Inter Press Service » Humanitarian Emergencies Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 28 Nov 2014 11:46:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 OPINION: How Ebola Could End the Cuban Embargo Mon, 24 Nov 2014 15:07:08 +0000 Arturo Lopez-Levy A technician sets up an assay for Ebola within a containment laboratory. Samples are handled in negative-pressure biological safety cabinets to provide an additional layer of protection. Photo by Dr. Randal J. Schoepp/cc by 2.0

A technician sets up an assay for Ebola within a containment laboratory. Samples are handled in negative-pressure biological safety cabinets to provide an additional layer of protection. Photo by Dr. Randal J. Schoepp/cc by 2.0

By Arturo Lopez-Levy
DENVER, Colorado, Nov 24 2014 (IPS)

When was the last time in recent memory a top U.S. official praised Cuba publicly? And since when has Cuba’s leadership offered to cooperate with Americans?

It’s rare for politicians from these two countries to stray from the narratives of suspicion and intransigence that have prevented productive collaboration for over half a century.Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries, but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.

Yet that’s just what has happened in the last few weeks, as Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke favourably of Cuba’s medical intervention in West Africa, and Cuban President Raul Castro and former president Fidel Castro signaled their willingness to cooperate with U.S. efforts to stem the epidemic.

As it causes devastation in West Africa and strikes fear in the United States and around the world, Ebola has few upsides. But one of them may be the opportunity to change the nature of U.S.-Cuban relations, for the public good.

Don’t squander the opportunity

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once famously said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff’s advice and not squander the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries, but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.

Political conditions are ripe for such turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who placed more value on medical cooperation and saving lives than on ideology and resentment.

In the sixth in a series of editorials spelling out the need for a change in U.S. policy towards Cuba, for example, The New York Times called on Obama to discontinue the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—which makes it relatively simple for Cuban doctors providing medical services abroad to defect to the United States—because of its hostile nature and its negative impact on the populations receiving Cuban doctors’ support and attention in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy,” the editorial board wrote. The emphasis should be on fostering Cuba’s medical contributions, not stymieing them.

As Cuba’s international health efforts become more widely known, it’s become increasingly clear how unreasonable it is for Washington to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to U.S. interests.

A consistent opening for bilateral cooperation with Cuba by governmental health institutions, the private sector, and foundations based in the United States can trigger positive synergies to update U.S. policy towards Havana. It will also send a friendlier signal for economic reform and political liberalisation in Cuba.

The whole world has something to gain

The potential for cooperation between Cuba and the United States goes far beyond preventing and defeating Ebola. New pandemics in the near future could endanger the national security, economy, and public health of other countries—killing thousands, preventing travel and trade, and choking the current open liberal order by encouraging xenophobic hysteria. At this dramatic time, the White House needs to think with clarity and creativity.

As the leading nation in the Western Hemisphere, the United States should propose the creation of a comprehensive continental health cooperation and crisis response strategy at the next Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City in April 2015. As numerous Latin American countries have already asserted, Cuba must be included at the summit.

Havana has developed extensive medical expertise at home and abroad, with more than 50,000 doctors and health personnel serving in 66 countries. Preventive measures, early detection, strict infection controls, and natural disaster crisis response coordination are essential parts of the Cuban approach to nipping pandemics in the bud.

The lack of some of these components in already-collapsed health systems explains the failures of governance that inflamed the impact of Ebola in West Africa.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama was one of the loudest critics of looking at Cuba through the glasses of the Cold War. As president, it isn’t enough for him to just retune the same embargo policy implemented by his predecessors. He must adjust the U.S. official narrative about Post-Fidel Cuba: It is not a threat to the United States but a country in transition to a mixed economy, and a positive force for global health.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.

The author can be contacted at or on Twitter at @turylevy.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Refugees Between a Legal Rock and a Hard Place in Lebanon Fri, 21 Nov 2014 17:13:33 +0000 Oriol Andrés Gallart Banner in the village of Fidae (near Byblos) which reads: "The municipality of Al Fidae announces that there is a curfew for all foreigners inside the village every day from 8 pm to 5.30 am". Credit: Oriol Andrés Gallart/IPS

Banner in the village of Fidae (near Byblos) which reads: "The municipality of Al Fidae announces that there is a curfew for all foreigners inside the village every day from 8 pm to 5.30 am". Credit: Oriol Andrés Gallart/IPS

By Oriol Andrés Gallart
BEIRUT, Nov 21 2014 (IPS)

Staring at the floor, Hassan, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee from Idlib in northwestern Syria, holds a set of identification papers in his hands. He picks out a small pink piece of paper with a few words on it stating that he must obtain a work contract, otherwise his residency visa will not be renewed.

Hassan (not his real name) has been given two months to find an employer willing to cough up for a work permit, something extremely unlikely to happen. After that, his presence in Lebanon will be deemed illegal.

Hassan, who fled Syria almost three years ago to avoid military service, tells IPS that all that awaits him if he returns are jail, the army or death, so he has decided that living in Lebanon illegally after his visa expires is his best bet.Hassan, who fled Syria almost three years ago to avoid military service … [says that] all that awaits him if he returns are jail, the army or death, so he has decided that living in Lebanon illegally after his visa expires is his best bet.

Sitting next to Hassan is 24-year-old Ahmed (not his real name) from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, who lost his residency one month ago. Since then he has been forced to watch his movements. “I live with permanent fear of being caught by the police and deported,” he says.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war in March 2011, over 1.2 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, where they now account for almost one-third of the Lebanese population.

Particularly since May, the Lebanese government has increasingly introduced measures to limit the influx of Syrian refugees into the country. Speaking after a cabinet meeting on Oct. 23, Information Minister Ramzi Jreij announced that the government had reached a decision “to stop welcoming displaced persons, barring exceptional cases, and to ask the U.N. refugee agency [UNHCR] to stop registering the displaced.”

Dalia Aranki, Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance Advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told IPS that Lebanon “is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention” and, as a result, “is not obliged to meet all obligations resulting from the Convention.”

“Being registered with UNHCR in Lebanon can provide some legal protection and is important for access to services,” she wrote together with Olivia Kalis in a recent article published by Forced Migration Review. “But it does not grant refugees the right to seek asylum, have legal stay or refugee status. This leaves refugees in a challenging situation.”

Current legal restrictions affect the admission of newcomers, renewal of residency visas and the regularisation of visa applications for those who have entered the country through unofficial border crossings.

One aid worker who is providing assistance to Syrian refugees in Mount Lebanon told IPS that the majority of the Syrian beneficiaries they are working with no longer have a legal residency visa.

Aranki notes that fear of being arrested often forces those without legal residency papers to limit their movements and also their ability to access various services, to obtain a lease contract or find employment is severely limited. It could also impede birth registration for refugees -with the consequent risk of statelessness, or force family separations on the border.

Before May this year, Syrians could usually enter Lebanon as “tourists” and obtain a residency visa for six months (renewable every six months for up to three years), although this process cost 200 dollars a year, which already was financially prohibitive for many refugee families.

However, NRC has noted that under new regulations Syrians are only permitted to enter Lebanon in exceptional or humanitarian cases such as for medical reasons, or if the applicant has an onward flight booked out of the country, an appointment at an embassy, a valid work permit, or is deemed a “wealthy” tourist. Since summer 2013, restrictions for Palestinian refugees from Syria have become even more severe.

Under its new policy, the Lebanese government also intends to participate in the registration of new refugees together with the UNHCR. Khalil Gebara, an advisor to Minister of Interior Nohad Machnouk, says that the government has taken these measures for two reasons.

“First, because the government decided that it needs to have a joint sovereign decision over the issue of how to treat the Syrian crisis. (…) Previously, it was UNHCR to decide who was deemed a refugee and who was not, the Lebanese government was not involved in this process.”

Secondly “because government believes that there are a lot of Syrians registered who are abusing the system. A lot of them are economic migrants living in Lebanon and they are registered with the United Nations. The government wants to specify who really deserves to be a refugee and who does not”.

Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesperson, said that the U.N. agency has “for a long time” encouraged the Lebanese government to assume a role in the registration of new refugees and affirms that registration is going on.

“There is concern about the protection of refugees but there is also understanding on UNHCR’s part,” said Redmond. “Lebanon has legitimate security, demographic and social concerns.”

Meanwhile, accompanying the increasing fear of deportation from Lebanon, Syrian refugees have also been forced to deal with routine forms of discrimination.

Over 45 municipalities across Lebanon have imposed curfews restricting the movement of Syrians during night-time hours, measures which, according to Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Director Nadim Houry, contravene “international human rights law and appear to be illegal under Lebanese law.”

Attacks targeting unarmed Syrians – particularly since clashes between the Lebanese army and gunmen affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Arsal in August – have  also occurred.

Given such realities, life in Lebanon for Hassan, Ahmed and many other Syrian refugees, is becoming a new exile, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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U.N. Concerned Over Ebola Backlash Mon, 17 Nov 2014 18:36:22 +0000 Thalif Deen Anthony Banbury, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), visits a safe burial site for Ebola victims in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Anthony Banbury, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), visits a safe burial site for Ebola victims in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations, which is working on an emergency footing to battle the outbreak of Ebola, is worried about the potential for further isolation of the hardest-hit nations in West Africa.

“It’s a psychological fear,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told IPS. “And there has been a chain reaction.”

He cautioned there should be no action which is not based on science or medical evidence.

Ban said the fight against Ebola is a “top priority” of the United Nations and admitted he was conscious of the fact the disease has had a “heavy impact on all spectrum of our lives.”

The secretary-general’s warning resonated in North Africa last week when Morocco postponed hosting the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations because of its own fears over the possible spread of the Ebola virus.

Morocco’s Sports Minister Mohamed Ouzzine was quoted as saying: “This decision is motivated mainly by the medical risks that this virus would put on the health of our fellow Africans.”

The New York Times said “fear of the spread of Ebola has now thrown Africa’s most important soccer tournament into disarray.”

As a result, the Confederation of African Football last week removed Morocco as host of the biennial soccer championship, with Equatorial Guinea stepping in to take over as host of the 16-team games early next year.

The three West African countries most affected by Ebola are Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Geographically, Morocco is a North African country.

Last July, Seychelles forfeited a match after it refused to permit a team from Sierra Leone into the country because of concerns over Ebola.

Meanwhile, there were unconfirmed reports that Philippine peacekeepers who returned home from Liberia recently were to be temporarily settled either on an island off Luzon or put on board a ship.

Asked for a response, U.N. Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters that once peacekeepers have completed their missions, these soldiers come under the authority of their respective governments.

Ban told IPS he was thankful for the countries that have pledged “massive resources” to fight Ebola.

These include the United States, UK, China, Japan, France and several other European countries.

He singled out the United States for providing over 4,000 soldiers and Cuba for providing hundreds of medical personnel in the fight against Ebola.

Last week U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve over six billion dollars in emergency funding to fight the spread of the disease and also protect U.S. nationals.

“I hope the lame duck Congress will approve it,” Ban said.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the overall financial requirements are estimated at about 988 million dollars, of which 60 percent has been funded.

Additionally, there is also a Trust Fund, with 58.7 million dollars as pledges.

Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), told the 193-member General Assembly last week that “Ebola is a fearsome enemy and we will not win the battle by chasing it.”

The death toll has exceeded “a grim milestone” of 5,000, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, “with the real number likely to be much higher,” he added.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported over 13,000 Ebola cases in eight countries: the three most affected nations in West Africa, plus the United States, Spain, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.

As the crisis continues, about 3,300 children have become Ebola orphans while food prices have been rising in the three affected countries, schools have closed and traders have refused to bring their products to the market.

At the just-ended summit of G20 world leaders from both developed and developing nations, the secretary-general said, “The rate of new cases is showing signs of slowing in some of the hardest-hit parts of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. But as rates decline in one area, they are rising in others.”

And transmission continues to outpace the response, he added at the conclusion of the summit Sunday in Brisbane, which was hosted by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

He urged the G20 to step up “so that we can meet the 70/70 goal: isolating and treating 70 per cent of all Ebola cases and providing safe and dignified burials to 70 per cent of those who have died.”

He said the international community must also address the secondary impacts on healthcare, education and soaring food prices caused by a disruption in farming that could provoke a major food crisis affecting one million people across the region.

“It is important we do not further isolate these three countries by imposing travel restrictions. This will not impede the spread of the virus: it will simply hamper our efforts to mobilise support,” he argued.

According to the WHO, there is some evidence that case incidence is no longer increasing nationally in Guinea and Liberia, but steep increases persist in Sierra Leone.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Building Disaster Resilience Amidst Rampant Poverty Mon, 17 Nov 2014 10:51:01 +0000 Amantha Perera Soldiers wait for instructions before they begin search operations at the Meeriyabedda landslide site in central Sri Lanka. Credit: Contributor/IPS

Soldiers wait for instructions before they begin search operations at the Meeriyabedda landslide site in central Sri Lanka. Credit: Contributor/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Nov 17 2014 (IPS)

Of the thousands of landslide-prone villages he has visited and worked with, R M S Bandara, a high-ranking official from Sri Lanka’s National Building Resources Organisation (NBRO), says only one has made him sit up and take note.

