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3 Dec 1998 : Column WA39

Written Answers

Thursday, 3rd December 1998.

Central America

Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their plans for further assistance to Central America in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.[HL173]

Baroness Amos: An assessment mission from DFID visited Honduras and Nicaragua on 23-28 November. They had an extensive programme of field visits to disaster affected areas and discussions with Governments, UN agencies, the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank, Red Cross and NGOs, EC and other donors. Our findings and conclusions are as follows: Situation Assessment

Consolidated estimates of damage confirm that Honduras is, by far, the worst affected country. Some 20,000 are dead and missing, 285,000 displaced and overall about 1.4 million (out of a total population of 6.1 million) affected. The physical devastation is widespread, affecting 14 out of 18 administrative departments: 60 per cent. of roads and bridges, 50 per cent. of agricultural production (including a fifth of the economically important coffee and nearly all the banana export crops), 80 per cent. of water distribution networks, 70 per cent. of hospitals, 12 per cent. of health centres, and 25 per cent. of schools are destroyed or severely damaged. The effects of the disaster, still starkly visible a month later, are reflected most obviously in disrupted access and basic utilities. Groups of destitute families are living under ramshackle and insanitary conditions wherever they can find shelter.

In Nicaragua, damage to infrastructure has been more moderate, though still significant in five departments (Pacific coast and the north). Overall, some 3,000 are dead and missing, and 370,000 (out of a total population of 4.5 million) severely affected. But, in contrast to Honduras, the physical effects and human impact are less evident a month later.

The mission did not visit El Salvador (population 5.8 million, 475 killed/missing, 84,000 affected) and Guatemala (population 10.9 million, 400 killed/missing, 105,000 affected) but reports suggest substantially less damage. In both countries, agricultural losses appear to be more significant than infrastructure damage (except in particular pockets). Assessment of disaster response

In both Honduras and Nicaragua, a striking feature has been the self-help efforts of the communities themselves, reflecting the strong regional tradition of community solidarity. Most lives were saved and vulnerable people helped by indigenous efforts as the physical disruption of the hurricane and floods meant

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that it took time for outside help to arrive. The strength of local government was a key factor in enabling good local mobilisation.

The most effective external life-saving interventions appear to have been carried out by the military (both national and foreign forces). However, there are lessons to be drawn in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of tasking and military/civil co-operation. The Governments of Honduras and Nicaragua also responded effectively.

Co-ordination in both countries presents a mixed picture. However it is important to recognise the practical constraints (especially in Honduras) and the burden placed by outside organisations rushing in. The UN-co-ordinated needs assessment process was crucial and reached credible conclusions. The UN Disaster Assessment and Co-ordination (UNDAC) mechanism of OCHA was also useful and appropriately deployed in support of the in-country UN Resident Co-ordinator. Inter-agency co-operation within the UN system appears to have been satisfactory. But overall, the UN could have been more assertive in terms of providing guidance and "gate-keeping", and donors more conscientious--and less competitive--in deferring to UN co-ordination.

The EC, through ECHO, has disbursed funds for immediate relief through NGOs working in the region, and is planning an extensive reconstruction package. In the Development Council on 30 November, I emphasised the importance of co-ordinating this with the wider international assistance effort. We intend to work closely with the EC to ensure that its assistance is disbursed as effectively as possible.

International NGOs have also made useful contributions. The best work is being done by agencies already established on the ground. They are able to mobilise existing systems and structures and draw on the local knowledge and trust they have built up. This contrasts with the many disaster relief organisations that have flocked to the region and have had difficulty in finding a meaningful niche while possibly creating additional problems for their hosts (for example overburdening internal transport systems). Impact of DFID humanitarian assistance

Britain was among the fastest in delivering relief on the ground. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, a total of about £1 million was granted by DFID to NGOs (CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Del Campo farmers' co-operative, Food for the Hungry, IRC, Tear Fund, the International Federation of Red Cross, the Pan American Health Organisations, and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA)). The geographical distribution of funding to date is about £370,000 for Honduras, £390,000 for Nicaragua, £15,000 for El Salvador, and £200,000 for regional use to benefit all four countries. Most of our grants have been disbursed very rapidly and transformed into urgently needed benefits for an estimated 0.5 million people. These include provision of emergency shelter, clothing, blankets and household goods, water supplies, health care, seeds and other agricultural inputs.

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Forward strategy

Immediate disaster relief needs have been largely met except perhaps for the most isolated communities. Planning for the longer term needs of reconstruction is progressing but it will be at least six months before we see real progress. Meanwhile, there is a transition period in which continued humanitarian assistance is necessary. Survivors--especially those who are displaced--remain vulnerable to disease in the absence of safe water and disruption of health services. Food security can be promoted if inputs are made in time for the current planting season. If primary schooling is not restored, vulnerable children may drop out permanently from education. The solution to meeting these urgent needs is, as has been demonstrated already, by supporting successful community efforts in close conjunction with socially responsive local municipal authorities, in a way that kick starts local economies. But one very serious constraint--especially in Honduras--is the continued lack of access to poor communities because of disrupted roads. Without tackling this very little else is possible, and vulnerability will increase as people's reserves run out.

The UN is about to launch a "Transitional Appeal" for the period December 1998 to May 1999. This should provide a good framework of priorities. Our own further transitional humanitarian assistance, over the next six months, will enable people--especially the poor who have been left completely destitute by the disaster--to survive and cope, while seeking to establish the basis for sustainable recovery.

In the light of this, I have decided that, during this transitional period, we will provide further humanitarian assistance of £3 million allocated according to the relative needs of the affected countries. This will include:

    In Honduras, a programme of emergency repairs and rehabilitation to secondary (rural) roads, including essential small bridges; and also a public works programme ("cash for work") targeting particularly neglected municipalities. This would benefit poor families by creating short-term local employment while also generating much needed social benefits through the rehabilitation of essential community infrastructure, and injecting cash into local economies.

    In Nicaragua support for UNICEF's emergency programmes to repair water and sanitation infrastructure and to restore primary health and education services for disaster affected communities.

    On a regional basis, support for a WHO/PAHO programme within the national health authorities of the four Central American countries, especially in the area of epidemiological surveillance and epidemic control.

    Support for UNDP's function of inter-agency co-ordination through the Offices of the UN Resident/Humanitarian Co-ordinators in all affected countries.

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Longer Term

We are also working on plans to respond to longer term needs. We have already committed £6 million for Central America over the next two years. We are now refocusing this to take account of reconstruction needs. We are also taking forward the proposals on debt relief which the Chancellor and I announced on 7 November.

Learning the lessons

Given the magnitude of the disaster and the complexity of the international and national response efforts, there are many lessons to be learned to improve disaster preparedness in developing countries. We shall be pursuing these in the context of a UN-led lessons learnt exercise planned for February 1999.

Council of Europe and WEU Assemblies: New Appointment

Baroness Goudie asked Her Majesty's Government:

    If there are any changes in the composition of the United Kingdom delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Assembly of the Western European Union.[HL170]

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay): Mr. Richard Allan MP has been appointed as a substitute representative in place of Lord Steel of Aikwood.

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