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Archives for Disaster Relief

One Year After Famine: The Need for a Continued Comprehensive Response

On July 20, 2011, I got a call from Dina Esposito, USAID’s Director of the Office of Food for Peace, alerting me of the official declaration of famine in Somalia. That moment, more than a year ago, is still deeply, vividly and painfully with me.

Famines are entirely man-made and have become increasingly rare. In my confirmation hearing, I quoted Amartya Sen’s famous words that famines don’t happen in democracies. So as the worst drought in 60 years gripped the Horn of Africa last year, it was only in Somalia, racked by 20 years of conflict and instability, and with limited access for humanitarian action, that famine was declared. The United States’ commitment and long-term work with Ethiopia, Kenya, and many of their neighbors have reduced the populations’ vulnerability to crises like this one and greatly reduced the need for emergency assistance.

In the humanitarian community, famine is a very specific technical term to describe only those most severe food crises that reach three clear sets of conditions. In famine, more than 30 percent of children are acutely malnourished; at least 20 percent of the population consumes fewer than 2,100 calories of food a day; and the mortality rate exceeds two deaths or four child deaths per 10,000 people on a daily basis.

This translates into unforgivable conditions in any country at any time — yet at this time last year, in parts of southern Somalia, the mortality rate reached as high as six deaths per 10,000 people with one child death estimated to occur every six minutes. These are staggering numbers — and this marked a tragic, unacceptable, unnecessary loss of life.

Because of lessons learned during the last Somalia famine in the early 1990s, we were able to mount a smart and effective response. Our disaster experts from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for Peace used market prices and nutritional data to chart a strategy that focused on highly targeted cash and vouchers, attention to market dynamics. We also kept a focus on health programs, knowing that the leading cause of death for children in famines is preventable disease.

USAID worked around the clock in the region and in Washington to ensure strategies, supplies and partners were in place, including creative approaches to address the limited humanitarian access in many parts of Somalia.

By February, famine conditions had abated, thanks to a massive humanitarian mobilization and decent winter rains. However, the situation remains tenuous in Somalia and underscores that as natural disasters continue to strike, it is imperative to address the need for a stable, legitimate government that can meet the needs of the Somalia people. This is a priority of the U.S. government and our international partners.

Learn more about our response in the Horn of Africa and our Productive Safety Net Program.

Humanitarian Aid in a Changing World

Have you ever wondered how the international humanitarian response system actually works in practice? How is life-saving assistance provided to people caught up in conflicts, natural disasters and other crises when the capacity of their governments to respond is outstripped?  How many agencies are on standby? How much does it cost to respond to some of the most difficult and devastating emergencies on the planet? And is the system doing a good job? For the first time, there is one report that provides answers to all of these questions.

With funding from USAID, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP) interviewed hundreds of aid workers, donors and aid recipients. The information  —  statistics on funding flows, needs versus spending and lives affected — enables us to get an authentic snapshot of the vast, shifting mass of agencies, donors, governments and affected populations that are part of the humanitarian community. The new State of the Humanitarian System report shows us how well the system is performing so that all agencies can be more accountable and learn from their experiences.

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For Yemen’s Future, Global Humanitarian Response is Vital

Originally posted at the Huffington Post.

This weekend in Sana’a, I had dinner with a group of young men and women activists who are on the forefront of Yemen’s historic struggle for a better future. They turned out for change with great courage last year, and at dinner, with great eloquence they outlined for me the many challenges facing Yemen during this critical transition period: conflict in the north and south, weak government institutions, cultural barriers to greater women’s participation, an upended economy, and one of the world’s highest birthrates. And, as one man noted, it is difficult to engage the 70 percent of Yemeni people who live in rural areas in dialogue about the future when they are struggling just to find the basics of life: food, health, water.

His comment makes plain the rising, complex humanitarian crisis facing Yemen. At a time of historic political transition, nearly half of Yemen’s population is without enough to eat, and nearly 1 million children under the age of 5 are malnourished, putting them at greater risk of illness and disease. One in 10 Yemeni children do not live to the age of 5. One in 10. This is a staggering and often untold part of the Yemen story: a story of chronic nationwide poverty that has deepened into crisis under the strain of continuing conflict and instability.