Keribathgala, located in the Ratnapura District about 120 km southeast of the capital, Colombo, is the only village out of thousands that keeps a regular tab on the rain gauge donated by the Disaster Management Ministry’s NBRO, the focal point for all landslide-related services in the country.

“It is the only village that calls us back to discuss the information they have and get advice from us. We have distributed thousands of rain gauges, and this has been the only interactive relationship,” Bandara, who heads the NBRO’s Landside Risk Research and Management Division, tells IPS.

“No one was looking at a rain gauge or other signs. People in these parts are more worried about where their next meal will come from.” -- B Mahendran, a resident of Meeriyabedda
The official said that most villages pay no heed to NBRO advice and training.

“A deadly landslide will occur maybe once every 10 years, so people don’t take notice of them or the dangers they pose,” he explains.

But such negligence can be deadly. On Oct. 29, at 7:15 in the morning, a large section of a hillside in the village of Meeriyabedda in the Badulla District, about 220 km from Colombo, caved in.

Two weeks later, when rescue workers finally gave up looking for victims, 12 bodies had been recovered and 25 were listed as missing.

This was a tragedy that could have been avoided, according to experts like Bandara. There had been two minor landslides in the village in 2005 and 2011. On both occasions the NBRO carried out surveys and recommended that the village be relocated.

In 2009 the NBRO carried out a large-scale community awareness programme that included conducting mock drills and handing a rain gauge over to the village. Bandara says another such programme was carried out last year as well.

All signs at Meeriyabedda prior to the landslide pointed to a disaster waiting to happen. Warnings for relocation had come as early as 2005 and the night before the disaster villagers were alerted to the possibility of a catastrophe. Very few moved out.

Though there is no evidence left of the reading on the rain gauge at Meeriyabedda, a similar device maintained by the NBRO at a nearby school indicated that at least 125 mm of rain had fallen overnight. That information, however, never reached the village.

“People really don’t pay attention to the equipment or the signs, partly [because] disasters don’t occur every day,” Bandara asserts, adding that despite the infrequency of natural hazards, daily vigilance is essential.

Testimony from villagers in Meeriyabedda supports his assessment.

“No one was looking at a rain gauge or other signs,” admits B Mahendran, a resident of the unhappy village. “People in these parts are more worried about where their next meal will come from.”

Villagers here travel 60 km daily to make a wage of about 400 rupees (a little over three dollars). Such hardships are not unusual in this region, home to many of Sri Lanka’s vast plantations. Government data indicate that poverty levels here are over twice the national average of 6.7 percent.

The literacy level in the estate sector is around 70 percent, roughly 20 percent below the national average, and U.N. data indicate that 10 percent of children living on plantations drop out of school before Grade Five, five times the national average dropout rate of just over two percent.

Most victims of this latest landslide were working at a sugarcane plantation about 30 km away, after they lost their jobs in nearby tea plantations, villagers tell IPS.

“Poverty here is a generational issue,” explains Arumugam Selvarani, who has worked as a child health official in Meeriyabedda since 2004. “Government and outside interventions are needed to lessen the impact.” She feels that the government needs to put in more effort to ensure the sector is linked to national planning and systems, and monitor such linkages continuously.

She herself has worked to improve nutrition levels among children for nearly a decade, but she believes that such efforts have “zero impact if they are ad-hoc and infrequent”.

Such initiatives need to be sustained over a long period of time in order to be really effective.

This is especially true in the arena of disaster preparedness, experts say, where government support is needed to keep early warning systems fine-tuned all year round, particularly in poverty-stricken areas where the fallout from natural disasters is always magnified by socio-economic factors like poor housing and food insecurity.

Sri Lanka has made some strides in this regard. Eight months after the 2004 Asian tsunami slammed the country’s coastal areas, the government established the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) to oversee preparedness levels around the island.

The 25 DMC district offices coordinate all alerts and evacuations with assistance from the police, the armed forces and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS). In fact a village in the same district where the landslide occurred had a mock drill conducted by the DMC just six days before the disaster.

But DMC officials themselves admit there is an urgent need for a uniform country-wide disaster preparedness mechanism.

“Along the coast we are pretty prepared, because of all the work we have done since 2005, but we need such levels of action now to spread to the rest of the country,” says DMC spokesperson Sarath Lal Kumara.

NBRO’s Bandara has other ideas on how to strengthen disaster resilience. Effective utilisation of available data is topmost on his list. For instance, the NBRO has developed hazard maps for all 10 landslide-prone districts in the island. The map for the Badulla District, accessible online, clearly identifies Meeriyabedda as a high-risk area.

The problem is that no one is using this important information.

Bandara says these maps should form the basis of building codes and evacuation routes. Sadly, this is not the case.

DMC’s Kumara tells IPS that in a country comprising 65,000 sq km, land is at a premium and land management is a delicate issue. “There are so many overlapping concerns and agencies.”

He says it is not easy to follow each hazard map to the letter. The houses hit by the landslide, for instance, were built years before the maps were developed – relocating them would be a huge challenge, and efforts to do so sometimes run into resistance from the villagers themselves.

What experts and villagers can agree on is the need to have a dedicated government official overseeing disaster preparedness levels. Some experts suggest using the Divisional Secretariats, Sri Lanka’s lowest administrative units, to monitor their respective areas and feed into the DMC’s national network.

“All the drills, all the preparations will be useless unless there is an official or an office that is unambiguously tasked with coordinating such efforts in real time,” according to Indu Abeyratne, who heads SLRCS’s early warning systems.

In Meeriyabedda, such ambiguity cost three-dozen lives. Perhaps it is time to realign the system, to ensure that a trained official is present at the village level to carry information to the proper authorities.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Ebola Outbreak Affects Key Development Areas in Sierra Leone Mon, 17 Nov 2014 09:06:02 +0000 Lansana Fofana School children in Freetown walking with their parents. Ebola has badly affected the country’s education. Credit: Lansana Fofana/IPS

School children in Freetown walking with their parents. Ebola has badly affected the country’s education. Credit: Lansana Fofana/IPS

By Lansana Fofana
FREETOWN, Nov 17 2014 (IPS)

The outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone has badly affected the West African country’s move towards meeting key development goals. 

Agriculture, which is the mainstay of the economy, has been the worst hit as many farmers have succumbed to the disease and many more have abandoned their farmlands in fear of contracting the virus.

“We have lost hundreds of farmers to the Ebola epidemic and the regions where agricultural activities take place have become epicentres of the pandemic, such as Kailahun in the east and Bombali in the north,” Joseph Sam Sesay, the Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, told IPS.

In early November, 4,059 people were killed by the virus. This surpasses neighbouring Liberia which, until a month ago, was the worst-hit country.

Sesay said that 60 percent of the country’s six million people are engaged in agriculture but as a result of the crisis many are now unemployed. The sector, he said, also contributes to 60 percent of the country’s GDP. However, with the current epidemic, Sierra Leone’s prospect of meeting the millennium development goal of eradicating hunger and poverty is a far-off dream.

“We had made significant gains before we were confronted with this Ebola problem. Food productivity had increased tremendously and local foodstuffs were plenty on the markets. We had even begun exporting cash crops to neighbouring countries, including rice, and cocoa. All these have been stultified,” Sesay added.

When President Ernest Bai Koroma came to power in 2007, he made agriculture a key priority in his developmental blueprint, which he dubbed “Agenda for Change and Prosperity”.

Bilateral partners, including China and India, have donated hundreds of tractors and other agricultural machinery to help boost the country’s move towards food security. But no farmers are working currently and experts predict that there will be food scarcity if the Ebola epidemic is not contained soon.

“I have discontinued my farming activities temporarily. More than 15 of my colleagues have been killed by Ebola and I cannot risk going to the farm any more. The situation is frightening,” Musa Conteh, a farmer in Sierra Leone’s northern district of Bombali, told IPS.

The health sector is also badly affected by the epidemic. Even though this West African nation has a free government healthcare scheme for children under the age of five, pregnant and lactating mothers; people are refusing to go to hospitals and peripheral health centres as they fear being suspected of having Ebola and being quarantined.

However, many of the country’s doctors, nurses and auxiliary health workers are also fearful and have not been going to work. Sierra Leone has lost five medical doctors, more than 60 nurses and auxiliary health workers to Ebola.

“It is a terrible crisis facing us. With our poor health infrastructure, we were certainly not prepared for this epidemic. Perhaps, with the intervention of our international partners, we may be able to defeat the disease much quickly,” Sierra Leone’s Health Minister Abubakar Fofana told IPS.

He, however, said that even after the Ebola epidemic has been contained, the country will be faced with an upsurge in infant mortality because children are not being vaccinated for killer diseases at the moment. “The situation is worrisome,” he said.

Sierra Leone had one of the worst infant mortality rates in the world with 267 deaths recorded per 1,000 live births just after the country’s civil war ended in 2002. In 2012 the infant mortality rate had more than halved to 110 deaths per 1,000 live births. In recent years, it had started making progress, with a free healthcare scheme introduced by Koroma. But the Ebola epidemic is sure to reverse all those gains.

The outbreak of the epidemic has forced all schools and learning institutions to close. The government says it cannot put a timeline on when they will resume.

The country’s educational system was considered to be at low, even before the outbreak of the deadly Ebola disease, with falling standards and persistent industrial actions by teachers.

The Minister of Education Minkailu Bah told IPS that the Ebola crisis is having a dire effect on education and that this will be felt even after the disease has been contained.

“Already, our children are not attending schools or colleges. Their future is uncertain and we do not even know how many drop-outs we’ll have on our hands if this Ebola crisis is not contained,” Bah said.

The government has introduced a teaching programme, on radio and television, for school-going kids. But many say this is ineffectual.

“I don’t think this will work. How many families can afford TV or radio and batteries in their homes? How reliable is the electricity supply? The kids today prefer viewing Nigerian films and watching football. They are not interested in that teaching programme,” Michael Williams, a father of four in Freetown, told IPS.

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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War-ravaged South Sudan Struggles to Contain AIDS Fri, 14 Nov 2014 07:01:03 +0000 Charlton Doki Displaced women flee fighting by boat to Mingkaman, Awerial County, Lakes State, South Sudan.. Only one out of 10 HIV positive mothers can get the drugs needed to avoid infecting her baby. Credit: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/IPS

Displaced women flee fighting by boat to Mingkaman, Awerial County, Lakes State, South Sudan.. Only one out of 10 HIV positive mothers can get the drugs needed to avoid infecting her baby. Credit: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/IPS

By Charlton Doki
JUBA, Nov 14 2014 (IPS)

Dressed in a flowered African print kitenge and a blue head scarf, Sabur Samson, 27, sits pensively at the HIV centre at Maridi Civil Hospital in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state. 

Today she paid 20 South Sudanese pounds (about six dollars) for a bodaboda (motorbike taxi) ride to the centre and will have to skimp on food in the next days.

South Sudan at a quick glance

After four decades of on-off war, South Sudan gained independence from north Sudan in July 2011. But stability did not last long.

Violence rooted in political and ethnical power struggles erupted in December 2013, shattering the dreams of peace for the world’s newest country (pop 11.3m).

After independence, South Sudan improved services for its estimated 150,000 people living with HIV. The new conflict reversed these gains, disrupting not only health services but water and sanitation, roads and bridges, food security and community networks.

The United Nations estimates that 1.9 million people are newly displaced. Some fled to neighbouring countries, while 1.4 million huddle in 130 camps in South Sudan. Of these, 70 are so remote they are inaccessible to relief agencies, says a study by the HIV/AIDS Alliance.

South Sudan has limited human resources, organisational and technical capacity to respond to HIV, says the study.

Key drivers of the HIV epidemic in South Sudan include early age at first sex, low level of knowledge about HIV and of condom use, rape and gender-based sexual violence, high rate of sexually transmitted diseases and stigma.

The highest HIV prevalence is found in the three southern Greater Equatoria states bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Western Equatoria, where Samson and Mongo live, HIV prevalence is seven percent, more than double the national rate.

She will be hungry and few will help her in the village, although she is blind and a single mother of two children.

“Many people fear to come close because they fear they will contract HIV,” she told IPS.

Seated next to her, Khamis Mongo, 32, has lived with HIV for five years now and has suffered similar rejection. “Some people don’t want to eat from the same plate with me,” he says.

Mongo and Samson are among nearly 1,000 HIV positive people receiving care at the centre, of whom 250 are in antiretroviral therapy (ART). They are lucky: in South Sudan, just one out of 10 people needing ART gets it.

The clinic sees patients coming from as far as 100 kilometres.

“So many patients are dying because they can’t afford transport to collect their medicine here,” clinical officer Suzie Luka told IPS.

A one-way, 80 km bodaboda trip from Ibba to Maridi costs 150 South Sudanese pounds (47 dollars).

The challenges in Maridi are a microcosm of those that the world’s newest country, South Sudan, faces in containing the HIV epidemic.

Newly independent from north Sudan in 2011, and emerging from Africa’s longest civil war over 21 years with one of the world’s lowest human development statistics, South Sudan plunged again into fighting in December 2013.

