Saturday, August 23, 2008

Food, Fuel and Water Crises Converging

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By Thalif Deen

A spectre is haunting the cities and villages of most developing nations, warns a senior official of a World Bank-affiliated organisation.

"It's the spectre of a food, fuel and water crisis," says Lars Thunell, executive vice president of the Washington-based International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank group.

"I believe we are at a tipping point," he said, because the scarcity of water poses a threat to the food supply just when the agricultural sector is stepping up production in response to riots over food prices, growing hunger, and rising malnutrition.

Speaking at the conclusion of the weeklong Stockholm International Water Conference Friday, Thunell said the growing demand for water is outpacing supply.

The world's current population of over 6.0 billion is expected to rise to about 9.0 billion by 2050, with more than 60 percent living in mega cities.

"Since water consumption goes up where there is development and improved lifestyles, we can expect even greater demands on fresh water," Thunell said.

The most water-intensive sector, agriculture, is expanding and industrialisation and energy production are further driving demand, he added.

The conference, which was attended by over 2,400 water experts and government officials, ended with an ominous warning: that water and sanitation are not far behind the food, energy and climate crises.

Summing up the weeklong proceedings, the Stockholm International Water Institute said that slow progress on sanitation will cause the world to badly fail the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the same time, weak policy, poor management, increasing waste and exploding water demands will push the planet towards the tipping point of a global water crisis.

According to U.N. estimates a little less than one billion people worldwide still don't have access to clean drinking water while over 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation.

The MDGs aim at a 50 percent reduction both in the number of people without drinking water and without basic sanitation. The deadline has been set at 2015. But most of the world's poorer nations are likely to miss the deadline.

Colin Chartres, director general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said the causes of water scarcity are essentially identical to those of the food crisis.

"There are serious and extremely worrying factors that indicate that water supplies are close to exhaustion in some countries," he said.

He pointed out that current estimates indicate the world will not have enough water to feed itself in 40 years time, "by when the current food crisis may turn into a perpetual crisis."

Chartres said he and his water science colleagues have raised a warning flag that significant investments in both research and development and water infrastructure development are needed, "if dire consequences are to be avoided."

IFC's Thunell said providing clean water and sanitation services are not only business opportunities but also opportunities to improve lives. He said investors see an opportunity in the 450-billion-dollar global water sector, where stocks are performing strongly worldwide.

Private firms also regard water supply as a business risk and are tackling it as an integral part of their risk-management strategy.

"I believe the moment is right," Thunell said. "We can avert a crisis -- as partners, working together."

He said IFC will do its part by investing in companies that pursue opportunities in water conservation and quality, and by fostering public-private partnerships in the water sector.

But Patti Lynn, campaigns director of Corporate Accountability International, has a different take on the role of the private sector.

"The crisis stems from a confluence of problems, but perhaps no contributing factor is more insidious and correctable than the privatisation of the resource," she told IPS. "When people's access to clean drinking water is reliant on the profit interests of a handful of transnationals, all of us pay a premium and because of this many of the world's poor go thirsty."

Asked if the international community will meet the MDGs relating to water and sanitation by 2015, she said: "Not if we don't change immediate course."

For one, she said, the World Bank needs to stop making water privatisation a condition for their loans.

"If the Bank is truly interested in alleviating poverty, its conditions should take a longer view," she said.

Keeping water under local, public and democratic control is the most just way to insure the greatest degree of water access for the greatest number of people, Lynn added.

States rush to dump touch-screen voting systems

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By Julian Sanchez

It’s a good time to pick up an electronic voting machine on the cheap—provided you’re not a stickler for things like "accuracy" or "security." States are scrapping tens of thousands of pricey touchscreen systems in response to mounting concerns about the machines’ reliability.

After the butterfly ballot debacle of the 2000 presidential election, in which scores of elderly Floridians revealed a surprising fondness for Pat Buchanan, electronic voting was touted as the way to avoid any such fiasco in the future. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which allocated some $3 billion in federal grants to help states upgrade their voting equipment—$2 billion of which had been spent by the end of 2007.

Now, however, many of those states—including Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Tennessee, and New Mexico—are ditching touchscreen kiosks with price tags as high as $5,000 each in favor of paper ballots. Ohio seems likely to follow suit once a legal battle with Premier Election Services, a voting machine manufacturer, is resolved. Though many of the transitions from touchscreen to paper are slated to take years to complete, already the proportion of voters served by touchscreens is expected to fall to 36 percent in November, down from a high of 44 percent in 2006. More voters are expected to use paper ballots in 2008 than did back in 2000.

Image courtesy of xkcd

Criticsincluding some of us at Ars—had long warned that electronic voting systems were not ready for prime time, citing concerns about their lack of transparency, vulnerability to tampering, and plain bugginess. Finally, states are increasingly coming to the same conclusion. Last year, Ohio produced a 1,000-page report cataloging a host of problems with the state’s voting machines. Since then, a glitch blamed on conflicts with anti-virus software initially caused hundred of votes to be dropped as they were uploaded to tallying servers. A "top-to-bottom" review of California’s voting systems last year found that hacker "red teams" were able to easily compromise machines made by Premier, Sequoia, Hart Intercivic, and Election Systems & Software—leading the state to decertify the machines.

