UK faces food, fuel and drug shortages, says contested leaked document

FILE PHOTO: A line of trucks is seen during a trial between disused Manston Airport and the Port of Dover of how road will cope in case of a "no-deal" Brexit, Kent Britain January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

By Kate Holton and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will face shortages of fuel, food and medicine if it leaves the European Union without a transition deal, according to leaked official documents reported by the Sunday Times whose interpretation was immediately contested by ministers.

Setting out a vision of jammed ports, public protests and widespread disruption, the paper said the forecasts compiled by the Cabinet Office set out the most likely aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit rather than the worst-case scenarios.

But Michael Gove, the minister in charge of coordinating “no-deal” preparations, challenged that interpretation, saying the documents did set out a worst-case scenario and that planning had been accelerated in the last three weeks.

The Times said up to 85% of lorries using the main Channel crossings may not be ready for French customs, meaning disruption at ports would potentially last up to three months before the flow of traffic improved.

The government also believes a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, will be likely as plans to avoid widespread checks will prove unsustainable, the Times said.

“Compiled this month by the Cabinet Office under the codename Operation Yellowhammer, the dossier offers a rare glimpse into the covert planning being carried out by the government to avert a catastrophic collapse in the nation’s infrastructure,” the Times reported.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said it did not comment on leaked documents. But Gove said it was an old document that did not reflect current preparedness.

“It is the case, as everyone knows, that if we do have a no-deal exit there will inevitably be some disruption, some bumps in the road. That’s why we want a deal,” Gove told reporters.

“But it is also the case that the UK government is far more prepared now than it was in the past, and it’s also important for people to recognize that what’s being described in these documents… is emphatically a worst-case scenario,” Gove added.

A government source blamed the leak on an unnamed former minister who wanted to influence negotiations with the EU.

“This document is from when ministers were blocking what needed to be done to get ready to leave and the funds were not available,” said the source, who declined to be named. “It has been deliberately leaked by a former minister in an attempt to influence discussions with EU leaders.”

NO TURNING BACK

The United Kingdom is heading toward a constitutional crisis and a showdown with the EU as Johnson has repeatedly vowed to leave the bloc on Oct. 31 without a deal unless it agrees to renegotiate the Brexit divorce.

Yet after more than three years of Brexit dominating EU affairs, the bloc has repeatedly refused to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said on Twitter he had signed a piece of legislation which set in stone the repeal of the 1972 European Communities act – the laws which made Britain a member of the organization now known as the EU.

Though his move was largely procedural, in line with previously approved laws, Barclay said in a statement: “This is a clear signal to the people of this country that there is no turning back (from Brexit).”

A group of more than 100 lawmakers wrote to Johnson calling for an emergency recall of parliament to discuss the situation.

“We face a national emergency, and parliament must now be recalled in August and sit permanently until October 31 so that the voices of the people can be heard, and that there can be proper scrutiny of your government,” the letter said.

Johnson will this week tell French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Westminster parliament cannot stop Brexit and a new deal must be agreed if Britain is to avoid leaving the EU without one.

Merkel said during a panel discussion at the Chancellery: “We are prepared for any outcome, we can say that, even if we do not get an agreement. But at all events, I will make an effort to find solutions – up until the last day of negotiations.”

Johnson is coming under pressure from politicians across the political spectrum to prevent a disorderly departure, with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn vowing to bring down Johnson’s government to delay Brexit.

It is, however, unclear if lawmakers have the unity or power to use the British parliament to prevent a no-deal departure, likely to be the UK’s most significant foreign policy move since World War Two.

(Editing by Gareth Jones and David Holmes)

U.S. Veterinarians steel themselves for online pharmacy challenge

Destiny Brown, Dr. Katie Buss, and Kingsley family pose with puppies at the Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio, U.S., on April 26, 2019. Picture taken on April 26, 2019. Courtesy Jennifer Blodgett/Kings Veterinary Hospital/Handout via REUTERS

By Manas Mishra and Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – A David and Goliath battle is brewing in the business of selling prescription medicines for pets, pitching veterinarians against online giants moving into this lucrative corner of the growing market for animal supplies.

Americans spent $72.56 billion last year on their pets, according to American Pet Products Association. Prescription drugs were expected to account for over $10 billion, according to an estimate.

