Science & Health

Scientists Outline High Cost of ‘Nuisance Flooding’ Along US Coasts

Minor floods caused by rising sea levels may end up costing U.S. coastal communities as much money and resources as major hurricane disasters, U.S. scientists said.

As climate change causes sea levels to rise, such “nuisance flooding” is expected to become more frequent and costly for cities like Washington, San Francisco, Boston and Miami, researchers said.

Over the last 20 years, Washington has endured more than 94 hours a year of nuisance flooding. By 2050, the capital could see as many as 700 hours of flooding a year, the scientists estimated in a study published in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future.


“Since these events are not extreme, they don’t get a lot of attention,” said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California-Irvine and co-author of the study.

Inconvenience to public

The National Ocean Service defines nuisance flooding as “flooding that leads to public inconveniences such as road closures” but rarely causes death or injury. Such floods can overwhelm storm drains, slowly degenerate infrastructure and strain city resources.

Roads and sidewalks were not built to be under saltwater for hours on end, and cities usually have to close roads and send in trucks to clean them up, the scientists said.

“They definitely can’t withstand this,” said lead author Hamed Moftakhari, also of UC-Irvine. And the damage leads to “long, drawn-out costs,” he added.

In Boston specifically, “king tides” overwhelm walkways and roads several times a year. The East Coast city is predicted to see up to 100 hours of such nuisance flooding a year by 2030, the UC-Irvine scientists said.

Residents have already noticed the semifrequent inconvenience, according to Mia Goldwasser, Boston’s climate preparedness program manager.

“There are always people sending pictures to the city, saying, ‘Look at all the flooding happening with very little rain,’ ” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview this week. The city has already noted several waterfront hot spots where “it’s going to be worse [in the future] if there’s already flooding.”

More awareness

The flooding has raised awareness among the general public to the everyday realities of climate change, Goldwasser added: “It’s an inconvenience to people when they’re walking and driving and biking, moving around their neighborhood.”

The scientists are using the data as a “call to action” for coastal cities to examine the issue and decide on the best ways to respond to rising sea levels.

“We believe that if you have information on the type of hazard, the potential cost, then you can plan,” said AghaKouchak.

Boston has begun to come up with ideas to mitigate the effects of rising seas on infrastructure, which include floodproofing properties and potentially building a massive seawall.

Some roads and buildings may become corroded by nuisance floods, while others could end up completely under water, Goldwasser said.

“There’s still a lot that we don’t know, that we’re trying to figure out,” she said. “What are the most effective solutions? … How do we actually implement them?”

As for the total cost of the floods over the next few decades, Goldwasser said that’s still to be determined, though it’s expected to be “pretty significant.”   

Economy & business

Brazil’s Worst-ever Recession Unexpectedly Deepens in Late 2016

Brazil’s worst-ever recession intensified unexpectedly in the final quarter of 2016, data showed on Tuesday, frustrating hopes for signs of a recovery and stepping up pressure on President Michel Temer and the central bank to do more to promote growth.

Brazil’s gross domestic product contracted by 3.6 percent last year, statistics agency IBGE said, following a 3.8 percent drop in 2015. The nation’s two-year downturn is the longest and deepest on record for Latin America’s biggest nation.

The economic contraction worsened in the fourth quarter, with a steeper-than-expected decline of 0.9 percent, following a 0.7 percent drop in the previous three months.

Investment tumbled 10.2 percent in 2016, in a sharp drop that is partly blamed by economists on Brazil’s chronically high interest rates.

The central bank started to cut its benchmark rate from a decade-high of 14.25 percent in October and is expected to take it to single digits this year.

The disappointing data fueled calls for the central bank to accelerate the pace of rate cuts, currently running at 75 basis points per meeting. Yields on rate futures showed an increasing chance of a steeper cut when the bank makes its next scheduled policy decision in April, according to traders.

“There’s a lot of idle capacity in the economy and that’s a reason for the central bank to move faster,” said Cristiano Oliveira, chief economist at  Sao Paulo-based Banco Fibra, responding to Tuesday’s data.

Slow growth rate expected

The majority view among economists is that Brazil will emerge from recession in 2017, but at a very slow growth rate of 0.5 percent, which would be insufficient to reduce unemployment.

The government has forecast growth of 1 percent.

Some economists tempered their views even further following the dismal performance in 2016.

“We see zero growth in 2017, or maybe just a little bit above that,” said Carlos Kawall, chief economist at Banco Safra, in Sao Paulo. “We should not see any big recovery this year; we will have to wait until 2018.”

Green shoots sprouting slowly

Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles rebuked that pessimism by saying after the figures were announced that Brazil is “clearly” starting to grow again, based on indicators ranging from cardboard and motorcycle production to supermarket sales.

A revised forecast for economic growth in 2017 will be announced by March 22, Meirelles said, taking into account the worse-than-expected fourth-quarter data.