The national HIV prevalence rate is under three percent and rising steadily, according to the Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

This translates into 150,000 people living with HIV in a country whose social fabric and physical infrastructure was destroyed by successive wars.

 “Moving corpses”

Evelyn Letio, from the South Sudan Network of People Living with HIV, describes poor access, quality and continuity of health services, underpinned by denial of the disease and high stigma and discrimination, especially against women.

“Community leaders will hurriedly accept a divorce if it’s the woman who is positive and force her to leave the man’s house,” says Letio.”If it’s the man who is positive, they won’t allow the woman to leave the house so she can take care of him.”

Despite denial by government officials, discrimination is rampant within the civil service, she adds:  “People who have disclosed to be HIV positive are laid off and called ’moving corpses’.”

Inadequate financial, infrastructural and human resources limit efforts to expand HIV services.  The national HIV plan has an 80 percent funding shortfall.

Mongo and Sanson told IPS that the Maridi clinic often runs out of drugs and they have to return days later. Other times, staff has not been paid for months and stays away.

“Treatment has been tricky,” acknowledges Habib Daffalla Awongo, director general for programme coordination at South Sudan AIDS Commission.

According to UNAIDS, just 22 centres provided ART before the new outbreak of violence.

Last December, the ART centres in Bor, Malakal and Bentiu, capitals of the states worst hit by fighting, had to close. The whereabouts of 1,140 patients are unknown. Most likely they have interrupted ART, endangering their lives.

War and AIDS

Forty thousand people living with HIV have been directly affected by the recent violence, according to the United Nations. The new fighting reversed the gains made in HIV services since independence. 

Fast Facts About AIDS in South Sudan

150,000 people live with HIV
20,000 children under 15 live with HIV
12.500 AIDS-related deaths in 2013
15,400 new infections in 2013
72,000 people need ART
1 in 10 people needing ART is on ART
1 in 10 HIV positive pregnant women is on PMTCT
27 percent of people over 15 years are literate
1.9m internally displaced people in 2014

“We have lost many HIV positive people during the conflict, some died in the fighting and others migrated to peaceful areas,” said Awongo.

By U.N. counts,  the new conflict has displaced 1.9 million people.

In Juba, the capital, camps with long rows of white tents have sprung up to shelter some 31,000 displaced people.

Among them is Taban Khamis*, who escaped fighting in the key oil city of Bentiu, 1,000 kms north of Juba. He has interrupted ART and fears his health will soon worsen but he will not go to the camp’s HV clinic for fear of stigma.

“The camp is crowded and there is no privacy,” he told IPS. “Everyone will know that I have HIV.”

Prevalence of HIV and sexually transmitted infections “dramatically increases in camps”, says a study by the HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Awongo is aware of this problem. “We encourage people to come out of the camps to facility points where they can access services but this is not making a difference,” he says.

*Name changed to protect his privacy

Edited by: Mercedes Sayagues

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U.S. Proposes Major Debt Relief for Ebola-Hit Countries Thu, 13 Nov 2014 22:16:07 +0000 Carey L. Biron An Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on the day of a visit from Anthony Banbury, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

An Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on the day of a visit from Anthony Banbury, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Nov 13 2014 (IPS)

The United States proposed Tuesday that the international community write off 100 million dollars in debt owed by West African countries hit hardest by the current Ebola outbreak. The money would be re-invested in health and other public programming.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will be detailing the proposal later this week to a summit of finance ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) industrialised countries. If the idea gains traction among G20 states, that support should be enough to approve the measure through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where the United States is the largest voting member."The plan is for that money to be re-invested in social infrastructure, including hospitals and schools … to deal with the short-term problem of Ebola but also the long-term failure of the health systems that allowed for this outbreak.” -- Jubilee USA’s executive director Eric LeCompte

“The International Monetary Fund has already played a critical role as a first responder, providing economic support to countries hardest hit by Ebola,” Lew said in a statement to IPS.

“Today we are asking the IMF to expand that support by providing debt relief for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. IMF debt relief will promote economic sustainability in the worst hit countries by freeing up resources for both immediate needs and longer-term recovery efforts.”

These three countries together owe the IMF some 370 million dollars, according to the U.S. Treasury, with 55 million dollars due in the coming two years. Yet there are already widespread fears over the devastating financial ramifications of Ebola on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in addition to the epidemic’s horrendous social impact.

Last month, the World Health Organisation warned that the virus now threatens “potential state failure” in these countries. The World Bank, meanwhile, estimates that the virus, which has already killed more than 5,000 people and infected more than 14,000, could cost West African countries some 33 billion dollars in gross domestic product.

Of course, much of the multilateral machinery is often too cumbersome to respond to a fast-moving viral outbreak. Yet there is reason to believe that the U.S. plan could have both immediate and long-term impacts.

That’s because the plan would see the IMF tap a unique fund set up in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which facilitated the cancellation of nearly 270 million dollars of Haitian debt to the IMF. Called the Post-Catastrophe Debt Relief (PCDR) Trust, it is aimed specifically at responding to major natural disasters in the world’s poorest countries.

Originally, the PCDR Trust was capitalised with more than 420 million dollars. Today, a U.S. Treasury spokesperson told IPS, the trust has some 150 million dollars in it – money that would be available almost immediately.

“Our proposal is for the IMF to provide debt relief for these Ebola-affected nations from this trust,” the spokesperson said. “The U.S. would like to see around 100 million dollars put toward this effort, however the precise amount will need to be determined in consultations with the IMF and its membership.”

The IMF, meanwhile, says it is preparing to consider the proposal. In September the Washington-based agency made available 130 million dollars in immediate support to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“We are very glad that some donors have expressed an interest in increasing support for the Ebola-affected countries. We are reaching out to all donors to see how we might be able to take this forward … using all the tools available to us,” an IMF spokesperson told IPS.

“[Debt relief] decisions are made according to the merits of the particular case and this would be approached in the same way. We would expect the Board to be briefed soon on this topic.”

Ebola’s “natural disaster”

For development and anti-poverty advocates, debt obligations on the part of poor countries constitute a key obstacle to a government’s ability to respond to critical social needs, both in the short and long term.

In the West African epicentre of the current Ebola outbreak, many analysts have held chronic low national health spending directly responsible for allowing the epidemic to spiral out of control. And when looking at feeble public sector spending, it is impossible not to take into account often crushing debt burdens.

For instance, Guinea spent a little more than 100 million dollars on public health in 2012 but paid nearly 150 million dollars that same year on internationally held debt, according to World Bank figures provided by Jubilee USA, an anti-debt advocacy network that has spearheaded the push for the United States to make the current proposal.

“As bad as Ebola has been, some of these countries have far greater challenges with deaths from malaria than from Ebola,” Eric LeCompte, Jubilee USA’s executive director, told IPS.

“The amount is incredibly important because it cancels a significant portion of the debt completely. And the plan is for that money to be re-invested in social infrastructure, including hospitals and schools … to deal with the short-term problem of Ebola but also the long-term failure of the health systems that allowed for this outbreak.”

LeCompte was also involved in the creation of the Post-Catastrophe Debt Relief Trust, in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. His office has advocated for the fund’s monies to be used since then – for instance, to react to flooding in Pakistan and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

But he says these and other proposals have been rejected by the IMF’s membership, on the rationale that these countries were developed enough to be able to mobilise financing in other ways. (The IMF says PCDR funds are for response to “the most catastrophic of natural disasters” in “low-income countries”, when a third of a country’s population has been affected and a quarter of its production capacity destroyed.)

Not only are Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone among the poorest countries in the world, but the Ebola outbreak there has a potentially direct impact on the rest of the globe.

“This is a very clear opportunity to point to the 150 million dollars left in that fund and to note that Ebola is every bit the same as the Haitian earthquake in terms of being a regional calamity,” LeCompte says.

“The difference is that this is also a long-term investment in the very problems that allow Ebola to spread. So we’d be not only addressing the current issue, but also the next disease outbreak in that region.”

It is unclear whether there is a mechanism in place to top up the PCDR Trust in the future. The IMF states that “Replenishment of the Trust will rely on donor contributions, as necessary.”

But for his part, LeCompte says the fund has the potential to fill a significant gap: offering a pot of money, immediately available, that could be quickly mobilised to deal with true crises afflicting the world’s poorest countries, from hurricanes to major financial defaults.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at

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Ebola and ISIS: A Learning Exchange Between U.N. and Faith-based Organisations Thu, 13 Nov 2014 14:31:05 +0000 Azza Karam Scene from an Ebola treatment facility run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guéckédou, Guinea. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

Scene from an Ebola treatment facility run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Guéckédou, Guinea. Credit: UN Photo/Ari Gaitanis

By Azza Karam
NEW YORK, Nov 13 2014 (IPS)

The simultaneity presented by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus on one hand and militant barbarism ostensibly in the name of Islam on the other present the international development community – particularly the United Nations and international NGOs – with challenges, as well as opportunities.

At first sight, the two are unrelated phenomena. One appears to be largely focused on the collapse of health services in three countries, and to a lesser extent, on economic and political ramifications thereof.ISIS claims religion in its very name, ethos and gruesome actions. Can the international humanitarian and development worlds afford to continue to ignore religious dynamics – precisely because of the extent to which their actions challenge human rights-based actions?

The other, i.e., ISIS/ISIL/IS, appears to be a complex basket of geopolitical conflagrations involving a violently militant political Islam, weak governance dynamics, botched uprisings, transnational youth disaffection, arms proliferation — all to name but a few.

So what is the connection and why is this relevant to international development and humanitarian engagement?

In a Strategic Learning Exchange organised by several United Nations bodies, and attended by U.N. development and humanitarian staff, and their counterparts from a number of international faith-based development NGOs, which took place in Turin, Italy last week, the confluence of these challenges was tackled head-on.

The U.N. and faith-based NGO staff present work both in their headquarter organisations as well as on the ground in countries in Africa, Asia, and the Arab region.

In both sets of cases, there are realties of overstretched service providers seeking to respond, in real time, to rising death tolls, collapsing state-run services, and the actual inability to deliver basic necessities to communities struggling to stay alive because of diverse, but nevertheless man-made, barriers.

Some of these are run by those carrying arms and demarcating territories as off limits while those within them are imprisoned, tortured, killed, terrorized, and starved. Other barriers are made of communities hiding their ill and their dead, distrusting and fearing those seeking to help, and anguished over the loss not just of loved ones, but also of care-takers, sources of income, and means of protection.

But there are other barriers which the last few weeks and months have revealed as well, some of which present long-term challenges to institutional and organisational cultures, as well as to the entire ethos of international humanitarianism and development as we know it today.

The response to the Ebola virus, first and foremost, focused on the medical aspects – which was/is urgent and unquestionable.

But it took months before international aid workers realised one of many tipping points in the equation of death and disease transmission: that burial methods were key, and that even though there are manuals which seek to regulate those methods so as to ensure medical safety, there was relatively less attention paid to the combined matter of values, dignity and local cultural practices in such crisis contexts.

Burying the dead in a community touches the very belief systems which give value and meaning to life. How those infected with Ebola were buried had to be tackled in a way that bridged the very legitimate medical health concerns, but also enabled the family and community members to go on living – with some shred of meaningfulness to their already traumatised selves – while not getting infected.

When this particular dilemma was noted, faith leaders have been hastily assembled to advise on burial methods which bridge dignity with safety in these particular circumstances. But the broader and more long-term roles of ‘sensitising’ and bridging the medical-cultural gap between international aid workers, local medical personnel and over-wrought communities have yet to be worked out.

And the opportunity to address this medical-cultural gap (which is not new to development or humanitarian work) extends beyond burials of the dead and medical care for the living, to providing psycho-social support, and ensuring economic livelihoods. In these areas, too, faith-based NGOs have roles to play.

The militancy of ISIS and the repercussions of the war currently being waged both with and against them presents a similar set of cultural challenges to national and international actors.

This cultural feature was reiterated with cases from the same Arab region involving Hizbullah, Hamas, and now ISIS. How to navigate practical roadblocks controlled by parties you are not supposed to be talking to as a matter of principle, and who question the very legitimacy of your mandate, as a matter of practice – precisely because it does not ‘do religion’ and is part of a ‘Western secular agenda’?

Yes, there are manuals and protocols and procedures governing the provision of services and rules of engagement – in compliance with international human rights obligations. Yet, some hard questions are now glaring: should any form of ‘dialogue’ or outreach be possible between those who speak human rights law, and those who wish to speak only of “God’s laws”?

Are there lessons to be learned from prior engagement with (now relatively more mainstream) Hizbullah and Hamas, which may have resulted in a different trajectory for the engagement with ISIS today, perhaps?

Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria and al-Qaeda’s presence (and elimination of Bin Laden) in Afghanistan have highlighted a link between religious dogma and critical health implications. Unlike with Ebola however, a possible role for faith leaders – and other faith-based humanitarian and development actors – has not been solicited. At least, not openly so.

And yet, could these roles shed some light on the particular ability of some religious actors to maneuver within humanitarian emergencies in these specific circumstances?

Could a clearer appreciation of the potential value-added of faith-based interventions – which have to be distinguished from those of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. – increase understanding of and dealing with a world view that is costing lives, now and in the future?