With deep discounts and online convenience, Walmart Inc, soon-to-be listed Chewy.com and Amazon.com Inc’s Wag brand have effectively conquered the market for pet food, care products and other supplies, but until now veterinary practices, which both prescribe and sell drugs, have been a major source of prescription medication.

While Amazon so far has shown no interest in that market, Chewy’s and Walmart’s forays into the online pet pharmacy business threaten to change that, prompting veterinary clinics to seek help in defending their turf. Enter Covetrus Inc, Vet Source, which partners with Patterson Companies Inc, and others that offer tools to help vets manage their practices and give customers the convenience they have come to expect from online shopping.

“We started to realize this is what our clients want,” said Stephanie Foster, practice manager at Kings Veterinary Hospital in Loveland, Ohio. “They want to be able to order things at 11 o’ clock at night. They’re used to the Amazon mentality.”

Foster says she began using Covetrus to order drugs and supplies for the practice after it began losing sales of pet food and other products to online retailers. Now, her hospital has a website run by Covetrus under the practice’s name that effectively acts as its online pharmacy.

With that comes software that helps the clinic manage its inventory and track prescriptions, so Foster knows when clients need a refill and for those in Covetrus collects a service fee that is a percentage of sales.

Foster said partnering with Covetrus has helped boost overall sales by half over the past three years because it gives clients online convenience, timely reminders and, despite the fees, competitive prices.

“Covetrus now has more leverage with the manufacturers than I will ever have as a small business,” she said. “They’re able to get the manufacturers to agree to instant rebates and they can do flash sales on products and things that we just can’t compete with.” 

The company, formed by the combination of medical supply firm Henry Schein’s animal health unit and Vet’s First Choice and listed in February, represents some 100,000 veterinary practices globally. In the United States, 27,000 use some form of its services with over 8,000 – about a quarter of the market – signed up for prescription management, Covetrus says.

HOME TURF ADVANTAGE

PetSmart Inc-backed Chewy.com, whose sales soared from $26 million to $3.5 billion between 2012 and 2018, said in a filing ahead of its New York Stock Exchange debut this month it planned to expand its online pharmacy business launched last year.

The company has yet to update on the pharmacy’s performance and it would not comment for this article, citing the silent period ahead of its stock exchange debut.

Walmart joined the fray last month when it launched its online pet pharmacy WalmartPetRx.com and said it aimed to operate 100 in-store animal clinics by the end of the year.

Analysts say, however, the prescription pet medicine business could prove more challenging than other pet products.

Those who want to buy medication online still need a prescription from a vet and must either email or upload a copy or have the online retailer contact the practice first.

That, analysts say, offers the practices a chance to sell the first batch on site and then direct customers to their own online service.

Kristen Cook, a practice manager at the Belton Veterinary Clinic in Belton, Texas, says their doctors have no obligation to write a prescription for those shopping elsewhere and the clinic’s policy is to handle prescriptions internally.

“It’s not something like I am handing them a piece of paper to take it wherever they want to take it,” Cook said.

The stakes are high.

Cook said that at least half of the clinic’s revenue comes from prescription drug sales.

Nationally, pharmacy sales on average make up about a third of a practice’s revenue, according to Gary Glassman, partner at accounting and financial services firm Burzenski & Company, which serves veterinary practices across the country.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, however, that 40 states have already adopted laws, regulations or guidelines that specifically or implicitly require veterinarians to provide a written prescription upon request in some circumstances.

To see the summary report from AVMA, please click here

This means pet owners could fill those prescriptions with Chewy or other online providers, and the market is just too attractive to e-commerce players for the vets and their partners to get complacent, analysts say.

According to a 2018 TD Ameritrade online survey of U.S. millennial pet owners, they were willing to spend up to $2,000 on average if their pet got sick, with dog owners prepared to spend more on their pets than what they expected to spend on their own healthcare.

“People are treating their pets more like people,” William Blair analyst John Kreger said. “Historically … you’d frankly euthanize the pet when they started to have some of these chronic conditions. That’s just not happening now.”

(Reporting by Tamara Mathias and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

Malnourished Venezuelans hope urgently needed aid arrives soon

Yaneidi Guzman, 38, poses for a picture at her home in Caracas, Venezuela, February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Yaneidi Guzman has lost a third of her weight over the past three years as Venezuela’s economic collapse made food unaffordable and she now hopes the opposition will succeed in bringing urgently needed foreign aid to the South American country.

