Press conference with UNAMA and OCHA

27 Apr 2009

Press conference with UNAMA and OCHA

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Wael Haj-Ibrahim, Head of Office, UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Afghanistan, and Sheilagh Henry, Acting Field Coordinator, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Afghanistan.

UNAMA [translated from Dari]: Good morning everyone and welcome to today’s press conference. I am Nilab Mobarez from UNAMA’s Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit. Today’s guest speakers are Wael Haj-Ibrahim, Head of Office for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan and Sheilagh Henry, OCHA Field Coordinator. They will update you on the current humanitarian situation in the country. After their opening remarks, we’ll take your questions. If you have any questions relating to UNAMA or other UN agencies please speak to me or my colleagues here after this press conference. Before handing over to Mr Haj-Ibrahim I present to you a few notes from UN agencies.

Afghanistan has joined in the global effort of ‘counting malaria out.’ In a ceremony on 25 April 2009, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) with the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners in fighting malaria gathered to commemorate World Malaria Day.

In 2008, WHO supported the National Malaria and Leishmaniasis Control Programme of the MoPH by establishing 30 centres in Laghman, Baghlan and Takhar provinces. Support was also provided through training courses for 758 health workers from the Ministry of Public Health and non-government agencies. More than one million long-lasting insecticidal-treated nets were distributed in high risk provinces and various information/education materials on malaria were distributed to students and at health centres.

MoPH, WHO and their partners will be using a rare window of opportunity to save one million lives during the next two years by rapidly delivering malaria interventions at community level, including distribution of protective bed nets, laboratory diagnostic support, anti-malarial drugs, and indoor spraying.”

According to the Minister of Health, 467,123 cases were reported in 2008 from various provinces in the country.

This week, 455 needy families in Musahi District Kabul Province received humanitarian food packages containing flour, rice, oil, beans and tea with the support of the Italian Cooperation.

The food distribution is one of two activities under the Community Development component of the Musahi Valley Road Project, executed jointly by the Ministry of Public Works and UNOPS. The aim of the Community Development component is to promote development in Musahi District through complementary community development activities in connection with the construction of the 22.6 km Musahi District Road.

The Community Development component involves the provision of food assistance to vulnerable households as well as community development through employment generating small scale public works.

International Organisation For Migration (IOM) last week signed an agreement with the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI) to establish a cooperation framework that will help Afghanistan combat human trafficking and assist victims of trafficking and other vulnerable migrants.

Under their Memorandum of Understanding IOM will provide the MoI with counter trafficking technical support and capacity building, as well as helping victims of trafficking and other vulnerable migrants.

The agreement will also allow IOM to facilitate the voluntary return and reintegration of victims of trafficking to Afghanistan and from Afghanistan to countries of origin, through improved bilateral and multilateral cooperation with relevant states.
It also invites IOM to work with provincial MoI offices to combat human trafficking by raising national awareness of the problem, which is particularly acute in Afghanistan – a country of origin, transit and destination for trafficking victims.

The UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation of registered Afghans with Proof of Registration (PoR) Cards through the Peshawar Hayatabad Voluntary Repatriation Centre (VRC) in North-West Frontier Province is being temporarily suspended from 27 to 28 April 2009 due to the national holiday (Mujahedin Day) in Afghanistan.

Registered Afghans who plan to visit the Voluntary Repatriation Centre (VRC) in Peshawar on 27 & 28 April are requested not to approach the centre in these days.

The UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation Centre in Peshawar will resume its work on 29 April 2009 (Wednesday).

Good morning and welcome to our first OCHA first press briefing since we re-established our presence in Afghanistan. OCHA is an office within the UN that is dedicated to the coordination of humanitarian assistance, resource mobilization and information flow.

On behalf of the UN family and humanitarian community we want to offer our deepest condolences to families who lost loved ones [in recent flooding]. And despite the suffering, we look at two positive sides of the matter. The first is the rain. Everybody knows about the drought. So this is good thing that we have a lot of water this year which has to be managed better. The second positive point is that it showed how the people of Afghanistan are resilient. They were able to very quickly overcome difficulties and create good relationships between the local authorities, humanitarian community and the communities themselves.

