished a lot. In the beginning there were a few people with Internet service. Now there are thousands."
The Rwandan government had hoped that the number of Web surfers would be much higher by now. Rwanda has little industry, and its infrastructure is still being rebuilt after the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 to a million people were killed.
"We have almost no natural resources and no seaports in Rwanda, which leaves us only with trying to become a knowledge-based society," said Romain Murenzi, the Rwandan minister of science, technology and scientific research.
Wyler said he had not been involved in Terracom for nearly 10 months and could not comment on its current operations.
Christopher Lundh, Terracom's new chief executive and a former executive of Gateway Communications in London, has worked in several African countries. He now lives and works full time in Rwanda, and many government officials say Terracom's performance has improved under his leadership.
Lundh said there were problems with the company's operations in the past but that the Rwandan government was responsible for some of the delays.
"We would get to schools that don't even have electricity or computers," he said. "That is not our fault."
In addition, he said that many of the complaints about the company concerned things beyond its ability to control. Getting adequate bandwidth remains a constant challenge. Like most telecommunications companies in eastern Africa, Terracom depends on satellites for Internet service. Satellite service is much slower than cable because of delays in the signals. Satellites also provide less bandwidth than cable.
Adding to the problem is that most of the satellites serving Africa were launched nearly 20 years ago and are aging or going out of commission. A satellite set to go into service last year blew up on the launching pad. Power is also an issue, as intermittent power failures in Rwanda hamper efforts to provide a steady electricity source.
Despite these limitations and earlier setbacks, Lundh said Terracom was moving ahead with plans to give Rwanda the most advanced Internet infrastructure in Africa. A nationwide wireless connection should begin operating near year-end, he said.
Magnus K. Mazimpaka contributed reporting from Rwanda.
Cannabis doubles chance of psychosis
Bellinda Kontominas Medical Reporter
July 28, 2007
PEOPLE who smoke cannabis regularly more than double their risk of developing psychotic illness later in life, according to research that calls for increased awareness of the dangers of the drug.
Researchers found that among all cannabis users, including social and habitual users, the lifetime risk of psychotic illness increased by 41 per cent.
More than one third of Australians over 14 years of age have smoked cannabis, or marijuana, at least once in their life and one in 20 have used the drug in the past week, according to figures on drug use from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Of the 1.8 million Australians who have recently used cannabis, one in six use it every day and a further one in five use it every week.
The study found the increased risk for psychotic illness was relative to the dose. Those who smoked cannabis regularly were at an increased risk of between 50 per cent and 200 per cent of developing schizophrenia and disorders with symptoms including hallucinations or delusions.
This also suggested that stopping cannabis use would decrease the risk, said the lead author, Dr Stanley Zammit, a psychiatrist from Cardiff University and Bristol University in Britain.
Previous studies have had trouble unravelling the link between cannabis use and psychotic disorder. Smoking the drug could be a symptom of psychotic illness, rather than a cause, the research found. The researchers re-examined data from 35 international studies on psychotic illness and cannabis use involving more than 100,000 participants. Factors such as pre-existing mental illness, the use of other illicit drugs, IQ and social class were filtered out of the sample to try to isolate the effect of cannabis.
Dr Zammit said there was now sufficient evidence to warn young people that using cannabis could increase their risk of developing psychotic illness later in life, despite a lack of evidence to confirm a cause-and-effect relationship.
The risk was relatively low but significant, he said.
One in 100 people had a chance of developing severe psychotic illness. That risk increased to 1.4 in 100 if they had ever smoked cannabis.
In an accompanying comment, Merete Nordentoft and Carsten Hjorthoej, of the department of Psychiatry at the Copenhagen University Hospital, said cannabis had long been considered a harmless drug and its potential long-term effects on psychosis had been overlooked. "There is a need to warn the public of these dangers, as well as establish treatment to help young, frequent cannabis users," they wrote.
Cannabis accounted for 45 per cent of hospital admissions due to drug-induced psychosis in 2003-04, according to a study published in the Australian Medical Journal. John Saunders, Professor of Alcohol and Drug studies at the University of Queensland, said the latest research strengthened the need for increased education on the dangers of cannabis.
Why should we care about cannabis?
Approximately 4 per cent of the world's adults-some 162 million people-use cannabis every year, making it the world's most widely used illicit drug. In spite of this, many basic facts about cannabis remain obscure.
By Ted Leggett
The 2006 UNODC World Drug Report devotes special attention to cannabis, arguing that the world should take this drug more seriously. Of particular concern are the growth in the drug's potency and indications that cannabis-related mental health risks may have been underestimated.
As cannabis can be grown in virtually any country, unlike most other illicit drugs, it is difficult to establish the exact origin of the world's supply. Very few Governments can give an accurate estimate of the number of hectares grown in their own countries, and the amount of cannabis these fields produce can vary widely. Furthermore, cannabis is increasingly grown indoors in the developed nations, which means that users can, and do, grow their own.
Our understanding of cannabis consumption patterns is little better. In most markets, cannabis is relatively cheap, and unlike other drugs, it is not sold by precise weight. Surveys indicate that most users get the drug for free or buy it through friends and acquaintances. Casual users generally consume cannabis in groups, and only a small amount of the drug is necessary to produce the desired high. Most users would find it difficult to say how much cannabis they actually smoke.
Diverse global markets
Cannabis is the dominant illicit drug in every region of the world and its use is growing almost everywhere. While not every cannabis market is transnational, in the sense that production occurs in a different country from consumption, the problem is truly international.
In economic terms, North America is the largest cannabis-consuming region. Mexico alone is responsible for more than one-third of global herbal cannabis seizures. In spite of an aggressive eradication campaign, the country still supplies a large share of the massive United States market. High-potency indoor cannabis has come to dominate the Canadian market, which is another source of significant imports in the US.
USE OF CANNABIS 2003-2004 (or latest year available)
Source: World Drug Report 2006
(click on image to enlarge)
Africa comes second in the world in terms of herbal cannabis seizures, which is remarkable given the continent's limited law enforcement capacity. Africa is also home to the world's leading producer of cannabis resin, Morocco. Southern, West and East Africa all contain large cannabis-producing countries, but there is little specific data available about the scale of cultivation.
It is difficult to reconcile what is known about cannabis production in Central and South America with the available information on the extent of cannabis use in the region. Although surveys indicate a relatively small user population, large cannabis seizures take place regularly. Moreover, with the exception of Colombia, no country is known to be a major exporter beyond the region. Paraguay is reportedly the main source of the cannabis consumed in the Southern Cone and Brazil, and may be the single largest producer of herbal cannabis in the world.
