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Eclipse shrouds Asia in cloak of darkness

by Pedro Ugarte

The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century plunged millions across Asia into temporary darkness yesterday, triggering scenes of religious fervour, fear and excitement across India and China.
Ancient superstition and modern commerce came together in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity likely to end up being the most watched eclipse in history, due to its path over Earth's most densely inhabited areas.
A woman was killed in a stampede in the holy city of Varanasi where tens of thousands of devout Hindus had gathered by the river Ganges at dawn.
Police said the 80-year-old fainted in the crush to enter a temple near the banks of the river and suffocated, triggering panic. More than 20 people were injured.
With Hindu priests conducting special prayers, the crowds in Varanasi cheered and then raised their arms in salutation as the sun re-emerged from behind the moon, before they took a spiritually purifying dip in the river's holy waters.
A total solar eclipse usually occurs every 18 months or so, but yesterday's spectacle was special for its maximum period of "totality" – when the sun is wholly covered by the moon – of six minutes and 39 seconds.
Such a lengthy duration will not be matched until the year 2132.
State-run China Central Television provided minute-by-minute coverage of what it dubbed "The Great Yangtze River Solar Eclipse" as the phenomenon cut a path along the river's drainage basin.
Millions of people in areas of southwestern China enjoyed a clear line of sight, according to images broadcast on CCTV, but the view was obstructed along much of its path by cloudy weather.
Shanghai viewers braved rain and overcast skies to witness the spectacle as darkness shrouded China's commercial hub at 9:36 am (0136 GMT).
"It is working hours now, but with such a spectacle going on, you don't want to miss it. The experience is truly thrilling," said Allen Chen, a Shanghai office worker, who stepped out into the street to witness the event.
Despite the weather, hotels along Shanghai's famed waterfront Bund packed in the customers with eclipse breakfast specials.
Those who could afford it grabbed expensive seats on planes chartered by specialist travel agencies that promised extended views of the eclipse as they chased the shadow eastwards.
The cone-shaped shadow, or umbra, created by the total eclipse first made landfall on the western Indian state of Gujarat shortly before 6:30 am (0100 GMT).
It then raced across India and squeezed between Bangladesh and Nepal before engulfing most of Bhutan, traversing the Chinese mainland and slipping back out to sea off Shanghai.
From there it moved across the islands of southern Japan and veered into the western Pacific.
In Mumbai, hundreds of people who trekked up to the Nehru planetarium clutching eclipse sunglasses found themselves reaching for umbrellas and rain jackets instead as heavy overnight rain turned torrential.
"We didn't want to watch it on television and we thought this would be the best place," said 19-year-old student Dwayne Fernandes. "We could've stayed in bed."
Others opted to stay home and shuttered their windows, fearful of the effects of the lunar shadow which some believe can lead to birth defects in pregnant women.
"I was advised not to leave the house as the eclipse brings bad luck to you and your family," said Deepa Shrestha, a 25-year-old housemaid in Kathmandu.
Superstition has always haunted the moment when Earth, moon and sun are perfectly aligned. The daytime extinction of the sun, the source of all life, is associated with war, famine, flood and the death or birth of rulers.
The ancient Chinese blamed a sun-eating dragon. In Hindu mythology, the two demons Rahu and Ketu are said to "swallow" the sun during eclipses, snuffing out its light and causing food to become inedible and water undrinkable.
Some Indian astrologers had issued predictions laden with gloom and foreboding, and a gynaecologist at a Delhi hospital said many expectant mothers scheduled for July 22 caesarian deliveries insisted on changing the date.
The last total solar eclipse was on August 1 last year and also crossed China.
The next will be on July 11, 2010, but will occur almost entirely over the South Pacific.