ISIS claims religion in its very name, ethos and gruesome actions. Can the international humanitarian and development worlds afford to continue to ignore religious dynamics – precisely because of the extent to which their actions challenge human rights-based actions?

And if the international community makes a choice to deal with any religious overtones – and is not capacitated in its current frameworks to do so – whose assistance will be needed to call upon, in which fora and with what means?

There are answers to some of these questions already percolating in several policy-making corridors, inherent in the experience of many cadres working with faith-based/ faith-inspired development NGOs, and academics who have devoted decades of research.

What was clear from the discussions in Turin, and other roundtables on religion and development, is that these questions have to be posed, because the answers belie multiple opportunities.

All opinions expressed belong to the author, and are not representative or descriptive of the positions of any organisation, Member State, Board, staff member or territorial entity.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Braving Dust storms, Women Plant Seeds of Hope Wed, 12 Nov 2014 14:33:19 +0000 UN Women Higala Mohammed (in green) prepares land for drip irrigation in the Dadaab refugee complex. Photo: UN Women/Tabitha Icuga

Higala Mohammed (in green) prepares land for drip irrigation in the Dadaab refugee complex. Photo: UN Women/Tabitha Icuga

By UN Women

In the world’s largest refugee complex – the sprawling Dadaab settlement in Kenya’s North Eastern Province – women listen attentively during a business management workshop held at a hospital in one of its newest camps, Ifo 2.

Leila Abdulilahi, a 25-year-old Somali refugee and mother, has brought her five-month-old along, while her four other children wait at home. She asks question after question, eager to learn more. Leila has lived in the camp for the past three years and has no source of income, so her family depends on the rations distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP).

Unlike others, who have called Dadaab home since 1991, at the start of the civil war in Somalia, Leila is a ‘new arrival’ – a term used for those who came after the 2011 drought and more recent military intervention against extremist groups.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of September 2014 there were 341,359 registered refugees in Dadaab — the world’s largest refugee camp — half of whom are women.

"The lack of livelihood opportunities is a contributing factor to sexual and gender-based violence at the camp." -- Idil Absiye, Peace and Security Specialist with UN Women Kenya
“We are afraid to go fetch firewood in the forest. Bandits also attack us in our own homesteads and rape us,” says Leila. “If I had the money I would just buy firewood and I wouldn’t have to go or send my daughter to the forest.”

According to the Kenya Red Cross Society, rape rates are highest in Ifo 2, which sprawls across 10 square km and is located approximately 100 kilometres from the Kenya-Somalia border. Created in 2011, Ifo 2 is the newest camp in Dadaab and many safety measures are yet to be put in place, such as lighting, fencing, guards and other community protection mechanisms for the overcrowding.

Through its Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action Programme, UN Women has been supporting and working closely with the Kenya Red Cross Society to implement a livelihood project in Ifo 2.

“The lack of livelihood opportunities is a contributing factor to sexual and gender-based violence at the camp,” says Idil Absiye, Peace and Security Specialist with UN Women Kenya. She says providing women with the opportunity to earn a living is an important step that will help them fend for themselves in the camp and when they go back home.

The initiative also provides counseling services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and family mediation services at the Ifo 2 District hospital, with support from UN Women. Initial results include more sexual and gender-based violence cases now being reported.

According to Counsellor Gertrude Lebu, the Gender-Based Violence Centre now receives up to 15 cases on an average day. Men have also been seeking family mediation with their wives.

Raking up resilience

"The lack of livelihood opportunities is a contributing factor to sexual and gender-based violence at the camp." -- Idil Absiye, Peace and Security Specialist with UN Women Kenya
Beneath the scalding sun that has parched the landscape of north-eastern Kenya, 10 women are digging the dry, dusty land using rakes and sticks. When dust storms come, they use their scarves to shield their eyes. They hardly notice the harsh conditions as they dig, their focus on three months later when they will be harvesting their horticultural produce.

Income-generating activities in Dadaab refugee camps are rare, and agriculture even more so, because of harsh weather conditions and extreme poverty. Women sometimes sell a portion of their food aid (which consists of maize, wheat, beans, soya, pulses and cooking oil) in order to be able to purchase fruit and vegetables, school supplies and pay for their children’s school fees.

Providing for their families means everything for mothers like Leila. It means not having to fight with their husbands for food, school fees or other basic needs, if they can provide for themselves and their families.

Ephraim Karanja, the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Programme Coordinator with the Kenya Red Cross, says six greenhouses have been bought, and the women are busy preparing the land to plant and sow crops. They will sell their produce at a new market being built in Dadaab as part of the project, which will reduce the safety risks of travelling to the markets in towns nearby.

“I want to open a shop. With the profit I make, I will buy clothes, vegetables and fruits for my children,” says Leila.

She and 300 other vulnerable women will be trained in business management and horticulture agriculture and supported to start a business that will help sustain their families.

Higala Mohammed, a farmer from Somalia, is optimistic about the group’s labour. Inspired, she has also set up a small vegetable garden next to her makeshift tent where she grows barere, a traditional Somalian vegetable. “We need all the nutrients we can get here,” she adds.

Leila’s pathway to independence makes her hopeful. “I want to work and support my family, even when I return home someday — and I will open a bigger shop,” she says.

This article is published under an agreement with UN Women. For more information visit the Beijing+20 campaign website

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Filipinos Take to the Streets One Year After Typhoon Haiyan Mon, 10 Nov 2014 11:53:07 +0000 Diana Mendoza One year after Typhoon Haiyan, more than four million people still remain homeless. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/Pio Arce/Genesis Photos-World Vision/CC-BY-ND-2.0

One year after Typhoon Haiyan, more than four million people still remain homeless. Credit: European Commission DG ECHO/Pio Arce/Genesis Photos-World Vision/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Diana Mendoza
MANILA, Nov 10 2014 (IPS)

People covered their bodies with mud to protest against government ineptitude and abandonment; others lighted paper lanterns and candles and released white doves and balloons to remember the dead, offer thanks and pray for more strength to move on; while many trooped to a vast grave site with white crosses to lay flowers for those who died, and to cry one more time.

These were the scenes this past Saturday, Nov. 8, in Tacloban City in central Philippines, known as ground zero of Typhoon Haiyan.

One year after the storm flattened the city with 250-kph winds and seven-metre high storm surges that caused unimaginable damage to the city centre and its outlying areas and killed more than 6,500 people, hundreds remain unaccounted for.

Nov. 8 marked the first anniversary of Haiyan, known among Filipinos as Yolanda, the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history.

Thousands of stories, mostly about loss, hopelessness, loneliness, hunger, disease, and deeper poverty flooded media portals in the Philippines. There were also abundant stories of heroism and demonstrations of extraordinary strength.

Understanding the scope of the disaster

"We have felt a year's worth of the government's vicious abandonment, corruption, deceit, and repression, and have seen a year's worth of news and studies that confirm this situation." -- Efleda Bautista, one of the leaders of People Surge, a group of typhoon survivors
There may be some signs that suggest a semblance of revival in Tacloban City, located about 580 km southeast of Manila, but it has yet to fully come back to life – that process could take six to eight years, possibly more, according to members of the international donor community.

Still, the anniversary was marked by praise for the Philippines’ “fast first-step recovery” from a disaster of this magnitude, compared with the experience of other disaster-hit places such as Aceh in Indonesia after the 2004 Asian tsunami that devastated several countries along the Indian Ocean.

In its assessment of the relief and reconstruction effort, released prior to the anniversary, the Philippines-based multilateral Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that while “reconstruction efforts continue to be a struggle”, a lot has been done.

“The ADB has been in the Philippines for 50 years, and we can say that other countries would not have responded this strongly to such a huge crisis,” ADB Vice President for East Asia and Southeast Asia Stephen Groff told a press conference last week.

Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Neil Reeder echoed his words, adding, “The ability of the country to bounce back was faster than we’ve ever seen in other humanitarian disasters.”

Experts say that Filipinos’ ‘bayanihan’ – a sense of neighbourhood and communal unity – helped strengthen the daunting rehabilitation process.

“Yolanda was the largest and most powerful typhoon ever to hit land and it impacted a huge area, including some of the poorest regions in the Philippines. It is important that we look at the scale and scope of this disaster one year after Yolanda,” Groff stressed.

He said the typhoon affected 16 million people, or 3.4 million families, and damaged more than one million homes, 33 million coconut trees, 600,000 hectares of agricultural land, 248 transmission towers and over 1,200 public structures such as provincial, municipal and village halls and public markets.

Also damaged were 305 km of farm-to-market roads, 20,000 classrooms and over 400 health facilities such as hospitals and rural health stations.

In total, the storm affected more than 14.5 million people in 171 cities and municipalities in 44 provinces across nine regions. To date, more than four million people still remain homeless.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has faced criticism from affected residents, who used Saturday’s memorial to blast the government for its ineptitude in the recovery process.

Efleda Bautista, one of the leaders of People Surge, a group of typhoon survivors, told journalists, “We have felt a year’s worth of the government’s vicious abandonment, corruption, deceit, and repression, and have seen a year’s worth of news and studies that confirm this situation.”

Protesters burned a nine-foot effigy of the president on the day of the anniversary.

Early morning on Nov. 8 more than 5,000 people holding balloons, lanterns, and candles walked around Tacloban City in an act of mourning and remembrance.

The Roman Catholic Church declared the anniversary date as a national day of prayer as church bells pealed and sirens wailed at the start of a mass at the grave-site where nearly 3,000 people are buried.

Hundreds of fishermen staged protests to demand that the government provide new homes, jobs, and livelihoods, accusing government officials of diverting aid and reconstruction funds.

Filipino netizens recalled that they cried nonstop while helplessly watching on their television and computer screens how Tacloban City was battered by the storm.

They posted and shared photos of Filipinos who were hailed as heroes because they volunteered to meet and drive survivors to their relatives in Manila and other places as they alighted from military rescue planes.

“Before” and “after” pictures of the area also made the rounds on the Web.

‘Billions’ in international assistance

President Aquino in a visit to nearby affected Samar island before the storm anniversary said, “I would hope we can move even faster and I will push everybody to move even faster, but the sad reality is the scope of work we need to do can really not be done overnight. I want to do it correctly so that benefits are permanent.”

The Philippine government estimates the need for a 170-billion-peso (3.8-billion-dollar) master-plan to rebuild the affected communities, including the construction of a four-metre-high dike along the 27-km coastline to prevent further damage in case of another disaster.

Alfred Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban City, told journalists two million people are still living in tents and only 1,422 households have been relocated to permanent shelters. As many as 205,500 survivors are still in need of permanent houses.

The recovery process was successful in erecting new electricity posts a few months after the storm, while black swaths of mud have now been replaced by greenery, with crops quickly replanted, and rice fields thriving once more.

Government, private, and international aid workers also restored sanitation and hygiene programmes in the aftermath of the storm.

The ADB announced it was trying to determine whether or not to provide a further 150 million dollars worth of official assistance to Yolanda survivors on top of the 900 million dollars already pledged in grants and concessions at the start of reconstruction efforts.

The United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID) is expected to provide a 10-million-dollar technical assistance plan to develop 18,400 projects across the country. These will cover other hard-hit areas outside of Tacloban City, such as Guian in Eastern Samar, which will also receive 10 million dollars from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for rehabilitation programmes.

The Canadian government also offered 3.75 million Canadian dollars to restore livelihoods and access to water to the affected provinces of Leyte and Iloilo.

The Philippine government assured that the billions donated, offered and pledged by the international community would be safely accounted for, monitored, guarded and reported on with transparency.

Panfilo Lacson, a senator who was designated in charge of the rehabilitation programme, said that already he has confirmed reports that some bunkhouses in Tacloban and Eastern Samar were built with substandard materials and that someone had colluded with contractors for the use of substandard materials to generate kickbacks.

“That’s when I realised we have to monitor the funds,” he said.

He asked Filipinos to share information that they know about irregularities on the management and administration of the billions of pesos from the national coffers and donor organisations for rebuilding communities.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Trapped Populations – Hostages of Climate Change Mon, 10 Nov 2014 09:19:32 +0000 Ido Liven When a natural disaster strikes, people are sometimes left with no choice but to leave the areas affected. Yet, for some, even this option might not exist. Cyclone survivors in Myanmar shelter in the ruins of their destroyed home. Credit: UNHCR/Taw Naw Htoo

When a natural disaster strikes, people are sometimes left with no choice but to leave the areas affected. Yet, for some, even this option might not exist. Cyclone survivors in Myanmar shelter in the ruins of their destroyed home. Credit: UNHCR/Taw Naw Htoo

By Ido Liven
LONDON, Nov 10 2014 (IPS)

Climate change is projected by many scientists to bring with it a range of calamities – from widespread floods, to prolonged heatwaves and slowly but relentlessly rising seas – taking the heaviest toll on those already most vulnerable.

When a natural disaster strikes, people are sometimes left with no choice but to leave the areas affected. Yet, for some, even this option might not exist.

While many could be uprooted in search of a safer place to live, either temporarily or permanently, some may become “climate hostages”, unable to escape.

