5 September 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY emergency relief coordinator


The United Nations’ emergency relief official today told a United Nations Headquarters press conference that the recent severe weather that had hit the Caribbean, South Asia and West Africa could not have come at a worse time, as many of the affected countries were already reeling from the effects of the global food crisis.

Briefing correspondents on the humanitarian situation in areas that have been affected by recent storms and floods, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the Organization was today once again faced with a combination of severe natural disasters in a number of places, which were stretching its resources.

He pointed out that, in the Caribbean, a series of hurricanes and tropical storms were hitting and continued to hit the area, in particular hurricanes Gustav and Hannah, but also tropical storm Fay before that and possibly Ike and Josephine somewhere behind.  Those storms had severely affected the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the United States itself.  Tropical storm Ike was still headed westward, and that posed a serious threat, as there was no way of telling where it would go and how bad it would be, with Josephine in there somewhere behind.

He said that worst hit was Haiti, a country that clearly was already severely affected by poverty and other difficulties.  That Caribbean nation had been badly hit by three storms in as many weeks -- Fay, Gustav and Hannah -- and the damage had been very severe.  At the same time, the full impact was not yet very clear, because the damage had been so significant that it had been very hard to get around everywhere to establish the full extent of the damage.  But, it was clear that the death toll was significant, maybe between 100 and 200.  But, again, there were no accurate figures available, so far.

He said 9 of the 10 districts in Haiti had been seriously affected, with some 250,000 people badly affected in the city of Gonaives alone, and some 70,000 people still in shelters there waiting for help.  Altogether, the initial assessment is that up to 600,000 people may need some help from the United Nations.  In particular, assistance was needed in food, shelter, and emergency supplies of various kinds, such as kitchen equipment, water and sanitation, and health care.

He added that, against a backdrop of a global food crisis, a particular fear was that the impact in both the short term and in the longer term on food security in Haiti, already very fragile, could be considerable.

He said that, in response to the crisis, the United Nations agencies most concerned were strengthening their capacity and presence on the ground, and a United Nations disaster and coordination team of eight had been deployed to the region on 3 September.  The peacekeeping forces of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) were also being utilized in the evacuation of the affected population, and deployment of relief goods, where feasible.

Also, the key United Nations humanitarian agencies had been making available the supplies they had, such as emergency food assistance, hygiene kits, water, blankets, water purification tables and similar items.  He said the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had led the efforts in the hygiene kits, water, and water purification, while the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) was providing medical equipment, including necessary surgical equipment, and the World Health Organization (WHO) had so far been able to feed some 11,000 people with emergency rations.  All at a stage considered to be at the beginning of the operation, as efforts continue on trying to establish how severe the crisis was and build up capacity.

“We’re expecting to announce a flash appeal in response to the problems in Haiti, possibly as early as tomorrow,” Mr. Holmes said.  Although he could not put a figure to how much that would be, he stated that his office was ready to help with the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), as well.

He said Cuba had also equally been badly affected, especially by hurricane Gustav, which the Red Cross assessed to be the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 50 years.  There had been a lot of damage to infrastructure in the western part of the island.  He observed, however, that, in spite of the extensive damage suffered -- including as many as 100,000 homes, 500 schools, transformers, and street lights affected -- Cuban preparations had, as in the past, functioned well.  They managed to avoid any casualties, as far as was known, even with the significant damage suffered.  Cuban authorities were providing what humanitarian relief they could, while OCHA, in particular, had deployed one of its regional response advisers from Panama.

“We’re looking at the possibility of helping again with Central Emergency Response Fund to Cuba, which I think would be the first time they’ve been willing to take such assistance from us,” Mr. Holmes added.  Elsewhere in the region, the damage, though significant, was less severe.

With regard to the recent floods that had badly affected South India, Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as the earlier flooding in Pakistan, Mr. Holmes noted that the Nepalese Government estimated the number of people affected to be around 100,000.  The casualties appeared to have been limited, because there had been some early warning, although the tens of thousands of displaced people were faced with health risks and immediate humanitarian needs.  There had already been a local funding alert on 29 August for $10 million for food and shelter, water and sanitation and health needs.

United Nations agencies had been deploying their staff to the affected areas, including a disaster assessment and coordination team comprising personnel from WHO, who were providing supplies and technical assistance, including medicine for up to 120,000 people.  The World Food Programme (WFP) had mobilized emergency assistance for 50,000 people for up to 30 days, and UNICEF was providing relief supplies, including blankets, bednets and water purification equipment.  UNICEF was also looking to provide education for the children in the area.  Those efforts by United Nations agencies were also supplemented by non-governmental organizations and the Governments in the affected countries, whom he praised for providing what he called a very valuable contribution.  As in the case of the Haiti, the possibility of a flash appeal was also under active consideration.

On the Indian side, he said, as media reports had already pointed out, they had experienced some of the worst flooding in Biha in 50 years, with more than million people in 1,700 villages affected.  The casualties, so far, had been put at around 66 people, but 300,000 houses had been damaged, and three quarters of a million people evacuated to 185 relief camps.  He praised Indian authorities for being well equipped “as usual” to deal with the disaster’s damage on an extremely large scale and for dealing with the situation largely from their own resources, although the United Nations had offered help.  That assistance included the possibility of some CERF funding, if agreement was reached on that and how it could best be used.

On West Africa, he said the problems were a bit less severe than in the other two regions he had addressed.  The floods that affected a number of countries there -- Togo, Ghana, Niger, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal and also, to a lesser extent, Liberia and Mauritania -- followed heavy rains that had resulted in some deaths, but those were relatively limited.  However, large numbers of homes and crops and infrastructure had been destroyed.  Though not as bad as last year’s, the floods were nevertheless significant, in that they came on top of a difficult situation for many of the region’s countries, because many of them had been affected by the global food crisis. “Many of these countries are chronically food insecure to start with,” he said.  “So, they start from a difficult position.”

To that end, most of the assistance the United Nations family was providing to those countries was directed and ameliorating the food security situation, as well as rebuilding infrastructure and providing temporary bridges.

Turning to a different kind of crisis, Mr. Holmes said Ethiopia continued to be affected by a very severe drought in some regions, especially in the south of the country.  It was clear from his latest visit that the crisis remained very severe, and the affected population continued to rise.  A flash appeal issued for $325 million for 4.6 million people three months ago for a period of three months had been “reasonably” funded, at more than 60 per cent.  However, the crisis was likely to continue for some months, because the failure in many of the affected areas meant that there would be no effective harvest until next summer.  However, he was encouraged by the way the Governments, and international agencies, were dealing with severe malnutrition cases and wider supplementary feeding.

In response to a correspondent’s question on the situation in the Caribbean, Mr. Holmes said that it was the cumulative effect of the three storms striking almost in the same place that made it so bad and the damage so great.

To a correspondent who wanted to know if there were issues of humanitarian access in Ethiopia, he said the picture was mixed, as could be expected in any conflict zone.  However, the access was much better now than when he last visited nine months ago, with a much bigger presence on the ground.

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For information media • not an official record