Press conference with UNAMA and ANDMA

17 Mar 2008

Press conference with UNAMA and ANDMA

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Dr. Abdul Matin Adrak, Director General of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), Charlie Higgins, Head of UNAMA's Humanitarian Affairs Unit and Nilab Mobarez, UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office.

Dari - Pashto

UNAMA: Good morning to all of you. My name is Nilab Mobarez from UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office and I welcome you to today’s press conference. We are joined by Mr. Charlie Higgins, Head of UNAMA's Humanitarian Affairs Unit and Dr. Abdul Matin Adrak, Director General of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) who will provide an update on flood preparedness . First I have some news from the UN World Health Organisation (WHO).

Tuberculosis is still a major public health problem, despite widespread misconception that the disease has nearly disappeared. WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean is organizing a media competition on the best media work addressing Tuberculosis in the Region. All media people in the fields of journalism, TV and radio are encouraged to participate. Participants can send their works as of now. The deadline is 15 April 2008.
For more details please collect the announcement of this competition in Dari, Pashto and English from the side table.
Now I would like to give the floor to Dr. Adrak.

ANDMA [translated from Dari]: In the name of Allah. First of all I would like to express my greetings and best wishes to all media outlets, who have all the time been cooperative with ANDMA during difficult times. You have seen the situation in Afghanistan or yourselves over recent months, from one side floods and from other side drought, and from other sides different types of human and animal diseases associated with scores of problems inside Afghanistan and a number of these problems have links with three decades of war in this country. Given these facts the government of Afghanistan decided to establish a commission under the president, but due to president’s engagement in other areas, second vice president HE Khalili is heading this commission now to respond to disasters and work to mitigate them. During three years of this commission we have had achievements and some setbacks. We are trying to work on our weaknesses everyday and we do our best to deliver the most for Afghanistan.

There has been due coordination between ANDMA, UN agencies chaired by UNAMA, ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) and PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), the international security forces are primarily for security, but they have helped us to respond to natural disasters, and with national and international NGOs.
Most of the problems in terms of coordination, response and mitigation of disasters that we have had, were solved during last winter. Lessons learnt from this winter helped us establish a better system of coordination and respond with UN agencies, ISAF, PRTs and other agencies to manage natural disasters.

We organized a series of consultative meetings chaired by His Excellency the Vice-President, bringing together governors of provinces, MPs of the provinces in question, and representatives of key ministries, UNAMA, WFP and Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) and the secretariat of ANDMA, which discussed the threat of flooding and other likely disasters, and discussing what all parties should be doing about them and what are the weaknesses, which sort of coordination we need and which modality should we follow in distributing the aid. This was a great achievement for us.

The other achievements during last month were two coordination meetings of all stakeholders, where we came up with a special report format for the purpose of response, assessment and risk reduction. This has enabled us to harmonise reporting from the provinces, enabling a quicker more effective response.

Yesterday there was a meeting chaired by HE Khalili where we discussed the issues of the last two months and due instructions were sent to relevant agencies. In this meeting WFP submitted papers of 18000 tons of emergency food, out of which 4000 tons were allocated for emergency food distribution for flood affected people, but based on our assessment from previous years, we need more than 8000 tons, and the instructions included a discussion with WFP to source the extra amount, if WFP cannot, then we will seek other channels to raise the amount needed.

On the issue of non-food items, we assessed our needs and it was discussed with the UN and other agencies to allocate the resources based on the priority and vulnerability of the areas. There will be another meeting on this issue, however these non-food items are for regional capitals, but we should be able to preposition them for the provincial capitals as well.

Other component of our decision with regards to the vulnerable districts such Darwaz of Badakhshan, Daikundi, Ghor and Bamyan, was to task the ARCS to prepare small stocks with the support of their volunteers in these locations and preposition food items before winter arrives. Eleven provinces have been rated highly vulnerable and based on the suggestion from ANDMA; stocks will be prepared to preposition food in some of these provinces this year.