“People around the world are more or less mobile, depending on a range of factors,” argues Prof Richard Black from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, “but they can become trapped in circumstances where they want or need [to move] but cannot.”When a natural disaster strikes, people are sometimes left with no choice but to leave the areas affected. Yet, for some, even this option might not exist … they may become “climate hostages”, unable to escape

According to Black, “it is most likely to be because they cannot afford it, or because there is no [social] network for them to follow or job for them to do … or because there is some kind of policy barrier to movement such as a requirement for a visa that is unobtainable, in some countries even the requirement for an exit visa that is unobtainable.”

For the most vulnerable, climate change could mean double jeopardy – first, from worsening environmental conditions threatening their livelihood, and second, from the diminished financial, social and even physical assets required for moving away provoked by this situation.

A project on migration and global environmental change led by Black was one of the first to draw attention to the notion of “trapped populations”.

In its report, published in 2011 by the Foresight think tank at the U.K. Government Office for Science, the authors warned that “in the decades ahead, millions of people will be unable to move away from locations in which they are extremely vulnerable to environmental change.”

An example the Foresight report mentions is that of inhabitants of small island states living in flood-prone areas or near exposed coasts. People in these areas might not have the means to address these hazards and also lack the resources to migrate out of the islands.

The report warned that such situations could escalate to risky displacement and humanitarian emergencies.

In fact, past cases offer some evidence of groups of people who have become immobile as a result of either extreme weather events or even slow onset crises.

One such example, says Black, is the drought in the 1980s in Africa’s Sahel region, when there was a decrease in the numbers of adult men who chose to migrate – the same people who would otherwise leave the area.

“Under drought conditions they were less able to do so because that involves drawing on your assets – in the Sahel often assets would be livestock – and the drought kills livestock, which means you can’t convert livestock into cash, and then you can’t pay the smuggler or afford the cost of the journey that would take you out of that area.”

Nevertheless, Black argues that in many cases it would be especially difficult to distinguish people who remain because they can and wish to, from those who are really unable to leave. In addition, environmental change could also drive people to migrate towards areas where they are even more at risk than those they have left.

In the Mekong delta in southern Vietnam, researchers foresee climate change contributing to floods, loss of land and increased soil salinity. Facing these hazards, local residents in an already impoverished region could find themselves unable to cope, and also unable to move away.

“It would generally be income and assets that will determine whether people can stay where they are or need to relocate,” says Dr Christopher Smith from the University of Sussex, who is currently conducting a European Community-funded project assessing the risk of trapped populations in the Mekong delta.

“Within the short term, it would mostly be temporary movement, but in the future … there could be more permanent migration.”

According to Smith, “the Mekong, being such a long river that flows through so many different countries, will make [this case] quite unique in terms of changes to the water budget in the delta and, of course, factors like cultures and populations in the delta will play a part.”

Conclusions from the study are likely to be relevant to other cases around the world, and specifically to other low lying mega-deltas with similar characteristics, Smith adds.

In Guatemala, researchers found that relatively isolated mountain communities could also be facing the risk of becoming stranded by climate change.

According to a study published earlier this year, irregular rainfall could be posing a serious threat for the food security and sources of income of communities in the municipality of Cabricán who rely on subsistence rain-fed agriculture.

Yet, the risks associated with climate change are not confined to developing countries. Hurricane Katrina, which hit the south-east of the United States in 2005, offered a vivid example when the New Orleans’ Superdome housed more than 20,000 people over several days.

“That was to do with the fact that an evacuation plan had been designed with the idea that everybody would leave by car, but essentially there were sections of the population that didn’t have a car and were not going to leave by car, and also some people who didn’t believe the messages around evacuation,” says Black.

“And those people who were trapped in the eye of the storm were then more likely to be displaced later – so they were more likely to end up in one of the trailer parks, the temporary accommodation put on by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

Scientists are wary of linking Hurricane Katrina, or any single extreme weather event, to climate change. Yet, studies show that a warmer world might not necessarily mean more hurricanes, but such storms could be fiercer than those that these areas are used to.

Beyond science, says Black, international organisations are aware of the issue. “I’ve had quite extensive discussions with UNHCR [the U.N. refugee agency], the International Organization for Migration, the European Commission and a number of other bodies on these matters. There is a degree of interest in this idea that people can be trapped.”

A paper on Populations ‘trapped’ at times of crisis written by Black with Michael Collyer of the University of Sussex and published in February, notes that while it might still be early to suggest specific policy measures to address this predicament, there are several steps decision makers can take, and not only on the national level.

“As long as we have limited information on trapped populations,” say the authors, “the policy goal should be to avoid situations in which people are unable to move when they want to, not to promote policy that encourages them to move when they may not want to, and up-to-date information allowing them to make an informed choice.”

Intergovernmental fora – and among them the loss and damage stream in international climate negotiations – are yet to address specifically the challenge of trapped populations, but Europe might already be showing the way.

A European Commission working paper on climate change, environmental degradation and migration that accompanies the European Union’s strategy on adaptation to climate change adopted in April 2013 mentions the risk of trapped populations, albeit implicitly only outside the region, and recommends steps to address the issue.

Reviewing existing research on the links between climate change, environmental degradation and migration, the authors note that relocation, while questionably effective, “may nevertheless become a necessity in certain scenarios” such as the case of trapped communities.

“The EU should therefore consider supporting countries severely exposed to environmental stressors to assess the path of degradation and design specific preventive internal, or where necessary, international relocation measures when adaptation strategies can no longer be implemented,” states the working paper.

Ultimately, the situation where individuals, families, and indeed entire communities, find themselves unable to move out of harm’s way is not unique to the effects of climate change – it can be other natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions or human-induced crises like armed conflict.

The international community’s response to people moving in the face of such crises is most often based on giving them a status, such as “internally displaced persons”, “asylum seekers” or “refugees”.

But this would not be the appropriate response when people remain, argues Black.

For them, “the issue is not a lack of legal status – it’s a lack of options … Public policy needs to be geared around providing people with options, in my view, both ahead of disasters and in the immediate aftermath of disasters.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Disciples of John the Baptist also flee ISIS Sat, 08 Nov 2014 09:20:50 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza One of the ancient yet vanishing Mandaean rituals in Baghdad, at the banks of the Tigris river. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

One of the ancient yet vanishing Mandaean rituals in Baghdad, at the banks of the Tigris river. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
KIRKUK, Iraq, Nov 8 2014 (IPS)

“Going  back home? That would be suicide. The Islamists would cut our throats straight away,” says Khalil Hafif Ismam. The fear of this Mandaean refugee sums up that of one of the oldest yet most decimated communities in Mesopotamia.

“We had our house and two jewellery shops back in Baiji – 230 km north of Baghdad – but when ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] took over the area in June we had to leave for sheer survival,” recalls Khalil Ismam from the Mandaean Council compound in Kirkuk, 100 km east of Baiji. That is where he shares a roof with the family of his brother Sami, and the mother of both.

The Ismams are Mandaeans, followers of a religion that experts have tracked back 400 years before Christ, and which consider John the Baptist as their prophet. Accordingly, their main ritual, baptism, has taken place in the same spots on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates for almost two millennia.

In the sixteenth century, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries attempted to convert them to Christianity in Basra (southern Iraq). Young Mandaeans were sent, often abducted, to evangelise far-flung Portuguese colonies such as today´s Sri Lanka. They were called the “Christians of St. John”, although Mandaeans solidly dissociate themselves from Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Ismams, a Mandaean displaced family, pose at the entrance of the Mandaean Council in Kikruk. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

The Ismams, a Mandaean displaced family, pose at the entrance of the Mandaean Council in Kikruk. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Khalil Ismam and his brother, both jewellers in their late thirties, also come from Iraq´s far south. Talking to IPS, they explain how they moved to Baghdad in the 1980s, “looking for a better life”. After the first Gulf War in 1991, they were forced to relocate again, this time to Baiji. Today they are in Kirkuk but they have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

“The council has told us that we cannot stay over a month, but we still don´t know where to go next because ISIS is already at the gates of the city,” says Sami.

Among the little they could take with them, the silversmiths did not forget their sekondola – a medallion engraved with a bee, a lion and a scorpion, all of them surrounded by a snake. According to Mandaean tradition, it should protect them from evil."The most striking thing about the killings of Mandaeans in Iraq is that it ranges from monetary gain by the extremists to the more sinister reason of ethnically cleansing the population of Iraq to get rid of the entire population of Mandaeans” – Suhaib Nashi, General Secretary of the Mandaean Association Union in Exile

Talismans are likely among the few things they can stick to while Mandaean ancient rituals begin to disappear as their priests are driven into exile in the best case scenario. In Kirkuk, the dry bed of the Khasa River – a tributary of the Tigris – is not an option so the increasingly rare ceremonies are held in a makeshift water well inside the complex.

“Every two or three weeks a genzibra – Mandaean priest – comes from Baghdad to conduct the ritual but the road is getting more dangerous with each passing day,” laments Khalil Ismam, standing by the pond.

According to a report released by Human Rights Watch in February 2011, 90 percent of Mandaeans have either died or left the country since the invasion by the U.S.-led forces in 2003.

From his residence in Baghdad, Sattar Hillo, spiritual leader of the Mandaeans worldwide, told IPS that his community is facing their “most critical moment” in history, adding that there are around 10,000 of them left in Iraq.

But that was his assessment a few months before the ISIS threat in the region. Today, the situation has worsened considerably, as Suhaib Nashi, General Secretary of the Mandaean Association Union in Exile, sums up:

“In the past two months, our community in Iraq is suffering a real genocide at the hands of radical Islamists, and not just by ISIS”. Nashi told IPS that the situation is equally worrying in southern areas, where the followers of this religion are easy victims of either Shiite militias or common criminals.

“The most striking thing about the killings of Mandaeans in Iraq is that it ranges from monetary gain by the extremists to the more sinister reason of ethnically cleansing the population of Iraq to get rid of the entire population of Mandaeans,” denounces Nashi.

Seeking asylum

Khalima Mashmul, aged 39, is among the Mandaean refugees staying today at the local council. She tells IPS that she is originally from the south, but that she came to Kirkuk at the early age of 15, dragged by a forced population displacement campaign through which Saddam Hussein sought to alter the demographic balance of Kirkuk, where the Kurds are the majority.

Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen dispute this city which lies on top of one of the world’s largest oil reserves. What Mashmul has called “home” for nearly 25 years is still considered as one of the most dangerous spots in Iraq. And she knows it well.

“My husband is a police officer. He lost his right leg and four fingers of one hand after a bomb attack last June. Despite his injuries, they still force him to keep working,” this mother of four tells IPS. Like the Ismams, they cannot stay indefinitely.

“We cannot go back home because my husband is threatened but we don´t have enough money to pay a rent,” laments Mashmul. Their only option, she adds, is that “Australia or any European country” grants them political asylum.

That is likely the dream of the majority in Iraq. In a report on the Iraq crisis released last month, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that 1.8 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since January this year. The report also adds that 600,000 of them need urgent help due to the imminent arrival of winter.

While many wait impatiently to move to a Western country, some others have opted for an easier relocation in neighbouring countries.

Chabar Imad Abid, one of the policemen – all of them Mandaean – managing security at the compound, tells IPS that he does not regret being left alone by his family, saying: “My wife and my five children are in Jordan and I will join them as soon as I can.”

“We have just been told that ISIS is gathering forces in Hawija – 50 km west of Kirkuk,” says the policeman, meaning that the offensive over Kirkuk is “imminent”.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Women Challenged by Rising Extremism and Militarism Thu, 06 Nov 2014 18:37:02 +0000 Thalif Deen A woman and child at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

A woman and child at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Thalif Deen

Ongoing military conflicts in the strife-torn Middle East – specifically in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Palestine – have resulted in widespread civilian casualties, impacting heavily on the most vulnerable in besieged communities: women and children.

The biggest death toll has stemmed from the civil war in Syria, currently in its fourth year, followed by casualties from the devastating 50-day Israeli air attacks on Gaza last August.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which monitors the battlefields of Syria, has estimated the number of women killed at over 6,000 and the number of children at more than 9,400, by the end of August (with total deaths of over 190,000 since 2011).

The United Nations has described the killings in Gaza as “appalling”, with over 2,200 Palestinians dead, of whom 459 were children and 239 women (compared with 64 Israeli soldiers, two civilians and one foreign national).

Against this backdrop, the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) is holding a five-day conference in Turkey, scheduled to conclude Nov. 11, which will focus on two of the biggest challenges facing women, particularly in the Middle East: extremism and militarism.

“This past year, our counterparts have faced incomprehensible challenges, including politically and religiously motivated violence, extreme economic hardships and closure of public spaces,” says ICAN.

The participants in the meeting include over 50 women activists from 14 countries across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Tajikistan, Libya and Yemen.

Stressing the importance of the meeting, ICAN co-founder Sanam Anderlini told IPS it’s the first time women from the region are gathering to talk about their experiences since three major developments in the Middle East: the rise of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Israeli bombings in Gaza and the Tunisian elections.

And most importantly, the meeting will focus on women’s perspectives, vision and strategies on the present crisis – and also propose solutions for dealing with the spread of both extremism and state militarism, she added.