We want to recognize the key role that people themselves played in responding to the emergency, the proactive role of local authorities, government agencies such as ANDMA, MRRD and so forth. And of course humanitarian NGOs, local and international, in particular the Afghanistan Red crescent Society. We should not forget the donor community who made resources available for the effort.

SHEILAGH HENRY, UN OCHA Afghanistan: I am actually going to speak about the two main issues that are facing Afghanistan in terms of humanitarian crisis at this time. Earthquakes and floods.

You all know and reported on the earthquake which occurred in Nangarhar on 17 April. The final number of causalities was 22 people killed and 59 injured. At this point that would be our final numbers along with 650 families having lost their homes. And of course another devastating effect of the earthquake is losses of livestock. In an area such as Nangarhar where there has been chronic food insecurity and poverty, the loss of livestock could be devastating.

Clearance was provided to enable the UN joint assessment team to reach the area and provide some response. So now we are able to go to those areas joined with other teams and this is positive side effect.

By the time the UN agencies were able to reach the area ARCS and ANDMA were already on the ground and we would like to express our appreciation for the recommendable rapid response of the local authorities in the area.

OCHA continues to have a team staged in Jalalabad for coordination. The response is going extremely well. There were reports by you [the media] that assistance did not reach some of those areas. We would like to thank you for those reports because we were able to go to those areas based on your reports and make sure that the assistance reached those areas. Dr Adrak, the head of ANDMA, feels that the response has covered the majority of needs and the focus should now be on durable solutions. For this purpose Dr. Adrak is requesting for seismological studies for better understanding of earthquakes in the east.

We would like to be able to keep the ‘no go’ area corridor open so we can keep access in that area. This can be seen as an opportunity to increase access and to respond in a way that can help to make a difference for the people who have suffered from this tragedy.

On the floods, we are posting situation reports on You may be aware that there are floods in approximately 12 areas around the country right know affecting thousands of people. For example in Herat there are 61 villages with 2013 affected families right now.

In the North, damage was especially significant in the outskirts of the town of Mazar-e-Sharif and in two districts of Balkh: Nahri Shahi and Chemtal. In Balkh around 10 villages within Mazar–e-Sharif were affected. In the latter (Chemtal), ARCS has just completed a needs assessment that shows that up to 1,500 families are in need of emergency assistance. Further west, several districts of Faryab also experienced destructive floods that are damaging homes and cattle, and affecting hundreds of families.

In the Northeast, the district of Kishm in Bakhshan as well as three others in the province of Takhar (Taloqan, Cha Ab, Ishkamish) suffered from floods that have left hundreds of people homeless and in need of humanitarian aid. However in Badakhshan we can say that the first phase of response is completed and public works have cleared the roads. We are now looking at longer term response needs.

In the West, in the province of Herat, the districts of Kohsan, Ghorian, Chesht-e Sharif and Guzara were the most severely affected with an estimated 2,000 families in need of assistance. Farah and Badghis provinces also recorded serious flooding. In Badghis around 800 families are reported to be affected.

Response to these sudden disasters is being coordinated by Afghan authorities, with the assistance of NGOs and UN agencies, in Provincial Disaster Management Committees meetings. A good job is being done. There are still some concerns that with the continued snowmelt and with the continued rains. The UN and NGO’s are standing ready to assist where needed.

Victims of floods are being provided with tents, blankets, other relief items and food by local authorities, representatives of ANDMA or RRD, or teams of the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

In most cases, needs have been swiftly assessed and Afghan authorities and international organizations, be they NGOs, UN agencies or donors, have come forward with sufficient contributions.

The government is now calling for refurbishment of depleted emergency stocks in expectation of more flooding in the near future, while agencies are doing their best to gain access to areas that have been cut off because of insecurity, especially in the West.

WAEL HAJ-IBRAHIM: We want to reiterate the message of calling on all people to facilitate the work of humanitarian actors in any way possible especially in the West. We need to be able to continue to access people in need wherever they are. So we want to call to the media and through the media to call on all of those who are able to facilitate our work and the work of humanitarian community to do that. And if you are aware of people suffering please bring it to the attention of the government, the humanitarian community or the UN.


Kilid Group [Translated from Dari]: How many families need assistance because of the earthquake and floods? In your view is the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan worsening or improving? We heard it is worsening due to poverty and unemployment.