Betting that investors’ growing confidence in Brazil would hold, the government reopened on Tuesday a 10-year global bond seeking to raise at least $500 million.

Signs of an imminent recovery include a rebound in vehicle traffic, which appears to have hit bottom in the fourth quarter, according to a senior executive at CCR SA, the country’s biggest toll road operator.

Car output also jumped nearly 15 percent in February, according to the national automakers’ association Anfavea, and farmers hope to harvest a record soy crop this year.

None of that, however, is likely to make for anything more than a shallow and underwhelming recovery, according to Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos.

“A very weak labor market backdrop and still high levels of household and corporate indebtedness should limit the strength of the recovery,” Ramos said.

Tax hikes not ruled out

The downturn has left nearly 13 million people unemployed, caused a record number of bankruptcy filings and led agencies to strip Brazil of its hard-won investment grade credit rating.

It also contributed to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff last year and to the low approval ratings of her successor, President Temer, whose agenda of budget and pension reforms has helped fuel a strong rally in Brazilian equities and currency since last year.

If the economy continues to disappoint, tax revenues could fall short of expectations, putting the country’s budget target at risk. Meirelles said the government could raise taxes or cut spending further if necessary to achieve its 143.1 billion reais ($45.87 billion) primary deficit goal.

Although this recession has been the deepest in Brazil’s history, it has not been marked by the financial upheaval seen in other crises in the country’s turbulent economic past.

Previous downturns were often accompanied by sovereign debt crises, capital flight and hyperinflation, none of which happened during the current slump.

Economy & business

Swiss Firms Will Strive for More Gender Diversity in Workplace Leadership

Swiss firms from food and beverage giant Nestle to banking groups UBS and Credit Suisse pledged new goals on Tuesday for supporting and promoting women.

While Switzerland has Europe’s second-highest proportion of women in the workforce, it trails global standards on gender diversity in boardrooms and in management positions.

Consultancies EY, Deloitte and PwC and staffing agency Adecco all committed to increase female leadership in their Swiss businesses to between 20 and 35 percent by 2020.

This follows a recent survey by EY that found Swiss firms with at least 20 percent women in top management rated their financial situation as better, while studies by UBS have found companies with greater gender diversity consistently outperform.

Women represent just 6.7 percent of Swiss executives, according to Credit Suisse, compared with a global average of 13.8 percent and European average of 12.6 percent. They occupy one out of eight board seats, half the European average.

Hiring plans

Swiss women-in-business initiative Advance has spearheaded the move, with Credit Suisse’s domestic business saying it would strive for equal hiring in campus recruitment, while Nestle committed to grow the proportion of women in management positions worldwide every year.

Siemens Switzerland pledged to reach equal pay in the next three years, while IKEA Switzerland improved its paid paternity leave to two months.

Switzerland was the second-to-last European country to embrace women’s suffrage in 1971, more than half a century after Norway, Germany, Canada and the United States. And it took two decades more for the Swiss supreme court to force one canton to let women take part in local votes in 1990.

IKEA Switzerland head Simona Scarpaleggia, one of just four female CEOs out of 78 in Credit Suisse’s study, helped found Advance in 2013 and says the Swiss system needs to change to make things more straightforward for working mothers.

“Either you give up your time, which happens most often, or you get private support, which is very expensive. It wouldn’t be so complicated to change this system, as many other countries are doing,” said Scarpaleggia, who also co-chairs the U.N. High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, said.

Policy positions

The Swiss government hopes women will help fill a growing shortfall of skilled labor, but it eschews many policies, such as quotas and more parental leave, that promote women elsewhere.

It is among the handful of developed countries that give new fathers no time off, meaning infant care falls largely on women.

High child care costs mean many new mothers opt out of their professions or return part time, generally not returning to full time until children reach age 9, statistics show.

Many women step off the ladder later in their careers, tired of being pigeonholed and passed over for promotions.

“Companies are surprised that, if they look at the statistics, it’s often women between 45 and 50 who are leaving,” said Nia Joynson-Romanzina, who left UBS in 2015 to found consultancy iCubed.

The Advance initiative is seeking to “change Switzerland one company at a time,” Citi Country Officer Kristine Braden said.

“I’m quite optimistic because, despite the conservative approach, Swiss people are very pragmatic,” Scarpaleggia said.

Arts & Entertainment

African Cinemas Make Comeback With Private Funding

Africa’s largest film festival, Fespaco, recently celebrated its 25th edition. The main venue, as always, was the old and respectable Cine Burkina, in the heart of the capital Ouagadougou. The city used to have at least nine dedicated cinemas — now only two remain.

It is a picture that is repeated across the continent.