In a statement released this week, ICAN also pointed out that women continue to be excluded from international decision-making arenas and the media – despite provisions in the landmark U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

Meanwhile, the low representation of women (three out of 14) in a new U.N. blue ribbon panel on peacekeeping operations has generated strong criticism.

Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, complained about the marginalisation of women in an important panel, to be chaired by former president of Timor-Leste Jose Ramos Horta.

In a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, both Lewis and Paula Donovan, who are co-directors of AIDS-Free World, said:
“This pattern must be reversed. The gender equity you profess to espouse can only be achieved by the appointment of eight additional women to the panel.

“If a panel of that size seems too unwieldy, some of your appointees must be asked to relinquish their seats to qualified women in order to achieve balance.

“If you leave things as they are, this panel will become a testament to the yawning, unbridgeable hypocrisy between U.N. performance and U.N. rhetoric,” the letter said.

Asked for his comments, an apologetic U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said, “I guess this is one case where we have to just make a very sincere apology.

“We try as hard as we can to get the right gender balance and the right regional balance for these very large panels, and sometimes it’s a question of availability,” he said. “But when we make a mistake on that, you’re absolutely right, that’s a low number, and we’ll have to do better.”

Last week was the 14th anniversary of Resolution 1325, which was adopted on Oct. 31, 2000, stressing the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security and urging, first and foremost, increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.

Asked if 1325 has had any impact in terms of women’s security in war zones, Anderlini told IPS that it varies from country to country. In South Sudan, for example, the NGO Non Violent Peace Force has trained all-female teams to be deployed around the country.

In the Philippines, she said women demanded and established an all-women civilian ceasefire monitoring team.

“It makes a difference because they pay attention to the security of civilians making sure people have safe humanitarian passage,” Anderlini said.

She said by and large the United Nations and member states really haven’t done as much as they could. For example, she said, India has deployed an all women unit of peacekeepers to Liberia. Other countries could do the same.

The United Nations could also give priority deployment to countries with a higher percentage of women peacekeepers and police officers.

“It would certainly help reduce the risk or actual incidence of sexual abuse of local women by peacekeepers,” Anderlini added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Choosing Between Death and Death in Pakistan Thu, 06 Nov 2014 18:31:50 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai More and more tents are coming up to house displaced people in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

More and more tents are coming up to house displaced people in northern Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Nov 6 2014 (IPS)

Residents of the Khyber Agency, one of seven administrative districts that comprise northern Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are in the worst possible predicament: either course of action they choose now, they say, could result in death.

As Pakistan’s military offensive against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) expands slowly from North Waziristan Agency to the restive Khyber Province, civilians must decide whether or not to defy a Taliban ban on travel.

If they stay, they risk becoming victims of army shelling and gunfire, aimed at rooting out terrorists from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions where they have operated with impunity since 2001. If residents attempt to flee, they will face the wrath of militants who rely on the civilian population to provide cover against a wholesale military bombardment of the region.

“The people fear the Taliban because they destroyed the houses of 50 tribesmen who left the area last year. We are stuck between them and the army. The only way is to migrate to safer places.” -- Zahir Afridi, a former resident of the Tirah locality in Khyber Agency
At the end of October, members of the TTP issued a warning to local residents that their houses would be blown up if they followed the army’s evacuation orders, which came in the form of pamphlets dropped from helicopters ahead of a three-day deadline to militants to lay down their arms or face a major offensive.

Literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, some residents have chosen to heed the Taliban’s threat, while others are risking life and limb to escape the embattled zone and find refuge in safer areas.

Zahir Afridi, a resident of the Tirah locality in Khyber Agency, recently escaped to the Jallozai refugee camp located 35 km southeast of FATA’s capital, Peshawar, by pretending that his two-year-old daughter had fallen ill and was in urgent need of medical treatment.

“The Taliban allowed us [to leave] on the condition that we would return after Begum [his daughter]’s recovery, but actually we cannot return for fear of our lives,” he tells IPS.

“The people fear the Taliban because they destroyed the houses of 50 tribesmen who left the area last year,” he says. “We are stuck between them and the army. The only way is to migrate to safer places.”

Experts say that civilians act as a kind of “human shield” for the militants, who would otherwise be isolated and vulnerable to attack. Dr. Khadim Hussain, chairman of the Bacha Khan Trust Education Foundation (BKTEF), an organisation that promotes peace, democracy and human rights, tells IPS that keeping civilians trapped in a war zone is a “well established and successful strategy employed by militants” to escape the full force of military campaigns.

An authority on terrorism in Pakistan, Hussain is unsurprised by the Taliban’s migration ban in the Jamrud and Bara localities. He says militants employ “various tactics” to maintain their position of power, including “kidnapping for ransom, extortions, and killings.”

The use of human shields is nothing new either.

Shams Rehman, a political analyst at the Government College, Peshawar, tells IPS that militants successfully used local residents as human shields in the Swat district of the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which they ruled from 2007 to 2009.

“Though the army started operations in Swat in 2009 [they] couldn’t get the desired results because the Taliban was using residents” to protect them from an all-out offensive, he says.

It was not until early 2010 that the government decided to issue a mass evacuation alert to the population – warning them to take shelter in camps in the nearby Mardan district – before launching a major military operation.

In this way, “the government isolated the militants and defeated them,” Rehman explains.

It is this same model that the government is now following in North Waziristan, where, over the last 10 years, members of the TPP and Al Qaeda have established a robust base from which to plan and execute their activities.

For many years the government could do nothing about the presence of this unofficial ‘headquarters’ due to the large civilian population living amongst the terrorists.

Mushtaq Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami party says that now, with nearly 18.9 percent of land in North Waziristan cleared of all residents, the government is doing what it could not for the past decade: inundate the area with firepower in a bid to completely flush out all the militants.

The campaign, which began on Jun. 15, has so far resulted in the displacement of over 500,000 residents, who are now living in camps in the neighbouring KP province.

The journey to the sprawling ‘tent cities’ erected for IDPs in towns like Bannu was not easy. Some died along the way, after trudging for hours in a summer heat wave that at times touched 45 degrees Celsius.

Many were separated from their families en route. Those who made it safely to Bannu might have been considered the lucky ones – that is, until it became evident that the living conditions in the camps were abysmal, with food shortages, a near-total absence of clean water sources and sanitation facilities, and limited medical personnel and supplies.

Now, residents of the Khyber Agency are facing a similar plight.

Muhammad Shad, who recently reached Peshawar along with his 12-member family, claims he and his clan walked for five hours before finding a vehicle that would carry them safely to the capital.

“The situation was extremely bad; all of us felt threatened,” the 55-year-old daily wage labourer tells IPS from the Jallozai camp, where he now lives, adding that scores of his friends and neighbours are still being “held hostage” by the Taliban.

He explains that threats from militants are not empty words. To prove this, the TTP set 20 houses in Khyber Agency ablaze on Aug. 14; they belonged to former militants who had handed their weapons over to the army.

Despite these terror tactics, residents continue to flee en masse – with some 95,000 making it out of Khyber Agency – willing to risk retribution for a chance to live free of the militants’ control.

“Life under the Taliban was not easy,” says Shahabuddin Khan, a resident of South Waziristan Agency, who migrated to Peshawar two months ago along with his family, after having faced violence, threats and intimidation by militants.

He considers himself lucky to have escaped, explaining, “Those who can afford to rent houses outside their native areas [do so], while the poor ones are destined to stay back and face a life of perpetual uncertainty.”

In total, over a million people have been uprooted from their homes in northern Pakistan, forced to flee from one province to another in search of a normal life.

Military spokesman Asim Bajwa tells IPS that “decisive action” on the part of the government has enabled them to clear certain areas of militants, thus allowing people to live peacefully.

“The people should cooperate with the army so they [the militants] are defeated forever,” he asserts.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Children in Aleppo Forced Underground to Go to School Thu, 06 Nov 2014 11:05:25 +0000 Shelly Kittleson Children in Aleppo forced underground to go to school, October 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Children in Aleppo forced underground to go to school, October 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
ALEPPO, Nov 6 2014 (IPS)

Winter has not yet hit this nearly besieged city, but children are already attending classes in winter coats and stocking hats.

Cold, damp underground education facilities are less exposed to regime barrel bombs and airstrikes but necessitate greater bundling to prevent common seasonal viruses from taking hold in a city from which most doctors have fled or been killed.

Only one perilous route leads out of the city and northwards to the Turkish border and better medical care, if required.A few of the children in the co-ed primary school seem shell-shocked, but many smile and laugh readily on the crowded wooden benches stuffed into the cramped, cold spaces.

On the way to an underground school IPS visited in late October, the children must necessarily pass by shop fronts blown out by airstrikes, a few remaining signs advertising what used to be clothing, hairdressers’ or wedding apparel shops with the ‘idolatrous’ images spray-painted black by the Islamic State (IS) when they briefly controlled the area, before being pushed out by rebel groups.

The jihadist group is still battling to retake terrain in the area, with the closest frontline against them being in Marea, an estimated 30 kilometres away from opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo.

They must also witness the destruction wrought by the regime, which is trying to impose a total siege on opposition areas and which would need to take only a few kilometres more of terrain to do so.

Even if they only live a block away, the children are forced to walk by buildings entirely defaced by barrel bombs, floors hanging down precariously above the heads of fruit, vegetable and sweets street vendors. A pink toilet and part of a couch are still visibly wedged between the upper, mutilated and dangling levels of one such building on their way.

A few of the children in the co-ed primary school seem shell-shocked, but many smile and laugh readily on the crowded wooden benches stuffed into the cramped, cold spaces. Two boys at the front of one of the rooms sway back and forth with their arms around each other’s shoulders, singing boisterously.

Some of the rough walls have been painted sky blue or festooned with holiday-type decorations to ‘’brighten the children’s spirits’’, one of teachers says. A few comic-strip posters have been pasted in the corridor.

Children signing in underground school in Aleppo, October 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Children singing in underground school in Aleppo, October 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

The classes run from 9 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon during the week, one of the instructors – Zakra, a former fifth-year university student in engineering – told IPS.

Zakra, who now teaches mathematics, English and science at the school, said that she gets paid about 50 dollars a month. All of the school’s 15 teachers are women wearing all-covering black garments. Some cover their faces as well, some do not. IPS was told not to photograph them in any case, because many still have family members in regime areas.

‘’The school opened last year,’’ Zakra said, ‘’but then stopped between October 2013 and July 2014, as the barrel-bombing campaign made it too dangerous for parents to send their children to school,’’ even to underground ones.

The young teacher said that she plans on leaving at some point to continue her studies in Turkey but was not sure when, primarily due to economic reasons.

Older students are mostly left to their own devices, because this school and others like it only provide for those ages 6 to 13.

The head of the education department of the Aleppo City Council – who goes by the name of Mahmoud Al-Qudsi – told IPS that some 115 schools were still operating in the area, but that most of them were former ground-level flats, basements or other structures.

Only about 20 original school buildings were still operating, he said, from some 750 in the area prior to the uprising.

Syrian government forces have targeted educational and medical facilities in opposition areas throughout the conflict, and efforts are made to keep the locations secret.

Those preparing for the baccalaureate – the Syrian secondary school diploma – study at home, he said. They then come to centres on established dates to actually take the exams in late June and early July. Word is spread of where they will be held via the Aleppo Today television channel, which broadcasts out of Gaziantep, and posters are put up around the city to announce the times and places.

Turkey, Libya and France currently recognise the baccalaureate exams, Qudsi noted, but ‘’French universities only accepted five of our students last year.’’

Most of the curriculum remains that approved by the regime, but ‘nationalistic’ parts praising the Assad family have been cut and religion classes now teach that ‘’fighting against the Assad regime is a religious duty.’’

‘’We also want to change the curricula, but we can’t right now. We want it to be a Syrian-chosen one – one designed and wanted by all Syrians – but we can’t do that now, given the situation,’’ said Qudsi, ‘’and we obviously don’t have the money to print new books.’’

Most of the low salaries the teachers receive are necessarily funded by various international and private associations because the city council just does not have the funds, he noted.

The council, ‘’was only able to pay the equivalent of 70 dollars each for the entire academic year but the teachers were happy about it nonetheless, since it shows that we appreciate what they are doing.’’

Qudsi was also adamant that even the most fundamentalist parents had not interfered with their teaching.  ‘’We are all in this together. Their children attend our schools, too.’’

The barrel bombs stopped entirely for a number of days earlier this autumn after rebel forces closed in on the Aleppo air defence factories where the crude bombs made of scrap metal and explosives are assembled by regime forces. The bombing has since resumed following regime gains.

On arriving at the scene of one such attack in late October, IPS saw a body pulled from the rubble by the civil defence forces before they rushed with flashlights around the block to get to the other side of the collapsed building, where three young children had been trapped underneath the rubble. All were later found dead.

Families were crowded on the steps outside of other buildings down the street, and flashlight beams illuminated the faces of clutches of frightened children, an adult or two nearby in the dust raised by the concrete slabs brought down in the impact.

The schools at least give the children a chance to focus on something other than the destruction and death surrounding them, Qudsi told IPS, and ‘’are the only chance of Syria having any future at all.’