Unfortunately, in communities used to living on the edge, serious malnutrition is often not even recognized in children until they are so acutely ill that they need hospitalization.

On Saturday I visited Al Sabeen Hospital, where I met Amina, a 2-year-old girl who weighs a scant 11 pounds. She had enormous eyes and was silently perched on the side of the hospital bed, supported by her mother. The nurse caring for her told me the government of Yemen had just cut the hospital budget by 20 percent as it grapples with an economic crisis, forcing them to lay off critical staff.

While there, I announced an additional contribution of USAID humanitarian assistance, bringing the U.S. contribution this year to nearly $80 million, which enables us to increase families’ access to food, health, nutrition, and water sanitation programs. We have provided previous support to the more than 550,000 displaced Yemenis, and we are rapidly expanding our assistance to reach those in need throughout the country.

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Hosting Support as Humanitarian Shelter Approach

(Excerpted from article in InterAction Monthly Developments, Jan/Feb 2012, pp. 17-18.)

When disasters or crises strike and homes are lost, people don’t always wait for governments and international humanitarian agencies to lend a hand, but instead often rely on those close to them: family and friends. Hosting by family and friends is socially defined, self-selected, culturally appropriate and typically provided before humanitarian actors arrive and – importantly – long after they leave.

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition of the utility and acceptance of hosting as a form of spontaneous sheltering among affected populations. As a result, humanitarian organizations have come to provide various types of basic support to ensure that hosting does not strain relations or host families’ pocketbooks, while also facilitating the role of hosting as a durable shelter solution. Such assistance can entail fuel, education or livelihood assistance, as well as provision of bedding, cooking and eating utensils, water/sanitation and shelter upgrades to support people living with host families.

Hosting was vital in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2009 conflict in Pakistan.

The devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed an estimated 316,000 people and affected approximately 3 million others, according to the government of Haiti, while damaging and destroying over 180,000 housing structures. The earthquake also generated a mass exodus of over 600,000 people from Port-au-Prince and other disaster-affected areas to seek shelter with family and friends in home towns in outlying areas that were not damaged by the earthquake. Without some form of support, however, these relationships would have strained the patience and resources of all concerned, possibly resulting in movement of people to the then-burgeoning spontaneous camps.

Support for hosting arrangements was an important complement to other emergency shelter efforts. Even more notable is the apparent evolution of nearly 18,500 hosting arrangements, or 70 percent of the hosting total supported by three USAID-funded NGOs into permanent housing solutions for those families, as they have decided to stay in hosting arrangements and host communities for the foreseeable future. Moreover, many families have stated in post-project interviews that they never want to return to the disaster-affected area. Hosting is thus not only an important humanitarian shelter solution, but also appears in Haiti to be helping address longer-term housing needs.

Hosting in conflict-affected Pakistan

During 2009, a complex emergency due to fighting between the Pakistani government and militants in the northwest caused more than 3 million people to flee the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPk) province for safer areas. Later that year, additional military operations in South Waziristan displaced another 380,000 people.

Between January 2009 and January 2011, more than 3.4 million people had been displaced from their homes, and nearly 90 percent of this total was hosted. Thousands of host families readily provided shelter, food and water to displaced families for months. Due to the overwhelming number of individuals living with host families for extended periods, the international community focused not only on providing displaced people with assistance, but also on providing support to the families hosting them. Direct support to host families often included programs to alleviate crowded conditions by expanding living spaces, often through construction of an additional room or stand-alone shelter. Some relief agencies also established mobile medical clinics for host communities and voucher programs to purchase additional food and household items, reducing the strain on host families.