Lebanon’s struggling fishermen angling for a catch

by Jocelyne Zablit

Mustapha Shaalan yearns for the days when he would go out to sea and haul in 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of fish in the blink of an eye.
Nowadays, like most fishermen in the southern Lebanese coastal town of Tyre and elsewhere in the country, he says he is lucky if he reels in one or two kilos on a good day.
Over-fishing, pollution and dynamite fishing have all but wiped out marine life in the Mediterranean waters off the 220-kilometre-long (136-mile-long) Lebanese coast, leaving many of the country's estimated 8,000 fishermen destitute.
"The sea back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was thick with fish and we were the envy of the town," 68-year-old Shaalan wistfully recalls, sitting on the quay of the picturesque port of Tyre.
"Our reputation extended worldwide," brags the father of seven who began fishing at age 10 and has a deeply creased, suntanned face from years spent at sea.
"My pockets were always full and I traveled a lot. Now, look at us."
Some 2,000 families live from fishing in Tyre, a city of 100,000 located near the border with Israel, says Khalil Taha, head of the local fishermen's syndicate.
In the city's heyday, a fisherman would easily earn 500 dollars a week, but that figure is now closer to 200 dollars for an entire month, well below the minimum wage of 333 dollars, Taha said.
"The fishermen of Tyre used to do so well that when they would be offered jobs elsewhere they would turn them down," he said. "My father used to earn enough from the trade that he was able to put me and my nine brothers and sisters through private school.
"We used to go and buy our clothes at Nouveautes Khater, an upscale department store," added Taha, 49, who has two children and is expecting a third. "Now even the cheapest place is expensive for us."
Taha partly blames the fishermen themselves for their plight but also consecutive governments, which he said have done nothing to protect the fishing industry or help develop it.
Compounding the problem is the constant political turmoil that has rocked Lebanon for years. There was the 1975-1990 civil war, there were Israeli troops in southern Lebanon – including Tyre – between 1982 and 2000 and, most recently, the devastating 2006 war between Hezbollah and the Jewish state.
"We have been sounding the alarm for more than 10 years about our disastrous situation but no one is listening and I don't think anyone ever will," Taha said.

'The Mediterranean in Lebanon is disastrous'

Experts say many species, including red mullet, grouper and small barracudas are facing extinction in Lebanon's waters, primarily because of bad fishing practices over the years.
"We are destroying our sea, completely and totally," said Imad Saoud, an aquatic scientist at American University of Beirut. "And the problem is that the people who benefit the most from the sea – the fishermen – are the people destroying it the most."
He said the illegal and destructive practice of dynamite or blast fishing, spear fishing and compressor fishing, has irreversibly damaged the marine ecosystem off the coast of Lebanon.
Compressors blow air into crevices or holes at the sea bottom, frightening fish out of their hiding places.
Sewage is also dumped at sea along with heavy metals from factories, including copper, zinc and vanadium – a metallic chemical.
In addition, greedy developers have been invading the coastline and paying no heed to the environmental impact.
"The state of the Mediterranean in Lebanon is disastrous at all levels and what is coming is even more disastrous," said Michel Bariche, a marine biologist at American University of Beirut.
"As far as the government is concerned, even if there is a will to do something, they lack the proper know-how," he said. "Even if we scientists draw up solutions, there is no chance they will be implemented."
Bariche said he has been working directly with fishermen to convince them to create marine reserves or protected areas or risk losing their livelihood.
"We need to convince them that these reserves are for their own good, otherwise there will soon be nothing left to fish," he said.
Most of the fish caught in Lebanon come from Israel and Egypt as drifting larvae, since the currents flow north. Lebanon also imports seafood from Turkey, Egypt and countries in the Gulf region.
Ironically, Taha said, when Israel had its troops stationed in southern Lebanon, there were more fish to catch as fishermen were not allowed to go out to sea at night.
"After the Israelis withdrew, the fishermen went out day and night, leaving no room for the fish to breathe," he said. "A fish can't lift its head out of the water here without having 20 fishermen go after it."
Dahej el-Mokdad, head of the department of fisheries and wildlife at the ministry of agriculture, acknowledged that new ground rules are needed on how fishing is conducted in Lebanon but said lack of funds and political bickering have hampered progress.
"We don't have the means to do our job," he said. "We don't even have patrol boats and no one considers our sea as a national treasure."
Mokdad said he had submitted a proposal three years ago calling for a new strategy for the fishing industry but it had fallen on deaf ears.
"The fishermen are aware of the gravity of the situation but when they tell you that they have to work to bring in three or six dollars a day to buy bread for their families, what can you do?
"They either starve or go on using illegal practices to fish."