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Hopes of Controlling Sierra Leone’s Ebola Outbreak Remain Grim Thu, 06 Nov 2014 10:12:45 +0000 Lansana Fofana Concern is being raised by civil society and the public about how Sierra Leone’s government is handling the Ebola pandemic. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

Concern is being raised by civil society and the public about how Sierra Leone’s government is handling the Ebola pandemic. Credit: Marc-André Boisvert/IPS

By Lansana Fofana
FREETOWN, Nov 6 2014 (IPS)

The fight against the deadly Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa seems to be hanging in the balance as Sierra Leone’s Minister of Health and Sanitation Dr Abubakar Fofana told IPS that the government is overwhelmed by the outbreak.

“We were not prepared for this Ebola scourge. It took us by surprise and with our weak health system, we can only rely on support given to us by our international partners,” he told IPS.

According to a report published last week by British charity Save the Children, five people are infected every hour here and the situation is worrisome.

The government has, however, downplayed this, claiming the report is hugely exaggerated and that the situation is getting better in some parts of the country.

However, concern is being raised by civil society and the public about how the government is handling the outbreak.

Bernard Conteh, the director of the rights advocacy group Anti-Violence Movement, told IPS: “The authorities should be more pro-active. They should pay health workers, who are the frontline soldiers in this fight, reasonably well and ensure they are supplied adequate Personal Protective Equipments. This is not happening. Even the enforcement of the quarantine of Ebola suspects is not effectively done.”

On just one day, Nov. 2, 61 new cases were reported across the country bringing the nationwide toll to 4,059 people infected by the virus. This surpasses neighbouring Liberia which, until a month ago, was the worst-hit country. Liberia has recorded 2,515 cases while Guinea, where the epidemic first started, has 1,409 recorded cases of Ebola.

Since the outbreak of the epidemic in April, Sierra Leone has lost five medical doctors, more than 60 nurses and auxiliary health workers to Ebola. And the figure keeps going up.

The African Governance Initiative has also painted a grim picture of the outbreak here, saying that it is spreading nine times faster than it did two months ago. Of the 12 districts in the country and the capital Freetown, only Koinadugu in the north was Ebola-free — until recently. It now has at least six confirmed cases. Now, no part of Sierra Leone is unaffected but the virus.

The government has, however, been assisted by the international community. The United Kingdom has sent medical equipment and health workers, and has built test and treatment centres in parts of the capital. China has also sent medical aid, while Cuba has deployed dozens of medics on the ground.

But, there are still many challenges to be addressed. According to the medical charity MSF or Doctors Without Borders, the outbreak is far from over and more help is desperately needed.

“There is a huge gap in all aspects of the response, including medical care, training of health staff, infection control, contact tracing, epidemiological surveillance, alert and referral systems, community education and mobilisation,” MSF says.

As the fight against the killer epidemic continues to prove difficult with the virus spreading fast, the government in Freetown has just implemented a year-long state of emergency. This comes just two days after an earlier 90-day state of emergency, implemented in July in response to the outbreak, ended.

Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Frank Kargbo told IPS the extension of the emergency period was necessary to help control the spread of the virus.

“No one knows when the Ebola epidemic will end. We believe that within this period and with our hard work, we will be able to contain the disease.”

Many attribute the rapid spread of the Ebola virus to people’s attitudes and, as MSF says, a lack of sufficient community education and mobilisation. Cultural practices and traditional beliefs are also greatly hampering the fight against Ebola.

“Our people still continue to touch, wash and bury their dead. This is an easy way to get infected, even though they have been told repeatedly not to do so,” the chairman of the National Ebola Response Committee, Alfred Palor Conteh, told IPS.

People also refuse to report to hospitals when they fall ill because of the fear of stigmatisation by their families and communities. Many believe that Ebola is fatal and that going to treatment centres will not help. Ebola survivors and discharged patients also face stigmatisation.

However, Health Health and Sanitation Minister Fofana said he was hopeful the situation would be brought under control soon with international help.

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

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Growing Up Among the Dead Mon, 03 Nov 2014 07:53:10 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Ali Khalil and his son, Diar, pose by the coffins they have just arranged  for burial. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Ali Khalil and his son, Diar, pose by the coffins they have just arranged for burial. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
SEREKANIYE, Syria, Nov 3 2014 (IPS)

The walls of the Association for the Martyrs of Serekaniye are covered with the portraits of those fallen in combat in this northern Syrian town. Ali Khalil has buried everyone and each of them with the help of Diar, his 13-year-old son.

Inside this building west of Serekaniye, 680 kilometres northeast of Damascus, Khalil invites IPS to hear some of the stories behind the myriad of pictures. The first one is that of his brother, Abid.

“He dreamed of being a journalist but he was hit by a sniper in November 2012. He was the first one I buried, and I have done the same with the rest ever since,” recalls this former merchant in his late thirties, before resuming his account.

“These three arrived completely charred; this one was beheaded, the same as those two further up” … Khalil points with his finger at just half a dozen among more than a hundred portraits staring at infinity.“5.5 million children have been directly affected by the war [in Syria], one in ten has become a refugee in a neighbouring country and around 8,000 of the latter crossed the border without their parents” – UNICEF

It was precisely the death of his brother which led him to set up this committee to support the families of the deceased. He is one of the ten members in charge.

“Other than arranging the burial, we assist families with money, food or blankets for the winter,” explains Khalil. The aid, he adds, comes from the Kurdish provisional government in northern Syria

After the uprising of 2011 against the Syrian government, the country’s Kurds opted for a neutrality that has forced them into clashes with both government and opposition forces.

In July 2012 they took over the areas where they form a majority, in Syria’s north. Today they rule over three enclaves in the north: Afrin, Jazeera and Kobani, the latter being known worldwide for the brutal and still on-going six-week siege at the hands of the Islamic State.

Redur Xelil, spokesman for the YPG (Kurdish acronym for People’s Protection Units), the militia defending the territory, told IPS that after Kobani, the battle in Serekaniye has been the bloodiest front for the Kurds in Syria.

A burial in Serekaniye for fighters fallen in combat against ISIS. Credit: Qadir Agid

A burial in Serekaniye for fighters fallen in combat against ISIS. Credit: Qadir Agid

Mahmud Rashid, 37, also volunteers at the martyrs´ house. He has two sisters and nine brothers, “all of them fighting, including a 60-year-old one.” He adds, however, that one of them, Brahim, fell into the hands of the Islamic State five months ago, and that they have had no news from him ever since.

“His wife showed up four days ago to get help. We handed her clothes for her seven children, blankets and 10,000 Syrian pounds [about 48 euros],” Rashid told IPS.

“I will be a soldier”

The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the truck carrying the last two coffins commissioned by the association. After they are taken into the room, Khalil and his son start to wrap them in the regular red cloth, to which they will add the yellow banner of the YPG and a crown of plastic flowers.

They proceed with the precision conferred by a two-year routine so it barely takes them more than ten minutes. Shrouding the bodies, Khalil explains, is “much more laborious.” But he´s not alone.

“Diar helps me with everything and does whatever is needed. We are hand in glove,” the volunteer explains proudly, posing his hand over his son’s shoulders. Khalil has another son, Rojdar, who is 11 but cannot join them because he suffers from chronic hepatitis and never leaves the house.

In a report on the impact of three years of war on the health of Syria’s children released this year, Save the Children warns of the serious deterioration of sanitary conditions in the country. According to Save the Children, 60 percent of hospitals in the country have been destroyed and the production of drugs has decreased by 70 percent.

To these figures has to be added the fact that half of the doctors in the country have left. Of the 2,500 that a city like Aleppo needs, only 36 remain, says Save the Children. With representation in 120 countries, it is calling for “urgent action” so that children receive basic vaccination.

Meanwhile, it is far from easy to get a word from Diar. “Why don´t you want to talk now,” Khalil asks his son. “Tell him how much you loved your uncle; tell him you would spend the day together at the Internet café.”

Diar admits he has not much to do other than helping his father. “A majority of the children have left the city and the few remaining don´t dare to leave home because of the fighting,” explains the boy, without looking up from the ground.

For those who left, reality is far from bearable either. As noted by UNICEF in its 2014 report titled Under Siege: The devastating impact on children of three years of conflict in Syria, 5.5 million children have been directly affected by the war, one in ten has become a refugee in a neighbouring country and around 8,000 of the latter crossed the border without their parents.

Other than the most visible effects, the psychological sequels are equally devastating: “Many Syrian children are in pure survival mode”, says UNICEF child protection specialist Jane MacPhail, who spends her days working with child refugees in Jordan. “They have seen the most terrible things and forget normal social and emotional responses.”

“Tell the journalist what you used to say during the days when the shelling lasted day and night: ‘You can throw as many bombs as you want but we will never leave’,” Khalil insists with his son, while the boy concentrates on carefully centring the crown of flowers on the second coffin.

Diar stands up only to say that he will join the ranks of the YPG as soon as he is 18. The war in Syria may be over after five years but that does not seem to matter to him.

“I will be a soldier,” Diar repeats, with his eyes still fixed on the ground. Until then, he says, he will help his father.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Lacklustre Early Warning System Brings Tragedy to a Languid Mountainside Sun, 02 Nov 2014 17:25:09 +0000 Amantha Perera Villagers climb through the rubble looking for survivors soon after the Oct. 29 landslide in south-central Sri Lanka Credit: Contributor/IPS

Villagers climb through the rubble looking for survivors soon after the Oct. 29 landslide in south-central Sri Lanka Credit: Contributor/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Nov 2 2014 (IPS)

When early warning systems fail, death comes quickly to unsuspecting victims of natural disasters. It is a reality that millions of Sri Lankans have experienced repeatedly in the last decade, and yet those responsible for preventing human fatalities continue to make the same mistakes.

The latest such tragedy – a result of ignorance and indifference to imminent danger – struck on the morning of Oct. 29, on the Meeriyabedda tea estate in Koslanda, a hilly region about 220 km east of the capital, Colombo.

After persistent rains, a two-km stretch of hillside caved in early morning, burying an estimated 66 small houses belonging to estate workers under some 30 feet of mud.

An initial situation report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggested there had been roughly 300 occupants in these homes; some had been away at work, and most of the children were in school when the disaster occurred.

Four days later four bodies had been recovered and 34 were listed as missing, a figure that was revised from an initial estimate of 100. Over 1,800 have been displaced and most of them may never return to their homes again.

“The real tragedy is there was ample time to move out, warnings telling [villagers] to do so and places that they could move into." -- Indu Abeyratne, manager of the early warning systems of Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS)
But the land did not come barreling down the mountainside without a warning. In fact there had been warnings that these houses were a death trap almost a decade ago.

In 2005, the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) carried out a survey of the area and made its first warning call.

“We found that the land on which the houses were standing was not stable and prone to landslides and our recommendation was relocation,” N K R Seneviratne, NBRO’s geologist for the south-central Badulla District, who headed the survey, told IPS.

In fact some officials at the landslide site said that the 66 houses that had been completely buried by the earth were clearly identified as those most in danger.

Six years later a similar survey was carried out and the recommendations were the same. Small landslides prompted the surveys. In both instances, Seneviratne said, recommendations were conveyed to villagers as well as public officials, who failed to take action on relocation.

Just before this most recent landslide, which occurred around 7.10 in the morning, Seneviratne said that his office had sent a warning to the Haldummulla Divisional Secretariat, the local public authority. Though some villagers were also made aware of the risks, most decided to stay put.

“There were warnings, but all that systematic dissemination process ended once it reached the Divisional Secretariat level; after that, at best, it was ad hoc, at worst nothing seems to have happened,” Indu Abeyratne, manager of the early warning systems of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), which is now coordinating relief efforts at the site, told IPS.

The villagers themselves missed the signs. In 2009, the Disaster Management Center (DMC), the main government agency overseeing early warnings and disaster assistance, together with the NBRO and the Red Cross, conducted a major community awareness programme in the Koslanda area.

Local villagers were advised to form community groups to act as watchdogs, scanning for imminent signs of danger and preparing evacuations plans. Megaphones were distributed, which villagers could use to gather crowds in an emergency, while the Meeriyabedda tea estate was also given a simple rain gauge to keep track of the levels of precipitation.

The NBRO has its own rain monitor at a school nearby and it was reading that at least 125 mm of rain had fallen overnight by the morning of Oct. 29. If anyone on the estate has been monitoring the village rain gauge, it should have been clear that the soil below was getting too soggy for anyone’s comfort.

But no one was watching the red flags, and when the earth collapsed in on itself with a loud boom, many were caught unawares.

“The real tragedy is there was ample time to move out, warnings telling them to do so and places that they could move into,” SLRCS’s Abeyratne said.

Gaps in early warning

Why did so many stay put in such eminent danger? That is the gnawing question that many assisting the relief effort are now trying to answer.

Gaps in the early warning mechanism have been identified since the disaster.

The main culprit seems to be the lack of an apex authority in control of local warnings, dissemination, evacuations and the absence of a rehearsed evacuation plan, despite the very real danger of landslides in the area.

Shanthi Jayasekera, the head of the Haldumulla Divisional Secretariat, told reporters that even though warnings had been issued there were no clear instructions on evacuations.

