Press Conference by Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Her Recent Visit to Central America

8 November 2011

Press Conference by Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Her Recent Visit to Central America

8 November 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference BY Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief

Coordinator on Her Recent Visit to Central America

Despite damage to thousands of homes and the closure of hundreds of schools, roads and health facilities amid a rising incidence of water-borne diseases, news of the severe flooding suffered by countries in Central America had not made international headlines, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg said at Headquarters today.

For hundreds of thousands of people, the floods were an ongoing major disaster although flooding was “not dramatic, nor violent like an earthquake or hurricane”, Ms. Bragg said at a press conference on her recent visit to El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Compounding the lack of exposure was that, unlike the situation in Bangkok, for instance, small Central American countries had no major or well-known cities, she added.

Of even greater concern were the thousands of acres of crops destroyed by the floods just as they had become ready for harvest, emphasized Ms. Bragg, who is also Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.  “We lost everything,” she said in quoting the phrase she had heard voiced repeatedly by people affected by the floods.  The impact on the food supply would make it increasingly difficult for people to get enough food for the next six months, she added.  “They have an enormous struggle ahead of them,” she said of the Nicaraguan people, noting that close to 10 per cent of their country had been under water during her visit and more than 140,000 people were in a state of “urgent need”.

She said she had met with officials in both countries, including President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador.  “A lot of credit has to go to both countries,” she added, hailing their having mobilized immediately, prioritizing the saving of lives.  Their response had resulted in a low level of fatalities in both countries, she said, adding that she had also been struck by the efforts of emergency responders, and of civil-defence teams working side by side with Government departments and community-based organizations.  Many lives had been saved due to the high level of preparedness.

Pointing out that Central American countries were not rich in resources, Nicaragua being the second poorest in Latin America, after Haiti, she said the scale of the disaster was beyond their capabilities to handle fully on their own.  Furthermore, the latest disaster was part of “the long series of annual crises” that added to a cumulative negative impact, she said, noting that many Salvadorians and Nicaraguans had lost their traditional coping mechanisms.

Ms. Bragg said that in response, the United Nations and its partners had launched flash appeals that would help the hardest-hit people survive the next six months.  However, the modest $14 million for Nicaragua was only 22 per cent funded, and the $15 million for El Salvador only 23 per cent funded.  Some of the poorest people in the Americas had lost their homes and livelihoods and they needed help.  “We must not let them down,” she emphasized.

Asked about the nature of the flash appeals, she said they were for emergency needs and did not cover infrastructure recovery or reconstruction.  That would be another large amount needed by both countries at another point, she said, adding that the appeal for El Salvador had originally been intended for those forced to evacuate to collective centres and emergency shelters.  Although most had gone home, that did not mean life had gone back to normal, she cautioned.  On the contrary, they had gone back to damaged houses and contaminated community water wells.

Still, they had returned to their communities to protect whatever possessions had not been damaged by the floods from theft, and to be in the community rather than staying in shelters, she said, adding that she had seen severely damaged homes, filled with mud and with gaping holes in the roof and walls.  Those conditions led to health issues, when “children walking around in the mud all the time” developed medical conditions, such as fungus.  Food aid, clean water and medical help were all urgently needed, the Assistant Secretary-General said, pointing out that schools remained closed.

Asked about any migration or immigration movement resulting from the disaster, Ms. Bragg said that, although it might be an issue, it had not come up in discussions, either with the people she had met or with Government officials.

Responding to a question about the total number of deaths resulting from the floods, she said there had been 16 in Nicaragua and 36 in El Salvador.  The last fatality had occurred two days ago and had resulted from drinking contaminated water rather than the actual flooding.

As for plans to raise money or call for more donations to the flash appeals, she pointed out that she was calling international attention to the situation in Central America through the press conference and other planned activities, and later this week she would hold a briefing for all Member States.  “ Central America tends to fall off the attention radar screen” of a lot of donor countries, largely because of the perception that it was not an area in need of large humanitarian aid, she noted.  She also pointed out that flash appeals had been launched for only two of the four flood-hit Central American countries, while more than one million people in all four had been directly affected.  “This is not a small situation,” she stressed.

Nonetheless, she cautioned, when dealing with small countries lacking well-known cities and a disaster that had resulted in a low fatality rate, a perception could easily be formed that “it can’t be that serious if only 16 peopled died”.  Yet, that low fatality rate was a direct result of Governments doing the “right thing” — prioritizing life-saving actions in the immediate aftermath.  When compared to previous fatality rates in the region, often in the hundreds, it was commendable that the current disaster had only left fatalities in the dozens, she said.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.