A willingness to help

Haiti and Pakistan present diverse settings, events and circumstances, but what is common in both countries is the willingness of people, whether compelled by family, friendship or community ties, or simply compassion for others, to help those in need by creating hosting arrangements. This activity occurred in both post-disaster and post-conflict settings, be they in urban or rural areas. It did, however, impose social, economic and other strains on the arrangements, making it important for humanitarian actors to support them where possible and feasible using a range of measures.

Hosting is not a universal panacea. It will always be context-driven, and is best implemented when family and friends are involved. However, supporting this form of sheltering can sustain it to the point that it becomes an important element of humanitarian shelter assistance, and can even lead to the evolution of hosting arrangements into permanent housing solutions. Finally, hosting support can be provided expeditiously and on a cost-effective basis compared to other approaches, particularly the creation of camps.

Responding to Acute Malnutrition in the Sahel

I recently returned from Niger and Mauritania, in Africa’s Sahel region, assessing nutrition-focused humanitarian assistance.  This was not my first trip to the region, as I was also there with USAID in 2010 when a failed harvest and poor pasture conditions led to food insecurity conditions nationwide and a significant rise in acute malnutrition among young children.  This year, without much time for families and communities to recover and restore livelihoods, we are again facing a humanitarian crisis.  Another drought, coupled with high food prices, and conflict in northern Mali displacing some 250,000 people, often to areas with limited resources and capacity, means that millions of people may need emergency assistance in the coming weeks and months, and acute malnutrition rates are again climbing.

The causes of hunger and malnutrition in the Sahel are complex and deeply rooted.  Even with a good harvest, particularly vulnerable communities cannot afford to buy available food in the market.  Poor health care, sanitation, and feeding practices are also major contributors to malnutrition. However, a drought and failed harvest makes it that much worse.  The hardship, food insecurity and acute malnutrition vary by district, village and community, and public health and nutrition monitoring must be very specific and localized to identify existing pockets of need.

USAID Public Health advisor Mark Phelan in Niger. Photo Credit: USAID

We are indeed facing a crisis, but I am encouraged by what is being done differently, by ways we have applied lessons learned in the Sahel during food crises in 2010 and 2005, though we still have a long way to go.  Improved forecasting of malnutrition cases, earlier initiation of programs, better relief agency coordination, all add up to keeping more children alive and well.  Especially for children under 5, whose growth and development is most at risk from acute malnutrition, we are seeing the impact of more effective health monitoring, recognition of need, and response.

In the Sahel, USAID’s approach supports national and regional structures that promote food security and nutrition, while providing short-term assistance to vulnerable populations – such as food assistance and treatment for acute malnutrition.  We are supporting nutrition pipelines to ensure adequate stockpiles of ready-to-use therapeutic foods are in place while training health staff and volunteers, and increasing nutrition screening and nutrition education.

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Pounds of Prevention: Focus on Locusts

Locusts like the ones pictured above can destroy crops and pasture land once they form a swarm. Photo Credit: Sonya Green/ USAID.

Imagine discovering that within a few hours your entire crop for the season had been consumed by unwelcome visitors. In this edition of “Pounds of Prevention,” USAID examines the desert locust, a pest that affects the lives of millions of people in more than 65 countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia, an area that represents about 20 percent of the earth’s surface. The idea for this post came from CNN’s recent coverage of the Desert Locust Control Center in Mauritania that USAID supports through its agreement with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Mauritania is just one of several countries in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East to benefit from the FAO’s locust prevention system known as the EMPRES Program, to which USAID and other donors contribute.

 

Pre-positioned Plastic Sheeting Hastens Recovery in Madagascar

When Tropical Cyclone Giovanna slammed into the eastern coast of Madagascar on Valentine’s Day, relief agencies recognized the storm as a potentially catastrophic event — but not an unpredictable one. Dangerous cyclones are not unusual for the Indian Ocean island: cyclones and tropical storms affect Madagascar almost every year. Giovanna’s strong winds destroyed more than 44,000 houses and left thousands homeless. Because some vulnerable populations, including the elderly, female-headed households, and fishing villages in coastal areas, lack the resources necessary to prepare for extreme weather, USAID took steps to ensure they receive the relief they need quickly.