The risk of becoming dependent on cannabis is higher
than most casual users suspect. Around 9 per cent
of those who try cannabis are unable to stop using it.
Oceania has the world's highest annual usage levels, including those of Papua New Guinea, where an estimated 30 per cent of the adult population consumes the drug annually. Most countries in this region appear to be self-sufficient in their cannabis supply.
While much of Europe still prefers cannabis resin to herbal cannabis, this appears to be changing in many important markets. The Netherlands, which has been in the vanguard of the indoor cannabis revolution, is named as an important supplier to at least 20 other countries. In Eastern Europe, Albania plays a similar role. Most of the cannabis resin in Europe continues to be imported from Morocco, however.
Per capita usage levels are low in Asia, but because of its large population, the continent is home to the largest absolute number of cannabis users, an estimated one-third of the global total. A national survey has shown that 2.3 million people are dependent on cannabis in India alone. Central Asia is home to the world's largest wild cannabis fields, but it remains unclear to what extent these crops are harvested.
(click on image to enlarge)
Potency growth and mental health implications
In recent years, the potency of sinsemilla cannabis, made from the unfertilized buds of the female plant, has doubled, according to studies done in key markets such as the Netherlands, the United States and Canada. This is not surprising as cannabis breeders in these countries have been hard at work creating a more potent drug since the 1970s. And while sinsemilla is currently less widespread than herbal cannabis (marijuana) and cannabis resin (hashish), the market for high-potency, indoor-produced sinsemilla appears to be growing in many key consumption countries.
Recent research indicates that cannabis consumption may have greater mental health implications than previously believed. These two trends may in fact be related: as high-potency cannabis grows in popularity, the risks of consumption may become more immediate.
While more research is required to determine the impact of the 'new,' more potent cannabis, there has been an increase in the number of people complaining of 'unexpected effects' from consuming cannabis in emergency rooms in the United States. Demand for treatment for cannabis-related problems in the US and Europe has increased as well.
TYPES OF CANNABIS
Several drug types can be produced from the cannabis plant.
Finally, the risk of becoming dependent on cannabis is higher than most casual users suspect. Around 9 per cent of those who try cannabis are unable to stop using it. Even when used only once, cannabis can produce panic attacks, paranoia, psychotic symptoms and other negative acute effects. The drug may also precipitate psychosis in vulnerable individuals and aggravate symptoms in diagnosed schizophrenics.
Cannabis is the dominant illicit drug in every region of the world,
and its use is growing almost everywhere.
Ted Leggett is an expert in the Research and Analysis Section of UNODC.
For more information, please consult the World Drug Report at www.unodc.org/world_drug_report.html
Princess Royal presents award to CONRAD for Microbicide Research.
HIV Microbicide Trial Hits Snag
New Vision (Kampala)
26 July 2007
Posted to the web 27 July 2007
By Carol Natukunda and Harriette Onyalla
UGANDA'S trials of a microbicide gel designed to prevent the transmission of HIV in women have hit a deadlock after research revealed that women who used it got infected with the virus at a higher rate than those who did not utilise it.
Microbicides are substances that a woman can apply in her vagina before having sexual intercourse. They may include gels or creams. Cellulose sulphate, a microbicide gel, was tested on over 1,300 women in Uganda, Benin, India, South Africa and Burkina Faso.
During the study, the women were divided into two groups. One of them used a gel which contained cellulose sulphate, while the other group used a microbicide which did not contain the ingredient.
By the end of one year, a total of 34 women had been infected, 25 of whom were using the cellulose sulphate gel compared to 11 in the second group.
"We have decided to stop the trials, because we found that this is not actually helping our women. This is a very big blow to us and to our sponsors," said Prof. Florence Mirembe, a co-investigator.
She was yesterday releasing the findings of the study at the Microbicides Research Centre in Mulago Hospital.
"I want to clarify that the gel was not the cause of infection. Some women had more than three partners, yet many times, they did not use the gel," she asserted.
Mirembe explained that research on other Microbicides would continue in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"It is often difficult for women to insist that men use condoms during sex, but they can apply the gel before sexual intercourse without the man knowing. While this has flopped, research will continue."
Dr. Bina Pandey of the Mulago Hospital obstetrician and gynaecology department noted that developing drugs is a difficult task.
"This is a reminder that drug development is not easy. It is a process, and there chances are that it may turn out negative. For instance, Panadol or Aspirin did not come out just like that."
The trials were sponsored by a US-based health research group, CONRAD.
Copyright © 2007 New Vision. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).
Breakthrough in Study On Treating HIV Babies
Business Day (Johannesburg)
26 July 2007
Posted to the web 26 July 2007
By Tamar Kahn
Treating babies infected with HIV as soon as they are diagnosed rather than waiting until they show signs of illness dramatically increases their chances of survival, according to a South African study presented yesterday at the 4th International AIDS Conference on HIV pathogenisis, treatment and prevention.
The research could change the way doctors around the world care for the half a million HIV-positive babies born each year.
Despite the government's free programme for preventing mother to child transmission of HIV, at least 50000 infected babies are born in SA each year.
Local treatment guidelines say doctors should wait until HIV positive infants fall sick, or their immune systems show signs of weakness before starting lifelong antiretroviral treatment.
That may well change in the wake of the Children With Early Antiretroviral Therapy (Cher) study, which found that babies who were treated before three months of age did better than infants whose treatment was delayed.
Researchers found there were 75% fewer deaths among babies who got treatment immediately compared with those whose treatment was deferred.
The continuing study, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, had enrolled 377 babies by early this year . Ten of the 252 babies who got early treatment died (4%), compared with 20 of the 125 babies who started treatment only when they fell sick (16%). The babies were given a three-drug cocktail of AZT, 3TC and Kaletra.
"This is an overwhelming difference in survival among infants treated early," said the study's co-chair Avi Violari, head of the pediatric division of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Scientists hoped that early treatment would slow progression of the disease, allowing babies' immature immune systems to develop, she said.
Once their immune systems were strong and could hold HIV at bay, the idea was to interrupt treatment and start again only when they showed signs of illness. This would hopefully allow children to avoid starting life-long medication at an early age, she said.
Dr Francois Venter, president of the Southern African HIV Clinicians' Society, said the study had broad implications for SA. "It may mean initiating treatment as soon as a diagnosis is made -- and that means SA has to get PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing into every clinic," he said.
Babies born to HIV-positive women cannot be diagnosed with the widely available anti-body tests usually used for adults and children .