Based on the suggestions from ANDMA six weeks ago the government of Afghanistan allocated $2.5 (USD) Million to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) to procure 80000 Gabions (for flood defences) and send them to vulnerable areas, since WFP has presence in most of the areas we use local labour through the WFP’s food for work project to install these and mitigate flood risks.

We are focusing our efforts to reduce disaster risks. Prevention is better than cure. If we spent ten Afghani in a timely manner, then we will not need to spend 100 Afghani later. ANDMA does not have presence in all parts of the country; government and parliament are considering this issue. We have seven mobile teams in regions, and they are there to respond to big disasters.

They focus on four major issues:

1. Search and rescue
2. Rapid assessment with the support from government agencies, NGOs, Provincial Disaster Management Committee, this committee is led by the provincial governor
3. Risk awareness and Disaster Risk Reduction,
4. After they finish their assessment, pre-positioned resources in the provinces will be used to respond.

I would like to thank all the donors, UN agencies, ISAF and PRTs for their support to us. I would like to thank donors who step forward to help us for the recent request we (Government of Afghanistan/United Nations appeal) made for 89000 tons of food to help 2.5 million Afghans across the country. Ninety nine per cent of this request has been pledged to Ministry of Agriculture already. As we speak here the distribution of this food is going on. The overall assessment of the response given the resources available has been good in 25 provinces. I would also like to thank the media for their support, I know you can play an important role to raise the awareness and reduce the risks. I want to highlight another issue, the reason we lost around 1100 people in Herat was because people in Herat were not prepared for such a harsh winter, we had prepared for one thousand families in each province, but in Herat alone 30.000 families were affected. It was difficult for us, but still we responded to the extent possible to meet the needs of the people.

UNAMA: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for giving the opportunity to speak in combination with Dr. Adrak from ANDMA. Standing behind the national response capacity, coordinated by key figures at different levels, and all supported by ANDMA at those same levels, is the capacity of the international community to respond. The international capacity available in the districts and provinces, whether represented by NGOs or UN Agencies, will be called upon before the resources held in Kabul or outside the country. These civilian resources are coordinated by UNAMA which has the mandate to ensure that the international response provides effective support to the national response, but it must be remembered by all that the national response should always take the lead.

In the eight regions where UNAMA has its field offices, UNAMA works closely with the ANDMA ‘Zonal’ Offices and the Provincial Disaster Management Committees (PDMCs) chaired by the governors. The UNAMA Humanitarian Affairs Officers guide the provincial staff of ANDMA and DoRRD (Department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development), and effectively augment the PDMC Secretariat function, ensuring that meetings are scheduled, invitations and agendas are circulated, and minutes of the meetings are produced. UNAMA has also supported the process that has produced the Provincial Disaster Management Plans (PDMPs). The main need in all regions and provinces is for more national capacity; not only personnel and equipment but funding and technical assistance for relevant training.

In addition to their role in support of PDMCs, UNAMA Humanitarian Affairs Officers also coordinate their disaster management work with UN Agencies, NGOs, and international military forces, whether PRTs, ISAF, or OEF. The principle for the use of international military in support of humanitarian response is that their resources should be used only as a ‘last resort’, when all other options have been exhausted. The problem is that when there is so little capacity available at provincial and district level, it does not take a very large disaster to overwhelm local capacity. Governors are thus too ready to seek the assistance of military actors in their regions, usually the PRTs.

This has had the unfortunate consequence of squeezing ‘humanitarian space’ – the space for agencies to dialogue with all relevant parties, not confined to just the beneficiaries and government, and the space in which to conduct aid operations safely.

Of course part of the reason why military actors have occupied ‘humanitarian space’ is that the difficult security conditions in many areas have forced international organizations to pull back from community engagement. But even in areas which are generally permissive for civilian humanitarian (and development) actors there is a dearth of activities, because donor governments channel more money through their own national PRTs in preference to the more traditional civilian actors. In secure areas this is unnecessary and the emphasis should be on building national capacity there, supplemented by international capacity provided through NGOs and UN Agencies.