In other parts of Sri Lanka, especially along the coast devastated by the 2004 Asia tsunami, there are rehearsed and tested evacuation and early warning plans.

There are DMC units stationed at each of the country’s 25 districts, spread across its nine provinces, tasked with local coordination of such efforts, while the police and armed forces are used to disseminate warnings and handle mass evacuations.

The last such evacuation took place two-and-a-half years back in April 2012 when over a million left their homes along the coast after a tsunami warning.

Evacuation drills and rehearsals are carried out by the DMC every three months, but none seemed to have covered the Meeriyabedda area.

Less than ten days before the landslide, on Oct. 23, the DMC carried out landslide evacuations drills in six districts including Badulla, but unfortunately Meeriyabedda was not among those chosen.

“There was no such plan here, no one knew where to move out to and how to do it; [most] importantly there was no one, no authority, that was taking the lead,” Sarath Lal Kumara, DMC’s spokesperson, told IPS.

“What we should have had is a government agency-led early warning dissemination plan and an evacuation map,” he said.

Such systems do exist elsewhere in the country. According to Abeyratne, SLRCS’s trained volunteer groups work alongside the DMC and local public bodies, as well as the police and armed forces, during emergencies.

“It is a complex system, but it is a system that has been tested [in] real time here [in Sri Lanka] and has worked,” he said. In fact, SLRCS volunteers were among the first to reach the landslide-affected area this past Wednesday.

Perhaps one of the biggest gaps in the disaster management plan for the area was the failure to take into account the socio-economic conditions of those living in landslide-prone areas.

DMC’s Kumara told IPS said that most of the residents and victims were poor workers earning meager wages at nearby tea plantations.

Seneviratne added that the plantation workers are of Indian origin, descendents of those brought by British colonialists to work on the estates about 200 years ago.

The homes that were destroyed were not really houses, but one-room blocks, a dozen to a row, popularly known as ‘line houses’.

The majority of estate residents have lived this way for generations, earning a living by picking tea, tapping rubber or stripping cinnamon. They are entirely dependent on the plantations to which they belong.

A regional plantation company, Maskeliya Plantations Limited, owns the land where the deadly landslide took place. Three days after the landslide the military had to intervene to prevent villagers from assaulting officials of the company at the landslide site.

Sri Lanka’s disaster preparedness levels have improved from a barebones structure a decade ago, when the tsunami left 35,000 dead or missing. Since then it has been a steep learning curve on how to face up to the challenges of frequent extreme weather events.

“It is a situation that needs careful evaluation, not stopgap solutions,” Seneviratne said.

“Each disaster is a lesson on what can be done better, how to save lives,” SLRCS’s Abeyratne added.

If anyone needs a stark reminder on how important these lessons can be, just look up the mountainside at Meeriyabedda – or what is left of it.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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St. Vincent Takes to Heart Hard Lessons on Climate Change Wed, 29 Oct 2014 16:33:40 +0000 Desmond Brown St. Vincent has been hit hard by flooding and landslides in recent years, blamed on climate change and deforestation. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

St. Vincent has been hit hard by flooding and landslides in recent years, blamed on climate change and deforestation. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
PASTURES, St. Vincent, Oct 29 2014 (IPS)

Glenda Williams has lived in the Pastures community in eastern St. Vincent all her life. She’s seen the area flooded by storms on multiple occasions.

But the last two times, it was more “severe and frightening” than anything she had witnessed before.

“The last time the river came down it reached on the ball ground [playing field] and you had people catching fish on the ball ground. So this time now (Dec. 24, 2013), it did more damage,” Williams, 48, told IPS.

Williams was giving a firsthand account of the landslides and flooding in April 2011 and the December 2013 floods which resulted from a slow-moving, low-level trough.

The latter of the two weather systems, which also affected Dominica and St. Lucia, dumped hundreds of millimetres of rain on the island, destroying farms and other infrastructure, and left 13 people dead.

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Gleanda Williams of St. Vincent recounts the storms of April 2011 and December 2013 that killed 13 people. Credit: Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told IPS that in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, there is a major problem with degradation of the forests and this has contributed to the recent floods.

The debris left behind by the cutting of timber, Dr. Gonsalves argued, “helps to cause the blockages by the rivers and when the rivers overflow their banks, we have these kinds of flooding and disasters.

“The trees are cut down by two sets of people: one set who cut timber for sale and another set who cut timber to clear land to plant marijuana,” he explained. “And when they cut them they would not chop them up so logs remain, and when the rains come again and there are landslides they come down into the river.”

The country’s ambassador to CARICOM and the OECS, Ellsworth John, said the clearing of the forests is a serious issue which must be dealt with swiftly.

“It’s something that the government is looking at very closely… the clearing of vegetation in our rainforests maybe is not done in a timely fashion and it is something that has to be part of the planning as we look at the issue of climate change,” he told IPS.“With warmer temperatures, warmer seas, there is more moisture in the atmosphere so when you get rainfall now it’s a deluge." -- Dr. Ulric Trotz

Gonsalves admitted that policing of the forests is a difficult task but added, “If we don’t deal with the forest, we are going to have a lot of problems.”

St. Vincent was the venue for a recent climate change conference. Gonsalves said the island forms the perfect backdrop for the two-day conference having experienced first-hand the impacts of climate change.

The seminar was held as part of the OECS/USAID RRACC Project – a five-year developmental project launched in 2011 to assist the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) governments with building resilience through the implementation of climate change adaptation measures.

Specifically, RRACC will build an enabling environment in support of policies and laws to reduce vulnerability; address information gaps that constrain issues related to climate vulnerabilities; make interventions in freshwater and coastal management to build resilience; increase awareness on issues related to climate change and improve capacities for climate change adaptation.

Speaking with IPS on the sidelines of the conference, Deputy Director and Science Advisor at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) Dr. Ulric Trotz said with the advent of climate change, St. Vincent and the Grenadines could expect similar extreme weather events in the future.

“What happened there is that you had an unusual extreme event, and we are saying with climate change that is to be expected,” Trotz told IPS.

“With warmer temperatures, warmer seas, there is more moisture in the atmosphere so when you get rainfall now it’s a deluge. It’s heavy and you’re getting more rainfall in a short time than you ever experienced.

“Your drainage systems aren’t designed to deal with that flow of water. Your homes, for instance, on slopes that under normal conditions would be stable but with heavy rainfall these slopes now become unstable, you get landslides with loss of property and life, raging rivers with the heavy flow of water removing homes that are in vulnerable situations,” he added.

Gonsalves said that between 2011 and 2014, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has spent more than 600 million dollars to rebuild from the storms.

In September, the European Union said it would allocate approximately 45.5 million dollars in grants for St. Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Lucia after both countries were affected by the devastating weather system in December 2013.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which suffered the heaviest damage, is earmarked to receive EC 23.5 million and St. Lucia EC 22.4 million.

This long-term reconstruction support will be in addition to the EC 1.4 million of emergency humanitarian assistance provided by the European Union to the affected populations in the two countries immediately after the storm.

The funds will be dedicated to the reconstruction of key infrastructure damaged by the floods and to build resilience by improving river protection and slope stabilisation in major areas of the countries.

The Chateaubelair Jetty in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the Piaye Bridge in St. Lucia which were extensively damaged during the storm are infrastructure that could potentially benefit from the EU intervention.

“This support demonstrates the EU’s commitment to the reconstruction of both countries and further highlights Europe’s solidarity with the Caribbean, which we recognise as one of the most vulnerable regions in the world,” said Head of the European Union Delegation to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Ambassador Mikael Barfod.

The European Union is also providing 20 million euro to support the regional disaster management programme of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency as it undertakes disaster risk reduction measures in the region.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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OPINION: Ebola, Human Rights and Poverty – Making the Links Mon, 27 Oct 2014 17:38:33 +0000 Alicia Ely Yamin Health workers in an Ebola screening unit in Kenema government hospital, Sierra Leone. Health systems are not just a means for the technical delivery of goods and services; they are part of the core social fabric of societies. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Demotix

Health workers in an Ebola screening unit in Kenema government hospital, Sierra Leone. Health systems are not just a means for the technical delivery of goods and services; they are part of the core social fabric of societies. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Demotix

By Alicia Ely Yamin
CAMBRIDGE, Massachussetts, Oct 27 2014 (IPS)

The catastrophic Ebola crisis unfolding in West Africa offers many lessons, not least for global anti-poverty efforts. These will culminate in a set of targets, to be agreed by the United Nations in 2015, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

First of all, the crisis should lead to a re-think of the triumphalism that has marked some of the global health debate in recent years, with some projecting a “grand convergence within a generation” between North and South, rich and poor countries, based upon the “end of preventable mortality, including from infectious diseases”.It is not a coincidence that, in addition to the legacy of colonial exploitation, and pillaging by their own corrupt and unaccountable governments in recent history, Liberia and Sierra Leone are two countries that have been ravaged by brutal civil wars.

Second, neither universal health insurance, without real access to public health as well as effective care, nor cash transfers, without connections to functioning systems, would have thwarted Ebola or the social devastation it is wreaking. Yet both are highly touted solutions to global poverty, and likely to be part of the SDG agenda.

Nor would “pay for performance”, whereby health workers are supposedly incentivised to be more productive by having compensation linked to quotas and outcomes.

All of which brings us to a third lesson from the crisis: silver-bullet solutions that focus on short-term outcomes, and often produce so-called ‘vertical’ interventions (that is, those de-linked from the broader context), actually do not work in the long term, or in the face of crises.

Human rights advocates have argued that there is a need to shift power relations to promote greater equity, to invest in strengthening institutions, to open spaces for meaningful participation by the people who are affected by health and development policies, and to construct effective and accessible accountability mechanisms.

Though often dismissed as airy-fairy, unmeasurable and utopian in mainstream public health and development circles, the Ebola catastrophe illustrates exactly why these investments are crucial.

Health systems are not just a means for the technical delivery of goods and services; they are part of the core social fabric of societies. They can either give expression to norms of solidarity and equality, or they can exacerbate social exclusion.

In the three most affected countries in West Africa, the health systems were all dysfunctional before Ebola hit, and were often a place where people – especially women and children – experienced their poverty and marginalisation.

The inadequate, and now decimated, health systems, and the rippling effects of the crisis on education, housing, and food, all raise issues of access to – and the enjoyment of – fundamental economic and social rights. These are just as important as the violations of civil rights, including unwarranted restrictions on movement, which might stem from the Ebola epidemic.

But it is equally important to realise how massive violations of human rights – civil and political, as well as economic and social – drive epidemics such as Ebola.

The unimaginable suffering we are witnessing is in no way simply an inevitable result of the “natural” pathophysiology or epidemiology of the disease.

It is not a coincidence that, in addition to the legacy of colonial exploitation, and pillaging by their own corrupt and unaccountable governments in recent history, Liberia and Sierra Leone are two countries that have been ravaged by brutal civil wars. These conflicts were fuelled by the rapacious global demand for precious minerals, and destroyed communities, dissolved family units, and disrupted farming, livelihoods and migration patterns.

Nor is it a coincidence that more than half the population in each heavily affected country lives in abject poverty (53 percent in Sierra Leone, 55 percent in Guinea, and 64 percent in Liberia). And, as noted above, women and children disproportionately suffer from the mass deprivation of economic and social rights that those numbers reflect.

I was in Sierra Leone when the evidence of the horrific atrocities during that civil war were everywhere to be seen: roadblocks which had previously been strung with human intestines, and beggars at street corners missing hands that had been cut off by the insurgents.

I was also there after the end of hostilities, when the humanitarian aid groups had mostly pulled out, leaving among other things a health system incapable of dealing with even the most basic health needs. Government facilities were missing essential supplies and medicines; health care workers often had no sutures or gloves, nor running water nor soap, and were using cell phones to provide light during surgical procedures.

The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 23 healthcare workers per 10,000 people, but there is still a desperate shortage of health care workers in the affected countries; in Sierra Leone, there were just 0.2 physicians and 1.7 nurse/midwives per 10,000 people at the outset of this crisis.

When I visited in 2009, close to 50 percent of primary health care providers in Sierra Leone were receiving no salary. To survive they charged illicit fees, and for drugs, or sold bed nets on the private market.

We must learn lessons from the Ebola crisis: not just to build temporary structures staffed by foreigners, which will disappear like sand castles when the crisis is eventually contained, or other horrors on our television screens draw our attention away.

This time, let’s make sure we do not accept the status quo ante as ‘normal’, and instead make long-term commitments to strengthening health systems, including public health measures. These will create not just more productivity and healthy years of life expectancy, but also promote people’s own voice and agency and the possibility of living lives in dignity.

And let’s take the time in finalising the SDGs to consider how best to tackle the rules of the global economic order, including the unfair terms for global trade, that drive the structural inequalities between countries. These limit the possibility of people enjoying their human rights even in the best of times, and can help set the stage for these horrific social calamities.

Ebola has shown vividly that we live in an invariably globalised world. We owe it to those with whom we share this planet, and to future generations, to establish a Sustainable Development Agenda that, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, promotes a “social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth [in that Declaration] can be fully realized” by everyone.

This article originally appeared on openGlobalRights

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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