The Cher findings came to light last month after a routine review by the trial's independent data and safety monitoring board. The results led the researchers to stop the "deferred treatment" group, and offer all the babies immediate treatment.
Study co-chair Mark Cotton said: "The prevention of mother to child transmission programme is failing. It's a national disgrace."
Copyright © 2007 Business Day. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).
Zimbabwe Duped By Mystic
Mugabe Regime Hunts Spiritual Medium After Miracle Rock Comes Up Empty
Since taking control of Zimbabwe in 1980, President Robert Mugabe has piloted the once-prosperous south African nation into the kind of tailspin that makes "Leaving Las Vegas" appear upbeat. And yet despite a list of political and economic missteps longer than ODB's rap sheet, his latest move still seems admirably idiotic. With inflation hovering around 1.5 million percent and massive fuel shortages the de-facto dictator did what any sensible head of state would. According to a number of reports, he pinned his hopes on a witch doctor who claimed to be have a magic rock from which diesel fuel oozed.
Rotina Mavhunga the "traditional healer" in question, made headlines in April when she announced the discovery of "hundreds of years" worth of the refined fuel within a boulder on top of a hilltop shrine in the Chinhoyi district. The 35-year-old and her followers explained that it was "a gift from ancestral spirits who saw their children suffering because of the shortages of fuel," (presumably they were recently departed spirits given their familiarity with petrol-chemical technology). In May, she officially opened "the diesel plant" with a ritual ceremony, but cautioned "that the diesel would dry up and disappear if other traditional leaders did not follow her orders or if it was exported," (anti-trade spirits?).
Acting quickly, the Mugabe government dispatched a task-force including three members of the Politburo to investigate this "manna from heaven" while a palpable frenzy of anticipation took hold of Zimbabwe. However those dreams were dashed this week with the news that the rocks were in fact barren of fuel! Reports followed that 50 disciples of Mavhunga were under arrest for failing to perform what experts would call a miracle. Though not formally charged yet, Mavhunga is on the run and Secretary for Information and Publicity Cde Nathan Shamuyarira called her actions "some form of a gimmick."
Mr. Wilbert Guahavanhu, of Zimbabwe's embassy press office downplayed the story, informing me that it was "silliness" to believe a refined fuel could come out of rocks. "Anyone who has studied science knows such things are impossible," he said. Given that, I ask him on two separate occasions why his government had dispatched such a high level team of investigators to probe such crack-pot scheme. He explained at first that during the war of liberation, colonial powers may have used rocks to store diesel fuel. When we spoke again however he admitted it would be implausible to drill holes in boulders and fill them with fuel, and that the investigation was conducted because of photographs showing fuel coming out of the rocks and eye witness reports.
Clearly desperate times lead to desperation with people willing to grasp onto any shred of hope no matter how ridiculous. But given the track record it seems like the regime might have better chance of getting blood from a stone than turning around Zimbabwe's economy. Now, how long can it be before someone suggests that as solution for the nation's blood bank deficits?
By Emil Steiner | July 25, 2007
Egypt to streamline and strengthen science policy
afrol News / SciDev.Net, 24 July - Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, has authorised the creation of a higher council for science and technology and a science and technology development fund. The move is designed to restructure and strengthen Egypt's science and technology sector in the face of low productivity and criticisms that productive scientists are getting too little of an already small budget.
The new council - to be headed by the Prime Minister, and to include government ministers, scientists and representatives from the private sector - will coordinate science and technology policy and determine priority areas of research and development.
The new development fund, financially supported by the government, will finance projects approved by the council. And the Ministry of Science and Technology (formerly the Ministry of Scientific Research) will oversee the implementation of the council's decisions. Under the new plan, the Egyptian Academy for Scientific Research and Technology - formerly in charge of awarding grants - will become a think-tank.
Acting President Mohsen Mahmoud Shoukry told the science media 'SciDev.Net' the academy would now be able to focus its activities and act as an "expert house", advising on policy and science and technology development, among other areas.
The reforms will bring together the management and funding of science and technology in one place, instead of being scattered across many ministries, said Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of Alexandria's Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications.
This is aimed at strengthen and focus Egypt's efforts to develop science, he said, as well as encouraging Egypt's transformation into a knowledge-based society.
Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian scientist and director of the Centre for Remote Sensing at Boston University in the United States, said the performance of the new arrangement should be closely monitored to ensure that the objectives are being met on a long-term basis.
Mr El-Baz indicated that the new fund must be fair and transparent in awarding funding to projects, and that there also needs to be a sizable and sustained increase in the science and technology budget over the next few decades. The present budget barely covers salaries and infrastructure costs, he said.
He added that a marked increase in Egypt's science and technology ability "would have a very positive effect on the state of science and technology in the rest of the Arab region".
By Wagdy Sawahel
© afrol News / SciDev.Net
Photo: Leeds student Emily Cummins, 19, won an award for inventing a sustainable fridge that could help people in remote African communities living without electricity.
Chilled-out technology nets award for student
Emily CumminsA sustainable fridge invented by first-year Leeds business management student Emily Cummins has helped her become the youngest winner at this year's Women of the Future Awards.
The awards celebrate the UK's next generation of female trailblazers in science and technology, arts, business and media.
Nineteen-year-old Emily won the Technology Woman of the Future category for inventing a fridge that cools its contents by using sunlight to evaporate water through sheep's wool, packed between two aluminium cylinders.
She found her inspiration during a recent gap year to Africa, where the fridge could keep life-sustaining medicines and food cool in the heat.
Emily says the fridge can already chill to as low as 7°C, but she'd like to make it even colder if possible.
"It's a really simple design that people could make themselves at home using everyday scrap materials, it wouldn't cost much at all."
Anopheles gambiae mosquito, a malaria vector, feeding. (Credit: CDC/James Gathany)
Malaria: Effective Insecticide-repellent Synergy Against Mosquito Vectors
Science Daily — The mosquitoes responsible for malaria transmission to humans belong to the Anopheles genus. One of the best known and most extensively studied is Anopheles gambiae, Africa's principal malaria vector. The protection recommended by the World Health Organization for people at risk from this devastating disease is the use of mosquito nets impregnated with pyrethroids, of low toxicity for mammals and highly active against mosquitoes.
Unfortunately, excessive and inappropriate use of this family of insecticide, particularly by spraying, has induced a disturbing rise in the number of resistant individuals in the Anopheles populations. The mosquito nets treated with pyrethroids can therefore lose their effectiveness. It is therefore essential to devise new control strategies against these malaria vectors that are resistant to these insecticides.