And now I want to say a few words, specifically on the likelihood of flooding this year:

This winter will be remembered as exceptionally cold, particularly in areas which were not used to low temperatures, such as the West. There was also an unusual pattern of snowfall, with much snowfall in the far West and also in the North East, but less than normal across the middle of the country, resulting in a widespread snowpack but one that was much thinner than last winter. The trauma this winter was more due to the extremely low temperatures, especially in areas unused to them like Herat, than to heavy snowfall. It was the very low temperatures in January which killed 800 -1,000 people (mostly men who are more likely to be outdoors than women), and hundreds of thousands of livestock across the country.

Warm weather since mid-Feb has caused 70% of the thin snowpack to melt already, and this has caused little flooding so far because the volume of water is far less than the historical average at this time of year in watercourses and behind the dams. In most snow-receiving areas, the current snow-water equivalent is less than 25% of the short-term average, indicating that the amount of water stored in the snowpack is well below normal for this time of year, and 90% less than that accumulated last year, a year of very heavy snowfall. 80% of agricultural water in Afghanistan comes from surface sources, so unless there is rain during the next two months, this does not bode well for the main Aram crop, which is planted in different areas from August–October and will be harvested in 2009, during May–September. So far the Northern Provinces of Faryab, Balkh and Badakhshan have all received below-normal rainfall this winter, and so some areas will also face irrigation water scarcity even in the first spring cultivation season this year in March and April, which will likely negatively affect the upcoming main harvest from May–September this year, which is the staple crop of the country.

The technical evidence obtained from remote-sensing (e.g. satellite photography) and other sources shows that flooding of the scale in Spring 2007 is very unlikely, because this is a function of the thickness of the snowpack, the suddenness of the rise in temperature, and often also rain which speeds up the melting and run-off process. Although the temperature has warmed dramatically, the snowpack is generally very thin and there has been little rain so far this year, so farmers are right to be concerned about drought. We cannot say that there will be no floods, but the available evidence suggests that they are unlikely to be as widespread or as damaging as they were last year. We should still be ready for floods on the floodplains and in marginal areas that are threatened every year, and it should also be remembered that the height of the flooding does not normally occur until April, so we have another 6 weeks to go.

The message that I want to convey to you is that farmers are concerned about drought, and with the little snow that fell across the center of the country they are right to be concerned.

UNAMA: Please be advised that the UNAMA Spokesperson's Office will be holding a press conference tomorrow, Tuesday 18 March at 01:30 pm in UNAMA compound B, building 6.

Our guest speaker Norah Niland, UNAMA's Chief Human Rights Officer will be making remarks on the human rights situation in Afghanistan.


AFP: Do you have any evidence to show the severity of the drought and how it will affect the Poppy crop?

UNAMA: We can’t say yet that there would be a drought but it is looking like that there is not sufficient snow pack to allow run off through the rivers for the full part of the year. A lot will depend on how much rain falls in the next two months. But it is looking like it would not be as much as we need probably. And probably it will have greater impact on the areas which rely on the rain fed agriculture as opposed to irrigated agriculture and rain fed agriculture is more in the north than the south. In other words in provinces that are less used to the drought. So the impact will be greater there. How will this impact on the poppy crop? I am not an agriculture specialist, but I believe that the poppy crop is a more drought resistance crop than for instance wheat. So it would probably have lesser impact than on the production of crops such as wheat. But again it all depends on which areas theses crops in and whether they are rain fed or in irrigated.

BAKHTAR NEWS AGENCY [translated from Pashto]: Given the experiences of last winter how much food and other supplies have you stored for next year? Also you mentioned that yesterday in a meeting within the emergency response commission three institutions were recognised as the most successful ones. They are the Ministry of Health, Ministry of agriculture and ARCS. Will you install a punishment and reward systems for those who did well or for those who failed?

ANDMA [translated from Dari]: With regards to the first part of the question to establish food and non food items for the next winter, I must say that we do not have problems in terms of non-food stocks with the aid of UN agencies and the Afghan Red Crescent Society and as I told you earlier we have already sent Gabions baskets. With regards to our own authority, we are a coordinating body and penalising or rewarding Government Ministries is not part of our work, that is why the Vice president stressed upon the need for coordination and said that those institutions (both Governmental and non-governmental organisations) who do not coordinate their efforts in response to emergencies should be introduced to the [vice president’s] committee so that appropriate action can be taken.