Guzman’s clothes hang limply off her gaunt frame. The 38-year-old is one of many Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition as the once-prosperous, oil-rich OPEC nation has seen its economy halve in size over the last five years under President Nicolas Maduro.

Yaneidi Guzman poses for a picture next to her daughters, Esneidy Ramirez (R), (front L-R) Steffany Perez and Fabiana Perez, at their home in Caracas, Venezuela, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Yaneidi Guzman poses for a picture next to her daughters, Esneidy Ramirez (R), (front L-R) Steffany Perez and Fabiana Perez, at their home in Caracas, Venezuela, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuelans’ diets have become ever more deficient in vitamins and protein, as currency controls restrict food imports and salaries fail to keep pace with inflation that is now above 2 million percent annually.

Growing malnutrition is one of the reasons Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido has moved ahead with his plans to bring supplies of food and medicine into Venezuela by land and sea on Saturday, despite resistance from Maduro.

Maduro, who denies there is a humanitarian crisis, has said it is a “show” to undermine him.

On Thursday, crowds cheered as Guaido led a convoy of opposition lawmakers out of Caracas on a 800-km (500 mile) trip to the Colombian border where they hope to receive food and medicine. Guaido has not provided details on how they would bring in the aid.

In response, Maduro denounced the aid, saying in televised comments that he was considering closing the border with Colombia and would close the border with Brazil.

Aid has become a proxy war in a battle for control of Venezuela, after Guaido in January invoked a constitutional provision to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent.

“I hope they let the aid in,” said Guzman, who despite holding down two jobs cannot make enough money for the tests, supplements or protein-rich diet that doctors have prescribed her. She and her husband make less than $30 per month and prioritize feeding their three young children.

Maria Guitia washes her son Yeibe Medina at home near San Francisco de Yare, Venezuela, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Maria Guitia washes her son Yeibe Medina at home near San Francisco de Yare, Venezuela, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While there is a vacuum of government information, almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study called, “Survey on life conditions,” and published last year, said they had lost on average 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight in 2017.

On the wall of Guzman’s home in the poor hillside district of Petare in the capital Caracas, hangs a wooden plaque with the psalm “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

Yet her fridge is empty except for a few bags of beans.

Sometimes she wakes up not knowing what she will feed her family that day. Mostly they eat rice, lentils and cassava.

While Guzman says she would welcome the aid, she is concerned the one-off shipment would be a drop in an ocean given Venezuelans’ needs. “You don’t only eat once,” she said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty towards Maduro, by daring it to turn the aid away.

LENTILS AND PLANTAIN

Some aid agencies like Catholic relief agency Caritas are already on the ground providing what help they can.

In San Francisco de Yare, a town 70 km (45 miles) south of Caracas, Maria Guitia’s one-year-old baby’s belly is distended and his arms thin. The pair live with Guitia’s five siblings and parents in a one-room tin shed with a dirt floor and no running water.

Work is scarce and they live off payments for odd jobs and a monthly government handout of heavily-subsidized basic food supplies. They have taken to inventing meals with what little they have like lentils with plantain from the trees in their backyard.

Guitia, 21, said her son had lost weight over the past five months until Caritas gave them some nutritional supplements.

The United Nations and Red Cross have cautioned against the politicization of aid.

The United States, which is pushing Maduro to step down, sent aid for Venezuela to a collection point in neighboring Colombia in military aircraft, in a show of force.

Guzman dreams of living once more not off foreign aid or government handouts but her own work.

“It’s not that I want to be rich, or a millionaire,” she said. “But I do want to give my children a good future, to make sure I can take them to the doctors when they get ill … and that they eat well.”

 

(Reporting by Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Diane Craft)

U.S. to deliver over 200 tons of aid to Venezuelan border

Sacks containing humanitarian aid are pictured at a warehouse near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. military aircraft are expected to deliver more than 200 tons of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, with the shipment likely to take place on Saturday, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. State Department planned to make an announcement about the shipment on Friday but provided no further details. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. special envoy on Venezuela last week said the aid effort was being coordinated with the opposition team but said the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen an economic collapse in the oil-rich South American country that has left millions struggling to buy food and medicines and has fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses. Maduro has refused to let supplies in.