IRD researchers and their partners (1) obtained encouraging results by combining a non-pyrethroid insecticide, propoxur, and a repellent, N,N-diethyl toluamide (DEET). They based their investigations on previous work which had revealed a strong synergy between the two components. A combination of the two had proved to be much more effective than the straightforward addition of their respective properties. Mosquito nets soaked with this mixture had a lethal power and irritant effect that inhibited the mosquitoes from biting. Moreover, the mosquitoes are hit by a powerful paralysing action, known as the "knockdown" effect (3), on contact with the mixture. The mortality rates determined were satisfactory, in that they equalled those obtained by using deltamethrin, a commonly-used synthetic pyrethroid, highly effective against mosquitoes.
The researchers tested two mixtures composed of a non-pyrethroid insecticide of the organophosphate family, combined with either a standard repellent, DEET, or with a new-generation synthetic repellent. Both of these mixtures show a strong synergy in the resulting lethal and paralysing effects on the mosquitoes. However, only the association between the insecticide and the standard repellent produced a synergistic effect that inhibited the mosquito from taking its blood feed. A synergistic effect was also observed with regard to the treatment's residual efficacy which is several months longer than that of either agent applied alone. The advantage of the synergistic property of these combinations is enhanced by the fact that it significantly reduced the necessary effective doses against the mosquitoes (about 6 times that of the insecticide applied alone), to attain an efficacy equivalent to that of deltamethrin.
The nets treated with the two mixtures in the laboratory were subsequently tested in field trials, in the rice-growing area 40 km North of Bobo-Dioulasso, in Burkina Faso. This area has the specificity of harbouring two different forms of Anopheles gambiae. The first appears in May and June in the rice-fields. It shows no resistance to pyrethroids. The second emerges in September and October in puddles left by monsoon rains. These do show resistance to these insecticides. As expected, the usual pyrethroid-treated nets turned out to be effective only against non-resistant mosquitoes of the first population. Conversely, the nets pre-soaked with non-pyrethroid--repellent combinations proved excellent protection for the people of the local villages, whatever the population of mosquitoes present. Nevertheless, their residual efficacy (about 15 days) in real conditions did not match the researchers' expectations. The team consequently envisage working in conjunction with a company able to devise a system for encapsulating the mixture to prolong the residual life of treated mosquito nets.
The efficacy of these mixtures between organophosphates and repellents therefore opens up a new pathway towards controlling pyrethroid-resistant malaria vectors. In the long term, the researchers plan to test their method on mosquitoes resistant to two other types of insecticide utilized against malaria transmission: organophosphates and carbamates.
(1)This research work was conducted at the IRD laboratory of Cotonou, Benin, with the participation of the Centre de Recherches Entomologiques de Cotonou (CREC), IRD's Laboratoire de Lutte contre les Insectes Nuisibles (LIN) in Montpellier, and the Institut de recherche en science de la santé, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. (2)"Combination of a non-pyrethroid insecticide and a repellent: a new approach for controlling knockdown-resistant mosquitoes". Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg. 72(6), 2005, pp. 739-744 (3)"Knockdown" effect: action inducing paralysis of the muscles and nervous system, then death, of the insects. It is a characteristic effect of pyrethroid insecticides.
Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement.
A poverty rate map from the Kenyan atlas
Kenya creates 'poverty map'
1 June 2007
[NAIROBI] A new atlas that draws attention to the relation between regional ecosystems and poverty was launched in Kenya this week (30 May).
Kenya will be able to identify regions with the greatest potential to reduce poverty and make it a priority development agenda, said Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate, at the launch of the atlas.
The atlas, 'Nature's Benefits in Kenya', was developed with input from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and Department of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing, the International Livestock Research Institute and the World Resources Institute.
It provides statistical data on population density, food availability, biodiversity, weather (such as rainfall and temperatures), economic activities, household expenditure, livestock production and tourism development.
The atlas overlays these data — associated with a particular geographical location — with data on ecosystems.
"[This] yields a picture of how land, people and prosperity are related in Kenya," says Nobert Henninger, the senior associate in charge of the people and ecosystems programme at the World Resources Institute.
For example, the atlas reveals that abundance of water in a particular area does not guarantee a reduction in poverty. The same applies to tourism, with proximity to a tourist attraction providing no protection against poverty in the local population.
The atlas also includes analyses of how poverty could be linked to variables such as biodiversity, food availability, water and wood fuel. These links are useful to policy-makers worldwide, says Henninger.
"The lessons learned in Kenya can be usefully applied to other countries and regions," he told SciDev.Net.
The atlas will be used by people responsible for policy decisions to help them construct the best initiatives for tackling poverty reduction in specific locations.
"The atlas [will] improve the targeting of social expenditures and ecosystem interventions so that they reach areas of greatest need," write the authors of the atlas.
It will also inform natural-resource managers to develop strategies for sustainable utilisation of ecosystem resources — for example, in devising means to harness water in areas of abundance for use in areas where water is scarce.
The Kenyan government has already used the atlas to map the distribution of funds to alleviate poverty and to assess whether the different issues are being addressed fairly and successfully.
Nature's Benefits in Kenya: An Atlas of Ecosystems and Human Well-Being
Modern Humans Lived in India Earlier Than Thought, Study Finds
By Chris Dolmetsch
July 5 (Bloomberg) -- Remains of stone tools found amid ash deposits in India from a volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago show that modern humans were living there earlier than scientists had previously thought, according to a study to be published in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.
The Youngest Toba Tuff eruption in Indonesia, the largest volcanic event of the past 2 million years, blanketed an area from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea with ash. Scientists had theorized that the blast produced a ``volcanic winter'' that lowered global temperatures, killing plants and animals and keeping humans from leaving Africa more than 60,000 years ago.
Study author Michael Petraglia, a University of Cambridge lecturer, and colleagues found tool fragments from soil both above and below a deposit of Toba Tuff ash, showing that humans were already in India at the time and survived the blast.
``This is some of the earliest evidence for the spread of modern humans out of Africa towards Australia,'' Petraglia said in a telephone interview from New York.
Petraglia and colleagues including Ravi Korisettar of Karnatak University in Dharwad, India, found 215 artifacts under a 2.55-meter (8.4-foot) thick ash deposit near Jwalapuram, in the Jurreru River valley of southern India, and 276 more relics above the layer.
Limestone, Quartzite Fragments
The study says the relics, made of limestone, quartzite, chert and other minerals, are likely from a variety of stone tools from the Indian Middle Paleolithic era that lasted from about 150,000 to 38,000 B.C.