In Florida, officials had hurried to upgrade voting technology after the embarrassment of 2000, spending tens of millions on new touchscreen kiosks—machines several counties are still paying off. Last year, in the wake of innumerable snafus, Gov. Charlie Crist announced the state would be scrapping more than 25,000 touchscreen machines. The bill for the transition back to paper could run as high as $35 million more. Perhaps just to rub salt into the wound, Sequoia offered to buy back the $5,000 boxes for $1 each. The state declined, passing the machines along to a recycling firm that will seek to resell the machines or strip them for parts.

Of course, finding a buyer for thousands of bulky machines that have been judged buggy and insecure may not be so easy. AP reports that some states have resorted to peddling the devices on sites like eBay or Craigslist, while others are hoping to unload them on developing nations.

Ohio Voting Machines Contained Programming Error That Dropped Votes

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By Mary Pat Flaherty

A voting system used in 34 states contains a critical programming error that can cause votes to be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards to a central tallying point, the manufacturer acknowledges.

The problem was identified after complaints from Ohio elections officials following the March primary there, but the logic error that is the root of the problem has been part of the software for 10 years, said Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Election Solutions, formerly known as Diebold.

The flawed software is on both touch screen and optical scan voting machines made by Premier and the problem with vote counts is most likely to affect larger jurisdictions that feed many memory cards to a central counting database rapidly.

Riggall said he was "confident" that elections officials through the years would have realized votes had been dropped when they crosschecked their tallies to certify final elections results and would have reloaded cards so as not to lose votes. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has said no Ohio votes were lost because the nine Ohio counties that found the problem caught it before primary results were finalized.

As recently as May, Premier said the problem was not of its making but stemmed from anti-virus software that Ohio had installed on its machines. It also briefly said the mistakes could have come from human mistakes. Further testing by Ohio elections officials and then high volume tests by Premier uncovered the programming error.

"We are indeed distressed that our previous analysis of this issue was in error," Premier President Dave Byrd wrote Tuesday in a letter that was hand-delivered to Brunner. Premier and Brunner are in an ongoing court battle over the voting machines and whether Premier violated its contract with the state and warranties. Half of the Ohio's 88 counties use the GEMS system. Brunner has been a vocal critic of electronic voting machines,

Both Brunner and Premier said that remedies to the problem will be in place for the November presidential election. A nationwide customer alert with recommended actions was issued Tuesday by Premier. Approximately 1,750 jurisdictions use the flawed system, Riggall said. Both Maryland and Virginia use it, he said, although Virginia does not relay its votes to a central counting point, which is where the problem surfaces, Riggall said. Maryland does use a central count, he said. The District of Columbia does not use the GEMS system.

The problem is most likely to affect larger jurisdictions that upload multiple memory cards during counts, Riggall said. The GEMS system is supposed to save information from one card at a time to be counted in order as the cards are read by a database that Riggall described as the "mother ship." But a logic error in the program can cause incoming votes to essentially shove aside other votes that are waiting in the electronic line before they are counted. The mistake occurs in milliseconds, Premier's customer notice says.

The mistake is not immediately apparent, Riggall said, and would have to be caught when elections officials went to match how many memory cards they fed into a central database against how many show as being read by that database. Each card carries a unique marker.

Officials in Butler County, Ohio -- north of Cincinnati -- were the first to raise the issue when 150 votes from a card dropped in March. Brunner's office originally said that 11 counties had the same problem but has since revised that to nine. Her office was not able to say how many dropped votes were discovered in those jurisdictions.

"I can't provide odds on whether dropped votes were not recognized" during the decade GEMS has been used, Rigall said, "but based on what we know about how our customers run their elections and reconcile counts we believe any results not uploaded on election night would have been caught when elections were being certified."

In his letter to Ohio's Brunner, Premier's president said, "Voters in jurisdictions Premier serves, both in Ohio and throughout the country, can be assured that election officials employing standard canvass and crosscheck procedures will count their votes completely and accurately."

Unlike other software, the problem acknowledged by Premier cannot be fixed by sending out a coding fix to its customers because of federal rules for certifying election systems, Rigall said. Changes to systems must go through the Election Assistance Commission, he said, and take two years on average for certification and approval -- and that is apart from whatever approvals and reviews would be needed by each elections board throughout the country.

Brunner said she appreciated "the forthrightness" of Byrd in his letter to her and commended Butler County officials "who went above and beyond the call of duty" to pursue the problem.

"As far as I know, we have not seen that problem," with dropped votes, said Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for Maryland's State Board of Elections. Maryland counties do upload results to a central system -- which is what generates county vote totals on election night -- but state procedures call for counties to reload every memory card the day after the election to doublecheck results, Goldstein said.

The safeguards that Premier calls for its in customer alert, he said, already are in place in Maryland.

U.S. court rules Saudi Arabia immune in 9/11 case

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By Edith Honan

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, four princes and other Saudi entities are immune from a lawsuit filed by victims of the September 11 attacks and their families alleging they gave material support to al Qaeda, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.

The ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan upheld a 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Casey dismissing a claim against Saudi Arabia, a Saudi charity, four princes and a Saudi banker of providing material support to al Qaeda before the September 11 attacks.

The victims and their families argued that because the defendants gave money to Muslim charities that in turn gave money to al Qaeda, they should be held responsible for helping to finance the attacks.

The appeals court found that the defendants are protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

The court also noted that exceptions to the immunity rule do not apply because Saudi Arabia has not been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department.