Self-declared president Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions to declare himself interim president last month, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Seeking to strengthen support for Guaido, the United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies any crisis. However, opposition member Gustavo Tarre has said the sole aim is to ease “the suffering of Venezuelans” and has denied any political, economic or military motive. [nL1N2090UC]

(Reporting By Idrees Ali; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Yemeni children die as warring sides block aid deliveries: UNICEF

A malnourished boy lies on a bed at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemeni children are dying from starvation and disease as trucks with life-saving supplies are blocked in port, leaving medical staff and desperate mothers imploring aid workers to do more, a senior U.N. official said.

Geert Cappelaere, Middle East director for the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), described “heart-breaking” scenes of emaciated children in hospitals in the main port city of Hodeidah and the capital Sanaa, both held by Houthi insurgents.

“We have evidence that today in Yemen every 10 minutes a child under the age of 5 is dying from preventable diseases and severe acute malnutrition,” he told Reuters from Hodeidah.

The United Nations says about 14 million people, or half Yemen’s population, could soon be on the brink of famine in a man-made disaster.

Already 1.8 million Yemeni children are malnourished, more than 400,000 of them suffering from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that leaves them skeletal with muscle wasting, Cappelaere said.

“But there is more. Many children are dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. Today not more than 40 percent of the children throughout Yemen are being vaccinated,” he said.

Measles, cholera and diphtheria can be deadly for children, especially those under five, and are exacerbated by malnutrition.

“Because of this brutal war, because of obstacles, obstructions being made, it is unfortunately not possible do much more,” Cappelaere said.

“We may not yet be at the level of a famine but we should not wait until we have declared a famine to step up and to pressure the parties to the conflict to stop this senseless war,” he said.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths aims to convene peace talks this month to seek a ceasefire in the three-and-half year war, which pits the Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and the Iran-allied Houthi insurgents.

As Cappelaere spoke, coaltion forces were massing for an assault on Hodeidah.

“HEART-BREAKING”

Seven trucks carrying life-saving medical equipment and medicines had been blocked at Hodeidah port for two weeks awaiting clearance after being off-loaded, Cappelaere said.

“It was heart-breaking that an hour before I was sitting at al-Thwara hospital, and I have all the doctors, all the medical staff pleading with me to get more medical supplies, to get more medicines,” he said.

A UNICEF spokeswoman said the trucks had been cleared by Houthi authorities on Friday and supplies would be distributed.

Several extremely malnourished children were in the hospital ward, Cappelaere said.

“All the mothers were telling me that they are simply missing that small amount of money to transport their children from their communities to the hospital,” he said.

Hodeidah is a lifeline for food and other goods for much of the country.

But, said Cappelaere, “There was hardly any activity in the port. Only one ship was berthed, that was it.

“Today it looks more like a graveyard than anything else.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Hurricane Lane lashes Hawaii with heavy rain, winds

A chicken hops through floodwaters in Hilo, Hawaii, U.S. August 23, 2018, in this still image from video obtained from social media. Kehau Comilla/via REUTERS

By Jolyn Rosa

HONOLULU (Reuters) – Hurricane Lane, a powerful Category 3 storm, lashed Hawaii on Thursday with high winds and torrential rain, causing flash floods, landslides and raging surf as residents hunkered down to ride out the storm.

The storm spun in the Pacific Ocean about 165 miles (260 km) southwest of Kailua-Kona and nearly 20 inches (51 cm) of rain had fallen on the eastern side of the Big Island of Hawaii, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

“There’s lots and lots of rain, torrential rain, with a lot of moisture in the atmosphere,” NWS meteorologist Chevy Chevalier said, noting there were reports of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) wind gusts. “We’re in it now.”

There were no reports of injuries, but roads were closed because of flash floods and landslides in the Pacific island state. Tourists were advised to stay away from a popular attraction on the island of Maui called the Seven Sacred Pools, a scenic cluster of waterfalls and grottos.

“Life threatening flash floods. This is a very dangerous situation. Avoid unnecessary travel,” Governor David Ige said on Twitter.

Evacuations were underway on parts of Molokai and Maui islands while power outages were being reported on social media.

The latest predictions showed the eye of the storm twisting west of the Big Island on Friday morning before glancing past Maui and several other islands later in the day on its way to Oahu. But authorities warned the islands could still expect to be hit hard.