Yet the characteristics of the artifacts are more typical of the African Middle Stone Age that ended about 40,000 years ago than they are of younger artifacts found elsewhere in Europe and Asia, the study says. That finding suggests that modern humans had migrated out of Africa and were already in southern India when the Toba Tuff eruption blanketed the region in ash.
``It will be very much debated,'' Petraglia said. ``There are people that are wedded to their theories and won't like it at all, and there are others who will welcome our study because this part of the world is very understudied.''
The research was funded by the Swindon, U.K.-based Natural Environment Research Council and its Arts and Humanities Research Council Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Dating Service, the Berkeley, California-based Leakey Foundation, the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, the Australian Research Council and Queens College in Cambridge.
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Dolmetsch in New York at email@example.com .
Last Updated: July 5, 2007 14:00 EDT
A New Dawn for Science in Africa
Mohamed H. A. Hassan*
Science 29 June 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5833, p. 1813
When Africa's heads of state met in January for the 8th African Union summit, science, technology, and sustainable development were the main topics of discussion. This week they meet again, this time to explore the prospects for creating a "union government." A United States of Africa remains a far-off dream. But growing cross-national integration is not, and science and technology are poised to play a fundamental role in such efforts.
Several African nations have already increased their investment in science and technology. Rwanda has boosted expenditures on science to 1.6% of its gross domestic product (GDP), striving for 3% within the next 5 years. Research and development funding in South Africa is scheduled to grow to 1% of its GDP by 2009. Nigeria plans to invest $5 billion to create a national science foundation. Uganda, with a $30 million loan from the World Bank, will establish a fund for research initiatives to be selected through a nationwide merit-based competitive process. Zambia, with a $30 million loan from the African Development Bank, will offer postgraduate fellowships to train some 300 science and engineering students in its country. Increasing scientific and technological capabilities across the developing world, most notably in Brazil, China, and India, have opened unprecedented opportunities for South-South cooperation, particularly for the science-poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa. China's $5 billion Development Fund for Africa is designed to help African nations meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals through cooperative projects with China. Brazil's Pro-Africa Program supports scientific and technological capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Angola and Mozambique. A team of Brazilian and Indian experts is now in Senegal to help forge a biofuels industry there. And India, Brazil, and South Africa have launched a tripartite initiative to finance joint problem-solving projects in which science and technology will play a key role.
There is also increasing interest among developed countries to support scientific and technological capacity building in low-income countries, especially in Africa. The challenge lies in turning this heartfelt interest into sustainable initiatives and real progress. In 2005, G8 heads of state pledged $5 billion to rebuild Africa's universities and $3 billion to establish centers of scientific excellence in Africa. Only a small fraction of the commitment has been fulfilled. Angela Merkel, current head of the G8, has made African development a major issue of her tenure, but the focus thus far has been on climate change and missile defense systems.
This week's African Union summit offers another opportunity for progress, but only if attention is placed on one of the most critical elements for success: homegrown science. Every African nation must educate and support a new generation of problem-solving scientists. This means reforming educational systems and building world-class research universities and centers of excellence. Scientific expertise alone, however, cannot solve the challenges of poverty and development, which are as much social and political as they are scientific and technical. Broad channels of communication must be created between these two communities, enabling them to work together, exchange ideas, and learn from one another.
Lasting success will ultimately be determined not only by aid from abroad, but by strong and enduring partnerships in science and technology between Africa and the rest of the world. Joint initiatives with developing countries, based on shared experiences and challenges, could spur programs and policies leading to rapid progress in science-based development. Sub-Saharan Africa welcomes the desire of developed countries to assist. But commitments made by Africa's friends must be tailored to Africa's overall plans for economic growth and fulfilled in a reasonable time.
It's been a long time coming, but Africa could be approaching a new dawn for building effective policies for science-based development. While not likely to attract the same public notice as calls for a United States of Africa, these efforts may nevertheless help bring the continent closer together. More importantly, they could make a real difference in the lives of Africa's most impoverished citizens.
Mohamed H. A. Hassan is executive director of TWAS, The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and president of the African Academy of Sciences.
Homegrown science creates sense of community
*Testing water in a treatment facility in South Africa
29 June 2007
Mohamed H. A. Hassan, president of the African Academy of Sciences, argues in this Science editorial that collaboration in science and technology (S&T) will help foster cross-national integration.
African nations are already stepping up their own expenditure in S&T. Other developing countries such as Brazil, China and India are also opening up channels for South-South cooperation, using money and scientists to build capacity in science-poor African states.
Developed countries too are interested in supporting S&T capacity building on the continent. The challenge, Hassan says, is turning interest and pledges into sustainable initiatives and real progress, tailored to Africa's own development plans.
This week's (25 June) African Union summit is an opportunity for progress, asserts Hassan — but only if home-grown science is prioritised. Every African nation should use education reforms to support a new generation of scientists.
And science must recognise that it cannot solve the problems of poverty and development alone — broad channels of communication are needed between the S&T and social and political communities so they can learn from one another.
Such measures may not attract the same public attention as calls for a United States of Africa, but they can help bring the continent closer together, concludes Hassan.
Related SciDev.Net articles:
Regional cooperation 'key to development'
Knowledge for natural resources: a fair exchange?
Fostering technological capabilities in sub-Saharan Africa
Technology predicts African food shortages
27 July 2007
Satellite data could soon help predict and manage food shortages in Africa, with the help of a new model developed by NASA.
Molly Brown, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, has developed a model that combines remotely-sensed crop data with grain prices to predict changes in food prices in the future.
"We hope that the model can directly benefit small and medium sized traders and businessmen in the region once it becomes operational," Brown told SciDev.Net.
Brown tested the model on historical data from West Africa. NASA satellites sense the 'greenness' of vegetation, giving an idea of the amount of rainfall and hence the amount of grain the crops will produce.
These satellite measurements are then combined with spatial maps of millet prices, and coupled with estimates of vegetation data one to four months in the future.
The software is still being developed, but Brown hopes to produce a portable version of the model in the next few years.
Brown says she was inspired to create the new method while working in Niger, a region often affected by drought. Farmers here can grow only a few drought-resistant crops, and so when a food crisis happens they are forced to buy grain at very high prices.
"With this new study, for the first time we can leverage satellite observations of crop production to create a more accurate price model that will help humanitarian aid organisations and other decision makers predict how much food will be available and what its cost will be as a result," said Brown.
The idea is that aid agencies can then provide the right amounts of food to keep prices steady.
But Vanessa Rubin, Africa hunger advisor for CARE International UK, an aid agency working in Niger, says it is important to recognise that food production is not the only factor determining market prices.
