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Want to really shift the pounds in January? Get drinking water

Too often, we mistake thirst for hunger (and vice-versa).

If you’ve been struggling to come up with a suitable New Year resolution, may I suggest a determined plan to drink more? That might sound superficially attractive (depending on what kind of New Year you had) but I should make clear from the outset that it’s water, not alcohol, that I have in mind.

Ensuring adequate hydration has certain benefits, medically speaking. A good fluid throughput reduces the chance of urinary tract infection, and helps prevent attacks of gout and kidney stone formation in people prone to these conditions. If we’re short of water, the bowel will reabsorb every last drop from what doctors euphemistically term the “stool”, which can lead to constipation. And our kidneys function best when there is plenty of water around – they respond to dehydration by concentrating urine to conserve body water, but in doing so they can sustain damage through metabolic stress.

Aside from these medical aspects, there may be softer benefits. As the body starts to dehydrate, water within cells is drawn out into the circulation. The resultant cellular water loss can affect function in a variety of tissues. Athletes’ fluid balance has been the subject of extensive research, and even mild levels of dehydration measurably reduce physical performance. Studies of brain function have shown conflicting results, but overall it appears that mild to moderate dehydration impairs concentration and the ability to think through complex tasks. Headache is a common symptom of water depletion and, although it’s not a miracle cure, studies show that the severity and duration of headaches can be reduced by optimising hydration. So frequent swigs from a bottle of water may help ensure we’re in top condition to tackle our day.

Beyond this, water is a critical ally in the fight against the modern plague of obesity. Quenching our thirst with pretty much any other drink freights in energy along with the H2O, adding to our overall calorie load. There is also some suggestion that we readily confuse thirst for hunger. This might sound daft, but both sensations are mediated by the same region of the brain, and our highly adaptable brains rapidly forge associations between behaviours and the biological drives that they satisfy. All foodstuffs contain water, so it has always been possible to ease thirst by eating; but many of the fluids we consume nowadays are highly calorific, so we often sate our hunger by drinking. As a consequence of these crossed wires, we may be taking substantial excess energy into our bodies when all we’re after is some H2O. Anyone wanting to tackle an expanding waistline should respond to apparent hunger pangs with a good drink of water. If twenty minutes later you no longer crave food, then what you were experiencing was thirst.

As we age, our sense of thirst diminishes, and many elderly people completely lose the cues that ordinarily prompt fluid intake. Of itself, this increases susceptibility to urinary tract infection, but dehydration is also a frequent and severe complication of otherwise minor illnesses such as flu or gastroenteritis in this age group. The rapid downward spiral of low blood pressure, kidney failure and mental confusion frequently leads to hospital admission, or even death. We assume that if someone isn’t thirsty then they’re not short of fluids, but the most important advice I give elderly patients is to ensure that they drink regularly, even if they don’t feel like it.

If you are interested in increasing your own daily water intake, get yourself a bottle to refill from the tap, rather than adding to the mountain of plastic waste we produce. How much to drink varies according to individual circumstances, but two litres over 24 hours should be fine – three at a push. The best gauge is your urine colour: pale straw is what you’re looking for. Darker suggests you should drink more, but if you’re constantly peeing stuff that’s as clear as Evian then you’re overdoing it. And with that, I wish you a happy, hydrated new year.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?