Press Conference by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator on Natural Disasters in Asia-Pacific Region

1 October 2009

Press Conference by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator on Natural Disasters in Asia-Pacific Region

1 October 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator

on Natural Disasters in Asia-Pacific Region


Nature’s destructive power was on full display in the Asia-Pacific Region, where the Philippines, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga were reeling from successive devastating disasters, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said at a Headquarters press conference today.

“There is a lot of emergency relief needed in all these cases,” he said, describing a series of tsunami, earthquake and severe weather events that jolted the Region in the last week.  Mr. Holmes, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, added that the Category 4 Typhoon Ketsana had affected 3 million people in the Philippines, Viet Nam and Cambodia.  Meanwhile, two back‑to-back earthquakes in Indonesia had killed hundreds of people and generated a tsunami that had severely damaged the Pacific islands of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

In the Philippines, Ketsana had made landfall on 26 September, pouring down a month’s worth of rain in just 24 hours and creating six-metre-high floods in Manila and nearby landslides, he explained.  Some 277 people had been confirmed dead and 42 missing from a total of 2.5 million people affected.  Almost 740,000 people had been displaced, 400,000 of whom were in evacuation shelters and 350,000 with host families.

The response was shifting from the emergency rescue phase to relief operations, he said, expressingparticular concern about the onset of another Category 4 storm -– Typhoon Parma -– expected possibly to hit Ketsana-affected areas of the Philippines in the next 24 to 48 hours.  With expected winds of up to 120 knots (220 km/hour) and 8.5 million people in its path, it could seriously endanger relief operations.

Discussing United Nations relief efforts, Mr. Holmes said an eight-member disaster assessment and coordination team had been sent to Manila to help the Government provide water, sanitation, food, health care and protection.  However, relief efforts were being hampered by the fact that many roads were still impassable, making food distribution more difficult.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) planned to launch a Flash Appeal in the “tens of millions of dollars” for the Philippines next week, he said, adding that it would also look at using the Central Emergency Response Fund to kick-start funding.  Agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) were already working with non-governmental organizations.

In Viet Nam, meanwhile, Typhoon Ketsana had struck near the city of Danang on 29 September, killing 92 people, he continued.  Ninety people were missing, more than 6,000 houses had been destroyed, and the Government estimated the damage in 5 of the 12 affected provinces to have exceeded $120 million.  Charities like World Vision and Oxfam were assisting relief efforts and the Government had not sought assistance beyond that being provided by those Organizations.

Turning to the Pacific, he said an 8.0 earthquake and a subsequent tsunami had landed on the archipelagos of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga on 29 September.  In Samoa, the south and south-eastern coasts of Upolu Island had been the hardest hit, with 110 people confirmed dead, 146 injured, and reports of severe damage to homes and power supplies.  A four-member disaster assessment and coordination team had been sent, while Médecins Sans Frontières, United Nations Children’s Fund and WHO already had staff on the ground.

In Tonga, six-metre waves had cascaded over the main island of Niuatoputapu, killing seven people and causing major damage to water supplies and crops, Mr. Holmes said.  The Government had declared a state of emergency and directed its defence services to lead relief operations with help from the Red Cross.  OCHA would determine in the coming days whether the Central Emergency Response Fund would be used or a Flash Appeal issued.  Australia and New Zealand had provided supplies, logistical support and medical teams, while the United States and the European Union had pledged assistance.

He went on to say that in American Samoa, where dramatic tsunami waves had killed 19 people, the Government of the United States had declared a major disaster area and directed its Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the response.

In Indonesia, meanwhile, a 7.6 earthquake had struck the island of West Sumatra yesterday, killing some 1,100 people and injuring hundreds more.  The cities of Padang and Pariaman were the worst affected, and it was feared that thousands of people remained trapped under damaged houses, hospitals, hotels and schools.  A second earthquake –- measured at a magnitude of 7.0 -- in Jambi Province this morning, had prompted the Government to provide $10 million in emergency relief funds and deploy rapid-reaction teams to deliver tents, food and clean water.  No casualties had been reported thus far, he added.

For its part, OCHA was assisting the Government through its joint mission, he explained, noting that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), WHO, WFP and UNICEF were all in Padang this morning to assess the damage.  A disaster assessment and coordination team would arrive tomorrow, while Germany, Turkey, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore and Hungary had sent search-and-rescue teams.

Asked how the United Nations could better assist disaster risk-reduction strategies, the Under-Secretary-General said some 70 per cent of global disasters occurred in the Asia-Pacific region, and the Organization was working closely with regional Governments to strengthen national capacities.  It was also working with regional organizations, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to provide help.

OCHA was also directing its efforts towards advance action to reduce the impacts of disasters, he continued.  For example, efforts were needed to ensure that no buildings were located in flood- or landslide-prone areas and that drainage systems were reviewed.  As disasters would likely grow more intense, emphasis must be placed on disaster-risk reduction, particularly as part of the negotiations on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

In response to another question, he said the island of Bali had not been particularly affected by the earthquakes.  As to whether the early-warning system in Samoa had been too slow, he said a Pacific warning system had, indeed, sent out warnings, but the earthquake had occurred very close to Samoa, and the tsunami had arrived 10 minutes after the earthquake.  The warning had reached people after the tsunami had already struck.

Asked whether OCHA would provide assistance to American Samoa, he said it would examine that option should the United States Government request help, but he assumed it would handle relief efforts there.

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