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El Nino weather menace looms for frail economies

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An aerial view of the flooded outskirts of Trinidad, Beni, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of La Paz, February 22, 2007. A nascent El Nino weather cycle threatens to wreak more economic havoc and disrupt raw material production across a wide swath of the world, evoking memories of the killer edition of 1998.

El Nino weather menace looms for frail economies

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A nascent El Nino weather cycle threatens to wreak more economic havoc and disrupt raw material production across a wide swath of the world, evoking memories of the killer edition of 1998.

The timing could not be worse. This El Nino appears to be developing as the world is struggling to emerge from the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. Eleven years ago, a damaging El Nino occurred in the middle of the Asian financial crisis which roiled financial markets.

“El Nino is a little bit like recession: you are in it before you can say you have one. If it continues as it is now, the historians will say the El Nino started in May,” said David Jones, head of climate analysis in Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. Jones said they could declare an El Nino in weeks.

During El Nino, an abnormal warming of the waters of the equatorial Pacific unhinges weather patterns in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. A La Nina weather pattern, in which waters cool, was in place last year.

In 1998, El Nino-related storms, floods, tornadoes and mudslides killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage to crops, infrastructure and mines.

Michelle L’Heureux, head of the U.S. Climate Prediction Center which tracks El Nino, said this version may not approach the one in 1998, the strongest weather anomaly in 150 years. The CPC is an office under the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

If the anomaly does recur with severity, drought in Asia could lift grain prices, which are already near historic levels due to supply shortages, while storms that would disrupt crude production in the Gulf of Mexico may be minimized.

Mike Palmerino, U.S. agricultural meteorologist with DTN Meteorlogix, added: “This one has a little more going for it. But a year ago at this time it looked like we were building toward an El Nino and everything just totally fell apart toward the end of the summer, where all the Pacific circulation patterns changed and we actually slipped back into a La Nina.”

COMMODITIES WEATHER WATCH

Some forecasters fret that an early sign of this El Nino is the weak annual monsoon plaguing India, one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of everything from sugar to soybeans.

The monsoon rains are the lifeblood for farmers in India. Its faltering sugar crop is a prime reason why sugar prices are at their highest levels in three years.

China typically turns to South America for soybeans during the U.S. growing season. But the 2009 crops from Brazil and Argentina are suffering from drought and U.S. soybean stocks are at a 32-year low — less than two weeks of normal commercial supply.

Shawn McCambridge, grains analyst with Prudential Bache Commodities in Chicago, said the El Nino could “dry out the second half of 2009 in Australia and it can also affect South American production.

“It’s developing a little too late to really have much of an impact on the Northern Hemisphere, but the concern would be in the Southern Hemisphere (crops),” he said.

Indonesia, one of the biggest producers of palm oil and a large consumer of sugar and rice, faces drought.

Australia is one of the world’s biggest wheat producers and has barely recovered from the worst drought in 100 years which hit a few years ago.

Rob Imray, general manager of grain trading and agricultural risk management firm Farmarco, said the Australian wheat crop is off to a good start but the southern areas could suffer if no rain arrives in August and September.

EFFECT ON METALS?

Severe floods may disrupt mining operations in Chile, the world’s biggest copper producer, and Peru, among others.

India is the world’s biggest gold buyer when farmers, whose annual income is tied to the monsoon, buy the metal for the festival of lights celebrating the end of their harvest in November.

Still, Andrew Montano, a director at bullion dealer ScotiaMocatta in Toronto, said, “the bulk of the demand is coming from international investors, more so than from the Indian subcontinent.”

In the United States, El Nino could funnel wind shear into the Atlantic basin and hinder storm formation during the annual hurricane season.

Vernon Kousky, former head of the CPC, said there could “be a suppression of Atlantic hurricane activity, provided that further intensification of El Nino occurs during the next couple of months.”

A strong El Nino could lead to a mild winter in the Northeast, the world’s biggest heating-oil market. The snow pack in the Western United States may also suffer and affect hydroelectric power generation.

But Stephen Schork, editor of The Schork Report in Pennsylvania, said the weak economy would mute the weather phenomenon’s impact on energy markets.

“There’s just a lot of supply out there,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Bruce Hextall and Michael Perry in Sydney, Frank Tang and Rebekah Kebede in New York, Christine Stebbins in Chicago, and Naveen Thukral in Singapore)

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White House declines to confirm death of Taliban chief in Pakistan

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File photo of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in 2004. The United States declined on Friday to confirm reports that Baitullah Mehsud, Taliban chief in Pakistan, has likely been killed along with his wife and bodyguards in a drone strike, Aug. 7, 2009.