Lane shifted from heading northwest and was headed north at 6 miles per hour as the Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale was packing winds of 120 mph (195 kph), the service said in an evening advisory.

“We’re telling everybody to take the storm seriously, make your final preparations, and be prepared to ride out what is going to be a prolonged rain event,” said Andrew Pereira, communications director for the city and county of the state capital Honolulu.

Incoming waves tower over bystanders in Kona, Hawaii, U.S. August 23, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Ryan Leinback/via REUTER

Incoming waves tower over bystanders in Kona, Hawaii, U.S. August 23, 2018, in this still image from video obtained from social media. Ryan Leinback/via REUTERS

REMEMBERING INIKI

The National Hurricane Center warned storm surges could raise water levels 3 to 5 feet (1 to 1.5 meters) above normal along the western shores of the Big Island and that extreme rainfall could mean “numerous evacuations and rescues.”

Ige has urged residents to set aside a 14-day supply of water, food, and medicine. All public schools, University of Hawaii campuses and non-essential government offices on the islands of Oahu and Kauai were closed at least through Friday.

“We are in our room at Alohilani Resort waiting for Hurricane Lane to arrive,” said Janina Ballali on Twitter. “Hopefully, the hurricane will have mercy with our beloved Oahu.”

Par Pacific Holdings Inc said it had shut its 93,500 barrel-per-day refinery in Kapolei due to the storm.

In Hanalei on Kauai, rain fell Thursday as residents and businesses prepared for the hurricane while tourists continued to shop and dine in places that were still open.

Dave Stewart, owner of Kayak Hanalei, had boarded up the windows on his shop by mid-afternoon and moved the company’s rental kayaks to high ground.

He said he wasn’t taking any chances, having lived through severe flooding on Kauai’s North Shore in April and through Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

“That was total destruction,” he said of Iniki. “Seven out of 10 telephone poles were down, so even if your house was OK, you couldn’t get out.”

Iniki was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit Hawaii, making landfall on Kauai island on Sept. 11, 1992, as a Category 4. It killed six people and damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes.

The shelves of a downtown Honolulu Walmart were stripped of items ranging from canned tuna to dog food, bottled water and coolers full of ice.

Video footage showed whipping palm trees and darkening skies in Maui. In the Manoa Valley neighborhood in Honolulu, sidewalks typically full of joggers and dog walkers were empty as residents stood outside their homes watching the skies and businesses closed early for the day.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for Hawaii and ordered federal authorities to help supplement state and local responses, the White House said on Thursday.

The Coast Guard has ordered all harbors to close to incoming vessels and the U.S. Navy moved most of its fleet out of Pearl Harbor, where ships could provide aid after the storm.

Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made changes to how it works, FEMA Administrator Brock Long said at a briefing in Washington, making sure generators are in place so they can provide power to residents and quickly restart the water system.

“It’s not just providing food and water. If you fix the power first, you solve 90 percent of the problems,” he said.

(Reporting by Jolyn Rosa; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Death toll nears 400 in India’s flood-hit Kerala, dozens missing

Flood-affected women wait in a queue to receive relief material at a camp in Chengannur in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amit Dave

By Malini Menon and Sudarshan Varadhan

KOCHI/NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) – The death toll in India’s southern state of Kerala rose on Monday to nearly 400 after its worst flood in a century, as authorities handed out medicine and disinfectants to ward off disease in thousands of relief camps.

Dozens of people are missing and 1.2 million are sheltering in the camps, state officials said, as water receded and a huge clean-up gathered pace.

“The death toll has risen to 373,” an official of the state’s disaster management authority told Reuters.

Kerala received rainfall more than 40 percent greater than normal for the monsoon season, which runs from June to September. Torrential rain in the last 10 days forced officials to release water from dozens of dangerously full dams.

The Indian government classified the floods as a “calamity of severe nature.” Kerala has pitched it as a national disaster, which if accepted by the federal government, is likely to prompt greater commitments of funds for relief and rebuilding efforts.

But, without a yardstick for such a declaration, it could be an uphill task, state officials involved with disaster management said.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called the flood one of the worst in India’s history, displacing more than half a million people.