In Senegal, don’t go looking for the Cinema de Paris, the old film temple at the Place de l’Independence in downtown Dakar. It’s gone. It was knocked down in 2011, and the hole it left behind was filled with hotels and office blocks.

And in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, the number of cinemas is …

“Zero. In Yaounde, we’re three million [people] but we don’t have a single functioning cinema,” said Cameroonian culture journalist Parfait Tabapsi.

The arrival of DVDs and the failure of the big cinemas to go digital are two of the reasons for the demise in West Africa.

People can watch the latest Hollywood flicks — often pirated, of course — for a pittance on TVs at little neighborhood viewing spots, but try to find any African films, besides perhaps a bit of Nollywood, and you will be disappointed.

Changing that is at the heart of Tabapsi’s work in Cameroon with an organization called Mobile Digital Cinema.

“Our aim is to bring movies to the places where they cannot go,” he said. “Because there’s no communication means, there’s no electricity, the roads are bad. … But people need to see artists and directors that tell the story of Africa. So we buy the film rights and screen the films for free.”

And now, belatedly, the old-fashioned cinema is catching up.

Fespaco joined the digital age two editions ago, when it announced that directors were no longer required to deliver their films in the expensive and cumbersome 33-mm format.

It’s a shift that can also be seen elsewhere in the industry.

Young Ivorian film director and actress Kadhy Toure has proven that home-grown movies can be made, and can make money.

Her film, L’Interprete, is the biggest box office hit in Ivorian history.

“In Ivory Coast, we only have one big company that has three cinemas,” Toure said. “They were blown away. They kept asking me: How did you do it? This is the first time that they see a line of people just wanting to see an African film.”

The film is about the many twists and turns in the love life of an Abidjan woman who works as an interpreter. It’s a story, Toure says, about us — and that’s why people queue around the block to see it.

Toure says a sequel is on the way. Elsewhere, her fellow African directors are working equally hard to have their films shown — in their countries.

The award-winning Chadian Mahamat-Saleh Haroun single-handedly revived Le Normandie, in the capital N’Djamena. And in Burkina Faso, another mythical cinema, Guimbi, in the country’s second-largest city of Bobo Dioulasso, is under reconstruction, according to the project’s spokeswoman Rosalie Zida.

Reconstruction of the cinema — the only one in the city — started in mid-2015 and is the initiative of local filmmakers, along with the help of friends in Belgium and France. One hall will open later this year, Zida says, and the full complex will be finished in 2018.

And, in Ouagadougou, this year’s Fespaco coincided with the opening of a new screening venue, the Canal Olympia. It is part of a series of multifunctional cultural venues owned by the French chain Canal+ and already present in Conakry, Guinea.

So what is the takeaway, as Fespaco goes into its habitual two-year slumber? That mostly private initiatives are helping to resurrect African cinema, and that this applies to the buildings and to what is shown on the big screens. Produce it — and they will come.

Economy & business

US Trade Deficit Hits Highest Level in Nearly 5 Years

The U.S. trade deficit in January hit the highest level in nearly five years.

Tuesday’s report from the Commerce Department says the gap between what Americans sell to foreigners and what U.S. customers buy from overseas grew by 9.6 percent for the month to $48.5 billion.

U.S. exports rose six-tenths of a percent, as American companies sold more cars overseas, but U.S. commercial aircraft sales faltered. Export gains were overwhelmed by a surge in imported cell phones and autos, along with rising costs for oil imports.

The head of the White House National Trade Council, Peter Navarro wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that the trade deficit hurts economic growth and could be a threat to national security.

In a note to journalists, analysts at Wells Fargo Securities say growing exports and imports are also a sign of improving economies in the United States and key trading partners. They blame some of the trade gap on the strength of the U.S. dollar, which means American-made products are more expensive, and harder to sell on global markets.

Other concerns came to light in a survey of hundreds of economists across the nation by the National Association for Business Economics. Many of these experts said expected increases in government spending could increase the deficit.

In a VOA interview, survey committee chair Richard DeKaser said members have concerns about efforts to limit immigration to the United States, and would support allowing more arrivals for highly-skilled migrants.

Housing market

A separate report from a private company says U.S. home prices jumped a strong 6.9 percent during the past year. Tuesday’s report from CoreLogic also forecasts a 4.8 percent price gain over the next year, which is well above the expected rate of inflation. The authors say prices are rising because of economic recovery, limited supply of homes for sale, and continued low mortgage interest rates.

Economists have been watching the housing market with particular care since severe problems in this sector contributed to the Great Recession.

Economy & business

Study: Healthy Sex Life Leads to Better Job Satisfaction

The secret to better job satisfaction may be as easy as having a healthy sex life, a new study suggests.

According to researchers at Oregon State University, married employees who “prioritized sex at home” were better workers and enjoyed work more.

On the other hand, the research showed that people who bring work-related stress home “impinges on employees’ sex lives,” leading researchers to recommend leaving work at the office.