SHEILAGH HENRY: I will answer the first part. In terms of the people affected we have thousands of families that have been affected. The numbers are changing constantly as the snow melts and as the floods rise and decline. We have finalized the number of 2013 in Herat, we have a verified number of 1454 families in Balkh. In other areas the numbers are less but numbers are also changing and they are also unverified at this time. We cannot give an on-going update but the numbers are high right now.

WAEL HAJ-IBRAHIM: As a Humanitarian Coordination Body we try to avoid general statements. What we try to do is to break it down to specifics. Yes, there is the poverty issue. The reason why we break it down is it allows us to define a strategy to deal with the issue. There is poverty to be addressed though income generation and general recovery and development projects. There are needs as a result of natural disasters just like we have discussed. There are needs as a result of the conflict that we are also trying to address in partnership with various humanitarian actors. But the most important thing is that we need to identify where those people are and how we can get to them. That is why we are asking everyone out there to facilitate the role of the humanitarian community to provide assistance. If you are interested in an overview of the humanitarian needs of the country, there is an action plan put together by OCHA and the UN which has details of where the needs are and how we are able to address them and who will be able to address them. The last point about the humanitarian action plan is that it is based on needs. It is not based on political affiliations or geographical preferences. We as a humanitarian community must always try to provide services where people need them and when they need them.

TOLO TV: I would like to know how do you assess the vulnerability of Afghanistan in terms off natural disasters including flood and earthquakes. Also as coordinators of humanitarian action could you tell us whether the donor community addressed these problems and finally what is your request from donors as well as from the government because what has been said is that efforts provided by the international community are uncoordinated?

SHEILAGH HENRY: In terms of vulnerability hazards, what we see in the humanitarian area is different from vulnerability for food insecurity and chronic poverty for example. We do look at hazards in specific areas that may be prone to drought or prone to harsh winters, or prone to earthquakes etc. And then we couple that with an assessment around poverty levels, the coping mechanisms of the communities for natural disasters but also for man made disasters in Afghanistan. I do understand that it is a very complex process. What we are doing as part of the humanitarian action that Wael spoke about is contingency planning -- which means looking at all these vulnerabilities and bringing in seasonal analysis and how we can then look at how many communities would potentially be prone to humanitarian crises in a given season or due to man made issues.

WAEL HAJ-IBRAHIM: If I may answer the second part of the question on the donors and the government. There are a lot of resources out there that at the moment are being spent on various projects. Some of it is long term some of it is short term and some of it is for immediate needs.

What we would like to see is OCHA working with the donor community and the government to identify where are the most pressing needs in terms of humanitarian assistance and channel the needs to those areas.

We feel that there are many civilian agencies with a lot of expertise on development work, planning and emergency response work. We believe that utilizing those existing structures is a lot more efficient than some of the ad hoc structures that might have been envisaged at some point. We believe for example that the money channelled through the development agencies of the various donors has a lot more productive and lasting effect than money channelled through militaries or PRT.

Working with community is the best way to create sustainability and make sure that the needs of the community are being met. And at the community level there is a large number of actors with credibility who know how to deliver. And we want to make sure that this money goes to those who are able to use it.

BBC: The thousands of the families that have been affected, how many of them have received assistance and was the assistance short term or long term?

SHEILAGH HENRY: Most of the assistance at this stage is short term assistance. It is immediate life saving responses like food, blanket, family kits, soaps and jerry cans etc.

The earthquake victims have received assistance. There are flood victims in Herat, Mazar and Badakhshan who have also received assistance. There is planned assistance in Chemtal. Today is Victory Day and unfortunately a lot of truckers are not working. So we are hoping that it will go out over the next three days. So we are pushing for that. There are some areas in Farah that are considered insecure. And we are not sure of the amount of the assistance. We are getting back reports at this stage. But ANDMA and ARCS are there. In Badghis the numbers and assessments are still on going as in some other areas as well.

Follow up question [translated from Dari]: Can you tell us the percentage of the assistance that has reached the area and affected families?