Federal health minister J.P. Nadda said more than 3,500 medical camps were set up across a region roughly the size of Switzerland, where rains since Aug. 8 have swelled rivers and triggered landslides.

“There is a requirement for 90 different medicines and the first installment has reached,” he added.

“The biggest challenges immediately ahead are cleaning of the flood-hit houses, rehabilitation, and prevention of water-borne diseases,” said Mahesh P., a village official in Rayamangalam, about 45 km (28 miles) from Kerala’s financial capital of Kochi.

Mahesh oversees four relief camps in his village, which itself escaped flood damage. The camps accommodate people rescued from neighboring areas, which were among the worst affected.

The villagers had all pulled together to rescue people and prevent an even bigger disaster, Mahesh said.

“The flood has bonded the people like never before, sharing whatever they had.”

Chlorine powder to disinfect water and other cleaning material are distributed by the camps Mahesh oversees, along with a basic survival kit consisting of a five-day supply of rice and food, toiletries and clothing.

A doctor examines a flood-affected woman inside a relief camp in Chengannur in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amit Dave

A doctor examines a flood-affected woman inside a relief camp in Chengannur in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Amit Dave

LONG QUEUES

Light to moderate rain was expected across Kerala on Monday, promising respite to rescue workers, who have battled rising waters and mudslides to reach tens of thousands of stranded villagers.

In one of the worst-hit areas, Chengannur, about 100 km (62 miles) from Kochi, a long queue of women snaked out of a medical camp at the main relief center.

As a helicopter hovered overhead, doctors checked elderly men and women lying on wooden benches in an engineering college.

“People are being screened for respiratory infections,” said a camp doctor, Rajesh Parameshwaran, adding that another infection doctors were targeted was leptospirosis, which can strike people wading through stagnant water.

Those returning home from the camps as the waters recede face a difficult clean-up.

The insides of many homes will have about 60 cm (24 inches) of mud, officials said. Wells, commonly used in Kerala, are contaminated and few places have electricity to pump water.

Kochi’s airport has suspended operations until Sunday. National carrier Air India on Monday began flying turboprop planes from the city’s naval airport to the cities of Bangalore and Coimbatore in neighboring states.

To assist passengers, India’s aviation regulator asked domestic airlines to cap maximum fares to and from Kerala and nearby airports.

Kerala faces no shortage of food, at least. Traders had stocked up before the Hindu harvest festival of Onam on Saturday, the chief minister said.

Kerala has canceled all official celebrations of what is usually its biggest festive event.

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, urged Modi not to discriminate between states controlled by his Bharatiya Janata Party and those such as Kerala, which it does not rule.

The state, ruled by the communist party, has received just a third of the immediate assistance of 20 billion rupees ($285 million) it sought from the federal government.

(Additional reporting by Jose Devasia in Kochi; writing by Malini Menon; editing by Larry King)

Laos scrambles for food, medicines, coffins three days after dam burst

Rescuers work at a flooded site after a hydropower dam collapse in Attapeu Province, Laos July 24, 2018 in this image obtained from social media. Picture taken July 24, 2018. Mime Phoumsavanh via REUTERS

KHOKONG, Laos (Reuters) – Troops searched for survivors in the remote southern tip of Laos on Thursday, three days after the collapse of a hydropower dam sent a torrent of water charging across paddy fields and through villages, as rescuers rushed aid to thousands of homeless.

The scale of the disaster was still unclear, in part because of the inaccessibility of the area but also because reports from the communist country’s state media have been scant and sketchy.

The official Laos News Agency said that 27 people were confirmed dead and 131 were missing following the failure of the dam on Monday, a subsidiary structure under construction as part of a hydroelectric project in the province of Attapeu.

Earlier reports had suggested the death toll would be much higher, and on Wednesday the Vientiane Times had said more than 3,000 people were waiting to be rescued from swirling floodwaters, many of them on trees and the rooftops of submerged houses.

Aerial view shows the flooded area after a dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos July 25, 2018 in this image obtained from social media. MIME PHOUMSAVANH/via REUTERS

Aerial view shows the flooded area after a dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos July 25, 2018 in this image obtained from social media. MIME PHOUMSAVANH/via REUTERS

In the village of Khokong, a sea of mud oozed around the stilt houses that were still standing and dead animals floated in the water.