Understanding the recurring nature of cyclones in Madagascar, USAID and its partner CARE annually pre-position plastic sheeting in areas susceptible to cyclones. Reinforced plastic sheeting — an inexpensive, versatile, and high-quality temporary building material — can be used in combination with traditional building techniques and locally available materials to repair damaged homes or construct temporary emergency shelter for affected families.

Even before Cyclone Giovanna struck, USAID had pre-positioned nearly 400 rolls of plastic sheeting in a CARE warehouse in Vatomandry—one of the two districts most affected by the cyclone—ready for immediate distribution.

Within days of the cyclone, with USAID support, CARE was distributing plastic sheeting to the most affected and vulnerable families. It was able to move quickly due to its established connections with local communities, as well as the proximity of pre-positioned supplies to cyclone-affected populations. CARE dispatched 285 rolls of USAID plastic sheeting in under a week to the most affected villages, allowing 2,850 vulnerable families to mend damaged roofs or make other repairs, and helping more than 14,000 people recover from the effects of Cyclone Giovanna.

Pounds of Prevention: Focus on Mozambique

An emergency responder flashes the red cyclone flag to warn people in his community. Photo by USAID/FEWSNET

In this next edition of “Pounds of Prevention,” we travel to the country of Mozambique. Over the past decade, Mozambique has set up a cyclone early warning system that combines technology with community organization and mobilization.

Every year when the cyclone season arrives, and flooding threatens the countryside, the people in Mozambique are better prepared to take the right action at the right time. Countless lives have been saved. Moreover, the resources spent mounting a humanitarian response have decreased.

USAID is proud to be a partner in this endeavor and commends the people of Mozambique on their accomplishments in disaster risk reduction.

Pounds of Prevention: Focus on Kenya

Storage tanks for rainwater collected from terraced slopes in Makueni District, Kenya. Photo credit : Rebecca Semmes/USAID

I am really happy to share with you the second installment in USAID’s Pounds of Prevention series where we take a closer look at how disaster risk reduction work helps keep people safe from harm. This particular example from Kenya is near and dear to my heart. Since I first started work at USAID twelve years ago, I worked on many drought responses, traveling to villages throughout the Horn of Africa and particularly in Kenya and witnessed the devastating impact that a lack of clean water can have on children, families, and communities.

With very modest investments, USAID is helping communities in Kenya not only improve their quality of life today, but also bolster their ability to withstand severe drought conditions. Through water collection, conservation, and storage, people can feel more secure that even though the rains may fail, their families will have enough water to see them through. In the last few years, I have had the opportunity to visit some of these same villages again, many of which have benefited from these programs. Many of these communities are now not only meeting their water needs, but those of neighboring communities. Parents comment that their children are sick less often. In the past, drought often meant disaster. With the introduction of these rain harvesting schemes, it no longer does.

Emergency Preparations and Response in Southern Africa

A team unloads plastic sheeting for temporary shelters in Mozambique. (USAID/Bita Rodrigues)

This week USAID is assisting communities and individuals impacted by the cyclones in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Malawi. We are providing shelter, clean water, and health protection to those affected by the cyclones.

Fewer than 24 hours after Cyclone Giovanna made landfall on Madagascar’s exposed east coast, Thomas Gibb, USAID Madagascar’s Mission Disaster Relief Officer, was in a helicopter flying over the affected zones and surveying the damage.

There is major damage, reported Gibb from the field:

From the air, you can clearly see roofs blown off and shattered homes. These homes were built with traditional materials that were not meant to withstand winds that reached 150 miles/hour. Some houses built on wooden stilts just crumbled… We could see clothes, bags of rice, and personal items from the sky. People have spread their meager belongings outside to dry. It looked like peoples’ lives were laid out in front of us.

USAID’s prepositioned relief supplies are already being distributed, and our disaster response experts are on the ground working alongside local officials to identify needs and learn what additional U.S. assistance is needed.

 

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