"The closure of regional trade borders in 2005 in Niger is commonly cited as a major contributing factor to the wild market fluctuations that escalated grain prices out of the reach of millions," she told SciDev.Net.
She also says that stable markets do not necessarily guarantee food security.
"Production and market prices are just one piece of the drought puzzle; drought is just one piece of the food security puzzle; and food security is just one piece of the vulnerability puzzle."
The NASA study will be published early next year in the journal Land Economics.
Deforestation can be tracked by satellite images
Mapping can save forests, say African scientists
27 July 2007
African Logging Decimating Pristine Forests, Report Warns
Mapping and remote sensing technology can be used by developing countries to conserve forests and biodiversity, say experts.
Such 'geospatial' technology is helping African countries to conserve forests and identify areas in need of intervention, said scientists at a meeting organised by the Society for Conservation GIS-Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya, last week (20 July).
Geospatial technologies include global positioning systems (GPS) for capturing basic location data, remote sensing, which uses aerial photography, and geographic information systems (GIS), which analyse data to create maps.
GIS expert Peter Ndunda, is currently running a mapping program with the nongovernmental Green Belt Movement in the Mount Kenya and Aberdares forests. He told SciDev.Net that his project has mapped these regions to determine loss in forest cover over time.
"Having identified forested and non-forested areas, we have mapped out areas that need urgent intervention. With support from local communities, we have planted trees which we are monitoring using high-resolution images to determine their survival," he said.
According to Ndunda, the project has resulted in increased forest cover, improved soil quality and better management of water resources. Planting trees in higher ground, from which water flows down to rivers, helps stabilise the local climate and regulate water flows.
He added that by rehabilitating the forests, ecosystems have been preserved. And involving local communities in forest management has provided them with an income, along with education in the sustainable use of watersheds.
Ndunda says the project will soon be extended to the Cherengany, Mau and Mount Elgon forests in Kenya, as well as to the Congo Basin forest.
Forest communities themselves are also using technology to monitor their forest. In anticipation of payments under the Clean Development Mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, communities near the Aberdares and Mount Kenya forests are assessing the number, species and width of trees, along with the amount of canopy cover, to determine the amount of carbon sequestered.
The Kenya-based Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development is involved in a project with the United Nations Environment Programme using GPS to map forested and non-forested areas in the Mount Kenya forest area.
They are mapping vegetation, forest cover, infrastructure and tourist attractions to enhance sustainable use of forest resources and for use in community education.
The National Museums of Kenya are also using geospatial technology to monitor bird biodiversity and elsewhere in Africa, national park services in Mauritania and Tanzania are using satellite imaging to examine crop-damaging locust population levels.
This map shows the location of the Virunga Conservation area within Africa, and highlights an area in the "Mikeno" sector of the park where rapid deforestation occurred in June 2004. (Credit: Nadine Laporte/ Tiffany Lin)
Date: January 19, 2005
Gorillas In The Midst Of Extinction
Science Daily — Satellites provide a bird's eye view of planet Earth, and the space-based vantage can be extremely useful to people interested in viewing out-of-the-way places. Conservationists, for example, must monitor far-flung areas in need of protection. Wars, poverty, remoteness, lack of government involvement, and uncertainty over the best places and ways to focus limited resources can all hinder conservation efforts. Now, NASA satellite imagery is giving scientists and conservationists some of the tools they need to get valuable information on land cover and land use changes in wild areas.
NASA satellite imagery helps scientists better understand land changes in the Virunga Conservation Area which covers the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. In Swahili, the word virunga means volcano. The Virunga Conservation Area offers habitat to 380 of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas. The other 320 gorillas reside in the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
In a single week in June of 2004, farmers created pasture for their cattle by clearing 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles), or 6 percent, of the 264-square kilometers (102 square miles) of mountain gorilla habitat in the southern "Mikeno" sector of Virunga National Park. Because mountain gorilla numbers had increased by close to 56 individuals over the last 10 years, the recent loss of land was a considerable step backward.
In a race against time for the mountain gorillas and many other species indigenous to these natural areas, scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) in Woods Hole, MA, are working with NASA and conservationists in the Virunga National Park to stave off further destruction of the lands.
"Remote sensing is the only tool that we have to efficiently monitor these remote parks," says Nadine Laporte, head of the Africa Program at WHRC. "Satellite imagery allows park managers to update park property boundaries, map forest habitat, and look at encroachment of the park by comparing images from two different dates."
Laporte is working with conservation groups to create a monitoring system that combines NASA satellite imagery with aerial flight and field surveys, all of which can be relayed to and coordinated with local park rangers on the ground. Currently, park workers are building a three-foot wall along key park borders to keep out cattle and people seeking to alter the land.
NASA now provides free Landsat images, which researchers and rangers are using as base maps for field surveys. "We still have to integrate remote sensing with traditional surveys on the ground," said Laporte. "They really complement each other. The rate of change is so rapid that we need satellite imagery in a timely fashion to address the problems in the area. Aerial imagery is too expensive."
Since gorilla habitat crosses three different countries, satellite imagery provides data and perspectives that are not bound by political borders. The satellite images can create a convenient method for exchanging information among the three parks that make up the Virunga Conservation Area.
Along with mapping and monitoring changes in forest cover, a time-sensitive series of images can allow researchers to estimate rates and patterns of deforestation in and around protected areas. These patterns are also studied in relation to trends in human migration.
The Africa Program at the Woods Hole Research Center is funded though NASA's Land Cover Land Use Change program, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The measles virus of the Paramyxovirinae family. Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith
Double-up measles vaccine for HIV kids, says study
25 July 2007
[LUSAKA] Children infected with HIV may require repeated measles vaccination to gain adequate protection, according to new research.
The study in Zambia — published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases next week (1 August) — found that compared with healthy children, HIV-infected children were less able to maintain protective levels of antibodies against measles after an initial vaccination.
The results suggest that a second vaccination is important in regions of high HIV prevalence to protect HIV-infected children, maintain 'herd' or group immunity and to bolster measles elimination efforts.
Measles, caused by a virus of the Paramyxovirinae family, remains an important cause of child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, says William Moss, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the US-based Bloomberg School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University.
According to the researchers, the measles virus only needs a small number of susceptible children to cause outbreaks, so it is important that as many children as possible have immunity to the virus.
The researchers studied the immune response to the measles vaccine in 696 healthy and HIV-infected children, aged 2-8 months.
Within six months of measles vaccination at nine months of age, 88 per cent of HIV-infected children developed protective antibody levels, as did 94 per cent of children who did not have HIV.
