Sir: I was called upon to travel to Zimbabwe last week at short notice due to a family illness. I had not visited the country since 1999 and despite regular reports from people living there was totally unprepared for what I found.
Driving from the airport I looked out along the side of the main road for the familiar fields of maize and cattle. Both have been replaced by dry savanna. My driver explained that the farms had "all gone". In the past crops had been grown all the year round as a result of irrigation. Nowadays the only maize that is grown depends on the rain and Zimbabwe is experiencing yet another year of severe drought. Maize is the staple diet of most Zimbabweans, without it people rely on food aid.
During the six days that I stayed in the country the water was cut off every day from midday until about 5pm. We experienced long stretches without electricity. People all over the country have resorted to alternative means of fuel for cooking and heating, mainly wood burning. This then was the fate of the trees and the reason (my driver says) that the rains no longer come to Zimbabwe. Sure enough, the familiar black heavy rain clouds that arrive early in the afternoon during the rainy season still appeared but apart from a few drops the rain refuses to fall.
My driver is a resourceful hard working man. He has a wife and five children to support, one of whom is sick from Aids and has her own baby to feed. My driver works long hours and supplements his income by making brooms for sale. Even so at the end of each month his total income is not enough to buy one bar of imported soap. The only Zimbabweans who are living above the subsistence line are those with access to foreign currency. During my six-day stay the value of my pound sterling on the black market rose from Z$17,000 to Z$26,000. I was rich. How can the economy sustain such rampant inflation?
Sir: I would like to point out a damaging statement made in the The Big Question (13 March): "The World Food Programme has been forced to hand over its operations to Zanu control or leave millions to starve." Regrettably, the statement is untrue and does not meet the normally high standards expected of The Independent.
The World Food Programme has zero tolerance for political interference in any operations in the more than 80 countries where we feed hungry people - this includes Zimbabwe, where WFP is currently feeding more than 1.5 million people.
The World Food Programme's food aid in Zimbabwe is delivered through the hands of international and national non-governmental organisations, ensuring that the hungriest and poorest sectors of society are fed. Among WFP's beneficiaries in Zimbabwe are people affected by HIV/Aids, school children, the infirm, malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers. All of WFP's funding for these beneficiaries comes from voluntary donations and there's never enough to meet all the needs.
WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME REGIONAL DIRECTOR, SOUTHERN AFRICA JOHANNESBURG
Fewer flights? We need better trains
Sir: Your choice of Newquay airport in Cornwall ("Battle of Newquay", 17 March) as an example of unnecessary air travel was completely misplaced. Cornwall is a long way from the major UK cities and desperately needs fast connections to avoid economic isolation and decline.
There is a very high proportion of "live/work" businesses in Cornwall - people using properties as combined workspace and home. Many do business across the UK and beyond, helping import wealth into the Cornish economy. Unlike those who commute from their home to heated London offices, we reduce carbon by using (and fuelling) just one building. We don't commute. And many of us grow our own vegetables and use farm shops.
We do however need to meet clients from time to time. That can mean an occasional internal flight, to save time and avoid staying in London hotels. From Penzance to London by train takes five and a half hours - hardly a day trip. In contrast London to York can be less than two hours.
I would suggest that the "battle of Newquay" should instead be a positive one, a call for French-style high speed trains to all corners of the UK. Your story, in contrast, was a patronising call for Cornwall to have its only rapid connection to UK cities symbolically sacrificed, to make parochial Londoners feel better. The Independent would be in a better position to lecture on this if it radically reduced its office space, had most staff working from home and sent out fewer posters and plastic-wrapped DVDs.
Sir: Your front page story about short-haul flights says: "Critics said ... routes such as Edinburgh ... were readily accessible by train".
Yesterday, I booked flights from Edinburgh to London for an afternoon meeting in June. The return cost is around £70; when I add airport car parking and a return into London on the Heathrow Express, the total cost is around £115. The time taken from home to central London is at most around three and a half hours, and I can comfortably travel to and from my meeting in a day.
However, being aware of the emissions associated with short-haul flights, I also checked the train.To arrive in London in time for my meeting and get home after it finished, I was quoted a fare of £144 return. Since car parking at Edinburgh Waverley is limited, I would have to add a return taxi fare to the station, giving a total cost of around £170. Time taken between home and central London would be five to five and a half hours - giving a total travelling time in a day of over 10 hours. An alternative would be to pay the extra cost of a hotel in London.
The only way to reduce the popularity of short-haul flights is significant investment in the railways, so that taking the train compares more favourably with the plane in terms of cost, speed, and reliability.
DR KATHRYN GOODENOUGH
Uncomfortable lessons on migration
Sir: Your extravagant coverage of me (9 March) may be generous in scale but its general tone is rather disobliging and some of its statements are incorrect and damaging. Your front page implied that I say such things as : "I'm not racist, but ... " I never do. That phrase is associated with bigots paving their way for unpleasant comments. What I say on migration and related subjects is, I hope, based on evidence and logic and expressed responsibly. That is all that matters.
Your front page also places me prominently alongside alleged racist events cited on that page. In the recent affair I have not been accused of being "racist". Yet that epithet could also be inferred from the headline on page 4. I do not have "anti-immigrant" views. I criticise ill-founded claims of substantial benefit from large-scale migration, which is quite different. For the reasons why, please read my published papers and don't believe everything you read in the press.