“Seven villages were hit, two very badly. There were 200 houses and only about 10 are left standing,” said a medical official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“We retrieved one body today. I suspect there will be more as the water goes down and the road becomes easier to access.”

He said villagers were warned about three to four hours before the dam burst, but few had expected the water to rise as high as it did.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said roads and bridges were damaged, and boat and helicopter were the only means of transport in the worst-affected areas.

Schools in safe areas were being used as evacuation centers, and about 1,300 families needed tents for shelter, it said.

On a road to the small town of Sanamxai, Reuters saw trucks carrying aid, including freshwater and blankets, for those made homeless. The government put their number at 3,060.

Phra Ajan Thanakorn, a Buddhist monk returning from Sanamxai, said he had delivered food and medicine in four pick-up trucks that had come from Vientiane, the capital some 800 km (500 miles) to the north, and he was heading back there to load up with more.

“The situation is really bad,” he told Reuters. “All the relief efforts are at Sanamxai. There are volunteers distributing food and medicine for survivors every day there. They are still lacking food, medicine, and coffins.”

Rescue and relief teams from around Asia have headed into Attapeu, a largely agricultural province that borders Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south.

Parents carry their children as they leave their home during the flood after the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Parents carry their children as they leave their home during the flood after the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam collapsed in Attapeu province, Laos July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“BATTERY OF ASIA” AMBITIONS

Laos, one of Asia’s poorest countries, has ambitions to become the “battery of Asia” through the construction of multiple dams.

Its government depends almost entirely on outside developers to build the dams under commercial concessions that involve the export of electricity to more developed neighbors, including power-hungry Thailand.

Laos has finished building 11 dams, says Thai non-government group TERRA, with 11 more under construction and dozens planned.

Rights groups have repeatedly warned against the human and environmental cost of the dam drive, including damage to the already fragile ecosystem of the region’s rivers.

The dam that collapsed was part of the $1.2 billion Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy power project, which involves Laotian, Thai and South Korean firms. Known as “Saddle Dam D”, it was part of a network of two main dams and five subsidiary dams.

The project’s main partner, South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction, said part of a small supply dam was washed away and the company was cooperating with the Laos government to help rescue villagers.

The firm blamed the collapse on heavy rain. Laos and its neighbors are in the middle of the monsoon season that brings tropical storms and heavy downpours.

In Cambodia’s northern Strung Treng province, nearly 1,300 families that were also affected by the flooding from the dam in Laos were moved to higher ground.

“These people will be affected for about seven to 10 days and once all the water flows into the Mekong, we will be fine,” said Keo Vy, a spokesman for the National Centre for Disaster Management.

An official at SK Engineering & Construction said fractures were discovered on the dam on Sunday and the company ordered the evacuation of 12 villages as soon as the danger became clear.

Laotian Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath told a news conference in the capital that the company could not deny responsibility for the destruction of livelihoods and property. The Vientiane Times cited him as saying that all compensation would be “borne by the project developer 100 percent”.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Nick Macfie)

In Puerto Rico, a new hurricane season threatens the elderly

An elderly woman prays at a chapel of the San Rafael nursing home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico February 14, 2018. Picture taken February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Nick Brown, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Ricardo Ortiz

ADJUNTAS, PUERTO RICO (Reuters) – At 84 years old and battling cancer, Israel Gonzalez Maldonado has lived without electricity for the nine months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

His wife, Zoraida Reyes, 77, struggles to keep the house stocked with fresh food without a refrigerator. At night, she fans her husband so he can sleep.

With another hurricane season starting, older Puerto Ricans have little to protect them from another storm on an impoverished island that remains far from fully recovered. Younger and wealthier people have been moving away for years, leaving an older and sicker population in the hands of an underfunded healthcare system. Tens of thousands more have fled since Maria.

“We wish we could move, at least for the time he has left,” Reyes said of her husband.

Senior citizens make up a larger share of the population here than in all but four U.S. states, according to federal Census data. About half are disabled, more than any state.

Forty percent of seniors rely on food stamps, more than three times the percentage in New York state, the second-highest nationally.

Yet the island has just six nursing homes – with a total of 159 beds – that are certified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) to provide rehabilitative services.

Puerto Rico relies instead on a patchwork of about 800 nursing homes licensed by the island’s Department of Family. They are typically private businesses or nonprofit organizations that care for small numbers of elderly people with limited services – and limited budgets, strained further since Maria.