But after a further 27 months, only half of the surviving HIV-infected children maintained antibody levels high enough to protect against measles, versus almost 90 per cent of healthy children.
The results of the study show that sufficient resources must be invested in maintaining high levels of population immunity against measles in regions of high HIV prevalence, says Moss.
The World Health Organization already recommends vaccinating children for measles a second time, either through repeated immunisation campaigns or a routine second dose delivered through the primary healthcare system.
But despite recent progress in measles control, obstacles to eliminating the disease exist, including insufficient resources and lack of political will.
"The study is important because it shows the impact HIV has on the nation and sends a message to the government to double its effort on measles vaccination," Chansa Nkonga Mwangilwa, from Zambia's University Teaching Hospital and co-author of the study told SciDev.Net.
The authors recommend that additional research be conducted to determine the duration of measles immunity in HIV-infected children who are receiving antiretroviral therapy, and their response to revaccination against measles.
Link to full paper in the Journal of Infectious Diseases
Reference: Journal of Infectious Diseases 196, 347 (2007)
*A Guinean man, Conakry, who has both HIV and TB
Gaps in HIV/TB research spell 'catastrophe'
T. V. Padma
24 July 2007
[SYDNEY] Experts have warned of an impending catastrophe if critical gaps in the research and management of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are not urgently closed.
Tuberculosis (TB) kills about two million people every year, and is the leading cause of death in people with AIDS.
Today (24 July), at an international conference on HIV in Sydney, Australia, experts said poor countries are bearing the brunt of the twin epidemics.
TB cases have been rising in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990, said Stephen Lawn, a researcher from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
The areas worst hit by both infections are southern and eastern Africa, he said, where half of all people newly diagnosed with TB already have HIV.
Lawn says studies in Botswana show the current WHO-approved TB treatment strategy called DOTS (Direct Observation and Treatment – Short Course) has not reduced TB in HIV-infected people. "DOTS alone does not work," he said.
And both epidemics are being made worse by the emergence of extremely drug-resistant TB. Gerard Friedland, director of the AIDS Care Programme at Yale University, said that in areas with high rates of TB and HIV infection, drug-resistant TB threatens the success of both the World Health Organization's (WHO) Stop TB initiative, and HIV programmes rolling out antiretroviral drugs.
Speakers at the sessions highlighted areas critically in need of research, including measuring more accurately the burden and impact of TB in HIV-infected people.
A 2006 survey by the WHO found that most countries facing an HIV epidemic are not reporting the increase in TB cases, and that HIV-infected people are not benefiting from access to TB screening and subsequent treatment services.
Research into finding new diagnostic, screening and intervention tools is also needed. Doctors in most parts of the world are using a diagnostic test that is over a century old, and whose sensitivity in patients with both TB and HIV infections is just 20 per cent. This is "wholly inadequate", says Lawn.
Research is also needed to find out what anti-HIV treatment regime is most suitable for people infected with TB. Likewise, information on how best to treat TB infection in people with HIV is lacking.
Trials underway for 'essential' new TB vaccine
Contact: Craig Brierley
Clinical trials are underway with the first new vaccine against TB in over 80 years. If successful, the tests will have major implications for TB control and could lead to the development of a new vaccine ready to use within eight years.
The need to control TB has become more urgent with the resurgence of the disease in many parts of the world, including a 10% rise in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the emergence of multi-drug resistant strains.
TB, which is caused by the M. tuberculosis bacterium, is thought to kill two million people every year. The UK's Health Protection Agency recorded over 8,000 cases in 2005, including almost 3,500 in London alone.
The vaccine has been developed by Dr Helen McShane, a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Research Fellow, working with Professor Adrian Hill, a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow, both at the University of Oxford. Dr McShane has been awarded a Strategic Translational Award from Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust to develop and test the vaccine, which currently leads the field. Additional funding has been provided by the European Commission.
Currently, the only vaccine against it is the BCG vaccine, which is administered to infants throughout the developing world and most of the developed world. However, the vaccination is only thought to be protective in preventing severe forms of the disease and is not effective in adults. In addition, antibiotics to deal with infection must be administered over many months and are becoming increasingly ineffective as the bacteria develop resistance to the drugs available.
"In children, the current vaccine provides some protection against severe forms of the disease, but there is clearly room for improvement," explains Dr McShane. "The rise in the number of cases of multi-drug resistant forms of TB plus the increasing number of cases of TB in people living with HIV means a new vaccine is essential. We can no longer rely on antibiotics to treat the disease– we need to help the body's immune system prevent disease."
The vaccine currently under development by Dr McShane, known as MVA85A, works in tandem to the BCG, acting as a booster. It uses the 85A antigen, a protein found in all strains of TB, to boost the response of T cells already primed by the BCG vaccine. T cells are produced by the body's immune system to fight infection. This vaccine uses a virus as a delivery system for the protein and the results of the clinical trials to date show the highest T cell responses ever induced with a vaccine.
"This vaccine is safe and stimulates very high levels of the type of immune response we think we need to protect against TB. It is important for us to test whether or not this vaccine does work to stop people getting TB," says Dr McShane.
Following successful safety trials in The Gambia, the drug has now entered phase II trials in The Western Cape in South Africa, where the incidence of TB disease in infants is 1 in 100 (despite BCG vaccination). It has first been tested in HIV negative adult volunteers and these trials are now being stepped down into adolescents, and also into HIV infected adults. Once Dr McShane and her team are fully confident of the safety of the vaccine, and the strength of the immune response induced by the vaccine, it will be given to infants to test its efficacy. This is important as one of the target populations for a new TB vaccine is infants.
"The aim of our award is to enable Helen to demonstrate efficacy of the vaccine in a relevant population," says Dr Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust, which is funding the trials. "There is a clear need for a new TB vaccine and so this work will have very significant healthcare implications both for the developed and developing worlds."
Commenting on the trials, Paul Sommerfeld, Chair of TB Alert, said:
"It is immensely important that a new, and potentially much more effective, vaccine against TB is going into second stage trials. The TB bacterium has for too long managed to stay a step ahead of human efforts as shown by the appearance, especially in HIV positive populations in Southern Africa, of a strain of tuberculosis resistant to virtually all known drugs against TB. To have a new tool for preventing TB would be a great step forward."
By comparing the skulls and DNA of human species from around the world—including these Australian and African skulls—researchers assert that modern-day humans do indeed have a single origin in Africa. The roots and dispersal of modern humans have sustained debate for decades, with some researchers arguing that Homo sapiens arose independently in other parts of the world. Photographs courtesy Tsunehiko Hanihara
Modern Humans Came Out of Africa, "Definitive" Study Says
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2007
We are solely children of Africa—with no Neandertals or island-dwelling "hobbits" in our family tree, according to a new study.
