Lurching from One Disaster to the Next

Posted on 30 October 2010 by admin

Pakistanis affected by their country's widespread, torrential floods receive wheat flour and other provisions from the UN World Food Programme. Credit:UN Photo/WFP/Amjad Jamal.

By Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Oct 30, 2010 (IPS/TerraViva) – The world is ill-prepared for the human toll from the expected increase in floods, droughts and extreme storms and hurricanes on the horizon.

So say experts like Peter Walker, director of the Tufts University-based Feinstein International Center near Boston. In late 2008, his organisation authored a report titled “Humanitarian Costs of Climate Change” for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“We may be keeping people alive, we may be helping people to survive,” Walker told IPS. “But we are not doing it in a way that helps people recover and be able to face the next crisis.”

Walker advocates moving away from the current ad hoc nature of international humanitarian relief efforts.

“We are getting to the point where these crises are sufficiently frequent and large that you need to shift to having a much more formal international system that allows pre-disaster assistance and relief [to be] deployed more quickly,” he said.

Walker said that his comments would apply to all natural disasters whether or not they are caused by climate change, including earthquakes and tsunamis.

The other complicating factor in countries receiving humanitarian relief such as Pakistan and Haiti is that recovery remains difficult and long term in the face of lack of resources, basic infrastructure, government services, and economic equality in the population, he said.

Although the people of Aceh province in Indonesia managed to recover from the tsunami of 2004, individual family savings ended up getting spent in the process of survival, he added.

“Five or six years after the tsunami, if there is another hit, people will not be in a good situation to recover as they were last time,” Walker said.

Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, told IPS that there is greater recognition among aid agencies and nongovernmental organisations of the need “to increase our capacity” in humanitarian crises, as well as to “be more strategic”.

With millions of rural people displaced and in internal refugee camps following the floods in Pakistan, relief workers were in short supply even with a strong aid agency presence on the ground, he observed. “We can do more than one crisis at a time, but more than one mega crisis at a time is a stretch,” Fox said.

One controversial aspect in relief is the increased role of foreign militaries. U.S. and Canadian soldiers arrived in Haiti to deliver supplies, beef up communications and rebuild infrastructure. In addition, U.S. military helicopters were used for rescue and delivery of supplies to Pakistan’s flooded areas in the Indus River basin.

Fox is opposed to aid agencies working closely with the U.S. military – which is viewed with great suspicion and resentment, for instance, in Pakistan in light of the U.S. military’s role in that country, including its drone attacks against suspected Islamist forces.

“When the military do things, they do it in a very expensive way,” he said. “They often do it in a slow way because of the level of preparedness and scale which they do it. And this isn’t their core competency. They are not very sensitive to local leadership, local ways of doing things.”

Fox cited the example following the Haiti earthquake of the U.S. military’s initial monopolisation of the Port-Au-Prince airport which served as a temporary hub for incoming airborne humanitarian relief. “A number of agencies [including Doctors without Borders] found it hard to get things through,” he noted.

Nevertheless, the world’s major militaries remain the best source for the combination of helicopters, lift vehicles and engineering capability needed to sort out the disruption and chaos following future natural disasters, says Michael Byers, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

The biggest obstacle is the military itself, especially in Canada, where defence planners are not jumping at the expanded opportunities in humanitarian relief, even with their soldiers’ battle weariness in war-torn Afghanistan, he told IPS.

“It is a question of changing the mindset of the Canadian military leadership that humanitarian missions are going to be an essential component. I think humanitarian disaster relief is going to be the primary role for the Canadian forces in the coming years, I don’t think the military leadership understands that now,” Byers said.

Martin Shadwick, a military analyst at Toronto’s York University, agrees that ambivalence exists in Canada’s military.

“There is not really a negative connotation in the military towards [disaster relief] I think they would only get concerned if they were being called upon day in and day out and were turning into disaster relief 911 [telephone emergency] service,” he said.

Shadwick warns that an insufficient supply of military equipment and services has developed in the militaries of the European Union and North America in wake of recent austerity measures.

“Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, even the Americans’ capabilities to provide disaster relief capabilities, that is military-based capabilities, has been going down, because in many ways, defence budgets have been slashed,” he said.

Also, it appears that some humanitarian crises receive more attention in terms of aid assistance than others.

Niger, Mali and sub-Saharan Africa in general are experiencing a significant food crisis following flooding and then drought. But they are receiving less attention than Haiti, for example, in terms of relief even though climate change has been a major factor, notes Robert Fox.

“Those are slow onset disasters, something we knew was coming. The challenge there is that there will be more of those. It is difficult to get the world’s attention to those crises, difficult to mobilise donor response to those crises, and yet they are huge and acute,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Fox suggests that extreme weather events such as hurricanes receive more international media attention than a shortage of rain. “Yet, we know there are more droughts lasting and they are more widespread, and so you have challenges around [aid agency] surge capacity. Challenges as to we need to be operating in a number of different places at scale at the same time.”

The good news is that the United Nations’ role in relief is getting better in terms of dividing up responsibilities for items like food, health and refugees among different U.N. agencies, says Andrew Mack, who directs the Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Yet, he continued, “It is a huge problem that the U.N. has in any of these missions in trying to get everybody to work together. The old herding cats problem.”

Also, humanitarian work tends to be immediate and not long lasting. The result is that NGOs are competing with each other for new government contracts all the time, Mack told IPS.

“The moment they start on one project, they are already looking around [for another humanitarian crisis],” he said.

(END)

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