A fragile healthcare system is hardly the only problem that leaves the elderly here – and all Puerto Ricans – vulnerable to another catastrophic storm.

About 7,000 houses and businesses still lack power, after Maria leveled a grid that was ill-maintained before the storm. Power utility PREPA has patched together most of the system but remains years away from making the fundamental improvements needed to enable it to withstand another hurricane.

“The grid needs to be rebuilt – not just the lines,” PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins said.

Maria also damaged nearly half the island’s levees. Several major water pumps, used to remove floodwater, remain in disrepair.

“God help us, but we definitely can’t handle any more hurricanes,” said Tania Vazquez, the island’s secretary of natural resources.

Governor Ricardo Rossello’s office declined to comment on the island’s hurricane preparedness or on specific efforts to protect the elderly, referring questions to other agencies.

Glorimar Andujar, Secretary of the Department of Family, said officials learned a lot from Maria about how to prepare for the next storm.

“The emergency plans are much better,” Andujar said, “because we now have an experience that no other generation of agency leaders have experienced.”

ELDERLY AT RISK

Rosa Iturrizaga runs Hostal de Amigos, a small eldercare residence in San Juan.

The home barely broke even before Maria, relying on resident fees of between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. Since then, two of 11 residents moved to the mainland, and insurance has so far not paid for about $40,000 in storm damage, Iturrizaga said. The business carries $500,000 in debt, has fallen behind on loan and tax payments and now loses up to $5,000 a month.

“I don’t know what’s kept me going,” Iturrizaga said. “I love doing this, but I’m looking at other things to do with the land.”

Another private home, the nonprofit Asilo San Rafael in Arecibo, theoretically charges residents $1,200 a month; in reality, only three of 27 residents pay full price, and at least nine pay nothing, said board member Lucila Oliver.

Operating costs run about $700,000 annually, with about $110,000 coming from a handful of subsidies from the island’s central government – subsidies she says have declined sharply in recent years as the now-bankrupt Puerto Rican government fell into a fiscal crisis, Oliver said.

The Department of Family’s Andujar disputed that the subsidies have declined, but Oliver provided Reuters with balance sheets showing a drop in department funding to $59,000 this fiscal year from $80,000 last year.

Maria brought new costs: about $1,200 a month to bring in water tanks, and thousands more on diesel for generators. Oliver said San Rafael is “used to living on the edge,” but says the edge has drawn closer since the hurricanes.

Many elderly and disabled here find a way to get by at home, with little care. Some seek help from the Department of Family, applying for a caregiver to come by just a day or two a week, said Andujar.

Many are turned away, she said.

“The funding is very limited,” she said, “and the need is very big.”

PREPARING FOR ANOTHER HIT

This hurricane season, the department is making sure it has accurate locations for all licensed nursing homes after cell phone service disruptions stymied the response to Hurricane Maria. The homes, Andujar said, are now required to have 30 days of food on hand, and the department has also requested they have generators and water tanks.

She added that about 315,000 elderly people currently receive benefits as part of a $1.27 billion federal allocation under the Nutritional Assistance Program.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) remains on the island and said it has given municipalities money to improve community resilience.

Dr. Carmen Sanchez Salgado, Puerto Rico’s ombudsmen for the elderly, said her staff has been educating elderly people about the emergency supplies they need.

Charities and nonprofits have also helped. The nonprofit PRxPR, created in response to Maria, is funding solar panels for elderly people and community centers.

One such center in Naguabo had no power as recently as four weeks ago, said Carmen Baez, the group’s co-founder.

“Our installation was it,” she said.

(Reporting by Nick Brown, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Ricardo Ortiz; Additional reporting by Robin Respaut; Editing by Daniel Bases and Brian Thevenot)

A child dies, a child lives: why Somalia drought is not another famine

A Somali girl is seen at a internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld

DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.

When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.

Why?

Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Somali women stand in line to receive infants food aid in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 26, 2018. Picture taken February 26, 2018.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.

 

FROM FOOD TO CASH

In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.

WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A woman walks past thw makeshift shelters at the new Kabasa Internally displaced camp in the northern Somali town of Dollow, Somalia, February 25, 2018. Picture taken February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.

GLOBAL SHIFT

Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.

HOW IT WORKS

Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)