Regarding non-food items, I have got the list of those items provided by different agencies such as the UNICEF that has even given the authority to me for distribution. And also agencies like ISAF and PRT , CARE and ARCS also sent their lists, but yesterday we decided in our meeting that as I said we have to distribute the items based on the needs of the provinces and as every one to be present at the meeting and submit their agreement whether they agree or not.

With regards to food items, the assistance given by Denmark, USA, China and India are going to WFP although they have already committed 18000 tons as a response to the emergency situation they have indicated that wherever more food was needed they will provide for us.

On the second part of your question since ANDMA is the secretariat of the emergency response [commission headed by the Vice President] and we are not in a position to say which entity did well or which one did not, but I must tell you that these three organisations were praised because of doing such a good job. The MOH [Ministry of Health], MOA [Ministry of Agriculture] and ARCS, these three entities already had stocks ready for assistance.

Other organistations or ministries were ready to respond but they did so after the disaster because they did not have pre-positioned assistance in affected areas and that is why they were late. But somehow every entity did something based on their abilities and also according to the assessment conducted by ANDMA in some of the provinces that I personally travelled to Herat, Ghor ,in the north, and also I sent some of my staff to those areas and I checked, I found that whatever assistance was sent it was not delivered due to bad road conditions or other such reasons, they could not transport their assistance in time.

That is why we stress on the [need for] good coordination. And we try to improve coordination and that is why we have established these rapid assistance teams in order to make sure that the assistance which is said or the figures are given that are practically delivered in those areas where they need them most.

BBC [translated from Dari]: Although you have mentioned that you are not an agriculture specialist but you said that poppy needs less water, I want to know if there is a risk that the farmers would cultivate poppy rather than other crops because of eventual drought?

UNAMA: Really I am not too sure of what the impact of drought would be on the poppy crop. I cannot give you a technical answer on that. I can give you a slightly more informed answer on what the impact will be for main crops this year. The first one is that the crop that is basically being harvested now will not be affected much by the drought because the rainfall has already occurred or the snow that has already occurred which basically allows this crop to flourish and being harvest.

It is the later crop that will be affected so it is a question of a lack of snow over a long period or a lack of rainfall over a long period that will have the impact.

Now individuals would have their different coping strategies to deal with this, and households would have their different coping strategies in different parts of the country, according to their traditional approach to deal with the drought which of course Afghanistan is quite familiar with having just come out of a long drought over the previous few years. But I think what we can say is that it will reduce food security across the country and this is at a time when prices of food are already higher than ever before in the past. So this is a big concern.

ARIANA TV [translated from Dari]: My question is addressed to Mr. Charlie. As you said that you didn’t anticipate a harsh winter, in the case of flooding, do you anticipate floods? If yes, are you prepared for them?

UNAMA: The available evidence shows that the scale of flooding that will likely to experience this year will be less that the last year because there was a much thicker snow pack, in fact on average the snow pack across the country, although very widespread and occurring in places where it does not normally fall such as in the west, on average it is 90 per cent less this year. This is what obviously when it melts causes much of the flooding. But it also requires rains to cause the floods. We still could get significant rains which will be bad because it will create floods but it will be good because it will improve the stock of water for later in the year. It is neither completely positive nor completely negative. But I think the evidence from across the country shows that generally we will face less floods and less severe floods than last year but that does not mean there won’t be floods. Still there will be places liable to floods at sometime during the course of this spring because there are areas where people live which are basically flood plains or they are marginal areas or they are vulnerable to flooding.

On preparedness, I can say that there are stocks across the country with food and non-food items within the UN agencies and within NGOs. These stocks can be allocated to different purposes. They are used for normal programme purposes such as stocks of school biscuits for school feeding and so on. But if there was an emergency in an area where there are these stocks then these stocks will be allocated to deal with that emergency and replenished from the central stocks. This is how the UN agencies and how the NGOs work. The stocks are not allocated just to one kind of disaster. They are used for programmes use but if there is an emergency in the area then they will take from these stocks and replenish them.