White House declines to confirm death of Taliban chief in Pakistan

WASHINGTON, Aug. 7 (Xinhua) — The United States declined on Friday to confirm reports that Baitullah Mehsud, Taliban chief in Pakistan, has likely been killed along with his wife and bodyguards in a drone strike.

“The United States cannot confirm that he has been killed in a drone attack, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

However, the spokesman said that “There seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers that he is indeed dead.”


1bFile photo of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in 2004. The United States declined on Friday to confirm reports that Baitullah Mehsud, Taliban chief in Pakistan, has likely been killed along with his wife and bodyguards in a drone strike, Aug. 7, 2009.

“Baitullah Mehsud is somebody who has well earned his label as a murderous thug. … He has killed scores of innocent men, women and children and is supposed to have plotted the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. If he is dead, without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result,” Gibbs said.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in Islamabad on Thursday that the Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mahsud was killed in the missile attack on Wednesday. He said “We have some information, but they don’t have material evidence to confirm it.”

Mehsud has been the leader since 2007 of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a coalition of Taliban factions loyal to Afghanistan’s Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar. An ally of al-Qaida, Mehsud commands as many as 20,000 fighters in Pakistan’s rugged northwestern frontier region and has directed or supported numerous suicide bombings in Pakistan, including a deadly attack in 2008 on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

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N.Korea says in last stage of enriching uranium

N Korea (Kim Jong Il)

N.Korea says in last stage of enriching uranium

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SEOUL  – North Korea said on Friday it was closer to a second way of making nuclear weapons, a move analysts saw as a new tactic to put pressure on the international community after a month of conciliatory gestures.

The chief U.S. envoy for the North, Stephen Bosworth, said the enrichment claim was “of concern”, while Russia described the announcement as “very alarming”.

Bosworth was in Beijing on a trip to Asia to discuss ways to bring Pyongyang back to long-stalled negotiations on giving up its nuclear ambitions.

“Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted its United Nations delegation as saying in a letter to the head of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).

The United States has long suspected the North of having a secret programme to enrich uranium for weapons. Experts have said it has not developed anything near a full-scale uranium programme while it has enough plutonium for six to eight bombs.

“I think for all of us, it reconfirms the necessity to maintain a coordinated position on the need for complete, verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” Bosworth said, after meetings with Chinese officials.

The North said its latest steps were in response to tighter sanctions.

“These reports cannot but provoke concern,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying

“A very alarming precedent is being created by such an open and demonstrative disdain for resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.”

At the United Nations, the mission of the United States, which currently holds the Security Council presidency, said it had received the North Korean letter and circulated it to the other 14 members of the council.

U.N. sanctions have hurt the impoverished North’s arms trade, one of its few significant exports, and analysts said it may be angered its latest attempts at conciliation with the outside world have been largely rebuffed.

The United States has refused to ease up on the sanctions, and sent its point man for their enforcement to Asia last month to build support.

“Now they (North Korea) are taking the road that they know will drive a response out of all countries — the military way — and leaving them to decide what to do,” said Cho Myung-chul, an expert on the North at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

North Korea added that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods was at its final phase and extracted plutonium was being weaponised.

“We are prepared for both dialogue and sanctions. If some permanent members of the UNSC wish to put sanctions first before dialogue, we would respond with bolstering our nuclear deterrence first before we meet them in a dialogue.”

In another move that serves as a reminder of the tension on the divided peninsula, a North Korean patrol vessel crossed briefly into the South’s waters on Friday but returned without incident, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

“They are taking a mixed strategy, which I would call the sweet and sour approach. This keeps their adversaries guessing and it makes it more difficult to formulate policy,” said Peter Beck, research fellow at Stanford University and a specialist on Korean affairs.

Market players, used to North Korea blowing hot and cold, said the latest rumblings had little impact on early trading.

Pyongyang laid the blame squarely on the U.N. Security Council for imposing sanctions over its rocket launch in April and ignoring one by South Korea late last month.

“Had the UNSC, from the very beginning, not made an issue of the DPRK’s (North Korea’s) peaceful satellite launch in the same way as it kept silent over the satellite launch conducted by South Korea on August 25, 2009, it would not have compelled the DPRK to take strong counteraction such as its 2nd nuclear test.

Pyongyang said its launch was to put a communications satellite into space. Others said it was to test a ballistic missile with the potential to hit U.S. territory.

The North has already tested two plutonium-based nuclear devices, the one in May triggering tightened international sanctions.

It reiterated on Friday its opposition to six-country talks over its nuclear weapons programme, talks it walked away from last December. The talks among the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States offered Pyongyang massive aid and an end to isolation if it gives up efforts to build an atomic arsenal.

North Korea in the past month released two U.S. journalists, a South Korean worker and fishermen it had held in separate incidents. It ended border restrictions it placed on the South and sought to resume frozen business projects with its neighbour.

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