SHEILAGH HENRY: There will always be a percentage that does not receive assistance. This is where we have problems with humanitarian assistance and chronic poverty. In a lot of these areas there is chronic poverty and unfortunately when you have humanitarian or natural disasters on top of the chronic poverty there is a need to look at the most vulnerable families. In some areas all of the most vulnerable families have been assisted. But in some other areas it is much more difficult to determine who the most vulnerable families are. So percentages are not possible.

It has to be remembered that in a humanitarian crisis assistance the main priority is saving lives. What we can say at this stage is that we are in a post disaster and post trauma stage and that no one is dying.

Freelance Journalist: You have talked a lot about natural disasters. I am wondering if you can put some light on conflict-induced disasters. You expressed concerns over the humanitarian impact of insecurity and what guidelines would you suggest?

WAEL HAJ-IBRAHIM: Our concerns are two: one is that we do not have access to the entire country, so we are unable to go and see the people everywhere and assess with our partners what their needs are. So firstly, we need access.

Secondly, there is no systematic way to collect and analyse information. So, consequently, people come and say “there is a humanitarian crisis”, while others may be saying there is no crisis. What we need to do as OCHA, as a member of the UN family, is to be able to establish needs based on specific criteria, on a common methodology that we all are able to understand.

Now we’re moving also beyond consensus to action. So our plan would be based on several main issues: One is to establish an OCHA presence across the country. And of course as a part of the UN family we will work closely with all our UN family members to make sure that we are all working together in order to achieve our objectives.

Thirdly, we are building relationships and partnerships with all the actors who are able to influence our work. We would also like to do a detailed assessment across the country of health issues, food issues, nutrition issues, and all other humanitarian needs.

To achieve these goals we must be able to talk to everyone who has influence on what we need to work on, for example OCHA has a specialised civil-military team whose function is to ensure that we’ll be in contact with all the military forces to facilitate our access.

Once we have established those needs, we will be speaking to the international community and of course to the Government and all the people concerned, requesting their assistance. What is the point of knowing what the needs are if you are unable to meet them? That is the main focus for us – to ensure that we enable our humanitarian partners to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Regarding the question on the conflict we know that where there is conflict unfortunately civilians usually pay the price. So the protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law are key concerns and primary objectives for us. And we call on all the parties to respect humanitarian actors and allow them access to people in need.

NEGAH TV [translated from Dari]: As you mentioned regarding the melting of snow that it might cause another disaster. I would like to know what kind of coordination had been taking place with the humanitarian community as well as with the government to address such disasters if they occurred?

SHEILAGH HENRY: We are working very closely with ANDMA who is running national contingency planning. Contingency planning means that we are looking at all possible scenarios for snowmelt and for potential flooding in the areas and what would be needed if there are large floods, medium floods, and smaller floods. And do we have what we need to respond given the information we have. ANDMA is leading the process at the national level. There is contingency planning also being done at the regional level in each of the areas where there are known to be floods.

AZADI RADIO [translated from Pashto]: You mentioned that you have not access in most of the parts of the country because of insecurity. And ANDMA and IRCS do have presences and access there and with the assistance they are providing sometimes people say they are not distributed fairly. Or sometimes they are being attacked by armed conflict. Or sometimes armed people get involved in these distributions of assistance. What are your concerns about these cases?

WAEL HAJ-IBRAHIM: We did not say that we don’t have access to most of the country. We said we don’t have access to some parts of the country. For those parts of the country that we have no access to our concern remains that we have no access and it is difficult for us to establish what the needs are, and to verify if assistance is been provided and to make sure that the needs are being met because we are not there.

Let me take this opportunity to say that we would like to be able to go there and meet the people and assist their needs. And for that we need everyone’s support and everyone’s assistance. The sooner we are able to get there and assess the needs then the sooner humanitarian assistance can be provided.

IRIN: A disturbing number of families have been affected by floods. Do you think the country is facing a flooding emergency? And will OCHA launch an appeal to ensure a better response?

SHEILAGH HENRY: So far the response has been very good. As you have said there is potential for increased flooding and there is potential for the local authorities to be overwhelmed by requests on the ground. It needs to be carefully coordinated and any call for an appeal would have to come from ANDMA and local authorities themselves. We would leave the final call in terms of whether or not it would be considered a disaster to ANDMA. The request should come from them, and we will then call for donor support.