The reason sex helps workers enjoy work more is that it releases dopamine and oxytocin, both of which are mood enhancers the effects of which can last into the next day. They added that the effects can last for at least 24 hours and worked equally among men and women.

“We make jokes about people having a ‘spring in their step,’ but it turns out this is actually a real thing and we should pay attention to it,” said Keith Leavitt, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Business and an expert in organizational behavior and management. “Maintaining a healthy relationship that includes a healthy sex life will help employees stay happy and engaged in their work, which benefits the employees and the organizations they work for.”

“This is a reminder that sex has social, emotional and physiological benefits, and it is important to make it a priority,” Leavitt said. “Just make time for it.”

For their study, researchers followed 159 married employees for two weeks and had them fill out two brief questionnaires each day. Those who had sex reported better moods the next day, particularly in the morning, which allowed them to be more engaged.

“Making a more intentional effort to maintain a healthy sex life should be considered an issue of human sustainability, and as a result, a potential career advantage,” Leavitt said. “Employers [in the U.S.] can steer their employee engagement efforts more broadly toward work-life balance policies that encourage workers to disconnect from the office,” he said.

The French recently enacted a law that bars after-hours email and gives employees a ‘right to disconnect.’

“Technology offers a temptation to stay plugged in, but it’s probably better to unplug if you can,” he said. “And employers should encourage their employees to completely disengage from work after hours.”

The study was published this month in the Journal of Management.

Silicon Valley & Technology

German Court Rejects Injunction for Facebook in Syrian Selfie Case

A German court rejected a temporary injunction against Facebook on Tuesday in a case brought by a Syrian refugee who sued the social networking site for failing to remove faked posts linking him to crimes and militant attacks.

The Wuerzburg district court said in a preliminary ruling that Facebook is neither a “perpetrator nor a participant” in what it said was “undisputable defamation” by Facebook users, but simply acting as a hosting provider that is not responsible for preemptively blocking offensive content under European law.

The posts in dispute featured a picture showing Anas Modamani, a 19-year-old from Damascus, taking a selfie with Chancellor Angela Merkel in September 2015 at a refugee shelter in the Berlin district of Spandau.

Modamani’s image was subsequently shared on Facebook on anonymous accounts, alongside posts falsely claiming he was responsible for the Brussels airport bombing of March 2016 and setting on fire a homeless man in December last year by six migrants at an underground station in Berlin.

The court rejected the need for a temporary injunction sought by Modamani to require Facebook to go beyond measures the company had taken to block defamatory images of him for Facebook users in Germany using geo-blocking technology.

In a statement following the decision, Facebook expressed concern for Modamani’s predicament but said the court’s ruling showed the company acted quickly to block access to defamatory postings, once they had been reported by Modamani’s lawyer.

The case has been closely watched as Germany, a frequent critic of Facebook, is preparing legislation to force the social networking website to remove “hate speech” from its web pages within 24 hours or face fines.

After the ruling, Modamani’s lawyer in the case, Chan-jo Jun, told a news conference he was disappointed such imagery continued to circulate online and more must be done to force Facebook to delete hate-filled content on its own accord.

“We have to decide whether we want to accept that Facebook can basically do whatever it wants or whether German law, and above all the removal of illegal contents in Germany, will be enforced. If we want that we need new laws,” Jun said.

Modamani’s complaint maintained that defamatory images based on the selfie posted to Facebook were still viewable online outside of Germany, or by users within Germany using a sophisticated Tor browser.

But the court found that the risk of average German users seeing the illegal content was not sufficiently credible and therefore a temporary injunction was unnecessary at this stage.

The ruling said there remained a legitimate issue over whether it was technically feasible for Facebook to do more to block such images, but this would require testimony by experts.

Tuesday’s decision is subject to appeal within one month of the yet-to-be-published written judgment, a court statement said. Jun declined to say whether an appeal was planned, saying the decision remained up to his client.

Arts & Entertainment

Fredericks Leaves 2024 Olympic Bid Role, Waives Vote

IOC member Frank Fredericks has stepped down from his role overseeing the 2024 Olympic bidding process after a $300,000 payment from a banned track official was revealed.

Fredericks says “Paris and Los Angeles are presenting two fantastic candidatures and I do not wish to become a distraction.”

The Namibian sprinter, a four-time Olympic silver medalist, says stepping aside as IOC evaluation chairman is “in the best interests” of the bidding process.

Fredericks would have led an April 23-25 visit to Los Angeles.

He also will skip the September hosting vote.

Last Friday, Fredericks said he contacted the IOC Ethics Commission ahead of French daily Le Monde reporting that a company linked to him was paid $299,300 on Oct. 2, 2009, the day Rio de Janeiro won 2016 Olympic hosting rights.

Fredericks denies wrongdoing.