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Forecast: China earthquake death toll rises amid bitter cold, French troops withdraw from Niger, and holiday travel season begins

French trainers conduct basic weapon safety training with troops from Niger during Flintlock 2014 in Diffa, Niger. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

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The Forecast newsletter will be on break for Christmas week, and the Forecast podcast will be back after the new year. Happy holidays!

Week of Dec. 22-29A Look Ahead

Dec. 22 – Meta must clarify measures against child sexual abuse  

Dec. 22  Meta must clarify measures against child sexual abuse  
The European Commission has requested that Facebook’s parent company Meta provide details on its measures to prevent child sexual abuse by Friday

What’s happened so far 
The petition follows two previous requests by European regulators asking the American tech company to provide information on its protocols to prevent the spread of violent content and terrorism as part of online child protection policies. The new request specifically focuses on mechanisms against child sexual abuse on the social media platform Instagram and on its recommendations algorithms. 
The impact 
Should Meta fail to meet the deadline, the company could face fines and an official investigation. This is part of a larger push by the EU to scrutinize social media platforms that operate in the bloc, and it extends to Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Microsoft and X . Under Digital Markets Act (DMA) rules, non-compliance fines can reach up to 10 percent of the company’s total worldwide annual turnover, or up to 20 percent for repeated infringements. Companies who fail to meet DMA parameters could also be subjected to bans. 

Dec. 22 – French troops depart Niger  

Niger’s military junta says all French soldiers will have departed the West African nation by Friday, completing a two-month-long drawdown process.

What’s happened so far 
In a Dec. 12 statement on national television, a spokesperson for Niger’s ruling junta said 1,346 French soldiers and 80 percent of logistical equipment has already been withdrawn from the country, a process initiated by the French government in October. Relations between France and Niger broke down after the junta seized power in late July. The junta also terminated two security agreements with the EU in early December. 
The impact 
According to the junta, just 157 French troops remain in Niger, all of whom will have left by Friday. As Niger has ruptured its relationships with the West, it has grown closer to Russia — a Russian delegation visited Niamey on Dec. 4 and signed a series of defense cooperation agreements with the junta. It’s not yet clear, however, whether Russia will deploy troops to Niger to replace the departing French soldiers, which in the short term will hamper Niger’s ability to battle the insurgent groups present in its northern areas and in the wider Sahel region.

Dec. 23 – Holiday travel season  

Though fewer travel disruptions are expected this year in North America than last as more than 100 million people either hit the road or take to the skies by Saturdaysevere weather in the Western United States and Southern California could still significantly impact plans.

What’s happened so far 
The Federal Aviation Administration projects air travel to peak Thursday at nearly 49,000 flights, with almost 44,000 forecast for Friday. Meanwhile, AAA estimates more than 115 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home over the final 10 days of the year, the second-highest year-end travel forecast since the organization began tracking holiday travel in 2000. The vast majority of those travelers — approximately 104 million — will drive to their destination.
The impact 
Forecasts call for the bulk of rain or snow that could impact travel through Christmas Eve to be in the central and western United States, with a slow-moving system impacting the Los Angeles area through Friday, bringing heavy rain and potential flooding and landslides. The East Coast could see a significant storm in the days after the holiday.

Dec. 24 – Chad announces provisional constitutional referendum results  

After 36 months of military rule following the death of strongman President Idriss Deby in 2021, Chad will announce on Sunday the preliminary results of a constitutional referendum that will allegedly return the country to democratic rule.

What’s happened so far 
Opponents of the constitution say the referendum is meant to legitimize the grip on power held by Deby’s son Mahamat, who leads the military junta that dissolved the government following Idriss’ death and oversaw violent repression of pro-democratic protests that killed dozens of people. Opponents also say the document sidesteps the question of whether Chad should retain the highly-centralized system of government it has had since its founding in 1960 or install a a federal systemas the majority of the population prefers.
The impact 
The referendum is generally expected to pass, as the military junta and its allies not only have a strong grip on violence, but also the press and the means of political mobilization. Strongman rule under the younger Deby or one of his proteges could lead to repression of future pro-democratic protests and a continuation of the democratic backsliding that began when his father took power in a coup in 1990. 

Dec. 25 – Ukrainian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas  

Ukraine’s Orthodox Church will officially observe Christmas on Monday, marking a change from years past.