You state in your leading article that "students should not be compelled to take lessons from someone about whose views they feel deeply uncomfortable". Actually it is the essence of academic life at all levels to be made intellectually uncomfortable about received opinions, one's own or anyone else's. More particularly if my teaching on migration and related matters is bigoted and unscholarly, I would hardly be invited to give lectures to students at other universities, or seminars and conference papers all over the world.
Finally, the dreaded "Mars bar". I never said it. I raised the issue in a recent response because it featured prominently in recent coverage and was wrongly assumed to be my coinage. It is not - it originated in a press release from Migrationwatch. However, that image is roughly arithmetically correct. It serves to emphasise that the net contribution of migration to GDP per head of the population, as opposed to gross GDP, can be very small. The calculation depends wholly on official statistics. On other calculations, such as supplying specific labour needs, the case for migration can be stronger. But that is a different argument.
PROFESSOR OF DEMOGRAPHY UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
Elected peers, yes, but for how long?
Sir: We face once more the prospect of debate on the House of Lords. This mainly examines the various alternative methods of installing their Lordships in place without any great regard for what must be the most important feature of their position, namely the duration of their period of tenure.
At present a large tranche of government policy, (especially in relation to government services such as the NHS) is dominated by the next election, which seems to prevent those in power from looking at anything other than the effect that their actions will have on their historical image and prospects of re-election in two to three years' time.
Many of us may have reservations about the way some incumbents find their way to the upper house (such as patronage, and the ridiculous concept of bishops in a secular society) but the main factor in their favour is that their unelected position does enable their taking a longer view.
How the Lords is actually populated may be important, but surely, from the point of view of preserving its influence as a revising chamber, the duration of their individual tenure must be the first item on the debating agenda.
DR ANGUS MACDONALD
MAYFIELD, EAST SUSSEX
Babies face the gurgle police
Sir: The proposed plans for an under-fives national curriculum (report, 14 March) fly in the face of one of the key developments of human evolution: namely the period after birth when the brain continues to develop or hard-wire through play and other stimuli. This important period of post-natal development has served our species well for almost 200,000 years.
All children develop at different rates, which generally reflects nothing more than normal human variation. An inability to gurgle at a government-decreed stage will elicit what response exactly? Remedial lessons in smiling and crawling perhaps? Educational theorists have an inglorious history of inflicting potentially harmful ideas on children, of which this is the latest.
SENIOR LECTURER IN BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY OXFORD BROOKES UNIVERSITY
Post-war pollution slowed warming
Sir: Hamish Mykura (Letters, 16 March) is only digging himself deeper into a hole. The graph he refers to, claiming to show a decline in global mean temperatures from 1940 to 1970, was actually based (inaccurately) on northern hemisphere data alone. The global temperature figures stayed more or less steady over this time.
There is a sound scientific reason for this. During what he calls "the post-war economic boom" industrial pollution in the atmosphere acted as a sun-shield, preventing some heat from the sun reaching he ground, and counteracted global warming. Since the air has got cleaner, warming has resumed with full force. Both the pollution and the subsequent clearing have been measured.
DR JOHN GRIBBIN
UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX
Harmony on a summer evening
Sir: The reason English Heritage has expanded the musical repertoire of the Kenwood concerts over the last few years is because audience numbers were dwindling and the concert series was losing money (Letters, 13 March).
By moving away from a purely classical programme and including artists such as Jools Holland and Art Garfunkel, we were able to attract a much wider more diverse audience, as well as bringing in much-needed income to help cover the significant running costs of Kenwood House.
We will be working closely with the local community to try and come up with an acceptable solution in the hope that concerts will return to Kenwood in 2008
VISITOR OPERATIONS DIRECTOR, ENGLISH HERITAGE, LONDON EC1
Sir: The ring-dropping scam described by Howard Jacobson (17 March) may be new to him, but it was well known to the Victorians. It was known as fawney-dropping, and was one of the many tricks or "lays" described in literature about 19th-century low life.
Sir: It is well known that Ms Jowell has trouble with financial details and it seems harsh to criticise her over the spiralling costs of the 2012 Olympic games. As a good Blairite she has acted in good faith and ultimately history will be the only legitimate judge. In a spirit of forgiveness she should be given another chance by being put in charge of the farewell celebrations for our soon-to-depart Prime Minister - may I suggest a piss-up in a brewery?
Science has the answer
Sir: It may help Nicholas Waters (letter, 16 March) to know that physicists have long since stopped being flummoxed by road signs such as that just north of the City of Dreaming Spires which instructs drivers: "For Oxford use both lanes"; and also by the call to "leave the train by all available exits". The answer lies in quantum mechanics. All you have to do is get into the quantum superposition state.
PROFESSOR RICHARD HARLEY
SCHOOL OF PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON
Sir: I fear that Martin Smith's suggestion that dimmer switches are inefficent (Letters, 17 March) amounts to hot air which will increase global warming more than the innocent devices he has it in for. If dimmer switches used rheostat technology we would frequently see houses burnt down by the waste heat. In fact, the dimmer switch uses a solid state device called a triac, a cousin of the transistor, which rapidly switches the current on and off. Because the switching is very rapid it cannot be detected by the eye and the light appears constant.
Close to disaster
Sir: Could I ask you to be less alarmist in letter headlines? I almost choked on my cornflakes this morning (16 March) when I turned to the letters page and read, "Stubbs on loan to New York". Fortunately, it turned out to be some old horse pictures and not, as I had feared, the national treasure that is Ray.