from UN Department of Public Information
Published on 26 Aug 2010 View Original
As the number of people significantly affected by the catastrophic floods in Pakistan climbed to an estimated 17.2 million, the United Nations was scaling up relief operations, John Holmes, outgoing Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said today during a Headquarters news conference.

"This is a disaster of unprecedented scale in terms of the number of people affected and the geographical area affected," he said, calling the situation "extremely challenging".

He said the deadly floods, triggered by torrential monsoon rains begun in late July, had already ravaged 160,000 square kilometres of land, destroying 3.4 million hectares of crops and more than 1.2 million homes, leaving 4.8 million homeless and 8 million people urgently in need of humanitarian aid. Now they were spreading to the southern tip of Sindh province, destroying much in their path.

So far, United Nations agencies had reached almost 2 million people with emergency food aid, an estimated 2.5 million people with clean drinking water and some 3.5 million with emergency medical treatment, Mr. Holmes said. Worried about potential epidemics of waterborne diseases, they had launched a large surveillance effort to track cases of diarrhoea, hepatitis and malaria. Aid agencies had also distributed more than 115,000 tents and 77,000 tarpaulins, enough for 1.1 million people.

One of the biggest challenges, he said, was reaching the some 800,000 isolated people in the north-west, where roads had been washed away and bridges destroyed, and in the south, where the flood waters had cut off access to the outside.

The Organization had urgently appealed a few days ago for more helicopters to access those hard-to-reach areas, he said. Japan was sending six; the United Arab Emirates was sending others. The World Food Programme (WFP) had four flying under the United Nations humanitarian air service. But, more were needed, particularly to reach isolated areas.

More than 70 per cent of the $460 million for relief operations initially sought by the Organization and its humanitarian partners had been pledged or contributed, Mr. Holmes said. But that figure would be significantly revised upward by mid-September for emergency relief and early recovery, particularly in the agricultural sector. Another $600 million had been pledged or promised outside of the United Nations appeal. In addition, the United Nations, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank would conduct a full post-disaster needs assessment, to form the basis of further appeals, but its results would not be available for several weeks.

The humanitarian community would not be deterred by threats from terrorist groups from bringing aid to people in need, he said, and added that the security situation on the ground in Pakistan had been relatively calm in the last few weeks.

Asked if the United Nations was taking extra security precautions in the face of those threats, he said it was looking urgently at the security situation. The Department of Safety and Security would work with United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations to assess and minimize risks, while it continued to do their job.

Asked who would supply the helicopters, he said the United Nations had appealed to everyone to provide them for at least a few weeks, but he noted that their acquisition would be a struggle, as heavy-lift helicopters were also in demand in Afghanistan and other conflict areas.

Asked if an epidemic of waterborne diseases already existed, he said the number of cases of diarrhoea, already in the hundreds of thousands, was very high. While the situation was not under control, the Organization was focused on keeping it within bounds.

Regarding the impact of the economic crisis on the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' fundraising, he said Government responses had been reasonable and consistent. But, difficulties could arise for the second phase of the Pakistan appeal, particularly if another major disaster occurred by year's end. "Donors' pockets are not bottomless," he said. "They can usually find some extra reserves if they really want and need to be, but we are beginning to maybe reach the limits of what's possible, which is very worrying."

As to why global attention on Pakistan's floods and aid for its victims paled in comparison to that given for Haiti's earthquake and its victims, he said the earthquake was a much more emotionally powerful, traumatic and televisual event, with a large death toll, while Pakistan's disaster was much slower developing and less televisual.

Asked if he was disappointed that Saudi Arabia and other traditional donors channelled aid to Pakistan bilaterally, rather than through the United Nations, he said yes, but that the Organization had made some progress in changing that trend. Prior to the floods, the Saudi Government gave $100 million through United Nations agencies to address the internally displaced persons' crisis.

Some correspondents also posed questions about Mr. Holmes' perspective on long-standing conflicts and his tenure as humanitarian coordinator.

On Sri Lanka, where after a 26-year battle, the military defeated the Tamil Tiger rebel group in May 2009, he said it was one of the most difficult issues he had faced in terms of the tricky balancing act of telling the truth and advocating objectively, amidst the heavy propaganda on both sides of the conflict, while continuing to provide humanitarian assistance on the ground. Several challenges remained, but on balance, helping Sri Lanka's internally displaced persons and refugees was something "we got more right than wrong", he said. Most had returned home and some of the worst predictions of what would happen to them had not come to pass.

On Myanmar, Mr. Holmes said the United Nations, in the wake of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, was able to maintain a decent relationship with the Government there, which was crucial for aid delivery on the ground, particularly in sensitive border areas. Despite difficulties, including in obtaining entry visas for humanitarian staff, the Organization was able to continue its work and launch a joint humanitarian appeal in northern Ragoon State for aid to cyclone victims.

Regarding criticism over the United Nations response to the recent mass-scale rapes of women in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said the Organization had attempted to deter sexual violence there through prevention and treatment programmes and by pressuring the Congolese Government to address it.

But, it was a long-standing scourge and the risk of it would remain until armed groups, particularly the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, were fully dealt with. "However well the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) performs, they are not going to be able to stop every case of rape. They can't be behind every bush," he said, and added that the focus should be on the guilty parties and the victims, not MONUSCO.

Regarding humanitarian aid to the victims there, he said the International Medical Corps was taking the lead to ensure that all victims came forward and were given medical treatment, such as delayed contraception, HIV prevention and psychosocial care. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and others on the ground were scaling up operations.

Asked if it was sustainable to have 100,000 internally displaced persons in the Kalma camp in Darfur, he said ideally camps would be smaller. But, the Kalma camp, which was divided into sectors, had been managed successfully for six years and refugees there provided with clean water, education, health care and food. The important thing was to fully consult the internally displaced persons on whether to move them and, if so, where to. Any move must be voluntary.

On the belief that the role of humanitarian coordinator was to serve as a firebrand, he said advocacy was part of the job. But, it was necessary to strike the right balance of saying things publicly and privately to Governments in a way that still enabled the Organization to operate in affected countries. He noted that "withdrawing or being expelled isn't going to help us help people in those countries".

On the number of people assisted by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the past few years that were climate refugees, he said it was hard to define someone as a climate refugee, as it was difficult to attribute any particular weather-related natural disaster as a direct result of climate change.

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