Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Drought lessons unlearned in Somalia
The weak response to this year’s drought in the Horn, in which 15.3 million people are in need, is the latest in a long line of humanitarian mea culpas. It’s not that the aid community didn’t know a drought was on its way – the alarm had been sounding for months. But when the time came for action, sufficient money was not there, says Oxfam. More than two million people are now facing severe hunger in Somalia alone. Lessons were meant to have been learnt from 2011, when a slow response to that drought killed over 260,000 people. In the 2017 drought, humanitarian action was quicker and famine avoided. This year, though, with humanitarian needs more than 50 percent higher than 2011, available funding is substantially less than eight years ago – a funding gap to December of $1.5 billion.
Crying foul over Syrian deportations
Lebanon has “forcibly deported” nearly 2,500 Syrian refugees to their home country in the past three months, according to new figures obtained by Amnesty International. In mid-May, the government ruled that Syrians who had entered the country “illegally” after 24 April could be deported, and while local rights groups denounced the move, security forces soon reportedly began raiding unofficial refugee camps and businesses. An estimated 1.5 million registered Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, the greatest number per capita of any country in the world. But the government has taken an increasingly hostile official position towards the population, ordering the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to stop registering new arrivals in 2015, making it extremely difficult to work legally, and all the while upping the pressure to return. Amnesty said in its Tuesday statement that “attempts to forcibly return refugees [are] a clear violation of Lebanon’s non-refoulement obligations [under international law].” For a unique glimpse into the lives of one refugee community in Beirut, check out TNH’s special Ramadan report from June.
Water Week, water woes
It’s World Water Week, and scientists, environmentalists, and activists gathered in Stockholm to discuss ways to protect the precious resource. “Many in our societies are not aware of the vital role that water plays in realising prosperity, eradicating poverty, and tackling the climate crisis,” said Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, the conference organiser. In some regions, countries are battling to control rivers and tributaries. Elsewhere, chronic mismanagement of water systems has left hundreds of thousands without safe water. Water theft, corporate control of water, climate change, and water-led migration were also discussed in Stockholm, as was ensuring that women have access to clean water and sanitation – one of the UN’s sustainable development goals. The conference comes after a new report – published by the World Health Organisation on behalf of UN-Water – detailed how weak government systems and a lack of human resources and funds are jeopardising the delivery of safe water and sanitation services in the world’s poorest countries. Officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, raised fears that Ebola could spread even faster due to water shortages in the populous city of Goma, not far from the main outbreak area.
Ebola: Counting deaths and money
Staying with Ebola; it has been a busy week. Former Congolese health minister Oly Ilunga was questioned by police over the alleged mismanagement of large sums of money intended for Ebola response. The ex-minister, who opposed the introduction of a second experimental vaccine, was not arrested, but three of his former colleagues have reportedly been held in custody. Meanwhile, the death toll from the outbreak – the second deadliest on record – passed 2,000, with the number of confirmed cases also surpassing 3,000. On Thursday, Uganda reported a new case in the western district of Kasese – the second time the virus has crossed into the country. The infected patient, a nine-year-old girl, was to be sent back to Congo for treatment.
Did a sweltering July trigger more landslides?
July was a record-setting month for both climate and disaster watchers. The EU’s climate change service says it was the warmest month ever. And July also saw a record 100 fatal landslides around the globe (double July 2018’s tally), according to preliminary data from Dave Petley, a University of Sheffield researcher who tracks landslides on his aptly titled site, The Landslide Blog. Rising temperatures can lead to more intense rainfall in some areas, which can ratchet up landslide threats. So did sweltering July temperatures trigger more landslides? It’s too early to say for certain, though Petley notes intense rainstorms sparked most of the landslides: ”Whilst a single month does not prove the link by any means, July 2019 serves to illustrate once again the challenges that we will face in the future,” he writes. Climate scientists have long believed that climate change will magnify disaster risks, but researchers (and citizen scientists) are also piecing together the evidence in real time. Read more on the links between climate change and disaster risk in one corner of the world: Why landslides in Bangladesh’s former conflict zone are becoming deadlier.
In case you missed it
BURUNDI/TANZANIA: Burundian refugees living in Tanzanian camps may be forced to return home under a new deal between the two countries. Repatriations could start as early as October despite UNHCR saying conditions in Burundi are not "conducive to promote returns".
COLOMBIA: Flanked by comrades in military-style uniforms, former FARC rebel commander Iván Márquez called in a video statement for a return to arms, accusing the Colombian government of betraying the 2016 peace deal he helped negotiate. President Iván Duque offered a $882,000 reward for the capture of each rebel in the video and promised to bring them to justice. Conflict between illegal armed groups vying for control over territory left by the FARC saw forced displacement rise last year. Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world.
IRAQ: Human Rights Watch said thousands of Iraqi children are not in school because they were born in, or lived under, areas controlled by so-called Islamic State. Many people who lived under IS rule are missing identity documents of some sort, including the papers required to enrol in school.
SRI LANKA: The appointment of a new army chief – a man accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity – is a “harrowing sign” of continuing impunity, UN rights watchdogs warned. Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, who denies abuse allegations, was a commanding officer during the bloody end stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war a decade ago.
SYRIA-TURKEY: Crowds of Syrians stormed border crossings between Syria and Turkey on Friday. According to videos posted on social media and news reports, they were protesting the offensive led by Damascus (with Russian support) in northwestern Idlib province, and Turkey’s refusal to admit more refugees. Turkish authorities reportedly fired tear gas to drive back the crowds.
UNITED STATES: Hurricane Dorian has spared much of the Caribbean but is forecast to strengthen before barrelling into the southern US states of Florida and Georgia on Sunday and Monday. Hurricanes in 2017 resulted in thousands of deaths in Puerto Rico and caused extreme damage elsewhere, including to islands such as Dominica and Barbuda.
Rescission sounds painful, and it would be for foreign aid programmes dependent on US funding. That President Donald Trump showed restraint this time doesn’t mean he will next. So where would the axe fall should Trump decide to claw back unspent monies at the end of a future financial year? TNH’s Ben Parker took a trawl through USAID’s public data to find out. Takeaways: destination-wise Afghanistan (nine percent of overall spending 2007-2018) has had the most to lose, followed by Kenya, then Syria. But these figures fluctuate as crises evolve. The table showing which organisations receive the most money throws up some surprising lesser-known entities as well as the usual suspects. But, most of all, Parker’s digging reveals just how hefty a chunk of US government aid money is vulnerable to rescission: one quarter is spent in September, the last month of the financial year. A freeze in August could therefore send shivers well into the following year.
25 years of clowning
It all started with a Catalan performing for Bosnian children. Twenty-five years ago, a Spanish clown with the stage name Tortell Poltrona got together with a French performer and established Spanish and French branches of what is now Clowns Sans Frontières. With affiliates in 15 countries, the latest being Switzerland, and slogans like "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people", the funny men and women aim to spark momentary joy for children caught in conflicts or other crises. They can, anecdotal evidence suggests, also trigger severe eyerolls from hard-bitten humanitarian professionals. A master's thesis published this year on their work concludes that clowning can have legitimate therapeutic benefits — although coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) might be a risk.