Scientists who compared the skulls and DNA of human remains from around the world say their results point to modern humans (Homo sapiens) having a single origin in Africa.
The study didn't find any evidence to suggest that human species living elsewhere in the world contributed to our direct ancestors' make-up.
A team led by Andrea Manica at the University of Cambridge, England, combined analysis of global genetic variations with comparisons of more than 6,000 skulls from more than a hundred ancient human populations.
The team found that loss of genetic diversity was very closely mirrored by reduced physical variation the farther away people lived from Africa.
Only Out of Africa
The new data support the single origin, or "out of Africa" theory for anatomically modern humans, which says that these early humans colonized the planet after spreading out of the continent some 50,000 years ago.
In the past, experts have also argued a "multiregional" theory, which held that Homo sapiens arose from different human populations in different areas of the world.
"The origin of anatomically modern humans has been the focus of much-heated debate," lead author Manica said.
"We have combined our genetic data with new measurements of a large sample of skulls to show definitively that modern humans originated from a single area."
Previous studies have found that genetic differences in human populations can be explained by distance from Africa.
The new study also looked at 37 measurements from male and female skulls from around the world. The chosen skulls were all less than 2,000 years old, making them better preserved and more likely to give accurate measurements than older skulls.
Many skull features were determined by the different environments where the humans had lived.
But distance from Africa was still found to account for up to 25 percent of variation in the features.
The researchers made sure that the DNA analysis used the same framework as the analysis for the skulls—so the two could be fully compared, Manica said.
"I would argue we had two independent shots at getting the same answer, and remarkably, the answer is exactly the same," he added.
The lowest amount of variation was found in ancient populations from South America and Australia, the two main inhabited regions most remote from Africa.
The study team, writing in the latest issue of the journal Nature, argues that this low variation in remote regions relative to Africa would be expected if Homo sapiens arose solely in Africa.
That's because populations built up genetic and physical diversity for some 150,000 years before the fossil record suggests the first pioneers started spreading elsewhere.
But it wasn't until between about 20,000 and 30,000 years ago that modern humans reached South America and Australia, the team noted.
"The more you move away from that center of diversity where you started, the less diversity you have," Manica said.
This pattern was remarkably consistent globally, the researchers found.
The study places the original roots of modern humans in south-central Africa. In the middle of this region lies the Great Rift Valley—often referred to as the "cradle of humanity."
Some researchers believe that modern humans are at least in part the product of non-African species descended from Homo habilis, which left Africa at least 1.5 million years ago. (Related: "China's Earliest Modern Human Found" [April 3, 2007].)
Such groups include the Neandertals of Europe and western Asia, archaic human types in eastern Asia and Australia, and perhaps even the controversial hobbit humans from the Indonesian island of Flores. (Related: "Hobbit-Like Human Ancestor Found in Asia" [October 27, 2004].)
'No Other Source'
"What we can confidently say is that there has not been a wave [of anatomically modern humans] starting from somewhere else, because then you'd find a second area with more variability," Manica said.
What Manica can't say is "that matings with the Neandertals never ever happened, but if it did happen, none of the descendants stayed around." Effectively, any mating had no contribution whatsoever to modern humans, he added.
Anthropologist Erik Trinkhaus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, has found fossil evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens and Neandertals did interbreed. Trinkhaus is critical of the latest findings. (Related: "Neandertals, Modern Humans May Have Interbred, Skull Study Suggests" [January 16, 2007].)
Certain genetic and anatomical traits "cannot be explained as a simple and complete expansion of modern humans out of Africa," he said.
"The idea that humans get more uniform further from Africa is simply ludicrous," he added, noting that modern-day Chinese and Australian Aborigines look no more similar to each other than do Africans and Europeans.
Fred Smith, an anthropologist at Loyola University of Chicago who is unaffiliated with the research, agrees that the findings confirm there is an African origin for modern humans.
Smith nevertheless argues that the study is not at odds with the idea he first proposed in 1989 that there was "some low-level assimilation of archaic peoples into these modern populations."
And Charles Roseman, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said: "It could very well be that there was a recent out-of-Africa expansion, coupled with some either small or large amount of genetic exchange with humans outside of Africa."
Out of Africa, The Sequel
By Michael Balter
ScienceNOW Daily News
18 July 2007
The fight over modern human origins is heating up. A new study of thousands of human skulls claims to confirm genetic evidence that our species arose in Africa and then spread over the globe. But some researchers say that an alternative scenario has not been ruled out.
Researchers have long debated two opposing hypotheses for modern human origins. According to the Out of Africa hypothesis, our ancestors appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago and then replaced all other human species, including Homo erectus and the Neandertals, with little or no interbreeding. The multiregional hypothesis holds that modern humans emerged from populations of "archaic" hominids in Africa, Europe, and Asia that evolved locally but also exchanged genes. Numerous genetic studies support the single-origin model, finding that the genetic diversity of today's human populations is greatest in Africa and decreases steadily with distance from that continent. The idea is that diversity declined because each group of migrants founded a new population, creating genetic bottlenecks. But some researchers see traces of mixing between moderns and archaics in the genetic data.
A team led by population biologist Andrea Manica of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. set out to test the two hypotheses with skulls rather than genes. The researchers analyzed 4666 male skulls from 105 worldwide populations. Based on 37 measurements--ranging from the length of the cranium to the height of the eye sockets--the team reports this week in Nature that the worldwide pattern of skull shapes closely matches the genetic data: The diversity of cranial shape within a population falls off the farther it is from Africa. Similar results came from a second study of 1579 female skulls. The researchers could find no evidence for multiple centers of diversity outside Africa, as might be predicted by the multiregional model. They concluded that their results strongly support the Out of Africa model.
"This is an important piece of work because it compares results from large sets of genetic and cranial data using similar analytical approaches," says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, a primary advocate of the Out of Africa model. Yet Stringer cautions that the study cannot rule out the possibility of gene flow between Homo sapiens and other humans such as Neandertals. That exchange might not show up in the skulls because the authors used only crania that were no more than 2000 years old.
Charles Roseman, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that he is not convinced that the Nature authors have adequately tested the Out of Africa model versus its multiregional rival. The researchers assumed that the multiregional model requires that modern humans arose more than once. "Proponents of the multiregional model have been very clear for some time that their models do not posit multiple origins, as suggested in the paper," Roseman says.