TAMADUN TV [translated from Dari]: Mr. Adrak, you said that this year you have been successful in providing assistance. Not talking about Herat, assistance has not been delivered to the central and northern provinces. What are the reasons behind this? Secondly what assurances can you give to the people in terms of preparations for next year (Afghan New Year)?

ANDMA [translated from Dari]: I already answered your first question in my opening remarks. As I mentioned I have the list of pledged assistance by all agencies. We have no shortage in terms of non-food items such as family kits, tents, tarpaulin, medical assistance, etc. The only problem we had was the coordination of assistance. Now I have been authorized to directly contact provincial governors who are also the heads of provincial committees and confirm with them whether or not they received the assistance claimed to have been provided by different agencies.

On your second questions, in the past two days with the help of ISAF which provided us with fuel, and the Ministry of Defence that provided helicopters, we delivered food and non-food assistance to Daikundi and Bamyan districts. Some families whose houses were destroyed during the past flooding were given financial assistance. The only place where we couldn’t reach due to lack of roads is the Darwaz, Khwahan and Wakhan districts in Badakhshan province. We are trying to deliver food assistance to these districts through Tajikistan with the help of WFP. One more point I want to make is that Afghanistan has a population of 25 million and 23 million of them need assistance. I am just responsible for delivering assistance if a natural disaster such as flooding, avalanches, earthquakes, landslide etc. occur. If a district is isolated due to road blockage, this is not ANDMA’s duty to provide assistance but it is the duty of aid organisations or other relevant institutions. Sometimes we are forced to provide assistance for refugees but it is not our duty. My duty is to respond to disasters. So people are not satisfied and always complain that they have not received assistance.

ANDMA does not have its own resources; our duty is to coordinate efforts. If we had the resources I have solutions. I have submitted my suggestions to the Government how better we can find solutions.

ALJAZEERA: To what extent has the security situation affected your operations in the south as some parts of the country are not accessible for foreign NGOs workers and especially for the United Nations employees while some 100,000 tons of WFP food was stolen last year? You said that military should be the last option for delivering assistance, while all we know that 27 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan are all military personnel. What are your comments on this?

UNAMA: The security is still a major constraint. It is a constraint that is obviously in the south and obviously in some parts of east and southeast. Actually there are constraints in many parts of the country. And the picture is not uniform. So in some parts of the country where you might expect that the security situation is quite good there are some problems and in some other parts of the country where you might expect that the security situation is quite bad you can still do things. A lot of UN agencies work through NGOs, national and international, in some cases, contractors and sometimes they are able to do more than the UN agencies would. The NGOs generally adopt the policy, when it comes to security issues, of acceptance. That means they have to be accepted by the community they are providing assistance to in order to deliver that assistance. Or be accepted by the communities they are passing through on the way to deliver assistance. If they demonstrate that they are there just there to deliver assistance and not for any other purpose and that they are purely concerned by humanitarian issues, this is the strategy that works in many cases. But it requires capital management and good understanding of the local situation. So often the best agencies to do this are national NGOs or the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society.

PRTs do fill what would otherwise be a large gap in terms of aid provision in this country. What we are trying to do is trying to improve the approach that they apply by brining in more civilian development experts within the PRTs. This is happening, countries are doing this. We are also trying to encourage ISAF to totally allow civilian work to go on in areas where the security is conducive to do it so effectively replacing PRTs whether civilian or more military, by more traditional development actors like NGOs. We have, in some cases; evidence that assistance is reaching places where you might think is very restricted. For instance since bringing in of food aid because of the very high price rises, when there an appeal was launched in January, and food aid has been brought in since then, we have seen a reduction in the average of wheat flour price in Ghor. So now the price is lower in Ghor than in Herat which is much more accessible place. So the bringing in of assistance has had the impact of reducing the price of wheat flour in Ghor to 17.5 Afs per kg whereas in Herat it is still 19.8 Afs. So assistance does get in places even you might think that the security situation is difficult.