Infection surge ends Marshall Islands’ Covid-free status. Path to Rushdie attack. European drought drains major rivers. By Jonathan Pearlman.

UN holds talks to prevent Ukraine nuclear plant disaster

Russian military strikes have destroyed houses in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.
Russian military strikes have destroyed houses in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.
Credit: Reuters / Nacho Doce

Great power rivalry 

Ukraine: The United Nations held discussions with Moscow this week to try to avert a catastrophe at the nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine, which has come under intensifying attack. 

The plant – the largest in Europe – is controlled by Russian troops but is still being operated by Ukrainian technicians. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of the shelling.

A technician who works at the plant told Reuters this week that heavily armed Russian troops were “everywhere” at the site and that armoured personnel carriers had their barrels pointed at the entrance. The plant had 11,000 workers before Russia invaded in February, but the current staffing levels are unknown.

“The [employees] have to work because of the possibility of a major catastrophe like Chernobyl in 1986 and that would be much worse,” the technician said.  

On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke with Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, about how to ensure operations at the plant remained safe. Moscow and Kyiv have both supported allowing visits by UN inspectors, but it is not yet clear how such inspections can be conducted while fighting around the plant continues.

Russia has continued to launch strikes in Ukraine’s east, as Ukraine tries to regain territory in the south. On Tuesday, a Ukrainian elite unit was believed to be responsible for explosions at a Russian ammunition depot in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014. 

Crimea has played a crucial role in the Russian invasion, serving as a base for the initial invasion as well as for Russian navy activities and for operations in southern Ukraine and in the region around the nuclear plant. 

Hours after the attack in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed a security conference in Moscow. He said he was prepared for a long war. 

The neighbourhood 

Marshall Islands: Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands ended its status as one of the last countries with no Covid-19 after recording its first six cases of community transmission.

But the virus has since spread dramatically across the Pacific nation. Within a week, more than 3000 cases were recorded in the country, which has about 60,000 residents. In Majuro, the capital, almost 20 per cent of the population had been infected as of Monday. 

The country’s health secretary, Jack Niedenthal, said 75 per cent of people being tested were positive.

“We’re gearing up for the hardest part of the outbreak right now in Majuro,” he said on Monday.

“The good thing about having all these other countries go before us is we really understand epidemiologically how this variant of the virus spreads: like wildfire.”

Authorities have suspended domestic flights and travel by government ship, though the virus has already spread between islands. Schools have been closed for the next two months. 

As of Monday, five infected people had died and 22 were in hospital. About 70 per cent of residents older than six months are vaccinated.

On Wednesday, the government announced that it had delayed plans to abolish a compulsory five-day quarantine for arrivals from abroad. Quarantining had been due to end in October but will now continue until January 2023.

Democracy in retreat 

Iran: In February 1989, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, had insulted Islam and issued a fatwa that urged “Muslims of the world rapidly to execute the author and the publishers of the book”. Khomeini had not read the book. Rushdie, after learning of the threat against him, told CBS Television: “I wish I’d written a more critical book.”

For the next 12 years, Rushdie lived in safe houses and used a pseudonym. The book’s Japanese translator was fatally stabbed, its Italian translator was stabbed, a Norwegian publisher was shot, and 37 people were killed in an attack on a hotel in Turkey in 1993 in protest at the presence of a writer who had translated the book. 

In 1998, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami said the Rushdie affair should be seen as “completely finished”, though Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has described the fatwa as legitimate and “irrevocable”, and state-linked religious foundations have continued to increase a bounty for killing Rushdie to more than $US3 million. 

In the late 1990s, Rushdie began to live openly, though guardedly.

Last week in New York State, Rushdie, 75, was stabbed about 10 times as he prepared to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, an organisation that promotes interfaith connections. His family said this week he was recovering from “life-changing injuries”. His agent said he may lose an eye.

The alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, who was born in the United States and lived in New Jersey, was charged with attempted murder and assault. Matar, who pleaded not guilty, is 24 years old. He was born almost a decade after The Satanic Verses was published.

On Monday, Iran denied involvement but blamed the attack on Rushdie for insulting Muslims and “crossing the red lines”.

“By insulting the sacred matters of Islam … Salman Rushdie has exposed himself to the anger and rage of the people,” said Nasser Kanaani, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson.

Spotlight: Europe’s rivers dry up

A record-breaking drought in Europe has caused major rivers such as the Loire in France, the Rhine in Germany and the Po in Italy to dry up, affecting drinking supplies, crops and shipping. 

In Spain, which is experiencing its driest conditions in at least 1200 years, wells and reservoirs have been depleted, forcing authorities in some areas to restrict water access to six hours a day. Authorities say record temperatures in July led to more than 1000 heat-related deaths. 

In Germany, where the Rhine is crucial to the nation’s freight, low water levels have affected commercial shipping and forced barges to reduce their loads. Some houseboats have been stranded by the encroaching riverbeds. 

In England, the source of the Thames dried up – possibly for the first time – and shifted the source of the river about eight kilometres downstream. Parts of England experienced the driest July on record. 

In France, sections of the Loire in France can now be crossed on foot, and water levels in the Danube in Hungary dropped 1.5 metres in three weeks.

Climate researchers said the heat in Europe in recent years has been at the upper end of the levels predicted by climate models. 

The evaporation of the continent’s rivers has revealed buildings, churches and monuments that are typically submerged. In Italy, a 450-kilogram bomb from World War II was discovered by fishermen on the receding banks of the Po and was destroyed by the military. Stefano Barborini, who has lived near the Po for 40 years and rents boats to fishermen on a stretch of the river near Parma, told CNN this week he has been unable to send out any boats this year. “Where would they go to fish?” he said. “If it’s the same next year, I’ll retire.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "UN holds talks to prevent Ukraine nuclear plant disaster".

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