What’s happened so far 
While previously observing Christmas on Jan. 7 along with the Russian Orthodox Church that observes Christmas on the Julian calendar, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church moved the date to Dec. 25 this year for the first time. The decision has further deepened the chasm between the two once-close churches that began to open in 2019
The impact 
The unwinding of the relationship between the Ukrainian and Russian orthodox churches can be seen as another way in which Kyiv is attempting to separate itself from centuries of Russian imperialism. Ukraine’s security services have even gone so far as to place Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a massive cheerleader of President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, on a wanted list.

Dec. 28 – SpaceX plans launch of secretive U.S. military spacecraft 

After scrubbing plans to launch the U.S. military’s X-37B space plane last weekend, SpaceX will attempt to send it into orbit on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

What’s happened so far 
The X-37 has been in the works since the late 1990s, when Boeing designed it as an un-crewed reusable craft that could perform repairs on satellites. A few years later, the Department of Defense took over the project and made it a classified. The Air Force made its own version, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which could stay in orbit for nine months. Since then, the X-37B has made six trips to space and stayed longer each time. Most recently, the craft was in orbit for two and a half years
The impact 
Not much is known about what will occur on the spacecraft during its mission, besides a NASA experiment to study the effect of radiation on seeds during long-term flights. Nor is the duration known, but if previous missions are any indication, this craft may not return to Earth until 2026 or 2027. This will be the second time that SpaceX will launch the X-37B. 

What Else Matters

Chilean President Gabriel Boric first accepted a proposal for a new constitution in July 2022, kicking off a four-year-long process to reform the country's laws. (Photo: Chile's Ministry General Secretary of the Presidency)
Chilean President Gabriel Boric first accepted a proposal for a new constitution in July 2022, kicking off a four-year-long process to reform the country’s laws. (Photo: Chile’s Ministry General Secretary of the Presidency)

Chile’s constitutional plebiscite result 

On Sunday, the Chilean public rejected the new draft of the constitution with 55 percent of the votes in the country’s second national plebiscite to change the constitution — largely in place since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime in 1980 — in the last two years. Compared to last year’s draft, which was resoundingly rejected as being too progressive, this year’s referendum was dominated by a coalition of right-wing parties that were able to secure the most votes for the drafting process earlier this year. President Gabriel Boric announced that under his government there will not be a new constitutional process, and he has instead emphasized focus on reforms separate to the constitutional redrafting. 

Watch for: After the four-year process that was born through nationwide protests in late 2019 during the “Estallido Social,” the rejection of both national plebiscites has left a bitter taste to the country’s political landscape. Around 30 people were arrested during Sunday’s vote, but anti-government protests over the failure to achieve a constitutional reform could also be on the horizon. In terms of political and social reforms, Boric will now have to respond to larger indexes of violent crime nationwide, a possible private healthcare insurance crisis in the new year, and propel the economy, which has remained stagnant since 2019. 

Deadly earthquake in Gansu, China 

At least 120 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in an earthquake that struck northwestern China just before midnight on Monday, the country’s deadliest in years. The tremor’s shallow depth, the time of night it occurred and the remoteness of the region that was hit all contributed to its lethality. Chinese state media reports more than 155,000 buildings were damaged, and power and water services disrupted near the epicenter in rural Gansu province. 

Watch for: Rescue teams in Gansu are battling against time amid aftershocks and below-freezing temperatures. Thousands of emergency responders have been deployed to the region, and rescue and repair work are ongoing. 

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

Dec. 22-29

Dec. 22

  • Meta must clarify measures against child sexual abuse, EU says
  • Niger says all French troops will have left

Dec. 24 

  • Christmas Eve
  • Chad constitutional referendum results announced

Dec. 25

  • Christmas Day

Dec. 26

  • Kwanzaa begins

Dec. 28

  • SpaceX plans launch of US military’s secretive X-37B spaceplane

Dec. 30-Jan. 5 

Dec. 31

  • DR Congo election results expected

Jan. 3

  • Junior doctors’ strike in England

Jan. 6-12 

Jan. 7

  • Bangladesh parliamentary elections

Jan. 13-19 

Jan. 13 

  • Taiwan election

Jan. 14

  • Comoros presidential elections
  • Guatemalan presidential transition

Jan. 15

  • Iowa caucuses

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